A Review of The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez

by | Oct 29, 2011

The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez, edited by Thomas Ponniah and Jonathan Eastwood. (The David Rockefeller Center Series on Latin American Studies, Harvard University, Harvard University Press, 2011, 338 pages)

Much of what is written about Venezuela since the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998 tends to be highly polarized, often based on “Manichaean” perceptions of developments in that country, according to one of the editors of this volume. At the extremes, Chávez is viewed as a social revolutionary dedicated to the service of the downtrodden in Latin America or as dictator who threatens regional democracy and security. Most academic observers tend to occupy space in between these ideological bookends, but nonetheless view Chávez and chavismo in a decidedly negative or positive light.

The Revolution in Venezuela accepts that impartiality regarding Venezuela is a scarce commodity and instead seeks to “construct a narrative out of contrasting views.” The book consists of an introduction and conclusion written by the editors, Eastwood and Ponniah, respectively, and eight articles by separate contributors evaluating a variety of issues related to Chávez’s record in office. They deal with the president’s brief removal from power by the military in April 2002, political polarization and relations between Chávez and the opposition, the concept of participatory democracy in the context ofchavismo, an analysis of the 2006 presidential elections, an examination of women’s rights under Chávez, and chapters analyzing the Venezuelan economy, health care (specifically the Barrio Adentro program in poor urban neighborhoods) and foreign policy.

Several articles analyze the politics of the Chávez years. Two stand in stark contrast: Javier Corrales’ description of the polarizing tactics used by Chávez to create a regime of “competitive authoritarianism,” and a far more benign vision ofchavismo by Gregory Wilpert asserting that participatory democracy has been institutionalized in Venezuela, replacing the flawed representative democracy of the so-called “Fourth Republic” (1958-1998). Ironically, both authors agree on at least one central point, that Chávez and his supporters—in the words of Wilpert—“dominate all branches of government” and that Chávez’s governing style is authoritarian. Corrales goes into detail on the steps taken by Chávez to concentrate power in his hands. He asserts that the evolution of the regime towards more radical positions occurred as Chávez came to understand the political value of linking polarizing rhetoric with large-scale state spending aimed at uncommitted voters (mostly urban poor) through the Misiones programs. For his part, Wilpert claims that Chávez’s electoral support and popularity stem as much from satisfaction with the inclusiveness of direct democracy as from the benefits of increased social spending. Wilpert also rejects a common interpretation that considers the concept of participatory democracy in Venezuela to be a smokescreen for the dismantling of checks and balances on executive authority, and the transfer of resources by Chávez to the newly created mechanisms of local government (communal councils, citizen assemblies) as a maneuver to undermine elected governors and mayors who oppose him.

Contributions by Mark Weisbrot on the Venezuelan economy and by Carles Muntaner, Haejoo Chung, Qamar Mahmood and Francisco Armada on health care highlight what they consider to be the successes of the Chávez years. Weisbrot asserts that the Venezuelan economy under Chávez has performed strongly and rejects “conventional wisdom” that predicts that it will sink under the weight of lower oil prices or mismanagement. He stresses the positive effects of social spending in reducing poverty and improving health care, hails the reduction of public debt (up to 2008) and claims that the effect of high rates of inflation have been overstated. Venezuela’s fine economic performance, according to Weisbrot, should be contrasted with “the unprecedented economic failure” of the rest of Latin America in recent years owed to the application of macro-economic policies imposed on the region by the IMF and the United States. The chapter on health care echoes this interpretation; the authors contend that large-scale spending by the Chávez administration on health— specifically theBarrio Adentro program staffed in part by Cuban doctors and dentists— has greatly improved health standards in Venezuela, in stark contrast to former neoliberal approaches to medical care in the region (promoted by the U.S., the IMF, foreign corporations, etc) that have had “ill effects on health and equity.” Barrio Adentro, the authors argue, should be a model approach to health care reform for other low-moderate income countries.

In their zeal to condemn “neoliberalism,” the authors of both chapters ignore or reject the reality of the important gains in health (infant mortality, nutrition, life expectancy), economic growth, poverty reduction, access to education, literacy, and many other social and development-related categories that have taken place in Latin America since the 1990s. Grave problems remain—including the region’s glaring inequalities in distribution of wealth, but it should be possible to highlight gains in health, poverty reduction and access to education in Venezuela without the need to claim they are unique tochavismo.

A chapter on Venezuela’s foreign policy by Mark Eric Williams asserts that the Chávez administration has successfully used a “soft-balancing” approach to counter U.S. influence in the hemisphere through initiatives such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), oil diplomacy, and other measures to produce a region bifurcated into two camps, one sympathetic to Chávez’s vision of a multipolar world, and another with closer ties to the United States. (Brazilian leaders would certainly disagree with Williams’ assessment that their country is in the “regionalist” camp— along with Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, of governments that are inspired by Venezuela.) The Soviet Union, Cuba and the Cold War notwithstanding, Williams considers chavismo to be “the most significant ideological challenge to U.S. hemispheric interests that Washington has faced in perhaps the last 50 years.”

Many of the interpretations presented in The Revolution in Venezuela cry out for counterargument. Jonathan Eastwood’s comprehensive introductory essay in part assumes this task, providing a vision of Chávez’s rise to power and record in office that stands in contrast to that presented by several of the authors. In echoing the description of the Chávez regime (by a leading opponent) as being a “quasi-dictatorship,” he strongly questions Wilpert’s assessment of participatory democracy and points out that Weisbrot’s arguments on the economy are controversial.

While Eastwood’s analysis provides a useful, integrating framework to the book, several essential variables are not given enough attention. One is the all-important oil sector. Venezuela since the late 1920s has been and remains a petro-state, utterly dependent on revenue from exportation of oil to fuel public spending and the economy. Income from oil also provides the underpinning for the social spending—the Misiones above all, that allowed Chávez to consolidate core political support. Venezuela’s foreign policy is also powered by oil, the raw material for “petro-diplomacy,” above all the 100,000 barrels per day provided to Cuba in exchange for doctors and teachers for the Misiones but also the economic aid extended to friendly regimes—especially Bolivia and Nicaragua. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that future prospects for the Chávez administration remain closely linked to the oil industry—and above all oil prices. The spike in prices from 2003 to 2008 provided the underpinning for the Misiones, which in turn helped ensure Chavez’s victory in the recall referendum of August 2004 and opened the door to subsequent political gains. Higher oil prices allowed him to increase the size of the public workforce by 67% between 2002 and 2008, strengthening his political base but with a big price tag. With Venezuelan oil production currently at levels well below the peak reached in the mid-1990s, however, and unlikely to increase significantly anytime soon, Chávez’s future is indeed wedded to oil prices—and to continued access to the U.S. market, where a large share of Venezuela’s crude is refined and distributed.

Another key issue little discussed in the book but appropriately raised by Thomas Ponniah in his conclusion is the sustainability of chavismo. Many of the chapters point to the central role of Chávez in every aspect of Venezuelan national life. There is, however, almost no mention of other chavista leaders, little analysis of the parties or groups that support Chávez, and no discussion of institutions that exercise influence over policy-making. Williams asserts that Venezuelan foreign policy is not a mere instrument of Chavez’s will, but offers no other explanation as to how decisions are taken. One might argue that this is not an oversight but a reflection of the indispensability of Chávez to the entire system. What then, is the future of Venezuela without Chávez and how sustainable are any of the “reforms” he has undertaken? Ponniah points to “destabilizing contradictions” within chavismo that make for an uncertain future, but no one else offers predictions. The uncertainties involving Chavez’s recent surgery in Cuba and his announcement that he has cancer have brought the sustainability of his rule into sharp focus.

A final consideration, raised by both Eastwood and Ponniah, is whether the Chávez regime constitutes a revolution. Eastwood claims that in terms of redefining class structure it is not revolutionary but could be when examining perceptions of status and class. For his part, Ponniah signals a “conceptual” revolution in the thinking of Chávez and his supporters toward the goal of development and the linking of “new forms of democracy” with a radical redistribution approach. In the end, however, he judges that chavismo falls short of being revolutionary in the traditional sense. One might also argue that rather than being revolutionary, chavismo is an amalgam of variables from Latin America’s past: hyper-populism, caudillismo, appeals to nationalism and ethnic and class division, predilection for a larger state role in the economy, the cult of the personality, and, of course, anti-imperialismo.

Before 1998, Venezuela received considerably less attention from the academic community than other important countries in the region. While the coming of Chávez has given rise to a cottage industry of newly minted experts and bloggers who fawn over or excoriate chavismo, serious scholarship on Venezuela remains in limited supply. The Revolution in Venezuela helps correct this imbalance with some provocative and thoughtful analysis, making a useful contribution to a topic with broad ramifications for the Americas and beyond.

Fall 2011Volume XI, Number 1
Peter DeShazo is Executive Director of LASPAU—Academic and Professional Programs for the Americas, affiliated with Harvard University. Before coming to LASPAU in 2011, he was Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. and taught at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University.

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