Just How Radical Is President Nicolás Maduro?

June 25, 2013

This piece was published in the Summer 2013 issue of the NACLA Report

On April 2, the first day of Venezuela’s 2013 presidential campaign, Nicolás Maduro committed himself to “breaking with bureaucratism,” which he labeled “the mode of the petty bourgeoisie.” In its place, Maduro (a former bus driver) pledged to create a “government of the streets” in which he would arrive at individual locations driving a bus along with cabinet members in order to listen to the people and design policies with them. On that day, Maduro told his audience in Zulia that their state would be his first stop. The next day, speaking at a campaign rally in neighboring Táchira, he promised that his second stop would be in their state.

While some may have brushed the statements off as empty campaign rhetoric, they indicate Maduro’s intention to follow in the footsteps of his mentor Hugo Chávez. During his 14-year rule, Chávez occasionally scolded the bureaucrats and demanded that they get in tune with the people. The reproaches were accompanied by concrete actions in favor of the workers in clashes with state managers and politicians and in favor of the rank and file of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in disputes with party bosses.

Photo by Ryan Mallett-Outtrim

Maduro’s statements also point in the direction of a continuation of the ongoing transformations of Chávez’s 14 years as president, although at a slower pace given the narrowness of Maduro’s electoral victory. Chávez began in 1999 with an emphasis on political reform embodied in a new constitution and ended up embracing socialist rhetoric and promoting widespread expropriations. The process of change was slowed down—but not halted—by several disappointing electoral results, such as the proposed constitutional reform defeated at the polls in 2007 and the National Assembly elections of 2010.

Indeed, the underlying message of Maduro’s campaign was that he was closely tied to the Chávez legacy and would continue where his predecessor left off. In rally after rally, the recording of Chávez’s last public appearance, in which he implored his followers to maintain unity and support Maduro’s presidential candidacy was played. Maduro, who became provisional president following Chávez’s death on March 5, received 50.8% of the vote as opposed to the 49.0% of his main rival Henrique Capriles. The 1.8-point margin compared unfavorably with the 11.1 points that separated Chávez and Capriles in the October 2012 presidential elections. The heightened polarization has energized an intransigent opposition but could also have a radicalizing effect as well.

According to AP writer Fabiola Sánchez, Maduro is viewed “as a member of the radical left wing of the [Chavista movement] and as the closest to the Cuban government.” Maduro’s trade union background and his activism in various hard-left parties going back to his early youth reinforce his credentials as a radical. Sánchez, however, overstates her case. The real radicals in Venezuela tend to be members of the rank and file of the Chavista movement who, to varying degrees, distrust all politicians other than Chávez. Maduro will undoubtedly attempt to appeal to them, but various factors also hold back radical change.

The most pressing problem faced by the Maduro government is acute shortages of basic commodities. During this year’s presidential campaign, Capriles claimed that Venezuela “is facing the worst food scarcity in its history.” Maduro’s government is considering different measures, each one of which presupposes a different reading of the problem and implies a greater or lesser advance on the road to far-reaching change. In recent months the consumer protection agency Indepabis has stepped up its activity to clamp down on hoarding by raiding deposits of stored goods. The government-sponsored campaign to organize citizen groups to discover the locations of hidden merchandise and report it to Indepabis often targets small shopkeepers. In another measure designed to combat price speculation, which is an offshoot of scarcity, Maduro announced his government’s intention to elaborate a list of “suggested prices” for all imported goods paid for with dollars purchased from the government at special preferential rates. Other controls announced by Maduro are designed to ensure that merchants use preferential dollars to import merchandise rather than selling the currency on the black market.

The more far-reaching approach consists of going after large-scale producers. The Chavista “radicals” blame the wholesalers rather than the small-scale merchants for the bulk of the problem. In a television interview, Carlos Lanz, a 1960s guerrilla who has always defended left-wing thinking within Chavismo, attributed the scarcity to a strategy of “landholders who occupy dominant positions including control of inventories and channels of distribution or monopolies tied to agribusiness.” Lanz added that there is a “correlation between [these] market manipulations and elections.” Lanz singled out the Mendoza family with a wide range of products ranging from mayonnaise to precooked corn flour and beer (its famous Polar trademarks account for about 80% of the market). After talking to Polar workers in the industrial state of Carabobo, Maduro said ominously on the campaign trail, “Polar, Polar, Polar. Go ahead with your sabotage of the people’s food. Everything in life has its hour.” The not-too-subtle threat of expropriation represents the government’s most radical option and would be in keeping with Chávez’s reaction to the problem of scarcity when it intensified in 2007.

There is a limit, however, to Maduro’s radicalism. Maduro, more than Chávez, is a man of the PSUV apparatus. He is less likely to defy the PSUV leadership in order to accelerate the process of change or to side with those critical, discontent rank-and-file members who call for a party shakeup to clamp down on alleged corruption. Significantly, in 2009, Maduro lashed out at a group of Chavista intellectuals known as the International Miranda Center (CIM) which published constructive criticisms including what they called Chávez’s “hyperleadership”. Maduro reminded the CIM that there were more pressing tasks at hand for intellectuals other than “putting forth opinions that damage the President’s leadership.”

Nevertheless, Maduro understands the lesson of the years 2007-2010 when the Chavista vote declined as a result of the sectarianism of the recently created PSUV, which attempted to become the “Sole Party of the Left.” Chávez sought to correct the shortcoming in 2011 when he created the “Great Patriotic Pole” as a broad-based alliance taking in leftist parties and social organizations, which he called “an historical bloc” (a term used by Antonio Gramsci to refer to a union of forces favoring revolutionary transformation). The PSUV’s allied organizations received 9.3% of the vote in April, which made the difference between victory and defeat for Maduro, just as it had for Chávez in the October 2012 elections.

Maduro’s awareness of his need to retain active support to his left and at the grassroots level was put in evidence at the outset of the campaign when he addressed a national conference of the largest organization in the Pole bloc, the Communist Party (PCV). Situated to the left of the PSUV and critical of some of its decisions, the PCV issued a document at the conference in which it stated that, “the struggle against corruption and inefficiency is one of the fundamental tasks for the deepening of the process of change.” Maduro, for his part, lauded the PCV for its “glorious history” and detailed his own experiences alongside Communists in different political struggles going back to his high school days. Maduro recalled that when Chávez first ran for president some members of his organization favored keeping the PCV’s endorsement a secret, a stipulation that the Communists rightfully refused to go along with. “Let it be known,” Maduro continued, “that I publicly accept the backing of the PCV, which is the first party to support my candidacy.”

The aggressive tone of the presidential campaign consisting of endless personal insults between the two principal candidates seems to indicate that Maduro will be a “radical” in his dealings with the parties of the opposition. In the closing days of the campaign, Maduro accused a confidant of Capriles of bringing in to Venezuela a group of mercenaries from El Salvador to inflict damage on the nation’s electrical system and commit other acts of sabotage. Regardless of the veracity of the claim, the opposition was at least half to blame for the acrimonious relations. Capriles, shortly after Chávez’s death and without any concrete proof, alleged that the Venezuelan leader had passed away weeks before March 5, thus implying that Maduro as well as Chávez’s family, all of whom were at the bedside of the ailing president, were pulling the wool over the eyes of the entire country. The murder of nine Chavista activists and other acts of violence perpetrated against the PSUV immediately following the March elections made clear which side bore the brunt of the blame for the bellicose atmosphere that has prevailed since Chávez’s death.

The intensity of the mutual attacks dashed hopes of a modus vivendi that appeared to be a possibility in the days after the October 2012 presidential elections when Chávez called Capriles by phone followed by cordial words expressed by both. The short-lived thaw was greeted warmly by some in the Chavista camp, such as José Vicente Rangel a former vice-president and long-time leftist, who for some time had favored moderating the tone of statements about the opposition with the possibility of a future dialogue. In contrast, Maduro has explicitly rejected formal negotiations with what he calls the “political elite.” Rather than reaching out to the parties of the opposition, the Chavista movement under Maduro’s direction has attempted to encourage the defection of leaders in the anti-Chavista camp and has scored various notable successes in this respect. When one of the leading opposition figures William Ojeda (who had supported Chávez at the outset) denounced its neoliberal agenda late last year, Maduro exclaimed “Welcome William, one and a thousand times.” Applauding the return of anti-Chavistas back to the pro-government fold is not without its detractors on the left, particularly in the case of those (such as Didalco Bolívar, former governor of Aragua) who had been accused of unethical conduct.

While intolerant toward an opposition that refuses to recognize the government’s legitimacy, President Maduro has yet to define his attitude toward leaders and groups within the PSUV that might someday challenge his leadership. Over a period of years, Maduro, along with National Assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, have placed their loyalists in positions in the government and the party. In the year or two prior to his death, Chávez raised concern over the internal currents that existed particularly at the state level and raised the specter of a party torn by factionalism. Over the recent past, PSUV leaders have pledged to put into practice Chávez’s slogan “unity, unity and more unity.” Thus Chávez’s trusted leader Aristobulo Istúriz, elected governor of Anzoátegui in December, promised to eschew the practice of his predecessor in that state by not endorsing aspirants to local public office in upcoming PSUV internal elections. Whether or not Maduro himself follows this line will heavily influence national politics. A unified PSUV under the Maduro presidency is a sine quo non if resistance to the deepening of the process of change is to be effectively confronted.

Maduro’s foreign policy in Latin America is likely to be more pragmatic than “radical.” For the six years that he served as foreign minister until 2012, Maduro promoted Latin American unity, which culminated in the conference of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Caracas in December 2011. The strategy of Latin American unity was novel and audacious, not so much with respect to the close relations with center-left president, such as those of Brazil and Argentina, but rather the inclusion of governments on the other side of the political spectrum, such as those of Colombia and Chile. These efforts, however, have not been without their downsides, which sometimes place the government in an awkward position. Thus, for instance, at Chávez’s funeral ceremony in Caracas, Maduro recognized the presence of Honduran president Porfirio Lobo, whose legitimacy has been widely questioned, and then greeted the nation’s ousted president Manuel Zelaya. Lobo was grateful for the agreement that Chávez and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos brokered during Maduro’s stint as Foreign Minister whereby Honduras was readmitted into the Organization of American States.

Several weeks after Chávez’s death, a grouping of Latin American leftist parties, the São Paulo Forum, met in Caracas to pay tribute to the deceased leader. There was a certain irony to the eulogy because Chávez had met with the same organization in 1996 in San Salvador where, in his own words, he was viewed by some as “a coup-mongering colonel.” The Caracas meeting was designed to sum up the important features of Chávez’s legacy. Speaking at the forum, Bolivia’s Vice-President Alvaro García Linera looked straight at Nicolás Maduro sitting just a few yards away and stated what he considered to be one of Chávez’s basic teachings: “There is no revolution that sustains itself without advancing; a revolutionary process that stagnates allows the adversary to retake the initiative. What President Chávez taught us was audacity, audacity and more audacity.”

García Linera’s remark resembles the notion of “permanent revolution” long preached by Trotskyists. But many Trotskyists have applied the idea dogmatically, ruling out any compromise whatsoever and basically striking out simultaneously in all directions. In contrast, Chávez aimed at individual targets. All would indicate that this strategy has been assimilated by Maduro and other Chavista leaders. While Maduro’s lower voter percentage in April will slow down the government’s pace, a deepening of the process of change can be expected, although one selective step at a time.

Steve Ellner, professor of economic history at the Universidad de Oriente, Venezuela, is the coordinator of “Latin America’s Radical Left in Power: Complexities and Challenges in the Twenty-First Century,” published in the May issue of Latin American Perspectives.

Read the rest of NACLA's Summer 2013 issue: "Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?"


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