Venezuela: Breaking the State–Grassroots Divide

An analysis of developments in Venezuela under the Chávez presidency sheds light on the viability of policies, movements and struggles in developing countries designed to bring about far-reaching transformation and to challenge domination from the north.

Steve Ellner

An analysis of developments in Venezuela under the Chávez presidency sheds light on the viability of policies, movements and struggles in developing countries designed to bring about far-reaching transformation and to challenge domination from the north.

Throughout the third world, these types of political contestations have been initiated from “above” and from “below.” That is, by the state and political parties, which seek to obtain and retain power (from above), and social movements and unorganized sectors of the population (from below). The first strategy traditionally called “anti-imperialist” leads to the assertion of sovereignty by third-world governments and their formation of a bloc of nations around common demands and goals. With this in mind, the traditional Latin American left promoted “revolutions of national liberation” whereby a government linked to an institutionalized political party, a powerful labor movement, and sometimes a progressive national business sector played an interventionist role in the economy and faced up to foreign economic interests.

The “grassroots” approach centers on horizontal relationships that arise outside of well-established organized structures often in the form of social movements that are horizontally connected, internally democratic, and more loosely structured than political parties. The champions of this paradigm have been identified with various related schools of thinking. One of them originating in Europe and then extending to Latin America in the 1980s celebrated loosely-structured “new social movements,” which they claimed have replaced trade unions and political parties as the most effective and transformational interlocutors of the general population in modern (or “post-industrial”) society.

A “post-modernist” school also glorifies popular movements and at the same time views broad sectors of the population whose daily lives clash with the logic of the established system (what one work calls the “multitude”) as potentially more revolutionary than any political party. These writers rule out forceful government assertion of independence as unfeasible due to global constraints and the danger of international isolation. They also consider statist strategies by nature hierarchical and thus possessing a limited potential to effect meaningful and far-reaching change.

The debate between the traditional statist strategy and the “movement-from-below” approaches has taken in a range of major theoretical issues directly related to the transformation of third-world countries in the twenty-first century. Venezuelan political developments under Chávez shed light on this discussion and serve as a corrective to the abstract analysis that has characterized the left’s search for new models since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Chávez himself envisions Venezuela as a laboratory in which a trial-and-error dynamic will lead to the formulation of a new socialist model.

Chávez had a close alliance with former Argentine President Néstor Kirchner. (

Chávez’s “Bolivarian” doctrine discards a go-it-alone approach for Venezuela and posits “international solidarity” as a cornerstone of the strategy for Latin America to achieve genuine independence. While Chávez at times appears to embrace “international solidarity” as a moral imperative and an end unto itself, he insists that in today’s world Latin American countries have no choice but to promote joint strategies, strengthen ties among themselves, and engage in collective action in order to overcome dependency and underdevelopment.

The primacy of international relations under Chávez goes beyond mere discourse, as is reflected in his activism at the world level, his promotion of commercial ventures and other forms of Latin American unity, and the centrality of his foreign policy in national political debate. Thus, for example, on the all-important issue of payment of the foreign debt, Chávez rules out individual action and indicates that Venezuela will continue to pay it off until the entire continent is ready to act collectively to face the unjust terms of payment.

Chávez’s diplomatic initiatives, however, diverge from the “grassroots” strategy in one fundamental way. In its pure form, the grassroots approach has a local and global focus that passes over the nation-state. In its practical application, the approach attempts to establish links to people’s struggles throughout the world while paying less attention to relations with other governments. The approach is exemplified by Chávez’s fiery rhetoric and popular stands that appeal to the general population in Latin American while straining relations with some heads of state. Nevertheless, foreign policy under Chávez has prioritized alliances and agreements with other third world governments on diverse fronts, an objective that bypasses ideological and political differences.

All revolutionary movements at one time or another – particularly during their early years in power – manifest romanticism and quixotic notions while relegating practical considerations to a secondary plane. In the case of Venezuela, leftists have in different contexts justified historical decisions that were taken against all odds. Chávez, for instance, has stated that days prior to February 4, 1992, the coup leaders realized that the probability of success was negligible, but decided to proceed anyway.

The ongoing tension between a realistic perspective conducive to the construction of a workable model, on the one hand, and social and humanitarian concerns along with support for cultural transformation, on the other, has characterized the Chavista movement throughout the Chávez presidency. The “grassroots” approach prioritizes the latter objectives. It is imbued with idealism and distrust of authority. Its adherents in the rank and file of the Chavista movement exhibit a faith in the capacity of the general population grouped in rudimentary organizations (in large part neighborhood ones) and a wariness of institutions, particularly political parties and the government (specifically at the local and state level). Those who adhere to the grassroots approach distrust the “institutionalization” of the revolutionary process, which would lock initial changes in place and hold back the continuous transformation based on experience, as Chávez has called for.

These tendencies are evident in the government’s ambitious program of cooperatives that is designed to democratize capital and eliminate hierarchical structures in accordance with the vision of “grassroots” theoreticians. Since the founding of the Ministerio para la Economía Popular in 2004, state promotion of cooperatives has taken on the form of a social program generating employment, more than the seeds of an economically productive and self-sustaining model that would form an integral part of the nation’s economy.

Offices of the government-supported agricultural Berveré cooperative. (

At the level of discourse, both Chávez and the literature of the Ministerio stress the goal of solidarity among the members of the cooperatives and toward the community where they are located. This focus is designed to avoid submitting cooperatives to the logic of the capitalist system based on exploitation and perpetual reinvestment. The rhetoric also deprecates the “profit motive” for individual cooperative members even though socialist thinking has long considered material incentives a valid form of stimulation.

In keeping with these priorities, the Ministerio requires cooperatives to invest in community programs. At the same time, the expansion of the Ministerio’s superintendency (SUNACOP), which is in charge of monitoring cooperatives and ensuring that state funds are put to proper use, at least at first failed to keep pace with the sharp increase in the number of cooperatives throughout the country. In short, the goal of transforming “capitalist”-promoted values and solving social problems eclipsed practical considerations necessary to ensure the viability of a new economic model.

On the political front, the grassroots approach in its pure form proved inoperative and out of tune with Venezuelan political reality. During the early years of Chávez’s presidency, the prospects for the paradigm that extols autonomous social movements and predicts their transformation into the cornerstone of a new type of democracy in accordance with the grassroots approach appeared promising. Not only did social organizations play a constructive role in formulating proposals that were incorporated in the 1999 constitution, but the Círculos Bolivarianos (Bolivarian Circles) also proliferated throughout the nation at the time of the 2002 coup.

Nevertheless, the Círculos and other organizations of the Chavista movement proved short lived as their members enlisted in the social-work missions, cooperatives and other state-sponsored activities that provided them with personal opportunities. Some writers who defend the “grassroots” approach have failed to recognize this hard reality and claim that the growth of autonomous social movements in the barrios is “the most powerful and novel element in Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution” and not its “anti-imperialist stance,” according to grassroots theoretician Michael Hardt.

Another political paradigm that is compatible with the grassroots approach and at first appeared propitious is “radical democracy,” in which the direct participation of the people displaces representative institutions. The abolition of the National Congress, the nation’s maximum “representative” institution, as a result of the referendum in April 1999 and its replacement by a constitutional assembly committed to participatory democracy pointed in the direction of this novel democratic model.

However, the intense political polarization and confrontations that set in during the early years of the Chávez presidency impeded the development of independent organizations and autonomous decision-making structures that were basic to radical democracy. Thus, the mechanisms established by the Constitution to name judges, members of the National Electoral Council and the “Poder Ciudadano” required the creation of nonpartisan commissions, an unlikely development given the intensity of the political atmosphere in the country. Furthermore, the provisions of the Constitution that subordinated representative institutions to the direct input of the people, such as the convocation of popular assemblies with binding decision making power, failed to translate themselves into workable procedures.

However, in the course of the eight years of the Chávez presidency, the discourse, assertiveness and self-identification of the rank-and-file Chavistas who are unaffiliated with any political party and who adhere to the grassroots approach have not diminished in intensity. Their perception of “us” versus “them” with reference to their relations with Chavista party leaders is typical of their ongoing resentment toward hierarchical structures, even those committed to revolutionary change.

Beneficiaries of the government's educational and health social missions. (

Many of these Chavistas dropped out of the Círculos Bolivarianos and other social groups to join state-financed programs such as the missions. Participation in state-initiated programs is a far cry from membership in autonomous social movements extolled by “grassroots” theoreticians. Nevertheless, their involvement in the missions is significant from a political viewpoint in that it cements identification with Chavismo, just as membership in a Chavista social organization, party or union would have done. In spite of their migration from social organization to state-sponsored program, their critical attitudes toward the party and local government and support for the grassroots approach has remained unaltered.

In addition to the independent thinking of rank-and-file Chavistas, the grassroots approach expresses itself in aspects of government policy both on the international front and social policy that subordinates realistic considerations regarding the construction of a viable economic model to the promotion of new values and the achievement of social equality.

The uneven existence and short duration of social organizations and programs are in large part due to circumstantial factors and thus do not necessarily represent a fatal flaw in the grassroots approach. Thus, the exceptionally high prices of oil during the Chávez presidency has contributed to the cooptation of social movement activists by the government and the transfer of rank-and-file Chavistas from social organizations to state-financed social programs.

In addition, organizational instability is largely the result of the frequent change in priorities that has characterized the Venezuelan process under Chávez. Shifting tactics and priorities, for their part, are natural given the “experimental” road to socialism embraced by Chávez and his movement. Between 2003 and 2005, for instance, the Chávez government focused attention on cooperatives, but “Community Councils” subsequently eclipsed cooperatives (20,000 Community Councils sprung up throughout the country in 2006 and 2007).

The coexistence of support for both grassroots and statist strategies within the Chavista movement over such an extended period of time, and Chávez’s own endorsement of elements of both, suggest the necessity of a synthesis. Such a combination is feasible because those who identify with both approaches do not uphold a rigid or theoretically consistent position, as do many theoreticians whose idealistic proclivities preclude the possibility of crossing the lines of the paradigms they have created.

Even though the grassroots Chavistas are distrustful and resentful of political party leaders and state bureaucracies, they avidly support the anti-imperialist strategy in which third-world states assert national sovereignty (i.e. the statist approach). Paradigms formulated over the last quarter-century play a valuable role in framing issues. The everyday practice of the Chavista government and movement, however, is what will determine the outcome of Venezuela’s incipient model, which is certain to become an important point of reference for analysts throughout the world for years to come.

The logical starting point for achieving the proposed synthesis is the democratization of the Chavista party to create mechanisms for the rank and file to participate in decision making in accordance with the grassroots approach, while maintaining a centralized command and enforcing internal discipline. Proposals formulated over the recent past in favor of party reorganization were designed to generate formal debate in such arenas as ideological conferences, internal elections and party publications that would open opportunities for different Chavista political currents to formulate positions.

Indeed, internal democratization without ideological clarification leads eventually to vacuous factionalism based on personality differences, as was demonstrated by the experience of Venezuelan parties in the 1990s. The coalescence of Chavista parties and social organizations into the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) proposed in December 2006 provides a golden opportunity to achieve organizational renovation and to deepen democracy along these lines, but at the same time runs the risk of suppressing diversity within the movement in the name of ill-defined long-term goals.

Steve Ellner is professor of history at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela and the author of the just-published Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon. This essay is adapted from the book’s Chapter 7: “The Chávez Movement's Top-Down and Grassroots Approaches.”


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