Understanding the Bolivarian Revolution

The Deepening of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution: Why Most People Don’t Get It
By Julia Buxton
May 10, 2007, 21:26

It is hard for an outsider to get a grip on Venezuela, or the country’s President Hugo Chávez. Pick up a copy of the Financial Times , the Economist, the Independent, Wall Street Journal or the New York Times and you will be presented with a frightening vision of a “ranting populist demagogue” (In the words of a British former foreign-office minister, Denis MacShane), an anti-semite who has captured the hearts and purchased the support of hoards of irrational poor people while destroying the country’s economy.

In the United States, the rise of “authoritarianism” in Venezuela has led to progressive increases in funding allocated to the country’s “democracy promotion” agency the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), while the “security threat” posed by the country prompted the Bush administration to set up a special intelligence committee on Venezuela.

A cursory glance at the reports of the Inter American Press Association or NED-funded Reporters Without Borders reflects a country where freedom of speech is under threat and human rights under daily assault. The misiones, the Venezuelan government’s extensive package of social policy programmes are also subject to blistering criticism. Variously described by critics as a clientilist tool, indication of fiscal profligacy and / or an unsustainable welfare initiative generating a culture of dependency, this $6 billion programme has no redeeming features.

The view from Venezuela

Contrast this with opinion-poll surveys, election results and statistical information “on the ground”. Hugo Chávez was re-elected to the presidency in December 2006 with 1.7 million more votes than when he was first elected in December 1998. A March 2007 poll by Datanalisis shows that 64.7% of Venezuelans have a positive view of Chávez’s performance in office. Moreover, the majority of Venezuelans are optimistic and confident about the future and there is a high level of support for the new institutional and constitutional framework that the government has established.

According to Latinobarometro polling, the percentage of Venezuelans satisfied with their political system increased from 32% in 1998 to over 57% and Venezuelans are more politically active than the citizens of any other surveyed country – 47% discuss politics regularly (against a regional average of 26%) while 25% are active in a political party (the regional average is 9%). 56% believe that elections in the country are “clean”, (regional average 41%) and along with Uruguayans, Venezuelans express the highest percentage of confidence in elections as the most effective means of promoting change in the country (both 71%, compared to 57% for all of Latin America).

The economy is booming, country risk perceptions have fallen and despite the perception of antagonism, Venezuela remains north America’s second most important regional trading partner, and the twelfth largest in global terms. There is a vibrant new community media and a highly combative and antagonistic opposition controlled private-sector media – despite the much publicised dispute that was sparked in January 2007 over the licensing of opposition stalwart RCTV.

As for the misiones, nearly three-quarters of Venezuelans receive some form of state-sponsored health, education, housing assistance or food provision. Poverty and critical poverty are on a downward trend and the World Bank has acknowledged that: “Venezuela has achieved substantial improvements in the fight against poverty”.

Although critics have sniffed at the poverty reduction record – on the premise that high oil prices since 2003 should translate 2006 into an inevitable fall in poverty – the reductions achieved to date are a significant achievement given the critical situation Chávez inherited, the disastrous impact of opposition stoppages on the economy in 2001 and 2002, and the historical absence of state institutions capable of delivering welfare provision. In the Datanalisis survey of March 2007, the government’s performance in education, food and health service delivery received high approval ratings (68.8%, 64.7%, and 64.2% respectively) – and, to give a human touch to a favourable picture, a second Latinobarometro poll of regional perceptions found that Venezuela (along with Brazil) is viewed as the friendliest country among Latin Americans.

Is the information cited above an example of naïve “solidarity journalism”, an attempt to further embed new “myths” about the country by someone with no direct stake in the outcome?

Insights from the naïve

In one way or another, we all have a stake, direct or indirect, in the politics of Venezuela. That Venezuela’s citizens have such a manifestly different perception of their democracy than that held by external actors such as the United States and its National Endowment for Democracy is significant and important. The disconnect needs serious discussion, not least because it may illuminate why US “democracy promotion” is proving so counterproductive, anti-American sentiment so prevalent and, in Venezuela, why NED-backed groups are so reviled. If the misiones are delivering improvements in welfare and poverty reduction, then they merit detailed consideration. If there are lessons that can be learned from one, some or all of the misiones, they should not be discarded simply because of subjective prejudices toward Chávez or critiqued merely as a means of de-legitimising his government.

Engaged and balanced reporting, analysis and discussion has been required for a long time. It is even more necessary now given the acceleration of the Bolivarian revolution following the presidential election of December 2007.

Toward 21st-century socialism

Following his victory in the December 2006, Chávez unveiled plans to deepen the revolutionary agenda of the government. Central to this process is the concept of the “five motors” driving the country toward the model of “21st-century socialism” first outlined by Chávez in 2005. 21st-century socialism is seen as distinct from the “failed” Marxist experiments of the 20th century, it is strongly nationalist in influence – responding to the social and economic realities of Venezuela, and its elucidation reflects the evolution of Chávez’s thinking, away from an initial position exalting Tony Blair and the “third way” model and toward a new set of “socialist” ideas that emphasis cooperation, participation and organisation.

The five motors included: the granting of enabling powers to the executive – as a means of introducing reforms to the institutional and economic framework of the state; constitutional reform; educational reform; expansion of communal power and the creation of a new geometry of power, the latter intended to enhance the responsibilities and political importance of communal councils.

Communal councils are a vitally important element of this revolutionary deepening and planned restructuring of the state and constitution. The government has experimented with a variety of organisational forms as part of its quest to create a new model of “participatory democracy” and in response to the explosion of social organization across the country since 1999 (see Diana Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today, Pluto Press, 2006).

In 2006, legislation was introduced recognising community councils as a principle form of political organisation. The councils complement and bring coherence to the multiple networks of social organisations that deliver the misiones programmes and organise political activities, such as the water committees, land committees, health committees, electoral battle-units and endogenous development groups. Based on 200 to 400 families in urban areas and twenty to thirty in rural settings, the councils are governed by citizens’ assembles and their financial affairs overseen by public auditing processes. By the end of 2006, there were 16,000 communal councils across the country.

With the injection of $5 billion in funding for 2007, the government aims to increase this to over 25,000, allowing communities to become the new “eye” of political power in a radical, bottom up vision of democracy in which national government is balanced by grassroots power.

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