What Can We Learn From Venezuela?

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

President Nicolas Maduro and Hugo Chavez. Photo: minci.gob.ve

HAVANA TIMES — The defeat suffered by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) isn’t simply an electoral catastrophe. It is, first and foremost, another pivotal moment of the decline of the Chavista project.

This was a disruptive project, which emerged from the rubble of Venezuela’s elitist punto fijo (“fixed point”) pact. It called itself a revolution but, in fact, it did not substantially alter the country’s property or political structures. Though it claimed the epithet of “socialist,” 17 years after Chavez’ election, Venezuela continues to be a fully capitalist nation, and its political system – though espousing a constitution that is in many ways more advanced than those of its Latin American neighbors – never ceased to be, in essence, a liberal democracy.

Its disruptive aims were channeled down populist roads. It didn’t create the nation’s crisis – whose fundamental and critical signs were already evident in the order it sought to supersede – but it did worsen the existing crisis. It didn’t divide society – which was already starkly divided – but it transformed that objective division into the dynamic component of a foundational discourse that organized society into two camps: the people and the oligarchy. And it isn’t true that it redistributed the nation’s wealth (as bourgeois property was, for the most part, left untouched) – it merely distributed the surplus more widely.

Under such conditions, the fate of the so-called “Bolivarian revolution” was tied to two factors. The first was a charismatic and intelligent leader capable of capturing the people’s imagination. The second were high oil revenues. While Chavez was at the helm of government, backed by extraordinary fuel prices, everything moved smoothly: a wide range of social programs (the so-called “missions”) were established, jobs were created, housing was built and consumer items were imported en masse. This was what Chavez referred to as “oil-based socialism,” in much the same way Carlos Andres Perez had referred to his first, successful term as “oil-based democracy.” And Chavez managed to win one election after the other, by margins as overwhelming as 26%.

I do not believe Chavez’ populist option was Venezuela’s best alternative in terms of taking advantage of the oil boom. It would have been more reasonable to avail himself of those favorable circumstances to impel a more coherent economic and social development project. That said, I believe this option was far better than any other previously practiced in the country, such as what we saw in the 1970s, when a rise in oil prices served to spawn a new bourgeoisie and swell existing fortunes disproportionately, leaving Venezuela adrift in shameful levels of inequality, as evidenced by the coexistence of the poorest favelas with gated communities, where the Venezuelan bourgeoisie was building the best of its possible worlds. From those gated communities, they were probably still able to hear the bursts of gunfire that took the lives of thousands, among a people who, in 1989, decided to reclaim its place under the sun.

The 2004-2010 period was the golden age of the Chavista project, but its two pillars would not remain standing for much longer. As of 2009, the price of oil began to fluctuate downwards, and Chavez, terminally ill, held his last electoral campaign in 2012, when he won with a margin of 10%. What followed was the comedy that comes after the tragedy. Under Nicolas Maduro, an inept politician whose sole virtue was his apparent belief in his own nonsense – the regime began to show all its cracks. Corruption became more evident, the Bolivarian bourgeoisie became more scandalously wealthy, the streets became less safe, the chronic “Dutch disease” more harmful, and daily shortages and inflation – the ogre of the middle classes – more devastating.

The Venezuelans who voted en masse against the government didn’t do so in support of a specific political option, as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) gathers everything from center to passionate, far-right groups. It evidently voted – consciously or not – to put an end to a period of the nation’s history. The society that voted Sunday is not the same in which Chavez assembled his project. Within it, we’ve witnessed growing social mobility processes, a people that has learned to value the importance of socially-minded governments and has gained in self-esteem, and a changing elite. All of this has been accompanied by regrettable disruptions with no shortage of violence, ruptures and ostracism, but its positive social and political results are undeniable.

Though the government begrudgingly acknowledged its defeat, there is talk of heated internal disputes and a hardline sector headed by Diosdado Cabello, who seeks to deny the results. Ultimately, the government has recognized the MUD’s overwhelming victory. Let us hope that means that the elite’s Chavista sector has understood what it has refused to see until now: that Chavez’ project has passed. Now, it is a question of working towards a post-revolutionary institutionalization that will guarantee the maintenance of social and political achievements. To attempt to do more, to transform the defense of the interests of the new elite into a “patriotic cause,” would be to protract a morbid situation and bring about more violence in the name of a revolution that has ceased to exist.

Someone in the opposition spoke of reconciliation and of maintaining those social achievements. Let us hope that means the opposition has arrived at the right conclusions about the origins of this disruptive process, about the value of social justice and the cost of undertaking vendettas against the broad social sectors that saw Chavismo as a true alternative to the existing state of things and benefitted from its measures.

If that weren’t the case, I fear history will return to settle accounts. Poet Roque Dalton said it when he wrote of the planet-wide headache that afflicted humanity: people will always look for an aspirin the size of the sun.

9 thoughts on “What Can We Learn From Venezuela?

  • You don’t know what you are talking about, Stan. The editor of Havana Times can describe for himself his political views, but he seems to come from a socialist left perspective of some sort or other. The author of the piece above, Haroldo Alfonso contributes regularly here at HT and is outspokenly of the libertarian-left, or anarchist-left perspective. His position is strongly anti-capitalist & anti-imperialist, while authoritarian leftist systems.

    The Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela was from the beginning a fraud and a swindle. In the name of helping the poor, a new clique of cynical politicians, army officers and crony capitalists made out like bandits on the oil wealth. Now that the party is over and the economy is in ruins, these so-called “socialists” are flying out of Venezuela with their wealth. Hugo Chavez’s daughter is worth an estimated $4.2 billion, making her the richest woman in Venezuela, except she’s no longer there, she’s in New York. She’s about as socialist as a self-styled pseudo-Marxist living in Shaughnessy, Vancouver.

    The poor of Venezuela will be left to deal with the aftermath.

  • I am from Vancouver,Canada and I wanted to say that the Havana Times is reactionary and right wing. The Cuban gov’t did the right thing in supporting President Maduro.The opposition in Venezuela is a lackey of the Yankee gov’t and should be condemned.
    President Maduro should do whatever is necessary to hold on to the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution.The opposition and its Yankee supporters should be condemned and ignored in Venezuela.What is important is the Bolivarian Revolution not the elections.

  • Average wage in Venezuela has dropped down to $15/month, about what a poor US worker makes in an hour. $15/mth is also the same as what a Cuban makes. This clearly shows Venezuela is as socialist as Cuba. BTW, $15/hr vs $15/mth means the average American makes 168X what the average Venezuelan or Cuban makes. This is about right, considering workers in capitalist countries typically makes 150X more than workers in socialist countries.

  • Isn’t the real problem that the Left doesn’t know, any more, how to achieve the kind of society it wants? (The Right doesn’t have this problem, as it already HAS the kind of society it wants, in most countries.)

    For a hundred and fifty years, there was general agreement on the Left — stretching from Social Democrats to Stalinists to Trotskyists — that the eventual aim was a centralized planned economy which would do away with the irrationalities of capitalist production. (WIthin that consensus, of course, there was furious disagreement on things like how to get there, whether it was achieveable in one country, the role of democratic institutions in that planned economy, etc.)

    And at first, the Soviet Union, whatever you thought of its political system, seemed to be proving that a planned economy was superior to a free market one. (I still remember a textbook that I used when I took a course in Soviet economics in the early 1960s: its front cover had a graph comparing the Soviet and US economies — the former starting from a low base, but growing at about 7% a year, while the American economy grew at 3% — the lines crossed sometime in the 1990s.) But now the idea that a centrally-planned economy is superior, in terms of economic growth, to a free-market one, is believed by almost no one.

    Now, ‘socialism’ just means trying to ensure that the poor get more of the nice things of life. In Venezuela, this worked for a while, because of the price of oil. Now it doesn’t.

    So the real question is: what should the Left be putting forward as its alternative to the economic/political status quo? Vague comforting platitudes won’t do.

  • The first ‘programme’ Venezuela should throw overboard is its subsidization of foreign oil, including Cuba. Venezuela must also recalibrate it’s internal oil subsidies and redirect resources toward food and medicine imports. Finally, something must be done to address the high-level government corruption. Increasing public trust in government will buy the opposition more time to improve the economy.

  • IC, this isn’t just Venezuela, it’s happening in the US as well. I like Bernie Sanders, as a man, just like I feel Jimmy Carter is a decent guy but there are folks in the USA who love Sanders. Problem is he would love to run a socialistic agenda if elected. I know plenty of people who adore Sanders and perhaps I’m naive but wager that if Cuba had a fair election, and forget about those who constantly harp on information Cubans don’t have to make decisions, I think the present regime would get a large vote of confidence. How much? That’s the question but the answer won’t be known tomorrow or next week since that won’t happen for a while. The bottom line is you and I are not exactly in favor with a whole lot of people but agree totally!

  • The first thing they need to do is rationalize the safety net. The country has plenty of earning if it reworks economy to empower free market. Supporting job creation would better leverage resources. The control and dependency model of Maduro had no chance.

  • If Maduro was smart (Which he clearly isn’t) he would resign, hold new elections, and let his party go into opposition. The right wing will have no better luck managing an economy dependent on $140/bbl oil in a world with $30/bbl oil. This would forgo the advantages of media control etc., but would avoid responsibility for the coming economic catastrophe.

  • So you’re premise is that Venezuela was not Socialist enough!? Hasn’t Vemezuela suffered enough!

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