Steve Ellner Part II: Is the Bolivarian Revolution a Populist Failure?

Universidad de Oriente Professor Steve Ellner discusses a range of key issues in Venezuela, including the efficacy of state social programs such as the CLAPs, the Maduro government’s controversial Mining Arc, and the role of international solidarity. 


In part II of our interview with Steve Ellner, the Universidad de Oriente professor discusses a range of contentious issues in Venezuela, including the efficacy of state social programs such as the CLAPs, rentierism and the Maduro government’s controversial Mining Arc, as well as the role of international solidarity. Part I of the conversation can be read here

It’s no secret that one of the hallmarks of the Bolivarian process has been the democratization of oil wealth in order to improve the living standards of the impoverished majority of the Venezuelan population. However, this policy has been hysterically denounced by Western political, media, and academic elites as “populism”. Is Chavismo populist?

A: First of all, it should be kept in mind that the term populism has been defined in many different ways, even antithetically. You have writers like Ernesto Laclau who views populism as the quintessence of politics, because the populist leader is someone who is able to unify distinct segments of the population on the basis of the same slogans. The phrases that he or she uses appeal to different sectors of the population and are interpreted differently, but that’s really what politics is all about. When some people and the media accuse Chávez of being a populist, they’re referring to a different definition of populism. I would call it “crass populism” in order to avoid confusion around the term and not bury the very important contributions of the works of Laclau. The detractors of the Chavista governments, including academics who call Chávez a populist in the pejorative sense of the word, argue that the social programs of populist governments are inherently unsustainable. Non-populist governments, on the other hand, implement social programs­­ that are perhaps not as successful in the initial stages because they assign fewer resources, but in the long run, are sustainable. In contrast, the populist governments receive a lot of publicity, get a lot of popular support at first, but eventually their programs go under because they are untenable.

Applied specifically to the Venezuelan case, the argument is that many of the Chavista social programs involve the distribution of goods and services that are either free or else heavily subsidized. And that is true. If you just leave it at that, you can easily reach the conclusion that these programs are populist in the pejorative sense of the word, that is, they are examples of crass populism. Take the case of the housing program known as the “Great Venezuelan Housing Mission.” Many of the recipients are chosen in the communities by the communal council assemblies and their selection is based on need, so that women who are pregnant, older people, etc. are prioritized, as are, of course, people who don’t have houses or whose houses are in deplorable condition. Victims of natural hazards are also given priority treatment. The priority beneficiaries are for the most part provided free houses. For others, a social study is undertaken to determine economic capacity, and the terms of the mortgage are set accordingly. You can imagine, though, in an inflationary situation, when inflation is 200% and the mortgage is 15 years, at best people are paying a fair amount in the first couple of years, but in time their payment is significantly reduced. Other goods are also heavily subsidized.

But I would argue that the situation is more complex than what the detractors of the Chavista governments and those who talk about “leftist-style populism” claim. Firstly, there is the concept of the “social debt,” which Chávez and the Chavistas embraced, even before he was elected president in 1998. The idea is that the marginalized sectors of the population should receive priority treatment, because for decades and decades the oil-derived revenue of the nation passed them over and went mainly to those at the top.  Also, you can argue that there are certain commodities and services that should not be subject to the market economy at all. For example in the states, public education at the grade-school level is free and in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin American state college education has been free throughout the modern period. Now neoliberals may argue as the Koch brothers do in the states that free public education should be done away with. So these issues are not black and white. Under the Chavista governments, metro transportation in Caracas and elsewhere is heavily subsidized and is free for senior citizens, a policy which I believe is 100% justifiable and should be copied in the U.S.

Secondly, there is the social factor in that certain programs involve participation and represent a learning experience for non-privileged sectors of the population and particularly the marginalized sectors I mentioned before, who lack experiences of this sort. The community councils, for instance, are directly involved in public works projects which is a learning experience for them. Now you can argue that a private construction company­– even a company that is on the side of the opposition but has a good reputation and has experience, capital, and technology– that they would do a better job. From a cost-benefit perspective, it makes sense to award them the contract. But when the community is directly involved, there is more of a guarantee that the performance is going to be of a higher quality in the long run since the welfare of the community is at stake. But even if this isn’t the case, community participation is important from a strategic viewpoint: overcoming underdevelopment involves just that. You can’t separate social development and economic development, especially when you’re referring to the marginalized sectors of the population that lack organizational capacity and experience as well as organizational discipline that, for instance, workers and members of the middle class have. Unions provide workers with organizational experience and work in the formal economy provide them with a sense of discipline. Those in the informal economy, such as street vendors and other members of the marginalized sectors of the population, lack this kind of experience.

So this factor represents a plus for social programs that promote a sense of organizational know-how and discipline, even if they are not justified from a cost-benefit analysis viewpoint. In addition, the empowerment that is achieved– the sense that the formerly marginalized are able to successfully carry out important collective tasks and the resultant sense of self-confidence– has to be factored into the equation. These factors are extremely important, and in fact are imperatives for achieving national development.

There is a third issue that needs to be brought out. I maintain that the critics of the Chavista governments, both political activists and politicians belonging to the opposition as well as academics, exaggerate when they claim that the social programs have been complete failures. This is what some say about Barrio Adentro, the educational missions, and the community councils when they allege that these programs have been nothing but chaotic. You can go to the majority of the bookstores in Caracas and elsewhere (which by the way hardly have a balanced sample of books in favor and against Chavismo as I have entered many bookstores with 15 or so anti-Chavista books and not a single one in favor of the government) and this is what you see. They claim poor people are allegedly no better off now and are basically at the same level as they were 15 years ago. This is not to deny the organizational deficiency, which is the result of their makeshift character. Nonetheless, an objective evaluation of these programs is very much in order. 

I say that programs such as Barrio Adentro and the educational missions are makeshift because they are parallel structures to the traditional structures run by the ministries. You can’t expect the educational missions– the Sucre Mission, the Ribas Mission, and now the Robinson Digital Mission involving the teaching of computer technology– to be particularly efficient given their limited budget. The professors get paid very little and they work out of the public schools at night time. They don’t have libraries or any other kind of infrastructure. I would imagine that for every bolívar that is spent on the Sucre Mission, the public universities get 100 or 200 bolivars. I don’t have the statistics, but the ratio must be something like that. Having taught in the Sucre Mission over a period of time, I can tell you that there’s very little expense on the part of the government. So you really can’t make a comparison there. 

You could argue, as opposition people have, that the degree that is granted students should not be a university degree– it should be a different degree, perhaps something equivalent to a junior college degree in the states– because the education that is provided is not on par with the established universities. But I don’t agree. I’ve taught in the Sucre Mission and I have a different opinion with regard to quality, though obviously it’s not the same quality as the public universities. In short, I would make two points. One, that some critics exaggerate when they disparage the quality of the Sucre Mission. And second, the granting of a regular university degree to the graduates is a calculated decision, taking into consideration the importance of the incorporation of the formerly excluded sectors of the population. The concept of the “social debt” is applicable here. In a nutshell the government emphasizes quantity over quality.  You might disagree with these priorities but there are cogent arguments that underpin them. Those arguments are not addressed by those who disparage the missions and other social programs.

The fact that these programs have lasted as long as they have speaks well for their relative success. Compare that with the cooperatives that were established in the first couple years of the Chávez government. They petered out after the first couple of years. Compare the cooperatives with the performance of the communal councils, which have been around for 10 years. In these 10 years, the attendance at what are called “citizens’ assemblies” has generally been robust. A large number of people show up at these meetings in part in order to be informed about programs that benefit them. Part of this success is due to the fact that the government has implemented a number of initiatives in which the community councils play a role. You could say that this represents a degree of creativity on the part of the government. In the CLAPs (Local Production and Provisioning Committees) involving the distribution of food, for instance, the community councils participate in that they undertake a census of the community to determine how many people will be receiving the food combos, how many families live in each house, etc. People show up at meetings because they announce when the “food combo” will be delivered and how much it’s going to cost. If they aren’t at home the day of the distribution, they are not going to get the combo. Nor will they receive the food if they don’t have the money at hand, because it’s handled in cash. So they show up to the meeting in order to be informed of these important details. Similarly, the selection of the people for the “Barrio Nuevo Barrio Tricolor” mission*– involving materials such as doors, roofs, and other items for the purpose of renovating houses– takes place in the community council assemblies. 

Furthermore, the fact is that people in the barrios– at least this has been my experience– in general speak positively of these programs. In the case of Barrio Adentro,** for instance, I hear very few people say what you often hear from people in the opposition and in middle class areas, namely that the program doesn’t work, that it is a fraud, that the Cuban doctors aren’t qualified, that the Venezuelan doctors who are now staffing these clinics aren’t adequately trained, etc., etc., etc. But you speak to people who live in the barrios and they generally speak highly of the treatment they receive.

So to sum up: The use of the term “crass-populism” for the Venezuelan experience over the last 17 or 18 years is misleading, if not deceptive. There is an element of truth when people point to goods and services that are free or highly subsidized, and add that with the current economic crisis the practice has become less feasible. The opposition argues, “look the Chavistas implemented these programs without anticipating that the price of oil could drop, and that was kind of naïve on their part because international oil prices have always fluctuated over the last 100 years; the Chavistas weren’t thinking of the future.”

While I would say there is an element of truth in that argument, it doesn’t take into consideration the various factors I have just discussed. Firstly, free and heavily subsidized prices mainly for the marginalized sectors are justifiable on various grounds including the concept of the “social debt.”  Second, the programs have enhanced the sense of empowerment and participation of the non-privileged and particularly those belonging to the marginalized sectors of the population. Third, the programs have been effective to an important degree, even while they are not as efficiently run as some of their counterparts that rely on greater resources. A fourth point needs to be added. The Chavista emphasis from the outset on social programs over economic productivity obeyed a political imperative. Had the government downplayed the social programs in favor of developmental plans, the political mobilization necessary to defend the government in the face of insurgent activity from the coup and general strike of 2002-2003 to the opposition promoted urban violence known as the “guarimba,” may not have been forthcoming.  

There’s no doubt that the crass populist argument as a neoliberal attack on the public in general doesn’t hold a lot of water. However, as you say, there is some truth to the fact that Chavismo has staked much of its legitimacy on these programs, which thus serve a political function, but which depend on distribution of oil wealth. And the problem is that Chavismo itself– instead of actually envisioning a rupture with the petro-state and the existing development model– has to a certain degree domesticated that rentier vision expressed in the government slogan of “Venezuela, Petroleum Powerhouse”. You’ve seen a deepening of oil dependence over the last 17 years with 96% of export earnings now coming from oil. Meanwhile, the Homeland Plan sets the goal of doubling oil production to 6 million barrels per day by 2019. In the midst of the present crisis triggered by the collapse of global crude prices, the pressing question is, can the construction of socialism really be carried out on the basis of oil extraction?

With reference to the first point you made, there’s no question that there is a political element in these social programs. Firstly the social programs were launched following the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez and the general strike in 2002-2003. The important missions date back to 2003 and were launched as a response to the attempt to overthrow the government. The most recent program­– the CLAPs­– ­was implemented when the activists in the Chavista movement analyzed the disastrous results of the December 2015 elections and reached the conclusion that they were defeated on the long lines outside the supermarkets. They realized that a strategy was needed in order to reverse that situation. So the CLAPs were promoted as a state initiative with a political function. The CLAPs are not social movements. Rather they’re an appendage of the state. 

And of the United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV).

The argument is that appointments to strategic positions in the state are always considered political and seldom are they filled with members of the opposition. There is a lot of money involved since the price of the CLAP-distributed food approximates production costs. The Chavistas argue that in collecting large sums of money for a program that is designed to counter what they call the “economic war,” it’s important to have people who are loyal and trustworthy politically speaking in control. Of course, everybody can participate in the program, but the Chavistas are exclusively in charge. There is definitely a calculated political element at play: the Chavistas want to reverse the trend established by the results of the December elections for the National Assembly and thus the program is defined as “Chavista.” In addition, they want to retain control of the community councils, which the Chavistas state in internal discussion are being infiltrated by the opposition as part of a national strategy. So the CLAP program, while designed to fulfill the economic objectives of combating the “economic war” and creating an alternative structure to the supermarkets, is also part of a political strategy. 

Like the social programs, much of the opposition considers the CLAP program a total failure.  The opposition’s discourse argues that the food crisis and the scarcities are going to be solved through increasing production, and the CLAPs are really not helping at all. I disagree, though it’s true that the CLAPs are not functioning as well as they are supposed to, because the food combos are supposed to be delivered every 3 weeks and that’s not happening in many places. In other places it is. It’s an uneven program. Furthermore, some communities are getting more food items than others, an unevenness that reflects the degree of organization of the CLAPs themselves. It’s not an easy program to set up and execute, especially because of the large amount of money involved. I think it’s interesting that products are sold more or less at the cost of production, so they are not giveaways, nor can they be considered heavily subsidized. Nevertheless, prices are way below those of the supermarkets, and even more so those of the “bachaqueros” of the informal economy. 

To respond to the second part of your question, with regard to the rentier economy, there is a lot of literature that has come out over the last decade and especially the last couple of years that argues that Latin American leftist governments have failed to achieve real change at all and in one respect represent a return to the past. They are promoting the export model that goes back to prior to the import-substitution stage when economies were export-oriented and produced little for the internal market. The so-called Pink Tide governments have re-established this model based on the export of minerals and certain agricultural products controlled by the multinationals. These analysts call the current model neo-developmentalism, in that the state is playing a much bigger role than in the past. Thus you have one aspect of Pink Tide governments that is progressive, namely an important state role in the economy and in the social life of the country, in contrast to the past. But on the other hand, the economy is export-oriented and the successful aspects of the import-substitution stage in which the accent mark was placed on production for internal consumption has been discarded. That is the thesis of James Petras, among others on the left.

The thesis definitely contains an element of truth, but it passes over the developments I mentioned in response to your first question about populism. To repeat, national development is not just economic, it’s not just technological. Development has a social dimension particularly when 50 percent or more of the population belongs to the marginalized sectors. Neo-developmentalism writers on the left generally give credit to the Pink Tide governments for social programs but do not relate them to development goals. Thus the importance of participation and empowerment beyond ethical considerations is passed over. Furthermore, some of these writers underestimate the importance of structural transformations which differentiate the “neodevelopmentalism” of the leftist and even center-leftist governments and the developmentalism of the non-leftist ones, such as Colombia and Mexico. As moderate a step as the CLAPs are, their attempt to create an alternative structure to the supermarkets has no equivalent in countries with conservative governments. More important, the expropriations, even in the absence of the much desired worker participation,  in some cases permit state control of strategic sectors of the economy, a development that represents a reaction to neoliberalism with its massive privatizations in the 1990s and contrasts with the PAN and PRI governments of Mexico, which have moved their country in the opposite direction. Many of the neo-developmentalism writers acknowledge that Morales, Correa, and Chávez drove a hard bargain and got more money from the multinationals and then funneled the revenue into social programs. But the quality of the social programs has to be analyzed. The analysis has to go beyond the idea that the leftist governments got more money to give to the poor. You have to distinguish between populist type social programs consisting of doles and programs that involve popular participation and a sense of empowerment.

Q: There’s no denying that in Venezuela, Bolivia, and in many other countries in Latin America, the redistribution was with the purpose of attempting to create a new historic bloc, which is very different from crass populism. However, the caveat is that Venezuela is in a situation geopolitically in which the price of oil is not likely to rise even to the early 2014 level of $80 per barrel, let alone to $150. Much of the social infrastructure of the new Venezuelan state that was erected under Chávez was premised on the idea that oil was going to keep rising forever. When you’re facing massive debt payments over the next 3 or 4 years amounting to billions and billions of dollars and Venezuela’s reserves have sunk to $11 billion, the question of maintaining effective social programs cannot be separated from the immediate pressing reality of how do you push forward in an emancipatory direction towards a post-oil economy. Because as of now, instead of interrogating the problem of oil dependence and extractivism in general, this government has decided to move towards mega-mining with the opening of 112,000 square kilometers of territory in Bolívar state to open-pit gold mining, which has been heavily criticized within Chavismo over the catastrophic social and ecological repercussions. These are very urgent questions concerning how to move forward strategically.

One of my major criticisms of the Chavista movement is that there’s a lot of debate within the ranks of Chavismo but no effective mechanisms to facilitate that discussion in an upward direction and along institutional lines. I believe that the party’s role should be to serve as the key actor in correcting government errors.  Certainly this is true in the case of corruption. The same observation can be applied to your question about mining in the Guayana region. I do not believe that large-scale mining is inherently anti-environmental. It all depends on how it’s carried out. The government claims that environmental damage is going to be minimized. But we have seen throughout the years of Chavista rule, that regardless of the good intentions of the leaders, bureaucracy has its own dynamic. No revolutionary movement can assume that just because of the enthusiasm and good intentions of its people, that it is going to be able to avoid bureaucratic deviations. In my mind the corrective is a political party that is democratic and semi-autonomous vis-à-vis the state. But that is not the case with the PSUV because the vice-presidents– I’m not critical of the fact that the president of the PSUV was President Chávez and is now Maduro– but the vice-presidents are national deputies, ministers and governors, who form part of the state. And in those states where the governor is Chavista, it’s the governor who’s running the party. The same is the case at the municipal level, with regard to Chavista mayors. Such a configuration I believe is an error. 

If the Mining Arc is going to be successful from an environmental viewpoint and from the viewpoint of the rights of the indigenous population, internal democratic mechanisms within the party are essential. Correa, Morales and Maduro basically argue “we need revenue derived from natural resources in order to finance the social programs.” Morales and Correa add “we’ve tried alternatives but really in the short and perhaps medium term future, dependence on mineral wealth will continue.” If this is true, then these leaders have to face the fact that the negative side-effects can only be corrected and eliminated through a democratization process in which there’s rank and file participation so that bureaucratic abuses, which may be inevitable, are checked. The social movements play an important role in this regard, but I would say that the party, when it comes to the state bureaucracy, plays the pivotal role. And so, it’s very important to have democratic internal mechanisms within the PSUV as well as the other parties affiliated with the Great Patriotic Pole coalition. 

What lessons can the international left, particularly in the United States, learn from the Bolivarian process in this moment of systemic crisis here and now? 

There’s been an ongoing debate among solidarity groups and among members of leftist organizations and parties over the years, going back to at least the Cuban Revolution and the Nicaraguan Sandinista government of the 1980s over whether leftists in developed countries should– or have the right to– analyze from a critical viewpoint progressive governments in Third World countries. A few years ago, I had a conversation with Coral Wynter, a leading social movement activist in Australia who had been a member of a small leftist party in that nation. She is a very active woman who has dedicated her life to fighting for just causes. She has actually come to Venezuela and on one occasion spoke to Chávez on his program “Aló Presidente.” In any case, she told me that she decided some time ago to leave the party that she had belonged to because of the discrepancy between the sectarian positions of her party, which considered the Sandinistas in the 1980s nothing more than bourgeois sell-outs, and her solidarity work, and she felt that the latter was suffering as a result of the positions held by the former. She felt she could not tell people that the U.S. and European governments should respect Nicaragua’s sovereignty and at the same time say that the Sandinista government is going down the wrong path– that those two messages were incompatible or at least there were tensions between the two that interfered with her political work.

In general, I agree with her. But at the same time, I do not rule out constructive criticism provided that it is accompanied by a degree of humility. I say this because the lessons to be learned are not confined to Venezuela and neighboring countries. There is much to be learned from the positive aspects of the Venezuelan experience as well as from the difficulties and errors. This is particularly the case because Venezuela is a pioneer in attempting to construct socialism by democratic means in the context of sharp polarization and sharp conflict over such an extended period of time– nearly 18 years, which is historically unmatched anywhere. These are very rich experiences that should be part of a debate on the left in order to learn from both negative and positive aspects for the purpose of designing effective democratic strategies both in the Third World and in developed countries.

* The “New Tricolor Barrio” mission is a government social program launched in 2009 with the aim of renovating and beautifying Venezuela’s barrios. In addition to fixing roofs, doors, and other infrastructure, the program is tasked with expanding access to drinking water, sewage lines, and electricity in poor neighborhoods. 

** The Barrio Adentro mission was launched in 2003 in cooperation with the Cuban government in order to provide free healthcare to all Venezuelans, particularly poor barrio residents, via a network of neighborhood clinics and regional hospitals staffed by Cuban doctors.

Steve Ellner has taught economic history and political science at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela since 1977. He is the author of numerous books and journal articles on Venezuelan history and politics. He is currently coordinating an issue of Latin American Perspectives titled Progressive Governments and Class Strategies in Latin America: Populist and Pragmatic Policies in a Broader Context.”