In Venezuela, the eyes of the global media and commentators are fixed on the battle for the presidency, with the country’s legitimate president Nicolás Maduro in one corner and the US-backed President of the National Assembly and self-declared head-of-state Juan Guaidó in the other. Fears of a US intervention or civil war are widespread, while criminal sanctions imposed by foreign powers — the US in particular — combined with government corruption and mismanagement have devastated the national economy.
The poor state of Venezuela’s economy is often presented by right-wing pundits as a failure of the country’s socialist Chavista governments that have ruled the country for the last 20 years. But this shortsighted analysis ignores both role played by international powers in their efforts to crush the radical socialist experiment that has taken root in Venezuela, as well as the historic gains of the Bolivarian Revolution in the fields of poverty reduction, education, increasing equality, housing, the radical democratization of the country from the bottom up, and more.
To shift the focus away from the battle for the presidential throne, we asked a group of international experts to share their thoughts on the chances of survival of that most important, inspiring and admirable achievement of the Venezuelan people: the Bolivarian Revolution. Expressed in the agricultural and urban communes, the worker cooperatives, social movements and local councils, the Bolivarian revolutionary process preceded the Chavista governments by many years, and the key question right now is: has it a chance to outlast it too?
The replies below look at the Bolivarian Revolution and the Venezuelan crisis from a number of different angles and reach different conclusions — not all of which are necessarily representative of ROAR’s position on the topic. We offer these different perspectives on the assumption that the critical and intelligent reader will be able to make up their own mind as to which reading they find most persuasive, and which position they are most comfortable to align themselves with.
Many thanks to Sujatha Fernandes, Richard D. Wolff, Julia Buxton, Dario Azzellini, George Ciccariello-Maher, Raúl Zibechi, Gabriel Hetland and Cira Pascual Marquina for taking the time to answer the following question:
Can the Bolivarian revolution survive the current political and economic crisis in Venezuela?
RICHARD D. WOLFF
Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Visiting Professor at the New School in New York.
I think it can (which is not to say it will). Chavéz and now Maduro had enough time to demonstrate to the mass of Venezuelan people — in policy commitments and real accomplishments — that they were different. They were not another Venezuelan (or indeed Latin American) regime change full of democratic and egalitarian promises that quickly evaporated into the same old, same old.
The mass mobilization of support was and is key, and the same goes for the mass organization of that support into self-reproducing popular institutions carrying out revolutionary policies. Similar processes were also key to the revolutionary successes in Cuba.
The basic conundrum for the US now is that early massive intervention is often politically unworkable — partly because of the history of past US interventions. It increasingly takes time to build sufficient domestic and international consensus for intervention. Time is needed for the carefully cultivated media concoctions and diplomatic maneuvers. That time is also available to the revolutionaries in power.
The latter must grasp the importance of speed and determination in really enabling the mass of poor people to transform their lives outside and against the rules of the pre-existing oligarchies. By doing so, they raise the risks and costs of a possible US intervention. In these very concrete, practical senses, it is “the people’s engagement,” that holds the key to the success of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. Time is also crucial to enable revolutionary governments to find the allies and modalities to build global support for what they are doing domestically.
Institutions of popular participation in both political and economic decision-making processes are crucial. Worker cooperatives producing goods and services need to be developed to support citizens’ councils of political governance and vice-versa. That is a necessary basis for real power from below. Movement in that direction gives solidity to the idea of a new world being constructed. Belief in that idea is itself a material force for the revolution’s survival.
Even if US-led interventions overthrow Maduro, the more Venezuelans organize along the lines specified above, the greater their contributions to the other revolutions, present and future, across Latin America and beyond.
Lecturer at Cornell University, author of “Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela: Building 21st Century Socialism from Below” (2017).
If by “Bolivarian revolution” we refer to the Venezuelan government, the response is not easy. We can affirm that it survived the political and economic crisis better and longer than all its enemies expected. Besides the drop in oil prices and the government’s own mistakes, one other cause of the current crisis is the international pressure on Venezuela, ranging from economic boycotts, financial sanctions and the illegal confiscation of billions of dollars deposited in international banks, to sabotage carried out by mercenaries and terrorist cells.
Over the past 20 years, all efforts by the US, the Venezuelan opposition, some EU countries and the Latin American far-right to achieve regime change in Venezuela have failed again and again. The main reason for this failure is that they do not understand what the Bolivarian revolution really is: a genuine Venezuelan Latin American(ist) mass movement and feeling, hope and real utopia, deeply inscribed in the lived experiences of the Venezuelan people, the urban poor, the rural population, afro-Venezuelans and women.
It is a process of building a socialist society based on self-government, rooted in a bottom up council system. It combines indigenous and Afro-descendent historical communal and cooperative experiences and resistance with different heterodox socialist and communist ideas and genuinely Latin America concepts of popular power. Its expression can be found in the communal councils and communes, the initiatives for workers’ control and cooperatives, endogenous development and agroecology.
If that is what we mean by “Bolivarian revolution,” then there is no doubt that it will survive the current crisis. The relationship between the rank-and-file movements seeking to build a “communal state” — the ideal future state form, according to former president Hugo Chávez — and the government has always maneuvered between conflict and cooperation.
The last years of the Chávez government and the first years under Maduro were marked by increasing conflicts between the constituted and the constituent power. The latter represented by the diverse movements striving towards a communal and cooperative socialism intensified occupying and taking over land and workplaces, demanding workers’ control in state owned companies and more power to the people.
The increased efforts by the US and the Venezuelan right pushing for regime change have brought most of these movements back into the fold of the Maduro government, in order to defend their rights and the possibility to decide on their own destiny.
Author of “We Created Chávez: People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution” (2013), “Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela” (2016), and “Decolonizing Dialectics” (2017).
The Bolivarian Revolution began long before Hugo Chávez. Forged amid the failures and contradictions of the armed struggle of the 1960s and 70s and the community organizing and armed self-defense of the 1980s and 90s, it remained a subterranean force for decades that stood for rethinking the path toward a new kind of socialism imbued with a more radical form of grassroots democracy. None of this is going anywhere.
But the already brutal economic crisis racking Venezuela today will only get worse in the short term. Sanctions imposed by the Trump regime in 2017 have made even the most straightforward international financial transactions nearly impossible. The oil blockade and the new wave of sanctions imposed in recent months amounts to an act of open warfare on the Venezuelan people. The breaking-point is not far off: this is the wager of Trump and the Venezuelan opposition — they think it will be worth it. But the question for the revolutionary left is this: when the breaking-point is reached, which way will things break?
The Bolivarian Revolution has already proven surprisingly resilient, surprising coup plotters in 2002 and 2019 alike. But will the very real legacy of Chavismo — social welfare, radical grassroots democracy and the development of consciousness among millions — be enough to weather this storm? Will revolutionary movements be able to harness the crisis, through a sort of left-wing shock doctrine and jumpstart a revolutionary process that has seen its energy drained and exhausted by forces from within and without? No one knows how this will turn out, and anyone who promises to know the future is lying to you.
But what is clear is that the only radical path forward is through the Revolution, not with an elite opposition that would brutally roll back history, but equally not with the hand-wringing immobility of the “neither-nor” positions that dominate even leftist media today. In this process, the position of Venezuela’s communes will prove decisive. Spread across the countryside and urban areas, the communes stand today as territories liberated from the reign of capitalism and, support for Nicolás Maduro notwithstanding, from the state as well.
If the opposition seizes the state and moves against the communes, they will become entrenched in a resistance struggle that leads who knows where. But this a situation the communes have found themselves in since a long time; waging a war on two fronts against both the right-wing opposition and the right wing of Chavismo. A war to build a different Venezuela, a different economy, a different (non-)state. A war for the liberation of the people, which is to say, a war for communism.
Researcher in Latin American social movements, political theorist, journalist and writer.
First of all, there wasn’t a revolution in Venezuela. Not in the classical sense of the term, which involves a change of the political regime.
Second, I think the Bolivarian process is going through two great difficulties that lead me to think it is in a terminal phase: an internal crisis of legitimacy and an external aggression led by the United States.
If the Cuban revolution was able to survive the embargo, invasion attempts and many other forms of aggression, it was because there was a strong sense of its legitimacy among the population, who completely supported the regime and the government of Fidel Castro, especially during the first and most difficult years. The Cuban revolution did not survive because of support from the Soviet Union. This was important, but it survived because the Cuban people involved themselves in the process, in many diverse ways.
None of this is happening in Venezuela. The legitimacy of its authorities is being questioned. The traditional bases of support for Chavismo have eroded and a substantial part is now against the government of Nicolás Maduro. The regime is only being maintained by the fear that dominates within the armed forces, who are subjected to strict control, and by the existence of armed “collectives” who monitor and repress the protests.
Part of the population knows that a victory by the opposition would be disastrous for the interests of the popular classes. For this reason, they prefer a government like the current one, rather than a change towards the abyss. But this position is being worn down because the suffering of the Venezuelan people, thanks to the disastrous economic situation, grows deeper and deeper.
The Maduro government’s main argument — namely, that the problems they are facing are a result of external aggression — is ultimately insufficient to explain the current crisis, and the population knows it. The only way for the regime to continue is through more repression and control of the population.
CIRA PASCUAL MARQUINA
Writer and editor at venezuelanalysis.com, Political Science professor at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela in Caracas and co-producer and co-host of the Marxist education program “Escuela de Cuadros”.
Only by breaking with the current state of affairs can we open the way for the continuation of the Bolivarian Revolution. And when I say this I mean that the Left of Chavismo needs to force a radical change of course, towards the left.
Basically, this project can only survive the current multi-dimensional crisis, which includes the imperialist aggression and the government’s inertia, if there is a concerted and collective effort towards the organization of society in communes, as Chavez proposed beginning in 2009.
The commune is the political and economic building block in the transition to socialism. It has old roots both in Venezuela (pre-colonial structures and cumbes) and for the left tradition (Paris Commune, soviets, Chiliying Commune, etc). The commune’s vocation is profoundly participative, involving direct democracy and collective control over production based on social property. Both popular democracy and social property are key to breaking the metabolism of capital, which is alive and well in Venezuela.
As indicated above, Venezuela is facing a multi-dimensional crisis. The distributionist, reformist model that dominated the first decade of the Bolivarian Process (based on a policlassist distribution of the rent, possible only in a period of economic expansion) began to show clear signs of exhaustion in 2014. Add to that a radical drop of oil prices and the collapse of production (both industrial and oil), and the criminal US sanctions put in place in mid-2017, and the result is extre me.
For several years after the first clear signs of exhaustion, the government stalled, allowing a sort of spontaneous liberalization of the economy to occur. More recently, traditional adjustment policies were put in place. These are beginning to produce results: the economy is beginning to “normalize”… but what we are talking about here is the normalization of the economy in capitalist terms. Normalization, in a Third World country, necessarily means that the poor are getting poorer.
Extraordinary experiences of popular power continue to exist: these include the communes but also food distribution cooperatives and workers’ initiatives. Such projects demonstrate that — under extreme circumstances that include new forms of imperialist aggression — participation and collective production can offer solutions to daily problems in an efficient manner while displacing capitalist structures.
To the world outside, our call is loud and clear: Venezuela is a sovereign nation. The US and its allies should stop their multifaceted aggression against our people and our democratically elected government immediately! US intervention, after all, has one main objective from my point of view: erasing the emancipatory objectives of the Bolivarian Revolution, including the communal project.
The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.