How the Left Got Where It Is in Venezuela (and What to do About It)

Chris Gilbert argues that the breaking down of the Bolivarian movement's organic structures has led to the masses being demobilized and the government's subsequent rightward turn.

By Chris Gilbert - Counterpunch
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March of the Revolutionary Popular Alternative in Caracas, December 2020. (APR)
March of the Revolutionary Popular Alternative in Caracas, December 2020. (APR)

By the end of Hugo Chávez’s presidency, a vague social contract had come to exist in Venezuela. It was not unlike the social contract which sustained real socialism for many decades, as described by Michael Lebowitz in his book Contradictions of Real Socialism. Both situations involved a vanguard that guaranteed a certain level of welfare to the masses in exchange for their passive support. Importantly, what the masses offered in exchange for receiving material well-being and dignity was support for the government, but not participation. Although participation had been a central principle of the Bolivarian Process embodied in Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, it was gradually sidelined as the first decade of the twenty-first century was coming to a close.

The story of the shelving of participation in Venezuela’s revolutionary process is a little examined and little understood process. Yet it is crucially important. It was for the most part the work of middle cadres, in as much as they systematically undid the grassroots and organic structures in the Bolivarian movement and the PSUV party to protect their own power. This battle against organic structures was a gradual, iterative process. In effect, during the various election campaigns, organic structures of popular power took shape, including the Bolivarian circles formed before Chávez’s election, the 10-member groups that operated in the leadup to the referendum in 2004, and the party “battalions” formed in 2007. Unfortunately, after each of these organizational structures had achieved its short-term goals, the party cadres dissolved them, thereby blocking the formation of grassroots expressions of popular power, only to invent new ones when different tasks emerged.

The overall effect of this iterative process was to erode and eventually rout popular power, which came back weaker after every wave of demobilization. As a result, the above-mentioned tacit social contract was eventually consolidated, involving passive support for the government in elections in return for material well-being. The project underpinned by this arrangement was called “socialist” but in fact it had little to do with real socialist objectives. This is because a socialist project, to be meaningful and lasting, must turn on popular protagonism and the promotion of full human development.

A clear case demonstrating the character of this falsely “socialist” quid pro quo consolidated at the end of the Bolivarian Process’s first decade was the much-celebrated Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela. This was Chávez’s last major undertaking that achieved concrete results. It was a giant housing project which provided more than 2.5 million houses to needy Venezuelans. Yet it did so without any participation or empowerment of the masses. Beneficiaries got their house keys handed out to them in public events, but neither participated in the conceptualization and planning, nor the realization of the project.

This, then, was the situation and basis of power that Maduro inherited when elected president in 2013. However, it quickly proved impossible to sustain. The falling oil prices in 2014, the ratcheting up of financial attacks on the country, and the US and European sanctions that began in 2015 made the government’s provisions in favor of popular welfare – its half of the contract – impossible to hold up. Paradoxically, however, the US’s attacks on the country, which were most explicit in the cruel oil sanctions, also gave Maduro and his government a way out. The “socialist” welfare train may have been running out of fuel, with people becoming increasingly dissatisfied, but the cover offered by outside attacks allowed Maduro and his team to look for support in another sector. That was the sector made up of the members of the movement, party, and allies who wanted to set up businesses, to initiate and expand capitalist development.

This is exactly what Maduro and his government proceeded to do. Unable to fulfill the existing social contract and at risk of losing popular support, they could now shift most of the blame to outside forces for the economic situation, thereby neutralizing most popular dissent, while seeking additional, new support from an emerging capitalist class.

Was there any other option? The other option would have been to turn to the masses, reinstate popular participation, in this way forging a new, authentically socialist contract with the masses based not on rising material welfare but on revolutionary participation and protagonism. The government and party, of course, perceived this as risky. Such a move would have threatened the consolidated power of middle and upper cadres, but it also shocked against the common sense that tends to pervade the Venezuelan bureaucracy, a common sense that both derives from the past and trickles in from the global capitalist context, making government officials distrust the capacities and rationality of the masses.

In fact, even Chávez, in the latter part of his presidency, came to have the same aversion for risks that Maduro exhibits today. This was nowhere more evident than in Chávez’s policies toward neighboring Colombia. In relation to Colombia, Chávez chose, beginning in 2007-2008, to promote a peace process that would result in the elimination of the 50-year-old FARC guerrilla. Rather than thinking about radicalizing the guerrilla, which could have been done by translating the Bolivarian process’s key early principles of popular participation and protagonism into a different context than the one to which Chávez was accustomed – a context defined by armed conflict – the Venezuelan president wanted the guerrilla to make a soft landing into legal politics. Armed struggle against US imperialism is of course a highly risky business, but in his desire to eliminate it, Chávez seemed to be proposing that a rubber stamp of Pink Tide legal politics might function in the neighboring country. It was preposterous. That model, which was already in danger in Venezuela at the time, could never have even gotten off the ground in the polarized conditions existing in Colombia.

Risk-free politics is virtually a contradiction in terms for the left and it is at best short-lived. This is because the security that one acquires is always a security that involves increased dependence on the dynamic and the forces of capitalism. In the crisis that he faced soon after entering the presidency, Maduro took the path of least resistance and sought to eliminate risks by leaning toward capitalist development. The government’s decision to replace the extant social contract by embracing emergent capitalist sectors – a shift that was done under the cover offered by a brutal imperialist attack – is nowhere more evident than in the ironically-named Anti-blockade law, approved in October of 2020. One would imagine that an anti-blockade law would be about closing ranks with the Venezuelan people to face down the external enemy. The law approved in the National Constituent Assembly, however, is nothing of the sort. It betrays its real purpose in key clauses guaranteeing the possibility of privatizing public enterprises without any accountability to the people.

It is important to point out that the option of pursuing risk-free politics – even if it is a chimera – was not even available to Chávez in the first half decade of his presidency. That has to do with the overall geopolitical context of that time and the lack of powerful allies. When Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution got going in 1999, it was almost alone in the world. For that reason, the only possible support for the movement was the Venezuelan masses themselves. It was this popular bloc, mobilized under Chávez’s charismatic leadership, that faced down a US-dominated world. Its moment of glory was when it successfully defeated the US-backed coup d’état in 2002 and the oil sabotage that followed it. Yet, with the rise of Russia and China as significant counterweights to US power, another option came onto the table. That was the possibility of relying on an emergent capitalist class locally and seeking international support from these counterpowers, while shuffling the Venezuelan masses out of the mix.

Analyzing a historical development with a bad outcome is pointless if one does not examine the paths not chosen, but possibly still available. In Venezuela, the social contract that defined Chávez’s last years – passive masses supporting a government that guaranteed material welfare – is no longer possible. Yet the current government’s turn to seeking support from an emergent capitalist class is not the only option. There is still life and effervescence in the Venezuelan masses. Practices of social solidarity, egalitarian ideals, and a questioning attitude towards leadership have all been part of Venezuelan popular culture over the long run. These traits were fostered, albeit in contradictory ways, during the first decade of Chavismo. Even in the petty trade and barter that have now become means of survival for urban Venezuelans one finds – along with the individualism that private trading necessarily involves – practices of solidarity.  Solidarious attitudes are even more evident in the masses’ survival strategies in relation to health, food, and housing.

Another key focus of social solidarity in Venezuela is the subset of functioning communes, which continue trying to produce under new social relations. These working communes may be relatively few in number, but they are part of a broad-based campesino movement that embodies many of the same values. The trick would be to find ways to enhance all these practices of social solidarity, which represent the true logic of socialism, along with developing the means to translate popular solidarity and cooperation into active political participation. Reviving participation – the road not taken by the Bolivarian process during the last decade – would mark an important, game-changing shift toward authentic socialism, having more to do with human freedom and development and less to do with mere material well-being doled out to passive masses. The latter is not even a possibility under any imaginable regime in Venezuela in the near future.

Conclusion: If the weight of these solidarious practices and organizational forms could grow in the society and they could push toward political expression, it would pressure the leadership to rectify by abandoning its turn towards emergent capitalist sectors. All of this would involve grave risks. However, the path to socialism and human liberation is inconceivable without risky efforts like the armed struggle that once took place in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra and Venezuela’s February 4th uprising, neither of which had especially good odds of succeeding.

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.