What is Bolivarian Socialism? And When?

What will Venezuela look like when the Bolivarian Revolution is complete? How much worker control will there be? And will representative democracy have withered with the blossoming of a participatory system?

“Chavez did not fall from the sky,” the cab driver quipped, although one might have mistaken the President for some class of deity , at the 16th World Festival of Students and Youth (WFSY) held in Caracas this August 7-15th. Most Venezuelans are unrepentant Chavistas these days, whether veterans of the Bolivarian movement or recent converts after supporters of Hugh Chavez Frias garnered more than two-thirds of the votes in the August 7th municipal elections. But wasn’t it Marx, a revolutionary often quoted in Chavez speeches, who advised us to ‘question everything’?

Sloganeering at the festival reached a level unfamiliar to even the most dedicated protest tourists. Banners stretched across major urban routes touting the revolutionary process, and billboards championing the socialist dream coloured the grey nether regions of Caracas. Such propagandizing led some delegates to wonder whether the festival wasn’t a case of executive opportunism. But what precisely was Chavez labouring to communicate to 20,000 young people over these seven days?

In a recent article for International Socialism, Mike Gonzalez of the Scottish Socialist Party asked the simple question of who is at the heart of Bolivarismo? The objective of this question of course is, more precisely, to reveal what the Bolivarian process actually is. Is it a nationalist project? Is it socialist? And is the anti-imperialist beacon of Chavismo also anti-capitalist? This article brings these questions to bear on the 16th World Festival of Students and Youth.

The Bolivarian Foundation

The confusing nexus of nationalism and socialism in Venezuela is indecipherable without examining “the rebirth of a 200 year-old project,” which Chavez emphasized in his speech to 2,000 delegates on August 13th. That the Simon Bolivar himself is setting the revolutionary course was a fact impressed upon me by more than one festival organizer, who perceive current reforms as direct extensions of the original independence struggle. But it is a common practice of world leaders to project the memory of national heroism onto the tumultuous present. One wonders whether Chavez is thus providing himself with a mythical foil, and to what degree Bolivar actually informs a revolutionary path in the modern day?

On August 15th, the anniversary of Bolivar’s oath to fight Spanish imperialism unto death, Chavez seized the pedagogical moment to inject further substance into the character of his historical ally. During a private address to the Cuban delegation and a gathering of influential guests, including Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, he highlighted Bolivar’s progressive ideals: democracy and independence for Latin America, freedom for slaves and indigenous peoples, land reform, and education for all. The challenge for the administration has been, and will continue to be, the grounding of these abstract values championed around the world and throughout history by despots and liberators alike in concrete social projects.

“Many people speak of the Bolivarian revolution, but they don’t understand what it means,” complained Carlos Aquino, a lead organizer of the festival. “We must systematize his ideas.” Chavez’s eulogy for Bolivar on August 15th is crucial in this context, for it seems an effort to demythologize and modernize the revolutionary truths of the national historical memory. Under Chavez, Bolivar’s emphasis on national autonomy has translated into the reclamation of oil sovereignty, while his position of equality for native peoples has manifested in the return of public lands to indigenous communities. Unfortunately, the majority of these Bolivarian reforms aren’t representative of the systematic change that Aquino describes. Such initiatives must deepen into a more coherent design for organized society if the national and global left are to believe, as Chavez does, that Bolivarianism provides a clear framework for socialism in the 21st century.

The Bolivarian Republic

Mid-week, I visited the Nucleus for Endogenous Development of Catia Fabricio Ojeda to speak with working class Venezuelans about the missions in their neighbourhood. The missions are ambitious social programs focused on education, vocational training, nutrition and health. They are the most visibly impressive examples of progress in a country full of contradictions. Catia boasts both a shoe and textile factory, each cooperatively operated with remarkable efficiency. A significant organic agricultural project serves both practical and educational purposes, and a free clinic staffed by Cuban doctors provides healthcare to thousands. Most importantly, rank-and-file activism is the engine for the entire project, which has dramatically altered the quality of working life for those directly involved.

The clinic of Catia, according to Professor Wilfredo Roche, director of the project, has provided free healthcare to over 29,000 patients since the 24th of January, the majority of which had never seen a doctor in their life. And this is only one neighbourhood; hundreds of similar nucleuses are emerging around the country. For this reason, Felix Lopez, editor of the Cuban/Venezuelan solidarity magazine Patria Grande (Large Country), smirked when I inquired about the relatively slow implementation of participatory democracy after it was given a legal framework in the 1999 constitution. “We’ve done things in seven years which took Cuba forty,” he retorted, claiming that the numbers who’ve accessed free healthcare under the Mision Barrio Adentro (Inner City Mission) nationwide are approximately 16 million.

There is a long list of such successes in The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. According to Katie Cherrington, in article for Green Left Weekly, the Chavez government built more houses in its first two years than its predecessors had in the previous 20. And government subsidized grocery stores support millions of Venezuelans with discounts of up to 50 percent. Still, as Gernot Bodner, member of the political committee Anti-Imperialist Camp, has pointed out, these “economic changes are limited to a redistribution of government funds in favour of the reform programmes,” and Lopez readily admits that oil revenue is the real reason for Venezuela’s efficiency in many sectors. After seven years the Bolivarian movement has struggled to institute what the Rumanian economic historian America Vera-Zavala has accurately dubbed a parallel democracy, a redistributive and more participatory democracy that operates along side the still thriving capitalist polyarchy. Such reforms represent a dramatic change in ideas and practice, but they do not as yet amount to the overturning of the former political economy.

The Bolivarian Horizon

The approach of the Chavez administration to the WFSY was made obvious by the festival theme: For peace and solidarity, we fight against imperialism and war. The threat of U.S. intervention is real, as we know after the failed coup of April 11, 2002, and U.S. antagonism is likely to intensify if the Chavez administration pushes its policy as far left as its rhetoric. Because mass protest resulted in the re-instatement of Chavez to the presidency, 47 hours after his arrest in 2002, developing a citizens’ awareness of intervention in the short term is vital to the defence of the republic. There is thus reason in Chavez’s anti-U.S. oratory. Unfortunately, this polemical energy seemed to excuse a deeper analysis of the Bolivarian movement at the festival.

After listening to three epic Chavez speeches and interviewing countless organizers and activists, anti-imperialist rhetoric began to sour without a more detailed illustration of neo-liberalism in Venezuela and Latin America as a whole. This is not surprising in light of Bodner’s argument that “the explosive momentum of Venezuela is obviously her anti-imperialist position against the U.S. empire, not a domestic radicalization of class struggle that would envisage the destruction of the state apparatus and creation of a people’s power within the next period.”

Yet, on August 13th, the President of the National Assembly Nicolas Maduro contradicted this viewpoint when he asserted that socialism was the only way forward. That same evening, Chavez used the words of Rosa Luxembourg to make clear Venezuela’s options: “Socialism or Barbarism.” These promises received a rousing response from the delegates, but I doubt many of those applauding could cite an example of genuinely anti-capitalist policy in Venezuela today.

If Chavistas have actions to back up their words, they failed to explicate how far these actions will reach. How will affordable food become food sovereignty? When will healthcare cease to be a commodity entirely? While the phrases “in process” and “unfinished” are undeniably accurate descriptors of the changes underway, they were often used by organizers to dismiss the admittedly difficult question of timeframe. The year 2025 is poised as the chiliastic watershed, but 99% of WFSY delegates went home without a forecast of the next two years, much less the next 20. While the festival had a global focus, its implied (and justifiable) objective was an exhibition of the Bolivarian Revolution. In this respect, the festival must be considered a mediocre educational experience, for the “revolution” needs to be exposed to critical dialogue, not showcased as an unequivocal victory.

Before the Cuban delegation, Chavez speculated that Bolivar, had he lived a little longer, would have joined the ranks of socialists by 1850. In an interview, President of the National Preparatory Committee for Venezuela, David Velasquez, agreed with this retrospective analysis. “Bolivarianism and Socialism are complementary. National liberation, sovereignty, autonomy . . . these point to socialism.” While many Venezuelan socialists adhere to this union, some, like former Minister of Planning Roland Denis, have called for a more dialectic definition of the national project. As the revolution shifts from defence against international intervention to a deepening of its political project, this proposal must be fulfilled, lest Venezuela be condemned to the ambiguity of a nation in transit, ever susceptible to derailment.

On this note, Aquino concurs with Leon Trotsky that revolution must be perpetual, and was bold enough to call the constitution a “tactical” measure “which will get us through this stage of the revolution.” David Velasquez, who Chavez personally thanked in numerous speeches, didn’t hesitate to assure me that the new parallel democracy would eventually swallow the entrenched capitalist order. But what will Venezuela look like then? How much worker control will there be? And will representative democracy have withered with the blossoming of a participatory system?

The World Social Forum, which arrives in Caracas in six months, must press these questions with greater success, thus sidelining the anti-imperialist hype and mainstreaming programmatic explanation. The Bolivarian Revolution has the potential to take its place among the most egalitarian socialist experiments in human history and currently merits critical investigation like no country in the world. Indeed, if the Chavez administration is as good as its festival propaganda, it will be as the U.S. fears, much more than just an experiment.

Gabriel Furshong is an independent U.S. journalist and campaigns officer with the London based NGO Justice for Colombia.