This is the 2nd installment of my “Revolutionary Mondays” series. If you like my previous piece on the French Revolution, you can access it by clicking on the link in red. If you like everything else on this blog, please become a patron at patreon.com/ForwardBlog
On February 2, 1999, a new chapter was born in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez and his Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) by winning the 1998 democratically-held elections. This ended multiple decades of military rule and center-right governments stemming from the Latin American debt crisis of the mid-1980s after the hemispheric shift to neoliberal economics. Chavez was in the Venezuelan army and had led once before, a coup attempt to oust Carlos Andres Perez in 1992. The coup failed but the 1990’s were a time of social growth for Venezuela. Growth in the sense that Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolutionary Army was gaining power and influence and by the 1999 elections, were in a position to implement massive socio-economic changes for the country. But the Bolivarian Revolution is more than just Chavez and his policies. It is an ideology of insurrection inspired from Simon Bolivar, who was the 19th century Venezuelan-born revolutionary leader who achieved independence for most of South America. It was an obvious role model for those across Latin and South America to emulate. Resisters to imperialism hold a special place in the hearts of many Venezuelans to this day. In this piece I will outline the brief history of Venezuela before the revolution and how Chavez’s legacy still lives on today even in the midst of Venezuela’s post-2009 recession economic hardships.
If there was ever a singular event that summarized Venezuelans feelings over the neoliberal economic shift and how it affected their daily lives, it’s the Caracazo of 1989. This was a wave of looting, shootings, protests and riots that began as a direct result of tumbling oil prices but then morphed into an indictment against austerity measures and the neoliberal model that Washington was forcing onto Latin and South American countries throughout the 1980’s. Carlos Andres Perez was president at the time and was working with George H.W. Bush. Venezuelans saw the austerity measures that led to this crisis as the straw that broke the camel’s back, despite the historic fall in oil prices during the last 10 years. They saw right through the sham of austerity measures and the violence that resulted shows it. The Caracazo was an inflection point where a new generation of Venezuelan’s who lived mainly under military dictatorships, were not going to accept the new world order. Chavez’s MBR was a blossoming movement at the time and while they helped Perez do a lockdown of the country to end the Caracazo, Chavez took that opening and the anger brewing toward’s Perez’s government, to build his movement even quicker. Those results set the stage for the attempted coup in 1992, which would ultimately fail. These events would not deter Chavez however, as the economic instability stayed with Venezuelans throughout the 1990’s.
The Ideology - Chavismo
The revolution was part of a series of left-leaning governments coming into power in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s. Argentina and Brazil both elected left-center parties to office with Nestor Kirchner in Argentina and Lula da Silva in Brazil. Chavez, although he was a military man, he was a politician at heart. He modeled his Chavismo ideology after past workers parties like the Workers Party (PT) in Brazil. These policies early on included socialist policies like nationalization, social welfare programs (Bolivarian missions), and a staunch opposition to neoliberalism which Chavez viewed as “the American octopus.” The nationalization of PDVSA, the national oil company, was done prior to Chavez coming into office but his efforts to redistribute the funds became a focal point of reforms. He fired supervisors and managers who weren’t on board with his vision and in the 2002 coup attempt, when PDVSA managers refused to follow his orders and stand down, he fired them. This showed that he was not going to allow private interests to stand in the way of his redistribution policies. Chavez stated early on after he won the 1998 election that his Chavismo does accept private property but under socialism, the government seeks to promote social property ownership more than anything. After taking power in 1999, in a series of drafts, Chavez outlined the future of communes and village councils which would be a new version of workplace and participatory democracy. This was done so even the poorest Caracas slum resident would feel that he has a voice and could go to his local commune in order to redress grievances and to vote in elections. Their participation in the government process while just encouraged and not mandatory, became a civic duty. Increasing civic engagement is always a great way to start implementing more socialist policies. Chavez knew building a network of communes would take time and even in Cuba it took 20 years to fully integrate that system of democracy. He knew his populist and anti-American rhetoric would get him in trouble with Washington at some point and it did happen almost immediately. Chavez’s Bolivarian missions were the core of his ideology to redistribute wealth on a mass scale. He implemented 30 different social programs that were funded in large part from oil revenues. It was the first time oil revenues were redistributed to the actual people and they noticed. Plan Bolivar 2000 was another of these 30 programs. Its purpose was to send the message that the military would not be used as a force of popular repression, rather a force for development and security. Chavez enacted it in 2000 but had to scrap it by 2002 because the coup that was financed by the American State Department failed and left unpleasant and dangerous reactionary elements in his military, thus leading him to promptly fire them and jail them. Mission Robinson was another programs designed to increase literacy rates (just like Cuba and Tanzania’s literacy programs), and to use an army of volunteers to provide resources to schools in impoverished areas. The last significant mission to discuss is the Mission Barrio Adentro. This program provides publicly-funded healthcare, dental care, and sports training to poor communities. Private clinics were paid for, however public clinics were ordered to be built and soldiers helped with this process as part of their social training. This is Chavez’s attempt to create a de facto form of universal healthcare, while understanding their limitations due to being a “petro state” that didn’t at the time have a diversified economy. There were many positives early but since Chavez’s death in 2013, many of the clinics have been closing down to a lack of funds. This is another story for another time.
The Decline of Chavismo and the Bolivarian Experiment
Chavez’s death came at an unfortunate time. By 2013, Venezuela was dealing with hyperinflation, multiple economic sanctions put on by the US and right-wing elements that were seeking to destroy his vision. Much of the distress was external. The US tried multiple coups (3 that we know of) to depose Chavez in the 13 years he was in office. John Bolton himself, who was both in the Bush and Trump Administration has said on air multiple times that the goal is to overthrow first Chavez and now his successor, Maduro. Once that happens, they would then privatize PDVSA. This would allow companies like Citgo to not be under PDVSA’s thumb any longer (Citgo owned outright by PDVSA) and to allow other foreign multinationals to operate on no-bid contracts. If it happened, it would ruin Venezuela’s economy by driving millions back into poverty. These external pressures come with being in the western hemisphere and thus under the watchful eye of Washington’s hegemonic interests. Hegemonic interests place Venezuela as a key region of control due to its vast offshore oil reserves. Many wealthy Venezuelan’s fled after the revolution in 1999 and that led to predictable human capital flight. While Chavez could make up for that loss early on, as the years went by, they began suffering from a lack of homegrown intelligentsia. This is important because you need educated lawyers, civil servants and politicians to make any economy run effectively. Human capital flight has long been a problem for socialist countries that try these socio-economic experiments of redistribution. “Once a capitalist, always a capitalist”, Chavez used to say to his closest advisors. He expressed grief over the human capital flight for many years and he often compared it to the Cuban businessmen and intelligentsia that fled during and after the Cuban Revolution. Bolivarian diaspora became spread out internationally due to this dynamic and many still live abroad today, including in the US. This is a similar dynamic to the Cuban Revolution where a real dissident movement emerged and was used by the CIA to foment hatred and terrorism in the mother country. This played itself out with the multiple coups post-2010, including the one that just failed a month ago. Some of these half-baked schemes are funded by the State Department and their apparatchiks and some have been financed by the opposition leader and Washington-supported, Juan Guaido. Venezuelans have seen this naked aggression on display and the economic instability that has been sewn in Venezuela since 2013, has been a direct result of these decisions. This is why the majority of the population still supports Maduro with his latest polling at 64%. As we head into a new decade, it will be fascinating to see whether Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), will continue to operate effectively through harsh external pressures or whether Venezuela is headed toward a future civil war. Some historians and academics argue that a civil war is unlikely due to the smaller donor class and the fact that the elite capitalists that still operate in the country don’t have the leverage over the military that is needed to foment a successful coup. Venezuela’s story is amazing when you consider the Bolivarian dream has managed to live on, despite its decline in recent years. And it has done so through 3 formal coup attempts that are documented and probably another half a dozen more that haven’t been documented. Many civil liberties live on as well. Freedom of the press and the freedom of expression were allowed for the first time in 1999 when Chavez came to power. Although Venezuela does have a state media apparatus, TeleSur, they do allow for other networks to broadcast news from an independent perspective. Venezuela has had increasing problems even more so over the past year. Their economic situation has been perilous and they suffer from food shortages regularly. Oil tankers have been blocked and Washington continues to implement new economic sanctions which clock dried goods and other essentials that the people need. Their future will be determined by the civic engagement that Chavez worked so hard to build. Without it, people will be turned off of the democratic process and the strongmen that run in Guaido’s circles will rise up.