Social Change in Venezuela

By Alex Serafimov
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2011, Vol. 2010/2011 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

Amidst highly politicised coverage of Venezuela and the media’s obsession with its controversial leader, Hugo Chávez, it is clear that the current government is the most proactive of the progressive forces on the South American continent. To get a fuller image of the continent’s new direction, it is important to examine the economic and democratic experiments within Venezuela in more detail. Are real changes occurring in who holds democratic and economic power in Venezuela?

This study will show that, at a national level, there is a process of innovative democratic structures being set up. For example, 30,000 Communal Councils and over 60,000 workers’ cooperatives have been established and tentative steps towards workers’ self-management have been made. On a regional level, Venezuela has been central in implementing and hosting new international institutions. One example is the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA),1 a heterodox political, economic and social cooperative organisation innovatively including social movements in its decision-making processes. Another is the Bank of the South (BancoSur),2 a rival to the hegemony of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank on the continent. These national and regional programmes are setting new precedents for community participation and the funding of social projects all the way up to the international stage. As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek noted, Venezuela goes beyond liberal norms of inclusion by ‘not including the excluded in a pre-existing liberal-democratic framework’, instead, it reorganises ‘political space and political forms of organization so that the latter will “fit” the excluded.’3

This study will be split into two parts. The first section will briefly examine the historical background to these reforms through the lens of popular dissatisfaction with neoliberalism, the crisis of legitimacy of the Venezuelan two-party system and the emergence of Chávez as the “candidate of the poor”. The second section will outline, in more detail, the programmes mentioned above through sections on ‘Communal Councils and Communes’, ‘Cooperatives’ and finally ‘Regional Cooperation’.

Overall, an image of a potentially deeper grassroots movement that goes beyond the outspoken and controversial leader emerges. We see a state seeking wider influence in the region and the world, one that is moving away from its traditional northern partner, the United States, and is experimenting with programmes of popular participation in its democratic governance and the economy.

I - Background

At a time of economic and social stagnation in Venezuela, during the period of 1981-1989, its GDP fell by 3.8 per cent, with a fall of 8 per cent in 1989 alone. Unemployment stood at 50 per cent and inflation reached 81 per cent.5 It was in these conditions that Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had previously served as president in the 1970s, launched his campaign to run again. After making ‘populist promises to oppose the IMF and implement reforms to protect popular living standards’6 he was elected into office. However within just two weeks of his inauguration, surrounded by a group of young neoliberal Chicago School economists, he had already set in motion exactly the type of IMF reform package which he had attacked to gain popular support.7 Once an economic “statist”, he now believed that ‘the best thing for us is to reduce the intervention of the state to a minimum’. In doing so, his administration joined the unstable fold of the ‘Washington Consensus,’8 whose doctrine recommends that governments agree on ‘ten areas’ of economic policy; the most telling being financial and trade liberalisation, promotion of foreign investment, privatisation of state enterprises, deregulation of the economy and the defence of private property.9

However, these neoliberal initiatives soon caused a popular reaction. On February 27th, 1989, an uprising erupted in the city of Guarenas, 30km east of the capital Caracas, due to price hikes and other measures that were part of Pérez’s economic restructuring programme. By mid-morning, five major cities in the country were consumed by mass protests that originated in the shantytowns and suburbs. However, on the President’s orders, the army cracked down on the uprising. Government estimates claimed that at least 276 lives were lost,10 with other sources claiming as many as 3,000.11 This event, named the Caracazo, caused an almost final break between the poorer populations and the ruling class, and radicalised disaffected army officers – amongst them Hugo Chávez. As a progressively minded officer, Chávez came to prominence when he led a coup against the Pérez government on February 4th, 1992. Chávez and his supporters within the army attempted to occupy key parts of Caracas. However, unable to reach the President and accomplish his goals, Chávez called for his allies to lay down their arms.12 In a famous televised speech that night he stated that only ‘por ahora’ (‘for now’) he could not meet his objectives.13 Though unsuccessful in the coup, Chávez made a mark on the Venezuelan political sphere and became a symbol of resistance for the poor; making it clear that his time would come again.

Imprisoned for his role in the insurrection, Chávez was amnestied two years later, following the collapse of the Pérez government under the weight of corruption scandals. Turning to electoral means, Chávez ran for the 1998 presidential election as the candidate of the poor. In the face of an opposition still experiencing a crisis of legitimacy Chávez swept to victory.14 From this position, his administration - whilst always being driven by pressure from ‘below’15 - began to implement reforms and programs of popular participation that will be discussed in the next section. Chávez even faced a (ostensibly USbacked) pro-business coup in 2002 and was only restored to power by spontaneous protests and calls for his return. The poor descended from the shantytowns into the city as they had during the Caracazo and, combined with the actions of the loyal army, ensured that the coup ended after only two days.17

To have seen a previously stagnant democracy with a strongly entrenched two-party system rocked by a progressive challenger was a very significant development in Venezuelan politics. This shows that greater proportions of the previously excluded classes had entered the democratic arena and that therefore their interests, demands and cultural sensibilities were now being represented at the highest levels for the first time.

To sum up, the major events which set the stage for the progressive reforms in Venezuela were firstly: (1) the popular revolt against neoliberal policies which showed an opposition to the marketisation of Venezuela; (2) the violent repression of that resistance which discredited mainstream political parties; and (3) opened a space for a third party challenger. Secondly, there was the unsuccessful coup led by Chávez, which nevertheless secured Chávez’s reputation amongst the poor who would later elect him. Finally, there was the mass action by the same communities that had revolted in the Caracazo, descending from the shantytowns in defence of their new government - once again showing their willingness and capacity for mass participation. All of this, when taken together, shows the population’s determination to take part in mass participation, which would be legitimated by the creation of Communal Councils and other bodies.

This piece will now move on to discuss in more detail how these shifts in Venezuelan society were translated into the progressive policies of the current government.

II - Communal Councils and Communes

Although several participatory democracy clauses had been included in the new 1999 Venezuelan Constitution, initiatives to involve the populace were originally quite small scale and local.18 However, the scale of participation increased greatly in the following ten years. By 2010 there were 30,000 Communal Councils, local democratic bodies representing 200 to 400 families each, in operation.19

The Communal Councils are horizontally structured20 ‘instances of participation, articulation, and integration between various community organizations, social groups, and citizens,’ whose goal is to ’permit the organized people directly to manage public policy and projects oriented toward… the construction of a society of equity and social justice.’ They operate on principles of transparency, accountability and ‘social and gender equality’ amongst others. They work through committees whose spokespeople are elected for revocable twoyear terms.21

To give an example of their financing, in 2007 Communal Councils were allotted an astonishing ‘5 billion USD as well as 50 percent of all Venezuelan petroleum revenue, with each council allotted between 14,000 - 28,000 USD per project’.22 This suggests that these participatory initiatives are backed by serious economic commitment.

Furthermore, there are currently 184 Communes in construction around Venezuela, encompassing 5,900 families at this early stage.23 These Communes are a way of collating Community Councils together into what will be self-governing areas or towns.24 On December 10th, 2010, the Venezuelan National Assembly passed the Organic Law of Popular and Public Planning. These laws further expand civilian powers in the country by ‘promot[ing] decentralisation of power, collective property, self government, and the Government Federal Council as the planning organisation’. The Government Federal Council itself was created earlier in the year, bringing Communal Councils, Communes and social movements into the planning of the national budget.25 On top of that, the national government has promised to ‘submit’ to the desires of the Communes and will be active in their processes only to the extent required to implement their desires.26

Innovative articles of the new law give greater precedence to communally owned enterprises over state-owned industries in providing services28 and the creation of a Communal Parliament. This concerns opposition parties because they fear it has the potential to displace the National Assembly.29 The National Assembly report on the new law stated that it institutionalises a ‘methodology that is centred on the coordination among entities so that public planning, as a political instrument, orientates the actions of the state’.30 This makes it clear that public planning has the potential to not only coexist with the state, but also guide it.

This development in Venezuela is unique because grassroots movements and the state do not stand in opposition, unlike in most other cases. Instead, the Venezuelan government is willingly expanding civilian powers and helping to create a challenge to its own power. At the same time, they are openly advocating the transformation of the state, in line with Žižek’s analysis.

However, there are dangers in this model of “dual government”. Will the state maintain its sincerity in expanding civilian powers, or will resistance from bureaucratic elements in the government31 grow as civilian powers continue to encroach on their own? Only the vigilance of the people engaged in this project, and the dedicated activists of the “Bolivarian movement”, could prevent this. Hopefully, the fact that this is a consensual transfer of power downwards will mean that the project should have less risk of degenerating.Therefore, in a move almost without precedent, the state apparatus in Venezuela is helping to create structures and participatory bodies that will undermine its own power. Much of this is driven by the initiatives and demands of civilian groups. As members of one Commune noted: ‘The communes aren’t something you decree, they are born out of the needs of the people and the communal councils’.32

Overall, Communal Councils have been successful in completing thousands of community projects throughout Venezuela, in that ’community council leaders are engaged in a wide variety of activities and programmes that have no precedent in Venezuela’s community movement’ and by giving previously marginalised sections of the population experience in collective decision-making.36 At the same time, they have demonstrated that their members have the competence to oversee considerable budgets. These initiatives, along with others from across the region and the world (like ‘Participatory Budgeting’ in Brazil,37) offer a significant challenge to the hegemony of liberal democratic thought. This adds substance to the idea that a more inclusive democracy, beyond political party competition, is feasible. The only dangers remaining are that as legislative creations, the Communal Councils depend on support from the state, to a certain extent, for their continued existence. Another concern is the possible showdown between state and civilian centres of power, with the latter wishing to supplant the former as the legitimate authority in the country.

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