Ten Years On, Bolivarian Revolution at Crossroads

Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution has hit some snags at home and abroad. Five years ago, President Chávez seemed unstoppable, but his regional political bloc has started to flounder and his attempt to overhaul Venezuela's constitution was defeated. The outcome of the next U.S. presidential election could determine whether Chávez is able to regain lost momentum.

July 21, 2008

In 2006, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was at the height of his political powers. Traveling to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly, he delivered his by now infamous broadside attacking George Bush as “the devil.” After delivering his fiery speech at the United Nations the Venezuelan leader went to Harlem to meet with local residents. Once there Chávez received a hero’s welcome, which was hardly surprising given that the Venezuelan leader had provided discounted fuel oil to disadvantaged African Americans and Latinos in the neighborhood.

Returning to Caracas from his sojourn abroad, which put him front and center within the international media spotlight, Chávez could take some satisfaction in the fact that Venezuela had now become a significant regional power. Having racked up several electoral victories at home, and having beat back a hostile U.S.-backed coup and a months-long oil lock out at the end of 2002, Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” was seemingly unstoppable.

The Venezuelan president had indeed come a long way. In 1998, when he was first elected president, South American leaders were still enthralled by Washington-style neoliberal economics. At that time, with his fierce denunciations of globalization, Chávez was viewed by many throughout the region as a kind of ideological throwback. But as social movements gained strength over the next several years and new progressive leaders took power in the neighborhood, Chávez seemed to be at the forefront of social struggle against corporate free trade.

ALBA: Chávez’s Geopolitical Instrument

Chávez’s geopolitical instrument was the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), designed to promote reciprocal trade outside of the usual corporate strictures. An innovative initiative, ALBA was quickly embraced by the likes of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. By now flush with money as a result of higher oil prices, Chávez was able to provide petroleum to Cuba at reduced prices. In return, Venezuela received valuable medical assistance from the island nation in the form of skilled doctors. Meanwhile, Chávez inked important deals paving the way for greater Venezuelan participation in the Bolivian energy sector. In exchange, Morales pledged to export agricultural goods to Venezuela. Though largely insignificant in terms of the overall volume of trade, ALBA successfully encouraged reciprocity and solidarity among left-leaning governments.

Could the Venezuelan leader promote “socialism for the twenty-first century” and successfully turn back U.S. economic influence in the region? Such a possibility would have been regarded by many as a pipe dream just a few years earlier but with the United States’ international image now tarnished under George Bush, Venezuela now seemed like an attractive ideological model for progressive governments in Central America and the Caribbean.

In short order, Nicaragua and Dominica opted to join ALBA, thus enhancing Chávez’s diplomatic standing. Moreover, as part of a special ALBA fund for the Caribbean, Venezuela has pledged to provide financial assistance to Haiti that will allow the poverty-stricken nation to build more housing and a popular market in Port-au-Prince.

For a medium-sized country with only 27 million inhabitants, Venezuela now enjoyed an unprecedented level of geopolitical influence within the region. By all indications, Chávez’s star was rising. But then, last month, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa decided against joining ALBA, casting some doubt on Chávez’s long-term aspiration to extend socialist-style economics to other neighboring countries. Why does the Chávez juggernaut seem to be losing steam and what is the geopolitical future of the Bolivarian Revolution?

The Rise of Rafael Correa

Prior to the 2006 presidential election in Ecuador, Chávez and Correa developed a warm personal rapport. During a short stint the previous year as Finance Minister under the regime of Alfredo Palacio, Correa brokered a $300 million loan from Chávez. As a result of his diplomacy, Correa was forced out of the government with critics charging Correa pursued the loan deal behind Palacio's back.

The maverick Ecuadoran politician later visited Chávez's home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader. "It is necessary to overcome all the fallacies of neoliberalism," he declared. Borrowing one of Chávez's favorite slogans, Correa said he also supported so-called "socialism for the twenty-first century."

Correa, a young economist with a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, campaigned on pledges to prioritize social spending over repaying debt, suggesting Ecuador might even willingly default. Correa said he wanted to increase funds for the poor and opposed a free trade deal with the United States. "We are not against the international economy," Correa stated, "but we will not negotiate a treaty under unequal terms with the United States."

Correa had nothing but contempt for George Bush. When he was asked about Chávez's "devil" diatribe against the U.S. president at the United Nations, Correa remarked amusingly, "Calling Bush the devil offends the devil. Bush is a tremendously dimwitted President who has done great damage to the world.”

After winning the presidential election, Correa looked as if he might be willing to back up his rhetoric with real deeds. Correa “has cut off talks about a possible free trade agreement with the United States in favor of Hugo Chávez's ‘ALBA’ socialist trade scheme,” the conservative Heritage Foundation remarked with alarm.

Indeed, Correa traveled to Caracas to ink cooperation agreements with Chávez. The two signed a joint declaration to promote integration via ALBA, and Correa requested that Venezuela rejoin the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), a trading group that Chávez had abandoned in April 2006. Venezuela left the bloc because it was unhappy with other members such as Peru and Colombia signing bilateral free trade agreements with the United States.

In Caracas, Correa said he understood Chávez’s position, but added, “There is great disappointment about CAN. The results are very poor, the vision is mistaken… but with the will of the presidents that the Andean region is electing we can change that situation.”

After his extended meeting with the Venezuelan leader, Correa appeared upbeat about the prospects of Venezuela rejoining the Andean Community at some point in the future. “The President is evaluating it…and let’s hope we can move forward. I think that CAN has to be strengthened and from there we have to try to merge the two processes of integration in South America: CAN and Mercosur [another South American economic bloc comprised of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay],” Correa remarked.

Correa Skittish about Chávez Alliance

Once in power however, Correa backed off his default threats and left the door open to a free trade agreement with the United States “when we are ready.” Meanwhile, the United States did not demonize Correa as it had Chávez. Indeed, the top U.S. diplomat for the Americas Thomas Shannon even voiced support for political reform in Ecuador.

Moreover, Correa did not describe his policies in the same grandiose terms as Chávez, who said he was leading a "revolution" for Venezuela's poor. “Correa is a pragmatist,” said Werner Baer, an economics professor who taught Correa at the University of Illinois. “He is not as aggressive as Chávez, and his agenda is to govern and reform effectively. He is not using anti-Americanism as a tool.”

In another rebuff to Chávez, Correa started to back down from his previously enthusiastic statements in support of ALBA. Speaking to the Associated Press, the Ecuadoran President said that the initiative was “ambiguous” and that he didn't “even understand it.”

When Chávez called on ALBA member nations to begin preparations for a joint Defense Council to counter Washington’s military influence, Ecuador categorically rejected the proposal. If that was not enough, the Ecuadoran Ministry of Foreign Relations, Commerce and Integration said Ecuador would not participate in Chávez’s initiative even though it considered ALBA’s overall objectives to be “valuable.”

Correa said he would not join ALBA until the “objectives [and] actions of said organization become more consolidated.” The Ecuadoran President would not exclude the possibility of one day joining ALBA, but “for the moment the decision of the government is not to participate.” Though Ecuadoran officials did not explain their rationale for the decision, Chávez’s refusal to rejoin the Andean Community may have played a role. As early as December 2006, Correa had conditioned Ecuadoran participation in ALBA upon the return of Venezuela to the regional trade bloc.

Behind the official explanation however, could Correa have concealed other motivations?

At this point small, impoverished nations like Ecuador are no doubt eyeing the upcoming U.S. presidential election. If Obama should win, perhaps the wider region might receive greater economic assistance from Washington. Given this fact, Correa and some of his regional counterparts may believe that it is better to wait rather than precipitously embrace a plan like ALBA.

Ecuador and other countries may also be skittish because Chávez’s political fortunes have recently taken a hit. With a slight question mark now hanging over the future of the Bolivarian Revolution, Ecuador is hardly rushing to jump on the Chávez bandwagon.

In fact, Correa has been careful to stress his differences with Chávez. Last year, when the Venezuelan leader announced that he would press for a constitutional reform that would abolish presidential term limits, Correa said he had no desire to pursue a similar political strategy for Ecuador. The Andean nation’s new constitution, Correa said, should allow two consecutive four-year terms, a change from the current system that allowed for just one. Though an avowed socialist, Correa moreover promised that the Ecuadorean Constitution would not "impose any kind of ideology."

A Dent in Chávez’s Armor

Even worse, Chávez’s proposed constitutional reform proved to be a political bust and may have led erstwhile supporters such as Correa to doubt the Bolivarian Revolution’s long-term viability. Having won reelection in 2006 to a six-year term, Chávez hoped to build on his ballot box success by promoting a constitutional referendum. Though Chávez and his followers had already enacted a new constitution in 1999, the President claimed that the document was in need of an overhaul so as to pave the way for a new socialist state.

Chávez sought to reduce the workweek from 44 to 36 hours; to provide social security to informal sector workers such as housewives, street vendors and maids; to shift political power to grassroots communal councils; to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or health; to extend formal recognition to Afro-Venezuelan people; to require gender parity for all public offices; to formalize the right to adequate housing and a free public education; to protect the full rights of prisoners, and to create new types of property managed by cooperatives and communities.

The progressive provisions would have done much to challenge entrenched interests in Venezuela and encourage the growth of a more egalitarian and democratic society based on social, gender, racial, and economic equality. Unfortunately, Chávez sabotaged any hope of success by simultaneously seeking to enhance his own personal power.

Since the inception of the Bolivarian Revolution, there had been a constant tension between grassroots empowerment on the one hand and the cult of personality surrounding Chávez on the other. In pressing for his constitutional referendum Chávez played right into the hands of the opposition which had always claimed that the Venezuelan leader’s secret agenda was to concentrate power in his own hands.

Under the constitutional reform, Chávez could declare a state of emergency and the government would have the right to detain individuals without charge and to close down media outlets. Chávez's own term limit would be extended from six to seven years, and he would be allowed the right to run indefinitely for president. Inconsistently, however, governors and mayors would not be allowed to run for reelection.

On election day, the opposition failed to increase its voter share but was able to eke out a tiny margin of victory when some of the Chávez faithful grew disenchanted and failed to turn out to vote. True, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded vocal anti-Chávez students who campaigned against the referendum and the CIA could have played a role in helping to strengthen the opposition. But no matter how much the Venezuelan President railed against the United States and outside interference, ultimately the Chavistas lost because of their own tactical missteps.

Perhaps, if Chávez had merely backed the progressive provisions within the referendum and not tried to increase his own power, the vote would have tipped the other way. But by backing the retrograde measures Chávez gave much needed ammunition to the opposition.

The Zenith of Chávez’s Power

Failure to pass the constitutional referendum surely represented a severe setback for Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, but did not necessarily represent a total rout. Unfortunately, the Venezuelan President played right into the hands of the opposition again by backing an unpopular intelligence law. The new law required Venezuelans to cooperate with intelligence agencies and secret police if requested; refusal could result in up to four years in prison. Moreover, the law allowed security forces to gather evidence through surveillance methods such as wiretapping without obtaining a court order, and authorities could withhold evidence from defense lawyers if it was considered to be in the interest of national security.

Concerned about the new legislation, rights groups claimed that the proposed measure would threaten civil liberties. "Among other problems with this law, any suspect's right to defense can be violated, and that's unacceptable," said Carlos Correa, a leader of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea. Correa compared the law to the Patriot Act in the United States, which gave U.S. law enforcement agencies greater powers to intercept communications and investigate suspected terrorists on U.S. soil after the 9/11 attacks.

Defending his legislation, Chávez argued the measure would help Venezuela guarantee its national security and prevent assassination plots and military rebellions. The president, who called the U.S. Patriot Act a "dictatorial law," denied the Venezuelan legislation would threaten freedoms saying it fell into "a framework of great respect for human rights.” Following an outcry from human-rights groups, however, Chávez repealed the decree less than a fortnight after its introduction.

Chávez: Facing an Uphill Political Battle

Emboldened by Chávez’s tactical mistakes, the opposition is hoping to stage a comeback on November 23 when Venezuela votes for new state governors and mayors. During regional polls in 2004, the president and his followers wound up with 20 of the country's 23 state governorships. Since then, a couple of states have defected to the opposition. Chávez’s foes hope to win some 100 municipal elections and several more states in November with the hope of leaving the president with only 14 governorships.

In November, the Chavistas are facing a two-pronged problem. To begin with, the opposition may have won some support from moderate Chavistas who are scared of radical change. Perhaps even more seriously, the president’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) could lose the vote of disaffected former Chavistas who blame bureaucracy and corruption for sabotaging the revolutionary process. If this constituency stays home and abstains from voting, it could be a disaster for Chávez and his movement.

Chávez clearly understands the high stakes. The upcoming regional elections, he declared, were “the most important in Venezuelan history.” Indeed, an opposition victory could pave the way for the rise of a more moderate political figure on the national stage. Though the traditional Chávez opposition has largely been discredited, former Chávez allies who have broken with the president could now rise to prominence. If a less polarizing leader should come to power in Venezuela, he could cause a lot of damage by derailing radical reform under the guise of reconciliation and bringing pro- and anti- Chávez forces together.

One figure that has recently captured the spotlight is Raúl Baduel, a Venezuelan general and former Minister of Defense. Though Baduel was instrumental in restoring Chávez to power amid the April 2002 coup, he later broke with the president by criticizing the failed 2007 constitutional reform. It would be tempting for the State Department to try and pry off former Chavistas like Baduel in an effort to derail the Bolivarian experiment.

Even if the opposition fails to produce a charismatic leader, other options are on the table. If it wins in November, for example, the opposition might feel emboldened to intensify its campaign to remove the Venezuelan president, either through a constitutional referendum in 2010 or by more violent means. At the very least, a new drubbing at the polls would be likely to dash any hope of reviving Chávez’s plan to evade the constitutional ban on his re-election in 2012. A reaffirmation of the expiry date of Chávez’s presidency would in turn fire the starting gun of the race to succeed the maverick politician.

Scenario #1: Obama

For all its internal contradictions, missteps and even failures, Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution remains the most progressive hope for change in the hemisphere. If it should sputter or somehow get derailed then small nations such as Ecuador, which are already skittish about Chávez, will be even more reluctant to support Venezuela’s international goals. Within the new political milieu, idealistic and progressive initiatives such as ALBA could be increasingly sidelined.

Currently in the U.S., Barack Obama is leading in the polls. If the Illinois Senator manages to win the White House in November, Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution could be placed in a quandary. At first glance it might seem as if a Democratic win in November would benefit Venezuela. Obama after all once declared in a presidential debate that he would be willing to meet with Chávez in an effort to improve U.S.-Venezuelan relations.

On the other hand, an Obama victory would take a lot of wind out of Chávez’s sail. To an extent, Chávez was able to leap on to the world stage as a result of U.S. misdeeds and imperial misadventures. The war in Iraq is enormously unpopular in South America, and Chávez has been able to raise his profile as a result of his long-standing criticisms of U.S. foreign policy. It is difficult to imagine that Chávez would have achieved the same degree of political notoriety had Bill Clinton been in office and not George Bush.

If he were to win, Obama would start off his administration with an enormous amount of goodwill in South America simply by dint of his racial origins. Many Afro-Latinos in South America—particularly in Brazil—would see an Obama victory in Washington as an enormously positive social step. (For more on this subject, see my recent NACLA article: "President Obama? The Likely Reception from Brazil").

Obama could capitalize on this goodwill by withdrawing troops from Iraq. The new U.S. president could then increase economic aid to impoverished South American countries or promote free trade deals with small nations such as Ecuador. Chávez has long decried the excesses of globalization, but Obama might be able to steal some of the Venezuelan leader’s thunder by negotiating separate trade deals that protect labor and the environment. In this way, Obama could put a break on ALBA expansion and frustrate Chávez’s international ambitions.

Scenario #2: McCain

On the other hand, were John McCain to win then Chávez’s political fortunes would improve immensely. McCain has chaired the International Republican Institute (IRI) since 1993. Ostensibly a non-partisan, democracy-building outfit, in reality the IRI serves as an instrument to advance and promote the most far-right Republican foreign policy agenda. More a cloak-and-dagger operation than a conventional research group, IRI has aligned itself with some of the most antidemocratic factions in the Third World. One of the least known Washington institutions, IRI receives taxpayer money via the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID.

In Haiti, IRI helped to fund, equip, and lobby for Haiti's two heavily conservative and White House-backed political movements, the Democratic Convergence and Group 184. The latter group, comprised of many of the island's major business, church and professional figures, was at the vanguard of opposition to Jean Bertrand Aristide prior to the Haitian president's forced ouster in 2004. At the same time, IRI funneled taxpayer money to hard-line, anti-Castro forces allied to the Republican Party.

In Venezuela, IRI generously funded anti-Chávez civil society groups that were militantly opposed to his government. Starting in 1998, the year Chávez was elected, IRI worked with Venezuelan organizations to produce anti-Chávez media campaigns including newspaper, television, and radio ads. Additionally, when politicians, union, and civil society leaders went to Washington to meet with U.S. officials just one month before the April 2002 coup, IRI picked up the bill. The IRI also helped to fund the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (which played a major role in the anti-Chávez destabilization campaign leading up to the coup) and Súmate, an organization involved in a signature-gathering campaign to present a petition calling for Chávez's recall.

McCain has taken a personal interest in IRI's Cuba work and praises the anti-Castro opposition. The Arizona Senator has called Cuba "a national security threat.” He promised, "As president, I will not passively await the long overdue demise of the Castro dictatorship ... The Cuban people have waited long enough." McCain wants to increase funding for the U.S. government's anti-Castro radio and TV stations, seeks the release of all Cuban political prisoners, supports internationally monitored elections on the island, and wants to keep the U.S. trade embargo in place. McCain's most influential advisers on Latin American affairs are Cuban Americans from Florida, including Senator Mel Martínez and far-right House Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen.

On Capitol Hill, McCain has championed pro-U.S. Latin American regimes while working to isolate those governments rising up to challenge U.S. hegemony. On Colombia, for example, McCain has been a big booster of official U.S. policy. Despite Colombia's status as a human rights nightmare, the Senator supports ongoing funding to the government of Álvaro Uribe so as to combat the "narco-trafficking and terrorist threat." McCain visited Colombia to drum up more support for the counter-insurgency and drug war, now amounting to billions of dollars a year. McCain's foremost fear is that the Democrats may turn off the money flow to Uribe. "You don't build strong alliances by turning your back on friends," he has said.

McCain seeks to confront countries such as Venezuela and Cuba by encouraging U.S. partnership with sympathetic regimes that support U.S.-style free trade. "We need to build on the passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement by expanding U.S. trade with the region,” he said. "Let's start by ratifying the trade agreements with Panama, Peru, and Colombia that are already completed, and pushing forward the Free Trade Area of the Americas." Concerned about growing ties between Cuba and Venezuela, McCain claimed, "[Chávez] aspires to be this generation's [Fidel] Castro. I think the people of Venezuela ought to look at the standard of living in Cuba before they would embrace such a thing."

Speaking in Miami's Little Havana, McCain said that "everyone should understand the connections" between Evo Morales, Castro, and Chávez. "They inspire each other. They assist each other. They get ideas from each other. It's very disturbing." McCain said Chávez breathed "new oxygen" into Castro's rule, and that the U.S. government should do more to quell “dictatorships” throughout Latin America.

Mr. Big Stick in the Caribbean and Central America

If McCain were to win the upcoming presidential election, Chávez could then turn to the Venezuelan electorate and say: “McCain’s right wing agenda for Latin America is clear. We must now do our utmost to preserve Venezuelan sovereignty from U.S. imperialism.” By cultivating such rhetoric, Chávez might rally the PSUV party faithful just three weeks before regional elections in Venezuela. Though he’s unlikely to match past success at the polls, perhaps Chávez can minimize the political damage and lose just a few governorships.

Back in Washington, McCain might continue U.S. assistance to right-wing Cubans. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, some island nations such as Haiti and Dominica have tried to navigate a delicate balancing act by maintaining friendly ties to the U.S. and also Venezuela. A McCain administration is unlikely to tolerate such subtle diplomatic nuances and would probably act to halt Chávez’s political influence in the region in one way or another.

Similarly, McCain is unlikely to look upon the rising Pink Tide sweeping from South America into Central America with much approval. A long-time foe of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, McCain might try to destabilize the regime in Managua and prevent the left-wing frontrunner from taking power in El Salvador in advance of the country’s March 2009 presidential election.

Such a scenario would work to Chávez’s advantage. The Venezuelan leader could justifiably claim that the U.S. was resorting to classic interventionism in its so-called “backyard.” It’s easy to imagine how the war of words and heated rhetoric might escalate from there. If McCain stepped up aid to the Venezuelan opposition, then Chávez could talk about the need to fortify and protect the Bolivarian Revolution, thereby shoring up his political base.

South America’s New Political Trajectory

Within such a polarized political climate Chávez might even succeed in passing his constitutional reform, thereby extending presidential term limits. If the reform contains many of the progressive measures of the original proposal, Chávez might regain political momentum throughout South America, consolidate his socialist state, and rekindle some of the political enthusiasm that characterized his movement from 2002 to 2006.

Members of South American’s Pink Tide are unlikely to view a McCain administration with much favor, particularly if the new president continues to prosecute the war in Iraq. Argentina, which has no love for the kinds of neoliberal economic policies espoused by McCain, and which has maintained decidedly frosty relations with Washington, would probably deepen its diplomatic and political alliance with Venezuela.

Thus far, Chávez’s ALBA alliance hasn’t constituted a particularly formidable bloc of countries, but Venezuela might be able to extend its geopolitical reach somewhat if McCain is in power. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that Correa would seek to cut a free trade deal with a right-wing administration in Washington. If McCain continues the Bush policies in South America, then Ecuador and other countries like Paraguay might look to Venezuela as a regional leader and sign up for ALBA.

Up to now, the biggest thorns in Chávez’s side have been Colombia and Peru. Even as the wider region lurches leftward, these two nations doggedly maintain strong commercial and military ties to the United States. On the other hand, there’s been tremendous social and political resistance to neoliberal economic reforms in both countries as of late. While it’s unlikely that the left might come to power in these two Andean countries, such a possibility can’t be entirely discarded. If the political landscape were to suddenly change, Chávez might even consider rejoining the Andean Community. Within such a scenario, Venezuela would have much more influence over the course of future political and economic integration in South America.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).

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