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Opinion and Analysis

Social and Political Diversity and the Democratic Road to Change in Venezuela

The rapid unfolding of change and radicalization, which have characterized the presidency of Hugo Chávez since its beginning in 1999, have impacted non-elite social groups in different ways, sometimes favoring one at the expense of another. Each stage has privileged different programs, goals, slogans and currents within the Chavista movement, and has had distinct ideological implications. The process of radicalization was influenced by the aspirations of sectors within the movement and the ideological vision of the leadership, but it was also largely a response to the actions and tactics of government adversaries.

To date, the Chávez government has passed through the following five stages, each with different priorities: 1999-2000, characterized by moderate economic policies and a moderate discourse; 2001-2004, whose salient feature was anti-neoliberal legislation; 2005-2006, with the emergence of the contours of a new economic model based on the redefinition of private property and a discourse in favor of socialism; 2007-2008 marked by the nationalization of basic industry; 2009-2011 when the government expropriated a large number of companies for diverse reasons, the most important of which was to compete with the private sector.

These transformations have stimulated the support of members of some social groups while alienating others. The Chavista moderation and its critique of the existing political party system during the first stage, for instance, appealed to the middle class, a significant percentage of which voted for Chávez in the first presidential election in 1998 and the second in 2000. The subsequent radicalization and the Chavista leadership’s explicit preference for underprivileged sectors intimidated many in the middle class, which became increasingly critical of the government and protested in massive numbers leading to the attempted coup of April 2002 and the general strike eight months later.

Political change in general, and socialist construction in particular, has produced sharp internal contradictions which play themselves out on different fronts and seriously undermine the cohesiveness and vitality of the Chavista government and movement. (1) Chavismo’s political currents and factions correspond to distinct traditions on the left world wide as well as class cleavages among the Chavistas. Thus, for example, during the third stage the government promoted the incorporation of a large number of members of the marginalized sectors of the population by allocating massive sums of money to makeshift worker cooperatives. While the marginalized poor enrolled in the program in mass numbers, many trade unionists were highly skeptical of its productive viability and criticized it for sidestepping labor legislation and union organizing. Furthermore, orthodox Marxists such as the Communist Party (PCV) insisted that the cooperatives as well as the community councils, which were promoted by the government after 2006, did not “enter into contradiction with capital” and thus it was necessary to “prioritize trade union work” (Figuera, 2011: Especial-2).

Along similar lines, workers in companies expropriated during the fourth and fifth stages have demanded substantial improvements in labor benefits and absolute job security in keeping with the Chavista banner of “humanistic socialism” and at the same time insist on worker input in decision making as a fundamental socialist goal. In contrast, Chavistas belonging to the middle sectors of the population are more sympathetic to state managers who fear that worker participation in decision making represents a vehicle for achieving inordinate and unrealistic economic gains. These Chavistas call on workers to distinguish between state companies and private-owned ones and to moderate their demands toward the former. The pro-statist Chavistas accuse the more militant wing of the labor movement of promoting disruptions in the state-owned steel, aluminum and other heavy industries of the Guayana region and in the process threatening their continued existence.

Members of three major social groups identify with different lines of thinking within Chavismo and defend different and at times conflicting interests. They are: the organized working class, middle sectors of the population, and the traditionally unorganized and unincorporated sectors (consisting of members of the informal economy, much of the rural labor force, and those who work for small firms which lack collective bargaining agreements and union representation). (2) The latter two groups to a large extent lack the political cohesiveness of social classes with well-defined and articulated positions. (3) The priorities among all three differ and their support for specific slogans, programs and goals, while for the most part overlapping, varies in degree and intensity.

In addition to diverse social groups with distinct demands and priorities, three long-term visions coexist within the Chavista movement, each corresponding to different socialist traditions. One current adheres to the orthodox Marxist view of the organized working class as the key agent of socialist revolution. A second, which idolizes Che Guevara, stresses revolutionary values such as solidarity and invokes the principle associated with communism of “to each according to his/her need.” A third vision focuses on economic objectives and industrial development along the lines of the strategies and priorities of Soviet socialism during its seventy-five years of existence. The first line of thinking appeals disproportionately to the organized working class, the second to the unorganized sectors of the population and the third to the middle sectors.

Venezuela’s emerging economic model, which has different implications for Chavistas of different social origins, was the end result of a series of government responses to maneuvers undertaken by powerful adversaries that, as the first section of the article attempts to demonstrate, included economic disruptions. The need to respond effectively to these actions and at the same time retain the active support of members of the three above-mentioned social groups spells out the complexity of the process of far-reaching change in a democratic setting. If government decisions were taken on the basis of ideological considerations, taking into account only the correlation of forces among political currents within Chavismo and those for and against socialism in general (Harnecker, 2010: 66), the challenges facing the Chavistas would be relatively simple and with fewer variables. The tie-in between ideological currents within the Chavista movement and social groups, in the context of democratic liberties and high levels of conflict and mobilization both within Chavismo and between it and the democratic opposition, complicates the task of carrying out socialist transformation. These dynamics set Venezuela off from non-democratic socialist experiences of the twentieth century.

This paper will examine recent developments in Venezuela in order to define the general direction of the Chavista government and movement. Specifically it will look at three important areas that have impacted internal currents and pro-Chavista social groups over the recent past: the nationalizations and expropriations, the tensions within the Chavista labor movement and the consolidation of the community council movement. The analysis of the expropriations attempts to determine why the government (which in all cases was committed to paying compensation) embarked on such a costly undertaking even though it threatened to undermine all-important social programs and how they impacted the strategies of the Chavistas. The discussion of all three topics is designed to shed light on divergent and conflicting visions and interests within Chavismo.

The article’s discussion of the relationship between discourse, actions and social groups is designed to contribute to the theoretical debate regarding heterogeneity and agency as problematic areas for revolutionary transformation in recent times. The introductory essay in Latin American Perspectives (May 2013) expands on the topic be drawing on the formulations of leftist thinkers such as Ernesto Laclau and Louis Althusser. Both writers emphasize the diverse levels of conflict and contradictions not only between the blocks that oppose and support far-reaching change but also within the latter category, thus underlining the complexity of the process of change. The focus of this article on Venezuela sheds light on the complex nature of the democratic road to change followed by the twenty-first century Latin American left in general, which is the central theme of the May 2013 issue of Latin American Perspectives. In short, the article will argue that in a democratic context, the gradual path to socialism faces two challenges without easy solutions: an enemy whose legal and extra-legal tactics force the government to respond in ways that sometimes create additional problems and intensify conflict; and cleavages among members of the Chavista movement who have diverse interests and visions and a greater mobilization capacity than was the case with non-democratic roads to socialism in the past.


The widespread expropriation of large and medium-sized companies has been the outstanding feature of the fourth and fifth stages. The measures ushered in a mixed economy based on state control of basic industry, such as steel, electricity and telecommunications, and state competition with the private sector in other key areas, particularly food processing and distribution and banking.

The transformation has impacted different social groups and political currents in different ways. The compensation money paid to the former owners of expropriated companies represents a heavy burden for the state and thus has cut into the primacy of the social programs, which favors mostly the unincorporated sectors of the population. At the same time, the expropriations have redirected considerable government attention to units of production (as opposed to the communities), and in doing so open opportunities for the organized working class to achieve diverse objectives, such as worker input in decision making, legislation in favor of worker benefits and the unification of the labor movement. Finally, the expropriations signaled a deepening of the process of transformation that was particularly applauded by the Chavista radicals who favored a quicker pace of change than the more moderate current within the movement (to be discussed below).

The following discussion of the events leading up to the expropriations puts in evidence the complexity of the transformation under way in Venezuela. In general, social and political currents in the Chavista movement exerted a major influence on policy makers. Nevertheless, once the government ruled out compromise and concessions, the policy of expropriations was thrust on it by circumstances. The expropriations in turn framed issues (such as organized labor’s special treatment toward state companies) and helped define positions that separated the internal Chavista currents. This explanation emphasizing complexity is antithetical to what opposition leaders argue based on the simplistic analysis of the “two-left thesis” discussed in the introductory essay and various articles in the May 2013 issue of Latin American Perspectives.

The wave of expropriations, far from obeying a preconceived ideological scheme promoted by Chavismo’s radical current, was a response to the political and economic challenges posed by the private sector, which was closely tied to the Venezuelan opposition. (4) Most important, economic groups, as they have done throughout history when their basic interests are perceived to be threatened, created scarcity of important commodities, both during the two-month general strike of 2002-2003 and the months prior to the December 2007 national referendum on a government-sponsored constitutional reform. Basically, four factors were at play: scarcity, price speculation, government economic controls and expropriation. Each one of the four triggered one another, thus having a spiraling effect. The government, for example, responded to politically induced scarcity during the general strike which pushed prices upward by implementing price and exchange controls in February 2003. These measures in turn encouraged the private sector to reduce production and establish alternative patterns of distribution in order to sidetrack price controls, including exporting to neighboring nations. The government reacted by expropriating companies in order to fill gaps in the market. The measures were also meant to intimidate the private sector into maintaining production and distribution at normal levels.

This dynamic consisting of government intervention to counter resistance by adversaries demonstrates the complexity of political developments under the Chávez government. The process of change resembles a war of position in which the revolutionaries advance one step at a time not only as a result of a favorable correlation of forces and improved capabilities, but also as a reaction to the initiatives taken by the enemy.

In contrast, government critics envision a veritable “war of maneuver” by viewing the expropriations as tantamount to socialism by decree or socialism by assault. Spokespeople for the opposition underline both the economic objective of imposing socialism on the nation and the political objective of delivering a heavy blow to the enemy camp. Teodoro Petkoff, for instance, a leading member of the opposition wrote in his newspaper Tal Cual: “Chávez is intoxicated with statism. The state takeovers [of industry] do not respond to criteria of economic efficiency but are purely political; the aim is to concentrate maximum power in the government and its caudillo” and at the same time to liquidate the trade union movement (Petkoff, 2009; 2010: 93-99). Alfredo Keller, head of a pro-opposition polling company, claimed that by expropriating companies the government sought to deprive opposition parties of sources of finance as well as “the control that the opposition through its private companies could exercise over the mass of workers” (El Aragüeño [Maracay], September, 2011). Another leading pollster identified with the opposition, Luis Vicente León, asserted that expropriations were Chávez’s way of “penalizing” leaders of the opposition (León, 2010). Finally, the pro-opposition daily El Nacional attributed the takeovers of foreign-owned companies to "racist hate against any foreigner who dares to invest in Venezuela in the field of food distribution" (EFE News Service [Madrid], January 18, 2010).

More than being motivated by political and ideological (or ethnic) goals, the expropriations after 2007 were the logical outcome of a series of battles between the state and the private sector that began with the 2003 decree regulating prices on basic products. The measure was designed to counter price hikes unleashed by the two-month general strike of 2002-2003. In the past, price controls in Venezuela had generated disinvestment and hoarding both of which resulted in shortages, as occurred in the weeks leading up to the mass disturbances of the week of February 27, 1989. This time, however, the intense polarization that pitted the government against the private sector on the political front, and the unwillingness of the Chavistas to make concessions to placate businessmen as had occurred in the past, led to an escalation of tension and tactics.

One factor explaining the shortages was political. The decision of the peak business group FEDECAMARAS to lead the general strike to topple the Chávez government was the first time in its six-decade history that the organization overtly entered the political arena as a leading actor beyond the formulation of specific economic demands. Subsequently, the period of greatest shortages was the months prior to the December 2007 referendum on a proposed 69-article constitutional reform, which business perceived as threatening to its vital interests, especially because it appeared to undermine the system of private property.

In addition to the political dimension, the drive for super-profits throughout the distribution chain in the context of price controls has been largely responsible for the shortages, the black market and the contraband activity. Indeed, the greater the disparity between the regulated price and the market value of a given product, the more intricate and widespread are the illicit mechanisms that have emerged. With gasoline prices perhaps the cheapest in the world, the government had to resort to rationing the product at pumps in border states in order to impede its illegal transportation to neighboring Colombia. Similarly, in 2010 the Currency Administration Commission (CADIVI) established rigid and cumbersome rules for the purchase of preferential dollars by Venezuelan tourists abroad in order to check fraudulent transactions designed to take advantage of the official exchange rate, which was approximately one half that of the open market. In the construction industry, wholesalers sell steel rods and cement exclusively to large builders since they are less likely to denounce the violation of legally set prices than are self-employed workers, who consequently face shortages of essential materials. Typically food wholesalers sell products higher than the legally established price to grocery stores, which in turn sell them to street vendors and others whose clientele consist of personal contacts such as friends and neighbors. At some point along the chain certain goods are hoarded in order to create artificial scarcities that facilitate sales on the black market. The “re-sellers” (re-vendedores), who purchase at the regulated price and illegally sell at the market one, have become a permanent fixture of the distribution chain.

In the words of Arquimedes Barrios, the Regional Coordinator of the Anzoátegui office of INDEPABIS, the agency in charge of enforcing price regulation: “The big producers often use the little guy to get around regulated prices. It would take a super-human effort for the state to combat all these practices.” Barrios went on to express regret that his office has been unable to count on the collaboration of small-scale retail businesses in order to document the illicit practices of the large-scale producers and distributors for the purpose of taking punitive measures against them (Barrios, 2011).

The government through INDEPABIS and a host of programs attempted to halt sales on the black market. Incidents in which common people denounced illicit commercial activity, followed by government confiscation and distribution of regulated goods, were fairly common (Vea, July 21, 2011, p. 8). In an additional attempt to combat black market activity, the state-owned steel company Sidor has helped establish seven hardware stores called Ferresidor which sells metal rods known as cabillas (and at one point cement) exclusively to people certified by their respective neighborhood councils for the construction of their own houses. Furthermore, in February 2010, the National Assembly passed the “Ley para la Defensa de las Personas en el Acceso a los Bienes y Servicios,” which authorized community council “Comités de Contraloría Social para el Abastecimiento” to carry out official inspections of the distribution and sale of basic commodities. In November of the same year additional measures were taken in order to crack down on the illegal sale of regulated goods in the informal economy. Finally in August 2011 the government passed the Law of Costs and Just Prices which created a Superintendency to regulate prices and envisioned a comprehensive study of the economy in order to expand the system of price controls.

The expropriations were primarily designed to counter shortages, but some of them fulfilled other objectives as well. State control of basic industry including steel, telecommunications, electricity and petroleum carried out in 2007-2008 had been a goal of nationalistic movements dating back to the 1930s and had been incorporated in the 1961 constitution (article 96). In addition, in 2009, the government expropriated over 75 contractor firms in Zulia that performed work for the state oil company PDVSA as well as others associated with the public Corporación Venezolana de Guayana in an attempt to provide workers job security and curb the practice of outsourcing, a measure which became a Chavista banner.

Moreover, the expropriation of multinationals accused of price speculation, contraband and failure to supply the national market accorded with the Chávez government’s anti-imperialist rhetoric (Livingstone, 2011: 31). Examples included Owens-Illinois Glass Company (with 52 years in Venezuela), Cargill (food processing), Monaca (a Mexican food processing company), Fertinitro (a petrochemical company one third owned by Koch Industries) and Agroisleña (a Spanish agricultural company). In the case of Fertinitro (and Sidor, owned by a Latin American consortium) the government took action on grounds that even though they benefited from subsidized raw materials at artificially low prices, they sold the final products abroad while neglecting national needs. Chávez also accused Owens-Illinois of environmental destruction in the state of Trujillo, while another large expropriated company, Sidetur (a Venezuelan steel manufacturer), was charged with (in addition to price speculation) violation of health and safety standards that contributed to labor unrest.

In short the decision to expropriate was basically a response to the commercial practices of a hostile private sector. Nevertheless, other issues were at stake and the policy reflected specific interests and positions of currents within the pro-Chavista movement. Thus Chavista labor leaders had pressured for the elimination of the practice of outsourcing which the expropriations were designed to check, but which state managers were not equally committed to achieving. Furthermore, the Chavista radicals hailed the expropriations particularly because they appeared to demonstrate that the “revolutionary process” in Venezuela had not stagnated. In contrast, the leaders of at least one moderate group belonging to the ruling coalition, the Patria Para Todos party (PPT), criticized the policy and in 2010 left the Chavista camp.


The community councils, along with social programs such as Barrio Adentro (medical service), Mercal (food outlets), Misión Ribas (high school education), and Misión Sucre (university education), are predominately located in underprivileged areas. The community councils, which proliferated throughout Venezuela after the passage of the Community Council Law of 2006, are historically unique in that they design, solicit funding for, and execute public works projects. Involvement in the activities of the community councils has had a pronounced formative influence on the unincorporated sectors of the population, which for the most part have no previous experience in direct input in decision making of this nature. The impact on working class community council members is less intense in that they have experienced over a period of time a different type of organizational identification, namely membership in labor unions, which are production, as opposed to geography, based. (6)

The experience of participation in community councils has instilled in many of their members distrust for government bureaucrats, similar to the attitude of autonomist labor leaders who reject state intervention in union affairs. Part of the problem stems from the frustration and misunderstanding arising from their interaction with state functionaries who are skeptical of the feasibility of projects and are cautious in approving proposals due to the lack of organizational experience of community leaders. (7) In addition, community council members often resent the manipulations by state functionaries at the service of Chavista politicians who attempt to control social organizations for the purpose of advancing their political ambitions. This critical attitude converges with the anti-statist dogma of Chavista radicals including Trotskyists and libertarians who characterize the “old state” as inherently counter-revolutionary and call for a “revolution in the revolution” (Webber and Spronk, 2010). (8)

By early 2010, several developments had appeared to signal the downplaying or phasing out of the community council program, which consisted of an estimated 30,000 councils. In the first place Chavista discourse began to stress the revolutionary role of the working class in response to the need to win the battle of production in the scores of recently expropriated companies. The rhetorical shift left open the possibility of the government’s abandonment of the community councils, similar to what happened with thousands of worker cooperatives which lost their primacy following the Community Council Law in 2006. Furthermore, the Organic Law of Community Councils passed in December 2009 required the community councils to make a series of structural readjustments (a procedure referred to as “adecuación”) in order to retain their legal status, a process which one of the law’s authors called “traumatic” (Rodríguez Rodríguez, 2011). The National Assembly’s failure to pass a Reglamento for the new law specifying the concrete steps to follow complicated the task of adecuación. As a result a large number of community councils failed to reaffirm their legal status within the 180-day limit established by the law (article 61).

Nevertheless, by 2011 several developments had served to revitalize the community council movement and demonstrate that the government continued to place a premium on programs for the unincorporated sectors of the population. In the first place, state funding agencies became increasingly convinced that allocation of money directly to the community councils to carry out public works projects (often by hiring community residents to do the job) was preferable to government contracts with construction companies. The argument in favor of this procedure was that the community council could best fulfill its monitoring role to ensure high quality when it controlled the resources (Rodríguez, 2011). In the second place, government policies and legislation incorporated the community councils in a number of state-sponsored activities, ranging from the enforcement of regulated prices of basic commodities to the selection of the beneficiaries of the government emergency housing program known as the Gran Misión de Vivienda in 2011. Another sign of stability and consolidation was the significant number of community councils which have successfully completed three or four projects and as a result receive preferential treatment from government funding agencies (Barraez, 2011).

Finally, the government’s commitment to the community council program was demonstrated by its efforts to unify clusters of community councils into “communes,” which will carry out more ambitious projects in a wider geographical area and which are designed to usher in a new stage in the process of change in Venezuela. In contrast to the community councils, the Organic Law of the Communes (2010) envisions the communes as representing a fourth level of government (below the central, state and municipal governments) which design projects in harmony with state planning. Unlike in the case of the community councils, the new law leaves open the possibility of paid officials belonging to the commune’s executive council (articles 27-31), which is in charge of the “communal development plan.” By the months following the law’s passage, community councils throughout the nation had created 120 “communes in transition” that awaited legalization and designed programs in their corresponding zones which implied greater funding than that granted to individual councils (Delgado Herrera, 2010).


In spite of the fiery rhetoric of Chavismo and its commitment to revolutionary socialism after 2005, the influence of the moderate current of the Chavista movement, which reflects the attitudes and interests of middle sectors, has not significantly diminished. The moderates are wary of excessive worker benefits and social programs lacking in effective controls. They enjoy strong support in the military and largely articulate the more technocratic criteria of state managers (Eusse, 2010). The moderates were headed by Chávez’s right-hand man Luis Miquilena between 1999 and 2001 and then retired air force officer Luis Alfonso Dávila, both of whom placed their followers in positions at all levels. Miquilena and Dávila rejected Cuban socialism as a model for Venezuela and favored consolidation rather than further radicalization (Ellner, 2008: 110-112, 165). After Dávila’s thorough defeat in the Chavista party’s internal elections of 2003 and his subsequent exit from the movement, another retired officer, former vice-president Diosdado Cabello (who had participated in the 1992 Chávez-led coup attempt), headed the moderates. Cabello (who exerts considerable influence over the promotion of military officers) and Foreign Minister Maduro (who is closely allied with former National Assembly President Cilia Flores) are the two national Chavsita leaders who have most cultivated a following in the government and party leadership in recent years. Maduro enjoys particular influence in the labor movement and his current tends to favor pro-worker reforms.

In contrast to Cabello and Maduro, many rank-and-file Chavista militants are highly critical of the Chavista government and party bureaucracy and favor more radical policies (Hawkins, 2010: 181-184). (9) Their positions reflect the thinking of the trade union autonomists, who reject state interference in the labor movement, and barrio dwellers who attribute the problems of their community councils to excessive state interference and obstacles created by state officials. The anti-bureaucracy viewpoint is especially directed at Cabello and has been harshly criticized by Maduro in public. It is articulated by a group of Chavista intellectuals affiliated with the think tank Centro Internacional Miranda (CIM) as well as the pro-Chavista on-line publication Aporrea (Monedero, 2009: 192-194). The anti-bureaucratic Chavistas applauded a number of Chávez’s appointments, including ex-guerrilla fighter Fernando Soto Rojas as President of the National Assembly in 2010 and the outspoken Iris Varela as Minister of Penitentiary Service in 2011. They also viewed favorably the selection of Elías Jaua for the number two position of Executive Vice President. In his public statements, Jaua stresses Chavismo’s radical transformational goals. These appointments demonstrate Chávez’s adeptness at maintaining the unity of his followers and dispelling fears that the government has been taken over by the moderates and “bureaucrats” (or by military officers) and has abandoned its commitment to far-reaching change.

The heterogeneity and complexity of Chavismo rule out simple correlations between social groups and political expressions within the Chavista movement. The labor movement is highly divided and thus lacks a coherent “worker” position at the same time that not all prominent military officers follow the moderate line. Thus, for example, PSUV Vice-president Alberto Muller Rojas and Director of the Ministry of Interior police force DISIP Eliécer Otaiza assumed radical positions which contrasted with those of their moderate counterparts elsewhere in the government and movement (Ellner, 2008: 167-168). Nevertheless, certain general tendencies clarify and define the preferences of the Chavista groups, the relations between social and political domains and the sources of internal conflict. Two examples will shed light on the tensions involving Chavista political currents and social sectors.

The first example refers to the perception of Chavista labor leaders in general that anti-union sentiment manifests itself in important ways in the Chavista movement and government. Thus trade unionists attribute the refusal of state managers to permit unionization for reasons of “security” in sectors such as airports and among executive-level secretarial personnel to a “militarist mentality.” In addition, anti-union attitudes allegedly find expression in government-sponsored community programs. Community council leaders, often under the advice of state officials, prefer to hire community residents directly rather than granting contracts to companies for fear that they would be vulnerable to the strong-arm tactics of construction worker unions controlled by criminal elements. State officials and neighborhood leaders call on workers employed in public works projects to take their grievances to the community council’s employment commission rather than unions, which are evidently intent on using conflicts in order to gain a foothold in the community. Chavista labor leaders recognize the gravity of the danger of organized crime’s penetration of some construction workers’ unions, possibly for the purpose of money laundering, and have even met with the Minister of the Interior to discuss the problem. Nevertheless, they insist that authentic labor unions and not community councils represent the appropriate vehicle for the resolution of labor disputes (Rodón, 2011; Itriago, 2011).

The second example of the political expression of social cleavages in the Chavista movement is the government policy of gratuitousness, which benefits underprivileged sectors but raises fears among middle sectors of fiscal irresponsibility. Traditionally, this practice was associated with crass populism, as symbolized by the sheets of zinc roofs that governments granted to slum dwellers in order to secure their votes. Under Chávez, rhetoric around certain social programs has confused two separate issues: social justice and the economic viability of commercial practices under socialism. The government justifies free or heavily subsidized goods and services, such as notebooks, textbooks and computers for students, housing and certain merchandise for hurricane victims, metro tickets for those over sixty, and books of classic literature for the general population, as the embodiment of “humanistic socialism.” In addition, products sold at below market prices with bland terms of credit particularly for the poor ranging from electrical appliances (which are interest-free for the very poor) to the “socialist arepa” (Venezuela’s mainstay food) serve to expose the economic injustices and extraordinary profits associated with neoliberal-style capitalism. Nevertheless, Chavista discourse, which emphasizes the state’s “social debt” with the underprivileged, clouds the government’s intentions of avoiding losses in state enterprises and collecting debts owed to it by the poor.

Public institutions have attempted to create effective mechanisms (such as payment feasibility analysis and automatic deductions from salaries) to guarantee the cancellation of loans and mortgages. These efforts, however, are at odds with occasional remarks by Chávez attacking financial practices under capitalism such as collateral requirements for discriminating against the poor. Opposition leaders exploit the failure of government rhetoric to differentiate between social programs providing free goods and services for the underprivileged, on the one hand, and acceptable commercial strategies that target certain clients, on the other, by railing against “populist handouts.” The anti-Chavistas’ claim that the government is overly generous (Corrales, 2011: 33-35) finds a degree of receptivity among middle-class Chavistas. (10)


Throughout his thirteen years as president, Hugo Chávez has acted decisively to retain the fervent support of the diverse and often conflicting sectors of his movement and avoid fragmentation. On the one hand, he has been harsh on internal dissenters who reject the official line. At one point, for instance, he railed against his ally party the PPT, which included the former mayor of Caracas Aristóbulo Istúriz and other staunch supporters who reacted by refusing to endorse his candidacy for the July 2000 presidential elections. When another coalition partner, the Communist Party (PCV), launched separate slates in various states in the 2008 state-municipal elections, Chávez attacked it as “counter-revolutionary.” On the other hand, Chávez has maintained an equilibrium between the moderates and radicals within his movement at the same time that he privileges Chavista military officers, who tend to be located in the moderate camp. Thus in 2003 he passed over William Lara (Dávila’s rival who was located to his left), whose followers had swept the internal elections for the leadership of the Movimiento Quinta República (MVR, the PSUV’s precursor), and imposed Francisco Ameliach of the military faction as the party’s General Director.

In addition, certain slogans and positions assumed by the Chavista leadership are tantamount to “empty signifiers” (Laclau, 2005) that were acclaimed but interpreted differently by different political and social sectors, depending on their specific concerns and interests. Thus, for instance, rank-and-file Chavistas in general view Chávez’s often repeated slogan “unity, unity and more unity” as a call to submerge differences in thinking and style to face a common enemy. Those who defend the statist approach (Cabello and Maduro, for instance) invoke the phrase in a more specific context to argue that calls by the radicals and the rank and file to purge the state bureaucracy of alleged opportunists are divisive and play into the hands of the enemy. In contrast, when Chávez called for the formation of a broad coalition of parties and movements in 2010 (known as the “fifth strategic line”), radical dissident Chavistas invoked the unity slogan to justify the establishment of, and membership in, pro-government organizations to the left of the PSUV.

Similarly, the various Chavista currents have reacted differently to Chávez’ unrestrained praise of Cuba and its leaders. The Chavista moderates interpret it as nothing more than a defense of national sovereignty, whereas the more radical currents as a defense of the socialist policies pursued by the Cuban government. Those Chavistas who prioritize a revolution in human values view it as a call for international solidarity above Venezuela’s material interests.

Incidents in which Chávez surprisingly defied his movement’s bureaucratic structure and party leadership by assuming positions in favor of the rank and file convinced those who supported a bottom-up, radical approach (such as the autonomists in the labor movement) that he was really on their side. The decision to expropriate Sidor in the midst of bloody street clashes in 2008, which pitted the union Sutiss against top Chavista leaders, and the decision to call internal elections for the selection of the PSUV’s candidates to the National Assembly in 2010 against the advice of national and local leaders were just two examples. On the other hand, Chávez named Diosdado Cabello who headed the moderate faction which was well rooted in the military to top positions in the party and the government even though he was widely questioned by the rank and file.

This article has examined the challenges that the heterogeneity of the Chavista movement and the actions of the opposition camp have posed for the Chávez government. All governments face predicaments along similar lines, but the Venezuelan case magnifies their impact. Most important, the democratic road to far-reaching change in the context of acute social and political polarization provides special opportunities for social and political groups on both sides of the battlefield. The vulnerability of the government as a result of the aggressive tactics employed by its adversaries forces it to be particularly responsive to the demands and aspirations of its movement’s rank-and-file members in order to count on their ongoing mobilization. In addition, the weakness of the tradition of trade unionism in Venezuela, in comparison to countries like Chile and Bolivia, and the absence of a working class party leading the revolutionary process, in contrast to the Soviet Union in 1917 and China in 1949, explains the greater social and political diversity and complexity of the Chavista movement.

The government’s responsiveness to the popular sectors of the Chavista movement ruled out a policy of concessions and negotiations with powerful economic groups, but at the same time its commitment to democracy ruled out repression in response to economic disruptions. Thus the government reacted to shortages by devising intricate legal measures that complicated the problem and eventually led to widespread expropriations. This sequence of events stood in sharp contrast to the Soviet government’s liquidation of the kulak class in the 1930s due to the shortages it created. The takeovers impacted in distinct ways the three sectors that represent the key social components of Chavismo.

The differences in interests and visions of groups within the Chavista movement were bound to produce internal tensions. Thus, for instance, UNT leaders raised the banners of workers’ control, reduction of the work week, absolute job security and restoration of the old system of severance payment based on the worker’s last monthly salary. At one point, President Chávez appeared to support all these demands. He included the 36-hour work week in the constitutional reform proposal of 2007, reduced outsourcing in the oil, steel and electricity industries in order to incorporate workers into the state payrolls to ensure greater job security, and launched the Plan Socialista de Guayana to create structures for worker input in decision making. Many PSUV leaders, however, had serious reservations about these measures which they feared were not economically feasible. Their apprehensions explain why the proposed Labor Law, which included the recognition of worker councils, a reduction in the work week, severe measures against employers who violate the labor law, and restoration of the old severance payment system, was held up in the National Assembly over an extended period of time. Resistance to Chavista worker militancy also explains why PDVSA president Ramírez attempted to bypass the leadership of the United Oil Workers’ Federation (FUTPV) which he labeled “Adeco” (followers of the AD party) even though its members were Chavistas and had actually been handpicked by the Labor Ministry.

Distinct priorities, visions and biases that manifest themselves in the Chavista movement have a social base. Many Chavista members of the middle class and unincorporated sectors, for instance, have reservations regarding the role of labor unions and support measures to sidetrack them. Thus government officials have encouraged community councils to undertake state-financed public works projects by directly hiring workers in their community rather than contracting companies. This arrangement is considered less vulnerable to pressure from construction workers’ unions, or pseudo-unions, some of which use coercive tactics to implement hiring practices that end up undermining productivity. In addition, the labor turbulence in the industrial Guayana region has contributed to building material shortages throughout the nation, which adds to the unfavorable or critical attitude of some Chavistas towards labor unions. Finally, Chávez’s adversaries have railed against (and exaggerated the extent of) government policy of distributing certain free or highly subsidized goods and services that many privileged sectors of the population including some Chavista sympathizers criticize for representing handouts to the poor.

The image of Chavista political actors ranges from positive to negative across the political and social spectrum. The middle-class bureaucrats are viewed as resistant to the participatory ideals of the Bolivarian revolution or else as intent on checking the extreme and unrealistic demands of the underprivileged sectors. The militant Chavista trade unionists are viewed as using disruptive tactics to achieve unfeasible material benefits or else as promoting workers’ control which is the essence of socialist democracy. And members of the unincorporated sectors who formed worker cooperatives and subsequently community councils are viewed as squandering vast sums of public money due to lack of internal controls or as confronting state bureaucrats in order to achieve the ideal of “participatory democracy” embodied in the 1999 Constitution.

Throughout the current stage of mass expropriations, the Chavista leadership and Chávez himself have attempted to maintain an equilibrium between the three social sectors discussed in this article, as well as between the various political outlooks and visions that coexist in the Chavista movement. At one point it appeared that the government would subordinate the interests and strategies associated with the unincorporated sectors of the population. Chávez’s discourse began to recognize the working class as the key agent of revolutionary change at the same time that the need to increase productivity to combat shortages centered attention on productivity over social programs. Furthermore, the new community council law passed in December 2009 appeared to impede the creation of new community councils and discourage existing ones. Nevertheless, the consolidation of many community councils and their longevity refute the notion that they lost momentum as the cooperative movement had several years before.

The relative strength of the three social groups has not changed significantly in recent years, even while each one has higher expectations and has become more vocal in its criticisms of the government. In the face of a recalcitrant enemy that refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Chavista government, Chavismo is dependent on the unyielding support of both trade union militants and the unincorporated sectors who often confront the Chavista bureaucrats. At the same time, however, subjective conditions and political consolidation are not sufficiently developed for the revolutionaries in power to declare the existence of a workers’ state or to unleash a “cultural revolution” against middle class values or a “revolution in the revolution” to purge the bureaucracy. In short, in spite of the deepening of change over the recent past, the Chavista movement retains its character as a multi-class, ideologically heterogeneous alliance, with all the internal tensions that such diversity implies.


1. By 2012, the internal conflicts within the Chavista movement had threatened to place it at a serious disadvantage vis-à-vis the political parties of the opposition which forged a united front against Chávez. In doing so, they overcame divisions that pitted the traditional parties Acción Democrática (AD) and Copei along with the split-off Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) against the newer party Primero Justicia, which allegedly favored a break with the past in spite of its support for a radical brand of neoliberalism. The primaries held in February 2012, in which the anti-Chavistas chose Henrique Capriles Radonski of Primero Justicia to run against Chávez in the presidential elections of October of that year, were intended to secure unity of the opposition.

2. Globalization and neoliberal policies in the 1980s and 1990s swelled the ranks of the informal economy sector after having reached an all-time low in the oil-boom period of the 1970s. In 2011 the International Labour Organization reported that employment in the informal sector represented 47.5 percent of the non-agricultural work force in Venezuela, which may be a conservative figure. The percentage was the third lowest among nine South American countries (ILO, 2011: 7, 11).

3. While some scholarly literature on the informal economy emphasizes the potential for class mobility, this essay underlines the unincorporated and marginalized status of many of its members, as is discussed in greater detail in the introductory essay of the May 2013 issue of Latin American Perspectives.

4. Indeed, the expropriations hardly paved the way for socialist planning. Victor Alvarez, a Chavista intellectual and former Minister of Basic Industry and Mining, pointed out that with only 30 percent of the economy owned by the state it was “impossible to have a rational plan of production because the key pieces of the economy remain in private hands” (El Mundo Economía & Negocios, December 17, 2010, p. 6).

5. Since 2008 I have conducted 28 in-depth interviews with community council activists and labor leaders as part of a project titled “El Estado y Organizaciones Políticas y Sociales en la Democracia: El Caso Venezolano” financed by the Consejo de Investigación of the Universidad de Oriente-Anzoátegui Campus. The section on the Chavista labor movement also benefited from a conversation I had with Federico Fuentes on the topic in Sydney, Australia, August 9, 2011.

6. The “Barrio Adentro” Mission also privileges the unincorporated sectors of the population. A large number of unionized workers and professionals are covered by private insurance plans and social security and employee-financed health programs, and thus profit less from Barrio Adentro.

7. The hardened position of some state officials has sometimes led to criticism even within the government on grounds that their “demagoguery” runs counter to the established policy of flexibility toward underprivileged communities (Dirección General, 2010: 3; García Puerta, 2011).

8. One time Vice-Minister of Planning and social activist Roland Dennis, who became increasingly critical of the Chávez government, can be classified as a neo-anarchist. Denis viewed the entire government and PSUV bureaucracies as holding back the development of the community councils and the popular movement in general (see Ellner, 2011: 441-442).

9. For a discussion of the specific issues separating the Chavista radicals and moderates, see Chapter 6 of Ellner, 2008.

10. Similarly, Chávez’s Petrocaribe program for the export of petroleum to neighboring nations, which combines the objectives of international solidarity and commercial diversification, has created confusion to the advantage of opposition leaders who erroneously accuse the government of giving away oil.


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Source: Latin American Perspectives - May 2013, Vol. 40, no. 3 / pages 63-82