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Opening Space: Social Movements and the State in Venezuela

Peter Brogan
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution has reignited debate about how movements should relate to state power within strategies for social change. Peter Brogan examines the complexities of the Venezuelan experiment, asking how social movements fare in the Bolivarian revolution and how much influence the grassroots has through state sanctioned channels of participatory democracy.

At the most recent World Social Forum, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez called for social movements around the world struggling against capitalist globalization to take up a new socialist project, “a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.”

Many activists, particularly those of an anti-authoritarian bend, view such a call from a head of state either with extreme caution or outright disdain. Many see the Bolivarian Project or the Bolivarian Revolution – the supposedly radical project of social transformation taking place under the government of Chávez – as an outmoded authoritarian top-down model of achieving social change. Others view the project as something that’s not at all radical, but more of a classical populist New Deal type of project wrapped up in the fiery rhetoric of anti-imperialism and revolution.

Beyond mere rhetoric, however, how participatory of a democracy is the new Venezuela under the Chávez regime? What does it mean that Venezuela’s new constitution, created in 1999 through a genuinely participatory process itself, calls for the nation to become a “participatory democracy” based on a decentralization of power and a mobilized citizenry? How much has social mobilization and debate from below shaped the Bolivarian revolution?

Since Chavez came to power, Venezuela has been a battleground between the Chávistas and the opposition amongst Venezuela’s upper class and international capital, both in and out of the halls of power. Today’s Venezuela is also an important site of innovative experimentation in developing alternatives to neoliberalism and representative democracy, which in Venezuela, as in most of Latin America, has not been representative at all. Venezuela is also a dynamic site for intense theoretical and strategic debate amongst left activists and thinkers throughout the world on how to achieve radical social change in the 21st century.

These debates center on the concept of power, and whether or not to seize power through the state in order to create radical change, the path taken by the Chávez government. A number of people have praised Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution in an effort to refute the popular and inspiring idea and practice of “changing the world without taking power” as opposed to implementing change from above. Within the global justice movement internationally, the rejection of taking state power has been developed most prominently in the struggles of the Zapatistas and expounded by theorists like John Holloway.

Rather than seeing the Bolivarian project and the Chávez government as either bolstering or undermining one or another ideological position we first need to critically examine the situation in Venezuela. We must determine what the effects of this project have been on the poorest and most oppressed people of the society, to what degree they have been mobilized in the past few years and how they have in turn effected the Bolivarian project. We should be skeptical of those who argue that Venezuela illustrates the necessity of using the government to implement radical change and is an example of “taking power seriously,” as well as those who claim that the Bolivarian project is simply one more top-down authoritarian or populist effort, destined for failure and bound to maintain or reshape authoritarian social structures.

Corrupted democracy

Venezuela has been a model of a certain kind of democracy in Latin America for over three decades. Its oil wealth has made it one of the continent’s richest countries and placed it in a unique position. Yet, at the same time its unequal distribution of wealth has made it a social powder keg, particularly as it has had all the characteristics of a one-party state since the 1950s. Like its neighbor Colombia, however, its peculiarity is that two parties, not one, have taken turns wielding the power of the state. Acción Democrática has been the largest and most powerful of the two. But to keep up the appearance of democracy, a second party – Copei, or the Comité de Organización Electoral Independiente – was permitted to win an occasional election. The two parties established this power sharing agreement in 1958 when they signed the “Pact of Punto Fijo,” which guaranteed that all other parties would be prevented from ever taking power.

The political and economic system has been riddled with corruption on an almost unimaginable scale. This was especially true within the ranks of Acción Democrática but also more broadly throughout the banking and commercial community. Over the course of their 41-year “pacted democracy,” Venezuela’s elites completely dominated both the political and economic spheres by marginalizing their opponents and accumulating oil profits worth more than $300 billion. After this money dried up Venezuela had sustained an external debt of $24 billion dollars, with approximately 75% of the population living in poverty.


Over the course of the past two years, however, citizen power has greatly expanded in Venezuela, in part through the implementation of Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs). Lorenza Rodriguez, a participant in the CLPPs has explained to Venezuela Analysis’ Sarah Wagner that: “Article 1 of the CLPPs guarantees the execution of the constitution in the community, thereby establishing participatory democracy as a social project. The CLPP is going to be the primary decision making organization in each community. When an assembly is called, it is called in order to make decisions. After forming the committees, the people dedicate themselves to establishing their laws. We are working towards establishing an assembly in each neighborhood, in each sector, so that they can make decisions about the things that affect them.”

The larger importance of this model of participatory democracy is its attempts at dealing with social exclusions and partial citizenship through making elected officials more accountable to citizens by including them directly into the political process. This greatly increases popular deliberation and redirects money to dealing with peoples concerns. Wagner correctly observes that: “The essence of the new Venezuelan democracy is the ability of the people to participate in what had previously been a ‘pacted’ democracy, serving only to perpetuate structural forms of inequality.”

Mirna Landeta, another organizer and participant in the CLPPs in the local municipality of Libertador reveals something critical about the Bolivarian project in commenting that, “Here we continue fighting as we are achieving our goals. Our job is to educate the people, to make them aware of this process, to speak to the people, to take them information, to get the people together. We are organizing the Assembly of citizens so that the people continue to organize, so that they participate, so that they discuss their budgets so that they feel that this is their process. When they build a road, construct a stairway or a school, they will feel that these things are theirs and that they have to take care of them. This is what we are doing.” Another CLPP activist, María Fernanda Pirona, gets to the heart of the problem when she observes: “The participation of the people is the only thing that would make the Councils work better. Without the participation of the people, there are no Councils.”

Opening space

The movement of the Bolivarian Revolution is distinct from other political movements because of the space that has been opened up by Chávez for social mobilization. With his charismatic ability to communicate with the 80% of the country living below the poverty line Chávez has united a majority of those Venezuelan’s resisting neoliberalism under his leadership. Beyond the rhetoric, however, the policies and legislation that have been implemented under Chávez are crucial for understanding this support.

One of the most important of these policies is the land reform aimed at assisting small farmers and the landless poor. Other positive initiatives include the institution of free education straight through the university level and special banks to help small businesses, worker cooperatives, and farmers. New policies have also taken initiative against US intervention, throwing US military advisors out of the country and prohibiting US military aircraft engaged in counterinsurgency in Colombia from flying over Venezuelan airspace.

Pro-Chávez mobilization has manifested primarily in two ways. One is through the government created participatory community organizations, like public works projects and neighborhood assemblies. The other takes the shape of mobilization in defense of the President from the hostile international (most notably the US) and domestic opposition who are relentless in their efforts aimed at deposing Chávez and his government.

As Canadian journalist Jonah Gindin explains, in this political context, the first move for creating participatory budgeting has been to set up “community living organizations,” each consisting of 15 to 30 people with a member of each family in a particular neighborhood participating. “The unique character of these organizations,” Gindin writes, “is that they act not only as organizing conduits, but also as informal centers of evaluation and criticism.”

Keeping in mind the advances that have been made in terms of empowerment of the citizenry, we must recognize that fundamental problems with the quality and nature of participation exist. For instance, many people are unable to attend meetings and when they are able to attend, a person’s participation is often limited to how well they understand certain political and economic language.

Richard Smith, author of The Great Leap Forward, questions whether participatory democracy is possible: “The Fifth Republic [of Venezuela] is trying to walk a fine line between empowering the people and addressing democratic deficits while continuing to cater to a parallel society which endorses in its totality, the capitalist model.” It is unclear whether or not Venezuela’s political culture can be transformed by this model of participatory democracy, especially if capitalism is not rejected entirely.

Limits for radicalism

And given that the Law of the Local Public Planning Councils was passed over two years ago, in June of 2002, why has it remained in an embryonic stage of development and what are its limitations for creating a radical egalitarian society? As Sarah Wagner points out there are two strains of thought on this that acknowledge the value and need for participatory democracy, and which support the CLPPs, while remaining critical of the form that the law takes.

The more radical of the two is represented by Venezuelan activist and former Vice-Minister of Local Planning, Roland Denis. He argues that the model is so systematically flawed that the Law of the CLPPs should be abolished and redrafted in order to develop an entirely different model of participatory democracy. Having worked with and supported the Chávez government since 1999 and being a proponent of participatory democracy, Denis views the Law of the CLPPs as being purposefully flawed in an effort by reactionary elements within Chavez’s government to sabotage the creation of an active political culture of participation.

In Roland’s view, favorable conditions for developing a participatory democratic model do not exist for three reasons: 1) Participation is impeded by the inconsistencies produced by geographic divisions in the municipalities and districts; 2) Resources are not distributed according to population; and 3) Representative governing entities are accorded more value than the CLPPs, which therefore lack sufficient power to implement their decisions. As Denis observes: “There are a handful of people who represent their constituency but very few know who elected them and where they were elected.” Currently the ratio of municipalities to people and the uneven distribution of people within the municipalities obstruct quality participation.

Some analysts have referred to the way Venezuela is divided geographically along class lines as a “class-based apartheid.” Consequently, this has a tremendous impact on democratic participation. “The laws of the CLPPs” notes Wagner, “were made for an educated society. They were not designed for densely populated barrios where the overwhelming majority of people have an elementary reading level, lack knowledge of politics and economics, are unemployed, malnourished, and fighting to survive on a day to day basis. They work better in neighborhoods of the middle- or upper-class, in other words: Chacao, Baruta, and El Hatillo.”

This all runs contrary to the central idea behind the Local Public Planning Councils – which is to completely transform society through the redistribution of resources and the institutionalization of popular power. Roland Denis offers a perceptive interpretation of the CLPPs’ limitations – whose main failure he sees as not putting enough resources into the hands of the people – as reflecting that which the bureaucracy fears most: “The State does not want to open the channels of participatory democracy,” Denis says, “because it is afraid of the power that this law potentially gives to the people.”

Even though neighborhood officials are elected democratically by the community, and laws and budgets discussed and debated in each neighborhood, government officials still have the final word in practically all matters. Despite the people being organized and carrying out vibrant discussions on what needs to be done in their localities, their role is limited mostly to a consultative one.

Independent movements

Like all of the initiatives of the Bolivarian project we need to understand the CLPPs, and all of their limitations, within the context of an extremely hostile international environment. This environment dominated by the US empire, which views Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution as threatening to its hegemony and to the neoliberal integration of the global economy.

Within this discussion of participatory democracy and the Bolivarian project we cannot neglect those Venezuelan social movements that predate Chávez. Although greatly fragmented, they still maintain their existing structure and a good degree of autonomy from the government. Their activism now, however, must be closely coordinated with the many community organizations that have been formed or inspired by the government, which at times creates some blurry boundaries between the two. The Bolivarian project’s most important legacy may be the creation of a new kind of social movement.

In achieving some solid advances in education, housing, and health through community mobilizations, Chavismo (the movement of Venezuelans pushing the Bolivarian project forward) has proven to be in many respects a traditional social movement. “Chavismo’s linkage to a representative national political body” observes Jonah Gindin, “makes it a fundamentally unique mobilizing force on a scale never before seen in the nation’s history.” No doubt this is true, but it will only be a positive thing in the long term if Chávista inspired and created organizations can further decentralize and gain more autonomy from the state.

Of central importance in the bridge between the grassroots and the government in the Bolivarian project is how a significant number of rank-and-file elements of the military have been incorporated into the revolution. As Denis observes, “The popular movement does not consist of only social movements, there are also military movements, ...soldiers and young military officers who go to workshops and participate in the dynamic of the popular movements.”

It is vital not to discount the networks of Bolivarian Circles, cooperatives, community media, and Bolivarian versions of traditional social organizations as being genuinely popular movements simply because they share the ideology of the Chávez administration and enjoy some financial and logistical support from it. As Sarah Wagner notes, “More and more sectors of society are organizing themselves and aligning themselves with ‘El Proceso’ (the popular colloquialism for the overall Bolivarian Plan) – the stated ultimate goal of which is to create a new society that is fueled by universal participation and based on social justice and equality. Numerous associations are attempting to insure that this process will continue whether or not they have a representative in the presidential palace by cultivating current popular enthusiasm for participation that stems from the people’s newfound sense of power and purpose.”

When asked about his thoughts on the Bolivarian Revolution, one Venezuelan man said: “The process has dignified people and given us an opportunity to express what we think, without being ashamed of ourselves. The Bolivarian revolution has also succeeded in mobilizing people, and making us feel that this process is ours, we are co-responsible for it. If it doesn't work I am responsible for that failure too. And we are included in education and health programs."


Peter Brogan is a New York City based activist and writer who focuses on Latin American history, politics, and social movements.