Chávez and the Intellectuals

This piece appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of the NACLA Report

In June 2009 several leftist scholars affiliated with the Caracas-based Centro Internacional Miranda (CIM), an independent agency funded by the Education Ministry, convened a conference to discuss the role of intellectuals in Chavista Venezuela. Several presenters argued that “hyper-leadership” on the part of President Hugo Chávez endangered the future of the Bolivarian Revolution. They did not have to wait long for a response from Chávez and the government.

On his June 14, 2009, broadcast of Álo Presidente, Chávez said that the CIM criticism was playing into the hands of the revolution’s enemies. “There needs to be more criticism every day, as long as we are not using the daily means of communication for self-criticism. This is something else, especially in a climate such as in Venezuela, where an array of communications media snatches anything said [in order to] try to generate distortions and convert criticism to something destructive.”

Diario VEA, a pro-Chávez newspaper, said on June 6 that CIM members were “confused” and merely using the conference to “let off steam” at Chávez. Nicolás Maduro, foreign minister at the time and now also vice president and Chávez’s heir apparent should the president’s illness force him to resign, warned the CIM intellectuals to “put themselves in harmony” with the agenda of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and “not to damage the leadership of the president.” He advised: “There are sufficient topics to which they can dedicate their work and not talk trash, because there are those who prefer to make pronouncements while others of us are dedicated to construction.”1 (When Chávez announced in December that he would have a third operation for cancer, he urged supporters to unite around Maduro in the event of his incapacity or death.)

To a degree, the intellectuals’ discontent is symptomatic of the general distancing of the middle class from the government since 1998, but the concerns about “hyper-leadership” echo to a considerable degree discontent expressed by grassroots activists about top-down decision making and the lack of political space inside Chavismo for criticism and exposure of inefficiency and corruption.

Ernesto Villegas, a respected author and journalist for the state television network (VTV), worries about compromising his own objectivity. “I know that I have many detractors in some government circles and within pro-government parties who would like to see me replaced with a propagandist instead of a journalist,” he says, “and they are just waiting for the day I leave the show.” Referring to his former bosses both in the private media and the VTV, he once compared journalists to “firefighters who have been told by their chief not to put every fire out.”2

After the narrow defeat of a package of constitutional amendments in December 2007—the only outright electoral setback that Chávez has ever suffered—Chávez called for debate in order to give a “new thrust” to the revolution. But Steve Ellner, a historian and a U.S. citizen who has lived in Venezuela for 35 years, says “the intellectuals are reluctant to be too critical of Chávez because of his record of chastising the bureaucrats and invigorating (and empowering) the rank and file.” He thinks they may be more assertive now that Chávez has a new term.3

Following the referendum defeat, keen debate broke out among Chavistas on, a website that was founded by Trotskyists in the “socialist tide” tendency but that welcomes commentary from varying perspectives. Aporrea roughly translates as “the beat,” and it was formed shortly after the short-lived coup of 2002, when popular radio, cell phones, and Internet communications were crucial in rallying popular defense of the Chávez regime.

While government officials blamed an effective opposition propaganda campaign for “misleading” the people about the amendments, the prevailing sentiment on Aporrea blamed the professional political class and accused it of undermining the initiative. Some contributors echoed the oficialista media, but many others dared to question the desirability of the reform package itself, some even questioning Chávez’s leadership.

While CIM brings together mainly left academics and other professional intellectuals, Aporrea, though including commentary and papers by the former, serves as a sounding board for “organic intellectuals”—the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s term for those who articulate the perspective of a revolutionary class as a result of their immediate, “organic” work as organizers of the new society, with whom traditional intellectuals may or may not join cause.

The intellectuals of the CIM, while expressing a variety of Marxist currents, generally define their own role from this Gramscian perspective. The CIM’s Juan Carlos Monedero, who coined the term “hyper-leadership,” argued that it is “typical of countries with scarce social cement, with a weak system of democratic parties and with large percentages of social exclusion.”

However, Monedero also acknowledged, “I understand that hyper-leadership fulfills an important role; it has the advantage of articulating the unstructured and uniting the fragments, in a way that Gramsci called ‘progressive Caesarism,’ that helps us to retake the path of the revolution in moments of political vacuum or of ideological confusion. But this leadership also comes with problems. Hyper-leadership ultimately deactivates a popular participation that trusts too much in the heroic abilities of the leadership.”4

Monedero says, “Some of us saw the difficulties of continuing this process [Chavismo without Chávez],” but “now we have lost this fear because I see dozens of people who could continue the process without any problem.” And the concerns expressed by the CIM are clearly on the minds of the “organic intellectuals” in the field as well.

Intellectuals are divided in a variety of academic and cultural areas. Filmmakers like Garbriela Medina ply their craft at Villa de Cine, a government-sponsored studio that Chávez created to counteract Hollywood’s influence. Medina’s 2007 film, Miranda Returns, glorifies the independence hero Francisco Miranda and portrays him as a prophet of Latin American unity, a topic high on the president’s foreign policy agenda. The dean of Venezuelan cinema, Román Chalbaud, has endorsed Villa de Cine and credited it with spurring Venezuelan cinema to new heights.

But veteran filmmaker Alfredo Anzola complains that too much money is going into big-budget productions promoting the president’s agenda. The filmmakers at Villa de Cine “want to make good films,” he says. “What I don’t like is that they’ll only be the films [government officials] want to make. We fought for years to make films that were decided by the film community.”

For most of the international left, Chávez remains valued as a crucial voice of criticism of U.S. hegemony. For many Venezuelan intellectuals who have distanced themselves from Chávez, these foreign intellectuals have a romantic, misinformed view. Among them is the respected historian and political sociologist Margarita López Maya (See interview, p. 53) who once attributed polarization in Venezuela mainly to the opposition, but who now believes it is mainly provoked by Chávez as a strategy to maintain power. While some intellectuals have been alienated by “the personalism and growing power of the executive,” for her there is a deeper disagreement. She says Chávez has replaced the participatory democracy of the 1999 constitution with this 21st-century socialist model. “The communal state is very close to the 20th-century socialism and the totalitarian state that it developed,” she says. “Besides, the Venezuelan people rejected this proposal in the referendum of 2007, and Chávez disregarded this rejection.”6

Nicmer Evans, a political scientist at the Central University, who has lived and worked politically in Catia, a Chavista stronghold in west Caracas, recently called for greater tolerance on both sides. “What I am asking today is a moment of respite from this diatribe, and at the risk of sounding hypocritical, now that politics is based on dissensus and not consensus, I maintain that dissensus needs spaces of tolerance and respect for the other, regardless of the differences regarding democratic advance in the development of our country.” Referring to the 44% of voters who opted for Capriles in the recent election, Evans said, “Just as I rejected being labeled ‘ignorant’ for having voted for Chávez, I refuse to believe that 6.5 million Venezuelans are oligarchs, bourgeois, majunches”—slang for mediocre or ugly, a term used by Chávez in the campaign.7

Daniel Hellinger is professor of political science at Webster University and a former president of the Venezuelan Studies section of LASA. His most recent books are Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy (Duke University, 2011 ) and Global Security Watch: Venezuela. (Praeger, 2012).

1. “Chávez and Nicolás Maduro descalifan a intelectuales chavistas por sus críticas al gobierno,”, June 16, 2009, available at

2. Paolo Miola, “Interview With Ernesto Villegas Poljak,” September 10, 2004, available

3. Steve Ellner, “Venezuela’s Social-Based Democratic Model: Innovations and Limitations,” Journal of Latin American Studies 43 (2011): 444–445, and personal communication, October 4, 2012.

4. Quotations from the conference are taken from English translations on Hrvatski antiglobalisticki, available at

5. James Ingham, “Venezuelan Cinema, Chávez Style,” BBC News, November 1, 1997.

6. Personal communication, October 3, 2012.

7. Nicmer N. Evans “Ahora sin ‘Majunches,’ y sin ‘jajabolas’ o ‘ignorantes.’ available at

Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2012 issue: "Elections 2012: What Now?"


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