Book Review: Venezuela's Past in the Chavista Present

Venezuela analyst Steve Ellner in his new book unties the knots of Venezuelan history providing the reader a better understanding of the present. The book offers a penetrating examination of chavismo’s stages, internal currents, and strategies, as well as Chávez’s foreign policy.

May 28, 2008

Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon by Steve Ellner, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008, 260 pp., $55 hardcover

In this book, prolific Venezuela analyst Steve Ellner continues and amplifies his recent work challenging the idea of Venezuelan “exceptionalism.” This idea—popular during the party-led democracy of the 1960s–80s among academic observers and many elites—was that Venezuela somehow managed to avoid the volatile, and often cruelly repressive and exclusionary, political systems of its neighbors. According to this view, Venezuela built a set of stable, inclusive, and liberal institutions that mediated economic and social inequalities under the governments of the then dominant Democratic Action and COPEI parties.

Those who still understand Venezuelan politics this way can only be astonished and dismayed at the transformation brought about by thrice-elected President Húgo Chávez and his followers. But Ellner offers another way to think about the “Chávez phenomenon.” He refocuses our attention on more fundamental “struggles over issues of substance, particularly political expressions of class and racial cleavages,” an approach that can reveal the rise of Chávez as, if not inevitable, then perfectly comprehensible, and provide a detailed assessment of his “21st-century socialism.”

After an introduction, the book offers two related yet distinct contributions. Chapters 2–4 give a detailed historiography from the colonial period to Chávez’s first electoral victory and constitutional transformation. Chapters 5–8 turn to a penetrating examination of chavismo’s stages, internal currents, and strategies, as well as Chávez’s foreign policy. The depth of Ellner’s interpretive critique of previous analysis in the first part of the book will make it fascinating reading for those similarly steeped or interested in debates in the historical literature about Venezuela. The multiple angles Ellner considers in the second part of the book will make it a must-read for those committed to understanding the reality behind the rhetoric (from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as the Rio Grande) surrounding Chávez’s politics and policies today.

Throughout the historical sections, Ellner foregrounds the ongoing class and racial conflicts that he claims have characterized Venezuela. For example, he notes that the country’s famed “racial fluidity” and long history of interracial unions—which included many Afro-indigenous families created by impoverished laborers—did not translate into “racial harmony”­ when those of Spanish descent refused to accept racial Others, even as the Bourbon kings called for equal treatment. Ellner also draws attention to the goals of the lower classes in the independence struggles and their aftermath, goals that in many instances remained more consistent than the direction of elite leadership. Showing his deep understanding of the contemporary Venezuelan context, Ellner illuminates how historical interpretation is currently wielded as a political weapon, most vividly in the example of Chávez’s reinterring the remains of Cípriano Castro, a ruler at the turn of the 20th century, in the National Pantheon, and the heated debates over its meaning (and Chávez’s grasp of history) in the popular press and beyond.

In addressing the development and parameters of the famed stable democratic period, Ellner is at great pains to bring to light the alternative currents within Democratic Action and COPEI, no matter their ultimate success at achieving political power. Moreover, he evaluates the policies put into place by the different administrations, noting the extent to which they sought to promote national economic development.

In moving to Chávez’s rule, Ellner first offers an overview of the “four stages” of his presidency, from moderate positions to increasingly anti-neoliberal ones, and then from the outlining of a new economic model to what may characterize “21st century socialism.” This trajectory shows Chávez’s increasing radicalism as his political support—and the increasingly vocal opposition—grew. Ellner contextualizes Chávez’s current stage in terms of the leftward trend of regional politics, the availability of the oil revenue necessary to support his policies, and the currently politically weak opposition.

This overview sets the stage for the analysis of three different aspects of chavista politics today. The first breaks open what some perceive as a monolithic movement to analyze its “soft” and “hard” lines. Ellner’s synthesis of these internal currents, based on their “informal discussion over long-term goals and strategies” is all the more valuable given the lack of formalized outlets for open political debate within chavismo, and thus more general access to it. The currents differ on the extent to which they support the ongoing radicalization of the Chávez project. The soft-liners—including military officers and members of small left parties—want to focus on the “consolidation of gains” and are concerned about further political polarization and possible international isolation. The hard-liners—largely those from the former far left, including guerrilla groups from the 1960s—believe that “ongoing change and conflict will inexorably lead to new transformations” and favor open confrontation with the opposition. Ellner examines their differences over areas including the labor movement, the oil industry, Chávez’s MVR party, and the new state structures, such as the social-service misiones.

The other, possibly transverse, division within chavismo that Ellner covers is the division between “top-down” (party/state) and “grassroots” (social movement) forms of political contestation. Again drawing on a wealth of contemporary observation, Ellner traces the coexistence of these approaches and Chávez’s seeming refusal to permanently privilege one over the other. Ellner notes the ways in which state policy, rather than self-organization, has supported, if not initiated, bottom-up organizing, which has left it vulnerable to frequent policy shifts.

Even more enlightening (or adding another layer of complexity) would have been a reflection on the extent to which the two divisions within the movement—hard- versus soft-line perspectives, and top-down versus bottom-up approaches—­correspond. At least one “super” hard-liner (to the left of the hard-liners) is cited as criticizing grassroots economic cooperatives; but the grass roots are also characterized as distrustful of “institutionalization” because it would “hold back the continuous transformation based on experience,” which sounds more like the hard-liners’ support for further radicalization.

The final substantive chapter addresses Chávez’s foreign policy, and here again Ellner focuses on substance over style as he delves into Chávez’s radicalization and his appeal to both foreign governments and peoples. After walking through Venezuelan-U.S. relations, he turns, as Chávez clearly has, to the “multi­polar world,” examining other bilateral and multilateral, intra- and ­inter-­regional relations, particularly as mediated by oil revenue.

One overarching goal of this analysis is to show the complexity of the ongoing transformations in Venezuela. Eller insists that Chávez is no mere radical populist, given his movement’s debates over state transformation, popular empowerment, and economic development. This kind of detailed analysis would certainly show any other cases of populism to be similarly nuanced. But at times Ellner seems overly attentive to the gray—or perhaps, the white. For example, in Chapter 5, he first explains the factors that have “held back ideological introspection” and notes that the lack of formal mechanisms for open debate within the MVR has had its advantages, particularly in not further alienating an already adamant opposition through exposure to the “hard line.” But in concluding the chapter, he writes that “the chavistas have shown signs of recognizing the importance of, and have taken steps to promote, ideological clarification and organizational solidification.” This may be wishful thinking, although all is, clearly, not said and done.

While Ellner does briefly mention the ways in which poor women have been empowered through their work in the misiones, it is disappointing not to find more systematic attention to gender, alongside race, and centrally, class, in a framework that seeks to restore a focus on those excluded from traditional Venezuelan political life, and the ways in which their experiences show the fissures that eventually broke apart the “exceptional” system. Dating back to the 1930s, women’s rights activism, both inside and outside of political parties, confronted the men who sought to monopolize the political system, and in doing so presented an early, and continuing, challenge to the idea of an inclusive political system. As a specific historical example, Ellner tells the story of the Junta Patriótica, the organization that channeled the popular struggle against the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez at the end of the 1950s, and amply represented the clandestine, youthful left wings of the traditional parties as well as the Communist Party; it was dissolved at the insistence of the leaders who returned from exile to establish their stable party system. What Ellner does not mention is that the Junta Patriótica also inspired a group of women, representing all the major political currents, to form a linked Women’s Committee. Their reach was so broad that they sponsored the first mass meeting after the fall of Pérez Jiménez, bringing out 10,000 women­ on International Women’s Day to celebrate the unity of the opposition. Nevertheless, they too were quickly dissolved under explicit orders from a party leadership bent on promoting its version of (anti-Communist) democracy over popular unity.

Elisabeth Jay Friedman is Associate Professor of Politics and Chair of Latin American Studies at the University of San Francisco.


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