Explaining Chavista Successes as well as the Danger Spots in Post-Chávez Venezuela

Personality considerations cannot explain 14 years of one political triumph after another. The real reasons for Chávez’s success went much deeper than such factors as charisma and clientelism. 

By Steve Ellner - Nacla
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This article was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of NACLA: Report on the Americas (Vol 46, No. 1)

Many accounts of recent Venezuelan developments imply or state explicitly that with Hugo Chávez out of the picture, Venezuela will be forced to change course completely or face a dreadful crisis.Thus, for instance, Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation began a piece in a New York Times forum titled “The Future of Venezuela” by stating, “Delivering Chavismo without Chávez will be a daunting challenge. Many predict it cannot be done.” [1] In their focus on Chávez’s personal qualities and his allegedly unsustainable policies (such as massive handouts to the poor), these analyses lose sight of the central and active role played by the popular sectors in the process of change in Venezuela. Personality considerations cannot explain 14 years of one political triumph after another. The real reasons for Chávez’s success went much deeper than such factors as charisma and clientelism. 

The triumph of Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in the October presidential election, together with wins in the December gubernatorial contests, represented the latest in a string of political victories for the Chavistas. In both campaigns, the Chavista electoral mobilizations demonstrated the fervor at the grassroots level but also the danger that it could get out of hand.

Chávez, along with his closest supporters, was well aware of this peril. During his successful run for governor of Anzoátegui in December, former education minister Aristóbulo Istúriz received a text message from Chávez reading, “How is the campaign going?” Istúriz wrote back “OK, but many protests from our people,” to which Chávez responded, “Keep your spirits up, brother, and trust the people.” Istúriz referred to the electronic exchange with the president in a campaign speech in November at Club Terminal in Puerto La Cruz, suggesting that the Chavista movement’s lofty ideals and promises had energized the rank and file but also created high expectations, and in some cases, frustration. A few days after the speech, Irán Aguilera, who helped run the campaign and was himself reelected to the state legislature in December, told me, “Just because someone voted for Chávez does not mean they will vote for the candidate he endorses, including myself for that matter. People who almost blindly trust Chávez are more demanding—sometimes vehemently so—at lower levels.

This stark reality related to the high expectations and demands emanating from the rank and file hangs over the Chavista movement at a time when Chavismo without Chávez has become a reality.

“People’s power” was the main catchphrase of the Chavista campaign in both the October and December contests. Understanding Venezuelans’ reaction to the slogan is the key to understanding the success of the Chavista movement, but also the possibility that its use may backfire, particularly given Chávez’s precarious physical condition. Despite the uneven development of people’s power at the community level, enough undertakings, such as public works projects carried out by community organizations, have been successfully completed so as to lend the slogan credibility.

Political actors and analysts on both sides of the political spectrum in Venezuela fail to recognize the importance of the accomplishments resulting from radical government action, ranging from company expropriations to public works projects with direct community input. Unable to pinpoint the drivers of Chávez’s successes, their analyses fall short of explaining the unabated zeal of his followers, as well as his reelection in October with over 55% of the votes and his movement’s equally impressive showing in statewide elections in December.

Opposition spokespeople put forward an economistic explanation for the October and December electoral results, one that centered on the material benefits to the poor, ranging from low-priced houses to free items such as medical services and laptops for schoolchildren. The concept of popular participation was absent from their analysis.

Echoing Mitt Romney’s analysis of why President Obama won reelection—“giving targeted groups a big gift”—opposition leader Eduardo Semtei attributed Chávez’s triumph to “oil dollars,” specifically the “millions of Venezuelans who depend on the public budget, which is managed with impunity.” Opposition political analyst Gabriel Reyes added that “people believe in Chávez because they are the direct recipients of redistributed oil income and are convinced that without him, they will lose it.” Chávez’s presidential rival in October, Henrique Capriles, who was reelected governor in December, subscribed to this viewpoint and pledged to improve rather than scrap Chávez’s social programs, which he characterized as basically positive. In doing so, he faced sharp criticism from hard-liners on the right, such as intellectual Aníbal Romero, who criticized Capriles’s discourse on social programs for “completely leaving out of the picture the tragic character” of the government’s dismal record. [2]

A second explanation put forward by Chavistas and anti-Chavistas alike ascribes Chávez’s election to his charisma and other personal qualities. Along these lines, former Communist Pompeyo Márquez, who had attended the 1956 Soviet congress that exposed the deification of Stalin, among other excesses, invoked the term “cult of personality” to explain Chávez’s triumph in October. [3]

These explanations miss the point. Fiery rhetoric or the large number of houses a government builds may explain why a president is reelected once, but they cannot account for Chávez’s longevity in office or the enduring political enthusiasm of his followers. Capriles and the rest of the Venezuelan opposition underestimate both the zeal and the critical thinking among the Chavista rank and file, thus leading to the ludicrous notion that Chávez counts on the “fear factor” to mobilize the people. [4]

Political enthusiasm can be measured in different ways. One sign that after 14 years it has not dissipated is the high voter turnout in elections. The mere 19% abstention rate in October was far below the five presidential contests held in Venezuela over the previous two decades. Enthusiasm is also manifested in massive participation at rallies and marches, such as occurred in the October and December electoral campaigns. The Venezuelan poet Marco Aurelio Rodríguez, recalling the closing rally in Caracas—one of the largest ever for Chávez—three days before the October election, commented on how people stayed on even following the president’s speech and a downpour of rain. “The Chavistas were so hyped up because of the proximity of the elections that they lingered there for three or four hours, talking politics and dancing to the music” that came from bands on stages throughout the area. Rodríguez added, “The revolution is more about this vibrant energy than anything else.”

Chávez’s actions that best explain the zeal and his repeated electoral triumphs are not the one-shot deals Capriles and others harp on, in which people receive a specific benefit, but rather those that enhance their self-esteem and confidence in their nation’s future and have a long-term impact on the economy. The prime examples are company expropriations, programs promoting direct input of the poor in decision making, and measures that deepen the process of change. Expropriations constitute a blow to powerful business interests that tried to overthrow Chávez twice in 2002 and have adamantly opposed his government all along. The nation’s estimated 30,000 community councils, which choose priority projects, design them, request funding, and oversee their execution, contribute to the sense of empowerment of community members. And the radicalization process invigorates the Chavista movement’s rank and file, helping to sustain the political enthusiasm.

An example of popular power at the community level is the metro cable of Mariche that began operations in December, connecting the main subway line in Caracas with a populous hilly area to the east of the city. Community councils participated in selecting workers from the vicinity for some of the construction and maintenance work, as well as personnel to operate the system.

The community councils, which are the government’s flagship social program embodying the concept of people’s power, have evolved significantly since their first appearances in 2003 and their proliferation following the Law of Community Councils in 2006. Their increased institutionalization and the broadening of the scope of their activities have been the result of a learning process within the government and the communities.

A second community council law passed in December 2009 established tighter state controls in order to correct the misuse of funds. Until then, the councils’ “community banks” that handled state allocations had a virtually autonomous status and often just one person ended up controlling all the finances. The new law eliminates the community banks in favor of a more collective administration. Now elected representatives of three different community council commissions need to sign a request each time payment is made for material or labor for a community project. The request along with the required documentation is then taken to the state body that finances the project, which in turn instructs the Bicentenario Bank (created by the government in 2009 to favor those traditionally refused credit) to validate the check made out in the name of the beneficiary. Leandro Rodríguez, an adviser for the National Assembly’s Committee on Citizen Participation,told me in an interview in July 2011that the new procedure was “time-consuming and at times complicated but 100% necessary.”

These experiences and practices set the stage for the expanded role of the community councils throughout Venezuela. Diverse activities authorized by state legislation and government policy include the issuance of “residence certificates” allowing their members to buy construction material in short supply from state hardware stores (known as Ferresidor); issuance of documents that attest to the successful completion of community internships by medical students (known as rurales), which are requisites for receiving university degrees; and the monitoring of prices of regulated goods in local grocery stores. In addition, in 2011, the Chávez government launched the massive emergency housing plan called Gran Misión Vivienda. Under it, the community councils select the workers to build houses in their communities on the basis of skills and need as well as the program’s recipients, while the council’s “social controllership commission” monitors the construction work. The Ministry of the Commune and some state governments—unlike the state oil company, PDVSA, which tends to privilege efficiency and quantity—have encouraged the community councils to take on the administration and execution of construction projects in their respective communities.

Chávez’s program of 2013–19 (which would have been presented to the National Assembly on January 10 had it not been for the President’s absence due to his operation) contemplates confederations of community councils referred to as “communes,” which by the end of the period are to take in 68% of the population. The Law of the Communes passed in December 2010 envisions “Plans of Communal Development” to interface with state planning at the regional and national levels, as well as “social production companies” (EPS) sponsored by the communes to provide them with financial self-sufficiency. Community councils and in some cases “communes in construction” have already created hundreds of such enterprises, ranging from bus transportation to the distribution of gas cylinders. Following his election in October, Chávez insisted on greater efforts to promote the communes and even scolded PDVSA for failing to assign sufficient resources along these lines. [5] Nevertheless, the uneven development of the community councils suggests that the target of Chávez’s 2013–19 program may be overly optimistic. Luis Acuña, a former minister who was elected governor of Sucre in December, pointed out to me in November that “without well-consolidated community councils, the communes will not get off the ground.”

The opposition responded to the formulation of these new goals by engaging in deception of a semantic nature. Opposition leader Gerardo Blyde, mayor of the municipality of Baruta of the greater Caracas area, declared: “The commune is communism.” Istúriz’s campaign team in Anzoátegui, swayed by a survey indicating that the opposition’s campaign had generated fear among many voters, decided to refrain from use of the term communal state, according to Andrés Alfonso, the secretary of Anzoátegui’s Legislative Council.

Nevertheless, Nigel Barroyeta, a local Chavista leader who worked actively on the campaign, commented in November that“the opposition’s argument is nothing short of McCarthyism and will backfire because people resent any effort to malign their community councils.”

A similar combination of enthusiasm among Chavistas over measures that break with the old political and economic model, on the one hand, and dissatisfaction over the failure to achieve authentic democracy and socialism, on the other, characterizes the widespread expropriations carried out during Chávez’s third presidential term of 2007–13. During these years, the government targeted banks, heavy industry in the Guayana region, and food processing and distribution. These actions have strengthened the government’s hand vis-à-vis the private sector and represent a step in the direction of the official goal of socialism. At the same time, however, they have created expectations encouraged by government rhetoric regarding worker input in managerial decisions that have in large part failed to materialize.

In 2010 theChavista government agreed to allow employees to select the presidents of the major state companies in Guayana. Nevertheless, labor conflict, which had always characterized industrial relations in the region, intensified as workers supported by several of the “worker presidents” demanded the removal of managers accused of corrupt dealings, the discontinuance of various contracts with multinational corporations considered contrary to national interests, and numerous labor benefits. The ensuing strife divided the Chavistas and led the government in 2012 to remove the worker appointees in several major state companies in the region, including the steel company SIDOR and the aluminum company ALCASA, whose president had been a longtime union militant. Eduardo Sánchez, a leader of the radical Chavista labor confederation the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT), told me in July 2012 that the removals were “undemocratic since it is up to the workers, not the government, to fire those selected by them.” Sánchez added that “when the state companies are run by bureaucrats, what you have amounts to state capitalism, which is really no different from capitalism.”

Nevertheless, those leftist critics of the Chávez government who argue that the expropriations have given way to state capitalism overlook certain features of state companies that differentiate them from the private sector. Most important, they compete with business interests in order to avoid artificially induced scarcity and price speculation in areas such as food production, where monopolistic practices have long predominated. Furthermore, a host of programs sponsored by recently expropriated companies favor the popular sectors. The nationalized telephone company, CANTV, for instance, prioritizes service in the barrios and has announced that since the state nationalized the industry in 2007, 64% of the new telephone lines have been assigned to popular sectors. CANTV has also set up workshops on the use of its cell phones in popular plazas. Similarly, state financial institutions have favored the poor by simplifying requirements, including the need to have a previous credit history in order to receive loans. The Bicentenario Bank’s program My Well-Equipped House, which facilitates the purchase of home appliances, benefits mostly low-income public employees. Finally, the large state companies, including PDVSA, CANTV, SIDOR, and the electricity company Corpoelec, took major steps to eliminate outsourcing, measures that were subsequently incorporated in the new labor law in 2012.

Tension between Chavista party bosses, who are intent on strengthening organization and discipline, and the rank and file, who favor a faster pace of change but also put forward material demands requiring immediate solutions, manifested itself during the electoral campaigns in 2012. [6] Chávez’s party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), was ill-equipped to deal with these internal contradictions. Chávez created the PSUV in 2007 as a mass-based party and urged all other leftist parties to merge into it. Over 5 million voters enrolled in the PSUV, which held primaries to choose candidates for local and national elections in 2008 and 2010. By 2012, however, the party had become an electoral machine run by Chavista cabinet ministers, governors, and mayors with weak ties to social movements. Unlike the opposition, which organized primaries early that year, the PSUV handpicked its candidates for the gubernatorial contests in December.

Aware of the internal discontent, Chávez on the eve of the electoral campaign created the Gran Polo Patriótico in order to rein in discontented Chavistas grouped in social movements and leftist parties that had refused to dissolve themselves to join the PSUV. The PSUV’s allied organizations in the Polo received more than 1.7 million votes in October, which made the difference between victory and defeat for Chávez. The 481,000 votes for the Communist Party (PCV) were the largest of the Polo bloc, representing a 37% increase over the party’s intake in the 2006 presidential elections. The Polo organizations pointed to the votes they received in October to bolster their case for being given an input in the selection of the Chavista candidates for the elections in December (as well as the upcoming municipal elections scheduled for July) and for receiving sufficient resources to campaign actively on their behalf. The fact that in nearly half the states with Chavista governors nonincumbents were chosen as gubernatorial candidates empowered the discontented members of the rank and file in their determination to shake up the Chavista bureaucracy. One of the incumbents was the controversial governor of Bolívar, Francisco Rangel Gómez, who was accused of siding with company bureaucrats in opposition to workers control in state industries in Guayana (where Bolívar is located). The PCV ended up endorsing a dissident Chavista candidate in Bolívar—as it did in three other states—whose 8% of the vote almost threw the election to the opposition’s Andrés Velásquez, a former presidential candidate of the Radical Cause Party (LCR).

Of equal or greater importance than the electoral showing of the PSUV’s allied parties is the activity of social organizations belonging to the Polo. After initially holding mass meetings throughout Venezuela, the Polo became a loose body with little organizational presence, but it opened the possibility of creating space for and uniting diverse pro-Chávez social movements. Some of the demands formulated by organizations representing women, the indigenous population, Afro-Venezuelans, LGBTs, and pobladores (settlers) did not receive enthusiastic backing from the PSUV. Thus, for instance, PSUV leaders failed to follow Chávez’s lead when he called himself a “feminist,” in sharp contrast to when he declared himself a “socialist” in 2005. More important, the PSUV, fearful of alienating allies in the religious community, shied away from discussing the issue of the legalization of abortion, staunchly defended by women’s groups. Indeed, several party national deputies publicly defended keeping it illegal.

Another active movement in the Polo is that of the pobladores. The movement was given an impetus on January 8, 2011, when Chávez met with its representatives and defended the expropriation and occupation of idle space in favor of the homeless, particularly the victims of natural disasters. Subsequently the movement designed plans to transform idle spaces into “socialist communities” and worked with community councils to present projects to government agencies as part of the Misión Vivienda. Groups representing pobladores, tenants, and building superintendants also drafted proposals for subsequently enacted legislation. In spite of some successes, poblador activists complain that PSUV bosses often put up obstacles to their proposals for housing construction undertaken by community members (referred to as autoconstrucción) due to pressure from powerful construction interests, according to Héctor Castro, a national coordinator of the Comité de Tierras Urbanas.

The mounting pressure from the movement’s rank and file in the context of Chávez’s illness presents a major challenge for the Chavistas. Had it not been for his ill health, Chávez would have most likely taken advantage of the momentum created by last year’s electoral triumphs by carrying out bold initiatives. These actions would have been in keeping with his strategy of striking out in new directions following each victory. Regardless of his intentions, Venezuela’s new president Nicolás Maduro lacks Chávez’s political capital to enable him to overcome resistance from within his movement and from powerful interest outside of it. Nevertheless, during Chávez’s absence from Venezuela, Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the other main Chavista leader, have worked as a team. Political rivalry characterizes all political organizations, and in the case of the Chavista movement there are concrete differences that underpin it. If the Chavistas move in the direction of a collective leadership based on the recognition of diverse positions—albeit just roughly defined—then the movement may emerge stronger than ever.

In the classical work Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington argued that rising expectations tend to outpace institutionalization and economic development in underdeveloped countries, producing frustration and political turmoil. Post-Chávez Venezuela could face a similar predicament. The slogan of popular power and the deepening of the process of change invigorate the movement’s rank and file, but progress in creating viable mechanisms of participation such as in the case of the community councils has been uneven. As the popular sectors feel empowered, they demand more and more. The tension and gaps between the PSUV with its organizational capacity and the poorly organized Polo Patriótico representing social movements and discontented Chavistas at the grassroots level reflect this dynamic. The democratization of the bureaucratic PSUV would represent an important first step toward channeling popular energy along constructive lines and avoiding the social explosion that the opposition predicts and some of its members hope will occur. [7]

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Footnotes

1. “Big Shoes to Fill Globally,” The New York Times, January 3, 2013. See also Francisco Toro, “Austerity Will Cement the Chávez Myth,” in the same forum. 

2. Semtei, “Cumplimos la tarea,” El Nacional (Caracas), October 9, 2012; Romero, “El vacio,” El Nacional, October 10, 2012; Juan Páez Ávila, “El Triunfo de Chávez,” Ultimas Noticias (Caracas), October 9, 2012.

3. Pompeyo Márquez, “Enfrentados a una autocracia,” Ultimas Noticias, October 11, 2012. See also Pascal Lupien, “The Media and Attacking the ‘Bad Left’ From Below in Venezuela and Bolivia,” Latin American Perspectives 40, no. 3 (forthcoming).

4. For more on the fear factor, which received wide coverage in the Venezuelan and U.S. media, see Steve Ellner, “Venezuela Reelects Hugo Chávez: What’s Next?” In These Times, October 10, 2012, available at inthesetimes.com.

5. Vea, October 21, 2012.

6. For more on the ongoing tensions within Chavismo, see Steve Ellner, “The Chávez Movement’s Top-Down and Grassroots Approaches,” chap. 7 in Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008). See also Clifton Ross, “Venezuela,” in Ross and Marina Sitrin, eds., Insurgent Democracies: Latin America’s New Powers (PM Press, 2013), 143–44. 

7. Américo Martín, “Segunda Parte,” in Martín and Freddy Muñoz, eds., Socialismo del siglo XXI: Huida en el laberinto? (Caracas: Editorial Alfa, 2007), 160–70.  

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Steve Ellner, a frequent contributor to NACLA Report on the Americas, has been teaching economic history at the Universidad de Oriente, Venezuela, since 1977. He is the coordinator of “Latin America’s Radical Left in Power: Complexities and Challenges in the Twenty-First Century,” to be published in the May issue of Latin American Perspectives.

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