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Venezuela's Social-Based Democratic Model: Innovations and Limitations

  • STEVE ELLNER

Abstract

Under the Chávez government, the incorporation and participation of popular sectors, which is the essence of ‘social-based democracy’, has been quantitatively and qualitatively different from socialist government and welfare-state strategies of the past. Venezuela's social-based democracy focuses on education, job skills, ideology, transformation of values and empowerment, achievements which Chavista leaders consider to be imperatives for socialist development. However, Chavista social programmes have been undermined by institutional weakness, are sometimes not cost-effective, and are politicised. Conflicting views among the Chavistas on the role of the state hinge on the issue of whether initiatives from above in favour of social-based democracy represent a viable strategy for far-reaching change. The Venezuelan government's changing priorities after 2007 have detracted from the primacy of social programmes.

Bajo el gobierno de Chávez, la incorporación y participación de los sectores populares, que es la esencia de la social-based democracy (la democracia que prioriza lo social), ha sido cuantitativa y cualitativamente diferente a las estrategias de los gobiernos socialistas o estados de bienestar social del pasado. La social-based democracy de Venezuela se centra en la educación, las habilidades en el trabajo, la ideología, la transformación de valores y el empoderamiento, logros que los dirigentes chavistas consideran como imperativos para un desarrollo socialista. Sin embargo, los programas sociales chavistas se han ido erosionando por debilidades institucionales, altos costos en comparación con sus logros, y politización. Los puntos de vista opuestos que se encuentran entre chavistas sobre el papel del estado tienen que ver con que si las iniciativas desde arriba a favor de la democracia social representan una estrategia viable para transformaciones de largo aliento. El cambio de prioridades del gobierno venezolano desde 2007 lo ha ido distanciando de la primacía de los programas sociales.

Sob o governo Chávez, a incorporação e participação de setores populares, o que é a essência da social-based democracy (a democracia que prioriza a dimensão social) tem sido diferente das estratégias dos governos socialistas e dos estados de bem-estar social do passado em termos quantitativos e qualitativos. A social-based democracy venezuelana concentra-se em educação, capacitação profissional, ideologia, transformação de valores e empodeiramento, realizações que os líderes chavistas consideram imperativas para o desenvolvimento socialista. Entretanto, programas chavistas tem sido debilitados por fraquezas institucionais, e podem ter um custo-benefício duvidoso e são politizados. Visões conflitantes entre chavistas acerca do papel do estado estão relacionadas à questão de iniciativas partidas ‘de cima’ para favorecer a democracia social, se essas podem representar uma estratégia viável para alcançar mudanças profundas. A alteração de prioridades do governo venezuelano após 2007 diminuiu a primazia dos programas sociais.

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1 In the socio-economic sphere, ‘excluded groups’ refers to members of the informal economy while ‘semi-excluded’ refers to low-paid, non-unionised workers in small businesses in the formal economy.

2 Lenin, V. I., Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1935), p. 83; Caballero, Manuel, Latin America and the Comintern, 1919–1943 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 94–6, 103–5; Patnaik, Prabhat, ‘Socialism and the Peasantry’, Social Scientist, 23 (2009), p. 23.

3 Muñoz, Agustín Blanco, Habla el comandante (Caracas: UCV, 1998), p. 168.

4 Zago, Angela, La rebelión de los ángeles: reportajes – los documentos del movimiento (3rd edition, Caracas: Warp Ediciones, 1998), p. 177.

5 Muñoz, Blanco, Habla el comandante, p. 529; Harnecker, Marta, Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks to Marta Harnecker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005), p. 43.

6 Muñoz, Blanco, Habla el comandante, p. 611; Sanoja, Mario and Vargas-Arenas, Iraida, La revolución bolivariana: historia, cultura y socialismo (Caracas: Monte Avila, 2008), p. 296; Melo, Freddy J., Reforma y revolución (Caracas: Ediciones UVB, 2008), p. 403.

7 Muñoz, Blanco, Habla el comandante, pp. 392, 397.

8 Harnecker, Marta, Rebuilding the Left (New York: Zed Books, 2007), paras. 368–71.

9 Anderson, Perry, ‘Renewals’, New Left Review, 1 (2000), pp. 524.

10 Muñoz, Blanco, Habla el comandante, p. 209.

11 Brian F. Crisp, Daniel H. Levine and Juan Carlos Rey, ‘The Legitimacy Problem’, in Jennifer McCoy, Andrés Serbin, William C. Smith and Andrés Stambouli (eds.), Venezuelan Democracy under Stress (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995), pp. 153–8.

12 Ellner, Steve, ‘The Tenuous Credentials of Latin American Democracy in the Age of Neoliberalism’, Rethinking Marxism, 14: 3 (2002), pp. 77–8.

13 Between 2007 and the present I have conducted 58 in-depth interviews with members of cooperatives and community councils as well as Chavista activists and political leaders throughout Venezuela as part of a project entitled ‘El Estado y Organizaciones Políticas y Sociales en la Democracia: El Caso Venezolano’, financed by the Consejo de Investigación of the Universidad de Oriente. In 2008–10 I taught four courses in the university-based Sucre Mission in Barcelona, Anzoátegui state, in northern Venezuela, for students in the programmes of local management (gestion local) and law.

14 Interview with Elías Jaua, minister of the popular economy and future vice-president, Caracas, 27 Jan. 2006.

15 Rodríguez, Carlos Lanz, Aportes para el debate del socialismo del siglo XXI (Caracas, 2006), pp. 810.

16 Harnecker, Marta, Transfiriendo poder a la gente: Municipio Torres, Estado Lara, Venezuela (Caracas: Haciendo Camino al Andar, 2008), pp. 37, 76.

17 The above statement is based on my experience teaching in the programme in two schools (known as aldeas) in two different fields of study.

18 For a book-length collection of testimonies by participants in the Venezuelan cooperative movement that documents both the positive and negative features discussed in this article, see Lucena, Héctor (ed.), Cooperativas, empresas, estado y sindicatos: una vinculación necesaria (Barquisimeto: Fondo Editorial Universidad Centroccidental Lisandro Alvarado, 2007).

19 In another example, in 2008 the government heeded the steel workers’ union's call for the nationalisation of the foreign-owned steel company SIDOR in the midst of a violent worker dispute, and in the process invigorated the nation's labour movement.

20 See Sistema Integrado de Indicadores Sociales de Venezuela (Ministry of Planning and Finance, SISOV), www.sisov.mpd.gob.ve/indicadores/ED0600700000000/.

21 On the lack of change in ethical values, see Lebowitz, Michael A., Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006), p. 113.

22 Daniel Hellinger, ‘When “No” Means “Yes to Revolution”: Electoral Politics in Bolivarian Venezuela’, in Steve Ellner and Miguel Tinker Salas (eds.), Venezuela: Hugo Chávez and the Decline of an ‘Exceptional Democracy’ (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), p. 69.

23 Ellner, Steve, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon (Boulder, CO, and London: Lynne Rienner, 2008), p. 93.

24 Robert Serra, television interview by Carlos Croes, Televen, 18 Jan. 2009.

25 Raby, D. L., Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today (London and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2006), pp. 190–1; Woods, Alan, La revolución bolivariana: un análisis marxista (Caracas: Fundación El Perro y la Rana, 2006), pp. 62–3.

26 Monedero, Juan Carlos, ‘La reinvención revolucionaria de Venezuela y los fantasmas del pasado’, Comuna: pensamiento crítico en la revolución, 1 (July–Sep. 2009), p. 192.

27 Fernandes, Sujatha, Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez's Venezuela (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 85–6.

28 Harnecker, Marta, ‘Latin America and Twenty-First Century Socialism: Inventing to Avoid Mistakes’, Monthly Review, 62: 3 (2010), p. 70; El Estado debe facilitar y no suplantar al poder popular’, Comuna: pensamiento crítico en la revolución, 1 (July–Sep. 2009), pp. 148–9; and ‘Sí necesitamos una nueva izquierda’ (27 Nov. 2009), www.aporrea.org/ideologia/n146141.html. See also Webber, Jeffery R. and Spronk, Susan, ‘Venezuela: Voices on the Struggle’, Against the Current, 148 (2010), p. 33.

29 Interview with Evaristo Zambrano, mayor of Palmira (Táchira), Palmira, 30 Dec. 2009.

30 Raby, Democracy and Revolution, pp. 186–94.

31 Speech delivered in Zulia, 20 Jan. 2009.

32 Coppedge, Michael, Strong Parties and Lame Ducks: Presidential Partyarchy and Factionalism in Venezuela (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994).

33 Ellner, Steve, ‘A New Model with Rough Edges: Venezuela's Community Councils’, NACLA: Report on the Americas, 42: 3 (2009), p. 14; Harnecker, Transfiriendo poder a la gente, p. 98.

34 Martínez, Carlos, Fox, Michael and Farrell, JoJo, Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2009), p. 135.

35 The concepts of ‘constituent power’ and ‘constituted power’, which replace class struggle as the main locus of conflict, are used by writers such as Antonio Negri and inspired by postmodern and anti-statist thinking, as well as by those in Venezuela who adhere to the radical position on the state.

36 Harnecker, ‘Latin America and Twenty-First Century Socialism’, p. 34. See also Ciccariello-Maher, George, ‘Dual Power in the Venezuelan Revolution’, Monthly Review, 59: 4 (2007), pp. 54–5.

37 Webber and Spronk, ‘Venezuela: Voices on the Struggle’, p. 30.

38 Bilbao, Luis, Venezuela en revolución, renacimiento del socialismo (Buenos Aires: Capital Intelectual, 2008), pp. 136–7.

39 See also Arconada, Santiago, ‘Es necesario replantear la relación entre socialismo y democracia’, Comuna: pensamiento crítico en la revolución, 1 (July–Sep. 2009), pp. 5860.

40 Roberto López Sánchez, ‘Autonomía sindical y soberanía popular’, in Margarita López Maya (ed.), Ideas para debatir el socialismo del siglo XXI, vol. 2 (Caracas: Editorial Alfa, 2009), p. 134.

41 Denis, Roland (interviewed by Raul Zelik), ‘Venezuela and the Popular Movement’, Z Magazine, 16: 10 (Oct. 2003); Denis, , ‘Venezuela: The Popular Movements and the Government’, International Socialist Review, 110 (2006), pp. 2935.

42 For an optimistic evaluation of subjective conditions in Venezuela by a leading advocate of the radical position on the state, see Woods, Alan, Reformismo o revolución: marxismo y socialismo del siglo XXI; respuesta a Heinz Dieterich (Madrid: Fundación Federico Engels, 2008), pp. 402–5.

43 Bilbao, Venezuela en revolución, pp. 219, 151; Harnecker, Marta, Haciendo posible lo imposible: la izquierda en el umbral del siglo XXI (Mexico and Madrid: Siglo Veintiuno, 1999), p. 65. For a discussion of Dieterich's views, see Javier Biardeau, ‘¿El proceso de transición hacia el nuevo socialismo del siglo XXI? Un debate que apenas comienza’, in Mario Ayala and Pablo Quintero (eds.), Diez años de revolución en Venezuela: historia, balance y perspectivas (1999–2009) (Buenos Aires: Editorial Maipue, 2009), pp. 371–5. See also Sanz, Rodolfo, Hugo Chávez y el desafío socialista (2nd edition, Caracas: Editorial Nuevo Pensamiento Crítico, 2007), p. 168; and Sara C. Motta, ‘Venezuela: Reinventing Social Democracy from Below’, in Geraldine Lievesley and Steve Ludlam (eds.), Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy (London and New York: Zed Books, 2008), pp. 86–8.

44 Valderrama, Toby and Mena, Alejandro, Rumbo al socialismo (Barcelona, Venezuela: Misión Ribas, 2005), p. 69; Sanz, Hugo Chávez y el desafío socialista, pp. 162–4; Bilbao, Venezuela en revolución, pp. 178, 219.

45 Denis, Roland, ‘Hay una lucha histórica que no ha sido resuelta en veinte años’, Comuna: pensamiento crítico en la revolución, 1 (July–Sep. 2009), pp. 108–9.

46 Interview with Naike Infantino, director of Caracas’ Office of Citizen Attention, Caracas, 11 Dec. 2008.

47 Manuel Brito, ‘Bocaburlario Burgués (o sea, Ernesto, Vladimir, Mario Villegas)’, www.aporrea.org/ideologia/a92363.html.

48 ‘Entrevista a Alberto Müller Rojas’, www.aporrea.org/ideologia/n146379.html; Harnecker, Rebuilding the Left, paras. 137–9.

49 Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics, p. 141.

50 Daniel Hellinger, ‘Virtual Participation and Political Virtue: Chavistas on the Internet in Venezuela’, paper presented at the 28th Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 2009.

51 Interview with Jorge Giordani, minister of economy and finance, Caracas, 23 Jan. 2010; interview with Irán Aguilera, president of the state legislature of Anzoátegui, Barcelona, Venezuela, 25 Nov. 2009.

52 Ellner, ‘A New Model with Rough Edges’, pp. 12–13.

53 This type of determinism was upheld, for instance, by leading members of the US Communist Party beginning in the 1930s, as discussed by Isserman, Maurice in Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party during the Second World War (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1982), pp. 48–9.

54 Germani, Gino, Política y sociedad en una época de transición: de la sociedad tradicional a la sociedad de masas (Buenos Aires: Editorial Paidós, 1962).

55 Jorge G. Castañeda and Marco A. Morales, ‘The Current State of the Utopia’, in Castañeda and Morales (eds.), Leftovers: Tales of the Latin American Left (New York and London: Routledge, 2008), p. 16; Arenas, Nelly and Calcaño, Luis Gómez, Populismo autoritario: Venezuela, 1999–2005 (Caracas: Cendes, 2006), pp. 129–56.

56 James, Daniel, Doña María's Story: Life History, Memory, and Political Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

57 Roberts, Kenneth M., ‘Populism, Political Conflict, and Grass Roots Organization in Latin America’, Comparative Politics, 38: 2 (2007), p. 144; Weyland, Kurt, The Politics of Market Reform in Fragile Democracies: Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 247–9. See also Steve Ellner, ‘The Contrasting Variants of the Populism of Hugo Chávez and Alberto Fujimori’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 35: 1 (2003), pp. 154–5.

58 Hawkins, Kirk A., Venezuela's Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 82–5, 168.

59 Steve Ellner, ‘Chávez Pushes the Limits: Radicalisation and Discontent in Venezuela’, NACLA: Report on the Americas, 43: 4 (2010), p. 11.

60 Interview with Leandro Rodríguez, adviser to the National Assembly's Commission of Citizen Participation, Decentralisation and Regional Development, Caracas, 29 July 2010.

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Venezuela's Social-Based Democratic Model: Innovations and Limitations

  • STEVE ELLNER

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