The Radical Potential of Chavismo in Venezuela

2005-02-01

Richard Moore

Full article: http://www.neravt.com/left/contributors/ellner8.htm

--------------------------------------------------------
From: "Janet M Eaton" <•••@••.•••>
To: •••@••.•••
Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005 11:13:28 -0400
Subject: The Radical Potential of Chavismo in Venezuela: The 1st Year & Half in 
Power [ Latin Amer.Journal ]

This lengthy 27 page analysis  by Steve Ellner appeared first
in "Latin American Perspectives: A Journal on Capitalism and
Socialism". It attempts to determine whether Chávez's movement
is moving in one of three directions:

1. the creation of the powerful executive committed to
neoliberalism that prominent Venezuelan political analyst,
Guillermo  O'Donnell labels "delegative democracy,"

2. a government that represents a throwback to the radical
populism of the 1930s and 1940s, or

3. a radical democracy that, by promoting the participation of
nonprivileged sectors, may lead to important socioeconomic
transformations.

For this purpose, it will briefly explore the origins of the
movement, its mobilization strategy, its proposals for
restructuring the political system, the internal politics of
the main parties that constitute the governing coalition, its
economic policy, its foreign policy, and Chávez's discourse.
The concluding section will briefly contrast the Chávez
government with experiences elsewhere in the continent in
order to place the alleged authoritarian and radical
tendencies of the Venezuelan government in a broader context.

The author concludes:

Specific aspects of the movement, however, point in a radical
direction. In addition to discourse, the potential of Chavismo
for far-reaching change can be gleaned from an examination of
the movement's origins, its policies, and the role of
political actors. The formation of the movement in the course
of ten years of conspiratorial activity by nonelite members of
the armed forces, its links to civilian leftists both before
and after February 1992, and its encouragement of popular
mobilizations all testify to its radical potential. Additional
factors favoring far-reaching transformations include the
institutional changes designed by the Constituent Assembly,
the Chávez government's independent foreign policy, its
suspension of over 100 judges accused of corruption, and its
formulation of alternatives to neoliberal economic policy.

The key task for Chávez as president is the creation of new
institutional and organizational structures. With regard to
the former, Max Weber's celebrated theory that charismatic
authority cannot sustain itself indefinitely points to the
need to create a new institutional setting with new rules, as
the Constituent Assembly set out to do. Creating this edifice,
however, is only half of the challenge. At this point
organizational weakness is Chavismo's Achilles' heel. Without
a cohesive organization it is hard to see how the
far-reaching, ambitious goals of the movement's leaders will
be achieved, regardless of the firmness of their commitment.
If Chávez retains a significant backing of the armed forces
and succeeds at organizational consolidation, the deepening of
the process of change and even structural transformation will
become a realistic possibility.

fyi-janet

====================================


http://www.neravt.com/left/contributors/ellner8.htm


The Radical Potential of Chavismo in Venezuela: The First
Year-and-a Half in Power

This article appeared first in "Latin American Perspectives: A
Journal on Capitalism and Socialism"

by  Steve Ellner

The circumstances surrounding Hugo Chávez's pursuit of power
and the strategy he has adopted for achieving far-reaching
change in Venezuela are in many ways without parallel in Latin
American politics. While many generals have been elected
president, Chávez's electoral triumph was unique in that he
was a middle-level officer with radical ideas who had
previously led a coup attempt. Furthermore, few Latin American
presidents have attacked existing democratic institutions with
such fervor while swearing allegiance to the democratic system
(Myers and O'Connor, 1998: 193).

From the beginning of his political career, Chávez embraced an
aggressively antiparty discourse. He denounced the hegemony of
vertically based political parties, specifically their
domination of Congress, the judicial system, the labor and
peasant movements, and civil society in general. Upon his
election in December 1998, he followed through on his campaign
promise to use a constituent assembly as a vehicle for
overhauling the nation's neocorporatist political system. He
proposed to replace this model with one of direct popular
participation in decision making at the local level. His
actions and rhetoric, however, also pointed in the direction
of a powerful executive whose authority would be largely
unchecked by other state institutions. Indeed, the vacuum left
by the weakening of the legislative and judicial branches and
of government at the state level, and the loss of autonomy of
such public entities as the Central Bank and the state oil
company, could well be filled by executive-based
authoritarianism.

From the outset of the presidential campaign in mid-1997,
Chávez's rivals harped on the threat his candidacy posed to
the nation's liberal democracy as part of a scare campaign
without parallel in modern Venezuelan electoral politics. This
negative characterization was reflected in articles published
in the foreign press both before and after the elections. The
president's adversaries exploited his cordial relations with
the Argentinian Norberto Ceresole, a self-proclaimed "adviser"
and the author of over a dozen books on politics. Declaring
that democracy in Latin America had failed, Ceresole traveled
to Venezuela after the 1998 elections in an effort to
propagate the model of a strongman-led government underpinned
by the armed forces in the tradition of Egypt's Gamal Abdal
Nasser (Ceresole, 1996).

A few scholars and prominent Venezuelan political analysts of
distinct ideological orientations have argued that Chávez's
assumption of power is part of a process of the weakening of
democratic institutions throughout the continent. (1)
Guillermo O'Donnell (1994) has labeled the recent
strengthening of executive power in Latin America at the
expense of traditional democratic forms of interest
aggregation and input in decision making "delegative
democracy." These "hyperpresidentialist" governments are
characterized by charismatic presidential leadership, reliance
on executive decrees, use of plebiscites to legitimize
authority, employment of antiparty rhetoric, and a discourse
with messianic overtones. They have also been called
"neopopulist" (Weyland, 1999) because they appeal to broad
sectors of the population by holding the political elite
responsible for the nation's pressing problems. Perhaps the
clearest example of a neopopulist or delegative democratic
regime is Peru under Alberto Fujimori, whose credibility in
embracing an antiparty discourse was enhanced by his aloofness
from all political parties. O'Donnell's works and others in
the same vein attempt to correct the notion that Latin
American democracies have significantly advanced toward
"consolidation." Indeed, O'Donnell argues that, despite the
time that has passed since the military abandoned power in the
1980s, these regimes barely meet the minimum requirements for
being considered democratic.

O'Donnell and others postulate a close relationship between
delegative democracy and neoliberal economic policies, which,
given the exigencies of globalization, are more compatible
with limited democracy than with outright dictatorship (Oxhorn
and Ducatenzeiler, 1998: 229-234; Dominguez, 1998: 73-74).
Governments on this model spurn the neocorporatist mechanisms
that had previously permitted the national representatives of
organized sectors of the population to participate in decision
making on an ongoing basis. The weakening of political parties
undermines accountability and systematic checks on executive
power (Weyland, 1998: 114-115), a trend that has affected
Chile, with its strong tradition of political parties, but
even more countries like Brazil that lack such a tradition
(Hagopian, 1998: 100; Oxhorn, 1998: 214). In some cases,
autonomous bodies such as the Central Bank and other
technocratic preserves have overshadowed Congress as the
principal check on presidential power, thus facilitating the
implementation of neoliberal programs (Diamond, Plattner, and
Schedler, 1999: 3). In short, Latin American countries during
this period have lacked the strong institutions representing
and aggregating popular interests that were characteristic of
the populist-neocorporatist stage. Most important, the labor
movement has ceased to play the role of interlocutor of the
underprivileged sectors in general and has limited itself to
defending the short-term interests of its affiliates (Oxhorn,
1998: 216).

At first glance, Chávez's rise to power is consistent with the
trend toward the weakening of traditional political
institutions in Latin America noted by O'Donnell. Chávez's
charisma is imbued with a messianic content, as is evident
from his call for the "refounding of the republic." In
addition, his antiparty discourse is translated into attacks
on existing political institutions while at the same time
calling for direct citizen participation in the form of
referenda, popular assemblies, and voluntary work in civilian-
military programs. He attacks neocorporatist arrangements such
as tripartite commissions with employee, employer and state
representation and questions the legitimacy of the main labor
confederation, the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela
(Workers' Confederation of Venezuela - CTV). In doing so,
Chávez may be undermining the capacity of workers to resist
International Monetary Fund (IMF)-style austerity measures. If
this is his intention, then Chávez can be considered more
adroit than his two elected predecessors, Carlos Andrés Pérez
(1989-1993) and Rafael Caldera (1994-1999), whose failure to
generate significant political support for the pro-IMF
policies they implemented had disastrous consequences for
their respective parties. Indeed, political organizations of
the far left such as the ex-guerrilla Bandera Roja (led by
Gabriel Puerta) and Tercer Camino (led by Douglas Bravo) have
attacked Chávez for favoring neoliberal formulas to the
detriment of the social classes that he purports to represent.
(2)

Some of Chávez's detractors and supporters point to a second
future scenario that contrasts sharply with the model of
delegative democracy underpinned by powerful economic
interests. According to these analysts, Chávez's movement is
promoting far-reaching changes, both political and, according
to some, socioeconomic. Those sympathetic to his
administration argue that the nation's new constitution,
drafted during his first year in office, points in the
direction of radical participatory democracy. In contrast, his
adversaries use clichés, including anticommunist ones, to
discredit his radicalism. The Washington Post (July 26, 1999),
for instance, called Chávez a "leftist agitator," while the
New York Times (August 21, 1999) characterized the measures
taken by his followers in the constituent assembly as
"Jacobin." By way of substantiating claims that the president
is a left-winger at heart, political commentators have drawn
attention to his trip to Cuba shortly after his release from
prison in 1994 and again in 1999, when he spoke in public with
Fidel Castro.

Many of those who predict a sharp break with the past under
Chávez's government call him a radical populist in the
tradition of Juan Domingo Perón and even Venezuela's Rómulo
Betancourt (Vivas, 1999: 105). Their case rests on the salient
characteristics of radical populism during its heyday in Latin
America in the 1930s and 1940s: its antiestablishment rhetoric
and attempt to incorporate underprivileged sectors into the
political system and provide them with a fair deal. While in
power, the radical populists implemented policies favoring the
underprivileged, particularly the working class, but stopped
short of structural changes that would have threatened
powerful economic interests. Some scholars link radical
populism to a historical stage of development in Latin America
and thus consider it unlikely to reemerge (Ianni, 1975), while
others deny the movement's specificity (Laclau, 1977). For
this reason an examination of Chavez's populism has important
implications for the entire continent. This article will
attempt to determine whether Chávez's movement is moving in
one of the above-mentioned directions: 1. the creation of the
powerful executive committed to neoliberalism that O'Donnell
labels "delegative democracy," 2. a government that represents
a throwback to the radical populism of the 1930s and 1940s, or
3. a radical democracy that, by promoting the participation of
nonprivileged sectors, may lead to important socioeconomic
transformations. For this purpose, it will briefly explore the
origins of the movement, its mobilization strategy, its
proposals for restructuring the political system, the internal
politics of the main parties that constitute the governing
coalition, its economic policy, its foreign policy, and
Chávez's discourse. The concluding section will briefly
contrast the Chávez government with experiences elsewhere in
the continent in order to place the alleged authoritarian and
radical tendencies of the Venezuelan government in a broader
context.


......... snip ..........

http://www.neravt.com/left/contributors/ellner8.htm


Steve Ellner is the co-editor of The Latin American Left: From
the Fall of Allende to Perestroika (Westview). He has taught
economic history at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela
since 1977 and has written scores of articles as well as three
books on Venezuelan history and politics.

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