Venezuela Today: This Must Be Progress


In Venezuela, the Chavist movement has found itself in an impasse on the level of discourse. The discourse is now patently, though unnecessarily, contradictory. On the one hand, it is customary among Chavists to put emphasis on the many achievements of the revolution in the areas of health, education, and political participation. Then, on the other hand, when things do not live up to expectations, the shortcomings are written off to sabotage, economic war, and other forms of malicious intervention. The problem with this line of argument – based on claiming that everything has progressed wonderfully except where impeded by external factors – is that it cannot really explain the grim reality here in which so much suffering is being normalized.

The root of this discursive problem, as explained in a recent work by Fernando Azcurra and Modesto Guerrero Revolución o Derrota, is the dominance of the progressive myth. Progress in Chavism is a dogma: it must have happened and it must be happening. That is, instead of seeing the Chavist project as having limited the damage of capitalism’s neoliberal advance in Latin America, or as having put a brake on the ongoing catastrophe that is Latin American history, it is maintained that Chavism has actually turned the tide on imperialism and staked out a surefire path to success that is called progress. Losers have become winners. And the role of winners is… to win.

The problem with this view of things is that it is simply not true. History’s losers – the peoples of the Global South – continue to lose; and history’s winners – the bourgeoisies of the Global North – continue to win, though it may be that their winning was slowed down or shamed by Chávez and company for a while.

Neither is this triumphalist view true to Chavism’s original impulse. Initially Chavism was more about “seeing what could be done.” In a candid conversation with Tariq Ali, Chávez expressed the idea that a typical or dogmatic “marxist” revolution could not be done at present, yet that did not mean that nothing can be done.* No, Chávez felt that there was much to be done in Venezuela, not guided by some luminous revolutionary ideal but rather as a response to the suffering and injustice that is plainly on view. That suffering had to be rectified to the fullest extent possible.

This original impulse of Chavism could be summarized by the slogan, popular in the early years of the political process, “Inventamos o erramos” (We invent or we err) coined by Venezuela’s legendary educator Simón Rodríguez. That short phrase stood in part for the idea that the political process was not about constructing a future utopia, nor was it guided by any chimerical fixed idea. Rather, it was about correcting, and discovering ways of correcting, the great many wrongs that are everywhere to be encountered here. (Perhaps it has something in common with Walter Benjamin’s idea that the revolution is equivalent to applying an emergency brake.)

Later on this line of Chavist thinking – under the influence of the myth of progress – began to change. Instead of correcting, struggling against known wrongs, and limiting damages, Chavism decided that it had succeeded in laying out a primrose path to progress and utopia. Losers overnight became winners. The idea of “Venezuela potencia” (Venezuela as a power) emerged as a key doctrine, entering in 2012 into the master document “El Plan de la Patria.” Meanwhile the present moment, instead of being seen as a site of struggle, began to be looked at as a mere stepping stone to a golden future. Tellingly, Chávez began to speak less of fixing things for those alive today in favor of making promises regarding future generations.

This change, which took place mostly inside the nation, fit well with a doctrine that had existed internationally for some time: Venezuela was a model to be followed. It should be pointed out that being a model is different from being an example, for whereas an example is singular and at best inspires, a model can be downloaded and copied. Hence the Venezuelan model was repeated in Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Paraguay, and Peru, usually obeying the law of diminishing returns and working well only in such countries as Bolivia and Ecuador where there were strong original contributions.

This discursive shift, that is essentially about going from doing acknowledged rearguard and repair work, to declaring that one is already a triumphant vanguard, has led to the absurd situation of defending as progress – or at best inadequately realized progress – the extreme economic crisis that Venezuela is now living. As a consequence of mainstream Chavism’s radical disconnect with reality, the movement has offered a vast field to the Venezuelan opposition, since oppositors merely need to document a few quotidian facts to initiate – like a salesman’s foot in the door – an erroneous discourse that nevertheless takes off from some very convincing premises.

Until Chavism recovers its original impulse – which is addressing and finding solutions to the problems that exist and not chasing (and then claiming ownership of) future accomplishments that someday might be – it is hard to see how it can resist the onslaught of the opposition this year, to say nothing of (the much more important project of) guaranteeing the wellbeing of the masses. A reality check is needed. Note that this is different from pragmatism and even more so from reformism. The solutions can and should be radical. Reality has generally been radical in Latin America during the past 500 years, having once again become manifestly so in post-Chávez Venezuela. It follows that the negation of this painful reality, its solution if you will, must also be radical.

* The best way of understanding Chávez’s declaration is not that it rejects marxism per se but rather a line of Marxist thinking.

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

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