Javier Biardeau: Chavismo Must Face the Crisis and Correct its Course

In an interview with the website Contrapunto, sociologist and UCV professor Javier Biardeau argues that Chavismo must begin a necessary and urgent process of rectification, citing discontent among the bases of Chavismo and a dangerous crisis of representation that harkens back to what Venezuela lived through under the Fourth Republic.

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In this interview by website Contrapunto with UCV professor, Javier Biardeau, the sociologist argues that Chavismo must begin a necessary and urgent process of rectification; citing discontent among the bases of Chavismo and a dangerous crisis of representation that harkens back to what Venezuela lived through under the Fourth Republic.

The Joint Responsibility of Chávez

Aren’t there a series of almost existential questions within Chavismo right now? Where are we? What’s happening? Where are we going? 

I believe that the Bolivarian process is going through its worst historical crisis. A crisis of leadership, difficulties in public policies, very unfavorable changes in the international situation, and the loss of its principal political and ideological referent, who was undoubtedly Chávez. This combination of factors, combined with a slow and gradual fatigue that has been setting in since 2007, has created a crisis situation that is recognized by the entire population.

There is a crisis, that is the starting point. And at the helm of the state is Chavismo after Chávez. And in 24 months, between October 2013 up until now, public policy has been neither efficient nor effective. This has produced the worst symptom, which is a lack of support for top government leadership. There is a real situation of discontent and unhappiness at exactly the worst moment when Chavismo faces elections.

There was always talk of the hyper-leadership of Chávez. And Chávez didn’t do much either to dismantle that idea and that concept. Right after his death, wasn’t there an opportunity to open up the game and take on the problem from another perspective? There wasn’t a possibility, to put it differently, of going beyond Chávez? To what do you attribute this [failure]?

In the beginning, I think the idea of continuing with this model of leadership prevailed. That is, the new people tried to embody the old style of Chávez, something that’s impossible, because Chávez’s leadership style was wedded to his charisma, to the way he connected with the people, with the popular sectors, which was his principal political capital.

And the other reason is that a culture of collective leadership was never established among Chávez’s inner circle. Chávez also has a joint responsibility here. Even during the advanced stages of his illness, the hypothesis still existed that Chávez would continue in command and the top government leadership wasn’t prepared for what took place.

We still don’t know what was the precise cause of Chávez’s death, but one could infer on the basis of some indicators that it was a catastrophic illness. If the top government leadership knew what the outcome would be, why wasn’t there an interval, a parenthesis to address the question of leadership?

Yes, but here you have to understand the concept of political leadership from the very beginning of the Bolivarian movement. Chávez practically devoured any competitive leadership, anyone that was in the shadows, or who was inclined to share the political leadership of the process. 

There are various examples [of leaders] with commendable political trajectories, who were left behind along the way. Someone, who did not even aspire to dispute the leadership of Chávez but who mentioned the issue very early on and is remembered much today, was Müller Rojas. Müller proposed to Chávez that [his] political leadership needed to be much more consultative than it was being. 

And that culture, which was consolidated over the course of 15 years, resulted in the fact that a collective leadership was not created, nor a shared or collegial leadership, or however you want to call it. Right during the discussion around the constitutional amendment for the continuous candidacy for the president, a top leader in Chavismo told me that from the presidency’s point of view, there was no future for anybody, only for Chávez. They themselves had internalized the thesis that after Chávez, there was nothing else. I don’t think the stage was ever set for collective leadership. 

And there weren’t other options?

There were also very consolidated beliefs among top government officials regarding how the popular sectors were represented in the collective leadership of Venezuela. It’s still a very conventional framework, in which the strong man predominates over all other figures. It seems that if [a figure] isn’t a strong man who projects authority, he is not presidential material.

A Government of Minimalist Aspirations 

You talk about the lack of efficacy, but here there is the [anti-crime operation] the OLP(Operation Liberation of the People) as a social policy and there isn’t much government intervention on the economic level. This is a moment in which the “invisible hand of the market” is very present.

Let’s go back. In 2013, the slogan was the “street government”. Today if you ask if there is any talk of street governments, you will find that the response is negative. 

In 2014, after the first six months of the guarimbas [anti-government street mobilizations], there was talk of the reactivation of the presidential councils of popular power. Let’s say that gradually they were left to one side, and the fundamental problem became insecurity and the pressures surrounding a change in economic policy. Some announcements were made that were never implemented.

President Maduro, for example, spoke in September 2014, if I’m correct, about the increase in the price of gasoline. We are now in October 2015 and a decision has still not been taken. There was talk, when Rafael Ramirez was in the cabinet, of introducing changes both in the currency exchange system and in fiscal policy, but nothing was done either. Announcements and more announcements were made, but government action has not gone beyond guaranteeing the continuity of social spending at the same level, despite the fall in oil prices.

We don’t know if this social spending is effective, if its efficacious, or how it’s being distributed. But it was concentrated on meeting the goals of the Great Housing Mission. That is the government’s strong point. 

Other issues on the social agenda were stalled?

It has been proposed to include in the Motherland Plan, the [new 2030 United Nations] millennium goals. Now it’s not about overcoming relative and structural poverty, but about ending poverty and hunger. [The government] is beginning to use the rhetoric of the United Nations, which suggests very gradualist goals in order to reduce absolute poverty in the world. I would say that they are minimalist objectives, whereas Chávez outlined in his electoral program (the Motherland Plan) a maximalist agenda. What Maduro has tried to do is lower expectations, and for this reason he has been criticized by the more critical and radical sectors of Chavismo or the Left. 

I think that it’s a government that has essentially tried to manage situations in a predominately tactical, if not pragmatic, way, and the strategic objectives are fundamentally rhetoric to maintain the imaginary of continuity with President Chávez. But the weakness of the government, in its center of gravity, continues to be how the economy is devouring the political capital of the Bolivarian process. As long as the government leadership doesn’t adopt measures there [in the economy], it’s like a deadweight sinking the process, while the opposition waits for Chavismo to keep making errors.

There are some who affirm that in Venezuela we are experiencing a “special period”, not as severe as that which Cuba went through. They use that metaphor to refer to a period of restrictions and scarcities. 

I don’t think that the two situations can be compared. In the Cuban case, for example, it was very difficult to find contrasts between illegal income [of the elite] and the situation of the average citizen. Here the paradox, and this is what is making the situation more explosive, is that in September 2013 a fight against corruption was announced and nothing has been done.

There are accusations and Chávez’s ex-ministers are the ones with the information. And more recently, there is the case of gasoline smuggling in ships. We’re not talking about bachaqueo [illegal reselling of state subsidized merchandise], but about big time corruption cases that evidence a lack of state control, and this depletes the morale of those who support the Bolivarian process.

If the idea is that the crisis is a shared sacrifice, and there is a leadership that is at the forefront in making these sacrifices, it gives the leadership prestige. But if you feel that the leadership is closed off in a bubble and has lost connection with the demands and aspirations of the people in the street, including almost half of Chavismo who express discontent, then you say things are coming apart, and if the economic crisis and the crisis of leadership are not addressed, we are returning to the things we lived through under the pacted Fourth Republic. That’s not a trivial thing. 

Refusal to Recognize Global Economic Indicators

It can be deduced from your words that this is a government that is on the defensive, in contrast to Chávez, who never lost the initiative, even during the worst moments he confronted. What we can see here are reactive responses in the face of the social and economic situation of the country.

Until the third trimester of 2014, the price of oil stayed relatively high (80 dollars on average). The oil experts linked to the government maintained the thesis of the “rebound effect”; all of them fuelled the expectation that this was going to be a passing situation, and now they have begun to recognize that it has to do with a long-term, structural situation, that is going to affect the possibility of economic growth for the next 10 years.

If the model inherited from Chávez is allowed to continue, the situation will worsen, among other things, because there is no way to sustain the viability of the model, based exclusively on the price of oil. 

A tremendous demonstration of irresponsibility. Even a novice who looks at the historical evolution of the prices of oil would warn that it has cycles.

[Ambassador to Cuba] Alí Rodríguez, for example, said that excessive trust was placed in the growth of the BRICS, fundamentally India and China, which were growing at 10% annually. What we are seeing is that these countries are losing their growth capacity. It was an erroneous expectation. These future planning errors at the level of the world economy are now being recognized. But there is no self-critique in relation to other changes that were made, such as the modification of the Central Bank law and the Macroeconomic Stabilization Fund, among others. These funds were transferred to international reserves and these have been wasted in the last three years. There is no room for maneuver. 

Here the time is up for trial and error, and this has a cost, an impact.

Recently, I was reading [an article by] a chavista who said that the most interesting aspect of Chávez’s legacy is his strategic thought. You just said it. Among the principles of strategic thought, initiative is fundamental. How do you make sense of the fact that the initiative has been lost and that [the government] is acting in a reactive way? And the opposition, as an intelligent player in the political game, is awaiting the fatigue caused by the errors made by the government of its own free will, as the vulgar saying goes, to grab them by the balls.

What happened to the slogan “with hunger and unemployment, with Chávez I remain”? Has that been lost? 

It weakened. I’m not going to echo what some chavistas have said in interviews that everything is lost. I think that that discourse feeds back into the very crisis situation. They are postures that don’t point towards a solution, but rather simply pull the final curtain down on the process. I don’t think the moral force of the Bolivarian process has been lost, but it has been weakened. That spirit that Chávez tried to defend as a political project and process has been affected: the issue of the moral force of Chavismo. In these 24 months, there has been a gigantic deterioration in this.

I would also say that the language of “it’s all over” does not translate to electoral behaviour. Chavismo is a socio-political reality with a solid base. And whatever happens on the electoral plane, this actor will be part of the process of reconfiguring the electoral game.

You’re talking as if Chavismo were to lose the elections and be in the opposition?

No, I’m talking about a probable scenario. I don’t think anybody who has compiled statistics over the last 12 months can tell you that Chavismo is assured a victory (in the December 6 parliamentary elections). Whoever says that is a little like the Iraqi minister of propaganda who said they were beating the US during the invasion. Do you remember that?

The Electoral Scene

Some spokespeople for Chavismo speak of the “hopeless assumption that the opposition will win”.

I can say in reference to the “hopeless assumption that the opposition will win,” as they put it, that it’s going to be very difficult for the opposition to win 60% of the seats. It’s something that is going to come into play a lot in these two months. And if the opposition doesn’t win 60%, it’s going to be impossible for this to translate into a political victory. I say this in relation to the expectations that the opposition have in terms of accelerating a post-Chavismo transition process. In contrast, if Chavismo wins 85 seats, which would be the minimum [needed for a majority in the 165-seat parliament], they are going to declare victory: in the worst situation of economic war, the fall of oil prices, diverse threats and internal destabilization, “we were able to win and skilfully navigate a conjunctural moment”.

If the opposition wins 100 diputados [or 60%], this will indeed make the question of Chavismo’s governability difficult. Why? Because there are key elements that affect the leadership of the government (the possibility of motions of censure against ministers, the impossibility of approving a budget with a minimum consensus or of passing an enabling law. It changes the political game.

In the situation you lay out, there doesn’t appear to be much space for consensus.

It all depends on how the results are read. [Hinterlaces pollster Oscar] Schemel, who himself was the pundit who fuelled positive expectations from the point of view of the polls, has said that the winner today is discontent. But that [discontent] has not been politically analyzed, nor has it been turned into a process of rectification, of correcting the course, of self-critically taking responsibility for the grave situation, because the problem in my opinion is that there’s a sort of blindness [to this discontent by the government leadership]. I can understand that people close their eyes, but that can’t go on forever, because a moment will come in which this will have negative effects. But to put it clearly, my desire, since along while ago, is that the government finds the path of rectification.

But it’s almost impossible to make corrections in an electoral period, because the message that it would send is that [the government] is in a position of weakness. And Chavismo wouldn’t take that risk.

That [view] is like a manual for political marketing, for a people who is considered infantile from the point of view of its capacity for political reflection. In the countries where the leadership calls for sacrifice, faces the situation and gains prestige in the struggle to overcome adverse circumstances, this is more difficult than what you propose, which is to shove the dirt under the rug.

This is a very serious moment, it’s not an episodic crisis, it’s an accumulation of tensions that have already detonated, which don’t permit damage control. It’s not a puff of smoke. All the tricks are up. And the people in the street know that they are being deceived, that they are only being told half-truths. 

It could be that my argument turns out to be elementary, simplistic…


Yes, trivial. Let me put it another way. If rectification is necessary, urgent, even in the middle of an electoral process, why isn’t it being done?

Because of [the government’s] lack of confidence in the people and its underestimation of the people’s capacity to understand that corrective measures are needed. They have distanced themselves so far from the people and there is a crisis of representation between the leaders and their bases of support. [The government] presupposes that the social base has no moral strength to defend the process beyond utilitarian motives, which is only reinforcing a clientelist and populist political pattern. It’s not a process of politicization of the people, as it is constantly said, nor is it a process that bears continuity with the legacy of Chávez, which was not only about politicization, but rather radicalization, on the ideological plane. What you can see is that that work was unsuccessful.

If you are playing to minimize losses, playing for time…but until when? Until the bough gives way? I would honestly say that much time has been wasted. It’s not the time to cry over spilt milk. Ah, “but what do we do now?” What they have to do is accept responsibility for the costs of rectifying the course. That is, a defeat suffered in the process of rectification is less costly than a defeat without rectification. And this is the point that I don’t see in the government leadership’s political equation.

The Moment to Correct the Course 

It’s the moment to grab the bull by the horns.

It’s the time to face the crisis. If they promised [economic] measures, why have they not taken them? I heard Alí Rodríguez say that if measures are taken, this will only make things worse.

They don’t take them, because then the opposition is going to stop being reactive, it’s not going to wait for the ambush and is going to go on the political offensive.

That seems to be a good thing to me, that the government will face situations in which it will be forced to retake the political offensive. The problem is that in this moment, the opposition is awaiting the political exhaustion [of the chavista bases] and in the middle of that fatigue, the government thinks it’s experiencing a favorable political moment. You are bathing in the river and you think that the crocodiles are sleeping. Well, keep wading into the river trusting that they’re sleeping, but they’re not sleeping at all, but waiting until you are unable to maneuver in order to devour you, as in the song, “what you want is for the tiger to eat you”.

I say this honestly, and for someone who has supported, directly or indirectly, the Bolivarian process, the least you can do is say it. Although afterwards come the costs. Come what may from [chavista pundit] Maryclen Stelling: “What kind of chavista does this guy claim to be?” But one says what one needs to say in a specific moment. And what I want to say is that this government has to correct its politics.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.