Beyond Populism: The Venezuelan Revolution and the International Left

By Gindin, Jonah | Canadian Dimension, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Beyond Populism: The Venezuelan Revolution and the International Left


Gindin, Jonah, Canadian Dimension


All over the world, the international Left--including the global social justice movement--is peering sceptically at Venezuela, unsure of what to make of President Hugo Chavez' alleged democratic revolution. Is Chavez the next Allende? Is the 'Bolivarian revolution' really revolutionary? Is it anti-capitalist? Or does he merely represent another chimera in a long line of populists who rile up the masses with rousing condemnations of US Imperialism, only to quietly cut deals with international capital?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Hesitation, wariness, doubts--these feelings are understandable; the Left has been taken in before by Latin America's infamous, ephemeral caudillo. But it is wrong to merely lump Chavez in with that sordid history of pseudo-revolutionaries. Yet placing him in Allende's lineage is not entirely accurate either. Chavez is, after all, not exactly socialist. He hasn't even nationalized anything (yet). But the relevance of the Venezuelan experience to the Left is fundamental. Something is happening in Venezuela that should inspire progressives everywhere, and it is the responsibility of the Left to learn from this experience--and more than that--to ensure that it is not extinguished before it has a chance to catch.

At this key and contested juncture in Latin American history, the Bolivarian revolution has been leading the regional struggle against neoliberalism, including the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA); it has been fomenting regional cooperation; and developing elements of a hopeful model of participatory democracy. Venezuela's leadership has been based on a serious alternative model of democratic development, backed by a politicized and well-organized alliance between grassroots organizations and the executive of the state.

Since Venezuela's 'democracy' was born in 1958 the political system has been dominated by Accion Democratica (AD-social-democratic) and Copei (social-christian)-essentially a two-party polyarchy that kept oil-rents circulating in elite circles. But by the 1990s corruption and unpopular structural adjustment programs led to a nationwide rejection of traditional politics and opened a space for an alternative political movement. Hugo Chavez, a former paratrooper, filled the void with a radical critique of the old politics, and a new constitution aimed at profoundly transforming the economic, political, and social organization of Venezuelan society. Chavez won the presidential elections in 1998 and again in 2000 with over 50 per cent of the vote, and his movement has since won a series of elections, plebiscites and referenda.

ANTI-NEOLIBERAL

Article 73 of the Constitution obliges the state to keep its citizens informed about the implications of issues under negotiation in the FTAA." It states that, "International treaties, conventions, and agreements that could compromise national sovereignty or transfer power to supranational entities shall be submitted to referendum." This position on the FTAA is more than xenophobia, more than casual resistance to US influence, more, even, than anti-neoliberal: it is democratic.

In attempting to foster a viable challenge to US-led neoliberalism, the Bolivarian revolution has developed a broad, participatory democratic model that includes economic and social rights as well as the goal of a complete redefinition of political rights. Venezuela's unusual combination of oil wealth and the considerable support for the revolution within the military has allowed it to limit the degree of its dependence on international financial institutions and the US.

THE REVOLUTION ON THE GROUND

Unlike the populist caudillos who promised, and occasionally actually did things for the working poor, Chavez' emphasis and commitment have been to providing support and resources for developing their organizational capacities.

One of the most interesting examples of this revolutionary redefinition of democracy is the funding of community organizations such as the Organizaciones Comunitario Viviendo (OCVs-Community Living Organizations)--the most local level of a network of community, district, and municipal organizations at the centre of the Bolivarian revolution's project of decentralization. …

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