Can the Bolivarian revolution survive the Venezuelan crisis?

This essay originally appeared at roarmag.org

Creating the space for and allowing the Bolivarian Revolution to flourish is perhaps the most important achievement of Venezuela’s Chavista government — but can it survive the current crisis?

In Venezuela, the eyes of the global media and commentators are fixed on the battle for the presidency, with the country’s legitimate president Nicolás Maduro in one corner and the US-backed President of the National Assembly and self-declared head-of-state Juan Guaidó in the other. Fears of a US intervention or civil war are widespread, while criminal sanctions imposed by foreign powers — the US in particular — combined with government corruption and mismanagement have devastated the national economy.

The poor state of Venezuela’s economy is often presented by right-wing pundits as a failure of the country’s socialist Chavista governments that have ruled the country for the last 20 years. But this shortsighted analysis ignores both role played by international powers in their efforts to crush the radical socialist experiment that has taken root in Venezuela, as well as the historic gains of the Bolivarian Revolution in the fields of poverty reduction, education, increasing equality, housing, the radical democratization of the country from the bottom up, and more.

To shift the focus away from the battle for the presidential throne, we asked a group of international experts to share their thoughts on the chances of survival of that most important, inspiring and admirable achievement of the Venezuelan people: the Bolivarian Revolution. Expressed in the agricultural and urban communes, the worker cooperatives, social movements and local councils, the Bolivarian revolutionary process preceded the Chavista governments by many years, and the key question right now is: has it a chance to outlast it too?

The replies below look at the Bolivarian Revolution and the Venezuelan crisis from a number of different angles and reach different conclusions — not all of which are necessarily representative of ROAR’s position on the topic. We offer these different perspectives on the assumption that the critical and intelligent reader will be able to make up their own mind as to which reading they find most persuasive, and which position they are most comfortable to align themselves with.

Many thanks to Sujatha Fernandes, Richard D. Wolff, Julia Buxton, Dario Azzellini, George Ciccariello-Maher, Raúl Zibechi, Gabriel Hetland and Cira Pascual Marquina for taking the time to answer the following question:

"Can the Bolivarian revolution survive the current political and economic crisis in Venezuela?"

SUJATHA FERNANDES

Professor, Departments of Political Economy and Sociology, University of Sydney. Author of “Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chavéz’s Venezuela” (2010).

The answer to this question depends on how you define the Bolivarian revolution. In my work, I suggest that there are two parallel and mutually reinforcing components to the Bolivarian revolution. On the one hand, there is the more top-down, electoral phenomenon that was dependent on the charisma of Hugo Chávez as a leader.

On the other hand, there is the “proceso,” as a parallel and underground movement that brought Chávez to office but acts independently of the government and has its own unique trajectory. The proceso has consisted of urban barrio movements, community radio and television, communes and indigenous movements who claim genealogies in the urban guerrilla struggles, campaigns against urban displacement and urban committees that date back to the 1950s and 1960s.

The groups involved in the proceso have suffered varied degrees of demoralization and decline in the face of the current crisis in Venezuela, especially those who were funded through the Bolivarian government or took inspiration from Chávez’s leadership. But although it is unclear how and if the Bolivarian revolution as an electoral phenomenon will weather the current crises of the country, I believe that the parallel movements of the proceso will survive.

They will keep alive a vision of what was valuable in the Bolivarian experiment — the revitalization of democratic local spaces like assemblies, the valorizing of black and indigenous identities as part of social movements and the redistribution of resources toward the poorest in society.

Perhaps one of the most enduring aspects of the vision put forward by several of the urban and rural grassroots organizations in the proceso is their critique of the hegemonic development model that undergirds the Bolivarian revolution, one reliant on the exploitation of ecologically finite resources such as oil and coal. Despite the setbacks suffered by the left in Venezuela right now, it is these grassroots groups who have been planting the seeds for a more radical, ecologically sustainable, democratic and anti-capitalist alternative to emerge.

RICHARD D. WOLFF

Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Visiting Professor at the New School in New York.

I think it can (which is not to say it will). Chavéz and now Maduro had enough time to demonstrate to the mass of Venezuelan people — in policy commitments and real accomplishments — that they were different. They were not another Venezuelan (or indeed Latin American) regime change full of democratic and egalitarian promises that quickly evaporated into the same old, same old.

The mass mobilization of support was and is key, and the same goes for the mass organization of that support into self-reproducing popular institutions carrying out revolutionary policies. Similar processes were also key to the revolutionary successes in Cuba.

The basic conundrum for the US now is that early massive intervention is often politically unworkable — partly because of the history of past US interventions. It increasingly takes time to build sufficient domestic and international consensus for intervention. Time is needed for the carefully cultivated media concoctions and diplomatic maneuvers. That time is also available to the revolutionaries in power.

The latter must grasp the importance of speed and determination in really enabling the mass of poor people to transform their lives outside and against the rules of the pre-existing oligarchies. By doing so, they raise the risks and costs of a possible US intervention. In these very concrete, practical senses, it is “the people’s engagement,” that holds the key to the success of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. Time is also crucial to enable revolutionary governments to find the allies and modalities to build global support for what they are doing domestically.

Institutions of popular participation in both political and economic decision-making processes are crucial. Worker cooperatives producing goods and services need to be developed to support citizens’ councils of political governance and vice-versa. That is a necessary basis for real power from below. Movement in that direction gives solidity to the idea of a new world being constructed. Belief in that idea is itself a material force for the revolution’s survival.

Even if US-led interventions overthrow Maduro, the more Venezuelans organize along the lines specified above, the greater their contributions to the other revolutions, present and future, across Latin America and beyond.

JULIA BUXTON

Professor of Comparative Politics in the School of Public Policy at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.

After two decades following Venezuela, I am at something of a loss as to what the Bolivarian Revolution stands for these days. It is more than ever an incoherent muddling through rather than the grand vision of social justice, regional integration and participatory democracy that it stood for twenty years ago.

In theory, Maduro now has a six-year term ahead of him after his victory in the 2018 presidential elections and his inauguration in January this year. But the country is paralyzed by the two-powers situation — the opposition president of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó having declared Maduro’s re-election unconstitutional and himself as interim president. With the strong, if clumsy backing of the US, Guaidó has been able to sustain his challenge to Maduro for over two months, but so far he has not succeeded in displacing him. In the interim, US oil and other sanctions are biting deep in Venezuela, exacerbating existing hardships without triggering defections from the army or meaningful progression of regime change ambitions.

Maduro’s survival hinges on the sustained loyalty of the armed forces, unity within government ranks and ongoing economic and technical assistance from foreign partners including Russia, China, India, Turkey and Cuba. All will wish to extract rewards for their loyalty and the unpredictability of their support for Maduro is a real vulnerability.

Meanwhile, Maduro will continue to benefit from the nationalist backlash and international anxieties promoted by the inappropriate statements of senior US officials and their threats of war. The perennial divisions and lack of strategy within the opposition movement is also of benefit to Maduro. But surviving is not the same as governing. To salvage some of the last gains of the Bolivarian Revolution, negotiation is the only way forward.

DARIO AZZELLINI

Lecturer at Cornell University, author of “Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela: Building 21st Century Socialism from Below” (2017).

If by “Bolivarian revolution” we refer to the Venezuelan government, the response is not easy. We can affirm that it survived the political and economic crisis better and longer than all its enemies expected. Besides the drop in oil prices and the government’s own mistakes, one other cause of the current crisis is the international pressure on Venezuela, ranging from economic boycotts, financial sanctions and the illegal confiscation of billions of dollars deposited in international banks, to sabotage carried out by mercenaries and terrorist cells.

Over the past 20 years, all efforts by the US, the Venezuelan opposition, some EU countries and the Latin American far-right to achieve regime change in Venezuela have failed again and again. The main reason for this failure is that they do not understand what the Bolivarian revolution really is: a genuine Venezuelan Latin American(ist) mass movement and feeling, hope and real utopia, deeply inscribed in the lived experiences of the Venezuelan people, the urban poor, the rural population, afro-Venezuelans and women.

It is a process of building a socialist society based on self-government, rooted in a bottom up council system. It combines indigenous and Afro-descendent historical communal and cooperative experiences and resistance with different heterodox socialist and communist ideas and genuinely Latin America concepts of popular power. Its expression can be found in the communal councils and communes, the initiatives for workers’ control and cooperatives, endogenous development and agroecology.

If that is what we mean by “Bolivarian revolution,” then there is no doubt that it will survive the current crisis. The relationship between the rank-and-file movements seeking to build a “communal state” — the ideal future state form, according to former president Hugo Chávez — and the government has always maneuvered between conflict and cooperation.

The last years of the Chávez government and the first years under Maduro were marked by increasing conflicts between the constituted and the constituent power. The latter represented by the diverse movements striving towards a communal and cooperative socialism intensified occupying and taking over land and workplaces, demanding workers’ control in state owned companies and more power to the people.

The increased efforts by the US and the Venezuelan right pushing for regime change have brought most of these movements back into the fold of the Maduro government, in order to defend their rights and the possibility to decide on their own destiny.

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER

Author of “We Created Chávez: People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution” (2013), “Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela” (2016), and “Decolonizing Dialectics” (2017).

The Bolivarian Revolution began long before Hugo Chávez. Forged amid the failures and contradictions of the armed struggle of the 1960s and 70s and the community organizing and armed self-defense of the 1980s and 90s, it remained a subterranean force for decades that stood for rethinking the path toward a new kind of socialism imbued with a more radical form of grassroots democracy. None of this is going anywhere.

But the already brutal economic crisis racking Venezuela today will only get worse in the short term. Sanctions imposed by the Trump regime in 2017 have made even the most straightforward international financial transactions nearly impossible. The oil blockade and the new wave of sanctions imposed in recent months amounts to an act of open warfare on the Venezuelan people. The breaking-point is not far off: this is the wager of Trump and the Venezuelan opposition — they think it will be worth it. But the question for the revolutionary left is this: when the breaking-point is reached, which way will things break?

The Bolivarian Revolution has already proven surprisingly resilient, surprising coup plotters in 2002 and 2019 alike. But will the very real legacy of Chavismo — social welfare, radical grassroots democracy and the development of consciousness among millions — be enough to weather this storm? Will revolutionary movements be able to harness the crisis, through a sort of left-wing shock doctrine and jumpstart a revolutionary process that has seen its energy drained and exhausted by forces from within and without? No one knows how this will turn out, and anyone who promises to know the future is lying to you.

But what is clear is that the only radical path forward is through the Revolution, not with an elite opposition that would brutally roll back history, but equally not with the hand-wringing immobility of the “neither-nor” positions that dominate even leftist media today. In this process, the position of Venezuela’s communes will prove decisive. Spread across the countryside and urban areas, the communes stand today as territories liberated from the reign of capitalism and, support for Nicolás Maduro notwithstanding, from the state as well.

If the opposition seizes the state and moves against the communes, they will become entrenched in a resistance struggle that leads who knows where. But this a situation the communes have found themselves in since a long time; waging a war on two fronts against both the right-wing opposition and the right wing of Chavismo. A war to build a different Venezuela, a different economy, a different (non-)state. A war for the liberation of the people, which is to say, a war for communism.

RAÚL ZIBECHI

Researcher in Latin American social movements, political theorist, journalist and writer.

First of all, there wasn’t a revolution in Venezuela. Not in the classical sense of the term, which involves a change of the political regime.

Second, I think the Bolivarian process is going through two great difficulties that lead me to think it is in a terminal phase: an internal crisis of legitimacy and an external aggression led by the United States.

If the Cuban revolution was able to survive the embargo, invasion attempts and many other forms of aggression, it was because there was a strong sense of its legitimacy among the population, who completely supported the regime and the government of Fidel Castro, especially during the first and most difficult years. The Cuban revolution did not survive because of support from the Soviet Union. This was important, but it survived because the Cuban people involved themselves in the process, in many diverse ways.

None of this is happening in Venezuela. The legitimacy of its authorities is being questioned. The traditional bases of support for Chavismo have eroded and a substantial part is now against the government of Nicolás Maduro. The regime is only being maintained by the fear that dominates within the armed forces, who are subjected to strict control, and by the existence of armed “collectives” who monitor and repress the protests.

Part of the population knows that a victory by the opposition would be disastrous for the interests of the popular classes. For this reason, they prefer a government like the current one, rather than a change towards the abyss. But this position is being worn down because the suffering of the Venezuelan people, thanks to the disastrous economic situation, grows deeper and deeper.

The Maduro government’s main argument — namely, that the problems they are facing are a result of external aggression — is ultimately insufficient to explain the current crisis, and the population knows it. The only way for the regime to continue is through more repression and control of the population.

GABRIEL HETLAND

Assistant Professor, Latin American, Caribbean and US Latino Studies, University at Albany, SUNY.

The achievements of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution at its height, roughly 2003-2013, are impressive. During this time poverty and inequality were dramatically reduced. Venezuela experienced a far-reaching if uneven process of popular empowerment, moving some ways towards fulfilling the 1999 constitution’s goal of constructing a “participatory and protagonistic democracy.”

Hugo Chávez accomplished what would have been unthinkable in the 1990s: getting millions to proudly identify as socialists and to think seriously, and creatively, about what it would mean to build a world beyond capitalism. Finally, all this was accomplished in a democratic manner, with Chávez and his party repeatedly winning technically clean elections by large, at times sweeping, margins.

These achievements were worth celebrating when they happened, and they are worth celebrating today. Yet there is no denying that the crisis that has gripped Venezuela since 2014 has obliterated these gains. In the past five years Venezuela’s economy has shrunk by an astonishing 50 percent. Hyperinflation has rendered the currency all but worthless. Poverty and malnourishment have risen to shockingly high levels. An estimated 3.4 million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years.

The government has ruled in an increasingly authoritarian manner: banning opposition candidates, suspending elections it feared losing, repressing peaceful protests (while also engaging in legitimate and necessary actions to suppress opposition violence), distancing itself from the popular movements that gave the Bolivarian Revolution vitality, and even going after dissidents on the left, for example by blocking the critical Chavista website aporrea.org.

It is thus necessary to recognize that, to the extent that it has survived, the Bolivarian Revolution has been deeply battered and is but a shell of its former self. In addition to the government’s criminal ineptitude, a key reason for this is the brutal US sanctions regime, and US support for the most violent far-right factions of the opposition.

Yet, the Bolivarian Revolution is not yet dead. It lives on in the hopes of millions that the positive legacy of Chávez — of state-led redistribution and transformative, open-ended, often-contentious popular empowerment — might yet be recovered. If it is impossible to imagine this happening in the context of continuing US sanctions and threats of war, it is also impossible to imagine without fundamental democratic change.

The popular movements that are and have always been the beating heart of Chavismo need room to breathe. And we must recognize that it is not only the US and the far-right opposition, but also the repugnant Maduro administration, which are making this impossible. For the Bolivarian Revolution to survive, change — through a painful process of government-opposition negotiations leading to free and fair elections — is needed.

CIRA PASCUAL MARQUINA

Writer and editor at venezuelanalysis.com, Political Science professor at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela in Caracas and co-producer and co-host of the Marxist education program “Escuela de Cuadros”.

Only by breaking with the current state of affairs can we open the way for the continuation of the Bolivarian Revolution. And when I say this I mean that the Left of Chavismo needs to force a radical change of course, towards the left.

Basically, this projec can only survive the current multi-dimensional crisis, which includes the imperialist aggression and the government’s inertia, if there is a concerted and collective effort towards the organization of society in communes, as Chavez proposed beginning in 2009.

The commune is the political and economic building block in the transition to socialism. It has old roots both in Venezuela (pre-colonial structures and cumbes) and for the left tradition (Paris Commune, soviets, Chiliying Commune, etc). The commune’s vocation is profoundly participative, involving direct democracy and collective control over production based on social property. Both popular democracy and social property are key to breaking the metabolism of capital, which is alive and well in Venezuela.

As indicated above, Venezuela is facing a multi-dimensional crisis. The distributionist, reformist model that dominated the first decade of the Bolivarian Process (based on a policlassist distribution of the rent, possible only in a period of economic expansion) began to show clear signs of exhaustion in 2014. Add to that a radical drop of oil prices and the collapse of production (both industrial and oil), and the criminal US sanctions put in place in mid-2017, and the result is extreme.

For several years after the first clear signs of exhaustion, the government stalled, allowing a sort of spontaneous liberalization of the economy to occur. More recently, traditional adjustment policies were put in place. These are beginning to produce results: the economy is beginning to “normalize”… but what we are talking about here is the normalization of the economy in capitalist terms. Normalization, in a Third World country, necessarily means that the poor are getting poorer.

Extraordinary experiences of popular power continue to exist: these include the communes but also food distribution cooperatives and workers’ initiatives. Such projects demonstrate that — under extreme circumstances that include new forms of imperialist aggression — participation and collective production can offer solutions to daily problems in an efficient manner while displacing capitalist structures.

To the world outside, our call is loud and clear: Venezuela is a sovereign nation. The US and its allies should stop their multifaceted aggression against our people and our democratically elected government immediately! US intervention, after all, has one main objective from my point of view: erasing the emancipatory objectives of the Bolivarian Revolution, including the communal project.

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    followed this page 2019-04-15 10:01:42 -0400

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