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La verdad de Venezuela
no se ve en el Country club
la verdad se ve en los cerros
con su gente y su inquietud
Yo Vengo de Donde Usted no ha Ido
With the general disorientation that today dominates left parties and theorists around the world, following the successive failures of state socialism and of social democracy, one would hardly have expected a small, relatively wealthy, and inconspicuous country in
The International Context
The election of a leftist president in
For practically the entire 1990’s "the left," ranging from moderate social democrats to leftwing socialists, appeared to be somewhat perplexed as to what their concrete political program should be. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the
However, it soon became obvious that social democracy was in a crisis too. In the U.S., in Britain, and in Germany, left of center leaders entered office again in the 1990’s, after a long absence, but found that that their old Keynesian recipes of state intervention in the market’s dysfunctions did not work as well as they used to. Globalization of financial markets and massive indebtedness and deficits made old-style social democratic programs unviable. Capital had become too mobile and the welfare state too expensive for social democratic policies. As a result, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schrí¶der tried to devise a new more moderate program for the left, which essentially accepted the market imperatives that neo-liberals had created in the 1980’s and tried to balance budgets and dismantle social programs. At the same time, they tried to keep their left credentials by being slightly to the left of their more conservative opponents. Meanwhile, in Latin America, similarly centrist presidents governed, partly as a result of the left having been purged from politics during the dictatorships of the 1970’s and 1980’s and partly because of the constraints that massive state indebtedness and financial deregulation placed on governance in
In short, social democracy had become unviable in an age of unrestricted capital flows and lack of financial resources. Instead, neo-liberalism emerged as the dominant political ideology. This economic program had been applied with a vengeance in
A New New Left?
What remained, then, as an economic program for the countries of
Two things stood out, though, when comparing Chavez with these other presidents. First, Chavez faced far more vehement and even violent opposition to his presidency than the others, even though initially his concrete policies were not much different from those of
Of course, just because Chavez announced the pursuit of socialism does not mean that his policies are socialist. Too often have politicians claimed to be in favor of socialism, only to pursue policies that ended either in a centrally planned dictatorship or in capitalism as usual. Thus, to find out whether Chavez’s policies match his rhetoric and to see if these policies constitute a real alternative to state socialism, social democracy, and neo-liberalism, it makes sense to examine them carefully. Also, even if they constitute a real alternative, do they actually lead towards a better society?
The Path Towards 21st Century Socialism in
Before examining the question of whether
Chapter 1, "The Dialectic of Counter-Revolution and Radicalization," reviews recent Venezuelan history and how this history made a radical project such as that of Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution possible. It shows how, ever since the 1920’s,
As stated earlier, once elected, Chavez gave very radical speeches, promising to eliminate poverty and corruption and to completely overturn the country’s ossified political system with a new constitution. It is tempting to believe that Chavez’s anti-poverty and anti-corruption program is what incensed the country’s old elite to launch an all-out campaign to oust him. However, it was actually his success in completely displacing the old elite from positions of power that provoked their ire. During his first three years in office, Chavez’s anti-poverty, anti-corruption, and redistribution measures were actually quite modest. Rather, it was the new constitution, which required the re-legitimation of all branches of government and the resulting complete removal of the old elite from state power that incensed them so much.
As a result,
This miscalculation of the opposition, which was rooted in its firm belief that it represented the "reasonable" majority of the country and that Chavez was not a legitimate president, led to several other failed adventures. The next such adventure was the two-month shutdown of the country’s all-important oil industry, from early December 2002 to early February 2003, where the opposition lost its power base in the oil industry. Next, it tried to oust Chavez via the legal means of a presidential recall referendum. This too failed spectacularly. Finally, Chavez was reelected in a landslide victory of 63%, to the 36% of his main opponent.
By then, however, the combination of the opposition’s implosion as a result of its repeated failures, and the start of a new oil boom in 2004, had liberated the Chavez government from the restraints that most leftists face once in office. Economically, the pressure to please international capital in the name of foreign investment and development was practically eliminated thanks to the boom in oil prices. Politically, the opposition had lost crucial bases of power in the polity, the military, the oil industry, and in society in general, thereby freeing Chavez from the need to take opposition reactions to his policies into consideration. Chavez thus discarded his earlier moderation and in early 2005 publicly declared his conversion to a new form of socialism, of "21st century socialism," which he would work on instituting in
Identifying 21st Century Socialism in
The heart of the book, Chapters 2 to 5, provide detailed descriptions and analyses of the governance policy, economic policy, social policy, and foreign policy of the Chavez government and the extent to which the Chavez government manages to approximate institutions that fulfill the ideals Chavez talks about. In all four policy areas there are clear indications that indeed the government is pursuing innovative policies that transcend the institutions of capitalism as usual. However, these policies are often contradicted or undermined by contravening policy tendencies. For example, while the Chavez government has embarked on an important project of increasing citizen participation in a wide variety of state institutions, it has also increased the importance and strength of the presidency, which tends to undermine the participatory policies. In the area of economic policy, the government has gone a long way towards establishing economic democracy, but the high oil revenues upon which many of these policies depend, threaten the long-term viability of self-managed enterprises in
Despite the frequent contradictoriness of the policies, many of them do lay the groundwork for institutions that would fulfill the ideals of 21st century socialism. This is a crucial achievement, not only for Venezuelans, because it raises the hope for a Venezuela with more social justice, but it also serves a broader example of what left or socialist politics of the future could look like. An analysis of the Venezuelan institutions that work towards fulfilling society’s ideals can help provide orientation and hope to a disorganized, fragmented, and often demoralized left throughout the world.
However, in addition to the frequent problem of contradictory policies, there are even deeper obstacles lurking within the Bolivarian socialist project, which have to do with the Bolivarian movement itself. The last chapter, "Opportunities, Obstacles, Prospects," discusses these obstacles and finds that the three most important obstacles for the Chavez government’s project are the persistence of a patronage culture, the nascent personality cult around Chavez, and Chavez’s own autocratic instincts, which undermine the creation of a participatory society. If Venezuelan society and the Chavez government manage to resolve these three key issues that are internal to the Bolivarian movement, if the policies themselves are made more consistent, and if there is no significant outside interference, then Venezuela might well be the greatest hope for establishing freedom, equality, and social justice in over a generation.
Those who are interested in developing a basis for evaluating what 21st century socialism might mean in
Avaiable through Venezuelanalysis.com
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 The truth of Venezuela/one does not see in the Country Club/the truth one can see in the hills/with the people and their unrest [Note: The poor majority of Caracas lives in the "hills," while many of the city's rich live in a part of the city known as "Country Club."]
 Weisbrot and Rosnick (2003)
 A more detailed overview and analysis of this history will soon be available in a separate book by the same author.