Bolívar and Beyond
Easter Sunday, the last day of Holy Week, fills Venezuela’s Catholic churches with religious fervor, and the beaches and recreation spots with exuberant Dionysian paganism. On the Day of Resurrection Venezuela, like the rest of Latin America, celebrates the holiday as a day of rejoicing in which the central act is the “burning” of the effigy of Judas. Residents of poor working-class communities, the “barrios,” create life-size grotesque puppets that are burnt at sunset to punish the traitor. The rag puppet takes on the semblance of the year’s mostly widely repudiated public figure. From very early in the day, neighborhood youths take to the streets to show off their improvised mannequins, stopping passers-by to solicit contributions to feed the bonfire and finance the accompanying celebration.
This year, a skinny youth from Caracas’ El Pedregal barrio held out a receptacle in which I should drop my donation. It was a box that at one time had been used for a bottle of Buchanans Whisky. I asked, as one always asks on these occasions, who was going to be burnt on this occasion. “Juan Barreto,” he replied. Barreto is the Mayor of Caracas, a radical member of the Chávez government, now out of favor. He would be the target of the bonfire because he had failed to deliver on his promises to those who had elected him four years previously—as a candidate on the Chávez platform—to govern one of the most difficult Latin American cities. His fall came in spite of his reputation as a full-fledged intellectual of postmodern and revolutionary eloquence who quoted Negri, Lenin, Gramsci, Guevara and Bourdieu. His narrative spinning of the “Bolivarian revolution” unravelled in the face of the disappointment of the masses.
How can we understand what is going on in Venezuela, which appears to be drowning in a sea of oil and whisky with its inhabitants swimming in a sea of empty abundance? Economists have spoken of the “resource curse” in which societies become overly dependent on the revenue produced by their natural resources. This dependency often converts social and political development into patrimonial and populist models that in turn foster inequality and poverty. Venezuela has become a very vivid illustration of this thesis, but at the same time in the last ten years has done so in the context of the relentless marketing of a new political brand: “socialism of the 21st century.”
The confluence of an economy that has lived off natural resource revenues for almost a hundred years, on the one hand, and on the other, the rehabilitation of the bleak world of real socialism, provides the observer with a complicated maze in which everyday events—of politics, of life and death, of social co-existence— that are transformed into enigmas that have to be deciphered. The hermeneutic key depends entirely on which side of the mirror the confused observer is standing. It feels like a postmodern nightmare in which the person who wants to understand the scene has no factual evidence but only narratives, tales, versions, stories that depend entirely on their framers’ positive or negative views on the self-proclaimed “Bolivarian revolution” and “socialism of the 21st century.”
As a result, the principal obstacle to understanding the Venezuelan political process comes from the diffuse political identities this process has generated. The Latin American neighborhood, with its many countries in the social-democratic camp and with some high-ranking government officials often former members of the old ultra-radical left, has served as an excellent camouflage to hide the specific nature—or perhaps better said, the exceptional nature—of the Venezuelan regime. While several members of the Chávez cabinet belonged to radical leftist parties in their youth, the political culture of the president and of his close associates does not originate in leftist ideology. On the contrary, the president’s intellectual formation and his life history come out of traditional Venezuelan political culture. “The cult to Bolívar” (as the historian Carrera Damas aptly calls it), a central fixture of his political philosophy, presupposes the predominance of the military above civilian culture, with the accompanying lack of confidence in politics as a means to organize society. The president’s own military background and personal social sensibility are added to the mix, much more traditional than ground-breaking. Chávez’s type of social sensibility is quite frequent in Venezuela, guided by egalitarianism and anarchic individualism (a form of insurgency against universalist ethics that implies putting more value on family and corporate ties than on abstract norms).
The political trajectory of chavismo or of Hugo Chávez himself did not come from the Venezuelan left, but after the 2002 political crisis the government discourse adopted the traditional vocabulary of out-of-fashion socialist revolutions. Only in November 2004, almost six years after being elected, did President Chávez begin to officially use the term “socialist” to refer to his government. At that time, he also substituted the term “revolutionary” to describe the project he formerly described as essentially “Bolivarian” and “patriotic.”
An explanation for this new phraseology, which implies an unexpected change in political identity, may lie in the lack of specificity in the Bolivarian identity, which is not sufficiently distinctive as a revolutionary concept precisely because it is a traditional element in Venezuelan culture. Several previous governments have used the figure of Bolívar as a form of legitimation, including those of Antonio Guzmán Blanco, Cipriano Castro, Juan Vicente Gómez, Eleazar López Contreras and Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Since the 19th century, strongmen and military dictators have used their own individual interpretations of the Bolivarian doctrine to sustain their own personalist regimes.
The first years of the Chávez government showed no innovations in public policies. Given the then relatively low oil price, the economy had to undergo a process of orthodox macroeconomic adjustment, while the president, then very popular, repeated in his speeches his usual offerings: new order and progress, as if paraphrasing the theme of classic positivism while flirting with an unclear “third way” that would be different from capitalism or communism. But presidential popularity polls in the third trimester of 2002 (33% in agreement and 58% against, according to Keller Consultants) demonstrated how the Venezuelan people felt about this adjustment program.
The April 2002 crisis, which took place in a charged atmosphere, generated an unprecedented political polarization in the country. The crisis marked the beginning of the construction of a new political identity for chavismo, based on the socialist idea in its Cuban version. The relationship between Fidel Castro and Chávez had been a close one ever since 1994 when two years after the aborted coup in Venezuela, Castro received the recently-pardoned Chávez in Havana as a guest of state. Now, the relationship was consolidated on political, economic, commercial and strategic levels.
The previous romantic relationship of the president with the “poor” and the “excluded,” with little capacity to mobilize enthusiasm in the terms of the Bolivarian discourse, could now be transformed into a relationship historically categorized as “revolutionary,” recreating the categories of exploitation, the imperial enemy and the structural transformation of the economy.
Moreover, the inclusion of the dictionary of Cuban socialism had a crucial effect in the universalization of chavismo and the propagation of the figure of President Chávez as the heir to the ancestral struggles on the continent. This allows him to escape from the national localism of the small Bolivarian universe and to capture a very important niche of the international market of progressive indulgences. And above all, it allows the government to count on a strategic basis for self-identification and organization of its political action, public policies and above all, its discursive techniques.
Faced with the impending 2004 Revocatory Referendum, the government concentrated on programs focused on the poorest sector of society and its most urgent concerns of health and unemployment. These programs were baptized with the military-sounding name of “missions” and were designed as an informal bureaucratic apparatus, a kind of parallel state, controlled exclusively by the executive branch and independent of conventional supervision or control by the public administration. These “missions” provided “content” beyond the abstract concept of “socialism.” Thus, the concept of socialism became associated with the strategy of redistribution, which had been a common policy for the social-democratic governments in the decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s, during the expansive cycles of petroleum prices. And, in the same manner as previous governments, the Chávez government stabilized politically and comfortably won the 2006 elections.
Thus, the powerful Venezuelan nostalgia for a populist government that would, as in the past, redistribute petroleum income to the poorest sector of society, was utilized as an essential ingredient for a regime that had called itself “socialism of the 21st century” and used a new political vocabulary that consolidated the dividing line of identity politics between Chavistas and anti-Chavistas.
But regardless of their policy agenda, the financial capacity of the previous populist governments was far below the gigantic oil revenue that the present government has received. That nostalgia has thus become converted into a memory of scarcity. The discursive basis of “socialism of the 21st century” is the deformation of the values of the past: before Chávez, nothing; after Chávez, everything. Accompanying ideological operations with a tremendous public expenditure directed toward redistribution, and increasingly forcing state domination of the means of production, the government has distorted the economy to stimulate the consumption of imported goods. Economic paradoxes are surprising: in a marginal working-class barrio in Caracas, it is easier to get DirectTV than to obtain potable water, and it is cheaper to have a cellphone than to buy medicine for intestinal parasites. While banks achieve record-breaking profits, the number of cases of tropical diseases that had been eradicated before 1998 is now also breaking records: malaria, dengue, tuberculosis, Chagas’ disease and leishmaniasis.
Other paradoxes show up in the formation of identity in chavismo. Several instances of “branding” have succeeded one another in constructing this identity, one that is not solely political (on the contrary, it tends to dissolve the political and substitute processes of “ethnic identification” and other social categories). It is extremely important to take into account the financial and bureaucratic effort that the Chávez government has invested in taking over political space through a progressive construction of what has been called “communications hegemony,” expressed through direct and indirect control of the media, particularly the electronic media.
An early example of such “branding” has to do with defining the president’s electoral pool through lists or databases that effectively distinguish the Chavistas from anti-Chavistas. The most notorious of these was the “Tascón list,” which was replaced by more sophisticated databases which contained the voting history of every citizen in the electoral registry, distinguishing among Chávez supporters, dissidents and non-voters.
In other areas of communication, the government has chosen a corporate image with an aesthetic whose central color is red: ministers and high government officials appear in public dressed accordingly, and government websites and publicity campaigns use the color red as an identifying factor. Likewise, the government has sought to make political use of ethnic differences and identities, creating racial tensions through the formation of ethnically “ideal Venezuelan types” that contrast with the former ideal of racial democracy or mestizo blending that predominated in Venezuelan popular culture. Marking the differences among indigenous peoples, “Afro-descendants,” and immigrants while devaluing the European contribution as “colonialist,” the Chávez government is managing to dissolve the illusion of harmony that sustains the self-perception of Venezuelans as equals.
But in these operations of identity politics, as in many other aspects of his management, the Chávez regime is simply creating parallel realities through an enormous show. The discursive elaboration of new social segmentation that aims to consolidate his government appears in fact to hide the reality of the very nature of chavismo itself. Although these new identities circulate and have a certain effectiveness in the consolidation of personalist ties between the strongman and the poorest of the poor, the true strong nucleus of identification for Venezuelans resides in their having access to modernity through consumption: the expansion of consumption, not only for basic necessities but also luxury goods, has been a fundamental anchor for the stability of the government, whose popularity fluctuates in direct proportion to the people’s sense of their ability to acquire consumer goods. To some degree, through consumerism, we are all identified as Venezuelans, while the segmentations the government seeks to foment hardly affect this basic identity.
Colette Capriles is a professor of political philosophy and social sciences at the Universidad Simón Bolívar, Caracas. She combines her academic activity with opinion journalism and political consulting. She has published La revolución como espectáculo (Caracas, Editorial Debate, Random House Mondadori, 2004) and several journal articles. Her work La riqueza de las pasiones: la filosofía moral de Adam Smith, received the 2001 national Federico Riu prize for philosophic research. In 2001, she was awarded the annual prize for the best opinion piece in the newspaper El Nacional.