Venezuela Before and After the Protests (An Interview with María Pilar García-Guadilla)

María Pilar García-Guadilla discusses the violent protests that shook Venezuela this year, and their impact on the legacy and policy goals of Chavismo today.
September 28, 2014

This piece was published in the Fall 2014 issue of the NACLA Report

In February, opposition protests rocked Caracas and other major cities in the most prolonged—and violent—political unrest to hit Venezuela in over a decade. When they abated in late April, the protests had claimed 42 lives, among them students, police, and bystanders. They also left an already strained economy reeling, an already splintered opposition more divided, and President Nicolás Maduro—whose leadership over Chavismo was already tenuous barely a year after Hugo Chávez’s death—further weakened.

For now Venezuelans have returned to their daily lives in a tense calm. But the outlook remains troubling. Crime, shortages, inflation, and corruption are still acute. Anti-chavistas face deep differences over what, if anything, three months of protests accomplished. And although he appears to have solidified control over his own fractious base, President Maduro faces the task of keeping aloft the Bolivarian Revolution, while considering political and economic choices—devaluation, privatization, and subsidy elimination—at odds with the vision of the revolution’s Comandante Supremo.

María Pilar García-Guadilla is Professor of Sociology at the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas. For 20 years she has studied the ways state policy in Venezuela has shaped grassroots democracy, and vice versa. Her latest project is a multi-sited investigation on communes, the Bolivarian Revolution’s most ambitious effort to bring socialism to Venezuela (for a definition and history of Venezuela’s communes, see Velasco and Azzellini in NACLA’s Summer 2013 edition). In the following interview, conducted in July, García-Guadilla offers a critical assessment of the country’s social and political landscape following this year’s unrest, from the impact of the protests, to the current status of communes, to the legacy of Hugo Chávez.

Alejandro: Venezuelans have long taken to the streets to protest, even before Chávez. But since 1999, Venezuela’s streets have become a key site of political struggle. What lessons can we draw about the ways in which protest has evolved in the country from this latest round of unrest?

María Pilar: One of the lessons learned is that the volatility of the political context after President Chávez died makes it more difficult to predict when protests will occur, who will lead them, who will support them, what type of strategies they will use, and what results they will have.

In the most recent protests, against expectations, students reaffirmed themselves as protagonists and developed an agenda against the repression, death, and incarceration of their fellow students. These protests were separate from Popular Will, the political party led by founder Leopoldo López (once of the right-wing Justice First party), and other political actors convoking Venezuelans “to take to the streets” in the name of “La Salida” (“The Exit”), a campaign calling for Maduro “to quit or leave.” However, these students were not one homogeneous actor (there were at least four of these student groups) since they had multiple objectives, strategies, and modes of articulation in relation to various political parties and the rest of civil society.

The fact that some students belonged to two or more of these groups allowed an informal network to emerge that used strategies that ranged from the most institutional to the insurrectional, and established relationships with political parties and the citizen assemblies that ranged from supporting those agendas to defining ones of their own. Unlike earlier opposition protests in 2007, organized against the proposed constitutional reform, these protests did not achieve their objectives and had very high political and social costs—and for many reasons: the transition from spontaneous protest to the formation of political actors and an organized civil society did not occur; popular sectors did not feel represented in either pro- or anti-Maduro agendas; and there were substantial differences amongst the member parties of the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Table (MUD).

One of the striking features of these protests is that they seemed to focus in middle or upper class urban areas. But beyond these classes, large majorities—as public polls suggest—view today’s social and economic landscape in Venezuela unfavorably. Why didn’t popular sectors join in the protests?

First, I think popular sectors had nothing to gain from these protests since the claims that were finally brought to the fore were not “scarcity, insecurity, and high inflation”—these claims could have resonated with the entire population. Instead, the claims were of two kinds: internal, such as the demand for political change and a new leadership within the MUD; and circumstantial, such as the demands linked to the right to protest and the release of imprisoned students.

Second, the fact that the protests began almost immediately after the 2013 local-municipal elections made it difficult for popular sectors to interpret them. The protests were perceived as opposition to President Maduro, as a demand for him to “quit or leave.” On the other hand, the lack of a common strategy supported by the MUD “paralyzed” the opposing middle class and, in some cases, the use of the guarimba—street barricades designed to enclose protest activity—led to a confrontation of neighbors against neighbors.

Third, the protests were premature, since after the municipal elections of 2013 there was neither a common agenda for the 2015 election of representatives to the National Assembly nor a consensus between the parties of the MUD regarding how to relate to civil society. The protest happened without a programmatic proposal, that is, without the level of integration that characterized the political opposition in previous cycles of protest. Perhaps it is these factors that contributed to the further weakening and division of the MUD, to the befuddlement of the opposition, and to the alienation of the popular sectors.

The protests also made it difficult for the government to deepen its socialist program, both because it had to face this challenge in the streets, and because protests exacerbated what was already a bad economic crisis. Where do projects like the communal state that became so central to Chávez currently stand?

I believe the vision of a communal state built from bottom-up grassroots organizations is one of President Chávez’s most important legacies, because once the 1999 Constitution defined “el pueblo” (the people) as the sovereign, or the new collective subject or actor who embodies popular power (grassroots power), new organizational structures such as the communes were stimulated as the way to build socialism.

There has been a strong debate about the constitutionality of the communal state; both advocates and detractors base their arguments in the 1999 Constitution, though from different angles. The referendum for constitutional reform that was convened by President Chávez in 2007 to, among other things, include the idea of the communes and to provide them constitutional legality, was rejected. But the government, still with the majority in the National Assembly, decided to approve laws of popular power—aimed at transforming the state structures for planning and decision-making to involve more grassroots organizations. Among them was the Organic Law of the Communes, which consisted of 65 articles outlining the establishment and organization of the country’s communes. This strategy has been considered unconstitutional by the opposition’s “constitutional experts” who insist that the legitimization of communes requires, first, a reform of the constitution.

The 1999 Constitution may have envisioned the communal state. But there seems to be a basic problem of logistical viability, how communes take jurisdiction over space and resources while the formally constituted state promotes and supports them. How are the government and communes addressing this tension?

Indeed, one of the issues with the formal structuring of the communes has to do with the territorial aggregation of self-managed organizations that share a certain territory. The experiences we have evaluated thus far indicate there are difficulties in accomplishing territorial aggregation because of the ideological heterogeneity of the communal councils or member organizations. This heterogeneity is greater in urban zones that have high population density.

In addition, according to the law, the President of the Republic has the power to create communal cities, or the aggregation of federations and confederations of communes; this presidential right stimulates a centralized model that contrasts with the federal-decentralized model expressed in the constitution. Moreover, the political territory in which the commune operates must move through the local scale of the communal councils. This means that federations, confederations, and communal cities may trespass the spatial barriers of parishes, municipalities, and even states. Thus, they may break the political-territorial order established by the constitution. This situation may be a source of conflict about jurisdiction, political attribution, and resources between different political-territorial dominions.

A second difficulty has to do with self-government, or the viability of exercising direct democracy in an assembly scheme that transcends the local scale. This modality poses multiple tensions to the representation mechanisms of the current constitution. These are some of those tensions: the possibility of exercising direct democracy against a model of centralized public planning; the participatory or representative role that commune spokesmen play in their communities and in relation to state institutions; and the exclusionary quality of requiring the commune’s articulation to the socialist model of production in order to obtain state recognition.

Those involved in the development of communes, like Atenea Jiménez of the Network of Communers (interviewed by NACLA in the Summer 2013 edition), acknowledge legal and logistical challenges. But they also stress that their significance is more about a change of consciousness than of institutional frameworks, about renouncing individualism and adopting socialism as a way of life. Are those deeper transformations taking place?

The essence or rationale of the communal state has to do with this somewhat utopian perspective of transforming the “capitalist” model of production into a socialist one that is both “endogenous and sustainable.” In my opinion, this model presupposes a set of Rousseaunian premises that do not apply to the Venezuelan reality, especially in regards to the economic logic that the members of a commune should share; “Individualism and the profit-seeking spirit” have not been entirely eradicated.

Moreover, in the incipient experiences we know of, the “rentier-clientelist-populist logic” accentuates cooptation. The autonomy of the communes is hindered by the fact that the government—and the incumbent United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)—fund the productive projects. Resources are practically unlimited during election periods, but they are restricted substantively after that, especially during times of economic crisis like today. The general lack of resources also affects mobilization because, as its members say, “if there are no resources, people will not participate.”

Finally, the research we have been conducting indicates that the majority of commune members are not qualified to guarantee the necessary efficiency and sustainability of their productive projects and, even less so, to manage resources transparently. In addition, the legal framework is insufficient to exercise social oversight or accountability.

You are writing a book on what you have previously called “exclusionary inclusion.” What do you mean by it? How is it manifested in communes and the communal state?

The idea of a communal state tends to reproduce a model of “exclusionary inclusion” inasmuch as the communes are designed to automatically include the popular sectors but exclude the rest. Moreover, its members must, by definition, share the socialist ideology; therefore the half of the population that the last elections suggest do not share these ideas would be potentially excluded from the communes.

Instead of aiming towards a communal state, we can think of the communes as experiences in participatory democracy that act in wider jurisdictions than the communal councils but do not collide with the political-territorial division nor the powers of the representative democracy established in the constitution. Within such a frame communes could be said to contribute to enriching participatory democracy, especially when the dynamics of mobilization come from below, that is, the social base.

With that unofficial framing of communes in mind, we can see relatively successful experiences in grassroots organizations with a long trajectory. Mainly in rural areas, organizations such as the cooperatives exercise self-government and have relative success in the communal economic model, thus indicating one of the requirements is the previous existence of strong territorialized grassroots organizations. Such organizations provide communes with a common culture and collective values of “solidarity and cooperation,” as well as with a democratic and inclusive management model. In urban areas, experiences of this kind are scarce since the communal economic model in cities has greater difficulties to contend with.

Earlier you noted that the communal state is one of Hugo Chávez’s most important legacies. Do the challenges that you pointed to here call that legacy into question?

The legacy of Chávez is at the core of the confrontation within the PSUV where there are critical groups—still a minority—such as Marea Socialista and some autonomous base movements, who claim themselves to be advocates of “honesty and transparency,” while at the same time criticizing the “not very democratic” practices of the party and its leniency towards the government in relation to corruption. The critical groups consider it important to deepen the communes and self-government as a way of deploying the popular power envisioned by Chávez, in order to make participatory democracy—and therefore the communal state—a reality. The communes also claim to represent the “true spirit” of the late president and, just like with the PSUV, there are communes whose proximity to social movements also bring them nearer to a position of dissidence, while other communes accept the government’s and the PSUV’s patronage. 

Alejandro Velasco is Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at New York University’s Gallatin School. A historian, he writes and teaches on modern Venezuela. He is a NACLA contributing editor on Venezuela. Translated by Sebastian Muñoz-Najar Galvez.

Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Fall Issue: Horizontalism & Autonomy


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