Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Venezuela: Different priorities

Jeffrey R Webber looks at the myths and the realities of the late Hugo Chávez’s impact on Venezuela, and considers the challenges ahead

April 3, 2013
7 min read

chavez

On live television, Venezuelan vice president Nicolás Maduro choked on his words. Hugo Chávez had died of cancer. To his wealthy and light-skinned enemies he was evil incarnate. To many impoverished Venezuelans, his contradictory and eclectic ideology – drawing on the thought of 19th-century Simón Bolívar and Ezequiel Zamora, 20th-century left-military nationalism and anti-imperialism, Soviet-inflected, bureaucratic Cuban socialism, social Christianity, pragmatic interventionist economics, and currents of socialism-from-below – made a good deal of sense, at least insofar as he had come from origins like theirs and had made the right sort of enemies.

For sound reasons, the international legacy of the Venezuelan president for sections of the left has been tarnished by his appalling support for Gaddafi, al-Assad, Ahmadinejad and the Chinese state. But to begin there for an understanding of the profound resonance of his death for the millions upon millions of Venezuelan and Latin American victims of colonial rule, capitalist exploitation and imperial humiliation would be to resolutely miss the point.

This incomprehension is nowhere more evident than in the reporting of Rory Carroll, whose dystopian fantasies about the life and times of Venezuela since 1999 have found their unmitigated expression in the pages of the Guardian, New York Times, and New Statesman, among others, over the past few weeks. For Carroll, the Venezuelan popular classes have been the mute and manipulated playthings of the ‘elected autocrat’, whose life in turn is reducible to one part clown, one part monster. The idea that Chávez is the result of Chavismo – a pervasive groundswell of demands for social change, national liberation and deeper democracy – becomes a fraud. ‘We created Chávez!’ – a popular delusion.

‘As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history,’ Barack Obama said in response to the death of Chávez, ‘the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law and respect for human rights,’ all implicitly absent in the South American country. Although disingenuous in the extreme, this was still more measured than Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper’s comments in 2009, just prior to a Summit of the Americas meeting. There he noted that Chávez was representative of certain leftist leaders in the western hemisphere who were ‘opposed to basically sound economic policies, want to go back to cold war socialism . . . want to turn back the clock on the democratic progress that’s been made in the hemisphere.’

Most lied-about

Mark Weisbrot, a US-based economist with a long record of policy work for Latin America governments, once complained that Venezuela ‘is probably the most lied-about country in the world’. In 14 years Chávez won 14 national electoral contests of different varieties, coming out securely on top of 13 of them. According to Jimmy Carter, former US president, Nobel Prize winner and monitor of 92 elections worldwide in his capacity as director of the Carter Center, these Venezuelan contests were the ‘best in the world’.

In the 2006 presidential race, it was opposition candidate Manuel Rosales who engaged in petty bids of clientelism aimed at securing the votes of the poor. Most notoriously, he offered $US450 per month to three million impoverished Venezuelans on personal black credit cards as part of a plan called Mi Negra. In what his right‑wing critics could only understand as a rare act of agency, the ungrateful would-be recipients apparently aligned themselves on the other side of history, backing Chávez with 62 percent of the vote.

The ‘suppressed media’ mantra is another favourite of the opposition. In one representative report, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists claimed that the heavy hand of the Chávez government wielded control over a ‘media empire’. In fact, as Mark Weisbrot has pointed out, Venezuelan state TV reaches ‘only about 5-8 per cent of the country’s audience. Of course, Chávez can interrupt normal programming with his speeches (under a law that predates his administration), and regularly does so. But the opposition still has most of the media, including radio and print media – not to mention most of the wealth and income of the country.’

At its root, explaining support for Chávez among the lower orders involves neither the complexity of quantum mechanics nor the pop-psychological theory of masses entranced by a charismatic leader. Venezuela sits on oil. Other petro-states, such as those in the Gulf, have funnelled the rent into a grotesque pageantry of the rich – skyscrapers, theme parks and artificial archipelagos – built on the backs of indentured South Asian migrant labourers. They’ve done so, moreover, while aligning geopolitically with the US Empire – backing the wars and containing the Arab uprisings. The Venezuelan state in the past 14 years has been forced into different priorities.

Fire of self-organisation

After the relative modesty of state policy between 1999 and 2002, the extra-legal whip of the right – an unsuccessful coup attempt and business-led oil lockout – lit a fire of self-organisation in the poor urban barrios of Caracas and elsewhere. The empty shell of Chávez’s electoral coalition in the early years began to be filled out and driven forward in dialectical relation to the spike in organisational capacity from below in the years immediately following 2003. New forms of popular assembly, rank-and-file efforts in the labour movement, experiments in workers’ control, communal councils and communes increasingly gave Venezuelan democracy life and body for the first time in decades, perhaps ever. The dispossessed were solidly aligned with Chávez in opposition to the domestic escualidos (the squalid ones who supported the coup), and ranged against the multi-faceted machinations of US intervention and the pressures of international capital. And they were also rapidly transcending the timid confines of government policy.

From above, more state resources consequently began to flow, feeding an expanding array of parallel health and education systems for the poor. According to official national statistics, the cash income poverty level fell by more than a third under Chávez, from 42.8 per cent of households in 1999 to 26.7 per cent in 2012. Extreme poverty dropped from 16.6 to 7 per cent between 1999 and 2011. If these income poverty measures are expanded to include welfare improvements such as the doubling in college enrolment since 2004, new access to health care for millions (with the help of Cuban doctors) and extensive housing subsidies for the poor, it is easy to see how Carroll’s narrative of decay breaks down. This backdrop provides a reasoned explanation for the red tide of mourners. But it doesn’t explain the challenges ahead, and a left that stops here cedes unnecessary ground to thermidorian reaction.

Assuming Maduro’s victory over the right in forthcoming elections, the pragmatic balancing of contradictory elements within the Bolivarian process that Chávez managed to sustain is likely to be much more difficult. The game, ultimately, is not a virtuous circle of mutuality, but a zero-sum competition of classes with opposing interests. The lubricant of oil has blurred this reality temporarily, but different developmental exits in which distinct classes win and lose are likely to come to the fore relatively quickly.

The conservative Chavistas within the state apparatus, the currents of reaction inside the military, the red bureaucrats enriching themselves through manipulation of markets and the union bureaucrats aligned against working-class self-organisation and emancipation are the pre-eminent obstacles of immediate concern. At the same time, the experiences of workers’ control, communal councils, communes and popular assemblies have raised the consciousness and capacities of millions. A dire turn is therefore not a fait accompli. Today we mourn the death of Chávez, tomorrow we return to the grind for socialism rooted in these forms of popular democracy.

This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in Jacobin

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences