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Three Years of Maduro: Venezuelan Power Plays or Popular Power?

Many people think that Nicolás Maduro has done very little in his three years as president of Venezuela. But that is false. In fact, he has moved mountains. The first mountain that Maduro pushed aside was Rafael Ramírez. Who would have thought that Ramírez, the eternal Petroleum Minister, could be displaced? But Maduro did that a year and half ago, sending him to a golden exile in New York, where he now heads up Venezuela’s UN delegation.

Maduro also set about playing cat and mouse with Elías Jaua, the most left-leaning of the major figures who survived Chávez. Maduro took Jaua down and raised him up several times in succession, leaving his one-time rival with a clear message about who was in charge. Maduro also weathered Jorge Giordani’s harsh criticism and resignation, positioning himself sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right of the ex-Minister of Finance and personal friend of Chávez. Finally, the most recent of these impressive power plays is Maduro’s neutralizing of his one-time best ally, Diosdado Cabello, said to be the most powerful man in the country.

“Look at what Maduro does and not at what he says,” should be the mantra of people who fall into the trap of listing the president’s verbal proposals and then proving – since so few have come to life – that he is an incompetent leader. Now, it is an entirely different question whether all this jockeying is actually good for something, and more specifically if it is useful to the Venezuelan people and the revolution.

One answer is that, beyond considerations of mere utility, centralizing power is simply necessary in this context. Venezuela is a country with a precarious command structure and weak institutions. For that reason, the president must establish his control by defeating other power fractions, if he is to undertake any activity, revolutionary or otherwise. Hugo Chávez had this sort of control, in part because he had achieved moral authority through actions such as the failed 4F uprising in 1992 and his courageous stance following it. Yet Chávez also used methods similar to Maduro’s to displace figure such as Alberto Müller Rojas and Raúl Baduel.

Venezuela’s political dilemma today has much to do with the immense difference between authority that has popular backing such as Chávez once enjoyed due to a trajectory based on action, versus the authority that comes from simply eliminating opponents and does not involve participation of the masses. Maduro’s almost exclusive use of the second kind of tactic is both a consequence and a cause of his government’s increasingly abstract character, its lack of organic links to the masses.

It should be remembered that Mao Zedong showed that opponents could be struggled against (not simply eliminated as Stalin preferred to do) using mass participation. The most obvious example of this is his struggle against Deng Xiaoping. Mao did not eliminate Deng but rather sought to mobilize people against the “capitalist-roader” tendency he represented. This way of acting, when it is successful, puts the victorious leader in power at the head of mass mobilizations and not just as the visible head of state.

The latter is precisely Maduro’s problem. This former transportation worker is now the unquestioned chief of state and the unrivaled leader of at least the civilian sector of Chavism.* However, the Chavist masses are increasingly demobilized (though fortunately the opposition is likewise in a state of semiparalysis). As a consequence national politics now takes place on a level of discourse and image but rarely touches down in lived reality. Meanwhile, what does affect people are the real problems of scarcity – most grievously the lack of food and medicine – and access to water and electricity.

Hence, if Maduro would turn to the masses to solve problems and open to democratic participation over such issues as the newly-announced “Arco Minero,” that might provide a renovated basis for his power, ratifying it on a popular level, and thus open the way to a more revolutionary modus operandi. This opportunity is enhanced by the recent “reproletarization” of the bases of Chavism, since these latter – having ridden high during the continent’s economic boom and adopted middle-class consumption habits and ideology – are now returning to the fold of the working class.

At the beginning of this year, Maduro began to work toward a Congreso de la Patria, which many believe to be the last chance for the United Socialist Party (PSUV) to renew itself. The president himself has called for a new unity (“un nuevo bloque histórico”). He should build this unity with the bases (with a full consciousness of the extreme situation that Venezuelans are now living) and attempt to translate their needs into a political struggle against the alternative tendencies that are emerging in the Chavist bloc. Otherwise, the Bolivarian Process’s politics will continue to be a politics of abstract power play and lose its revolutionary perspective.

*There seems to be a real danger that General Miguel Rodriguez Torres, ex-Minister of the Interior, will try to divide Chavism by forming an alternative party or bloc – a sort of Chavism-without-socialism-and-without-antiimperialism – in an upcoming electoral scenario. Among other personalities possibly linked to this project are the pollster Óscar Schemel, jurist Hermann Escarrá, and corrupt former banker Alejandro Andrade.

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Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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