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Venezuela’s Social-Based Democratic Model: Innovations and Limitations

Academic Steve Ellner discusses the differences between Venezuela's radical and "social-based" democratic model and that of reformist and social democratic governments.

The brand of socialism that has emerged in Venezuela under the presidency of Hugo Chávez differs in fundamental ways from orthodox Marxism and past socialist experiences in large part because of its emphasis on social as opposed to economic objectives.  In addition, in contrast to leftist doctrines associated with really existing socialism, the Venezuelan government’s social policies appeal to the non-wealthy in general but prioritize the needs of the non-proletariat, underprivileged sectors of the population, specifically workers in the informal economy, those employed in small non-unionized firms in the formal economy and the rural work force. The Chávez government has placed a premium on the incorporation of these excluded and semi-excluded groups[1] into the political, economic and cultural life of the nation and their participation in decision making, particularly in the local arena. The following article uses the term “social-based democracy” to refer to the Chavista strategy of promoting incorporation on a massive scale in a way that is designed to enhance the legitimacy of a government whose democratic credentials have been consistently questioned by its adversaries.

An underlining assumption accepted by much of the Chavista movement is that the non-incorporated, non-privileged sectors in Venezuela have a high level of political awareness but lack the experience, organizational skills, and discipline to play a protagonist  role in the process of radical transformation. Chavista leaders and activists, for instance, attribute the failures of a significant number of cooperatives and community councils to the lack of preparation of their members. In an attempt to stimulate interest and enthusiasm for social programs such as cooperatives and community councils, the government, in effect, jumpstarted them by injecting large sums of money facilitated by exceptionally high oil prices into rudimentary structures. The institutional flexibility and leeway and lack of strict controls over massive allocations for these programs are designed to encourage the participation of those who have been traditionally apathetic and skeptical and imbued with a sense of powerlessness. 

Orthodox Marxism framed the issue of backwardness and the lag in conditions essential for socialist transformation along different lines. Soviet Communists after 1917 viewed the main challenge facing their revolution as the need to expand the nation’s industrial productive capacity in order to increase the size of the proletariat, which was considered to be class conscious and the main agent of socialism. This imperative became all the more urgent in the 1930s when rapid industrialization became a logical response to the imminence of a German invasion of the Soviet Union. In addition, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and orthodox Communist parties in Latin America (unlike unorthodox Communist thinkers such as José Antonio Mariátegui) held ambivalent attitudes toward the peasantry, which was often considered an unstable ally due to its petty-bourgeois makeup.[2] The focus on objective conditions, namely the structural transformation of the economy and the work force, was designed to increase the size of the proletariat in developing nations and reduce, if not completely eliminate, the peasant class. This process was seen as a sine qua non for achieving true socialism in areas like Latin America (as well as for achieving true communism).  In contrast, Chávez throughout most of his presidency stopped short of glorifying the organized working class, at the same time that the Chavistas emphasized the transformation of the values and capacities of the underprivileged in general, which the social programs were designed to promote.

Chávez´s rule in Venezuela is different from really existing socialism in other ways. The Chavistas´ call for a democratic, peaceful, gradual path to socialism is the complete opposite of the one-party system that Communists defended in Eastern Europe, China and Cuba. Furthermore, the Venezuelan model draws on the tradition of radical democracy dating back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau with its defense of majority rule and direct participation in decision making. In contrast to Communist nations of the past, a key dimension of participation in Venezuela has taken in activity channeled along electoral lines.Under the Chávez presidency a record number of elections, including referenda, recall elections and party primaries, have been held. At the same time, the Chávez government and movement have stimulated the mass mobilization of non-privileged sectors and their participation in organizations and social programs, in accordance with social-based democracy.

Radical democracy and social-based democracy are often conducive to weak institutions. The concept of majority rule embodied by radical democracy discards the institutional mechanisms that are designed to protect minority rights (in accordance with liberal democracy) and thus may end up weakening a nation’s institutional makeup. Social-based democracy, for its part, promotes flexibility and avoids strong institutions and institutional rules in order to avoid discouraging participation of those who lack organizational experience. This article will argue that the Chavistas, in their determination to achieve radical and social-based democracy, have to an extent sacrificed the goal of institution building.

In general, the article will look at the way social-based democracy has played itself out in Venezuela. Specifically, it will attempt to differentiate between social-based democracy, which sets as a basic goal the incorporation of previously excluded sectors on a number of fronts, and reformist governments that promote welfare programs with a heavy dose of paternalism aimed at alleviating pressing economic conditions. The article argues that Venezuela’s social-based democracy is not only quantitatively and quantitatively different from these welfare-state approaches, but the tradeoffs and zero-sum game that characterize it have no equivalent among moderate reformist governments. The article will then examine the debate within the Chavista movement over such issues as subjective conditions, the role of the state and the pace of change, all of which have a direct bearing on the strategies underlying social-based democracy. Final remarks place Venezuela’s social-based democracy in a broader context and attempt to show that diverse political challenges as well as conflicting priorities and ideological formulations bear heavily on the prospects for the model’s consolidation.

The article breaks new ground by centering on the originality of the Venezuelan experience under Chávez vis-à-vis other leftist experiences throughout the world. The uniqueness of the Venezuelan case stems from the combination of social-based democracy, featuring social incorporation on a massive scale, and radical democracy, whose salient characteristics include extreme polarization and a commitment to eliminate capitalism.

 Social-Based Democracy in National and International Contexts

The Chavista movement, which emerged within the military in 1982 and organized an abortive coup ten years later, embraced increasingly far-reaching policies and goals in the course of Chávez’s first eleven and a half years in office. During the presidential campaign for the 1998 elections and Chávez’s early rule, radical socio-economic goals were subordinated to the drafting and ratification of a new constitution which promoted ‘participatory democracy’. This emphasis changed in 2001 when the government passed legislation that reversed neoliberal economic measures of the previous decade. In 2005 the government committed itself to socialism at the same time that it turned over the management of several companies that had closed down to the workers. Following Chávez’s third presidential election in 2006, the government nationalized various strategic industries and subsequently expropriated a larger number of smaller enterprises for diverse reasons.

Radicalization in general and social-based democracy in particular was a response to the opposition’s increasingly aggressive tactics that culminated in the April 2002 attempted coup and the two-month general strike in 2002-2003. As a result, the Chavista government went beyond the rhetoric of ‘participatory democracy’ by implementing social programs that appealed to the popular classes, which had actively and massively supported Chavismo during both crises. On the social front the government prioritized makeshift programs in the barrios known as ‘missions’ in the areas of health (the Barrio Adentro Mission), education (Robinson, Ribas and Sucre Missions) and food distribution (MERCAL). In subsequent years, government funding stimulated the creation of approximately 60,000 worker cooperatives and (after 2006) 30,000 community councils that were concentrated in underprivileged communities. The community councils design and execute public works projects in their communities and ensure preferential hiring for neighbourhood residents.

Although the radicalization of the Chávez government was a reaction to the insurgent tactics of the opposition, the arguments for social-based democracy and radical democracy were in large part a response to the failures of both Venezuela’s liberal democracy and the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe. Both before and after the abortive military coup led by Chávez in 1992, the Chavista movement lashed out at the deficiencies of Venezuela’s ‘model of liberal democracy’ or ‘pseudo- democracy’ and the ineffectiveness of the system of checks and balances as well as watchdog and counterbalancing bodies.[3] In a document written from prison shortly after the 1992 coup, Chávez’s group argued that in practice ‘no separation of powers exists in Venezuela, since the political parties, deliberately violating their function as intermediaries between society and the state, conspire to usurp popular sovereignty and allow the [national] executive to assume all state power’. The document went on to claim that ‘the legislative branch is subservient to the executive while appointing all members of the judiciary’.[4] 

The early Chavistas also claimed that Venezuela’s liberal democracy discouraged and blocked popular participation in the political life of the nation. As a corrective they initiated a campaign in favour of a constitutional assembly. The convocation of the assembly would be the result not of an ‘artificial decree’, but rather a ‘process’ that would stimulate ‘the latent potency of the people’.[5]

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 impacted Chávez as well as leftists throughout the world in different ways. Many on the left began to call for a humanistic socialism that placed people’s needs over production targets, which the Soviet Union had stressed throughout its existence. At the time, Chávez advocated a ‘humanist model’ that borrowed elements of capitalism and socialism. Chávez and other Chavistas attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to the dogmatism and economism of its leadership which downplayed popular participation and the transformation of values. Similarly, after embracing socialism in 2005, Chávez emphasized socialist values and international solidarity over purely economic achievements and argued that educational and cultural development was a sine qua non for socialist construction. [6]

Prior to reaching power, Chávez also began to question the Marxist doctrine of the central role of the working class in the revolutionary process. According to Chávez, Marx’s prediction that the work place is the locus of revolutionary struggle had not been borne out in practice. He added that the gradual disappearance of the middle class is reducing society to two classes: ‘a minority of exploiters and the great majority of exploited’.[7] Leftist theoreticians who are closely tied to the Chavista movement have asserted that in the twenty-first century the revolutionary bloc takes in more than the proletariat as it includes members of the informal sectors, and in doing so they criticize the tendency known as ‘workerism’ of privileging the proletariat, characteristic of the traditional left.[8] Given this broader view of agency, it is not surprising that the Chavista movement has emphasized the goal of incorporating the mass of unrepresented Venezuelans in accordance with social-based democracy, rather than singling out trade union struggle for special treatment. The focus on the mass of the population rather than the corporate interests of the industrial working class lends itself to the themes of social-based democracy, participatory democracy, nationalism and humanism which figure prominently in the Chavista discourse.

Chávez’s notions of state power and centralized control presaged the concentration of power in the executive branch of government that has characterized his rule. In the 1990s, many leftists throughout Latin America were influenced by the thesis that capitalism had achieved overwhelming hegemony in the age of globalization and thus gaining local power was the best the left could hope for during the current stage.[9] In contrast, Chávez claimed that only control of state power at the national level could lead to meaningful change. As a result, Chávez clashed with Francisco Arias Cárdenas, the second in command at the time of the 1992 revolt, who in 1995 was elected governor of the state of Zulia. Chávez argued that as governor Arias ‘lacks sufficient power in his hands to generate transformations’ or to come close to achieving the ‘original objectives’ of the movement.[10]

The Chávez government’s social programs have been designed to serve as a corrective to developments that undermined the nation’s democracy and distorted social relations during the period of the 1990s, which was characterized by neoliberal economic policies and political crisis. Political scientists writing in the 1990s generally viewed Venezuela’s political system as having entered a period of stagnation and crisis as a result of institutional ossification that excluded large segments of the population and stimulated apathy and electoral abstention.[11] In addition, privatization and multinational takeover of entire sectors of the Venezuelan economy led to the transfer of large numbers of workers from the formal to informal economy, in the process depriving them of organizational membership and representation at local and national levels.[12]

These diverse antecedents to Chávez’s rule help shed light on Venezuela’s emerging model of social-based democracy. Most important, significant numbers of Venezuelans, particularly those previously marginalized from the nation’s life, have been given the opportunity to participate in discussion and activity in community, workplace and political arenas and have been continually mobilized along political lines. At the same time the old mechanisms of checks and balances designed to avoid abuse of power – which the Chavistas considered ineffective – have been largely passed over in the name of majority rule or ‘radical democracy’. The resultant institutional deficiencies have to an extent detracted from the smooth functioning of the community councils, cooperatives and educational missions that underpin social-based democracy.

 Social Incorporation

In the aftermath of the failed coup and general strike in 2002-2003, the Chavistas prioritized social programs designed to further the educational and cultural preparation of mass numbers of Venezuela’s popular sectors, which had come to the defense of the government during both conflicts. The programs known as ‘missions’ created a unified system that ranged from literacy classes, primary, secondary and university education and included the insertion of trained personnel in the work force. The Vuelvan Caras mission was the centerpiece program, referred to as the ‘mission of missions’. It consisted of training sessions of 6 to 24 months that provided skills to serve to facilitate the transition from educational to employment, specifically membership in worker cooperatives. The key figure in many of these social programs was the facilitador (facilitator). Thus the facilitador provided advice and assistance to individual community councils and cooperatives and, in the case of the education missions, served as teachers in what was conceived of as a horizontal relationship with students. These programs targeted the excluded sectors. Exclusion in Chavista discourse was best symbolized by those lacking employment in the formal economy, those who were unable to read or write and those who were denied a university education, even though it had long been considered a basic right for all high school graduates, as was recognized by the 1999 Constitution (Article 103).[13]

         Chavistas at all levels of the movement have stressed the importance of the educational and cultural preparation of underprivileged sectors as part of an integrated effort. Multiple objectives include education instruction at all levels, job training, political and ideological formation and cultural transformation. Some Chavista leaders were influenced by the strategy designed by the Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA) that viewed the development of human resources, comprehending educational, communicational, inter-personal relations, cultural and political dimensions, as a basic requisite for economic development.[14]

Carlos Lanz, a former guerrilla and a leftist and educational theoretician, applied this strategy as presidentially appointed advisor of the Vuelvan Caras Mission and then as president of the state aluminum company ALCASA, positions that he used to promote worker and community input in decision making. In addition, Lanz helped draft educational legislation that linked schools with surrounding communities, whose members were to be incorporated in the learning process. Lanz wrote that ‘the Bolivarian revolution requires a campaign of permanent education for the formation of the exploited and the oppressed’ which would encompass the socio-political arena as well as the cultural one and facilitate the ‘democratization of knowledge and citizenship’.[15] Another leading Chavista who is the mayor of Carora, Julio Chávez, affirmed: ‘We have to give greater weight to the preparation of all actors who participate’ in decision-making activity, such as ‘participatory budgeting’, and to ‘equip our people with the instruments that will permit them to effectuate the transformation of the state’.[16] Along these lines, shortly after his reelection in 2006 Chávez announced that a major thrust of his government was ‘Moral y Luces’ (‘Morality and Illumination’), which he defined as ‘education with socialist values’ and going ‘beyond the classroom’ by ‘promoting education in all spaces’.

Government policy in general, and education programs in particular, favored the underprivileged sectors of the population. Thus, for instance, the student aid program Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho, which was founded in 1975, began to give preference to low-income students as recipients of grants and loans to study abroad. In the past, the student was required to have a bondsperson in order to guarantee repayment of loans. The Chávez government considered the requirement discriminatory against low-income students and lifted it at the same time that it sent a larger number of students to third-world universities while excluding U.S. ones from the program.  

The social program that has had the biggest impact in activating marginalized sectors of the population and facilitating their participation in decision making is the government-financed community councils. Following enactment of the Law of Community Councils in April 2006, 20,000 community councils sprung up throughout the nation. The councils take in 200 to 400 families who meet in neighbourhood assemblies to discuss priority projects. In some cases, the community councils design and administer public works projects and housing construction, activities that were previously carried out by the municipal, state or national government. The community council leaders (called voceros or ‘spokespeople’) perform their duties free of charge and are of equal rank. The spokespeople belong to different community council bodies, such as the communal bank (which until 2009 was organized as a cooperative) in charge of finances, and a ‘social controllership’, which monitors spending.

Another program which is linked to the communities and has enrolled hundreds of thousands of nonprivileged Venezuelans is the educational missions, consisting of literacy classes (‘Robinson Mission’) as well as education at the high school (‘Ribas Mission’) and university (‘Sucre Mission’) levels. The Robinson and Ribas Missions use video cassettes and ‘facilitators’ in place of teachers as a practical innovation which reduces costs, but also quality. Sucre Mission students take courses called ‘Projects’ in which they gather information and participate in activities at the neighbourhood level and, in some cases, design proposals used by the community councils to apply for state funding. Various majors in the Sucre Mission program are centred on community participation, such as in the areas of sociology (‘Gestión Social para el Desarrollo Local’), medicine (‘Medicina Integral Comunitaria’) and Environmental Studies (‘Gestión Ambiental’).

In spite of their underprivileged backgrounds, those enrolled in the Sucre Mission appear to have the same (or nearly the same) learning capacity and motivation as their counterparts in regular universities, but lack the high grades, resources and influence to enter the traditional university system and progress at a regular pace.[17] The Ribas and Sucre Missions do not have the organizational infrastructure of established public schools. In most cities the Sucre Mission lacks a campus and classes are held in different public schools. Furthermore, even though regular universities that collaborate issue diplomas in their name (rather than that of the Sucre Mission), their role is mainly limited to designing course programs and evaluating theses. In all three missions, a ‘spokesperson’ (vocero) representing students of each grade level collaborate with school authorities.

Another government-promoted activity with important social implications was the worker cooperative movement which received a massive injection of credit between 2004 and 2006 when it was largely eclipsed by the community councils. The members of cooperatives, who President Chávez urged to discard the ‘profit motive’, were obliged to carry out projects in their respective communities, such as maintenance work in schools. To its credit, the cooperative movement took in large numbers of poor people with little experience in the formal economy who learned administrative skills and were exposed to new attitudes toward cooperation and solidarity. Thousands of cooperatives have survived the test of time and carry out community work free of charge, even while some of their practices do not conform to the vision of a revolution in values. Nevertheless, most of the cooperatives were small, consisting of five members (the minimum number required by law) who were related to one another. Some were private companies which disguised themselves as cooperatives in order to receive contracts, loans and tax exempt status. [18]

Social programs and other aspects of Venezuela’s social-based democracy contribute to the empowerment of the popular sectors. Empowerment occurs when people are convinced that their collective efforts have produced desired results and will continue to do so in the future. The concept implies assertion of autonomy, even though in the Venezuelan case the state is very much at the center of the effort to stimulate social participation. Examples include community council members when they successfully complete a public works project or when authorities respond positively to their request to establish a MERCAL store in their community. A similar sense of efficacy is manifested in the assertion by Sucre Mission students that their degrees represent the same input as those of their counterparts in traditional universities, as well as the Chavista Universidad Bolivariana, and should therefore receive the same recognition. Finally, the routine conversations among barrio residents sometime revolve around the details of social programs, and in the process create a sense of social identification and shared experiences which are conducive to empowerment.[19] The Chavista discourse of people’s power and the community-base of the programs also enhance empowerment and help distinguish Venezuelan social-based democracy from other types of government whose social policies are driven by paternalistic assumptions.

The government’s social programs contain negative and controversial features, although some actions have been taken in the way of correctives. In the first place, the government failed to establish effective mechanisms to penalize members of community councils and cooperatives in cases of unscrupulous or negligent handling of public funds. Until now the Chávez government has been reluctant to take punitive measures against wrong doers (such as those who squander public funds) in order to set an example, particularly in the case of low-income groups. On the other hand, state agencies which fund community councils have implemented diverse inspection procedures in order to avoid granting new allocations to community councils that have failed to satisfactorily complete state-financed projects. This threat weighs heavily on neighbourhood leaders who have invested considerable time and effort in the founding of a community council.

In the second place, the incorporation of large numbers of low-income Venezuelans in a variety of programs sacrifices quality for the sake of quantity, and in some cases represents a zero-sum game in that it favours certain groups at the expense of others. The Sucre Mission provides examples of tradeoffs along these lines. The ‘losers’ are the students in the traditional public and private universities who end up having to compete in the labour market with the mission graduates, whose diplomas are in the name of various state-controlled universities and who tend to drive salaries down. The lower standards of the educational missions would argue against the issuance of regular high school and college degrees. Nevertheless, if the missions did not grant normal diplomas, they would not be successful in attracting such large numbers of low-income Venezuelans into their programs.The program’s adverse effect on students at established universities undoubtedly contributed to their discontent and mobilizations against the Chávez government. Similarly, from a cost-benefit perspective, the allocations to community councils are open to criticism. In the short run private contractors could undoubtedly perform the same tasks more efficiently, but the councils promote the Chavista goal of popular participation in decision making.

In the third place, the social programs have a political content and play a political role, thus violating the separation of powers and the divorce between public and private spheres that are basic principles of liberal democracy. The Chávez government utilizes social programs to mobilize along political lines. Thus, the ‘spokespeople’, who play a political activist role (in addition to performing administrative tasks), are an institutionalized rather than autonomous feature of the Sucre Mission.

The outstanding features of Venezuela’s social-based democracy differ from the welfare programs and political practices of former Venezuelan governments. In the first place, the sheer number of social program beneficiaries and participants has no equivalent prior to 1998. By 2009, for instance, over 600,000 students had graduated the Ribas Mission. In the second place, the social programs of the Chávez presidency, unlike in the past, prioritize the interests of the popular classes at the expense of other sectors of the population. Thus, for example, MERCAL has opened grocery stores and supermarkets in lower-class (but not wealthy) neighbourhoods and sell subsidized products generally at 30 to 40 percent discounts, thus representing a form of ‘disloyal competition’ with regard to private commercial interests.

In addition to zero-sum game social policies, Venezuela’s social-based democracy has promoted the ongoing political mobilization of popular sectors on a scale unmatched in twentieth-century Venezuelan history. The creation of Chavista cells beginning with the campaign for the presidential recall election in 2004 has facilitated this massive participation. More recently, the ‘battalions’ (consisting of several hundred Chavistas) of the five-million member Chavista political party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist party of Venezuela, PSUV, which replaced the Partido Quinta República – Fifth Republic Party, MVR – in 2007), engaged in campaign work for the November 2008 local elections. The following year the battalions were replaced with the 20-30 member ‘patrols’. In short, the political incorporation and involvement of large numbers of low-income Venezuelans over an extended period of time is without precedent in modern Venezuelan history and stand out as a major feat of the nation’s social-based democracy.

After twelve years of Chavista rule, the balance sheet for the achievement of the goals of Venezuela’s social-based democracy is mixed. This article has pointed to various ways in which social programs, state-funded bodies, ongoing political mobilization and the Chavista discourse on popular participation have contributed to the transformation of the popular sectors of the population. The essential elements of this process include: education; incorporation of excluded sectors; empowerment, as demonstrated by the belief among rank-and-file Chavistas that decisions taken by Chávez are a response to their demands; and input in decision making, as occurs in public works projects undertaken by community councils. Nevertheless, in addition to institutional deficiencies (to be discussed below), Venezuela’s social-based democracy has had several major shortcomings. In the first place, the high failure rate of cooperatives and community councils and the short duration of Chavista social movements have discouraged some of their members from further participation. In the second place, there is little evidence of a fundamental change in ethical values [20], even among diehard Chavistas, as is recognized by government supporters who ascribe the malfunctioning of many cooperatives and community councils to the self-serving behavior of those in charge.

 Radical and Social-Based Democracy: Institutional and Organizational Shortcomings

 The military rebels led by Chávez who staged the coup of February 1992 called for a radical overhaul of the nation’s political system and went beyond the rules of electoral democracy to attempt to achieve their goals. Subsequently, however, the Chavista movement changed its course. Since Chávez’s MVR party took the decision to abandon abstentionism and participate in the 1998 presidential elections, the Chavistas have adhered to two fundamental rules of the established political system: electoral democracy and acceptance of the system of political parties. Electoral means were used to displace old structures which the Chavistas viewed as obstacles to radical change. Thus in 1999 the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), an elected body controlled by the Chavistas, displaced the National Congress until new elections were held the following year for the National Assembly, which was considered more responsive to popular interests. In subsequent years, elections at all levels were characterized by declining levels of abstention and (with the exception of the opposition’s boycott of the 2005 contests for the National Assembly) multi-party participation.[21]

At the same time, President Chávez broke with Venezuela’s corporatist tradition in accordance with radical democracy’s emphasis on majority rule. Along these lines, he discontinued the practice of naming representatives of FEDECAMARAS (and the business sector in general) to top ministerial positions in charge of the formulation of economic policy. Furthermore, he discarded the government’s decades-long policy of consensus and consultation with political parties of the opposition and other organizations and the formation of tripartite commissions whose members were selected by labour and management leaderships. In doing so, Chávez argued that the government should be in constant consultation with the people and not political elites. In another fundamental reversal, Chávez halted the trend toward decentralization of powers that had advanced under the neoliberal governments in the 1990s. Rather than transfer authority from the federal to gubernatorial and mayoral governments, the Chavistas promoted decision making at the neighbourhood level which they considered more conducive to the direct participation of the popular sectors.

These transformations produced institutional and organizational gaps which the organizationally weak Chavista movement was not well positioned to correct. The Chavista MVR party failed to develop strong societal links and remained basically an electoral organization until Chávez replaced it with the PSUV with the hope of strengthening his organizational base. Furthermore, given the relatively weak social movement tradition in Venezuela, it is not surprising that social organizations for the most part lack autonomy and have proved to be short lived. They thus failed to play a key role in such fundamental tasks as the naming of supreme court judges, members of the National Electoral Commission, the Attorney General and the National Controller, as was envisioned by the 1999 Constitution (Articles 264 and 279). Finally, Venezuela’s extreme polarization and politicization (incomparable to previous years) in which Chavistas and the opposition were in a state of permanent confrontation militated against the system of institutional checks, since any exposure of wrongdoings of government officials was immediately transferred onto the political battlefield.

From the very outset, the executive branch of the Chavista government assumed greater power, at the same time that Chávez became the undisputed leader within the Chavista movement, thus ruling out any kind of formal collective decision making or the emergence of a second-in-command. The Constitution of 1999 increased executive authority on various fronts, such as in the promotion of military officers which became the exclusive preserve of the president without input from the National Assembly. The Constitution also reversed the trend toward decentralization by creating a body to facilitate federal input in decisions that had previously corresponded exclusively to the gubernatorial and municipal governments.[22] In 2009 the national executive took control of airports and ports that had been transferred to the states in 1989.

While some pro-Chavistas express concern about Chávez’s accumulation of power but view it as a necessary expedient to face the movement’s powerful adversaries, others consider it an indisputably positive feature of Venezuelan politics. In an example of the latter viewpoint, national student leader Robert Serra called Chávez ‘unsubstitutable’ and as having a ‘magical relationship’ with the people.[23] Similarly, political scientist Diana Raby points to specific incidents in which Chávez has responded to a popular clamour by interpreting it and transforming it into concrete proposals. Raby describes this interaction as a ‘dialectic between Chávez and the people’, or more specifically his ‘hard-core’ followers. She goes on to state that this dynamic ‘may arouse suspicions of populism or caudillismo… [but] so far it has proved… more sensitive to the real feelings of the people and more democratic… than any conventional party or government mechanism’.[24]

One negative side effect of Chávez’s absolute authority in the government and his movement is that it discourages the rank-and-file selection of other Chavista leaders as serious contenders for decision-making power. This failure in turn holds back the clarification of distinct political and ideological positions within the movement.[25] In any political party, internal rivalry helps elucidate political differences, even while the membership may be largely swayed by the charisma of its leaders. In the case of the Chavistas, the institutionalization of the movement’s leadership selection free of state control could serve as a corrective to the lack of formal mechanisms to channel the opinions of the rank and file in an upward direction.

The active role played by leading government figures in the affairs of the PSUV, as shown by the leadership positions in the party assumed by Chavista ministers and governors, deprived the organization of the independence needed to serve as a check on state performance. Thus, for instance, the power yielded by Minister of Energy and Petroleum Rafael Ramírez, who at the same time served as president of the state oil company PDVSA, put in evidence the state’s encroachment on grounds formerly occupied by political parties, politicians and social leaders. Ramírez was named vice-president of the PSUV for the Andean region and overtly supported the wining slate in the elections of the newly unified oil workers union, the Federación Unica de Trabajadores Petroleros (FUTPV), held in 2009.

The MVR party’s limited presence outside of the electoral and congressional arena reflected the organizational underdevelopment of the Chavista movement. As a reaction against the hegemonic practices of the establishment parties, MVR leaders made a conscious decision to avoid intervention in social and labour movements and thus eliminated the organic ties with social organizations established at the time of the party’s founding in 1997. As a result, the MVR centred its efforts on electoral activity and its legislative role.

Various internal elections held by the Chavista party were designed to open the organization to the rank and file and check bureaucratic tendencies that Chávez vigorously criticized. Article 67 of the Constitution requires this procedure for the selection of candidates and the national leadership positions of all political parties, although the provision was almost entirely ignored by the opposition. The first Chavista internal election was held in April 2003 for the MVR’s national authorities, the second in April 2005 for municipal council candidates. Subsequently, the PSUV held primaries in June 2008 for the party’s gubernatorial and mayoral candidates for elections in November, then in 2009 to select delegates to the party’s Extraordinary Congress, followed by internal contests for the September 2010 race for the National Assembly. In one move that generated internal discontent, Chávez named his former vice-president Diosdado Cabello to important party and ministerial positions in 2009 even though he had fared poorly in both internal and gubernatorial elections, while passing over the highly popular Aristóbulo Istúriz, who had been nominated the PSUV mayoral candidate in Caracas with 94 percent of the Chavista vote.

The PSUV’s three primaries put in evidence the strengths and weaknesses of the democratic model that emerged under the Chávez presidency. In all three elections 40-50 percent of the party’s eligible voters participated. Furthermore, the PSUV prohibited the use of paid propaganda in these contests in order to level the playing field, although in some cases incumbents and those supported by them utilized state resources. In at least two states (Guárico and Mérida) the candidates endorsed by a highly unpopular or controversial governor were defeated in the 2008 primaries. Following the 2009 primaries, specific topics were discussed simultaneously by the party’s congress and the party’s patrullas (cells), which formulated recommendations for consideration by the delegates.

On the downside, a large number of Chavistas objected to procedures that lent themselves to manipulation and passed over the will of the party’s rank and file.[26] In many states, for instance, Chavista governors and mayors controlled the electoral process, using their resources and taking advantage of their influence over public employees to promote slates consisting of their loyalists. At the center of the problem was the lack of separation between party and state (including governors, mayors and ministers), a principle which liberal democracy emphasizes but Venezuela’s radical democracy has tended to overlook.

Several important figures including former PSUV vice-president Alberto Müller Rojas and the renowned Chilean Marxist Marta Harnecker (who was based in Venezuela and was a Chávez advisor) called for greater party independence. Harnecker called on the Chavista movement to undertake programs to train party activists in order to avoid the overlap of government officials and party leaders.[27] On his weekly televised program ‘Aló Presidente’ on December 6, which was held at the PSUV’s Extraordinary Congress, Chávez seemed to take into account this viewpoint as he called on Chavista mayors and governors who had been elected as delegates to step down on grounds that they could not carry out the two functions simultaneously. Although Chávez’s statement hardly went to the root of the problem of party subordination, it encouraged the rank and file to assume a more assertive position. Some congress delegates began to use Chávez’s line of reasoning to question the appointment of ministers as party vice-presidents. The issue of party autonomy, however, was largely skirted as delegates who were at the same time elected officials were allowed to choose substitutes to attend the congress in their absence.[28] Similarly in 2010, Chávez called on governors and mayors to refrain from interfering in the party primaries for the National Assembly, but his plea went largely ignored.

Chávez’s announcement that primaries would be held to choose candidates for the 2010 National Assembly elections also put in evidence his receptivity to the demands of his movement’s rank and file, a dynamic that has characterized his presidency since its outset.[29] Previously, other PSUV leaders (and Chávez himself) had hinted that another procedure would be used, as was favoured by a majority of the delegates to the PSUV’s Extraordinary Congress.

The PSUV’s failure to create structures to assume full control of electoral campaigns was another demonstration of the party’s weakness and lack of autonomy. Education missions, community councils and other state-sponsored programs partly filled the gap. They played a particularly active role in the February 2009 referendum on Chávez’s proposal to lift term limits. During the campaign, Chávez drew attention to the fact that ‘for the first time, the missions have presented themselves as political actors and as a vanguard of the revolutionary struggle’ (speech delivered in Zulia, January 20, 2009). In the case of the education missions, teachers and ‘spokespeople’ organized committees of between six and eight members to campaign in favour of the proposed constitutional amendment. The ‘Mission Front’ grouped these committees at the state level while similar committees created by the community councils belonged to the ‘Social Front’. In an additional demonstration of the state’s exercise of power traditionally assumed by political parties, the pro-Chávez mayors (who controlled 80 percent of the municipalities at the time) headed the Chavista campaign organization in their respective localities. In contrast, the PSUV, whose basic unit known as ‘battalions’ had campaigned heavily in the state-municipal elections held three months earlier, were less central in the Chavistas’ February 2009 campaign effort.

Different aspects of the models discussed in this article explain the institutional and organizational weaknesses of the Chavista presidency. In the first place, the Chavista movement’s rejection of the system of liberal democracy has been translated into the blurring of the divide between state and political party spheres. The state’s incursions into the political arena and its open politicization of old and new spaces have detracted from the role of the governing parties. In the second place, aversion to liberal democracy has led to the dismantlement of corporatist mechanisms which over a period of decades had provided sectoral organizations such as FEDECAMARAS an ongoing input in decision making. The establishment of institutional alternatives to corporatist structures has been held back because social organizations, which according to the 1999 Constitution were to play an important consultative role, have tended to be short-lived.  In the third place, Chavista leaders have always lashed out at pro-establishment political parties for having exercised tight control of labour and other social movements prior to 1998, a practice which some political scientists characterized as ‘party democracy’.[30] MVR leaders overreacted to ‘party democracy’ by refraining from developing organic links with social movements that could have facilitated a two-way flow of information and advice between the two spheres, thus forfeiting their party’s organizational development and confining themselves largely to congressional and electoral arenas.

The Chavista embracement of social-based democracy and radical democracy (the central concern of this article) has also in some ways stunted organizational and institutional growth. The advocates of radical democracy and majority rule justify the expansion of the executive branch and Chávez’s assumption of unrivalled authority within his movement on grounds that the popularity of the President has no equivalent among those under him. This hegemonic position has discouraged internal debate that could have strengthened the MVR and PSUV and led to the rank and file’s direct selection of party leaders.

In addition, social-based democracy in Venezuela rests on the assumption that the state needs to be flexible and avoid the rigid application of rules and regulations in order to encourage the participation of marginalized sectors and their incorporation into experimental bodies such as cooperatives and community councils.[31] This practice, however, holds back the development of effective institutional controls on the large sums of money that have been allocated to social programs. More recently, the government has taken modest measures to correct this deficiency. The Organic Law of Community Councils passed in December 2009, for instance, is designed to broaden the responsibility for fiscal transactions, which previously was often limited to the self-proclaimed head of the communal bank.[32] The law also opened the possibility of the intervention of the National Controllership in individual community councils (Article 35).  

In one other respect, Venezuela’s social-based democracy together with radical democracy have organizational and institutional implications. The Chavista social base of support is the popular sectors of the population. Their ongoing mobilization in social programs and political rallies and their enrollment in the mass-based PSUV (which broke with the Leninist concept of a vanguard party) have led to empowerment and incorporation, both of which are cornerstones of social-based democracy. Mass mobilization and participation also encapsulates the notion of majority rule (radical democracy), which contributes to the legitimacy of Chavista rule in the face of an opposition that questions the government’s democratic commitment. Nevertheless, state bureaucratic control of the PSUV limits the effectiveness of rank-and-file participation in party decision-making, which could serve as an effective check on government performance. Checks and balances, although associated with liberal democracy, are a sine-qua-non for the institutionalization of the Chavista model in a way that avoids the Soviet-style bureaucratic socialism adamantly rejected by the Chavistas.

 Social-Based Democracy and the Debate over the Role of the State

 Two opposite positions (with gradations between them) on the role of the state have emerged in the Chavista movement with important implications for the model of social-based democracy. A radical position recalls Lenin’s insistence on the need to ‘smash the state’ in order to achieve socialism. It also posits the existence of an irreconcilable conflict between ‘constituent power’ (taking in social movements and the population in general) and ‘constituted power’ (the state bureaucracy and political party leaderships).[33] The radical approach considers the social programs and social organizations representing the Chavista rank and file as effective arenas to organize against the ‘constituted power’, but places in doubt the capacity of the state to play a constructive role in promoting the goals of social-based democracy. The radicals assume a high level of consciousness of the popular classes and reach the conclusion that in Venezuela subjective conditions are ripe for far-reaching transformation.

A second more moderate view recognizes that the Chavistas inherited a bourgeois state as a result of their electoral path to power. The moderate position envisions a ‘war of position’ (along the lines of the strategy developed by Antonio Gramsci) in which revolutionaries steadily occupy old and new spaces in the public sphere. Consequently the aim is not to smash the state(as Lenin and even Gramsci believed would eventually happen) but to transform it, at least in part. Marta Harnecker, for instance, points out that under Chávez ‘state institutions are run by revolutionary cadres, that are aware they should… work with the organized sectors of the people to control what the institutions do and to press for transformation of the state apparatus’, and as a result it is feasible ‘with certain limits, for these institutions to work for the revolutionary project’. At the same time she calls for ‘laying the foundations of new institutions.. [by] creating spaces from the bottom up’.[34]

Those who defend the moderate position deny that sectors of the state and society are monolithic or can be reduced to ‘constituent’ and ‘constituted’ powers. They criticize the ‘radicals’ for directing their fire against the Chavista bureaucracy and in the process detracting from the struggle against the organized opposition. On occasion, they call on the state bureaucracy simply to refrain from interfering with the struggle of the popular sectors, including organized labour, against their class enemies.[35]

The moderate position on the transformation of the state in the framework of ‘trial and error’ socialism is compatible with social-based democracy, which is designed to prepare subjective conditions for thoroughgoing structural changes. Most important, the moderate position values government programs and other initiatives ‘from above’ that are designed to advance the goals associated with social-based democracy. Those who embrace the moderate viewpoint defend a non-dogmatic version of Marxist thinking which underlines the contradictions at all levels of society and its institutions and the need to wage struggle particularly on the ideological front (as Gramsci emphasized) in order to occupy new spaces.[36] In contrast, the radical position, in effect, focuses on head-on class confrontation even within the state sphere. It also discards the necessity of forestalling socialism in order to prepare the underprivileged sectors for the role they are to play in the new socialist society, a task which is the raison d’être of social-based democracy.

Influential advocates of the radical position on the state include social movement activist Roland Denis, who in 2002-2003 was Vice-Minister of Planning, and the British Trotskyist Alan Woods, who has occasionally met with and advised President Chávez. Following his exit from the ministry, Denis became increasingly critical of the government, as well as of Chávez himself, for turning its back on the Chavista rank and file and social organizations. Denis claims that the development of strong social movements and their slogan of ‘people’s power’, which coincided with the economic contraction of the neoliberal period beginning in the late 1980s, laid the foundation for the ‘constituent power’ that emerged after 1998. Denis warns that the vibrancy of social movements is being threatened by the interventionist intentions of some PSUV leaders who call on the party to help orient the community councils as a smoke screen for exercising control.[37] At the same time he denies the claim of Chavista mayors that community councils have not been granted sufficient funding because they have failed to present viable proposals. Along similar lines, Denis and other ‘radicals’ accuse the Chavista political leaders (constituted power) of having held back the mobilization of the rank and file at the time of the attempts to overthrow Chávez in 2002 and 2003 and of having ‘demonstrated a complete lack of commitment to holding power’.[38] In recent years, Denis has argued that ‘centrists’ and ‘rightists’ have gained control of the key ministerial positions and denies that these Chavistas can be viewed as separate from, or less dangerous than, the organized opposition.[39]

Theoretical writers who have influenced the Chavista movement in favour of the moderate position on the state, such as Marta Harnecker, the German-Mexican writer Heinz Dieterich and the Argentine leftist Luis Bilbao differ from the ‘radicals’ in their evaluation of subjective conditions.[40] Bilbao points out that subjective conditions should not be overestimated as even the new structures created by the Chávez government are subject to the vices of the past as well as extreme fragmentation. Given the lag in subjective conditions, the PSUV should not, at least for the time being, call itself ‘Marxist’.[41] Bilbao, in accordance with Gramsci’s view on the importance of ideology in the achievement of hegemony, argues that the social programs and movements are not just political instruments in the battle against adversaries, but play a leading role in ‘the ideological-political formation of the masses’. In essence, social-based democracy in Venezuela puts into practice a dynamic of gradual radical change that is less internally confrontational than what the hard liners envision. The government’s social programs create the conditions for cultural transformation which facilitates the occupation of spaces by revolutionaries both in and outside of the state.[42]

The relationship between the Chavista movement and business interests is at the center of the differences between the first and second lines of thinking. The radical position on the state sees certain businessmen as intricately linked to pro-Chávez politicians and corruption as pervasive. Chavista governors and mayors (constituted power), for instance, who grant contracts to capitalist groups for public works projects instead of favouring cooperatives, community councils or small businesses end up becoming intricately tied to elite sectors of the enemy camp. Those who support the radical position coincide with the Venezuelan opposition in asserting that widespread corruption has facilitated the rise of new bourgeois groups (referred to as the boliburguesía). They argue that in oil-rich Venezuela, unlike in most countries, the ‘state creates the bourgeoisie’ and not vice versa, and that this historical tendency has continued under Chávez. The ‘radical’ Chavistas point to Diosdado Cabello and, though to a lesser extent, Minister of Energy and Petroleum Rafael Ramírez as examples of Chavista politicians who are tied to private interests.[43]

Rank-and-file Chavista members often articulate the radical position by expressing outrage at the extensiveness of government corruption. Community council members, for instance, sometimes attribute the lengthy delays in the funding of projects and in general the deficiencies in public services to a ‘fifth column’ within the government with allegiances to business interests.[44] Many of these Chavistas draw the conclusion that an all-out war needs to be waged within their movement (or what Chávez has called a ‘revolution within the revolution’) in order to purge its ranks and sever its ties with opportunistic businessmen.

Those who defend the moderate position do not deny the existence of corruption and recognize that some businessmen have acquired considerable wealth as a result of contracts and other opportunities provided by the state. Nevertheless, the moderates argue that the existence of unethical businessmen with connections with the government is a far cry from a ‘consolidated’ Chavista bloc of the bourgeoisie and its penetration of the government sphere.[45] The moderates’ analysis of the Chavista movement and government tends to focus on bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetence as opposed to corruption and the influence of economic groups. At the same time the moderates question the tendency of the opposition and the Chavista ‘radicals’ of accusing PSUV leaders of ongoing corrupt practices without providing concrete evidence to support their claims. In addition, they generally accept the Chávez government’s dealings with new economic groups as legitimate during the ‘transitional stage to socialism’, but insist that they should not receive special treatment.[46]

The ‘moderate’ Chavistas warn that internal confrontation runs the risk of disrupting the unity of the Chavista movement, which Chávez constantly calls for as a political imperative. With their emphasis on the problems of inefficiency and misplaced priorities, as opposed to corruption, these Chavistas are more likely to campaign and vote for Chavista candidates who are not to their liking, unlike the more intransigent ‘radicals’. Widespread abstention by Chavistas explained the movement’s first electoral defeat in the national referendum on a proposed constitutional reform held in December 2007

Until 2008, the debate within the Chavista movement over these issues was mainly confined to informal discussion.[47]With the December 2007 electoral defeat, however, Chávez called for an ongoing process of self criticism in order to revitalize the movement by way of what he called ‘reimpulso’ (new thrust). Subsequently, critical viewpoints reflecting the two positions on the state were frequently expressed in opinion pieces in the pro-Chavista online publication Aporrea,[48] whose cofounder Gonzalo Gómez belonged to the Venezuelan Trotskyist organization ‘Marea Socialista’ as well as the PSUV. Some Chavistas in the government considered Aporrea’s critiques exaggerated and inopportune,[49] but the web page followed a policy of publishing nearly all articles sent to it by those on the left. Similarly, Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro harshly criticized the Centro Internacional Miranda (CIM), a think tank which received funding from the Higher Education Ministry, due to itsdiversity and critical opinions. The CIM was founded by Marta Harnecker, who defends the moderate position on the state, but includes leftist intellectual activists Denis, Javier Biardeau and others who claim that corruption has fully penetrated the public sector.  

The complexity of developments in Venezuela, due to the rapid pace of change, places in doubt the simplistic black and white vision of the radical position. By characterizing Chavistas in power as a Fifth Column within the Chavista movement, the ‘radicals’ inadvertently or explicitly minimize the differences between them and leaders of the opposition. A Chavista governor, for example, who grants contracts to members of the local economic elite for public work projects or who fails to project a revolutionary image, but is not corrupt, can hardly be placed in the same camp as Chávez’s adversaries. The discourse associated with the radical position on the state, which fails to make distinctions along these lines, has led numerous rank-and-file Chávez followers to abstain from voting in local elections, rather than support a Chavista candidate who is not to their liking. Finally, by dismissing bureaucratic controls as self-serving, if not conducive to clientelism and corruption, the ‘radicals’ characterize state regulation of social programs as excessive and unnecessary, when in fact it has often proved to be timid and insufficient.[50]

In other historical contexts the Leninist and gradual strategies do not necessarily correlate with optimistic or pessimistic assessments of the ripeness of conditions for revolutionary change, or definitions of revolution as representing a protracted process as opposed to a sudden change. Those who claim that socialism can only be established through the seizure of power (Leninist position) may relegate revolution to the far-distant future.[51] Similarly, those inspired by Gramsci may envision revolution (as opposed to ‘revolutionary process’) as an abrupt change produced by a single event.

In Venezuela, those who defend the moderate position on the state favor working with patience to occupy spaces in the public sphere. Consequently, they reject the radical vision of a ‘revolution within the revolution’, which is predicated on an extremely optimistic evaluation of subjective conditions. The moderate position also supports Gramsci’s emphasis on ideological struggle, which is an important component of social-based democracy. In addition to ideology, social-based democracy focuses on literacy, education, job training and empowerment in a variety of political and non-political contexts. These objectives presuppose a more somber evaluation of current conditions in Venezuela than that put forward by the radical Chavistas.


Much of the theoretical writing on the Chávez presidency that points to the lack of strong institutions and organizations (a central concern of this article)is influenced by conceptualizations of Latin American populism over the last half a century. Early writing on populism associated with Gino Germani depicted the relationship between the populist leader and his followers as that of caudillo and ignorant masses in the absence of viable intermediary structures.[52] Chávez´s detractors use this concept to characterize Chávez as a demagogue whose rhetoric is bereft of ideological content and who is free of any institutional or organizational checks on his authority.[53]

Revisionist writing on populism beginning in the 1970s presented a more nuanced picture of the phenomenon which included weak organizations but also transformational potential.[54] More recently, Kurt Weyland and Kenneth Roberts, writing on Chávez and other populists at the turn of the century, also balance negative and positive features. On the one hand, the modern-day populists give a voice to the marginalized workers of the informal economy who previously lacked interlocutors at any level. On the other hand, populist governments suffer from institutional and organizational backwardness, although Roberts recognizes that Chávez does not go to the extreme of Fujimori in spurning well-structured organizations.[55]

More recently, Kirk Hawkins in a book on Chavismo and populism attributes the institutional and organizational underdevelopment of the Chavista and other populist movements to their Manichean world vision. According to this thesis, the populist leader is perceived as embodying the will of the majority against the forces of evil, a role that intermediary bodies undermine in that they create obstacles between him and the people.[56]

This article also examines the lack of organizational and institutional consolidation, but rejects the simplified black and white framework of those writing in the Germani tradition. Chávez’s undisputed power holds back organizational development by discouraging the formulation of a diversity of positions within the movement and the mechanisms to resolve internal differences. Furthermore, popular mobilizations over a period of time unmatched in Venezuelan history, which represent an essential component of Venezuela’s social-based democracy, has cemented the bond between Chávez and his followers, while failing to facilitate the creation of viable and durable organizations. Similarly, the discourse on majority rule lashes out at ‘bureaucrats’ and ‘technocrats’ and thus helps delegitimize intermediary structures between the national executive and the rank and file.

The Chavista strategy for social programs also contributes to weak organizations and institutions. The Chavistas have preferred flexibility and bending the rules of the game as well as makeshift structures over established institutions in order to avoid intimidating the unincorporated who may be lacking a sense of efficacy. Furthermore, the Chavistas argue that the incorporation of the marginalized sectors into the political, economic and cultural life of the nation is a precondition for the deepening of the process of change. Members of these sectors, however, generally lack the organizational experience and skills of the organized working class as well as the middle class.

Venezuela’s social-based democracy represents a model that is distinct from both really existing socialism and welfare-state politics. Unlike the Soviet Union in the 1930s and other Communist nations, the Chavista government has directed its efforts at the preparation of hitherto excluded sectors for participation on a diversity of fronts. The sheer numbers of popular sector members who have taken part in political mobilizations and enrolled in social programs, along with the tradeoffs in favor of the poor at the expense of more privileged groups, contrast with the social strategies of reformist governments. Furthermore, the zero-sum game policies of the Chávez presidency have generated intense political and social polarization, which has few equivalents in the history of reformists in power who promote a welfare-state model.

Developments under Chávez’s third presidential term beginning in 2007 point to challenges and a shift in priorities and ideological underpinnings that detract from the primacy of the goals associated with social-based democracy. Scarcities of basic products beginning in 2007, which contributed to the Chavistas’ first electoral defeat in a referendum held in December of that year, influenced the government to focus greater attention on increasing production, as opposed to social programs. Compensation for widespread expropriations, which were designed to achieve economic goals including combating scarcity and price speculation, represented a drain on national revenue during a period of declining oil income.[57] Budgetary cuts for social programs were first felt in 2009 when Chávez himself acknowledged a deterioration of the Barrios Adentro program. The reduction of social spending was also put in evidence in the first half of 2010 when only 12,000 of the nation’s 30,000 community councils renewed their legal status as required by the December 2009 law in order to qualify for additional funding.[58]

A modification of official discourse accompanied this change of focus. During his third presidency, Chávez declared himself a Marxist and for the first time insisted on the leading revolutionary role of the working class. As a result, discourse began to focus more on centers of production and less on the territorial unit and specifically the community, to which the cooperatives, community councils and mission programs are linked. Thus, for instance, the Chavistas increasingly viewed worker input in the decision making of state owned companies, and particularly the heavy industry of the Guyana region in accordance with the Socialist Plan of Guayana launched in 2009, as the embodiment of participatory democracy. Although after 2009 social objectives and programs and the incorporation of the previously unrepresented continued to play a major role in the Chavista discourse and budgetary allocations, they have begun to lose the primacy of previous years when they were the cornerstone of social-based democracy.

In short, throughout the Chávez presidency, participation in social movements and programs and party activity has impacted the lives of a large number of underprivileged Venezuelans, but the results have been mixed. This article has pointed to the accomplishments of Chavista social programs in the form of empowerment (a subjective condition), educational gains, learning experiences and incorporation, all of which further the goals of social-based democracy. Only by taking into account these advances on a massive scale can the unprecedented electoral successes of the Chavistas over such an extended period of time be explained. On the negative side, the high failure rate of cooperatives and community councils, due to the organizational inexperience of their members and the state’s institutional deficiencies, has dampened the enthusiasm of some Chavista supporters often leading to disillusionment and passivity. The impact of these diverse experiences on Venezuela’s excluded and semi-excluded population will shape the nation’s politics and social relations long into the future.

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[1]  In the socio-economic sphere, ‘excluded groups’ refer to members of the informal economy while the ‘semi-excluded’ refers to low-paid, non-unionized workers of the formal economy.

[2] V.I. Lenin, Two tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (New York: 1935), p. 83; Manuel Caballero, Latin America and the Comintern, 1919-1943 (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 94-96, 103-105; Prabhat Patnaik, ‘Socialism and the Peasantry’, Social Scientist, 23 (2009), p. 23.

[3] Agustín Blanco Muñoz (1998) Habla el comandante (Caracas: 1998),  p. 168.

[4] Angela Zago, La rebelión de los ángeles: Reportajes – los documentos del movimiento, 3rd edition (Caracas: 1998), p. 177.

[5] Blanco Muñoz (1998), Habla el comandante, p. 529; Marta Harnecker [interviewer],  Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks to Marta Harnecker. (New York: 2005), p. 43.

[6] Blanco Muñoz, Habla el comandante, p.  611; Mario Sanoja and Iraida Vargas-Arenas La revolucion bolivariana: historia, cultura y socialismo (Caracas: 2008), p. 296; Freddy J. Melo Reforma y revolucion (Caracas: 2009), p. 403.

[7] Blanco Muñoz, Habla el comandante, pp. 392, 397.

[8] Marta Harnecker, Rebuilding the Left (New York: 2007), paragraphs 368-371.

[9] Perry Anderson , ‘Renewals’, New Left Review, 1 (2000), pp. 5-24.

[10] Blanco Muñoz, Habla el comandante, p. 209.

[11] Brian F. Crisp, Daniel H. Levine and Juan Carlos Rey, ‘The Legitimacy Problem’, in Jennifer McCoy, Andrés Serbin, William C. Smith and Andrés Stambouli (eds.), Venezuelan Democracy under Stress (New Brunswick, N.J.: 1995), pp. 153-8.

[12] Ellner, ‘The Tenuous Credentials of Latin American Democracy in the Age of Neoliberalism’, Rethinking Marxism, 14, 3 (2002), pp. 77-8.

[13]  Between 2007 and the present, I have conducted 58 in-depth interviews with members of cooperatives and community councils as well as Chavista activists and political leaders throughout Venezuela as part of a project titled “El Estado y Organizaciones Politicas y Sociales en la Democracia: El Caso Venezolano” financed by the Consejo de Investigacion of the Universidad de Oriente. In 2008-2010, I taught three courses in the university-based Sucre Mission in Barcelona, Anzoátegui for students in the programs of Local Management (‘Gestion Local’) and Law.

[14] Interview with Elías Jaua, Minister of the Popular Economy and future vice-president. Caracas, 27 January 2006.

[15]  Carlos Lanz Rodríguez Aportes para el debate del socialismo del Siglo XXI (Caracas?: 2006), pp. 8-10.

[16] Marta Harnecker [interviewer], Transfiriendo poder a la gente: Municipio Torres, Estado Lara. Caracas (2008), pp. 37, 76.

[17] The above statement is based on my own experience having taught in the program in two different schools (known as ‘aldeas’) in two different fields of study.

[18] For a book length publication of testimonies by participants in the Venezuelan cooperative movement that document both the positive and negative features discussed in this article, see Héctor Lucena, (Coordinator), Cooperativas, empresas, estado y sindicatos. Una vinculación necesaria (Barquisimeto, Venezuela: 2007).

[19]  In another example, in 2008 the government heeded the steel workers union call for the nationalization of the foreign-owned steel company SIDOR in the midst of a violent worker dispute, and in the process invigorated the nation’s labor movement.

[20]  Michael A. Lebowitz, Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (New York: 2006), p. 113.

[21] Daniel Hellinger, ‘When ‘No’ Means ‘Yes to Revolution’: Electoral Politics in Bolivarian Venezuela’, in Steve Ellner and Miguel Tinker Salas (eds.), Venezuela: Hugo Chávez and the Decline of an ‘Exceptional Democracy’ (Lanham, Maryland: 2007), p. 69.

[22] Steve Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez2006. Phenomenon (Boulder, CO: 2008), p. 93.

[23] Robert Serra, Television interview by Carlos Croes (Televen), January 18, 2009.

[24] Raby D. L., Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today. (London: 2006), pp. 190-91; Alan Woods La revolución bolivariana: un análisis marxista (Caracas: 2006), p. 62-3.

[25] Juan Carlos Monedero, ‘La reinvención revolucionaria de Venezuela y los fantasmas del pasado’, Comuna: Pensamiento crítico en la revolución-Intelectuales, democracia y socialismo [Caracas] (July-September 2009), p. 192.

[26] Sujatha Fernandes, Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela (Durham, NC and London: 2010), pp. 85-6.

[27] Marta Harnecker, ‘Latin America and Twenty-First Century Socialism: Inventing to Avoid Mistakes’ Monthly Review [special issue], 62, 3 (2010), p. 70; Harnkecker, ‘El Estado debe facilitar y no suplantar al poder popular’, Comuna: Pensamiento crítico en la revolución-Intelectuales, democracia y socialismo [Caracas] (July-September 2009), pp. 148-9;  Harnecker, ‘Sí necesitamos una nueva izquierda’ [published in Aporrea.org, November 27, 2009],  www.aporrea.org/ideologia/n146141.html. See also Jeffery R. Webber and Susan Spronk [interviewers] ‘Venezuela: Voices on the Struggle’ Against the Current, 148 (2010), p. 33.

[28]  Interview with Evaristo Zambrano, mayor of Palmira (Táchira), Palmira, 30 December 2009.

[29] Raby, Democracy and Revolution, pp. 186-94.

[30] Michael Coppedge, Strong Parties and Lame Ducks: Presidential Partyarchy and Factionalism in Venezuela (Stanford: 1994).

[31] Steve Ellner, ‘A New Model With Rough Edges: Venezuela’s Community Councils’, NACLA: Report on the Americas, 42, 3 (2009), p. 14; Harnecker, Transfiriendo poder a la gente, p. 98.  

[32] Carlos Martínez, Michael Fox and JoJo Farrell, Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots (Oakland, CA: 2009), p. 135.

[33] The concept of ‘constituent power’ and ‘constituted power’, which replaces class struggle as the main source of conflict, is used by writers inspired by postmodern and anti-statist thinking, such as Antonio Negri, as well as those in Venezuela who adhere to the radical position on the state.

[34] Harnecker, ‘Latin America and Twenty-First Century Socialism’, p. 34. See also, George Ciccariello-Maher, ‘Dual Power in the Venezuelan Revolution’, Monthly Review, 59, 4 (2007), p. 54-5.

[35] Webber and Spronk [interviewers] ‘Venezuela: Voices on the Struggle’, p. 30.

[36] Luis Bilbao, Venezuela en revolución, el nacimiento del socialismo (Buenos Aires: 2008), pp. 136-7.

[37] See also, Santiago Arconada, ‘Es necesario replantear la relación entre socialismo y democracia’,  Comuna: Pensamiento crítico en la revolución [Caracas] (July-September 2009), pp. 58-60.

[38] Roberto López Sánchez, ‘Autonomía sindical y soberanía popular’, in Margarita López Maya (ed.), Ideas para debatir el socialismo del siglo XXI. vol. 2 (Caracas 2009), p. 134.

[39] Roland Denis [interviewed by Raul Zelik], ‘Venezuela and the Popular Movement’, Z Magazine, 16, 10 (October 2003); Denis, ‘Venezuela: The Popular Movements and the Government’, International Socialist Review, 110 (2006), pp. 29–35.

[40] For an optimistic evaluation of subjective conditions in Venezuela by a leading advocate of the radical position on the state, see Alan Woods, Reformismo o revolución: Marxismo y socialismo del Siglo XXI; Respuesta a Heinz Dieterich (Madrid: 2008), p. 402-5.

[41] Bilbao, Venezuela en revolución, pp. 219,  151; Marta Harnecker, Haciendo posible lo imposible: la izquierda en el umbral del siglo XXI (Mexico and Madrid: 1999), p. 65. For a discussion of Dieterich’s views, see Javier Biardeau ‘el proceso de transición hacia el nuevo socialismo del siglo XXI? Un debate que apenas comienza’ in Mario Ayala and Pablo Quintero (eds.) Diez años de revolución en Venezuela: historia, balance y perspectivas (1999-2009) (Buenos Aires: 2009), p. 371-5. See also, Rodolfo Sanz, Hugo Chávez y el desafío socialista. 2ndedition (Caracas: 2007), p. 168; Sara C. Motta, ‘Venezuela: Reinventing Social Democracy from Below’, in Geraldine Lievesley and Steve Ludlam (eds.), Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy (London: 2008), p. 86-8.

[42] Toby Valderrama, and Alejandro Mena  Rumbo al socialismo (Barcelona, Venezuela: 2005), p. 69; Sanz, Hugo Chávez y el desafío socialista, p. 162-64; Bilbao, Venezuela en revolución, p. 178, 219.

[43] Roland Denis, ‘Hay una lucha histórica que no ha sido resuelta en veinte años’, Comuna: Pensamiento crítico en la revolución [Caracas] (2009)), p. 108-9.

[44] Naike Infantino, author interview with director of Caracas’ Office of Citizen Attention. Caracas, 11 December 2008.

[45] Manuel Brito, ‘Bocaburlario Burgués (o sea, Ernesto, Vladimir, Mario Villegas)’,


[46] ‘Entrevista a Alberto Müller Rojas,’ www.aporrea.org/ideologia/n146379.html; Harnecker, Rebuilding the Left, paragraphs 137-9.  

[47] Steve Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics, p. 141.

[48] Daniel Hellinger, ‘Virtual participation and political virtue: Chavistas on the Internet in Venezuela’. Paper presented at the 28th Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 2009.

[49] Interview with Jorge Giordani, Minister of Economy and Finance, 23 January 2010, Caracas; interview with Irán Aguilera, president of the state legislature of Anzoátegui, 25 November 2009, Barcelona, Venezuela.

[50] Ellner, ‘A New Model with Rough Edges’, pp.12-13.

[51] This type of determinism, for instance, was upheld by leading members of the U.S. Communist Party beginning in the 1930s, as discussed by Maurice Isserman in Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party during the Second World War (Middletown, CT, 1982), pp. 48-49.

[52] Gino Germani, Política y sociedad en una época de transición: de la sociedad tradicional a la sociedad de masas (Buenos Aires: 1962).

[53] Jorge G. Castañeda and Marco A. Morales, ‘The Current State of the Utopia’, in Castañeda and Morales (eds), Leftovers: Tales of the Latin American Left (New York: 2008), p. 16; Nelly Arenas and Luis Gómez Calcaño, Populismo autoritario: Venezuela, 1999-2005 (Caracas: 2006), pp. 129-156.

[54] Daniel James, Doña María’s Story: Life History, Memory, and Political Identity (Durham, N.C.: 2000).

[55] Kenneth M. Roberts ‘Populism, Political Conflict, and Grass Roots Organization in Latin America’. Comparative Politics, 38,  2 (2007), p. 144; Weyland, The Politics of Market Reform in Fragile Democracies: Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela (Princeton and Oxford: 2002), pp. 247-9. See also, Ellner, ‘The Contrasting Variants of the Populism of Hugo Chávez and Alberto Fujimori’. Journal of Latin American Studies,  35, 1 (2003): 154-5.

[56] Kirk A. Hawkins, Venezuela’s Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective (New York: 2010), pp. 82-85, 168.

[57] Ellner, ‘Chávez Pushes the Limits: Radicalization and Discontent in Venezuela’. NACLA: Report on the Americas, 43, 4 (2010), p. 11.

[58] Interview with Leandro Rodríguez, advisor to the National Assembly’s Commission of Citizen Participation, Decentralization and Regional Development. Caracas, 29 July 2010.

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