Cuba, Venezuela, and the Quest for Socialism: One and the Same?

When discussing Latin America's so-called Left Turn, Cuba and Venezuela are often paired together as being of the more radical, militant faction of countries located on the Left within the region. There are indeed some legitimate grounds for such generalizations, but lost in this interpretation are many of the profound differences between each country's respective efforts and methods toward building a socialist society.

discussing Latin America's so-called Left Turn, Cuba and Venezuela are often
paired together as being of the more radical, militant faction of countries
located on the Left within the region. There are indeed some legitimate grounds
for such generalizations, but lost in this interpretation are many of the
profound differences between each country's respective efforts and methods
toward building a socialist society.

Venezuela, and the Role of Democracy

In much
analysis of both Cuba and Venezuela, social gains are often counterbalanced
with criticism of each country's practice of democracy — or lack thereof.[1]
While I can't offer a thorough examination of each country's democratic
structures here, the role of democracy does in fact play an interesting role in
each country's prospects for building socialism.

First, what is essential to
understand is each Revolution's emphasis on 'direct' and 'popular' democracy —
i.e. poder popular. In Cuba, electoral democracy was often perceived as
insufficient, problematic, or both. Indeed, Fidel Castro has been quoted
criticizing "those rallies with hypocrites parading from one platform to
the next" as well as "those who are responsible for the people's
distrust of elections, and those who converted politics into a quest for
spoils."[2] Diana Raby accurately summarizes the prevailing perception
that "liberal democracy would not resolve the country's major social and
economic problems, and this would lead to further political turmoil and
eventually another dictatorship."[3] The Cuban government's historic
promotion of poder popular, Organs of People's Power (OPP), and people's
councils should give pause to those who might deem Cuba wholly undemocratic. At
the lower level (e.g. in municipalities) delegates are directly chosen by their
constituents (without interference from the Communist Party or certain mass
organizations) to represent and voice the concerns of their respective
communities. However, as the voting process moves toward higher levels of
government (i.e., at the provincial and national levels), direct participation
becomes more constrained. And while it is noted that, for example, thousands of
public meetings took place to discuss and debate the constitutional amendments
that would be adopted in 1992, Raby nonetheless explains that, at the national
level, "there is little doubt that basic policy is decided by the
Communist Party leadership and ratified by a National Assembly which it in fact
controls."[4] Thus, in addition to the absence of multi-party elections,
the inability of communities to exert greater influence on national
policymaking continues to be a key obstacle toward achieving full democracy in

However, in the case of Venezuela,
democracy is precisely the reason for the Bolivarian Revolution taking place at
all. Popular dissatisfaction with the prior Punto Fijo regime assisted in
bringing Hugo Chávez to power and re-politicizing class differences. Free and
fair elections since 1998 have consistently supported the Chávez administration
throughout multiple elections and referenda. But with the preservation of
democracy comes the difficulty of maintaining popular support over rival
candidates as well as consolidating the multitude of left-leaning parties.

Regarding this last point, both the
December, 2007 referendum and the gubernatorial and municipal elections of 2008
serve as instructive examples. The 2007 constitutional referendum, which lost
by approximately two percent, represented a bold effort on the part of Chávez
and the National Assembly to 'deepen' socialism in Venezuela. While commonly
criticized for its proposals to extend the president's term (by one year) and
remove term limits altogether, the reforms would have also: elevated the role
of 'councils of popular power' (article 70); expanded social security to the
self-employed (article 87); expanded free education so as to include university
education (article 103); removed the obligation for the state to promote
private enterprise, instead favoring the social and material needs of the
community (article 112); re-emphasized and established new forms of property
other than private property (article 115); increased states' budgets by five
percent, which would be legally allocated for the financing of communal
councils (article 167); mandated municipalities to include the participation of
communal councils (article 168); and removed the autonomy of the Central Bank
for the purposes of empowering the state to oversee economic and monetary stability
(articles 318 and 320).[5] And while the government did pass a series of
'enabling laws'[6] in mid-2008, which also emphasized the importance of the
people's economy, so-called brigades of production, distribution, and
consumption,[7] and barter-based exchange, the loss of the 2007 referendum —
albeit narrow — represented an unprecedented democratic setback for Chávez and
his political party, the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela).

More recently, the gubernatorial and
municipal elections have raised the question of whether or not the majority of
Venezuelans were entirely supportive of the PSUV (and therefore, implicitly,
Chávez himself). While gaining in the number of mayoral victories for the PSUV,
Chávez's party saw some significant losses to opposition candidates in several
important gubernatorial races — some the result of former Chávez supporters
switching to the opposition.[8]

But rather than succumbing to the
narrative that the Chávez government, in losing the 2007 referendum and several
gubernatorial positions in 2008, might be steadily losing power,[9] we should
be asking how prepared the populace is for an overtly socialist program being
initiated at the highest levels of government. Indeed, any losses seen recently
by Chávez and the PSUV must be weighed against the powerful position the party
continues to hold in Venezuelan politics; a party rooted in "[struggling]
to make self-government a reality, with cities, communal councils and communes
as the basic political units," and one which states that, "throughout
this period of transition, which at this moment marches from a state capitalism
dominated by market forces towards a state socialism with a regulated market,
the aim is to move towards a communal state socialism."[10] But are the
majority of Venezuelans ready for state socialism or, for that matter, any sort
of socialist society? In a recent Latinobarómetro report, Venezuelans, when
asked whether it was the obligation of the state or the market to resolve
society's problems (on a scale of 1 to 10: 1 meaning solely the state, 10
meaning solely the market), averaged a score of 3.6. And while this represents
at least some degree of reticence toward the notion that free markets can solve
social inadequacies, it is not significantly lower than the Latin American
average (3.9), nor is it even the lowest score amongst the countries surveyed.

Obviously, such a question cannot in
itself adequately capture the level of revolutionary consciousness within Venezuelan
society, but it nonetheless suggests that we should continually be asking
whether or not the majority of Venezuelans actually desire the socialist
society envisioned by the PSUV and advocated for by Hugo Chávez. Needless to
say, for the process of socialist construction to continue in Venezuela, the
Chávez government faces an array of multi-faceted political challenges. These
include (among others) the need to further consolidate the various parties on
the political Left, reconcile the competing currents within the Chavista
movement, and continuously raise the consciousness of the populace so that PSUV
candidates and bold socialistic initiatives (such as those contained in the
2007 referendum) are supported as widely as is Chávez himself. 

In sum, the issue of democracy represents a
fundamental difference between Cuba and Venezuela, especially with regard to
both the trajectory of, and prospects for, socialism in each country. Whereas
the relative lack of democracy in Cuba enabled the government to quickly make
bold shifts in policy (e.g., during the 'special period'), the presence of
free, multi-party democracy in Venezuela has, more recently, forced the
government to reflect on the nature and desired rapidity of its socialistic
aims. And while recent events (such as the shift in power from Fidel to Raúl
Castro, as well as some small-scale forms of liberalization) in Cuba have begun
international speculation of a potential democratic 'opening,' it still remains
unclear if and when this will ever occur. Nevertheless, if poder popular is to
represent the form of democracy most complementary to twenty-first century
socialism, it is arguable that the Chávez government has been more avid than
the Castro government in supporting and funding it, especially in the form of
community councils, communes, and other related forms of autonomous political
organization. Whether this will lead to a more 'totalist' (or 'wholist' or
'participatory') form of socialism in Venezuela by giving citizens greater authority
in deciding the political, economic, and social affairs of the country or,
conversely, inhibit the progress of socialist development vis-à-vis factional
infighting and political disorganization (which can, as we recently saw in the
2008 elections, at least indirectly translate into gains for opposition
parties), no one can be entirely certain. But for both countries — and
especially in the case of Venezuela, where it is at least plausible that the
political platform of the PSUV is currently more radical than the majority of
Venezuelans — a quote from socialist thinker Karl Kautsky is instructive:
"Democracy," he explains, "is the shortest, surest and least
costly road to Socialism, just as it is the best instrument for the development
of the political and social prerequisites for Socialism. Democracy and
Socialism are inextricably entwined."[11]

Venezuela, and the Path to Socialism

Outside of the political sphere,
the Cuban and Venezuelan have differing approaches toward constructing
socialism. We must remember to avoid treating each country's more current
processes of socialist development as static — both Cuba and Venezuela
continue to experience dramatic changes in the political, economic, and social
spheres that will necessarily impact their respective abilities to achieve a
socialist society.

A defining feature of Cuba's quest
for socialism has been its historic dependence on numerous outside factors.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cuba's decades-long dependence on the
Soviet Union for trade, aid, and logistical guidance. While significant shifts
in policymaking occurred prior to the 'special period,' it is obvious that the
collapse of the Soviet Union effectively ended the Castro government's renewed
socialist commitment beginning in the mid-1980s (i.e., the 'rectification
campaign') and has since dramatically impacted the nature and scope of
socialism in Cuba. Thus, external factors — predominately economic in nature
— have historically assumed pivotal roles in dictating the Cuban government's
political, social, and economic orientation (specifically, in its deciding
whether to implement pragmatic and/or concessionary policies versus more
socialistic ones). In this regard, Mike Albert and Robin Hahnel have reflected
on three important dimensions (specifically regarding the issue of
'incentives') of Cuban socio-economic relations: the moral-material dimension,
the collective-individual dimension, and participatory-authoritarian
dimension.[12] Because greater moral, collective, and participatory methods of
incentivizing are viewed as being more conducive to 'totalist' socialism, the
authors emphasize that by the mid-1970s, Cuban society saw increasing
utilization of material and individualistic incentives, with no improvement in
creating a more participatory framework for economic and political
decision-making. Therefore, while state support for anti-capitalist aims
occurred shortly after the Revolution, instituting a thoroughly classless
society remained habitually contingent upon outside factors, thereby preventing
'totalist' socialism from ever seriously taking shape.

The Chávez government in Venezuela,
in its relatively slower advocacy for anti-capitalistic policies, therefore
differs from Cuba in important ways. Nationalizations have taken place in a
slower and more strategic manner than in Cuba, and social-leveling — whereas
having occurred essentially 'by accident' in Cuba — is far from complete in
Venezuela. Additionally, Venezuelans are seeing greater emphasis on the
enhancement of the 'social good' (rather than on the prosperity of the
individual), as well as the increasing political prominence of small, localized
decision-making bodies. But, in observing the radical platforms of both Chávez
and the PSUV party, it is more than likely that what is being sought after in
Venezuela amounts to more than simple populism or a nuanced variation on the
'welfare state.' State support for an explicitly socialistic, anti-capitalist
project is undoubtedly increasing, as evidenced by the bold ambitions contained
in the 2007 referendum and the numerous enabling laws enacted since then.

But where the increasingly
socialistic nature of the Chávez government is tantamount to a Cuba-in-reverse
scenario, Venezuela's more prominent position in the global economy enables the
government to be considerably less susceptible to outside forces than Cuba has
historically been. Instead, internal factors are more likely to play decisive
roles in the coming years. Greg Wilpert notes that the cultures of personalism
and patronage continue to represent legitimate internal obstacles for the
Bolivarian revolution. But perhaps more problematical are the Chávez
government's prospects for further radicalizing — in a relatively even fashion
— itself as well as the Venezuelan citizenry that is ultimately entrusted to
determine the direction and limits of socialism in Venezuela.[13] Nakatani and
Herrera offer a similar observation of the Chávez government in noting the
challenge of using "the State to converge, progressively and legally, the
current capitalist society towards socialism."[14]

One important source of similarity is
that the Cuban and Venezuelan governments have placed an unprecedented emphasis
on healthcare and education: Cuba's early recognition of the need to achieve
universal literacy and Venezuela's avid support for the education and
health-related missions serve as useful examples. But again, such initiatives
do not in themselves constitute a more comprehensive, 'totalist' form of
socialism that should distinguish twenty-first century socialism from the state
socialism, market socialism, and social-democratic arrangements seen at various
points throughout the twentieth century. Cuba, especially prior to the 'special
period,' exhibited many of the traits of state socialism, often modeling itself
after the very nation which has since come to epitomize state socialism, the
Soviet Union.[15] In addition to having limited democratic channels for the
general populace (despite its championing of poder popular), the Castro
government often relied upon the 'coordinator mode of production' described by
Albert and Hahnel. Of course, there is no shortage of interpretations regarding
what 'socialism' effectively means, or should mean. But if we juxtapose the
realities of Cuban socialism with the principles contained in 'totalist'
socialism, we can easily see that numerous shortcomings existed — so much so
that Albert and Hahnel in fact conclude that, "the litany
that…Cuba…[is a socialist society] is a lie,' in part because 'in its
class-allegiance it actually sacrifices the interests of workers for those of a
coordinator elite."[16]

The case of Venezuela is not entirely
different insofar as economic coordination continues to be predominately under
the auspices of the national government. Indeed, as the Venezuelan economy is
in fact becoming increasingly managed by the state — whether via
nationalization or otherwise[17]–the decision-making process continues to be
considerably detached from the workers' councils, community councils, etc. that
are presumably intended to inherit the decision-making process from the state
and national governments.

But again, one of Venezuela's current
fundamental differences with Cuba lies in the increasingly socialistic nature
of its economics, politics, and social relations — representing what one might
deem 'socialistic momentum.' This notion has much to do with Albert and
Hahnel's call for "a mass anti-capitalist movement that fosters rather
than impedes later socialist developments."[18] Thus, the concept of
socialistic momentum implicitly recognizes the 'process' involved in socialist
development, while also being conscious of ways in which policymaking can
influence public consciousness — i.e., whether certain policies are serving to
cultivate, or to diminish, popular desire for a socialist society. The Cuban
government has followed a non-linear approach, instituting unorthodox,
socialistic policymaking when conditions permitted, and pragmatic, conventional
policymaking when conditions became more constraining. And indeed, there
continues to be much discussion of Cuba's seemingly inexorable gravitation
toward a more capitalistic economy. The case of Venezuela, however, especially
since the Chávez government's vocal embrace of socialism in 2005, has been far
more consistent and far-reaching; establishing a socialistic momentum that,
while having encountered several political setbacks more recently, has
nonetheless established important precedents for the country's future

and Recommendations

The prospects for socialism in both
Cuba and Venezuela will soon face a variety of interesting challenges. Like
Cuba, Venezuela will soon have to determine if its socialist project can
outlast its most prominent originator. The ability of either Cuba or Venezuela
to effectively de-personify its revolutionary project will be indicative of a
mass appeal toward socialism itself, not simply toward a charismatic leader.
Especially in the case of Venezuela, removing Hugo Chávez from the center of its
anti-capitalist project will in itself constitute a revolutionary act given the
legacy of leader-based socialist projects throughout the twentieth century.
However, the recent removal of term limits from the Venezuelan Constitution —
while done by democratic means — seems to have made such a prospect unlikely.

Additionally, with regard to Cuba,
the Castro government must find a way to reinvigorate, reorganize, and reorient
its project of socialist development if the prospect for a fully socialist
society is to survive at all there. This necessarily involves expanding
decision-making authority in communities, workplaces, and society in general.
This is no small task, especially in a country where the quest for socialism
has already been an integral part of society for approximately five decades,
and where there exists perceptible momentum away from socialism, not toward it.
Capitalistic concessions that favor economic growth, material incentives,
selfish individualism, etc. over socialistic deepening — however necessary —
will inexorably impact socialism's viability over the long-term, and must
therefore be avoided where possible — and mitigated where inevitable — if
socialism is to meaningfully exist beyond the lives of its revolutionary leaders.

In Venezuela, public desire for a
socialistic, anti-capitalist project must consistently manifest itself in
elections and referenda. Second, Venezuela must continue to enjoy favorable
economic conditions while simultaneously maintaining fiscal and monetary
stability, diversifying away from the oil-based economy, and achieving further
social leveling. Lastly, the government must constantly seek to reconcile the
often-divergent aims and strategies of the Chavistas and those on Venezuela's political
Left in general. All of these factors will play indispensable roles in securing
the Revolution's favorability, stability, and sustainability. However, because
the Chávez government is likely to be increasingly met with the so-called
contradictions of the welfare state — wherein the government must essentially
choose between meeting the demands of capital and meeting the demands for
greater social justice[20] — we should understand that many of the Bolivarian
Revolution's most decisive battles necessarily exist in the future rather than
the past. The outcomes of these contests will each have its important set of
consequences (e.g. 'capital strikes,' economic instability, loss of public
confidence in government, etc.) which will, in turn, continue to impact the
scale and scope of Venezuela's revolutionary project.

Can we conclude that the familiar
specter of socialism is indeed 'haunting' Latin America once again? The
socialistic momentum and increasing degree of state support for socialism
taking place at all levels of government and throughout society in Venezuela
suggests that we can. And in Cuba, even as somewhat concessionary changes
continue to occur, the degree of state support for a socialist society
continues to be virtually unrivaled by any other country in Latin America.
However, determining whether or not the Venezuelan project will ultimately
succumb to the pragmatic, class-engendering, and non-participatory features
symptomatic of state socialism, as did Cuba, or the more cautious reformist
politics of democratic socialism — or an entirely new form of socialism, more
comprehensive and adjusted for the new realities of the twenty-first century —
remains a difficult challenge. But if either revolutionary project is to
survive over the long-term and thrive beyond their present administrations,
both Cuba and Venezuela should pay heed to the advice of socialist scholar
Michael A. Lebowitz, who reminds us that, "If you don't know where you
want to go, then no road will take you there."[21] Therefore, if the
popularization of decision-making authority and eradication of capitalistic
tendencies — as a means of ensuring the equitable development of human
capacities — reside at the center of socialism's raison d'etre, then the lessons
for twenty-first century socialism in Latin America should be gleaned from the
errors committed in the century preceding it.


1. See for
example Freedom House, which currently rates Cuba as 'not free' and Venezuela
as 'partially free' and trending downwards. Accessed 20 Nov. 2008.

2. D. L.
Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today. London/Ann
Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2006, p. 122.

3. Ibid.,
p. 123.

4. Ibid.,
p. 129-30.

5. Gregory
Wilpert, "Venezuela's Constitutional Reform: An Article-By-Article
Summary.' Accessed 15 Nov. 2008.

Available in English. Accessed 25 Nov. 2008.

7. It
should be noted how closely this particular initiative resembles the
theoretical work of Albert, Hahnel, and others who have advocated for a system
of 'participatory economics' based on cooperative self-managing coordination
between diverse, localized but also federated, democratic workplaces and

8. From
"Opposition Also Wins Tachira and Carabobo States in Regional
Elections," 24 Nov. 2008. Accessed 24 Nov. 2008.

9. For
example, see the recent New York Times editorial which, in light of the
gubernatorial and municipal elections results, claims that Chávez's 'own
citizens have lost patience with his failed revolution.'

Extracted from the "Draft Program and Principles of the United Socialist
Party of Venezuela" (English translation). Accessed 26 Nov. 2008.

11. From
"Social Democracy Versus Communism." Accessed 10 Nov. 2008.

Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Socialism Today and Tomorrow. Cambridge MA:
South End Press, 1981, p. 208.

Gregory Wilpert, "Chavez's Venezuela and 21st Century Socialism,"
Transitions in Latin America and in Poland and Syria, Research in Political
Economy 24(1), 2007, p. 36.

14. Paulo
Nakatani and Rémy Herrera, "Structural Changes and Planning of the Economy
in Revolutionary Venezuela," Review of Radical Political Economics 40(3),
2008, p. 295.

Though, many observers have since chosen — often with good reason — to regard
the Soviet Union as "post-capitalist" or "state
capitalist," rather than "state socialist."

16. Albert
and Hahnel, p. 373.

17. See,
for example, 'Venezuela Loosens Food Price Regulations to Improve Supply.'
Accessed 29 November 2008.

18. Albert
and Hahnel, p. 371 (emphasis added).

Though, it should be noted that the process of deepening socialism needn't be
(and, in all reality, is unlikely to be) entirely linear. Albert and Hahnel
have alluded to this point in acknowledging that, 'backward steps to correct
for overly optimistic "left" misestimations of the tension between
the desirable and the possible should be taken' (ibid., p. 208).

Wilpert, "Chavez's Venezuela and 21st Century Socialism," p. 35.

Michael A. Lebowitz, Build It Now: 
Socialism For the Twenty-first Century. New York: Monthly Review Press,
2006, p. 64.

John Kane
visited Venezuela in August of 2008 to research for his graduate thesis work at
New York University. While there, he was able to  meet with a variety of community leaders,
activists, and officials in government. The full thesis from which this article
is drawn is available online. He currently teaches political science at St.
Joseph's College in New York and can be reached at [email protected]