A revolution meant to advance the material conditions of large numbers of previously disenfranchised people is necessarily larger than one individual. That is true even when the individual who embodies the revolution is a charismatic leader such as Hugo Chávez.
There is no denying that the death of President Chávez is a setback for Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. That revolution is a process — it is perhaps more akin to a steady evolution than a revolution — and will go forward if Venezuelans continue to see the process as beneficial to them. That was true throughout the 14-year reign of President Chávez and is true whether or not he occupies the presidential palace.
Ultimately, the survival of the Bolivarian Revolution rests on two factors: Effecting a change in economic relations and becoming a constituent component of a larger bloc that effects a similar change in economic relations. Simply put, the Bolivarian Revolution has taken political power away from Venezuela’s capitalist elite but largely has left economic power in the hands of that elite. As Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution of 1979 to 1991 demonstrated, leaving economic power in the hands of a capitalist elite enables that elite to destabilize a revolution.
That represents a larger threat to the future prosperity of Venezuelans than the many-sided struggles going on within the country’s institutions, including disagreements inside unions, government departments and social organizations. The process of the Bolivarian Revolution is hardly straightforward, with some interests, such as union leaderships, that should be behind the socialization of production instead opposed. President Chávez often acted as an arbiter or a court of last resort, able to settle disputes due to his personal authority.
No other person possesses the charisma to arbitrate in such a manner; nonetheless, that personal authority — based on the late president’s popularity and repeated electoral victories — was invoked only in extraordinary circumstances. Such disputes will remain solvable, but may require more negotiation and grassroots struggle. The much larger question of who owns, controls and/or manages production and distribution is what will be decisive, and no one person, no matter how charismatic, can be decisive. This is a social question.
Sandinistas left economic power in hands of capitalists
A generation ago, another Latin American experiment held the world’s attention. The Sandinista Revolution, like the Bolivarian, tended to be seen through ideological prisms. The same hyperventilating language — “dictatorship” “communist” “repressive” — was used to describe Nicaragua during the Sandinista era. It was not a perfect government — is anything of human creation perfect? — but real progress was made despite the many mistakes that are inevitable when people previously blocked from any meaningful participation in their society suddenly find themselves in government.
The Sandinistas never declared that they would implement a socialist economy, and didn’t. For those who cared to pay attention, the Sandinista leadership repeatedly said their goal was a mixed economy. The Nicaraguan economy came to include large enterprises owned by the government; commonly owned collectives; marketing collectives composed of individual privately owned small farms; small-scale private businesses and independent farms; and private big-business manufacturing and agricultural operations left intact from before the revolution.
The property of the Somoza family, which came to personally own large portions of the Nicaraguan economy during its decades-long dictatorship, was confiscated by the Sandinistas following the revolution. Doing so was not necessarily opposed by Nicaragua’s capitalists, who were disgusted with the Somoza dictators because they had forced their way into many business sectors, muscling out capitalists when they saw an opportunity. Because of that, many business leaders came to oppose the dictatorship however much they applauded its ruthless, frequently deadly, suppression of labor.
The last dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, ordered factories owned by capitalists opposed to him bombed, looted the treasury, laid waste to the economy and ultimately killed 50,000 in his bid to retain power. After the Revolution, the remnants of Somoza’s National Guard and the United States government, which had been the Somoza dynasty’s protector, created the terrorist groups known as the “Contras” that inflicted huge damage. The Contras specifically targeted public infrastructure and cooperative enterprises for destruction.
Nicaragua’s capitalists had expected to assume political leadership after the revolution, and when they discovered that the people and organizations that had carried out the revolution and had suffered the most repression would have the majority of political power, they swiftly began to undermine it. Although credit was now available for the first time for small farmers, most loans went to the country’s capitalists, who instead of using the capital for investment, spirited the money to overseas banks and began stripping their factories of assets. A few factories where this took place were nationalized, but the legal process to do so was lengthy and a factory owner determined to de-capitalize an enterprise could do so before the legal system could act.
The contradictions of a mixed economy
Strange as it may appear, the Sandinistas, more than once, imposed austerity on their own country, reducing living standards for working people while continuing to provide subsidies for capitalists. The Sandinistas had sought to raise living standards for working people in the cities and the countryside, provided large subsidies to the capitalists and were forced to fund an expensive military effort to defend the country. These factors were further aggravated by the U.S. embargo, with the resulting shortages fueling inflation. The only way to support all these policies simultaneously was to print more money, which touched off more inflation.
To combat inflation, the government implemented an austerity program in 1985 designed to “rationalize” these competing interests by reducing consumer consumption through reductions in the earning power of wages while increasing subsidies for capitalists and small farmers to induce more production. But since the capitalists controlled a much bigger share of the economy than did small farmers, the result was more subsidies for the already wealthy. Thus, “austerity” meant austerity only for working people — their reduced living standards would pay for the government money that would be channeled into capitalists’ pockets.
Nonetheless, the capitalists continued to refuse to invest, pocketing the money instead. Those local capitalists had strong links with capitalists in the United States and in other advanced capitalist countries, creating a web of interests. Under the impact of the intense military pressure of the Contras and the U.S.-imposed economic blockade, Nicaragua’s mass-participation social groups lost their grassroots characteristics and became more vertical organizations with imposed leaderships; progress on social issues, such as combating discrimination against women, halted because so much effort had to be put into basic defense.
In 1988, the Sandinistas imposed another round of austerity, a program similar to those demanded by the International Monetary Fund, although in this case without the often dubious benefits of the loans nor the debt burden. Speculators and smugglers had taken advantage of price imbalances by buying products cheaply in Nicaragua and selling them for more in foreign markets and, internally, by diverting subsidized food from intended markets and instead selling it at inflated prices, earning themselves windfall profits while increasing costs to consumers.
The country was also hurt by international currency speculators, who drove down the exchange-rate value of its currency, forcing costly devaluations. Wages were reduced in these austerity programs, to the applause of Nicaragua’s capitalists.
A strong contrast to the Sandinistas’ intentions, this was the result of maintaining a “mixed” economy in which economic power was left in the hands of capitalists. Although capitalists did not possess formal political power, political leaders were forced (by the “market”) to implement policies benefiting capitalists and hurting working people in agriculture and industry.
Social successes during the Chávez era
History does not repeat itself neatly, and the Venezuela of the 2010s is a different place than the Nicaragua of the 1980s. With no equivalent of the Contras and a high-priced commodity (oil) that Nicaragua does not have, the Bolivarian Revolution is on firmer ground. Venezuela also has a far larger population, making it is a much less attractive target for armed interventions. Nonetheless, its stated goal of empowering working people on a road to “21st century socialism” is an example that capitalists, and their governments, around the world would like to stamp out.
Venezuela is a country not without problems, although problems such as high crime rates and inflation were part of the Venezuelan fabric well before President Chávez took office. It is legitimate to argue that these problems have not been sufficiently tackled; it is unfair to insinuate that these are new problems caused by the Bolivarian Revolution as the corporate media repeatedly does. There have been many successes, among them these reported by the Center for Economic Policy and Research:
- Annual economic growth of 3.2 percent during the Chávez administration (4.3 percent since 2004, after the government asserted control over the state oil company, PDVSA) as opposed to 1.4 percent annual growth in the 13 years preceding President Chávez.
- Inflation, although high, is less than half of what it was in 1996, two years before President Chávez took office.
- The unemployment rate is now half of what it was during the former PDVSA management’s lockout in 2003 and is far below what it was when President Chávez took office.
- The rate of poverty has been halved, and the rate of extreme poverty reduced by three-quarters.
- The number of higher-education graduates has tripled.
- The number of Venezuelans receiving a pension has quadrupled.
And none other than the International Monetary Fund reports that Venezuela has the lowest level of inequality in the Latin America/Caribbean region, as measured by the Gini coefficient. Venezuela has also made the greatest improvement since 2005 in this widely used metric of any country in its region, at a time when inequality rose in many countries throughout the world.
As I have previously written, although nationalization of the state oil company receives most of the attention, the bedrock of the revolution are the formations of small cooperatives in a variety of industries; the creation of “social production companies” in which existing enterprises were to create co-management structures and create chains of supply with cooperatives; shuttered enterprises that are expropriated by the workers who re-start production; and experiments in “co-management” with workers’ participation conducted in large state-owned resource enterprises.
The transformation of Venezuela’s industry is not only resisted by capitalists, but faces resistance from within government bureaucracies and even inside the Bolivarian movement itself. Resistance from unions, for example, has contributed to setbacks in creating workers’ co-management of the large state-owned resource enterprises.
‘Endogenous development’ in response to sabotage
The Bolivarian process took a step forward in the wake of the PDVSA lockout carried out by the revolution’s opponents, which followed the failure of their 2002 coup against President Chávez. A 2006 Dollars & Sense article written by Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone noted that the need for internal development was a lesson learned from the lockout and coup:
“Cooperatives also advance the Chávez administration’s broader goal of ‘endogenous development.’ Foreign direct investment continues in Venezuela, but the government aims to avoid relying on inflows from abroad, which open a country to capitalism’s usual blackmail. Endogenous development means ‘to be capable of producing the seed that we sow, the food that we eat, the clothes that we wear, the goods and services that we need, breaking the economic, cultural and technological dependence that has halted our development, starting with ourselves.’ To these ends, co-ops are ideal tools. Co-ops anchor development in Venezuela: under the control of local worker-owners, they don’t pose a threat of capital flight as capitalist firms do.
The need for endogenous development came home to Venezuelans during the 2002[-2003 management] oil strike carried out by Chávez’s political opponents. Major distributors of the country’s mostly imported food also supported the strike, halting food deliveries and exposing a gaping vulnerability. In response, the government started its own parallel supermarket chain. In just three years, Mercal had 14,000 points of sale, almost all in poor neighborhoods, selling staples at discounts of 20% to 50%. It is now the nation’s largest supermarket chain and its second largest enterprise overall. The Mercal stores attract shoppers of all political stripes thanks to their low prices and high-quality merchandise. To promote ‘food sovereignty,’ Mercal has increased its proportion of domestic suppliers to over 40%, giving priority to co-ops when possible.”
A new stress on workers’ control of industrial enterprises was one of the responses to the capitalists’ attempts to sabotage the economy during and after the PDVSA lockout, when management halted oil production. Since 2005, enterprises in a range of industries have come under various forms of workers’ control. This has not been a straightforward process. According to analyst Ewan Robertson, who wrote in August 2012:
“The many achievements by workers in taking over and collectively running individual factories, and in driving forward a project of worker control for the state owned heavy industries in [the eastern region of] Guayana, have generated a backlash, not only among the US-backed conservative political opposition, transnational companies and private bosses, but also among a reactionary and bureaucratic faction within the Bolivarian revolution itself.
This is because progress made by workers threatens those who only support Chavez for personal gain and political opportunism, and see their special privileges or vested interests threatened by worker control: there is little need for state managers or union bureaucrats if workers eliminate hierarchies and operate factories themselves in a participatory democratic manner. It also undermines those who hold a more restrictive view of what socialism is and argue that workers are ‘not ready’ to operate factories themselves. Indeed, there are those in the government that hold socialism to be little more than state ownership of industry and central planning from above, with little participation from workers.”
Socialism is the full and free democratic participation of everybody in all spheres of life. In the workplace, that means a concrete and genuine workers’ control whereby all workers have a say in their enterprise’s decision-making, whether the enterprise is fully or partially owned by a government or fully owned by the workers themselves in a cooperative. Understanding the concept of socialism is one part of ongoing Venezuelan struggles. Another part is that about 70 percent of the country’s economy remains in private hands, according to the country’s central bank.
That means that capitalists still have the power to disrupt the economy and undermine the Bolivarian process. Venezuela’s continuing over-dependence on oil exports is another potential source of destabilization. Venezuela remains tied to the logic of capitalism and, no matter how much progress it makes in implementing its “21st century socialism,” it is too small to be a self-contained island of socialism in a vast turbulent sea of capitalism. No country on Earth can be self-sufficient, not even a country with as much exportable mineral wealth as Venezuela.
The Bolivarian Revolution can only advance and stabilize itself as part of a large regional bloc, large enough to withstand the economic, financial, political and military attacks of capitalist powers. But as of today, the furthest description that could be given to the Venezuelan economy is that it is a “mixed” economy. Capitalists hostile to the revolution still retain considerable ability to undermine it. The history of the Sandinista Revolution demonstrates what happens to a mixed economy. History has also demonstrated that an economy held in state hands has its own serious weaknesses.
Venezuela’s stress on workers’ control and cooperative enterprises demonstrates that the latter lesson has been learned; cooperation is at the center of the country’s “21st century socialism.” But there is also the lesson provided by the Sandinistas — that experience, too, should not be forgotten.