Venezuela: Socialism in Present Tense… or why I mourn the death of Hugo Chavez

mariya ivanchevaI start on a personal note. In 2004 a group of students at University College London where I studied at the time carried out a campaign of solidarity with Venezuela. Among the activities organized by them was a discussion about the education reform of the Venezuelan Bolivarian Revolution. The guest lecturer was the Venezuelan primary teacher and educator Oscar Negrin. Negrin started his speech by saying: “In Venezuela today we are trying to change the language of teaching: instead of making children memorize abstract terms, we teach them the most important words -” mother”, ” peace”, ” Chávez ‘. My heart pulse quickened. I sank into a clear reminiscence of my first grade in school in late socialist Bulgaria. Our teacher, comrade Toneva, and our class were rehearsing for a class concert before our parents. As a part of the performance, comrade Toneva asked me in front of everyone to hold the hand of my mother – at the moment of the rehearsal an imaginary presence in the room – and say a poem. The last verse: “… the best mother in the world / is the Party-heroine.” I resisted. I did not know what the Party was. I knew, however, that the best mother in the world was my own mother. I simply but firmly asked the teacher to change the script. After a moment of tension, she changed my place in the poem and gave me another poem to recite. A year later, with relief she asked us forget the title “Comrade” and call her “Missis Toneva.” Back in London, I quickly walked out of the hall. Negrin and other students saw the back of the child from the classroom in 1988, the girl in the early transition democratic rallies that jumped, because – as the popular rally refrain went – “those who don’t jump, they are red.” While walking down the hallway in two feelings were fighting in me: the satisfaction that I lived up to my anti-communist standards, and the concern that I might had judged prematurely …
Today, years later, and one and a half years of fieldwork of the educational system in Venezuela, I know how superficial my satisfaction was and how justified – my concern. True, there are significant similarities between Eastern Europe and Latin America. But they are hardly those between state socialism and the new socialism of the XXI century. Parallel are first and foremost the destinies of our peoples in the periphery of mighty empires. Similar is our internalized weakness vis-à-vis the great past and present imperial powers, and our frustration with local elites who serve their interests. Close is the exasperation of ethnic minorities, arbitrary confined by artificially drawn and redrawn national borders. We are all equally affected by the “soft power” of the new transnational organizations in the public and private sectors. Beautifully packaged as “free market” “liberal democracy”, “democratization,” “civil society,” “human rights”, “transparency” “law and ofder” “development”, etc. the matrix of our lives has been designed in Washington. It comes with a bonus: the sweet promise of life in the consumerist paradise of the Western societies: the dream that seems miles and miles away. The difference is that the trajectories of the two subcontinents went opposite ways. While after WWII in Eastern Europe we lived in an illusionary “real socialism” in Latin America they lived in an illusionary “real democracy.”

To make an analogy between Chávez’s social democracy and the “totalitarian” socialism in Eastern Europe is an easy task mostly for the representatives of organizations and media who side with the Venezuelan opposition. Students and NGO activists sponsored by international organizations have traveled across the Western world campaigning against the so-called dictatorship of Chávez. In the former Socialist bloc they have been unconditionally supported not just by neoliberal think-tanks, but also by former dissidents including Lech Walesa and the late Vaclav Havel. One could only wonder, however, whether in the 1980s Havel and Walesa would have been allowed to freely travel abroad, and openly speak at mass rallies at home? Could the writer have freely launched an essay collection on “The power of the powerless” in a new bookstore in a shopping mall in Prague, where the reception included bites of salmon pate and champagne? Could the trade unionist simply fly over from Gdansk to give a passionate speech against the governments of Czechoslovakia and Poland, at the same book launch, before the eyes of over a hundred opponents of the regime?

The scenario is not accidental: it is taken from the book launch of the essay collection The Totalitarianism of the XXI century. Published in 2009, the book contained essays by leading academic intellectuals from state-sponsored universities who openly declared Chávez a dictator. Before the lavish reception, they all said out loud that they lived in a totalitarian state without freedom of speech. Police did not attend the book launch or later harass the participants. The book is one of the hundreds of volumes and thousands of print editions against Chávez in person, and against his government sold freely in bookstores across Venezuela. The location of the event is no accident either. The bookshop is cuddled cozily in El Paseo Mall is in the metropolitan district “Las Mercedes” connecting a number of wealthy parts of Caracas. To the south it is bordered by hills where the members of the rich mainly white economic elite live in gated communities or magnificent private mansions. To the east lies the municipality of Chacao: the bastion of opposition, where middle class Venezuelans share several heavily guarded square kilometers with representatives of media, embassies and multinational corporations. Foreigners and rich Venezuelans rarely leave this elegant oasis. For them, the highway to the airport is better known than the metro to downtown Caracas: the city center where most public institutions are hosted and rank-and-file Venezuelans live. And why would they bother: following the draconic neoliberal reforms in the 1990s, the Venezuelan public sector shrunk beyond recognition and became just one more service provider competing with exclusive private services.

Beyond the described little paradise starts the world of most other Venezuelans. In Caracas they live crammed into apartment blocks like in the former socialist bloc, or in the so-called barrios. Barrio is the Venezuelan analogue of the Brazilian favela, Peruvian pueblos jóvenes, and Argentinian villas de miseria: a poor low-rise neighborhood where a high number of population is concentrated over a small area and under dire economic conditions. Created since the early 1920s when the rich oil reserves were found in poor cocoa growing country, the barrios of the Caracas have been growing rapidly. They have expanded vastly especially since the 1970s and are by not taking a large territory of the narrow city, situated along the valley of the river Guaire. The self-made brick lodges usually start at the foot of the steep hills of Caracas leading up through the dizzying labyrinth of narrow streets and staircases. The descendants of the indigenous population and former African slaves had suffered starvation in the underdeveloped rest of the country divided between idle state land and big privately owned latifundios. The rapid internal migration offered just a short-lived illusion of a better life and social mobility. Having come to enjoy the new job opportunities that the oil bonanza offered, they were left homeless in the peripheries of the city. Together with new economic migrants from the Old World they squatted land and built their own houses in the peripheries of the city. They were left there to live in concentrated poverty with no work or education opportunities, out of the scope of public services and built infrastructure. In a Dutsch disease economy, which exploited natural resources and left the manufactory sector linger, they were disqualified from the specialized labor market supported mainly by exports of crude oil and service provision. They remained in the barrios: a world on its own right with an altogether different logic. There have been controversies if it were “the culture of poverty”, the organic logic of human communities living in solidarity beyond the merciless government regulation, or “the law of the jungle” based on arbitrariness and pure violence. Understanding this logic without subjecting it to the haughty discourse of “laziness” or “backwardness” is the key to social integration in a country and in the world torn apart by ever growing extreme stratification.

To talk about Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, without taking into account this complex reality and the great class and ethnic division is pointless. Moreover, the political figure of El Comandante has been a symptom of that division. In 1998 when he came to power Chávez was hardly a socialist. With a centrist “third way” program the former army man tried to be a figure of compromise: he tried to appeal both to the popular masses and to the political elite in the country. His lower-class and mestizo ethnic origin however provoked only their contempt. Moreover, neither in his attempted coup d’etat – now called a military rebellion – in 1992, nor in his election as president in 1998, was he recognized by the entire Venezuelan Left. A military man, religious and nationalist, he could hardly be less aligned to the Left’s main principles. At the time its members faced the dilemma to choose the new popular messiah, or continue the unequal struggle with the bipolar model of “the most stable democracy in the region”.

The Venezuelan Left has gone through a long and unequal struggle to enter the political life of the country. Established in exile, repressed under the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenes in the 1950s, it was excluded by the new “social contract” from 1958. The pact called “Punto Fijo” was signed by Christian (COPEI) Social Democrats (AD), and Liberal Democrats (URD). Their leaders did not allow for the political participation of the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), whose members fought along them against the dictator. After an episode of violent guerrilla struggle, repressed brutally by the state, in the 1970 PCV was legalized and allowed to run in free elections. Weakened after decades in hiding, it was by then seriously fragmented. While it was splitting into further smaller parties, it remained powerless to propose an alternative against the anti-social policies of AD and COPEI. Unchallenged by the small Left fractions, the latter two parties changed in power every four years, performing democratic competition. They made sure to adopt a short-hand version of certain Left-wing policies, especially piecemeal redistribution and infrastructure building usually around election campaigns. Although they nationalized the oil industry, they transformed the state into a corporation, dependent on the hazards of the free market and the big foreign companies that kept the monopoly over expert knowledge in the field and exploitation and export of crude oil.


Suffering its internal crisis, the Left was too fragmented and weak to even galvanize the popular outrage after the bloody suppression of the first anti-neoliberal riot El Caracazo in February 1989. Ironically, in the mid-1990s a former leader of the underground guerilla Left Theodoro Petkoff signed the agreements with the IMF. Having left PCV upon its failure to condemn the Soviet intervention in the Prague Spring, Petkoff – an economist from Bulgarian-Polish descent – became a Minister of Planning and Coordination for the Government of Refael Caldera and pushed Venezuela in the direction of draconic neo-liberal reforms. The emergence of Chávez thus turned to be just another battleground for the Left: in the 1998 election campaign of President coalition – the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) – was denounced by various leftist factions including Petkoff’s Movement for Socialism (MAS). Yet, for many Venezuelan Left-wingers the question if they should support the new president gained a new dimension in 2002. In April, the opposition made a coup with the alleged support of the U.S. government and the moral support of the Venezuelan elite, including anti-Chavista Left-wing movements. The popular masses of Venezuela did not allow their democratically President to be expelled. Days of protests and casualties forced the self-appointed interim government to withdraw. In the second attempt to overthrow Chávez, an effective sabotage of the oil industry took place: more than fifteen thousand highly-skilled engineers, technicians, managers and administrators left the Venezuelan state-owned oil company (PDVSA). Venezuela remained for weeks without its only currency in the world market. Having won the unconditional support of the people, however, at this time Chávez was recognized not just by poor Venezuelans, but increasingly by Left-wing activists throughout the world.

Thinking reforms of the BolivarianRepublic – Venezuela’s new name given by the Constitution of 1999 – as purely populist and cosmetic, has been a dangerous tendency in the mass media over the last decade. True, under the functioning of a free market and the limited planning and regulative power of the state, the new social policies of the government – the so-called missions – look rather social democratic than as socialist. Under the external pressure to prove its democratic nature according to preset rules, the government has also overemphasized the procedures of electoral democracy: often at the expense of slowly and timidly developed new instruments of direct popular participation. The reforms of diversifying the production, cooperative ownership and economy, and the workers control over factories have still been lagging behind. Yet, what is crucial to understand is the urgent situation which Chávez and his people inherited from previous governments. Against the grain of coups, boycots, and utter international suspicion, they have bravely and firmly attempted to give a solution to pertinent problems: the extreme poverty and economic, educational and cultural deprivation of the majority of the Venezuelan society. Chávez’s government made possible what was a given in state socialist Eastern Europe, but not in liberal democratic Venezuela: the mass access to healthcare, education, housing, sport and leisure facilities, and created incentives for single mothers and special services for people with disabilities.

Maintained within the global system of neoliberal capitalism, and in competition with private providers, the achievements of the Bolivarian government remain just a small first steps on a long road to a desired radical structural reform. Further contradictions and challenges that emerged withing the Bolivarian Revolution also need to be tackled: the acceleration of organized crime, the spread of corruption, and the increased dependence of the country on oil money were inherent problems of the Venezuelan political and economic system that have still not met their adequate response. Yet, in their struggle for Socialism of the XXI century the Bolivarian government and its popular leader have shown to the world something terribly important: a new belief, that the end of history has not come, that there is still hope for a democratic socialism to emerge in the ruins of the Cold War. In this, the success or failure of the Bolivarian Revolution is and should not be only depended on the President. It depends on a wider and still vulnerable process of popular participation that is slowly gaining speed in Venezuela. In this unequal struggle, the new Socialism of the XXI Century has tried to foster collective values, dignity and autonomy. It has been an honest attempt to empower people for a continuous struggle against the easy gains of ​​rapid social mobility, consumption, and stark individualism.

Sometimes when I hear about another “pilgrimage” of Chávez to Putin or Ahmedinejad I unintentionally feel in the shoes of the Venezuelan elite: the people who are terrorized by their president. Then I quickly remind myself of two very simple truths. Firstly, despite the contradictions of the Venezuelan socialism, it is a political movement unmatched in its quest to expose the inequalities not just between citizens of the same nation state, but also between different peoples and countries in the world: something we Eastern Europeans complain much about. Secondly: Venezuela today is a democratic and free society more than under the previous regime’s repressive elite “democracy”, and more than the regimes in the post-socialist world. So, my message to all of us, Eastern Europeans would be that if we claim we believe in democracy, we must believe in what Chávez stands for. And we believe in the power of the people don’t we? Wasn’t it the reason why we came out to the street in 1989?


This text was published in 2010 in Bulgarian under the title “Socialism in present tense”. It was written for an audience mostly unfamiliar with the historical challenges and social achievements of distant Venezuela and its Bolivarian Revolution. Today the people of Bulgaria and Eastern Europe are slowly waking up from the anesthesia of the promised paradise of Western consumerist society. We wake up into the brute reality of fake liberal democracy and the nightmare of enslavement by the system of neoliberal capitalism. Despite the grand destruction that the shock doctrine has left on the economic and social fabric of our societies, we are back in the streets. Ironically in 1989 when state socialism was surviving its last winter, the anti-neoliberal riot Caracazo took place in Venezuela.  Venezuelan intellectual Luis Brito Garcia called it the beginning of the Fourth World War. Whereas the Third was the Cold War, the Fourth was the one of people against neoliberal capitalism. Now that the flames of the Fourth World War are looming around our region, it is worth remembering Hugo Chavez. It is worth understanding his quixotic attempt to create a democratic socialism in the ruins of the Cold War.


Farewell, Comendante. Your struggle is ours. We will keep it alive.