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.


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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.

Review of "We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution"

We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution by George Ciccariello-Maher is a bottom up approach to comprehending the still ongoing Venezuelan revolution. This is not a history of Chavez or the Venezuelan state, though they do of course make numerous appearances, but of the many social movements, radical unions, revolutionary organizations, as well as the indigenous, Afro-Venezuelan, women, barrio and students groups who have long organized and fought for the manifestation of their political will in the face of an oligarchic opposition long before Chavez. The purpose of the book is thus to re-orient discussions on Venezuela’s politics away from discussions about Chavez (is he an autocrat?! is he a populist?!) and turn towards the long history of actors and movements that first came to constitute his voting constituency and would later defend him from opposition attempts to buck the Bolivarian leadership. Such a horizontalist approach to understanding the power dynamics in Venezuela does not, however, exclude the vertical, institutional powers as many of those actors who in the sixties and seventies were fighting against the government would come to enter it under Chavez. More importantly, by highlighting their struggles the tensions embodied by the current government comes to the forefront and the myth of a charismatic leader “misleading” the people comes to be seen as the fiction it is.

One of the first, popularly misconceived notions which Cicarrielo-Maher seeks to dispute is the notion of Venezuela as an exceptional democracy following the death of Juan Vincente Gomez. The puntofijismo system dominated by Accion Democratica (AD) and COPEI was predicated on the institutional incorporation of all political organizations and the repression of those unwilling to be co-opted by it. Student and campesino organizations who in their mind over reached were expelled from positions of influence and repressed, with the latter class also facing losses of potential influence and power due to the huge demographic shift that saw urbanization quickly and steadily increase. Romulo Betancourt, via the influenced of the labor-leaders in the AFL-CIO, also began a a series of political expulsions of communists, socialists, and other radicals that would eventually form the Movimiento de la Izquerda Revolucionaria (MIR) and take up arms against the Venezuelan state. This was, of course, following the success of Castro in Cuba and unfortunately for the guerillas, they studied it not from the historical experiences in Cuba but through the lens of Debray and his notion of foquismo. The notion that this highly mobile band of avant-gardist fighters would be able to move around, sans connection to a peasant base led to movement alienation and inefficacy. With the initiation of a guerilla pacification and reintegration projects by the state, targeted assassination of leaders and their legal front counterparts (Cantaura y Yumare massacres), the guerilla movement dissipated. This does not mean, however, that they left no trace on subsequent politics. Their legacy of militancy lived on and, recognizing the failure of the guerillas, informed new activists to focus their studies on their own institutions rather than looking to outside examples of how to achieve political power.

Breaking from interviews with former guerilla leaders and movement activists, Ciccariello-Maher pauses to limn a series of qualitative political transformations – the 1989 Caracazo, Chavez’s 1992 coup attempt, the April 11th 2002 coup attempt and restoration of presidential power two days later, as well as the oil strike of 2002-2003 which present radical transformations of constituent and constituted power. The first two events are cited as evidence of the last gasps of the puntofijismo system. Government corruption and neoliberal reforms were not just rejected but the entire system of government. The latter two moments are presented as dialectic whereby the new state could either deepen or shirk it’s commitment to a radical transformation of Venezuelan society. The choice to strengthen the allies to the left, as Robespierre and Toussaint L’Ouverture did not, deepen the process of social, political and economic transformation but also brought to the forefront a new set of contradictions. Now that the new constitution was in place and changes to it were made in order to address the historical imbalances created by dependent development, tensions between the latifundistas and campesinos, informal and formal workers, were made more intense. Additionally, since many of the student radicals had left the universities in the 1980s in order to do community organizing (in a manner reminiscent of the Narodniks but here being welcomed), the student movement had turned to the right, creating several “events” that were miscontextualized within the international media.

The issue of the informal economy occupies another interesting aspect when dissecting the Bolivarian revolution. With the grow overcrowding, many Venezuelans reproduce through marginal, informal employment and have little representation. As a whole in Latin America unions aren’t powerful due in part to the extremely high number of people within the reserve army of labor. Incorporating these people into the government apparatus, despite their demonstrated allegiance to Chavez during the 2002 coup attempt, is difficult due to their marginality. Their lives are shown to be mediated through barrio culture (pueblo pequeno, inferno grande) and thus are tied to a politics of location yet the claim that these nomad workers are the most genuine product of capital’s global chaos and this possibly it’s most genuine gravediggers as well strikes me as one of the points at which I disagree with Ciccariello-Maher. While agreeing with his assessments of the dangers of excluding them from the revolutionary process and the assessment that the buhoneros y motorizados ought to receive some of the wealth coming from their lands oil, it seems as if there should be some attempts at integrating them into other modes of economic reproduction. Here, perhaps, is where the role of state as entrepreneur and investor in social capital could come into play. Given the book’s focus on movements rather than the state, however, not delving into the issue raised is not problematic but, as I believe Ciccariello-Maher intends to be a topic for further investigation and debate.

Another of the problematic issues with the deepening of the revolution and the dynamics of the state reaching down to groups that have typically been against the state rather than seeking merely to reform it results in a melange of variously oriented sects. Because of Ciccariello-Maher’s access to these people, the political actors speak for themselves, providing welcome understanding that while many are “for Chavez”, it is not absolute. They are critical followers and in reality more for “la processa” and are willing to act against him if necessary. This is most clear in the early exposition of the 23 de Enero barrio, but is a recurrent theme throughout. The willingness of the people to contest his rule or the opposition when necessary, in fact, is cited as one of the main reasons for the deepening of the revolution. The book closes with meditations on the dual power process being created in Venezuela and shows in reality Chavez, “el pueblo” and the new constitution are really empty signifiers being filled by Venezuelans. Their struggle to create a revolutionary society when there are still corrupt and reactionary elements in the government waiting to be unmasked and ejected is in contradistinction to the normal conception of “seizing power”. There is of course the further tensions between those on the anti-statist left, such Jesse Blanco, who see the loss of movement autonomy as a driving concern rather than the institutionalization of the movement. This is understandable given Venezuela’s political history, but those that have “reconciled themselves to institutional power see instead an increased pace of progressive change.

Addressing an issue raised by another reviewer of the book, in Todd Chretien’s review, he claims that Ciccariello-Maher doesn’t adequately define vanguardism. While there may not be a concise, positivist definition, the categorization of several groups under that heading shows the significance of it in the Venezuelan context. Ciccariello-Maher narrates how guerrilla groups, such as the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional and later the Partido de la Revolucion Venezuela and Bandera Rojas all entered into the 23 de Enero neighborhood and provoked conflict with the police and DISIP. The result of this engagement was to invoke massive repression not just against those involved with the group but the community members. As a result of growing disillusionment with these groups and the community support, they dispersed or faced organizational deterioration or transformation as they were no longer welcomed in as harbingers of positive community development. On the last potential for transformation we see that as a result of this guerrilla and pueblo encounter the growth of the Venezuelan Tupamaros (no relation to the Uruguayan Tupamaros, they were given this name by the police in order for “respectable” citizens to distance themselves from them), or armed community activists seeking to keep out the drug trade and self-police the community from ladrones y malandros. The avant-gardism, which Chretien correctly cites as a lingering top-down political orientation, thus has various attributes depending on the groups aims and tasks and is not limited to the list of groups just mentioned. As a concept, however, this is meant to highlight the leadership disconnection from the purported “base” of the struggles. This can be the prioritization of the urban struggle over the campesino struggle, the failure of guerillas to co-ordinate with non-explicitly socialist campesino groups, the prioritization of insurrection over the organization of barrio services, and the general lack of concern to the informal economy due to the use of dogmatic encrustations of Marxism related to the category of the lumpenproletariat.

Finally, for those interested in a presentation on the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela by Ciccariello-Maher, check out this video on YouTube.

Review of "The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez"

The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez is part of the David Rockefeller Center’s series on Latin American studies. Published by Harvard and and edited by Thomas Ponniah and Jonathan Eastwood, the book brings together eight academic articles about differen aspects of social, political and economic and change since the election of Chávez. While the articles are not in direct conversation with each other, the two major themes are analysis of “State & Society Relations” as well as an exposition of what “The Bolivarian Project” is in it’s aspirations and implementation.

Fernando Coronil’s article recounts the manner in which the 2002 coup attempt transpired, the coup within the coup, and how it is that the interpretation of the events of April 11-14th are a continuing source of dispute between those who support and those who oppose Chávez. Those familiar with Chavez: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: A Case Study of Politics and the Media will find the content very familiar as both analyze the misrepresentation of the coup in the Venezuelan media and provide timelines of the actual events that ends in a massive manifestacion that compels the military elements of the coup to return him to power. The article does, however, contain some more information that the film does not. For instance, one of the more humorous moments in the retelling of the events of the 2002 coup attempt is the use of rhetoric by the opposition. One of the slogans for their march protesting the firing of an oil worker was “Ni un paso atrás” (Not one step back). By attempting to establish a kinship between their protest against Chávez, who was democratically elected, and Chilean democratic protestors against Pinochet, who killed the democratically elected president Salvador Allende and ruled as dictator, they show their inability to make valid historical analogies. Coronil additionally highlights the different responses to those killed during the march to restore Chavez to power and those that died during the Caracazo of 1989. During the latter conflict 399 were killed and the media minimized these numbers while in 2002 only 19 died, who were not of the opposition but Chavistas, and this was seen as cause for overthrowing the democratically elected government. After Pedro Carmona is illegally given power in a ceremony filled with white business owners and priests (Watch here), Carmona declares the reversing of many policies and the dismissal of the National Assembly. He then initiates a second coup happens, “a coup within the coup” causing the liberal and religious groups which had supported Carmona to become excluded from positions of power in the new government. His support quickly vanishes, especially as by this time Chavez has been able to get out the message that he has not signed any paperwork giving up the presidency and his supporters have started to surround Miraflores. Coronil closes the article by reflecting on how it is that these events, highly contested in their interpretations, have helped to increase the political polarization about topics related to Venezuelan politics.

Aptly following this is Javier Corrales rational choice model analysis of the advantage a left-center government like Chavez has in increasing political discourse polarization which also includes a historical framework with which to understand it. Since the traditional channels of political power disintegrated in the period leading to Chávez’s election in 1998, the divide within the opposition has lead to their adopting a two-fold approach to how the movement against him should continue. One faction has pushed for a strictly legal policy that seeks to wrest power through elections while another has sought to cause disruption of the normal economic and social relations to provoke repressions that delegitimize the government and pave the way for a new coup. Such an example of this is found in the 2002 U.S.- backed coup attempt and the state oil-company strike (PDVSA). Worth noting is that not only did these policies fail, but helped to consolidate the positive direction of those ambivalent towards Chávez as they recognized to not do so would be to risk falling under the authority of another military dictatorship. Corrales shows how the increasing sympathy for the government message in the face of such trenchant opposition gave fertile conditions for Chavez to turn left and reenergize his base by co-opting ambivalent sectors. Corrales shows how this policy combined worked in the RCTV case, the 2007 referendum and the 2008 election and shows how the electoral strategies by Chavez and oppositions can be explained within this polarization matrix.

Gregory Wilpert’s article Venezuela’s Experiment in Participatory Democracy describes the varied composition of the new Bolivarian republic. In a sentence, Bolivarianism seeks to supplement representative democratic institutions with participatory democratic ones. The manner in which this has been done has been to encourage the growth of parallel, democratic decision making institutions at various levels of government. In this article Wilpert describes these participatory democracy organs, their relationships to each other and their relationship the country’s representative democracy institutions. These organs, it is shown, helps to root out corruption, audit the activities of government bodies and generally works to better the country’s infrastructure and encourage a more democratic society.

Social Comptrol (Contraloria Social), Citizen Assemblies, Communal Councils (CC – Consejos Comunales), and Local Public Plannning Councils (CLPP – Consejos Locales de Planificacion Publica) make up most of the parallel institutions that helps manage the states dispersion of resources as well as helps create an vibrant democratic culture that is broader and more robust than that found within representative democracy. These groupings break down based upon location of function and have secondary structures above them that facilitate their functioning with that of the government. The reason for this instead of an enlightened paternalism on the part of the Chavez administration is fun in the “Elucidation of Reasons” that prefaces the fifth constitution. Here it states that “participation is no limited to electoral processes, since the need for intervention of the people is recognized in the process of formation, formulation and execution of public policy; which would result in the overcoming of the governability deficits that have affected our political system due to the lack of harmony between state and society” (102).

The LPCC’s and missions that have been created outside of official government oversight to bring democratic decision making principles to the manner in which funds taken from oil revenues are distributed has not been perfect. As can be expected from any sort of project, private or public, achieving a maximum of efficiency has been difficult and there are institutional political actors who would act to bring about their failure so as to gain personally from it. Despite this, the missions are viewed overwhelmingly positive by Venezuelans, so much so that their continuation has been promised even by members of the Chávez’ opposition.When looking at some of the figures, taken not just from the Bolivarian government but those such as the World Health Organization, it becomes understandable why this is so. As a result of Medical, Water and other missions, there have been a large decrease in the number of children that have died from eminently treatable conditions such as pneumonia, diarrhea,

Wilpert illustrates some of the structural resistance to these organs proper functioning and how some political events, such as the publishing of the Tascon list, can counter their stated intentions. His assessment of these organs, however flawed, matches that overwhelmingly positive view also held by a majority of native Venezuelans. These programs have reversed feeling of cynicism and political apathy and have helped to create a country that, according to polling, has the greatest faith in democracy as a political program in South America. These policies, he shows, counters the military management culture of Chavez by de-emphasizing personalism, presidentialism and the paternalism of state bureaucracy and are also, Wilpert also notes that it is the growth of these participatory democratic forms outside of the government that have caused NGO’s such as Freedom House to claim that the country is authoritarian – even though Chavez has no role in the promotion of proposals to be carried out by the state. Their doing such is considered to be a result of their bias towards the North American model that posits representative democracy as the only viable form of government for a civilized country and their unwillingness to engage with the historical conditions of the country.

The subsequent article, Venezuela’s Presidential Elections of 2006: Toward 21st Century Socialism? illustrates the many positive markers of social health that have risen with the Chavez administration. Mission Mercal and Mission Rodriguez have decreased poverty, increased school attendance and decreased drop-out rates. Barrio Adentro has allowed for the exponential increase in access to health care and has spread it’s focus onto preventative measures that give the population a better comprehension of how to stay healthy. Mission Robinson I and II have sought to end adult illiteracy and offer those who are interested to finish primary studies. Water Community Boards (Mesas Tecnicas de Agua) have increased the percentage of the population with access to running water from 60% to 90%. Margarita Lopez-Maya and Luis E. Lander don’t simply trot out all the numbers that show the positive trends on the Human Development Index, but also show how within the electoral system itself there has been an increase in democratization. The constitution expanded the powers from the traditional three, Executive, Legislative and Judicial to include Citizen and Electoral. The latter of which American familiar with the working of the electoral college would find interesting due to it’s very progressive nature. The article than analyzes the message composition of the 2006 election and shows how Chavez wins almost unanimously in poor districts and loses in wealthy ones due to his support of increased autonomy to these sectors. Chavez’s speech around this election, which was the first time that he used the phrase 21st century Socialism, is then analyzed. He is shown as showing an admixture of both aggression and deep love for his opponents and describes his vision of 21st Century socialism as “native, indigenous, Christian and Bolivarian.” After the 2006 victory, Chavez then began the process of consolidating his supporters into the PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela), one of the “five engines” to move society towards socialism.

Subsequent articles, while eminently worth reading, go into comparative, detailed analysis of his spending policies, the initial capital flight followed by re-investment when arbitrary nationalization was no longer felt to be a threat, the growth of domestic private capital, the projects for increased regional integration, a Bank of the South that counters influence of the IADF and World Bank, Chavez’s disdain for Obama’s lukewarm support of “democracy” in Honduras following the military coup that toppled Manuel elaya, extensive details of the many achievements created by Barrio Adentro, and how despite the at times bombastic rhetoric that government has been sensibly pursuing an international relations policy designed to frustrate the operation of a unipolar global power structure. The book

Review of "The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela"

Miguel Tinker Salas’ The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela begins with a Venezuela largely divided by natural terrain and facing moments of national unity only when regional caudillos were able to mobilize enough force to get a grip on the entire nation. Poor inter-regional communication and lengthy periods of travel amongst places make such occurrences difficult and their extension of power into the rural areas tenuous or nonexistent until modern technology was able to alleviate these problems. Juan Vicente Gómez Chacón, the military dictator between 1908-1935 leveraged these developments and the alliances that he’d made from his long tenure in the military to grab rule from his dictatorial predecessor Cipriano Castro and become Venezuela’s first modern president. Modern not necessarily because his junta was progressive in any sense but because it was able not just to use traditional income from patronage into projects but petrol dollars. Subsequent interpretations of Gómez have usually conceived of his policies as wily for his play of nations against each other for greater financial concessions for sub-soil access but still in essence a servant for extra-national interests,

With the first big discovery of oil in 1922 at La Rosa, a process of massive population migration, capital investment, infrastructure construction and transformation of Venezuelan politics begins. No longer is Venezuela a country just some minor supplier of agricultural products such as coffee because it won’t spoil on the long winding “roads” which required mules to move goods over the mountains but is placed within an international political and economic nexus. Oil is the precursor for modern industry. Oil is development. And oil soon starts dislocating large amounts of traditional communities and turning the government into a mediating force between outside corporations desperate for their crude oil and the people within these communities. The rhetoric within the country soon conceives of the government as a defender of it’s two-fold national body. There is the socio-political body and there is the large body of oil reserves that predicates the functioning of the government. The government’s dependence on oil revenues for it’s functioning creates a symbiotic relationship between them, the foreign extractive companies and the governments associated with them (predominantly American, British and Dutch).

In the process of developing the oil reserves for export, oil companies such as Shell and Caribe had to construct communities in the midst of the jungle. Their hiring practices consistently prefer foreign workers, mostly North Americans, for the advanced technical work, and use the native Venezuelans for manual labor. The creation of these petrol neighborhoods and the forms of living space they engendered had profound effects on the subsequent Venezuealan culture and values. The first wave of roughnecks that came in were mostly single men who cared about the natives only inasmuch as they could buy alcohol, prepared foods or clothes from them, hire them to clean their homes (if they even had them and weren’t sleeping in a hammock in a shack) and rent females by the hour for sexual liaisons. Conflict occasionally led to social unrest, be it from social causes such as drunk and rowdy drillers to environmental disaster, so the companies later sought to lessen this by the construction of fenced and guarded communities that would be considered desirable to live in by American standards and thus acceptable for families to be brought there by American workers. Summarizing his analysis of these and other trends, Salas states that “Beyond monopolizing the economy, oil shaped social values and class aspirations, cemented political alliances, and redefined concepts of citizenship for important segments of the population” (238). As the foods and the repasts of America came to become an indicator of cultural advancement, one of the reasons for explaining why, unlike the rest of Latin America, the national past-time is baseball and not futbol.

For my own interests, the latter part of the book contains the most compelling historiography and transition from an institutions and cultural studies approach to an analysis of political framing and civil society formation that illustrates the growth and functioning of a government “cursed” by such resources. Clientism, cronyism and nepotism abound in the political structure while in the quasi-private oil sector a supposed meritocracy reigns, a situation which Terry Lynn Karl poetically terms as the paradox of plenty. Having stated the obvious, how the American and British oil companies were in a symbiotic relationship with the Venezuelan state due to the latter’s reliance on oil revenues to function, Salas then illustrates how the capital to initiate a wide array of Venezuealan cultural outlets and political organization originated from the oil companies, how they sponsored surveillance networks to monitor leftist activities and promoted individualistic, corporatist values in their publications. Caribe sponsored schools, university posts, the construction of churches, radio and television broadcasts and infrastructure, magazines, newspapers, etc. One purpose of such publications was the creation of a unified cultural conception of what it meant to be “Venezuelan”. Bringing together the experiences within the andinos, the llanos, and the oriente under one coherent conceptual framework had much the same effects as the conceptions of the polis as “cafe con leche”. The divergent experiences were minimized and the notion of a single “people” came to the forefront.

The notion of the nation created, however, was not just inclusive of these but also exclusive. It was inclusive in the sense that the oil companies were promoted as the key component as to how it was that the nation was becoming “modernized”. Though the companies themselves were foreign, they defined themselves and hired multiple public relations firms to cast them as benevolent for their bringing up “the people” out of poverty and subsistence agricultural production. That vast numbers still lived in grinding poverty was not even mentioned. Additionally, the values propounded on the radio and television programs and in the papers excluded certain qualities as being proper to the economic order and thus indicative of atavism still present within the population. The qualities denigrated were not just those anathemic to regularized business practices, such as tardiness, conflict, non-“Christian” behavior as well as race. While the latter illustrates the desire for a docile, responsible labor force the latter speaks to the fat that Afro-Venezuealans and Trinidadians, while within the social-economic nexus of oil extraction, were largely confined to manual and house labor if able to gain steady employment at all. Their marginalization meant that during period of economic downturns they were the most at risk. While Salas does not focus much attention on the Chavez phenomenon in the book, he does define the motivation and forces supporting him as largely coming from those marginalized both symbolically, economically and politically and representing a new conception of a modern Venezuela that is not solely dependent upon it’s natural resources to function as an economy – because such functioning in fact greatly harm to those not fortunate enough to join that sector.

Review of "Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution"

Richard Gott’s book Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution is a highly readable account of the rise of one of the most controversial politicians in recent Latin American history. Gott provides a topical historical contextualization as to why it was that the previous constitution was viewed by so many Venezuelans as insufficient to their current social conditions and how it was that the dominant political parties within the country were not able to mobilize enough support to maintain popular credibility and soon withered away.

Gott lucidly shows that Chavez’s rise was a long time in the making due to the problematic internal dynamics of the country and focuses cites as evidence of it’s disorder the caracazo. While the collapse of the Berlin wall received the lions share of the world’s attention due to the implications it had in the Cold War, for Venezuela the caracazo was an event of equal importance. The riots and social unrest unleashed following price adjustments for public transportation in the poorer sections of the city spread out soon leading to the mobilization of the military to quell it. Following the soldiers quashing of unrest, the disintegration of Carlos Perez’s presidency and his Washington Consensus conceived policies of neoliberal reform was soon forthcoming. This event accelerated and deepened the commitment of political actors, especially those in the military, to look for new ways of creating a Venezuela that wasn’t so sharply divided by class.

Chavez’s attempted coup, his subsequent forming of political bonds and the subsequent formation of a 5th Republic Movement give better understanding into the wide support that Chaves has received there. It is in fact noteworthy that even at a time when there were no “Chavistas” in the state apparatus and as a new-comer, in the December 1998 elections that brought Chavez to power he received 56% of electoral votes while the next closest parties receiving 36% and 4%. Narrating the second coup attempt by reactionary elements in the business community and military showcases both his popularity as well as the degree to which the political edifice once in place had deformed. Following his election, Gott illustrates the role that political interest and community groups played in the writing of the new constitution and how it was that the Chavez government actively sought to incorporate previously marginalized communities into the polis, mobilized the military for community development and increase social spending.

In addition to this background, Gott, based upon numerous one-on-one interviews with the now deceased former president, contextualizes the intellectual context in which he operated. Eschewing the quasi-Marxist rhetoric of his friend Fidel Castro, Chavez has instead sought to resuscitate a 19th century revolutionary tradition epitomized by three Venezuelans: Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez y Ezequiel Zamora. Giving the historical context of these three situates Chavez in such a way that he is not some lone, charismatic figure amongst a dark past but one of many in a tradition seeking to reign in the gross inequality that began with the Spanish system of slavery which transformed into quasi-colonial relations with European and American companies for oil exploitation.

Gott cannot be seen as attempting to minimize the radicalism of Chavez through this, for at no point does he obscure the fact that much of the support for him stems from former left-wing radicals. In fact, as he clearly believes that “it is impossible to understand the historical roots of Chavez’s success without reference to the powerful anti-Stalinist communism of De la Plaza and Miquilena that was to influence important sections of the Venezuelan left in the years after the 1940s” (79). People with Trotskyist leanings, such as former governor William Izarra, and former members of long de-mobilized guerilla groups helped shove him into power.

The depiction of a cult of personality around Chavez is common in writings and perceptions of Venezuelan political culture. Considering the country is only recently becoming largely literate, I’ve engaged in several conversation with people who claimed that this was the case there. While Gott’s writings do not go into detail on this fact, it is very clear that not only is there a right-wing oppositions but there is a left-wing opposition to Chavez as well. Ultra-leftists are critical of the manner in which Chavez has sought to actualize progressive policy within the country without enacting immediate, wholesale changes. Chavez has been derided by many of his former supporters as unnecessarily gradualistic and too accommodating, especially to the oil interests. While he was successful in winning the populations allegiance during the petroleum strike of 2002, he also decided to pay for national control of oil sites that had been sold by corrupt politicians to international oil companies rather than simply nationalizing them without recompense.

While Gott does not go into much detail regarding the success or failures of the Mision’s Chavez launched, he is both praising and critical of their functioning. As with the other historiography, Gott limns several of the conditions that are beyond Chavez’s capacity to influence in the short term that make the goal of this mision’s difficult. For instance, one of the tasks of the Chavez government has been the encouragement of movement of the urban poor into the agricultural sections of the country that have long been underused. The reason for this is simple, despite large amounts of fecund land the country’s abundant petroleum wealth artificially increases costs and makes food importing more cost effective. The government would rather, of course, have less people involved in the underground or parallel economy and put to use the land. Lacking capital investment for facilities and equipment, combined with the general preference for urban over rural living, this has been difficult. While government investment has been made in the region for housing and other facilities, actualizing his Plan Bolivar 2000 has been problematic and lead to those structures degenerating. It is not all failures, however. Other projects, such as his successful push to revitalize OPEC and lead to greater oil revenues for the government, are also highlighted.

As a book for understanding the past twenty years of Venezuela’s political climate as well as the Chavez phenomenon I highly recommend the book.