Keys to Understanding Chavismo, a Movement that is Much More Than the Government

Marco Teruggi

Chavismo is more than the government. Reinaldo Iturriza, Venezuelan sociologist, analyzes the dimensions of the political movement that has managed to resist all coup attempts, and provides us with the keys to understanding its popular neighbourhood identity. He explains what the “Chavista subject” actually is, and why it is misunderstood by opponents and the US.

Chavism is not the figure of a president. Neither is it an executive board, or an election. The realities of the movement go beyond these dimensions. “There is a Chavista government, a Chavista way of doing politics, and the political subject that makes it possible for Chavismo to be in government,” says Reinaldo Iturriza, a sociologist and researcher at the National Center for Historical Studies.

Iturriza is the author of several analytical works, such as his latest book, El chavismo salvaje, and a work under construction called Genealogía sentimental del chavismo. The sociologist develops the category of the Chavista subject, marking the genesis of the movement that preceded Hugo Chávez, which was only possible with Chávez.

The beginning: the 90’s, the devastating impact of neoliberalism in Venezuela. “The political class collapsed, the immense majority of the population turned its back on that class, without representation in the parties, without classic intermediation mechanisms such as parties, unions,” he explains.

“It was the people on the margins of institutional politics, of the formal economy, that was the place occupied by the bulk of Chavismo, that was the part of society that became politicized and did so in direct dialogue with the Bolivarian military,” he adds.

The Chavista Subject

The foundation of the subject, its main root that later becomes polyclassist, allows us to understand various elements of the past and the present. In the first place, the centrality of the popular neighbourhoods that, as a graphic representation, did not exist very often in the same cartographies of the State.

Secondly, the links that were established between the politicized subject, mobilized, with the leadership of both Chávez and the government.

“During the stages in which Chávez came to a firm stand from more radically democratic positions, related to the grassroots, there was a very clear identification between Chavismo and the government,” he points out.

Chávez also had moments when “he ran to the center or was wrong,” and his virtue as a leader was due to his ability to “discover ways to redirect the relationship,” in those cases in which the interlocution with the popular ceased to be fluid, explains Iturriza.

That link “allowed identification between subject and government, especially when it was identified with Chavez”. But apart from his figure, “the relationship with the government has always been problematic, which is a positive characteristic, that permanent tension was like the engine behind many of the changes that occurred”.

Chavez’s death in 2013 brought fundamental questions to the table: how to reconstruct an arbiter within the movement, or how to maintain the link between subject and government from the political power of the movement.

“There is a Chavismo that exceeds a government, there is a Chavista government, but not necessarily most of the power factors that make life in that space are identified with what one can call the Chavista way of doing politics,” says the sociologist.

Popular Neighbourhoods

The right, or anti-Chavism, as Iturriza defines it, denied the Chavista subject from the zero point of the movement. Now they recognize that Chávez had popular support, but since he is no longer here, they want to believe that this power would pass to the opposition.

For the sociologist, this position is a deceitful one, which “ignores the permanent tension between the social base, the political subject and the government that defines Chavismo,” and above all commits “interpretative fraud by assimilating discomfort with the government and sympathizing with the option for its overthrow,” he points out.

“If the social base of Chavismo was severely critical of the government at its best, it is normal that it should be now that we are in the midst of an economic crisis,” when it is the central concern for the vast majority of the population, the expert said.

However, he clarified that “one of the popular certainties is that ‘anti-Chávezism’ is not an option of power”. The mathematics of opposition propaganda does not apply to the non-linear Venezuelan social reality.

That social base has an organizational dimension in the territories, in the hills of Caracas, the inner city neighbourhoods, towns, rural areas of peasantry and small producers.

It can be seen in communal councils, communes, base structures of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, local supply and production committees, battalions of the Bolivarian militia, food houses, communal economic system, among other experiences.

Hard Chavismo

Along with that there is an identity dimension, which does not necessarily have an organizational correlate. This is what Iturriza defines as “hard Chavismo“, which in electoral terms allows Chavismo to have “a 20 or 30% entrance”.

“It has to do with the fact that the relation of the political identity of the popular goes far beyond a government,” which is “a circumstance, evidently very important, since there is a plan and policies to be implemented.

For Iturriza, there can be great discontent, “but it is not only a collective body that endorses a political option, it has aspirations that go beyond the electoral”.

“Its politicization exceeds the government, and that explains in part why when the possibility of settling the conflict by electoral means occurs what is at stake is much more than the government but a horizon”.

The right-wing interpretative fraud is not only to state that Chavismo no longer has organizational and identity reality in the neighbourhoods, but also to affirm that it would automatically win any election.

This is not to say that Chavismo would win, but rather that it is necessary to get out of the trap of opposition non-analysis and look at the layers, questions, identities, their links with material realities, histories, yearnings and will.

“We have to try to find out what the majority of the Venezuelan population is thinking about the two poles: Chavismo in government and anti-Chavismo trying to overthrow it”.

United

How has the movement been held together? This is one of the central questions, particularly in the face of current adversities, threats, attrition, permanent operations to divide it. To be able to conceive this unity is first of all not to look for it in the classic key of how divisions are perceived.

“One dimension is to try to divide the movement in the classical way, to divide the leadership and let one sector go with one and another with another”, but this does not happen in Chavismo. At various times, from the beginning, several commanders and groups separated, but ” Chavismo does nothing but grow in strength, because what happens at the group tendency level has very little to do with what happens underneath”.

Now “there is a very interesting phenomenon”: a part of Chavismo “continues to invest in the defense of the government to defend the revolution, and there is another part that no longer believes it has to go through the trouble of defending the government with which it feels little identified”.

However, “their identification with Chavismo, with its ideas and strength remains largely intact. That explains the contrast between the popularity of the President of the Republic and that of Commander Chávez.

The result yields complex conclusions: “internally and underneath we are living a process of reconfiguration of identity,” because there is “an enormous popular force still,” which “is not recognized by the government as a whole,” but which, as long as it continues to be recognized as Chavista, “is not recognized in anti-Chavism”.

How does the U.S. intend to reconfigure Venezuela with anti-Chávezism in the government? On the one hand, by following their statements, to imprison, to extradite a main part of the leadership of the process.

The question is: what project would they apply against the Chavista subject? What place would the political, organizational and identity experience have? The answer to that question is another of the reasons behind the determination to fight, of not renouncing a project that has always been much more than the government.