Venezuela: A Tense Democracy

In this interview Leonardo Bracamonte discusses the dynamics leading to Chavez's election in 1998, the extent to which the government is meeting the expectations people had at the time, and the project of 21st century socialism.


HAVANA TIMES, July 10 — Leonardo Bracamonte is an academic and a veteran activist in the Venezuelan left who serves as the strategy coordinator for the prestigious Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Romulo Gallegos (CELARG).  Together we organized several activities during my recent stay in Venezuela; among them were presentations at CELARG and in the history department of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV).

Measured and reflective, Leonardo contrasts with the simplicities and opportunism of some who call themselves “intellectuals of the Bolivarian Revolution” since he believes that criticism and commitment can only go hand in hand.  Today I’m sharing his opinions with the readers of Havana Times.

HT: Recently the twelfth year in the presidency by Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was marked by a speech of his that was full of promises of deep structural reforms.  In your opinion, what are the causes that explain the rise and continuance in power of this figure for more than a decade? 

LEONARDO BRACAMONTE: That’s a pertinent question.  But I want to stop myself in responding to what you described as “a speech full of promises for deep structural reforms.”  In reality, all three candidates who showed the most popular support — the beauty queen Irene Saez, Mr. Henrique Salas Romer, and of course Hugo Chavez— gave speeches “full of promises for deep structural reforms.”

It’s necessary to clarify something so that you have an idea about the scenario in which the December 1998 campaign unfolded.  There existed, and I believe that this is the strongest point, complete institutional abandonment.  The dominant parties, AD and COPEI, and in fact the same figure of the political party, suffered deep popular rejection.  Moreover, that rejection was not so much the product of some perverse campaign.  Recurring and cumulative errors and the lack of willingness to assume responsibility ended up affecting them irreparably.

An opinion had been formed concerning Venezuela, one developed by academic settings themselves both inside and outside of the country, according to which democracy in Venezuela was a model system for the continent.  It possessed strong and institutionalized parties, centrist leaders who had forgotten their voluntarist and ideological aims, and an attitude of openness toward third party forces and individuals who were willing to break with extreme positions.

This perception began to change in 1989 when Carlos Andres Perez implemented a radical program of adjustments that triggered popular uprisings.  The government used excessive force to repress groups that stood up, then we witnessed two coup d’états, the abandonment of power by Carlos Andres Perez through legal maneuvers, permanent destabilization, popular protests and general crisis.  In the 1990s Rafael Caldera came to power, someone who didn’t belong to any of the establishment parties, though in the 1940s he had been one of the main founders of COPEI.

In Venezuela, in fact, parties were always very close to the state, at least during the regime of Punto Fijo.  They were closely involved.  So when the parties lost popular support, the same thing happened to the country’s institutions.  Within the whole of Venezuelan society, it was surprising to see the hegemonic parties that had always been in favor of economic intervention — which in part they carried out those principles — then turn relatively quickly into neoliberal approaches.  The only candidate who presented themself as an anti-neoliberal in the 1998 campaign was Hugo Chavez.

But the point I want to call attention to was a serious institutional crisis that existed in 1998.  The government was not able to address the popular demands and Venezuelan society had experienced a battered economy for the previous fifteen years.  In those circumstances, speeches were all well centered on rapid ways out of the crisis.  Well, I believe that it has always been like this in part; you have to remember that we have an oil-based nation, capable of doing big things overnight.

In the same way, all those candidates were charismatic as well, reminding one of the weaknesses of the parties, institutions and politics in general as this offers an understandable way out of the crisis through the strengthening of strong and charismatic leaders.  But only Chavez had a way with words, linking the present with the heroic past struggles for independence. What’s more, as a concrete proposal to face the crisis, he called for a constituent national assembly.

Later he would speak of the government’s performance, the opposition and the international setting.  These factors can explain the continuation of Chavez in power.  I don’t believe anyone can doubt that the Bolivarian government has indeed made efforts to endow the popular sectors with programs that benefit them.  It has done this, despite the errors.  The opposition, in fact, came to hasty conclusions.  They held that the Chavist project was the continuation of Castrist communism, and descriptions of that type.

With those arguments the opposition launched their insurrectionist plans and left politics to the side, though they frequently crashed.  Now, since 2006, there are efforts to politically confront “Chavismo,” and these have recorded a few positive outcomes.  In addition, international campaigns (led by the US) have had mixed results, but they supplied the process with an anti-imperialist sense.

In the last few years, independently of what might happen in 2012, we’ve seen the formation of a new institutionalism.  It advanced notably in empowering the popular sectors, the economic slump stopped in 2009, and the government has given signs (in pre-electoral times) of openings with some sectors seen as part of the opposition (sectors of the student movement, university teachers…).

Internationally, the government is seen without much of a leadership role; rather, the Santos-Chavez (Colombia-Venezuela) alliance has been solidified, something unthinkable up until recently.  After the results of the last parliamentary elections, there’s a whole effort to move toward a center, which has even generated several problems between sectors that are more in favor in putting to the test a kind of acceleration toward socialism.

The government is making great efforts to try and attract those sectors of the population that have stopped voting for Chavismo.  Nonetheless, I believe that Chavez has maintained a powerfully emotional link with the poor.  However this is not only an emotional link, but one of social programs and experience in participation and political organization.  It has endowed the poorest people with a sense of life.

HTIn what measure does the current government correspond to the criticisms and expectations that the Venezuelan population had regarding the so-called Fourth Republic (1958-1998)? 

LEONARDO BRACAMONTE: One cannot take the 1958-1998 period as if it were a direct line that exhibited a single project free of flip-flops.  It’s necessary to affirm here that the fundamental orientations of the political model of Punto Fijo were based on government intervention in the economy, parties that even at that time were mass-based, and efforts that materialized, relatively, to distribute oil profits.  The weakness of a model based on a mineral extraction economy made the elites of the hegemonic parties in the ‘80s and ‘90s shift their politics toward forms with neoliberal policies.  However, these new reorientations were not made without resistance from within their own parties.

In 1999, popular expectations were demanding more political participation, more equality, a crackdown on corruption, a closer relation between the people and leadership.  What happened is that suddenly the popular aspirations changed the content as well as the orientation of the government’s politics.  Let’s say that there were sectors of Chavismo — significant numbers of people — who truly wanted to organize society through forms that were different from the way it was organized.  Also, there were popular sectors constituted as anti-imperialists in the heat of the polarization.  Let’s say that there were portions of society that were politicized and had greater ideological and political aspirations.

If one examines the process through the years, a project is exhibited whose content has been summed up with time.  However new contradictions have emerged.  We see the mentality and the top down culture of Chavez and of the principal figures of Chavismo who occupy high positions in the government have now collided with some practices of popular participation and organization that had strengthened over the years.

The social movements have shown themselves to be in disagreement with some decisions, such as the turning over of the head of the Anncol news agency, accused by the Colombia government of being a member of FARC-EP.

This is an episode that has created a serious precedent and a distancing that in any case was already starting to occur between the sectors that direct the government and part of the organized popular movements.

The government’s movement to the center is part of an effort that has transformed internal and international politics.  The international left has also shown itself to be bothered in relation to the government’s behavior.

HT: “Bolivarian ideology,” “socialism of the 21st century,” “militarist and authoritarian populism” are terms utilized indistinctly to define the Venezuelan regime and process.  What are the central elements that characterize the political project that made it into the Miraflores presidential palace in 1999, and what continuities or contradictions exist regarding the liberal democratic governments of the region and its own historical evolution? 

LEONARDO BRACAMONTE: That is, up to now, the most difficult question.  Beyond what some authors affirm, I believe there is a search for a model of a society that is still in the process of definition.  This I don’t see as a defect.  The socialism that was constituted as a model — the socialism of a state-run economy with a single party, the bureaucratization of life, etc. — constitutes a model that has been superseded.

The loss of the referendum for the reform of the constitution, among other positive things, implied that Chavez doesn’t have a monopoly on what socialism should or shouldn’t be.  It’s a debate that’s staged in Venezuela every day and from different perspectives.  In Venezuela, there’s generally respect for freedom of speech.

With everything and the healthy ambiguity of Venezuelan socialism, it’s clear that land ownership has been undergoing modification, the country’s fundamental and strategic economic activity is in the hands of the government, the forms of social and political participation have been expanded, and society is more organized in diverse social movements (and so is the opposition).

Although we continue to be a society dependent on the oil economy, the specific task of the political system that is being built is one of broad political participation (there exist institutional mechanisms that are exercised), growing control of the economy by the state, the putting into practice of forms of ownership that are different from state or private property, the expansion of social rights, enormous presidential leadership that sometimes contravenes forms of participation, a concern from power to transform the norms of “traditional” thought, etc.

HTIn 2012 there will be presidential elections where the opposition will try to take control of the executive branch of the nation and the president will seek reelection to continue with his process of change.  How do you see this election and what consequences will be generated based on a victory by either tendency? Will there be space for a third option that reduces the effective polarization and includes the enormous sector of the so-called “Ni-ni” (Neither-neither)? 

LEONARDO BRACAMONTE: Even the social and political dynamics are sharply polarized.  A space for a third force with electoral expression would be difficult to develop under these conditions.  However, other alternatives are being created in social expressions, but without electoral ones.  The popular sectors and the social movements are expression of alternatives that are not only political, but systemic.

One of the legacies that could come out of Chavismo is to have contributed to form a more organized society, and also the persistence of more groups to the left of Chavismo.  There had been created the illusion that we were a society different from the rest of Latin America; clearly, that’s pretty much in question now.

In the years of certain political stability, many academics ended up thinking that the political system in Venezuela represented a model for our continent.  They thought that we were “more equal” than the rest of our Latin American societies.  These ideas undoubtedly had a social scope, and the belief existed for a moment in a kind of “Venezuelan dream.”  The recent years of Bolivarian Venezuela — polarized, confronted and socially divided — has smashed that version of an exceptional country.

There has been weakening over the years of the government.  Sabotage is frequently committed by sectors of the opposition and probably with the participation of forces from other governments.  There is great inefficiency and arrogance within the Chavista ranks in the face of questions that arise from society and from Chavismo itself.  There is an administration that has produced results in social and cultural areas; there is a sense of dignity that is expressed in the defense of the nation in conflict with external threats.  There is democracy, but with great tension.

Up until now the government has maintained certain logic in its purely electoral procedures.  In some cases this has generated people forgetting several ethical principles that, as you know, cause deception on the left.  In any event, the elections will be hard fought.  The opposition doesn’t even have a discourse that is capable of being compared to the messianic force of the Chavista program.  They’re still too liberal.