[Below is a slighly amended version of the first chapter of Steve Ellner's new book 'Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon' (Lynne Reinner, 2008). For more information about the book click here.]
Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the
INTRODUCTION: RETHINKING VENEZUELAN POLITICS
Events during a given historical period shape the tools and frameworks used by people to understand the past and the present. The political setting during each decade or two after the United States Civil War, for instance, influenced the predominant interpretations of the causes of that conflict, which differed in fundamental ways from those of previous years. It should not be surprising therefore that the dramatic changes and radical discourse ushered in with the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998 have impacted the thinking of Venezuelans of diverse political, social and educational backgrounds. Not only is there greater interest in the nation’s past but also a tendency to reexamine social attitudes and celebrate the defense of national autonomy and independence on political and economic fronts. Even the Venezuelan opposition, which during the early years of the Chávez presidency directed its efforts mainly at its middle class constituency, has displayed greater awareness of social and racial attitudes and has prioritized the need to penetrate the nonprivileged sectors of the population. Furthermore, a large number of students of educational institutions founded by the Chávez government as well as young Venezuelan and foreign scholars have focused their attention on the poor sectors of the population and their communities.
In some cases, the reinterpretation of the past coincides with political and historical scholarly analyses and reexamination of traditional historiography which was undertaken over a period of several decades prior to Chávez’s assumption of power. In addition to this revisionism, Chávez himself has forcefully put forward fairly original political and historical interpretations in response to the challenges his movement has faced. I argue that political imperatives have sometimes led Chávez to overstate his case.
The book’s basic objective is to take a close look at struggles over issues of substance in Venezuela as well as political expressions of class and racial cleavages. Much historical and political writing over the years has failed to attach sufficient attention to these sources of conflict during various periods in the nation’s history and instead has overemphasized personal ambition and discourse that sometimes was tantamount to empty rhetoric. Many writers have been influenced by the “Venezuelan exceptionalism thesis,” which is a central concern of this book. The exceptionalism thesis argues that modern Venezuelan history has been exempt from the internecine struggles, acute class conflicts and racial animosities that have characterized other Latin American countries. For many years, political analysts along with those close to the circles of power in Washington presented the exceptionalism view by labeling Venezuela a model democracy due to its stability, marginalization of the left and avoidance of militant independent trade unionism.
Exceptionalism writers extolled the leadership of the nation’s dominant modern democratic parties. According to their view the modernizing middle class elite which rebelled in 1928 against long-time dictator Juan Vicente Gómez (1908-1935) established the bases for a stable democracy by founding the multi-class parties Acción Democrática (AD) and COPEI, which contained class conflict. By glorifying the “generation of ‘28” and democratic leaders who emerged in subsequent years, these writers downplayed the contribution of struggles and transformations over the previous century. Exceptionalism thus reinforced traditional historiography, which presented a monochromatic view of the nineteenth century that wrote off all political movements for change as complete failures with no long-lasting impact. AD held power from 1945 until 1948 when it was overthrown by military dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez who ruled until 1958. Subsequently, the moderate AD for the most part alternated power with the equally moderate COPEI. During these decades, the exceptionalism focus became the generally accepted explanation of Venezuelan politics. Only in the 1990s was the stability interrupted and the political system thrown into crisis. The mass nation-wide disturbances during the week of February 27, 1989 was followed by the abortive military coup headed by Hugo Chávez in 1992, the impeachment of AD’s Carlos Andrés Pérez the following year, and several months later (for the first time) the election of a presidential candidate, Rafael Caldera, who did not belong to either AD or COPEI.
The exceptionalism thesis does contain elements of truth. Certainly Venezuelan politics in the twentieth century was not subject to the class-based parties that emerged in Chile, nor did the Venezuelan government apply brutal repression against working class protests as occurred in Argentina, Bolivia and elsewhere. There were good reasons why Venezuela appeared to be class-conflict free. Ample resources, for instance, underpinned the practice of clientelism, which discouraged collective struggles. Furthermore, multi-class parties created internal mechanisms to broker class disputes. Finally, class mobility, which was particularly pronounced within the armed forces, at times eased social tensions. Indeed, the middle and lower-middle class background of most Venezuelan military officers contrasted with the more privileged background of their counterparts throughout the hemisphere.
Nevertheless, the appearance of social harmony during the modern period and the claim that Venezuela was a model democracy misled scholars who for the most part failed to foresee the political crisis of the 1990s. Most important, many political writers and the media in general failed to look at electoral fraud and state repression committed against political and labor activists who were outside of the political system. In some cases the omission was deliberate in that it was intended to preserve Venezuela’s image as a model democracy. The harsh critique presented by Chávez and Chavista leaders of Venezuela’s “exceptional” post-1958 democracy, while exaggerated in some aspects as will be discussed in Chapter Three, exposes the fallacies of exceptionalism thinking.
Political scientists writing on the post-1958 period have also minimized the importance of tension and struggle within the mainstream AD and COPEI. In both parties, left-leaning factions emerged but were the victims of heavy-handed treatment and violation of internal democratic rules on the part of party machines. The leaders of these factions articulated positions on social inequality, severance of dependency on foreign capital and technology, assertion of an independent foreign policy and internal democratization. They failed, however, to put forward an all-encompassing strategy to achieve these goals or to rally public support for them. Nevertheless, they raised issues, albeit timidly, that later were to become the focus point of the Chavista movement. Writing that denies the programmatic and ideological implications of the factional conflicts of AD and COPEI coincide with the claims of the spokesmen for the dominant factions of both parties who at the time accused the dissidents of being motivated solely by personal ambition. Many writers (including leftist ones) who accept these arguments attribute the factional struggle to the eagerness of the minority factions to gain control of the abundant oil-derived resources at the disposal of those in the seats of power.
This book, in its attempt to separate crucial issues from relatively superficial
ones, takes a close look at governments and their policies that laid the
groundwork for, or pointed in the direction of, radical transformation.
Powerful establishment groups have always had a special fear of charismatic
leaders with a radical discourse who implement policies that have a potential
for setting off far-reaching change. These leaders, albeit inadvertently in
some cases, provide the popular sectors of the population with a sense of
empowerment. The book will analyze three cases in which governments set
the stage for transformation and as a result faced the hardened opposition
of establishment forces: the AD government of 1945 to 1948; the first
administration of Carlos Andrés Pérez between 1974 and 1979; and the
Chávez government after 1998. Concrete economic policies contrary to the
immediate interests of powerful economic groups are important for
understanding political conflict, but in themselves do not explain the depth of
reaction (to argue otherwise would be to fall into the error of economism).
The combination of policies with a transformational potential and a discourse
that empowers people was particularly evident in the case of the Chávez
government and explains why (more than in the two other above-mentioned
cases) it faced open resistance from the business sector and the U.S.
The Paradigmatic Significance of the Chávez Phenomenon
The tendency to downplay issues of substance and to concentrate on
personality, personal ambition and self-serving behavior has particularly
manifested itself in the writing and general discussion on the government
of Hugo Chávez. In the process, many political writers have sidetracked
the basic issues, particularly those related to social, economic and national
interests. In addition to specific zero-sum game policies that favor one class
at the expense of another, Chávez’s government has begun to promote a
new model, which recognizes the rights of the private sector but also its
obligations in the context of broader social and national goals. The
possibility of a “demonstration effect,” in which Venezuela serves as an
example for the rest of Latin America and an alternative to the existing
capitalist system in those nations, weighs heavily on the actions of Chávez’s
most influential enemies. Political analysts for the most part, rather than focus
on the demonstration effect, concern themselves with Washington’s claim
that Chávez is using oil money to finance the Latin American left. In doing so,
they pass over the real significance of what is occurring in Venezuela. In
short, zero-sum game policies and the contours of the new emerging model
should be at the center of analysis and not personality and rhetoric, which
political analysts and journalists have until now tended to emphasize.
The degree to which the government has prioritized the development of a
new viable economic model is open to debate. At the level of discourse,
Chávez insists that social goals are more important than economic ones
since the basic thrust of the revolution is “humanistic” and increased
production does not necessarily resolve the pressing problem of poverty.
Furthermore, the Chavista movement has refrained from engaging in a
debate over ideology and strategy that would define the relationship
between small-scale production, which the government has made an
all-out effort to stimulate, and large-scale production. Finally, Chávez’s
appeal to voluntarism, solidarity and good intentions on the part of
small-scale producers who receive generous amounts of credit from the
state detracts from the establishment of mechanisms that guard against
misuse of public funds and ensure the viability of these new forms of
The discourse and actions of the Chávez presidency and movement have influenced the way Venezuelans view themselves and in the process have encouraged a reexamination of Venezuelan society, politics, history and ethnicity. The Chávez phenomenon has also brought into the open controversial topics such as racism that were previously discouraged or ignored. This new political atmosphere is bound to frame the issues of political and intellectual debate as well as academic research for many years to come. The reconsideration of long-held assumptions may also go well beyond Chávez’s supporters. Intense polarization notwithstanding, political actors and observers have reached a virtual consensus that, regardless of the duration of Chávez’s stay in power, his election in 1998 signaled definitive changes and the nation will never be the same.
government’s prioritization of lower-class needs, as reflected in rhetoric and
budgetary allocations, and the social polarization in Venezuela manifested in
voting preferences since 1998, have influenced analysts and actors (including
those of the opposition) to pay greater attention to class concerns. This new
orientation contrasts with the behavior of political parties across the
political spectrum over previous decades. In the 1960s, for instance,
Venezuelan leftists strayed from Marxist class analysis and ignored the advice
of pro-leftist trade union leaders who cautioned against taking up guerrilla
warfare in sparsely populated rural areas far removed from the working class
(Ellner, 1993: 41). The largest leftist party in the 1970s and 1980s, the Movimiento
al Socialismo (MAS), also eschewed class politics and emphasized political reforms
and elections at the expense of social demands. Similar to what has happened on
the political front, scholarly research has begun to look more at class issues
in contrast to the more institutional approach that characterized it in the
past. Thus various, particularly young, scholars have taken a close look at the
urban poor, unlike in previous years when, with the exception of one study
(Ray, 1969), writers largely ignored the topic.
President Chávez’s interpretations of Venezuelan history, which are shaped by political considerations and imperatives and are designed to stimulate national pride, also clash with traditional views. Most important, Chávez’s version of the nation’s history puts in relief popular causes and the role of heroic leaders, other than those of the War of Independence whom historians have always glorified. Along these lines, Chávez frequently extols the Indian martyr Chief Guaicaipuro, who confronted the Spanish at the time of the founding of Caracas in the mid-sixteenth century; Chávez named an Indian assistance program “Mission Guaicaipuro” and rebaptized the “Day of the Race” (Columbus Day) “Day of Indian Resistance.” The Venezuelan leader who most benefits from this historical reevaluation is Cipriano Castro, long considered lustful and irresponsible. Chávez often compares his own predicament at the time of the coup and general strike in 2002 and 2003 with that of Castro, who in 1902-1903 resisted the European blockade of Venezuelan ports greeted by his financially powerful adversaries.
Chávez’s views of modern democracy also diverge sharply from generally accepted ones. Chávez’s condemnation of Venezuela’s party-based democracy of 1945-1948 and after 1958 has been more severe and all-encompassing than even the accounts of many Venezuelan leftists. The Chavistas label the overthrow of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez on Januray 23, 1958 a “popular insurrection” (rather than a simple military coup), and accuse the political party elites of having hijacked the movement in order to gut it of its social and leftist content. This critique helps justify the February 1992 attempted coup staged by Chávez, which laid the groundwork for his rise to power in 1998. Chávez’s criticism of the nation’s modern democracy will undoubtedly leave an indelible imprint on political historiography and do much to bury the Venezuelan “exceptionalism thesis,” which views the nation’s democracy as having been stable, unique and superior to the rest of Latin America
Issues of ethnicity and racism have also been thrust in the center of national discussion as a result of the attitudes assumed by President Chávez and the opposition. On the one hand, Chávez frequently appeals to racial pride; the Chavista Constitution of 1999 calls on the state not only to accept Indian languages and culture but to promote their “appreciation and dissemination” (Article 121). On the other hand, during the height of political tension between 2001 and 2003, individual members of the opposition used racist slurs against the Chavistas while racism also manifested itself in graffiti in wealthy zones and even occasionally in the media. At the same time, the opposition accused Chávez of playing the race card. This open clash of positions represents a break with the past when the issue of racism was widely spurned and the myth of Venezuela as a racial democracy served to underpin discriminatory practices. The current polemical setting is conducive to studies that deepen the scholarly research of the last half century on the cultural contributions of blacks and Indians and to the systematic diffusion of these findings. The present period also encourages analysts to go beyond the cultural focus by examining the class and political implications of racism (Herrera, 2007: 105-106).
Long-Standing Notions and Assumptions of Venezuelan Society and Politics
The Chávez era has not only changed the focus of political debate in the present, but has also called to question the validity of deeply rooted concepts and notions. Three of them in particular have profound implications for political analysis and scholarly work. While containing elements of truth, these propositions require reexamination in light of recent developments:
1. During the modern period beginning in 1936, Venezuelans have exhibited relatively low levels of class conflict and tension and have avoided ongoing internecine political confrontation.
Venezuelans in general and observers in particular often draw a profile of the Venezuelan character to support the claim that twentieth-century Venezuelan history is devoid of the acute social confrontations, deep-seated political animosity, and xenophobic attitudes that have characterized other Latin American countries. Some traditional writers, for instance, claimed that even going back to the colonial period Venezuela was free of “grave uprsisings” of slaves (Uslar Pietri, 1959: 4). (4) Other writers have pointed out that throughout its history Venezuela has never fought in a foreign war and that in the modern period guerrilla warfare was not as bloody, repressive governments not as harsh, and street protests not as frequent as elsewhere in the continent (Naím and Piñango, 1984: 553).
Many observers attribute the “aversion to conflict” among Venezuelans to their faith that thanks to abundant oil income their material expectations will eventually be satisfied (Naím and Piñango, 1984: 563). Others assert that the informality of the daily behavior of Venezuelans, the looseness of social distinctions, and racial tolerance explain the allegedly low levels of class conflict over an extended period of time. (6) The renowned Venezuelan intellectual Mariano Picón Salas, for instance, argued that the breakdown of social stratification dates back to the dislocations of the War of Independence when the “struggle for life, food and living quarters diminished the rigidity of social frontiers” “and the classes drew close to one another” including slaveholders and slaves. Picón Salas claimed that until then, class distinctions were as sharp as in the other Spanish colonies (Picón Salas, 1949: 118, 120). In a similar vein, some political scientists rely on public opinion surveys to demonstrate that during the post-1958 period class cleavages were poor predictors of preferences toward AD and COPEI and support for the democratic system (Baloyra, 1977: 57).
A related explanation for alleged social harmony is class mobility, which historically distinguishes Venezuela from other Latin American nations such as Colombia and Chile. The Venezuelan armed forces more than in other nations in the continent where the institution is a preserve of the upper class has served as a mechanism to allow lower and lower-middle class men to improve their social status. These characteristics give credence to the “exceptionalism thesis,” which views the nation as exempt from the acute conflicts that have occasionally racked other Latin American nations.
2. Venezuelan political conflict has centered on power for power’s sake while issues of substance particularly socio-economic ones have not had long-lasting significance.
Many historians and political scientists have downplayed the importance of concrete issues and demands in political struggles taking place since the War of Independence. Traditional historiography underestimated the impact of the demands formulated by popular sectors between Simón Bolívar’s death in 1830 and the modern period in 1936. Some of these historians stressed the wanton destruction and class animosity of the nineteenth century without seriously considering the aspirations of the popular classes (Vallenilla Lanz, 1990: 126-127).
Historians writing in this vein viewed the decades-long rule of the Liberals after their triumph in the Federal War (1859-1863) as representing a continuation of the past and their program of direct elections, alternation in power, equality before the law, and abolition of capital punishment as nothing more than demagoguery (Uslar Pietri, 1959: 4). Likewise historians belittled the slogan “New Men, New Ideas, New Methods” coined by Cipriano Castro upon taking power in 1899 and considered his government a continuation of past deceit and mismanagement. Finally, traditional historians demonized Castro’s successor Juan Vicente Gómez (1908-1935) and in doing so ignored the institution building spurred by oil money in the 1920s. Even Gómez’s traditional enemies, who formulated democratic demands and faced relentless persecution, were dismissed as “caudillo”-types. This low regard for political leaders of all types can partly be explained by the anti-military bent of traditional historiography and the predominance of military actors throughout the nineteenth century – one of the few exceptions being the much venerated but politically ineffective José María Vargas in the 1830s.
Michael Coppedge in his influential Strong Parties and Lame Ducks: Presidential Partyarchy and Factionalism in Venezuela adheres to a similar perspective by pointing to the increasing superficiality of the differences among the political actors of pro-establishment parties during the modern democratic period. His analysis centers on institutional factors and the role of abundant oil money. According to Coppedge, Venezuela’s presidential system and electoral rules discouraged electoral alliances and focused the attention of politicians on the prize of the presidency. This dynamic subordinated programmatic and ideological commitments to pragmatic strategies of gaining power. Coppedge adds that by the 1980s party factionalism and inter-party rivalry were completely lacking in substance (Coppedge, 1994: 162). Chapters Three and Four of this book will attempt to demonstrate that the conflicts between centrist and left-leaning currents in both AD and COPEI revolved around substantive issues and had ideological implications, even though major actors in both camps were inconsistent over a period of time. By the mid-1990s the lack of firmness and vacillation reached a new threshold as leaders of the left-leaning factions of AD and COPEI and the pro-leftist parties MAS and the Causa R were won over to neoliberal positions, thus generating widespread disillusionment. These developments set the stage for the electoral triumph of the outsider Hugo Chávez in 1998.
3. The conflict-management capability of strong institutions and the moderation of leaders during the second half of the twentieth century explain the absence of internecine confrontations.
Scholarly writing in the latter part of the twentieth century has often privileged the role of political moderates in the achievement and preservation of Latin American democracy. This is particularly true in the case of Venezuela. Daniel Levine, one of the outstanding U.S. political scientists writing on Venezuela, has argued that efficacious political institutions dominated by the moderate parties AD and COPEI channeled political conflict along peaceful lines and provided the nation with protracted stability. Levine points to AD and COPEI’s mass base and linkages with civil society, organized labor and university bodies as the key behind successful institutionalization. Levine also highlights “political learning” in which moderates of the post-1958 period learned from the mistakes of the short-lived democracy of 1945 to 1948 by toning down their rhetoric, pursuing inter-party alliances with fellow moderates, and avoiding the hegemonic strategies that were threatening to powerful established interests. Levine not only underscores the role of moderates but views the exclusion of the left after 1958 as necessary on grounds that it was a destabilizing force. Although he does not oppose the left’s proposed reforms, he argues that they had to be delayed until after the achievement of democratic consolidation and stability in the 1960s (Levine, 1978: 107)
Terry Karl in her seminal essay “Petroleum and Political Pacts: The Transition to Democracy in Venezuela” also credits moderate leaders with achieving democratic stability, but unlike Levine attributes their predominant position to the nation’s status as an oil producer. She argues that moderate political leaders basically represented the middle class and avoided the extreme positions of labor and peasant leaders on the left and the landowners on the right. She attributes the political success of the non-leftists to the impact of oil on classes and specifically its tendency to favor the middle-class moderates at the expense of more radical class-based positions. Oil production in Venezuela largely displaced agriculture by attracting the rural population to oil and urban areas, thus weakening the peasantry and the oligarchy. The emerging working class was also politically weak as well as fragmented because the economically strategic oil workers were geographically isolated and limited to about two percent of the work force, while the urban-based manufacturing sector was late in developing. In contrast, the “unusually large middle class fostered by petrodollars” played a critical role in maintaining stability with moderation (Karl, 1987: 87). Its leaders enjoyed a degree of autonomy that enabled them to reconcile conflicting interests of the politically weak classes. In doing so, the moderates were aided by abundant oil resources that served to win over or neutralize recalcitrant sectors and interest groups.
Venezuelan historiography and political studies put in evidence the applicability of the adage “history is written by the victors.” The writings of members of the ascendant parties founded after the death of Juan Vicente Gómez in 1935 molded the thinking of the general population and were reflected in much of the scholarship on politics and history. The arguments put forward in the published works of AD’s leading figure Rómulo Betancourt, and particularly his Venezuela: Política y Petróleo (published in 1956), were assimilated by party sympathizers, political analysts and the population in general. Likewise, the prolific Juan Bautista Fuenmayor who headed the Communist Party (PCV) in the 1930s and 1940s influenced leftists, as did other contemporary Communist intellectuals such as Rodolfo Quintero and Salvador de la Plaza. After 1958, a new generation of politician-historians such as Gehard Cartay Ramírez, José Rodríguez Iturbe and Rodolfo José Cárdenas (of COPEI), and Eduardo Morales Gil, Manuel Vicente Magallanes and Rubén Carpio Castillo (of AD) defended their respective party’s positions on major events. The polarizing atmosphere of the Cold War added to the partisanship and reductionism of much of this writing.
Simplistic, black and white notions of political history were evident from the outset of the modern period in 1936 as a result of the influence of the writing of political actors. Those belonging to AD and PCV who wrote about the immediate past converged in characterizing Gómez as nothing more than a ruthless caudillo. This portrayal was not surprising since the founding leaders of both parties initiated their political careers in the struggle against Gómez’s 27-year rule. AD and PCV leaders viewed themselves as putting an end to the country’s semi-feudal and barbarian legacy, and thus denigrated the leading pre-1936 political figures in general, and not just Gómez and his supporters. During their early years, Betancourt and other future AD members even clashed with anti-gomecistas who had originally been associated with the Gómez regime and that of his predecessor Cipriano Castro. In addition to generational and ideological gaps, Betancourt and his political companions were suspicious of the military background of the old-time anti-gomecistas. This anti-militarism led the AD and PCV writers to condemn Venezuelan governments going back to independence, which consisted of one military ruler after another.
AD had a special
reason for severely criticizing and questioning the ethical conduct of Gómez
and everyone who was associated with him, including his successors Eleazar
López Contreras (1936-1941) and Isaías Medina Angarita (1941-1945). AD’s main
justification for the coup they spearheaded on October 18, 1945 was that it represented a rupture with gomecismo (which López and Medinaallegedly formed part of). Similarly, writers belonging to AD, PCV, COPEI and
URD – Venezuela’s
four major parties which participated in the 1958 overthrow of the military
dictatorship – underscored the nefariousness of Marcos Pérez Jiménez and in
doing so ignored certain progressive and nationalistic aspects of his
The argumentation in favor of the 1945 coup was as much a political imperative for AD as was the justification of the abortive 1992 coup is for the Chavistas. (8) The defense of the motives of both coups legitimized the subsequent positions and actions of AD and the Chavistas. Thus the legitimization of the 1945 coup and concomitantly of AD’s rule of 1945-1948 helped refute the rationale for the November 1948 coup and in turn deligitimized the military dictatorship of 1948 to 1958. This line of argument also served to justify the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez in 1958 and in turn underpinned the defense of the post-1958 democracy in response to those who attacked it for falling short of the material achievements of previous years.
Similarly, the fervent justification of the 1992 coup by the Chavistas had implications for their future political actions. Chávez was an unknown in 1992 and his appeal in subsequent years was contingent on widespread sympathy for the coup’s objectives. The Chavistas argued that the 1992 coup attempt paved the way for Chávez’s assumption of power in 1998. Undoubtedly the coup radicalized the general population and thus contributed to Rafael Caldera’s electoral triumph in 1993 on an anti-neoliberal platform, and subsequently influenced the widespread disapproval of his government when it abandoned those positions in 1995. The resultant combination of popular expectations and disillusionment with pro-establishment politicians like Pérez and Caldera was an essential ingredient to Chávez’s election in 1998.
The basic rationale for the Chavista movement’s drive for power was that the post-1958 democracy had betrayed national interests, neglected the poor, and was riddled with corruption. The unswerving rejection of the post-1958 governments makes Chávez’s arguments in favor of the need for a “revolutionary” break with the past more compelling. Indeed, the Chavista term “revolutionary process” referring to the changes after Chávez’s assumption of power in 1998 recall AD’s characterization of the 1945 coup as the “Revolution of October.” The plausibility of the Chavista interpretation of events notwithstanding, it is my belief that – short of extreme circumstances involving recurring atrocities against the population – a military coup against a democratically elected government is unjustifiable.
In short, politically inspired writing on the post-1936 modern period – like the opinions on the nation’s past often expressed by Chávez – largely ignored the complexity of historical developments. These writers simplified the critical junctures of 1936, 1945, 1948 and 1958 by judging resultant changes in absolute terms depending on the side that the writer’s respective party was on at the time. The Chavistas in power after 1998 have questioned the accuracy of the political literature that was highly partial in favor of post-1958 governments. The Chavista experience has also encouraged a reexamination of the three above-mentioned notions of Venezuelan politics and society: that Venezuela was historically characterized by low-levels of conflict, that issues of substance have been largely lacking in political struggles, and that solid political institutions have minimized open expressions of conflict. This book proposes a systematic revision of these assumptions regarding’s past and present. In doing so, it profits from scholarship over the last several decades that has questioned traditional views on specific periods of Venezuelan history.
A New Approach that Draws on Past Scholarship
The view of Venezuela’s past and present put forward in this book examines important political and social actors that are usually excluded or left on the sidelines in political and historical literature. Most important, the revisionist approach in this book questions the long-held assumption that class mobility in Venezuela has minimized social strains and thus explains the allegedly low levels of class-based politics. The fallacy of the assumption was demonstrated by the War of Independence, when racial and class tension came to the fore in spite of the considerable mobility produced by inter-racial unions during the colonial period. Similarly, in spite of the social mobility facilitated by the windfall of oil revenue in the 1970s, Venezuela since the late 1980s has witnessed a high degree of social tension and conflict.
Much political writing on also passed over certain non-establishment political actors or failed to objectively represent their causes. Thus, for instance, political literature emphasized the national leaderships of the political parties at the outset of the democratic period in 1958 and their increasingly partisan, if not sectarian, positions. In the process it paid insufficient attention to the clamor of social movements and the general populace in favor of a united candidacy for the 1958 presidential elections and other forms of non-electoral unity encompassing the left and the center. In addition, the same writings denied the programmatic and ideological issues that lay behind the leftist AD divisions beginning in 1962. These works also failed to discuss the violation of internal democratic rules by AD’s dominant centrist leadership that set off the schisms. While many writers in the 1990s began to recognize the exclusive and elitist nature of the nation’s political system, their examples of exclusion were generally limited to the regional actors who favored decentralization, as opposed to those who struggled around socio-economic demands.
The revisionism proposed in this book takes issue with three broad historiographical schools and interpretive tendencies. In the first place, traditional historians writing in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century emphasized the random violence of the War of Independence and its long-term aftermath, while minimizing the importance of political and especially social demands and aspirations that had important repercussions in the modern period after 1936. In the second place, politically motivated interpretations from Betancourt to Chávez have simplified and distorted history. In the third place, exceptionalism literature and thinking, which portrayed the post-1958 democracy as a model for the rest of Latin America, also presented unbalanced views. The perspectives and viewpoints in all three cases have impacted the thinking of writers and Venezuelans in general to this day.
This book analyzes Venezuelan history and politics through well defined lenses. In doing so, it borrows from the theoretical formulations of various recent schools of historiography that call on historians to explicitly recognize their own values, ideological orientations and viewpoints. Specifically, the following chapters, and Chapter Two on pre-1958 history in particular, rest on the proposition that political movements best serve the nation by combining efforts to achieve four critical goals, as opposed to the promotion of one or two of them to the exclusion of the others. The four battle fronts are:
1. The struggle for social justice
2. The struggle for democracy
3. Efforts to promote national economic development
4. The embracement of economic and political nationalism
This approach is intended to be a corrective to positivism, which guided late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century rulers and has also been reflected in traditional Venezuelan historiography and even current political thinking. Positivism at the time stressed the promotion of national development and envisioned gradual material progress, while failing to address the other three above-mentioned aspirations. Chapter Two rejects the positivist approach and traditional historiography by valuing the struggles for democracy, nationalist ideals and social justice in their own right, rather than dismissing them as futile causes simply because concrete gains were not registered in the short- or medium-term future. It is my belief that these types of struggles invariably remain in a nation’s collective consciousness and are sometimes achieved in unpredictable forms many years after they were apparently defeated.
The banners that have been raised during the modern period since 1936, and specifically after 1998 under Chávez, have to be understood in this larger historical context. Indeed, the evaluation of the phenomenon of Chavismo in this book reflects my appreciation of the importance of all four goals and the belief that one of them should not be prioritized at the expense of the others. Chavismo represents a reaction to the tendency of the neoliberals (like the positivists before them) to subordinate issues of social justice and national sovereignty to the goal of economic growth, which is assumed will be forthcoming once pro-market reforms are implemented. As Chapter Seven suggests, the Chavistas have overreacted to the past emphasis on economic goals and developmentalism by privileging the banners of social justice and nationalism while failing to address systematically the need to create a viable economic model with the aim of promoting efficiency and increasing national production.
1. Ernesto Laclau (1977) formulated the thesis that non-revolutionary
populist governments sometimes set the stage for revolutionary
transformation. Laclau, however, limited his analysis to discourse while
failing to underline the importance of concrete policies that also contribute
to creating a pre-revolutionary situation (Raby, 2006: 242-243).
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Ellner, Steve (1993) Organized Labor in Venezuela, 1958-1991: Behavior and Concerns in a Democratic Setting. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources.
Salas, Jesús María (2007) “Ethnicity
and Revolution: The Political Economy of Racism in Venezuela,” pp. 99-118 in Steve Ellner and
Miguel Tinker Salas, eds., Venezuela
: Hugo Chávez and the Decline of an “Exceptional” Democracy. MD.: Rowman & Littlefield.
Lynn (1987) “Petroleum and Political Pacts: The Transition to Democracy in
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