It is possible that Chávez invented 21st century democracy, to draw a phrase from William Ospina (1). If that statement seems incorrect in these times, that is because, once again, the right path to tread is the one that goes against the current.
Forged in the fight against military dictatorships, the democratic political forces of the 20th century wanted to be civil and representative. They governed according to the rules established in an elite pact, at the service of capital (fundamentally oriented toward the international market) and subordinated to the interests of US imperialism.
Chavismo burst onto the scene once that elite pact entered into a mortal crisis, towards the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s. A crisis that was in turn directly related to the profound economic and social impact from the end of the material expansion phase of the accumulation cycle of the Venezuelan oil industry, as defined by Malfred Gerig (2), during the 1970s.
The end of the 20th century would be witness to an alliance of civil and military forces that proposed that the time had come for participatory and protagonist democracy. The Bolivarian Revolution would be characterized by its national and popular orientation, even when it opted for the socialist path (it would never be a subservient, “Sepoy” socialism). Although it would have to face the violent opposition of the elites who were displaced from political power, the strength and nature of this alliance, which would guarantee the strong support of the popular majorities, would make it possible for the Bolivarian revolution to follow the peaceful and democratic path.
It is precisely the latter that Ospina highlights in the article he wrote after the death of President Chávez: “what a high sense of respect for fellow citizens of a country that, even in the midst of the fiercest differences of opinion, does not sink into sectarian violence and in a bloodbath that has cyclically characterized some of its neighbors. For the last fifteen years, Venezuela has lived, not in a state of polarization, as some claim, but in the passionate politicization that characterizes moments of great historical transformations.”
It is true that, in general terms, Chávez’s time in power coincided with a new, albeit brief, phase of the material expansion of the cycle of capital accumulation in Venezuela, but it was not a simple and fortunate coincidence, in spite of those who try to explain that period using the hackneyed cliché of the abundance of “petrodollars”.
A brief digression: the hermeneutical damage produced by the abuse of the aforementioned topic is incalculable, to the point of having become one of the most serious epistemological obstacles to understanding the Chávez experience.
There was fortune, but also virtue, as the Brazilian André Singer has written concerning Lula da Silva, in his extraordinary analysis of Lulismo(3). Virtue and fortune. Among the virtues of Hugo Chávez in the presidency, two of them should be highlighted: on the one hand, the democratization of the distribution of oil rent to begin paying off the enormous social debt, which fundamentally implies a decision to substantially modify redistributive policies even prior to an abundant availability of resources, a fact contrary to what is frequently claimed. And on the other hand, the decision to introduce structural changes in the economy, gradually creating the conditions to move from a rent-seeking economy to a productive type.
Referring to the Bolivarian process, Ospina pointed out, «No one can ignore the importance of what is happening, no one can ignore the enormity of the urgent problems it has faced, the enormity of the solutions it has tried.» The «historic magnitude» of all this consisted of having been «fulfilled in a climate of peace, respect for life, within the framework of institutions, and in accordance with high principles of humanity and dignity.»
It is equally true that ten years after those words were written, the prevailing political climate is one of dispassionate «depolarization,» which is related to the end of the brief phase of the material expansion that accompanied Chávez, but above all to societal collapse that ensued. A collapse that mainly affected, as was quite predictable, the living conditions of the popular classes in a very serious way; but also, in a very regressive way, the foundations of the economy, the way of doing politics, the cultural conquests from the beginning of the 20th century (recovery of national dignity, class pride, etc.) and the country’s geopolitical positioning.
There is perhaps no clarification more important than the following: said collapse is far from being a historical fatality. There is no such thing as a “foundational defect” in the Bolivarian process, in the sense that such an outcome was inevitable, as a certain historiography postulates. On the contrary, the collapse is due to the traumatic and painful interruption of the fascinating democratic experiment led by Hugo Chávez.
Of course the need for a frank discussion is necessary, and more than that, crucial, on the multiple causes of said interruption and the diversity of agents involved, on their greater or lesser responsibility or weight, on the order in which the events occurred, etc.
What we cannot allow ourselves, in my opinion, is to act as if this interruption has not occurred. It is our responsibility not to compromise with the position of those who, to cite Ospina, purport to ignore the importance of what we have done, the enormity of the problems we have faced and the solutions we have attempted.
It is intolerable, for example, to see the levity with which anti-Chavismo refers to the unsuccessful attempt to lay the foundation for a productive economy, blaming «Chávez for not fully carrying out in 10 years the very foundation and diversification that they did not even attempt in 50 years», as the Colombian writer recalls. This is in the best of cases, because frequently that statement is replaced by the hackneyed anti-communist rhetoric, full of references to the alleged violations of sacred economic liberties that are at the root of the current situation.
As for the ruling party, there will be those who affirm that the country continues to move towards socialism, despite the fact that, since there is no other alternative, it has had to enter the labyrinth of the most orthodox monetarism. There are worse cases, which are not worth mentioning here.
It could be that Hugo Chávez left countless clues so that, in case we got lost, we could find a way out: “We are struggling to defeat inflation, and we will defeat it. But not at the cost of the hunger of the workers, not at the cost of the hunger of the people.”(4) But it also could be that this is not enough. Before he was Ariadne, Chávez was Theseus, but not Theseus the mythological hero. If Chávez was able to get out of the labyrinth, it is because he was always part of a collective Theseus. Today, that Theseus must be reunited with the interrupted thread leading out of the labyrinth.
(1) William Ospina. Chávez: una revolución democrática. El Espectador, 9 de marzo de 2013.
(2) Malfred Gerig. La Larga Depresión venezolana: economía política del auge y caída del siglo petrolero. CEDES – Editorial Trinchera. Caracas, Venezuela. 2022.
(3) André Singer. Os sentidos do Lulismo. Reforma gradual e pacto conservador. Companhia das Letras. Sao Paulo, Brasil. 2012.
(4) Hugo Chávez Frías. Acto con motivo del Día Internacional del Trabajador. Caracas, Venezuela. 30 de abril de 2008.
Publicado originalmente en Venezuelanalysis