A "Revolutionary Process" Unfolds

A citizen gets her photograph taken for her Bolivarian ID card for subsidies. Photo by Mariliana Arvelo

In the Absence of a Well Defined Plan

By Steve Ellner

Hugo Chávez's embracement of socialism in January 2005 recalls Fidel Castro's famous speech on December 2, 2001 in which he declared himself a Marxist-Leninist.  In both cases, socialism became overnight the official creed as government supporters zealously defended the new banner. In addition, the adversaries of both leaders used the declarations as proof that they had deceived the people by coming to power with the stated aim of promoting democracy while hiding their true intentions of carrying out leftist-style revolutions.

Nevertheless, fundamental differences related to timing and the world context set apart the two historical experiences. In the case of Cuba, the identification with Marxism-Leninism occurred just three years after Castro came to power. Furthermore, Castro’s December 1961 speech initiated the immediate implantation of socialism based on the Communist model of a state-owned economy, a one-party political system, the avoidance of open debate over major national issues, and the sharp reduction in material differences between social groups.

Chávez, on the other hand, was in power for six years when he openly identified himself with socialism, and although the pronouncement was followed by the adoption of various radical policies, it did not signal a complete rupture with the past. Not only did Venezuela continue to be a capitalist nation with an electoral democracy, but the January 2005 speech failed to speed up the process of ideological clarification in spite of the leftist backgrounds of most non-military Chavista leaders at all levels. Most important, in contrast to Castro’s nationalization of industries during the early years of his rule, the role of large private capital remains undefined in Venezuela and the issue pits a hard-line against a soft-line current within theChavista movement (See my “The Defensive Strategy on the Left in Latin America: Objective and Subjective Conditions in the Age of Globalization.” Science & Society 70, no. 3, July 2005, 185).

The steady strengthening of Chávez’s hold on power, as a result of the opposition’s string of defeats in the years following his election as president in December 1998, provided the Chavistas options within a democratic context that the Cubans under Castro lacked. In the case of Cuba, the imperatives of the Cold War and proximity to the United States forced Castro to align himself with the socialist bloc, thus accelerating the process of socialist transformation.

In contrast, the Venezuelan leaders have had greater leeway due to the absence of ideological polarization set off by the Cold War, as well as windfall oil income which has relieved them of economic pressure as a result of the contraction of private investments outside of the petroleum industry. The continuous weakening of the Venezuelan business sector over the previous two decades and the loss of prestige of the United States following the invasion of Iraq also bolstered Chávez’s position both at home and abroad (See Nelson Ortiz in “Entrepreneurs: Profits Without Power?” in Jennifer McCoy and David J. Myers, eds., The Unraveling of Venezuelan Democracy in Venezuela, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, 91-92).

The Chavistas have carefully chosen targets on the basis of political criteria in order to facilitate the government’s consolidation of power and to deliver the enemy heavy blows. As part of this Gramscian “war of positions,” Chávez has attached paramount importance to timing. Thus, for example, in an interview with the Chilean Marxist Marta Harnecker published in Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks to Marta Harnecker (Monthly Review Press,2005) , Chávez ruled out the suspension of payment of the foreign debt during the current period due to the risks involved, and added that politics “is about figuring out what is possible in the moment.”

Until the defeat of Chávez’s proposed constitutional reform in a referendum held in December 2007, steady radicalization and political successes convinced the Chavistas that ideological introspection was not a priority and that events themselves, rather than ideological formulations, would determine the direction of the “revolutionary process.” During this period the Chavistas took careful note that the government and the governing party, the Movimiento Quinta República (MVR), had defeated the opposition each time it posed new challenges. In the process, unreliable members of theChavista movement as well as those who were unwilling to accept far-reaching change abandoned the ranks of Chavismoand in some cases joined the opposition. At the same time, the “enemies of the revolution” such as the traditional business sector grouped in FEDECAMARAS, the communications media, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and the United States government began to openly take sides, thus intensifying struggles, clarifying identities, and raising the stakes.

The deepening of change and the radicalization of discourse were particularly well received by the Chavista hardliners, who favored a radical course, as opposed to the softliners who were reluctant to shake up the existing structure. AllChavistas including more moderate ones who prioritized consolidation over additional thoroughgoing change were infused with a sense of optimism as a result of the defeats of the opposition in the political battles that played out both at the polls and on the streets. Along these lines, Chávez in his January 2005 speech quoted Leon Trotsky as saying “each revolution needs the whip of the counterrevolution to advance.”

In short, the Chavistas considered formal ideological discussion unnecessary due to the favorable outcome of ongoing confrontation with an aggressive but politically vulnerable opposition. The situation can be summarized by the phrase “success speaks for itself”: repeated triumphs seemingly obviated the need for evaluation, self-criticism and formal debate over strategy.

The process of change and political success under Chávez began with a moderate stage, which focused on the political reforms incorporated into the Constitution in 1999. Next came a more radical period, when the government reversed the neoliberal economic formulas of the previous decade, including the gradual privatization of the oil industry.

After 2005, the Chavistas promoted structural policies and measures that pointed in the direction of an alternative model. Most important, the government respects private property under normal circumstances, but also stresses the obligations of owners, such as the utilization of agricultural land (to at least 80 percent of capacity). In addition, the government nationalized cement, electricity, telecommunications and steel companies in 2007 and 2008. President Chávez also promoted the proliferation of small neighborhood councils representing no more than 200 residents, and committed the government to providing each one with 60,000 dollars to undertake social projects. Finally, in 2007 Chávez replaced the electorally oriented MVR with the mass-based United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which was to hold internal elections to choose its candidates and authorities. Some of these moves, such as the decision to hold primaries to choose the PSUV’s candidates for the municipal-state elections in November 2008, helped invigorated the rank and file of the Chavistamovement and overcome the demoralization that had set in following the defeat in December 2007.


Hugo Chávez's declaration of his socialist convictions to 100,000 people at the Polihedro Stadium in Porto Alegre, Brazil during the Sixth World Social Forum in January 2005 culminated with the slogan “socialism or death.” Undoubtedly his speech was the most important defense of socialism anywhere in the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, who since the 1998 presidential campaign had warned of Chávez’s dictatorial designs and his intentions of copying the Cuban model, felt vindicated. For them, Chávez at long last had “showed his true colors.”

However, both the opposition and many of Chávez’s followers overlooked the essence of the Venezuelan president’s statement regarding the search for definitions. In his Porto Alegre speech, Chávez affirmed that socialism had to be “reinvented” in order to adapt to the conditions of the twenty-first century. Immediately thereafter, socialism became an official Chavista banner that was fervently defended by all Chavistas. Embracement of the system defined Chavismo as a movement opposed to capitalism, but it did little to spell out long-term goals. The Chavistas failed to publish periodicals or organize study groups and forums in order to systematically debate and reach a definition of what they call “twentieth-century socialism.” Furthermore, the common acceptance of socialism did not sharpen the differences existing withinChavismo that could have served as a point of departure for formal ideological debate.

Since its founding in April 1997, Chávez’s MVR consistently put off the task of engaging in ideological debate including the holding of an ideological congress. Chávez and other MVR leaders, who always placed a premium on timing, pointed to urgent political tasks and challenges as ruling out the feasibility of ideological introspection for the time being. The first emergency situation for the MVR was the congressional and presidential elections slated for November and December of 1998, followed by three electoral contests related to the nation’s constitution promulgated in 1999 and then two more in 2000. This electoral period was followed by opposition-promoted insurgency consisting of a military coup in April 2002, a two-month general strike beginning at the end of that year and then the call by sectors of the opposition for veritable street warfare known as the “Plan Guarimba” in early 2004.

The argument regarding the need to place ideological debate aside in order to face pressing tasks appeared valid prior to the August 2004 presidential recall elections when the opposition was determined to oust Chávez by any means possible and seemed to have the means to do so. Nevertheless, following Chávez’s impressive victory in the recall of August 2004 and the state and municipal elections three months later, the Chavistas found themselves in a comfortable position with an opposition highly discredited and demoralized, and thus continued fixation on electoral battles seemed unfounded. By announcing the goal of ten million votes for the December 2006 presidential elections, for which the congressional election of 2005 was to serve as a springboard, Chávez again shifted attention to the electoral arena.

Ideological debate over polemical issues would bring to the fore opinions and proposals that would run the risk of alarming privileged sectors of the population. Specifically, the debate over the role of big capitalist groups in a “socialist Venezuela,” and the strategy of prioritizing parallel structures (such as schools and hospitals), and their eventual displacement of traditional ones, would invite protests from members of both the upper and middle classes who feared the loss of privileges.

The hard-line current in Chavismo envisions the eventual elimination of large-scale private capital and opposes alliances with local capital that involves preferential treatment in the granting of contracts. The issue, however, has not been openly discussed, nor formally debated within the Chavista movement. Furthermore, the airing of plans to purge the state sector of “unreliable” employees tied to opposition parties would set in motion protests by trade unionists grouped in the anti-government Workers Confederation of Venezuela (CTV) and accusations of discriminatory hiring practices. In short, the absence of mechanisms of ideological discussion kept thorny issues, which were discussed informally among the Chavistas, out of the public arena.


The major features of the process of change under the Chávez presidency can be summarized as follows:

  • 1. The main targets of Chavista attack have varied throughout Chávez’s nearly ten years in office. During the first two years, Chávez singled out Venezuela’s political parties as responsible for the nation’s pressing problems. During the coup of April 2002 and the general strike of 2002-2003, the business organization FEDECAMARAS, the labor organization the CTV, the private media and to a certain extent the Catholic Church eclipsed political parties of the opposition as the main actors. In 2003, Chávez began to direct his rhetoric against the United States and denied that the opposition parties represented a significant threat.
  • 2. Many of the government’s policies have been reactive in that they were at first designed to deal with problems created by political adversaries who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Chávez presidency. In the long run these same policies have defined the direction of the Chavista government and movement. An example of this dynamic is the decision of Chavista labor leaders to found the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT) in order to challenge the efforts of the AD-controlled CTV to destabilize the government. Another example is the government’s decision to create the food- distribution chain MERCAL in order to counter shortages induced for political reasons beginning with the general strike of 2002-2003.
  • 3. The Chávez government adopted many of the positions and policies that represented a dramatic leap forward in the “revolutionary process,” with little or no previous discussion within the Chavista movement or the nation as a whole. Thus, for instance, enabling laws (“Leyes Habilitantes”), which avoided lengthy congressional debate, facilitated major far-reaching socio-economic reform on several occasions. The legislation was enacted in November 2001 in the form of 49 laws and again shortly after Chávez’s presidential reelection in December 2006 with the nationalization of several important industries. The Chavistas often justified the abruptness of these enactments by pointing to the crucial importance of timing. Any drawn out process would provide the enemy the opportunity to regroup and reorganize.
  • 4. The process of change under Chávez in the absence of well-defined long-term goals has taken many observers by surprise. Nevertheless, the Chavista strategy during these years has hardly been inconsistent. Policies and legislation, far from consisting of flip flops, were part of a steady radicalization in which certain positions and objectives assumed at the outset led into developments later on, and threads could be traced over a larger period of time. Thus, for instance, the state takeover of electricity and telephone companies following Chávez’s reelection in December 2006 was the first time that his government raised the banner of nationalization. Nevertheless, as far back as the mid-1960s a leftist current in the pro-establishment party AD, which subsequently formed the People’s Electoral Movement (MEP) that years later entered the Chavista ruling coalition, advocated the nationalization of the electricity company Electricidad de Caracas. Furthermore, by the mid-1990s the Chavista program known as the “Alternative Bolivarian Agenda” called for state control of “strategic” sectors of the economy, a proposal that was incorporated in the 1999 Constitution (Article 302).

An important feature of the “revolutionary process” in Venezuela is Chávez’s status as supreme and undisputed leader of theChavista movement, which discourages internal dissent and contributes to the failure of the Chavistas to debate openly strategy and ideology. Some political analysts defend Chávez’s overriding, dominant role by pointing to a dialectical relationship and a “bond” of “extraordinary intensity” between the leader and his followers and “the ideological evolution and maturity” of the former (See D.L Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today. Pluto Press, 2006).

It is true that in the early stages of periods of profound change the power assumed by a radical movement’s top leader typically eclipses institutions and organizations, which are left rudimentary. Nevertheless, a leader who is in touch with the people and articulates their aspirations is no substitute for mechanisms of direct popular input in decision making at all levels.

Open discussion over the larger issues is essential to guarantee that novel experiences such as cooperatives and Community Councils will be subject to ongoing evaluation that in turn will influence long-term goals and strategy. Specifically, debate and analysis are needed to arrive at the right mix between idealistic formulations, which focus on the promotion of new values, and institutionalization designed to ensure the viability of new structures.

The creation of the PSUV based on rank and file cells (known as batallones) in 2007 to replace the electorally oriented and vertically structured MVR has opened a window of opportunity to overcome internal shortcomings. The development also has a potential risk. By dissolving or shunting aside the smaller parties of the ruling coalition, the PSUV runs the risk of eliminating the limited degree of formal pluralism that has existed until now within the Chavista movement.

In a best-case scenario, however, diverse mechanisms of debate will allow the soft- and hard-line currents that had informally existed in the MVR to formulate propositions for consideration by the entire party. Furthermore, polemical issues such as the role of private property would be addressed. The currents identified with specific positions, while not necessarily solidifying into organized factions, would help ensure that differences in the movement would be predominately ideological and subject to a constructive dialogue rather than being exclusively based on personalities. The rich informal debate amongChavistas up until now suggests that venues of discussion within the PSUV such as party publications will facilitate ideological clarification.

Steve Ellner
 has taught economic history and political science at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela since 1977. His Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chavez Phenomenon was published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in 2008.