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Hugo Chavez: ‘21st Century Socialist’ or Populist Strongman?

The formula ‘socialism of the 21st century’ encapsulates the hopes that many leftists throughout the world placed in President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and his so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ or ‘Bolivarian Process.’ (‘Bolivarian’ refers to Simon Bolivar, commander of the army that defeated the Spaniards in 1821 and won independence for Venezuela and other Spanish colonies in the north-western part of South America.)

The term ‘21st century socialism’ was coined by Mexican sociologist Heinz Dieterich Steffan, who served as an adviser to Chavez for several years but fell out with him in 2011. It conveys the idea that Venezuela is pioneering a new and exciting ‘socialism’ for the new century, based on grassroots participation, in contrast to the stodgy bureaucratic ‘socialism’ (what we call state capitalism) of the 20th century.

Defying the Yanquis

The regime established by Chavez in Venezuela over his 14 years in office also has appeal as a less tarnished substitute for Castro’s Cuba. Chavez was a charismatic leader with much of the flamboyance of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro –and the same penchant for making speeches of inordinate length. His speeches, like theirs, thundered defiance of the Yanqui tyrants to the north. Unlike Castro, however, Chavez won office by electoral means (after an earlier attempt to seize power in a military coup failed). Nor did he have the embarrassing habit of imprisoning his domestic critics.

Given the long history of US domination and aggression in Latin America, the continuing appeal of anti-US rhetoric is understandable. Nevertheless, in the 21st century it is rather out of date. US hegemony over the Americas has already given way to a new and more complex structure of capitalist competition. The US remains actively involved in this new game, but the players also include rising regional powers like Brazil –and Venezuela itself –and Eurasian powers like China and Japan. Pretending to refight old battles is a way of obscuring the new reality.   

The social missions

This is not to deny that Chavez’sappeal derived partly from his achievement of real social reforms. Venezuela is a major oil exporter and the oil industry has been nationalised since 1975. Chavez was able to devote a part of state oil revenue to social programmes. Funds were allocated mainly to a series of ‘social missions’ that were established in 2003 in order to improve healthcare, education, housing and nutrition in the barrios (shanty towns) surrounding Caracas and other cities.      

Observers take different views of the impact of these social programs. The account by German Sanchez, Cuban ambassador to Venezuela, is peppered with superlatives like ‘tremendous’ and ‘magnificent’ (Cuba and Venezuela: An Insight Into Two Revolutions, Ocean Press 2007, Ch. 4). The Venezuelan anarchist Rafael Uzcategui talks more about the limitations of the programs. For example, slum dwellers now have easier access to treatment for relatively minor ailments at neighbourhood clinics staffed by Cuban and Venezuelan physicians. But when they fall seriously ill they still have to rely on public hospitals that remain overcrowded and underfunded. Housing standards are still grossly inadequate (Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle, See Sharp Press 2010).

Uzcategui also points out that many poor people, especially in Venezuela’s vast interior, have received no benefits from the missions and that spending on social programs has been dwarfed by military expenditure, including costly arms imports.

Clearly there has been a modest but significant improvement in the material conditions of ordinary people under Chavez. According to official statistics, in the course of the 2000s the proportion of the population in ‘extreme poverty’ fell from 23 percent to 9 percent and the unemployment rate from 15 percent to 8 percent. Real wages rose on average by 1 percent per year against a background of rapid inflation. 

Trotsky, Mao, Marx, Jesus, Bolivar

Chavez defined his political credo in different ways at different times. Soon after being sworn in as president he declared that he was a Trotskyist. When he visited China in 2008 he assured his hosts that he was a Maoist. In a speech to the national assembly in 2009, he explained: ‘I am a Marxist to the same degree as the followers of the ideas of Jesus Christ and the liberator of America, Simon Bolivar’ –in other words, in an extremely loose sense.

The longest-lasting influence on Chavez was undoubtedly the legacy of his hero and model, Bolivar, remembered as a social reformer as well as a fighter for national independence. He also enthusiastically admired the Castro regime in Cuba, denying that it was a dictatorship. On a visit to Cuba in 1999 he declared: ‘Venezuela is travelling toward the same sea as the Cuban people –a sea of happiness, real social justice and peace.’ It is therefore very difficult to argue on the basis of Chavez’public statements that he really had a vision of socialism radically different from twentieth-century state capitalism. 

Deals with capitalists

Despite all his talk about revolution and socialism, Chavez’relations with capitalists at home and abroad were by no means wholly confrontational. The most that can be said is that he was in conflict with some capitalists some of the time.

In particular, telecommunications magnate Gustavo Cisneros, whose fortune is estimated at $6 billion, was initially hostile to Chavez. Observers suspect that Cisneros was behind the failed coup of April 2002. Then in June 2004 the two men met. It is not known what was said at this meeting, but they seem to have come to a deal. Commentators on Cisneros’television station Venevision suddenly switched from an anti-Chavez to a pro-Chavez line. Presumably in exchange, Chavez refused to renew the broadcasting license of Cisneros’main competitor, in effect granting his new ally a monopoly.

Chavez never tried to keep out foreign companies. In March 2009 McDonalds had 135 outlets in Venezuela and was selling more fast food there than in any other country of the region.

Chavez posed as a defender of Venezuela’s natural resources against the machinations of greedy foreign corporations. In reality, he concluded agreements with Chevron, BP and the Spanish oil company Repsol. He also pushed through legal and constitutional changes that may open the door to the gradual re-privatisation of Petroleos de Venezuela, the state oil company. It is now possible to establish mixed state-private enterprises with up to 49 percent foreign ownership for the development of new oil and gas deposits.

‘Petroleum socialism’

Chavez was committed to continued reliance on hydrocarbon exports –indeed, so deeply committed that he christened this model of capitalist development ‘petroleum socialism!’ Venezuelan leftists had never been fond of ‘the devil’s excrement’ and were especially concerned with the social and environmental consequences of an oil-based economy, but they stopped expressing these concerns after Chavez came to power. A documentary on the oil industry by Italian film-maker Gabriel Muzio (Our Oil and Other Tales), though sponsored by government agencies, was suppressed when they learned that Muzio had focused on these issues.

Besides oil and gas, there are also plans for a large-scale expansion of coal mining in Zulia State. Before these plans can be implemented, however, the Venezuelan government will have to overcome stiff resistance from environmental groups and local indigenous communities trying to defend their homes against the steamroller of endless capital accumulation.

In a world divided into competing states, of course, the government of any country –however ‘socialist’ it may claim to be –is naturally going to be highly reluctant to renounce the potential financial gain from selling its country’s natural resources. Only collective action at the global level can establish the fundamentally new society that we call socialism.    

Comandante-presidente

The priority that the armed forces enjoy in the allocation of state funds has already been mentioned. This is not the only militaristic aspect of the ‘Bolivarian’ regime.

Chavez appointed hundreds of military men to state posts, including some notorious for their abuses. For instance, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Luis Reyes Reyes, as governor of Lara State from 2000 to 2008, oversaw the formation of police death squads that carried out five massacres of civilians. In 2008 Reyes Reyes was recalled to Caracas and promoted to ministerial level.

According to records kept by the Committee of Victims Against Impunity, ‘the police have committed more murders during the so-called Bolivarian Process than during the presidencies of Betancourt and Leoni, whose regimes are remembered as the most repressive of the Fourth Republic’ (Uzcategui, p. 198).

Chavez began his career as an army officer and at heart that is what he remained. He made constant use of military expressions in civilian contexts –for instance, calling election campaign groups ‘Units of Electoral Battle’. He liked the title of ‘commander president’ (comandante-presidente) and frankly sought to monopolise power. Appealing in 2001 on the radio to his supporters to form ‘Bolivarian circles’ in various walks of life, he saw fit to remind them: ‘Remember that I’m going to start giving instructions as the leader’ (Uzcategui, p. 173).   

Thus, there are good reasons to question not only Chavez’credentials as a socialist (of any century) but even his attachment to democratic principles. He bore a strong resemblance to the traditional Latin American image of the charismatic populist strongman or caudillo. In Venezuela this image is rooted in the foundational myth of Simon Bolivar. It is also embodied in a long line of popular heroes who adorn the history of Latin America, from the Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata to Argentina’s Juan Peron.

Popular power?

And yet many people have been impressed by the appearance of extensive popular participation under Chavez –surely the diametrical opposite of a personal dictatorship. How can these things be reconciled?

The public scene in Venezuela does indeed abound in active social movements –trade unions, cooperatives, neighbourhood groups, campaigns for human rights, environmental organizations and many others. An upsurge in grassroots activity did coincide with the rise of Chavez and the consolidation of his power, but that leaves open the question of the relationship between the two processes.

In rhetorical and symbolic terms, Chavez always appeared sympathetic to popular participation. This helped him build and maintain his support base and get elected president.

An example of participatory symbolism was the insertion of the phrase ‘of popular power’ into the names of government ministries. Thus, the Ministry of Education became the ‘Ministry of Popular Power for Education’ (Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Educacion). This, of course, did nothing to make ministries less bureaucratic or more participatory.

Co-optation, surveillance, repression

The real policy of the Chavez regime regarding social movements was a mixture of co-optation, surveillance and repression. Efforts were made to incorporate grassroots activists into official structures such as the community councils. Those who allowed themselves to be incorporated lost their autonomy and came under the control of the state bureaucracy. Those who resisted co-optation, smeared as supporters of the ‘fascist’ right-wing opposition, were harassed and intimidated by vigilante groups trained, armed and funded by the state. These groups also collected ‘social intelligence about workers, homeless people, street vendors and other social sectors with a proclivity to generate conflict’ (Uzcategui, p. 202). Finally, increasing use was made of the police and army to suppress protests and demonstrations.

The ‘Bolivarian’ leaders who succeed Chavez, lacking his popular charisma, may well resort to even greater use of repression. We hope that the demise of the hero will awaken leftists outside Venezuela from their trance and enable them to take a more critical and realistic view of the situation in that country.

There is no need to deny that in all likelihood Hugo Chavez was motivated by the best of intentions, or that worthwhile social reforms were achieved under his presidency. Nevertheless, like all other mortals, Chavez was susceptible to the corruption of power. That is one of the reasons why even the most benevolent tyranny cannot lead to a free classless society. The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.