Thursday, August 16, 2007

Obstacles for 21st Century Socialism in Venezuela

The following article written by Gregory Wilpert originally appeared on the website, July 11, 2006. This is a revised version of a paper that was presented at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Havens Center, April 11, 2006.

The main obstacles to 21st century socialism in Venezuela fall into the two general categories of external and internal obstacles. The external obstacles are those that are external to the Bolivarian project, such as a domestic opposition that continuously seeks to undermine the Chavez government without engaging in the political process, a U.S. government that is intent on isolating the Chavez government, and domestic and international forces of capital that make 21st century socialism in one country extremely difficult to institute. The internal obstacles include the persistence of an anti-democratic political culture of patronage and of personalism.

The opposition includes practically all sectors that used to have a determining role in Venezuelan society, such as the former governing parties, the old union federation, the church hierarchy, big business, and almost all of the private mass media. The key problem for the Chavez government with this opposition is not so much its power, which it has lost steadily largely due to its own disorganization and failures, but its unwillingness to play the democratic game, as it did during the April 2002 coup attempt, the December 2003 oil industry shutdown, and the December 2005 boycott of the National Assembly elections. Rarely during the Chavez presidency has this opposition come forward with concrete proposals about how it would govern Venezuela differently. Currently the opposition is continuing on this track of denying the government’s legitimacy by threatening to boycott the December 2006 presidential elections, on the basis that the electoral registry is flawed. However, an audit by the Inter-American Human Rights Institute showed that errors in the registry were negligible. The gradual self-destruction of the opposition, though, has made the opposition less of an obstacle and has thus increased the government’s freedom to maneuver.

The second external obstacle to creating 21st century socialism is the Bush administration. From documents that have become available in the past few years it is clear that the Bush administration knew about the 2002 coup attempt in advance, but instead of opposing it beforehand or while it was in progress, Bush gave it support by denying that it was a coup and by blaming Chavez for his own downfall. Also, via the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) the Bush administration has been funneling several million dollars per year to opposition groups in Venezuela, in an effort to create an opposition in its own image. And, in terms of applying overt measures against the Chavez government, the Bush administration has been applying a variety of minor economic sanctions[8] and has been conducting a campaign to isolate Venezuela internationally. All in all, each one of these measures has been a relative failure. For example, the opposition, despite its receiving funds and advice from the U.S., is hopelessly disorganized and of little consequence in Venezuela, following its many failures during the Chavez presidency.[9] The economic sanctions have little effect, given that Venezuela’s foreign currency income comes almost entirely from oil revenues, which the U.S. will not cut off. Last, the efforts to isolate Venezuela have met with little approval elsewhere in the world.

Finally, the third external obstacle is for many countries the most serious obstacle to progressive governing because of its ability to initiate an investment strike if a government initiates too many policies against its interests. Venezuela, though, with the recent boom in oil revenues (essentially since mid 2003) remains a lucrative place for investment, despite the government’s anti-capitalist rhetoric and its frequent tax increases for the oil industry. Also, capital flight has been held in check via a restrictive exchange rate policy. As a result, domestic and international capital is not that much of an obstacle now as it was earlier in Chavez’s presidency.

The much more serious obstacles to instituting 21st century socialism in Venezuela thus are the internal obstacles. The most serious of these is probably the persistence of a culture of clientelism-patronage. That is, there is much anecdotal evidence that despite Chavez’s criticism that previous governments were riddled with patronage systems, new forms of patronage have taken their place. While previously it was practically impossible for people who were not members of one of the ruling parties to get government jobs or services, evidence has emerged that although party membership is not an issue now, officials in the Chavez government are often preventing anti-Chavistas, as Chavez opponents are known, from acquiring government jobs and some kinds of services.

The most notorious example of this practice has been the so-called “Tascon List,” which pro-Chavez National Assembly deputy Luis Tascon set up, which lists all Venezuelans who signed the petition in favor of a recall referendum against President Chavez.[10] The original purpose of the list was to allow Chavez supporters to make sure that they did not appear on the list because they were concerned that the list fraudulently included many who did not intend to be on it.

Patronage that gives government jobs and services mainly to Chavistas not only counteracts Chavez’s campaign promise of creating a government that will not exclude anyone, but it also undermines the rule of law, thus providing an opening for corruption and the delegitimization of the government and it counters the principle of formal equality. More than that, patronage systems encourage a limited form of solidarity, which extends only to one’s own group (in this case one’s political group) and is fundamentally at odds with an effort to create a society in which solidarity includes all people, regardless of nationality or political beliefs.

The second internal obstacle is the latent personality cult around Chavez and the tendency towards personalistic politics in Venezuela in general. On the one hand, Chavez’s ability to bring people together in a large “Bolivarian” movement for radical change in Venezuela is practically unparalleled in recent Venezuela history. On the other hand, this ability has resulted in an extreme dependency of the movement on Chavez, to the exclusion of a clearly defined political program or political organization. Thus, if Chavez were to disappear from one day to the next, the entire movement would fall into a thousand pieces because it would have lost it unifying glue. This extreme dependence on Chavez also means that it is extremely difficult for Chavez supporters to criticize Chavez because every criticism threatens to undermine the project because it gives rhetorical ammunition to the opposition. A further consequence is that the lack of criticism insulates Chavez and makes it very difficult for him to test his ideas and policies against the outside world. Criticism from within the ranks is rarely present and criticism from outside the ranks is easily dismissed. The result is a strong potential for wrong-headed policies.[11]

The third internal obstacle is a strong tendency towards top-down leadership, not only by Chavez, but by everyone in the public administration. Despite the very real pursuit of participatory democracy at local levels, the government bureaucracy is still by and large a top-down operation, which Chavez’s military instincts have reinforced. Such leadership in the public administration further exacerbates the problems mentioned of a personalistic political culture, so that questioning of one’s superiors and correcting errors in the administration of public policies is extremely difficult.


It is very probable that the Chavez government will continue on its course of increasing radicalization because it has managed to either defeat or avoid nearly all of the obstacles to governing that progressive governments normally face. That is, most governments face what some political scientists have called, the “contradictions of the welfare state,” whereby democratically elected governments in capitalist countries have to answer to two contradictory masters.[12] On the one hand, governments have to fulfill the wishes of the population that elected them, lest they be removed from power in the next electoral cycle. On the other hand, they have to fulfill the wishes of capital, lest they face a capital strike and economic crisis. These two pulls on governments is a serious problem because they tend to pull in diametrically opposite directions. Citizens generally want the government to protect them from the ravages of capitalism (advocating for regulations on businesses, environmental protection, workplace safety, protection from economic crisis, etc.), while capital wants to be as free of government regulations and taxes as possible. Following an effort to at least partially resolve this contradiction via debt spending, governments in both the First and Third World borrowed heavily, so that they could fulfill the financial needs of the welfare state, without having to tax either capital or the general population. However, once the debt crisis became too much of a burden, governments cut back government spending and by and large adopted neo-liberalism as a supposed way out of the contradiction. Neo-liberalism, though, did not resolve the contradiction, but shifted the balance of power in favor of capital.

Recently, though, with the failure of neo-liberalism to provide for any meaningful increase in people’s standard of living and with a dramatic increase in inequality, the peoples of Latin America have been voting against neo-liberalism and in favor of a wide variety of leftist governments. The contradiction between the pulls of capitalism and of the general population remains in nearly all of these countries. The only exception seems to be Venezuela, which, by virtue of its oil wealth, is far less dependent on private capital and thus on its demands. Added to this economic independence comes the Venezuelan old elite’s repeated failures to topple Chavez. Chavez, who started out as a fairly moderate politician in 1998, could thus easily afford to become increasingly more radical with each subsequent defeat of the opposition. Also, as someone who was not formed politically by a political party or ideology, but more as a result of his confrontations with state power, Chavez steers a path that is pragmatic and free from orthodoxies of any kind, thus opening him up to steering a more radical path, should opportunity and his perceived analysis of what Venezuela needs lead him in that direction.

In other words, while further advances in defining and applying 21st century socialism in Venezuela are very possible, due to the relative lack of external obstacles, it is the internal obstacles of the cultures of patronage and personalism that are most likely to threaten to derail the project. Figuring out how to overcome these obstacles, which would require a re-building of the state, in order to overcome patronage structures, and the creation of an effective political movement that does not depend on Chavez, in order to overcome personalism, remain the greatest challenges for 21st century socialism in Venezuela.

[8] These sanctions are the result of putting Venezuela on a variety of lists, such as one of countries that are not doing enough in fighting terrorism, fighting drug trafficking, and in fighting human trafficking.

[9] These failures include the April 2002 coup attempt, the December 2002 oil industry shutdown, the August 2004 recall referendum, and the December 2005 boycott of the National Assembly elections.

[10] There are probably nearly as many accounts of opposition employers using this list to weed out Chavez supporters. However, this does not excuse the practice, especially not for a government that originally campaigned against patronage systems.

[11] An example of such a wrong-headed policy is the recent passage of changes to the penal code, which slightly broadened penalties for insulting government officials. The law has been on the books for decades, but an increase of the maximum penalty for such offenses is anti-civil rights and did not serve any useful purpose.

[12] One of the main theorists of this thesis was Claus Offe, in his book, The Contradictions of the Welfare State, 1984, MIT Press

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