Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks to Marta Harnecker

Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks to Marta Harnecker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005).

“Understanding Hugo Chávez” might have been a more appropriate title for this extensive interview conducted by the veteran Marxist writer, Marta Harnecker, with Venezuela’s Chávez. Harnecker’s pertinent interviewing — or perhaps just the presence of a tape recorder — allows Chávez to draw a fascinating personal and political portrait of himself. She interviews Chávez “from the left,” and in some instances the questions read like an oral exam (on which Chávez gets an A+). Fortunately, Chávez doesn’t treat it that way and feels free to (respectfully) roam as far as he likes from the questioning, demonstrating why he has become one of the most interesting Latin American political figures of recent times.

The title of the book, however, is misleading in two ways: first it implies that Chávez is the Revolution, or, more modestly, that the Revolution exists, first and foremost, in the form of his plans, perspectives and perceptions. But the complicated Venezuelan political process has not been the work of one man, important and dominant as he may be. His thoughts on the process are hardly the last word — or at least let’s hope that things don’t get to that stage.

Second, the title is misleading because the book was published in mid-2005, though the interviews took place over a few days in July 2002. In the ensuing three years, the process has undergone some profound changes that are missing from the interviews. Some of these changes are mentioned in a sketchy “chronology” at the front of the book, but the long interview itself, as a tool for understanding the revolutionary process in Venezuela, while useful, is critically out of date.

At one point, for example, Chávez, responding to Harnecker’s comment about his cautious foreign policy, tells her, “Now, maybe if you told me that the global context, or at least the regional context began to change, and that a large group of countries began to move toward a position that allowed us more strength and flexibility, things would be different.” But that’s precisely what has happened in the time between the interviews and the book’s publication, making his comment all the more prophetic. The process was a good deal more tentative in 2002.

But whatever its shortcomings as a snapshot of the Venezuelan Revolution, the book gives us an intriguing glimpse of Chávez’s narrative skills and his ability to articulate recent Venezuelan political history, his role in redirecting the flow of that history, and the ongoing dilemmas of the Chavista political moment.

His narrative skills are most apparent in his vivid, personal recounting of the three days in April 2002 in which he was taken prisoner, thought he would be killed, slowly realized the tide was turning in his favor, and emerged triumphant when key sectors of the armed forces disowned the coup after hundreds of thousands of his supporters streamed into the streets. The book is worth reading if only for that briefly, though masterfully told piece of history.

We also get a strong sense of Chávez’s self-image as a military man who has learned how to “direct groups of human beings… lifting their self esteem, their morale.” One of his great accomplishments, we know, has been to lift the self esteem of millions of previously excluded citizens. He tells Harnecker he believes “in natural leaders but not those who are imposed,” classifying himself, of course, among the former.

But, there is, we hardly need to be told, a dangerous potential downside to this kind of personalism. “There are people who go along with you through one phase,” he tells Harnecker, “but who later fall behind for any number of reasons. …[A]s the process demands more, it requires people with a higher consciousness, capacity, strength, force.” But who gets to define “higher consciousness” here? Does the expression of political doubts or disagreements always constitute “falling behind”? Is “higher consciousness” to be found in the sacred texts of revolutionary struggle (as Harnecker’s questions imply, suggesting another danger to democratic processes of change), or in the guidance of a “natural leader” (as Chávez’s narrative implies)?

Chávez talks about the complexities of state power and the steep learning curve of his early years in power: “We created a map of the state to note the different institutions and the people who controlled them, but institutions keep appearing [along with] the vices and habits of their particular public functionaries.” It is no secret that, for all its revolutionary militancy, the Chavista government has yet to master the arts of efficient management or to conquer Venezuela’s hereditary corruption. Chávez says this about corruption: “The new must be constructed on the ruins of the old, and that is where the bad habits hold you back… That is why we have not been able to eliminate the scourge of corruption.” (But from the vantage point of three years later, we know that some high-level Chavistas have recently been implicated in serious corruption, and that many have military connections. Chávez’s understandable reluctance to challenge his supporters in the military is broached in an abstract way by Harnecker (i.e. relying on the military is always dangerous) but it has become concrete in current debates about corruption and mismanagement.

He also talks about the possibilities of reforming capitalism. He states clearly what has become evident over the past three years, that even as the Revolution has radicalized and become militantly anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist, it has not become anti-capitalist. “[W]ith a government like this one,” he tells Harnecker, “with a constitution like ours, with a people who have awakened like ours have, with a balance of power like the one we have, it is indeed possible to humanize capitalism… We are trying to move slowly but surely toward an economic alternative to dehumanized capitalism.”

Perhaps in that regard, it’s the lack of a hegemonic revolutionary party that bothers Harnecker. As for Chávez, he insists that there is no hegemonic party because his government is not sectarian: “If someone were to analyze the composition of the cabinets that have been in place over the course of my government, they would realize that the majority are not members of the MVR party.” How this duality of “natural leader” and revolutionary party plays itself out over the coming years will be interesting to watch.

Chávez’s push for regional integration and his inclusive mobilization of Venezuela’s popular classes are nicely captured in the book, but since the interviews (and the dramatic defeat of the April 2002 coup), the revolution has strengthened and consolidated itself in a number of ways. First came the defeat of the general strike called by the managers of the state oil company, PDVSA, at the end of 2002 and the subsequent bringing of the nationalized but independent oil company under firm government control. Second came the creation, beginning in 2003, of the “missions,” a set of new institutions that work alongside, or bypass, established state institutions to foster greater security, inclusion, and access to services among low-income Venezuelans. Third was the mandate given to the Chavista government by the overwhelming defeat of the Recall Referendum in August, 2004. Fourth was a genuine attempt to begin land reform in early 2005. Fifth have been the ongoing oil-barter deals that have strengthened Venezuela’s presence in the Hemisphere.

But at the end of the day, Chávez’s greatest accomplishment may have been the creation of a new sense of citizenship in Venezuela. He articulates this eloquently: “More than being [already] a people, we were a collection of human beings, but then, as a result of the historical process that our country has undergone over the last few decades, a people has been formed.” He is talking about the inclusion of the excluded, the reconstitution of citizenship.

Reviewed by Fred Rosen
North American Congress on Latin America

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