[Marxism] politics of chavista/anti-chavista divisions

michael a. lebowitz mlebowit at sfu.ca
Tue Jan 9 20:57:02 MST 2007


Beyond Chavistas and Anti-Chavistas
Tuesday, Jan 09, 2007 
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By: George Ciccariello-Maher

A myth has long existed in commentary on 
Venezuela, which goes something like the 
following: when discussing the Venezuelan 
revolution, the relevant actors can be expressed 
through the binary “Chavista/Anti-Chavista.” This 
myth, it should be mentioned, has a certain 
political efficacy, and is indeed necessary in 
situations like the recent elections, in which my 
enemy’s enemy was indeed my friend.

But the errors facilitated by such a binary 
framework are too many to count. These include, 
for example, the facile view that Chávez is 
little more than an autocrat running a 
personalistic movement bent on centralizing power 
in his own hands. Moreover, we cannot even begin 
to grasp the recent call for a unitary socialist 
party and the dissolution of the MVR within the 
framework of Chavistas versus the opposition. But 
the danger of such a framework is above all 
political: by lumping the entire “Chavista” 
voting bloc into one homogeneous mass, we run the 
risk of missing precisely what is most radical about the process.

While the internal dynamics of the revolutionary 
movement are variegated and shifting, with 
multiple axes, criteria, and alliances, for 
analytical and political purposes, it is useful 
to introduce the idea that there are two 
Chavismos. These are, on the one hand, the 
middle-of-the-road, social democratic Chavistas, 
who occupy some of the highest posts in the 
government, and who are largely represented by 
the centrist current of the MVR and PODEMOS. This 
latter organization, an admittedly social 
democratic electoral alliance, has a revealing 
history, having only recently (in 2003) split 
from the opposition centrist MAS party headed by Teodoro Petkoff.

While the elimination of Chávez’s former mentor 
Luis Miquilena and many of his moderate disciples 
in 2002 surely dealt a blow to this tendency, its 
persistence is clearly reflected in both the 
political centrism of many MVR leaders as well as 
in the fact that on December 3rd, PODEMOS was 
second only to the MVR among the Chavista ranks, 
earning more than 750,000 votes.

Perhaps more salient than their centrist 
orientation, this sector is ideologically the 
least hostile to and hence most susceptible to 
bureaucratization and corruption. Chávez himself 
has recently spoken of the need to brandish “two 
one against corruption and the other 
against bureaucratization.” It is for this above 
all that centrist Chavistas are viewed with 
disdain by the more radical sectors.

On the other hand, we have radical Chavistas. 
These are represented electorally in some sectors 
of the MVR and some currents within the 
cadre-style Homeland for All (PPT) party, but 
above all in the Venezuelan Communist Party 
(PCV), the Tupamaros, and Lina Ron’s hardline 
Venezuelan Popular Unity (UPV). But beyond being 
a properly electoral current, radical Chavismo is 
more than anything else a grassroots phenomenon, 
visible in those mobilized masses who are pushing 
the deepening of the process and consistently 
attacking bureaucratization and corruption in all their forms.

This can be seen in the fact that while both the 
UPV and the Tupamaros are minor players 
electorally, their grassroots influence is 
considerably greater (the former serving as 
Chavista shock troops and the latter dedicating 
themselves to local self-defense). Many who vote 
for the predominant MVR due to its identification 
with Chávez attack the leadership of the party 
for its moderation and presumed corruption (one 
could even speculate that these are the majority 
among MVR voters). In these sectors, socialism 
and participation merge into one coherent 
current, effectively distinguishing them from the center.

What does this rupture within Chavismo do to our 
understanding of Venezuelan society more broadly? 
Rather than a binary understanding of society, we 
gain the subtlety of a more broadly tripartite 
schema constituted by anti-Chavistas, moderate 
Chavistas, and radical Chavistas. Rather than 
seeing merely elections and the “consolidation of 
power,” we are more sensitive to the fact that 
the “deepening of the Bolivarian Revolution” 
means the attacking of one sector of Chavistas by 
another, within the context of a formal electoral 
unity. We can see, moreover, that Chávez’s recent 
dissolution of the MVR is more like a cultural 
revolution than a step toward authoritarianism, 
as it aims to purify the movement of corrupt moderates.

Besides these programmatic and ideological 
differences, we could also constitute such a 
tripartite vision quantitatively. The official 
“opposition” represented by the Rosales campaign 
garnered just over one-third of the vote, a 
proportion that could be adjusted downward since 
the candidate’s blatant populism (his “Mi Negra” 
debit card which, it was claimed, would directly 
distribute oil wealth to the poor) undoubtedly 
drew away some whose politics might under other conditions favor Chavismo.

The other two-thirds, then, can be divided 
between moderate and radical Chavismo. The 
calculation is difficult given the tendency for 
Chavistas of all stripes to vote MVR (the party 
gained 66 percent of total Chavista votes), but 
is visible schematically in the breakdown of 
votes garnered by PODEMOS (31 percent of non-MVR 
Chavista votes), PPT (23 percent of the same) and 
the PCV (13 percent), respectively.

What, in turn, is the effect of starting from a 
tripartite rather than a binary division of 
Venezuelan society? Firstly, we would be forced 
to de-emphasize the role of the traditional 
“opposition.” Here, the political stakes of the 
distinction are clear: a binary division between 
Chavistas and the opposition gives entirely too 
much weight to the wealthiest oligarchic sectors 
of Venezuelan society. The opposition press, the 
most powerful weapon of these oligarchs, 
expressed this with the utmost of clarity when 
they regularly described Rosales as the 
“candidate of national unity.” This “opposition,” 
constituting a mere third (or less) of the 
electorate, should be granted no more analytical 
privilege than the sectors constituting Chavismo.

The second effect of this tripartite view is an 
undermining of common understandings of what 
constitutes the political “center.” This category 
is dubious wherever it is found, favoring as it 
does an arbitrary two-party view of the world 
that discourages all forms of radicalism, but it 
is even less sustainable in the current 
Venezuelan conjuncture. Seeking a “center” 
between Chavismo and the right-wing opposition 
leads to the same problem mentioned above: by 
privileging the official “opposition” as one of 
two poles in a binary relation, we again do the work of the oligarchs.

In short, by beginning from a more accurate view 
of the dynamics of Chavismo, our entire view of 
Venezuelan political society is disrupted: the 
fallacies of the single “opposition” and the firm 
“center” lose all value. Things are immediately 
more complicated, but also more palpably 
revolutionary: we have broken the analytical 
stranglehold that the long history of oligarchic 
domination has imposed upon our concepts, a 
domination in which 10 percent of the population 
count as much as the remaining 90 percent, and in 
so doing, we perform theoretically precisely the 
same gesture that the Bolivarian Revolution has performed politically.

But, one might ask, what are the political stakes 
of doing so? These stakes lie in the need to be 
attentive to the subtle infiltration of this 
liberal-oligarchic binary, especially in 
nominally radical or leftist discussions of Venezuela.

We could take, for example, the recent efforts by 
Nikolas Kozloff to “set progressives straight” on 
Venezuela (see his various articles at Venezuela 
Analysis and Counterpunch). A brief survey of 
Kozloff’s articles shows that almost every single 
one draws its substantive content from a single 
interview source: the centrist “human rights 
organization” Provea. Kozloff justifies his 
deference to Provea by claiming that the 
organization is “hardly a tool of the right wing 
opposition.” This is true, but this gesture also 
demonstrates that the validity of Provea’s 
perspective derives, for Kozloff, from the fact 
that it represents a “less biased view,” 
occupying a middle ground between the “government” and the “opposition.”

Even more disturbing is the fact that, in a 
recent Counterpunch article ostensibly devoted to 
the elections (but which spends remarkably little 
time on the subject), Kozloff goes even further 
(“Chávez Against Rosales,” December 2nd/3rd 
2006). “To get more perspective about social 
polarization,” Kozloff inexplicably turns to 
former Primero Justicia (Justice First) General 
Secretary Gerardo Blyde. Primero Justicia, 
despite current attempts to masquerade as 
“centrist humanist,” is widely known to be a 
far-right party and heir to the ailing Christian democratic COPEI.

Both in turning to the center for “a less biased 
view” and to the far right for “more 
perspective,” Kozloff is performing the same 
gesture: referring to an imaginary center which 
favors the right. This might be forgivable were 
it not for the fact that, aside from people on 
the street to whom he turns for quotidian 
observations, Kozloff appears not to have 
interviewed a single Chavista! No representative 
of the various Chavista political organizations, 
Bolivarian Circles, or local councils. No mayors, 
ministers, or representatives to the national assembly.

Hence in a recent Counterpunch article on crime 
in Caracas (an article which, incidentally, 
demonstrates an extreme distaste for all but the 
wealthiest parts of the very city that the author 
seeks to “save”), Kozloff’s choice of sources 
prevents him from providing a substantial 
explanation for the intransigence of violence in 
the city (“Saving Caracas,” December 27th 2006).

There is no mention of the fact that the problem 
emerged during the neoliberal reforms: the murder 
rate in Caracas more than tripled between 1986 
and 1989 (from 14 to 45), and peaked in 1994 at 
96 per 100,000, considerably higher than the 
current rate (which most, even the opposition, 
put around 60-70). Kozloff is content to quote 
the head of Provea, who simplistically and 
erroneously asserts that, “during the Chávez 
mandate, the security situation has worsened.”

Moreover, there is only the briefest mention of 
the various actors involved in perpetuating this 
situation, and specifically the fact that the 
Metropolitan Police are guilty of both looking 
the other way in return for bribes or actively 
participating in crime. There is no mention of 
the fact that this very force was under the 
control of opposition mayor Alfredo Peña until 
2004, thereby preventing any effort at reform 
(Peña even called in the head of the NYPD, of all 
people, to train the Metropolitan Police).

Most importantly, Kozloff makes no mention of 
government efforts to tackle crime, specifically 
the successful deployment of the National Guard 
to violent areas and the ongoing process of 
police reform, one which began in 2005 and is 
beginning to bear fruit. Given the fact that the 
police are often the problem but also 
indispensable to the solution, a reform process 
was considered the necessary precondition for any 
effort to attack violent crime at its roots. Such 
omissions are not surprising for someone whose 
perspective is limited to the “center,” as 
located between the government and the right.

Caracas indeed needs “saving,” but we won’t be 
able to help if we limit ourselves to the 
Chavista/Anti-Chavista binary, one which in the 
pursuit of objectivity effectively does the work 
of the oligarchic opposition. There are a 
multitude of revolutionaries on the ground 
struggling for their city and their country, 
attacking both the right and the corrupt and 
bureaucratic Chavista center, and we will 
understand little if we systematically ignore 
their efforts or rob them of their autonomy 
through fidelity to an analytic binary whose very 
validity has been decisively ruptured by the Bolivarian Revolution.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in 
political theory at UC Berkeley. He lives in Caracas.

Michael A. Lebowitz
Professor Emeritus
Economics Department
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6

Currently based in Venezuela.
Can be reached at
Residencias Anauco Suites
Departamento 601
Parque Central, Zona Postal 1010, Oficina 1
Caracas, Venezuela
(58-212) 573-6333, 571-1520, 571-3820 (or hotel cell: 0412-200-7540)
fax: (58-212) 573-7724

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