One must ask: what are we naming when we say ‘Chavismo’? How many types of Chavismo live within Chavismo? It is necessary to break down this word that we use daily. More than a word, it’s a category, with a history of more than 20 years. It’s necessary to do it particularly in times like these, where we are in dire straits: the presidential elections are round the corner, and we need to win.
I write from certainty: Chavez is more than Chavez. More than a government; a party; a liturgy; 2,000 communes; two million houses; dozens of elections, almost all won. What is it? Chavismo is greater than its very core.
In order to get an answer, you have two steps: dismembering it then putting it back together as a whole. An exercise of analysis to delve into the depths of a political process that adversaries loathe and fear, and which often – in their own ranks – is reduced to its governmental dimension.
It’s hard to understand how we continue standing, against the ropes or in the center of the ring, without getting into the territories where Chavez passions are born; the subjectivities; forms of organization; relationship between the parties, tensions that seem sometimes to reach the limit and then they’re resolved. Behind this question is the main question: what do we defend when we go to elections or confront violence designed to push us to a civil war?
They are eight chavisms. Put them on the table in parts, which are then rearranged to become a single word. It is ourselves, in eight deliveries and a metamorphosis.
The Old Man and The Machete
The old man relates the tale of when they put a needle in his eye and it loosened everything. He imitates it with his finger, from far away to almost touching it. After they scraped the inside, he thought that was it and he would never see again. During the day the light went from thin to full, and Cuba was not Cuba but Venezuela again, in the lower part of Merida, which is sometimes Zulia, or also Trujillo, and this area is known as Sur del Lago. He returned to grab the machete, put on his boots, walk with his half-opened shirt, and rescue land from the hands of the landlords. This can cost you your life. More than 300 peasants were killed in 18 years. Taking power away from those who have always had it unleasesh death.
It was his first time on a plane; in an excellent clinic, everything was free. What political process invests money in the eyes of an old peasant? What does an old peasant think when he recovers the eyesight he once took for granted? He went with his wife and several contingents of Venezuelans. He has not forgotten a single detail, nor about how land is retaken: 15 years later, he is still there; stubborn, with his machete and his muddy boots. The country has changed in that time; the wave of advances against the oligarchy stagnated, with a balance of more than four million hectares recovered and several open debates. Did the lands that were rescued become productive? Did recoveries work better in the hands of the state or organized peasants?
Thousands of pages of similar stories could be written, from the dispossessed masses who could study, get medical attention; those who went from being excluded to politicizing, entering theaters and offices – not only to clean them – to access new, imaginary departments, to be claimed by Chavez, coming from that historical territory. It was a radical democratization in the hands of ordinary people. The barrios, the poor, peasants, marginalized, women – especially women.
The accumulated historic debt was immense when Hugo Chavez assumed the presidency. Lack of health, access to education, housing, identification, water, food. The greed of those who drove an oil-producing country to poverty. The myth of a happy Venezuela pre-Chavez is false. That Venezuela had flown through the air on February 27, 1989, and the protagonists were the ones who built the backbone of Chavismo. Chavez put his strategic bet on them. And the first thing to solve that debt in an accelerated way was the opening of public health centers, educational missions, water for the barrios, and food on plates.
Reducing the issue to material affairs is like reducing Chavismo to a government: a mistake. The process encouraged millions: as a people, their national history, their way of life, their skin color. Dignity was the power that was set in motion: it faced the 2002 coup d’état, the oil strike, allowing us to resist these years in which material conquests – with the exception of housing – no longer go forward, but they go backwards instead. Those who are mostly affected are the middle and lower classes, centrally the Chavista social base.
Chavismo was configured as something of its own identity, the political name for those who were always out of the game. There is an equation that rarely fails: the more materially humble a neighborhood is, the more Chavista its people are. The emerging middle class was the first to move away from the impacts of a war designed and combined with errors of their own – the historic middle classes mostly associated their destiny with that of the rich emigrants to Miami. The dimension of Chavismo as identity, enhanced by the rational/sentimental link with Hugo Chavez, was built by the conquest of things: they did not fall from the sky.
I hear the old man. When we are thirsty, he cuts a coconut with the machete, shares its water; part of the production – the recovered lands that now produce corn, yucca, bananas – because this is about democratizing the land and restoring its productivity, which the landlords never exploited. The old man has not become rich; he has skin like leather, skinny with tense muscles. Who is going to take away his Chavista vision? Although the situation is difficult, peasants have been evicted with the complicity of those who should be Chavistas. When offered a bribe in dollars, they turn their back on Chavismo, or maybe they never believed in it. He himself is Chavismo.
Chavismo’s Social Base
There are millions like him: the hardcore social base of Chavismo, emerging when many insist the fight is over. On July 30 last year, more than eight million people went out to vote for the National Constituent Assembly after four months of violence, when being a Chavista in an upper-class area was almost certainly a death sentence. Why did they cross rivers to get around paramilitaries and go to vote? It was not for the government, the party, or the need to change the constitution. It was for something bigger, more profound. A history; an identity, it was for oneself. The scale of priorities, values and responsiveness is another. If you do not understand class – its past, territorial, economic, cultural forms, its way of doing politics – Chavez is not understood. There is the genesis. And that’s where you should begin to achieve common sense again. Because many in the same popular areas have moved away, disaffiliated, entered the army of those who rise every day to solve material problems and stopped believing in the revolution. They do not go to another political option; they return to privacy, withdrawal. A product of the wear of war and disappointment with Chavismo leaders who reproduce the ways of doing politics against which the revolution rose: monopolists of the word. It is Chavismo against itself, the many Chavisms within Chavismo. The old man knows it. Chavez said: “I’m no longer myself.” He was right.
An Organizational Path
Go for a walk in any humble neighborhood of Venezuela – urban or rural – and you will always find some form of organization. It never fails. It is no accident: it is a way to cultivate ongoing politics from point zero of the revolution. From the first speeches of Hugo Chavez to his last remarks, the call for organization was constant. It was, along with the unravelling of the historic debt, the essential task. Moreover, it was through organization that it was possible to respond to the avalanche of demands Chavismo faced during its first years and for which the institutional framework had no capacity to respond.
You can build a genealogy of the organizational forms: from social missions, public meal homes, public water aid, the Bolivarian circles, urban land committees, Zamorano communal haciendas, communal councils, communes, presidential councils of popular government, to the local supply and production committees. Each experience responded to the material and political needs of the moment; it was part of a learning and collective creation.
Arranging global affairs, being endangered like any order within a multitudinous and heterogeneous process, one could speak of three moments. The first, from 1999 to 2006, marked the constituent process for national refoundation, followed by the resolution of the historic debt in water, health, education, identification, food, with the massive shift to sectoral/claiming organizational processes. Each need was developed into a participation process. It was the stage in which the revolution faced the coup-led assaults of the right-wingers, which came to paralyze the oil industry and almost the whole country.
The second moment can be understood until 2012. A time of defeats and strategic ravings by the right, it was also a time for Chavez to consolidate his government and himself as leader. The economy grew and the socialist horizon appeared. It was no longer about boosting organizational experiences in terms of sectoral demands, but trying out forms of organization that carry the power of the transition to socialism. They are centrally the communal councils and the communes, which must install community governments in their territories.
Finally, the current stage, from the death of Chavez in 2013 to the present. It is a period marked by a siege on all fronts. New trials of transition and co-government appeared, such as the presidential councils of popular government and a centralization in local food distribution committees. This decision can be read in pragmatic terms in view of the need to respond to the economic crisis, as well as under the predominance of a political view that discovers communal possibilities.
The common thread between the three periods lies in the call by the leadership/government to the organization. In this permanent process, one of the central dimensions of Chavismo was formed, which is his experience of collective organization. I speak of tens of thousands of communal or production committees councils, for example.
It is an essential part of the political revolution, which was ahead of the economic one. Men and women who had never participated politically, nor had any previous experience. It was about the democratic eruption of the excluded, at the same time as the emergence of new forms of democracy, particularly in the communes: ‘the expression of a new political culture.’ Organization, formation and mobilization: the revolutionary triad, the meeting between a call and a need. With a weakness: the material dependency of the organization on institutions, which also resulted in political dependence, raised by Chavez himself. To what extent is this people’s power actual power?
The unity between political identity and organizational processes gives Chavismo a radicalism to advance and resist this era. It is possible to investigate what has been left in the territories, what predominates in these adversities that seek to destroy this weave. Some experiences were integrated with others, in particular to communal councils and communes. Others have returned for the needs, such as the feeding houses, while the production committees took centrality in an accelerated way in the communities. It could not be otherwise: they are a partial food response when food is scarce or unaffordable. You could hardly have started on that scale without all the previous experience accumulated.
It is good to go further in the analysis and enter into debate about the perspectives that carry different organizational forms. The local supply and production committees have been thought of as palliative mechanisms in an emergency situation, not as socialist forms of trial in a transitional perspective. That can and should be the communes, which are the territorialization of socialism, the test of establishing it on communal governments with the capacity for self-management capacity, of being a new institutionality with the capacity to exercise a communal and national power. An articulated network of communes covering the country to come, beyond parties, movements, institutions. To put it another way: without communal development, where is the socialism of the 21st century? What is 21st century socialism? It is a question about the strategic project.
Without this organization in constant growth, there is no possibility of founding the new.
It is the Chavez formula.
Chavismo Will Be Socialist Or It Will Cease To Exist
‘Made in socialism.’ That phrase resonated a lot in Venezuela a few years ago. It was on chocolates, yoghurts, oils, posters, embedded in a heart logo and the inevitable red five-pointed star. In this last stage it became elusive, more exception than rule: every ministry happened to be of the people’s power, and each bakery or route began to be socialist. Chavez questioned it on national TV: calling things ‘socialist’ does not make them socialist. If there was something he longed to build, it was a transition to 21st century socialism. Chavismo must be socialist.
It was not like that from the beginning, at least publicly, perhaps because he had not yet reached that conclusion. Or because, in the political arena, the idea was to reach that conclusion collectively: for the people to move in that direction, developing the historic subject, the epicenter of politics. To create the desire for socialism, which Chavez mentioned for the first time in 2005.
Until that moment, and as a starting point in his first writings – for example, the Blue Book – there were strong ideas, combining and mobilizing. Like the recovery of the betrayed independence project: Bolivarian popular nationalism. It is the vindication of the national carried out by the humble, with a Latin American dimension: the ethical refounding of a devastated country, plundered for decades by a corrupt political/business class. The tricolor flag, the red beret, the military authority: plebeian, national and social liberation in the same movement. Those were lines of progress, of convening a country in organic crisis with the masses in movement from the Caracazo in 1989 and the emergence of Chavez as a thunderbolt in 1992.
The issue – and here we can trace socialist keys before their announcement – was to build that project through the implementation of central mechanisms: spaces for the exercise of participatory democracy, multiplication of popular organization, tests of parallel institutions articulated to the state, like the missions, the confirmation of a political subject able to face those tasks. The strategic center of gravity was in the humble classes, in the construction of a people’s power that took different forms over the years. The state must recover power/the economy, and then transfer it to the organized people in the process of learning how to exercise that power. A complex architecture, virtuous, possible, necessary. The socialist plots appeared before the announcement of the socialist character.
It was not about leaving the neoliberal order to stabilize a better distributed capitalism, but about looking for ways to overcome the order of capital. “This revolution has assumed the banner of socialism, and that requires and demands much more than any other revolution. We could have stayed in a national revolution, but behind those often undefined terms are hidden statements that end up being reformist, right, that they end up toeing the line,” explained Chavez.
The definition of 2005 coincides with the formulation of the communal councils, followed by the communes. Chavez draws the communal road to socialism, which means rebuilding a new state on the basis of the political, cultural and economic power of the communes. He left it in writing: the bourgeois state had to be pulverized, and for that he wrote a plan with steps. It meant building another, on participatory and self-managed keys, in parallel to the democratization of the inherited state; a key to the analysis of Istvan Meszaros. A socialism from below, endogenous, as defined.
That socialist proposal of Chavez was in tension with another, which was not formulated openly. It can be summarized in some ideas: the centrality should fall on the state, protector and actor/main subject of the process; forms of popular organization should be subordinated to institutions and cover limited and controlled areas; from that state force should be made agreements with old-guard or emerging businessmen, to bet on the creation of a national bourgeoisie, whether external or from Chavez’s trusted political allies. A state socialism on the border with the idea of a capitalism with redistribution of wealth, without removing its foundations.
You can ground this debate on concrete policies. This is what Chavez did, on a national scale, as mass pedagogy and for his cabinet: “The measurement pattern,” says Maszaros, “of socialist achievements is: to what degree the measures adopted contribute actively to the constitution and consolidation of a deeply rooted substantially democratic way, of social control and general self-management.” The way to build is different if the objective is efficient management of the state, or if – along with that – the advance is towards the recovery of power in the hands of organized communities and the implementation of a new state. The subject of the revolution is not a minister, a mayor, but the popular classes in the process of organization within a power strategy.
Chavez then raised the socialism of the 21st century, communal, feminist, with the development of social forms of ownership over the means of production, which must become hegemonic. He left years of trials in that direction, politically and economically, whose balances are a pending debt.
The various Chavismos in Chavismo watched that project from its heterogeneity and, since 2014, an economy on the ropes. The revolution found itself at a crossroads, with two possible paths: a response of defense and conservation, with possible regressions of conquests, close to the historically distant vision of the community road. The other, to deepen the changes initiated, with, for example, the “expansion of the fields of action and decision of the people’s power.” The two possibilities are guides to think about the predominant view of the interior of Chavismo – which Chavismo? – where it seems to have opted for the first option, strengthening the agreement with the business community and retracing the communal bet.
It is a river that has stirred up history in the present. The analysis, like the actors, have desires, interests, class tensions that coexist within the same Chavismo that stays together. Where is socialism? Far, expressed in specific territorial experiences that carry that power, in dispute as a project within Chavismo, threatened by the asphyxia imposed by the war of attrition and bureaucratic tendencies that disbelieve the historical subject and believe… What do they believe?
Chavismo will be socialist or it will cease to exist.
‘We Are All Soldiers’
The man was captivating. It happened to me the first time I saw him in Mar del Plata, in 2005. He was standing before a packed stadium, quoting Eva Peron, talking about Francisco de Miranda. It was raining, there was a sea wind, and he was there for a master class in history. I started to be a military man, he had already faced everything an empire unloads when he wants to get ahead. That day I became a Chavista, without knowing it yet. I was not the only one, we were thousands. There was something in his words, the historical time he carried, the certainty he offered. Seeing it in Caracas was powerfully impactful: I remember the crowded avenue, the wait, the joy. When suddenly, from the top of a truck, he appeared, and the fervor was unanimous, fascinating. It was him. The man, already a myth.
A leadership of this magnitude was necessary to channel Venezuela’s organic crisis into a revolutionary outlet. The country was a superposition of fragments, defeats, accumulated struggles, mobilized wills without knowing where, a radicality unleashed in ’89. The left in its different forms was small: “There was no mass work, the popular struggles were frozen,” explained Chavez. Were there subjective and objective conditions? It was necessary to find someone who gathered around him the scattered and rabid. He said it would be him. It was.
He built himself up as president, head of state, head of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB), of a historical movement, of a political party, a mass pedagogue, political strategist, theoretician. A charismatic leader, as sociology says. Those who frighten political cultures like the European ones, they happen every few decades on our continent and they break history, they give political name to the class struggle, they carry out refoundations.
You cannot understand Chavismo without the roles of leadership. Both in the order of government, civic-military, and driver of the movement. He was the one who balanced the parties, the different looks, could contain the worst tendencies and push towards the progress of the project more and more towards the left. And he won elections, until the last, in a condensation of mysticism rarely seen. His last victory summoned a continent. The right, the empire, could not deal with it.
This is rational, a political analysis. Chavez was more than that: he embodied figures of absent father, brother, love, desire. He remains among the people. Candles, prayers, altars, passions, all that is Chavez.
His death brought a vacuum. It could not be otherwise. The need to build another leadership that did not exist was immediate. For the logics of Chavismo in its different dimensions, and for the violence of the war that had been rehearsing and which unleashed with fury. The strategy of the enemy would have been another one in case of him being alive. They thought that a push would suffice and they were wrong. Chavez continued as a unifying element, a resistance force that continues to this day.
How how could he be replaced? How to rebuild a leadership of government, state, movement, international, in the Fanb *armed forces,* in mass pedagogy? These were tasks that Nicolas Maduro had to assume, and, it is known, driving is not decreed, it is won and it is exercised. Not in any context but in this, marked by the frontality of the attacks that pushed the economy to its limits and unleashed three attempts to assault political power by force in four years. Maduro inherited a historical accumulation at the same time as problems that had been created before, and took advantage of Chavez’s absence to tear even more pieces of what had been achieved. Corruption, for example.
Maduro is not Chavez. It is absurd to pretend otherwise. Nor is there Madurismo, an operation designed by the enemy to break what was not broken. It can be said that Maduro was strengthened in his leadership capacity within Chavismo. The clearest case was his call to the National Constituent Assembly when the country seemed to enter the paths of confrontation without return. It was he who redirected that scenario in a democratic way, once again demonstrating his capacity as a strategist in the confrontation against the other. Maduro is better than the enemy leadership in the conflict, and Chavismo all closed ranks around him to ensure unity and strategic battles. Soldiers, as Maradona said in the critical days.
How much can be asked of the leadership? Maduro is not Chavez, Chavismo is a lot of simultaneous actors, parts of a whole. Downloading good and evil in a single person entails a reduction in analysis, which became part of the Chavista political culture. What should each part do? What role should parties, movements, communes, FANB, intellectuals play? Chavista architecture is not explained or maintained with an analysis scheme focused on leadership. An error that feeds the same official communicational logic, which centers all achievement – and ignores all problems – around Maduro, as a permanent electoral campaign, a need almost to force the installation of its leadership.
It is necessary to build leadership, the one that brings authority with it. Particularly at a time when there are vacuums of authority in Venezuela, lack of order within a hidden war, which has unleashed the negative tendencies that Chavismo had cornered – the bad never disappears altogether: speculation about the need of the other, save yourself if you can, transcended injustices. That authority is needed in a society that was formed in the Chavez way, combining strength with understanding, the first with the enemy, the direction that surrounded it, the second with the poor people, the maker of the strategic process.
Maduro consolidated his leadership in Chavismo ranks, a heterogeneous movement, multiclass, ranging from the peasant, the Indian, the outcast of the city, to the new entrepreneur. His appointment as the next presidential candidate was not publicly questioned. It is also true that his authority has been beaten downstream, in the commoner without political passion, in those also within Chavismo who have moved away, disillusioned, look for ways to face economic regression. For the same reality of the incapacity demonstrated until the moment of reversing the economic trend, because Maduro has been the central target of the national/global communication attacks, because a distancing between the president and the management has been effected with everyday language. The streets speak more and more another language, or the other way around. That distance weighs more as the material conditions worsen.
Chavismo needs leadership, authority. The country, too. It was due to a titanic traction capacity that it was possible to advance in a revolutionary process that almost nobody had predicted. That unifying and guiding capacity was Chavez. That absence is not replaceable with the same formula he did for Chavez. Some of the answers are in the president, others in the many Chavismos that we are.
Are we all Chavez?
The Barracks and The Revolution
It is a border area with Colombia. The militiamen arrive little by little, in motorcycles, buses, trucks. They come from the central neighborhoods with low houses, where the town ends and the plain begins, until it resembles jungle. They meet early in the training camp of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fanb) for the day of the Bolivarian National Militia. They have training practice, displacement, shooting. They carry their green uniform, different according to the rank they occupy. Take advantage of the fact that it is time to gather mangoes and have breakfast, the economic situation is difficult. There are many women, big people, young people, mostly comuneros and state workers, Chavistas all. At the end of the day they will wear their civilian clothes, they will return to their daily activities.
The Militia is a central part of the Chavista project. Just as a revolution is not built from the state apparatus, nor can it be defended in a classical way, with doctrines inherited from the North American formations of the School of the Americas. Particularly when faced with schemes of attack that do not respond to the traditional forms of war, without uniformed armies, declared generals, regular armaments, deployed with the devil’s maxim: make believe that it does not exist.
As in the construction of the architecture of the project, the premise was the same: there is no possibility of transformation without incorporating new forms of organization with popular protagonism. In the case of security and defense, the Militia was formed in 2008, with the idea of strength of the people in arms within the doctrine of integral defense of the nation and an antimperialist Fanb. The General Command of the Militia was formed with its General Staff, dependent on the Operational Strategic Command of the Fanb. The Militia, as in the different calls made by Chavez, attended by men and women from all over the country, from neighborhoods in cities, institutions, rural areas, the social base of Chavismo, in the process of preparation within a strategic defense plan of the revolution, that is, of itself.
There is a deeper element to understanding the Militias, and the civic-military unit is the cornerstone of the process. “The union of the people with the soldiers, the soldiers with their people is one of the fundamental pillars of the Bolivarian revolution,” said Chavez, a military man and leader of the Fanb. The genesis and development of the revolution cannot be understood without the two times in parallel and united. February 27 was civil and caused a break in a sector of the Fanb to see the massacre unleashed against the population: 3,000 dead in two days, on February 4, 1992, the result of a military uprising articulated with organized civil sectors. As for the defeat of the coup d’état in April 2002, it was the union of these two forces, with the massive mobilization in the streets along with the action of the military that faced the coup from within, such as the Maracay Battalion. The revolution is founded on those episodes with the power of myth.
The military issue involves several points at once. There is a proper dimension of defense, as the border areas are the epicenter of the war; another of government, with an important part of the elected and appointed positions – such as governors and ministers – the responsibility of active or retired military personnel, and another of economic order, since the Fanb has increasing economic responsibilities in these last years. Some of them are the Great Mission Sovereign Supply (Gmas), AgroFanb, Military Corporation of Mining, Oil and Gas Industries, and the Emiltra Military Transport Company.
La Gmas, for example, was created in 2016 as part of the strategy to regularize the modes of production, arrival of imports – such as ports – distribution channels, pricing system, marketing, with a civic-military deployment under management of the Minister of General Defense, Vladimir Padrino Lopez. The priority areas were agri-food, pharmaceutical and industrial. Neuralgic points. It happened after the defeat.
Field of Action
Why this extension of the field of action of the Fanb? One hypothesis is that faced with the war scenario to which the process was brought, and after the defeat in the legislative elections of 2015, it was decided to give greater strength to an actor with internal order capacity, centralization of command and presence in all the territory to try to retake the government on the economy. A pillar of the process deployed in an era of an economy assaulted in a more acute way by all the internal and external flanks.
The results, for the moment, were not as expected: the economic picture unleashed in Venezuela showed a complexity that is not resolved by a change of actors at the top, but rather by the need to rethink the bases for the development of the economic/productive/distributive structure, and to do so while confronting the increasingly widening international blockade resulting from the aggression of the United States, and corruption plots with a power established in the neuralgic areas of the economy, of which the Fanb does not escape.
There is no Chavismo without civic-military myth. In that dimension reside some of the main strengths, as well as questions, by territories of action that are of great complexity, such as the border with Colombia, and the sustained work of the United States to provoke internal earthquakes. It would not have been until this time without the loyalty that allowed it to face the armed assaults of the right, and the offers within the plan of war, some of which managed to start up coup movements.
As an example, in March a conspiracy was stopped inside the Fanb, where six lieutenant colonels, a first lieutenant and two sergeants belonging to the Movement of Transition to the Dignity of the People were arrested in the Ayala Battalion, one of the main ones of the country, located in Caracas. How much does the empire offer to those who carry out a coup? The reformulation of the military doctrine made by Chavez can be used to analyze how to build armed forces at the service of revolutionary processes and not the interests of the ruling classes and the empire. A theme always pending and complex in a continent that by its history associated by instinct of body and memory the armed forces with dictatorship and enemy.