Chavismo, Historic Crisis and End of a Cycle: Rethinking Ourselves Territorially

Sociologist Emiliano Teran Mantovani analyses the current political conjuncture in Venezuela and argues that conditions are apt for a "new cycle" of popular struggles.


The election results of 6D [December 6, 2015] in Venezuela seem to be symptomatic of a process of conservative restoration that has been emerging before our eyes. What we have now is the formalization of a new institutional landscape in which two of the most reactionary political sectors in the country– the sweetened or mutated neoliberals and the pro-Uribe neoliberals [1]– as a bloc are taking control of the formal decision making mechanisms and sectors of the state apparatus, seeking to clear the way for the expansion of processes of accumulation by dispossession. 

This political shift seems to point towards a new strategy for the radical restructuring of the whole progressive architecture of the Bolivarian Revolution, threatening more openly the means of subsistence of the working class population and nature. 

These visible threats, together with a whole series of myths, slogans, and political taboos that finally broke down following 6D, have spurred a frank debate surrounding the question what is to be done? in this exceptional situation. The sensation of estrangement felt by the Chavista social bases towards the upper echelons of the government, combined with this feeling of collapse and conservative restoration, oblige us to once again discuss everything from below. 

Power from Below: Conditions for the Configuration of a New Political Cycle of Struggles in Venezuela?

If there is a criticism that has always been made of the recent Venezuelan political process it is its lack of grassroots participation in key facets: there has not been enough people desiring the commune, a solid cultural and ideological framework to overcome rentierism and “build socialism” has not been achieved, the productive, material base necessary to sustain the project and point the way towards our much praised independence have not been constituted. The project emphasized action from above to achieve the great national objectives of socialism. But perhaps it is of interest to admit that even in the most magnificent moments of bottom-up power, whether in their small or large expressions (e.g. April 13, 2002), in general the policy was one of containment and administration of popular power– which in the first years seemed to say we want everything!, we can do everything!

Our hypothesis is that after the historic cycle of the popular struggles in Venezuela between 1935 and 1970, another cycle began since 1987/1989 that may have ended in 2005/2007. The hegemony of the petro-state since 2005/2005 started to change the forms of political production and street mobilizations of the counter-hegemonic bloc, which began to be corporatized, regulated, and depleted. From 2008/2009 (global economic crisis) to 2013 (year of President Chávez’s death) up until this chaotic almost three year period (March 2013–2015), the process has evolved from stagnation to entropy (as systemic chaos). Something appears to have ruptured and could create the conditions for the configuration of a new cycle of popular struggles. 

Chavismo, Subjectivity and Counter-hegemony in the Eye of the Political Storm

It can’t be emphasized enough that the formation of progressive politics is preceded and maintained by concrete struggles from below– in this way, Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution are born and recreated numerous times by the forces of the street (27-F 1989, 13-A 2002, December-January-February 2002-2003, etc.). The future of the “Bolivarian Revolution”, of the possibilities to maintain social policies favorable to the working classes and overcome oil-based rentierism, the future of the United Socialist Party, or generally of any agenda of the progressive left, or of transformations with an emancipatory horizon, depends in the first instance on these popular struggles

But these popular struggles from below should for no reason be thought of in abstraction. After almost 100 years of development of petroleum-based capitalism in Venezuela, since the end of the last [20th] century the conditions have emerged for the fertilization of a counter-hegemonic subjectivity perhaps more massive and powerful than in the entire republican history of the country, and this has occurred on the basis of the common social codes surrounding the complex identitarian process that we can call Chavismo

Elsewhere we have outlined why we believe that the original narrative of Chavismo was formed from below, that Chavismo was constituted as a political and affective community and that it is an identity in dispute– and therefore it has contradictory facets– in which there has been a progressive displacement of its emancipatory potentialities and a neutralization of its expansive counter-hegemonic force by a corporatist bureaucratic plot. 

Despite the multiple attacks and aggressions that it has suffered, whether by the reactionary traditional oligarchy or by the bureaucratic elite that has gained hegemony in the petro-state, Chavismo continues to be a living force. And this is not because of the five and a half million votes for the Great Patriotic Pole of Simón Bolívar [Chavista electoral coalition]. Chavismo has never been an electoral invention or an empty identity inserted from above, but rather fundamentally the index of a historical process of the production of subjectivity. 

The ontology of Chavismo, its fundamental base, still sits atop two pillars: 

a) a defined discursive base– an imaginary– essentially anti-neoliberal that raises a nationalist-popular banner of the historic demands of the excluded sectors for social justice. It is a literally progressive political construction; and

b) a material power– a collective biopolitical force– defiant, rebellious, turbulent, certainly contradictory, but irresistible, movable, expansive, and levelling that is inscribed in what appears to be a sort of historic tradition of popular struggle in Venezuela. 

Both pillars of the ontology of Chavismo represent the organic base of a long, historical process of the production of counter-hegemonic subjectivity, which cannot frivolously be pronounced dead, as multiple spokespeople have done, mainly reactionaries close to the MUD coalition, principally after the electoral defeat of 6D.

Popular, counter-hegemonic, “savage” Chavismo, has been, is, and continues to be the principal target of the permanent war against the process of transformation that has emerged in Venezuela in the last two decades. This [counter-hegemonic Chavismo] is the key in this game of chess, because it is the living element that really could “strike at the helm” or bring a stop to the [right-wing] restorationist wave. For this reason, the start of the global economic crisis (2008+) and of the bureaucratization of the [Bolivarian] process pave the way for a conservative strategy of dissolving the Bolivarian Revolution, eating away at it from within, like a cancerous body– in accordance with what we have called the metastasis of rentier capitalism– in a dynamic dispute erupting from the Venezuelan social fabric, significantly impacting the political community that we call Chavismo. 

If we emphasize that political processes and identifications are in no way static and that numerous transformations have occurred not only in the 1989-2015 period but even in this chaotic quasi-three span from 2013 to 2015, we should highlight two ideas that we consider definitive in these times of change and uncertainty: 

a) The exhaustion of a historic political cycle does not necessarily entail in a linear way the end of a cycle of popular struggles. An historic political cycle– which can be dated and geographically delimited– fundamentally refers to a period in which there is a prevailing way of doing politics, certain discourses and symbols, regimes of governmentality (Foucault), modalities of capitalist accumulation that eventually cease to function as they did in the past and begin to open the doors for the emergence of other general patterns of doing politics– in our era the debate has been opened regarding the end of a cycle in Latin America. However, a cycle of popular struggles from below– determined by certain patterns of struggle, subjectivities, frameworks of demands, and especially given their relevance to historic transformations, their mass character, power and proportionality in the general correlation of forces– can cut across these cycles, produce them and in turn be produced by them. [2]

The exhaustion of the “progressive cycle” does not represent the end of the history of struggles, but their continuation under new conditions, determined by complex, systemic factors. This could bring new historical relevance to these very struggles, with new modalities, narratives, and formats. For this reason, the possible end of the period of the “Bolivarian Revolution”– as a type of governmentality, modality of capitalist accumulation, and framework of social mobilization– does not necessarily imply the exhaustion of Chavismo as a channel connecting multiple struggles from below. Rather, it’s worth evaluating if, in the face of an eventual, openly neoliberal restoration in the country, the general population will begin to resist it largely on the basis of the principles of the “Chavista culture” developed in the past years. 

b) The Bolivarian Revolution cannot only be a force of stability, conservation, and “irreversibility”. Social-historic transformations are inevitable. Moreover, we are undergoing a deep civilizational crisis and we might say that we are witnessing the de-structuring of the world-system as we know it. At the end of the day it is advisable to think this through in light of the dangers of essentializing the idea of Chavismo. If post-Washington Consensus neoliberalism has been mutating in its mechanisms of accumulation, if new forms of domination continue to emerge, and if the material conditions of the lives of numerous people are changing, the production of political identities will likewise continue to change. It’s worth evaluating then how the process of new subjectivities emerging around Chavismo is being transformed in the course of this political storm. 

We can also ask ourselves, what is the position of popular Chavismo– an inherently counter-hegemonic and still grassroots force that potentially resists capital and oppression by the powers that be– vis-à-vis the tired government-opposition dichotomy? Or rather, how does [popular Chavismo] govern, if it does so? Whom does it oppose, if it does govern?

Some Coordinates of the Crisis: Threats Against Peoples and Nature

We would like to briefly outline some of the threats and tendencies being opened or intensified at this point of bifurcation in which we find ourselves: 

  1. One of the fundamental detonators of the current chaos of Venezuelan rentier capitalism is undoubtedly the world economic crisis, and its persistence in time (2008-present). Its causal factors have not only not disappeared, but appear to have intensified. We are facing the exhaustion of elements that mitigated this recent crisis and the perspectives arguing for a “secular stagnation”* should be analyzed: goodbye to sustained long term growth [3]. How will a rise in interest rates by the US Federal Reserve for the first time in a decade impact the dynamics of accumulation and the process of internal unrest in Venezuela [4]? How is the deep global crisis linked to the eventual breakdown of the global energy pattern as we know it? How is this connected with the prospects for crude oil prices and the pathways for solving the economic crisis in the country? As the economist Michel Husson has proposed, “the prospect of a new crisis seems almost inevitable,” [5] although the point of rupture remains unknown (the stock market, the banks, the debt, the exchange system). The key question could be, what form can the adjustments take for this new phase of accumulation?

The development of new modes of domination in post-Washington Consensus neoliberalism entails the more active participation of the state in accumulation processes, in contrast to the orthodox principle of the “minimal state”. It is unwise to think that the most reactionary sectors attempting a conservative restoration in Venezuela and Latin America are going to necessarily dismantle everything. Rather, they might use part of the structures and institutions constructed and reconstructed by Bolivarian process in order to guarantee the easier accumulation of capital and at the same time try to establish a more viable model of domination. 

  1. The long term crisis of rentier capitalism (1983–present), in its most chaotic phase, has created a hotbed for attempts to reopen a process of economic adjustment and flexibilization. Our hypothesis is that, faced with the unsustainability of the historic model of national accumulation, the peak of conventional oil reserves in the country, and transformations in the patterns of accumulation in the global economy, the project of “national development” in any of its versions prompts an important and prolonged change in the territoriality of Venezuelan rentier capitalism as a way of solving the crisis of the model and governability. This means a significant geo-economic reorganization of the territory around extractivism, with poles at the Orinoco [oil] Belt, the Guyana Mining Arc, together with other mining enclaves in the country and important offshore sources of gas [6]. The implications of a process of transformation of this character, in the context of an historic model marred by deep social inequalities, environmental devastation, and systemic dependence, would be profound.
  2. The aforementioned global and national factors appear to favor an intensification of social contradictions and political unrest in the country. The “Punto Fijo Pact” (1958) established the material foundations for governability following the boom in the world economy and in oil prices in the post-war period, when the mode of oil-based rentier capitalist accumulation still had a margin of “balanced” reproduction. What is the material foundation for a national, political and social pact based on a model that can now no longer reproduce its vital economic circuits in a sustainable manner?
  3. This systemic chaos, but above all, permanent economic war waged against popular forces in order to reverse the advances of the counter-hegemonic elements of the Bolivarian Revolution, has hit the Venezuelan social fabric very hard. This has perhaps been one of the most decisive threats to the transformative process in recent years, and maybe we are witnessing the most severe institutional crisis in all of South America (social institutions, formal political institutions, economic institutions), on which it is fundamental to focus our attention. 

Rethinking Ourselves Territorially: The Political Ecology of Chavismo

One of the paradoxes of the Bolivarian Revolution is that while it has realized some of the radical demands of the popular struggles, it has not concretely brought about the territorialization of power, which would make it possible to build the project on a mass scale. This means that the impulse and energy was oriented mainly to great ideals (21st Century Socialism), significant, metaphysical elements, the past and future, and mediated forms of power, and very little was dedicated to building this emancipatory radicalism from below in the here and now. 

If we recall the social struggles of the first republican century (from the early 19th to early 20th Centuries), they were fundamentally driven by the desire to reclaim sources of concrete wealth (principally the land). With the development of rentier capitalism and with the new urban character of the territory and subjectivity of Venezuelans, the drive of popular struggles has been directed towards abstract wealth (basically oil rents), and this continues to this day. 

To once again discuss everything from below in light of the recent electoral landslide is an occasion to rethink these historical processes and the events of the Bolivarian Revolution in recent years, and try to refocus our political production on the question of territory. This in no way implies the isolation or abandonment of struggles on the national or state level, which will be vital in the future. Rather, we are moved to recall that one of the most radical expressions of “to lead by obeying” [“mandar obedeciendo”] in Venezuela in recent years emerged on April 12 and 13, 2002, demonstrating how those from below can shake the foundations of a conservative restoration movement and re-initiate an institutionalizing process from the bottom up. The popular, counter-hegemonic return to Miraflores [presidential palace] gives meaning to the demand, then and now, that those from above take part in the “strike at the helm” and that the grassroots demands-driven essence of the project is reestablished. 

But if the territorial popular struggle were the political starting point for any and all agendas at whatever geographic scale, the key question seems to be how to begin to reterritorialize the social struggles in Venezuela, which could be configuring themselves in a new historic cycle; how to resignify original Chavismo in relation to itself, the materiality of its bodies, its surroundings, and its everyday happenings. 

It is necessary to reestablish the centrality of the means of reproduction of life in the agenda of popular struggle as Silvia Federici has outlined– and not only attend to the means of production. There [the means of reproduction of life] is the meeting point for all of those from below: convinced Chavistas, disenchanted Chavistas, ex-Chavistas, opposition supporters from the working classes, independents [“ni-nis”] of the urban barrios, but also those subjectivities a little more distanced from our petroleum-based modernity such as the indigenous peoples, who nonetheless see themselves involved in one form or another in the process of change. The popular subjectivity of Chavismo was born precisely of a radical negation of the way capital– in its rentier form– turns people into its means of production. This is perhaps the place where [Chavismo] should begin its soul-searching. 

There is no socialism without water, there is no political autonomy nor sustainable resistance (resilience) to a conservative restoration without material autonomy. There is no emancipatory project without the possibility of taking on the administration of life and territory. This is what we have called the political ecology of counter-hegemonic Chavismo. The times call for reinitiating popular agendas of transformation. On this question, we propose as a conclusion:

In today’s Venezuela, there is basically no ethical referent that nourishes political discourse. In the face of the metastasis of corruption and disrepute that taints political projects, it is necessary make a clear demarcation: what does it mean for the popular bases of Chavismo to denounce a corrupt bureaucracy and say not in our name!? And then, what is the collective project that emerges out of this ethical demand?

It is necessary to recognize that the project of the commons in Venezuela has its particularities. It doesn’t have, for example, the general features of the indigenous communities as in Bolivia, Ecuador, or Guatemala, being a transformation of a fundamentally urban character. [In Venezuela], the forms of community are then very mobile, diverse, volatile, in permanent reformulation. These are the bases from where we must begin to think of ourselves in terms of the commons. 

Isolated struggles from below don’t have historical relevance. In this sense, the proliferation of networks of popular organizations and platforms of social movements is vital. There is an interesting wealth of experiences, knowledges and organizations that the Bolivarian Revolution has left us. We have too much to learn from each other, from those from below that make up the fabric of popular knowledges and practices that represent the material base for an emancipatory project: networks of agricultural production, cultural production in the urban barrios, forms of economic cooperation and solidarity, communitarian territorial administration in cities and rural areas, and a long etcetera. This is all there. Now, how do we turn this into a broad network?

In formulating a shared minimal popular agenda, where do we focus ourselves?: a social audit of all of the accounts of the nation, including the debt– the people have no reason to pay the embezzlement of the few– and the channeling of popular mechanisms of social accountability; the democratization of the city and the “urban revolution” is one of the keys; inter-regional networks of popular agricultural production linked to urban consumption; new forms of national-territorial governance– how to promote  the commune in turbulent times; access to and care for the common goods of life, with special attention to water; energy sustainability on the basis of pilot experiences (like the proposal of the TES in Zulia); dignified wages and protection for workers in the face of the precarization of work; social auditing of extractivist projects– principally in the Orinoco Belt– and a moratorium on mining projects in the country: gender equality and respect for sexual diversity in all social institutions; social networks promoting popular, shared, and traditional knowledges as a platform for building alternative ways of life; social networks of security and social-territorial protection.  

Emiliano Teran Mantovani is a sociologist and social science researcher. He forms part of the Oilwatch Latinoamérica network 

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.com


BBC Mundo. “¿Qué significa que la Reserva Federal de Estados Unidos suba las tasas de interés por primera vez en una década? 16 diciembre 2015. Disponible en:http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2015/12/151216_economia_aumenta_tasas_interes_estados_unidos_fed_lf . Consultado: [29/12/2015].

Correo del Orinoco. “Ley de Actividades Petroquímicas abre puertas a nuevas inversiones”. 31 diciembre 2015. Disponible en:http://www.correodelorinoco.gob.ve/nacionales/ley-actividades-petroquimicas-abre-puertas-a-nuevas-inversiones/ . Consultado: [31/12/2015].

Fondo Monetario Internacional. “La incertidumbre y fuerzas complejas entorpecen el crecimiento mundial”. Boletín del 06 de octubre de 2015. Disponible en:http://www.imf.org/external/Spanish/pubs/ft/survey/so/2015/RES100615AS.htm. Consultado: [29/12/2015].

Husson. Michel. “ Las coordenadas de la crisis que viene”.Rebelión. 14-11-2015. Disponible en:http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=205638. Consultado: [15/12/2015].

Teran Mantovani, Emiliano. “Las espirales del debate sobre extractivismo y los nuevos tiempos para América Latina”, en: Carosio, Alba (comp.). Tiempos para pensar. Investigación social y humanística hoy en Venezuela. Tomo I. CLACSO-CELARG. Venezuela, 2015. pp.423-429. Disponible


[1] We have proposed that in Latin America there currently exist four projects in dispute that will characterize our geopolitical dynamic in the following years: Uribe-ism, Lula-ism, 21st Century Socialism, and a popular project we have called “pluri-communist”. For more details on this categorization, see:  “Las espirales del debate sobre extractivismo y los nuevos tiempos para América Latina”, en: Carosio, Alba (comp.). Tiempos para pensar. Investigación social y humanística hoy en Venezuela.

[2] Consider that the demobilization that marked the close of the cycle of struggles in Venezuela in the beginning of the ‘70s (initiated with Rafael Caldera’s so-called “pacification”) is consonant with the stabilization of the political cycle initiated in 1958 with the Punto Fijo Pact. Our fundamental interest lies in distinguishing between historic political cycle and cycle of struggles from below, although they are deeply connected. In any case, what is left open is a rich historiographic discussion about criteria and modes of periodification.

[3] Even the IMF appears to have gotten on board with this idea. See: Fondo Monetario Internacional. “La incertidumbre y fuerzas complejas entorpecen el crecimiento mundial”.

[4] BBC Mundo. “¿Qué significa que la Reserva Federal de Estados Unidos suba las tasas de interés por primera vez en una década?”

[5] Husson. Michel. “Las coordenadas de la crisis que viene”.

[6] On this past December 31 (2015), in the context of the approval of the Organic Law for the Development of Petrochemical Activities (12/30/2015), the oil and mining minister, Eulogio Del Pino, made reference to the confirmation of large mining reserves in the country, the so-called “Magna Mining Reserve Project”, which will be greater in size than the Orinoco Oil Belt. Del Pino stated, “We are going to break with the tradition of being a mono-export country,” and called on the private sector to push forward the 2016-2018 Mining Development Plan. On this, see: Correo del Orinoco. “Ley de Actividades Petroquímicas abre puertas a nuevas inversiones”.

* According to Financial Times Lexicon, “Secular stagnation is a condition of negligible or no economic growth in a market-based economy.” – Editor