Hugo Chavez: a "man on a white horse"?

I wonder if anyone here is familiar with the developing situation in Venezuela.

I must confess I had not followed it closely, initially assuming that Pres. Hugo Chavez was just one more "man on a white horse."

However, Chavez has now won a crushing victory in the elections to the Constituent Assembly. My Venezuelan acquaintances more and more talk about how "ugly" things are getting in the same tone of voice as Nicaraguans did two decades ago; and Fidel, in his July 26 speech yesterday, hailed the Venezuelan vote, identifying himself (at least) with the popular movement arrayed around Chavez.

Which needless to say piqued my curiosity, and sent me to gather as much information as I could quickly.

For those less familiar, Chavez is a cashiered army officer who tried to stage a coup a few years ago.

He ran for President against the ultra-corrupt Venezuelan two party system, and smashed them. The two parties wound up uniting around another "independent" candidate last December but could not stop Chavez from getting 55% of the vote.

His stated program included a clean administration, and a vaguely-defined pro-poor "social revolution" to be engineered through a sovereign constituent assembly.

Since taking office, Chavez has reversed Venezuela's reputation for being OPEC's biggest scab (Venezuela has been notorious for years for overproducing beyond its quota), making a decisive contribution to the recovery of crude oil prices. And he waged a successful campaign to win a referendum on holding constituent assembly elections. That election has just been held, and Chavez's forces won all but a handful of the 131 posts. Chavez and his followers have repeatedly promised/threatened to disband Congress and the Supreme Court (the main institutions guaranteeing bourgeois legality, assuming -- as a lot of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie seems to -- that the Executive, now in Chavez's hands, does not).

This sets up something like a situation of "dual power," not kin a Marxist sense, but in the sense that the new constituent assembly will contend with the existing parliament and court for supremacy. The Supremes have already ruled that the CA lacks the competence to disband it, and must limit itself to writing a new constitution, a position explicitly rejected by Chavez and his followers in the campaign. Given the crushing "chavista" majority vote, the issue seems settled, at least from the point of view of formal democracy.

Also, Chavez has mobilized the army in a most peculiar way for a bourgeois army. He has sent them into towns, hamlets and neighborhoods, not as a hostile occupying force, but to build schools, repair roads, provide potable water -- hundreds and hundreds of projects approved under the previous governments but never, in fact, carried out because the money for them was stolen by government functionaries. Specific army units are assigned to specific places, and work together with local community leaders in overcoming resistance to the projects by the government bureaucracy, and the soldiers work on the projects themselves, alongside people hired from the locality.

The Venezuelan army, in other words, is being sent to do some of the same kinds of tasks that the Cuban rebel army undertook in the first months of the revolution.

In addition, Chavez has legalized and encouraged occupation of empty buildings and urban plots by squatters.

None of this, in my opinion, goes beyond the limits of populist demagogy, although mobilizing the people, subjecting the army to the influence of the masses, smashing the old two-party system, and destroying the crowning institutions of formal bourgeois democracy --if this is actually carried out-- might also be the beginning of a more thorough going social transformation. Three are certainly precedents for a wing of the officer corps to act as a surrogate national capitalist class ("Nasserism" is the classic example), although, I don't think, in countries as developed as Venezuela.

Chavez refuses to define himself ideologically, says he will respect foreign investors, that he will draw from the best aspects of all ideologies and so forth and so on -- pretty much the sort of thing one heard from the barbudos in Cuba in 1959, or even from a lot of the Sandinistas 20 years later. But then again, that's not too different from what any number of 100% certifiable bourgeois political demagogues would say -- and a lot milder than the "rap" of real accomplished artists of demagogy, like the Mexican PRI.

So from a quick survey of what's been in a few newspapers, at least the following seems true.

1) Chavez's movement in deeply rooted in and enthusiastically supported by working people, and especially the poorest sections of society, and has support as well from layers of the intelligentsia which has been mortified by the petty corruption of Venezuelan politics. It is opposed by the bourgeoisie, a lot of government bureaucrats, the old political parties and their hangers on, the church hierarchy, i.e., the usual suspects.

2) He has set up a confrontation with the main "legitimizing" institutions of the bourgeois state, and has announced his intention to disband them if they get in the way.

3) He has unleashed a broad, popular mobilization that for the moment at least, has disbanded the traditional bourgeois political parties (The vote for Chavez's side keeps getting higher with each election; and in the one just held, his vote was overwhelming and the level of abstentions was also high, indicating confusion, disorganization, and demoralization among Chavez's opponents, and a deep sense of alienation from the new institution).

4) He appears to have the support or at least acquiescence of the army officer corps; and probably has growing support within the rank-and-file soldiers. Assuming the reports are accurate, it is hard to believe it would be easy to use this army as a repressive force against his movement.

Big questions that I have no information on include his agrarian policy (if any), his ties to any specific bourgeois sector, his relationship to existing labor, student and peasant organizations and struggles that arise outside the bounds of his own immediate agenda.

For all that, Chavez has drawn little fire from the imperialists or the imperialist press. El Herald in Miami is going crazy, but it always does anytime anyone to the left of Attila de Hun emerges on the Latin American political scene. The state department has urged Chavez to "respect" democratic forms, by which is meant bourgeois property. Bourgeois "analysts" fear he's becoming dictatorial and is "militarizing" politics (by sending the army to build schools instead of killing students!), but hold out the hope that he's the right man to get the Venezuelan masses to accept neo-liberal policies.

At the same time, the day after the most recent elections, Gral. Barry McCaffrey is in Colombia talking about providing "international guarantees" to farmers in rebel-controlled territory so they can stop growing coca, which sure sounds like a trial balloon for a more direct and open U.S. military intervention in the region.

So if anyone has more information, and especially any direct, first-hand experience with the situation on the ground, please post it here or put a pointer to where it can be found. Unless I miss my guess Venezuela is undergoing an extremely interesting process.

Jose Perez

Hugo Chavez identifies completely with Bolivar, as was obvious with his timing of saturday night speech simultaneouosly celebrating the 216th anniversary of the Liberator's birth and the constitutional change that would break the power of the 2-party system in Venezuela.

It is important to understand that Chavez and the Colombian guerrillas are fighting a system that is nearly as old as Bolivar's struggle. The 2-party system in Venezuela is identical to that in Colombia. It is a power arrangement which allows the ruling classes to arbitrate their differences while keeping the peasantry and workers disenfranchised and exploited.

The fundamental crisis in Latin America is related to the disjuncture between its social and economic development, and the political structures that are designed to maintain them. Jenny Pearce pinpoints this as Colombia's main contradiction. Colombia enjoyed rapid economic growth during the 1960s and 70s, but the state was incapable of translating this into social improvements on the local level. Even something as basic as clean water delivery and sewage proved incapable of implementation. The outcome is infant diarrhea. The "caciques" who ruled on the local level proved insufficient. While they could offer somebody a job with the local political machine--either Liberal or Conservative--they could not alter the basic structures which caused suffering for the masses.

Chavez and the guerrilla leaders could not accept this and they fought. Chavez organized a coup, which was understandable since he was an officer himself, while the Colombian guerrillas took to the hills. In either case, it was an attempt to restructure Colombian and Venezuelan society.

So what attitude do Marxists take toward Chavez? The SWP dismisses him as a "Bonapartist", which seems to miss the point. Bonapartism is a category that would seem to apply to figures who emerge during prerevolutionary situations, who try to hijack the revolution through the use of radical rhetoric and giving the appearance of standing above both workers and the ruling class. For example, DeGaulle and FDR had certain Bonapartist traits.

In Chavez's case, the more appropriate analogy would be with someone like Nasser or Qaddafi, who both emerged out of the lower ranks of the military and developed strong anti-imperialist credentials. The problem obviously with all such figures is that they are basically not interested in fostering a broad-based, democratically controlled movement. Nor are they interested in arming the masses, who are the ultimate target of the reactionary forces.

In the context of the Latin American political terrain over the past 25 years or so, it is a hopeful sign that Chavez has emerged. It reflects discontent at the popular level that might eventually foster more deep-going revolutionary organizations. I recommend the articles of James Petras, who has been pointing to a resurgence of the Latin American left lately. Although he is more focused on grass-roots movements like the peasant squatters in Brazil, it is clear that Chavez is part of the same broad movement.

The question of what Marxists in Venezuela should be doing right now is very complicated and I wouldn't even venture to speculate in this direction. I would suggest that the task is similar to the one that Argentinian Marxism faced during the rise of Juan Peron.

Louis Proyect

Louis Proyect nos dice(n):

The question of what Marxists in Venezuela should be doing right now is very complicated and I wouldn't even venture to speculate in this direction. I would suggest that the task is similar to the one that Argentinian Marxism faced during the rise of Juan Peron.

Yes. For example, one has to recast the concept "Bonapartism". Because this Latin American reality is so complex, so flourishing, that Bonapartism (that is, the apparent rule of the State over all classes, though in fact developing the project of a particular class) may have a revolutionary meaning here. This was the Argentinian case.

Peronism, for example, was a Bonapartist movement, and one may define the age of Peronism (the 1945-1975 years) as the "age of Bonapartism" without any doubt. The problem for Marxists is that the _form_ Bonapartism may be filled with different contents, in the same way _military dictatorship_ is a very different thing when headed by Sylla and when headed by Caesar. It was a Third World bourgeois, thus revolutionary, bonapartism. Not because it was bourgeois, but paradoxically enough --because it was Bonapartism!

Bonapartism was the necessary outcome of the progressive social backing and elan of Peronism, the way in which the revolutionary contents expressed itself through the straitjacket of the bourgeois programme. Queer as it may sound, true it was.

Chaves, IMHO, is quite ahead of that. I don't imagine Peron enforcing mass politics on the Armed Forces, nor encouraging massive occupations of unused urban estates. He processed both things in a more conservative way. Chavez is well to the left of Peron, which is to say a lot because both share the basic prerequisite of a Latin American revolutionary: Latin American patriotism.


I'm back at the computer after an overnight at the World Fellowship Center, an old (est. 1941) lefty summer camp in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where I heard scholar Steve Ellner talk about the current situation in Venezuela. (World Fellowship is a really neat place, which others in the Northeast region of the U.S. might want to check out as a friendly get-away from the unbearable heat wave we are having. You can stay overnight, or by the week, or whatever. There are lots of people of all ages and ethnicities.) I was able to ask him many questions, both at his lecture last night and at a follow-up session this morning. I have tried below to organize the information accordingly, i.e., as a series of questions and answers, with some of these questions being reformulated and in a somewhat different order than they originally were for simplicity's sake. Best, Jay P.S. The first story which I noticed when I just checked the news on the Net after getting back here quoted some U.S. anti-drug official as saying that Venezuela may become the next center for drug trafficking. The U.S. propaganda campaign is getting reved up. Anti-imperialists need to be very much on the alert here.

*** Who is Chavez?

Chavez is a former junior officer of the Venezuelan military who joined with other dissatisfied junior officers in a secret conspiracy in 1982 to overthrow the government and to end the domination of Venezuela by the corrupt two-party system. The coup happened in 1992 and was suppressed, but Chavez became a popular hero. Chavez went to prison until 1994. He was elected president in late 1998, inaugurated early this year, and has since won overwhelming support -- in a series of referendums and elections he has boldly pushed through using his charisma -- for his efforts to change the political system by rewriting the national constitution.

*** What makes Chavez different from other Venezuelan or Latin American caudillos of the past?

He comes out of the Venezulean military which is different from most other Latin American militaries, in as much as it permits some degree of class mobility for people like Chavez who are not from the upper-classes; it is not dominated by the aristocracy. Moreover, this was not simply a military-based movement. Chavez has tried to build a *"civilian-military movement"* by reaching out to people on the Left and to others who were dissatisfied with the political status quo in Venezuela.

*** Is Chavez comparable to other recent figures in Latin America?

Some people have said what he is trying to do is similar to Fujimori's "self-coup". Fujimori also posed as a populist, before he came into power. But this is not an apt comparison at all. Chavez is a genuine populist with roots among the working classes.

*** What is the base of support for Chavez?

Among the "Chavistas", there are many "new faces". Chavez is enormously popular among the people in the urban slums and especially among people who participate in the large informal economy. (This urban base makes the Chavista movement quite different from the guerilla movement next door in Colombia, which is based primarily among rural people.) His base, however, among the traditional labor movement, at least up to this point, is very weak. One reason is that Chavez has advocated transforming the labor unions so that rank-and-file workers, not only members but all workers including in the informal economy who are currently unrecognized and unorganized, could participate in voting for the leadership. This is perceived by the current labor leaders (who are associated with the AD, the Second International party affiliate?) as a threat to their hold on power.

*** What is the attitude of Leftist parties and groups towards Chavez?

Many Leftists have been attracted to Chavez and lent him their support. Some of his closest advisors are Leftists -- e.g. Chavez's new foreign minister who is a member of MAS -- and, although Chavez does not profess a Leftist ideology, he has clearly been educated through his growing relationship over time with the Left. He has the advantage perhaps of not having been a Leftist earlier in his life who could thus have turned, as many have, toward the Right and neo-Liberalism in the period of defeats for the Left since the 1980s ("the lost decade"). The Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), the biggest party on the Left today and a former split-off from the old CP, which initially supported the armed struggle for power and then turned to Eurocommunism, is currently divided into three factions. But mainly they support Chavez, and they want themselves to become his party if they can. The old CP, which has no mass following, also supports Chavez by and large. Their former General Secretary was just elected to the new Assembly. On the other side, a group called Bandera Roja, which is a remnant of the ex-guerilla movement, opposes Chavez. They had a falling out when they failed to rally support for his attempted coup in 1992. One of the most vocal critics of what Chavez is trying to do is a former Trotskyist (name?) who was once a big-name figure in the Fourth International but has since moved towards the Right.

Chavez professes a great admiration for Fidel Castro, and Castro who came to his inaugural recently said he considered what is happening in Venezuela right now to be the most important political development in Latin American since the Cuban Revolution.

*** What is Chavez's domestic programme?

During the run-up to the election, Chavez spoke out against neo-liberalism and advocated a more just economic system. However, since winning this rhetoric has been toned down somewhat. The main emphasis at present is on reforming the political system through the election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution (which is proceeding quite rapidly). Chavez is a clever military strategist; he is able to choose the appropriate times. He tells people that he has "something up his sleeve". This seems credible. What the right time comes, Chavez will push for economic changes. At present, the initiatives are coming from below -- as in land occupations -- and Chavez has lent them his support. Chavez says he that regards privatization as only "one option" among others, and, in the context of the presentday political consensus around neo-liberalism, to say this sort of thing is radical. While he accepts the privatization of the aluminum industry (steel and telecommunications were privatized already under the previous Perez government), he is, for instance, against the privatization of social security (which was being pushed along Chilean lines) and is in favor of keeping an "integral medical system" which does not discriminate by class against workers and the poor.

*** What is Chavez's foreign policy?

Chavez has tried hard so far to avoid antagonizing the U.S. Nevertheless, Chavez's government is already following a foreign policy which is independent, and at odd on some points, with what the U.S. would like it to be:

(1) voted against censoring Cuba, Iran and China for human rights violations; (2) refused to countenance U.S. DEA overflights from Curacao to Colombia; (3) at the June OAS meeting, led the opposition to the U.S. efforts to establish a formal policy to intervene jointly in a country in *anticipation* of a military coup against democracy -- which obviously could have been used as a pretext against Venezuela -- and put forward a successful alternative resolution which defined democracy as *participatory* rather than representative democracy; (4) supports greater Latin American economic cooperation including unity of all three existing trading blocs against NAFTA; (5) has spoken out against U.S. arrogance in certifying Latin American countries as clean or not on the drug issue, when the U.S. as the biggest consumer of drugs is the real problem; (6) has agreed to provide cheap oil to Cuba and other poor Caribbean countries.

*** What are the limitations of the Chavista movement?

At present, it is a "one-man show". It might well fall apart if something happened to Chavez himself. There is a lack of disciplined cadre in the Chavista movement. Many of its supporters were on the fringe of early leftist movements but were not from the core.

*** What will happen next?

Chavez won't permanently "tone down" nor be satisfied with a few insitutional changes and then move toward the center after he has consolidated power. There is "conflict on the horizon", with the existing power structure and the U.S. What is happening in Venezuela is extremely important, not only for the region and the hemisphere, but for the world as a whole.

Jay Moore

I've posted a few articles about developments in Venezuela over the recent period, but I've been reticent to write anything because I have such mixed feelings about Chavez and his movement.

I lived in Venezuela from 1986-89, where I developed friendly relations with the leadership of La Causa R (Radical Cause), an independent working-class political party based mainly at that time in the unions of Bolivar, a state in southern Venezuela with newly developing industries like steel and aluminum. Sometimes compared to the Brazilian Workers Party, it was actually more like a Leninist organization that had won the support of the majority of the workers in the region because of their indefatigable struggle in the plants and barrios against the corruption of the political and union leaders tied to the bourgeois parties. While never claiming to be socialist, they had developed out of a tiny wing of the Venezuela CP after the failure of guerillaism (their founder, Alfredo Maneiro, had led an armed front), consistently basing themselves on the interests of the workers and aiming for political power for themselves and their allies (in a discussion with Andres Velasquez and Pablo Medina, their two main leaders, I was told that within ten years they expected to be in jail, in power or dead - not the attitude of a bunch of reformists!)

Over the following years, Causa R became the main electoral form for opposition to the two bourgeois parties. Andres Velasquez was elected governor of Bolivar State and Aristobulo Isturiz was elected mayor of Caracas, Because of the ultracentralism of the Venezuelan state, neither had much power, but they did institute popular reforms and attempt to organize democratic local decision-making. In the 1993 presidential elections, Velasquez won about a quarter of the vote, and many more were later found buried in the hills around Caracas. This period was the high water mark for the organization. Their administration of the bourgeois state apparatus in Bolivar and Caracas and involvement in political gamemanship in the national Congress meant that after a while, they were destined to seem like one more party in a country where the masses were sick and tired of parties-as-usual. Meanwhile, Chavez and his supporters, a layer of young officers and some older, mainly ex-Maoist radicals, were gaining support as the ultimate outsiders, jailed for their bold coup attempt.

As the 1998 elections approached, it became clear that Chavez was the choice of Venezuela's poor and working masses, and that the bourgeoisie was unable to find a stalking horse like they had in 1993. Causa R, in response to its political effacement, developed serious internal problems and ended up splitting, with the majority, led by Isturiz and Medina, taking the name Patria Para Todos, The apparent dispute was over policies toward the privatization of basic industries in Bolivar, but another major issue was the willingness of Isturiz and Medina to block with Chavez (the Velasquez-led Causa R totally lost its bearings and ended up supporting Irene Saez, a former Miss Venezuela and bourgeois "good government" candidate, for a period.)

So as we know, Chavez gets elected President in December 1998. with a majority of the newly-elected Congress members of AD and COPEI, the old bourgeois parties. Whatever one thinks of Chavez, his election is a reflection of politization and radicalization of the Venezuelan people, the most important factor in all of this. This is particularly reflected in the convening of a constituent assembly to democratize Venezuelan institutions, a demand that Causa R had been popularizing and that was successfully adopted by Chavez.

Chavez's actions so far, other than convening the consituent assembly, have been a mixed bag. His cabinet appointments have generally been quite radical, - naming Jose Vincente Rangel, a well respected independent leftist, as foreign minister and Ali Rodriguez, a member of Patria Para Todos, as head of the nationalized industries in Bolivar is like naming Noam Chomsky as Secretary of State and a leader of Teamsters for a Democratic Union as the head of a nationalized trucking company. His backing of urban squatters and use of the army for development projects have been well reported. His greatest failure has been his commitment to pay Venezuela's foreign debt and stand by promises to the IMF. His willingness to do so is in my opinion the reason that the US has so far been ready to work with him.

So what should be the attitude of socialists and Marxists to a radical petty-bourgeois regime led by an army officer in a semi-colonial country like Venezuela? This is a very complicated question upon which generations of well-meaning leftists have shipwrecked. Being isolated from the events, we should of course be loathe to give detailed advice to comrades on the scene. But perhaps this is a good time to reread and rethink along with Jose Carlos Mariategui, whose experience with the results of the Mexican Revolution and the development of the APRA in Peru have left what I consider some generally good advice. The masses of workers and peasants in Venezuela need more than clean government and public works projects - they need a radical social transformation that places the resources of their society in their own hands. This task won't be carried out by proxies on horseback, but by the masses themselves. This is why I think one of the most positive developments is taking place in certain neighborhoods of Caracas, where popular committees are beginning to be formed by local forces who united to support Chavez. What their relations are with the government, whether such initiatives are being opposed by Chavez, I don't have much information. But this is the direction that can resolve things in the people's interest.

I'm less sanguine than Jose and Louis about Chavez's commitment to radical social transformation - which to my mind means socialist policies and the Cuban road. Without such a transformation, the legacy of Chavez will be as limited as that of Peron and the Peruvian nationalist generals. How do we get there from here? Marxists in Latin America and their allies need to develop some ideas for a transitional economic program that is radical and realistic. They must develop their own independent politics and not just ride the nationalist horse. And those of us in the imperialist countries must constantly fight to keep our bourgeoisies' dirty hands stayed as much as possible.

Mike Pearlman