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The Contradictions of Hugo Chavez

Jana Silverman
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is a highly polarizing figure. He is reviled by the Bush Administration and by the Venezuelan elite, yet admired and seen almost as a savior by the jobless and underemployed living in shantytowns on the fringes of Caracas. Even though he personally dominates national politics, he advocates for a redistribution of resources to bring a greater standard of living to all Venezuelans.

Many on the left in Latin America initially looked to Chávez as an exciting alternative to both the neo-liberalism espoused by the continent’s ruling classes and the guerilla strategies of movements like the FARC in Colombia. However, four years and one failed coup later, the Bolivarian Revolution begun by Chávez has not been a complete success, partially because his contradictions have ensnarled him in a political deadlock whose end is not yet in sight.

To analyze the complex phenomenon that is Chavismo, it is first necessary to take a look back at the workings of Venezuelan politics over the last half-century.

For the 40 years preceding the election of Chávez in 1998, Venezuelan political life was dominated by the nominally social democratic party Acción Democrática (AD) and the Christian Democratic party COPEI. During this time, there were no military coups or disruptions to the electoral cycle, which led the US to continually praise it as one of the most stable and democratic countries in the region.

However, these parties were corrupt and were as unrepresentative of the popular sectors of society as the Republican and Democratic parties are in the US. Political analysts described the Venezuelan system as a “pactocracy”—a system which kept political and economic power firmly under the control of the two parties by distributing benefits to their supporters through patronage networks that included business federations such as Fedecámaras, the Church, and the CTV (Confederation of Venezuelan Workers) union federation.

This “pacted” system of government worked best when, as in the 70s, prices for oil (Venezuela’s most important export) were high, providing the state with more resources to distribute to its supporters and to the population as a whole. As expected, the upper classes received much of the windfall from the oil boom years (known colloquially as Venezuela Saudíta), although poor Venezuelans also benefited from state subsidies.

But when oil prices fell in the 80s, Venezuela began to borrow heavily, triggering a debt crisis. This, combined with a massive wave of capital flight, led to the devaluation of the Venezuelan currency in 1983. The devaluation hit the working class hard—the percentage of Venezuelan families living in acute poverty grew from 22% in 1981 to a shocking 54% by 1987. Protests against the rising cost of living, the lack of independence of the judicial system, and the widespread political corruption became more frequent, yet the COPEI and AD administrations refused to address the growing social inequality.

Hugo Chávez's political aspirations first took shape in this period of unrest and increasing radicalization. Chávez was a member of a new generation of army officers sent to study social sciences in civilian universities, putting him into contact with many professors who were participants in the Cuban-influenced guerrilla movements of the 60s. He was also highly influenced by the progressive military regime in Peru of General Juan Velasco, who advocated and implemented a far-reaching program of social reforms. These experiences, coupled with his knowledge of and admiration for the South American revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar, shaped Chávez's radical nationalist political ideology.

After becoming a lecturer and baseball coach at the military academy in Caracas in 1982, Chávez decided to put his political ideas into practice by creating a political cell within the army called the MBR-200 (Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement). This conspiracy consisted of like-minded officers who were critical of the corruption of the “pactocracy” and believed that the existing political system had to be overthrown in order to implement any kind of social change. The MBR, however, rejected the methods of guerrilla struggle that were so unsuccessful in the 60s. In the succeeding years, the movement grew stronger as its members worked their way up the military hierarchy and as the worsening political situation attracted many young soldiers to its cause.

The carcazo rebellion

The MBR had its first real test in February 1989, when the massive, spontaneous urban rebellion called the caracazo took place. The rebellion began as a series of uncoordinated, unplanned protests in the working class suburbs of Caracas against the doubling in price of bus fares—a direct consequence of the neoliberal economic package recently implemented by President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Within hours, the rebellion spread to the commercial and upper-class sections of Caracas, where masses of angry young caraqueños began rioting and looting in the chic stores of the affluent neighborhoods.

As the rebellion kept growing, the military was called in to protect the private property of the elite and to suppress the protests. The MBR had only vaguely envisioned this kind of scenario, and therefore were completely unprepared to lead a movement from inside the military in support of the caracazo. Tragically, many MBR members were forced to participate in the military suppression of the protests, leaving thousands of unarmed protestors dead or wounded. The viciousness of the repression left the poor and working classes in a state of fear, hopelessness, and apathy that lasted well into the 90s.

The MBR had missed an opportunity to overthrow the state during the caracazo, but Chávez was determined to prevent that history from repeating itself. He was given command of a paratroop battalion, which placed him in a more strategic position for any possible future coup plots. The MBR also worked on a set of documents that could serve as a political program for an emergency post-coup government.

On February 4, 1992, Chávez decided to make his move. Troops loyal to the MBR took over the cities of Maracay and Valencia, and were able to place several governors and military leaders under house arrest. However, loyalist troops in Caracas prevented the MBR from taking over the president’s offices in Miraflores Palace—the coup ended in a military failure, and Chávez and his co-conspirators were immediately arrested.

Although the coup was not a military success, it did succeed in other ways. As a condition for surrendering, Chávez demanded that he get a short amount of airtime on state television to explain himself to the Venezuelan people. He captivated the national audience by taking responsibility for the failure of the coup (which was notable in a society where the elite never took personal responsibility for their actions) and promised that his campaign to change the political system was only lost por ahora (for now).

Chávez became a household name throughout the country, and his call to action was echoed at subsequent demonstrations on university campuses and in poor neighborhoods throughout Caracas. This political pressure continued to mount, and a second failed coup was even attempted by a completely different group of officers. In the midst of this growing discontent, President Pérez was removed from office in 1993 after a congressional inquiry found him guilty on corruption charges.

In the next election, COPEI leader Rafael Caldera tried to distance himself from the discredited old political classes by campaigning as an independent and on a platform of opposition to the neoliberal policies of Pérez. He won the election but was not able to combat the tremendous social inequality in the face of a looming banking crisis and low oil revenues. His presidency was the last gasp of the AD/COPEI “pactocracy.” As soon as Chávez was released from military prison in 1994, he began to build a new MBR, this time with a civilian component and with electoral instead of military aims. The stage was set for the start of the Bolivarian Revolution.

At the helm of the new MBR—now christened MVR (Fifth Republic Movement) to distinguish it from the purely military MBR—Chávez enjoyed unprecedented popularity among the impoverished majority of Venezuelans. He convinced several small but influential left-wing parties to join the MVR’s “patriotic pole” for the elections, and with this support, he was able to catapult to a landslide victory, winning over 56% of the vote. With this impressive result, Chávez interpreted his vote as a mandate to completely transform Venezuelan democracy.

One of the main planks of his presidential platform was the reform of the Constitution, which was last amended in 1961 under the “pactocracy.” In a vote to decide whether a Constituent Assembly should be organized, a key test for the budding Bolivarian Revolution, the MVR passed with flying colors, netting a whopping 72% of the vote. Most of the major political institutions including the National Congress and Supreme Court were dismantled, and the new Constitution of the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” was drafted and implemented.

Although many positive reforms, such as guaranteed health care for all citizens and an expansion of indigenous rights, were written into the document, it also dramatically increased the power of the President. The new Constitution gave Chávez the ability to remain in office for two six-year terms and wide discretion in implementing executive orders that do not have to be approved by the Congress. This new centralization of power in the executive branch, coupled with the Chávez's populist leanings, made many of his middle and upper class political opponents fearful of where his presidency might lead.

Challenging empire

Chávez's radical foreign policy also gave the Venezuelan elites more cause for alarm. He appointed José Vicente Rangel, former left-wing journalist and well-known sympathizer with the Cuban Revolution, as Foreign Minister. Together, they began to advocate for a policy that could be characterized as “third worldist,” which places more emphasis on relations with Latin American countries and fellow OPEC members than with the US.

In fact, Chávez's anti-American rhetoric is at times so fiery that he was initially denied a visa when he first wanted to visit the US during his presidential campaign. Chávez has embraced Libya, Iraq, China, and most significantly Cuba as allies against the unipolarity of a US-dominated world, and has been critical of the US military mission in neighboring Colombia. However, in practice, the MVR regime is not always the scourge of neo-liberalism that it makes itself out to be. It does not, for example, oppose the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), only the hasty timetable for its implementation.

Although it has rolled back laws that would have allowed for partial privatization of the all-important oil sector, the Chávez government has privatized the electric and aluminum industries, deregulated the banking system, and put into place protections on intellectual property rights (such as drug patents) that are more stringent that those of other US-friendly countries like Brazil. Chávez is torn between his understandable distrust of US motives—a real desire for a more multi-polar world—and the need to play by some of the rules of the “Washington Consensus” in order to keep his country’s economy afloat.

Chávez's domestic policy also has contradictory aspects. He has increased state spending on housing, education, and health care, and has promoted a limited land-reform policy. He has also marginally increased the tax rates of Venezuela’s richest citizens and used the army to implement public works projects in the more remote areas of the country.

However, he has not been able to significantly reduce the immense income inequality, partially because he is committed to paying off the substantial external debt while refusing to create jobs through deficit spending. He justifies this by saying that short-term fiscal responsibility will lead to a healthier, more sustainable economy. Or in Chávez's own words, “Our project is not a statist one. We are looking for a point in between, as much state as necessary and as much market as possible.”

The failure of the Bolivarian Revolution to improve the lives of its lower-class supporters has been its most severe shortcoming, leading to a kind of creeping disenchantment with the MVR by its core constituency. This became a threat to its survival, especially when it was amplified by infighting between the military and civilian wings of the party that began in earnest with the defection of key military supporter Francisco Arias Cárdenas to run on an anti-MVR slate in the 2000 presidential elections.

The growing dissent within the MVR—due to its vague and contradictory program and the friction between its military and civilian wings—was observed with glee by the Venezuelan elite and middle classes. They, in turn, were egged on by ultraconservative Bush appointees such as Otto Reich, who are now in charge of US foreign relations in the region. The increasing polarization of the country, combined with clandestine funding and support by the US of opposition forces such as Fedecámaras and the CTV union federation, made the coup attempt of April 11, 2002 almost inevitable.

Fortunately, Chávez's core constituents did not desert him in his time of greatest need, and they were able to mount a series of impressive counter-demonstrations that forced the coup leaders to abandon their illegitimately obtained power. However, although Chávez's phoenix-like rise has given the Bolivarian Revolution a second lease on life, this lease will not last long unless the fundamental contradictions in the Bolivarian ideology are resolved.

If Venezuela has any chance at avoiding the nightmares of economic collapse and political instability that many of its Andean neighbors are now experiencing, Chávez must de-emphasize his ties to the military, promote a more participatory democratic process both within his party and without, and most importantly develop a real alternative to the domestic socioeconomic crises that have plunged the majority of Venezuela’s citizens into poverty. Without this, the Bolivarian Revolution may end up as yet another failed political experiment in Latin America that could not put into practice the beautiful, tantalizing promises of hope and social change that initially gave it life.