Breaking with the Past: A 40th Anniversary Conversation with Margarita López Maya

April 10, 2008

One of Venezuela’s most prominent left intellectuals, Margarita López Maya is a historian at the Center for Development Studies at the Central University of Venezuela. She has written extensively on popular protest in Latin America, the region’s new political actors, and Venezuela’s current socio-political transition. Her most recent book, Del viernes negro al referendo revocatorio (Alfadil, 2005), is a study of recent Venezuelan history. On the occasion of NACLA’s 40th anniversary, she spoke with contributing editor Fred Rosen.

A few months ago you told BBC News that you saw President Hugo Chávez as a “powerful and extremely contradictory political figure.” You praised his determination to deepen democracy and bring full participation and social equality to Venezuela, but you worried about his “desire to be the one who is essential in the process” and his “desire to perpetuate himself in power.” How do you see that contradiction playing itself out in Venezuela?

The principal project of Chávez’s Bolivarian movement has been to construct a new set of social relations, and he has tried to fulfill the goals of that project. By implementing new policies—above all, social policies—he has promoted the leading, participatory role of the great impoverished majorities of Venezuela. This has strengthened his standing, especially among the poor.

Today in Latin America there are other projects of this type, for example in Bolivia. The Bolivian process may even be stronger and perhaps more concrete than the one in Venezuela. This is because a leader of the indigenous community, Evo Morales, has come to power together with a social movement that is much more organized than the mobilized population that supports Chávez. Morales must answer to a very strong, autonomous social movement, but in Venezuela, there is nothing comparable to which Chávez is accountable. Venezuela has a politically mobilized population, but it is a population that has been mobilized by Chávez himself.

Chávez’s political movement—Bolivarianism or chavismo—presents itself as the most extreme part of the new Latin American left. This is particularly true of its discourse. It has maintained a very confrontational, very aggressive discourse since Chávez first ran for president in 1998, and it has tended to become even more radical since then.

Chávez has successfully mobilized the poor and excluded to fight for first-class citizenship, and among the great majority of Venezuelans, who had never been able to participate in politics and society, many now feel like full citizens. These mobilizations have created very conflictive processes, and the country is now experiencing a very powerful polarization. Over the past few months it has tended to deepen as Chávez has proposed a new break with the past, essentially the destruction of the very state he himself brought into being with the Constitution of 1999.

Is this “break with the past” embodied in his calls for a “socialism of the 21st century”?

Yes. Chávez was elected in 1998 with the promise of creating a participatory state in which ordinary citizens would play a leading role. He is now proposing to transform the state that he himself began creating when he took office in order to move the country toward this still-undefined “socialism of the 21st century.” He has requested and been granted extraordinary powers from the National Assembly to decree a package of new laws that would permit him to take the legislative initiative.

This grant of special powers, called an “enabling law,” gives him the power to legislate in 11 areas over the next year and a half. In addition, he has named a presidential commission to propose constitutional reforms. And beyond that, he has announced his desire to move toward a single “united party of Venezuelan socialism.” With these three moves, it seems to me that we are heading toward something new, but up to now it hasn’t been clear to anybody what that something new will be. We only know it involves moving beyond the Constitution of 1999.

When you say that nobody is clear about where the process is heading, do you really mean nobody? How about the people closest to Chávez or even Chávez himself?

I think that to understand where the process may be heading, especially in light of Chávez’s impressive electoral victory in December, we can make use of a concept that has been developed by Ernesto Laclau in his book On Populist Reason. I think Laclau’s concept of the “empty signifier” has a great deal of explanatory power. “Socialism of the 21st century” is an empty signifier. It’s a program that represents a large number of unsatisfied demands, all of which have been linked—chained to one another—ending up in Chávez’s populist discourse.

It’s an empty signifier because everybody defines it as they like. In the last election, the people voted massively for the president—one person because socialism of the 21st century will give her a new house, another because socialism of the 21st century will continue the successful and popular social missions, another because she believes in the emancipatory potential of socialism, another because she really likes Cuba. They all define the concept as they understand it. And in reality, as Laclau says, the more popular the concept becomes, the emptier it is of meaning, because it incorporates all the aspirations that people have.

But now that Chávez has won the last election by such a large margin, I believe the concept will begin to take on concrete meaning. The president is beginning to tell us something about the contents of his socialism of the 21st century.

What has he been saying? What do those contents look like?

Well, so far, as we listen to what Chávez has declared, there has been very little clarification of the economic model that goes along with Bolivarianism. In fact, the economic model has been unclear since he took office. But what’s clear is that we will see changes in the political sphere and in relations of power.

We have been presented with very concrete political proposals that were discussed during the electoral campaign and that have been gathered together and confirmed as a political program. This includes a proposal for the indefinite reelection of the president. There is also a proposal to eliminate proportional representation, which would eliminate the rights of minority parties to representation in the National Assembly. Another proposal Chávez has announced is the continued creation and strengthening of “popular power,” which has its base in the structures of the communal councils that are being organized throughout the country, especially in poor communities.

At this time, these communal councils don’t legally depend on any federal structures other than the presidency of the republic. They register with the presidency and receive their funding directly from it. Everything seems to indicate that Chávez wants to strengthen popular power and turn it into a “sixth power” of the state, along with the presidency, the legislature, the judiciary, citizens’ power, and electoral power.

This power, it seems to me, is meant to limit the power of the legislature, in the sense of replacing the type of representation that characterizes the National Assembly with the power of people who come directly from the communities and the communal councils that are directly accountable to the president.

These are some concrete manifestations of Chávez’s socialism of the 21st century. I think it signals a break with liberal democracy, subordinating legislative and judicial power to the presidency.

Let me give you another example. The Constitution of 1999 created a consultative body called the Council of State to discuss and reconcile questions regarding the constitutional structure of the state and matters of public policy. It is coordinated by the vice president, and composed of five people appointed by the president, plus one appointed by the National Assembly, one by the Supreme Court, and a governor appointed by agreement among the state governors. Chávez did not use this constitutional resource when it came time to propose reforms to the Constitution, but rather preferred to name all the members of the new Presidential Commission for Constitutional Reform by himself, handpicking those who would represent the National Assembly and the Supreme Court without their input.

This clearly represents the intended subordination of the other powers to the presidency. We don’t know how the constitutional reform will work itself out legally, but we are seeing this subordination in practice.

And another example: In the recently passed enabling law, Chávez went to the National Assembly to request the power to legislate in 10 areas for a year and a half, and within a week the Assembly abdicated its right to deliberate and ceded to the president everything he asked for plus a few more things he had forgotten about. He had forgotten about hydrocarbons, so the legislature threw it into the package.

So up to now, the content of Chávez’s socialism of the 21st century can only be seen in political terms—an attempt to bolster his authority by changing the structures of the state.

Why did the National Assembly abdicate its powers so quickly and so completely? Was it out of an ideological commitment to reconstructing the state, or was it out of personal loyalty to Chávez?

There is a great deal of ideology here, but since Chávez didn’t publicly consult anyone beforehand, it’s difficult to know what the ideological choices and positions were. Also, we must remember that since most of the opposition boycotted the last legislative elections, the National Assembly is 100% chavista.

Now, the only motive for passing the enabling law for a year and a half, when you have a National Assembly that is 100% chavista, is that you want to avoid discussion, because the only drawback to bringing these laws to the Assembly is that it would take more time with legislators debating the details.

Most of the members of the Assembly are there—and they know it—because during the primary stage of the last elections, their candidacies were known to have been approved by Chávez. And in the last legislative elections, voters overwhelmingly supported the president. Chávez has immense popular support, but it’s a very personal support. And that’s what’s worrying. Chávez, instead of delegating responsibilities and building institutional support for his political platform, cultivates this support for his personal leadership.

This business of changing the Constitution to allow for indefinite reelection has to do with this cultivation of his personal rule, and reflects the political conception of the “maximum leader.” So far, this is all we know about Chávez’s socialism of the 21st century.

So there are no connections between these political changes and pending changes in economic and social relations?

In economic terms, Chávez has called for the nationalization of telecommunications and electricity and the broadening of what is called the social economy: cooperatives, “endogenous development centers,” small enterprises, and so on. But nationalizations are nothing new in Venezuela, and they are explicitly permitted in the Constitution of 1999. In fact, the nationalization of the phone company, CANTV, is really a renationalization. The same can be said of the different structures that characterize the social economy; they are already considered in the 1999 Constitution. Besides that, as I said earlier, Chávez’s proposed economic model has been unclear since he took office, and remains so.

As for social relations, the attraction of Chávez since he was elected in 1998 has been his attempt to create a deepening of democracy based on participation. Almost all of his administration’s social policies involve organization and participation. You say, “We need a Cuban doctor here,” and the government will facilitate it once you organize a health committee. You say, “We want to own the property on which we built the house we have lived in for 30 years,” and the government will give you ownership once you fulfill certain requirements, such as organizing an urban land committee through a citizen assembly. You have the right—and the encouragement—to do all that now. The legal processes are still very slow, but the organizing has met with a great deal of success.

There is no indication that “socialism of the 21st century” will transform any of this, except perhaps that it will try to weave all the new social organizations into the communal councils and have them link not to the local government but directly to the presidency. It looks like an attempt to create a vertical, centralized structure that will weaken traditional local and regional levels of government.

In the popular sectors there is a great deal of enthusiasm for these new rights and abilities to organize, and in general the process has contributed to the strengthening of the social fabric in poor neighborhoods. The missions and the organizing and mobilization facilitated by the communal councils have brought a great deal of hope to poor communities—a hope that people can better their lives and participate in the process of doing so. This is one of the greatest strengths of chavismo—made possible, of course, by the high oil rents collected by the state treasury.

And is this strength the basis of his personal popularity?

Yes, he has come through for the poor. Poverty indicators have improved, and there’s a general sense that the quality of life for the poor has gotten better. And large numbers of people feel included in Venezuelan society for the first time. Popular expectations have risen under Chávez, along with his popularity. Rising hopes and expectations may be reflected in the low rate of abstention in the last presidential election. More people apparently think they have a stake in the country.

Measures of inequality, however, have remained unchanged, which is disquieting if we think ahead to the next drop in the price of oil.

The oil bonanza, by the way, has improved the lives of the middle class as well. If you go to the fashionable parts of the east side of Caracas, you’ll see lots of new imported cars and crowded high-priced restaurants. It’s like life in the boom years of the 1970s, under Carlos Andrés Pérez, which is also disquieting. We may simply be living off our oil rents.

What’s the role of the military in all this?

Well, from the beginning, the chavista movement, especially the MVR [Chávez’s party, the Fifth Republic Movement], has considered itself to be a popular-military alliance. It’s true that over the years the MVR has softened its military tone and adopted a more civilian profile, but Chávez has continued to make use of the military in various civic projects, like the missions, especially the state-subsidized grocery stores called Mercal. This was critical during the opposition’s oil strike a few years ago when soldiers took on a large number of civilian tasks and kept the economy from coming to a standstill.

Chávez stays close to many of his military compañeros. He likes to rely on people with military training because they are accustomed to giving and following orders.

Chávez has become a key player in international politics. His calls for Latin American integration, his access to plentiful oil revenues, and his standing up to the United States have made him a hero in some parts of the world. How do you see his role in Latin America?

Just as Venezuela is politically polarized, so is the world, and Chávez does well in polarized situations. He has created a self-image as a little David up against a big Goliath, but it’s hard to say how much success he has had, or how much influence he has had in other countries.

His pugnacious discourse seems to have had great effect in already polarized countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, but less so in Peru, which has recently come out of a period of authoritarianism and whose voters last year were more in the mood for peace and compromise.

And even in Venezuela itself, polls have shown that people don’t like the confrontational language he uses with the United States, especially since over 60% of Venezuela’s oil revenues come from sales to U.S. markets. Nevertheless, there is general support for his alliances and for his drive toward Latin American independence and integration.

In general, he has been very careful to maintain amicable relations with other leaders in the region, even with Álvaro Uribe, the conservative president of Colombia. Center-left presidents like Brazil’s Lula and Argentina’s Kirchner tend to keep their distance from his confrontational rhetoric, but clearly appreciate him for widening the space for permissible dissent. Maybe that’s his key international role, to keep widening the boundaries for dissent.

And it works both ways. He knows he needs to keep the more moderate left, especially in Brazil, on his side. He knows that without his close alliance with Lula’s Brazil, he loses weight in the international arena.

Economic integration is an important theme for Latin America right now, and Chávez has used his oil money to good political advantage, helping Argentina out of its financial crisis, for example, by purchasing a major part of its debt, and offering favorable oil deals to countries throughout the Americas. He has been very good at rekindling the Latin American “imaginary” and raising the region’s self-esteem. He has also been a key force in pushing for more regional cooperation by raising credible proposals for integrating the region’s economies.

Finally, can you tell us whether there has been any opposition to what you have called the “cultivation of personal rule” within the broad chavista movement?

So far there has been a lot of grumbling but no organized political expressions of dissent within the chavista political culture.

When Chávez spoke of the necessity of a single united party on the left, for example, the smaller parties of the chavista coalition reacted cautiously. It was clear they did not like the prospect of getting incorporated into one big party. Chávez’s party, the MVR, has always been his own personal instrument, and as such, voiced no objections, but the smaller parties would like to play a role in shaping the debates and did not immediately respond.

The president responded to their hesitation by saying that he didn’t have time to wait for an answer, that the need for action was urgent, and that by the time the next electoral process began, the smaller parties would have to decide whether they were in or out of the new united party—and therefore in or out of his government. Otherwise, criticisms have come from previously pro-Chávez intellectuals on the left, like myself. This has been difficult, but I can’t go along with this growing authoritarianism. The situation is very dangerous. Chávez has developed a vertical relationship with the people. He is hated by the opposition but venerated and adored by his followers. Many people respond to our criticisms by saying, “How can you say that? We love our president.”

On the other hand, many chavista militants have told us not to stop talking.

Fred Rosen is an independent journalist based in Mexico. He is a NACLA contributing editor.

Tags: Margarita López Maya, interview, Venezuela, popular protest, Hugo Chávez

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.