The Possible Faces of Venezuelan Democracy

Venezuela’s revolution has entered a new stage. This new stage is characterized by a dialectical shift from the defensive politics that subordinated everything else to the defence of the revolution, to a return to the creative dialogue that Chávez’ proceso initially represented.

In the eastside Caracas barrio of Petare, an elderly former guerrilla addresses his neighbours: “In the 1960s and 70s when we were fighting the government,” notes Renardo Tovar, “we had to create our own media of communication: clandestine newspapers, radio, barrio-newsletters.  Now that we are part of the process and supported by the process, we have lost our creativity.  We depend on existing media—Ultimas Noticias, Radio Nacional, Canal 8[1]—when the need is still great to create our own.”

Looking-in from the barrios that surround Venezuela’s capital.
Credit: Jonah Gindin

An infamous epicentre of rebellion and politicization, Petare residents played a leading role in the caracazo—the popular uprising against the neoliberal policies of then President Carlos Andres Perez in February 1989.  On April 12th, 2002, hours after a coup had (temporarily) toppled Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ government, Petare residents stormed the state television station, bringing it back on the air to inform the country of the coup, rallying Chávez’ supporters to successfully demand his return.

Renardo Tovar is participating in a ‘popular assembly’, bringing community activists and social movement militants together to debate the ‘deepening of the revolution.’  Since Chávez’ declaration that the referendum victory inaugurates a new stage in the Bolívarian project, communities across the country have begun debating what the “revolution within the revolution” actually means.

After a year and a half thaw, popular power is once again stimulating popular consciousness in Venezuela.  Since the campaign for recalling Chávez got under-way after the failed oil lock-out of 2002-03 the opposition shifted strategy from extra-legal attacks on Chávez (the 2002 coup, the lockout) to legal ones (the referendum).  But with their defeat last August, the immediate threat to the Bolivarian revolution has—temporarily—been averted.  As a result, Venezuela’s revolution has entered a new stage.  Chávez calls it ‘deepening the revolution,’ but it is more than just his initiatives for ‘deepening’ at the level of the state.  This new stage is characterized by a dialectical shift from the defensive politics that subordinated everything else to the defence of the revolution, to a return to the creative dialogue that Chávez’ proceso initially represented.

At this moment, as the splintered collection of anti-chavists represented by the Democratic Coordinator (CD)—unable to come to grips with their defeat—continues their self-immolation, dialogue and dissent have returned to debates within chavismo.  The collective imagination that has been largely stagnant since the 2002 attempted-coup is once again finding spaces for expression.  It is a moment for ‘deepening’, but it is also a moment for reflection, and for self-criticism.

Between a Friend and a Principle

With the upcoming regional elections as a further catalyst, communities are once-again demanding national forums for the articulation of community interests, and community-based struggles.  Thus, a series of popular assemblies held in communities across the country to frame their position with respect to the regional elections: local-selected candidates (primaries) or conditional support for candidates selected from above?  And thus a lively debate that is slowly emerging on the future of the Electoral Battle Units (UBEs) initially created as part of the chavista referendum campaign.

Outside Miraflores Palace, a small group of Chavistas demand primaries to chose candidates for the upcoming regional elections.
Credit: Jonah Gindin

In response to increasing mobilization demanding primaries for regional candidates, Chávez’ position has been a surprise to many.  Last month, he declared “We have already announced the candidates, and these are the candidates.  Those who don’t want unity can join the escualidos (opposition).”  Yet since these candidates were all appointed by a national committee dominated by the governing party, the 5th Republic Movement (MVR), the result has been fierce opposition in many communities who are demanding that the government act in accordance with its participatory rhetoric.

While many in the interior continue to press for primaries, Caracas seems to have come to a consensus.  Recognizing the time constraints with the October 31st date of the regional elections looming, three of Caracas largest working-class districts have chosen conditions over primaries.

Yet the anger that this contradiction in the governments position has sparked remains.  As the April 13th Movement, spawned during the mobilization on April 13th 2002 that resulted in the reversal of the coup against Chávez, argues: “We either make revolution, or we face destruction by the counterrevolution…this is the ethical dilemma cited by Chávez when he makes us chose between a friend and a principal.”

Rhetoric and Practice: Local Autonomy, Community-based Power

In a series of independently organized popular assemblies held in the Caracas barrios of El Valle, Petare, and Catia the focus was on declaring publicly and collectively the changes that they expect to see after chavista victory in their states and municipalities, no matter the candidate.  To this end community members participating in the popular assemblies drew up manifestos that were subsequently sent to candidates at the municipal and state levels, and to Chávez.

In a manifesto published by various independent media outlets via internet, the Left Revolutionary Option (OIR) declared: whoever the candidates are, “the upcoming regional elections cannot be a new electoral event, nor a media-show without content or political perspectives…On the contrary, they must be a continuation of the struggle against imperialism and against the Venezuelan oligarchy.  They must be an opportunity to debate ideas, suggestions, programs, and concrete plans of action that provide answers to the most urgent needs of the workers and the people.”

Manifestos drafted by these popular assemblies include provisions for the improvement of a diverse range of community rights and services.  One focus for all three assemblies was the idea of local public planning councils.  Last spring the organic law of Local Public Planning Councils was passed, yet these potentially key institutions of participatory democracy so close to the heart of the Bolivarian project have yet to be implemented.

Subordinated to facing the direct threat to the revolution that the referendum represented, the local public planning councils have returned to the forefront of the debate in many communities.  They represent a Venezuelan version of the participatory budget experimented with in Porto Alegre, Brazil.  According to Conexion-Social (Social-Connection), a nation-wide forum for community activists and social movements, the public planning council law is plagued by difficulties.  Yet their implementation is the first step in addressing and eventually rectifying these potential problems.

As Pedro Infante, director of the National Coordination of Popular Organizations points out, the law was changed before being passed in the National Assembly.  “Deputies to the National Assembly often do not consult their base on the laws they pass.  But we as organized communities are not pressuring them sufficiently to do so.  We are organized, but we are dispersed.”

Last weekend in 23 de Enero[2], another vibrant center of revolutionary activity, neighbours and activists held a ‘popular assembly’ with the express aim of defining their community’s autonomy.  Not content to wait for the national government to fix the existing legislation for local power structures, community-members took the initiative and explicitly stated the need for the creation of a self-sufficient local governing body inexorably rooted in, and directly accessible and accountable to, the community.

Small Steps: Internal Limits and Contradictions

Despite the continuing—and in fact increased—dynamism of Venezuela’s experiment in revolution, the process remains a gradual one, and it is one plagued by difficulties stemming from within as well as without.  Whatever the external limitations imposed upon a third world Latin American country—even an oil country—internal limitations represent as much of a potential barrier to the development of the Bolivarian project.

Venezuela’s opposition succeeded in temporarily subverting the democratic project of the Bolivarian revolution by forcing the last one and a half years to be dominated by exercises in representative democracy.  But the strength of the Bolivarian project has been its articulation of an alternative model of democracy.  This has been one of the few areas in which Venezuela has been able to advance on its own.  Lacking a regional movement dedicated to opposing neoliberalism it is difficult for Venezuela to do so alone, without isolating itself in an artificial, and likely short-lived socialist bubble.[3]

Depending as it does on oil wealth, Venezuela has the advantage of a certain autonomy from global capital in the sense that it does not depend as heavily on foreign lending institutions and can finance its development projects independently.  Yet this autonomy is also the firmest guarantee of Venezuela’s continuing integration into the global economy.  Oil wealth is of no use to the Bolivarian revolution if it cannot be sold on the world market. As a recent article in the Economist commented: “Chávez…has a grandiose scheme, called Petroamérica, for a Latin American energy conglomerate based on an alliance of state oil companies. Argentina’s president, Néstor Kirchner, has shown interest. Brazil is less keen. But, for now, the Bolivarian revolution rests firmly on the shoulders of the foreign oil giants.”  Even south-south trade relations pursued by Chávez have not effected significantly Venezuela’s dependence on the US market.

Compounding these difficulties, and intricately related to them, is the hesitancy of the V Republic to shed the vestiges of the IV Republic once and for all.[4]  After 6 years of ‘revolution’ and a new constitution, the Venezuelan state has too much in common with the very un-revolutionary Venezuelan state that kept the country mired in the corrupt selective distribution of oil wealth from 1958-1998.

Politically the transition from representative to participatory democracy has proceeded at a painfully slow rate.  Economically, the government has often proven reluctant to act in accordance with its own revolutionary rhetoric.  The few currently-existing examples of co-management in Venezuelan factories have so far failed to concretely improve the lot of the workers in question, and examples of self-management do not yet exist.  Culturally the revolution has seen some impressive advances, though largely limited to education.

Yet even the promise of the educational misiones, providing free and accessible education from basic literacy to university, raises questions of sustainability.  Opposition critiques that Chávez is able to maintain the misiones solely due to record-breaking oil prices is probably exaggerated, but it represents a very real concern.  Former Minister of Higher Education Hector Navarro has called for the ‘municipalization’ of higher education as a means of institutionalizing the universal right to higher education.  Yet this would require a concurrent ‘municipalization’ of state resources and power structures, something that has yet to happen to a significant degree.

What has kept the revolutionary process going despite these barriers is the genuine cooperation between Chávez’ leadership and the Venezuelan people, represented by political mobilization.  “Compared to Venezuela’s past,” notes Infante, “the Bolivarian project’s politicization of the people is clear.  Whereas previously, social exclusion was a government policy, now social inclusion is a constitutional right.”

Practice and Ideology

Facing history: Chávez draws a lesson from the French Revolution. The paintaing “Raft of the Medusa,” by Theodore Géricault represented a critique of post-revolution French government, and bureaucratic mismanagement.
Credit: Jonah Gindin

In a recent press release Chávez referred to the philosophical responsibilities of the current juncture.  “As Victor Hugo pointed out in Les Miserables,” he noted “we had abolished the ancién regime in effect, but we had not been able to abolish it in our ideas.”  We must “transform the ancién regime not only in actions, but in ideas,” continued Chávez.  “If we don’t, it will come back to haunt us, against our children tomorrow and will once again install the old ideas of egotism, individualism, the exploitation of some by others, the degeneration of man, as Víctor Hugo said, the degredation of women and the atrophy of children for want of knowledge.”

As the only community-based organizations that bring together chavista activists from all sectors of Bolivarian society, the UBEs have a unique potential to evolve into a national forum capable of providing a voice for community interests that act not only as a consultative body, but as an active partner in government.  Currently Chávez has no adequate mechanism for consulting the nation on state decisions.  The National Assembly is seen as inefficient and ineffective by many Venezuelans.  Regular referendums on specific issues would be too impractical, and would run the risk of desensitizing the population to electoral politics.  If a national forum existed with representatives from community UBEs, who were elected, and who were completely accountable to their base (perhaps through a system of constant reporting and dialogue, buttressed by short rotating terms) it would provide a body with which Chávez could be forced to consult regularly, and effectively.

Yet so far the UBEs have been a tool of the governing party, the MVR.  They do not have any democratic structure, created as they were specifically to facilitate the ‘No’ (against the recall) campaign leading up to the referendum.  The future of the UBEs will likely be decided by the communities across the country in which the UBEs are mobilizing and from which they draw their membership.  And these communities have made their distaste for appointments from above abundantly clear.

As Chilean writer and activist Marta Harnecker notes in a preliminary version of a paper on the need for a wide political font, it “should not be a political organization decreed from above without taking into consideration the base.  In many cases, the leaders of the Bolivarian forces are not the real leaders of their respective sectors, distancing the base and forcing them to find other forms of organization.”[5]

If the UBEs are to remain relevant, and especially if they are to be converted into Social Battle Units (UBSs), forming the base for a nation-wide participatory forum, it will be due to grassroots initiatives.  As Harnecker notes, “It should be an organization in which exist mechanisms of control of its leaders by the base.”  And the primary focus of this base after the regional elections will be concrete advances in participatory structures such as the local planning councils.  Whether the government facilitates this project or tries to block it will be a crucial test of their willingness to put rhetoric into practice and to dilute their own power in the interests of further empowering the Venezuelan people.

Back in Petare, William Yaguaran, an army reservist who teaches history in Caracas’ poor barrios, refers to the importance of “peoples’ participation in constructing their own histories.”  If the history of the Bolivarian revolution is to be written by the Venezuelan people, it must continue to be what ex-minister of Higher Education Hector Navarro describes as “a process of learning to do, and learning by doing—a process of building learning, by doing learning.”

[1] Ultimas Noticias is Venezuela’s largest circulating daily newspaper, and perhaps the only one that manages to maintain some semblance of political balance in its coverage; Radio Nacional is the official government radio station; Channel 8 (Venezolana de Television—VTV) is the state television channel.

[2] The neighbourhood is named after January 23rd, 1958—the date that Venezuelan dictator Peréz Jiménez was overthrown.  Built during Jiménez’ dictatorship, its original name was Urbanizacion 2 de Deciembre.

[3] The importance of Venezuela as a source of oil for the US market is what would ensure such a socialist-bubbles short life.

[4] The Fourth Republic refers to the period between 1961 and 1999, before Chavez became president. The Fifth Republic, refers to the period after 1999, when the new constitution was approved.

[5] “Ideas para Frente Nacional,” August 26, 2004.