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Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project | Social Movements

Beyond Chavistas and Anti-Chavistas

A myth has long existed in commentary on Venezuela, which goes something like the following: when discussing the Venezuelan revolution, the relevant actors can be expressed through the binary “Chavista/Anti-Chavista.” This myth, it should be mentioned, has a certain political efficacy, and is indeed necessary in situations like the recent elections, in which my enemy’s enemy was indeed my friend.

But the errors facilitated by such a binary framework are too many to count. These include, for example, the facile view that Chávez is little more than an autocrat running a personalistic movement bent on centralizing power in his own hands. Moreover, we cannot even begin to grasp the recent call for a unitary socialist party and the dissolution of the MVR within the framework of Chavistas versus the opposition. But the danger of such a framework is above all political: by lumping the entire “Chavista” voting bloc into one homogeneous mass, we run the risk of missing precisely what is most radical about the process.

While the internal dynamics of the revolutionary movement are variegated and shifting, with multiple axes, criteria, and alliances, for analytical and political purposes, it is useful to introduce the idea that there are two Chavismos. These are, on the one hand, the middle-of-the-road, social democratic Chavistas, who occupy some of the highest posts in the government, and who are largely represented by the centrist current of the MVR and PODEMOS. This latter organization, an admittedly social democratic electoral alliance, has a revealing history, having only recently (in 2003) split from the opposition centrist MAS party headed by Teodoro Petkoff.

While the elimination of Chávez’s former mentor Luis Miquilena and many of his moderate disciples in 2002 surely dealt a blow to this tendency, its persistence is clearly reflected in both the political centrism of many MVR leaders as well as in the fact that on December 3rd, PODEMOS was second only to the MVR among the Chavista ranks, earning more than 750,000 votes.

Perhaps more salient than their centrist orientation, this sector is ideologically the least hostile to and hence most susceptible to bureaucratization and corruption. Chávez himself has recently spoken of the need to brandish “two swords…one against corruption and the other against bureaucratization.” It is for this above all that centrist Chavistas are viewed with disdain by the more radical sectors.

On the other hand, we have radical Chavistas. These are represented electorally in some sectors of the MVR and some currents within the cadre-style Homeland for All (PPT) party, but above all in the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV), the Tupamaros, and Lina Ron’s hardline Venezuelan Popular Unity (UPV). But beyond being a properly electoral current, radical Chavismo is more than anything else a grassroots phenomenon, visible in those mobilized masses who are pushing the deepening of the process and consistently attacking bureaucratization and corruption in all their forms.

This can be seen in the fact that while both the UPV and the Tupamaros are minor players electorally, their grassroots influence is considerably greater (the former serving as Chavista shock troops and the latter dedicating themselves to local self-defense). Many who vote for the predominant MVR due to its identification with Chávez attack the leadership of the party for its moderation and presumed corruption (one could even speculate that these are the majority among MVR voters). In these sectors, socialism and participation merge into one coherent current, effectively distinguishing them from the center.

What does this rupture within Chavismo do to our understanding of Venezuelan society more broadly? Rather than a binary understanding of society, we gain the subtlety of a more broadly tripartite schema constituted by anti-Chavistas, moderate Chavistas, and radical Chavistas. Rather than seeing merely elections and the “consolidation of power,” we are more sensitive to the fact that the “deepening of the Bolivarian Revolution” means the attacking of one sector of Chavistas by another, within the context of a formal electoral unity. We can see, moreover, that Chávez’s recent dissolution of the MVR is more like a cultural revolution than a step toward authoritarianism, as it aims to purify the movement of corrupt moderates.

Besides these programmatic and ideological differences, we could also constitute such a tripartite vision quantitatively. The official “opposition” represented by the Rosales campaign garnered just over one-third of the vote, a proportion that could be adjusted downward since the candidate’s blatant populism (his “Mi Negra” debit card which, it was claimed, would directly distribute oil wealth to the poor) undoubtedly drew away some whose politics might under other conditions favor Chavismo.

The other two-thirds, then, can be divided between moderate and radical Chavismo. The calculation is difficult given the tendency for Chavistas of all stripes to vote MVR (the party gained 66 percent of total Chavista votes), but is visible schematically in the breakdown of votes garnered by PODEMOS (31 percent of non-MVR Chavista votes), PPT (23 percent of the same) and the PCV (13 percent), respectively.

What, in turn, is the effect of starting from a tripartite rather than a binary division of Venezuelan society? Firstly, we would be forced to de-emphasize the role of the traditional “opposition.” Here, the political stakes of the distinction are clear: a binary division between Chavistas and the opposition gives entirely too much weight to the wealthiest oligarchic sectors of Venezuelan society. The opposition press, the most powerful weapon of these oligarchs, expressed this with the utmost of clarity when they regularly described Rosales as the “candidate of national unity.” This “opposition,” constituting a mere third (or less) of the electorate, should be granted no more analytical privilege than the sectors constituting Chavismo.

The second effect of this tripartite view is an undermining of common understandings of what constitutes the political “center.” This category is dubious wherever it is found, favoring as it does an arbitrary two-party view of the world that discourages all forms of radicalism, but it is even less sustainable in the current Venezuelan conjuncture. Seeking a “center” between Chavismo and the right-wing opposition leads to the same problem mentioned above: by privileging the official “opposition” as one of two poles in a binary relation, we again do the work of the oligarchs.

In short, by beginning from a more accurate view of the dynamics of Chavismo, our entire view of Venezuelan political society is disrupted: the fallacies of the single “opposition” and the firm “center” lose all value. Things are immediately more complicated, but also more palpably revolutionary: we have broken the analytical stranglehold that the long history of oligarchic domination has imposed upon our concepts, a domination in which 10 percent of the population count as much as the remaining 90 percent, and in so doing, we perform theoretically precisely the same gesture that the Bolivarian Revolution has performed politically.

But, one might ask, what are the political stakes of doing so? These stakes lie in the need to be attentive to the subtle infiltration of this liberal-oligarchic binary, especially in nominally radical or leftist discussions of Venezuela.

We could take, for example, the recent efforts by Nikolas Kozloff to “set progressives straight” on Venezuela (see his various articles at Venezuela Analysis and Counterpunch). A brief survey of Kozloff’s articles shows that almost every single one draws its substantive content from a single interview source: the centrist “human rights organization” Provea. Kozloff justifies his deference to Provea by claiming that the organization is “hardly a tool of the right wing opposition.” This is true, but this gesture also demonstrates that the validity of Provea’s perspective derives, for Kozloff, from the fact that it represents a “less biased view,” occupying a middle ground between the “government” and the “opposition.”

Even more disturbing is the fact that, in a recent Counterpunch article ostensibly devoted to the elections (but which spends remarkably little time on the subject), Kozloff goes even further (“Chávez Against Rosales,” December 2nd/3rd 2006). “To get more perspective about social polarization,” Kozloff inexplicably turns to former Primero Justicia (Justice First) General Secretary Gerardo Blyde. Primero Justicia, despite current attempts to masquerade as “centrist humanist,” is widely known to be a far-right party and heir to the ailing Christian democratic COPEI.

Both in turning to the center for “a less biased view” and to the far right for “more perspective,” Kozloff is performing the same gesture: referring to an imaginary center which favors the right. This might be forgivable were it not for the fact that, aside from people on the street to whom he turns for quotidian observations, Kozloff appears not to have interviewed a single Chavista! No representative of the various Chavista political organizations, Bolivarian Circles, or local councils. No mayors, ministers, or representatives to the national assembly.

Hence in a recent Counterpunch article on crime in Caracas (an article which, incidentally, demonstrates an extreme distaste for all but the wealthiest parts of the very city that the author seeks to “save”), Kozloff’s choice of sources prevents him from providing a substantial explanation for the intransigence of violence in the city (“Saving Caracas,” December 27th 2006).

There is no mention of the fact that the problem emerged during the neoliberal reforms: the murder rate in Caracas more than tripled between 1986 and 1989 (from 14 to 45), and peaked in 1994 at 96 per 100,000, considerably higher than the current rate (which most, even the opposition, put around 60-70). Kozloff is content to quote the head of Provea, who simplistically and erroneously asserts that, “during the Chávez mandate, the security situation has worsened.” 

Moreover, there is only the briefest mention of the various actors involved in perpetuating this situation, and specifically the fact that the Metropolitan Police are guilty of both looking the other way in return for bribes or actively participating in crime. There is no mention of the fact that this very force was under the control of opposition mayor Alfredo Peña until 2004, thereby preventing any effort at reform (Peña even called in the head of the NYPD, of all people, to train the Metropolitan Police).

Most importantly, Kozloff makes no mention of government efforts to tackle crime, specifically the successful deployment of the National Guard to violent areas and the ongoing process of police reform, one which began in 2005 and is beginning to bear fruit. Given the fact that the police are often the problem but also indispensable to the solution, a reform process was considered the necessary precondition for any effort to attack violent crime at its roots. Such omissions are not surprising for someone whose perspective is limited to the “center,” as located between the government and the right.

Caracas indeed needs “saving,” but we won’t be able to help if we limit ourselves to the Chavista/Anti-Chavista binary, one which in the pursuit of objectivity effectively does the work of the oligarchic opposition. There are a multitude of revolutionaries on the ground struggling for their city and their country, attacking both the right and the corrupt and bureaucratic Chavista center, and we will understand little if we systematically ignore their efforts or rob them of their autonomy through fidelity to an analytic binary whose very validity has been decisively ruptured by the Bolivarian Revolution.

George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley. He lives in Caracas.