Following the election of Hugo Chávez Frias in 1999 Venezuela re-entered the consciousness of the U.S. public after a long period of relative obscurity. In rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, mainstream U.S. news commentators quickly adopted a sensationalist narrative of “capitalism and democracy under attack,” categorizing the newly elected president as anything but a rational or stable political actor. Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly has called Chávez both a “brutal tyrant” and “Jabba the Hut”, a reference to the corpulent Star Wars villain. Such personal attacks and paternalistic protestations from a perspective that views any contestation of American capitalist interest as bad clearly illustrates how such accounts of the regime focus on institutional operations while ignoring the history of the Venezuelan state, obscuring the causes of institutional degeneration and deemphasizing the large margin of Chávez’s first and subsequent electoral victories.
While it is easy to dismiss such a perspective as vulgar, jingoist demagoguery, this was not the only criticism leveled against the new regime. Indeed, scholars focusing on Latin American and issues of democracy have raised their voices into a chorus that delve deeper into concerns over the Venezuelan state and its economy. Jorge Casteñada, Javier Corrales, Manuel Hidalgo, Anthony Spanakos, Scott Mainwaring, Michael Penfold-Becerra, Rafael Utcategui and Miriam Kornblith are some of the main researchers that have been critical of the actions of the newly formed “Bolivarian” state and the statesman that acted as the figurehead of its foundation until his death in 2012. Their writings represent a critical stance grounded in the historical, empirical realities of Venezuela and see the form of changes as, depending on the author, being a variety of neo- or military populism, participatory competitive authoritarianism, or bureaucratic opportunism lacking a rational economic foundation for sustainability that will cause the country to collapse into a crisis akin to the one that created the conditions which brought Chávez to power.
These assessments on Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian state are, however, not without contestation. Because the policies Chávez enacted sought to replace liberal democracy with a participatory model, undermined neo-liberal economic policy proscriptions domestically and in other parts of Latin America, and increased social spending in an atmosphere of austerity all while Chávez openly courted the international socialist left, his message and actions have fallen on receptive ears willing to refute or recontextualize the aforementioned critics. Some of the scholars that have exposited on the beneficial nature of Chávez’s policies include Steve Ellner, Gregory Wilpert, Thomas Muhr, Roger Burbach, Camila Piniero, Cristobal Ramirez, Roland Denis, Sujatha Fernandes, Richard Gott and Iain Bruce. They see the state’s actions largely as an imperfect attempt to reinscribe the economically marginal into civil society and the state as well as widen the democratic process by countering the previous hegemony of economic elite interests in the policy making and implementation process.
This polarization of perspectives on Bolivarian Venezuela and Hugo Chávez is a reflection of the political polarization that exists in the country itself, a fact to which both pro- and anti-Chávez partisans admit, as much as it is an expression on the contested composition of global capitalism. This essay will illustrate Venezuela’s political development leading to the institutional crisis which brought Chávez into power, and then outline of these two antagonistic perspectives, giving a cursory review to some of the divisions within these camps, then provide an explanation as to how it was that 21st Century Socialism came to be a Chavista slogan. This paper will also, in close, provide a short outline of the current rule by Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro.
II. Venezuelan State Formation
The modern Venezuelan states emerged with Juan Vincente Gomez. Following his overthrow of Jose Cirpriano Castro Ruiz, Gomez began consolidating the cattle industry through coercion and incorporating state presidents into a national profiteering network populated by military officers that had assisted him in the coup. By allocating spoils to the presidents of distant regions, and by extension their subordinates, he assured their allegiance to him. While Gomez’s attention was primarily directed upon the cattle industry, it extended to “all such ventures depended on political power to function through the distribution of profits up and down the political hierarchy, binding men to each other and to Gomez for their mutual benefit and thus strengthening the state” (Yarrington 20). While the death of Gomez in 1935 eliminated this specific sector of grievance following his successor, General Lopez Contreras, breaking apart this and several other monopolies, this dynamic of state corruption and the populations ritualized submission continued and expanded with the discovery of oil.
At the time of the discovery of oil in Maracaibo, Venezuela did not have a diverse, industrialized economy, democratic state institutions, or a professional bureaucracy. New property laws were written to deal with oil companies in such a way that the state was considered the negotiator/owner for corporations seeking to purchase or rent land (Karl 73). As outlined in the Petroleum Law of 1922, this had the effect of centralizing power in the executive, increasing the state’s jurisdiction and making it unduly dependent on a percentage of oil revenues for its operation funding. The money used by these taxes was used to co-opt groups in opposition to its choice of distribution, and had the effect of limiting the choices made available to politicians, especially as the diversification of the tax burden was fought both by popular and capitalist classes as burdensome. Lacking a professional intelligence apparatus, the oil companies provided the government with information on “subversives”, a code for revolutionaries, and subsidized the police forces (Salas 123). Unsurprisingly, Venezuelans resented such a situation wherein they were excluded from the intertwined political and economic process, and organized into several groups such as Accion Democratica (AD), Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI), the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV), Union Republicana Democratica (URD). Together they successfully applied pressure and were increasingly presented with progressive policies.
URD, COPEI, and AD, but not the PCV, claimed that reform measures were insufficient in scale and speed, circulated the allegation that the government was directed by foreign interests and initiated a coup that would begin the trienio experience (Ellner 40). COPEI, AD and the Confederation of Workers of Venezuela (CTV), which had been infiltrated and domesticated by the latter, initiated a period of radical reform that was unmatched in the region (Maher 185-186). The burst of radicalism was suppressed for nine years by another military dictator, Perez Jimenez, and was continued in the form of political expulsions following his overthrow and ascendency of A.D.’s Juan Betancourt from key politician in the new ruling junta to the office of the presidency (Maher 187).
The pact of Punto Fijo and the minimum program are considered by all commentators on Venezuela as watershed moments for subsequent political development. The rationale for AD, COPEI and URD was to have all agreeing parties respect the elections, thus allowing for the continuity of governance, and the radical nationalist, socialist and communist groups be excluded. While this 35-year period of “democratic” rule is noted for its stability, as well as its increasing presidentialism, it’s not generally attributed to its institutions or policies but to the global price of oil, the incorporation of dissent into the matrix of corruption, and the lack of viable or visible political alternatives (Karl, 288; Ellner, 82). During this time period was not the consolidation of substantive democracy but a formal one. The recurring phrase in the literature is of a state within a state, and this was most evident in the state’s deference to FEDECAMARAS, large land-holders, bankers and commodity importers rather than the electorate. Such a balance of political power lead to policies promoting clientism rather than professionalism, deleterious urbanization, and rampant corruption that had made the country a target for the Washington Consensus and radical domestic reform (Gott 81).
In staggering contradiction to the numerous American politicos that have fanned fears over Chávez, almost none of the literature on Venezuela attests to this period ever being a robust democracy. Indeed, even those that frame Venezuela’s history since Chávez as one of democratic deterioration either don’t delve deeply into the history of the state or agree that prior to his ascent the institutions of the state significantly lacked democratic qualities in several areas and was best defined as being a partyarchy (Coppege). Greatly restricting the capacity of political actors not associated with AD, and COPEI, the Pact of Punto Fijo had carved out sectors of political influence and made the PCV illegal. The various factions once associated or identified with the PCV soon began a Che Guevara-inspired domestic insurgency the led to massive repression (Maher). The groups were not as large or relatively successful as in other Latin American countries in part because the oil-funded state spent heavily on its secret service (DISIP) and subsidization of a variety of goods, thus allowing the top-down nature of decision-making within these increasingly clientelistic, corporatist structure to continue. Mainwaring still considers the regime to have been “competitive”. His basis for stating this is that while from 1959 to 1993 there was certainly no possibility of political representation outside of those two parties by 1993 Movement to Socialism (MAS) and La Cause R (LCR), both composed of former leaders of the leftist guerilla insurgency, were viable left-wing political alternatives. Convergencia, the organization in charge of the electoral campaign for former president and COPEI leader Caldera, was also widely supported, even winning and thus to Mainwaring, the electoral turnout for these three non-AD/COPEI parties illustrate that there was a vibrant political alternative.
Steve Ellner and Richard Gott protest such a characterization, instead claiming that while their was limited conflict amongst the party elites of AD/COPEI, neither they nor MAS, LCR or Convergencia contested the IMF structural readjustment policies that were imposed upon Venezuela. These policies had led to a massive withering away of the state’s social spending, was contributing to the atmosphere wherein the PDVSA was opening up to the possibility of privatizing the state’s oil holdings and the populace not in the upper economic echelon faced foreign-structured immiseration, packaged as el Gran Viaje. A sustained decline had been occurring since the 1980s due to political ineptitude and the maintenance of political influence networks, and the experience of the urban masses was such that it no longer desired either the acceptance of such policies or the parties that would promote them. Thus Hugo Chávez emerged as an anti-systemic candidate to change the rules of the game. He repudiated the forces that directed economic development towards neoliberal ends, halted capacity for upward social mobility, and decreased popular political representation – some of the classic qualities of a populist. Because of these characteristics he was widely, even before his election, called a populist.
III. 1998 Elections & the Dissolution of Adeco/Copeyano Hegemony
In the past forty years only two U.S. presidents have won by a popular majority, Ronald Regan and Richard Nixon. In his first electoral campaign in 1998, Chávez took 56.2% of the national votes. In every subsequent election, barring the 2007 constitutional reform referendum where his proposals were defeated by a 1.4% margin, he obtained a greater than 50% victories and also increased his electoral base in absolute terms (Lopez-Maya 145). The composition of his opposition was largely the now marginalized from party-power former bureaucratic elites, the capitalist class that had its prestige and influence diminished and the United States. While the domestic opposition still had the financial ability to support candidates they now lacked any modicum of popular support except in the CTV or the capacity to mobilize the state, the traditional bulwark against major political changes. This made their desire to supplant Chávez a largely uphill battle that quickly escalated into unabashed class conflict. International opposition funding through the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) also increased, soaring especially high immediately prior to the 2002 recall election. According to the figures found in the IRI’s report, spending on programs to supplement “democracy” increased by a factor of seven from 2000 to 2001 (Clement 69-70). In election propaganda the opposition was labeled as a fifth column for U.S. interests. Coralles and Penfold-Becerra describe this time wherein Chávez proclaimed his commitment to participatory democracy rather than liberal democracy as one of authoritarian consolidation and says it is “an example of how leaders can exploit both state resources and the public’s widespread desire for change to crowd out the opposition, and, by extension, democracy” (Corrales 100). The extension to him by the legislature – of which Chávez now controlled through 93% of the seats – of enabling powers and the rewriting of the constitution gave him wide powers justified by the new constitution, which they claim concentrated the power of the presidency to a degree unmatched in the region. Commenting on the changes which occurred not just in the constitution but in the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) Manuel Hidalgo describe the inconsistencies and irregularities of the elections as a turn towards “electoral authoritarianism. These authors, with Miriam Kornblith, Freedom House and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in concurrence, claim that the balloting procedure “improvements” were not equitable, nor free and fair for the opposition candidates. Threats and incentives were made by high-level government employees regarding their voting choice, candidates were invalidated due to various reasons and Chávez used the state as means of assisting his campaign both through the new capacity for the military to be involved in politics, previously illegal due to the long history of military dictatorships, and via state support to missions such as Plan Bolivar 2000 designed to register more voters in poor districts (Trinkunas).
Gregory Wilpert is one those that has defended these actions by the state. To first counter the claim that the writing and passing of the new constitution was anomalous or unprecedented in Venezuelan history, Wilpert points out that “between 1811 and 1961 Venezuela had 26 constitutions, the largest number of constitutions in Latin America” (Wilpert 30). Gott and Ellner further hold that instead of the increase of numbers on the CNE’s rolls signifying a degeneration of electoral quality, they show the Chávez government’s attempt to reinvigorate the failed linkages between politicians and people that had lead to the collapse of the partyarchy in the first place. They further state that to fail to do so would mean to avoid addressing the institutional imbalance of political power that had existed since the Pact of Punto Fijo. While barring people from running for office that had acted against the public interest does evoke suspicion as to how they were categorized as such so far there has been no systematic treatment of those barred. This topic thus remains ambiguous and a potential for future researcher, with those in support of the Bolivarian regime generally passing over this in the belief that those actors on the ground were acting not just for political gain. As for the further unleashing of the political and social power within the military which had up until then been viewed as a bastion of incompetence and corruption in the upper ranks, is seen by Gott as imperative. The military had always been an important class actor and it’s role in supporting the state, as subsequent events would show, were imperative. While generally supportive of the state as long as it is supporting the people, on this point Maher is wary and diverges from Wilpert, Gott and Ellner. Looking at its hierarchical orientation and its the long history of combatting the political and economic demands of endogenously formed barrio communities, he is more ambivalent. Wilpert further deems the downward pressures by numerous state functionaries to vote in a specific pattern were not significantly different from before, and on this point many within this “left” orientation take issue. While admitting that Chávez’s decision-making practices were indeed often militaristic rather than consultative, Gott defends this by stating his orientation in choosing public policy was to the benefit of “el pueblo” rather than the propertariat or the former politicians that composed the state within the state. Sujatha Fernandes, however, holds that this was the beginning of the consolidation of a new bureaucracy that was not necessarily linked to the grass-roots and that the state thus was in process to transforming into a hybrid orientation in that it makes choices on which economic sectors to support and social services to spend on without wide public consultation and with modicum of paternalism (Denis 260). Not addressing this criticism directly, Wilpert delineates how the new composition of political power created by the new constitution, such as the transition of the National Assembly from a bicameral system to a unicameral one, the enshrinement of indigenous, environmental and women’s rights, the creation of an electoral and citizens branch of government – in addition to the already existent legislative, executive and judicial, and new transparency guidelines diffused more power amongst the people.
IV. 2002 Coup Attempt
The aforementioned shift were clearly sea changes for Venezuelan civil society that imbued passionately held positions by those holding to either view of the newly formed Bolivarian state. Believing the capacity to effect political change was vanishing, those who perceived themselves as ostracized organized an anti-democratic solution to their purportedly anti-democratic problem. Curiously, those who criticize Chávez all deal with the same timeline of events and who happily comment on the recall referendum of 2004 have little to say on this coup attempt. A lone comment is made on how Carmona was too much the product of FEDECAMARAS and didn’t include enough of the opposition groups in his new, briefly formed cabinet but on the whole it is not touched. For those who claim interest in researching democracy in Venezuela this lacuna on their part is somewhat puzzling as it was a pivotal moment in the new Chávez administration. That said, it is perhaps easiest to say that interpretations of the 2002 attempt coup is shibboleth between government supporters and the opposition. What is clear, however, is that credence was given to claims of the coup being foreign-backed based upon the U.S. government’s immediate recognition of legitimacy on Carmona. Evidence was based on this and the language within the NDI and IRI funding proposals, which contradicted any notion of neutrality and concern over “democratic institutions” as in these proposals, Chávez was framed as an enemy to U.S. interests while the opposition was framed as vendepatrias (Clement 72). In the minds of the former group democracy was thus equivalent with whatever benefitted U.S. and domestic capitalist interests, or la oligarqia to the latter, rather than pursuit of it’s own domestic and international agenda (Trikunas 142). This was illustrated both in the opposition’s rhetorical choice of character assassination over substantive debate and in the voter against Chávez in the 2004 recall referendum, which was highest in metropolitan areas identified by their comparative wealth (Trikunas 147).
Considering the alliance of international and domestic capital classes against Chávez, it’s worth considering the policies that were so popular that it allowed Chávez to win with such wide margins. Simply put, while still maintaining an economic course that recognized the realities of a capitalist global system, he halted many of the neoliberal policies – such as the privatization of social security, health care programs the underfunding of programs aimed at intervention for easily treatable, endemic diseases – that disproportionately affected the poor, has tried to stop the decentralization that would allow richer neighborhoods to avoid increased tax burdens and spent more money on social programs. While there have been marginal increases in the collection of business taxes, a necessary change if the Venezuela state is to make itself less vulnerable to fluctuations in the international oil market, the major shift during Chávez’s presidency was that in real, inflation adjusted term, terms, social spending per person has nearly tripled, increasing by 191 percent over the period of 1998-2008” and the concomitant decrease in poverty rates over the same period by 22% (Weistbrot 203). Considering that such increases in social spending occurred at a time of heightened oil prices, it is possible to see a connection between Chávez’s policies and that of the first term of Carlos Andres Perez and his Gran Venezuela project. However the form differed in that spending was primarily on blanket subsidies and welfare programs, light infrastructure repair and expansion projects as well as community and housing development for agricultural areas targeted as in need of repopulation rather than the grand construction projects of Perez.
V. Presidential and Economic Stabilization
What additionally distinguished Chávez from his political predecessors and opponents was, increasingly over time, that the policies he pursued to marginalize the opposition from power was by expanding democratic representation in government. In his analysis of Chávez’s 14-year presidency, Steve Ellner identified four distinct stages within it. The first three stages deal with contestation and regime consolidation while the last follows his victory in the recall election and the overcoming of PDVSA’s strike. At this point he defined himself as an anti-imperialist and adopted “21st Century Socialism” as a slogan. This can perhaps best be understood as his having won consistent and increasing electoral support despite increasing polarization within the country, in 2006 he won with 63 percent of the vote, and his intent to intensify the demonstration effect of his presidency in the international arena (Ellner 128). This is not, however, the only indicator of domestic content with the widespread assent to the expanded representational system and the marginalization of previous parties by chavistas. According to the Larinobarometro survey of the following year, “Venezuelans say they like their democracy as it is now or, at least, much more than the citizens of other countries like their democracies which, by contrast, are not criticized by the outside world for lack of freedom and harassment of institutions” (Latinobarometro 10). From the same survey, they rate their democracy a 7 out of ten, and 72% of Venezuelans, the highest in the region, support the states that “Democracy allows the solving of the problems we have” which, compared to the regional average of 52% is quite significant.
Following adoption of this slogan, the Bolivarian revolution, or el proceso, was deepened with the expansion of reforms and mission programs. It is worth noting that in contradistinction to the major media news outlet narratives depicting Chávez supporters as guided by evangelical adoration of him, in the academic literature his supporters valued el proceso primarily and Chávez only insofar as he continued the process of radicalization that democratized political institutions (Ellner, Ramierez, Maher). This emphasis on the leftist elements of Chávez should not overshadow his middle class support, “the least recognized source of support for Chávez” (Ramierez 82). Perhaps most significantly given the history of military intervention in politics was Chávez’s continued support from numerous sections of the armed services. He had previously incorporated members of the military establishment into various government bodies, economic organizations and natural energy bureaucracies while also encouraging the public sector to organize around specific social programs, such an organization stuck and in each of these arenas he maintained regime consolidation (Gott 177).
While Gott viewed the military-government corporatist alliance as essential for maintaining the regime and allowing for executive oversight of potentially oppositional actors during this period of political transition, Maher, Denis, and Fenandes continue to be suspicious that the “institutional” chavistas or PSUV will transform into an insulated, elitist party much as the Adeco’s did and thus sees the source of future democratic power in the dual power system created by community and informal worker organizations. Though Ellner does not speak specifically to Maher’s emphasis on the informal workers, which considering they composed “31.6% of the workforce” in 2000 must be included in discussions on regime stability and economic redevelopment, he complicates Maher’s concerns of the institutional powers by pointing to the large number of chavista rank and file in the unions and some government ministries, such as the Ministry of the Community Economy, that reject personalism, the submission of the cooperatives to capitalist logic and advocate, like the barrios organizations, horizontalism (Portes 52, 65).
In contradistinction to those just others mentioned, Casteñada, does not see Chávez as some Laclauian “empty signifier” around which various forces within the country could unify but instead saw him as a return to the reckless, irresponsible populism of the early 20th century. This is due to the previously mentioned political reasons but more so as a result of Chávez’s pursuit of “unsustainable” spending policies. Pointing to other countries in the region who have also seen upward social spending and a decrease of deprivation, he stated that he is part of an irresponsible left unable to successfully unleash the productive powers of capitalism. Castañeda does not delve into how the wealth of oil in the country it creates conditions of trade that make it qualitatively different from it’s immediate neighbors, and focuses his vituperation on an increasingly centralized state the disburses limited assistance to supporters. Manuel Hidalgo furthers his position in stating that that the policies of centralization have hurt not only pluralism within the country, but the economy as well. Chávez’s success is seen as stemming from bumper oil prices rather than policy and over-dependence on it to fatten the national budget and also forcing the PDVSA to give up some of it’s profit that would better be spent in extractive infrastructure reinvestment is dangerous.
Whether these are truly unsustainable or a manner of dealing with inflationary trade deficits via long term political and job skills training for an unforeseen future that is determined neither by a command economy modeled in the Soviet style or dependency development in the American manner will certainly be the subject for future researchers. Wilpert continues to publish documentation on venezuelanalysis.com stating that the state has more than sufficient funds while others continue to show that it is on the verge of collapse and that the business atmosphere is declining to such a degree that foreign capital continues to flee the country. To best see what has changes and what has stayed the same, a cursory analysis of the some of the economic developments of the regime are in order.
VI. The Economic Development of 21st Century Socialism
A. Land Reform
Article 305 of the Venezuelan constitution of 1999 states that domestic food production will be promoted by the state and to accomplish this goal the 2001 Ley de Tierras y Desarrollo Agrario legalized land occupations of fertile but fallow state and private lands could be occupied by campesinos that worked the land. Groups of campesions organized into communes, were given letters of recognition that prevented their ejection by local police, allowed them to obtain credit from FONDAS, the state agency in charge of socialist production of agriculture, and promised additional assistance by state planners in their effort to obtain caloric self-sufficiency.
Despite this seeming break from the capitalist strictures which had since the discovery of subterranean energy resources suffocated the aspiring yeoman farmers, the policies of the past 14 years were so poorly executed that on September 11th, 2013, President Maduro announced that in order to fix the still persistent problem, they would be partnering with foreign capital, predominantly Chinese, to develop the agricultural lands.
Why the government decided to do this is clear, Venezuela still imports between 15% and 20% of its food, insecurity of the food supply has lead to minor instances of stockpiling and speculation as well as recurring shortages of the items found in the typical Venezuelan food basket. Why the Ley de Tierras wasn’t successful is also clear. Activists combating the latifundistas did not have the full security backing of the central state, and over 200 activists have been assassinated. The number of those convicted of these crimes? Zero. Resistance to this reactionary show of force, most brazen as the majority of the lands occupied were in fact deeded to the government rather than private hands, has led campesinos to form para-military organizations such as the Bolivarian Liberation Forces to maintain their safety. During this period the Ezequial Zamora National Agrarian Coordinating Committee, the chavista institution tasked with assisting farmers, has kept to researching titles while the grass-roots National Campesino Front (FNCEZ) has taken on the task of organizing safety groups. This despite Ali Ramos’, head of the FNCEZ, stating that not even 30% of the possible lands for occupation have been attempted (Bruce).
Naked violence against campesinos and the state’s failure to protect them or convict perpetrators is not the only cause for the failure of the policies. Lack of infrastructure investment, distribution outlets for agricultural products and general apathy towards those that haven’t had to deal with violence has caused much of the work of the occupying farmers to be wasted (Uzcategui). One of the cases which received considerable attention in the international media was the possible nationalization of British firm The Vestey Group’s El Charcote farm in Barrera. Farmers occupying unused acres named themselves the Bella Vista cooperative and immediately began the procedural appeals to the government. It was not, however, until several months after they had submitted them that the government papers justifying their occupation were received and processed. Additionally, the government financing credits that they were able to obtain for it was so limited that those that have not abandoned the site still live without access to water or electricity. Despite these problems a number of those following the protagonisto model of political agency promoted by Chávez stayed on and were able to plant crops which were later wasted due to the unwillingness of low-cost food supplier Mercal to take their produce and it’s high price compared to other producers in the region. The farmers of this and other regions, faced with such a slow and tenuous pace of agricultural reform, have not abandoned their desires, but instead their faith in the government. Lacking such support, they are in many ways untouched by anything other than the words of the Bolivarian revolution.
Following the projected pattern of petro-state policy making outlined by Terry Karl in The Paradox of Plenty, the government still refuses to commit to difficult political choices, instead preferring the path of least resistance due to the electoral conditions of a formal democracy rather than confronting the land-owning class that prevents it from fulfilling it’s constitutionally mandated goal of food sufficiency.
B. Housing Reform
The depopulation of Venezuela’s agricultural zones following the discovery of oil occurred at a pace unmatched by any other Latin American country. The result of this was the growth of barrio settlements lacking infrastructure. As of 2008, the UN human settlement program calculated that the housing deficit was as high as three million, which in a country with a population of 13 million is quite significant.
Housing reforms initiated in September, 2004 by government decree yet outside official government institutions sought to address the lack of affordable, quality housing that has lead to the exponential proliferation of barrios that enlarge the cities proper. Mission Habitat was to administer and overlook the building of the 110,000 units needed annually by Venezuelans and to assist in the renovation or reconstruction of the 2.8 million households deemed unfit due to their being shanties or their being located in high-risk areas. Numbers from the Housing Ministry indicate that between 1999 and 2008 the Chávez administration were able to construct slightly over 240,000 dwellings. This averages to about 26,000 a year. The Mission, which was preferred to the government agency, was considered preferable so as to halt corrupt practices were not able to fulfill this mission either. The Comptroller General, Clodosvaldo Russian, said in a speech to the National Assembly that the issue of corruption that previous administrations faced has continued (Uzcategui). The only thing that has changed is the pace of production. A prime example of this is Ciudad Caribia, once promoted as a model city for the Bolivarian Revolution. Since it’s beginning in 2006, of the 20,000 planned apartments only 1,600 have been made and the cost overruns are now over a billion dollars.
Faced with increased pressures from various barrio organizations Chávez had handbooks on how to build a better house distributed, held back the police from occupations of abandoned buildings by people and passed a series of laws to normalize landholdings by giving titles to people living in technically illegal settlements. Those within the barrios feel comforted by the legal regularization of their holdings, but have been rebuffed in their push towards greater rationalization of housing construction. Such rationalization includes increased access to clear water – for though many barrios now have long overdue access to water, its characterized by high levels of bacterial contaminants – as well as services such as fixing roads.
C. Economic Reform
One of purportedly most progressive aspects of the Bolivarian Revolution was to be its assistance in the development of workers councils and cooperatives. According to all on the “left” spectrum, this was to be the one of the pillars of 21st century socialism. In contradistinction to expectations these two forms of state-sponsored economic organization have had the effect, according to Venezuelan labor activist Orlando Chirino, of encouraging precarious working conditions and rolling back the work standards won by those in the formal sector.
The rationale for the new councils and unions was to first wrest control from the established labor unions previous associated with the Punto Fijo system that still presented one of the few organized, non-oligarchic sections of political power and to “fix” the economy of the petro-state through the creation of Endogenous Development Center’s, or NUDEs. The latter were widely propounded by the Chávez administration to be a form of production that would start to develop the native capacity of the informal sector. Facilities such as the Fabricio Ojeda nucleus were stated by Chávez to be outside the logic of the capitalist economy and were going to supplant it. In a way the developmental project of the NUDES and its creation of a “people’s economy” are a variation of classic Import Substitution, but largely without the substitution part. Lacking the capacity to limit imports, manufactured goods and clothing still flows through the ports and roads from other countries making the NUDEs a type of skills training for positions in domestic industries that the government isn’t committed to supporting. So far the primary goods made have been t-shirts and other campaign associated materials for use by the PSUV and work clothes for the PDVSA, the latter of which has protested their being forced to purchase them due to their inferior quality.
VII. Assessing Reforms
These admittedly brief analyses of three of many reform projects stems from the lack of widely accepted data on from the Chávez government but hints nevertheless that despite the revolutionary rhetoric surrounding the programs they replicated many of the same deficiencies as previous paternalistic government policies which saw them as necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of Venezuelan society for lacking them, the capacity for regular exportation of oil would be jeopardized by widespread social unrest. However, in order to fully assess these programs it is important to contextualize them what came before and to see how the post-Chávez administration has either continued their mistakes in new forms or broken with them to obtain meaningful, sustainable social gains. Doing so we see that not only does the Bolivarian Government emulate previous forms of social spending of administrations flush with petro-dollars, but they do a bad imitation! The ad-hoc nature of the anti-poverty, education, and health care programs are characterized by a lack of professionalism or accountability, a quick turnover of personnel, systemic shortages of important goods and products, opportunistic behavior on the part of administrators and general individualism (Daguerre). Looking at what came before makes it apparent that an institutional orientation rather that a para-governmental one makes a large difference in the disbursement of goods and services.
FONDUR, the National Fund for Urban Development was created in 1975 and even into the early 1990’s, the government still provided low-cost housing to the people, though at a pace more than double that of the Chávez administration, 64,000 homes a year, and in an economic environment not as favorable to such spending. While the cooperatives, NUDEs and attempts at co-management have elicited conversations about the nature of the Venezuelan economy – it has done little to nothing to address the informal workers that still compose between 45-50% of the populace. It is not just the informal sector, however, that is little affected by the regime. The NUDEs, while called into being by the Bolivarian government could at any moment be nullified. In a situation reminiscent of 1989, El Universal discovered in August of 2013 that the reserves of the Venezuela Central Bank has fallen to 1.6 Billion, or two weeks worth of imports. While the government’s solution to any needs could certainly be backed by several other state foundations whose balance sheets are unpublished and can be used discretionarily by the president it’s worth noting that in October it was discovered be the Venezuelan media that the Maduro administration was putting out feelers to the IMF. Without being too speculative, it’s likely that many of the NUDEs not associated with food production would fall by the wayside due to their lack of productivity should the government need to restructure its balance sheets.
To pre-emptively address the long-term failure of these para-institutional missions, the government has shifted some of its focus to educational programs organized through the Che Guevara Foundation. In the face of increasingly trenchant criticism from the left and the right, the chavista regime has sought to develop “new people” that value solidarity over individual self-interest rather than directly addressing the institutional issues. The driving idea behind this is that the more people are sympathetic to their aims, the less contradictions there will be to lead to the above-mentioned problems. Those emerging from this system of education as well as those that will graduate from the Institute of Higher Studies of the Thought of Hugo Chávez may cause this to become true. However this does beg the question of how long these “new people” can last in such an environment where the social-movement aims are consistently sub-ordinated to the short-terms considerations of petro-state party politics and very legitimacy of the project of 21st century socialism when other countries not seeking to develop it are appearing to be preferable economic models (Prevost).
As I have hoped to show from the above, the notion that Venezuela is developing 21st century socialism that is distinct from a particular form of paternalist populism can only be sustained through a reading of the government’s claims rather than it’s actions. Despite, or perhaps because of this, much of the current literature on 21st century socialism has centered on the promises rather than the actions of the regime, tellingly compiled on the website solopromesas.com. While this now semi-cottage industry amongst leftist academics does make for at-time interesting analysis of the operation of protagonisto, revolutionary subjectivities, it is also important to combat the notion that the community councils so lauded by Wilpert and other “Venezuela-hands” can be the emancipatory model for activists combatting neo-liberalism when wedded to a highly presidentialist regime (Burbach & Ramierez). It is not just that Máduro, like Chávez before him, can dissolve councils with his discretionary power, but that such a political geometry has had serious chilling effects on developing a political culture not characterized by ideological polarization, cronyism and clientism and has further inhibited institutional effectiveness, continuity and long-term sustainability. This is not to say that polarization as a thing-unto-itself is to be avoided, indeed it is expected to increase in times of revolutionary upheaval, however as the Máduro regime seeks to reinforce itself amongst widespread shortages, power outages and electoral discontent it becomes harder for it to mask it’s elements of corporatism in an atmosphere where political surveillance reigns. Put simply, despite his and
Inside Venezuela the number of people distancing themselves from Chávez’s legacy is continuing to grow. In the 2012 elections the PCV expressed their discontent with the regime by running their own candidates in several regions. It is not just the parties, however, that are starting to jump ship. While there was an 80% turnout for Chávez’s last election, this number fell to 54% when it came to elect Máduro. The irony of this situation is of course that the collectives that worked to broadened electoral participation, and later subsumed themselves within the PSUV, now find themselves facing an electorate increasingly dissatisfied with policies that are no longer recognizable as theirs. Whether these policies will change through the leadership recognizing its unpopularity is, however, unlikely as the government has increasingly sought to buffer itself from the electorate. According to the December 4th, edition of El Universal the Máduro administration is continuing it’s use of state organs for elections in open violation of CNE law.
Since his election and contested victory by 2%, Nicholas Máduro has continued to exacerbate the country’s political polarization by increasingly relying upon a discourse of paranoia. Power failures in the country are now the cause of opposition sabotage, food and goods shortages are the fault of the opposition – despite Indepabis being a chavista construct. This blaming of the opposition, which really means any political group that doesn’t submit to the PSUV line, occurs during a period of increasing violence within the country. Safety on the street, one of the recurring pretexts for military coup in Latin America, has increased become a salient issue for Venezuelans – and the government’s response has been to stop keeping official records of the number of murders that transpire and leaving it up to civil groups to take their place. Of additional note, since the creation of the Bolivarian state, narco-traffickers have increasingly come to use Venezuelan harbors to smuggle goods, suggesting that lacking US support in the war on the cocaine trade the shipping and spillover violence will increase. All of this does not even touch upon the open and consistent bolstering of the Boli-bourgeoisie in sectors supportive to the Great Patriotic Pole for their ability to help maintain near-monopoly market shares. It is not just the giving away of air time by television stations which benefitted from RCTV having their broadcast license revoked, but also the newly announced government produced “Newscast of Truth” that will be broadcast on all radio and TV stations twice daily. Additionally, while the arrest of 100 business speculators may display a narrative popular to the numerous disenfranchised, its actual efficacy in helping the country amidst soaring inflation rates is dubious and is likely to promote further divestment in a country already ranked very low for it’s ease in doing business by the World Bank.
The GPP and the PSUV have in a way replicated much of the same problems that have characterized previous radical-democratic parties in Venezuela’s history and perhaps even exacerbated them due to his rhetoric. This is not to say that MUD, the opposition organizing committee composed of 18 different parties, is necessarily the solution or that there is nothing redeemable in their foreign policy goals – but should Máduro continue these policies under the banner of 21st century socialism it will do more to discredit the movement than gain it praise. While Máduro may take Castro as a positive figurehead and potential model for the country, he does so at the risk of alienating those tangentially sympathetic to him domestically and abroad that sees the gradual, social democratic route as the best alternative to the neoliberal formulation of governance.
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