As a revolutionary activist working with Venezuela’s popular movements and a sociologist who has extensively studied and theorised the rise of Chavismo as a political movement of the popular classes, Reinaldo Iturriza is well placed to provide an overview of the current state of play within the country’s Bolivarian Revolution. Iturriza also served as Minister for the Communes and Social Movements, and then Minister for Culture in President Nicolas Maduro’s cabinet between 2013 and 2016.
In this interview, Iturriza outlines his views on the recently approved anti-blockade law and the debate it has generated, the electoral divisions that have opened up with the revolution, and the current state of Chavismo.
The recently approved anti-blockade adopted by the National Constituent Assembly has generated a strong debate. What are your thoughts on the law and the debate around it?
Perhaps the first thing to say about the anti-blockade law is that there is a line of continuity between this initiative and the Bolivarian Economic Agenda, which was launched in January 2016.
Back then, in the context of a severe drop in oil prices that began in 2014, and immediately after Chavismo’s defeat in the December 2015 parliamentary elections, the government decided upon a policy of forming an alliance with certain sections of the bourgeoisie, for a dialogue with the more traditional bourgeoisie, represented by Fedecámaras, with whom it held periodic meetings during 2016, and wagered on idea of strengthening, or creating even, what it conceived of as a “revolutionary bourgeoisie”.
It was, without a doubt, a point of inflection for the Bolivarian process, and not specifically because they sat down to “negotiate” with the bourgeoisie, or with a part of it, but because everything that it implies to do so from a position of weakness. Meetings with the bourgeoisie, including with its most conspicuous representatives, always occurred, but the necessary and non-negotiable regulatory role of the state over the market was never up for discussion. This meant the “private sector”, though never denied a space, was always kept in its place to ensure the great popular majority were guaranteed access to the market.
Being in a position of weakness, it is not only predictable, but even correct, sensible and recommendable to take a few steps backward, cede some ground, while reorganising your forces. However, what has occurred since then resembles a disorderly retreat more than anything else.
Firstly, it seems that an underestimation of one’s own force has prevailed: beyond what we could perceive in the streets (for example, the fact that anti-Chavismo’s victory in the parliamentary elections was not popularly celebrated, rather all the contrary), and from the strictly electoral point of view, Chavismo still represented a solid 40% of the country. And well beyond the electoral, as it has demonstrated up to now, it constitutes a force capable of dealing with an openly hostile environment and overcoming the most difficult of obstacles.
Secondly, some high-level functionaries and leaders began to publicly state opinions favourable to reversing nationalisations of certain oil activities, for example, or against heavily demonised expropriations. The decisive fact that the political leadership decided not to propose or convoke a national debate over an eventual need to embark on a significant shift in the strategic orientation of economic policy contributed to the perception that we were dealing with isolated opinions; inconceivable until then, that’s for sure, and all of which suggested that something larger could be occurring behind closed doors, but in the end isolated voices.
Nevertheless, today it is relatively easy to conclude that those opinions embodied the sign of new times: it seems some forces within Chavismo, that for whatever reason were suspicious of the radicalism implicit in the strategic horizon outlined in the Homeland Plan, convinced themselves that, together with the grave economic difficulties and the ebb in popular mobilisation, their time had come. The mismanagement of some public companies, corruption, but also deliberate disinvestment, together with the profound lack of confidence in the organised people - circumstances that all preceded the Bolivarian Economic Agenda - contributed to positioning the idea that, for example, it was indispensable to establish “strategic alliances” with sections of the bourgeoisie to get out of this quagmire.
The problem, I insist, are not the so-called “strategic alliances”, that undoubtedly, in certain cases, were necessary or convenient. We are not dealing here with a question of principles. The real problem, in many cases, was the decision towards disinvestment: for abandoning public companies with the aim of privatising them. What we have to consider is that disinvestment presupposes, logically, the possibility of investment, of continuing to wager on public investment. Disinvestment is a political decision, not the inevitable consequence of mismanagement. In fact, in many of these cases (it is still not possible to know how many for sure, because the process has been characterised by its opaqueness) undoubtedly the opposite was true: public mismanagement was the inevitable consequence of disinvestment, as well as corruption. In any case, the key here is that the decision could have been made to correct problems in management and guarantee public ownership over these companies.
Was this state policy: disinvest in order to later privatise? I don’t think so. Just as it is also not state policy to violently evict campesinos and hand back land to large landowners, or to provide insufficient support to experiences in building communes, or to jail workers, or put huge obstacles in the way of extraordinary initiatives, such as the Productive Worker Army. I don’t think that is how all this occurred. But without doubt we are in the presence of a pattern of behaviour, promoted by forces with an important presence in the different levels of government, not just national but also regional and local.
But if disinvestment was not state policy, the strategic alliances were, fundamentally from 2016, with the Bolivarian Economic Agenda. As the economic situation worsened (brutal pulverisation of wages, hyperinflation, de facto dollarisation) despite lifting all control over the market, and the criminal “sanctions” strangled the economic heart of the nation (above all after the direct blows dealt against PDVSA in 2017), and with the sharp fall in national income, the most “logical” thing appeared to be to insist, now with more reason, on alliances with the national and transnational “private sector” to reactive the economy.
It is in this context, I believe, that an initiative such as the anti-blockade law has to be understood. In fact, Article 18, which relates to the use of funds generated as a result of its application, establishes that one of its objectives is to “stimulate and promote the productive economic motors of the Bolivarian Economic Agenda”. It also outlines mechanisms to “attract foreign investment, above all on a large scale” (Article 20); the possibility of “modifying the mechanisms of constitution, management, administration, functioning and state participation in certain public or mixed companies” (Article 26); the implementation of “measures that stimulate and favour the partial or complete participation, management and operation of the national and international private sector in the development of the national economy” (Article 29); the “urgent incorporation” in the productive process, via “alliances with entities of the private sector, including small and medium companies, or with the organised Popular Power” of “companies that are under the administration or management of the Venezuelan state as a consequence of certain administrative or judicial measures that restrict certain elements of property” (Article 30), among others.
That said, is it clear that any Venezuelan has the full right to discuss this or any other legal initiative or action taken by the government, to demand that its proponents very clearly explain the aims being pursued; and the proponents have the obligation to clarify any doubts that might have emerged. That is, no one should be offended by doubts. In any case, the political leadership should start by comprehending that the opaqueness that has characterised its governmental action in economic policy has been a crass error.
Moving beyond the anti-blockade law, which is a kind of culmination of the government’ shift in economic policy that began around 2016, I believe that there are few more important things that could be done than to carry out a critical balance sheet of the Bolivarian Economic Agenda. And I am not talking here about a balance sheet drawn up by specialists, a meeting behind closed doors, a sophisticated exercise in introspection, a competition in rhetoric, a presentation of future academic theses, an interminable, sterile and even melancholic discussion over what was done, what was not done and what could have been. What was done, was done. We are talking about consummated events, which also means, of course, that there is little sense in continuing to adopt a tone of warning, which is what many of us did during these years.
Given the results, there is more than enough evidence to show that, in attempting to find a way out, we have ended up further within the labyrinth. If what occurred was a disorderly retreat, then what is required now is to reorganise our forces to be able to go back on the offensive. We will not be able to go back to where we were in 2016. History does not work like that. Not only is it not possible, it is not desirable. What is desirable would be to accept that one path was chosen from among various possible paths, and that given the results have been far from favourable for the popular majorities, it has to be possible and desirable to elect a new one. Within the revolution, always.
This path should, in my belief, have as its compass a solid and robust public property, which does not represent a disdain, I insist, for that space that private capital has always been guaranteed but whose interests and margin of maneuver should have a limit; a limit set by the national, social, collective interest. As Chávez said in his Aló Presidente Teórico No. 2: “We defend property, but not bourgeois property, [rather] social property, the property of the people … honest property, the property of your labour, the property of your home, your own property, your personal belongings, family property, communal property. That is the property we defend, not the grotesque property of those capitalists who want everything for themselves.” That is the property we need to continue defending. That should be our starting point.
Divisions seem to be appearing within Chavismo. For example, we have seen the recent formation of the Revolutionary Popular Alternative, which includes perhaps two of the largest allies of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) along with some other popular movements. They will be standing candidates against the PSUV and have launched some fierce criticisms of the government. How can we understand these divisions and the debates occurring between pro-revolution parties and movements?
Some people might be tempted to conclude that the Revolutionary Popular Alternative (APR) is a typical case of ultra-left forces who, exhibiting their characteristic misreading of the historic moment, end up being functional, in the here and now, to the imperial strategy of “regime change”, attacking the government from the left in a context of brutal political and economic onslaught, that is, in the most inopportune manner, and contributing to the suicidal dispersion of forces. I don't believe that such an assessment would be correct.
Firstly, the forces that make up the APR can hardly be categories as “ultraleftists”: the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), the bulk of Homeland for All (another wing has allied itself with the government), and other more modest organisations that fundamentally have a regional or local presence. Secondly, the dispersion of forces precedes the initiative to conform the APR, and is directly related, among other things, to the sectarianism that has characterised the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Thirdly, and this is perhaps the most important, I do not believe that the APR represents a “threat”, in the sense of putting at risk an eventual majority of Chavista forces in the next National Assembly. We should recall that, even though some of them have registered candidates, everything indicates that the main opposition parties will follow the line imposed by the US government of abstaining. On the contrary, I believe that the existence of the APR could motivate many Chavista people who, for whatever reason, do not want to vote for the PSUV ticket, and much less for an opposition party. In this sense, it could contribute to reducing abstention, which is one of the principle objectives of the patriotic forces in the coming parliamentary elections; along with, obviously, recuperating a majority in a state institution that, in the hands of the anti-Chavistas, was put at the service of interests that are clearly contrary to the nation.
In fact, I would dare to go as far as to say that were it not for the boundless servility of the main anti-Chavista parties, which has deprived them of the freedom to sovereignly define their political strategy (which has led to one electoral defeat after another since 2017), an initiative like the APR would be inconceivable. In other circumstances, and putting aside any programmatic differences, I am sure that these Chavista political forces, or at least a majority of those in the APR, would have found a formula for electoral unity.
In any case, the real threat is the sustained effort of the US government to delegitimise the elections in our country, and its pretension to block any possibility of a political and electoral way out, despite which, as it should be, elections continue to be held as per the constitution.
The APR, on the other hand, could be an initiative that contributes, at a minimum, to partially unlocking public discussion over the real fundamental problems of the country. This is not even about, at this point in time, determining if the comrades from the APR are correct regarding this or that issue, but rather creating and multiplying channels for political discussion that allow the Venezuela people to express themselves, interpellate, demand, even organise themselves. These channels have been gradually reducing in number, and this is a process that has to be reversed.
Many of us who are not part of this political initiative hold out hope that it will not just be a temporary electoral alliance, which is always the risk, but rather the prelude to a platform that brings together forces that to date have been operating in a dispersed manner, something that has greatly reduced their political effectiveness.
The elections are one moment. Very important, of course, but they are just a moment. Even if the PCV ticket obtains less votes than what is expected by those who are promoting the APR, this should in no way lead to abandoning this effort of political coordination. Should the contrary occur, and they obtain more votes than expected, this should not be read as an express and unconditional support for the APR. A lot of that vote will likely represent a rejection of the PSUV.
Furthermore, I think it is important to point out that the majority of the Chavista people who will vote in the parliamentary election will continue to do so for the PSUV. Regarding this point, I believe that the comrades of the APR need to walk a fine and be very careful in their analysis. Because if there is one thing you cannot do in revolutionary politics, it is underestimate the people. We have to assume that if many people vote for the PSUV, they will do so for absolutely legitimate reasons, and not because they are acting as sheep being led to the slaughterhouse, which, by the way, has always been the position expressed by anti-Chavismo. They will not be doing so for a bag of food, as the right say, but rather, to say it in general terms, because they consider the best option continues to be, despite everything, voting for the party of Chávez. Why is this the case? We need to be able to respond to this question. Personally, I reject outright any response that leans towards signalling those that vote for the PSUV as ignorant.
This is, for sure, a problem of an important part of the leadership of the PSUV: they believe that politics, and more so in times of elections, can be reduced to clientalism and assistentialism, and that such practices, which generate a profound popular rejection, are enough to win the backing of the people.
There is a very steep slope that we need to climb. We need to recover the fundamentals of revolutionary politics. The working people that vote for the PSUV, just like the people that have decided not to vote, just like those who will vote for the PCV, even those that will vote for the opposition, belong to the same class. We need to have a politics for the working class, with the working class, no matter which party they identify with or if they identify with none, as is currently the case with many people.
Chavismo, when it was first being forged more than 20 years ago, went well beyond this, and forged a multi-class alliance, whose centre of gravity was precisely the working class, and in particular that which Chávez called, at the start of the '90s, the “marginal class”: the poor who work but whose work does not guarantee them the minimum required for the reproduction of life. After significantly reducing in number during the first decade of this century and part of the following one, this class fraction has once again become majoritarian. However, it has not aligned itself with any party political force. It feels like an orphan when it comes to leadership, it views itself as stuck in a cul-de-sac. Anti-Chavismo is simply incapable of identifying this reality. Its class origins impedes it from doing so. That is where we need to do politics.
What situation does Chavismo find itself in? What is the relationship like between this movement and the government, particularly in light of the recent protests we have seen in areas that have traditionally voted for Chávez and Maduro? How do you view this dynamic between movement and government, which has been a key part of the Bolivarian Revolution, in the current conjuncture?
Alfredo Maniero used the term “agua mansa” (calm water) to refer to the place occupied by the Venezuelan people that was preparing to burst forward, that is, to convert itself into those “drops of water at the crest of the wave.” That is what he said around 1982.
Well, the popular majorities have burst forward various times since then, with more or less intensity: during the popular rebellion of 27F [February 27] of 1989; in 1992, in the form of people in uniforms; in 1994, when Chávez left prison until taking him to the presidency in 1998; in 2002, with the popular rebellion against the coup; and so on. Of course this idea of “agua mansa” can be interpreted in different ways and, seen from a historical perspective of longer reach, perhaps the correct thing would be to speak of a grand bursting forth in 1989, and a stormy sea since then, with several periods of relative calm but with the people frequently on the crest of the wave.
I think that we are in one of the periods in which we are returning to “agua mansa” or to continue with Maneiro, in the “seno” (trough) that separates the most recent wave from the coming one.
In this period, in particular, we have a certain closure of politics. Firstly, I would say, because anti-Chavismo has wagered strongly on anti-politics. This has been a decisive factor. The bulk of the Venezuelan opposition, and I am not simply referring to its political class, has been characterised by its extremely disloyalty and anti-democratic nature. At the start of 2014, shortly after the passing of Chávez, and when the political and economic situation in the country was still relatively stable (which is no small detail), its most extreme faction once again chose the path of confrontation and violence, a path it had abandoned 10 years before after successive defeats. Later on, at the start of 2016, and with control of the National Assembly in their hands, they “promised” the country that they would do everything necessary to depose the government within less than 6 months, that is, via non-legal methods. In 2017, they worked even harder to ratchet up their economic assault on the nation, now in the context of a severe economic crisis and, once again chose the path of violence, putting the country on the brink of a civil war. In 2018, there was an attempted assassination. In 2019, as is known, an until-then unknown deputy self-proclaimed himself president and openly called for a military coup and military intervention from the US and other neighbouring countries. More recently, there was a frustrated attempt at a paramilitary incursion via Venezuela’s coast. During this time various plans for coups have been exposed, armed attacks on state and military institutions have taken place, “sanctions” have multiplied, etc.
While the opposition was closer than ever to winning in the 2013 presidential elections, and despite having triumphed in the 2015 parliamentary elections, it is the case that during these last 6 or 7 years the opposition has done little more than squander the political capital it could have accumulated. Arrogant, convinced that, in the absence of Chávez, taking power was just around the corner, no matter the cost; unconditionally support by Yankee imperialism and, more than supported, playing the role of ventriloquist dummy of Washington; animated by the collapse in oil prices and confident in its capacity to make use of its position of dominance over the national economy; blinded by its desire for revenge; unreservedly favoured by the media transnationals; enthused by the advance of the continental right, the Venezuelan opposition end up applying, in fact, a scorched earth policy, thereby decisively contributing to what I have elsewhere characterised as the de-citizenisation of Venezuelan society, above all from 2017, when the common citizen, far from feeling like they were at the door of the country’s “liberation”, were too scared to come out onto the streets, something they had not experienced since, precisely, the days after 27F, when the state massacred thousands of Venezuelans.
Analysing this with hindsight, and with broad brushstrokes, we can see how, after every failure, the opposition has responded not by reconsidering its strategy, but rather doubling the wager, and increasing their violence.
All this is not said for the purposes of outlining grievances. It is data that provides context, without which it is impossible to comprehend why, despite the profound discontent that exists towards the national government, despite all the responsibility that lies with it, the popular classes find it so difficult to perceive the opposition as a real alternative.
Put differently, it is not so much a question that the Venezuelan opposition has been incapable of carrying out a correct strategy that could allow it to find political solutions to the “problems” of the country, to put it euphemistically, rather that its strategy has consisted of not coming up with any political solution. That alone is a big problem.
Returning to what I was saying about the closure of politics, and as a second point: we have a government that, without doubt, has had the merit of resisting the successive violent poundings I just referred to and, despite everything, has remain in power, but having pay a terribly high cost in strategic terms, something I have referred to in the first question.
If I had to summarise the profound impact this situation has had in the popular camp, I would say that what we have seen is a phenomenon of mass political disaffiliation, to the point that, currently, in my opinion, the majority political identity would be what we could describe as disaffiliated Chavismo: predominantly, men and women between the ages of 20-40, pertaining to the popular classes, whose material and spiritual horizon has narrowed as the economic crisis has worsened, a part of which decided to emigrate, that incorporated the values or adopted as their own many of the ideas of the Chavista political culture, but not because of this see themselves reflected in the current leadership, in its symbols, in its discourse, in its government, or in the PSUV. That is my working hypothesis, though there is always the possibility that I am wrong on this.
There is also the possibility of simply not worry about these issues, think it is inopportune, and conform ourselves with a more static image of Chavismo, that is, with the more comfortable image of what we use to be, and find refugees in the tranquillity that comes with political certainties, but I think this would be a grave mistake. Because the truth is that we face uncertain times for the majorities, of “agua mansa”, of mutation of the popular soul.
If the popular soul mutates, why should Chavismo remain static, immoveable? What is ironic is that the very existence of disaffiliated Chavismo, if we accept this hypothesis as valid, indicates that an important part of Chavismo itself, far from ageing badly, is demanding its place in the present, and its right, in a hopefully not too distant future, to once again place itself as the crest of the wave.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.