The Revolution in Venezuela

Chavez’s Bolivarian project demands our critical, honest attention

According to many commentators on Latin American politics, the failure of last week’s referendum on proposed amendments to the Venezuelan constitution represents a welcome reprieve from the country’s (leftward) drift away from democracy. In a December 8th editorial provocatively entitled “Authoritarians in the Andes,” The New York Times celebrated Venezuelans’ rejection of Chavez’s “power grab” ; a few days earlier, our very own paper relayed economist Ricardo Hausman’s call for continued “vigilance” against Chavez’s plan to “creat[e] a totalitarian state.”

Regardless of their prominence, we must not let ourselves be distracted by the intransigent partisanship of these establishment intellects. When it comes to the newly-invigorated Latin American left, it is urgent that jaundiced propaganda be separated from fact: In the Venezuelan example, even while certain criticisms of Chavez’s agenda can be important, we must avoid the tendentious temptation to explain away the “Bolivarian Revolution” in the rash, simplistic, and altogether-too-tired narratives of “left-wing populism” or “authoritarian socialism.” The reality remains that Chavez’s project of 21st century socialism is a complicated affair, but one with which—today—progressives must stand in critical solidarity. This requires two things.

First, we must doggedly document and resist the arrogant propagandizing that scars this country’s mainstream intellectual currents. Partly, this position needs to be understood as a rejection of the priorities of American Empire: When a resource-rich client economy jumps from the neoliberal bandwagon, as Venezuela under Chavez has done, it should be unsurprising that it becomes a cause for bipartisan concern. This past July, for example, Obama found himself in hot water for expressing his willingness, if elected, to sit down and meet with Chavez. Hilary excoriated his naiveté, The Nation blogged a lament to his lack of “sophistication” in matters of foreign policy, and Edwards flubbed somewhere in between. Even more insidious, however, was the framing of the question the candidates were responding to: In it, the government of Venezuela was unthinkingly lumped together with a list of alleged pariah states, including the two survivors of the Axis of Evil. For a president like Chavez, who before last week’s referendum had faced his electorate on eight occasions and won resoundingly each time, this is extraordinary company.

The myth of Chavez’ authoritarian intentions was trumpeted equally uncritically earlier this year in May, when all and sundry decried his takeover of independent media in the country. Only infrequently was it noted that, in fact, he had done nothing of the sort: The Venezuelan government had only refused to renew the license of the privately-owned Radio Caracas TV to broadcast over public airwaves (it continued on cable and satellite). And while the decision might well have been unwise, the facts of the government’s case were rarely made available. RCTV had, after all, actively participated in the failed coup attempt in April 2002, encouraging the public to take to the streets and falsely suggesting that Chavez’s forces had been firing on unarmed protestors. When the Venezuelan people flooded the streets demanding Chavez’s return two days after he had been ousted from power, the station broadcast cartoons and old Hollywood movies in place of news reports.

Second, after making clear our distance from these misguided politics, progressives must critically engage the actual dynamics of the Bolivarian revolution. Primarily, as journalist-cum-sociologist Greg Wilpert convincingly argues, this requires that we come to terms with the curious paradox at the heart of Chavez’s efforts: Namely that, in the nine years since his arrival, Venezuelans have witnessed both the deepening of their country’s democratic fabric, as well as the concentration of power in the persona and the position of the presidency.

This first trend deserves to be celebrated. Through his government’s aggressive social programs (real per capita social spending increased by 30 percent% from 1998 to 2004) , Venezuela’s pernicious levels of inequality and poverty are being engaged, even if gradually. Perhaps more impressively, communal councils and workplace cooperatives (as of 2006, 100,000 cooperatives employing 700,000 workers) have sprung up in an ambitious attempt to return power to the people, and with the ultimate intention of transcending the liberal logic of representation.

Along with this, of course, Chavez’s authority has certainly grown. And as suggested by a few of the proposed amendments last week, he seems to have every intention of securing greater levels of influence for himself in the foreseeable future. While some Chavistas defend the government by emphasizing the resilience of external and internal obstacles, it remains clear that all this threatens to undermine the laudable ideals animating the Bolivarian Revolution. Moreover, by investing so much of the revolutionary energy in Chavez’s person, the whole process becomes much more vulnerable (as Tariq Ali quipped recently, “one bullet can be enough”).

Fortunately, it might turn out that last week’s failed referendum actually helps Chavez. Not only do the allegations of totalitarian intent ring hollow in the wake of his concession (how many dictators lose referendums, after all?), but Chavez may also be forced to reconsider the less admirable parts of the legislation he had proposed. Whatever the case may be, there remains little doubt that the Bolivarian revolution cannot be dismissed as easily as many here would like. In a world hardened to movements clamoring for social upheaval, this country would do well to turn to the Venezuelan people for inspiration and ideas.

Adaner Usmani ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.