The challenges facing 21st century socialism in Venezuela

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``In Venezuela the biggest threat to the revolution does not come from the right-wing political opposition but from the so-called `endogenous' or `Chavista' right wing, in that chunks of the revolutionary bloc, including state elites and party officials, will develop a deeper stake in defending global capitalism over socialist transformation''' -- William I. Robinson

Interview with William I. Robinson, professor of sociology, University of California at Santa Barbara, by Chronis Polychroniou, editor of the Greek daily newspaper Eleftherotypia

February 1, 2010 -- ZNet

Chronis Polychroniou: There are scare stories coming from Venezuela. The border is heating up, infiltration is taking place, a new Colombian military base near the border, US access to several new bases on Colombia and constant subversion. Is the regime concerned about a possible invasion? If yes, who is going to intervene?

William I. Robinson: The Venezuelan government is concerned about a possible US invasion and certainly an outright invasion cannot be ruled out. However I think the US is pursuing a more sophisticated strategy of intervention that we could call a war of attrition.

We have seen this strategy in other countries, such as in Nicaragua in the 1980s, or even Chile under Allende. It is what in CIA lexicon is known as destabilisation, and in the Pentagon's language is called political warfare -- which does not mean there is not a military component. This is a counterrevolutionary strategy that combines military threats and hostilities with psychological operations, disinformation campaigns, black propaganda, economic sabotage, diplomatic pressures, the mobilisation of political opposition forces inside the country, carrying out provocations and sparking violent confrontations in the cities, manipulation of disaffected sectors and the exploitation of legitimate grievances among the population.

The strategy is deft at taking advantage of the revolution's own mistakes and limitations, such as corruption, clientalism and opportunism, which we must acknowledge are serious problems in Venezuela. It is also deft at aggravating and manipulating material problems, such as shortages, price inflation and so forth.

The goal is to destroy the revolution by making it unworkable, by exhausting the population's will to continue to struggle to forge a new society, and in this way to undermine the revolution's mass social base. According to the US strategy the revolution must be destroyed by having it collapse it in on itself, by undermining the remarkable hegemony that Chavismo and Bolivarianismo has been able to achieve within Venezuelan civil society over the past decade.

US strategists hope to provoke Chavez into a crackdown that transforms the democratic socialist process into an authoritarian one. In the view of these strategists, Chavez will eventually be removed from power through any number of scenarios brought about by constant war of attribution -- whether through elections, a military putsch from within, an uprising, mass defections from the revolutionary camp, or a combination of factors that can not be foretold.

In this context the military bases in Colombia provide a crucial platform for intelligence and reconnaissance operations against Venezuela and also for the infiltration of counterrevolutionary military, economic sabotage, and terrorist groups. These infiltrating groups are meant to harass, but more specifically, to provoke reactions from the revolutionary government and to synchronise armed provocation with the whole gamut of political, diplomatic, psychological, economic and ideological aggressions that are part of the war of attrition.

Moreover, the mere threat of US military aggression that the bases represent in itself constitutes a powerful US psychological operation intended to heighten tensions inside Venezuela, force the government into extremist positions or into "crying wolf", and to embolden internal anti-Chavista and counterrevolutionary forces.

However, it is important to see that the military bases are part of the larger US strategy towards all of Latin America. The US and the right wing in Latin America have launched a counteroffensive to reverse the turn to the left or the so-called "pink tide". Venezuela is the epicentre of an emergent counter-hegemonic bloc in Latin America. But Bolivia and Ecuador and more generally the region's burgeoning social movements and left political forces are as much targets of this counteroffensive as is Venezuela.

The coup in Honduras has provided impetus to this counteroffensive and emboldened the right and counterrevolutionary forces. Colombia has become the epicentre regional counterrevolution -- really a bastion of 21st century fascism.

Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution" has been very popular with the poor. Could you describe out how the Venezuelan society has changed since Chavez came to power?

First of all, let us acknowledge that the Bolivarian revolution has placed democratic socialism back on the worldwide agenda. We went through a period in the 1990s where most were scared to even talk of socialism, when it seemed that global capitalism had reached the apex of its hegemony and when some on the left even bought into the "end of history" thesis.

The Bolivarian revolution has given the poor and largely Afro-Caribbean masses their voice for the first time since the war of independence from Spanish colonialism. The Chavez government has reoriented priorities to the poor majority. It has been able to use oil revenues, in particular, to develop health, education and other social programs that have had dramatic results in reducing poverty, virtually eliminating illiteracy, and improving the health of the population. International organisations and data-collecting agencies have recognised these remarkable social achievements.

However, as someone who visits Venezuela regularly, I would say that the more fundamental change since Chavez came to power is not these social indicators but the political and socio-psychological awakening of the poor majority -- a broad process of popular, grassroots mobilisation, cultural expression, political participation and empowerment. The old elite and the bourgeoisie have been partially replaced from the state and from formal political power -- although not entirely.

But the real fear and resentment of the old dominant groups, the panic and their hatred for Chavez, is because they have felt slip from their grip the ability to exercise cultural and socio-psychological domination over the popular classes as they have done for decades, nay centuries. Of course, there still plenty of other mechanisms through which the bourgeoisie and the political agents of the ancien regime are able to wield their influence, particularly through the mass media that is still largely in their hands ... and this is why the "media battles" in Venezuela play such a prominent role.

That said, there are all kinds of problems and contradictions internal to the Bolivarian revolution.

How widespread are nationalisation plans under Chavez and is there any evidence so far that they bring the desired results?

The obvious major economic change has been the recovery of the country's oil for a popular project -- and even at that there is still a PDVSA [state oil company] bureaucratic oligarchy. Other key enterprises, such as steel, have been nationalised. And the cooperative sector -- with all its problems -- has spread. Nonetheless, let's be clear: economic power is still largely in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

Let us recall that the Venezuelan revolution is unique in that the old reactionary state was not "smashed" as it was in other revolutions. The strategy of the revolution has been to set up new parallel institutions and to also try to "colonise" the old state. But the Venezuelan state is still largely a capitalist state. The key question is how can a transformative project move forward while operating through a corrupt, clientalist, bureaucratic and often inert state bequeathed by the ancient regime?

If revolutionary and socialist forces come to power within a capitalist political process how do you confront the capitalist state and the brakes it places on transformative processes? In fact, in Venezuela, and also in Bolivia and elsewhere, prevailing state institutions often act to constrain, dilute and coopt mass struggles from below.

In my view, in Venezuela the biggest threat to the revolution does not come from the right-wing political opposition but from the so-called "endogenous" or "Chavista" right wing, in that chunks of the revolutionary bloc, including state elites and party officials, will develop a deeper stake in defending global capitalism over socialist transformation.

The revolution has been going on for over a decade now. Is it maturing or is it reaching a stage of decline and deformation?

I would not say that the revolution is in "decline" or "deformation". Rather, we need to be more expansive in our historical analysis and even theoretical reflection on what is going on at this historical juncture of 21st century global capitalism and its crisis. The turn to the left in Latin America started out as a rebellion against neoliberalism. The post-neoliberal regimes undertook mild redistributive reform and limited nationalisations, particularly of energy resources and public services that had previously been privatised. They were able to reactive accumulation. But post-neoliberalism that does not now move towards a deeper socialist transformation runs up against limits.

The Bolivarian process faces contradictions, problems and limitations, as do all historic projects! I would say that both the Venezuelan revolution and also the Bolivian and Ecuadoran processes, may be coming up against the limits of redistributive reform within the logic of global capitalism, especially given the crisis of global capitalism. Anti-neoliberalism that does not challenge more fundamentally the very logic of capitalism runs up against limitations that may now have been reached.

It may be that the best or the only defence of the revolution is to radicalise and deepen the revolutionary process, to push forward structural transformations that go beyond redistribution. The fact is that the Venezuelan bourgeoisie may have been displaced in part from political power but it is still very much in economic control. Breaking that economic control implies a more significant change in property and class relations. This in turn means breaking the domination of capital, of global capital and its local agents. Naturally this is a Herculean task. There is no clear way forward and each step generates complex new contradictions and Gordian knots. Of course these are matters the whole global left must contemplate.

Let us recall the lessons of the Nicaraguan and other revolutions. Multiclass alliances generate contradictions once the honeymoon stage of easy redistributive reform and social programs reach their limit. Then multiclass alliances begin to collapse because there are fundamental contradictions between distinct class projects and interests. At that point a revolution must more clearly define its class project; not just in discourse or in politics but in actual structural transformation.

At a more technical level, we could say that the contradictions generated by trying to break the domination of global capital are not the fault of the revolution. Venezuela is still a capitalist country in which the law of value, of capital accumulation, is operative. Efforts to establish a contrary logic -- a logic of social need and social distribution -- run up against the law of value. But in a capitalist society violating the law of value throws everything haywire, generating many problems and new disequilibria that the counterrevolution is able to take advantage of. This is the challenge for any socialist-oriented revolution within global capitalism.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 02/03/2010 - 20:19


In 1999, under newly elected President Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan people were given a rare opportunity: to participate in the writing of what would become arguably the world's most radical constitution.  The result of an extensive constitutional process and an assembly voted on by Venezuelan citizens contrasts with the United States constitution, one created by white landholders centuries ago.

The document, carried in the back pockets of ordinary Venezuelan citizens, has become a pillar of the Chavez-led "Bolivarian Revolution."  For the first time in Venezuelan history the constitution declares housing, health care, and employment as basic human rights and argues in favor of a more participatory form of democracy.

The constitutional process indeed helped empower a number of organizations from the Afro-Venezuelan Network to peasant militias.  These movements not only struggle for the government to uphold the constitution but have become the driving force behind some of Chavez's most radical policies.

Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots is the first book in the English language that has captured the challenges of bottom-up movements under President Chavez.  In the book, co-authors Carlos Martinez, Michael Fox, and Jojo Farrell offer a much-needed history of revolutionary Venezuela and an analysis of current events, interwoven among interviews with some of Venezuelan's most important leaders among the people.

Fox, Martinez, and Farrell are all part of a small network of internationals who have traveled to remote areas in Venezuela and have lived in the numerous shantytowns that line Caracas' hillsides.  The result of their time abroad is a collective history of Venezuela that most visitors and certainly US media have not been able to capture.

Through the oral accounts of activists, Venezuela Speaks! also offers insiders' views of the Bolivarian Revolution and the struggle towards participatory democracy.  The activists interviewed have engaged in occupations of factories and land, the development of popular education, and the creation of an alternative culture and media.

However, readers on the left seeking a rosy account of the "Bolivarian revolution" are likely to be disappointed.  Most of the book consists of interviews with an impressive variety of individuals who refuse to hold back their criticisms.  Their stories bring to life the true struggle for revolutionary change, one that faces two main challenges defined in the first chapter by housing activist Iraida Morocoima:

It is important for people to understand that we are fighting on two fronts: the struggle against the opposition so that they don't alter our goals, and the struggle against the government bureaucrats that support large financial capital who continue to give these lands to the large construction companies.  That's why we say this is a process of revolution within the revolution.

The Bolibourgeoisie (a name given to bureaucrats within Chavez's administration), she argues, serve as a fence between the people and Chavez that often stops the effective implementation of the constitution.

However, as the short-lived 2002 coup d'etat proves, Chavez's return to office was largely a result of mass mobilization from the grassroots movements.  His mere existence, therefore, depends on the strong support of some of the most radical groups in the country.

The grassroots movements also implement the constitution when the government is unable or unwilling.  As women's rights activist Yanahir Reyes argues in the book, women's struggles go beyond the language of gender inclusion used in the constitution.  She goes on to assert that only through grassroots and participatory education will a more gender inclusive culture be created.

While Reyes applauds the government for the creation of institutions to support women, she admits: "[T]he bureaucracy swallows good intentions.  I think it is a mistake to keep strengthening the institutions.  The communities are ready to make the changes.  The struggle continues to be the divide between institutions and popular power."

The stories told in Venezuela Speaks! also bring into question our own ideas of democracy as solely representative and open the door for a debate on a new form of democracy, one dependent on the active participation of its citizens.

As a result this book should also serve as a tool for activists outside Venezuela, including activists in the United States.  It shows how, through debate, self-criticism, and popular education and media, people are able to free themselves from the manipulation of state and corporate power.

Whether the revolution can go beyond Hugo Chavez and the support of his government is still unclear.  However, what is apparent is the slogan presented in the introduction: "The people have awoken.  With or without Chavez, Venezuela is no longer the same."

Lainie Cassel has recently returned from living in Caracas, Venezuela.  Currently she is studying in New York City and can be reached at: Lainie[dot]Cassel[at]