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A Partial Revolution: Venezuela’s Revolt Against Empire

Peter Brogan
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006
    The radical transformation inside Venezuela continues to inspire movements around the world. Peter Brogan examines the Bolivarian revolution and looks at why Venezuela’s resistance poses such a threat to US control of the region.

Today Latin America serves as the most dynamic, inspiring, and strongest bastion of resistance against US domination and neoliberalism. Chávez captured this spirit of resistance when he addressed those in attendance of the sixth World Social Forum (WSF) in Caracas this January: “It [the US empire] is the most perverse…in history. It talks about freedom while invading and destroying nations…. The empire is very powerful, but not infallible. This century we will bury the US empire. The empire has to face the people of Venezuela and Latin America.”

Beyond challenging US dominance, discussions within the Bolivarian revolution center on the dire need to build socialism for the 21st century. What such radical change looks like or how to achieve it is still rather unclear. However, many in Venezuela, including Chávez, believe the Bolivarian revolution is a process that is developing this socialism—a socialism Chávez often describes as Christian and indigenous.

As exemplified by the recent rhetoric of Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, the Bolivarian revolution poses a considerable threat to US control of the region and a potential source of instability to their hold on the global order more generally. For example, Rumsfeld recently compared Chávez to Hitler—apparently because both men were elected. Meanwhile, Rice called for the establishment of a united front against Venezuela, stating that its relationship with Cuba was “a particular danger to the region.”

Venezuela’s initiatives indeed have a sweeping impact on movements across Latin America. Their influence was on display at the WSF in the discussions that took place amongst the various social movements in attendance There was a feeling in the air that Latin America is presently experiencing a special historical moment in which radical change is not only possible but is, in fact, enveloping the whole continent.

Another vision

The Bolivarian project is fundamentally against neoliberalism. The vision revolves around the dream of a unified Latin America based on cooperation over competition, participatory democracy, gender equality, anti-racism, and putting an end to the social exclusion of the most marginalized peoples in the region. The core principles include embracing the indigenous and African socio-cultural roots of the Venezuelan population and society.

The Bolivarian revolution draws its vision of abolishing the false colonial borders imposed on the peoples of the region by the Spanish and Portuguese empires from the dream of the 19th century Venezuelan-born general and liberation hero Simón Bolívar. The theme of a unified America emerged again as a driving vision for Ernesto “Che” Guevara and many other Latin American revolutionaries.

The radical imagery of a unified Latin America has an incredible allure for many in the Americas, especially the poor and excluded. This vision, like socialism, is extremely vague. Nonetheless, there exists a unique consensus in Venezuela amongst the bulk of the population and Chávez himself that socialism in conjunction with a unified Latin America is the answer to the massive problems of poverty and inequality that plaque the continent.

Partial revolution

Gustavo Borge, an activist from the El 23 de Enero barrio, one of the poor shantytowns in the mountains that surround Caracas, recently gave his assessment of the current situation in Venezuela. When asked by two journalists for his thoughts on the state of things in his country, he said, “What’s going on in Venezuela now is not a full-out revolution; it’s a partial one. Chávez keeps the country at peace by not making radical changes; he maintains two parallel worlds [the revolutionary one and the capitalist one]. He has created programs right next to what exists, to maintain peace. He’s done things very well so that blood won’t run. The work we’re doing now is for our children, for the future.” What remains to be seen is whether current projects will lay the foundation for more radical change to take over or will eventually be destroyed by capitalist interests.

These two spheres of interest come into striking relief when walking the streets of Caracas, where neighborhoods are clearly demarcated along class lines. For example, when walking around the upper-class community of Altamira, one is taken aback by the huge houses, shopping malls, and transnational corporations, which range from Citigroup to McDonalds and TGI Fridays. This contrasts harshly with the run-down poor and working-class neighborhoods where homelessness and destitution stare you in the face at every turn.

This duality between the interests of the elite and poor provide the context to understand the Bolivarian revolution. These two worlds stand in direct opposition to each other, one clearly benefiting from the exploitation of the other. Meanwhile, the Bolivarian revolution is, as Borges describes above, only a partial one, at least for now. However, the project has been deepened and radicalized by mobilization from below and is developing larger regional initiatives that confront this world of affluence. These initiatives and projects even go beyond the original goals when Chávez took power, which were primarily to alleviate the problems of the poor while not disturbing the well-to-do middle class, domestic capitalists, and transnational capital too much.
Two of the most central elements in the Bolivarian project are healthcare and education. In this regard, Venezuela follows Cuba, which has been especially instrumental in providing Venezuela with literacy materials and strategies, as well as sending free medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, and over 20,000 doctors to the barrios.

The latter program, called Barrio Adentro (Into the barrios), has received widespread attention internationally. The project includes the training of Venezuelan doctors in the barrio clinics and in Cuba as well. The Cubans exchange this medical aid for preferential prices on oil and construction materials, which in turn has been vital to reinvigorating the Cuban economy. At the core of the trade deal between Cuba and Venezuela are solidarity and cooperation—two principles that contradict the logic of neoliberal “free trade.” It serves as an example that could have greater implications across Latin America.

Popular economy

The Bolivarian project embraces a model of what the government calls “endogenous development.” This model is geared towards diversifying the economy, with a special focus on workers’ cooperatives and small enterprises. The Chávez government describes this model of development as pushing for a “total transformation of [current] power relations, towards complete cultural, economic, and social self determination of our peoples.” Key features include the development of cooperatives, land reforms, and agricultural production as well as laws on micro-credit.

The development of small- and medium-sized businesses has been an important component of building a popular economy. Support from central and local governments has been crucial for opening space for cooperatives of all kinds. The cooperatives themselves have, in turn, been a core part of the effort to transcend the informal economy that predominates for many of the poor. According to claims of the central government, by mid 2005 there were 83,000 cooperatives, whereas there had only been 700 before Chávez came to power.

However, given that the oil sector is booming, with prices at an all-time high and climbing, there is much more room for policies of redistribution in Venezuela than elsewhere. Yet, as Canadian political economist Greg Albo recently observed, it remains to be seen whether or not the revenues from oil can be transformed into sustainable and self-reinforcing economic growth and development and whether such growth will result in the incorporation of excluded economic and social sectors. In other words, how will increased revenue from the oil industry be deployed to diversify the economy and increase jobs and the capacities of the poorest and most marginalized in Venezuelan society?

Regional alternatives

On a region-wide basis, the Chávez government is advocating for an alternative to the Free Trade Area of Americas (FTAA) called the Latin American Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA). This proposal forms a crucial element for integrating Latin America economically along lines of cooperation and solidarity. ALBA would be a huge step in the development of a regional bloc of the global south to contest US dominance of the global economy. Other initiatives along these lines include a proposal for a pan-Latin American oil company and strategy, PetroAmerica, which would consist of an alliance of state oil companies. These can all be viewed as efforts at exercising democratic sovereignty and as attempts to construct non-market forms of exchange.

The relationship between Cuba and Venezuela has created a new socialist political point of reference in Latin America. This point challenges those center-left governments in Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay to move away from their embrace of neoliberalism. It has opened up some space for these governments, which many correctly view as “talking left and walking right,” to show a little backbone and engage in more independent and left initiatives as demanded by movements in their countries.

However, aside from Cuba, Venezuela and the Bolivarian project have gained very little support from other Latin American governments. And as no other government has diverged from the neoliberal path—particularly Argentina and Brazil, who have the largest economies in the region—Venezuela faces rather unfavorable external economic conditions outside of the oil sector. The situation has led to their dependence on oil exportation to the US market, which is a central element around which all economic and political calculations in Venezuela pivot.

Counter media

The Venezuelan state has taken the lead in the creation of Telesur, a regional news network that intends to serve as a counter to CNN and other corporate media. It is a joint project of Venezuela (the state with controlling interest), Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay. It has worldwide reach that can compete with the most powerful TV networks in the world. Telesur translates into “television from the south,” and its primary aim is to present critical and accurate Latin American perspectives on news, politics, and culture to the peoples of Latin America. This is a huge step in a region where 70 percent of programming is imported, 62 percent of which comes from the US. Telesur has been described by Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., as a “threat to the United States” because “it tries to undermine the balance of power in the western hemisphere.”

Complementary to the rise of Telesur on the regional level is the rise and expansion of community radio stations in Venezuela. These predominantly serve the barrios and are utilized largely by youth. Programming ranges from news and politics to a wide variety of music and poetry for children. We can never forget how instrumental Venezuelan alternative and community media were in defeating the 2002 coup against Chávez.

Autonomous projects

By far the most exciting activity and best hope for deepening and expanding the Bolivarian revolution is in the barrios, where people are the most militant and mobilized. In these communities people are highly critical of Chávez and the Bolivarian project while also highly supportive of Chávez and the goals of the revolution.

These communities serve as incubators for incredible institutions of dual power, building programs that provide free education for youth and adults, health clinics, community radio stations, urban land committees, food coops, and communication centers aimed at democratizing communication. These programs run cooperatively and place self-organization at the center of their work and vision of the revolutionary process.

Many of these institutions receive significant funding from the government. However, they would go nowhere were it not for the mobilization of the people in the communities that run them. For example, community radio stations get the bulk of their funding from people in the community and not from the government, as is the case for many of the more autonomous projects that have emerged. The primary government funding is generated by the oil industry and must be filtered around particular government ministries that are hostile to these programs.

Constant threat

Venezuelan communities and the Chávez government alike face innumerable internal and external threats to their ability to expand and deepen radical transformation within Venezuelan society. Venezuela remains under constant threat from the US government, which is hell-bent on preventing or destroying any alternatives to neoliberalism that might challenge its dominance within the global order. As sociologist William Robertson observed in a recent interview with Jonah Gindin, “All of the information indicates that there are massive covert and overt, systematic, military, economic, political, and ideological operations against Venezuela to defeat the revolution and put the elite back in power.” Such a situation presents a danger of stifling any radical project, particularly efforts to further democratize the revolutionary process and transformation of Venezuelan society.

Meanwhile, local elites create other barriers to radical change within Venezuela. Take the systemic corruption that is still rampant within the Venezuelan state, a legacy Chávez inherited from the old regime. A key feature of the corruption is an absence of meaningful and transparent taxation, both of individuals and corporations. Some analysts have noted that solving this problem is more important for the project of endogenous development and breaking with neoliberalism than further development of the oil industry. Chávez has continuously denounced this systemic corruption as a primary enemy of the revolution.
Venezuela’s role in leading resistance to US domination in the region and the radical projects they have been able to develop inspire movements across Latin America and around the world. Yet the state is in large measure not under the control of Chávez’s government and, in fact, has many of its institutions completely controlled by the opposition. Failure to deal with these problems in the Venezuelan state is limiting the possibility for further radical change. The Bolivarian revolution is a partial revolution, yet it is constantly evolving and may indeed lead to a more radical transformation.


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