From Chavismo to Revolution in Venezuela

Venezuela’s experiment in revolution has entered a new phase. At stake is the Bolivarian revolution’s ability to transcend defending Chávez, in favour of advancing the revolution itself.

Overlooking the mass of revellers outside the Presidential Palace at 5am on August 16th, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías made the declaration that his followers were waiting for: “The recall referendum was not just a referendum on Hugo Chávez,” he announced, speaking in the third person, “it was a referendum of the revolutionary process, and a majority of Venezuelans articulated their support!  It is time to deepen the revolution!”

Thus, Venezuela’s experiment in revolution has entered a new phase.  The reaffirmation (as Chavistas have begun calling the recall referendum) of both Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution by 60% of the population marks a historical moment in the evolution of radical politics in Venezuela.  Never before has Chávez or ‘el proceso’ been so widely supported in Venezuela, nor so widely accepted – albeit reluctantly – by the international community.

For many, the upcoming regional elections, now tentatively scheduled for late-October, provide the first opportunity to deepen the revolution.  With the momentum from the referendum and the opposition in disarray, Chavista candidates have the potential to gain important political territory.

Many current members of the opposition in key positions were originally elected as Chavista candidates in the regional elections of 2000, only to switch sides in 2002-03 when they felt the political winds turning against Chávez.  They guessed wrong, and may now lose their posts for their base opportunism.

Yet Chavistas stand to do more than merely re-gain positions that ‘should’ have been theirs for the last 4 years.  The ‘No’ vote in last month’s referendum—a vote against recalling Chávez—won in 23 of 24 states, including the 8 states currently governed by the opposition, though the vote was close in some cases.  If those who voted ‘No’ in August, will vote for the Chavista candidate in October, this will reinforce the threat to the opposition in these states.

Yet it is appearing more and more that this may not necessarily be the case.  Though the opposition as a national conglomeration of anti-Chavists was roundly defeated in the referendum, individual candidates for governor and mayor may maintain local support.  Furthermore, while a large percentage of Chavistas will likely vote for the official candidate in the regional elections, there is also an unknown number of Chávez-supporters, varying greatly from community to community, who may not.

This is a problem with roots deep in the gestation of the practical defensive-politics that have necessarily dominated in Venezuela since the attempted coup against Chávez in April 2002 (if not before).  During the coup, when the Venezuelan people flooded the streets all over the country, and hundreds-of-thousands surrounded the palace to demand Chávez’ return, a siege-mentality set in.  This mentality was further entrenched in the following months when Venezuela’s economy was effectively (if temporarily) destroyed by the oil-industry shut-down.

The threat to the Bolivarian revolution was especially grave since this “general strike” was led by the communion of Venezuela’s corporatist union confederation, the CTV, and the largest Chamber of Commerce federation; between the two of them they were able to effectively shut down oil production for several months in 2003.  No one, least of all the Venezuelan people benefiting from this revolution, doubted the centrality of oil wealth in making ‘el proceso’ possible.

The opposition’s identification of Chávez as the embodiment of everything evil they associate with this revolution, had the effect of confirming his uniqueness and his messianistic status in the eyes of his followers.  It was the incredible mobilization of ‘Chavistas’ that deflected or reversed the constant attacks on Chávez beginning with the 2002 coup.  The effect has been to create a mobilized and increasingly radicalized people, who are nevertheless Chavistas first, and revolutionaries second.

Chavez has well understood the danger to the revolution posed by this overemphasis of his own role.  Since he came to power his administration of the Bolivarian project has aimed at providing people with the tools to carve an autonomous, bottom-up path for the revolution.  Thus, his focus on education, which gives all Venezuelans access from basic literacy to university; and thus, his emphasis on community-based power structures.

Yet in the heat of the battle over the last five years, much of this emphasis on community-based power structures was put on hold—there were serious threats to the revolution itself that understandably took precedence.  Moreover, the immediacy of facing these threats required—in certain instances—Chávez’ unfiltered leadership.  And of course, there is the reality of the prospective revolution still being based on a capitalist state that more than anything has continued to resemble the corrupt, paralyzed bureaucracy of the pre-1998 (4th republic) Venezuelan state.

The Current Juncture

How to move beyond the barriers that have so far limited the Bolivarian project?

How to deepen the revolution even in the context of continuing threats to its existence?

How to transcend the pattern of going from one electoral test to the next, in favor of permanent revolutionary creativity?

On August 20th, William Izarra—head of the ideology wing of Comando Maisanta, the campaign coordination team—held a conference entitled “Deepening the Bolivarian Revolution.”  When asked what the role of the Electoral Battle Units (UBE) and the ‘Patrols’ (groups of activists campaigning for the ‘No’ vote in the referendum) would be now that the referendum was over, Izarra responded: “Right now we don’t have any specifics, but the patrols and the UBEs will continue as electoral battalions.  More than that, it is not yet clear…we don’t have more specifics.”

Yet the members of the UBEs and the patrols are not waiting for the National Comando Maisanta to give them direction—the answers to the above questions are being debated now, in communities across the country.  And what consensus has so far emerged appears to be clear on at least one front: any deepening of democracy must begin now; it cannot wait for after the regional elections.

As a result, a series of plans are emerging as to how to create the participatory structures and coordination that will form the foundation upon which this new stage of the revolution is launched.  This debate has been given a special urgency due to conflicts surrounding candidates in the regional elections—with disagreement over municipal candidates front-and-centre.

The experience of the 2000 regional elections clarified for many the need for an alternative, consistent method of selecting candidates.  Yet last April when the election date was declared (though the date has since been changed twice), instead of primaries, candidates were selected by the Comando Ayacucho — the disastrous predecessor to the Comando Maisanta. The need for primaries was raised, due to the Comando’s apparent preference for candidates that appeared to fit their rigid definition of chavismo, as opposed to those candidates who actually have a base in the communities in question.  As a result many Chavista candidates decided to run anyway—on a Chavista platform, but against the official Chavista candidates.

In order for the Chavistas to take full advantage of the regional elections, unity is key.  To avoid splitting the vote another mechanism for selecting candidates must be developed (and implemented).  Unfortunately, instead of learning from the reluctance of the base and their candidates to give up their electoral ambitions simply because the Comando Ayacucho told them to, Chávez seems to be repeating the same mistake.  In last Sunday’s weekly television address Alô Presidente, Chávez declared “We have already announced the candidates, and these are the candidates.  Those who don’t want unity can join the escualidos (opposition).”

Meanwhile several exciting, innovative examples of grassroots initiatives are emerging to solve this problem.  Below, two brief examples illustrate two different approaches.


In one municipality in the interior in which various Chavista mayoral-candidates decided to work together to consult the community, they created a commission made up of agreed-upon members to organize the following three-stage process of consultation:

First, they would call a popular assembly in which each candidate would present his platform to the public.  Second, they would conduct a poll, which due to time constraints, would be limited to those sectors who had shown the highest levels of support for Chávez in the referendum.  Third, they would call another popular assembly in which supporters of each candidate would make a brief presentation to give the commission an idea of each candidate’s support-base.

Only after this process of consultation would the commission evaluate the results of each stage of the process, and pronounce in favour of a single candidate, at which point the remaining members would be incorporated into the winner’s campaign to foster unity.

Popular Participation

The second example comes from a Caracas-barrio, and Chavista-bastion.  Here residents decided to support the official Chavista candidate, but conditionally.  They have planned the “First Municipal Forum of Popular Participation: Constructing Popular Power,” a 3-day conference at which community-members will conduct a series of workshops and hold debates designed to produce a manifesto outlining the specific advances in popular power deemed most pressing.  The manifesto will then be presented to the official Chavista candidate to sign, as a condition for the support of the community.

Closing the Gap

Yet Chávez’s most recent declaration seems to contradict these vibrant examples of participatory consultative politics.  And the existence of other such experiments in institutionalizing popular participation in the selection of candidates suggests a dangerous disconnect between Chávez and his supporters.

This disconnect is not entirely new; it has existed in one form or another since Chávez first came to power.  However, the debate over the regional elections may well be the first time it is forcefully vocalized.  If the goal is to deepen the participatory politics that form the rhetorical basis of the Bolivarian revolution—indeed to transfer these politics from rhetoric to reality—then there is no choice but to support each individual community’s right to choose their own candidate (just as it is their right to vote for or against that candidate).

Up until last Sunday’s program, Chávez was more aware of the abyss separating him from his people than anyone.  The very idea of a democratic revolution means that, at least initially, all that is achieved with an electoral victory is leadership of the state.  But it doesn’t yet suggest, nor is it possible for it to yet include, fundamental change in the state itself.  Transforming the state is perhaps the most strategic accomplishment the revolution can hope to achieve, and it is one that will remain out of reach until the Venezuelan people have been mobilized to having fully institutionalized their right to participate in politics at every level of government—and beyond.  That is to say, until they have internalized their right to participate in politics not only at the level of their community, state, or nation; but also at a regional, and even international, level.

Every advance in participatory democracy since Chávez was elected—and they have often been realized through his direct influence—was designed to close this gap.   The educational, health, and employment missions all represent a form of ‘parallelism’ designed to bypass existing state structures that are intrinsically unable to act as conduits for revolutionary transformation.

If that pattern is to continue, the debate over candidates demands public articulation, and official response.  As the arena in which this debate will likely play out, the upcoming regional elections may, ironically, represent the most profound test of the Bolivarian revolution since the April 2002 coup.  Not for Venezuelan society as a whole, but as a focal point of debates within chavismo.  At stake is the Bolivarian revolution’s ability to transcend defending Chávez, in favour of advancing the revolution itself; to make the transition from one stage in the revolution to another; to move from chavismo towards revolution.