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Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project

Venezuela: To Support it, Critically Support it, or not Support it?

“Those who make revolutions half way only dig their own graves” – Slogan from France, May 1968

If this article were written by a “person of weight” (Noam Chomsky, Ignacio Ramonet, Eduardo Galeano...), without a doubt it would be read more carefully. Written by a lesser author, less impact is achieved. Will anyone read it?

Why start with this clearly provocative statement? In order to point out how we are still tied, too tied, maybe sickenly tied to the idea of the VIP. Very important people. What is happening in Venezuela is an obvious, and perhaps pathetic, demonstration of this.

For the people on the left (let’s put aside for the moment the discussion about what it means exactly to “be on the left”- progressive, anti-capitalist, choose armed struggle as a means of change, social democratic in the Scandinavian sense.. something Daniel Ortega is at the moment, or Lula in Brazil, or to not be homophobic, to vote for the PSOE in Spain?)...well for the people on the left in its broadest sense, the process that began in Venezuela years ago was a source of hope. This is (was?) its strength: return to a hope that had been kidnapped.

After the years of bloody dictatorships that swept across all of Latin America, dictatorships that responded in all cases, to the hemispheric strategy laid out by the White House, became neoliberal plans. It’s worth saying that in Venezuela, even though there weren’t dictatorships like those in the Cono Sur or Central America, in the seventies there was still a dirty war of disappearances, torture, and massacres against popular movements that decapitated all seeds of protest. Also, the budding guerrilla movement that operated in the sixties was virtually wiped out. However, few people know about this repression outside of Venezuela, which means that there is an image of continuous democracy, economic prosperity and even Miss Universe as a national symbol. But the ferocious repression, just like in all countries in the region, happened, and these bloody regimes (with or without the military in power – Costa Rica didn’t have a de facto regime either but nevertheless neoliberal plans were implemented without any anaesthetic) paved the way for a Carlos Andres Perez [translator: ex president of Venezuela] or a Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Mexico or a Carlos Manem in Argentina, or others who were less grotesque and who, from behind constitutional structures, implemented state-based destructive projects and penetration of big capital in a worse way than any other military government (with the exception of Pinochet in Chile) managed to achieve with prisons and clandestine cemeteries.

After these disastrous decades, times of absolute demobilisation, of loss of social gains, in keeping with the falling of the European socialist bloc which also contributed to accentuating the climate of hopelessness – the entire grassroots entered into withdrawal. The political left remained silent or transformed into warm, tame protests in suit and ties. Then in the following years the social left, the grassroots manifestations of resistance (rural movements, indigenous, unemployed, fighters for human rights) started to raise their voice again.  But the appearance of the Venezuelan phenomenon is what really gave new breath to grassroots struggle, to the struggle against ferocious capitalism, rebaptised according to neoliberal euphemism.

It was the heat of the Bolivarian Revolution that put the topics of “imperialism” and “socialism” back on the agenda, taking them out of their places as “demonised monstrosities” condemned to be only mentioned by Fidel Castro and company, and presented as mistaken dinosaurs of the past. But what these “dinosaurs” said during that time of darkness was proven to be true: imperialism continues to be fierce, capitalism doesn’t solve social problems, private business is efficient just for making money. And the state, even in a capitalist country, is the only guarantee of a certain level of fairness for the whole population. It isn’t a deficient mechanism as they wanted to make out, only useful for being privatised or repressing the people when they protest.

In this sense the process that we started to live in Venezuela is proof that “not everything is lost," that history keeps going, that hope is still there, and that the poor people can live better under a socialised plan than under neoliberalism.

Since the start of this process in Venezuela the question regarding what 21st century socialism is has been asked. Maybe it was, at the start, an inclination: an attempt at constructing a model of social commitment without repeating the errors and excesses of the first socialist experiments, plagued by bureaucracy and authoritarianism. It was without doubt an experiment. Was it the new name for capitalism with a human face? A new proposal for a mixed economy? Some would say, years later, that we couldn’t get to socialism of the 21st century if we didn’t start from socialism of the 19th century, from the fundamental theories that its founders created. It’s not about improving capitalist society but creating a new one. The discussion began after years of silence on these topics. That, in of itself, was already good news.

Now then, can the two models co-exist? Actually, that’s what’s happening in China, or Cuba. There’s no doubt that Venezuela also passed through this phase of experimenting. But what can we conclude today, almost a decade and a half later?

At the start, without any doubt, the Bolivarian process shook up the social structures. The poor - as in all Latin American countries, the broad majority, started to feel that for the first time in history the country was starting to take them into account, that they were more than just labour or votes. Grassroots power, the spaces were common people can start to express themselves, give an opinion, speak out, exist. That makes a difference, in no other country in the region are they leaving a phenomenon like that. Now the poor can go to university or to the theatres of the elite. Something has started to change. And because of this, not for any other reason, the right wing reacted. Further, the situation of the economically privileged was never really put into question, the question that rocked the boat was that when Chavez arrived the local right wing and the international right wing represented by the U.S embassy - the real power behind the throne in Latin American countries, lost its political initiative.

The whole Bolivarian revolution was a sui generis revolution because of the way that it was installed. There was no popular uprising or an armed struggle that established it. Just the opposite, the leader arrived at the head of this whole process as president elect by representative democracy, the kind you find in any capitalist country. It was a revolution that was born from above and late from below, but that immediately had the unsuspecting support of the bases. So much so that it was these popular bases who maintained the revolution in the most critical moments that it has been through; the coup d’état of 2002, the business strike, the petroleum sabotage. This great mobilisation of people was the best guarantee of the revolution continuing. Will it continue being so in the future?

The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2012, and it’s a fact that the categorical division in the country in terms of Chavistas and anti-Chavistas stays stable at 60% to 40%. But there’s something to consider now: the Chavista tide is not growing, and within the governmental apparatus there is worry about winning these elections. Will the revolution advance? Can an authentic revolution, that is, a profound change in structure, be tied to an election within the tight canons of representative democracy?

Something fundamental to analyse in this process is that all political movement centres on the almost absolute driver figure, president Hugo Chavez. Enormous deficit, huge mistake in a revolution. Personality cult? No one says it in those terms, at least not out loud, but it seems to be about that. And if we say it now, it’s not to be anti-Chavista, but rather to have a constructively critical reading of the process: Can you construct genuine change only from charismatic driver figure? Where does popular fit? What would happen if he doesn’t win the elections next year? Or even more, if, for example Chavez died today from a heart attack: would the revolution be over? In Cuba Fidel isn’t the top figure on the political scene now and socialism goes on there. The same wouldn’t happen in Venezuela. That should open up genuine rethinking.

In reality there isn’t one dominant Marxist discourse in all the structures of the government. The ideology that is being put forward (or was being at least) by President Chavez is broad, a heterogeneous mix of references, from [Jesus] Christ to the heroic guerrilla Ernesto Guevara, to Liberator Simon Bolivar and other Latin American independence figures. What’s true is that, with this confused mixture, at least in the first years of his management, palpable benefits for the population were seen. Illiteracy was eradicated, something that has created faith and been recognised by UNESCO. The popular markets with lower prices, subsidised by the state, are an important help with the family budget (it’s estimated that up to 75% of the population uses them, including the middle class, often with a very anti-Bolivarian discourse), access to free health care is guaranteed for the whole population – diagnosis, treatments, medication, etc, with the Cuban missions collaborating very closely with this. On the other hand the cooperatives movement as a worker alternative with access to soft credit and training grew, popular mortgage credits were given out, there were advances in the search for food self sufficiency, the application of the land law was deepened, the large estate idle land was expropriated, and  worker self management in recovered factories began to advance. In other words, petroleum profits started to go towards the population in a way that had never happened in the whole history of “Saudi Venezuela”, very rich in petroleum dollars and Miss Universe, but full of poor people.

And in the same way the appearance of a “disobedient” country that talked as an equal to the empire allowed for the creation of strategies for Latin American integration more concentrated on solidarious mechanisms than on the prevailing free trade agreements. It was like that that the proposal for ALBA as the competition for the veracity of Washington.

Some years ago we would say, all this movement was a source of hope, as much within Venezuela as for the grassroots in Latin America or even the world. From the left, with some reserves in some cases, the Bolivarian process was welcomed and supported. The hope in play allowed for the benefit of the doubt regarding a lot that was being done: the mixed economy, the role of national business, the impunity that the right wing benefited from, the opportunists in the government, those proven cases of embezzlement not resulting in any prisoners, and they all formed a new bourgeoisie with a lot of political power (the “boli-bourgeoisie”).

Likewise, doubts in the role of the missions began to surface. There had always been a mysterious respect for their sustainability given that they arose more out of a interim solution than as a revolutionary policy of the state for the long term. The creation and structure of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela – the PSUV, could have been judged in the same way - it is absolutely connected to Chavez’s hands and his admonitory finger that would decide positions all over the place. If it’s true that at one time there were expectations of political renovation, thinking about the construction of an genuine instrument for revolution, today such hopes seem to have evaporated. A revolutionary party without revolutionary cadre, what is it?

During the first few years one could say with certainty that the revolution was dragged down by a capitalist country with all its consumerist culture and conformism, and of course everyone was eagerly awaiting the rapid disappearance of corruption and opportunism. The battle declared against those things promised change.

Two possible scenarios for the revolution were drawn up then, for the short and medium terms (without counting on its total and absolute reversal by a bloody coup, by a fascist takeover, something that, at the time, still hadn’t happened but that couldn’t be ruled out): one the one hand a proposal for a “third way”, a humanised capitalism, basically social democratic (which would be what was more or less  being constructed in these last years, with a national and multinational management that made big sales, with big petroleum contracts for transnational companies, but with a more fair distribution of the national oil income). The other way was a deepening towards socialism, defining and putting a clear programmatic line into practice in relation to this new socialism that has been talked about a lot but in which its still not known where its headed for. Now, it’s not possible that both projects coexist. There’s either expropriation or private property is maintained. The moment arrives when one has to define things.

One could say that the international situation of the Chavista Venezuela isn’t the same as Cuba in the sixties, with a still victorious, strong, and growing Soviet Union. That’s true, without any doubt. But does it justify what we’re seeing right now?

The political right embedded in the state apparatus – but fundamentally in the dominant culture, in the ideology of the leadership cadre – blocks the advancement in the deepening of the revolution. The idea of “acting correctly in order to get recognition” with the enemy is mediocre. The enemy is always the enemy. Or would it be that class hate can disappear with a polite smile? Dialectics of society is a lot more complicated than the very good political flexibility of driver Chavez. His charisma might be bit but the class struggle also includes him, drags him, swallows him up. Maybe this had to be said, because it seems he hasn’t understood it going by the last few events (handing over revolutionary fighters in order to ingratiate himself with the Colombian ultra-right, and definitely, the toning down of his image of being “revolutionary” and “angry” with imperialism).

The Bolivarian revolution that began to be constructed in Venezuela continues to be a hope, a window towards something new. As we said at the start, it could be a step towards a world not run by the ethics of the “winners”, VIPS, “second-raters”. This is the challenge in play, and its worth taking it up. Today Venezuela has become an example of dignity for all peoples of Latin America. What can we do if not support it? After the lost decades and the fall of real socialism, it’s our source of hope. It’s our responsibility as human beings to continue having home of a better world and to give our grain of sand towards this. Maybe it should be critical support, showing its limits, shortcomings, in order to try to go deeper, and being clear that this whole process, all these political mistakes that the revolution is making, aren’t the enemy. Even though now, with what we have seeing lately, serious doubts are opened up. And that’s where the dilemmas are. To support a Chavez who wants to ingratiate himself with the Colombian right? Beyond the tactical explanations that can be argued, is that strategy? Can these values stand up? He accepts a guitar as a present from Shakira but he hands over revolutionary fighters [to Colombia]?

This erratic behaviour of Chavez that shoes in full light that he managed the process how he feels like and that he’s gradually forgetting popular power is worrying. Has the revolution been sold? Can the “reasons of State” be more important than principles? Are there VIP people then?

As a good Christian would say, the message of the Messiahs shouldn’t be forgotten (we we allow ourselves to have a “socialising” reading of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth), so is he with the powerful or the needy? Because “you can’t serve two lords, serves God or the Devil”, Lucas 16:1-13. Well, if not, one could end up justifying everything and say, like Barack Obama as he received the Nobel Peace Prize, “Sometimes war is justified to obtain peace”.

As I’m not a VIP, Chavez will probably never read this. But the message is here either way: Be careful commander, even though you don’t want it, the class struggle is there,  and to ingratiate yourself with the enemy doesn’t help to defeat it! Even though you don’t like it, even though it's discordant, the May, France slogan cited above contains great wisdom.

Translation by Tamara Pearson for

Source: Aporrea