TeleSUR English: Elitism, Non-Engagement and Fake Followers

Pablo Vivanco, Director of TeleSUR English

On first glace it’s clear that Pablo Vivanco has all the proper political bona fides to run TeleSur English.

Pablo was involved with student and Latino organizing activities in Canada. He volunteered for the Center for Spanish Speaking; and founded the Central American Students Association.

Pablo Vivanco has worked as the Public Relations officer for the Chilean Canadian Cultural Association – Salvador Allende, and chaired organizations such as Chile CAN Rise. In addition to his political work he has written many articles for BASICS Community News Service, the North American Congress on Latin America and LINKS – The International Journal of Socialist Renewal before becoming Director of TeleSUR English.

However as I’ll now demonstrate, these political and academic roles did not provide him the knowledge of the modern digital media ecology that’s necessary for one to be a successful Director of such an operation as TeleSUR English and he has not since grasped how to do this in his 4 years at TeleSUR English.

Starving The Target Audience

Pablo Vivanco has signed off on the production of thousands of articles that the vast majority of Americans typically avoid reading. Not because of the subject matter or perspective, but because of their reading level.

While TeleSUR English’s departing from industry standard by attempting to provide more context to the news event is laudable, their decision to ignore industry standards by publishing way above most American’s reading level is not. Simply put, it alienates potential readers.

Here’s a PDF with the Readability score of this Opinion article (Graded as a C-) entitled Why Bolivia Fights US Imperialism but Chile does Not.

Here’s a PDF with the Readability score of this Analysis article (graded as an E, lower than an F!) entitled Despite Win, Ecuador’s President in a Tough Spot After Referendum.

I combined the articles Venezuela: Maduro Invites All International Observers ‘Willing to Come’ to Oversee April Election and Venezuela to Seek ‘Other Markets’ if US Goes Ahead With Oil Embargo: Maduro  into one to obtain their Readability Scores,  and received similar scores indicating that they far above the average American’s preferred reading level.

Attention to this is incredibly important as it affects the likelihood of content being shared.

Search Engine Sabotage

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As mentioned in my previous article, TeleSUR English: 4 Years of Corruption, Wasted Money and Lost Opportunities, poor UX and back end coding has a negative impact on SEO. This issue is so pervasive on the website, that it’s worth touching upon again in more detail.

These errors not only drive people away, but negatively effects search ranking, thus making it more difficult for those searching for context to come across the information on their website.

Whereas other major digital media operations like New York Times and the Washington Post have transitioned to more interactive storytelling approaches that uses R, Tableau, Excel and similar programs TeleSUR English stagnates by using the same broken javascript frames to merely link traditional photo with traditional text. Information is beautiful, but the way TeleSUR English presents it’s stories is often not.

The Importance of Knowing and Applying the New Media Paradigm

The biggest problems TeleSUR English struggles with is, it seems, a lack of knowledge of or adherence to new media best practices.

In the new media environment the essential driver for growth is building relationships. 

In a highly congested digital media landscape, forming a lasting relationship means you can reach more people and influence more people for less money. It takes the form of onsite engagement, large email subscriber numbers, people positively referencing your work on other websites.

A cursory review of TeleSUR English’s Twitter and Facebook accounts as well as their on-site comments sections shows the barest of engagement, even in the places where one might expect it.

Onsite Example of a Failed Controversy Meant to Drive Engagement

In the article Why This Sanders Supporter is Boarding the Trump Train by Cassandra Fairbanks, for instance, there is none of the controversy in the form of comments that the article was likely projected to achieve. 

Comparing the 6 comments here to the 2,685 found on this Breitbart article, on a roughly similar topic at around the same time, it’s clear that it didn’t achieve the desired effect of generating comments at all. What it shows is that TeleSUR English has a small audience that doesn’t care to engage even when content that should offend the target audience is posted.

Twitter Example of Failed Engagement

None of these stats should convince you that TeleSUR English is investing in what matters.

As it relates to information on Twitter’s engagement for this article, I decided against using an API to scrape, review, process and interpret the information about this due to the cost as it’s immediately evident that there’s a lack-of-meaningful engagement here as well.

Instead of what works, both accounts simply drown their readers in posts.

The motto of TeleSUR English seems to be quantity over quality.

Pablo Vivanco’s Fake Social Media Stats

At the 2016 Left Forum, Pablo Vivanco spoke about his experiences as the Director of TeleSUR English.

While the entirety of his presentation has not been made available (and if anyone happens to have it I would hope that the email it to me), I was able to discover an interesting quote from his presentation:

“Social media platforms are controlled by corporate media,” he [Pablo] said, “But these are the ways people consume information and news. To not participate is to cede space we shouldn’t cede.”

“When we launched there was a fair amount of resources put into buying views and likes on social media platforms,” Vivanco said ruefully. “But social media functions on algorithms. You need organic engagement and reach- using networks and working with others, building engagement.”

In a few public words Pablo Vivanco gave evidence as to why TeleSUR English should be penalized by algorithms designed to halt “fake news”.

Whether or not Facebook, Google and other such algorithms are designed to find and factor in such comments is honestly beyond me, but I do know that an event occurred which provides insight into just how many followers Pablo Vivanco purchased and how many of TeleSUR English’s followers are actually real. It was shocking to me as it was MUCH lower than what I’d projected initially.

How a Fake News Story that Fooled Newsweek Provides Insight into TeleSUR English’s Readership Numbers

After TeleSUR English’s page went down for 21 hours on January 21stCarlos Ballesteros, a contributing author to Newsweek, wrote an article entitled Latin American News Outlet’s Facebook Page Mysteriously Disappears for 24 Hours.

At a time where Facebook censorship is a hot-button issue, no other media outlets picked up the story. If this sounds surprising, it’s less so after the story becomes clearer.

For one, shortly after publication, a correction was made to correct the prior claim that Facebook censored them. The reality being that this was just speculation on the part of Pablo Vivanco.

Secondarily, a little bit of research shows that Carlos Ballesteros and Pablo Vivanco are long-standing political colleagues –  evidenced by their co-existent signatures on a resolution defending the SNTE teacher union, in a La Jornada declaration from March 2013 on page 12-13. Most outlets doing background, like myself were likely to have picked this up and seen the article as a favor to a friend.

There are other issues with this article as well, such as Carlos Ballesteros informing the reader that “TeleSUR boasts a viewership of nearly half a billion people in 110 countries,” which defies all projections that I’ve seen. However the real interesting thing, is the organic response after the profile was taken down, presumably, for political censorship.

TeleSUR English’s Actual Audience Numbers

After the false report that TeleSUR English was censored began circulation, a page called TeleSUR News Aggregate came into existence and posted notifications to follow it in a number of Leftist-oriented groups on Facebook and alternative news sites.

What’s notable about this is that the number of people which rallied in “defense” of TeleSUR English was a far cry from the ~410,000 currently “liking” it – only 3,538 people.

Also notable is how that now a single person in any of the 40+ “Friends of TeleSUR English” Facebook groups said a peep about it’s being temporarily unpublished.

Does this mean that there’s 406,000 fake likes for TeleSUR English on Facebook?

It’s possible. The only was we would know for sure was if this company engaged in some radical transparency.

Crunching The Numbers Sans Fake Followers

The budget for the first year of TeleSUR English was  $17,600,000.

If we presume that operating costs dropped from $17.6 million in the first year to 10 to 15 million in the following four years, this would then mean that the average amount of money that the governments supporting TeleSUR English was spending per genuine follower – taken to be the number of people that followed TeleSUR News Aggregate – is $16,053.

True, this don’t include the numbers of followers from TeleSUR English’s other properties, however it’s quite likely that those numbers are equally false and I think it fair to state that the primary outlet is likely to be the most authoritative source for actual numbers.

I would LOVE for TeleSUR English to release their live streaming numbers as over a week long period wherein I randomly checked their feed I never saw viewership reach over seven people at a time.

As a socialist and digital strategist/marketer – I personally find the money being wasted by the Directorship of Pablo Vivanco to be scandalous.

His direction is clearly not that which TeleSUR English operations should be following. These facts, combined with this in my other article, clearly show that a Directorial change is needed.

 

Review of Doña Barbaba

Doña Barbaba is a compelling epic of the llanos – the easterly region of Venezuela – that translated into several movies and television series. In the backstory we learn that the settler progenitors of the protagonists of the story enacted horrors on the indigenous tribes from the Cunaviche to the Aruaca basin in order dispossess the natives. They were successful in doing so, but as a result of this the families involved were cursed. While something not spoken of, like Voldemort’s name, even generations later it still informs the behavior of those working at the Altamira ranch. There is on area on the property with a tree long ago struck by lightning around which nothing grows. The peons and the ranch hands all avoid this area.

Following the settlement of the area and the curse, the Luzardo family began to have internal conflict. When the family became rich and numerous, some of its members went to the city, and petitioned for parts of the land to be sold. This eventually happened, giving rise to two families in control of this vast region. Whether it was the curse of the indigenous or just the vanity of those engaged in the reprisals, a dispute between the two heads soon emptied nearly both branches of the family.

The laws set up in the wake of indigenous dispossession was according to rules that encouraged many varieties of primitive capitalist accumulative behaviors by hook or by crook. Be it theft of animals by branding over another ranches mark, finding buyers that didn’t care what was what, or enacting lawsuit in the court of a judge that’s already in pocket, the llanos are are place where “the only way to get respect here is to kill someone.” This is because the llanos, like New York City for Carrie, is a place location with a life and personality all of its own.

TV series adaptation of Dona Barbara set in modern times

One of the compelling metaphors mobilized in the beginning is the reflection by the narrator that those that settled the llanos were not entirely men – but were centaurs. This is sensible given the amount of time that they spend on their horses and also the classical conception of them as half-beast half men. They are the ones between beast, or indigenous people, and men, as while they scatter them

Doña Barbara not so subtly represents the settler barbarism required to dispossess people of their historic rights. She has a daughter out of wedlock, Marisela, with Lorenzo, the cousin of the soon to be introduced protagonist Santos Luzardo, but leaves the child to him so that she can focus on accumulating her own ranch.

Illustration by Alberto Nicasio from the Peuser edition

Much like Rosario Tiejeras, which I read immediately preceding this, Doña Barbara was raped as a teenager. Barbara too is associated with magic and murder. Though she has no group of girls that seek to follow her ways, The Ogress as she is called, is also quite attractive and uses her feminine wiles to get what she needs done. Because of this she never needs to pull the trigger on someone who has something she wants or who has insulted her herself, but this is as she has a veritable stable of disreputable men on the run from authorities in other areas are willing to do anything for her should they think that it is what she wants. Doña Barbara’s dalliance with dark rituals is also more than a passing phase. She has a Dark Stranger, code for the devil, which helps her in her plans to enrich herself.

Santos Luzardo, a doctor by education, representing the purportedly calmer and legalistic side of civilization – ironic considering the criminality it took for his family to obtain the land – and seeks to undo the encroachment made on his families property by Doña Babara and her retinue of henchmen.

Romulo Gallegos’ includes a number of songs and poem fragments throughout the book. This impressed and surprised me, as having no real experience working as a cattle hand, I’d never have imagined the degree to which they laud poetry – as if to provide their inner refinement despite their outer simple appearance. In one of many similar passages connecting the cowboy to song and poetry, Gallegos writers the following:

“As evening came on, the cowboys came back in noisy groups, began to talk, and ended by singing their thoughts in ballad form, for if there is anything which must be said, the Plainsman always has a ballad or a poem which says it and says it better than speech.”

All in all I really loved this book, the narrative was compelling, the cast of color characters were lifelike and for a 400+ page book the pace of it was fast. I loved all that proto-magical realist elements in it which showcased the many superstitions and strong beliefs of the people in the region. I look forward to reading this again in a few years and finding new things to appreciate about it.

TeleSUR English: 4 Years of Corruption, Wasted Money and Lost Opportunities

TeleSUR English is unique in today’s media environment.

Unlike other media news companies wholly or partially funded by foreign governments – such as BBC and Britain; RT and Russia, 24 and France – TeleSUR English is avowedly socialist in its political orientation. There are no red flags or five pointed stars in its masthead to indicate this, thankfully, but it is evident in other ways.

He Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune

TeleSUR’s three main financial supporters are Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia –  three countries that over the past two decades have each elected political parties to power in order to enact radically new policies. These policies caused major upset for the traditional economic elite in each country, and in America, as they switched to a governance model intended to benefit all citizens rather than the one which previously only benefitted those best able to financially contribute to politicians.

Additionally, the non-current event content shared on their social media pages includes quotes and photos from socialists such as Rosa Luxembourg, the Black Panther Party, Patrice Lumumba; people that were sympathetic to socialists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; and a variety of other socialist related content.

In their About Me section, TeleSUR English claims that they want to be “A space and a voice for the construction of a new communications order” centered around the subject of  “Global South” an allusion to social, political and economic justice.

Why I Decided to Review TeleSUR English’s Digital Footprint

Long a researcher into radical political history and thought; a student of Venezuelan media and politics since the failed 2002 coup against President Hugo Chavez Frias; TeleSUR English was born in 2014, just as I was starting to change my career from an academic to Creative Director and Digital Media Strategist.

In December of 2017, a few months after I left a job as a Creative  Strategist at a Major Marketing Firm, I decided to see how I could best contribute to TeleSUR English.

To accomplish this I looked underneath the proverbial hood of this modern iteration of a radical newspaper to see what was doing well and what needed to be changed.

My intent in looking at various key performance indicators I’d previously used in the digital media strategy and marketing realm was to be able to highlight some of their pain points and then present a pitch which showcased my strategy and services which attracting viewers and build audience in a digital ecology.

On first look, what I discovered was disconcerting – bad key performance indicators. As I began to engage, something more nefarious emerged.

Why What I Discovered on Reviewing TeleSUR English Required A Public Report

I reached out to TeleSUR English director Pablo Vivanco about contributing to their efforts and was warmly received. After a one on one interview and passing a competency test I was scheduled to speak with Orlando Perez, the Assistant Director of TeleSUR, on January 8th. However after sending a sample section of my data-based findings to Pablo Vivanco, all previously accessible channels of communication ceased.

Why? I’m not sure but I imagine that it has to do with fact that I uncovered at TeleSUR English what looks to be corruption and gross incompetence, if not sabotage.

How do I know this?

Some of the bad stats were intentionally produced to be misleading as to the level of success of TeleSUR English’s operations.

Some of the bad stats were intentionally produced as the person directing operations was either incompetent or is trying to purposely sabotage TeleSUR English’s operations.

Why Future Historians Will Refer to The First 5 Years of TeleSUR English’s Wasted Money and Opportunities as it’s Lost Half Decade

If someone should write about the history of TeleSUR English they will refer to it as The Lost Half Decade. Why? Because of how badly TeleSUR English has been  directed since its inception in the digital realm. How bad is it? Below is an explanation as to why it happened as well as several examples of the criminal-level incompetency that I’ve discovered.

Worthless Metrics Promoted as Meaningful

In the description on his LinkedIn account, Pablo Vivanco writes the following:

“With a reduced staff and budget, improved metric outreach by over 2000% in under 12 months”

As impressive a number as 2000% is, anyone that’s done any sort of digital marketing, growth hacking or any kind of content marketing strategy will tell you – outreach by itself is an entirely meaningless metric.

Nobody cares about the numbers of emails sent that are never opened; the number of dofollow links placed on low Domain Authority user-generated webpages; or the links posted on websites that are never read, etc. Google, especially, doesn’t care about these.

While this number can be useful in comparison to something else over time – for instance outreach numbers in relationship to A/B testing email headers, only someone that doesn’t have a professional understanding of digital media ecology would self-publicize about such a metric, let alone authorize the spending of tens of thousands of dollars to achieve such a metric.

Key performance indicators that ought to be monitored to track and map improvement include the following:

  1. Number of email subscriptions.
  2. Genuine number of followers of social media accounts.
  3. Genuine engagement level on social media accounts.
  4. Domain authority.
  5. Brand/website awareness.
  6. Number of readers.
  7. Reader engagement (i.e. Time Spent on Pages, Number of Pages Traversed, Comments/Shares).

Any person wishing to genuinely understand and track the health of TeleSUR English, or any website for that matter, should be looking at these key performance indicators.

Looking at TeleSUR English’s social media footprint, we can see the shape of such mismanagement.

False Followers on All Social Media

On TeleSUR English’s Twitter, Facebook and YouTube Accounts there is ample evidence that many of the people which are “Following” these accounts are not real.

Pablo Vivanco admitted this was true while on the phone with me.

Lacking internal access to their social media accounts and to their internal purchases (to check for “Pay for Followers” services) I cannot say for certain what proportion that this is actually is, but I can estimate and what I can say authoritatively is that they have zero value.

False Followers on Twitter

TwitterAudit suggests that about 80% of TeleSUR English’s followers are real, however based on engagement numbers demographics and the number of people following them that follow over 500 people, I’d say actual people following are about one-half to two thirds of what is actually shown for Twitter. A full report from Twitnomy could easily show me wrong. 

False Followers on YouTube

For the number of YouTube views and subscriptions, I would say the percent of people that are fake to real is much higher.

Given the ratios of ratings of videos, to engagement via comments, to view numbers I’d say that it is likely half of the views and subscriptions aren’t real.

False Followers on Facebook

There’s fewer means for determining false engagement levels on Facebook outside the app itself, so I decided to try an experiment.

After reviewing a number of posts people, I noticed a number of recurring names.

Given many of these people’s profiles were almost entirely not in English, I was surprised. I understand that it’s normal in many places for English to be a 2nd, 3rd or even 4th language – but there was just zero indication other than a TeleSUR English link that it was within there repertoire. As such I decided to send friend requests and message ten people to see how many responded. Out of the ten, only one did.

Now does this mean only one in ten of their followers are real? Certainly not.

What it does mean that someone at TeleSUR English has been paying for follower services, which ought to be categorized as an improper allocation of tax resources.

Interesting to note: What happened shortly after I tried this experiment? Facebook took down the TeleSUR English Facebook page.

***Update 2/11/18***

Because of the above section I’ve since been accused that I want to “destroy” TeleSUR English. This is simply not true, I simply do not believe that paying for fake followers is a defensible strategy.

Furthermore, I’ve since learned from an internal source that the unpublishing of the TeleSUR English Facebook page was an accident on their part. That they’ve not commented on this, to me, is totally irresponsible and a further example of their willingness to distort the truth for their own narrative gain.

What TeleSUR Should Have Done

TeleSUR English would be much better served using social media to connect directly with creaders by exchanging tweets, direct messages and responding to Facebook comments by readers. This has real value — not only helping win them over, but also showing prospective readers that the news enterprise genuinely wants to engage. This is another example of the poor strategy of TeleSUR English. If you review their comments section on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube you will see almost no replies to comments left by people, even when they are being asked a question.

Other Wasted Opportunities

TeleSUR English has now been in existence for over four years and as a result of their choosing a director primarily for ideological rather than professional reasons, TeleSUR English pursued a number of content ideation, production and digital media strategies that are not considered best practices by YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Examples of Best Practices Not Being Followed

One example of TeleSUR English not following best practices is with its abundance of high production videos that are simply too long.

YouTube and Facebook videos which are most often shared are five minutes and under. While longer format content certainly fulfills a need, TeleSUR English ignores all data-based advice by not repurposing what they’ve already produced into short and succinct segments that are more readily sharable and digestible.

That the above video has only 38 views is both a testament to its length and the bizarre name “Birds of the Apocalypse” that means a person looking for information on “Vulture Funds” will have great difficulty finding it.

Additionally there are the technical mistakes which sometimes require viewers to tell the TeleSUR English staff that the video they are live-streaming is sideways.

Such mistakes happen naturally, it’s only human. However it seems that TeleSUR English has such an abundance of them as the person directing the enterprise simply doesn’t know how to optimize their digital media presence.

Wrong Backlinking Strategy


A well-executed back-linking strategy is an incredibly powerful means for establishing a higher Domain Authority and drawing in readers. However from the above view from Ahrefs we can see that this was not the case.

The strategy which TeleSUR English followed was to take a route that allowed for the wrong kind of data to be presented in fair light rather quickly – “outreach”. Outreach in this instance means putting over a million links on low domain authority websites that has their content generated by users.

Not only does this not constitute an effective strategy, but changes on the content platform could remove all of that effort with a terms of service change or a coterie of committed, computer literature people could remove all of those links.

It’s understandable WHY someone would want to do this – currently some of the top referring pages to TeleSUR English are from Wikipedia, however this doesn’t justify this as a strategy but instead as a reason why to change strategy.

Any government funded institution that spends money on a back-linking strategy that involves people placing hundreds of thousands of links on Wikipedia, Pinterest and GooglePlus is guilty of gross incompetence and misuse of public funds.  

Terrible User Experience Encourages Visitors to Bounce

The above screen shot capture is one of numerous examples that illustrate the website was not properly designed.

Difficulty browsing frequently causes viewers to leave the page and I imagine that their bounce rate is exceptionally high.

After all, what sort of credibility can you grant to an enterprise that doesn’t know how to properly put the pieces together that allows for the dissemination of content?

Wrong Content Management Strategy
Many articles simply don’t have a title.

Many of the pages on TeleSUR English lack titles or anchor text. This is a basic and important component of websites. That it’s not there means that there is no Quality Assurance or Editorial staff that knows to include these before publication. That so much of their web content has been posted without this indicated a lack of competency on the work the Director oversees.

No One Is The Reporter
You’re the Reporter Section January 8th, 2018
You’re the Reporter Section January 19th, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

The brief report I sent to Pablo Vivanco mentioned how in the You’re the Reporter subheading of TeleSUR English there were only five articles and that the last one published was over a year old.

This must have struck a nerve, as a few days later the content therein was deleted while the header remained.

What a telling symbol of the Director of TeleSUR English’s technical incompetence: he can’t even properly delegate the deletion of the entire section – only the content within the section!

Beyond just a symbol of incompetence, what else does this say about Pablo Vivanco’s directorship of TeleSUR English that after multiple years he still hasn’t been able to come up with a means for attracting, retaining and developing talent that want to write from the perspective TeleSUR English wishes to promote. Huffington Post, and other publications like Thought Catalog and Elephant Journal have been able to turn reader submitted content into their primary source of content – yet TeleSUR English over a four year period can get only five people to freely submit!

Given that their stated intent is to be “A space and a voice for the construction of a new communications order” you would think that there would be guidelines readily available for writers interested in contributing.

Given that their stated intent is to be “A space and a voice for the construction of a new communications order” you would think that they would have reached out to every public university in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador with a Journalism program to determine if it was possible to collaborate via a “real world” reporting component with TeleSUR English.

Given that their stated intent is to be “A space and a voice for the construction of a new communications order” you would think that there would be attempts at consultation or collaboration with established leftist news, media and publishing outlets.

Given the frequency with which they publish content on the Global South and that such a collaborative working relationships with radical presses presents an easy means for attracting readers, such an absence in light of all of the above indicates  gross incompetence.

Are Orlando Perez and Pablo Vivanco the Barriers to TeleSUR English Flourishing?
Orlando Perez

One of the Austrian School’s criticisms of the socialist mode of workplace administration and management is what they see as the tendency for innovation to be lost in production. Why? Those which meekly follow “the Party Line” would take up such a position rather than those that are most meritorious.

While I think that most of this school of thought to be ahistorical and metaphysical – no surprise as I identify as a socialist – this could explain the reason why TeleSUR, let alone TeleSUR English, doesn’t make it into the top 100 Latin American Newspapers Web Rankings.

Certain personality types, after all, prefer to keep power to themselves and act as a barrier for those that might be better equipped to direct. These are the kind of people that insulate themselves with a coterie of sycophants rather than surround themselves with the type of talent that is continuously striving for excellence.

Now admittedly I do not know much of the history of the people involved in TeleSUR English other than what I’ve been able to piece together from forums and blogs on the internet, but the story which emerged seems to confirm that the Hayek’s concerns have been actualized at TeleSUR English.

There are numerous (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) accounts of TeleSUR English’s difficult working environment and the person who oversees it’s Director, Oscar Perez, has had his fare share of controversy as well.

In 2017 Orlando Perez was fired from El Telegrafo as part of a political change up.  Shortly thereafter he fled Quito, Ecuador for Miami, Florida following his assault on his former girlfriend. After he decided to stop evading arrest and returned to Quito, he held a press conference to explain everything and has since maintained his innocence, but in a highly politicized context wherein working for a leftist state-media publication is seen a mar on one’s resume, this doesn’t really matter.

In an environment where attracting and retaining talent is already hard, appearance matters and it’s no logical leap to say that talented women may be shy of wanting to work in an environment they are concerned about male aggression.

Besides this consideration, there Orlando Perez’s proclaimed political purity and orthodoxy that takes on a sinister tone when it comes to how he views his opponents. After translating several of his articles and interviews (1, 2), I noticed an overlap in our political views. However where he uses abelist language to refer to the “the autistic left” I refer to this group as politically aloof hedonism as I see no reason to insult and alienate potential allies as well as those with mental impairments.

En toto, considering that TeleSUR English states that they want to be “A space and a voice for the construction of a new communications order” centered around the subject of  “Global South” an allusion to social, political and economic justice – it makes me wonder why they would have someone directing the decision making process considering that clearly alienates so many potential allies and talent.

 

Pablo Vivanco

Not being a reporter with numerous articles by and about him, learning about Pablo Vivanco has been more difficult. From what I can tell his experience in digital media starts with him at TeleSUR English and besides the above, which shows that he has directed operations as if it were still the early 1990s and without a thought to the important nuances which make up effective digital strategy, there is little else worth noting.

I admit this is total conjecture, but it certainly seems to me likely that Orlando Perez would want to cover up the extent of Pablo Vivanco’s ability to formulate and enact a digital media strategy based upon the current best practices shared by the social media outlets that TeleSUR English uses.

In the wake of his domestic assault case, this would likely become another reason those in power would want to distance themselves from him and thus he needs it swept under the rug.

***Update 2/11/18***

I’ve received confirmation from a source inside TeleSUR English that confirms my above speculations about Orlando’s insulting, overbearing demeanor. I’ll quote this in an second article in the event I get more feedback.

Why Speaking Up and Out is More Important Than “Keeping it Professional” in This Instance

The reason that I’ve decided to write and publish this assessment is simple: It’s what an honest citizen with professional abilities and integrity would do in the situation – call out incompetence and corruption to help ensure the optimum function of a government institution.

TeleSUR encourages greater transparency in all governmental affairs, no surprise as it was in part founded to counter the lies of corporate media that had a major role in the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez Frias.

Ecuador has given asylum to Julian Assange and the governments of all TeleSUR contributors initially a defended Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. While U.S. politicians called these people traitors, seditionists and said that they should be killed without trial – the voices representing The South defended their actions as a service to the world. People have a right, they said, to know the extent of surveillance and espionage that everyday people and various businesses were subject to.

TeleSUR English, however, does not themselves abide by such values as transparency that the governments paying it’s bill claims to promote. Instead it replicates an elitest strand of authoritarian socialism. As a self-identified socialist, I have a major issue with this. Not only is TeleSUR English thus operating sub-optimally, but they are missing opportunities to educate, agitate, organize and grow their audience such that they become a meaningful, tangible impact in debates in the countries where they have a large audience.

Given the changing generational views that many youth have towards the possibility of another world not directed solely by capitalists and private property right but by the constitutive will of the people, the institutions which inform must also reflect such values and be model for the change they promote in the world.

This is why I had to share this information – the duty is beyond merely a citizen pointing out government waste, but as a fellow socialist pointing out how certain actions aren’t in accordance with socialist ideals. TeleSUR English’s loss of integrity reflects badly on all socialists, thus it needs to be critiqued so that it can be corrected.

What Democratizing TeleSUR ENGLISH Would Look Like

Corruption isn’t just about obtaining bribes for looking elsewhere or not reporting, but also comes in the form of continuing to keep operations going in a certain manner as it gives one personal power in the face of better options. Given all of the evidence above which clearly shows Pablo Vivanco has either purposefully sabotaged TeleSUR English or was just plain incompetent, it appears that Orlando Perez has sought to cover this up.

Once construction of a new communications order” centered around the subject of  “Global South” an allusion to social, political and economic justice.

Their mismanagement, however, isn’t permanent and there are a number of immediate steps that TeleSUR could take to ameliorate their misdirection and work towards creating a genuine voice for the construction of a new communications order focused on social, political and economic justice.

12 Steps Towards Democratizing TeleSUR English

These won’t solve all of the above problems, but it will be a step in the right direction to actually creating the sort of network that TeleSUR English states that they actually want to make:

  • General survey of current TeleSUR English readers to better understand audience.
  • Increase ability for readers/consumers to choose the type of content to be produced.
  • Increase transparency in its approach to determining what is produced.
  • Publicize editorial process (i.e. “We do not speak of billionaires in articles unless also using the words oligarchs” to spark conversation).
  • Properly reformulate the user experience of the website so that it’s more intuitive and suited towards readers.
  • Apply Content Marketing Institute model to repurpose content.
  • Survey leaders in Leftist New Media Outlets to determine potential co-branded projects.
  • Create database for Leftist parties and organizations to determine similar areas where collaboration can happen.
  • Survey union/related organizations about such topics (i.e. a long form article about what life is like in a town where factories left and what life is like in the place where it went).
  • Create database of influencers and new media outlets with appropriate cross-over
  • Create database of Latin American Graduate journalism teachers that could be surveyed as to what sort of content they would want for their students to contribute to the “You’re the Reporter” sections in English language.
  • Begin talks on syndicating content with other countries media operations so that TeleSUR English don’t need to devote money to foreign reporters.

 

Review of Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens: A Couchsurfer’s Memoir of Venezuela

Intrigued by the title, I decided to read a less academic work on Venezuela and so decided to pick up Jamie Maslin’s book Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens: A Couchsurfer’s Memoir of Venezuela. Having done an extensive amount of backpacking myself I was curious to read how he connected his various touristic consumptions in relation to the two topics in the title. What I discovered was that while the Socialist Dreams is a recurring theme, the Beauty Queens only make it into the pages as a missed opportunity.

The praise on the front cover of the book compares Maslin to “Bill Bryson meets Jack Kerouac” which is serious praise that is, I believe, undeserving. Meslin’s account of his time traveling throughout Caracas, Maracaibo, various rural areas and parks was on the whole enjoyable, but a few intelligent asides does not Bryson make and travelling with the assistance of the hospitality of strangers and writing long passages describing the beauty of nature doesn’t make one a Kerouac. Regarding the former, I thought the segues he made between what was in front of him and the history prior was generally appropriate, lacking deeper cultural and social connection to the country – as well as appropriate language skills – made me feel that this was also sort of surface level observations. I touch upon this more in an example below. Additionally, given the inclusion of photos in the book, I felt that such long sketches of nature were spurious. No amount of words, after all, can compare to a photo of Angel Falls.

Angel Falls

Jamie Maslin travels descriptions of the many natural wonders that he visited certainly piqued my interest as locations to visit were I to go to Venezuela. Cubagua, Punta de Piedras, and the Roraima Tepui all seem like magical places to experience. His descriptive language does a good job capturing the appearance and atmosphere, while the words of others he encounters in them shows a charming self-awareness at the at times absurd situations he finds himself in because of his particular travelling style: begpacker.

Tepuy Roraima

While all in all I enjoyed the tale, however it did leave me to think about the nature of inter-cultural exchanges.

At several points Jamie recites his experience as an CourchSurfing host and tells of a traveler that he met in Venezuela taking him up on this offer. Yet despite the reciprocity on offer to those that hose him in Venezuela, he is, however, seemingly ignorant of the near impossibility of them ever being able to take him up on that offer.

Isla Cubagua, Venezuela

Many of the people that he stays with are not only so poor as to be unlikely to ever want to spend the money they could save to travel to a capital of Empire like London, but most are unlikely to be able to obtain a visa to leave. However thoughtful the presumption that his staying with them is predicated on reciprocity, that actuality of it is thus empty.

Jamie also repeats throughout that he only wants to pay “local prices” and tells several was which he is able to accomplish this – always through someone else’s assistance. As someone that frequently travels on a budget I definitely understand the desire to make one’s buck go farther, but I think that he takes being parsimonious and stingy to the point of fetishizing poorness and authenticity instead of recognizing it as a game. Let me give a few examples.

At a park Jamie tries to light a fire the “indigenous way” by rubbing together a number of sticks. An elderly Pemoi woman, seeing him, comes over and offers her lighter – disrupting any notion that the natives wholly reject the products of civilization.

To save a few dollars Jamie puts himself in uncomfortable and undesirable situations multiple times because he either doesn’t have a cellphone; doesn’t speak Spanish; wants to save the equivalent of $10 by taking a “different” tour; doesn’t want to get someplace a certain manner. Going on a five-star tour would be disingenuous as well, however given the refrain he shares regarding the conditions of filth and/or poverty that many Venezuelans live in and how he didn’t feel safe this seems disingenuous as well. I certainly concede that these people would have more authenticity in their assessments of Chavez’s policies as it affected them – but even the conversations that he has on this subject are never deep as he doesn’t know well the history of the country or the language. Besides a few extended asides explaining certain historic events and general assessments – this dramatically undercuts his ability to investigate people’s “Socialist Dreams” within a fractiously divided national context outside of facile stereotypes. Sometime this is a good thing, for instance many outside the country don’t recognize the role racism has in the society so reading,

“If you are white in Venezuela, you are automatically considered higher up the ladder than a nonwhite, but many people will simply be after your money”

is insightful. However, my take away from the totality of encounters was the most people wanted a “free handout” rather than a systemic reconstruction of the hegemonic economic forces such that there was greater opportunity for entrepreneurship and social mobility in the country. Jamie provided some of this context, but the constant ridicule of the embodiments of the state – be they police or park rangers – left me with the impression that he thinks that this is a good goal but impossible given the conditions of the country which easily lends itself to corruption.

All in all I enjoyed the travelogue, though as someone with deep background on Venezuela I found the writing on this to be not really “fitting”. While not likely to pick up his other book about Iran, I do feel pleased for having chanced purchasing and reading this book.

Abstract for Presentation at 12th Annual South Florida Latin American and Caribbean Studies Conference

Socialismo Maduro o Socialismo Inmaduro: Venezuela en la Encrucijada

Recent disturbances in Venezuela are attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the democratically elected Maduro government through domestic civil unrest magnified internationally through a global online awareness campaign: #sosvenezuela. Activism directed against the government has pulled from the traditional playbook of the populist left and invited repression whilst airing grievances and uniting around a prospective new government figurehead, Leopoldo Lopez. The response by the police and military as well as para-governmental Chavista forces, such as the community militias, has thus far been swift and spectacular but has not reached a tipping point that would serve as a pretext for foreign military intervention.

The manner in which this crisis is managed will likely come to be seen as equally significant as that of the coup attempts and oil strikes of 2002 and 2003 and, to a degree, indicates the level of mobilization and commitment of the lower-classes to the Bolivarian revolutionary process. Such commitment to “el processo” is especially timely now as thus far the Maduro government has struggled to manifest the vision propounded by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in the most recent elections. The state media thus far has explained food shortages and infrastructural problems as symptoms of foreign attempts to destabilize the regime, as was done to Chile in 1973, while the international media has framed it as an issue of a juvenile leader’s incompetency or the result of a malignant, antiquated ideology. My presentation will analyze these currently on-going events and coverage of the domestic unrest in Venezuela in an international and historical context.

Venezuela’s Political Economy Since the Collapse of the Partyarchy and The Transition to “21st Century Socialism”

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).

VII. Conclusions

            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.

Bibliography 

Bruce, Iain. The Real Venezuela. London: Pluto Press. 2008.

Burbach, Roger & Pineiro, Camila. “Venezuela’s Participatory Socialism”. Socialism and Democracy Vol 21. No 3. (2007)

Castenada, Jorge. Latin America’s Left Turn. Foreign Affairs. May/June 2006. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/61702/jorge-g-castaneda/latin-americas-left-turn

Clement, Christopher. Confronting Hugo Chavez: United States “Democracy Promotion” in Latin America. Latin American Perspectives Volume 32 No. 3, Venezuelan Exceptionalism Revisited: New Perspectives on Politics and Society (2005) http://www.jstor.org/stable/30040242

Corrales, Javier and Penfold-Becerra, Michael. “Venezuela: Crowding Out the Opposition”. Journal of Democracy. Vol 18, No. 2. (2007) DOI: 10.1353/jod.2007.0020

Corrales, Javier. “A Setback for Chávez”. Journal of Democracy. Vol 22 No 1 (2011) DOI: 10.1353/jod.2011.0013

Daguerre, Anne. Antipoverty Programmes in Venezuela. Journal of Social Policy. Vol 40 No. 4 (2011)

Denis, Roland. “The Bolivarian Process in Venezuela: A Left Forum in Historical Materialism” Historical Materialism. Vol 19 No 1. DOI: 10.1163/156920611X564734

Ellner, Steve. Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner, 2008.

Hagopian, Frances, and Scott Mainwaring. The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin America: Advances and Setbacks. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Hidalgo, Manuel. “Hugo Chavez’s “Petro-Socialism””. Journal of Democracy. Vol 20. No 2. (2009) DOI : 10.1353/jod.0.0073

Gott, Richard. Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. London New York: Verso, 2011.

Kornblith, Miriam. “Chavismo after Chavez?” Journal of Democracy, Vol 24. No 3. (2013) DOI: 10.1353/jod.2013.0050

Latinobarometro. Latinobarometro Report 2007. November 2007 (http://www. barometro.org/latino/LATContenidos.jsp)

Lopez-Maya, Margarita and Luis. E. Lander. “Venezuela’s Presidential Elections of 2006: Toward 21st Century Socialism?” in Ponniah, Thomas, and Jonathan Eastwood. The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2011.

Maher, George. We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Mainwaring, Scott. “From Representative Democracy to Competitive Authoritarianism”. Perspectives on Politics. Vol. 10 No. 4 (2012)

Ponniah, Thomas, and Jonathan Eastwood. The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2011.

Portes, Alejandro and Kelly Hoffman. Latin American Class Structures: Their Composition and Change during the Neoliberal Era. Latin America Research Review Volume 38, No 1, (2003) DOI : http://www.jstor.org/stable/1555434

Prevost, Gary; Campos, Olivia; and Harry Vanden. Social Movement and Leftist Governments in Latin America. London: Zed Books. 2013

Ramierez, Cristobal Valencia.” Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution: Who Are the Chavistas?” Latin American Perspectives Volume 32 No. 39 (2005) DOI:10.1177/0094582X05275532

Salas, Miguel. The Enduring Legacy : Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

Spanakos, Anthony. “New Wine, Old Bottles, Flamboyant Sommelier: Chávez, Citizenship and Populism”. New Political Science. Vol 30 No. 4 DOI: 10.1080/07393140802493308

Terry, Karl. The Paradox of Plenty. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Trikunas, Harold. “Defining Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution”” Military Review Volume 85, Number 4 (2005)

Uzcategui, Rafael. Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle. See Sharp Press: New York. 2011.

Weisbrot, Mark. “Venezuela in the Chavez Years: Its economy and Influence in the Region”. in Ponniah, Thomas, and Jonathan Eastwood. The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2011.

Yarrtington, Doug. “Cattle, Corruption, and Veneuelan State Formation During the Regime of Juan Vincente Gomez, 1908-1935.” Latin American Research Review Volume 38, Number 2, (2003) DOI: 10.1353/lar.2003.0028

Review of "Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle"

Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle presents a highly critical account of the Chavez regime as populist, militarist, and collaborationist with international capitalism. Uzcategui utilizes Guy Debord’s concept of spectacle as a means of explaining how it is that the Venezuelan population and leftists on the international stage buys into the “protagonistic” democracy. The thesis is at time very compelling, though at times not so much. In the latter case, it’s usually not for the information itself but due to the context of Uzcategui’s analysis.

One of the main reasons for Chavez’s categorization as a “spectacular fool” for international capital is his decision to pursue mixed ownership enterprises, as per Article 112 of the Constitution, within the extractive sector rather than outright nationalizing the process. While the, it seems to overlook Chavez’s basic recognition that to outright nationalize the industry would lead to the type of bloating that dragged down the company previously. Allowing market logic, albeit partially controlled by Chavez’s appointment, thus allows for Chavez to have greater amount of profits with which to spend on discretionary projects rather than increasing the membership of “the state within the state”. Chavez does, however, seem foolish in Uzcategui’s accounts of the ridiculous floating-monetary policy with it’s various prices, thus allowing some people with government access to make large amounts of money for doing no real “work”. A relation of this to the need for the government to stem capital flight would have made this section more compelling.

Uzcategui criticisms of the mission is some of the most compelling writing of the book. The missions are not novel but replicate many of the former spending pattern prior to the lost decades of the 80s and 90s, have duplicated processes, obfuscated formerly clear issues and have often not matched up to their aspirations. With regards to the housing problem, simply put not enough has been made. To address this issue, the government has passed out accumulated leaflets on how to “properly” build barrios – a rather poor option considering the potentially non-informal jobs that could give a boost to the economy. As regards Mercal, there have been a number of irregularities found in distribution lines, there’s been shortages of food, the workers there are still without contract and there’s been little investment in the facilities thus leading to spoilage. The Mission Barrio Adentro has not kept up with it’s goals for creating primary health care modules and has often faced shortages of medicines and supplies.

In regards to Chavez’s populist, militarist character Uzcategui lays out the appointment of many members of the armed services within both the PDVSA and various government enterprises. While Richard Gott saw this as a means in which Chavez could maintain a certain level of oversight over potentially opposition-sympathetic political actors, Uzcategui sees this as an atavistic return to the militaristic tradition in Venezuelan culture with its cult of Bolivar. Because of this, the language against perceived enemies is very antagonistic (or in the usage of Chavistas “protagonistic”) and polarizing, has lead to an organization of society along military lines (seen in the various popular militias). These are issues that are important in the assessment of the Chavez regime, however they are then placed along with claims that a brief increase in the armed forces budget signifies that the government prefers military expenditure to social enterprises. This is done so by making comparisons between national defense spending and sports and also not contextualizing the region. As a percentage of expenditure of GDP, Venezuela is behind Peru, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia. This wrong emphasis should not, however, take away from the Uzcategui’s insight on how it is that Chavez’s strong role in the delegation of duties and delineation of policy had a negative effect on the political culture. By the overwhelming polarization which occurred and his enlargement of political power through quasi-legal means has meant that the PSUV has a certain level of disconnect from it’s base. Steve Ellner’s Rethinking Venezuelan Politics complicates this simplification, but the general co-optation of the social movements by the state and subsequent prioritization of the states needs over previous organizational actions seems valid as other commentators point this out.

The constitutional planks recognizing Venezuela’s indigenous population and their allowance of them to organize politically at a movement was widely seen as being a positive, progressive aspect of the new Bolivarian constitution. Uzcategui, however, shows how it is that these people have at times been forced to face relocation in order to fulfill various extractive or transportation endeavors. While the Wayuu were not forced to move from their homeland, they were offered large buyouts, an allowance not likely to have been given to them under previous regimes, and their

A particularly amusing and insightful section included the author’s recounting of a visit by “parecon” economist Michael Albert. I, like Diogenes Laerties was, am very much interested in the “lives” of modern thinkers and so found Uzcategui’s description of Albert insisting that his brief period with the government gave him more insight into the goings on in the country than the activists he was with and that his book being widely distributed in Venezuela would assist in the revolution. For one, it’s a compelling scene of the manner in which international leftist activists have turned the heart of the matter into a tabula rasa in which to read their own aspirations and as it shows the intellectual febrility of Albert when faced with counterfactuals.

One of the recurring problems of Uzcategui’s analysis is the placement of subjective factors normally attributed as outside the realm of government control as emerging from their authorship. For instance the high number of trade unionists killed in the country for reasons speculated to emerged from workplace issues is seen as he fault of Chavez’s government. He alludes to this but does not specifically say that this is a conspiracy. This is just one of several examples of the contrast between the how objective information to be found in the book about circumstances in Venezuela is often shown through a decontextualized, anti-statist prism that gives too much credit to the government in causing some of the problems that are functionally explained in other ways. Considering the author’s embrace of Bakunin’s theoretically model of the state this isn’t surprising, however one can’t help but wonder what the old plotter and revolutionist would actually say about Chavez.

A final thought, unrelated to Uzcategui’s general take on Venezuela, is the idea that the author seemingly wants to “investigate and punish those materially and intellectually responsible for these crimes” (45). While the point made in the quite relates to workplace crimes, it’s mentioned earlier as it related to the Amparo massacre. In there two places the punishing of those “intellectually responsible” for the crime is a legalistic burden of proof, that for an anarchist, is a rather strange one. The case of the Haymarket martyrs ought to come to mind, being that all those that were placed under indictment and later judged guilty were all known to not be involved in the actual bombing but were the bombers “intellectual inspirers”. While the author likely means that those that are acting against the interests of el pueblo should be held accountable, as a legalistic doctrine it is of course very dangerous and something the other should consider jettisoning given it’s historical misuse.

Review of "The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century"

The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century by Iain Bruce is a predominantly first-hand, journalistic account of the former BBC’s authors time in Venezuela as witness to the changes going on in Venezuela at the time. The author visit a number of the social economy collectives, workplace councils and some of the sights of the co-operative networks. By giving a first hand account of them, he seemingly seeks to show how it is why Venezuela and Chavez is an inspiration to many on the Socialist left. It is in this area, the framing of Marxist debates over the policies of the Chavez government that Bruce does his best. In so doing he will advance quotes by Gramsci, Trotsky, Luxemburg, et al., but stays away from substantive analysis following such the theoretical pronouncements that applies to a specific situation. Unfortunately this sympathy seems to inoculate Bruce from the circumstances as he presents them as his depiction of a sufficiently “revolutionary” Venezuela shows an economy insufficiently productive if truly wishing to shake itself from some amount of the import dependency that so distorts their country.

Besides an initial and compelling account of the normalization and legalization of much of the barrio dwellers occupied housing, the author’s major investigations on the functioning of Nucleus for Endogenous Developments (NUDEs). In so doing he presents three failures and a limited success. The author first goes to Fabricio Ojeda nuclei, the first constructed of these NUDEs which combines space for health, education, leisure and economic activity. The obvious problem with citing the first, “model” construction of such a facility is that, like the “model” regions displayed by the USSR to foreigners, is that it provides a non-typical experience. While people there did do work for PDVSA, it is clear that were the high oil price to be gone so would they. Recognizing this the author travels to other similar developments and is not met with as compelling a location or circumstance.

In Cabimas, the NUDE there is not centered on clothing production but assisting local fisherman. The idea is that through the production of a space similarly described above and with attendant financial assistance from the government the capacity for the local fishermen to compete with larger, pre-existing, better capitalized local fisherman will reduce the cost of fish to the community. The project, however, is then described as being dropped due to the amount of time it takes to organize. Several other attempts at NUDE formation are described which also flounder amidst lack of interest, financial irregularities or charges of corruption.

The one successful example, besides that of Fabricio Ojeda, is in the service industry and is a combined restaurant and taxi-company that provides patrons with a ride to and from the waterside dining establishment. Hardly a model for nationwide development. While all of the above described experiments are indeed novel, as a whole the study of the “real” Venezuela shows many of the failings of the Chavez government policies to diversify the economic base. The author clearly shows how it is that the NUDEs are dependent on PDVSA, haven’t organized production to a very high standard nor sufficiently train their “employees” enough so as to be able to do export quality work.The economic foundation of their production stems from relationships that can be called at best social welfare at worst corruption.

In the case of ALCASA, Bruce shows how the attempts at co-mangement have failed given an individualistic culture and lack of state support in relations with management, how the state is unwilling to reinvest in new equipment to increase production and thus protect workers safety, not to mention how now workers fear talking about these issues in public lest they be sacked for criticism against the government. Additionally, as the traders an transporters of the goods they were producing were not in a similar situation, they were able to increase their profits through speculation and wage negotiation on the open market. In effect, the workers had their wages cut and their protections diminished – hardly the stuff of a socialist paradise. Towards this effect is perhaps also worth mentioning that the Cuban advisors vote against such an undertaking, as “they are at the factory to work and not to make votes” and that a second attempt to co-manage the factory has since occurred, and also failed. Whether this is due to the inefficiency of such an organization or is due to something else cannot easily be determined, however the brief depiction of the situation which Bruce supports the claim by capitalists that they should have the prerogative of how to organize labor lest production devolve into the situation illustrated in the old soviet joke “You pretend to pay me, I’ll pretend to work”.

These criticisms on the part of the author or those put into the words of other’s mouths are often de-emphasized in the face of enthusiasm over an alternative to capitalism and the unmistakeable growth of a leftist political culture. The author clearly seeks to raise more questions about our Anglo conceptions of political correctness in the face of such inequality, but seemingly doesn’t think it’s worth functionally analyzing the results yet. To this reader this presents a rather unusual situation, wherein we can see that the NUDEs and CLPP’s create big problems, but these are explained away as just steps in el processo.

Review of "The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States"

Terry Lynn Karl’s book The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States , a part of University of California Press’s series in the Studies in International Political Economy, is a comparative study of Petro-states with a primary focus on the manner in which oil impacted Venezuela’s state development and political culture. Karl’s statement of theoretical principles is to operates in-between structuralism and rational choice theory – a program which she calls structured contingency. Such a viewpoint may appear as methodological individualism, however her subsequent analysis shows the effects of contingency are generally more compelling on actors than they would like to admit and thus the dominant of this binary. In the case study of Venezuela that follows, this is most evident in the recurrent inability for the state to formulate a decisive economic policy not wholly dependent on the oil revenues and then stick with it despite opposition. Instead, coalitions for changes become bought off and incorporated, thus bloating the state even more while discouraging domestic ingenuity.

Such a preview is meant to hint at 16th century Spain, a similarly formed mineral-extraction economy that which Karl does not just allude to but provides a brief case study. The Spainish political elite of the time pursued policies of rampant rent-seeking rather than state consolidation, bureaucracy professionalization and failed to construct a legitimize taxing authority with a wide structural base. They choose instead to rely upon extractive wealth futures to pay for outstanding debts, leading to a minimization of commodity circulation in the mainland, the potential division of labor, innovation in production and a general stagnation in agriculture. Slaves in the colonies and peasants in Spain were constant elements of surplus extraction that in the variable international market hamstrung their capacity to deal with balances of trade.

The combination of these factors leads to the economy suffering from “Dutch disease”, a condition indicating that the countries increasing debts starting to take over revenues, rising rates of inflation, a shrinking export sector, and increasing domestic consumption. The state is unable to balance it’s external payments as the elite, grown accustomed to not paying is averse to beginning to do so and can threaten, as a class, the stability of the state. The lower classes, who also don’t have the capacity to take up the slack, can also do say, as is seen in Venezuela. As Karl shows in her later comparison to other new states like Venezuela, the results of this is devastating to the economy and leads almost to the negation of the wealth that had previously entered the country.

The 1922 Petroleum law in Venezuela was a crucial moment for the construction of the state. It effectively limited private property to places which did not have access to oil deposits, causing the state to be the sole negotiator with the oil companies. Because of this the state itself meshed and in a very real way approximated itself to the structure of the then largest international capitalist corporations. This was compounded and expanded by the 1943 Hydro-carbons Law. With the passage of this bill all noting of a minimalist, diversified state was put aside and instead an intensification of policy that “sowed the petroleum” back into the country was pursued.

This focus on oil incomes had the effect of disincentivizing agrarian production. From 1928 to 1944 agricultural exports declined from by two-thirds.Oil companies and wealthy landowners bought or obtained rights to vast land holding, which disrupted subsistence and small capital agricultural production and led to mass migration to the cities. This imposition of the rentier logic robbed the state of “the opportunity to benefit from the skill and talents that arise from the penetration of public authority to the far corners of a territory in search of revenue” and made it wholly dependent on the international oil market (91).

While Venezuela has had relative political peace in comparison to it’s Latin American neighbors, the price from which this has come is high. Oil incentives the political classes to engage in a form of politics which is excessively focused on party factionalism and personalism rather than the manifestation of good policies, the purchasing of opponents groups allegiances with promises of a share in the spoils, and semi-corporatist networks directing the course of policy rather than limited democratic representation. As the contradictions between this policy and that propounded by the left turned into civil war, the moderates continued this policy. Venezuelan politics took the shape of pactismo and, once the contradictions inherent in it became more extreme, presidentialism. The attempts by the state to “change course” was limited to what it knew, nationalizations of other industries and raising the percentage of revenues from oil. Concomitant with these grand schemes was the proliferation of new government agencies and rules that hampered the state’s performance and with each boom made it likely that in a bust period extreme social unrest would develop as the borrowing during this period could only go on so long, disproportionately affected the lower class and, due to the general lack of professionalism, would also mean that corruption scandals came to light and divested the state of a hegemonic notion that it was legitimate. This is indeed what happened following the partial imposition of the FMI’s adjustment plan and was in large part the cause for the disintegration of the “democratic” institutions and ascendancy of anti-party candidate Hugo Chavez Frias.

The closing, comparative section of the book illustrates variations on the theme of the petro-state as it formed in Algeria, Indonesia and Norway. Karl’s assessment that new states unduly focus on the oil industry to compose the state’s budget is shown as true across the board. New, ex-colonial state lacking diverse administrators with some area of specialized knowledge and income to pay them look to their natural wealth as a the source of their trouble. The above framework is repeated with variations based upon the degree that states bureaucracy’s were older (Norwary) and to a lesser extent those which had some level of continuous technocratic control of the market (Indonesia) rather than political control (Algeria, Nigeria, etc.).

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.