People Power in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution: An Interview with George Ciccariello-Maher

The author of We Created Chávez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution, George Ciccariello-Maher, spoke to Samuel Grove about the historical background to Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution, the interventions of the popular masses that propelled Hugo Chávez to the presidency and the results and aftermath of Venezuela’s first election since Chávez's death in March

By Samuel Grove/Alborada
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George Ciccariello-Maher at a public reading of his book (Néstor Sánchez Cordero)
George Ciccariello-Maher at a public reading of his book (Néstor Sánchez Cordero)

[The author of We Created Chávez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution, George Ciccariello-Maher, spoke to Samuel Grove about the historical background to Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution, the interventions of the popular masses that propelled Hugo Chávez to the presidency and the results and aftermath of Venezuela’s first election since Chávez's death in March.]

Samuel Grove: Who is the 'we' that this book is about?

The "we" that "created Chávez" in my title refers to the "people" of the subtitle, but this is an answer that simply begs more questions. Namely, who is or are the Venezuelan people? Thinkers like Paolo Virno and Hardt and Negri insist, on the basis of European history, that "the people" is a conservative category, one that is unitary and unifying, one that excludes difference and upholds the state. In Latin America in general, and Venezuela in particular, this has not been the case. Instead, while the concept of the people has been used by some toward such ends, it has also been mobilized by others toward the opposite. The people, or el pueblo, has also served as the fundamental category for popular resistance and combat, much more so than either strictly national or class identities, although it involves some of both.

This double-meaning of the people, in which the pueblo is itself a terrain of struggle to be fought over, is also itself doubled in the radical resignification of the national anthem, ‘Gloria al Bravo Pueblo’ (‘Glory to the Brave People’). In Venezuela, bravo also means angry or fed-up, and so as popular resistance developed in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of the brave people was increasingly replaced with the idea of a broad class of poor and oppressed people unwilling to accept the status quo. In fact, in the popular rebellion in 1989 known as the Caracazo, which was the fundamental moment that catapulted the Bolivarian Revolution to national prominence, graffiti appeared in Caracas reading ‘el pueblo está bravo’ (‘the people are fed-up’).

SG: You began your history of the people's struggle with the establishment of representative democracy in 1958; that is after the popular uprising that brought down the Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship. Why?

In writing a history of popular struggles, there is a danger of infinite regress, and in We Created Chávez, I occasionally point back to even the first moments of colonisation and the indigenous and later slave resistance that developed in Venezuela. But my starting point is above all 1958, which might seem counterintuitive since it marked the beginning of stable formal representative democracy in Venezuela. The reason is that this is still, after all, a history of our present, a history that seeks out the basic parameters of struggle that constitute the Bolivarian Revolution, and one fundamental aspect of this is the critique of and resistance to a certain understanding of democracy.

After 1958, it became perfectly clear that formal representative democracy would not solve the problems of capitalism and imperialism that plagued Venezuelan history, and moreover that this form of democracy soon became a barrier to the expression of popular demands from below. As a result, many of those who participated in the overthrow of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958 found themselves within two short years in the mountains, beginning a guerrilla war against "democracy."

SG: Presumably also galvanised by the success of the Cuban guerrillas that overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959. What was the impact of the Cuban revolution on popular struggle in Venezuela?

Definitely. It would be difficult to exaggerate the profound importance of the Cuban Revolution across Latin America as an example of what a small group of revolutionaries could accomplish without waiting for the so-called material conditions to develop. The immediate effect in Venezuela was to splinter the governing party, Acción Democrática, whose old guard was increasingly anti-communist, but whose youth section (which formed the MIR) would soon provide many of the troops for the guerrilla struggle against that party. However, this impact was not entirely positive, as the widespread caricature of the Cuban Revolution - especially in the work of the French philosopher Régis Debray - was also the achilles heel of the Venezuelan guerrilla struggle. By exaggerating the vanguard leadership of small, mobile guerrilla units calledfocus, Debray's foquismo soon became an alibi for Venezuelan guerrillas who were increasingly isolated from any significant mass support.

SG: So while the guerrilla movement was a “people’s’ struggle” in the sense of resistance you mention, it was not a “people’s struggle” in the popular sense of the term. How did the guerrilla struggle break down and what replaced it?

That's right, while the guerrilla struggle was popular in its motivations and aspirations, it was never popular in its constituency in the sense that it never galvanised the masses of oppressed and impoverished Venezuelans to throw themselves into the cause. When the guerrillas realised this, it was really too late, but this realisation began to sow the seeds for later developments and innovations. The years following the decline of the guerrilla struggle, and especially the 1970s, marked a period of experimentation, both theoretically and organisationally. A multiplicity of armed groups persisted, oscillating between the hit-and-run tactics of urban guerrillas and the establishment of mass fronts that operated in semi-clandestinity as a way of connecting to the masses in the urban barrios. Many began to question the party-form and vanguardism more generally, some re-evaluated classical tenets of Marxism, and still others excavated local sources for radical inspiration, whether in Latin American figures like José Carlos Mariátegui or more locally in the cult of María Lionza, indigenous fighters, and slave rebellions. It was in this period that the idea of ‘Bolivarianism’ came to develop, not as a blinkered homage to a bourgeois revolutionary, but instead as an overarching signifier for the need to root struggles in local histories.

SG: Yes, you have written that the generation of armed groups and the localisation of political organisation provided the impetus for the future development of popular militias and barrio assemblies under Chávez. However there was little sign that this was going to be possible at the time. Earlier in the interview you described the 1989 Caracazo as “the fundamental moment that catapulted the Bolivarian Revolution to national prominence”. How?

The broad dialectic moved like this: militants learning the lessons of the guerrilla struggle sought to shed their vanguardism and develop a mass base in the urban barrios, and at this very moment in the early 1980s the country entered into an economic crisis. The state responded to this threat with a broadening violence against movements and eventually the poor as a class. Students had tested the waters by fighting the police in the street, and so when the surprise neoliberal reform package was announced in early 1989, it was like a perfect storm of subjective and objective conditions. The people rebelled: rioting, looting, and taking over the city centre from the rich. The importance of that moment is marked both by this powerful example of resistance, but also by the mass slaughter that followed: up to 3,000 were killed, although the number is not known since most were thrown in plastic bags and deposited unceremoniously in mass, unmarked graves. But while resistance was momentarily crushed, the Venezuelan political system had been dealt a fatal blow and began to collapse.

SG: On the face of it, this appears paradoxical; Could you elaborate on upon how organised popular struggle could turn such a catastrophic human loss (the death of up to 3,000 people) into such a significant political victory (the death of Puntofijismo)?

The impact emerged in a few different ways according to the actors in question. For the popular sectors, the Caracazo was a moment when righteous outrage overcame fear, and while the "pacification" that followed was certainly aimed at restoring fear as well, there comes a moment in all revolutionary struggles when repression only emboldens resistance. For the elites, who had been in many ways seduced by their own myths, this was a glimpse in the mirror: not all, but certainly many, were forced to come to terms with the reality of the massacre but also the fact that the poor were not going to remain silent any longer. Finally, international elites had been convinced for decades that Venezuela was an "exceptional" democracy, an island of stability in turbulent waters. All three of these were smashed in an instant, allowing everything that has come since.

SG: The pairing of the Caracazo and the 1992 coup attempt offers us another contradiction begging an explanation - that of the role of the army in this sequence. In 1989 a weapon of state repression, in 1992 an agent or confection of popular struggle.

Yes, the connection between 1989 and the 1992 coup attempt should be emphasised: it wasn't simply that Chávez and others took advantage of an opportunity or rode a wave of discontent, the connections were much more direct. Firstly, that Chávez and others conspiring within the military were already connected to popular revolutionary organisations, partly through Chávez's elder brother Adán, who was a member of the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution (PRV). Secondly, because it was soldiers themselves who were ordered into the barrios to kill people who looked just like them, the Caracazo made coup attempts from within the military imperative, and provided new recruits. As a result, the attempted coup was initially scheduled to coincide with the third anniversary of the Caracazo, but needed to be moved up to February 4th 1992.

This all speaks to the "contradiction" you identify, although I would hesitate to use the term since it assumes the military is uniform and homogeneous. But the truth is that the Venezuelan military, while certainly not a vehicle of popular struggle, has always been much different from its counterparts in places like Chile and Argentina, where it is a bastion of elite power, or places like Bolivia, where it enforced a caste system. Going back decades, but especially since 1958, a significant current within the Venezuelan military has held to a sort of left-nationalism, with significant infiltration from the far left leading to major uprisings in the early 60s in Puerto Cabello and Carúpano led by communist cadres. Today, while the army is still to the right of many popular organisations, it has certain vanguard currents (like Chávez's own paratroopers) who are steadfastly revolutionary, and this current is being strengthened with the establishment of popular militias.

SG: You have written in your book that the Caracazo represented a ‘constituent moment’ which exposed the power of the people to intervene in the political realm. As you put ‘it was 1989 that enabled 1992, and 1992 enabled 1998’. Nevertheless Chávez was elected on a relatively modest manifesto in 1998. This changed after another ‘constituent moment’ in 2002 when Chávez was briefly ousted and then restored to power.

Despite our hesitance to place too much faith in individual leaders, the left often makes the mistake of attempting to derive political possibilities on the basis of who those leaders are, where they come from, what they believe. This isn't to say that none of this matters, but simply that the conditions for a politics to be expressed vary according to a complex set of circumstances. Chávez is a good example of this: he certainly had radical influence, his brother came from the armed revolutionary left, etc., but he also emerged within the military, an institution which while potentially progressive and nationalist also contained the seeds of reaction.

Moreover, Chávez was, as you say, elected on a moderate social-democratic platform. At the last minute, as the traditional parties collapsed, even large financial and political interests jumped on board what had only months earlier been a long-shot campaign. While these interests would certainly attempt to push Chávez to the right, the revolutionary organisations that had been with him since before the 1992 coup attempt would attempt to push him to the left.

In this tug-of-war, the heightened tensions of 2001 and the explosive dialectic of 2002-2003 was decisive: Chávez passed a series of relatively modest decrees governing land use, fishing, and a number of other things, and the opposition went on the offensive, raising the stakes until the brief coup of April 2002. Why does this coup matter? For a few reasons: it led to the political decimation of the opposition (later decimated economically after the oil strike of late 2002); it led Chávez to the conclusion that social democracy was impossible because the right would not permit it; and most importantly, it mobilised the base, and the coup itself was largely reversed by the millions that poured into the streets in an unmistakeable display of constituent force.

SG: If the reforms up to that point had been so modest, what motivated people to pour onto the streets?

While the reforms were relatively modest, what had changed was fundamental: the traditional parties had collapsed, an outsider was elected, the political class was displaced from power, and a new constitution was written and popularly endorsed. Since the oil economy has always meant that political power is more important than economic power in Venezuela (or at least the key to the latter), this was massively important. Furthermore, given Chávez's combative rhetoric outspoken opposition to the old regime, those who wanted to move forward in a revolutionary direction knew very early on that there was only one way forward. Chávez and the constitution were theirs, and they wouldn't give them up without a fight.

SG: As you say the failed coup had the effect of shifting the Chavez government to the left, and by 2005 Chávez was openly talking about 'Socialism of the 21st Century'. What are the most significant changes that have taken place in Venezuela since the failed coup, and can we call it a revolution?

There's a lot of heated and occasionally silly debate about what we should call a revolution or not, but what is clear is that there is a revolutionary process underway. In other words, there are significant changes taking root that point toward a revolutionary socialist or communist future. In line with the participatory rhetoric of the Bolivarian process, the most important of these have taken place on the level of popular democracy: the formal establishment and empowerment of popular and directly democratic communal council structures (to parallel the informal assemblies that had existed for years). While these structures are rarely perfect, and while they continue to lack an economic counterpart (there are many cooperatives, collectives, occupied factories and the like, but no generalisation of socialist production), they are the essential cornerstone of Bolivarian socialism.

SG: If the Venezuelan process isn't simply about Chavez, why was the recent presidential election between Nicolas Maduro and Henrique Capriles so close?

There are a number of reasons for this, as well as a number of unanswered questions, but the reality is that it did have to do with Chávez, and I think few realised how powerfully his loss would be felt. Nicolás Maduro is no Chávez, and some bad economic decisions (like a poorly-timed currency devaluation) allowed the Venezuelan opposition to take advantage of momentary weakness in an effort to convince the people that they were the true bearers of a moderate and social-democratic Chavismo. This was of course a monumental lie, and one that was borne out in the anti-democratic violence unleashed after the election: Capriles represents the most elite Venezuelan interests, and would govern through a return to something like the neoliberal reforms that unleashed the process to begin with.

SG: We are approaching the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile. How was the Venezuelan left able to defend the Chavez government in the way the Chilean left failed to defend Allende government, and will it continue to be able to defend itself under Maduro?

While we should be wary of comparing the two cases lightly, given the fundamental differences (especially in the military) between Venezuela and Chile, we nevertheless must ask the Chile question. Once we do, the strategic differences become clear. The Venezuelan process is not a repeat of the Chilean attempt to build "electoral socialism" or to take the "peaceful road" to socialism. It is a process that emerges out of the heated crucible of mass street rebellion and rioting alongside failed coups, and it was these explicitly non-electoral moments that made possible what has come since. Once in power, moreover, it was clear that the Bolivarian Revolution was not going to tie the hands of the popular movements in the way that Allende often did. Informal popular militias are an important element of the process, and the establishment of formal militias within the military can serve to counterbalance the generals. As the late general Alberto Müller Rojas often argued: the "people in arms" is the best defence against right-wing coups.

’We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution’by George Ciccariello-Maher (Duke University Press) is out now.

Samuel Grove is a contributing editor for Alborada and the associate producer of Alborada Films' documentary ‘Inside the Revolution: A Journey Into the Heart of Venezuela'.