Boliviarian or Stalinist?
Posted on 15:54, February 17th, 2009 by Pablo
Victory in the constitutional referendum on removing term limits on Venezuelan presidents and National Assembly members has been heralded as a mandate for Hugo Chavez to continue the process of deepening his so-called “Boliviarian Revolution.” His supporters see the open-ended election option as the best guarantee that the socialist and populist -inspired reforms implemented by Chavez during the last decade will continue for the next one. Opponents (who received 46 percent of the “No” vote to 54 percent in favour of the “Yes” vote in the referendum) believe that this event will entrench the slide towards Stalinism evident for the last few years (in which Chavez engineered constitutional reforms that allow him to stack the judiciary and parliament with his followers, and places the armed forces at the service of his “Bolivarian” ideals). Given the heat generated on both sides, the question is whether Chavez is a a neo-Stalinist in disguise or a new form of democratic socialist responding to the exigencies of the 21st century Latin American context.
To be clear: Chavez has handily won every election he has contested, has survived a (US-backed) coup attempt and was restored by popular acclaim, has reduced poverty levels and increased literacy and health standards with massive funding from state-controlled oil profits (and with Cuban technical assistance in the form of hundreds of doctors and teachers performing their “internationalist” missions–a Cuban version of the US Peace Corps, if you will), has provided developmental aid and low-cost petroleum to several Latin American neighbours as well as low-income communities in the US, has expanded Venezuela’s web of diplomatic and economic partners, and has served as a champion of the anti-imperialist cause in Latin American and elsewhere by pushing for more egalitarian trading blocs organised around “socialist” principles of fair exchange. He is the most popular Venezuelan leader since Simon Bolivar himself, and like Juan Peron in Argentina, Getulio Vargas in Brazil or Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico during the last century, his appeal to the working and lower classes is equalled by his hatred by the local elites and distrust by larger foreign powers.
On the other hand, Chavez has closed down opposition media and imposed a censorship regime on what his government deems to be “traitorous” commentary; he has armed citizen militias to ensure the “purity” of his “revolution” and to guard against traitors; he has replaced independent military commanders with personal cronies and embarked on a massive military spending spree in anticipation of a US attack that most security analysts believe is a figment of his imagination; he has failed to deal with the country’s escalating crime rate and deteriorating infrastructure; he has failed to invest in the oil industry to the point that production is now 25 percent below what it was ten years ago (although that was disguised by high oil prices up until this past year); he allocates public good provision based solely on partisan adherence to his Boliviarian Party, with the funding criteria being that no funding goes to agencies or individuals not affiliated with his Party. To that effect he has required state registration of all organised interests and collective actors, thereby marginalising those who refuse to register or register as independents or unaffiliated. He has embraced Iran, North Korea and Russia as diplomatic partners, and has threatened to nationalise foreign assets in Venezuela without market value compensation (or negotiation of value). He has been accused of funding and supplying weapons to guerrilla forces in Colombia and elsewhere in the region, as well as providing illegal cash payments to sympathetic politicians in other countries (the most prominent being a money-for-influence scandal involving president Kischner of Argentina). His government is accused of replacing the kleptocratic oligarchy of the Accion Democratica and COPEI governments in the past with red-clad slogan-spouting thieves in the present.
With oil prices in decline and demand slacking, lower anticipated revenues means budgetary shortfalls will hit hard this year, forcing Chavez to curtail some of his spending projects. Some argue that is why he pushed for the re-election referendum now, before the recession bottomed out, so that he could impose austerity and betray his campaign promises by force. There are signs of organised anti-semitism among Boliviarian militias and para-military squads, and there are reports that student activists as well as wealthy opposition figures have been the subject of intimidation, beatings and arbitrary arrest. Yet, the elections that Chavez wins, and the referenda that he holds, are inevitably characterised by impartial observers as fair and clean, so such acts would appear to be unecessary in any event. Since Chavez has a fair dose of political smarts, why would he authorise activities that were not needed given his popularity and ability to rule in a transparent fashion?
To be sure, being anti-imperialist does not mean that he is democratic. Engaging in popular redistribution programs does not mean he is democratic. Enjoying a large positive majority in public opinion polls does not mean that he is democratic. But what all of this does mean is that unlike the Latin American military dictators of the 1960s through the 1980s (all backed by the US), he can walk the streets of Caracas without fear of a riot–and not because his armed supporters surround him. Thus the question must be asked: even if he annoys Western powers, irritates neighbouring governments, buys favours at home and abroad and exhibits messianic and narcissistic traits that are at times both intemperate and intolerant, is it not for Venezuelans to decide what he is and is not? Although he can continue to run for office, so long as elections remain free, fair and the standard for leadership selection, and even admitting the advantages that go to an incumbent such as he (where he can use the entire state machinery to mobilise his supporters), it is that mechanism–the institutionalised uncertainty of elections–that ultimately allows Venezuelans to decide whether Boliviarianism is a benefit or a curse. The combination of free elections, the need to address social problems in a non-partisan way, and the uncertain fortunes of a sclerotic oil-dependent economy are the best hedge against further personalisation and authoritarian hardening of the Boliviarian dream.