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Why is Chavismo still so popular amid Venezuela’s worst economic downturn in decades?
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans could be seen marching down Caracas’ principal Urdaneta Avenue under the sweltering Caribbean sun. No, this was not a protest against the government, which we are routinely told is a dictatorship inflicting mass starvation on its people, but on the contrary, a public rally backing President Nicolas Maduro’s reelection campaign. The occasion was February 4th, which this year marked the 26th anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s revolutionary 1992 uprising against Venezuela’s oligarchic two-party system, known as the Fourth Republic. However, ahead of upcoming April 22 presidential elections that may well determine the fate of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, this 4F – as it is commonly known – was much more an explicit show of support for the current leftist president.
Dragged along by my friends, I came to the march begrudgingly, convinced that it would be just another ritualized public rubber stamp on a candidate whom many Venezuelan leftists view as “imposed” given the lack of internal primaries.
I confess I was not prepared for what I saw. Thousands upon thousands of smiling, red-clad Venezuelans singing, dancing, chanting, jumping, skipping, and running for kilometers in support of the continuity of the Bolivarian Revolution with Nicolas Maduro at its helm. Public sector workers marched with their colleagues, dancing alongside trucks blaring old and new Chavista campaign songs recorded to the rhythms of salsa, pop, merengue, and reggaetón. Other contingents were led by diverse social movements, workers from nationalized enterprises, youth organizations, as well as communal council activists – often with handmade banners and their own unique slogans – all showing their support for “Nico” as the president is affectionately called.
My initial reaction was to address the perennial mainstream media talking point and ask myself, are all these people here voluntarily or is this just another manipulative ploy by the party machine allegedly forcing people to attend on the pain of firings or cuts to state social benefits?
Sebastian, a worker at the Ministry of Culture, addressed my doubts head on.
“It’s a lie that they fire you if you don’t show up. The vast majority of people are here of their own volition. Even if they were coerced to attend, who says they have to be so enthusiastic?” he told me.
It was indeed undeniable that a large portion of the people giving up their Sunday to march under that hot midday sun actually looked happy, or at least in that moment appeared to be enjoying themselves.
How do we square this enthusiasm with the fact that Venezuela is currently experiencing its worst economic downturn in decades, which has hit the popular sectors comprising Chavismo’s traditional base the hardest?
The first step in answering this question is to jettison the almost ubiquitous international media assumption that Chavistas are brutish animals whose political motivations can be reduced either to a box of government-distributed food or to some fanatical personality cult.
The meaning of Maduro
There is no doubt that that the nearly six million people who voted for the government in recent regional and municipal elections did so for profoundly material reasons.
In the face of a right-wing US-sponsored opposition that has done little more than try incessantly to oust Chavismo from power and execute its neoliberal program, many Venezuelans view the Bolivarian government as the only regime in living memory that has actually acknowledged their existence, let alone prioritized their welfare. Consequently, for significant swathes of Venezuela’s popular classes, Maduro and the United Socialist Party (PSUV) still represent the hope that existing social democratic gains – however diminished by the crisis and counter-revolutionary rollback – may be preserved and deepened. An example of this is the government’s CLAP program of subsidized house-to-house food distribution in coordination with local communal councils, which has been expanded to cover millions of families. Despite the numerous problems marring this program as well as with other social policies including the new system of Homeland Card bonuses, without such initiatives, it’s likely the government would not have been able to count on such mass popular mobilizations that successfully defended it against last year’s insurrectionary right-wing protests.
But this real concern with bread and butter issues alone cannot explain the energy I witnessed on 4F.
Beyond any singular programmatic demand or emotional attachment by virtue of his nomination by Chavez, the reelection of Maduro connotes for many Chavistas the possibility of continuing the revolutionary sequence that began with the 1989 mass revolt against neoliberalism known as the Caracazo and continued through the election of Chavez, the 1999 constituent assembly process, the people’s victories over the 2002 coup and oil lockout up until the election of Maduro and the defeat of the guarimbas.*
That is, the fact that a bus driver or poor provincial Afro-indigenous lieutenant-colonel can occupy the helm of the state symbolizes what the Venezuelan masses can accomplish in practice, namely radically remake the social order from the bottom up in the direction of a “protagonist and participatory” socialist democracy.
For all his mediocrity as an individual and political leader, Maduro’s presidency embodies the faint but lingering decolonial hope touted by Frantz Fanon that “the last shall be first and the first last”, namely that Venezuela’s black and brown masses will never again be governed by the white US-backed oligarchy that asphyxiated them for so long.
In this sense, the slogan of “¡No volverán!” (“They won’t return!”) still has a powerful resonance, particularly for the older generations that lived through the oligarchic Fourth Republic that preceded Chávez.
Support for Maduro is thus complex: it springs as much from an emotionally-infused utopic vision of continuing the revolutionary struggle embodied in the figure of Chávez as it does from a pragmatic reading of the current correlation of forces and the catastrophic threat posed by the right.
“The unconditional support for Maduro is to preserve the legacy of Chávez, because the people knows that it’s easier to deepen a revolution while being in government than to turn it over to a right-wing that has no respect for life and only seeks to eliminate its adversary,” explains Javier, 36, who is a spokesperson for grassroots economic initiatives in his communal council in the working class western Caracas sector of Catia.
For Javier, himself a member of the PSUV who has grown sharply critical of the party elite to the point of backing the independent leftist candidacies of Eduardo Samán, Ángel Prado, among others, “This doesn’t mean that the people accompany [Maduro] blindly, but on the contrary in a critical way.”
Nonetheless, not all Chavistas, let alone Venezuelans, share this perspective of critical support for the incumbent.
Depoliticization and the lack of leftist alternatives
Despite Maduro retaining the backing of millions of grassroots Chavistas like Javier, it has also become abundantly clear that important swathes of Venezuela’s popular classes have lost faith in the president and his party since mobilizing en masse to reelect Chávez with over eight million votes in 2012. Years of deep economic crisis met with concession after concession by a bureaucratized and reformist ruling party elite have taken their depoliticizing toll, hollowing out the government’s once expansive working class base. In lieu of taking the economic offensive with urgent reforms to Venezuela’s byzantine foreign exchange system that has long enabled the pilfering of state petro-dollars by transnational corporations and their corrupt bureaucratic allies, the government has largely sat on its hands with inadequate minimum wage hikes, jettisoning of price regulations, and prioritizing of debt servicing over vital imports. In short, as the Venezuelan Communist Party concludes, “The government of President Nicolas Maduro has not developed, let alone executed policies or plans that represent a revolutionary solution to the Venezuelan capitalist crisis, limiting itself to managing the crisis without affecting the power of capital.”
The fallout from these policies has been measured at the ballot box. As Ociel Lopez observes, bracketing the July 30 National Constituent Assembly vote, support for the PSUV has remained stagnant since December 2015 at approximately 6 million votes – a remarkable fact given the economic circumstances, but nonetheless constituting a steep decline from Chavismo’s high-water mark of over eight million votes in 2012. Poll after poll attest to the growing ranks of independents (ni-nis) who account for approximately a third of the electorate and who reject both the government and the MUD opposition coalition.** Meanwhile, though the opposition has lost over two million votes since its 2015 parliamentary win – largely due to the unparalleled strategic incompetence of its leadership – that victory still haunts the PSUV as a reminder of the grave dangers of grassroots discontent.
This panorama is unquestionably grim given the absence of any autonomous, mass-based political force to the left of the PSUV that could conceivably channel the deep discontent in a revolutionary direction, or which minimally has the power to hold the government to account. There are hopeful stirrings among social movements and leftist parties formally aligned with the government – the municipal candidacies of Angel Prado, Eduardo Saman, among others – but the organizational conditions among the popular movements are not yet ripe for a real challenge to the hegemony of the PSUV, which has proven highly adept at coopting and repressing its more radical rivals. The two largest parties to the left of the PSUV – the Communist Party and the Homeland for All party – have signaled they would back alternative revolutionary candidates if a deal for a new alliance cannot be struck with the PSUV. Nonetheless, on February 21, Homeland for All announced its official endorsement of Maduro, while the communists did the same on February 26, signing a unity agreement with the president and the PSUV. Overall, the bulk of the left is likely to lend its firm but caustically critical support to the incumbent, however begrudgingly, in order to stave off the menace of right-wing restoration.
Meanwhile, the ultra-left minority that has broken with Maduro over the National Constituent Assembly finds itself entirely isolated, wedded to an anti-political discourse that is virtually indistinguishable from the right. Of course, this ultra-leftist deviation should, following Lenin, be treated as little more than the “penalty for the opportunist sins” of the PSUV leadership, namely its corrosive bureaucratization that isolates it from the daily struggles of the people and its increasingly conservative reformism that only fans the flames of popular indignation. This degeneration should surprise no one given the structural logic of the PSUV, which almost from its inception became a party of ministers, governors, and mayors, where top leadership positions were handed to entrenched state apparatchiks, effectively precluding it from becoming a semi-autonomous vehicle for the transformation of the bourgeois state.
Indeed, the Chavista class is in urgent need of renewal in order to shore up the revolution’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people. But this regeneration can only come from below, from the communes, workers’ and campesinos’ organizations, students, as well as feminist and sexual diversity movements. In this sense, last summer’s National Constituent Assembly elections were a short-lived demonstration of the possibilities for bottom-up radicalization, with over eight million people braving conditions of right-wing terror to vote for 6,000 candidates, among them, trans revolutionary Rummie Quintero, communist student leader, Vanesa Montero, and commune spokesperson Angel Prado. Sadly but not surprisingly, the superiorly organized PSUV succeeded in outflanking its grassroots leftist opponents and securing the election of the majority of its candidates. While this outcome confirmed the ANC’s subordination to the government and its consequent inability to serve as an partially autonomous lightning rod for popular demands within the state, the mass mobilization the elections elicited must be held up as a testament to the ongoing vitality of Chavismo’s ever diverse grassroots and their truly hegemonic vocation.
Venezuela’s 2018 elections come in a moment of supreme anti-climax. For most people I speak with, there is little doubt that Maduro will handily win his reelection gambit.
The opposition remains deeply divided following its devastating back-to-back defeats in regional and local elections. Since its 2015 victory, it has waged a continual war of movement to topple the government by any means necessary, precisely when the conjuncture called for a patient war of position. And now, when conditions are ripe for an opposition triumph, its leadership is more discredited than ever. The MUD’s hardline faction most closely wedded to Washington and other international conservative power centers is actively pushing for abstention in a bid to delegitimize the election and realize their implacable desire for foreign military intervention. Meanwhile, the opposition’s more electorally-oriented wing appears incapable of uniting behind a single candidate, with a number of names still being floated around just a week before the February 27 deadline. Their predicament is not helped by the significant outflow of Venezuelans to neighboring countries as well as to the US, Canada, and Europe. These new migrants are, more often than not, but not exclusively, opposition supporters, thus further eroding the MUD’s chances.
The government is overconfident in the seeming inevitability of its victory, trusting that the PSUV’s electoral war machine will successfully mobilize its hardcore base as we saw on October 15 and December 10. Indeed the ruling party’s ground game is formidable, counting on tens of thousands of seasoned grassroots activists mobilizing their communities in the days and weeks before the vote. Likewise, with rising oil prices and in spite of debt servicing and sanctions, the government has ample resources to dispense in terms of CLAP deliveries and holiday bonuses in order to attenuate the startling impact of the economic crisis on some sectors.
But unlike past presidential elections, this Chavista campaign is notably conservative in its form and content. Maduro refuses to leave his comfort zone and take to the campaign trail, preferring to hide behind a self-adulatory discourse touting future economic “prosperity”, while letting the party machine do the heavy lifting.
If the opposition is unable to rally around a single candidate, Maduro has a very good chance of winning in a low turnout scenario where the government’s 6 million votes – of an electorate of nearly 20 million – could prove sufficient. While this may sound like an illegitimate outcome, we should take pause and recall, as Steve Ellner notes, that two of three 21st Century US presidents were elected with a minority of the popular vote under conditions of extremely low turnout by international standards.
However, if the opposition successfully unites around a candidate capable of channeling the sizable discontent among disaffected Chavistas as well as working and lower middle class opposition supporters, it could surpass its 7.7 million votes in 2015 and take the presidency. Former Lara Governor Henri Falcon is an ideal fit for this role on account of his provincial Chavista origins and “progressive” aura – perfect for courting disenchanted Chavistas and opposition middle-roaders. But for those very reasons, he is anathema to the opposition’s upper-middle class, hysterically anti-Chavista base, which though a minority, has had an outsized influence in choosing the MUD’s presidential candidates in the past.
In such a scenario of a credible opposition threat, Maduro could be forced to move left and try to appeal to alienated Chavistas and lower class opposition supporters with a frank revolutionary discourse that acknowledges the depth of the crisis and proposes structural solutions, as is being demanded of him by his leftist allies. Nonetheless, given the organizational weakness of the left, it remains to be seen whether such conditions could create an opening for a sustained revolutionary advance.
As things currently stand, the MUD has announced it will boycott the election. It’s evident that large opposition parties like Democratic Action, Popular Will, and First Justice have much more to lose if they participate in the election and lose, than if they continue with their current strategy of lobbying for highly unpopular international sanctions, which by Popular Will leader Juan Guaido’s own admission, “results… in Venezuelans’ poor quality of life, which must result in pressure on this regime.” This leaves the opposition field sharply divided between the hardline call for abstention, amplified from abroad, and so-called “moderates” from smaller parties with less to lose from participating. A couple of evangelical preachers with zero name recognition and dodgy backstories have recently thrown their hats into race, while Falcon officially registered his candidacy on behalf of the Progressive Advance and Movement Towards Socialism parties on February 26.
While the MUD boycott could have a similar effect in suppressing opposition turnout as was the case during regional and municipal elections, recent polls by Hinterlaces and Datanalisis show that intention to vote is high – 69 percent and 75 percent, respectively. This suggests that, even in a divided scenario, the opposition could still win. The MUD boycott may even prove advantageous to a candidate like Falcon, saving him the trouble of courting the opposition’s traditional affluent base he could never win in the first place. In fact, Datanalisis gives Falcon a lead of 32.6% percent to Maduro’s 28.4 percent, though the margin of error is 3.4 percent, meaning that the potential adversaries appear to be neck and neck. The same poll gives Falcon a big lead among independents and opposition supporters committed to voting, predicting he would take 68.3 percent of the former and 93 percent of the latter. While such polling by right-wing outfits like mainstream media darling Datanalisis should be taken with a heap of salt given their failure to predict high Chavista turnout in the past, we should not downplay the direness of the present panorama: as a rule, incumbents do not tend to win reelection under conditions of four-digit inflation. Now one may reply that politics is the art of the impossible, but there is an overdetermining structural reality that a small, impoverished country, internationally isolated and besieged by imperialism, can only hold out on its own for so long. The Sandinistas’ 1990 defeat at the hands of Violeta Chamorro, despite all the important contextual differences, illustrates this very real danger.
The election and the international left
In the face of this incredibly complex conjuncture, we must ask ourselves, what is the role of the international left?
Over the past year, an increasing number of leftist intellectuals across the hemisphere have openly broken with the Bolivarian government, accusing it of “authoritarianism”, without of course ever defining what this highly loaded term means.
Despite the growing antagonisms between Venezuela’s popular movements and the government, the consensus of the Bolivarian left remains clear: the primary contradiction is with Western imperialism and the right-wing opposition, which must be opposed at all costs.
As such, those of us on the international left have a duty to stand in unconditional solidarity with the Bolivarian government and its people against imperialism.
At the same time, we must offer our thoughtful critiques aimed at backing grassroots struggles to rejuvenate and radicalize the revolution.
This dual responsibility is anything but easy but is essential, now more than ever.
The return of the right in Venezuela would be a calamitous blow to the Latin American left, paving the way for the US to set its sights on the few progressive governments that remain in the region as well as dismantle counter-hegemonic regional integration mechanisms such as ALBA, PetroCaribe, UNASUR, and the CELAC. The resulting shockwaves would rattle the left globally, serving as a seeming vindication of TINA: “There is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism. On the other hand, the possible reelection victory of Maduro on April 22 would only be met with an escalation of the US-Canada-EU regime change agenda, with Washington preemptively announcing its refusal to recognize the electoral outcome.
Leftist and progressive forces especially in the Global North – including labor unions, anti-war movements, student organizations, political parties, etc. – are in a strategic position to up the costs of this imperialist intervention and perhaps even stop it.
The stakes have never been higher, as the fate of one of the 21st Century’s richest emancipatory experiments is on the line.
*Guarimbas are a tactic of insurrectionary street mobilization employed by Venezuela’s right-wing opposition involving the widespread use of deadly roadblocks made up of burning garbage, tree trunks, and rubble from destroyed public property. The barricades are typically maintained by small groups of young anti-government militants who are frequently paid by opposition parties and who are usually armed with makeshift weapons (Molotov cocktails, homemade mortars, slingshots, etc.) and occasionally conventional firearms. While right-wing political violence made its reappearance in Venezuela following the opposition’s refusal to recognize President Maduro’s victory in April 14, 2013 elections, the first round of guarimbas took place between February and May of 2014, claiming the lives of 43 people. Between April and late July of last year, the Venezuelan opposition launched a second round of far deadlier guarimbas, which left over 125 people dead.
** Both Hinterlaces and Datanalisis conducted polls released in January 2017 finding that independents constitute approximately a third of the electorate, a result which confirmed the erosion of support for both poles of the Venezuelan political spectrum. No subsequent surveys have followed up on this question, but one can speculate that the proportion of independents has only increased in light of the both the implosion of the MUD following its disastrous campaign of insurrectionary violence and subsequent electoral defeats as well as the failure of the government to deliver on its economic promises after July 30 National Constituent Assembly elections.