A blogger-become-minister, Reinaldo Iturriza has written creatively and insightfully about Chavismo and its contradictions. His work includes El chavismo salvaje (Wild Chavismo) and La política de los comunes (Politics of the Commons). In this VA interview, Iturriza addresses what is possibly the most difficult question facing Chavismo today: the political disaffection that can be found in important sectors of the Venezuelan people.
You have developed a creative reading of the Chavista identity over the years. Could you tell us something about this?
First, there is what is laid out in the El chavismo salvaje book, which basically gathers writings that go from 2007 to 2012. Among other things, it is a first attempt at identifying the tensions within Chavismo, an effort to present the logic of the different lines of force that traverse the movement, how they are expressed in practices, etc.
Writing these texts involved some abstraction in the attempt to capture the real movement – it was a dizzying exercise –, but at no point did I intend to position myself as an observer of Chavismo “from the outside.” On the contrary, these are militant writings. At that time I considered it imperative to explain what we had learned, what we had been, and where we were as a movement. It required working in two registers: on the one hand, recording what the experience of the Bolivarian Revolution meant to us; on the other hand, we had to construct a story outside of the propaganda, not make concessions to self-indulgent approaches.
The very concept of “wild Chavismo” is far from being a mere metaphor or attempt to provoke. What I pinpointed then is that there was an attempt to “brutalize” [brutalizar] Chavismo (in fact this is one of the founding practices of anti-Chavismo), but there was another attempt aimed at “stupefying it” [embrutecer] – this latter would become a characteristic of what I call “officialism” in my reflections.
Nonetheless, I highlighted that civil service, for example, was not by definition officialist, and that it is also possible to reproduce an officialist logic inside the grassroots movement. In synthesis, I tried to problematize the question of power, of its exercise, and also the question of the state and its institutions.
In the book [El chavismo salvaje], I raised issues of this kind and left open, as is inevitable, many questions. It was a starting point. From then on, I have tried to go deeper into some of these issues, while other themes have emerged.
In 2017, I wrote an essay (still unpublished): Chávez, lector de Nietzsche [Chávez, Reader of Nietzsche]. During the last years of his life, Chávez was a committed and unprejudiced reader of Nietzsche. And, as one would expect from a man like Chávez, his were not mere philosophical cavilings.
The Nietzsche readings, with others, inspired some major decisions. In fact, Chávez’s “Commune or Nothing,” the famous slogan, was born, at least in part, from Chávez’s peculiar and very heterodox reading of Nietzsche. Finally, in line with the analysis initiated in El chavismo salvaje and taking as a reference Gilles Deleuze’s interpretation of Nietzsche, I suggested that there was an “active” Chavismo that would set itself apart from “reactive” Chavismo.
In 2018 I wrote another book (also unpublished), La política de los comunes [Politics of the Commons], in which I collected some already published texts on the communal question in Venezuela. Among other things, I attempted to demonstrate that Chavismo breaks with the political culture of Acción Democrática [the social-democratic party that ruled for many years in Venezuela]. In other words, I argued that although there is a clear line of continuity between Accion Democratica’s political culture and that of Chavismo, what distinguishes the latter is precisely its singularity.
What does the singularity of Chavismo consist in? When is it born? A real “epistemological rupture” – as Chávez would call it – occurred in the 1990s when a young Bolivarian military contingent “discovered” the idée-force of participative and protagonist democracy. We were in the presence of a full-fledged theoretical and political event: by gravitating around this idea, revolutionary politics in Venezuela would never be the same. It marks a before and an after. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that the Bolivarian Revolution becomes possible with this breakthrough. It changed everything and, in particular, the way of relating to the popular subject.
More recently, in 2019, I wrote a series of articles called Radiografía sentimental del chavismo [Sentimental X-ray of Chavismo], and I began to work on a line of research that I called Cuarentena [Quarantine]. The latter has nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic, but with the fact that, in 2017, the most reactionary anti-Chavista lines of force became fervent promoters of the total economic blockade against Venezuela – a “quarantine” to contain and eradicate the “contagious disease” that is Chavismo.
Radiografía is an update of the analysis that I began in El chavismo salvaje. For example, what I identify in Radiografía as “disaffected Chavismo” is the most contemporary expression of wild Chavismo which, as far back as 2010, has been fed up with “dumb politics,” with the aggravating factor that [in recent times] this phenomenon of disaffection has become massive.
In Cuarentena I tried to identify the conditions triggering the phenomenon of political disaffection by delving into an area which I had not paid enough attention to until then: the economy. More than a pending issue at the personal level, I’m thinking that this – understanding the economy – is a pending collective task.
To give you an example, we have to understand the class composition of Venezuelan society today. But more than a snapshot of the current historical situation, I think we should understand the evolution of the class structure in Venezuelan society since the 1970s. Until we begin to gather such basic and crucial information, we will be condemned to repeat the same old generalizations about “oil rentierism,” “post-rentierism,” and other vague analyses.
Have you come to any conclusions from your recent research and thinking?
Some of my working hypotheses right now are the following. First, there is a close relationship – not mechanical but not casual either – between the emergence of the first revolutionary cells within the Venezuelan Army in the 1980s, and the growing informality and unemployment of the time.
Second, there is documented evidence of the strategic insight of the Bolivarian military regarding what would have to be the backbone of the revolutionary subject in Venezuela: those who as early as 1993 Chávez identified as the “marginal class,” fundamentally made up by what some scholars call the “sub-proletariat,” which is the fraction of the proletariat most affected by the economic crisis: they are the poor who work, but those whose work does not guarantee the minimum conditions for the reproduction of life.
Third, the support of this sub-proletariat turned out to be decisive in Chávez’s 1998 electoral victory, and that support became even more decisive in the resistance against each and every one of the attempts to overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution, including Chávez’s extraordinary victory in the 2004 recall referendum.
Fourth, the social, economic, and cultural policies advanced during Chávez’s presidency had, as a fundamental purpose, improving the material and spiritual conditions of this class fraction.
Fifth, Chávez’s effort to build a popular and democratic hegemony had this class fraction as its center of gravity: its aspirations and demands, but also its organization; this perspective is key to understanding the creation of the communal councils and, later, the communes.
Sixth and finally, the 2015 parliamentary defeat rang an alarm bell, warning us of a fracture in this popular hegemonic construction.
I think that, with sufficient information at hand, it is possible to demonstrate that this sub-proletariat is the economic (and no doubt political) correspondent with that which I have called “wild Chavismo.” Once we have undertaken a rigorous, detailed analysis of the evolution of Venezuelan society’s class structure during the last decades – something that, as I said before, is a pending task – I believe we will be in a better position to confront the challenges that face us today. The question of wild Chavismo today – for the most part, a disaffected bloc – is also the question of the sub-proletariat. The answer to this question would give us fundamental clues about how to proceed in reconstructing a popular democratic hegemony.
Can we contrast what you call “wild Chavismo” – its desires and aspirations – with the government’s way of doing politics? I am aware that we need to take into account all the external factors that condition Venezuelan politics, but I want to focus on its day-to-day modus operandi in the country.
It is practically impossible to reflect on the daily practice of governing here without taking these external factors into account. If there is something that overdetermines our daily life, it’s precisely the US economic blockade that weighs on the whole of Venezuelan society.
The effects of the blockade are almost unspeakable. It produces suffering, stress, anxiety, fear, anger, distrust, and death. To that, we should add uncertainty and the narrowing horizon that the pandemic produces. We are talking about an experience that is difficult to explain to people who have never had to suffer through such a criminal blockade.
Additionally, wherever the imperialist story is effective, we can observe what Walter Benjamin would call “empathy with the winner.” This translates more or less as follows: if in Venezuela we are going through such a historical crisis, it must be because we deserve it. This idea expresses itself in different ways, including the convoluted discourse about the existence of a “dictatorship,” “regime,” and so on.
There is empathy for the winner for two reasons. First, there is the logic of the executioner’s accomplice – in this case, the most lackey-like anti-Chavistas. Second, there are those who fear experiencing a similar blockade, which keeps people from raising their heads and encourages them to either look away or even turn against their own neighbors, to employ Benjamin’s terms.
This brings us to another difficult question: have the Venezuelan people been defeated?
Well, anyone could say I’m wrong, and they would likely come up with convincing arguments, but my answer is no. I do not think the Venezuelan people have been defeated. One of my reasons for saying this is my deep conviction that an important part of the population– even as it struggles with the harmful effects of the blockade – has preserved a margin of maneuver. In other words, our destiny is still in our hands.
What I observe is that, for a large sector of the population, the blockade is not seen as an inexorable fate: it is a crime that produces deprivation and death, but it is not inevitable. It is because they see it this way that so many people of all walks of life strongly reject the typical official story that the root of all our suffering is to be found in the blockade. In fact, the worst thing we can do now is to take an event as serious as the blockade and turn it into a pretext.
The problem with this way of thinking is that it exonerates those with government posts from assuming responsibilities and, worse still, it frees the society as a whole from responsibility. It’s a discourse that turns us into victims that have to be protected or, in another reading, we only have the obligation to “resist” – preferably without too much complaining. There is a false epic attitude in this story and also a lot of fatalism.
Should the Venezuelan government cease to fulfill its obligation to protect the population? Of course not. Has everyone in the government adopted this story [of the blockade exonerating them of responsibility]? I don’t think so either, but the story is gaining ground.
To me, it seems evident that there is a crisis in the Bolivarian narrative. How can we overcome it? By keeping in mind two elements: on the one hand, the blockade, the effects of unilateral coercive measures, and the imperial siege; on the other hand, our margin of maneuver, the alternatives we have, what we can do. To do this, however, there must be confidence in the collective spirit – which is to say, one must trust the popular subject which, at the end of the day, is what made the Bolivarian Revolution possible.
Does this mean that each and every one of the government’s decisions must be debated publicly in an assembly? Clearly not. But it is also evident that the “there is no alternative” discourse cannot become a practice every time that people question decisions or express disagreements.
If the “there is no alternative” principle of politics were to become normal, we could just as well turn off the lights and close shop. We should understand the consequences of closing the door on the people that Chávez politicized. In fact, it is one of the reasons why there are so many disaffected people – people who have come to not expect anything from Chavismo or from the opposition. This is the fact that should concern and occupy us, and not the fact that many are expressing their dissent… Dissent, at the end of the day, is actually a sign of political vitality!