What’s Left of the Bolivarian Revolution?

In difficult times, life histories by grassroots Venezuelan activists illuminate valuable lessons from the Bolivarian Revolution, argues Sujatha Fernandes.


There have recently been a number of pieces featured in NACLA and the progressive media outlet Jacobin evaluating the Nicolás Maduro government in Venezuela and questioning the ongoing viability of Chavismo. Leftist commentators have proclaimed the end of the Bolivarian Revolution and the failure of twenty-first century socialism, and have offered a takedown of the alternative media outlet TeleSUR. These leftist commentators have joined the chorus of mainstream media in their negative evaluations of the Nicolás Maduro government, albeit with differing diagnoses. Electoral setbacks, economic crisis, the end of the commodity boom, corruption, top-down management – all are presented as evidence that the Bolivarian project was unsustainable and has reached its limits.

While some of these observations, such as Eva María’s piece on the inability of state-led projects to challenge global capital, are accurate in their diagnosis of the problems faced by the country, they are all hampered by the longstanding failure to truly grapple with questions of working class political life and consciousness. Analysts Steve Ellner and Gabriel Hetland offer a more nuanced exchange about the complexity of challenges faced by the Maduro government, and they are clear about the need to oppose imperialist intervention. But beyond the intellectual evaluations of the Maduro government, we need to go deeper to understand the political struggles of social movements on the ground in Venezuela, and to offer solidarity to the many urban and rural organizations to the left of the Maduro government who continue to critically support it, and who constitute a vital part of the ongoing revolution.

The Bolivarian project has always consisted of organized popular sectors working alongside the Chavista government, as parallel and mutually reinforcing streams. While focusing on government ineptness and corruption, leftist commentators sideline progressive movements on the ground who continue to do the important work of grassroots organizing, whether in tandem with, in tension with, or independently of the state.

These movements, chronicled in books by Alejandro Velasco, George Ciccariello-Maher, Steve Ellner, myself and others, have engaged in left wing politics for over five decades, and they continue to work at the grassroots level, in the urban barrios, the communes, the factories, the indigenous communities. These movements currently face the threats of imperialist intervention and coups, right wing fascism, impending civil war, and US government funding of anti-Maduro forces. Rather than further isolate progressive forces by declaring the end of the radical social experiment, we need to defend Venezuelan sovereignty and offer our solidarity to social justice movements.

Building Solidarity Through Testimonios

One way to build solidarity with progressive forces in Venezuela is through testimonios, the first person life narratives of peasants and workers—used in Central America during the 1980s to garner support abroad for radical social projects that were under siege by U.S.-funded militaries and counter-insurgency operations. Through testimonios of working class activists in Venezuela we gain a sense of their lives, aspirations, and struggles for social change.

From the mid-2000s, the Venezuelan government sponsored autobiography workshops as part of an initiative known as the Misión Cultura. The workshops seem to have tapered off in recent times, although the current status of the program is unclear. Barrio residents, workers, indigenous people, and peasants across the country were engaged in writing their personal narratives and local histories under the guidance of trained facilitators. Alongside other government-sponsored social missions that provided healthcare, literacy training, soup kitchens, and subsidized groceries, the Misión Cultura aimed to “give words, voice, to us, those always silenced.” The mission sought to build up a popular alternative archive of people’s stories and local barrio histories, alongside the official archives. The workshops offered a range of models for writing testimonios, including nonlinear models such as that popularized by the Andean Oral History Workshop (THOA) in Bolivia, in which individuals are located within spheres of kin, groups, communities and their organizations.

The program piloted in 2005 in the Caracas parish of Macarao with 51 participants. Shortly thereafter it spread to other parishes and sectors across the country. As of 2008 at the height of the program, there were some 32,335 people participating in the autobiography workshops, according to a paper by Michelle Leigh Farrell. The initial idea was that the personal and local histories would form part of a new national and popular archive in the Biblioteca Nacional in Caracas. However, these stories were never compiled so there is no repository of them available in any one place.

Although these testimonios do not address the current conjuncture, they can build a picture of the vast breadth and depth of popular forces that have participated in the Bolivarian Revolution, forces that continue to work today under much more difficult and constrained circumstances.

One testimony, collected by the Misión Cultura in 2006, belongs to William Peraza, a sixty-year-old Afro-descendant man from a barrio named Coro in the northern state of Carabobo. He identifies his maternal grandmother as a descendent of indigenous Caquetia people, who are “today disappeared peoples in Jacura, Falcón state.” His maternal grandparents were herbalists “who knew the power of almost all of the plants of the zone.” His world moved between the barrio and the countryside, where his family members had small plots of land, and where he was introduced to the medicinal plants and local grains that his family cultivated: legumes known as quinchoncho and tapirama, a medicinal plant known as pira atún, and staples such as quimbombó (okra) and ocumo ñame (tuber).

The early part of Peraza’s narrative evokes the life of the barrio, one marked by the traditions of the Afro-Venezuelan fiestas such as San Juan and Cruz de Mayo; the carnivals of December under the almendrón tree; the solidarity and collaboration of neighbors who helped each other out; and stories from elders about the nearby coastal Morón, formerly home to many runaway slaves and a base for organized slave revolts. When Peraza was in sixth grade in 1970, barrio Coro became a base for revolutionary organizing, with residents harboring insurgents on the run from the government. The following year, a young Peraza helped to found the Revolutionary Student Front, which won the student elections in his school over the groups from the prevailing political parties Democratic Action (AD) and Christian Democratic Party (COPEI). Peraza led the student group in a protest against the school providing contaminated water to children.

Peraza’s narrative moves fluidly between his cultural activities such as organizing fiestas and founding a local Culture House, his political activism, his entrance into the workplace as a machine operator and union organizer in a paper factory, and his research into Afro-descendant culture and history. The spheres of the neighborhood, the workplace, and the community center are interconnected; they are all sites of daily life and protest that shape his revolutionary consciousness. Peraza’s research on the history of runaway slaves in Morón led him to organize a Cruz de Mayo fiesta in his barrio, and he saw his cultural work as part of a broader project of consciousness-raising.

Political work forms a constant thread throughout Peraza’s testimony. It is a politics of insurgency that is shaped in contention with the police, against the dominant political parties and corrupt, opportunistic politicians of the era. He distinguishes his political work from “politicking,” or using electoral politics for individual gain.

Peraza discusses his involvement in the student movement in 1974, and then the civic strike organized against the government in 1976 to protest the lack of water and electricity services, and police repression. In retaliation, he was detained by the intelligence services, and government forces bombed the Culture House that he had founded. In February 1992, Peraza participated in the military coup launched by Hugo Chávez, after which he was hunted by police and had to go into hiding.

Peraza’s narrative emphasizes the reclamation of his Afro-Venezuelan identity, and in particular the appropriation of figures such as the rebellious runaway slave Andresote, who was said to have taken refuge in the mountains of Morón. There is an emphasis on cultural recognition and rights of Afro-descendants that are tied to a broader class struggle. Peraza’s awareness of injustice and inequality comes as a result of his intertwined experiences of daily life, cultural activities, stories from his elders, and encounters with the police and the military. While his current activities are unknown, we can point to the historic struggles he and others engaged in as progressive elements of the Bolivarian revolution that are worthy of highlighting and defending.

Another story completed in 2014 is by Ricardo José Guerrero, a cultural activist from the parish of La Pastora in Caracas who suffers from diastrophic dwarfism. He describes his condition in detail: “It involves knotted tendons in all joints of the fingers, elbows and knees, with deformities in the feet and the central trunk of the body.” The key events in Guerrero’s autobiography are not political, like Peraza, but are more focused in the cotidiano, the everyday experiences and struggles experienced in the barrio.

After living for many years in a crowded house with his grandmother, in the 1990s, Guerrero moved with his mother and siblings to their own rancho, a precariously constructed house in the upper reaches of the barrio Las Torres. He recalls that it cost his mother 4,000 bolívares, assigned the number 0017 by the National Guard, and it was “like a little matchbox,” with a toilet behind it.

Guerrero describes the problems of transport for those living in the ranchos. Residents had to wake up at five in the morning or earlier to catch a bus and then train to go to work. Guerrero recounts how in December 1999, the rancho collapsed during a storm: “Five minutes passed after I left the rancho and suddenly, in fractions of a second, the walls fell in of what was my home. I was in shorts and without a shirt, with the rubber boots that I had on in this moment. All of our belongings were now in the mud.”

The collapse of his home was a defining moment in Guerrero’s life because it altered his life circumstances, forcing him to live with many others in a makeshift camp that was to become his home. From the relocation camp in the Parque Recreacional Sur in Caracas, Guerrero convened peoples’ assemblies, organized work commissions, and engaged children and dislocated residents in cultural activism.

Today, Guerrero is part of a collective of people with disabilities known as Los Incurtos. While working from a position of critical support of the Maduro government, he seeks to create “a new concept of disability in times of Revolution,” where questions of socialist production, participation, and revolution can all be rethought through the lens of disability.  

It is the daily struggles—over housing, transport, sanitation, and dislocation—as well as the collective space of the barrio, repositories of indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan history, and cultural fiestas that shape the consciousness and agency of Guerrero and Peraza. Their struggles are part of long term projects of consciousness raising, community building, and resistance that predate Chavismo and will continue after it is gone. We need to listen to these stories. We must learn about the struggles of social movements and their historic efforts, amplified under Chavismo, to build an alternative society through cultural activism, cooperatives, communes, unions, community media, and neighborhood assemblies.

Amid deep crisis, decades of political experience inform the critical attitude of social movements toward the Maduro government. But these histories also shape their lasting and continuing commitments to social change and social justice. More importantly, they remind us of what requires preserving of the Bolivarian Revolution, especially as we conduct necessary and critical evaluations of what has failed of the effort.

Progressive forces on the ground recognize the limitations of their government, but many are making strategic decisions to offer critical support as the best way to create space for their ongoing political organizing. To proclaim the death of the revolutionary project is to condemn these forces to silence and invisibility. Our response in the West should be to defend the space for them to critically engage and even protest their government, to demand that our own governments abstain from intervention, and wherever possible provide the platforms and resources for progressive social movements to continue their work in these difficult times.

You can read more stories from the Misión Cultura autobiography project in my book chapter, “Rumbas in the Barrio: Personal Lives in a Collectivist Project,” from my new book Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Sujatha Fernandes teaches in the Departments of Political Economy and Sociology & Social Policy at the University of Sydney. She is the author of several books, including Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela (Duke University Press 2010).