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Venezuela’s Fragile Revolution

From Chávez to Maduro

Voters at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 30, 2017

Voters wait to cast their ballots next to murals of Ezequiel Zamora and Hugo Chávez at a polling station in Caracas, July 30, 2017 (Ariana Cubillos/AP).

Steve Ellner taught history and political science at Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela from 1977 to 2003, and has written widely on Venezuela and the Latin American left.

The Venezuelan experience of nearly two decades of radicalization, extreme social and political polarization, and right-wing insurgence offers valuable lessons for the left. The country’s current crisis should be an occasion for constructive debate around the struggles, successes, and failures of the Bolivarian Revolution. By pinpointing strategic errors–especially in the context of unrelenting hostility by powerful forces on the right–Chavismo’s supporters and sympathizers can offer a corrective to the sweeping condemnations of the government of Nicolás Maduro now coming from both right and left.

This article thus has two aims: to shed light on the major lessons of the years of Chavista rule, and to put some of the government’s more questionable actions in their proper historical and political context. The common perception of the Chavista leadership as incompetent administrators who disdain democracy ignores the complexity of achieving socialism through democratic means, a process whose dangers and demands have shaped the government’s decisions, for better and worse. Only by reckoning with that complexity can we understand both Venezuela’s current situation and its turbulent recent history.

Taking Sides

In recent months, as the nation’s political conflict has intensified, increasing numbers of both Venezuelan leftists, such as the group Marea Socialista, which withdrew from the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV), and foreign observers have broken with the Chavista camp. Many now defend a “plague on both your houses” attitude toward both the Maduro government and the right-wing opposition.1 Whatever the merit of some of their objections, by censuring the government and opposition in equal terms, the ex-Chavistas obscure the vital fact that the latter is the aggressor, while the former has been relentlessly attacked, compelling it to take emergency measures, with damaging long-term effects.

This phenomenon is of course not new: Chavista governments have been under near-continuous assault from the time Hugo Chávez first took office in 1999. Few elected governments in recent history have faced such sharp confrontation and polarization over such a prolonged period, or met with such a multitude of powerful and hostile forces. The adversaries include Venezuela’s major corporations and business groups, the U.S. government and the Organization of American States (OAS), the Catholic Church hierarchy, university authorities, and the news media, in addition to the traditional political establishment and labor unions. A brief list of hostile actions includes an attempted coup in 2002, promoted by business interests and backed by the United States; a two-month national lockout in 2002–03; waves of paramilitary urban violence from 2002 to the present; and the refusal of the opposition and its allies to recognize official electoral results, even those certified by international observers.

The belligerence has only become more pronounced under Maduro, who lacks Chávez’s charisma, and whose government has been buffeted by ongoing crises of debt, inflation, and low oil prices. On the day of Maduro’s election in April 2013, losing candidate Henrique Capriles called on his followers to express their wrath (arrechera), resulting in the killing of ten Chavistas, including a policeman. The paramilitary political violence known in Venezuela as the guarimba dates to 2003, but has escalated under Maduro: the three-month street protests in 2014 included armed private brigades, whose tactics have since become still more militarized.

Meanwhile, Washington’s aggression against the governments of Chávez and Maduro demonstrates that in terms of foreign policy, little distinguishes Republicans and Democrats. The Bush administration wholeheartedly supported the coup and general strike in 2002–03. Obama inspired great expectations early in his presidency with his warm encounter with Chávez, who handed him a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, but ended up twice issuing an executive order characterizing Venezuela as an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to national security. And under President Trump, who has spoken casually of employing a “military option” against Maduro, newly appointed CIA director Mike Pompeo admitted to having worked with the governments of Mexico and Colombia to promote regime change in Venezuela.

Although the scale and duration of these threats make Venezuela unique among contemporary constitutional democracies, their lessons are universal. The same challenges facing Venezuelan leftists in power lie in store for any democratic government committed to socialism, especially one that goes as far as Chávez did. In this sense, the Venezuelan experience, with all its disappointments and achievements, is more instructive for leftists in liberal-democratic nations than twentieth-century revolutions in Russia, China, and Cuba.

Most important, the Venezuelan experience has demonstrated the need for socialists who reach power by electoral means to walk a tactical tightrope. On one side, in the name of pragmatism and in the face of ruthless adversaries, Chavista governments have found it necessary to make concessions: tactical alliances with business leaders—whose support has often proved self-serving—and populist policies, including generous social spending, some of which have fostered corruption and squandered vital resources. On the other side, Chavista governments have mobilized large numbers of their rank-and-file supporters and allied social movements by demonstrating commitment to radical change and socialist ideals. As I will argue, the revolution has too often tilted in the former direction, at the expense of the latter.

This is not to suggest that Chavista governments have been motivated by sheer opportunism or short-term considerations. The key point is rather that in conditions as unfavorable as those now prevailing in Venezuela, the left’s options are severely limited. Under better circumstances, such as have existed at various junctures under both Chávez and Maduro, the government must act aggressively to deepen the process of change and achieve other objectives. As I discuss below, timing is essential.

The key issues currently being debated within the Chavista movement boil down not to differences over long-term goals, but how to ensure the viability of specific policies. Any analysis that focuses only on the end results of the revolutionary process, such as socialist democracy, while ignoring the constraints imposed by social and political realities, can only mislead. The disillusionment of many former Chávez sympathizers both in Venezuela and abroad likely stems in part from this privileging of grand goals over immediate challenges. Too much of the Bolivarian Revolution’s energy depended on the vision and charisma of Chávez himself, who unfortunately failed to prepare his followers for the difficulties, sacrifices, and thorny contradictions that the process of radical change entails. The following issues, then, will be analyzed from the perspectives of viability, feasibility, and timing.

Realism and the Bourgeoisie

Chávez and the Chavista movement were always characterized by a mix of realism and idealism.2 Chávez declared that Venezuelan socialism was based on the principle of “to each according to their needs.” Not even Soviet leaders went that far: like Marx, they defined socialism as “to each according to their contribution.” But Chávez was first and foremost a realist and strategist, traits derived from his military background. Just days after a two-month business-promoted lockout aimed at toppling his government in 2002–03, Chávez announced he would exclude the golpistas (putchists) from the system of “preferential dollars” (dollars sold at lower exchange rates to pay for imports). In subsequent years, Chávez followed a tacit and at times explicit policy of giving preferential treatment to those businesspeople who had defied the traditional bourgeoisie by refusing to participate in the two-month shutdown. In doing so, he weakened the traditional bourgeoisie that had played the leading role in ongoing efforts to undermine the government.

The government’s distinction between the hostile traditional bourgeoisie and a “friendly” emerging one has remained largely unchanged under Maduro. The former, grouped in Fedecámaras, the Venezuelan chamber of commerce, has grown savvier politically, maintaining a distance from the parties of the opposition and even negotiating with the Maduro government at a time when the opposition refused to do so, all to avoid the appearance of partisan struggle. Nevertheless, Fedecámaras has been anything but impartial. Not only did it join the opposition to denounce and boycott the government’s election to select delegates to a Constituent Assembly this past July; it also indirectly supported opposition-called general strikes during the preceding weeks. As a show of solidarity with the opposition, member companies of Fedecámaras excused their employees from work during the “strike.”

The Chavista leadership’s reasoning for favoring “friendly” businesspeople over those represented by Fedecámaras is compelling: why grant credit or contracts for public works projects to those who will use public money to finance destabilizing activity? Nevertheless, the relationship between the government and friendly businesses who are awarded contracts has become too cozy. In 2009, after insiders began to manipulate several financial institutions resulting in a banking crisis, Chávez ordered the arrest of several dozen of them. Ricardo Fernández Barrueco, the richest pro-Chavista business executive, and Arné Chacón, brother of Chávez’s right-hand man, and a veteran of the abortive 1992 coup linked to Chávez, spent three years in jail as a result.

But unethical behavior in Venezuela hardly came to a halt. One of Chávez’s most trusted ministers, Jorge Giordani, revealed in 2013 that $20 billion had been sold the previous year at the preferential exchange rate to finance bogus imports. Maduro failed to act on the allegation, despite promises to the contrary. But under his presidency, a Chavista governor, a mayor of the city of Valencia, and a president of a major state company were arrested on charges of corruption, and in 2017 several executives from the state oil company, PDVSA, in eastern Venezuela faced a similar fate. In early 2017 the ex-governor received an eighteen-year jail sentence. These actions, however, have done little to contain corruption, which has become routine and highly visible.

Relations with the Private Sector

Two opposing camps on the left fault the Chavista government for its ties to “friendly” businesspeople. Those to the left of the Chavista leadership see these relations as naïve or, worse yet, as tantamount to a sellout. Argentine writer Luis Bilbao, a supporter of both Chavista governments, has expressed skepticism toward what Chávez called a “strategic alliance” with the private sector, and his meetings with some of its representatives who were, for the most part, outside the Fedecámaras fold. Bilbao particularly criticized the “stage-based” approach of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV). According to Bilbao, the PCV sees the government’s alliance with supposedly non-monopolistic businesspeople as a necessary stage designed to achieve a “truce” with the bourgeoisie prior to moving ahead with socialist construction.3

On the other flank are those leftists who favor closer ties with the bourgeoisie. Víctor Alvarez, a former Minister of Basic Industry and Mining, is among the most prominent advocates of prioritizing national private production by limiting imports and downsizing the state sector. Alvarez decried Maduro’s removal in 2016 of Miguel Pérez Abad as Industry and Commerce Minister, the only businessman in the cabinet, claiming that Pérez Abad irritated Chavista “dogmatists” by calling for the privatization of expropriated firms that incur heavy losses.4

Both sides overstate their case. It seems fair to say that ties with the private sector are necessary, but that their deleterious long-term effects must be anticipated and at some point countered. On the one hand, few of the capitalists who have cooperated with the Chavista governments fit the old Comintern-promoted bill of a “progressive bourgeoisie,” which was said to support the nation’s economic independence and even to oppose imperialism. The government’s alliance with members of the private sector should not be considered strategic—defined as a long-term coordination based on mutual confidence—but rather tactical, with the goal of securing enough political and economic stability to sustain the process of change. Chavista activists have often warned that at the earliest sign of the possibility of regime change, pro-government businesspeople would be the first to abandon ship, and recent events have proved them right. Pork industry magnate Alberto Cudemus, for instance, one of Chávez’s most trusted allies, whom Chávez supported in his bid to head Fedecámaras, has become a harsh critic of Maduro. The president has responded in kind.

On the other hand, it is clear that objective conditions have not allowed for mass expropriations or all-out confrontation with capitalists. If capitalism in Chavista Venezuela will remain a reality for some time, the government has two options: ignore distinctions among the capitalists and treat them as one and the same, or take advantage of fissures within the business class. Given Fedecámaras’s sudden switch—from decades as a supposedly apolitical body to a staunch enemy of Chávez, even before his 1998 election—the government would be foolish not to cultivate relations with those businesspeople who reject the organization’s hostile line.

In addition to ex-minister Pérez Abad, now president of a major state bank, Oscar Schemel can be considered a reliable business ally. Schemel, the owner of a prominent public polling firm whose surveys are frequently cited by Chavistas, was elected as a business-sector delegate to the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) in the elections held on July 30, 2017. To mitigate the country’s economic crisis, Schemel has urged the government to sell off highly subsidized state companies. The proposal (also supported by veteran leftist Eleazar Díaz Rangel, the Chavista editor of a major newspaper, Ultimas Noticias) touches a raw nerve among Chavista stalwarts, who see it as a betrayal of Chávez’s legacy. In a speech at the ANC on August 9, 2017, Schemel called for recognition of the importance of the market and the lifting of price controls. The latter proposal, however, would be untenable for the popular classes, whose purchasing power has declined precipitously in recent years. Nevertheless, Schemel is right to point out that given the fundamentally capitalist structure of the Venezuelan economy, the government cannot ignore the reality of the market.

Close relations with “friendly” businesspeople may be a necessary part of a democratic and peaceful socialist strategy, but their damaging effects, most visibly corruption and cronyism, must be expected and combated. If the Venezuelan experience is any indication, such scourges are inevitable: for example, efforts to enforce transparent bidding procedures for public works contracts, meant to safeguard against overpriced projects, have often been sidetracked. Chavistas argue privately that the traditional bourgeoisie, while no ally of the government, wins the lion’s share of such contracts by virtue of its greater capital and experience compared to those of “emerging,” “friendly” businesspeople. Evidently for that reason, the government granted lucrative contracts to the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, with close ties to Lula da Silva’s Workers Party, for megaprojects such as bridge and rail construction, while pointing out that smaller “emerging” Venezuelan businesses were unequipped for such large undertakings. The infamous scandal that has since enveloped Odebrecht and other firms, as well as the Workers Party, implicates leading political figures throughout the continent, including Venezuelan politicians of many political stripes. All of this underscores the urgent need for effective popular and institutional controls, as I discuss below.

Party and State

In early 2007, Chávez created the PSUV, which soon signed up 7 million members throughout the nation. As a mass-based party committed to bottom-up participation and building links to social movements, the PSUV held great promise as the foundation for Venezuela’s new political model of participatory democracy, embodied in the constitution of 1999. The PSUV was designed to allow revolutionaries to navigate the old state, which was penetrated by forces of reaction, and at the same time to build a new state through gradual, non-violent means.

Throughout his presidency, Chávez lashed out at bureaucrats, including those in his own party, who held back popular participation and efficient execution of policies and programs. Toward the end of his life, he told his inner circle that the scourge of bureaucratism had to be aggressively confronted: “Prepare yourselves. I am directing this initiative at my own ranks, my own government.” To Maduro, he demanded “a hundred inspection teams or more if necessary. If I have to remove someone, bring them to trial, or order a probe, then that’s what I’ll do.”5

Chávez himself, however, shared responsibility for the bureaucratic morass. Given the inability of the existing state to establish effective checks and balances, the PSUV was in an ideal position to independently monitor and combat inefficiency, obstruction, and corruption. But from the outset, Chávez in effect made the party an appendage of the state, with most of its leaders at all levels also serving in the government. Now, ten years later, the party’s president, vice president and twenty-two national committee members are nearly all ministers, governors, legislators, and others connected to the state.

While long on rhetoric about “participatory democracy,” the PSUV leadership nevertheless discourages criticism from the rank and file. As in past party primaries, the campaign for the National Constituent Assembly elections on July 30, 2017, saw the PSUV leadership use its influence and resources to favor certain candidates and trusted supporters. Critical Chavista candidates should have been given greater opportunities, such as increased airtime on the TV channel Venezolana de Televisión and other state media outlets, or public forums open to all candidates.

One such reliable but critical candidate, elected to the ANC, was Julio Escalona, an iconic guerrilla of the 1960s, who raised the key issue of corruption and called for the seizure of all assets obtained by illicit means. Escalona also warned against PSUV control of the ANC: “The government will be well represented in the ANC and that is logical.… But the government and the parties have a tendency to control everything. For the sake of the people and including the government and the PSUV, the ANC should not be dominated by a sectarian current.”6

Providing opportunities and opening space for Chavista activists and grassroots leaders who are committed but not beholden to the party machine would be an intelligent strategy, both to restore some of the popular energy of the Chávez years and to counter the right’s recent offensive. Such an approach would stop short of a “revolution in the revolution,” involving a thorough shake-up of the bureaucracy—an unfeasible approach in the current moment of acute political confrontation. In this sense, the reinvigoration of Chavismo through relaxed controls on bottom-up participation represents the same tightrope-walking strategy, based on a realistic assessment of objective conditions and of the relative strength of hostile forces, that has informed the movement from the beginning.

Democracy and Government

Chavista rhetoric envisions a new type of democracy, based on direct popular participation in decision-making, that supersedes old models of representative government. Chavista leaders invoked this model to encourage participation in the ANC elections. In a May Day speech, Maduro justified his decision to convene the ANC as an effort to strengthen and deepen the participatory provisions of the constitution of 1999. As proof of the feasibility of these “new forms of direct democracy,” Maduro pointed to such initiatives as the system of community distribution of basic food items (known as the Local Distribution and Production Committees, or CLAPs) and the communes, which organize and direct economic activity within cities and neighborhoods.

Although the CLAPs and communes suggest the great potential of direct participation, both are in an incipient stage. Similarly, the system of “social controllership,” another example of direct participation, has not come to full fruition. Under this arrangement, the community, through the communal councils first created in 2006, monitors public works projects to ensure that public money is properly allocated and spent. Social controllership, and the communal councils in general, have encouraged the participation of large numbers of formerly marginalized Venezuelans and engendered a sense of empowerment, but their performance at the national level has been uneven.7

Given this reality, the system of institutional checks and balances conventionally associated with liberal or constitutional democracy cannot be readily discarded. Accountability is particularly important because Venezuela’s political system has always been skewed in favor of executive power, and even more so under the Chavistas. In addition, with the loosening of rules for bidding on public contracts, discussed above, other types of institutional checks and guarantees need to be developed. In one example of a failed effort to tighten controls, legislation in 2009 allowed the National Controllership to review the finances of the communal councils, but the provision has been a dead letter.

As long as direct democracy remains a work in progress, old institutional controls should be retained and, where necessary, modified, but not abandoned. The central challenge remains “to walk a fine line between grassroots movements and state institutions,” which, in the words of George Ciccariello-Maher, Chávez was uniquely able to do.8 Inside the PSUV itself, direct democracy is not just a guiding vision but an immediate imperative. Even improved institutional controls within the state would not guarantee transparency and accountability. The effort to combat corruption requires that the governing party become internally democratic, participatory, and semi-autonomous in its relations with the government.

Loyalty and Sectarianism

The experience of the general strike of 2002–03 taught the Chavista leadership the importance of loyalty, but the incident may have been a case of “overlearning.” After the strike, Chávez fired 17,000 technical and professional oil company employees who had paralyzed production in the industry to spur regime change. Their replacements, most of whom lacked their predecessors’ expertise, succeeded in restarting production. To many of the president’s supporters, the episode suggested that skill was dispensable, but loyalty, which became a Chavista catchword, was not. Chávez’s and Maduro’s frequent rotation of cabinet ministers, who often lacked any background in the ministries they were appointed to serve, appeared to affirm this disregard for technical ability.

The overemphasis on loyalty has also fomented sectarianism and intolerance, and political fealty can serve as a cover for corruption. A favorite slogan of both Chávez and Maduro, “Unity, Unity and More Unity,” is often used to exhort followers to close ranks and set aside internal criticism to focus on facing down a ruthless enemy. This call for unity above all else appears especially relevant after the recent defection of several leading Chavistas from the PSUV. One such figure is Giordani, who since Chávez’s death has been sharply critical of Maduro’s government. But a distinction should be drawn between leftist adversaries of the government, such as Giordani and the group Marea Socialista, and leftists who give it critical support, such as former commerce minister Eduardo Samán. The latter, who was removed from office by Chávez and later again by Maduro, has made clear that revolutionaries cannot always air their criticisms publicly, and that party discipline must take precedence. However, the PSUV’s failure to recognize Samán’s leadership prompted him to leave the party in June to join an allied group, Patria Para Todos, and then run as a candidate for the ANC. At the same time, Samán chided Giordani for his excessive condemnations of the party, adding: “I also have my criticisms but I am not going public. At this moment we have to prioritize unity because the whole [revolutionary] process is on the line.” Samán’s exit from the PSUV confirms that Maduro, much more than Chávez, has been overly hostile to critics on the left, both within and beyond the movement. One Chavista activist I interviewed faulted Maduro for being at times “sectarian,” and pointed to Mao’s “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People” as a guide for resolving the movement’s internal differences.9

Social Justice and Productivity

There were sound political reasons for Chávez to prioritize social programs over economic objectives during his first years in office. Had he not, the country’s poor and working-class populations might not have rallied so actively to his cause during the two attempts to topple his government in 2002. Not surprisingly, the government’s flagship social programs date back to the aftermath of the 2002–03 general strike. In his later years, Chávez gave greater weight to policies to promote economic development, as has Maduro, who responded to the economic downturn in 2014 by prioritizing efforts to transform the nation’s rentier, oil-based economy. If Venezuela is typical of what can be expected when leftist governments in the global South take power by electoral means, the sequence will be first the prioritization of social objectives in response to political perils, and then a shift to a strategy designed to face economic challenges. Thus consolidation of power and stability is the initial task, requiring an emphasis on social provision in order to buttress the left’s mass base of support.

But in certain respects, Chávez went overboard in his focus on social goals at the expense of economic ones in the early years of his presidency. His constitutional reform proposal of 2007, for example, included a reduction of the legal work week from forty-four to thirty-six hours. Such a drastic cut threatened to stunt Venezuela’s economic growth, as it would that of any industrializing country. Likewise, at the level of discourse, Chávez’s liberal use of slogans such as “the sea of happiness” and “humanistic socialism” failed to prepare Venezuelans for the toil and struggle that lay ahead, particularly when international oil prices declined. Indeed, the overriding need to overcome the nation’s dependence on oil may not have been an immediate priority in Chávez’s early years, but from the outset the challenge had to be faced, albeit not privileged. There is a lesson to be learned: stages whereby certain objectives are prioritized over others have to be defined for each period, but at the same time, future stages need to be anticipated, both at the level of policy and discourse.

A particularly thorny problem of strategy and timing arises from the drive for social justice and equality. Both are guiding ideals of the Chavista movement, and account for much of the support it enjoys among the country’s non-privileged and marginalized populations, such as members of the informal economy. In itself, this “humanistic” aspect of socialism is not a point of contention within the Chavista movement. Internal debate, however, has centered on the need for collective discipline and sacrifice, and on the poor administrative and economic performance of the state sector. Within any socialist government, tension sometimes arises between efforts to achieve equality and social justice on the one hand, and efficiency, productivity, and labor discipline on the other, even as the two sets of goals are reconcilable and in some ways interrelated.10

A case in point is the practice of outsourcing, which Chávez decried. His opposition to outsourcing in part prompted him to nationalize the foreign-owned steel company SIDOR in 2008, and to expropriate contractor companies in the oil industry, and eventually to outlaw the practice altogether in the Organic Labor Law of 2012. The issue in Venezuela, however, is not always cut and dried. On the one hand, the incorporation of tens of thousands of outsourced workers by state companies is an inspiration for labor movements around the world. On the other, some workers who have raised the banners of social justice associated with Chávez and demanded to be added to the payroll of the state oil company, PDVSA, are not permanently employed in the oil industry. Since 1998, PDVSA’s workforce has more than tripled, from 40,000 to over 150,000.

The tension between social justice and socialist efficiency plays out on other fronts. One issue is the widespread practice of granting free or excessively low-priced goods and services to poor and working-class communities. The case for the policy is compelling, namely that the government has a responsibility to pay what Chavistas call the “social debt” owed to the most exploited sectors. Yet such artificially low prices on goods produced by state companies undermine their ability to achieve self-sufficiency, and are partly responsible for the chronic scarcity of many products and the emergence of an exploitative black market. This dilemma partly explains why companies that Chávez expropriated after 2007 to achieve “food sovereignty” have been unable to fill the gap left by politically motivated disinvestment by the private sector in recent years.

When to Act

If the aggression and intransigence of Venezuela’s opposition has limited the government’s options and forced it to make concessions, then those moments when the Chavistas have the upper hand represent special opportunities for progress and reform. In such situations, four objectives—all of which come at a price, but only in the short run—stand out as achievable: economic transformation; combating corruption and inefficient bureaucracies; internal democratization; and the weakening of adversaries. Chávez took advantage of the favorable juncture after his triumph in the 2006 presidential elections, when he won 63 percent of the vote, the largest in modern Venezuelan history. Not only did he nationalize strategic industries, but he created the PSUV and delivered a heavy blow to his adversaries on the right.

In contrast, Maduro missed a valuable opportunity in mid-2014, when the Chavistas were in an ideal position after defeating the opposition’s three-month guarimba protests and winning municipal elections by an impressive margin. At the time, Maduro vowed to undertake a “revolutionary shakeup” of his cabinet, prompting expectations that fresh faces would be brought in and new policies initiated. The announcement of these changes, however, was postponed several times, and when, on September 2, the appointments were finally made official, they amounted to merely a musical-chairs reshuffling of cabinet ministers. Concurrently, oil prices began to plunge, and a golden opportunity was lost.

The convening of the ANC may provide another favorable juncture for the Chavistas. At the time of this writing, in August 2017, the opposition has been worn down after three months of guarimba protests even more violent than those of 2014. In addition, opposition leaders are divided over whether to participate in upcoming gubernatorial and municipal elections. Finally, given their sheer number, the 550 delegates to the ANC may be less subject to party control than are National Assembly deputies. Consequently, they may be more inclined to speak out against corruption and bureaucracy and in favor of initiatives to revive the economy.

Summing Up

The failure of the numerous attempts to topple the Maduro government is due largely to the support the Chavistas still enjoy among the country’s popular sectors and the armed forces. The campaigns of violence in 2014 and 2017 have been predicated on the assumption that disruptions in wealthy municipalities run by opposition mayors would spread to the barrios, or trigger a military coup. Neither has happened. With a few exceptions, the working classes and the poor have refrained from joining the guarimba, despite considerable discontent at the country’s economic crisis and the long tradition of barrio political resistance.11

In formulating a strategy toward the armed forces, Chávez assimilated the century-long experience of earlier Latin American progressive governments, whose lack of an organized following in the military left them without a counterweight to right-wing officers.12 Recognizing this reality, Chávez promoted “Bolivarian” officers, who identified with the movement, to commanding positions, with the result that the military now defines itself as anti-imperialist, socialist, and Chavista.

Maduro has played hardball in the face of the latest campaign to unseat his government. Not only has he jailed opposition leaders for inciting violence, but he has mobilized his own supporters to counter opposition-led street protests. In doing so, Maduro breaks with a tradition of sorts among Latin American progressive governments, which historically have put up little resistance to right-wing insurgencies: notable examples include Rómulo Gallegos in Venezuela in 1948, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina in 1955, João Goulart in Brazil in 1964, and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.

Maduro’s perseverance is inherited from Chávez, who realized long before his election as president that state power is of central importance in the struggle for socialism, and its achievement must take precedence over other considerations. Maduro is thus at odds with those on the left and beyond who argue that the Chavistas should be willing to relinquish power now that the government’s popularity is well under 50 percent.

But gaining and keeping power is not enough to make a revolution. According to the Chavista strategy, an old state and a new one will, in the words of Marta Harnecker, an unofficial advisor to Chávez, “coexist for a long time.” This approach contrasts with Lenin’s classic “dual power” strategy, in which the old state is considered enemy territory. Nevertheless, Harnecker recognizes that while it is legitimate for leftists to work within the old state, it has a corrupting influence. The only solution is for the “organized movement…[to] exert pressure on the inherited state.”13 Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas, who theorized along similar lines, pointed to autonomous social movements as the essential element exerting that pressure.14

In Venezuela, however, social movements—for indigenous rights, gender equality, environmental justice, and more—have traditionally been weak. This distinguishes it from a country like Bolivia, where the governing Movement toward Socialism party of Evo Morales emerged from such movements. In the absence of strong and independent grassroots groups, the key element in the Venezuelan process is thus the party. To combat bureaucracy, corruption, and inefficiency, the PSUV must become more independent of the state and more internally democratic.

Two fundamental challenges face the governing party in this drive for greater autonomy and internal participation by a committed and well-informed membership. First, if left unchecked, the government’s relationship with sectors of the bourgeoisie will solidify and continue to undermine the leadership’s socialist commitments. Second, if it is necessary to walk a tactical tightrope when the left finds itself on the defensive, the specifics of that strategy require input from those closest to the mood of the people. Decision-making cannot be the exclusive preserve of the party’s national leadership, still less of the president’s inner circle. A truly democratic party is essential in Venezuela not only as a matter of principle, but because the very survival of the country’s revolutionary process depends on it.


  1. Jacobin and NACLA: Report on the Americas have each published articles both for and against the “plague on both your houses” position. For a representative “for” argument, see Gabriel Heitland, “Why Is Venezuela Spiraling out of Control?Jacobin, May 14, 2017. Marea Socialista worked as a faction within the PSUV from the party’s founding in 2007. In 2014, after taking an increasingly critical stance toward the government, MS announced its intention to become a separate political party.
  2. Ignacio Ramonet, “One Hundred Hours with Chávez,” in Hugo Chávez with Ramonet, My First Life (London: Verso, 2016), xxxiv.
  3. Luis Bilbao, Venezuela en Revolución: Renacimiento del Socialismo (Buenos Aires: Capital Intelectual, 2008), 182, 195–96.
  4. Víctor Alvarez, “Cambio en el gabinete,” El Mundo, August 5, 2016.
  5. “Chávez: Tengo moral para exigirle a mi equipo eficiencia,” YouTube, November 5, 2012. In his last famous speech, Chávez also scolded those in charge of implementing policy for failing to promote direct democracy through the establishment of communes. Chávez, Golpe de Timón (Caracas: Edición Correo del Orinoco, 2012), 17–21. See also John Bellamy Foster, “Chávez and the Communal State: On the Transition to Socialism in Venezuela,” Monthly Review 66, no. 11 (April 2015): 1–17.
  6. Julio Escalona, “¿Una Asamblea Nacional Constituyente para la Simple Negación, para la Venganza?” Aporrea, July 14, 2017,
  7. For a brief discussion of the uneven performance of the communal councils and communes, see Steve Ellner, “Social Programs in Venezuela under the Chavista Governments,” Next System Project, August 7, 2017,
  8. George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela (London: Verso, 2016), 77.
  9. Felipe Rangel, interview with the author, Puerto La Cruz, July 11, 2017.
  10. Jorge Arreaza, interview with the author, Barcelona, Venezuela, July 14, 2017.
  11. For a vivid history and analysis of protests in Caracas’s famed 23 de Enero barrio in recent decades, see Alejandro Velasco, Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela (Berkeley, CA: university of California Press, 2015).
  12. Before 1998, it was a notorious fact that most high-ranking officers were sympathizers of one of the two establishment parties, Democratic Action and Copei. Not even the moderately leftist Movement toward Socialism (MAS) was allowed any influence within the military.
  13. Marta Harnecker, “Latin America and Twenty-First Century Socialism: Inventing to Avoid Mistakes,” Monthly Review 62, no. 3 (July–August 2010): 42.
  14. For a discussion of the application of Poulantzas’s thinking to the Chavista experience, see Steve Ellner, “Implications of Marxist State Theories and How They Play Out in Venezuela,” Historical Materialism 25, no. 2 (2017): 29–62.
2017, Volume 69, Issue 05 (October 2017)
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