On 28 July 2016, Hugo Chávez Frías would have been 62. Despite his death from cancer in March 2013, his figure and the mass-movement he inspired, Chavismo, looms large over the country, dominating the political scene and everyday conversations. From the Caracas barrio where I live, the unusually named 'El Manicomio’ (Madhouse), the night-time fireworks celebrating Chávez’s birth can be heard from the Mountain Barracks where he is laid to rest, piercing the Tuesday night hum of the community and the conversations of my neighbour’s local store, which still boasts a small shrine in his honour.
Anybody who has read news articles about Venezuela in the past year can be under no illusions about the current situation that the country faces: economic meltdown, spiralling inflation, scarcities of basic goods, and an opposition hell-bent on unseating the president by any means possible before the end of the year. For those who have looked towards Venezuela as a beacon for a more just society, it’s a particularly painful sight. Triumphant headlines pervade virtually all mainstream press: socialism has failed (yet again!) and Chavismo hovers on the brink of extinction.
A new reality
Despite the gaping craters of missing information in these reports – not least the role of Washington’s hawkish foreign policy and the violence of the national political opposition – it is true that Chávez’s Venezuela of endless possibilities has now been replaced with a veritable minefield of previously unimaginable activities. Repairing broken fans and blenders with leftover screws and wires, flirtations with rooftop urban agriculture and home-made deodorant, three hundred and one experiments trying to make corn bread out of yuca or plantain in order to avoid four-hour queues, and collective endeavours to break the private market’s stranglehold over food production and distribution through community organised markets, are all now part of day-to-day life.
These Herculean efforts to find alternative ways of being, remaking both ourselves and our communities in the face of a raging economic crisis, rarely permeate the hysteria of the mainstream press. Perhaps because, to paraphrase Arundhati Roy, they allow us a momentary glimpse of the potential new world that still continues to breathe just below the chaos of Caracas.
But despite facing these everyday trials and tribulations, do those at the heart of Venezuela’s current storm believe, like the mainstream press, that the economic crisis means that the bell has tolled for Chavismo? Can these past eighteen 18 years be relegated to the history books with the wave of a presidential recall referendum, as the opposition hopes?
Far away from BBC corridors, not only are the answers to these questions a resounding ‘No’, but they also describe a complex picture which reveals vital insights for building socialism in the 21st Century, and more crucially, for correcting the current errors in Chavismo.
A view from the ground
'The idea of Chavismo for us is a way of living, a different way of life,’ explains Ronny Rojas, a land activist and spokesperson for the National Campesino Front and the Revolutionary Bolíivar and Zamora Collective (CRBZ) in the state of Guáarico. ‘Chávez made us see the truths that they hid from us. He may have disappeared physically, but Chávez is a story like that of Ezequiel Zamora, like Simon Bolívar, that lives on inside of us. There are lots and lots of people who will defend Chavismo until the day they die,’ he continues.
Rojas’ statement is no exaggeration: even though it is so often misunderstood as simply party allegiance, Chavismo runs 500 years deep in Venezuela. Despite his deep commitment to this vision, however, Rojas is not unaware of the scale of the concrete problems currently facing the country.
Just ten minutes before our interview started, the CRBZ had held a press conference denouncing ‘reversals’ in the process of land reform that was initiated under the Chávez government. According to the CRBZ movement spokespeople, 60 per cent of land remains in the hands of large estate owners – a figure which is on the rise – while 50,000 land dispute cases currently languish unresolved in the National Land Institute (INTI). At the end of July 2016, a director at the INTI was arrested by authorities for demanding millions of Bolívars in bribes in order to finalise the transfer of land deeds. The reports paint a picture of the current deadlock embedded within the very institutions tasked with carrying out revolutionary change.
‘Chávez created institutions and took over the INTI to help those campesinos [rural agricultural workers] with no land,’ says Rojas. ‘Within the first few years of their creation, they really managed to shake things up, to wage a struggle against the latifundista [(large landowners]) for the benefit of the campesinos. But recently, since the death of Chávez, we have seen that there are a layer of bureaucrats that are playing to bring down the revolution, denying land titles of financial assistance, and investment for production units. He continues: ‘Speaking honestly, Chavismo at the institutional level has become chaotic and decadent’, he tells me.
Power for the people?
His words ring true for many Chavistas, who perceive that an acute political crisis underlies the country’s current economic strife. Similar to Rojas, Atenea Jiméenez, a founder of the country’s Network of Communards, believes that Chavismo will transcend any ‘political and economic junctures’ that might be thrown at it. Principally because it possesses its ‘own symbolism’ and ‘way of doing politics’ that is now firmly embedded in the culture of the country. However, she also sees that alarming fissures have developed between the national government and progressive movements; and this is what worries her more than the current horrifying price of pasta. ‘There are no spaces where the governing of the country is being discussed with the popular movement. It seems more like popular power is a depository which just receives the politics created by others,’ explains Jiménez.
‘This is even when the popular movement has suggested really strategic proposals for dealing with the economic crisis,’ she continues. For Jiménez, the question mark which continues to hang over Chavismo is the same as that which catapulted it down the path towards socialism in the first place: how to build a genuine participatory democracy which permits ordinary people to take part in real decision-making processes on a daily basis and which impact on government policy?
Despite the celebrated democratic initiatives of the Bolivarian government, the consolidation of people power and the seeds of a new communal state through communal councils and communes, radicalised politics at a local level has so far failed to make lasting inroads into the functioning of the state itself. In 2014, an initiative put forward by President Nicolás Maduro to form several ‘Presidential Councils’ of social movements to liaise directly with the head of state promised to try and amend this, but eventually dissipated into nothing except generalised grassroots fatigue. ‘We had a lot of criticisms of the presidential councils, because they effectively put a strait jacket on popular power, stopping it from developing from the bottom up. The ministers were the ones who ended up developing the work methodology and agenda,’ explains Jiménez.
‘If we are serious about wanting campesino movements, communal councils and workers to exercise power, why don’t we ask them what we need to do so that they can govern? Instead, there are two or three people deciding what is to be done and how,’ she continues. With Chávez no longer at the helm of the revolution, and faced with a full-on rightwing offensive and economic crisis, this issue is arguably more urgent than ever.
Looking to the future
For Marx Gómez, an investigator in political ecology at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation (IVIC) and activist in several communications and ecofeminist collectives such as La Danta Las Canta, these internal contradictions in Chavismo have been a long-time coming. A notable case in point is the government’s new mega-mining project, the Orinoco Mining Belt. A project which is currently sowing division in the historically broad church of Chavismo, merged into a unified and coherent project so artfully by Chávez himself.
For Gómez, the future of Chavismo will depends on the grassroots’ ability to take up the offensive again; to find strategies to open up spaces to reconnect with and re-orientate the national government. It’s a difficult task, but not impossible. After all, there is a significant historical precedent: it was precisely these groups which managed to push Chávez himself from an initial social-democrat project towards increasingly ecological, feminist and anti-colonial horizons. ‘For me, the most interesting point of view, however, is being developed by groups who we could call counter-hegemonic, who still recognise themselves as Chavista and who are restructuring themselves. Their reading isn’t the end of Chavismo, but rather the need to revitalise this political movement or this counter-hegemonic vision which they have. I’m referring to the movement of Communards, feminist and ecological movements,’ explains Gómez. ‘The real questions is how these anti-hegemonic groups can reorganise and rebuild this revolutionary proposal, without being state-centric, which of course doesn’t mean not taking the state into account,’ he continues.
Jiménez maintains that there are glimpses that this process of correction is also already underway, with sectors in official parties and social movements currently demanding greater supervisory control over government projects ‘to ensure that Chavismo does not end up going off course’. In fact, stopping Chavismo-in-government from losing its bearings was a matter of intense urgency for all the activists I interviewed. In contrast to the position adopted by academics such as Edgardo Lander or political groups such as Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide), they only perceive an uphill battle littered with outright repression should the opposition make its way back into government, as opposed to the possibility of a revolutionary opening. Repression which they warn has already begaun since the opposition took power of the National Assembly last December, leading rightwing forces – convinced that the winds of change are blowing their way – to try to violently claw back what they have lost to people like Ronny, both in parliament and in the streets.
For now, the immediate future of the country is unclear. As staple goods begin to reappear back on shop shelves, and the government’s community-based food distribution programme known as the Local Committee for Supply and Production (CLAPs) starts to take effect, people are allowing themselves to hope that the worst of the economic crisis might be behind them. Especially given the production-freeze deal reached by members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in November.
In the background, however, a political confrontation is bubbling. A frustrated and dangerously fractured national opposition has promised vowed to stop short of nothing in its bid to oust the government by the end of the year – even attempting to set in motion its own unconstitutional Brazilian-style impeachment process in October 2016. Meanwhile, their allies at the Organisation of American States are circling, and Donald Trump has pledged to help 'liberate oppressed Venezuelans' in the 'resource-rich country' once he takes control of the White House.
Chavismo has temporarily put its differences aside and come together to defend the presidency of Maduro in the face of these threats. But real long-term solutions and a process of rectification are needed, above and beyond a recovery in oil prices, to fix the inertia at the heart of this historic and unchartered attempt to build Socialism of the 21st Century. Chávez said it wouldn’t be easy, and as usual he was right. The one thing you can be sure of, however, is that Chavista activists on the ground will continue to search for these much-needed solutions, no matter what is lurking on the horizon. They need your solidarity more than ever.
This article was originally publised in Alborada Magazine. It is edited and republished here with permission.