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Laughing Hyenas and Circling Vultures

Glimpses of Post-Chavez Venezuela

by GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER

On Monday, December 10th, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez returned to Cuba for urgent cancer surgery, sparking a predictable wave of speculation about the seriousness of his illness. Here, timing reveals as much as anything: while Chávez was successfully reelected in October, this Sunday will see regional elections that are crucial for the consolidation of the Bolivarian Revolution. For Chávez to return to Havana in the final stretch of these regional campaigns could prove nothing short of disastrous. The situation is indeed serious.

Heir Apparent: Nicolás Maduro

But were the questions of his health not obviously serious already, Chávez tossed gasoline onto the fire by abruptly naming a preferred successor should he not survive surgery or the coming months: longtime foreign minister and recently appointed vice president Nicolás Maduro. Appearing on TeleSur in a meeting of his cabinet of ministers, a tired-looking but relatively healthy Chávez did his best to make this sound like a mere pre-operative precaution.

After extolling Maduro’s virtues and urging “unity, unity, unity!,” Chávez added:

If something were to happen to me that prevented me from continuing my term… my opinion, which is firm and full like the moon, which is irrevocable, absolute, and total, is that in that scenario which would require calling a new presidential election, is that you should elect Nicolás Maduro as president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. I ask you from the bottom of my heart.

After months of speculation, Chávez had finally named a successor, but Maduro is an answer that raises more questions. Fiercely loyal and generally soft-spoken in a political process where brashness is often rewarded, Maduro has historically played his cards close to his chest. As foreign minister, he worked to create international and regional consensus, but could speak freely and derisively about Condoleezza Rice or George Bush without taking any political risks domestically.

And not only that, but as a cabinet-member for the past 6 years, Maduro hasn’t faced an election since 2005, and hasn’t seen his political legacy tarnished by the inherent dirtiness of managing local governance. But where this makes him less controversial than many Chavista leaders, it also raises questions as to whether this notably uncharismatic loyalist can continue to galvanize the Chavista base to win at the polls. As a result, the future under Maduro is almost as uncertain as the future without him.

Of Laughing Hyenas and Circling Vultures

The comedy of errors that is the Venezuelan opposition is not known for its patience or respect, and this became even clearer in the immediate responses to Chávez’s announcement. Oscillating between complaining about the duration of his trips to Cuba and salivating at the possibility of a long-deferred return to power, the Venezuelan right has let drop even the thin veil of respect for the president that it had feigned after Chávez’s October re-election.

But for an opposition that has long failed to unify, it should be little surprise that even their callousness proved contradictory: whereas opposition assembly member Hiram Gaviria suggested that Chávez’s trip be counted as a “temporary absence,” implying that Maduro would temporarily take the reins (according to Article 234 of the Constitution), María Corina Machado has insisted, more radically, that Chávez’s reference to Maduro as a possible successor instead implies an “absolute absence” in the terms of Article 233, which would require a new election to be called within the next 30 days.

They are so close they can taste power after 14 years of defeat, but the transparency of this power grab will not be lost on a population that largely supports and even reveres Chávez. Henrique Capriles Radonski, who in October came closer than any other candidate to unseating Chávez (abeit still not very close), let his near-success get to his head. Responding to Chávez’s declaration regarding Maduro, Capriles said pointedly: “There is no succession in this country. This isn’t Cuba, nor is it a monarchy where whoever is designated by the king takes the throne.” (Never mind the fact that, rather than declaring a break in constitutional succession, Chávez was simply naming his preferred candidate and urging the people to support Maduro electorally).

Chavistas have been quick to translate such statements in the most unflattering ways: the opposition has been compared to “hyenas” and “vultures” who are using the language of constitutionality to push through a soft coup of the sort recently carried out in Paraguay. Suggestions like that by the head of the anti-Chavista MUD coalition, that the opposition is “prepared to assume its responsibilities,” would do little to calm such suspicions.

Confronting Desgaste

Chávez’s health and possible successor are not the most daunting challenges the Bolivarian Revolution will need to face in the coming months and years. More fundamental is what many revolutionaries describe to me as the creeping process of desgaste, the slow and gradual exhaustion of the revolutionary process, especially as an electoral phenomenon. In some sense, this danger first appeared when the 2007 Constitutional Reform was defeated in a national referendum after Chavistas simply failed to mobilize their base. But the warning signs have grown increasingly serious in local and regional elections of 2008 and parliamentary elections of 2010, both of which saw gains for the opposition.

In some senses, this is a natural process: moments of upsurge and rupture provide a palpable motivator for transforming political life. Such was the massive anti-neoliberal rebellion in 1989 known as the Caracazo, which ended with hundreds or even thousands dead. But even the most searing memories fade, and while the Bolivarian Revolution has been lucky to move “from event to event,” as longtime revolutionary Roland Denis explained to me, referring especially the militant street mobilizations that defeated the 2002 coup against Chávez, even this chain of “events” is subject to the half-life that such moments exhibit.

But the fading of memories is hastened by every continuity between the revolutionary present and the corrupt and undemocratic past, as Reinaldo Iturriza told me, and particularly the failures of governance by many local Chavistas. For Iturriza, this is far deeper than questions of efficiency, of services unprovided, but bespeaks instead a fundamental crisis of representation in which the provision of services can actually play a negative role.

There is a tendency within some sectors of the revolution “to look down on the people, to build clientelistic relationships, and to view the people as beneficiaries and not as a protagonic people,” he explains. The short-term political costs of this are expressed in electoral abstention, especially in regional elections. For Iturriza, when people don’t show up to vote for a Chavista mayor or governor, this means that “that way of doing politics is a lot like what existed before, and I don’t believe in that.”

Where many Chavista leaders, and even Chávez himself, seem to believe that efficiency is the keyword of the day, Iturriza insists that the fundamental challenge is not about what politics can deliver, but how to do politics in the first place:

The problem is not the party… and will not be solved with new faces… what we need to identify is a political logic, a way of doing politics. The Bolivarian Revolution cannot be understood without a critique of the idea of political representation… this problem has not been resolved.

“Elías Es Otro Beta”

It was largely in an effort to counteract this process of decline that some organizers like Iturriza connected with the vice-presidency began to develop relationships with the youth hip-hop collective known as Tiuna El Fuerte, and it was through this process that the Otro Beta movement was born. Initially circulating around the phrase “Chávez es Otro Beta,” literally “Chávez is a different thing,” the movement played off local slang from the barrios of eastern Caracas, in which “beta” refers to the life of drugs and violence.

Rather than merely explain to barrio youth that they should choose one “beta” (Chávez) over another “beta,” the Otro Beta movement has instead sought to craft a more subtle and bottom-up transformation of political imagery and participation. First in a series of spectacular graffiti murals and stencils in which Chávez himself is portrayed as another young resident of the barrios (riding a motorcycle, boxing, playing basketball, rapping) and later as a full-fledged movement advocating for those least heard voices within the revolutionary process, Otro Beta has begun to reorganize representation in just the sorts of ways Iturriza imagines.

For Iturriza and others, this is more than the merely cynical electoral ploy that some might assume, and what it seeks is far more than votes. Rather than merely seeking to mobilize votes for the Revolution as it exists, Otro Beta is attempting to mount a revolution within the revolution, transforming participation alongside aesthetic representations, reclaiming Chávez as the poor barrio resident that he once was in an effort to reclaim politics for the barrios.

This Sunday, the question of how to confront this process of desgaste and the question of Chávez’s possible successors will intersect in an important series of regional elections that could prove a turning point in the Revolution more broadly understood. In what is without a doubt the most important race, until recently vice president Elías Jaua will confront none other than Capriles, Chávez’s own opponent in the recent presidential election, for the governorship of Miranda, to the east of Caracas. After all, it was Jaua himself as vice president that helped to spearhead Otro Beta, and the outcome of this race against Capriles could impact Jaua’s political future.

Jaua is widely considered to be the most radical of Chávez’s potential successors, along with the moderate Maduro and the more conservative Diosdado Cabello (who previously governed Miranda only to lose to Capriles). Jaua has a history in militant student movements of the 1980s and was even a member of the formerly radical quasi-guerrilla grouping Bandera Roja. He counts on campesino, Afro-Venezuelan, and youth movements as his political base, and is considered more trustworthy by the movements than many other Chavistas.

Even Jaua’s supporters tell me that Sunday’s election will be difficult: the wealthier areas of Miranda have developed such a hatred for the president that “they won’t even be voting against Elías, they will be voting against Chávez.” If Jaua succeeds, it will be due in no small part to the efforts of these radical youth movements like Otro Beta that are attempting to transform Venezuelan politics through the lens of barrio youth, and a victory would therefore be doubly important. While Jaua will not himself drive this process of renovation, just as Chávez does not drive the Revolution, an electoral win on the backs of revolutionary youth movements would be both a blow to an increasingly confident opposition (and Capriles in particular) and an indication to Maduro and others that a left turn just might be a viable option.

Tenemos Pueblo

One comrade explained to me that Maduro is a safe choice to succeed Chávez, and that he will be a stable caretaker while the revolution gets its feet under it: “he will soften the revolution, but this will be only transitory, while an authentically popular leadership develops.” The question the question remains as to who will provide the forceful telos for that development, a role Chávez has fulfilled up to this point? What compass will guide popular struggles as they throw forth newer, younger, and more radical leaders?

Before departing for Cuba once again, Chávez made a point of insisting on how much has changed since the Revolution began more than 14 years ago. “Tenemos patria hoy, today we have a homeland, today’s Venezuela is not the same as it was 20 years ago or 40 years ago. Tenemos pueblo, we have a people.” Chávez is right that today’s Venezuela is not the Venezuela of decades past, and he understands pueblo in its most subversive sense, as that collective project that has only begun to develop, but which must, sooner rather than later, become a telos for the struggle itself.

George Ciccariello-Maher teaches political theory from below at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, forthcoming from Duke University Press. He can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.