Review of "Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon"

Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon by Steve Ellner combines bottom up Venezuelan history with institutional analysis that shows that the components of Chavez’s policies are long-standing and endogenous to Venezuelan politics. By highlighting this common thread, Ellner shows how Chavez Frias doesn’t represent a break, but a continuation of various struggles. Additionally, he does this through the framework which states that beneficial social change is such that political movements best serve the people by combining to achieve four goals” as opposed to one or two of them to the exclusion of others.” These goals are  “(1) the struggle for social justice; (2) the struggle for democracy; (3) the effort to promote national economic development; and (4) the adoption of economic and political nationalism.” From this vantage point he is able to access the relative success or failure of the Chavista project.

Following the military and AD supported coup against Medina Angarita, presumably for not passing democratic legislation fast enough, began the period known as the trieno, which from 1945-1947 was characterized by rule of a seven person Revolutionary Junta that was charged with the transition to democracy. This was a period of intense political conflict between the four major parties AC, PCV, COPEI and URD with the first two as the major protagonists. Ellner describes the reason for the coup, which was supported by members of the United States Defense Department, as growing fear of the possibilities unleashed by fear of an increasingly radicalization that could lead lead to a militant Communist takeover.  Open conflict between the groups led to another military coup, by Marcus Perez Jiminez, that had nationalist policies such as the subsidies for new states companies and elaborate development plants, but was repressive against the very real possibility of a leftist takeover. Considering Venezuela’s role as oil exporter to the United States in the Cold War context and the CIA’s role in creating social chance in Arbenz’s Guatemala, this could be seen as the manifestation of a desire to be free of stronger American influence. Regardless of why, the political assassinations and non-democratic rule united the formerly antagonistic parties together to form the Junta Patriotica to overthrow Jimenez.

This was not, however, the only overthrow. The AD moderates, with increased access ability to get financial support from business interests, were able to gain control of the party, to impose strict ideological restrictions and expel various groups as being “too radical”. They kept up the classification of the PCV as an illegal group and following their legalization in 1958 were allowed on the ballot. While they represented a small percentage of the vote, their organizational force was key in various union movements and they were again outlawed by Romulo Betancourt.

The nationalization of the iron and oil industry happened in 1975 and 1976, while full employment for all Venezuelans was proclaimed as a basic social right in 1983 by the then not yet neo-liberal president Carlos Andres Perez. His populism, however was of a strictly elitist variety and he refrained from any sort of populist mobilization of political and community organizations. This organizational lacuna combined with large, unfulfilled expectations led to a disillusioned population and his replacement. The subsequent decade is also one of general dissatisfaction with the government. Disconnection of the party with the rank and file and the popular classes came from a social disconnect from the non-elites and this formed s preference for the needs and desires of the business class and groups such as FEDECAMARAS. This, combined with the new logic of the Washington Consensus, the need to repay IMF-backed projects which failed to adequately deal with the source of Venezuelan property (land reform, oil dependence), government negligence which allowed 244 bankers to leave the country with billions of dollars and the massive transfer of public funds into private hands as a result of botched currency policies made the immiseration which resulted from the neo-liberal policies especially harsh.

Following the policies of Chavez once he has taken power, we see how he started to turn back the decentralization policies that has decreased government efficiency and increased corruption, pushed forward the consideration and ratification of a new constitution and actively sought to incorporate marginalized communities into a sympathetic relationship with the government rather than the antagonistic one it once had. Ellner claims there are four steps in Chavez’s transition from a center-leftist to a “21st century socialist” and shows how this is a result of a series of attempts at his removal from political power by the domestic opposition backed by the United States and the maintenance of electoral power as a result of his constituents defending their elector. Also worth pointing out is that Chavez has taken a largely pragmatic approach to all of his nationalizations and even when dealing with occupied companies. Rather than simply seizing foreign owned properties and complexes, as a government is within it’s rights to do, it has forced sales such as to take the sting out of their ejection.

The various hard and soft line currents within the Chavista movement are parsed through, and some attention is even given to the marginal but influential Trotskyists such as Orlando Chirino. Ellner cites four major points of contention within the hard and soft liners – policy within the MVR party, the Chavista Labor movement, the state-run oil industry and what the role of parallel structures should be over time. On this last point, those familiar with the various debates centered around societal transformations emerging from parties or from social movements will find the chapters five through severn particularly compelling as Ellner presents Venezuela as consisting of a synthesis of the two. The party of the MVR is illustrated as being pushed forward, pulled back and dealing with rank and file radicalism that goes beyond it’s stated objectives. The grassroots/institutional dialectic presented by Ellner suggests syncretic models are better suited to understanding the developments in Venezuela rather than an either/or model.

The short assessment of Veneuela’s foreign policy reiterates what many other academics have stated and what American news commentators have not – that the foreign policies are logical extensions of Chavez’s desire to create a multi-polar world not organized solely around capitalist imperatives. Considering the limitations to uni-polar military interventions and IMF and World Bank style economic restructuring in such a world would have to the United States, the demonstration effect that his “socialistic” policies have makes it more understandable why it is that he was so thoroughly derided in American main stream media.