Socialism is not Statism: Lessons from Bolivarian Venezuela

A critical assessment of the historical and current context of Venezuela’s crisis—what's next for the left in Latin America?

Giorgio Boccardo, Sebastián Caviedes, and Pablo Contreras Kallens
10/14/2017

Mural of Hugo Chávez in Merida, Venezuela (<a  data-cke-saved-href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidhdz/9438076805/" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidhdz/9438076805/" target="_blank">David Hernández/Flickr</a>).

It is painful to write about Venezuela. Doing so means addressing the drama of a people partaking in a redistribution of resources for the first time. At the same time, it means discussing the decline of a political process that has been a reference for the radical Latin American left during the past few decades. The established alternative viewpoints on either side of the debate do not allow for reflexive and critical deliberation. We are often presented with a choice between, on the one hand, right-wing neoliberal opportunism that hides its intentions behind the question of whether Venezuela is a dictatorship or a democracy; or, on the other, an allegedly unconditional solidarity with the Chavista process that risks being indifferent towards the suffering of the Venezuelan people.

Doing justice to the complexity of the situation and to the legacy of both the successes and failures of Chavismo for the Latin American left requires a deeper look into the history of the Bolivarian process and the social and political dynamics that underlie the current situation. This article is an attempt to go beyond trying to predict what will happen in Venezuela, reflecting instead on the crisis of Chavismo and what the diverse anti-neoliberal efforts trying to emerge across the globe nonetheless inherit from it as a political project.

The Crisis of Puntofijismo

Exploring the historical context that led to Chavismo is an important yet underacknowledged aspect of the current crisis. Between 1958 and 1993, the Punto Fijo Pact characterized the Venezuelan political order. This coalition unified the two main political parties, Democratic Action, (AD), a social-democratic party, and the Committee of Independent Political Electoral Organization, (COPEI), which was social-Christian. Both parties agreed to form a national unity government regardless of who won the elections. They also agreed on a minimal shared agenda, and on distributing among themselves the control of public institutions. This resulted in a society in which business groups, state bureaucracies, and oil workers’ livelihoods all revolved around and relied upon the economic rent yielded by PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company. Meanwhile, the “Punto Fijo meritocracy” excluded a considerable share of workers, peasants, and marginalized groups.

The 1970s saw AD and COPEI transformed into clientelist and corrupt electoral machines that had grown very much apart from the social bases that had previously supported them. This, compounded by a decline in oil rents, brought about a prolonged economic and political crisis. Later, the radical policies of fiscal adjustment proposed during the second term of AD’s Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989-1993) sparked a massive popular uprising during February and March of 1989, known as the Caracazo. The violent repression of these protests resulted in hundreds dead and thousands more missing.

Reforms were enacted, but they were unable to solve the crisis. After the dismissal of Pérez in 1993 due to corruption accusations, a new social-Christian party created by ex-COPEI politician Rafael Caldera, in alliance with left-wing organizations, won the election running on an anti-neoliberal platform. This was the first presidential victory outside of the Punto Fijo. However, the worst financial crisis in the history of Venezuela resulted in Caldera negotiating with the IMF and enacting the “Venezuela Agenda,” a plan consisting of orthodox monetarist measures, cuts to welfare programs, and the internationalization of the oil industry. Once again, the measures were met with social unrest.

This crisis coincided with the beginning of Hugo Chávez’s overwhelming political activity following his release from prison after a failed coup attempt in 1992. In 1997, in the context of a totally delegitimized political system, he founded the Movement for a Fifth Republic (MVR) with the support of parts of the military, intellectuals, and left-wing militants. Hugo Chávez and the MVR gave voice, direction, and hope to the massive unrest of the Venezuelan people. He won the presidential elections the next year.

The Rise and Development of Chavismo (1999-2013)

Chávez’s initial project did not stray far from traditional left-leaning Latin-American populism: it featured anti-imperialist discourse, efforts to recover national sovereignty, it emphasized the centrality of the State, and was led by a military strongman who spearheaded significant programs for wealth redistribution. Chávez’s first administration’s top priority was the creation of a new constitution via a constitutional assembly. The new constitution confirmed the capitalist character of the Venezuelan economy while giving the state exclusive rights over the oil industry and other sectors of public or strategic interest. It also incorporated various mechanisms for wider popular participation, and reversed neoliberal reforms, significantly expanding economic, social, and cultural rights. The first stage of the Bolivarian process aimed to establish a state that, although anti-imperialist and nationalist, nevertheless remained fundamentally capitalist.

The first tension within Chávez’s first administration involved PDVSA, a national priority given the Venezuelan economy’s extreme dependence on oil rents. The company’s direct contribution to the state increased, as efforts to internationalize it halted. Later, Venezuela took the initiative in OPEC, and drove an agreement to control prices alongside countries like Libya and Iraq, aggravating relations with the United States. Finally, this early iteration of Chavismo confronted Venezuelan capital by limiting the power of large agricultural estates and giving the government political and economic control over PDVSA. Both acts were labeled by opponents as attacks on private property.

During Chávez’s second administration (2001-2007), his confrontations with the right-wing opposition dramatically intensified. This opposition was mainly made up sectors of the military, business owners, the Punto Fijo parties, the old PDVSA “meritocracy,” and almost all of the Venezuelan mass media. In 2002, Chávez faced both a coup d’état, ultimately thwarted by popular revolts, as well as a management-led oil strike called by the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, Fedecámaras, to which the high executives and “meritocracy” of PDSVA adhered. His success in facing both these challenges greatly strengthened him politically. This allowed for the dismantling of certain sectors of the opposition and the establishment of a new pact with the popular groups on which Chavismo depended. Even though they had already voted for Chávez, it was during these conflicts that these popular sectors began to assume that this government was their government.

After spending the first years tackling the fiscal crisis and addressing the constitutional process, the focus of the Chavista administration shifted. Facing an impeachment referendum called for by the opposition and the need to secure the continuity of the Chavista process,  the government began to implement a new social policy through the Misiones (Missions). Profits from oil rent were radically democratized and distributed, improving the Venezuelan people’s income, health, education, communication, and access to culture. In contrast with neoliberal policies, the Chavista government’s social spending was aimed at reducing inequality, as well as building a new social and productive network along with the institutions needed to support it. The legitimacy and popularity of these policies were reinforced during the 2004 impeachment, as Chávez won the referendum with 59% of the vote. Later that year, the Chavista party lost only 2 of the 23 gubernatorial races. In 2005, the opposition abandoned the parliamentary election in fear of being swept off of the National Assembly. Finally, Chávez received 63% of the vote in the 2006 presidential elections.

Chávez became the leader of the price control strategy of OPEC, and challenged the U.S.’s policy of Latin-American subordination (FTAA) by creating an alliance with the governments of Brazil and Argentina, supporting the governments of Bolivia and Ecuador, and establishing the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America). In 2007, Chávez announced that the “transition” phase of Venezuela had ended and that the moment had come to go forth towards “21st Century Socialism” and to build the Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV). He thus proposed a constitutional reform declaring that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was socialist, giving the president extraordinary powers, while also reasserting the state’s ownership and control of hydrocarbons, the elimination of restrictions on reelection, and the political and territorial reorganization of the country. The proposal was ultimately rejected through the 2007 constitutional referendum.

It was at this moment that the Chavista process reached a turning point. Instead of striving to make the country less dependent on oil rents and international economic cycles, the focus was the distribution of that rent and establishment of a commercial and financial Chavista business sector. Thus, the “curse of natural resources” buried long-term democratization efforts.

Unfortunately, Chavismo ended up reducing socialism to statism and verticality instead of radicalizing democracy. Beyond the difficulties stemming from confrontations with the U.S. and Venezuela’s reactionary opposition, and the constraints imposed by the relative underdevelopment of the region, Chavismo missed the historic chance to radicalize the social and political process underway precisely when it was at its height. In that sense, even as the social and political conditions that Nicolás Maduro inherited detonated with the fall of oil prices, their origins must be traced back years before he came to power.

Venezuela after Chávez

Nicolás Maduro was nominated as Chávez’s successor following his death in 2013 during a dramatic decline of profit from oil rents. The economic contraction was devastating: at one point, 95% of Venezuela’s export income, 60% of the income for its budget, and 12% of its GDP came from oil rents. However, according to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), by 2015 income from crude oil exports had fallen 40% and, by 2016, foreign debt had grown 350% since 1998. This economic crisis hampered the redistribution programs that had enabled the Chavista social coalition.

The situation brought about by the deterioration of Venezuela’s economy was exacerbated by the authoritarian tendencies of the government, inherited in part from Chávez’s Bolivarian process and worsened by the political ineptitude of the new president. The clearest symptom of this ineptitude is the weakening of the social network that the Chavista hegemony had strengthened. As detailed by Edgardo Lander, these economic and political crises destroyed the organized social bases of Chavismo. If the social organizing that underpinned Chavismo is understood as a product of public policies rather than something autonomous and self-managed, this might explain its relative fragility.

Inside the PSUV and the Chavista movement, there has been a gradual abandonment of the culture of critical debate that had characterized the party since its establishment, as detailed by Julia Buxton in an interview for New Left Review. This deterioration of critical discourse has been compounded by the growing militarization of the state: a third of the secretaries (12 out of 31) and governors (13 out of 20) come from military backgrounds, in addition to the key role that other members of the military have come to play in the economy. Moreover, Lander has argued that the lack of democratic control has opened the window for a problem that has plagued Venezuela beyond the Bolivarian revolution: corruption, this time particularly in the allocation of foreign currency, the ports, and food distribution.

Taking advantage of Maduro’s weakness, the opposition has reorganized itself in an attempt to recover the legitimacy they lost in 2002. Several organizations, ranging from the moderate left to the extreme right, coexist in the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). The most relevant groups are Justice First, to which former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, now barred from running for public office for 15 years, and current spokesman of Parliament, Julio Borges, belong; and the Popular Will, (VP), led by Leopoldo Lopez, recently released from prison on grounds of inciting violence in a wave of anti-government protests in 2014 and beyond. VP rejects the legitimacy of the government, promoting foreign intervention in Venezuela.

The opposition’s initial willingness for dialogue disappeared when Capriles leveled an unfounded accusation of electoral fraud after losing the 2013 presidential elections, calling for protests that ended with 11 dead. Later, in February of 2014, López and his party, along with Congresswoman María Corina Machado, and the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, led a protest that left 47 dead and included the use of wires stretched over the streets to decapitate pro-government bikers. Even though both López and Ledezma partook in the 2002 coup d’état, international media labeled them as martyrs after being jailed for their calls to overthrow the government.

There is still a large divide between the general population and the opposition. The opposition has focused almost exclusively on how to overthrow Maduro and dismantle what has been achieved. There is no consensus among them on what the alternative to Chavismo might be. The few policy proposals they have made include a rise of oil rent, liberalization, and seeking assistance from the IMF. Nevertheless, the opposition has been able to take advantage of the popular mobilization of west Caracas, a traditionally Chavista stronghold. While they have mobilized because of hunger, scarcity of medicine and basic supplies, violence, and general insecurity, the opposition has pushed for political demands like the liberation of political prisoners or an impeachment referendum. In sum, the opposition has shown that they prioritize regime change and seek to reestablish the elite coalition that governed Venezuela during its pre-Chávez history, forcefully destabilizing the regime that excluded them from the state’s redistribution of wealth and power.

In addition to reliance on oil, in Venezuela, general inflation, and inflation of food prices in particular, have reached alarming levels. Malnutrition has risen, along with an increase in the number of people who claim to eat two or fewer times a day. Furthermore, the tendency towards poverty reduction that Chavismo initiated in the early 2000s has reversed, with more than half of all homes living in extreme poverty in 2016.

As the political crisis continues intensifying by the day, it has accentuated divisions within Chavismo itself. Originally, the primary discord was between a civilian faction that was largely in charge of important departments such as the Department of Agriculture and Land and the Department of Energy and Oil; and a military faction, many of whom had served with Chávez since 1992, which controlled the National Assembly and the PSUV mainly through the figure of Diosdado Cabello. Recently, this schism has extended well beyond this initial fragmentation, encompassing broader civilian and military sectors.

Within the military, the 4F group, led by brothers-in-arms of Chávez, has gained relevance. They protest that Maduro has relinquished the revolutionary project, be it socialist or Bolivarian; moreover, the 4F group emphasizes the declining situation affecting military quarters and families. Another side is the leftist dissident wing of Chavismo, whose core is Socialist Tide, a collective of Chavista politicians and intellectuals that predates the crisis.

This group has new supporting figures, including former secretaries of both Chávez and Maduro, academics, and social and political leaders. They criticize the rupture of constitutional continuity and the violent polarization afflicting the country, and have called for creating a new emancipatory project after the Constitutional Assembly elections on July 30th. Nevertheless, this wing lacks development and does not have enough power to significantly influence the political scenario. Thus, the main actor in the resolution of the crisis of Chavismo remains the military, whose general support for Maduro greatly explains why he remains in power.

The situation in Venezuela, beyond the need for democratization, begs the question of whether it is possible to develop socialism, or even a national and popular capitalism like the ones developed during the 20th century, in Latin America in the context of an international neoliberal economy. However, at this moment the radical left should defend popular autonomy in the resolution of this crisis. Their efforts should aim to avert the possibility that the crisis ends by producing a new elite ruling coalition, or the possibility that forces outside of Venezuela decide the course that the country should follow.

Criticism and Internationalism in the Venezuelan Political crisis

The future of Venezuelan process remains unclear, especially considering that the recently formed Constitutional Assembly monopolizes the powers of the state at the same time that the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. intensify. Still, there are lessons to be gleaned both from the successes and from the failures of Chavismo.

One is that the benefits reaped by exploitation of natural resources to expand social democracy have limits, even when they are monopolized by the state. The dependence on international economic cycles, the triggering of ecological crises, and “Dutch disease” constrain transformative political processes. Moreover, the crisis of Chavismo demonstrates once again that taking over the state to implement top-down efforts to advance the transformation of capitalist societies towards socialism is insufficient. Venezuela, along with previous left-wing organizations that achieved power in the 20th century, have reduced the problem of socialism to that of statism. But socialism is not by definition statist: it is the permanent socialization of power and the increasing democratization of social life.

Whatever the outcome of the Venezuelan crisis, the left must carry the burden of its legacy. We will need to face the loss of credibility for the failure of certain ideas that Chavismo tried to develop, along with an increase of U.S. influence in the region. But, more importantly, we will have to explain why these failures happened and learn from the Bolivarian Revolution’s successes as well as mistakes. Ignoring the issue cannot be an alternative, even if it results in short-term political or electoral losses. At a minimum, we must assert that our criticisms maintain the goal of radicalizing the successes of Chavismo. Moreover, we must attack the terms that reactionary neoliberal progressivism tries to impose, as those parties share most of the blame for the poor conditions of life across Latin America. In short, the construction of a radical left entails recovering the solidarity and critical internationalism that characterizes the revolutionary tradition of the Latin American left. Only thus will we be able to distinguish what can and cannot still be salvaged from the Bolivarian project.


Giorgio Boccardo is a Sociologist and MA in Latin American Studies, a member of the faculty of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chile, and a director at Fundación Nodo XXI. Sebastián Caviedes is a Sociologist from the University of Chile and the editor-in-chief of Cuadernos de Coyuntura. Pablo Contreras Kallens is a PhD student at the University of California, Merced, and an editor of Cuadernos de Coyuntura. All of them are researchers at Fundación Nodo XXI.

This article is a translated, updated and adapted version of “La Venezuela bolivariana: Crisis de una experiencia cardinal para la izquierda latinoamericana,” published in Fundación Nodo XXI’s Cuadernos de Coyuntura Journal. Read the original here.

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