The economic crisis in Venezuela has dealt a mortal blow to the Bolivarian project, with the popular support previously enjoyed by Chavismo dissolving under the weight of immiseration and authoritarianism. The streets have became war-zone, where the police and the armed colectivo gangs gun down protestors and rioters. The Bolivarian project failed, which wasn’t socialist in the first place, but another iteration of what Marx called Bonapartism – the concentration of power into an autocratic but “benevolent” military leader that distributes some of the surplus generated by oil rent to the underclasses in order to secure a power base. The collapse of the Bolivarian project after death of their larger than life figurehead – Chavez, confirms that working class power was not institutionalized, but instead, the political foundation of Bolivarianism was in Chavez’s charismatic persona – a scaffolding built upon his television show, his broad shoulders and thick wrists, his mesmerizing speeches against the imperialist yankees. Yet, in order to advance the socialist project worldwide it’s necessary to understand the complex racial, social, and class divisions that gave rise to not only Chavismo, but the other charismatic (and sometimes autocratic) left-leaning politicians that recently emerged in Latin America – the Correas, the Lulas, and Morales. Furthermore, we must dispel the myths created by the right-wing opposition – the organized expression of a a racist, light-skinned and elitist alliance of managers, professionals, and businessmen. Finally, we should point out the limits of Chavismo: which are nationalism, career bureaucrats, and the fetishization of “larger-than life” men and their political form – the presidency, the latter which is nothing but a term-limited and sterilized variation of the monarchy.
Chavismo cannot be understood without looking at the complex power differentials between classes and races in Latin America. Latin America suffers of stark economic and political inequalites that are scaffolded by complex racial and social stratifications, many of these hierarchies inherited from the colonial era. Light-skinned latinos, or “whites” are overrepresented in the managerial, professional, and wealthy demographics, while amerindians, blacks, and the dark-skinned make the bulk amongst the poor, the working classes, and the peasantry. These class and racial divisions create a very tense political landscape. In the last decade, due to these social and class contradictions, a group of charismatic, left-leaning politicians took power in many south american countries – a phenomenon referred as the “pink tide”. These larger than life figures – Morales, Lula, and Chavez to name a few, were elected by workers and slum-dwellers at the dismay of the largely white managerial and business castes. While in office, many of these left-leaning politicians, such as Lula in Brazil and Chavez in Venezuela, rode a spike in prices of their countries’ export commodities. They used these surpluses to finance all sorts of social services and subsidies that made them very popular. However, once the world-economy became unfavourable to their exports, the national economies suffered and thus their popularity waned. In Brazil, this emboldened the right wing and culminated in the undemocratic coup against the Worker’s Party (PT), with the ousting of Dilma Rousseff and the sentencing of Lula. In Venezuela, the traditional strongholds of chavismo, such as the urban slums, have eroded under the weight of shortages and economic crisis.
The organized opposition to this pink tide is largely reactionary and loathsome. They are the political representatives of the credentialed, the managers, and the rich – a caste that was previously politically dominant, which oversaw the inequality and corruption that fuelled the current populist wave. Their elitist contempt for the impulses of what made chavismo, and the rest of the pink tide possible, is palpable. They think of the working poor that supported the leftist politicians as a largely ignorant, lazy and amorphous mass – a genetically inferior race that lacks the white skin that the ruling classes inherited from their brutal and violent ancestors. Within the opposition’s pathetic cries for democracy and freedom, and the dramatic stories they feed to their western audiences in Canada, the United States and Europe, there’s a concealment of the privileges they enjoyed as petroleum engineers, landlords, and businessmen.
The racist and incompetent capitalist class made the impulses behind the pink tide very legitimate. However, these impulses weren’t channeled into the building of independent, democratic and working class organizations that want to do away with the power of bureaucrats and managers, but directed into left-leaning and “benevolent” career politicians. Therefore, the success or failure of these leftist project were tied to the rise and fall of this leftist bureaucratic class – a managerial caste that had to consolidate power for themselves in order to guarantee social programs and wealth distribution. With this consolidation of power, comes autocracy, corruption, and embezzlement (hence the rise of the bolibourgeosie). Once the world-economy triggered the collapse of value of the export commodities these career politicians and caudillos used to extract a surplus, their power base dissolved. Because these politicians made themselves the rulers responsible for the fate of the nation-state, then the blame of all their country’s ills naturally fell on them.
Just as in the case of the venezuelan PSUV and the brazilian PT, every leftist party that takes power through the ordinary means of the office, without eroding the narratives and foundations that give rise to the career-politician, will ultimately be fragile, as it will take responsibility for all the liabilities of managing the nation-state. Some of the structural beams that support political careerism are: inflated salaries, unelected and unaccountable officers, aparachniks that make a livelihood out of wielding bureaucracies, a judiciary branch appointed from above, and ultimately, the existence of an executive power personified in a “great man” – the presidency. These mechanism that concentrate power in a largely identifiable center, are not meant to empower the general populace, but instead create a bureaucratic caste that maintains the status quo – a machinery that will sooner or later veto socialist policies. In contrast, if the working class actually took power, by abolishing the presidency and creating a truly democratic republic that replaces career politicians with elected and recallable worker-officers – a republic that merges the legislative and executive power into a federation of democratic councils – then the success and failure of socialism will be the responsibility of the working class, and there will not be a larger than life hero to deify or demonize.
Finally, the nation-state cannot support socialism, for the nation behaves as a firm connected to the world-economy. The nation-state must remain competitive in a capitalist way in order to provide its subjects with clothing, shelter, and food – all which is largely produced by a complex global assembly line that couples all the workers of the world. The leftist bureaucrats that took power in Venezuela made the nation-state uncompetitive, which ultimately caused a lack of basic goods and mass immiseration. Anti-capitalists cannot make the nation-state competitive in a capitalist market, therefore latin american socialists must fight for democratic forms that consolidate the whole continent into one polity, while aspiring to create a global, democratic and socialist republic in the future. This vision heavily contrasts the nationalism that has infected most of modern latin american leftism.
Many leftists will say that the Bolivarian project failed because it wasn’t sufficiently socialist – that the state didn’t expropriate private property or “abolish money” or some other leftist platitude. Yet chavismo was doomed to fail since the beginning, because it didn’t consist of the people taking power for themselves through democratic, transparent structures that they can wield, but instead, the workers made nationalist politicians responsible for their livelihood and liberation. Some leftists will say that the communal councils and mass organizations are proof that Chavez was actually empowering workers, but if anything, these organizations served as a way to consolidate the power of career politicians on the shoulders of the proletariat. A socialism in Latin America will be continental, transparent, and democratic, or it will be surely overthrown by the pressure of the world-economy and degenerate into corruption and authoritarianism.