Chavismo’s hidden victory: a new twist in Latin America’s Pink Tide

A member of Constituent Assembly holds up a picture of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
Friday, August 11, 2017

In January last year, Henry Ramos Allup, president of the then newly-installed Venezuelan parliament, hastened to make a demonstration of institutional power. The opposition bloc had obtained a strong victory in the 2015 legislative elections and the veteran political leader of Democratic Action (AD) was probably thinking that Venezuela would soon follow Argentina’s suit and do away with its leftist government.

In his inaugural speech, Ramos Allup remarked that the executive’s mandate “could be terminated before [its statutory] chronological time for any of the causes that the constitution stipulates”. In fact, he presented such termination as a commitment that the new Assembly would try to achieve in a period of six months.

Allup had an early start in his first day in office. As soon as he was sure that smart phones around him were ready to record, he gave his first commands as the new maximum authority in the legislative premises: all pictures of former president Hugo Chavez should be taken away from the building and sent away to Sabaneta (Chavez’s birthplace), or else thrown into the rubbish bin.

Furthermore, he also asked removal workers to do away with all recent representations of Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar [which represented him with darker skin]. Allup dismissed these as “an invention of that mister [Chavez], a crazy thing”.

A year and a half later, on August 4, pictures and paintings with the images of Chavez and Bolivar returned to the legislative palace, heading the march of the elected members of the new Constituent Assembly.

Chavez’s legacy

This movement of political symbols, in and out of the legislative premises, represents far more than a mere display of political allegiances and wills. The return of Chavez's and Bolivar’s images to the legislative palace is a dramatised materialisation of a somewhat hidden victory of Chavismo: Chavez-as-symbol has not only survived the temporary exile from these quarters, it has returned strengthened.

To understand this strengthening (and the victory that it represents for Chavismo) one just has to look at the manoeuvring of prominent Venezuelan and international political actors during the past few months – particularly since the new crisis of the so-called guarimbas [violent street protests] that started in April.

In another episode of the ever extraordinary recent history of the country, we have listened to how even the bitterest enemies of the late Chavez now praise his government outcomes and/or recognise the legitimacy of the electoral majorities that sustained them during his 14 years in government.

In illustrative recent examples, Henrique Capriles, one of the (contested) leaders of the opposition and a (defeated) presidential rival of Chavez, and then Maduro, said at an August 6 public forum: “For many years […], when Chavez was supported by a majority [of Venezuelans], within the opposition bloc we aimed to ignore that majority, and it is to be seen how we crashed against a wall.”

A few weeks earlier, former Spanish president Felipe Gonzalez (an informal spokesperson of right-wing critics of Chavez), labelled Maduro’s call for a Constituent Assembly as “anti-Chavista”, in a bizarre attempt to delegitimise it.

All these declarations are obviously part of the desperate, “everything-goes” attempt at eroding the legitimacy of Maduro’s government and at symbolically detaching the latter from a Chavista legacy.

But it is also a recognition of political defeat, and moreover an indirect acknowledgement that anyone who wants to govern in Venezuela now (or in the medium term) will have to be, at least to start with, careful with the type of policies proposed and implemented: the centre of the political board has shifted to the left, and even amid a brutal economic crisis, a very large share of Venezuelans will not even consider the possibility of following the siren chants that would return them to an open neoliberal political frame.

Bolivarian governments have generated some doubts and uncertainties among many of their supporters, but also sowed among them some crucial certainties: historical processes need to be read beyond specific governments, and what is at stake in Venezuela is a definition of the future of the country, of the terms of Venezuelan insertion into global capitalism and the possibilities of clearing grounds to post-capitalist experiences.

New collective subjects

In this respect, the millions of Venezuelans who voted on July 30 to elect members of the Constituent Assembly were doing something that demonstrates, once again, the successful and lasting effects of what came to be known as the “Pink Tide” in Latin America. These effects are still felt in countries where leftist blocs gained shares of state power thanks to strong and, in many cases, repeated electoral victories.

Those victories kept the nowadays naturalised neoliberal motion of public policy on the back foot. Furthermore – and crucially given the current global scenario – they contributed to cementing collective subjects (state-supporting social movements) that did not exist before the Pink Tide.

These collective subjects have transcended electoral defeat, for even when they occurred (such as in Argentina in 2015) they remain ever present as close, realistic contenders for government. Let us remember that Mauricio Macri’s victory in Argentina was very narrow, and that other cases that are used as examples of an ebbing Tide also represent narrow victories of rightist forces.

Furthermore, in other cases used to certify the alleged historical defeat of the Pink Tide, such as Brazil, national rightist forces have tried to avoid an open electoral confrontation with leftist rivals. Not only did they remove former Workers’ Party (PT) president Dilma Roussef in a parliamentary coup, they also manoeuvred to ensure that the likely PT candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could not become a presidential candidate again.

In Venezuela, the collective subject that was created with the Pink Tide – or to be more exact by the shares of state power that access to government facilitated – remains alive too, as the Constituent Assembly vote demonstrates.

Despite the number of messages that some progressives from all over the world send to Chavismo and the number of death certificates that have been produced to facilitate the aseptic burial of the Latin American Pink Tide, the left in Venezuela and Latin America remains exceptionally successful by any globally applicable standard.

It has not only been capable of showing effective alternatives to neoliberal governance for a good while, but has also brought political precariousness to right-wing governments in many countries. Left-leaning blocs remain as clear options for post-neoliberal government even in moments of crisis.

Considering how far that reality is from most of Europe, North America or Australia, and considering the type of post-neoliberal subjects that are taking shape in other parts of the world – often led by proto-fascist forces or by anarchic extreme right-wingers – it is certainly not difficult to give another twist of positive appraisal to the Pink Tide.

[Luis F Angosto-Ferrandez lectures in anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Sydney. His recent publications include Venezuela Reframed: Bolivarianism, Indigenous Peoples and the Socialisms of the 21st Century (Zed Books, 2015) and Democracy, Revolution and Geopolitics in Latin America: Venezuela and the International Politics of Discontent (Routledge, 2014). Republished from Progress in Political Economy Blog.]

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