Friday, July 19, 2019

The Bolivarian Revolution: a Popular Backlash against Neoliberalism.

Photo by David Hernandez
In the global North, the nuances of the Bolivarian Process, and the truly radical, popular element at its heart is too frequently wilfully overlooked. In truth, the Process, and the Venezuelan Government led first by Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro is the product of a long tradition of popular resistance against a political and economic order which for decades systematically ignored, excluded and exploited the mass of the Venezuelan poor. This blog post aims to shed light on the Revolution by emphasising its origin as a popular backlash against a neoliberal order which had exacerbated the already stark inequalities and divisions within Venezuela.

The starting point of the Bolivarian Revolution- the “founding myth” is the 1989 Caracazo: a series of huge riots mainly centred on the capital but that also spread to the other major cities, that was met with police brutality and summary executions that may have claimed more than two thousand lives. While immediately precipitated by rising fuel costs, in reality this was a revolt against the orthodox neoliberal policies that were being pursued by president Carlos Andrés Pérez, that had seen poverty peak at 44% (and 20% extreme poverty) that year. The protestors were working class, informal workers, students and hardened guerrilla fighters, united in anger against the entire system of politics. The military was sent in to violently quell the unrest; at this point, Hugo Chávez and a group of military officers who had familiarised themselves with leftist thought- the MBR-200 (in English: Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, with the 200 referring to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Latin American liberatory icon Simón Bolivar) realised that the social order was not worth defending.

They began studying the concept of Gramscian counter-hegemony, which emphasises the need not merely to seize the state, but to build an organic counter-hegemonic system of support. Three years later they carried out an unsuccessful coup attempt, but eventually the sheer volume of opprobrium to the neoliberal and “partyocratic” order swept Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution to power by electoral means in 1998. But in all of these cases, as George Ciccariello-Maher argues, it was not Chávez or any individual who was the actor, it was the streets, the barrios, the “brave people” of Venezuela. Peoples’ Assemblies in the barrios had long predated Chávismo, as had the revolutionary guerrilla movement. In the words of Roland Denis, the pueblo had “gained its own personality; seen the measure of its own massive power and capacity for self organisation”.

To understand the Bolivarian Revolution is to understand Chávismo as the product of a struggle against neoliberalism and a longstanding popular revolt against a distant and disinterested political class. Furthermore, Chávismo as a movement is far from homogenous. The most radical element is to be found in the colectivos, the armed groups that can trace their lineage to those guerrillas that resisted the dictatorship during the fifties and then the elitist “partyocracy” of Punto Fijo Pact, the power-sharing agreement between the main political parties that was signed in the fledgling democracy. They are based in the barrios- the working-class areas especially around Caracas. Groups such as the Tupamaros and La Piedrita act as a “dual power” within their areas, providing law and order, and advocating a more radical version of socialism than that pursued by the Bolivarian government. They are openly hostile to the corrupt, bureaucratic elements within the formal structures.

Yet, they ultimately support the movement, and are an integral part of it. During the 2002 coup, in which Chávez was removed from power and replaced with Pedro Carmona, the leader of Fedecamaras- the federation of Venezuelan business- the colectivos, as well as thousands of ordinary Venezuelans, rallied at the presidential palace, demanding Chávez’s return. The ultimate success of the barrios’ response demonstrates a coherent working-class counter-hegemonic movement against the common sense of neoliberalism, making the Bolivarian Revolution of vital importance to any leftist interested in opposition to the logic of global capitalism.

This counter-hegemony is not limited to Venezuela. As part of what has been called the “Pink Tide” of Latin America, various nations turned to the left at the turn of the century:  the Dominican Republic (1996); Chile (2000); Argentina (2003); Brazil (2003); Uruguay (2005); Honduras (2006); Bolivia (2006); Ecuador (2007); Nicaragua (2007); Paraguay (2008); El Salvador (2009); Peru (2011); and most recently Mexico (2018). Of course, not all of these countries saw the same radical governance as in Venezuela; Brazil under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva moved in a notably cautious, social-democratic direction, albeit one that saw the successful combatting of some of Brazil’s notorious poverty level. But the point still stands that at its peak, the Pink Tide overtook most of Latin America, representing a clear challenge to neoliberal hegemony and (often deadly) US interference by almost an entire continent that has long suffered from legacies of corruption and extreme poverty.

Chávez himself sought to capitalise on the newfound strength of the Latin left by building alternative international institutions and challenging US dominance of the continent. He derailed the US-led Free Trade Area of the Americas and challenged WTO intellectual property diktats by not upholding the patents of transnational companies, and leading continental solidarity initiatives such as ALBA, MERCOSUR and UNASUR, which aim to resist the US-led global drive for economic liberalisation and the unquestioning acceptance of free-market capitalism.

Sadly however, the international state of play has shifted against the Bolivarian Revolution in recent years. The Pink Tide has been replaced by a drastic shift to the right in many of Venezuela’s neighbours. Colombia, Peru, and most notably Brazil have embraced reactionary leaders, with Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil being the closest thing to an actual fascist in high office. All of these reactionary governments are unequivocally hostile to the Venezuelan government. Even Ecuador- led by the supposedly centre-left government of the ironically named Lenin Moreno- has turned against Venezuela by supporting the US-backed self-declared president, Juan Guaidó, in the ongoing constitutional debacle.

Most importantly, this coincided with a drastic fall in the global prove of oil, which went from a peak of nearly $150 per barrel in 2008 to a low of only $36 in 2016. The government failed to break Venezuela’s historical dependency on oil revenues, which it had used to finance its social programs that had succeeded in lifting millions of Venezuelans out of poverty. This precipitated an economic crisis that caused frightening levels of hyperinflation, food shortages, and mass emigration. In truth, this crisis has reversed much of the social progress that Chávez’s government had made. Combined with the new rise in “neo-conservative” interventionism within the US government embodied by Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and recently appointed Special Envoy to Venezuela Elliot Abrams (a convicted war criminal implicated in the Contra affair, Iraq War and the 2002 coup attempt), this represents an existential threat to the future of the Process. And the government itself is not free of blame. It has failed to meaningfully tackle the deep corruption that has always plagued the Venezuelan state, which continues to haemorrhage public funds, with top-level ministers and officials implicated. Faced with a ruthlessly hostile opposition, the government has had to tighten its grip on power in order to survive, including suggestions of human rights violations.

In summary: the Bolivarian Revolution is the outcome of a long tradition of popular struggle in Venezuela, and cannot be reduced to the agency of one or two individuals. Rather, the main actor in Venezuela is the pueblo, whose agency brought down the old order that did not represent them. There have been attempts to build a viable counter-hegemony to neoliberalism both at home and abroad, with varying levels of success, but unfortunately in recent years the geopolitical and economic contexts have shifted against the Process, for reasons both within and outside the government’s control. But the main point here is that to assess the Process, it must be viewed as the expansive social movement that it is, operating in a largely unfavourable political context.

Louis Verrall

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