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Rethinking Venezuelan Politics

Steve Ellner.  Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon.   Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner, 2008.

Since the arrival of Hugo Chavez on the Venezuelan scene — and later, for the left and the right, on the world scene — he’s been the source of considerable interest.  Is he a new caudillo in the Latin American style, perhaps a reincarnation of Argentina’s Juan Domingo Peron?   Is he just an ego-maniac, who attempts to install a dictatorship in Venezuela?

Steve Ellner’s recent book Rethinking Venezuelan Politics shows that Chavez and the movement he heads is much more important than either of these two questions suggests.  Unlike a large majority of writings on Venezuela in the Chavez era, which concentrate on Chavez’s “style” or “personality,” the book focuses on substantive issues, especially class issues.  Ellner’s approach rests “on the proposition that political movements best serve a developing nation by combining efforts to achieve four critical goals, as opposed to one or two of them to the exclusion of others.”  He then identifies these goals:  “(1) the struggle for social justice; (2) the struggle for democracy; (3) the effort to promote national economic development; and (4) the adoption of economic and political nationalism.”

Ellner’s goal is to really grasp the essence of Chavez and his movement, and he places it firmly in the country’s history since the arrival of the Spanish.  He rejects the claim of “exceptionalism” traditionally applied to Venezuela by scholars.  He argues the country’s history is much more complex than has been recognized, and he reviews it with an eye to uncovering developments that had been ignored in the past but have clearly prepared the present.  He’s not doing this just as an academic exercise, but to help understand how the country got to the place where the population would elect Hugo Chavez to the presidency in 1998.

Where things get very fascinating for the general activist/scholar is the period between 1989 and 1999.  Venezuela, which had long been seen as an “exceptional case” of calm and prosperity (at least by traditional accounts) in Latin America, became the site of leading opposition to neo-liberal economic policies that were being spread around the globe by the US government and its subordinate agencies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  What happened?  Ellner argues persuasively that the country was never as placid as described, and when the price of oil declined in the 1980s, it prevented the elite-led government from papering over problems as in the past.

The social explosion known as the Caracazo — a week of rioting and rebellion in early 1989 — called into question the very legitimacy of the Venezuelan government.  It also encouraged forces within the military — and most importantly, those led by Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez — to reject its role of societal “enforcer” against the poor.

Yet Ellner doesn’t just spotlight Chavez.  He deftly examines various reforms initiated by successive governments to address limitations in the social order and shows that some of them ironically further weakened the institutional power of the state.  The weakened state, in the context of a general rejection of neo-liberalism by the populace, allowed Venezuelan voters to successfully rally for a charismatic candidate who explicitly rejected neo-liberalism in his campaign.  Thus Chavez assumed the presidency in early 1999.

It bears emphasizing that Chavez does not operate alone — nor could he.  He is the head of a movement that has a number of political parties and tendencies; he initiates major projects, to be sure, but his supporters vigorously debate policies and shape them, too. 

The Chavistas, moreover, operate in a specific place and time, encircled by some ruthless sharks, including George W. Bush and the AFL-CIO, as well as extensive opposition from major sections of the Venezuelan elite — most importantly, the privately-owned mass media.  This means the Chavez project in Venezuela has not moved in a linear fashion, but has bobbed and weaved through a coup attempt (April 2002), an eight-week lockout by oil company management (late 2002-early 2003), and a recall referendum (August 2004) that in the end left Chavez and his movement strengthened, with the confidence to shift from moderate to more radical proposals, ultimately seeking to develop “socialism for the 21st Century.”

Ellner tries to understand what happened, and why.  He identifies four different stages of the Chavez presidency and explains the two major ideological tendencies within Chavismo.  He specifically examines internal Chavista debates around such salient issues as the labor movement, the oil industry, Chavez’s political organization, the MVR (Fifth Republic Movement), and the issue of parallel social structures initiated by the state, explaining how the two major ideological tendencies approached each one.

Yet Ellner argues that it is not enough just to examine the internal currents among the Chavistas.  He also looks at how Chavismo differs from various Latin American populist movements of the past, and its relationship with its rank and file.  His account, in contrast to those that represent the movement’s rank and file as an uncritical mass, proves that it’s a critical mass who is responsible for President Chavez’ political survival between 2001 and 2004.  As I realized during my short visit to the country in June 2006, the massive mobilization in the face of the coup was not organized by Chavez’ political organization — it simply did not have the capacity — but was based on self-mobilization from below, with community-based activists being key.

Of course, there is more to Chavismo than just the movement’s rank and file.  As I mentioned above, Ellner identifies two competing forces within Chavismo: those that center on grassroots-initiated “horizontal” relations, and those that revolve around the political party-initiated state, or “vertical” relations.  He recognizes the grassroots and its importance to Chavez and his project, but he does not ignore the role of the MVR and the “political” struggle within the state and among various nation-states, especially between Venezuela and the United States.  In fact, while he suggests that Chavez is more emotionally drawn to the grassroots, there are times when he prioritizes the “statist” aspect of the struggle.  It is this strategic interaction between the grassroots and the statist aspect of the struggle that Ellner sees as being key to understanding the continuing Chavez phenomenon.

This is a very solid and sober reflection on the Chavez phenomenon, which pays attention to its development within the context of Venezuelan history, Latin America, and the global political-economic-cultural networks dominated by the United States and its allies.  Ellner specifically calls attention to Chavez’s rejection of the US-dominated “single polar” world and his endeavor to replace it by a “multi-polar” world.  The fact that he has oil — Venezuela alone providing about 15% of the US daily oil consumption (almost as much as from all the Middle East countries combined before the US invaded Iraq) — gives some “weight” to his position on the issue.

It’s hard to critique this book, which is so well thought-out and presented.  This is a major work.  Above all, Ellner carefully elucidates the “class” differentiation within Venezuelan society, and he does an excellent job doing it.

What I would have liked to see, though, is a more focused look at the issue of “race” in Venezuela:  approximately one-fourth of the population are Afro-Venezuelans, and probably all have indigenous blood in their veins.  And yet, the ones with power — corporate, governmental, and social, at least before Chavez — had been almost totally white.  Certainly, the white elite has historically ignored if not denigrated or destroyed the contributions of those “of color,” and I believe that the elite opposition to Chavez is more than just because he threatens established interests: there is no question that a significant amount of elite opposition is due to his dark complexion, his kinky hair, broad nose, etc., his support for those who are “of color,” and his pride in his indigenous-Afro heritage.  Videos of elite demonstrations against Chavez sure make this obvious to me.

Nonetheless, I believe Steve Ellner’s new book is not only a major contribution to historiography and political analysis of contemporary Venezuela but also a watershed in academic work on Venezuela and Latin America overall.  He takes a social “phenomenon,” Chavez, and puts him in a particular social context.  He doesn’t ignore Chavez’s charisma, but he’s not blinded by it, and he critiques the Chavista program and performance where he deems it necessary.  Ellner really seeks to understand developments in his adopted country.  At the same time, he makes clear that events taking place in Venezuela, despite the oil, are indicative of issues that affect the entire continent — perhaps beyond.

This book needs the widest readership possible — it is very rich and accessible — and I urge Lynne Rienner Publishers to reissue this in paperback to ensure its further dissemination.  I cannot foresee any future work on Venezuela or Latin America that does not at least respond to the issues raised by Steve Ellner.  He has set the bar high — and my hope is that future scholars and serious activists will accept the challenge that he has presented, a challenge that will help each of us better understand what is currently taking place in Venezuela.


Kim Scipes, a long-time global labor and social activist, teaches Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN.  His web site is faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes, and can be reached at kscipes@pnc.edu.



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