Ten Years On, Bolivarian Revolution at Crossroads

In 1998, when
he was first elected president, Chávez was viewed by many
throughout the region as a kind of ideological throwback. But as social
movements gained strength over the next several years and new
progressive leaders took power in the neighborhood, Chávez seemed to be
at the forefront of social struggle against corporate free trade.

By Nikolas Kozloff - NACLA
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In 2006, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was
at the height of his political powers. Traveling to New York to address
the United Nations General Assembly, he delivered his by now infamous
broadside attacking George Bush as “the devil.” After delivering his
fiery speech at the United Nations the Venezuelan leader went to Harlem
to meet with local residents. Once there Chávez received a hero’s
welcome, which was hardly surprising given that the Venezuelan leader
had provided discounted fuel oil to disadvantaged African Americans and
Latinos in the neighborhood.

Returning to Caracas from his sojourn abroad, which put him front
and center within the international media spotlight, Chávez could take
some satisfaction in the fact that Venezuela had now become a
significant regional power. Having racked up several electoral
victories at home, and having beat back a hostile U.S.-backed coup and
a months-long oil lock out at the end of 2002, Chávez’s “Bolivarian
Revolution” was seemingly unstoppable.

The Venezuelan president had indeed come a long way. In 1998, when
he was first elected president, South American leaders were still
enthralled by Washington-style neoliberal economics. At that time, with
his fierce denunciations of globalization, Chávez was viewed by many
throughout the region as a kind of ideological throwback. But as social
movements gained strength over the next several years and new
progressive leaders took power in the neighborhood, Chávez seemed to be
at the forefront of social struggle against corporate free trade.

ALBA: Chávez’s Geopolitical Instrument

Chávez’s geopolitical instrument was the Bolivarian Alternative for
the Americas (ALBA), designed to promote reciprocal trade outside of
the usual corporate strictures. An innovative initiative, ALBA was
quickly embraced by the likes of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Bolivia’s Evo
Morales. By now flush with money as a result of higher oil prices,
Chávez was able to provide petroleum to Cuba at reduced prices. In
return, Venezuela received valuable medical assistance from the island
nation in the form of skilled doctors. Meanwhile, Chávez inked
important deals paving the way for greater Venezuelan participation in
the Bolivian energy sector. In exchange, Morales pledged to export
agricultural goods to Venezuela. Though largely insignificant in terms
of the overall volume of trade, ALBA successfully encouraged
reciprocity and solidarity among left-leaning governments.

Could the Venezuelan leader promote “socialism for the twenty-first
century” and successfully turn back U.S. economic influence in the
region? Such a possibility would have been regarded by many as a pipe
dream just a few years earlier but with the United States’
international image now tarnished under George Bush, Venezuela now
seemed like an attractive ideological model for progressive governments
in Central America and the Caribbean.

In short order, Nicaragua and Dominica opted to join ALBA, thus
enhancing Chávez’s diplomatic standing. Moreover, as part of a special
ALBA fund for the Caribbean, Venezuela has pledged to provide financial
assistance to Haiti that will allow the poverty-stricken nation to
build more housing and a popular market in Port-au-Prince.

For a medium-sized country with only 27 million inhabitants,
Venezuela now enjoyed an unprecedented level of geopolitical influence
within the region. By all indications, Chávez’s star was rising. But
then, last month, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa decided against
joining ALBA, casting some doubt on Chávez’s long-term aspiration to
extend socialist-style economics to other neighboring countries. Why
does the Chávez juggernaut seem to be losing steam and what is the
geopolitical future of the Bolivarian Revolution?

The Rise of Rafael Correa

Prior to the 2006 presidential election in Ecuador, Chávez and
Correa developed a warm personal rapport. During a short stint the
previous year as Finance Minister under the regime of Alfredo Palacio,
Correa brokered a $300 million loan from Chávez. As a result of his
diplomacy, Correa was forced out of the government with critics
charging Correa pursued the loan deal behind Palacio's back.

The maverick Ecuadoran politician later visited Chávez's home state
of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader. "It is necessary
to overcome all the fallacies of neoliberalism," he declared. Borrowing
one of Chávez's favorite slogans, Correa said he also supported
so-called "socialism for the twenty-first century."

Correa, a young economist with a Ph.D. from the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, campaigned on pledges to prioritize
social spending over repaying debt, suggesting Ecuador might even
willingly default. Correa said he wanted to increase funds for the poor
and opposed a free trade deal with the United States. "We are not
against the international economy," Correa stated, "but we will not
negotiate a treaty under unequal terms with the United States."

Correa had nothing but contempt for George Bush. When he was asked
about Chávez's "devil" diatribe against the U.S. president at the
United Nations, Correa remarked amusingly, "Calling Bush the devil
offends the devil. Bush is a tremendously dimwitted President who has
done great damage to the world.”

After winning the presidential election, Correa looked as if he
might be willing to back up his rhetoric with real deeds. Correa “has
cut off talks about a possible free trade agreement with the United
States in favor of Hugo Chávez's ‘ALBA’ socialist trade scheme,” the
conservative Heritage Foundation remarked with alarm.

Indeed, Correa traveled to Caracas to ink cooperation agreements
with Chávez. The two signed a joint declaration to promote integration
via ALBA, and Correa requested that Venezuela rejoin the Andean
Community of Nations (CAN), a trading group that Chávez had abandoned
in April 2006. Venezuela left the bloc because it was unhappy with
other members such as Peru and Colombia signing bilateral free trade
agreements with the United States.

In Caracas, Correa said he understood Chávez’s position, but added,
“There is great disappointment about CAN. The results are very poor,
the vision is mistaken… but with the will of the presidents that the
Andean region is electing we can change that situation.”

After his extended meeting with the Venezuelan leader, Correa
appeared upbeat about the prospects of Venezuela rejoining the Andean
Community at some point in the future. “The President is evaluating
it…and let’s hope we can move forward. I think that CAN has to be
strengthened and from there we have to try to merge the two processes
of integration in South America: CAN and Mercosur [another South
American economic bloc comprised of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and
Uruguay],” Correa remarked.

Correa Skittish about Chávez Alliance

Once in power however, Correa backed off his default threats and
left the door open to a free trade agreement with the United States
“when we are ready.” Meanwhile, the United States did not demonize
Correa as it had Chávez. Indeed, the top U.S. diplomat for the Americas
Thomas Shannon even voiced support for political reform in Ecuador.

Moreover, Correa did not describe his policies in the same grandiose
terms as Chávez, who said he was leading a "revolution" for Venezuela's
poor. “Correa is a pragmatist,” said Werner Baer, an economics
professor who taught Correa at the University of Illinois. “He is not
as aggressive as Chávez, and his agenda is to govern and reform
effectively. He is not using anti-Americanism as a tool.”

In another rebuff to Chávez, Correa started to back down from his
previously enthusiastic statements in support of ALBA. Speaking to the
Associated Press, the Ecuadoran President said that the initiative was
“ambiguous” and that he didn't “even understand it.”

When Chávez called on ALBA member nations to begin preparations for
a joint Defense Council to counter Washington’s military influence,
Ecuador categorically rejected the proposal. If that was not enough,
the Ecuadoran Ministry of Foreign Relations, Commerce and Integration
said Ecuador would not participate in Chávez’s initiative even though
it considered ALBA’s overall objectives to be “valuable.”

Correa said he would not join ALBA until the “objectives [and]
actions of said organization become more consolidated.” The Ecuadoran
President would not exclude the possibility of one day joining ALBA,
but “for the moment the decision of the government is not to
participate.” Though Ecuadoran officials did not explain their
rationale for the decision, Chávez’s refusal to rejoin the Andean
Community may have played a role. As early as December 2006, Correa had
conditioned Ecuadoran participation in ALBA upon the return of
Venezuela to the regional trade bloc.

Behind the official explanation however, could Correa have concealed other motivations?

At this point small, impoverished nations like Ecuador are no doubt
eyeing the upcoming U.S. presidential election. If Obama should win,
perhaps the wider region might receive greater economic assistance from
Washington. Given this fact, Correa and some of his regional
counterparts may believe that it is better to wait rather than
precipitously embrace a plan like ALBA.

Ecuador and other countries may also be skittish because Chávez’s
political fortunes have recently taken a hit. With a slight question
mark now hanging over the future of the Bolivarian Revolution, Ecuador
is hardly rushing to jump on the Chávez bandwagon.

In fact, Correa has been careful to stress his differences with
Chávez. Last year, when the Venezuelan leader announced that he would
press for a constitutional reform that would abolish presidential term
limits, Correa said he had no desire to pursue a similar political
strategy for Ecuador. The Andean nation’s new constitution, Correa
said, should allow two consecutive four-year terms, a change from the
current system that allowed for just one. Though an avowed socialist,
Correa moreover promised that the Ecuadorean Constitution would not
"impose any kind of ideology."

A Dent in Chávez’s Armor

Even worse, Chávez’s proposed constitutional reform proved to be a
political bust and may have led erstwhile supporters such as Correa to
doubt the Bolivarian Revolution’s long-term viability. Having won
reelection in 2006 to a six-year term, Chávez hoped to build on his
ballot box success by promoting a constitutional referendum. Though
Chávez and his followers had already enacted a new constitution in
1999, the President claimed that the document was in need of an
overhaul so as to pave the way for a new socialist state.

Chávez sought to reduce the workweek from 44 to 36 hours; to provide
social security to informal sector workers such as housewives, street
vendors and maids; to shift political power to grassroots communal
councils; to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or
health; to extend formal recognition to Afro-Venezuelan people; to
require gender parity for all public offices; to formalize the right to
adequate housing and a free public education; to protect the full
rights of prisoners, and to create new types of property managed by
cooperatives and communities.

The progressive provisions would have done much to challenge
entrenched interests in Venezuela and encourage the growth of a more
egalitarian and democratic society based on social, gender, racial, and
economic equality. Unfortunately, Chávez sabotaged any hope of success
by simultaneously seeking to enhance his own personal power.

Since the inception of the Bolivarian Revolution, there had been a
constant tension between grassroots empowerment on the one hand and the
cult of personality surrounding Chávez on the other. In pressing for
his constitutional referendum Chávez played right into the hands of the
opposition which had always claimed that the Venezuelan leader’s secret
agenda was to concentrate power in his own hands.

Under the constitutional reform, Chávez could declare a state of
emergency and the government would have the right to detain individuals
without charge and to close down media outlets. Chávez's own term limit
would be extended from six to seven years, and he would be allowed the
right to run indefinitely for president. Inconsistently, however,
governors and mayors would not be allowed to run for reelection.

On election day, the opposition failed to increase its voter share
but was able to eke out a tiny margin of victory when some of the
Chávez faithful grew disenchanted and failed to turn out to vote. True,
the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded vocal
anti-Chávez students who campaigned against the referendum and the CIA
could have played a role in helping to strengthen the opposition. But
no matter how much the Venezuelan President railed against the United
States and outside interference, ultimately the Chavistas lost because
of their own tactical missteps.

Perhaps, if Chávez had merely backed the progressive provisions
within the referendum and not tried to increase his own power, the vote
would have tipped the other way. But by backing the retrograde measures
Chávez gave much needed ammunition to the opposition.

The Zenith of Chávez’s Power

Failure to pass the constitutional referendum surely represented a
severe setback for Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, but did not
necessarily represent a total rout. Unfortunately, the Venezuelan
President played right into the hands of the opposition again by
backing an unpopular intelligence law. The new law required Venezuelans
to cooperate with intelligence agencies and secret police if requested;
refusal could result in up to four years in prison. Moreover, the law
allowed security forces to gather evidence through surveillance methods
such as wiretapping without obtaining a court order, and authorities
could withhold evidence from defense lawyers if it was considered to be
in the interest of national security.

Concerned about the new legislation, rights groups claimed that the
proposed measure would threaten civil liberties. "Among other problems
with this law, any suspect's right to defense can be violated, and
that's unacceptable," said Carlos Correa, a leader of the Venezuelan
human rights group Provea. Correa compared the law to the Patriot Act
in the United States, which gave U.S. law enforcement agencies greater
powers to intercept communications and investigate suspected terrorists
on U.S. soil after the 9/11 attacks.

Defending his legislation, Chávez argued the measure would help
Venezuela guarantee its national security and prevent assassination
plots and military rebellions. The president, who called the U.S.
Patriot Act a "dictatorial law," denied the Venezuelan legislation
would threaten freedoms saying it fell into "a framework of great
respect for human rights.” Following an outcry from human-rights
groups, however, Chávez repealed the decree less than a fortnight after
its introduction.

Chávez: Facing an Uphill Political Battle

Emboldened by Chávez’s tactical mistakes, the opposition is hoping
to stage a comeback on November 23 when Venezuela votes for new state
governors and mayors. During regional polls in 2004, the president and
his followers wound up with 20 of the country's 23 state governorships.
Since then, a couple of states have defected to the opposition.
Chávez’s foes hope to win some 100 municipal elections and several more
states in November with the hope of leaving the president with only 14
governorships.

In November, the Chavistas are facing a two-pronged problem. To
begin with, the opposition may have won some support from moderate
Chavistas who are scared of radical change. Perhaps even more
seriously, the president’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)
could lose the vote of disaffected former Chavistas who blame
bureaucracy and corruption for sabotaging the revolutionary process. If
this constituency stays home and abstains from voting, it could be a
disaster for Chávez and his movement.

Chávez clearly understands the high stakes. The upcoming regional
elections, he declared, were “the most important in Venezuelan
history.” Indeed, an opposition victory could pave the way for the rise
of a more moderate political figure on the national stage. Though the
traditional Chávez opposition has largely been discredited, former
Chávez allies who have broken with the president could now rise to
prominence. If a less polarizing leader should come to power in
Venezuela, he could cause a lot of damage by derailing radical reform
under the guise of reconciliation and bringing pro- and anti- Chávez
forces together.

One figure that has recently captured the spotlight is Raúl Baduel,
a Venezuelan general and former Minister of Defense. Though Baduel was
instrumental in restoring Chávez to power amid the April 2002 coup, he
later broke with the president by criticizing the failed 2007
constitutional reform. It would be tempting for the State Department to
try and pry off former Chavistas like Baduel in an effort to derail the
Bolivarian experiment.

Even if the opposition fails to produce a charismatic leader, other
options are on the table. If it wins in November, for example, the
opposition might feel emboldened to intensify its campaign to remove
the Venezuelan president, either through a constitutional referendum in
2010 or by more violent means. At the very least, a new drubbing at the
polls would be likely to dash any hope of reviving Chávez’s plan to
evade the constitutional ban on his re-election in 2012. A
reaffirmation of the expiry date of Chávez’s presidency would in turn
fire the starting gun of the race to succeed the maverick politician.

Scenario #1: Obama

For all its internal contradictions, missteps and even failures,
Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution remains the most progressive hope for
change in the hemisphere. If it should sputter or somehow get derailed
then small nations such as Ecuador, which are already skittish about
Chávez, will be even more reluctant to support Venezuela’s
international goals. Within the new political milieu, idealistic and
progressive initiatives such as ALBA could be increasingly sidelined.

Currently in the U.S., Barack Obama is leading in the polls. If the
Illinois Senator manages to win the White House in November, Chávez’s
Bolivarian Revolution could be placed in a quandary. At first glance it
might seem as if a Democratic win in November would benefit Venezuela.
Obama after all once declared in a presidential debate that he would be
willing to meet with Chávez in an effort to improve U.S.-Venezuelan
relations.

On the other hand, an Obama victory would take a lot of wind out of
Chávez’s sail. To an extent, Chávez was able to leap on to the world
stage as a result of U.S. misdeeds and imperial misadventures. The war
in Iraq is enormously unpopular in South America, and Chávez has been
able to raise his profile as a result of his long-standing criticisms
of U.S. foreign policy. It is difficult to imagine that Chávez would
have achieved the same degree of political notoriety had Bill Clinton
been in office and not George Bush.

If he were to win, Obama would start off his administration with an
enormous amount of goodwill in South America simply by dint of his
racial origins. Many Afro-Latinos in South America—particularly in
Brazil—would see an Obama victory in Washington as an enormously
positive social step. (For more on this subject, see my recent NACLA
article: "President Obama? The Likely Reception from Brazil").

Obama could capitalize on this goodwill by withdrawing troops from
Iraq. The new U.S. president could then increase economic aid to
impoverished South American countries or promote free trade deals with
small nations such as Ecuador. Chávez has long decried the excesses of
globalization, but Obama might be able to steal some of the Venezuelan
leader’s thunder by negotiating separate trade deals that protect labor
and the environment. In this way, Obama could put a break on ALBA
expansion and frustrate Chávez’s international ambitions.

Scenario #2: McCain

On the other hand, were John McCain to win then Chávez’s political
fortunes would improve immensely. McCain has chaired the International
Republican Institute (IRI) since 1993. Ostensibly a non-partisan,
democracy-building outfit, in reality the IRI serves as an instrument
to advance and promote the most far-right Republican foreign policy
agenda. More a cloak-and-dagger operation than a conventional research
group, IRI has aligned itself with some of the most antidemocratic
factions in the Third World. One of the least known Washington
institutions, IRI receives taxpayer money via the National Endowment
for Democracy and USAID.

In Haiti, IRI helped to fund, equip, and lobby for Haiti's two
heavily conservative and White House-backed political movements, the
Democratic Convergence and Group 184. The latter group, comprised of
many of the island's major business, church and professional figures,
was at the vanguard of opposition to Jean Bertrand Aristide prior to
the Haitian president's forced ouster in 2004. At the same time, IRI
funneled taxpayer money to hard-line, anti-Castro forces allied to the
Republican Party.

In Venezuela, IRI generously funded anti-Chávez civil society groups
that were militantly opposed to his government. Starting in 1998, the
year Chávez was elected, IRI worked with Venezuelan organizations to
produce anti-Chávez media campaigns including newspaper, television,
and radio ads. Additionally, when politicians, union, and civil society
leaders went to Washington to meet with U.S. officials just one month
before the April 2002 coup, IRI picked up the bill. The IRI also helped
to fund the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (which played a
major role in the anti-Chávez destabilization campaign leading up to
the coup) and Súmate, an organization involved in a signature-gathering
campaign to present a petition calling for Chávez's recall.

McCain has taken a personal interest in IRI's Cuba work and praises
the anti-Castro opposition. The Arizona Senator has called Cuba "a
national security threat.” He promised, "As president, I will not
passively await the long overdue demise of the Castro dictatorship ...
The Cuban people have waited long enough." McCain wants to increase
funding for the U.S. government's anti-Castro radio and TV stations,
seeks the release of all Cuban political prisoners, supports
internationally monitored elections on the island, and wants to keep
the U.S. trade embargo in place. McCain's most influential advisers on
Latin American affairs are Cuban Americans from Florida, including
Senator Mel Martínez and far-right House Representatives Lincoln
Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen.

On Capitol Hill, McCain has championed pro-U.S. Latin American
regimes while working to isolate those governments rising up to
challenge U.S. hegemony. On Colombia, for example, McCain has been a
big booster of official U.S. policy. Despite Colombia's status as a
human rights nightmare, the Senator supports ongoing funding to the
government of Álvaro Uribe so as to combat the "narco-trafficking and
terrorist threat." McCain visited Colombia to drum up more support for
the counter-insurgency and drug war, now amounting to billions of
dollars a year. McCain's foremost fear is that the Democrats may turn
off the money flow to Uribe. "You don't build strong alliances by
turning your back on friends," he has said.

McCain seeks to confront countries such as Venezuela and Cuba by
encouraging U.S. partnership with sympathetic regimes that support
U.S.-style free trade. "We need to build on the passage of the Central
America Free Trade Agreement by expanding U.S. trade with the region,”
he said. "Let's start by ratifying the trade agreements with Panama,
Peru, and Colombia that are already completed, and pushing forward the
Free Trade Area of the Americas." Concerned about growing ties between
Cuba and Venezuela, McCain claimed, "[Chávez] aspires to be this
generation's [Fidel] Castro. I think the people of Venezuela ought to
look at the standard of living in Cuba before they would embrace such a
thing."

Speaking in Miami's Little Havana, McCain said that "everyone should
understand the connections" between Evo Morales, Castro, and Chávez.
"They inspire each other. They assist each other. They get ideas from
each other. It's very disturbing." McCain said Chávez breathed "new
oxygen" into Castro's rule, and that the U.S. government should do more
to quell “dictatorships” throughout Latin America.

Mr. Big Stick in the Caribbean and Central America

If McCain were to win the upcoming presidential election, Chávez
could then turn to the Venezuelan electorate and say: “McCain’s right
wing agenda for Latin America is clear. We must now do our utmost to
preserve Venezuelan sovereignty from U.S. imperialism.” By cultivating
such rhetoric, Chávez might rally the PSUV party faithful just three
weeks before regional elections in Venezuela. Though he’s unlikely to
match past success at the polls, perhaps Chávez can minimize the
political damage and lose just a few governorships.

Back in Washington, McCain might continue U.S. assistance to
right-wing Cubans. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, some island nations such
as Haiti and Dominica have tried to navigate a delicate balancing act
by maintaining friendly ties to the U.S. and also Venezuela. A McCain
administration is unlikely to tolerate such subtle diplomatic nuances
and would probably act to halt Chávez’s political influence in the
region in one way or another.

Similarly, McCain is unlikely to look upon the rising Pink Tide
sweeping from South America into Central America with much approval. A
long-time foe of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, McCain might try to
destabilize the regime in Managua and prevent the left-wing frontrunner
from taking power in El Salvador in advance of the country’s March 2009
presidential election.

Such a scenario would work to Chávez’s advantage. The Venezuelan
leader could justifiably claim that the U.S. was resorting to classic
interventionism in its so-called “backyard.” It’s easy to imagine how
the war of words and heated rhetoric might escalate from there. If
McCain stepped up aid to the Venezuelan opposition, then Chávez could
talk about the need to fortify and protect the Bolivarian Revolution,
thereby shoring up his political base.

South America’s New Political Trajectory

Within such a polarized political climate Chávez might even succeed
in passing his constitutional reform, thereby extending presidential
term limits. If the reform contains many of the progressive measures of
the original proposal, Chávez might regain political momentum
throughout South America, consolidate his socialist state, and rekindle
some of the political enthusiasm that characterized his movement from
2002 to 2006.

Members of South American’s Pink Tide are unlikely to view a McCain
administration with much favor, particularly if the new president
continues to prosecute the war in Iraq. Argentina, which has no love
for the kinds of neoliberal economic policies espoused by McCain, and
which has maintained decidedly frosty relations with Washington, would
probably deepen its diplomatic and political alliance with Venezuela.

Thus far, Chávez’s ALBA alliance hasn’t constituted a particularly
formidable bloc of countries, but Venezuela might be able to extend its
geopolitical reach somewhat if McCain is in power. It is difficult to
imagine, for example, that Correa would seek to cut a free trade deal
with a right-wing administration in Washington. If McCain continues the
Bush policies in South America, then Ecuador and other countries like
Paraguay might look to Venezuela as a regional leader and sign up for
ALBA.

Up to now, the biggest thorns in Chávez’s side have been Colombia
and Peru. Even as the wider region lurches leftward, these two nations
doggedly maintain strong commercial and military ties to the United
States. On the other hand, there’s been tremendous social and political
resistance to neoliberal economic reforms in both countries as of late.
While it’s unlikely that the left might come to power in these two
Andean countries, such a possibility can’t be entirely discarded. If
the political landscape were to suddenly change, Chávez might even
consider rejoining the Andean Community. Within such a scenario,
Venezuela would have much more influence over the course of future
political and economic integration in South America.



Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).