Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict

Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger, eds. – Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict reviewed by Trudie Coker

This edited volume is great for introducing students of Latin America to the case of Venezuela. Each chapter focuses on a characteristic that has been and still is important for explaining crisis and stability in that country. The book offers a dynamic vista of the connections between politics, civil society and the economy, and gives coherence to the somewhat disparate scholarly literature on the rise to power of Hugo Chávez Frias. Although the direct focus is on the period 1989-2002, many chapters go back to 1958, when democracy in Venezuela began.

The first two chapters, by Ellner and Hellinger respectively, give a synopsis of the failure of the system established in the 1960s (known as Punto Fijo), whereby Venezuela’s democracy was institutionalized via elite pact-making. Ellner clearly shows that this system’s failure to respond to popular needs, combined with recurrent economic crisis beginning in the 1980s, led to its demise and to the emergence of a new order that brought Hugo Chávez to power in 1998. Chávez’s Fifth Republic effectively destroyed much of the old party system that relied on clientelistic relations between the political parties and neocorporatist partners such as the federations representing organized labor and business. Indeed, it is these groups that form much of the organized opposition to Chávez. Chávez has also alienated much of the middle and professional class through his aggressive anti-neoliberal rhetoric. Hellinger’s chapter details the political process of emerging actors and the dominance of the Chávez movement over this process. He argues that Chávez has so far been unable to overcome an increasingly polarized situation where the masses of poor who support him are pitted against the middle and wealthy classes who see him as “the main political force blocking their integration into a globalized world” (50). Polarization will not subside, according to Hellinger, unless Chavez can make more substantive attacks on poverty and develop institutionalized mechanisms where politicized and organized groups can meet on a middle ground to hammer out what kind of democracy Venezuela should be.

The authors generally agree on why the old system failed, but have less consensus on what the new system is and where it is going. Ellner argues in the introductory chapter that the various authors take a more optimistic view of the acute conflict and polarization present in Venezuelan society today than do some other scholars (e.g., Romer, Naim, Perera). Rather than seeing the political structure as deteriorating, they show how conflict can also play a regenerative role. Some of the book’s authors contend that Chávez’s government is actually more democratic than any other in Venezuela’s history. Margarita López Maya argues that the new constitution drafted by the Chávez government actually deepens democracy by incorporating groups, especially the poor who had been marginalized by the previous governments. In a chapter on politics and the economy, Julia Buxton points out that although there is much in the economy that is still problematic, like high poverty and unemployment, Chávez has made real attempts to be responsive to the needs of the poor through land redistribution, the rebuilding and improvement of roads, schools, and hospitals, and the return of the retroactive system of severance payments that had been abolished by President Caldera in 1997. In an enlightening chapter called “Subversive Oil,” Mommer asks whether Venezuelan oil is “a free gift of nature to international producing companies and foreign consumers.” He argues that the way the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), was run since national- ization, the answer is an unqualified “yes.” Yet Chávez changed all of that by refocusing on the state’s “right” to control the country’s natural resources. One of the most important moves towards this end was to restore Venezuela’s participation in OPEC. He argues that but for Chávez’s measures, the money derived from PDVSA would slowly cease to be Venezuela’s. In the concluding chapter, Ellner and Hellinger point out that although Venezuelan democracy has never been so sharply polarized, those who argue that Chávez is authoritarian or neopopulist like Peru’s Fujimori oversimplify matters.

Some chapters, however, are more critical of the government’s role in deepening democracy and come close to making the very accusations that Ellner and Hellinger say oversimplify the Chávez movement. For example, Deborah Norden, in a chapter on the role of the armed forces, argues that Chávez is semi-democratic and that his government has more characteristics of a military regime than of a truly democratic one. She supports her claim by pointing to the politicization of the military, the more predominant presence of the military in government positions, and the shift in the role of the military from strictly defensive to more civic oriented activities. She does not point out, as others do in the volume, that the Chávez government has never had the telltale characteristics of authoritarian regimes: it has not repressed the numerous protests by the opposition, it has never censored the press (which is united in its opposition to him), and it has respected and promoted participation via elections and referendum. Similarly, in a chapter on state reform, Angel Alvarez argues that “Venezuelan democracy appears to have become less representative than that established by the 1961 constitution” (151). Alvarez argues that the extreme centralism and presidentialism, the lack of viable political parties, and the fact that the Chávez movement has not been institutionalized via intermediary organizations makes it vulnerable to becoming autocratic. This criticism is also echoed in other chapters.

While the various authors represent a range of opinions on the “Chávez movement,” they virtually all agree on its several weaknesses. Although Chávez has responded, in part, to the needs of the poor, his government has not successfully institutionalized channels for their direct participation and the participation of other groups. Ellner makes this point very clear in his chapter on organized labor. He shows that the Chávez movement has failed to institutionalize an alternative labor movement to the traditional confederation associated with the old regime. In fact, his government has actually taken some constitutionally questionable steps to destroy the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela or CTV). However, he views the outcome of these struggles more optimistically arguing that chavismo itself, by constantly challenging CTV and its association with the old regime, helped revitalize organized labor by forcing the organization to more or less radically shift from its old alliances to form new ones. This was partly done via direct, rank-and-file elections for its national leadership, which is almost unprecedented in any labor movement.

Related to weak intermediary institutions and centralized power in the presidency, is the loyalty of the poorer classes to the person of Chávez. As Max Weber pointed out almost 100 years ago, charismatic authority is inherently unstable since once the leader dies or is no longer the leader, it is almost impossible to maintain the social bonds that legitimate that authority. In other words, charismatic authority has, to some degree, supplanted authority in the legal and institutional realm. To some extent this is to be expected when an old institutional order is largely destroyed. A new one does not magically appear, but is built in the process of negotiations and struggles of emerging and old actors. As the authors point out, though, the extreme polarization existent in Venezuela does not bode well for the types of negotiations needed to build the proverbial bridges. Ellner and Hellinger are thus struck, as they note in their conclusion, by “the barrenness of middle ground between chavismo and the hardened opposition” (216).

While this book covers much ground in laying out an objective framework with which to analyze the present crisis, it falls short of putting the analysis in a more global context. Althought the authors frequently recognize the importance of this context, they mostly refer to it only in passing, by repeatedly reminding us of the role that the implementation of a structural adjustment program in 1989 played in the demise of the old regime. There is no in-depth analysis of why and how this took place and what it has to do with the weakness of domestic politics, the economy, and civil society. The one exception is Mommer’s chapter on oil. He makes it brilliantly clear that the increasing internationalization of PDVSA in the old regime would have stripped Venezuela of any power it holds in the capitalist world economy and denied its citizens the benefits of its wealth.

If there is recognition that neoliberalism has indeed been instrumental to many of the recent conflicts in Latin America, how can we not make it a centerpiece of our analysis? If the very global capital which imposes structural adjustment is the arbitrator of “wealth and prosperity” in the world, how can we analytically diminish its capacity to determine the political, social, and economic lives of third world people? It seems that there lies the main obstacle to building strong democracies and participatory institutions in these parts of the world.

The above criticism aside, this book still represents a very comprehensive account of Venezuelan society today.

Reviewed by Trudie Coker
Associate Professor of Sociology
Florida Atlantic University

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