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  Number 448 | Noviembre 2018
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Latin America

The failure of the Bolivarian process (Part 1)

The living conditions of most Venezuelans are even worse today than in 1998, when Chávez was elected for the first time. Venezuela has experienced a clear reversal of the main achievements of the Bolivarian process in its early years. Why did this happen?

Edgardo Lander

The Bolivarian process began at a critical moment in Venezuela’s history, starting with the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998. At that time, the rentier oil model and its clientelist State were already showing signs of burnout. The country was experiencing a severe economic crisis with an unstable and profoundly delegitimized political system. Chávez’s proposals and discourse created a sense of direction, a collective hope that another vision was possible for society.

Over a decade with legitimacy


Important changes took place in society in the first decade of the Chávez regime. A constituent process culminated in the approval via a referendum of a new Constitution. The wide-ranging forms of participatory democracy it established were designed not to replace representative democracy but to further democracy as
a whole.

Not only political but also social, cultural and economic rights were consecrated in the Constitution at a time when a potent neoliberal groundswell was swamping the rest of the continent. These rights included education at all levels and access to free public health services. Indigenous peoples and their rights, including to land, were recognized for the first time in history. Extensive state control was mandated over the oil and other key industries.

With greater public control over oil revenues and a sustained increase
in hydrocarbon prices, fiscal income increased substantially. The government strongly reoriented public spending toward social policies, the so-called ”missions” that prioritied the population’s less-favored sectors, and social security coverage was expanded enormously.

As a result of these policies and sustained economic growth over several years, the poverty and critical poverty levels were reduced significantly (measured by monetary income) as was inequality. All the main social indicators, such as nutrition, school enrollment and infant mortality levels, improved.

Profound changes occurred in grassroots political culture. The widespread apathy toward and distancing from the discredited political system, in which all notions of the grass roots had disappeared even in discourse, changed to optimism, dignity and the conviction that collective organizing and mobilization would make possible the construction of a better future.

Grassroots organizing processes were plentiful and varied. Taken together, the Technical Water Councils, Communitarian Water Councils, Urban Land Committees, Health Committees and. later the Communes and ommunal Councils involved millions of people. Between 1998 and 2012, the Chávez government enjoyed high levels of legitimacy in the country’s grassroots world and won successive elections.

Under threats and
external pressures...


The Bolivarian government’s examples and initiatives played a significant role
in the emergence of other progressive governments covering most of South America. Its initiatives were important both in defeating the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), which the US government under Bill Clinton tried to impose on the whole continent, and in creating new Latin American solidarity and integration mechanisms: the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and Petrocaribe, the Caribbean oil alliance.

This extraordinary process of change became a global reference point, a beacon of hope for Latin American peoples and movements as well as for communities as remote as Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camps and social movements in India and Southeast Asia.

...particularly from
the United States


During all those years, as expected in a political process defined as anti-imperialist and later as socialist, the Bolivarian project faced external pressures and threats from the global Right, especially in the US. From its very beginnings, the Chávez government faced imperial actions to depose it. Unflaggingly, successive US governments have politically and financially supported attempts by the Venezuelan Right to overthrow it, starting with the April 2002 coup d’état and the oil company lockout strike that virtually paralyzed the country for two months between 2002 and 2003.

Just before leaving the presidency, Barack Obama renewed a presidential order declaring Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” In August 2017, Donald Trump threatened Venezuela with military invasion: “We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary,” he warned.

A new step was taken in August 2017 when Donald Trump ordered a financial blockade of Venezuela, which has had an extraterritorial application far beyond the United States, as many banks from other countries, and especially from the European Union, have suspended their operations with Venezuela through fear
of US government reprisals. Lacking corresponding banks in the United States and the European Union, the Venezuelan government has faced great difficulties making purchases abroad (including food and medicines), accessing new sources of credit, and even making payments on its foreign debt. Unlike previous sanctions, duly aimed at specific high-level government officials, Trump’s economic/financial sanctions directly affect the bulk of the population.

Latin America’s political shift back towards neoliberalism has significantly changed the continental context in which the Bolivarian process had operated, leading to increasing and more severe isolation within Latin America.

Evident contradictions


Even this extremely adverse current context, however, isn’t enough to explain the profound multi-dimensional crisis Venezuela is experiencing today. Both the recession and the sustained reduction in oil production began in 2014, three years before the financial sanctions imposed by the Trump government.

From its inception, the Bolivarian political process was permeated with profound internal contradictions and vulnerabilities, which became more and more evident over time, greatly limiting its capacity to resist external pressures beyond the high-sounding speeches. The main contradiction was between a project that called itself anti-capitalist and pluri-cultural but put all its eggs in the basket of rentierism and oil and mining extraction, deepening Venezuela’s colonial insertion in the global regime’s international division of labor and natural resources by exporting raw materials.

Chávez’ unipersonal leadership


It was also limited by excessive reliance on Chávez’s unipersonal role as the undisputed charismatic leader of the Bolivarian process. This had serious contradictory consequences. On the one hand Chávez’s remarkable capacity for leadership made possible the political-cultural breakthroughs that characterized the first phases of the Bolivarian process, enabling a cracking open of the iron cage of a society that, despite going through an intense economic crisis and having a previously delegitimized political system, was basically demobilized and lacking credible visions of change.

Chávez managed to shatter the lethargy, apathy and resignation of the grassroots world, offering it a new directionality able to capture the collective imagination. On the other hand, the Bolivarian process experienced the negative consequences of unipersonal leadership. Such a model generates a leadership style characterized by deifying the leader and demanding unconditional support. Critical debate is seen as merely bothersome and dissenting voices are marginalized, impoverishing the possibility of open debates and the exploration of alternative options.

Under such conditions it ‘s no surprise that many of Chávez’s decisions were improvised and ended up doing a lot of harm. From the viewpoint of the process’ continuity, the determinate presence of this kind of leadership blocks the emergence of alternative leaders while any absence of the maximum leader puts the whole project of change at risk.

Organizations without autonomy


Another limitation was the tension between the collective imagination and practices of grassroots power and self-organization from below on the one side, and on the other the Lenin-inspired policies of control from above and the party-State’s core group making all the main decisions then informing the public via joint radio and television broadcasts. This way undermines the organized peoples’ confidence in their self-governing abilities.

These years have seen a strong contradiction between stimulating and promoting multiple forms of grassroots organizing and establishing vertical control structures within the resulting organizations. There have also been severe limitations to social transformation processes focused on organizational, political and institutional dynamics with no corresponding alteration in society’s economic structure, i.e. without these steps toward greater political democracy being accompanied by democracy in the area of production. Without their own productive base, grassroots organizations remain financially dependent on the State, thus eroding their autonomous possibilities. This emphasizes society’s clientelist and rentier-seeking, top-cown state-centralism, which isn’t conducive to expanding democracy.

Militarism, corruption, sectarianism


Another limitation was the contradiction between expanding democracy and promoting its participatory modalities on the one hand, and on the other a non-deliberative vertically-controlled military culture, abetted by significant military presence in all state areas (ministries, public institutions and companies, mayoralties) and the governing party.

Likewise there were severe limiting consequences to eliminating the boundaries between what is public-State and political-partisan in the name of the revolution. When one considers that the borders between public-State and political-partisan constitute liberal separations that must be overcome in a time of “revolution,” it also blurs the border between public and private. This creates institutional-political conditions for the massive corruption that has characterized the Bolivarian government at all levels.

The Bolivarian process was also limited by politics being conceived of and practiced as a confrontation between friend and enemy. This vision resultedin instituting a culture of sectarianism, distrust and non-recognition of the “other” in Venezuelan society, greatly hindering the possibilities for dialogue and agreements, albeit minimal, in the face of the profound humanitarian crisis the country is experiencing today.

Greater dependence on oil


A basic structural determinant of the severe economic, political and cultural difficulties Venezuela has been battling for decades is the terminal crisis of its rentier oil model, with its excessive dependence on the export of a single product and the corresponding model of a centralizing State based on clientelism.

Discourse aside, not only were no initial steps taken during the Chávez years to move towards a post-petroleum Venezuela but dependence on oil was intensified even further until it represented 96% of the total value of the country’s exports. Non-oil and private sector exports shrank in both relative and absolute terms. The increase in domestic demand, which occurred as a result of public policies aimed at increasing the population’s consumption capacity, resulted not in increased agricultural and industrial production but in the sustained growth of imports.

An extraordinarily overvalued exchange rate intensified what is historically referred to as “Dutch disease.” It has been cheaper to import goods from abroad than to produce them in the country and trade and finance have been more profitable than agricultural or industrial activity. All this has accentuated the economy’s vulnerability and increased its dependence on oil revenues.

Both the social policies, which for a few years had such a significant impact on grassroots living conditions, and the solidarity initiatives with Latin American countries, have depended on these oil revenues. It was basically a redistributive political model, with the only significant change in the productive structure being its progressive deterioration.

Influence of Cuban statism


When the Bolivarian process came to be defined as socialist in 2006 and 2007 and was resolutely influenced by Cuba, socialism became identified with statism.

In the total absence of a critical, informed evaluation about the consequences in Cuba of having state institutions directing all economic activity, a very wide range of Venezuelan agricultural, industrial, service and commercial companies—an estimated total of 526—were nationalized. Their management was put into the hands of “politically trustworthy people,” often military, although they had no knowledge of the activity they had to run. Most of these state companies, from large steel and aluminum plants to small food companies, went on to generate losses, remaining active only thanks to transfers from state oil revenues. When the State was no longer able to subsidize them, the companies’ crisis worsened. Most of them, lacking the foreign currency needed for their maintenance and technological upgrading, were not only poorly managed and had limited investment but also suffered widespread levels of clientelism and corruption.

The private sector is in no better shape. The Venezuelan economy’s grotesquely distorted price structure (by mid-2018 a cup of coffee in a café cost the same as 66,000 gallons of 95 octane gasoline) has affected public and private companies alike. It’s the same with inflation or hyperinflation, which interferes with being able to make the economic calculations needed to manage any productive unit.

According to the latest survey (mid-2017) from the Chamber of Industry, only 45% of the installed industrial capacity in Venezuela was being used. By mid-2018, it was even less.

Increasing numbers of poor...


The country’s profound economic crisis, with the oil industry now in a state of collapse, riddled by corruption and everything tied to the authoritarian propensities of Nicolás Maduro’s government, has produced a profound social and ethical crisis in Venezuelan society.

There has been a clear reversal of the main achievements brought about by the Bolivarian process in its early years. Most of the population has worse living conditions now in 2018 than it had two decades ago when Hugo Chávez won the presidential elections for the first time.

Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, lack of cash and insecurity make daily life increasingly difficult for most of the population. Contrary to what might be expected after years of solidarity-based mobilizations and organizational processes, individualistic and competitive reactions tend to predominate in the population. The recently-coined Venezuelan term “bachaqueo”—the speculative reselling of subsidized goods and contraband—has become a widespread black-market activity of unknown dimensions. In the absence of reasonably updated official information, classifying the country’s current status in social and humanitarian terms must necessarily be based on the research by universities, study centers and nongovernmental organizations.

Measured strictly by income level, 87% of the Venezuelan population in 2017 is poor thanks to the hyperinflation levels, a 19% increase of compared to 2015. Based on a multi-dimensional method that takes into account income, housing and its provisioning, services, work and social protection, however, the 41.3% of the population classified as poor in 2015 increased to 51.1% in 2017.

Increasing hunger...


Perhaps the most direct impact of the economy’s decay has been in the population’s food levels. According to the Documentation and Analysis Center for Workers (CENDA), a minimum wage in June 2018 could barely purchase 1.8% of the family food basket.

In a Living Conditions Survey (ENCOVI), 89.4% of those polled said they didn’t have enough money to buy food; 87.6% said “they had eaten less in the last three months because they couldn’t find food to buy” and 61.2% said they had experienced going to bed hungry in the last three months. ENCOVI¡s researchers concluded that 80% of the country’s households are suffering food insecurity.

The government has responded to this situation by focusing only on the basics of its social policy: giving cash bonuses to public workers and a massive, highly subsidized, food distribution program to the population through Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP).

The foods in the CLAP box are basically carbohydrates. [According to The Guardian of August 20, 2018, some Venezuelan companies are offering unusual compensation packages, such as a security company that pays bonuses in eggs based on performance.

ENCOVI surveys show 85.7% of the country’s households with access to the CLAP program, but there are large differences in the distribution of the CLAP boxes. In Caracas, 64% of households receive them once a month, while in the rest of the country more than half the households receive them with no defined frequency.

... and increasing malnutrition


Although the food situation would be far more serious without these two programs, they haven’t managed to overcome the serious food shortages the population is suffering. The National Statistics Institute’s survey monitoring food consumption indicates a very marked reduction in the population’s “apparent daily per-capita consumption” of food between the first quarter of 2013 and the second quarter of 2017. This has involved not only a widespread reduction of the amount of food eaten, but also a change in the population’s diet, with drastic reductions in protein consumption. The survey revealed a more than 60% reduction in the consumption of meat, eggs, milk and its derivatives. The only category with a slight rise in consumption (5.1%) was in root vegetables and tubers. This diet has resulted in an estimated weight loss of 17.6 pounds per person among all strata of the population in 2016 alone.

Malnutrition is particularly severe among children. During the last few years, Caritas Venezuela has been monitoring the nutritional status of children under five years old in 38 of the poorest parishes in 7 of the country’s 23 states. Its latest report, corresponding to January-March 2018, shows that 17%
of those studied are moderately or severely malnourished, 27% have slight malnutrition and 34% are at risk of malnutrition. Only 22% don’t have nutritional deficiency. These figures present an important increase over the figures of the last quarter of 2017. The under-6-months age group is the most affected, with 35% showing moderate, acute or severe malnutrition. In those same parishes, 38% of the pregnant women were severely malnourished and 24% moderately so.

Given malnutrition’s impact on psycho-motor and cognitive development in early childhood, this is unquestionably the most severe medium- to long-term impact of Venezuela’s crisis.

A collapsed health system


The public health system has utterly collapsed, with a severe shortage of medicines and very limited access to medicines and treatment for chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. The health centers lack resources for equipment and instrument maintenance. Renal patients die because the dialysis rooms can’t receive them. Patients with organ transplants die because of the lack of treatment to prevent rejection. Electricity and water supply cuts in hospitals are frequent and many hospital services have stopped working or operate in minimal conditions because the doctors have resigned.

Already-controlled diseases have reappeared. Malaria, a disease that had been reduced to just one municipality, has spread to virtually the entire country. The vast majority of malaria cases reported in the Americas in 2017 were in Venezuela. Between epidemiological weeks 1 and 42 (January 1 to October 15), 319,765 malaria cases were reported, a significant increase over the total of 240,613 cases reported during all of 2016. Over half the measles cases reported throughout the Americas in the first three months of 2018 were in Venezuela.

Indigenous peoples are the most severely affected by this crisis in the health system. The Yanomami people, on Venezuela’s border with Brazil, have a serious measles epidemic; the Warao people, in the Orinoco delta, have a widespread HIV-AIDS epidemic; and the Yukpa people, in the Perijá National Park, are suffering from an unknown lethal disease. The survival of these peoples is at risk if these epidemics can’t be stopped.

A crumbling education system


The decline in the education system’s coverage has been alarming at all levels. Between 2015 and 2017 the population with between 3 and 24 years of schooling dropped from 78% to 71%. The poorest sectors of the population attend school intermittently, mainly because of a lack of food at home and failures in the water system. Teachers report cases of students fainting in the classroom due to a lack of adequate nutrition. Teachers and professors as well as students also stop appearing at school due to transport failure.

The universities, especially public ones, are suffering profound deterioration. Virtually the entire budget is devoted to almost symbolic salaries, with no possibility of covering maintenance costs or the costs of research or publication equipment and materials.

All universities report teacher resignations and massive student dropouts, caused both by being unable to afford the studies and the need to contribute to family support, as well as by feeling the uselessness of studying in a context where even professionals’ salaries can’t buy sufficient food. Many teachers opt to leave the country. Multiple tenders for new university teachers’ positions go unanswered because an academic career is no longer seen as a life option under these conditions.

Increasing insecurity and
declining public services


The population is suffering equally severe consequences due to the insecurity caused by both the underworld and police/military repression. The country’s homicide rate has steadily increased since 1995. Multiple sources now rank Caracas as the world’s second most violent city. The state security forces, far from ensuring the citizenry’s protection, are part of the problem. The most violent example has been the People’s Liberation Operations (OLP), created in mid-2015 on the grounds of providing citizen security and controlling the underworld. These operations have systematically been used as a repressive apparatus in police operations to apply the death penalty in grassroots neighborhoods.


All public services are deteriorating steadily as a joint result of inefficiency, lack of investment and maintenance, and corruption. Interruptions in electricity service are frequent, especially in certain regions of the country such as the state of Zulia. Street lighting is increasingly limited. Telephone communication is increasingly more precarious and the Internet is ever slower. Some sectors in Caracas, both grassroots and middle class, spend months without clean drinking water. Garbage accumulates. The country’s streets and highways are full of potholes due to a lack of maintenance. And Caracas’ metro, the capital city’s main means of transport, is increasingly dilapidated, with frequent delays and ever greater danger using it. Public and private transport, both urban and inter-urban, has increasingly fewer units in service due to a lack of spare parts, especially rubber tires and batteries.

The deterioration is similar in public customer service offices and those that issue IDs and passports and legalize documents. Often the only way to ensure the processing of bureaucratic transactions is to pay high commissions to the public officials responsible. The idea that anything public is necessarily inefficient and corrupt tends to settle like common sense. Queues formed for three days during the 2017 Christmas season to buy tickets to travel from Caracas to certain cities in the interior.

The diaspora is
a symbol of defeat


The last four years have resulted in a massive diaspora of Venezuelans looking for a better future abroad. As in so many other areas, there are no official figures, but different sources estimate the volume of emigration to be between 2 and 4 million people.

Colombia’s government has confirmed the presence of more than a million Venezuelans in its country. This migration, which began with middle class and professional sectors, is expanding into all areas of society. The massive departure of personnel has had a particularly severe impact in hospitals, universities and industries, especially Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

The scale of this migration is the most dramatic expression of a society that feels defeated and without a way out, of young people looking for new horizons because they no longer see future possibilities in their own country. This migration is double-edged for the family members: it has made Venezuela an important recipient of remittances on which an increasing percentage of the population depends to survive, but at the cost of painful family ruptures.

A radical discourse with
handouts, subsidies and threats


In political terms, the government consolidated its control over all state structures during 2017, from the executive branch to the vast majority of municipalities, and that political control appears to be quite firm for the moment. The rightwing and center-right opposition have remained deeply divided and their support bases have become demoralized. The leftwing opposition, including what has been called “critical Chavism” and “democratic Chavism,” is made up of small groups unable to influence the country’s course in the short term.

The regime has skillfully combined a radical anti-imperialist discourse aimed at its most unconditional supporters that attributes all the country’s problems to the US-led “economic war” with a widespread clientelist policy combining handouts, subsidies and threats. While this has earned it relative electoral support, it’s in no way a majority.

The regime has also succeeded in demobilizing most of the population, which is now forced to dedicate its energies to the ever more difficult daily tasks of survival. A large proportion of the population has become totally dependent on the bonuses and CLAP boxes of food the government distributes. The main task of many grassroots organizations has become coordinating the distribution of these subsidized goods.

Is the end near?


There have been significant shifts in the population’s expressions of discontent in 2018. Given the defeat of the massive mid-2017 mobilizations and the major opposition parties’ loss of legitimacy among their followers, the 2018 potential for conflict and social protest has been fundamentally union/social in nature—strikes, stoppages, roadblocks, protests and mobilizations—not only for wages and work conditions but also for other issues such as lack of water, electricity cuts, lack of food, insecurity and the transport crisis.

According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, 5,315 protests took place in the first quarter of 2018, about 30 a day: “the majority (84%) was characterized by the demand for economic, social, environmental and cultural rights.”

With the growing depoliticization of the population, widespread distrust of politics and politicians, whether from the government or the opposition, social conflict is no longer expressed, as in previous years, in polarized postures in favor or against the government, but in more immediate survival-based demands.

To an important extent, the country’s immediate future will depend on the degree to which these multiple protests coordinate into a new type of movement, beyond the political parties that were the main actors on the national political stage up to 2017.

(To be continued…)
Sociologist Edgardo Lander is a tenured professor at the Central University of Venezuela and associate researcher at the Transnational Institute. For decades he has also been connected to social and leftist movements in Venezuela. The full text of this analysis was written in Caracas in August 2018 and published in WWW.aporrea.org. This article was subtitled and lightly edited by envío.

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