Cuba, Venezuela, and the Quest for Socialism

        [Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

When discussing Latin America’s so-called Left Turn, Cuba and Venezuela are often paired together as being of the more radical, militant faction of countries located on the Left within the region. There are indeed some legitimate grounds for such generalizations, but lost in this interpretation are many of the profound differences between each country’s respective efforts and methods toward building a socialist society.


Cuba, Venezuela, and the Role of Democracy

            In much analysis of both Cuba and Venezuela, social gains are often counterbalanced with criticism of each country’s practice of democracy — or lack thereof.[1] While I can’t offer a thorough examination of each country’s democratic structures here, the role of democracy does in fact play an interesting role in each country’s prospects for building socialism.

          First, what is essential to understand is each Revolution’s emphasis on ‘direct’ and ‘popular’ democracy — i.e. poder popular. In Cuba, electoral democracy was often perceived as insufficient, problematic, or both. Indeed, Fidel Castro has been quoted criticizing "those rallies with hypocrites parading from one platform to the next" as well as "those who are responsible for the people’s distrust of elections, and those who converted politics into a quest for spoils."[2] Diana Raby accurately summarizes the prevailing perception that "liberal democracy would not resolve the country’s major social and economic problems, and this would lead to further political turmoil and eventually another dictatorship."[3] The Cuban government’s historic promotion of poder popular, Organs of People’s Power (OPP), and people’s councils should give pause to those who might deem Cuba wholly undemocratic. At the lower level (e.g. in municipalities) delegates are directly chosen by their constituents (without interference from the Communist Party or certain mass organizations) to represent and voice the concerns of their respective communities. However, as the voting process moves toward higher levels of government (i.e., at the provincial and national levels), direct participation becomes more constrained. And while it is noted that, for example, thousands of public meetings took place to discuss and debate the constitutional amendments that would be adopted in 1992, Raby nonetheless explains that, at the national level, "there is little doubt that basic policy is decided by the Communist Party leadership and ratified by a National Assembly which it in fact controls."[4] Thus, in addition to the absence of multi-party elections, the inability of communities to exert greater influence on national policymaking continues to be a key obstacle toward achieving full democracy in Cuba.

          However, in the case of Venezuela, democracy is precisely the reason for the Bolivarian Revolution taking place at all. Popular dissatisfaction with the prior Punto Fijo regime assisted in bringing Hugo Chávez to power and re-politicizing class differences. Free and fair elections since 1998 have consistently supported the Chávez administration throughout multiple elections and referenda. But with the preservation of democracy comes the difficulty of maintaining popular support over rival candidates as well as consolidating the multitude of left-leaning parties.

          Regarding this last point, both the December, 2007 referendum and the gubernatorial and municipal elections of 2008 serve as instructive examples. The 2007 constitutional referendum, which lost by approximately two percent, represented a bold effort on the part of Chávez and the National Assembly to ‘deepen’ socialism in Venezuela. While commonly criticized for its proposals to extend the president’s term (by one year) and remove term limits altogether, the reforms would have also: elevated the role of ‘councils of popular power’ (article 70); expanded social security to the self-employed (article 87); expanded free education so as to include university education (article 103); removed the obligation for the state to promote private enterprise, instead favoring the social and material needs of the community (article 112); re-emphasized and established new forms of property other than private property (article 115); increased states’ budgets by five percent, which would be legally allocated for the financing of communal councils (article 167); mandated municipalities to include the participation of communal councils (article 168); and removed the autonomy of the Central Bank for the purposes of empowering the state to oversee economic and monetary stability (articles 318 and 320).[5] And while the government did pass a series of ‘enabling laws'[6] in mid-2008, which also emphasized the importance of the people’s economy, so-called brigades of production, distribution, and consumption,[7] and barter-based exchange, the loss of the 2007 referendum — albeit narrow — represented an unprecedented democratic setback for Chávez and his political party, the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela).

          More recently, the gubernatorial and municipal elections have raised the question of whether or not the majority of Venezuelans were entirely supportive of the PSUV (and therefore, implicitly, Chávez himself). While gaining in the number of mayoral victories for the PSUV, Chávez’s party saw some significant losses to opposition candidates in several important gubernatorial races — some the result of former Chávez supporters switching to the opposition.[8]

          But rather than succumbing to the narrative that the Chávez government, in losing the 2007 referendum and several gubernatorial positions in 2008, might be steadily losing power,[9] we should be asking how prepared the populace is for an overtly socialist program being initiated at the highest levels of government. Indeed, any losses seen recently by Chávez and the PSUV must be weighed against the powerful position the party continues to hold in Venezuelan politics; a party rooted in "[struggling] to make self-government a reality, with cities, communal councils and communes as the basic political units," and one which states that, "throughout this period of transition, which at this moment marches from a state capitalism dominated by market forces towards a state socialism with a regulated market, the aim is to move towards a communal state socialism."[10] But are the majority of Venezuelans ready for state socialism or, for that matter, any sort of socialist society? In a recent Latinobarómetro report, Venezuelans, when asked whether it was the obligation of the state or the market to resolve society’s problems (on a scale of 1 to 10: 1 meaning solely the state, 10 meaning solely the market), averaged a score of 3.6. And while this represents at least some degree of reticence toward the notion that free markets can solve social inadequacies, it is not significantly lower than the Latin American average (3.9), nor is it even the lowest score amongst the countries surveyed.

          Obviously, such a question cannot in itself adequately capture the level of revolutionary consciousness within Venezuelan society, but it nonetheless suggests that we should continually be asking whether or not the majority of Venezuelans actually desire the socialist society envisioned by the PSUV and advocated for by Hugo Chávez. Needless to say, for the process of socialist construction to continue in Venezuela, the Chávez government faces an array of multi-faceted political challenges. These include (among others) the need to further consolidate the various parties on the political Left, reconcile the competing currents within the Chavista movement, and continuously raise the consciousness of the populace so that PSUV candidates and bold socialistic initiatives (such as those contained in the 2007 referendum) are supported as widely as is Chávez himself.

          In sum, the issue of democracy represents a fundamental difference between Cuba and Venezuela, especially with regard to both the trajectory of, and prospects for, socialism in each country. Whereas the relative lack of democracy in Cuba enabled the government to quickly make bold shifts in policy (e.g., during the ‘special period’), the presence of free, multi-party democracy in Venezuela has, more recently, forced the government to reflect on the nature and desired rapidity of its socialistic aims. And while recent events (such as the shift in power from Fidel to Raúl Castro, as well as some small-scale forms of liberalization) in Cuba have begun international speculation of a potential democratic ‘opening,’ it still remains unclear if and when this will ever occur. Nevertheless, if poder popular is to represent the form of democracy most complementary to twenty-first century socialism, it is arguable that the Chávez government has been more avid than the Castro government in supporting and funding it, especially in the form of community councils, communes, and other related forms of autonomous political organization. Whether this will lead to a more ‘totalist’ (or ‘wholist’ or ‘participatory’) form of socialism in Venezuela by giving citizens greater authority in deciding the political, economic, and social affairs of the country or, conversely, inhibit the progress of socialist development vis-à-vis factional infighting and political disorganization (which can, as we recently saw in the 2008 elections, at least indirectly translate into gains for opposition parties), no one can be entirely certain. But for both countries — and especially in the case of Venezuela, where it is at least plausible that the political platform of the PSUV is currently more radical than the majority of Venezuelans — a quote from socialist thinker Karl Kautsky is instructive: "Democracy," he explains, "is the shortest, surest and least costly road to Socialism, just as it is the best instrument for the development of the political and social prerequisites for Socialism. Democracy and Socialism are inextricably entwined."[11]

Cuba, Venezuela, and the Path to Socialism

            Outside of the political sphere, the Cuban and Venezuelan have differing approaches toward constructing socialism. We must remember to avoid treating each country’s more current processes of socialist development as static — both Cuba and Venezuela continue to experience dramatic changes in the political, economic, and social spheres that will necessarily impact their respective abilities to achieve a socialist society.

          A defining feature of Cuba’s quest for socialism has been its historic dependence on numerous outside factors. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cuba’s decades-long dependence on the Soviet Union for trade, aid, and logistical guidance. While significant shifts in policymaking occurred prior to the ‘special period,’ it is obvious that the collapse of the Soviet Union effectively ended the Castro government’s renewed socialist commitment beginning in the mid-1980s (i.e., the ‘rectification campaign’) and has since dramatically impacted the nature and scope of socialism in Cuba. Thus, external factors — predominately economic in nature — have historically assumed pivotal roles in dictating the Cuban government’s political, social, and economic orientation (specifically, in its deciding whether to implement pragmatic and/or concessionary policies versus more socialistic ones). In this regard, Mike Albert and Robin Hahnel have reflected on three important dimensions (specifically regarding the issue of ‘incentives’) of Cuban socio-economic relations: the moral-material dimension, the collective-individual dimension, and participatory-authoritarian dimension.[12] Because greater moral, collective, and participatory methods of incentivizing are viewed as being more conducive to ‘totalist’ socialism, the authors emphasize that by the mid-1970s, Cuban society saw increasing utilization of material and individualistic incentives, with no improvement in creating a more participatory framework for economic and political decision-making. Therefore, while state support for anti-capitalist aims occurred shortly after the Revolution, instituting a thoroughly classless society remained habitually contingent upon outside factors, thereby preventing ‘totalist’ socialism from ever seriously taking shape.

          The Chávez government in Venezuela, in its relatively slower advocacy for anti-capitalistic policies, therefore differs from Cuba in important ways. Nationalizations have taken place in a slower and more strategic manner than in Cuba, and social-leveling — whereas having occurred essentially ‘by accident’ in Cuba — is far from complete in Venezuela. Additionally, Venezuelans are seeing greater emphasis on the enhancement of the ‘social good’ (rather than on the prosperity of the individual), as well as the increasing political prominence of small, localized decision-making bodies. But, in observing the radical platforms of both Chávez and the PSUV party, it is more than likely that what is being sought after in Venezuela amounts to more than simple populism or a nuanced variation on the ‘welfare state.’ State support for an explicitly socialistic, anti-capitalist project is undoubtedly increasing, as evidenced by the bold ambitions contained in the 2007 referendum and the numerous enabling laws enacted since then.

          But where the increasingly socialistic nature of the Chávez government is tantamount to a Cuba-in-reverse scenario, Venezuela’s more prominent position in the global economy enables the government to be considerably less susceptible to outside forces than Cuba has historically been. Instead, internal factors are more likely to play decisive roles in the coming years. Greg Wilpert notes that the cultures of personalism and patronage continue to represent legitimate internal obstacles for the Bolivarian revolution. But perhaps more problematical are the Chávez government’s prospects for further radicalizing — in a relatively even fashion — itself as well as the Venezuelan citizenry that is ultimately entrusted to determine the direction and limits of socialism in Venezuela.[13] Nakatani and Herrera offer a similar observation of the Chávez government in noting the challenge of using "the State to converge, progressively and legally, the current capitalist society towards socialism."[14]

          One important source of similarity is that the Cuban and Venezuelan governments have placed an unprecedented emphasis on healthcare and education: Cuba’s early recognition of the need to achieve universal literacy and Venezuela’s avid support for the education and health-related missions serve as useful examples. But again, such initiatives do not in themselves constitute a more comprehensive, ‘totalist’ form of socialism that should distinguish twenty-first century socialism from the state socialism, market socialism, and social-democratic arrangements seen at various points throughout the twentieth century. Cuba, especially prior to the ‘special period,’ exhibited many of the traits of state socialism, often modeling itself after the very nation which has since come to epitomize state socialism, the Soviet Union.[15] In addition to having limited democratic channels for the general populace (despite its championing of poder popular), the Castro government often relied upon the ‘coordinator mode of production’ described by Albert and Hahnel. Of course, there is no shortage of interpretations regarding what ‘socialism’ effectively means, or should mean. But if we juxtapose the realities of Cuban socialism with the principles contained in ‘totalist’ socialism, we can easily see that numerous shortcomings existed — so much so that Albert and Hahnel in fact conclude that, "the litany that…Cuba…[is a socialist society] is a lie,’ in part because ‘in its class-allegiance it actually sacrifices the interests of workers for those of a coordinator elite."[16]

          The case of Venezuela is not entirely different insofar as economic coordination continues to be predominately under the auspices of the national government. Indeed, as the Venezuelan economy is in fact becoming increasingly managed by the state — whether via nationalization or otherwise[17]–the decision-making process continues to be considerably detached from the workers’ councils, community councils, etc. that are presumably intended to inherit the decision-making process from the state and national governments.

          But again, one of Venezuela’s current fundamental differences with Cuba lies in the increasingly socialistic nature of its economics, politics, and social relations — representing what one might deem ‘socialistic momentum.’ This notion has much to do with Albert and Hahnel’s call for "a mass anti-capitalist movement that fosters rather than impedes later socialist developments."[18] Thus, the concept of socialistic momentum implicitly recognizes the ‘process’ involved in socialist development, while also being conscious of ways in which policymaking can influence public consciousness — i.e., whether certain policies are serving to cultivate, or to diminish, popular desire for a socialist society. The Cuban government has followed a non-linear approach, instituting unorthodox, socialistic policymaking when conditions permitted, and pragmatic, conventional policymaking when conditions became more constraining. And indeed, there continues to be much discussion of Cuba’s seemingly inexorable gravitation toward a more capitalistic economy. The case of Venezuela, however, especially since the Chávez government’s vocal embrace of socialism in 2005, has been far more consistent and far-reaching; establishing a socialistic momentum that, while having encountered several political setbacks more recently, has nonetheless established important precedents for the country’s future direction.[19]


Conclusions and Recommendations

          The prospects for socialism in both Cuba and Venezuela will soon face a variety of interesting challenges. Like Cuba, Venezuela will soon have to determine if its socialist project can outlast its most prominent originator. The ability of either Cuba or Venezuela to effectively de-personify its revolutionary project will be indicative of a mass appeal toward socialism itself, not simply toward a charismatic leader. Especially in the case of Venezuela, removing Hugo Chávez from the center of its anti-capitalist project will in itself constitute a revolutionary act given the legacy of leader-based socialist projects throughout the twentieth century. However, the recent removal of term limits from the Venezuelan Constitution — while done by democratic means — seems to have made such a prospect unlikely.

          Additionally, with regard to Cuba, the Castro government must find a way to reinvigorate, reorganize, and reorient its project of socialist development if the prospect for a fully socialist society is to survive at all there. This necessarily involves expanding decision-making authority in communities, workplaces, and society in general. This is no small task, especially in a country where the quest for socialism has already been an integral part of society for approximately five decades, and where there exists perceptible momentum away from socialism, not toward it. Capitalistic concessions that favor economic growth, material incentives, selfish individualism, etc. over socialistic deepening — however necessary — will inexorably impact socialism’s viability over the long-term, and must therefore be avoided where possible — and mitigated where inevitable — if socialism is to meaningfully exist beyond the lives of its revolutionary leaders.

          In Venezuela, public desire for a socialistic, anti-capitalist project must consistently manifest itself in elections and referenda. Second, Venezuela must continue to enjoy favorable economic conditions while simultaneously maintaining fiscal and monetary stability, diversifying away from the oil-based economy, and achieving further social leveling. Lastly, the government must constantly seek to reconcile the often-divergent aims and strategies of the Chavistas and those on Venezuela’s political Left in general. All of these factors will play indispensable roles in securing the Revolution’s favorability, stability, and sustainability. However, because the Chávez government is likely to be increasingly met with the so-called contradictions of the welfare state — wherein the government must essentially choose between meeting the demands of capital and meeting the demands for greater social justice[20] — we should understand that many of the Bolivarian Revolution’s most decisive battles necessarily exist in the future rather than the past. The outcomes of these contests will each have its important set of consequences (e.g. ‘capital strikes,’ economic instability, loss of public confidence in government, etc.) which will, in turn, continue to impact the scale and scope of Venezuela’s revolutionary project.

          Can we conclude that the familiar specter of socialism is indeed ‘haunting’ Latin America once again? The socialistic momentum and increasing degree of state support for socialism taking place at all levels of government and throughout society in Venezuela suggests that we can. And in Cuba, even as somewhat concessionary changes continue to occur, the degree of state support for a socialist society continues to be virtually unrivaled by any other country in Latin America. However, determining whether or not the Venezuelan project will ultimately succumb to the pragmatic, class-engendering, and non-participatory features symptomatic of state socialism, as did Cuba, or the more cautious reformist politics of democratic socialism — or an entirely new form of socialism, more comprehensive and adjusted for the new realities of the twenty-first century — remains a difficult challenge. But if either revolutionary project is to survive over the long-term and thrive beyond their present administrations, both Cuba and Venezuela should pay heed to the advice of socialist scholar Michael A. Lebowitz, who reminds us that, "If you don’t know where you want to go, then no road will take you there."[21] Therefore, if the popularization of decision-making authority and eradication of capitalistic tendencies — as a means of ensuring the equitable development of human capacities — reside at the center of socialism’s raison d’etre, then the lessons for twenty-first century socialism in Latin America should be gleaned from the errors committed in the century preceding it.


1. See for example Freedom House, which currently rates Cuba as ‘not free’ and Venezuela as ‘partially free’ and trending downwards. Accessed 20 Nov. 2008.

2. D. L. Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today. London/Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2006, p. 122.

3. Ibid., p. 123.

4. Ibid., p. 129-30.

5. Gregory Wilpert, "Venezuela’s Constitutional Reform: An Article-By-Article Summary.’ Accessed 15 Nov. 2008.

6. Available in English. Accessed 25 Nov. 2008.

7. It should be noted how closely this particular initiative resembles the theoretical work of Albert, Hahnel, and others who have advocated for a system of ‘participatory economics’ based on cooperative self-managing coordination between diverse, localized but also federated, democratic workplaces and neighborhoods.

8. From "Opposition Also Wins Tachira and Carabobo States in Regional Elections," 24 Nov. 2008. Accessed 24 Nov. 2008.

9. For example, see the recent New York Times editorial which, in light of the gubernatorial and municipal elections results, claims that Chávez’s ‘own citizens have lost patience with his failed revolution.’

10. Extracted from the "Draft Program and Principles of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela" (English translation). Accessed 26 Nov. 2008.

11. From "Social Democracy Versus Communism." Accessed 10 Nov. 2008.

12. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Socialism Today and Tomorrow. Cambridge MA: South End Press, 1981, p. 208.

13. Gregory Wilpert, "Chavez’s Venezuela and 21st Century Socialism," Transitions in Latin America and in Poland and Syria, Research in Political Economy 24(1), 2007, p. 36.

14. Paulo Nakatani and Rémy Herrera, "Structural Changes and Planning of the Economy in Revolutionary Venezuela," Review of Radical Political Economics 40(3), 2008, p. 295.

15. Though, many observers have since chosen — often with good reason — to regard the Soviet Union as "post-capitalist" or "state capitalist," rather than "state socialist."

16. Albert and Hahnel, p. 373.

17. See, for example, ‘Venezuela Loosens Food Price Regulations to Improve Supply.’ Accessed 29 November 2008.

18. Albert and Hahnel, p. 371 (emphasis added).

19. Though, it should be noted that the process of deepening socialism needn’t be (and, in all reality, is unlikely to be) entirely linear. Albert and Hahnel have alluded to this point in acknowledging that, ‘backward steps to correct for overly optimistic "left" misestimations of the tension between the desirable and the possible should be taken’ (ibid., p. 208).

20. Wilpert, "Chavez’s Venezuela and 21st Century Socialism," p. 35.

21. Michael A. Lebowitz, Build It Now:  Socialism For the Twenty-first Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006, p. 64.

John Kane visited Venezuela in August of 2008 to research for his graduate thesis work at New York University. While there, he was able to  meet with a variety of community leaders, activists, and officials in government. The full thesis from which this article is drawn is available online. He currently teaches political science at St. Joseph’s College in New York and can be reached at jkane@sjcny.edu

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