(Durham: Duke University Press, 2013)
It has been over a year since Hugo Chávez died, but so much has changed in Venezuela that one wonders at the usefulness of a book about the country written when he was still living. The present book, however, is even more valuable now than at the time it went to press.
The evolution of the Bolivarian Revolution has been painted in the mainstream anglophone press as entirely contingent on the personality of Hugo Chávez. It has also been painted as a process that began in 1992 with the failed military rebellion (‘coup’) led by Chávez, or in 1998 with his first landslide election victory, rather than in the 1970s or, at the least, with the Caracazo of 1989.
Chávez’s enduring impact is perhaps most strongly evidenced in the short campaign after his death led by Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. The Opposition forewent its usual attempts to demonize Chávez, instead choosing to honor him and portray his chosen successor (Nicolás Maduro) as a pale and failed imitation.
The subsequent Opposition campaign to unconstitutionally remove the elected President Maduro and the entire Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) and their allies reflects a common refusal to understand dynamics beyond the Presidency. This is why the Opposition has failed to make inroads with the broader population – beyond the middle classes, former oligarchs and other usual suspects – despite the ferocity of their murderous destabilization campaign.
Current headlines often obscure rather than inform one about the history of Venezuela, which is one of revolutionary struggle. The first country to diplomatically recognize the Cuban revolution was Venezuela, whose own authoritarian bourgeois democracy was, at the time, being consolidated and pacified under the bloody presidency of former leftist-turned orthodox capitalist Romulo Betancourt . The author, who lived in Venezuela during 2006-07 and intermittently since, explains that period clearly, through interviews with former guerrillas. As Fabricio Ojeda said in 1962: “The Venezuelan people are already tired of promises that cannot be fulfilled and disappointed with a democracy that never arrives.” Ciccariello-Maher writes:
But Rómulo Betancourt was elected, taking power in 1960, and within less than a year the country had returned to emergency measures, searches, imprisonment, torture and abuses of executive power, all in the name of that same ‘democracy’ that, for Ojeda and others, was their antithesis.
While public space was opened up on paper, the reality of popular participation was narrowed to the point of toothlessness under Betancourt. The Left at the time waffled in the face of repression, and was further weakened by the dead-end foco strategy advocated by Régis Debray, which led to desperate if romantically inspired insurgent initiatives isolated from popular struggles at the community level.
The grinding effects of neoliberalism and the painful lessons of defeat that came from foco and other failed vanguardist acts of rebellion would come full circle in late February, 1989 – after Carlos Andrés Pérez, in his second presidential term, launched an agenda of neoliberal reforms in utterly fundamentalist fashion, provoking the “spontaneous” mass movement of rebellion known as the Caracazo.
I use scare quotes because the movement in fact reflected decades of repression, autonomous organizing, community self-defence struggles and more (described in the first chapters of the book), which would allow the already organized barrios to lead the way in what is now best seen as the people’s launch of Bolivarianism, and to Venezuela’s firing the first resistance volleys at the prevailing “there is no alternative” world order of the post-Soviet era.
One of the subsections of the “first interlude” chapter on the Caracazo has the title “The Fourth World War Started in Venezuela.” This points to the book’s most important contribution, which is a historical understanding of the role of grassroots collectives in such communities as 23 de Enero, a western Caracas barrio noted for being the home of many revolutionaries. Today 23 de Enero is home barrio to an autonomous left, separate from but supportive of the revolution “so long as the revolution continues with this government.” The police repression of earlier eras, including the thousands killed in the Caracazo, made it necessary for the community to create a self-defence structure, which can also provide security against crime. The police know better than to enter 23 de Enero without first contacting the community and receiving permission. Of all the sprawling barrios surrounding and inside of Caracas, 23 de Enero is known to be the safest and least controlled by drug traffic.
Similar structures exist in other communities, in Caracas and elsewhere. It is no accident that such collectives are under attack today in the right-wing press that supports neo-fascist sectors of the Opposition. By hammering away at the government for “tolerating” the autonomous collectives, they seek to force a confrontation with sectors of society that 1) defend the poor when the police cannot or will not, 2) organized the uprising to defend the constitution during the failed coup of April 2002, and 3) remain the heartbeat of self-organized movements that complement the work of the government while remaining deeply critical of it.
Through these motors of revolution, revolutionary struggle has been advanced in a bottom up fashion that is precisely what the Opposition fears most: the construction of a new base of power, where capital, governments and laws are accountable to the populace.
The aim of the current neo-fascist uprisings is to destroy the legitimacy of the Bolivarian government, soften it up for further blows later. Even if the egos of would-be pinochetistas Machado and López make them unable to see that there can be no immediate coup or forced government resignation, their CIA handlers have no doubt explained already that the point is to wear down the government, to discredit the revolutionary state and put it at odds with the revolutionaries of the street. But if the government wants to rest its laurels on the legitmacy provided to it by El Comandante, they must also heed the book’s final warning – not from the author, but paraphrased by him from the people: “With Chávez hopefully, without Chávez if neccessary.”
We Created Chávez retains its bite over a year after Chávez’s death. Those who have done the creating were doing so before he was president, and continue to do so now. Why the attempts to isolate the collectives will fail is well explained, as is the dynamic interplay of so many factions in the ongoing revolution. Chávez often said, “Sometimes the revolution needs the whip of the counterrevolution.”
The far-right uprising is for an international audience – one that will not know the realities on the ground, and will be easily swayed by “that’s what happened after Chávez died and everything fell apart” arguments. Such arguments are wishful thoughts, but the wish of the coup-seeking right in Venezuela is above all for you to think this. If you know the history of Venezuela, that cannot happen. This book is a must-read. It prepares you to better understand Venezuela in the present, so we can stand with Venezuela in the future.