Venezuela: The Myths of James Petras

As one of the few representatives of the US Left, James Petras has always maintained a principled position. In a recent article attacking both right and left, Petras lists seven “myths” which he wishes to destroy. It would seem that Petras has fallen victim to some myths of his own.

For many progressive people in Latin America, James Petras is a respected figure of reference. As one of the few representatives of the US Left who has always maintained a principled position, Petras has accompanied Latin American popular struggles for more than forty years. There is no just cause that Petras does not defend, and his penetrating criticisms of the “renewed” Left are often only too accurate.

But Petras also makes mistakes, and it is important to criticise him precisely because of his reputation. Faithful to his roots in the old Marxist tradition, he sometimes fails to understand the new dynamics of popular and anti-imperialist struggles, and as he strives to be more Catholic than the Pope, he loses sight of the true revolutionary perspective in the specific conditions of our times.

In September 2004, after Chávez’ great triumph in the recall referendum, Petras published an article in the “Rebelión” website with the title “El presidente Chávez y el referéndum: mitos y realidades” (“Myths and Realities: Venezuela’s Chavez and the Referendum” on Venezuelanalysis.com). Attacking both right and left, he lists seven “myths” which he wishes to destroy, incorrect interpretations of the Right but also, he says, of the chavista Left. It is worth taking the time to review these “myths” and Petras’ comments to see whether the author does not fall victim of certain myths of his own creation.

“Myth No. 1 – Chávez is an unpopular President who can be defeated in a referendum by the right-wing opposition”.*

  • Petras says this is a myth created by the Venezuelan and US Right themselves and the media they control, and in this he is correct.

“Myth No. 2 – According to right-wing analysts, the central issue in the referendum was the ‘popularity’, the ‘charisma’ and the ‘autocratic style’ of Chávez”.

  • Petras says that in reality the referendum was based mainly on a clear class and race division, and not on Chávez’ personality. Well, the class and ethnic division is undeniable and fundamental, but at the same time one cannot deny the crucial role of Chávez, of his leadership and charisma. The Chávez-people dialectic has been central to the whole process, and the people themselves say so: if one goes to the cerros of Caracas or the small towns of the interior people insist that they have no confidence in bureaucrats or politicians (even those from the progressive parties), but only in Chávez and the revolutionary military. They say that they respond to Chávez’ proposals and slogans because they feel that Chávez gives them a say, that Chávez interprets their feelings, that Chávez represents them. It is hard for the Left to accept this, but if it were not for Chávez there would be no revolutionary government in power; rather there would be a confusion of rival tendencies, a fratricidal struggle of leftist parties, a powerful but divided and frustrated popular movement, and the Right would either be in power or would be in excellent conditions to neutralise and overthrow a weak government of old-style left-wing politicians. Of course it is not just Chávez’ personality; what has happened is that he has grown in stature with the strength of the people with whom he has identified and who inspire him; but at the same time the people know that it was Chávez and the MBR-200 who gave them leadership when it was lacking (in 1992) and who have successfully led the process for more than twelve years since then.

“Myth No. 3 – On both the Right and the Left there is a belief that the mass media control people’s behaviour when the time comes to vote, limit the political agenda and lead necessarily to the victory of the Right and the domestication of the Left”.

  • This is true, and precisely one of the most impressive features of the Venezuelan process has been the capacity demonstrated by the people, ever since Chávez’ first electoral victory in 1998, to defeat the ferocious media campaign against him. But Petras’ comment in relation to this myth is that “The referendum results show that powerful mass organisations organised around successful struggles for social reforms can create a political and social consciousness in the masses which makes it possible to defeat media manipulation easily”. Here one has to point out that the first defeats of media manipulation occurred in ‘98-99 when there had been no successful social struggles but only the hope created by the leadership of Chávez and the MBR-200/MVR, and that since then the successful reforms – decreed or promoted essentially by Chávez – have consolidated the strength and unity of the popular movement which has made possible the new defeat of the media in the referendum. But once again, in the referendum campaign the defeat of the media was due above all to the Chávez-people dialectic, manifested principally in the intense campaign of the UBE (Units of Electoral Struggle) organised by popular initiative from the grass roots but in response to a public appeal by Chávez, and to the President’s indefatigable speeches on television and in popular meetings throughout the country. Of course the people organised and voted to defend the achievements of the revolution (and not just the “social reforms” in Petras’ words, but popular power expressed through participatory and protagonistic democracy), but the mechanism of their mobilisation was the dialectic between the people and the popular leader which Petras is loath to recognise. This is also confirmed by the negative comparison of the Brazilian case, where very powerful social movements have been unable to achieve the desired social reforms and have begun to abandon the Government at the ballot box precisely because of the lack of leadership of Lula and the PT.

“Myth No. 4 – According to many left-wing journalists, Chávez’ victory reflects a new wave of populist nationalisms in Latin America”.

  • Here one would have to discuss just what is meant by “populism”, but without getting into that theoretical debate, what Petras means by this is that many commentators now talk about the formation of a bloc of progressive governments in Latin America (Cuba-Venezuela-Brazil-Argentina-Paraguay, and now Uruguay and Panama) which are beginning to contest Washington’s policies and seek to consolidate a regional alternative. Petras refutes this interpretation, citing concessions by several of these governments to multinational capital, the dispatch of Brazilian troops to Haiti, and the fact that “the other Andean countries” (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia) are proposing to privatise their publicly-owned oil companies, that they support the FTAA and Plan Colombia and religiously pay their foreign debt, and also that “the Uruguayan Broad Front [Frente Amplio] intends to follow Brazil’s neoliberal policies”. Finally he asserts that “there is a bloc of neoliberal regimes opposed to Chávez” and that the Venezuelan President’s main allies are the social mass movements and Cuba.
  • Here again Petras’ vision is too simplistic. First of all, the Andean countries mentioned are precisely those which continue to be vassals of Washington and do not support any alternative tendency. With regard to Brazil, certainly its policies are disappointing, but at the same time it does offer a diplomatic and tactical support to the Venezuelan Government which is not to be sneezed at, and also at times significant material support (for example by supplying Venezuela with petrol during the bosses’ lockout). Neither can one dismiss Argentina’s growing commercial alliance with Venezuela and its acceptance of the Venezuelan proposal to create a regional oil company (“Petrosur” or “Petroamérica”). It is a cliché to say that the most consistent support for any revolutionary regime will come from the social movements and Cuba, but fortunately Venezuela’s conjunctural alliances are not limited to that. The governments of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay etc. are only reformist and therefore inconsistent, but they cannot be simply dismissed as “neoliberal” and it cannot be denied that they represent a tendency – as yet weak, but real – of opposition to imperialist plans.

“Myth No. 5 – The defeat in the referendum has been an important tactical defeat for US imperialism and its local puppets”.

  • Petras denies this, quoting subsequent declarations by Chávez favourable to foreign investment, and agreements with US oil companies for the exploitation of the Orinoco oil and gas fields. “The Left’s euphoria prevents it from seeing the oscillations of Chávez’ discourse and the heterodox model of social assistance and neoliberal economic policies which he constantly practises” – and Petras then asserts that “Chávez is closer to the ‘New Deal’ of Franklin D. Roosevelt than to Castro’s socialist revolution”.
  • Here one is tempted to ask our friend Petras if he has no understanding at all of the tactical concessions necessary in revolutionary processes, especially in the conditions of today’s unipolar world. It is clear that Castro does not share Petras’ view, otherwise he would not be offering the total support he does to Venezuela, nor his constant personal dialogue with Chávez or the exceptional bilateral agreement just signed between the two countries.
  • Petras falls into the same error as the US media when they talk of Chávez’ “welfarism”, and do not see (or refuse to recognise) that the essence of the “Missions”, more than mere social assistance (in itself radically anti-neoliberal in its scale and impact), is the empowerment of the poor, popular grass-roots organisation so that the people can take into their own hands control of health, education, housing, the local economy and community life in general.

“Myth No. 6 – Neither the Right nor the Left has been able to recognise the different tactics employed, on the one hand, by a Washington dominated by ideology, and on the other hand, by a pragmatic Wall Street”.

  • It is true that Wall Street, and also the European and Japanese multinationals, etc., have recognised that it is perfectly possible to continue doing business with Venezuela. But they also do so with Cuba. What matters is that the agreements with international capital are no longer made according to the rules of the IMF or the FTAA but according to rules laid down by Venezuela, protecting the country’s sovereignty and the model of endogenous development. There is still a lot to be done and there are many sectors of the economy where the Bolivarian project has not yet been implemented, but the direction of policy is clear. This is why Washington does not like it, and neither do Wall Street investors really, but the latter are indeed pragmatic and will adapt to do business on the terms available.

“Myth No. 7 – The main drive of the current phase of Chávez’ revolution is a moral crusade against government corruption and against a highly politicised judicial system aligned with the discredited political opposition”.

  • These are indeed two aspects (but not the only ones) of the current phase of the revolution. But Petras says that anti-corruption campaigns “are generally associated with middle-class policies aiming to create ‘national unity’, and tend to weaken class solidarity…[and] neither do they arouse much interest among the poor in Venezuela or elesewhere”.
  • Well, this may be true in another context, but not within the framework of a profound process of popular transformation. It is not a matter – as Petras suggests – of petty-bourgeois moralism but of a very real and indeed fundamental problem after forty years of puntofijismo; and the fight against corruption does arouse the interest of the Venezuelan poor today, indeed they mention it frequently and with great indignation.
  • In another part of his comments on this “myth” Petras asserts that “The Left’s belief that the grass-roots organisations mobilised for the referendum will necessarily become the foundation of a ‘new popular democracy’ has little basis if we look at the recent past (similar mobilisations took place before the failed coup d’état and during the executives’ lockout)…Moreover, the concern of the chavista political leaders is with the coming parliamentary elections, not the creation of alternative forms of government”.
  • But first of all, the grass-roots organisations are not only mobilised at moments of crisis, although of course they are more active then. The Units of Electoral Struggle created for the referendum are being converted into Units of Endogenous Struggle, and the Urban Land Committees, Water Committees, Local Urban Planning Councils, etc., are being maintained and form a fundamental part of Chávez’ entire strategy.
  • Secondly, it is true that many politicians from the MVR and other pro-government parties tend to think in electoral and opportunistic terms, and this is still a serious defect of the process. But this is not Chávez’ strategy nor that of the chavista hard core, above all the most committed sectors of the military and the civilians who originated in the MBR-200, whose aim is to strengthen participatory democracy and people’s power by all means possible.

In his Conclusion Petras says that “If oil prices fall it will be necessary to take important decisions: class-based decisions”.

  • No: those decisions have already to a large extent been taken, and oil prices (and other conjunctural factors) can only influence the tactical decisions about how and when to implement them.
  • In the end what Petras fails to understand is that the entire chavista economic strategy is radically anti-neoliberal and moreover that it has anti-capitalist implications in the long term. With the recovery of control over PDVSA, the decision to halt the privatisation of the electrical industry which was underway when Chávez came to power, the huge investment in infrastructure (railways, metros in several cities, renovation of ports), exchange controls, agrarian reform and the projects of “endogenous development”, the Bolivarian Government is reinforcing state control over the economy and laying the basis for a popular alternative of enormous interest for Latin America and the entire world. It is still too early to say whether it will be called socialist, and anyway the debate on what socialism means today (after the fall of the Soviet Bloc) is still open, but it is interesting to note that in his closing speech at the International Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists for the Defence of Humanity held in Caracas (and in which I had the great honour to participate), on 5 December last, Chávez declared that it was necessary to re-evaluate and reclaim socialism.

David Raby

University of Liverpool, UK

[email protected]

* I am responsible for the English translations of all quotations since I have only seen the Spanish text of Petras’ article.