Venezuela has produced the most unexpected of recent mass social movements. Nine years ago, before the first election of Hugo Chávez Frías, few leftists of the world looked toward Venezuela to lift our sagging spirits. Many Venezuelan radicals say the same, like a communist union leader I met in the industrial city of Valencia: “We don’t know where Chávez came from,” he said, “but he came and changed everything.” By the time a popular uprising in Caracas reversed a U.S.-backed coup in 2002, Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” had become the greatest beacon of hope for leftists around the world. Hopes have risen further with President Chávez’s increasingly socialist rhetoric and the expansion of Venezuela’s social programs, fueled by breathtaking economic growth in the country’s nationalized oil industry. Venezuela is moving.
Only, it is far from clear where Venezuela is going. Many millions of people have pinned their hopes on the Bolivarian Revolution, but they are not all hoping in the same direction. Meanwhile the right-wing opposition to Chávez is weak but persistent. The right’s boycott of recent parliamentary elections shows that the “oligarchs,” as Chávez likes to call them, may still have a few tricks up their sleeve. Revolutionary optimists have called this an act of suicide by the right, ushering in a new phase of the revolution, now that Chavistas control every seat in the national assembly. But right-wingers always know how to spoil a party, and few Chavistas’ could conceal their unease at their eerily easy victory. For good reason-the course of the Bolivarian Revolution is still less clear now than it was before the elections.
I don’t intend to predict the future. But I will reflect on the conditions of possibility for the Revolution’s success. What will it take for the “revolutionary process” to fulfill its promises, promises which grow more radical every day? What will it take to realize the hopes that have been placed in the Bolivarian Revolution, when we know that not all of these conflicting and ever-changing hopes can be realized?
Hugo Chávez has declared his opposition to capitalism and support of socialism. When I was in Venezuela this past summer, most people agreed with him, even if they did not agree on what this might mean. Theories of socialism and social justice abound in Venezuela. Some Chavistas support the new social welfare programs, while hoping for an eventual reconciliation between the rich and the poor. Others call for struggle against the “oligarchs.” The country’s small but growing Trotskyist currents call for the expropriation of bourgeois property, while the larger Communist Party of Venezuela is more cautious, prepared for a very slow transition to socialism. Meanwhile the militant Tupamaros are prepared for armed self-defense of poor communities, and possibly for guerrilla war, if need be. It is quite unclear what Chávez himself envisions, partly because he lends his support to so many different ideas and strategies, and partly because his views seem to be changing fairly quickly.
Probably the most popular strategies for building socialism in Venezuela involve the principles of “endogenous development,” “co-management,” and “cooperativism.” The first term is broad, but among other things it lends legitimacy to the process of expropriating unused land and closed factories by workers and campesinos, as a means of increasing the economic potential and self-sufficiency of Venezuela. The term also refers to the country’s burgeoning cooperative movement, which in some ways has been filling in the economic gaps left by capitalism. In state-owned enterprises, “endogenous development” has involved an attempt to tie administration more closely to the interests of the nation, with autonomy from the dictates of international capital. In some enterprises “co-management” has been introduced, giving workers control over most internal affairs of the enterprise, while the state retains a stake in the enterprises’ profits and maintains some representation in administration.
None of these strategies involves a direct confrontation with established capital. In fact, for a long time it has been Chávez’s strategy to avoid such confrontation as much as possible. Even while the monopolistic corporate media blared the most extreme anti-Chávez propaganda, Chávez never advocated the popular expropriation of the means of mediatic production. Instead, he supported grass-roots attempts to establish independent media sources throughout the country. Similarly, many Venezuelans see the cooperative movement as an alternative to capitalism-one that is clearly superior, and which will continue to grow until it could become the dominant economic force in the country. More radical socialists are quick to point out the naïveté of this view, but it is also possible that Venezuela really is not yet prepared for direct confrontation-very few workers or campesinos have attempted to occupy factories or land that is currently being put to productive use by capitalists. A more important question is not “Will the Revolution be completed today?” or “Is Chávez really a socialist?” but “Is the Revolution moving forward?” The answer to the second question is a definitive yes. But this only raises more questions. Venezuela is moving, but it has a long way to go.
The election of Chávez was the impetus to significant popular mobilization in Venezuela. Many existing left organizations rallied to his cause, while poor communities began, slowly, to build organizations in support of the revolutionary “process” that the president heralded in the vaguest of terms. But at that time the “process” mostly involved attempts by the army and government agencies to implement social welfare programs-benefiting the poor, but not usually controlled by them. Then, in April 2002, came the attempted coup. If Chávez’s first election was kindling for a camp fire around which the Venezuelan population would gather, the coup was the spark the lit a wildfire. In the words of a woman I met in a Caracas neighborhood last summer, “The coup made us realize that we had to organize ourselves.”
This made all the difference, for it was the beginning of a revolution from the ground up, which has been steadily replacing the government’s first attempts at social change from the top down. It was during those tense hours in April that the first major experiments in community media began-by placing loudspeakers on trucks to fill the streets with news that would not be televised. And the spontaneous mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Caraqueños soon gave life to myriad neighborhood organizations which took increasing control over local affairs, including government-funded social programs and community-based cooperatives. After the “general strike” of December-February 2002-3, led against Chávez by the Chamber of Commerce and the conservative leaders of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), a rank-and-file labor movement emerged. The radical National Union of Workers (UNT) now represents more workers than the old CVT; and workers in several closed factories led successful campaigns for “nationalization under worker control.” Most likely, it is this mobilization from below that has led to Chávez’s own radicalization in recent years.
The people of Venezuela are far from controlling all aspects of their country. Most industry remains in private hands (though the publicly-owned oil company is by far the largest enterprise in the country). Large land-holders employ goons to intimidate campesino organizers, while the government is slow to recognize and defend the claims of squatters on under-used land. The structure of the state itself remains largely unchanged, in spite of the new composition of groups represented in it. The state may be partially autonomous from capital, as some theoreticians say, but it is only partially so. The Bolivarian constitution approved in 1999 has democratized the state to some extent, calling for “society that is democratic, participatory, and protagonistic,” demanding that all political parties hold primaries for choosing their candidates (a demand that has not been rigorously enforced), and providing the possibility of recalling candidates halfway through their term (a provision used unsuccessfully by the Opposition, of course, against Chávez). The constitution provides a legal basis for collective forms of property and cooperative forms of economic management. But the constitution protects private property in most cases, and it maintains the police and army as forces existing over and above the population (even if they are subordinated to the civil authority of the state). The community groups and cooperatives that have sprung up throughout Venezuela may contain the seeds of a dual power like what emerged with the soviets in Russia, the räte in Germany after World War I, and the committees and councils of revolutionary Spain in 1936. But at this moment the state is clearly the ultimate authority in Venezuela. At the same time, nearly all progressive Venezuelans agree that the self-organization of the masses is the key to the Revolution’s future.
The paradoxes of the Bolivarian Revolution are numerous. It is a revolution of self-organization, but symbolized by a single leader at the head of a powerful state. It is a revolution of direct democracy and popular participation, but marked by electoral victories and individual personalities. It is a revolution toward “socialism,” but explicitly socialist organizations have played only a secondary role (though important) role in it. It is a revolution against a military coup, yet led by a former officer and aided by the work of the army. It is a national revolution that is different in every community, where different local forms of organization deal with different elites and different government bureaucrats. It is also a revolution that combines nationalism, pan-Americanism, and international solidarity, and it remains to be seen whether these different positions can be reconciled. It is, I think, a real revolution, but a really slow one.
The figure of Hugo Chávez Frías stands at the center of the revolutionary process. The vast majority of progressive organizations and individuals in the country have expressed their support for him, in one form or another. He is by far the most popular person in the country, with no serious rivals. With all due caveats about “great man” theories of history, it is very unlikely that Venezuela would have taken its radical turn if Chávez had not entered the political scene. And yet, Chávez is not the most important part of the revolution. And the further the revolution proceeds, the less important he will become.
Left critics of Chávez point out his numerous errors and limitations. He provided cheap oil to the Ecuadorian government at a moment when Ecuadorian workers were fighting the state; he attends summits with George W. Bush; he states his support for turncoats like Lula in Brazil; he collaborates with reactionary nations in OPEC. But in all this Chávez is merely acting like a president. The problem is not so much with Chávez, as with the institution of the president itself. The problem is not really to imagine or elect a president who would not do these things, but to fight for a society in which there will be no president at all.
This does not mean opposing Chávez; it means making him irrelevant. It means that the people will take over the revolution, leaving Chávez perhaps as a figurehead, or as an honored symbol. It means acting together with all forces that support revolution-but acting critically, never losing sight of our own demands in our defense of revolution. And if we believe Chávez’s own words, his support for participatory democracy, cooperativism, and socialism, then this move should win his support as well.
To a large extent this is already what has been taking place. The people of Venezuela-organized in their communities, their workplaces, their villages, their parties, their ethnicities, their gender-have been demanding more and more from the state. When the state does not meet their demands, they mobilize until their demands are (usually, if they are persistent enough) met. Chávez himself has remained above most of these tugs-of-war between people and bureaucrats; and when he has intervened, it has usually been to express his support for the people. But we should not presume that Chávez will always agree with the demands placed upon him and the state. If there comes a moment when he asks the people to delay or reverse their revolution, will his authority win out, or will the people have the last word?
The last parliamentary elections have opened many new possibilities for Venezuela, some more welcome than others. With the opposition gone from the electoral landscape, along with the urgency of defending Chávez against attacks from the right, the way could be cleared for new political groupings to gain support. But the opposite result is also possible. The immediate result of the elections has been a homogenization of the National Assembly, with Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) winning the vast majority of seats, and most other seats going primarily to uninteresting groups like “Homeland for All” and “the Popular Electoral Movement.” Will this sudden and unplanned monopoly of power lead the ruling party to consolidate itself at the expense of its more radical allies? A constitutional amendment allowing Chávez to serve an indefinite number of terms would be similarly unfortunate. (It can be argued that Chávez will likely remain the most popular person in the country, one capable of uniting progressive forces and perpetually defeating the right-wing Opposition; but the task of the revolution should be to free itself from dependence on individual leaders, not to make a virtue out of the necessity of uniting with them.)
The right-wing boycott of the elections may be even shrewder than most observers have stated. On the one hand, it is unlikely that the boycott will help the individual parties that participated. They were already fading fast from the electoral scene, and if it saved them from embarrassing defeats, it also gives the population the chance to forget about them. Many of their own supporters were disappointed by their decision. Most commentators are probably right in supposing that the boycott was calculated to undermine the international legitimacy of Venezuelan democracy. Even within the country, Bolivarians seem profoundly disappointed at having been deprived of what promised to be an overwhelming victory by fair means. It is possible that they will carry out their program with less enthusiasm without the “whip of counter-revolution” in parliament (to use a phrase which Chávez has taken from Trotsky). But it is also possible that the Opposition hoped to ruin the revolution by more subtle means. If they could not win, they might at least spoil their opponents’ spoils. If the homogeneity of the new National Assembly serves to limit the diversity and democracy the revolution, then the Opposition might succeed in forestalling authentic socialism, even if it does not immediately restore the old political system it used to serve.
But the verdict is still out. Now is the moment for Venezuelan radicals to make clear their political differences, without fear of weakening the government in the face of the Opposition. It is time that the vast heterogeneity of social forces in the Venezuelan revolution manifested itself within the political structures of the revolution-not counting on the leading party, the MVR, to lead. Because parties no more than presidents can make a revolution. They can promote revolution, up to a point-but there comes a point at which the people must push them out of the way. And the more different parties there, promoting different forms of revolution, the more easily the people can choose from among their suggestions, and discard their organization when they become too rigid or too powerful.
Yet another possibility is that these elections will mark the twilight of parliamentary power in Venezuela altogether, as power could be devolved to more participatory, directly democratic structures. With its boycott, the Opposition has made itself irrelevant; it is time to make parliament-and Chávez-irrelevant as well.