How Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution may outlast Hugo Chavez

How Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution may outlast Hugo Chavez

By Ben Dangl

Originally published in July 2011 in Third World Resurgence

The health problems facing President Chavez have raised questions as to the future of his project to transform Venezuelan society. Benjamin Dangl explains why he believes that this revolution will live on.

A FEW years ago, when I first visited Venezuela, I met countless enthusiastic supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. One of them was Peggy Ortiz, a blonde, self-proclaimed Chavista (Chavez supporter) who at the time was working as a radio producer in Caracas.

On a walk through the city’s Plaza Bolivar she introduced me to her friends who were all, in her words, revolucionarios. One of them was a Che Guevara impersonator. He had the same smile, beret and goatee as El Comandante, and proudly rode a black moped around, giving high fives to street vendors selling Hugo Chavez T-shirts, key chains and alarm clocks.

‘People believe in Chavez. I believe in him,’ Ortiz explained as we walked past the stalls. ‘He’s a clean president, he doesn’t hide anything. Most people who are against Chavez don’t understand this political process.’

Given the unfortunate battle with cancer that has recently beset Chavez, now is a good opportunity to reflect on Chavez’s rise to power and the positive changes his policies have brought to Venezuela. In addition, the upcoming 2012 presidential election in Venezuela also offers an opportunity to reflect on whether the Bolivarian revolution may outlast Chavez himself, or whether the movement is too dependent on Chavez as a central figure to move beyond their leader.

A brief history of revolution

Chavez first entered the national limelight in the wake of a popular rebellion in Venezuela against neoliberal economic policies and state repression. Economic inequality, rampant in Venezuela throughout the 20th century, came to a breaking point in 1989, when right-wing President Carlos Andres Perez arrived in office. Perez implemented harmful International Monetary Fund structural adjustments, accepted a massive loan and subsequent debt which plunged the country into an economic recession. The Caracazo, a February 1989 uprising in Caracas against the Perez government and his economic policies, was met with brutal military repression. Hugo Chavez, then a young colonel in the army, refused to participate in the Caracazo crackdown. He led an attempted coup d’‚tat against the Perez government in 1992. When the coup failed Chavez took the blame for it and was imprisoned until 1994.

Soon after his release Chavez began a presidential campaign that took him across the country, gaining support from diverse sectors of society. He started out with little financial backing, often travelling in a broken-down pickup truck and giving speeches out of the back. His humble background – he grew up in a poor family – and fiery speeches offered a radical alternative to the wealthy, right-wing politicians in power and gave hope to a disenfranchised population, 60% of which lived below the poverty line.

Shortly after winning the 1998 presidential election, Chavez re-nationalised the country’s oil reserves. Under the new constitution, the state was granted full ownership of the Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) gas and oil company. This keeps the government, instead of corporations, in control of the industry. The constitution also established that revenue from the oil business should be used primarily to finance social and development programmes that alleviate poverty.

With the new funds, Chavez’s government began literacy campaigns, undertook land reform, constructed free dentist offices, hospitals and schools in the poorest neighbourhoods, and created systems of subsidised supermarkets and business cooperatives all over the country.

This is not to say that everything has gone smoothly under Chavez. There has certainly been a centralisation of power under the leader – a centralisation that may make the Bolivarian revolution weaker when Chavez is no longer president. Though not always linked directly to Chavez himself, there have also been high violent crime rates in Caracas, as well as notably poor prison conditions and violence in prisons.

The country has also recently been beset by inflation. This is something, however, that the Ch vez administration confronted in July of this year. The new law aimed at curbing inflation is called the Law for Just Prices and Costs, and enables the government to put a cap on the prices charged for services and goods throughout various levels of the national economy.

The Chavez government has faced many political challenges, particularly from the disenfranchised elite that used to run the country. In April of 2002, a US-supported coup d’etat was staged against Chavez. Yet the rebellion was shortlived. After an outpouring of support among civilian and military Chavistas, the illegitimate government was pushed from office. Chavez was back in the presidency within two days.

During one visit to Venezuela, I stopped by a newly built community centre in a Caracas neighbourhood. In one room, women over the age of 70 were attending literacy classes decorated with murals of Chavez. The literacy campaign, known as Mission Robinson, has reached millions of people of all ages. Other occupational classes teach carpentry, auto repair and other skills to help people gain employment. Programmes in education and literacy have lowered Venezuela’s poverty rates by giving citizens new skills to improve their standard of living.

Nearby the literacy classrooms were the octagonal health clinics that are located throughout the country. In the clinics, Cuban doctors offer emergency medical care, vaccinations, check-ups and medicine for common illnesses. Free healthcare improves the quality of life for many Venezuelans. The work of Cuban doctors in Venezuela’s new clinics and healthcare systems has allowed for the quick expansion of services. In some cases, poor families are able to visit the doctor or a dentist for the first time in generations.

A local resident led me to a building under construction that was soon to be a Mercal. Mercals, government-subsidised supermarkets providing basic food at low prices, are now all over the country. Beans, bread, milk, vegetables and other products, largely from Venezuelan producers, are available in the markets.

Everywhere I went across the country, I ran into Chavez supporters. William Barillas, a tall, bearded volunteer at Radio Horizonte, a community radio station in Merida, believed the Chavez administration was a significant improvement from previous governments. ‘This government has left the era when governments never did anything for the country. They used to just help capitalists, which were a minority of the population. This government actually cares about the education and health of poor people.’

Decentralising power

Regarding the question of how the Bolivarian revolution could outlast Ch vez, one answer may lie in the hopeful decentralising of power that is taking place through the communal councils in the country. Regardless of who occupies the presidential palace, these examples of popular power could prove to influence politics from a grassroots level in profound ways for decades to come.

Communal councils offer an interesting look into some of the participatory aspects of the Bolivarian process. They were created by the government in 2006, and thousands of them exist across the country today. The councils work to solicit funding from the government, begin social projects, programmes and missions in their community, and deal with issues like the management of local health and water projects.

Long-time Venezuelan activist Alfonso Olivo believed the communal councils were ‘the most revolutionary measure that this government has taken’ due to their transfer of power from mayors and governors to the ordinary citizens in the councils. ‘The people are capable [of social planning] by themselves, without the involvement of the state or the bureaucratic officials,’ he noted in the book Venezuela Speaks!, a collection of interviews with Venezuelan activists.

Communal councils in Venezuela show the fascinating push-and-pull that emerges where the state creates structures and projects that build community bonds. The councils are sometimes autonomous from, or even antagonistic toward, the Bolivarian state and party. It is essential to contextualise the political landscape of this grassroots space before dissecting some of the dynamics of this dance between movements and the state.

The Chavez administration organised the councils in ways that encourage community involvement. Anyone over the age of 15 can participate, and for a decision to be officially made, at least 30% of those in the council have to vote on it. In urban areas, councils must involve a minimum of 150 families, and around 20 families in rural areas. This scale means that the councils promote direct participation and are relatively easy to self-manage. When a council comes to a decision for a project, they can receive funding directly from the national government or national institutions, dispersing power away from local mayors and officials and into the hands of residents themselves, according to sociologist Greg Wilpert’s book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. Communal councils have provided a check to the power of local governments, as well as a platform to demand transparency and a more efficient bureaucracy from the government.

The smaller scale and local focus of these councils is essential to their sustainability. As political scientist Josh Lerner points out in an article for Z Magazine, ‘Since the councils usually contain only a couple hundred families within a few blocks, their members tend to be socio-economically, demographically, and politically similar. Since residents decide the boundaries of their own councils, they can self-select like-minded groups.’ This means that they can pinpoint community needs and decide on projects more efficiently than a state official who doesn’t live in the neighbourhood. Lerner gives the following example: ‘If the members of the 23 de Enero council obviously need a new elevator, because of their common situation and interests, it may be in their best interest to pursue the elevator without spending much time and energy debating it.’ Localised control is at the heart of the council’s functionality, helping to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and circumvent corrupt or unresponsive politicians.

The councils can also provide a counterweight to a more centralised state. In the book Reclaiming Latin America, political scientist Sara Motta writes that the communal councils ‘are an attempt to create a new set of state institutions that bypass the traditional state, and distribute power in a democratic and participatory manner.’ The elasticity of the relationship between the grassroots and the state is tested here through a public empowered by state-created institutions – institutions that citizens can then use to challenge the traditional state if necessary.

Balancing act

The balancing act between remaining autonomous from the state and engaging it is described to Motta by council participant Edenis Guilarte: ‘We must obtain the tools to be able to struggle against the bureaucracy and search for a way to get rid of leaders who want to control us, look to maintain their own power, and who divide the community.’ In this sense, the councils can be a tool of emancipation. ‘What we are doing,’ Guilarte explained, ‘is training, creating consciousness, which is a process that goes beyond repairing a road, obtaining a service, enabling access to water. It’s a macro process, a process of social change, a fight over ideas and practice.’ The social bonds created by working on development projects through these state-created institutions can supersede the immediate goals of the actual project.

While communal councils manage budgets and develop community projects, they also serve as a basis for networking and developing community ties, which are then useful beyond the councils’ work. For example, as reported in Peacework Magazine, Ismila, a community activist in a Caracas neighbourhood, explained that when the public water company Hidrolara didn’t respond to demands from her community to deal with a sewage backup for two days, the members of her communal council decided to take matters into their own hands. Because they were used to working together, debating and organising, it was easy to coordinate a trip to the Hidrolara offices and demand to speak with the person in charge of dealing with sewage emergencies. Together, they had to pressure the officials for two hours, but ended up returning to their community with an engineer to take care of the problem. Ismila said, ‘We learned today that Hidrolara is useless as an institution, it does not work for the communities. These officials think they know everything and don’t listen to the community until there’s a problem.’ So while the bureaucracy posed a problem, the solidarity and sense of community developed through the communal councils helped to solve it.

The central question of the political struggle within this space, according to Motta, is whether the communal councils will ‘become an institution that channels the demands of poor communities to a localised social democracy (with all the possibilities and limitations that this entails) or whether they enable the expansion of demands for community self-management that challenge capitalist social relations.’ The councils provide the tools for local organising, which has a great potential to dismiss government clientelism and assert autonomy, helping people to live and organise beyond the state.

There are a number of cases in which social movements and groups – both created autonomously and by the government – have risen up, either in defiance of the Ch vez government or with positions that radicalise the government’s policies. Some have been organised around environmental, labour, and political issues and deserve attention here. As the editors of the book Venezuela Speaks! point out, the Bolivarian revolution depends on grassroots activism. The future of the revolution, they write, ‘does not just depend on whether it can continue to overcome the destabilisation and fear campaigns of the opposition. It also depends on how well the government is able to listen to the voices demanding even deeper changes.’

Benjamin Dangl is the author of Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America(AK Press, 2010).

Venezuela scores high in electoral fairness

Juan Reardon

IN early July, Venezuela’s Social Investigation Group XXI (GIS) released new comparative data on electoral fairness in the country compiled by the Canada-based Foundation for Democratic Advancement (FDA), which found Venezuela’s elections to be ‘exceptionally fair, and thereby highly democratic’.

After a thorough review of Venezuela’s electoral laws and regulations on political news coverage as it relates to elections, equality of campaign financing, equality of candidate and party influence, as well as equality of voter influence, the FDA gave the country a score of 85% in overall ‘electoral fairness’.

In comparison, Finland scored 41%, Denmark 35%, the United States 30%, Canada 26%, Mexico 23% and Tunisia (when dictator Ben Ali was in power) 10%.

In their report, 2011 FDA Electoral Fairness Audit of Venezuela’s Federal Electoral System, the FDA evaluated Venezuela in four main areas of electoral legislation, with a total of 10 points possible in each area:

1.    Political content of media (Result: 9/10);

2.    Equality of political candidate and party influence (Result: 9/10);

3.    Equality of electoral finance (Result: 8/10); and

4.    Equality of voter say (Result: 8/10).

In total, Venezuela scored 34/40, or 85%.

The report’s authors said the principal source of the country’s electoral fairness is the Venezuelan Constitution, ‘which emphasises the rights of citizens and a cooperative, pluralistic, and respectful society’. – abridged from

*Third World Resurgence No. 251/252, July/August 2011, pp 44-46