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  Number 304 | Noviembre 2006
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Latin America

A Portrait of the Chávez Government

On the heels of Daniel Ortega’s electoral victory in Nicaragua we’ve been showered with analyses defining his future government as identical to Hugo Chávez’s brand of leftism in Venezuela or slightly to the right of it. But is there any basis for that? Is Nicaragua’s reality at all comparable to Venezuela’s? What indeed is the nature of Chávez’s government?

Enzo del Búfalo

Two key elements allow us to explore and understand the new political expressions arising in the current Latin American contexts. One is the change of rhetoric, which provides us with one path of reflection. Another is the difference between social project and political project. From that perspective, we can ask ourselves about the nature of Hugo Chávez’s government in Bolivarian Venezuela.

Chávez bursts on the scene
amid snowballing discontent

To grasp the nature of the Chávez government, we first need to understand the reasons behind the collapse of the old social and economic order based on petroleum income. Thanks to its oil, Venezuela has had major social and economic development in the past half century. By the end of the fifties it was able to set up a democratic political system with more or less regular alternation between two major parties and with a small but well established and politically important Left. It also had an active union organization, albeit controlled particularly by one of the two big parties.

This system, which at first allowed considerable social improvements based on the redistribution of oil income through the state, allowed the growth of the middle class and urbanization based on a stable political system. This changed during the eighties as a consequence of the two oil crises, which disarticulated the existing growth and social ascent mechanism. Investment in Venezuela ground to a halt and real salaries began to drop. For virtually twenty years, there was a systematic back-slide. Petroleum income became an increasingly less effective underpinning for the entire economy, given that it was shrinking in absolute terms, and, above all, that Venezuela’s economy and society had become increasingly complex. Moreover, the import substitution industrialization model had also stagnated by the eighties, for reasons similar to those in other countries.

The model based on distribution of oil revenues began to fall apart as the state showed itself increasingly incapable of satisfying the demands of its patronage system. This was reflected in the progressive loss of the major parties’ political appeal, which culminated with the crisis at the end of the nineties. In that period, new marginalized citizens from the declining lower middle class swelled the ranks of the traditionally marginalized. As the traditional parties proved incapable of tossing the oil revenue crumbs widely enough to reach them, these newly marginalized sectors lost all interest in politics. Thus, social and economic marginalization was accompanied by political exclusion to the point that the frustration became generalized and even permeated the now shrunken middle classes.

In was in this environment that the Chávez phenomenon emerged. He came to power not by his own merits, but simply via the rebound effect produced by the collapse of the old system. Television contrasted Chávez to the corruption and ineptitude of the old parties, bestowing him with an anti-party image for the thousands of viewers who had begun to act more like spectators than citizens. That image became familiar in the wake of the 1992 coup; it had no consistency, allowing everybody to attribute their own desires and expectations to it. When that image stepped out from behind the small screen to tour the poor neighborhoods, a snowballing movement was formed that swept along with it all those who were fed up with the old system and wanted a change.

The big change was to replace the
old patronage system with a new one

Given this origin, the new Chávez government came to power with no precise program and was incapable of assuming any position beyond criticizing the old order with a strong anti-neoliberal rhetoric, in which neoliberal became the pejorative assigned to anything the new leader didn’t like.

Being a movement that rode in on a flood of discontent, it’s no surprise that from the economic perspective the first two or three years of the Chávez government amounted to more of the same, with an economic policy characterized by the “reduction of inflation.” In such a confusing environment, it was argued that “reducing inflation allows the GDP to grow,” and the reduction in employment even came to be quantified by each point by which inflation dropped. This slapdash argumentation, which no neoliberal would ever go along with, was the focal point of the new anti-neoliberal government’s economic policy.

The continuation of the old economic policy through ignorance, the lack of social policies and the series of constitutional changes revealed the true nature of Chávez’s political project to change the political leadership sectors. He wanted other groups to assume control of the country, and everything else revolved around that single objective. As this social change took shape, affecting the traditional political and economic leadership groups, part of big business included, that had originally supported him, they naturally turned against him. Breaking with the traditional mechanisms of the old patronage system was the only real change his new government made, although it only replaced it with another kind of patronage system.

Identifying with the hungry and jobless

Chávez eliminated the old behind-the-scenes power management system, with its private dinner meetings where things were discussed and the spoils divvied up. This was unquestionably the real radical change that triggered the confrontation that beginning in December 2000 and continuing with the first strike in December 2001 led to the aborted process known as the coup of April 11, 2002.

Up to that point there were no significant changes in economic policy, other than anti-privatization rhetoric. There was no social policy either, save the elimination of targeted assistance programs, which aggravated the situation of the poorest sectors. In those first years, grassroots support for Chávez was based exclusively on psychological-cultural identification. Chávez spoke and acted as if he were one of the hungry and jobless.

If this increased his support from the marginalized sectors, it engendered hostility from an important sector of the middle class that had originally voted for him. They didn’t want a “marginal” President, whose very language and attitudes scandalized them. Things reached the point of the coup attempt because Chávez’s rhetoric on television had turned this middle-class opposition increasingly radical, even hysterical. They felt economically and culturally betrayed by this man who was ostensibly one of them but seemed to share none of their values. The entire strategy to bring Chávez down from behind the throne was built upon this opposition mass, which took to the streets in a context of economic stagnation and political frustration, and ended in the April 2002 coup.

With missions, incompetence
and the breaking of a taboo

With that, things started changing, because Chávez reacted by beginning to improvise a social policy: with Cuban help he launched the Missions, the first of which was “Barrio adentro” (inside the poor neighborhoods), taking medical interns to marginalized zones to provide services to a population that had never previously received any attention. His government had actually tested that kind of care with the introduction of Plan Bolívar 2000 when it first took office, but forgot about it after only a few months.
But now the government responded to any opposition move to bring Chávez down with what turned out to be highly successful social programs. This allowed Chávez, whose ratings had been falling before April 2002, to recover his popularity as Mission-type programs began moving into education and other issues and expanding to other sectors.

Another indispensable aid to the Chávez government—whose managerial and administrative incompetence exceeds all imagination—has been the equally excessive clumsiness and stupidity of the opposition leadership. While such rampant cretinism is becoming the typical feature of the globalized middle class, it seems to be even more acute in oil-based Venezuela than in other places.

The best example of this was the oil strike, which unleashed a collective hysteria among opposition sectors and gave Chávez the opportunity to intervene in the petroleum industry, a world assumed even by Chávez and his people to be absolutely untouchable. By using oil as a political instrument, the opposition broke the taboo and opened the doors for Chávez to restructure and take the reins of the industry, and from there initiate a new oil policy. With it, oil-rich Venezuela became Chávez’s personal corner market.

An empty slogan:
“The socialism of the 21st century”

From that point on the government began to shape a certain economic policy, as well as talk about endogenous development, diversification and integration with Latin America. But the elements that could be taken as an economic policy were always subordinated to political reasoning based on a conceptualization of nationalist claims as the culmination of an unfinished independence process that by its very definition implied emancipating the marginalized and dispossessed classes.

Chávez himself has always said that integration has to do first with politics and only later with economics. He has always argued that economic activity has to be on behalf of political objectives. As a result he never structured what could be called a more or less coherent economic strategy or plan to achieve specific objectives.

In today’s Venezuela, the social question plays second fiddle to the national question. And the way I see it, the meeting of the two concepts is always aberrant. The failure to fully understand the country’s economic problems as well as the lack of a genuine social subject capable of breaking with the old order and moved by the constitutive need to create a society free of submissive relations has been hidden behind the empty slogan of “the socialism of the 21st century.” Due to the inertia of events themselves, the model built on petroleum revenues has not yet been modified, much less even partially displaced. In fact, an evaluation of Chávez’s economic policy toward the historical challenge of Venezuela’s structural economic problems—i.e. to change the model—would lead to the conclusion that this model has instead been buttressed and its negative tendency reinforced.

New political spaces for a social movement

It is also true that this political process has opened up interesting spaces. Although the only genuine change has taken place in the political-institutional sphere, replacing the ruling class participants, these changes entail a relaxing of the norms and a modification of the institutions, which opens political spaces in which the social bases can acquire a new emancipating dynamic and develop a very interesting construction of their autonomous subjectivity.

In the background of the official Chávez movement, there’s also a social movement leaning toward a different social change. And in this sense, the Chávez government is effectively impelling a social movement, which for the moment is adhered to official Chavism but in my judgment has a dynamic that sooner or later will lead it down a very different path. This movement is fundamentally made up of groups in a phase of original accumulation and will soon began to make different demands.

A revolutionary government?

If I had to give a summary evaluation of the current Chávez government, I’d say it has made no radical changes in the economic model, but has partially replaced that model’s political leadership with a substantial change of faces and actors. It has permitted a certain social mobilization that may be leading toward a new society. In this respect, it may merit the term “revolutionary.” In general, however, I view it as a relatively conservative government that seems much like the previous ones with respect to assuming the immediate transformation demanded by Venezuelan society: a change from the oil revenue model.

Compared with Latin America’s other progressive governments, Chávez perhaps has more radical characteristics. Herein lies the dilemma faced by Latin America’s social movements. Some seem to be slipping toward increasingly traditional and conventional positions of soft reformism, very colored by neoliberalism and which could therefore end up being more of the same. Others, taking the road that Chávez now seems to have chosen, have a rhetorical radicalism and a nomadic behavior that is infringing on the order created by the globalization process, without this implying the construction of a new society of citizens free of all forms of despotism.

From this crucial perspective, Chavism isn’t a populist movement, but one that falls into the sphere of movements that express both old and new evils in response to the evils of neoliberalism and globalization, reacting with old ideologies and social practices. That’s why they might best be called “neo-archaisms.”

Enzo del Búfalo is a Venezuelan economist, sociologist and professor. This text is his contribution to the book Los gobiernos progresistas en debate, published by the Latin American Social Sciences Council (CLACSO) in July 2006 and edited by envío for publication in this issue.

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