Check out my article, "Anarchism in Berlin: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly."
As Latin America and the wider world seek to come to terms with the death of Hugo Chavez, many may wonder about the Venezuelan populist's political legacy.
In the immediate term, the deceased comandante's shadow will loom large over Venezuela's next snap presidential election which will be held on April 14. Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's former Foreign Minister, will face off against Henrique Capriles Radonski, who previously challenged Chavez for the presidency and lost.
As I discussed on al-Jazeera English this evening [apparently no link available], the election may hinge on who can best come off as "Chavez-lite." Capriles is unlikely to question Chavez's adherence to social programs which redistributed wealth to the neediest. Indeed, while he served as Governor of the state of Miranda, Capriles actually emulated Chavez by adopting similar populist social programs himself. In this sense, Capriles is probably the most electable candidate to spring from the opposition, which was historically fractured and extremely fanatical. On the other hand, there is a great deal of sympathy for Chavez, and Maduro will benefit from his association with the Bolivarian Revolution. Even though Maduro lacks Chavez's charisma, he can bank on favorable blanket coverage from state-run media and support from Chavez's own PSUV political machine.
As I stated on al-Jazeera, my concern is that there will be very little space for a more radical discussion during this short-lived campaign. Though the candidates may disagree about foreign policy, they essentially agree on the overall contours of domestic social policy. Indeed, the fundamental psychological mindset of the Venezuelan poor has shifted so dramatically under Chavez that it is unlikely that any president, let alone a conservative one, would dare to turn back the clock and reintroduce the kinds of market reforms which characterized political life during the 1990s.
With no substantial disagreements on the social front, the campaign may center upon other issues such as urban crime. But while frightening homicides in Caracas and other cities are certainly important, such concerns pale beside the larger question of the Bolivarian Revolution and radical transformation of political life. What of the economic cooperatives, communal councils, ALBA and alternative currencies? These are all measures which serve to reconfigure fundamental power relations, and though some programs have been linked to cronyism and corruption, they represent an idealistic challenge to the underpinnings of the capitalist state.
A couple of days ago, while speaking on Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, I touched on such vital questions during a roundtable panel discussion [apparently the entire segment is unavailable, though you can watch this snippet which unfortunately does not include me]. The other guests included Moises Naim, a Venezuelan writer and columnist who was previously associated with IESA, a conservative business school in Caracas which pushed economic reforms eschewed by Chavez. We were also joined by Rory Carroll of the Guardian newspaper.
With Naim staking out the predictable anti-Chavez right, maybe Zakaria thought I would take up the full role of Chavez partisan. At the beginning of the interview, the CNN host turned to me and asked, "you like Chavez, right?" It's a perfectly reasonable question, though I wasn't entirely sure how to respond. Discussions about Chavez tend to split between ideological partisans on both sides, and there's often very little space for additional views. As readers are aware, I have some mixed feelings about populism, a very polemical subject in Latin America. In the end, I think I answered something to the effect of "it's a mixed bag," though I might have easily added "it's complicated!"
It's difficult to convey a minority within a minority viewpoint sometimes, though hopefully the viewers will have understood that I am critical of Chavez --- not from the right but from the left. I said that Chavez was wrong to have embraced Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, which in the long run discredited Venezuela amongst the international left and revolutionaries associated with the Arab Spring.
In an effort to move the conversation into provocative territory, I also argued that Chavez had actually not gone too far but not far enough. Whatever the problems with the cooperatives, I declared, they should be improved upon in an effort to promote worker democracy. Predictably, Naim trashed the cooperatives and went on a rant about how Chavez had wrecked the economy. Rather disappointingly for a leftist Guardian columnist, Carroll kind of chimed in by pointing to flaws in the cooperative system.
I hope that the media will continue to touch upon Chavez's political legacy, and particularly the more radical and anti-capitalist measures which deserve more systematic attention and scrutiny. Perhaps, socialist constituencies within the Bolivarian camp or even anarchists can force likely presidential winner Maduro to deepen the ongoing process of social transformation. It's not an easy task, however, because Maduro --- like Chavez before him --- also answers to rival constituencies such as the managerial capitalist class.
As Latin America and the wider world ponders the post-Chavez landscape, it's hardly clear where the left goes from here. While Chavez radicalized the Venezuelan people through innovative programs, his haphazard government failed to follow through on lasting bottom up revolutionary change. Though populists like Chavez mobilize the people, they typically only go so far and never overturn the social order. If anything, Maduro seems more cautious and diplomatic than Chavez and seems to eschew the inflammatory rhetoric of his mentor.
Perhaps, Rafael Correa of Ecuador may inherit the Chavez mantle. Like his Venezuelan mentor, Correa is a populist who also employs fiery rhetoric to mobilize the masses. He is pretty popular, too, having just won reelection in a landslide. Whether he has the vision or even the desire to transform Ecuador into a radical social laboratory, however, is open to doubt. To be sure, the Ecuadoran has some interesting ideas about climate change and challenging the Global North on global warming, but overall Correa seems pretty intent on pursuing the extractive economy and this hardly bodes well for his relations with social forces on the ground. Over in Bolivia, meanwhile, Evo Morales also made noises about climate change at one time but even he has run afoul of the Indians who dislike the government's boondoggle projects.
From about 2002 to 2006, before he started to pursue more questionable and retrograde policies, Hugo Chavez injected a welcome note of idealism into Latin politics. If it wants to be successful, the next generation of regional leaders should think about taking up some of Chavez's empowering ideas such as economic cooperatives, ALBA barter, alternative currencies and communal councils, while avoiding all of the potential downsides like patronage networks and cronyism. If future leaders can build upon such an agenda, while incorporating concerns over climate change and the extractive economy, they just might succeed in bringing about long-term revolutionary change and not just charismatic populism which can often prove transitory or even ephemeral.
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Articles touting Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's political successes and social programs are a dime a dozen on left wing Web sites these days. When I was researching my own book, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (recently released by St. Martin's Press), I read a lot of these accounts and began to develop an exceedingly idealistic idea of what was happening in Venezuela. Having just returned from an extended six week trip to the country, however, I feel that the political and social landscape is a lot murkier and more ambiguous than many have suggested.
As an admittedly "left wing tourist," I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a delegation organized by Witness For Peace, a Washington, D.C. based group which has been working for more than twenty years to halt U.S. interventionism in Latin America. As a member or our delegation, I had the rare privilege to interview figures from across the political spectrum. After the delegation left, I stayed and conducted more interviews on my own.
Feeding the Poor: Chavez Scores Some Gains
In our meeting with Marino Alvarado, the cautious Provea human rights advocate praised government programs to bring food to the Venezuelan poor. After meeting with him in downtown Caracas, our delegation went across town to a so-called "Endogenous Center of Development" housing workers' cooperatives and a government sponsored market or Mercal. The space had formerly been a pumping station belonging to the state oil company, PdVSA, and was located within the working class district of Catia.
Within the market, local residents could buy discounted items including cooking oil, beans, ice cream and shampoo. Jeff Cohen, a media critic and member of our delegation, bought some pasta in the store. Our young guide said that shoppers could save up to 50% on discounted high quality items. Nevertheless, the Chavez opposition claimed that the market served only "dogs."
At another Mercal in the countryside, a package of sugar only cost 750 bolivares, half the price that consumers would pay in a normal supermarket; chicken too was half as expensive. Discounted pasta had a message on the back of the package: "When the people are in need, its revolutionary government responds!"
Rafael Uzcategui, the media coordinator at Provea, remarked that Chavez's popular markets were "well done." Rafael argued however that more thought should be put into the planning of popular markets. Most of the products there were imported, he told me, while the government wrote catchy propagandistic slogans on the packaging. In the long term, Rafael said, Venezuela would have to develop greater food self sufficiency to feed the neediest.
The government had also put a great deal of effort into promoting soup kitchens. I had the opportunity to observe one of the kitchens, located within a Mennonite church which worked closely with Witness For Peace. Working class Protestants comprise a chief base of support for the Chavez regime, and the government provided raw food to the church.
The church was run by Pedro, a wiry and hardworking black man, and his wife America. Their family, including children and a Siberian Husky puppy, lived in the church. Upstairs, women prepared the food that had been donated by the government in large vats and pots. On one day, the church staff provided lunch to the poor waiting outside in the street. The meal consisted of juice, rice, patacones (fried and mashed plantains), and sausage.
Workers' Cooperatives: Advancements and Criticisms
One example of the government's determination to eradicate poverty is the Women's Bank. Housed along pollution clogged Urdaneta Avenue in downtown Caracas, the bank has extended credit to working class women so that they might form small businesses.
To get a better sense of how the Women's Bank had affected working class women, our delegation traveled to Charallave, a town outside of Caracas. After a rather hair raising ride through the mountains, we arrived at a house which housed a women's baking cooperative and Mercal.
After completing a quick baking course, the women had applied for credit from the Women's Bank and set up their thriving bakery. Spread out on the tables were pastries that looked much more tempting than the usual fare served up in most Caracas bakeries.
According to Ercilia Seijas, one of the workers, the cooperative started initially with 27 women. This number subsequently went down however to 14. This was so, she explained, because the women's husbands fiercely resisted their spouses growing economic independence.
The women worked in two shifts: the morning crew arrived at 6 A.M. and finished at mid-day. The others worked from noon until 6 P.M.
"Our lives have improved," Seijas remarked. "We were taking care of the house before the subsidized market and cooperative. Now we can make money."
We also visited cooperatives at the "Endogenous Center of Development." Within the complex in Catia, workers had set up a textile and shoe manufacturing cooperative. The textile facility had two male workers but otherwise was staffed solely by women.
In Venezuela, explained a young woman guide, poverty affected women hardest. It was they, she added, who had to shoulder the responsibility of raising children when men abandoned the family.
On the other hand, our guide remarked, the women had undergone a profound psychological shift working in the cooperative. Before, they had always been ordered around, but now they had all become part owners in the cooperative and took great pride in the Che Guevara T-shirts produced at the plant.
Later, Jeff Cohen and I walked outside into the street, where we were greeted by huge murals depicting Simon Bolivar. Jeff remarked that the cooperative model of development at Catia bore striking similarities to the classic anarchist vision emphasizing democratic and decentralized workers' control.
To get a more critical perspective on the cooperative issue, I asked my old acquaintance Rafael Uzcategui what he thought. In the conference room back at Provea, we discussed Chavez's many social programs.
Five years previously when I'd met him Rafael was a student at the Central University of Caracas, writing his thesis about the anti-globalization movement and the significance of the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization.
He'd been a frequent contributor to El Libertario, an anarchist newspaper published in Caracas. He'd now cut his hair but still wore his trademark high top canvas sneakers. Rafael said that his work now took up much of his time but he still managed to write for the paper.
I'd read numerous columns appearing in El Libertario over the years, and sometimes grew frustrated with the newspaper's seemingly relentless criticism of the Chavez government. What, if anything would satisfy the writers?
"Isn't Catia an anarchist idea?" I prodded.
Rafael said that in theory the cooperatives were a good idea, but in practice the government would hire cooperatives to sweep the street or carry out other work without extending adequate labor protections. He added that in some cooperatives, but not all, there was no right to social security. What's more, the authorities had been derelict by extending credit to groups of workers who would then take advantage of government largesse and set up fictitious or ghost cooperatives.