Chavismo Seeks Business and Religious Allies

VA columnist Clodovaldo Hernández analyses the alliance between the government and historical Chavismo antagonists.
Hernández explores the Maduro government's “peace deal” with the business sector. (Venezuelanalysis)

The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), in the year prior to the presidential elections, has been very active establishing ties with the business sector and religious leaders, two blocs traditionally antagonist to the Bolivarian Revolution.

This rapprochement arouses suspicions among Chavista militants as well as in the corporate world and religious spheres. The mistrust is mutual and has its origin in a long history of bad blood and serious clashes.

These overtures are taking place at the same time as the government launches new efforts to consolidate the traditional bases of Chavismo through communal structures in cities, towns as well as campesino and indigenous communities.

The PSUV is a political organization with a defined ideology: socialism. However, at the same time it is conceived as polyclassist, that is to say, it does not limit its militancy to the proletariat and campesinos, contrary to communist parties and some socialists of the twentieth century. It is also understood that the PSUV sees itself, in the image and likeness of the Venezuelan state, as a secular movement, which accepts in its midst followers of various religions as well as atheists.

This might seem like a web of contradictions, but this is not surprising considering the Socialist Party’s birth corresponds to a global time of uncertainties and diffuse ideologies.

What is certain is that the PSUV is currently the largest party in the country and has the advantage over its opponents in terms of organizational cohesion and functioning as an electoral machine. On the opposition side, there is an archipelago of parties, movements and individualities that only in exceptional moments have managed to unify for electoral purposes.

Nevertheless, it is a reality that the core of the PSUV has been quite worn out in the last few years, which is logical since we are talking about a political organization that is approaching a quarter of a century in power. In addition, it has spent a decade without its fundamental leader, Hugo Chávez Frías.

This erosion has endangered the continuity of the revolutionary process on several occasions, but the same two essential components have prevailed: cohesion and electoral machinery versus forces that tend to disperse and lack central leadership.

In view of the decline of Chavismo’s most important segment (the bedrock, as some political analysts call it), the leadership headed by President Nicolás Maduro has opted, for some time now, to broaden its spectrum of alliances.

Approaching business groups has involved crossing minefields for many years. That is why both sides remain cautious. However, in recent times there have been bold moves.

On the government side, it should be noted that the team appointed to intervene in the Venezuelan Red Cross is headed by the former president of the Fedecámaras business guild. His name is Ricardo Cusanno, a corporate lawyer. The ad hoc board also includes Alberto Vollmer, president of the Ron Santa Teresa company, which belongs to a family of the country’s most traditional bourgeoisie.

On the business side, the new president of Fedecámaras, Adán Celis, practically made his debut by making a very forceful statement against US sanctions and, above all, against those inside Venezuela who defend these measures.

This was a substantial change in the position assumed by previous presidents of the business guild, who openly or tacitly supported Washington’s sanctions and the blockade.

Longtime animosity

As I said before, the PSUV was conceived as a polyclassist party. Chávez was clear that he could not create a party with a Marxist ideology in the style of twentieth-century socialism since such a structure could not include a large part of the Venezuelan political spectrum, which belong to parties he defeated: Acción Democrática (social democrat), Copei (social Christian) and an independent segment.

Still, throughout his government (1999-2012), Chávez had constant confrontations with the entire displaced status quo, including the business establishment, the Catholic Church (and the private education sector associated with it), old trade unions and the media. This conflict dragged with it a good part of the middle class, who for aspirational reasons, identifies more with the upper classes than with popular sectors.

This has meant that, although the PSUV is declaratively a polyclassist party, it has a profile or is perceived more as a classic Marxist organization, made up mostly of the poor classes.

For as long as it had an exceptional leader like Chávez and enough economic resources to develop policies favorable to large segments of the population, the traditionally excluded sectors, the PSUV did not have to worry much about looking for allies in the business and middle class. On the contrary, the line was confrontational.

After Chávez’s death, a good part of the national businessmen decided that it was time to return to the political hostility that had characterized them between 2001 and 2004, when the former president of Fedecámaras, Pedro Carmona Estanga, led the April 2002 coup d’état which was followed by an oil lockout between December 2002 and January 2003. Since 2013, the business sector accelerated the economic war by introducing old practices of boycotts such as hoarding basic goods, excessive price hikes and massive layoffs.

Between 2013 and 2018, the divorce between the Maduro government and the private sector was a clear reality. The state tried to curb economic aggression through exchange and price controls, labor protections and strict supervision of distribution networks for basic products.

In 2015, with Obama declaring Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat,” the imposition of unilateral coercive measures began. Thus, the multinational business sector joined the economic war that was already raging inside the country.

In 2019, the national business community contributed to the US-led regime change strategy, which had its peak in the self-proclamation of Juan Guaidó as supposed “interim president.” The Trump administration intensified the economic blockade with the theft of Venezuelan assets and companies abroad and even hijacking Iranian fuel shipments and inputs headed for Venezuelan refineries.

Hundreds of major companies closed their doors or minimized their operations in Venezuela, contributing to a dramatic picture of economic paralysis and social chaos.

By the time we entered the current decade (and with the pandemic on top of everything), the rupture between the Bolivarian government and the private sector was almost total. Unsurprisingly, the economic plan assumed at the end of 2018 was some sort of peace proposal from the government towards the business sector. There were numerous concessions, such as reduction of price controls, de facto dollarization, labor deregulations and tax and tariff exemptions. These changes in the economic policy of the Revolution were interpreted as a capitulation by the most radical sectors of Chavismo. This was the definitive break of the PSUV with the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), and it also led to the emergence of dissident groups accusing Maduro of having betrayed Chávez’s legacy.

The mending of ties between the government and the business class began accidentally in 2018, shortly after the assassination attempt against Maduro. But it was disrupted by the political and military events of 2019 (Guaidó’s self-proclamation, the attempted “humanitarian” invasion through Colombia, the induced blackouts, the April 30 failed coup d’état) and by the 2020 health emergency. By the end of 2021, there was talk of a budding economic recovery. In 2022 this gained momentum to the point that the phrase “Venezuela is fixed” began to circulate. New businesses that sprung up, companies that restarted operations and a general climate of rising consumption were very important in this perception.

By the end of 2022, this favorable picture abated by new inflationary spikes and the government’s struggles to raise public sector wages. But numerous signs point to the emergence of a new business caste close to the ruling Socialist Party and a rearrangement of the traditional groups, which has already been reflected in the political stand taken by the recently elected president of Fedecámaras.

Religious field: high-level relations

The other sphere in which the PSUV and the government have sought to create or reestablish ties is that of religion. It has done so with the Catholic Church, in spite of the recurrent hostility from several episcopal leaders. But, above all, it has sought links with non-Catholic Christians, Jews, Muslims and representatives of minority cults.

To carry out this task, a very high-level person has been appointed: Deputy Nicolás Maduro Guerra, son of President Maduro.

As with the business sector, these approaches have unleashed some resistance within Chavismo (and also on the side of religious organizations). PSUV rank-and-file question the financial support given to repair churches, since Venezuela is a secular state and, above all, taking into account how hard the opposition stand of the Catholic hierarchy has been since 1999.

There are also those who expressed their distrust given that evangelical cults throughout Latin America have been objectively very corrosive factors for leftist governments. Those who point this out warn that the government is playing with fire.

The official strategy seems very clear: to try to neutralize the oppositionist spirit of these two sectors, which share the popular base with Chavismo since they attract people from the poorest and lower middle-class strata.

The strategy of growing closer to the private sector and religious movements is underway, with the electoral process in sight. Its results will be seen when the votes are counted. For the time being, all bets are on the table.

Clodovaldo Hernández is a journalist and political analyst with experience in higher education. He won the National Journalism Prize (Opinion category) in 2002. He is the author of the books Reinventario (poetry and short stories) De genios y de figuras (journalistic profiles) and Esa larga, infinita distancia (novel).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.com.