Venezuela: Challenges of 21st century socialism


Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, led by President Hugo Chavez, has set "socialism of hte 21st century" as its goal. The process of change faces big challenges from outside and within. William I. Robinson, from the Latin American and Iberian Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, spoke to Chronis Polychroniou, the editor of Greek daily Eleftherotypia. The interview is abridged from Znet.

There are scare stories coming from Venezuela. The border is heating up, infiltration is taking place, a new Colombian military base near the border, US access to several new bases in Colombia and constant subversion. Is Venezuela concerned about a possible invasion? If yes, who is going to intervene?

The Venezuelan government is concerned about a possible US invasion and this cannot be ruled out. However, I think the US is pursuing a more sophisticated strategy of intervention that we could call a war of attrition.

We have seen this strategy in other countries, such as in Nicaragua in the 1980s and Chile under the Allende government in the early 1970s. It is what is known in CIA language as "destabilisation", and in the Pentagon's language is called "political warfare" — which doesn't mean there is no military component.

This is a counterrevolutionary strategy that combines military threats and hostilities with psychological operations, disinformation campaigns, black propaganda, economic sabotage, diplomatic pressures and the mobilisation of political opposition forces inside the country. This includes carrying out provocations and sparking violent confrontations in the cities, manipulation of disaffected sectors and the exploitation of legitimate grievances among the population.

The strategy takes advantage of the revolution's own mistakes and limitations, such as corruption, clientalism and opportunism, which we must acknowledge are serious problems in Venezuela.

It is also skilled at aggravating and manipulating material problems, such as shortages and price inflation.

The goal is to destroy the revolution by making it unworkable, by exhausting the population's will to continue to struggle to forge a new society, and in this way to undermine the revolution's mass social base.

The revolution must be destroyed by having it collapse it in on itself, by undermining the remarkable hegemony that the process has been able to achieve in Venezuela over the past decade. US strategists hope to provoke Chavez into a crackdown that transforms the democratic socialist process into an authoritarian one.

In the view of these strategists, Chavez will eventually be removed from power through any number of scenarios brought about by constant war of attribution — whether through elections, a military coup, an uprising, mass defections from the revolutionary camp, or a combination of factors that can not be foretold.

In this context, the US military bases in Colombia provide a crucial platform for intelligence and reconnaissance operations against Venezuela and also for the infiltration of counterrevolutionary militia and terrorist groups, as well as economic sabotage.

These infiltrating groups are meant to harass, but more specifically, to provoke reactions from the revolutionary government and to synchronise armed provocation with the whole gamut of political, diplomatic, psychological, economic, and ideological aggressions.

Moreover, the mere threat of US military aggression is a powerful US psychological operation intended to heighten tensions inside Venezuela, force the government into extremist positions or into "crying wolf", and to embolden internal anti-Chavista forces.

The military bases are part of the larger US strategy towards all of Latin America. The US and the Latin American right have launched a counteroffensive to reverse the turn to the left.

Venezuela is the epicenter of an emerging bloc challenging US power in Latin America. But Bolivia and Ecuador, and more generally, the region's burgeoning social movements and left political forces are as much targets of this counteroffensive as Venezuela.

The coup in Honduras has emboldened the counterrevolutionary forces. Colombia has become the epicenter of regional counterrevolution — really a bastion of 21st century fascism.

Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution" has been very popular with the poor. How has Venezuelan society changed since Chavez came to power?

The Bolivarian revolution has placed democratic socialism back on the worldwide agenda after the 1990s, when most were scared to even talk of socialism and it seemed global capitalism had triumphed.

The Chavez government has reoriented priorities to the poor majority. The Bolivarian revolution has given the poor and largely Afro-Caribbean masses their voice for the first time since the war of independence from Spanish colonialism.

It has been able to use oil revenues to develop health, education, and other social programs that have had dramatic results in reducing poverty, virtually eliminating illiteracy, and improving people's health. International organisations and data collecting agencies have recognised these remarkable social achievements.

But, as someone who visits Venezuela regularly, I would say the more fundamental change since Chavez came to power is the political and social awakening of the poor majority — a broad process of popular, grassroots mobilisation, cultural expression, political participation and empowerment.

The old elite and the bourgeoisie have been partially replaced from the state and from formal political power — although not entirely.

But the real fear and resentment of the old dominant groups, the panic and their hatred for Chavez, is because they have felt slip from their grip the ability to exercise cultural and social domination over the popular classes, as they have for centuries.

There are still plenty of ways that the bourgeoisie and political agents of the old regime wield their influence, particularly through the mass media that is still largely in their hands. This is why the "media battles" in Venezuela play such a prominent role.

Also, there are all kinds of problems and contradictions inside the Bolivarian revolution.

How widespread are nationalisation plans under Chavez and is there any evidence so far that they bring the desired results?

The obvious major economic change has been the recovery of the country's oil for a popular project — but even still there is a bureaucratic oligarchy in the state-owned oil company, PDVSA.

Other key enterprises, such as in steel, have been nationalised. And the cooperative sector — with all its problems — has spread.

Nonetheless, let's be clear: economic power is still largely in the hands of the capitalists.

The Venezuelan revolution is unique in that the old reactionary state was not "smashed" as it was in other revolutions. The strategy of the revolution has been to set up new parallel institutions and also try to "colonise" the old state.

But the Venezuelan state is still largely a capitalist state.

The key question is how can a transformative project move forward while operating through a corrupt, clientalist, bureaucratic, and often inert state bequeathed from the old regime? If revolutionary and socialist forces come to power within a capitalist political process, how do you confront the capitalist state and the brakes it places on transformative processes?

In fact, in Venezuela, and also Bolivia and elsewhere, prevailing state institutions often act to constrain, dilute, and coopt mass struggles from below.

In Venezuela, the biggest threat to the revolution comes not from the right-wing political opposition but from the "Chavista" right — and chunks of the revolutionary bloc, including state elites and party officials, will develop a deeper stake in defending global capitalism over socialist transformation.

The revolution has been going on for over a decade now. Is it maturing or is it reaching a stage of decline and deformation?

I would not say the revolution is in "decline" or "deformation". Rather, we need to place this in the context of 21st century global capitalism and its crisis.

The turn to the left in Latin America started out as a rebellion against neoliberalism. Post-neoliberal regimes have undertaken mild redistributive reform and limited nationalisations, particularly of energy resources and public services that had previously been privatised.

But unless these processes move towards a deeper socialist transformation, they will run up against limits.

The Bolivarian process faces contradictions, problems, and limitations, as do all historic projects.

The Venezuelan revolution, and also the Bolivian and Ecuadoran processes, may be coming up against the limits of redistributive reform within the logic of global capitalism — especially given the crisis of global capitalism.

Anti-neoliberalism that does not more fundamentally challenge the very logic of capitalism runs up against limitations that may now have been reached.

It may be that the revolution's best, or only, defence is to radicalise and deepen the revolutionary process, to push forward structural transformations that go beyond redistribution.

The Venezuelan capitalist class may have been partly displaced from political power, but it is still very much in economic control. Breaking that economic control implies a more significant change in property and class relations. This in turn means breaking the domination of capital, of global capital and its local agents.

Naturally this is a Herculian task. There is no clear way forward and each step generates complex new contradictions. Of course, these are matters the whole global left must contemplate.

We should recall the lessons of the Nicaraguan and other revolutions. Multi-class alliances create contradictions once the honeymoon stage of easy redistributive reform and social programs reach their limit. Then multi-class alliances begin to collapse because there are fundamental contradictions between distinct class projects and interests.

At that point, a revolution must more clearly define its class project — not just in words or politics but actual structural transformation.

The contradictions generated by trying to break the domination of global capital are not the fault of the revolution. Venezuela is still a capitalist country in which the capitalist law of value, of capital accumulation, still operates.

Efforts to establish a contrary logic — a logic of social need and distribution — run up against the law of value. But in a capitalist society, violating the the laws of a capitalist economy throws everything haywire, generating many problems and chaos — which the counterrevolution is able to take advantage of.

This is the challenge for any socialist-oriented revolution within global capitalism.