The deepening of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution: why most people don't get it

About the author
Julia Buxton is senior research fellow in the department of peace studies, Bradford University and a contributor to Film Exchange on Alcohol and Drugs (Fead). Her books include The Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela (Ashgate, 2001) and (as editor) The Politics of Narcotic Drugs (Routledge, 2010)

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.

Julia Buxton is visiting professor at the Centre for Latin American Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is also senior research fellow in the department of peace studies, Bradford University. Her work includes The Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela (Ashgate, 2001)

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.

Also on Hugo Chávez, Venezuela, and the "Bolivarian revolution" in openDemocracy:

Ivan Briscoe, "The invisible majority: Venezuela after the revolution"
(25 August 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, "All change in Venezuela's revolution? "
(25 January 2005)

Jonah Gindin & William I Robinson, "The United States, Venezuela, and "democracy promotion"
(4 August 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"
(10 February 2006)

Ben Schiller, "The axis of oil: China and Venezuela"
(2 March 2006)

George Philip, "The politics of oil in Venezuela"
(24 May 2006)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez"
(13 March 2007)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez at his peak"
(28 March 2007 )

Phil Gunson, "Hugo Chávez: yo, el supremo "
(13 April 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.

The PSUV

Running parallel with the launch of the "five motors", Chávez outlined plans for a new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). The aim of the PSUV is to bring organisational coherence to the Chavista alliance of twenty-four party political organisations and the multiple grassroots groups that support the government. The new party is being constructed over a nine month period through a process of broad public consultation led by an intended 70,000 "promoters" (30,000 of which have already been sworn in) that aim to consult over 5 million people on the structure and role of the new party. The construction of the PSUV is to culminate in a referendum, scheduled for December 2007, in which members will approve (or otherwise) the programme of the new party.

An authoritarian lurch?

The acceleration of the Bolivarian project - in both ideological and organisational terms, has fuelled concerns over the deepening of the government's authoritarian tendencies. Established cynics in the media, who have seen leftwing ideals rise and fall, and opponents in the anti-Chávez movement have been quick to point to a frightening new twist in the evolution of the Chávez government. This is seen to be represented by the recent granting of decree powers to President Chávez, the move to extend state control over key sectors of the economy and the debate over the formation of the PSUV.

However, it is at this point that the delineation between popular perceptions of democracy on the ground in Venezuela, and "elite" perceptions, articulated by the media and US "democracy-promotion" groups are revealed. There is widespread popular support for this new trajectory in Venezuelan politics. The creation of the PSUV is seen to be in line with the demands of grassroots groups to have more influence within the organisational framework of the Boliviarian project, while Chávez's use of decree powers to revise the institutional structures of the state responds to grassroots pressure for more influence, power and resources at the community level. Put simply, many Venezuelans think they are getting more and better democracy through "21st-century socialism", not less.

Squaring the circle

The promiscuous use of the terms "populist" and "authoritarian" to describe Chávez is one of the primary reasons why the nature, appeal and the durability of Chavismo has been so manifestly misunderstood by detractors. "Populism" glosses over the complex mechanisms of linkage, reciprocity and accountability that exist between government and civil society in Venezuela and the dynamics that shape the relationship between the administration and multiplicity of grassroots organisations across the country, the majority of which are far more autonomous and organisationally coherent than is implied in the "populist" narrative.

Ordinary people feel empowered by this government, a development that can only be understood through reference to the highly exclusionary model of two-party "democracy" that prevailed in Venezuela before the elections of 1998. There are two important points following from this.

First, support for Chávez is not simply predicated on the government's capacity for economic redistribution. The appeal of Chávez and 21st-century socialism is as much to do with this being a project of political empowerment as it is one of oil-"rent" distribution. As such, a fall in the oil price will not necessarily herald the end of Chávez or support for the government.

Second, what is happening in contemporary Venezuela cannot be understood through the lens of liberal democracy. The NED, the US state department and the plethora of agencies that seek to "evaluate" democratic standards such as Freedom House and Transparency International have got it fundamentally wrong in thinking that democracy is judged through reference to the procedural mechanics of liberal democracy. Venezuelans are, on the whole, contended with their democratically elected government and the radical model of participatory democracy that it is creating.

There is still a sizeable sector that lacks political representation - largely owing to the disastrous strategies of those in the anti-Chávez movement that claimed to represent them - and clearly stability in the future requires incorporating the newly excluded back into the political mainstream. But the immediate priority for the government is giving voice and power to those who have been politically marginalised since the 1980s. To date, and despite the best efforts of the NED and the perceptions created by the media, the Bolivarian revolution has been tremendously successful.