Hugo Chávez as an Expression of Urban Popular Movements

The radical trajectory of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela has been a highly controversial topic among Latin Americanists, democratization experts, policy makers, and activists. Neither side, though, addresses the role of popular social sectors in shaping the agenda of the Venezuelan Revolution.

The radical trajectory of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela has been a highly controversial topic among Latin Americanists, democratization experts, policy makers, and activists. Some lament what they see as Chávez’s disregard for the rule of law and the breakdown of the party system. They compare him to other neo-populist leaders who bypassed traditional institutions and created direct linkages with the masses. Others defend his greater concern with addressing historic problems of poverty and entrenched inequalities than maintaining the order of traditional institutions.

Following the debt crisis of the 1980s, and subsequent waves of privatization and neoliberal restructuring in Venezuela, poverty increased dramatically. The percentage of the population living below the poverty line went from 36 percent in 1984 to 66 percent in 1995. Given these stark disparities, a radical approach like that of Chávez could be justified to increase social spending and redistribute wealth.

Yet Chávez’s supporters, like his detractors, seem to place a high degree of agency in the hands of Chávez himself as the sole figure responsible for crafting policy, designing programs, and providing orientation to an otherwise incoherent mass. Neither side addresses the role of popular social sectors in shaping the agenda of the Venezuelan Revolution. My own defense of Chávez comes not only from an endorsement of his pro-poor policies and programs, but from my belief that he represents a certain territory fought for and won by popular consciousness.

During the nine months that I lived in a popular barrio of Caracas while carrying out field research between 2004 and 2007, I witnessed the flourishing of grassroots social movements, from community radio collectives to Afro-Venezuelan cofradías organizing local fiestas, health committees, and mural collectives. While commentators lumped together these diverse groupings as “Chavistas,” or the “Chavista movement,” many community organizations and popular leaders in the barrios did not identify as Chavistas. Rather, they have alternative sources of identity that come from their barrio or parish (Barrio Sucre, Barrio Marín, 23 de Enero, San Agustin, Petare), and which form the basis of alternative social and community networks (Coordinadora Simón Bolívar, Cayapo, Radio Negro Primero, Ciudadela de Catia).

These popular movements claim distinct genealogies that predate Chávez, including the clandestine movements against the 1950s military regime, the post-transition era of guerrilla struggle in the 1960s, movements against urban displacement and hunger strikes led by worker priests in the 1970s, and cultural activism and urban committees of the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, urban movements have participated in shifting clientilist relationships with the state, fostered by three decades of the redistributive welfare model, that was refashioned under Chávez. The approach of contemporary urban sectors towards the government contains these elements of autonomy as grounded in histories of local struggle and mutual dependency that has evolved over time.

The relationship between society and the state is reciprocal: just as the strong figure of Chávez has given impetus and unity to popular organizing, so the creative movements fashioned in the barrios help determine the form and content of official politics. To see Chávez as an independent figure pontificating from above, or popular movements as originating in autonomous spaces from below would be to deny the interdependencies that have made possible Chávez’s emergence and sustained access to power. At the same time, popular sectors have realized the need to chart an independent trajectory from the Chávez government, or “oficialismo,” as it is referred to, in order to defend the interests of their community and sustain their projects.

In my research on Venezuela and earlier on Cuba, I have sought to develop a framework for thinking about citizen-state interaction in contemporary societies, particularly as social movements across Latin America began to lay claims to state power. As compared to social movements that emerged in the 1990s such as the Zapatistas, who have defined their opposition to a repressive state apparatus in Mexico, social movements flourishing under moderate and radical leftist governments in the new millennium encounter a new state-society dynamic. I propose that we look at the interconnections, alliances, and points of collaboration between critical movements and the state. 

At the same time, I note that critical social movements seek to build spaces of autonomy for themselves, especially in contexts of developing social revolutions. During earlier periods of the Cuban revolution, or the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, the threat or reality of U.S intervention, combined with a more Leninist model of the vanguard party, reduced the autonomy available to grass roots movements. By contrast, social movements in contemporary Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Bolivia have managed to negotiate greater independence in relation to the state. They engage in decision-making in unaffiliated local popular assemblies based in the neighborhood, they carry out protests to register their disapproval of certain policy tactics, and they have their own forms of popular media produced by the community and for the community.

Community groups in the barrios have worked closely with Chávez since the beginning, but the movement for independent organization became most apparent in 2004 during the recall referendum. In November 2003, following a series of efforts by the opposition to oust Chávez from power, including a two-month general strike and a coup attempt, the opposition collected signatures as required by the 1999 constitution for a referendum to determine whether Chávez should be recalled from office. The required amount of signatures for a recall referendum was 20 percent of the population or 2.4 million people. The opposition presented 3 million signatures, but after a lengthy review, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) ruled that only 1.9 million of these signatures were valid. The opposition was given 5 days in May to validate those signatures that had been excluded, to see if they could come up with the required signatures. Chávez appointed a body of militants from his party, the Movimiento Quinta Republica, in a committee called Comando Ayacucho, in order to oversee the recall signature petition.

During these days, I heard about numerous cases of fraud from friends and people in the barrios. They said that the opposition had illegally used names of people who were dead or did not support the recall referendum, and in the case of the latter, some people went to dispute the use of their name. But for the most part the Comando Ayacucho failed to mobilize people from the barrios to contest cases of fraud, and they made frequent announcements saying that the opposition would not reach the target of 2.4 million signatures. So when the CNE actually announced in early June that the opposition did reach their target and the referendum would be scheduled for August 2004, people in the barrios felt shocked and betrayed by the Comando Ayacucho. On the morning of June 3, I was carrying out interviews in the parish of 23 de Enero. Some activists wondered if perhaps Chávez had brokered a deal with the opposition. Others said that the Comando Ayacucho was simply incompetent. In a series of local assemblies in La Vega, 23 de Enero, and other barrios, community leaders emphasized the need for self-organization, saying that barrio residents could not rely on the government and officially appointed committees to organize “on their behalf.”

In the lead up to the referendum, local networks and activists were key in organizing popular sectors in support of the “No” campaign to keep Chávez in office. Chávez replaced the Comando Ayacucho with the Comando Maisanta, and a vertically-organized structure of local units known as Unidades de Batallas Electorales (UBEs). Community groups cooperated with the UBEs and at times even incorporated into them, but for the most part these were tactical and temporary groupings to win the referendum. The driving force behind the “No” campaign came from organized community activists, who launched an aggressive campaign to register and mobilize voters to vote in the referendum. Community organizers set up Voter Registration Centers in all the parishes, and these were staffed around the clock by teams of local activists. Barrio-based radio and television stations and newspapers devoted space to explaining the importance of the referendum and encouraging people to vote for Chávez. As the day of the referendum grew closer, several radio stations located centrally, such as Radio Negro Primero, became News Centers, which gathered information and passed it on to other radio stations. Rather than Chávez’s charisma, his subsidized social programs, or the ineptitude of the opposition, the decisive factor in Chávez’s ultimate victory was the mobilizing role played by local barrio organizations.

Following Chávez’s success in the August 2004 referendum, social movements sought to assert themselves more openly. Urban activists have taken the initiative to organize street protests in the capital against aspects of government policy in solidarity with rural and indigenous groups. In March 2005 and January 2006, activists from the National Association of Free, Alternative, and Community Media (ANMCLA) came together with indigenous groups to protest the Chávez government’s plan to increase the extraction of coal in the oil-rich state of Zulia. The protesters pointed out that the plans would increase water contamination and health risks for the mostly indigenous population of the region, dependent on scarce water supplies. The protesters took on the language and symbols of the Chávez government itself to challenge its plans for coal mining. On their “No to Coal” placards, protesters utilized the “No” symbol of the pro-Chávez campaigners during the recall referendum, as a way of signaling the ways they have supported Chávez, who must now listen to their concerns. The signs referred to Chávez as “compañero,” but at the same time, the protesters were highly critical of a model of development that exploits scarce natural resources.

Urban social movements have long been engaged in struggles against environmental contamination, halting harmful industrial projects such the cement factory in La Vega in 1981, and during the coal protests in 2005 – 2006, urban activists expressed their solidarity with indigenous groups. As a result of the protests, the Chávez administration ordered commissions that confirmed the contaminating impact of the mining and they postponed plans to increase coal mining to 30,000 tons, although they did not meet protester’s demands to reduce it to zero.

An engagement with the experiences of popular classes in the Chávez era reveals a reality that differs from dominant assessments being made outside of the country. The U.S. State Department and some academics have attempted to demonize the Chávez government, labeling it an authoritarian regime and a security risk to the region. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared Chávez to Adolf Hitler, referring to the Chávez government as an elected dictatorship. Yet the opposition in Venezuela retains an extraordinary degree of monopoly over the mass media, and all sectors have the rights to protest in the streets and to criticize the government.

Moreover, the active organization and involvement of formerly disenfranchized and marginalized sectors of the society makes contemporary Venezuela more participatory and inclusive than countries often touted as successful democracies. It is an ongoing, sometimes contested, and always negotiated synergy between state and society that lies at the base of the historic presidency of Hugo Chávez.

Sujatha Fernandes ([email protected])