English Συνεντεύξεις Τεύχος #07

Venezuela in Crisis: G. Ciccariello-Maher on the challenges of the bolivarian process

George Ciccariello-Maher | Building the Commune: Venezuela's Radical Democracy

On February the 9th we had the opportunity to interview George Ciccariello-Maher over the recent political developments in Venezuela. An activist and an academic by profession, Ciccariello-Maher has conducted extensive fieldwork in the country and worked for a period in the Venezuelan School of Planning in Caracas. His multifaceted research includes two path-breaking books on the history and dynamic of the Bolivarian movement entitled We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution and Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela, published by Duke University Press and Verso respectively.

What is your take on the current developments and why we experience such a dramatic turn of events? We have seen things radicalize since 2013 but it seems that we are now reaching a boiling point, why is that?

I think the task is always to understand the relation between continuities and ruptures. There are plenty of continuities; the Venezuelan opposition has been trying to eliminate Chavismo since it was born, going back to 2002 and its failed attempt to oust Chavez through a failed coup, its continuous attempts over the last two decades to delegitimize the electoral process by claiming that there was fraud where there was none. US imperial interests in Venezuela are of course nothing new either and this is worth underlining. Consecutive US governments since the time of George Bush junior have tried to corner Venezuela, including the Obama administration when Hilary Clinton was Foreign Secretary. Trump is now following that lead. The tone of that opposition has of course changed over time depending on strategic considerations and moments. The failure of the 2002 coup led to shifting of strategies, in a real desperation by the Venezuelan opposition that could not offer an alternative to Chavismo and did not have an electorally viable political program. What they were aiming at was a return to neoliberal privatizations, austerity measures etc. These were and still are highly unpopular policies. One should of course add to that Chavismo’s massive popularity and Chavez’s own ability to swift the terrain of political debate to the Left. That’s the broad terrain. Now what’s happening since 2013 is something that many of us were anticipating; a crisis that was entirely to be expected. Chavez’s death was a huge symbolic blow and posed a great challenge to the Bolivarian project. As a result of this, Nicolas Maduro, who was a fine political leader, who had strength within the Chavista ranks and a good leftist background, was thrown into a sort of perfect storm, of chaos. Not only the death of Chavez but also the quick collapse of global oil prices and the reduced revenues from commodities exports had a strong negative impact across the region. The Venezuelan opposition and the US were quick to respond to this changing climate. They refused to recognize Maduro’s victory in the presidential elections and put forward an aggressive strategy of tension, of taking to the streets, in an attempt to delude their agenda and overthrow the government. Alongside that we have of course a deepening economic crisis that originated in the deep structures of the Venezuelan economy, on the one hand, long-term oil and import dependency and, on the other, a rigid and outdated currency control-system that should have been changed right at the beginning. That’s what created the devaluation crisis that we see today, in terms of hyperinflation. This began back in 2013 and 2014 and unfortunately, for political reasons, the government tried to delay resolving that problem, which now undermines the standards of living of many Venezuelans and tragically undercuts many of the social gains of Chavismo. So today, the opposition, which has been waiting to sort of inherit power by default, in other words waiting for Chavismo to fail, to loose popularity, finally has its chance. Beginning in 2015 with its victory in the national assembly elections it became clear that while most Venezuelans identify as Chavistas, many of them would swing to the opposition as long as they think that the economy is in such a bad state that there needs to be change.

It seems to us that the exact timing of the current crisis reflects a certain coalescence of explosive dynamics. One of them is the reverse of the whole Pink-tide experimentation -we now have Bolsonaro in Brazil, Macri in Argentina and a far-right president like Duque in Colombia-, another one, as you already mentioned, is the deterioration of the Venezuelan economy but what is it specifically with regards to the domestic political dynamics that enables the Venezuelan opposition to go on with such an aggressive strategy? Can you elaborate a bit more on that?

I think you are absolutely right and to step back into history again for a moment it is crucial to remark that Chavismo was the center of this left-wing swift across Latin America. When the 2002 coup failed, the US and other regional right-wingers had to take a different strategy. It wasn’t always coherent but it was an attempt to pull apart the regional unity that Chavismo had built over the years. This is exactly what we have experienced recently with the fall of Argentina to the right, the swift of Columbia to the far-far-right under Duque -that is to the extreme Alvaro Urribe-sponsored paramilitary right-, the unconstitutional coup against Dilma Rousseff that effectively delivered Brazil to a neo-fascist like Bolsonaro, and of course the coup in Honduras that help breed a new generation of US backed death squads. So you see this bit-by-bit pulling apart of regional unity and a swift to the right either through elections or through coups of various sorts. To the point that the regional support that allowed Chavismo to flourish is crashed. Lula may not have been very radical but he supported Chavez and this is equally true for Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, a very moderate politician by all accounts and measures. Again this is not disconnected from the broader political and economic situation. Part of the downfall of the Rousseff government in Brazil originated in the fact that there was an austerity regime that had been instituted there as a result of the decline in commodity prices globally; the same thing applies to Argentina. So you have external dynamics playing a role but you also have domestic political and economic parameters that are critical for the current decline of the Latin America left. This brings me back to your question.

The Venezuelan opposition has been trying to do this for years and quite unsuccessfully so due to its internal contradictions. We need to keep in mind that the anti-Chavista camp is constantly torn between participation in the political system and abstention from it an attempt to discredit it. This conflict of strategy, which is rooted in their inability to defeat Chavez, has split the oppositional forces time and time again. Knowing that they would lose they were constantly claiming fraud, boycotted elections, and tried in various ways to obstruct the electoral process. Guaido has its roots in this abstentionist sector of the opposition, which is spearheaded by Leopoldo Lopez and his Popular Will Party. So these people now think that they finally have a chance as the prolonged deterioration of the economy is chipping away support from Chavismo. And I would say not just support from the electorate at large. Even those among the most energetic supporters of the Bolivarian process, the radical Communes at the grassroots level, social-movement organizers etc, are finding it difficult to keep up. If you spend most of your day to make ends meet -get access to the goods that you need and the food that you need- then you don’t have much time and energy left to put into the process of building a revolutionary movement, and, thus, the movement gets weaker. The excitement declines because the question of what are you fighting for comes to the foreground. This is a very difficult situation that has a very discernible impact on current developments.

The other question of course is the political crisis that we have witnessed since 2015; a sort of standoff between political powers. The national assembly, the legislature, being in the hands of the opposition went immediately after the judiciary, which in turn responded by refusing to recognize it. In an attempt to break the deadlock Maduro called for the election of a constituent assembly. So you now have two assemblies. It is within that context of a political and economic crisis that the opposition decided to play its full hand once again. I think they always overplay their hand and they do so in multiple ways. One is that they make the mistake of thinking that when people vote for them as in 2015 it is because they want regime change. The reality is that many Venezuelans, especially among the poor, vote the way they do on the basis of material considerations. In other words, as the economy is deteriorating they want to put pressure on the government and they want someone to fix things but this doesn’t mean that they want to get rid of hard won social gains. Secondarily, I think they overplay their hand very significantly in this coup attempt because they thought that the military will instantly fragment and split. There is of course a possibility of that happening down the road as the economic crisis gets worse but it definitely didn’t happen the way the Venezuelan opposition and the Trump administration were hoping.

In your first book the We Created Chavez you go in great depth to present Chavismo as a truly popular movement with deep roots in society, an amalgamation of social struggles rather than a project instigated by a charismatic leader. After Chavez’s death, though, in 2013, the discourse of PSUV, the discourse of the Maduro administration, and of many organizations in the grassroots was articulated almost exclusively around the defense of Chavez’s legacy. Do you take that as an indication of the inner limits of Chavismo as a broader movement? Is that a sign of a relative exhaustion of the Bolivarian process, of an inability to regenerate?

That’s definitely true I think. The word that you would most definitely hear after Chavez’s death was desgaste, meaning exhaustion. An exhaustion of political energy, which I think is almost a natural phenomenon. Its very difficult to maintain revolutionary energy without moments -or we could say following someone like Alain Badiou, political events- that regenerate that energy, that spark and renew it. And part of Chavismo’s longevity comes from the fact that we had a mass rebellion in 1989 that kick started the whole process and then another critical political event -the failed 2002 coup- that re-energized it. Both these events played a determining role in mobilizing people and put the oppositional forces on the defense. That being said, I believe what we experience today is a natural life cycle of revolutionary energy and the question of course is how to navigate that difficulty. In my opinion the best way to do so is to understand that it needs sustenance, participatory responses, to understand that social movement actors need to be put in charge of the process. In so far that is possible constituent energy needs to be incorporated in productive relations that constitute power and authority. That existed for many years in Venezuela and its difficult to know if its decline was inevitable or what. I think there was the possibility as the crisis deepened in 2014 to really restart the process. The commune minister at the time was a radical, Reinaldo Iturriza, the communists were expending and were claiming Chavez’s legacy. Of course many others did the same from a more pragmatic or conservative point of view and this eroded the cohesion of the Chavista camp with determining consequences. I think ultimately pragmatism within the Bolivarian government was its Achilles’ heel. And that’s of course a strange thing to say if one looks at the management of the economy, no pragmatism there. The reality, though, is that there was no willingness on the part of the government to take the radical measures necessary at the moment: on the one hand, to empower the grassroots and, on the other, to correct the macroeconomic imbalances, which required decisive intervention at a certain moment. Instead, there was delaying of the inevitable, an attempt to maintain power and support through corrupt dealings with the military. There is a lot of talk about that these days and there is a certain element of truth. You see many generals being promoted and its common wisdom that the military has a great deal of power today. So one of the main difficulties that the Bolivarian movement is phasing at the moment is that grassroots activism is getting weaker while the military sector is incredibly powerful and claims both money and benefits. It’s really difficult in that context to see how you can have a crisis productive enough to recreate a positive balance of forces from the grassroots level.

Between 2013 and 2014 there seems to have been a relative political closure of the PSUV, which was criticized as conservative by left-wing chavista groups, such as Marea Socialista. More recently, though, the Maduro administration took some radical initiatives and tried to appeal to the grassroots, e.g. the formation of the Constituent Assembly. In other words, there was an oscillation between pragmatism on the one hand and radicalism on the other. Where are we at the moment with regards to that?

G.C-M. I think that the closure of the PSUV took place earlier. At the same time I would like to remark –and I don’t want to be simplistic about it- that in many ways Marea Socialista and some sectors of the left-wing opposition within the Chavista ranks were very unproductive in many moments and took a very intransigent stance; a sort of hyper-radicalism that didn’t attend to the needs of the revolutionary transition and its difficulties. So I don’t want to glorify that sort of sectarian fracturing that was occurring and was in many ways equally unproductive to the close of ranks instigated by the PSUV’s leadership. The timing was also unfortunate because these dynamics overlapped with the deepening of the political crisis. In this regard, Maduro missed a great opportunity in 2015 to subject himself to radical critique by the grassroots, to contemplate the mistakes of his administration, and turn the defeat in the national assembly elections into an opportunity for the revitalization of the Bolivarian process. He didn’t and this created a kind of paralytic stalemate. The economic crisis was getting worse, the welfare programs were undermined and the balance of forces at the political level was deteriorating. This though doesn’t make any criticism a priori valid and doesn’t suffice to speak of a conservative policy turn. That being said, I think that the current position of Marea Socialista and other likeminded groups –we want neither Maduro nor Guaido – is problematic. What is useful is their position over the need for a new constituent or communal assembly. Getting the grassroots together, mobilizing, betting on the communes may break the impasse. This is of course a wager but if we want to be realistic all of the pragmatism that has been deployed in the past few years has failed. So it may seem like a risky wager to bet on the people and the grassroots but in light of all the failures that are surrounding the process it’s not nearly as risky as continuing on the same path forward.

Speaking of the communes and the grassroots movements I would like you to give us some insight as to the current state of these initiatives. I speak of projects like the empresas de produccion social, the urban communes, etc. How are they coping with the current crisis, particularly since many of them were running on subsidies from the state petroleum industry, which is now in decline?

I think there are different aspects to this question. One of the advantages of the communes vis-à-vis the communal councils that existed previously is that the communes helped to incorporate production at the local level. The communal councils were political institutions for participatory decision-making but in reality their aim was to draw attention and resources from the central state, which, as you say, was evaluating and funding many of their projects with oil money. The communes model on the other hand enabled people to participate more and play a great role in decision-making. Equally important in some cases it made the grassroots initiatives more sustainable by giving local communities the ability to manage their own resources rather than just asking for the state to provide. True that as it may be the decline in state funding has a negative impact on the communes because most of them relied to some extent on imports, e.g. chemicals. Those communes that were based in more directly sustainable production, such as El Maizal, which produces corn, have sustained themselves and made a significant impact on the local communities. This doesn’t suffice, though. When it comes to things that require imported goods for their production we get back to the dynamics of oil development, which locked Venezuela into underdevelopment. Not because there was no money but on the contrary, because there was so much money flowing in from the petroleum industry that the incentive to differentiate production was very low. It was just easier to import manufactured goods than to produce them. So the communes that relied on imported goods are the ones hardest hit by the current crisis because the domestic manufacturing infrastructure remained weak. In a nutshell I would say that agricultural communes, located mostly in rural areas, have demonstrated significant resilience, while the ones whose unity was primarily political, in other words those that existed primarily as a base for political organizing, are under strain. At the risk of sounding brutish, I would argue that this crisis is also an opportunity, in this regard. Any transition to a communal economy would inevitably involve a reduction of imports and a move away from the oil development model. Unfortunately that has happened in the worst way possible but the opportunity is still here because now that imports have collapsed there is an actual incentive to invest on domestic production; be it dish soap or construction materials. This is the only possible advantage that you can draw out of the current malaise and hopefully there are communes that actively try to fill in that gap, to take advantage of the opportunity.

You spoke earlier of the military and its importance with regards to a sound understanding of the current balance of forces. I would like you to elaborate a bit more on that. Is there a threat of an authoritarian turn given the army’s leverage over the government in such a polarized political environment?

That’s very possible. Everyone knows what the calculation is at this point.  The number one goal of the opposition is for the military to defect and for the Maduro administration to prevent that from happening. This is a question of political authority but is also a question of money, of who provides more. So, we don’t really know what sorts of benefits are going to be offered to the military to maintain its loyalty but we do know that generals have a clear understanding of their value and are going to charge top dollar for that. The U.S. in an attempt to reach out to them offered them money, amnesty and other benefits if they are to defect. So Maduro has to respond in kind. As you suggested, the way that this dynamic is going to play out it might not be very beneficial to the grassroots movements and may obscure and eclipse what should be the wager of the government, that is, mass popular support. However, chavismo has its own legacy that should not be missed when discussing this. When we talk about mass resistance to a military intervention, when we speak of a people in arms -pueblo en armas as Maduro says-, we speak of millions of Venezuelans who are armed and who will resist a foreign invasion. This is also a grassroots process. It goes, though, hand in hand with the strengthening of the position of the military hierarchy within the state apparatus.  You know, there wasn’t always clear that there would even be a military hierarchy in Venezuela. There was a debate back in 2008 around the structure of the military and a retired general, Alberto Müller Rojas, came out and said “the people in arms is in direct contradiction with military hierarchy, the one is horizontal and the other one is vertical”. What he proposed back then was that the military hierarch should be abolished and replaced with a strategy of mass grassroots organization of popular defense. This was an open debate that unfortunately has been now resolved in favour of the military establishment and the hierarchy. Its quite early to say were things will go from that point, though, we need to wait and see.

The E.U., most Western governments and many regional powers have already openly declared for Guaido, do you think that there is a turning back from this? Haven’t they gone too far to accept any deal that will not entail regime change?

They are certainly betting it all, they are wagering on Guaido and the success of this coup. This is extremely dangerous and, as you say, it’s difficult for someone to see how they can step back without loosing face. That being said we need to be clear about a couple of things. The first is that the recognition of the Guaido government was clearly planned in advance by the Lima group in conjunction with the U.S. and Canada. The E.U. was of course to trail right behind. We must also be clear that these are not that many countries. Most of the world still recognizes the Maduro administration as the legitimate government. What they have managed to do is that they have stolen billions of dollars from the Venezuelan government by freezing its assets and trying to divert them under Guaido’s control. That’s on top of the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed a year ago and brutally decimated the oil industry by making it difficult for Venezuela to acquire new financing for production. By so doing they hope not only to bring down Maduro but also to regain control of Venezuela’s vast oil reserves by making it necessary for any government to resort for funding and investments to multinationals. In essence they try to reverse Chavez’s reform of the industry.

That being said, it’s very difficult to see why and how this is reversed. I think diplomatically it all points to a stalemate with both sides enjoying support by key international actors. In terms of the money, which is a crucial parameter, a lot of things depend on the outcome of the forthcoming US elections. This brings us back to the issue of the economy. Economy is the key, a political negotiation will not suffice to defuse tensions and resolve the crisis. And things here get very complicated. You may be able to have political negotiations -not an easy task if you consider that many on the grassroots are discontented with Maduro but despise opposition even more-. but how do you negotiate economic policy? On what kind of economic platform can there be agreement between hard-core neoliberals, moderate socialists and the radicals at the grassroots? The reality is that Venezuela is not socialist, its not too socialist, its actually too capitalist and its thus cut between two worlds and two economic systems. An attempt to move towards a socialist system in a very capitalist world was meant to provoke the order of things and this is why the screws are now turned. This is why finance and interest rates and market access are so crucial in the current developments. It is incredibly difficult to move towards socialism with half measures, being stack between the two means that you suffer the worst of both.

Shall I take it from your response that the possibility of a direct military intervention is not really on the table at the moment?

I wouldn’t say it is completely off the table at this point but I don’t think that this is plan A for them. The idea was to fragment the military and allow the regime to collapse on its own. This hasn’t happened and it remains unclear how the Trump administration is going to respond. I think their goal would be to deepen the crisis and let it run the show without risking a direct intervention. Maduro’s warning that Venezuela can become another Vietnam for the U.S. may sound optimistic but it’s not unrealistic. You have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Venezuelans at the grassroots level who have being defending that process for almost two decades now, who have refused to hand power over to the right and refuse to do so now. Those people are organized in both official militias through the army and unofficial militias through local networks in the barrios and the grassroots level. They are not going to give up easily on hard won gains. Communes that control territory are not going to give it up just because the government changes. What you may see, if things deteriorate, is a protracted process of the opposition taking power, while there is a re-vitalization of Chavismo at the grassroots as an oppositional force. More like what we saw during the guerrilla struggle, more like what we saw in the 1980s and 1990s, where there was a social revolt against the government spreading and building this alternative communal power not from the state level, as it happens today, but from the grassroots level directly.

Last question. I think we both agree that Venezuela is not socialist but also that there is no other country in the 21st to have made so many steps in that direction. What would you keep out of all this experimentation?

There is much debate in the left now over the re-birth of communism, the communes, the idea of developing new relationships with each other. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that at least in this part of the world there is a rebirth of the whole communist idea. From Europe and North America there is unfortunately an utter neglect of the fact that there are thousands of communes existing in Venezuela, where people directly manage their everyday lives and what they produce. Where people get together and exercise direct democracy over salaries, working conditions, production planning and distribution of goods. That is communism, existing communism. Whether that is crushed by the weight of the current crisis is an open question. But it’s that idea and that example and that process that we need to hold on if we want to move forward torwards a more egalitarian society.


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