Tag Archives: Hugo Chávez

Venezuela Agonistes.

There are two things remarkable about coverage of the Venezuelan crisis. The first is the silence of the Left in the face of it. This includes the champions of the so-called Latin American “Pink Tide” who saw in the Boliviarian Revolution an alternate developmental model that along with the left leaning regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Nicaragua offered hope for a new socialist bulwark in the Western Hemisphere that, unlike the Castro regime in Cuba, was both socialist and democratic. Or at least, that was the thought in the early 2000s. Now, rather than offer robust critiques of what went wrong, those champions have gone quiet, perhaps hugging small comfort pets against their Che Guevara t-shirts while muttering into their pillows something about the sulphuric impact of “neo-imperialism” and globalised corporate control.

The second remarkable aspect of the coverage of Venezuela is the continued misrepresentation by conservative (and even mainstream media) commentators that Venezuela demonstrates (yet again) the failures of socialism in practice. Allow me to address this fallacy.

Before I do so let’s briefly note what is clearly an organic crisis of the Venezuelan state (seen, in Gramscian terms, as economy+civil society+political society).  Regardless of external factors and interference (such as oil prices, Cuban security assistance and US government hostility) and the disloyal nature of most of the traditional opposition to the Boliviarian Movement, the crisis has at its core the incompetence and corruption of the Maduro government. The seeds for the decline were sown by Hugo Chavez himself with his prolifigate spending and cult of personality, but the bitter fruit of criminality, cronyism, patronage, partisanism and despotic maladministration ripened, then rotted under Maduro.

This not entirely surprising because in truth the Boliviarian experiment was always more populist than socialist. Socialism is not just about downwards redistribution of income and expansion of public goods and services via the use of tax revenues.  It is not just about progressive tax reform to make the rich pay their fair share. It is not just about nationalising privately held productive assets or at least strategic economic assets. It not about state ownership of the means of production. And it definitely does not involve a self-appointed authoritarian revolutionary “vanguard” telling everyone what their best interests are, what to do in pursuit of those interests, and concentrating power in a small partisan elite in order to compel others do so.

Instead, socialism involves equality in and of production, to include worker control of decision-making on everything from occupational health and safety to production levels to distribution and reinvestment of profit. Socialism involves decentralisation and local autonomy in political decision-making, to include about the distribution of public goods, social investment and economic development. It involves not just matters of production, particularly with respect to control of productive assets, but also of decision-making behaviour within production and the attendant social relations linked to it. Socialism has cooperatives as a basic unit of social integration; national populism has paramilitary militias and neighbourhood political snitches.

There is more to socialism than what I have outlined, but the point should be pretty clear: socialism is about devolving power to the people, not concentrating it in the hands of a central government. Even if a transition period is needed after bourgeois rule, the move to socialism involves expansion of the number of decisional sites that determine the material, cultural and political fortunes of the average citizen. To do so requires dismantling of a capitalist state apparatus, which is characterised by top down managerial control of public and private policy decision-making, and its replacement with a socialist state in which policy decisions ultimately rest in the hands of immediate stakeholders and are conveyed upwards into national-level platforms. The transition between the two–from a capitalist state to a socialist state–is the hard part of any change from liberal to social democracy (even more so than in violent social revolutions where the destruction of the capitalist state runs in parallel with the elimination of capitalism and its elites), and in Venezuela’s case it was never done. Both Chavez and Maduro have relied on a capitalist state to implement and enforce their populist, and increasingly authoritarian mode of governance.

Rather than socialist and democratic, the Boliviarian revolution is a left-leaning national populist regime using a state capitalist project and corporatist forms of interest group intermediation marshalled along partisan lines in order to redistribute wealth via partisan patronage networks to its support base and to its leaders. It has uncoupled wealth redistribution from productivity and, for all the achievements in education and health made under Chavez, those gains were lost once prices for the single export commodity it relies on (oil) fell and the revenues from oil experts shrunk. Corruption and incompetence, coupled with private capital flight and the exodus of the managerial class (mostly to Florida), accelerated the downward spiral, and now Venezuela is for all purposes a failed state. Inflation is stratospheric, food scarcity is rife, there are shortages of essential medical supplies, power and potable water, petrol supplies (?!) are increasingly spotty, unemployment, under-employment and crime are at all-time highs (the murder rate is 85 per 100,100 population, one of the highest in the world). Violent street protests have become the norm, and spot curfews and other coercive and legal curtailments on freedom of movement and speech are now the most widely used tools with which the Maduro regime handles dissent. For a purportedly Leftist regime, there is no worse indictment than that.

That Chavez, Maduro and their supporters refer to the Boliviarian regime as “socialist” is offered as proof  by some that it is, and that is it is therefore socialism that has failed. That is hopelessly naive. “Socialism” is the label that the Boliviarians have cloaked themselves in because they know that given its history, “populism” is not in fact very popular in Latin America. In its own way the US is finding out why that is so, but the important point to note is that there is nothing genuinely socialist about they way the Boliviarians behave.

The current reality is that the Boliviarian regime has descended from a left-leaning national populist form into an Scotch-addled kleptocracy (Venezuelans have one of the highest per capita intakes of Scotch in the world, and in recent years the regime has taken to hoarding supplies of it). In the measure that it is besieged by its own weaknesses and the rising opposition of the popular base that it ostensibly serves, it increasingly relies on coercion and criminality for its sustenance. Military and government involvement in the narcotics trade, the presence of Cuban intelligence in and out of the armed forces and security apparatus, covert links to states such as Syria and North Korea, the presence of operatives of extra-regional non-state actors such as Hezbollah in government circles–all of these factors suggest that Venezuela’s national interests are no longer foremost in the minds of the Boliviarian elite.

This has not been lost on the population, and the last year has seen over 1.5 million Venezuelans emigrate. This is on a par with Syrian and Rohinga refugee flows and amount to more than 4 million Venezuelans now living outside their motherland (with most leaving after 1999 when Chavez was first elected). The refugee crisis has impacted the relations between Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil, with their borders heavily militarised and safe passage corridors opened for migrants to proceed to countries such as Ecuador and Peru. The extent of the Venezuelan refugee crisis is now regional in nature.

Not surprisingly, there have been some moves against the Maduro regime from within the armed forces. This have failed due to basic incompetence of the plotters and the fact that the Venezuelan military is stocked with Boliviarian sycophants buttressed by Cuban intelligence agents who spend more time looking for moles and dissidents than they do improving national intelligence collection capabilities per se. The combat readiness of the Venezuelan military has been replaced by proficiency in crowd control, and the High Command is staffed by flag ranked officers who have more good conduct medals and Boliviarian revolutionary awards than they do insignia demonstrating operational proficiency in any kinetic endeavour. May the goddess help the Venezuelan armed forces should they ever pick a fight with the battle hardened Colombian military or the well-disciplined Brazilians.

For a military coup to happen, there need to be vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military and push and pull factors compelling it to act. Vertical cleavages are those between officers and the enlisted corps, including rivalries between flag, field and company ranked officers, Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and the enlisted soldiers they command. Horizontal cleavages are this between armed services–Army, Navy, Air Force, national gendarme, border patrol, interior ministry secret police, etc–and within those services (say, between armour and infantry in the land forces, or surface fleet and submariners in the Navy).

The Boliviarians and their Cuban advisors have been very good at purging non-loyalists from the officer corps. Their control over NCOs and enlisted personnel is a bit more tenuous, as evidenced by recent attempts to kill Maduro using a drone and an earlier helicopter attack on military installations. But the big cleavages needed to form a coup-making nucleus simply do not exist in the measure that is required, even if the push and pull factors are clearly present. The push factors are those internal to the military that compels it to act, for institutional reasons, against the government (such as loss of discipline, corruption, lack of effective military leadership etc. that erode the ability of the armed forces to discharge their basic defence functions against foreign counterparts ). The pull factors are the external societal conditions, to include family ties of military personnel and civilian elite pleading for the restoration of social order, that draw the uniformed corps towards intervention. So the coup “equation” is just half complete: the motives for intervention are present but the organisational or institutional conditions as of yet are not.

Not that a military coup is a panacea for Venezuela. It could well make things worse. Perhaps this is where a bit of good news has emerged. It turns out that the US was approached by military coup plotters for support and turned down the request. This, in spite of Donald Trump’s public statements about US military intervention against the Maduro regime. It seems that, even if not for all the right reasons, seasoned diplomats understood the downside of agreeing to the request and cooler heads prevailed.

It is praiseworthy that the US, or at least its foreign policy decision-makers, understand that Venezuelans need to be the sole owners of their collective destiny. This destiny might or might not include the reactionary wishful thinkers in the self-exiled community that has made Weston, Florida, a mini-Caracas (and whom have joined with the ageing Cuban exiles to form an anti-communist mafia that fund-raises in “dark” ways). Whether they join or not, the key to resolving the Venezuelan crisis involves providing Maduro and his entourage with a safe passage out of government and an incremental and negotiated restoration of the productive apparatus to a mix of interests of different political persuasions under an agreed upon caretaker regime. This will be a difficult process even with military tutelage and arbitration since the military itself will have to be reformed.

However, since the Boliviarian Revolution was never socialist and the capitalist state remains intact even if decrepit, the foundations for a rejuvenated economy are present. Likewise, many of the social gains made by the lower classes under the Boliviarians have taken enough social root so as to be non-removable if violence is to be avoided. So the foundational compromise underpinning the new democratic regime  seems to involve an exchange whereby a return to private ownership of some aspects of the Venezuelan economy under broader market steerage is traded for ongoing state control of strategic assets and the extension of social guarantees involving health, education, housing and welfare. The tax regime will need reforming and the art of tax evasion by the wealthy will need to be curtailed for this to happen, so it is unsure if the majority in the opposition will accept anything other than the status quo ante the emergence of the Boliviarians.

If we remember the sclerosis of Venezuelan democracy before Chavez appeared on the scene, where the two major parties–Accion Democratic and COPEI–alternated power in a concertative arrangement where elites siphoned off the country’s wealth while buying off popular consent with oil revenue-derived subsides of public goods and services, then we can understand why the back to the future scenario will not work. It will take a sincere effort by fair-minded people on both sides, Boliviarians and Opposition, to recognise that the experiment is over and the country needs a new course that is not a repeat of the past, be it recent or distant.

And there is where I will leave with a note of optimism. Unlike many Latin American countries, Venezuela has a historical precedent of reaching consensus–or at least elite agreement–on the characteristics and contours of a new political system. The 1958 “Pacto de Punto Fijo” (roughly translated as the Full Stop Pact) defined the features of the new democratic regime after years of unstable oligarchical and often violent rule. It led to the power alternation agreement between AD and COPEI under conditions of electoral competition and state control of the oil sector in which agreed upon parameters for public revenue expenditures were respected. While it deteriorated into a lighter version of the current cabal of thieves, it lasted for forty years and only fell because it did not recognise, because of its institutional myopia, the social forces that lay at the root of the Chavez phenomenon and emergence of the Boliviarian movement.

In other words, Venezuela needs a new foundational Pact the provides peaceful exit and entrance strategies to the Boliviarians and their inevitable successors. Otherwise there will be blood whether the imperialists get involved or not.

El Chavismo sin Chavez.

I am sure that there will be plenty of eulogies, some fawning and some harsh, for Hugo Chavez. Since I spent a good part of my academic career writing about Latin American politics, to include the nature of national populists such as Chavez and a bit about his regime itself, I am well aware of his shortcomings and strengths. It is in the nature of national populism to be redistributive, mass mobilizational and increasingly authoritarian. As a left-wing variant, the Chavez regime was all of those things, and the fact that the US supported the 2002 coup against him only cemented the increasingly authoritarian direction of the regime. But his authoritarianism was mass rather than elite-based, and it was this mass support that carried him through three terms and four elections. He was no tin pot despot. His rule was a bit more complicated than that of, say, Robert Mugabe, who took a popular national independence movement and turned it into an armed clan-based kleptocracy.

The Achilles heel of national populism is the personalist nature of executive rule. Peron, Vargas, Cardenas and Chavez–all increasingly concentrated power in their own hands, thereby removing institutional checks and balances as well as clear lines of authority and succession. That could be the undoing of the Boliviarian experiment.

After the 2002 coup Chavez purged the military and civilian state bureaucracy of professionals and populated the upper ranks with acolytes. This decreased the efficiency and capabilities of state agencies, both armed and unarmed. He increasingly relied on Cubans for behind the scenes leadership of his internal security services, including his personal bodyguards. He played divide and conquer with his parliamentary counterparts at the same time that he re-jigged the constitution to increase the length of his presidential terms as well as the electoral prospects of his political party. He populated the judiciary with supporters and increasingly restricted freedoms of public expression and the press. He trained and armed supporter militias organized along the lines of the Cuban Auto-Defense Committees. Some of these have been accused of intimidating and assaulting members of the political opposition.

He used inclusionary state corporatist mechanisms of interest group administration that bestowed favor and patronage on supportive groups and excluded or punished non-supportive groups (which thereby polarized civil society organizations). This allowed for top-down direction of the thrust of state policy and funding directed at civil society, but it also gradually surpressed independent and autonomous expressions of grassroots interest.

All of this was justified on the grounds that he faced a disloyal opposition aided and abetted by hostile foreign powers, the US in particular. Although there is an element of paranoia in those claims, there is also a large grain of truth to them. The hard fact is that just the appearance of socialist inclinations on Chavez’s part sent the US into knee-jerk opposition, something that was particularly acute under the Bush 43 administration and was not undone once Obama was elected.

Chavez did much good for Venezuela, particularly in the fields of health, education, welfare and community organization. During his time in power infant mortality rates dropped and literacy rates increased dramatically. The percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty dropped from 50 percent to below 30 percent in ten years. Rural hospitals and schools were built where there previously were none. His regime kept the price of domestic petrol cheap (as it could as a major oil-producing and refining nation), which allowed the poorest segments of the population to weather rises in the price of imported commodities.

In spite of the claims of his detractors, he won four elections handily and relatively cleanly in the eyes of most international election observers. His tenure marks a major historical moment in Venezuelan life, and his legacy will be indelible on it. Whatever his authoritarian tendencies, he was no Pinochet or Somoza. Although his regime selectively repressed the opposition, it did not systematically torture or kill. Nor did it expropriate all private wealth, although it did seek to raises upper-income taxes, nationalize some strategic assets and prevent capital flight via financial controls. Needless to say, this earned him the emnity of Venezuelan elites and their foreign supporters.

He was a close ally of the Cuban regime, but given the common hostility of the US, that was born as much out of necessity than it was out of ideological affinity (truth be told, Raul Castro always thought of Chavez as a buffoon but Fidel was flattered by his attention and both were grateful for his cheap oil supplies. The Cubans worried that he would provoke a confrontation with the US that would suck them in and destabilize them).

He expanded Venezuela’s diplomatic, economic and military relations (towards China, Russia and Iran in particular, but also with other Latin American states) so as to counter-balance the traditional US-focused obsequiousness of his predecessors. He was the motor force behind the solidarity market Latin American trade bloc known as the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which among other things rejected IMF and World Bank financial prescriptions. He had  significant Latin American popular and governmental support, which was mirrored in international media coverage.

He is alleged to have cultivated relations with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

He presided over the deterioration of Venezuela’s core infrastructure, to include its oil production facilities (in which foreign investment dried up in response to his nationalization policies), as well as a dramatic rise in violent crime (Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world). He did not stop corruption but merely shifted it in favor of those who wear red berets. Venezuelan consumption of Scotch whisky, already the highest in the world when he assumed power in 1999, increased steadily from then on. He was unable to curb the Venezuelan obsession with female plastic surgery and beauty queens. So not all is well in the Boliviarian Republic. I shall leave it for others to debate the trade-offs involved and the pros and cons of his regime.

On balance, in the Latin American scheme of things Hugo Chavez was a relatively moderate caudillo (strongman) with a staunch independent and redistributive streak and majority popular support until the end.

The real problem at the moment is that his movement has no natural leader to succeed him. Moreover, he was the ideological glue of the regime: it was his vision, his praxis, the drew the course of events. With him gone the ideological basis of the regime is subject to interpretation by contending personalities and factions within the Boliviarian movement. His designated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, has no independent power base, much less broad support within the Party. He has a serious rival in Diosdado Cabello, a former Army colleague of Chavez’s who is the head of the National Assembly. Cabello has support within the military, whereas Maudro’s support comes from within the union movement and public bureaucracy. Yet neither is visibly stronger than the other, so the backroom maneuvering and in-fighting has begun in earnest (and in fact began when Chavez returned to Cuba for surgery last December).

To this can be added the opposition, which rallied around the figure of Henrique Caprilles Radonski in the October 2012 elections that saw Chavez elected for the fourth time. A presidential election is supposed to be held 30 days  after the public announcement of Chavez’s death (March 5). Riding a wave of grief, unity and solidarity, Maduro is the favorite to win that election if he is a candidate. It will be interesting to see if Maduro can maintain his grip on power before or after the elections in the absence of support for his mandate, however electorally affirmed. One thing is certain: Maduro is no Chavez, and everyone knows that.

Caprilles might not run in the immediate elections so as to delegitimize them and allow the Boliviarian in-fighting to proceed unimpeded and without a common political enemy to focus on. Whatever happens over the short-term, the bigger question is whether the Boliviarian experiment can outlive its creator. Can there be Chavismo without Chavez? Given the dynamics at play within and without the Boliviarian regime, the odds are not entirely favorable.

For the time being we will be treated to the grand spectacle of a Venezuelan state funeral, where the streets will be awash in red and the dignitaries will include a who’s who of US adversaries and critics, Hollywood leftists and very few heads of state from the developed capitalist world. As for Chavez–will his afterlife smell of sulphur or of something more pleasant?

Chávez doubles down

Hugo Chávez’ statements of support for Gaddafi are very concerning in a leader with already-established authoritarian credentials, and speak to a concerning lack of perspective.

His latest statement, an offer to provide mediation to resolve the Libyan situation, similarly demonstrates that he’s beyond reason. Suggestions of independent mediation often have merit, and ‘talking cures’ can be useful in low-level disputes. The sentiments expressed — “a peaceful solution”; “the south finding solutions for the south” — are certainly noble. But while they have their place, mediation efforts like this are often more useful as face-saving devices permitting overcommitted leaders to engage in mutual de-escalation than to resolving a deep and genuine conflict such as exists in Libya. They are certainly of little use in situations where time is short and lives are being lost, and have rightly been condemned as wasteful procrastination in other cases, most notably in Palestine.

Moreover, if a ‘talking cure’ was the ticket, there exists an internationalist framework more robust, better-funded and for all its many flaws more independent than Chávez’ hastily-invented “international peace commission” — the United Nations, whose security council recently voted unanimously to impose sanctions on the Gaddafi regime, and to refer its leaders, including Gaddafi himself, to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. Chávez, for all his misgivings about the UN, and all his delusions about American imperialism, is no fool and no stranger to the norms of international democracy; he knows that his alternate commission has no chance of being taken seriously. This is an empty symbolic gesture of renewed solidarity with a dictator who has become the most — and perhaps the most justifiably — loathed leader in the world today.

Gaddafi, nevertheless, has accepted the offer, and Chávez, for his part, has admitted that given his prior support for the Libyan dictator, it would be “hypocritical of him to join the chorus of international condemnation of Gaddafi now”. Chávez has had an opportunity to clarify his earlier position of support, to repudiate it, or to use his relationship with Gaddafi to call for him to cease murdering his people. So far from doing so, he has doubled down, tying his international reputation and credibility to that of Muammar Gaddafi.

There will undoubtedly remain a few people who will defend him, or who will try to compartmentalise his good works from his bad, and make excuses for him, but to my mind Hugo Chávez is lost to the democratic left. He has showed that he values Gaddafi’s power, and its maintenance, higher than the lives and freedom of the ordinary citizens of Libya. In the most charitable analysis, he has shown that he considers mass civilian slaughter an acceptable price to pay to prevent Western imperialism — which we might know by its other name of ‘humanitarian intervention’. I see no reason to suppose that, push coming to shove, he would not take a similar view of his own citizens as cannon fodder in an ideological conflict.


Chávez backs Gaddafi?

Via The Egonomist, on twitter, the news that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has apparently expressed support, on twitter, for Muammar Gaddafi, whose mercenaries and loyalists are presently butchering Libya’s citizens.

The tweet, in Spanish, is as follows:

Vamos Canciller Nicolás: dales otra lección a esa ultraderecha pitiyanqui! Viva Libia y su Independencia! Kadafi enfrenta una guerra civil!!

My Spanish is no good (Pablo can no doubt translate), but it seems to largely match the following, from the Al Jazeera English live-blog:

4:27am: Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, has backed Muammar Gaddafi on Twitter.
Chavez twitted:
“Gaddafi is facing a civil war. Long live Libya. Long live the independence of Libya.”

Without an understanding of the context this looks like a plain statement of fact: after all, Gaddafi is facing what looks very much like a civil war. But in light of Gaddafi’s recent speeches (and that of his son), which framed the uprising as a civil war started by malcontents, rather than as an expression of the Libyan peoples’ will; and urged loyalists to defend Libya from its internal enemies, the implication of Chávez’ message is pretty clear. He accepts Gaddafi’s framing wholesale; equates Gaddafi with his country and action against Gaddafi as action against Libya, just as the dictator himself did.

Gaddafi’s deep links to and close relationship with the Venezuelan leadership are well-documented. But one other factor suggests that the Venezuelan leadership buys the line that the unrest is not a response to Gaddafi’s oppression and the uprisings in nearby countries, but the work of foreign imperialists. Chávez’ reference to “Canciller Nicolás” presumably refers to Nicolás Maduro, mentioned shortly afterwards in the AJE thread:

5:01am: Venezuela’s top diplomat on Thursday echoed Fidel Castro’s accusation that Washington is fomenting unrest in Libya to justify an invasion to seize North African nation’s oil reserves.
Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister said:
They are creating conditions to justify an invasion of Libya.

All this is pretty speculative. It’s sourced from twitter, a medium not well known for its clarity, and being hours old it’s still yet to be properly analysed or verified. So it may all be a great misunderstanding. No doubt Chávez will explain himself in due course. But the information does emerge from Chávez’ verified, official twitter account; it does echo previous anti-imperialist positions taken by the Venezuelan leader, and it generally seems to ring true.

It seems — and I think — that Hugo Chávez, the modern, popular, democratic socialist leader who was supposed to be different to all the murderous authoritarians who preceded him, has just come out in solidarity with one of the most murderous authoritarians yet left, defending the slaughter of his people for having the temerity to demand control of their nation.

I will be happy to be proven wrong. But if that’s revealed to be true in coming days, it’ll be your move, Chávez apologists.


Sovereign Democratic Realism

2003849206Via Scott Yorke’s excellent Imperator Fish, pics of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Siberian vacation photo-op.

The wider photoset (you’ll have to google around for all the photos, since each website only contains part of the set) is a strong statement of Russia’s new national identity as a fit, keen, ruggedly independent nation which is the master of its own destiny, answerable to nobody. Vladimir Putin idealises Russia as it wants to see itself.

The wider campaign propagandises Putin’s adopted doctrine of Sovereign Democracy, essentially ‘we call our system democracy, so democracy it is’. It fetishises Putin’s personal capability and authority; his command over nature, his idolisation by ordinary Russians (even those thousands of miles from Moscow), his statesmanship. Closely resembling what I/S calls Heinlein’s psychopathic frontier barbarism, Putin rides horses, treks in the mountains, fishes in a wild river, pilots a fast boat, builds a fire, helps rescue a beached whale, comforts an Ingushetian politician injured in a suicide bombing, works in a metallurgists’ plant, gives orders as to a train crash, visits a political youth camp, meets Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow, and shares tea with the locals. All with the cameras in attendance (and in some cases, with the sound guy in-shot – no attempt at pretending it’s not a propaganda exercise).

There has been much speculation as to the import of this photoset, ranging from the suggestion that, by appearing bare-chested in the outdoors on a holiday with the Prince of Monaco, Putin is sending a signal of tolerance about homosexual rights, referencing Brokeback Mountain. The semi-official spin, naturally, is that it’s simply a demonstration that Putin knows how to relax – a signal that he will retire peaceably at the end of his second term as Prime Minister.

I am not so convinced. This lays the groundwork for a perpetuation of Putin’s role as Russia’s eminent statesman of the 21st Century, and in a much more subtle and compelling way than either Hugo Chávez or Manuel Zelaya’s clumsy attempts at circumventing constitutional term-limits. The key to sovereign democracy is its illusory consent – the appeal to Russian independence, strength, unity and capability which Jonathan Brent and others have argued (audio) present the danger of sliding back to a new form of Stalinism, even with the support of those who would suffer under such a system. This is a strong warning to Dmitry Medvedev, who has criticised ‘sovereign democracy’ as a form of authoritarian doublespeak, and to the Russian people that if a ‘real’ leader is needed, one exists. Former KGB officer Putin, here, is presenting himself as another Man of Steel.


Boliviarian or Stalinist?

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.