Assessing Chavismo

Submitted by Matthew on 7 August, 2013 - 5:31

Pablo Velasco continues his assessment of the legacy of Hugo Chávez by looking at some of the aspects of his government most lauded by the left.


Probably the most common argument made by pro-Chávez supporters is that the extent of welfare spending makes Chavismo a social-democratic reformist project that socialists should support, albeit critically.

The Chávez government prioritised the “missions”, programmes in the areas of health (Barrio Adentro), education (Robinson, Ribas and Sucre) and food distribution (Mercal).

According to official government figures poverty declined from 44% in 1998 to 27% in 2012 and the tendency is downward, while extreme poverty dropped from 17% to 7% for the same period. As well as meeting basic needs, these programmes have given previously excluded communities some control over their lives.

But building a school or putting more doctors into hospitals is not socialism. These welfare measures were a product of the peculiar mode of rule Chávez established in Venezuela. The missions are social interventions to shore up and develop political support for the government. They are part of the state, directly funded by it and bound to its priorities. Principally, the missions are the main means by which oil rents are distributed directly to potential supporters. Those employed by the missions often worked for the Chávez movement in elections.

The improvements should be put in perspective. Other Latin American states such as Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica have also reduced poverty and inequality while improving child mortality and literacy, on a capitalist basis with bourgeois-democratic governments. The Venezuelan missions are funded from the oil revenue — Barrio Adentro was possible because Cuba made available 20,000 health professionals and doctors in exchange for oil.

But despite Venezuela’s energy resources, there are power cuts. Workers face shortages of basic goods such as flour, eggs, sugar and even petrol. Recently there has been massive shortages of toilet paper. Just as with the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe and in Cuba, the provision of basic goods and welfare does not make the regime more progressive, particularly when it is in exchange for social acquiescence and political subordination.

Early on, the Chávez government began lauding the role of cooperatives. It backed companies for social production (EPS), often in factories abandoned by their owners.

Before Chávez there were only 2,500 cooperatives in Venezuela. At their high point in 2004-06, there were apparently 200,000 cooperatives registered by the Venezuelan government.

The vast majority of cooperatives consist of about five members (the minimum required by law), largely bound by family ties. Furthermore some members of cooperatives have pocketed the start-up capital granted by the state or the advances on contracts received from the public sector. Other cooperatives were fronts for existing private companies, which took advantage of state-financed cooperative businesses as sources of non-unionised labour and cheap credit. The oversight agency SUNACOOP has taken legal proceedings against several hundred cooperatives accused of misuse of public funds. Currently around 70,000 are registered, suggesting a dramatic decline in their functioning.

The coops that have survived have not served as vehicles of workers’ emancipation. Instead they have institutionalised the informal economy. Taking strike action is difficult where everyone is supposed to be a “partner”. Self-employment means exemption from some labour laws. Coops have been a cheap source of outsourcing for private firms, particularly to get around more combative permanently employed workers. Coops have also taken state contracts, displacing public sector unionised workers.

Thomas Purcell has argued convincingly that cooperatives and other experiments in the social economy “have functioned as numerous and small-scale mechanisms that allow the government to quickly distribute a portion of Venezuela’s oil wealth (ground-rent) to previously marginalised social groups”. Venezuela’s cooperative experiment “has sanctioned the creation of cooperatives as a practically and ideologically expedient solution to the problem of distributing rent, which, in its present form, does not pose a challenge to rentier-capitalism other than by giving it another name and support base”.

As Marx pointed out in Capital, cooperatives do not offer a mode of life somehow untainted by capital, but “naturally reproduce in all cases, in their present organisation, all the defects of the existing system, and must reproduce them”.

Since 2006, the Chávez government has promoted the proliferation of small neighbourhood bodies known as consejos comunales (community councils) representing between 200 and 400 families.

The government provides each one with about $60,000 to undertake infrastructural and social projects. Around 30,000 consejos comunales have been formed, with many on the left arguing that they represented a new form of participatory democracy and showed the progressive nature of the administration.

By early 2010, several developments signalled the downplaying or phasing out of the community council programme. The Organic Law of Community Councils passed in December 2009 required the community councils to make a series of structural readjustments (a procedure referred to as “adecuación”) in order to retain their legal status.

As a result a large number of community councils failed to reaffirm their legal status within the 180-day limit established by the law.

For those consejos that survived and functioned, there are substantial criticisms. The community councils are financed by the state as a quasi-local government-network without any control over production. They do not have relationship with the labour movement, even with state-owned and co-managed factories.

The councils have been criticised for their failure to use unionised labour for public works projects. Like the earlier and also heralded Bolivarian Circles, these community councils represent the Bonapartist ethos of the “revolution”: an attempt to embed the state deep into civil society, to bypass potentially hostile local officials, and to administer patronage directly from the centre.

The latest attempt to give the Bolivarian movement the veneer of radicalism are the so-called “Socialist Workers’ Councils”.

The Special Law for Socialist Workers’ Councils was originally presented to the National Assembly in 2007 by the Communist Party and was backed by Chávez. Although some councils were created, they only became legally recognised in December 2010.

Rachael Boothroyd, writing on the Venezuelanalysis website (27 July 2011) described the councils as “independent of unions” and “organisations of popular power that allow workers to participate in productive, administrative and management processes in their places of work… a legal mechanism through which the workers can play a ‘protagonistic role’ in dismantling ‘exploitative’ capitalist relations and advance the project of workers’ control”.

Chavista apologists such as Jorge Martín from the misnamed International Marxist Tendency (4 August 2011) claimed that “tens of thousands of such councils have been set up, on the initiative of workers from below, in factories, ministries and workplaces throughout the country”.

He claimed that many such workers’ councils have been set up in state-owned companies, institutions, foundations and ministries, where workers see them “more as a tool to fight against the state bureaucracy and for workers' control”.

The irony of workers’ councils being set up by a bourgeois parliament and handed down to the workers seems to have been lost – indicating how far they are from genuine workers’ councils that are established as a dual power in the teeth of opposition from the existing state.

Martín admits that the councils have faced “extreme hostility and harassment on the part of ministers, vice-ministers and other state bureaucrats at all levels”.

Workers have been “sacked or harassed and persecuted, slandered, accused of counter-revolutionary activities “just for attempting to set them up in places like Mision Madres del Barrio (a social programme for mothers in poor neighbourhoods), at state-owned TV station Avila-TV, at the main state-owned channel VTV and even at the Ministry of Labour.

Another scandalous case is the harassment of promoters of the council at Fundacomunal, staffed by people coming from the Frente Francisco Miranda revolutionary youth organisation, and which is supposed to deal with the setting up of the communal councils.

Martín can at least perceive the Kafka-esque irony an institution designed to set up democratic community bodies persecuting its own staff, although he fails to draw the requisite conclusions about the nature of Chavismo.

When the Chávez formed the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) after he won the presidential election in 2006, much of the left in Venezuela — including the nominally Trotskyist left — decided to join it.

Such tactical decisions should flow from an assessment of the class nature of the party, something conspicuously absent from “entryists” such as Marea Socialista.

Sadly even critical thinkers on the international left also lost their bearings on this question. George Ciccariello-Maher argued in the Historical Materialism journal in 2011: “Internally, the PSUV is a battleground, a microcosm of the process as a whole. In other words, the fight needs to be brought to the PSUV, or it will become simply another corrupt patronage-machine. From the beginning, there have been popular victories and popular defeats within the PSUV, but it is too early to tell whether the battle is one that can be won. But by abandoning the battlefield altogether, it will certainly be lost.”

In his recent book, We Created Chávez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution, Ciccariello-Maher argues that the left “must attempt to grapple with the fact that the vast majority of such militants — those who deeply despise corruption, bureaucracy and even the state itself… are still Chavistas, at least for the time being”.

This is a miserable argument, which if it were followed would have meant the permanent subordination of the workers’ movement to bourgeois and other forces throughout history, since “the masses” and even “the militants” often do not start out on their own road.

In a world where bourgeois politics dominates, and the ruling ideas of the epoch are those of the ruling bourgeois class, simply accommodating to the existing level of consciousness of some workers means putting off indefinitely the process of independent working class political representation.

Like other aspects of Chavismo lauded by its international fellow-travellers, the PSUV is the product of Chávez’s Bonapartist project, a bourgeois party impervious to the democratic wishes of workers.

It is the ruling party of a ruling state bureaucracy with no real democratic mechanisms through which rank-and-file members can direct policy, little internal debate and no working class identity other than the fact that large numbers of individual workers have apparently joined it.

Several of the PSUV’s vice-presidents are ministers, while the governors and mayors promote their own slates in internal elections.

As Venezuelan activist Roland Denis put it: “The Party is an apparatus with neither logic nor political efficiency. It is totally lacking in ideological, organisational, and mobilisational coherence. The Party does not have the capacity to do anything. It is simply an electoral machine, in which there are internal battles for access to power within the bureaucratic-corporatist state…

“A whole variety of formerly-autonomous social spaces, at the levels of workers, the peasantry, and so on, have become subsumed within the Party. Between 2004 and today, the consolidation of this bureaucratic corporatist state has advanced forcefully, in no small part as a consequence of the PSUV.”

The Bonapartist nature of the party is summed up by the role of Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, a former military officer who participated in the 1992 coup attempt with Chávez.

In November 2008, Cabello lost the election for governor of Miranda state. He was so unpopular with PSUV members that he was not even elected to its leadership. But Chávez appointed him a vice president of the party. In October 2012 Cabello (still vice-president of the PSUV) announced to the media the party’s candidates for governor in the upcoming election who had been selected by the method of “cooptacion”, much like the Catholic Church chooses its popes.

Another measure of the limits of Chávez’s Bolivarian vision is the limited impact on fighting oppression and domination in Venezuelan society.

The Chavistas argue that women are strongly involved in the missions in the barrios and that the opposition uses extreme racist, sexist and homophobic language and imagery in its publications, which is true. However so do pro-Chávez publications.

In the Historical Materialism discussion, Sujatha Fernandez highlighted caricatures of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the pro-Chávez dailies, ridiculing her African features. She also pointed to the recall referendum-campaign in 2004, when “the pro-Chávez side would use highly sexualised portraits of women in bikinis to promote their cause.

“There was even one picture of a very overweight woman in a g-string that represented the opposition, as compared to a petite woman as Chavista”.

Fernandez argues that these sexualised and racialised images are part of a broader culture in Venezuela where homophobia, racism and sexism are strong.

In the same publication, Roland Denis argued that in Venezuela, “the women’s movement does not exist”. Although there is are feminist currents with journals and magazines that make important theoretical interventions, he says “there is nothing that constitutes a movement, that recognises itself as such, and that is conscious of the historic oppression of women. There is nothing approaching a popular women’s movement”. Denis was a member of the National Assembly in the early 2000s. He recalled the attempt to introduce a law legalising abortion, which was struck down — including by the vast majority of the Chavista women in the assembly. He believes that “it is impossible to pass such a law in the contemporary Venezuelan context”. Similarly, “homophobia in Venezuela is extreme” and “open violence against transgendered people continues unabated”.

It is evident that for the rhetoric, the Bolivarian revolution has not seen the qualitative leap forward on equality that followed for example the Russian revolution, or even the period after 1968.

Chávez became famous across the globe for his attacks on George Bush, and his “smell of sulphur” speech was a spectacular piece of political theatre.

Chávez’s anti-American rhetoric was undoubtedly fuelled by US government interference in the Venezuela, including backing for the opposition coup, the lock-out and various NGOs. However Chávez did not tear up the longstanding economic ties between the two states.

In truth, Chávez was not a consistent anti-imperialist, indeed he was no anti-imperialist at all, unless the term is mangled to mean only opposition to the US. Chávez did more than make allies with despots, he made friends with some of the other big imperialist and sub-imperialist powers across the globe, providing them with political cover, material aid and commercial trade.

According to the Financial Times (7 March 2013) after Washington imposed a weapons embargo on Venezuela in 2006, Chávez stepped up orders for Russian arms. Russia has supplied about $5bn worth of armaments to Venezuela and has orders for about the same amount again.

Similarly, the Financial Times (8 March 2013) claims that the state-owned China Development Bank has agreed to lend Venezuela $32.5bn since 2008, or around half the loans the country received during that period. Almost all these loans are backed by sales contracts for crude oil — apparently around 300,000 barrels a day.

Shipments of oil to China by PDVSA have increased nearly ten times since 2006 and the country now sells around 19% of its oil output to China, which has become Venezuela’s second biggest trading partner after the US. From Beijing’s perspective, Venezuela is now its seventh-biggest supplier of oil.

Even Chávez’s pan-Latin American appeals were really much more about buying influence with oil revenue than international solidarity. The proliferation of aid masked deals with Caribbean countries, with Bolivia, Argentina and above all Cuba that use oil-rents to procure political support. Chávez propped up the decrepit Castro regime in Cuba to the tune of $7bn a year, in return for Cuban military, political and technical support.

This gave the Castro brothers a breathing space, keeping the country in their iron grip, which barely allows the freedom to use the internet, never mind the freedom to organise, to publish and to form a genuine workers’ movement independent of the state.

Chávez made grotesque apologies for Mugabe, Qaddafi, Assad and other despots. The perversity of expressing support for the reactionary Iranian president Ahmadinejad was not lost on Iranian car workers or the countless others suffering oppression in Iran. It epitomised the anti-working class essence of Chávez’s international diplomacy. In 2009 Chávez was lauded by much of the left after he called for the forming a Fifth International.

These efforts were stillborn after it became clear that participants would include the governing Peronist party in Argentina, the misnamed Communist Party of China and Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. Such a conglomeration is about as far from a workers’ international or even a force for democracy as it is possible to conceive. Chávez excelled at absconding with the language of the left and using it for his own purposes. The truly sad thing about much of the left is the manner in which it fell for rhetoric, instead of looking at the reality.

The narrow victory of Nicolás Maduro in the Venezuelan presidential election in April should trigger serious reflection on the left about the limits of Chavismo without Chávez.

Maduro won 50.7% of the vote against right-wing neoliberal opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who got 49.1%. Chavista cheerleaders such as the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign were saying only days before the result that Maduro had a double digit lead over Capriles. Turnout was still high at 78%. There can be few excuses.

Chávez defeated Capriles 55%-44% in October 2012 and his PSUV trounced them in 20 of 23 state governor races in December 2012. Maduro would have expected to gain a strong sympathy vote after Chávez’s death in March. He was the comandante’s anointed successor, served as his vice-president and had effectively been running the government for months. He had the vast weight of the state machinery as well as the PSUV party apparatus behind him. Yet he scrapped home by the narrowest of margins.

The civic-military alliance at the heart of Chávez’s Bonapartist project remains intact, but is likely to fracture in the absence of its figurehead. In March, Maduro made a speech hours before announcing his Chávez’s death, in which he spoke as the head of a “political-military revolutionary command”.

He was flanked by the cabinet, Chavistas state governors and senior military leaders. Rafael Ramírez, head of PDVSA was in charge of voter mobilisation for the Maduro campaign. The defence minister, Admiral Diego Molero Belavia said the mission of the armed forces was to “put Maduro in the presidency”. But there is rivalry between Maduro (representing the civic side) and Diosdado Cabello, representing the military wing.

Chavismo has sunk deep roots into Venezuelan society and is unlikely to be ejected swiftly. As long as the oil money funds the social programmes, the Chavistas will retain a wide base of support. They have probably overcome the worst of the recent economic downturn – though of course further external shocks could upset their plans and they have to come to terms with immediate shortages as well as long term structural problems with the Venezuelan economy. The Chavistas are likely to seek to accommodate sections of the opposition – or at least placate some of its supporters.

However Chavismo as a project is over. Chavismo is likely to decompose into either a more orthodox bourgeois force or a rather meaner military one. The job of Marxists remains unflinching criticism of Chavismo, as the prerequisite for the re-emergence of organised labour as a factor in Venezuelan politics.

Cleansing the international left of illusions in Chávez is part of that task. Without such decontamination, the road to working class self-emancipation will remain blocked.