Venezuela’s Critical Conjunctures: A Conversation with Steve Ellner

A historian with four decades of life and work in Venezuela reflects on the Bolivarian Process and the events leading up to the revolution.
Steve Ellner (Venezuelanalysis)

Steve Ellner is a US historian who came to Venezuela decades ago and committed his life to studying the country’s history from a left perspective. Ellner taught at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Anzoátegui state, and published several books including Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon (2008), and edited volumes such as Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century (2014). In this interview, Ellner talks about his historiographical perspective and his approach to the Bolivarian Process.

You lived in Venezuela for some 40 years – before, during, and after Chávez. One of the themes you deal with in your work is the ruptures and continuities in Venezuelan history. Can you talk about this in relation to Chávez?

Even before Hugo Chávez came to power, I published an article in the “Latin American Research Review” shedding light on the often overlooked continuities in Venezuela’s 20th-century. Let’s take an example: historians tend to interpret the 1945 coup against President Isaías Medina Angarita [1941-45] as a break with a conservative regime, but in fact, Medina Angarita’s government was a progressive one and opened the way for what would come later. 

During his presidency, Medina Angarita enacted the Hydrocarbons Law [1943], a landmark legislation that bound oil companies to refine a percentage of Venezuelan crude inside the country. This policy led to the establishment of major Venezuelan refineries in Puerto La Cruz, Amuay, and Cardón. The Hydrocarbons Law was remarkably progressive for its time. Additionally, Medina Angarita legalized Acción Democrática and, later, the Communist Party.

Acción Democrática overthrew Medina Angarita on October 18th, 1945. Historians aligned with Acción Democrática often refer to this event as the “October Revolution,” viewing it as a decisive break from Venezuela’s past. However, I disagree with this interpretation. Medina Angarita was already steering the country in a democratic direction, and his reforms were undeniably progressive.

Furthermore, these historians tend to attribute the exclusive ability for mass mobilization to Acción Democrática. Contrary to this belief, Medina Angarita was also making strides in that direction. He held substantial rallies in Maracaibo, where figures like the communist union leader Jesús Farías participated, and in Barcelona.

That’s why in the article that I mentioned, I talk about several moments in Venezuelan history, and I argue that there is far more continuity than rupture. 

Let me give you another example. Years ago I interviewed Arturo Cardozo, who was close to Salvador de la Plaza, a prominent Communist Party intellectual. De la Plaza, who had been jailed by Márcos Pérez Jiménez, told Cardozo that when he came out of prison, he couldn’t make sense of the paradox of a right-wing dictator promoting the establishment of SIDOR, the state-owned steel company, which was originally planned as a Rockefeller-[Eugenio] Mendoza project. De la Plaza found it perplexing that the same individual who seized power through a coup indirectly influenced by the US was responsible for creating CANTV, as a state-owned telephone company, and initiating other state-owned enterprises. In those days, state property and socialism were seen as going hand-in-hand! 

How do you chart the continuities and ruptures when it comes to the Bolivarian Process?

E.P. Thompson says that while a popular movement may be defeated, as happened to the Venezuelan left, it may reemerge many years later with its proposals reformulated. He also says that to understand current developments, you must look at history and see that continuity. 

In my book Rethinking Venezuelan Politics, I go back to the resistance to Juan Vicente Gómez [1908-35] and note that a movement that got off the ground in the 1928 rebellion was the very same that would emerge with full force in the 1936 oil workers strike.

All this has to be taken into consideration to understand the Chávez phenomenon in a way that goes beyond Chávez’s personality, which gets overemphasized in both journalistic and scholarly works. When we analyze the Bolivarian Process and then look back, one instance of continuity with the present is the first presidency of Carlos Andrés Pérez [aka. CAP, 1974-79]. Just as de la Plaza was surprised by Pérez Jiménez, CAP also surprised many people on the left. 

During his first presidency, Pérez implemented many far-reaching reforms including the nationalization of oil, which has been criticized by some on the left as “chucuta” [halfway and insufficient]. Nonetheless, many applauded the 1976 oil nationalization because it had far-reaching consequences. 

Pérez also nationalized the iron industry and promoted the creation of a national aluminum industry. He then came under corruption accusations that stained his image. Nonetheless, what complicates things is that when Pérez was elected again in 1988, he came into office with the so-called shock treatment libretto, which was the more radical brand of neoliberalism. The implementation of the program led to the February 1989 Caracazo insurrection, which in turn led to the two coup attempts in 1992, the first led by Chávez.

In the 1980s, when the price of oil declined, some people deployed (and defended) Andre Gunder Frank’s theory stating that in countries of the periphery, even when there is an export commodities boom (such as the 70s oil boom in Venezuela), everything is lost in the end. 

Frank went as far as saying that historically periods of boom expansion exacerbated underdevelopment and that’s how he coined the term “the development of underdevelopment.” This reading implies that there was nothing constructive in terms of development in the 70s in Venezuela, that all that happened in that period deepened underdevelopment and strengthened the tentacles of global capital, thus minimizing the importance of the development that took place during the first Pérez presidency.

While defending Chávez and his coup attempts, the Chávez people demonized CAP and overlooked the progressive CAP of the 70s.

I will give you one example that shows the progressive character of CAP’s first government and its long-lasting effects. I talk about this based on a personal experience. During his first term, Pérez implemented a study abroad program known as Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho Scholarship Program. I began teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in Anzóategui in 1977, and a lot of professors in my school got grants to study abroad. The 1980s came about, and with the price of oil nosediving and funding drying up, some of those professors were not able to complete their studies abroad and came back home. Nonetheless, they came back with a real feeling for the importance of research and having acquired research techniques. I was able to appreciate the importance of the Ayacucho Program when I was appointed to the National Commission of the Program of Researcher Promotion in the 1990s and early 2000s and got to know others who were very involved in the process of evaluating results. There’s no question that the Ayacucho program had a long-term impact on academic research. 

My point is that there are important continuities between Pérez’s first government and Hugo Chávez, which haven’t been appreciated by historians.

Left: Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon (2008). Right: Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century (2014). (Archive)

Your oeuvre connects with E.P. Thompson’s work, who you just mentioned, and Howard Zinn’s in telling history from below. Can you tell us about this life project?

This goes back to my thesis, which is that the movements for change in the 19th century and particularly in the 20th century fed into the Chavista movement. Retracing the line, the organized labor movement that got off the ground in the 1920s made demands that were implemented in 1936, particularly with a generous severance package for workers.

In the US, people are not familiar with this because there isn’t a severance package provided for by law. Venezuela’s severance package was co-authored by Rafael Caldera, who was then 20 years old and would become president of Venezuela decades later. Venezuelan labor law stated that when a worker leaves their job, their severance had to be calculated based on the last monthly salary, and that laid-off workers would get a double severance package. Acción Democrática likely promoted the double severance pay provision for fear of the Communist Party gaining control of the oil workers movement, but it is undeniable that the 1936 law was a progressive one. 

It is interesting that many decades later, in the 1990s, during Caldera’s second presidency, his government promoted a labor law reform that undermined the system of severance payment that he had co-written. Caldera supported these changes due to political pressure, but there was no support from the rank and file. Chávez, already on the campaign trail, positioned himself against the labor reform [the cutbacks], which got him a great deal of sympathy from the workers. 

To sum it up, my point regarding the Chávez phenomenon is that it stands upon historical processes and struggles of the past. 

You have studied parties, trade unions, and social movements, and their relationship with the state. Can you sketch this complex territory?

There is an ongoing debate among Marxists and other currents on the left about the role of social movements, including the role of parties and unions. In the period of neoliberal hegemony, with a politics of anti-politics dominating the landscape, the idea was that all politicians were corrupt, which expressed itself in the 2001 movement that forced Fernando de la Rúa out of power in Argentina.

The slogan was: ¡Que se vayan todos! [They all must leave!]. In Venezuela, Causa R [left organization that emerged in the 80s] had an anti-politics, anti-party discourse and called itself a social movement. A decade before, the MAS [Movement Toward Socialism] had also emerged as a “movement of movements,” although it quickly became a party. 

The anti-politics, anti-party, anti-state, and anti-power ideas had become hegemonic within the left by the last decade of the 20th century and converged with the neoliberal premise that argues that a smaller state and a weaker government are better for the economy. 

Hugo Chávez came to power in that context, marking the beginning of the Pink Tide. It’s incredible that so many progressive governments that are center-left or left are still in power – some in and out and in again like Lula, and some more steady. This is a unique phenomenon in the world, and it’s important to analyze and learn from these experiences. 

Some academics demonize the progressive governments: a few will say that Rafael Correa of Ecuador was a sellout, but Evo Morales of Bolivia was better, while others will say that both Evo and Chávez were sellouts. These currents focus on issues such as the environment or the relationship between the left in power and social movements. In many cases, they have some interesting points, but the problem is that they end up bunching together progressive movements with neoliberal ones.

The Argentine academic Maristella Svampa is an important example of a prolific academic writer who provides useful information about the destructive ecological effects of megaprojects in Latin America and the resistance of social movements and communities, specifically Indigenous ones. However, she fails to distinguish between progressive governments and those of the right. Svampa downplays or ignores the progressive and nationalistic qualities of twenty-first-century progressive Latin American governments as well as the interventionist policies of imperialist powers, carried out in the tradition of the Monroe Doctrine.

Today in Latin America there is a divide: there are progressive governments committed to democracy and moderate reforms, while ultra-right governments and forces, such as the PRI and the PAN in Mexico, are looming around the corner. There’s also Bolsonarismo in Brazil, Milei in Argentina, and Lasso in Ecuador, and the Fujimori crowd dominates the Peruvian Congress. 

The writers that conflate progressive governments with neoliberal ones are missing one important piece of the puzzle: Lenin’s theory of imperialism, which they consider as no longer relevant. I’m talking about people like Svampa but also David Harvey, who wrote important texts on neoliberalism, but has changed his position.

My position and that of many others is that the state is important, and that the analysis of US imperialism cannot be taken out of the equation. For that reason, one must support the progressive governments in Latin America. 

These academics espouse the idea that progressive governments have been hostile to social movements. Some also embrace the neoliberal idea that the best state is a weak state. No doubt there have been moments of tension between progressive governments and the social movements in the Pink Tide countries. Still, it is necessary to support these governments while recognizing the existing tensions, which are frankly inevitable. 

Additionally, there is often an almost symbiotic relationship between the Pink Tide governments and some social movements. One case in point is Brazil’s MST and its relationship with Lula: the relationship is harmonious but sometimes tense. This productive relationship between progressive governments and social movements should be of interest to academics and politicians alike.

You have often deployed the Nicos Poulantzas notion of the state as a disputed space to carry out your analyses of Venezuela. What are the basics of his argument and how is it useful to interpret the Venezuelan situation? 

Poulantzas revised his theory about the state some two years before he died. In his revision, he argued that the state reflects the social classes within a society. That doesn’t mean that all social classes and all groups within society have a representation per se within the state, but their interests are reflected at some level within it. The term that Poulantzas uses is “condensation” – there is a condensation of all social classes and all social groups in society within the state.

Poulantzas also argued that the left in power attempts to maintain stability by acting as a mediator among the different classes and groups that exist in a capitalist society and are condensed in the state. Whoever is in power under capitalism – be it a pro-capitalist force or something else – a sort of preference for the capitalists emerges because capitalists run the economy. This situation limits the actions of the left in power: even if they have a transformative agenda, they face constraints in its execution. In contrast, social movements are not bound in the same way.

That’s why social movements should maintain a semi-autonomous status from the state. I believe that this principle should also extend to the ruling party. While the state must ensure stability, the ruling party should retain a degree of independence to effectively oversee the government’s actions.

I have applied this critique to the PSUV. Chávez founded it in 2007 and served as its president. Later, Nicolás Maduro assumed this role. Perhaps this is okay, but this issue arises when the party’s vice presidents also hold positions as ministers or governors. This dual role complicates their ability to govern while acting as a check on the state’s power, especially concerning matters of corruption.

We should acknowledge that the Chavista government has jailed important people belonging to its own movement who were involved in corruption. This never happened in the past with AD [Acción Democrática] and Copei governments. When you look at PDVSA, with its two most visible presidents being Rafael Ramírez and Tareck El Aissami, it is clear now that both were involved in large-scale corruption schemes. Fortunately, both were eventually ousted and in the case of El Aissami, many people in his team were detained and there is an investigation underway, but one looming question is, Why did it take so long?

Both Ramírez and El Aissami held the top post in PDVSA for years. Ramírez and El Aissami both came from the left and were key figures in the Chávez and Maduro camps, so nobody can say that they came from the ranks of the “corrupt Fourth Republic” or that they were opposition disguised as Chavistas. In the end, the problem boils down to there not being enough checks, and I link this to the party’s lack of autonomy. 

This goes back to Poulantzas saying that the state has an inherent interest in maintaining stability. Well, if you don’t have something outside of the state that is its ally – in this case, a somewhat independent party – then you’re not going to have the necessary checks.

You have talked about the “critical conjunctures” in the course of the Bolivarian Process. Can you do a brief periodization of the Bolivarian Revolution based on its critical conjunctures?

When a political project comes to power, there’s a window of opportunity to implement the electoral agenda because of the honeymoon effect. When a new force is elected, if they are serious about carrying out their campaign promises, then they have to take advantage of that initial period. 

I remember that when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, he had the opportunity to clobber the Republicans over the issue of torture in the war on terrorism. George W. Bush himself had indicated that he supported the torture and there was plenty of evidence that it was going on. 

What did Obama do? He ended up saying, look, I’m interested in the future, I don’t want to go over the past. I’m opposed to torture, but let’s move on. In so doing, Obama lost a critical conjuncture that allowed the Republicans to regroup and they made Obama’s life miserable for the rest of his two presidential terms. Obama lost a chance to weaken his adversary and do the right thing. 

In the case of the Chavista movement, critical conjunctures also come into play. Chávez did a fairly good job in taking advantage of the initial wave of enthusiasm in 1999, first with the Constituent Assembly and then moving on to the 49 “enabling laws” that he passed in 2001, including the Land Law and the Hydrocarbons Law. Chávez leveraged the critical conjuncture in his favor, acted immediately, and got results.

Fast forward to 2013, when Maduro assumed office, he lacked a robust mandate as his victory margin over his opponent, Henrique Capriles, was a mere 1.5%. Yet that changed a few months later when, in December of the same year, the PSUV secured a substantial lead of over 11% in the municipal elections. 

During the campaign, the opposition had framed these elections as a referendum on Maduro’s leadership. Given the ruling party’s undeniable victory, this period presented an opportune moment to take decisive actions, particularly in addressing issues such as corruption.

I mention corruption again because the active support for the government was dwindling likely due to the ongoing problems with corruption. In fact, after the electoral victory of December 2013 and the subsequent defeat of the four-month guarimbas [violent street protests], Maduro began to talk about the plan to do a “sacudón” [shaking up] of his government. In so doing, Maduro was acknowledging a popular desire for a shakeup, but the event was postponed once and again, and when it finally happened, it was no shakeup but rather a game of musical chairs, except for Rafael Ramérez’s removal as head of the oil industry. I think that a lot more could have been done then.

Of course, this is a tentative thesis and I understand the government was against the wall, first with the 2014 guarimbas, then with the imposition of sanctions, and then with the 2019 and 2020 events, including the Guaidó phenomenon, the paramilitary invasion from Colombia, and the drone attacks on Maduro and Cilia Flores. I use the term “tentative” because given the aggressiveness of an enemy with immense resources, it’s not at all easy to determine what actions were feasible at a given moment.