Ten Years of ‘Bolivarian Socialism’ in Venezuela

Hugo Chávez Frías, the current President of Venezuela, was first elected to this office in 1998 and was inaugurated in 1999, now ten years ago.

He had already been a remarkable figure on the Venezolan political scene after having attempted a leftist military coup against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. In those days, the oil kleptocracy of Pérez failed and a series of riots by the poor majority of Venezolans, the so-called ‘Caracazo’, destabilized the government. Pérez had been a self-styled social-democrat, but had submitted his country to the liberal rule and ‘reforms’ of the International Monetary Fund, which disappropriated the people of their public goods and bled dry the urban population by abandoning the policies of gasoline subsidy. As a result, the Caracazo erupted and the army intervened to violently repress the revolts against this organized comprador thievery and the umpteenth case of betrayal by social-democracy. Progressive sections of the military, led by Chávez, attempted a coup against Pérez. The coup failed and Chávez was imprisoned, but Pérez was removed from office and his successor freed the coup perpetrators.

In 1998, Chávez’s new “Fifth Republic Movement” (MVR) obtained an absolute majority of votes in the Presidential elections, with Chávez himself as the candidate, defeating the rightist American-trained economist Henrique Salas Römer. Chávez immediately went on to lay the basics for a reconstruction of Venezolan society, inspired by the legacies of so-called ‘democratic socialism’ (in many ways equivalent to left social-democracy) and ‘Bolivarianism’, the Latin American incarnation of popular anti-imperialism. After duly winning majorities in referenda on the subject, a new Constitution was created for Venezuela, which democratized the structure of political offices without yet undertaking any major social reform. Even this formal democratization was too much however for the aggressive reaction of most South American states, and in 2002 Chávez himself was subject to a coup attempt. This attempt briefly succeeded, but was gloriously defeated by an uprising against the government of the bourgeois leader Pedro Carmona (chairman of the Chambers of Commerce), supported by a general strike and an armed uprising, in the best traditions of socialism. The immediate occasion had been the reorganization of Venezuela’s oil company, on which much of the wealth of the nation depends, by Chávez’s government in an attempt to pry it from the grasp of the Venezolan bourgeoisie. The people then rose up to defend their new achievements and the bourgeoisie was defeated. Chávez had even taken care to hold new elections under the terms of the new Constitution, and was duly elected, underwriting his strong position in taking the struggle against the bourgeoisie to the end.

The way having been cleared for further reforms after the defeat of the bourgeoisie, Chávez’s government immediately started the work of socialization in the economic sphere. Price controls were instituted, organized sabotage by the oil company defeated, and good relations with Cuba were undertaken to allow mutual aid against poverty and lack of healthcare. Although the Chávez government’s favored means of reorganizing the economy seems to be the policy of nationalization, which can be progressive but has limits as to its applicability, it has also emphasized the creation of workers’ councils, although their application so far has been unclear and limited. The hindrances here mainly seem to stem from the attempt to reorganize the economic structures from and by the state. The state has great powers for reform and reconstruction once it is in the hands of the workers and peasants with the support of all well-meaning people, but it cannot on its own create the necessary local democratic structures in the economy that are necessary to fully work towards socialism. This can only be done by the people themselves; and though this has often taken the form of appropriations against a hostile state, this need not be so. The main goal here should be to enable such economic democracy and popular government on the part of the state, but not to get in the way. The main way in which the state can be helpful here is by ruthlessly rooting out the opposition and obstruction on the part of the bourgeoisie, which will attempt to reappropriate, legally or by force, what has been taken from it. Both the coup attempt and the defeated recall election against Chávez are proof of this. This also applies to the actions of certain privileged segments that will attempt to maintain their position through corruption or sabotage, for example in the military of such a country or in its labor aristocracy, if present. A Venezolan example of this would be the complicity of the labor aristocratic oil workers’ union, which by sabotage and obstruction attempted to maintain their own privileged position against the rest of the Venezolan population and its working class. The destruction by the Chávez government of such attempts is to be lauded.

Necessary also of course, in a country such as Venezuela, is the diversification of the economy. If a people is to be independent, it cannot rely on exports alone, and certainly not such volatile exports as oil. Keeping oil profitable depends wholly on the maintenance of a cartel against the great consumers of oil, the industrialized nations, which are in this manner extorted to the benefit of the oil exporters. This necessarily makes oil a highly political commodity and puts a government which relies on it in a highly precarious position. Relying on only one particular commodity for export in general makes one supremely dependent on the vagaries and irrationality of the world market, and as such is an immediate force that subsumes the given society under the laws of capital, often in a dramatic fashion. Although Chávez has funded many succesful social programs with the oil income, which has been as much as possible put in the hands of the ‘Bolivarian’ state, there has not yet been great success in the field of diversification, and it is an economically and politically dangerous course to make social reforms dependent on the capitalist world market. In general it is much to be preferred if reforms are not to be doled out by a magnanimous government hand dependent on the condition of its coffers, as this is a form of charity that although welcome will not last and that creates a further dependency on the bourgeois state. The same also applies to the nationalizations of the cement, electricity and steel sectors; these have been justified by the claim that they exported goods much needed by the country to foreign countries because of higher prices. This may well be true, but a nationalization alone is no guarantee that the working classes of Venezuela will ever see any benefit from it, as long as state and national bourgeoisie are in the way to appropriate their ‘due share’. It is to be emphasized that nationalizations and building socialism are not equivalent acts. Aside from this, the ecological implications of further dependency on oil are clear, and this cannot be part of a long-term plan for the future of Venezuela.

That is not to say that Chávez’s government has not more systematically defended Venezuela’s national self-determination as against the pressure from American and other imperialisms. Not just the alliance with Cuba is a necessary form of mutual defence against the United States, but also the good connections with the clerical regime in Iran and with the bourgeois ‘communists’ in China are clear attempts to use whatever strategic means are at hand to strengthen Venezuela’s position against the United States, and to lift the latter’s heavy hand from the people. Chávez’s initiatives to collaborate with other progressive governments in Latin America to create international structures opposed to the ones dominated by the imperialists are also to be supported, and provide much hope for the future for this continent so ravaged by endless British, German and American exploitation. Chávez has actively supported the left-democratic Morales government in Bolivia and so strengthened the cause of democracy in Latin America, in particular with reference to the oppressed native peoples of that continent. In the meantime, Venezuela has had constant strife with its neighbor Colombia, which has been led by a rightist government under Álvaro Uribe, since the latter accuses Venezuela of supporting the leftist terrorist organization FARC within its borders. The fact the United States has warm relations with the Colombian government and uses the country as a base of operations from which to threaten the rest of Latin America certainly also plays a role in this. Nonetheless, if the allegations regarding the FARC are true, Chávez does ill in supporting this movement in Colombia; during its long protracted guerrilla war against the government it has degenerated into an organized ‘left’ gang fighting a fruitless civil war that most Colombians are sick and tired of. Moreover, Chávez’ personal tendency to bluster and loudmouthed rhetoric has damaged his relations with several countries, something an exposed country as Venezuela can often ill afford. It must be noted though that Chávez has called on the FARC to cease their terroristic activities such as kidnapping.(1)

It must be noted that the ‘Bolivarian’ revolution in Venezuela suffers mainly from the same defects that Marx pointed out in Bolivar’s own original movement: an excessive reliance on the power and charisma of an individual leader figure, to the detriment of initiative from below and greatly increasing the chances of corruption and Thermidor. A Napoleonic style, a “propensity for arbitrary power”, an inclination to sweeping rhetoric but unwilling to follow up with the vast, heavy and severe work of implementing these in practice: these are the consistent weaknesses of Latin American progressive leaders, and Chávez is not the least free of them. It is one thing to challenge the imperialists in one’s own country and to denounce them as what they are; it is another to unceasingly fire bluster at them in their own strongholds, and to make rhetoric that cannot possibly be seen as being more than just that. Chávez should guard for an effect similar to that of the “boy who cried wolf”. As Marx pointed out, Bolivar himself had consistently sought not just liberation, but also aggrandization of his personal power, and threatened the prospects of the former by enhancing the prospects of the latter. As a result, he was constantly forced into ever grander rhetorical schemes to give ideological support to his personal ambition, which could not but lead to disappointment. These disappointments in turn weaken the position of the emancipatory forces themselves, and strengthen their enemies.(2) That in the end this led Bolivar to wage war on Venezuela as leader of Colombia is just an irony of history, given the preceding exposition of Chávez’s foreign policy. The Venezolan people are already on their guard against the personal aggrandizement of power by Chávez himself and his nearest supporters: this is why, despite the deserved popularity of his government, they wisely in a referendum rejected further expansion of the President’s powers in 2007. After Chávez appeared to have learned the lesson from this, they subsequently approved an abolition of term limits, although only with a fairly narrow majority.

Overall, the indicators of performance for the Chávez government, seen purely as a matter of statistics, look very favorable. A summary by the economic institute CEPR stated it as follows:

The current economic expansion began when the government got control over the national oil company in the first quarter of 2003. Since then, real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has nearly doubled, growing by 94.7 percent in 5.25 years, or 13.5 percent annually.
* Most of this growth has been in the non-oil sector of the economy, and the private sector has grown faster than the public sector.
* During the current economic expansion, the poverty rate has been cut by more than half, from 54 percent of households in the first half of 2003 to 26 percent at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen even more, by 72 percent. These poverty rates measure only cash
income, and do not take into account increased access to health care or education.
* Over the entire decade, the percentage of households in poverty has been reduced by 39 percent, and extreme poverty by more than half.
* Inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has also fallen substantially. The index has fallen to 41 in 2008, from 48.1 in 2003 and 47 in 1999. This represents a large reduction in inequality.
* Real (inflation-adjusted) social spending per person more than tripled from 1998-2006.
* From 1998-2006, infant mortality has fallen by more than one-third. The number of primary care physicians in the public sector increased 12-fold from 1999-2007, providing health care to millions of Venezuelans who previously did not have access.
* There have been substantial gains in education, especially higher education, where gross enrollment rates more than doubled from 1999-2000 to 2007-2008.
* The labor market also improved substantially over the last decade, with unemployment dropping from 11.3 percent to 7.8 percent. During the current expansion it has fallen by more than half. Other labor market indicators also show substantial gains.
* Over the past decade, the number of social security beneficiaries has more than doubled.
* Over the decade, the government’s total public debt has fallen from 30.7 to 14.3 percent of GDP. The foreign public debt has fallen even more, from 25.6 to 9.8 percent of GDP.
* Inflation is about where it was 10 years ago, ending the year at 31.4 percent. However it has been falling over the last half year (as measured by three-month averages) and is likely to continue declining this year in the face of strong deflationary pressures worldwide.

Furthermore, the Venezolan government has banned the practice of trawl fishing(4), has blocked foreign mining operations in their country(5), and has correctly identified global warming as a product of the capitalist mode of production(6), thereby giving good examples of how progressive governments can and must take ecological considerations into account when attempting to reform or revolutionize the mode of production.

There is, in summary, much to be praised in the efforts of the Venezolan reform movement. They have not yet liberated themselves from reliance on charismatic state leadership; they have not yet become systematically revolutionary, or displayed the necessary initiative ‘from the bottom up’ against the logic of capital; they remain in an unstable and exposed position, and have little certainty of remaining in power in the future; they have not gone beyond liberal parliamentarianism, or developed a principled foreign policy. But they have achieved much that is great, and it is always easier to criticize than to actually go out and undertake reforms, especially against such concentrated vile opposition as in countries like Venezuela. At the very least, if they do not or cannot go beyond the point they are currently at, their creation of a ‘really existing’ left social-democracy puts every so-called social democratic party in the world to shame, and the mere fact of pointing out both the possibilities for reform and the limitations of social-democracy in and through political practice would already be a great virtue of the Venezolan movement.

1) “Hugo Chavez tells Colombian rebels to stop kidnapping”. Reuters (Jan. 13, 2008).
2) See: Karl Marx, “Bolivar y Ponte”. In: New American Cyclopedia, Vol. III, 1858.
(3) Weisbrot, Ray & Sandoval. The Chávez Administration at 10 Years: The Economy and Social Indicators. CEPR (Feb. 2009).
(4) Erik Sperling, “Venezuela Bans Controversial “Trawl” Fishing”. Venezuelanalysis (March 17, 2009).
(5) Bernardo Delgado, “Venezuela Limits Foreign Mining Operations”. Venezuelanalysis (Sept. 22, 2005).
(6) Chris Carlson, “Venezuela to UN: Global Warming a Product of Capitalism”. Venezuelanalysis (Sept. 27, 2007).

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