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Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project | Social Movements

Reviewing George Ciccariello-Maher’s “We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution”

In 1958, a dictatorship was overthrown in Venezuela but, unfortunately, replaced by a corrupt “democracy” dominated by an elite. “We Created Chavez” is Ciccariello-Maher’s account of how political movements in Venezuela have fought since 1958 to add substance to that hollowed out democracy. The past 15 years, since Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, have brought huge success to those movements. Predictably, that success has been continuously lied about and caricatured by the international media. In one variant of the caricatures, Venezuelans were hypnotized by a charismatic thug and tricked into voting for their own ruin and oppression. Ciccariello-Maher refutes the caricatures by providing a detailed history the “Chavista” movements that long predated Chavez. I’ll outline the story Ciccariello-Maher tells, and which he sums up as "a history of failure, of defeat, but one in which those very defeats provide fodder for subsequent victories"

Inspired by the Cuban revolution of 1959 and disastrously misled by foreign analyses of it (particularly the one offered by former French radical Regis Debray), Small groups of Venezuelan leftists attempted to ignite an armed revolution in the 1960s. They took to rural areas in the mountains where it was theorized they would have the best chance. After all, didn't Che and Fidel start off in the Cuban countryside? The Venezuelan rebels didn't join battles in which the peasants were already engaged. They assumed the peasants would follow their lead. By the mid-1960s the rebels were thoroughly isolated from the people they wished to inspire and well on their way to defeat.

One of the lessons that Douglas Bravo, a rebel leader, took from the failure was the importance of developing secret allies within the military. Venezuela's armed forces - unlike most in Latin America – offered significant potential in that way. In a bigger way, rebels like Bravo concluded that they didn't know their own terrain and their own history well enough. Bravo was expelled from the Venezuelan Communist party in 1966, and quickly founded another party, the PRV. Its leaders intensely studied Venezuelan history, the history of Afro-Venezuelan and indigenous struggles, and dabbled in Liberation Theology. One PRV leader, Adan Chavez, would prove very well positioned to recruit secret allies though his younger brother Hugo who was in the military. Anyone familiar with Hugo Chavez speeches will immediately recognize his PRV roots as Ciccariello-Maher points out.

In the 1970s armed rebels shifted to doing urban operations which seemed to make sense given the torrid pace at which Venezuela was urbanizing. The most famous of these operations was the kidnapping of US business executive William Niehous in 1976. Along with Niehous, the rebels seized documents from Niehous' employer (Owens Illinois) revealing corruption at the highest levels of the Venezuelan government. The kidnappers made three demands:

1) Owens-Illinois was to pay each of its 1600 Venezuelan workers a $116 bonus

2) Distribute 18,000 packages of food to poor families

3) Buy newspaper space so that the rebels could address the public

Government retaliation for the kidnapping was fierce. Rather than draw recruits to the rebels, it alienated them from the urban poor who were victimized by the government’s response, especially groups that had tried to organize legally. The rebels' strategy of working with legal groups to overcome the isolation that had crippled them in 1960s was undermined. One of the kidnappers, Carlos Lanz, now concedes that he and his comrades hadn't really learned the lessons of the 1960s as they thought they had. Nevertheless, during his trial, Lanz stated that "I have faith that the future is ours". Three decades later, Lanz was Vice Minister of Higher Education in the Chavez government. In fact, the Niehous kidnapping was inspired by a similar action in Brazil by the group to which current Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff once belonged.

The 1980s brought a devastating and very prolonged economic collapse (largely due to falling oil prices) and increased government violence against those who protested, however legally, for relief. The urban poor, independent of armed rebels who sought to lead them, began to organize themselves for self-help and armed self-defense in the 1970s. These groups became more important as conditions worsened in the1980s. Responding to immediate community concerns, they became preoccupied with eradicating the drug trade in their neighborhoods which pitted them against both drug traffickers and police. The emergence of these groups marked the beginning of the popular militia movement that would partially characterize the Chavez government years later.

By the late 1980s, despite the government’s tactic of targeted assassinations, leftist students won control of many elected bodies in the universities. Carlos Lanz, recently released from prison for the Niehous kidnapping, was among those who led a successful push for close ties between the leftist students and the urban poor. Many student activists like Roland Denis became so enthusiastic about organizing in poor neighborhoods that they abandoned the universities altogether – something Denis and others would later regard as a big mistake. Voluntary withdrawal helped the government purge the universities of leftists during the 1990s through the use of many tactics such as privatization.

The Caracazo Uprisings – 1989

Carlos Andres Perez won the Venezuelan presidency through the use of flamboyant anti-IMF rhetoric. He immediately exposed himself, and the entire political system, as a fraud by implementing a vicious IMF-style austerity package. Uprisings took place all over Venezuela, not only in Caracas. Estimates of the death toll from government violence range from three hundred to three thousand. They have often been called “spontaneous” uprisings, but Ciccarielllo-Maher shows that while that word is accurate, it can be very misleading. The uprisings were not unorganized and leaderless outbursts of rage.

There were no “big names”, no prominent leaders directing the revolt. However, Ciccariello-Maher argues that a multitude of organizers active among the urban poor for many years facilitated the revolt and ensured that its impact was sustained.[1] The old political order staggered on for several more years before being finished off during the Chavez era.

However, soon after the Caracazo, the Barrio Assembly of Caracas had quickly become, as Roland Denis put it, "a coordinating agent for popular struggles". This was before Chavez first became famous in 1992 due to his failed coup attempt (which was prompted by the Caracazo) and many years before the Bolivarian Circles and communal councils that were formed under the Chavez government.

The Defeat of the 2002 Coup

The defeat of the 2002 coup - thanks to another "spontaneous" uprising - not only buried the old order, it ultimately forced the Chavez government into a much more radical direction. Much has been made in the corporate media about how Chavez was lucky to have been elected just as oil prices began a period of sustained increase in 1998. However, his government could not deliver big economic gains until after the defeat of the coup (and a management led oil industry lockout that quickly followed).

For two days in April of 2002 Chavez was ousted. As in 1989, it was the urban based informal workers - street vendors. motorcycle-riding couriers, and myriad odd job doers – who carried out a massive revolt but this time in support of a deposed government and a new constitution that had just been written and ratified through a very democratic process. It is very unlikely that a Chavista sector of the military would have acted to reverse the coup had this spontaneous revolt not taken place. In fact, the leader of the military action against the coup, Raul Baduel, would switch to the opposition‘s side in 2007. Ciccariello–Maher points to a lengthy list of high level Chavistas who jumped ship over the years and it bolsters his point that informal workers are the ones who really rescued Chavismo in 2002.

Informal workers in the cities, Ciccariello-Maher observes, are not only one of the groups with "the most chains", they also have the most numbers among those victimized by the old order. The proportion of informal workers rose from 34.5% to 53% between 1980 to 1999.[2] The relative size of the peasantry, in the same period,  had been greatly reduced by urbanization. Industrial workers also declined and had been by led by union leaders corrupted during the pre-Chavista era. Though greatly reformed since 2002, the labor movement is still been hobbled by internal problems. [3] Ciccariello-Maher notes that there are no big employers to target in order to improve the situation of the informal workers. That makes their demands, he argues, "more political than economic". When organized, the entire political system tends to become their target.

He does not idealize this class of people. He discusses how life in poor urban neighborhoods has features that push residents towards progressive political organizing and altruistic behavior. He also describes features that push in the opposite direction – towards profiting from the drug trade, for example, instead of fighting it - and he issues a blunt warning to Chavistas that “mafias will happily fill the void left by political exclusion”.

Contradictions, Defiance and Self Criticism within Chavismo

Afro-Venezuelan leaders were disappointed that the new constitution did not include much greater recognition of racism in Venezuela. They were criticized for calling out prominent Chavistas at the time like Caracas mayor Alfredo Peña as being responsible for their disappointment. They would be fully vindicated by 2002 when Peña, who led the Caracas Metropolitan police, had not only jumped to the oppositions' side but also played a very key role in support of the 2002 coup. From then on Chavista leaders, including Chavez himself, would confront racism far more aggressively.  This illustrates what Nora Castañeda, a veteran activist and head of the Woman’s Development Bank of Venezuela, said in reply to fears that involvement with government must inevitably lead to movements losing autonomy: “Why don’t they say Chavez is losing autonomy to us?”

Unfortunately, the process of radicalization prompted by the dramatic events of 2002 has been far from complete. In the countryside, peasants have endured hundreds of assassinations perpetrated by gunmen hired by big landowners. In part, corruption within government ranks has undermined any really effective action to end the impunity.

On another front, large scale experiments in workplace democracy have produced mixed results. Worker control, even if effectively implemented, does not necessarily undermine elitism – for example if workers feels they deserve more simply because they work in a highly lucrative industry compared to other workers, who may work just as hard or harder, in one that it is not.[3]

Many Chavistas blamed the shortcomings of the government on the people around Hugo Chavez (and perhaps now the people around Nicolas Maduro). Ciccariello-Maher remarks that "...this argument reaches the level of self-delusion among many Chavistas, allowing them to reconcile psychologically the radical rhetoric of the Bolivarian Revolution with the often disappointing continuities of daily reality". Delusion or not, it also helps rationalize disobedience and very aggressive pressure on the government to deliver to its constituents.[4]

Had Nicolas Maduro not prevailed, just barely, in the election that followed Chavez’s death, then this book might have been especially susceptible to the criticism that it went too far in de-emphasizing Hugo Chavez. The next several years will probably clarify the extent to which diverse movements united around a political program rather than a person. Regardless, in its endeavor to look beyond Chavez, the book offers invaluable lessons to people anywhere in the world who wish to contribute to democratic revolutions.


[1] It is worth noting, since Ciccarielo-Maher very frequently refers to C.L. R. James’ analysis of the Haitian slave revolution, that during the late stages of that revolution, while the prominent rebel slave generals were engaged in disastrous deal-making with the French, a “spontaneous” uprising led by numerous "little local leaders" (C.L.R. James stresses their role) finally snapped the big names out of their stupor. See The Black Jacobins, Chapter 13, pg 338-355

[2] Today the proportion is roughly 43%.

[3] Unions have greatly reformed under Chavez. They’ve certainly come a very long way since the days when the, now withered, CTV union federation could openly join big business in support of the 2002 coup. However, in chapter  7 of his book Ciccariello-Maher discusses the limitations of the UNT, which was formed in 2003.

[4] See Chapter 7, subsection entitled "The Comanagement Debate" for discussion of cooperatives and other experiments in worker self-management.