Early on the morning of February 27th, 1989 the Venezuelan capital awoke to chaos, anger, violence, looting, empowerment—to a spontaneous expression of rage and pent up anger, but also to the first mass mobilization on the continent in opposition to an economic orthodoxy dreamt up—and resisted—in the North, but anathema in the south. Then-President Carlos Andres Pérez’s IMF blueprint for showing international finance how far he could squeeze Venezuelans backfired when the urban poor—formal and informal workers, students, unemployed—reacted to a 100% increase in transportation costs by shattering the social and economic status quo, if only for a couple of days. Grocery stores, butchers’ shops, supermarkets, and food factories were emptied, and the loot divided up amongst the hungry marginales—the peripheral members of Venezuelan society, crouched together in crooked shanty-towns on the mountainsides encircling Caracas.
The rebellion was quickly put down, the death toll was anywhere from 327 (government figure) to 2000 or 3000 (independent estimates). But in a country long referred to as a model democracy, a people long dismissed as submissive and silent cut a violent swath through the cynical words of IMF morticians and career politicians.
Until that moment in 1989, Venezuela was almost entirely devoid of social movements. A short-lived and brutally repressed guerilla war had ended by the 1970s, and besides a radical, but isolated student movement and equally isolated labor activism in the south of the country, there was little in the way of coherent grassroots community organization. Shock therapy served to fill that void with a polyphony of emerging dissent. Disparate barrio associations formed themselves into active political organs, membership in the two traditional parties that had shared power since 1958 declined rapidly, and a gestating military rebellion burst into the halls of power twice in 1992, though both efforts ultimately failed.
Current Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was a product of the first of those military rebellions, and it was his charismatic figure, and his ability to tune his politics to the estimated 80% of Venezuelans living below the poverty line that eventually united the anti-neoliberal forces.
With his momentum steadily swelling throughout the nineties, Chávez swept to the Presidency in 1998. However, the short lapse between the Venezuelan poor’s political awakening in 1989 and their adoption of Chávez as a near-messiah in 1992 was insufficient for the creation of a coherent, widespread, deeply rooted social movement.
Yet, with members of Venezuela’s political opposition trying to get rid of President Hugo Chávez by just about any means they can think of, Chávez’s supporters have been in a near-constant state of anti-opposition mobilization. The implementation of projects aimed at improving the lives of poor Venezuelans has frequently taken a back seat to this defensive mobilization. But the mobilization itself has created a social momentum that may be carrying Chavismo—the loose grouping of Chávez’s supporters—toward a deepening of his proclaimed “Bolívarian Revolution.”
What distinguishes Chavismo from other political movements is the space Chávez’s leadership has opened for mobilization from below. With his charisma and masterful ability to engage in political dialogue with the estimated 80% of Venezuelans who live below the poverty line, Chávez has united most of the country’s anti-neoliberal forces under his leadership.
The pro-Chávez mobilization has taken two principal forms. The first follows from the government’s active creation of participatory community organizations, neighborhood associations and public works projects. Health committees, for example, work with Cuban doctors and provide a link between the community and the state in Barrio Adentro, a program offering free primary health care in poor neighborhoods. And land committees oversee and participate in the application of urban and rural land reform.
In this political context, the first steps toward the development of participatory budgeting has meant the creation of “community living organizations,” each made up of roughly 15 to 30 people, one member of each family in a given neighborhood. The unique character of these organizations is that they act not only as organizing conduits, but also as informal centers of evaluation and criticism. When land reform is not proceeding according to schedule, for example, or community health clinics are not receiving their funding, it is the committee members of the communities in question that bring the issue to the attention of the state—by direct protest when necessary.
“Local leadership exists, regional leadership exists; there exists a new emerging leadership within el proceso,” notes Pedro Infante, director of the National Coordination of Popular Organizations. “We are organized, but we are dispersed.” Government mobilizing is in part responding to this reality. It is a form of mobilization that is both intentional and unselfish in that it is usually separate from political campaigns or the direct promotion of Chávez. Its clear goal has been to lay the foundation upon which to build participatory power structures in poor communities, where organized political capacities have atrophied after decades of exclusion.
The second form of mobilization is a natural byproduct of representative democracy, but also a direct reaction to the legal and illegal campaign to overthrow Chávez. The 2002 coup and four ultimately unsuccessful, though destructive, general strikes and employer lockouts have inevitably put the government, and its supporters, on the defensive. The resulting siege mentality, particularly as a result of the coup, has meant that the organization of a huge swath of Venezuelan society has been specifically predicated on the basis of supporting the President.
The powerful cult of personality surrounding Chávez gave him a resounding victory in last August’s presidential recall referendum, and was largely responsible for the government’s landslide victory in the October regional elections. But this type of support inevitably discourages the development of an autonomous, popular movement capable of making independent decisions when the need arises.
The student movement still exists, as do recently revitalized progressive trade-union movements. Recently created community organizations are complimented by a slightly older variety of small, disparate community-based social movements. Yet, as veteran social activist and writer Roland Denis notes, “These are groups that move within a large wave of rebellion, but without an organic base, without a party, without history, without tradition; groups that must practically invent a movement from scratch. They are movements that are basically sustained by grassroots leaders, community leaders, student leaders, trade union leaders, peasant leaders—fundamentally popular leaders.”
The fragmented social movements that predate Chávez have not abandoned their existing structures. But now, community-based activism inevitably involves close coordination with government-formed community organizations, blurring the boundaries between the two. Chavismo’s linkage to a representative national political body makes it a fundamentally unique mobilizing force on a scale never before seen in the nation’s history.
In the two months between the announcement of the August 15 recall referendum and the referendum vote itself, the government organized its supporters into a stunningly large and complex nationwide social movement-cum-political party. In the first speech of the campaign on June 5, Chávez announced the creation of “Electoral Battle Units” (UBEs) and electoral “patrols” to be coordinated by a national committee. The Comando Maisanta, as the committee was called, oversaw UBEs in every state, municipality and neighborhood, and reported directly to the President. Every Venezuelan who did not want to see Chávez removed from office was encouraged to organize him or herself into a patrol of ten committed activists. Groups of patrols made up district UBEs, which together made up municipal UBEs and so on.
At most levels, time constraints made a democratic structure impossible. Chávez appointed the members of the Commando Maisanta and the state-level UBEs, but from the level of the community to the municipality, positions were largely submitted to improvised elections. Almost overnight an estimated 1.2 million militants had joined the campaign, creating patrols and UBEs in every neighborhood in the country. Nearly 4% of Venezuela’s population became active members of UBEs. Certainly, many who joined the UBEs were from land- and health-reform committees, and some were activists in community-living organizations and militants of the community-based social movements. But for a large majority of UBE members, this was their first experience in political activism.
In a recent interview in Caracas, Pakistani social activist and writer Tariq Ali noted that Venezuela presents an important example of how political and social movements can work together. “The Bolivarian movement,” he commented, “is both a social movement that mobilizes the poor as nothing else has been able to do in this country, and a political movement, because it finds its reflection in the government, which it continues to re-elect.”
The development of a new kind of social movement in Venezuela is one of the Bolivarian revolution’s most important legacies. Through conscious, planned community mobilization and concrete advances in key areas of education, health and housing, Chavismo is currently acting in many capacities as a traditional social movement. But its organic link to the state gives it a character and a revolutionary potential lacking in other movements of the region such as Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) or the Argentine piqueteros. Chavismo’s lack of autonomy from government is certainly problematic, and it is a contradiction that will eventually be unsustainable. But the manner in which this contradiction forces its own resolution need not be negative.
As the backbone of the Bolivarian project, Chavismo already has the space necessary to exert intense pressure on the government to deepen the embryonic development of participatory power structures such as Local Planning Councils and the UBEs. It can do this to such an extent that autonomy becomes irrelevant, or even undesirable: Chavismo as a social movement and as a government may eventually more solidly converge.
Another fundamentally important product of Chavismo’s bridge between the grassroots and the government is its incorporation of rank-and-file elements of the armed forces. As Denis notes, “The popular movement does not consist of only social movements, there are also military movements, …soldiers and young military officers who go to workshops and participate in the dynamic of the popular movements.”
Whatever the post-referendum strategy for the UBEs was at the time of their formation, their continued existence has since become an integral part of the as-yet largely unplanned future of the Bolivarian experiment. Chávez has declared the arrival of a new stage of el proceso, what he calls the “revolution within the revolution.” But post-referendum Venezuela was going to be a new stage, with or without Chávez’s blessings.
The need to defend Chávez has—for the moment—receded, providing an opportunity for proactive Chavismo to fill the vacuum. The UBEs are in the process of redefining themselves as Social Battle Units (UBSs), shifting their focus from electoral processes to community needs. Duly reinforced after the referendum and the regional elections, we may now see a nationally coherent Chavismo emerge, supportive of the process but capable of the difficult introspection necessary to identify its weaknesses, and ultimately, of the structural transformation that may eventually see the convergence of social movement and state.
 As sociologist and political analyst James Petras noted in a recent interview (Caracas, 2 December, 2004), the Chávez government has not done enough to foster employment through public works. However, an employment mission, “Vuelvan Caras,” represents a significant first step, providing scholarships to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans while training them in specific trades and in forming cooperatives.