Constituent Power

Geo Maher: The role of grassroots popular power – or what is often called constituent power – in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is generally misunderstood or ignored. How do you understand its place in recent Venezuelan history?

Reinaldo Iturriza: The process of popular subjectification represented by Chavismo remains under-analyzed. The emphasis is almost always placed on the figure of Chávez himself, while the unique historical conjuncture that made his leadership possible is relegated to the background, and in particular the influence of that popular subject without which Chávez would be inconceivable. Something similar happens with the Caracazo, the street-level rebellion of 1989 which many now see as the proximate origin of the Bolivarian process. I am convinced that the general misunderstanding of Chavismo is directly related to the inability to interpret that popular uprising. As uncomfortable as it might be, we shouldn’t forget that the protesters of 1989 were initially vilified by analysts both on the right and the left. At best, the Caracazo was viewed as a pre-political explosion: a food riot, born out of the need to loot basic necessities. In my opinion, though, what happened was a general challenge to the status quo – one that managed to put the state on notice.

After the Caracazo, everything changed. What we sensed intuitively then, we can today affirm wholeheartedly: it was only a matter of time, and of force. We simply needed a political vehicle that was capable of translating the majority’s rejection of the system into a viable alternative. We found it in Chavismo.

GM: Almost ten years ago, just before you took the reins of the Commune Ministry, we discussed the question of internal democracy within Chavismo, the PSUV, and threats to the Bolivarian process – including the relationship between the leadership and the barrios. At that time, you spoke of the need to dismantle a political logic that viewed the people as mere beneficiaries of the government. Does this logic persist? Has it deepened?

RI: This political logic, which we could describe as representative, clientelistic – a welfare logic – has gained much more ground than we would want. Over the past five years, the population has experienced wage devaluation, high inflation rates and then, towards the end of 2017, hyperinflation, with all its destructive impact on social bonds. Since 2014, we saw shortages of consumer goods and long queues to access commercial establishments. The humiliation of trying, often in vain, to stock up on essential products, became practically normalized in Venezuelan society. Amid all this, there were successive waves of anti-Chavista violence: first in 2014, then in 2017, when the country was pushed to the brink of civil war, and finally in 2019 with the self-proclamation of an unknown legislator as ‘interim president’, supported by the US.

Against the backdrop of these events, there emerged what I have referred to as the humanitarianization of anti-Chavista discourse: framing the material and spiritual deprivation of the popular majority as a ‘humanitarian crisis’, which leaves in its wake ‘victims’ whose plight can only be resolved by humanitarian intervention. The effect of this so-called humanitarianism was the dehumanization of the people, reduced to a state that Agamben would call ‘bare life’ – entirely dependent on outside help. However, Chavismo did not counter this discourse, as I think it should have done, by creating conditions for the expression of popular power. On the contrary, the idea that the underprivileged people needed to be ‘protected’ by the government was entrenched. Which is ironic, because in reality it was the opposite that happened: throughout these years, the majority decided to protect what they still considered their government, despite its many errors.

GM: Venezuela has endured a triple crisis that started around 2012: an economic crisis rooted in the exchange rate that quickly threw the entire economy into chaos; a leadership crisis provoked by the death of Chávez in 2013; and the aggression, internal and external, that the enemies of the Bolivarian process unleashed in an attempt to put an end to this experiment in participatory democratic socialism. How do you see the overall balance sheet of the past decade?

RI: I would start by saying that, in general terms, the balance sheets that have so far been drafted by the left are insufficient. Too often, half-truths are repeated and concrete explanations – especially those related to the economic situation – are systematically concealed. It seems to me that the experience of recent years has produced a kind of interpretive shock. One way this manifests is the idea that, after Chávez, we lost course completely, the Chavista political class betrayed the revolutionary programme, and the present crisis is the inevitable result of that betrayal. It seems to me that this narrative is reductive and moralistic. Needless to say, when one accuses an entire political class of treason and tries to explain everything based on this accusation, one is not exactly demonstrating the kind of analytic rigour that Marx deployed in The Eighteenth Brumaire.

It’s true that the death of Chávez prompted a realignment of forces within the government. Some tried to defend the programme of the Bolivarian revolution, as set out in the Plan de la Patria and the Bolivarian Constitution, while others tried to wash their hands of it. As such, contradictory policy decisions were made. Yet these differences did not emerge from nowhere, nor were they merely a symptom of incompetence or inefficiency; they were rooted in class contradictions and political antagonisms within Chavismo itself.

To fully explain such shifts, we need a clear analysis of how fissures within the PSUV came to the fore after Chávez’s death. That, in turn, requires a complete picture of how Venezuela’s class composition has changed since the Bolivarian revolution. Let’s take as true the premise that the working class no longer represents the centre of gravity for government policy, and that this centre has been shifting towards sectors of the bourgeoisie, both within our borders and of course beyond them. The important question then becomes: Since when? When was the tipping point? What mediations help us explain this shift from one historical moment to another? Likewise, if we accept that, toward the end of 2015, the historic Chavista bloc began to fracture and we began to confront a Gramscian crisis of authority, it is necessary to ask why this was able to happen. How was it expressed? What are its political implications? A comprehensive account of Maduro’s tenure must answer these and other questions with political and intellectual honesty. 

GM: During this century, there has been much talk of participatory socialism across Latin America. But only Venezuela has experienced a systematic process of building a new society, beginning in 2006 with the communal councils and continuing in 2009 with the communes. What is the status of the communal project today? How does it interact with the country’s triple crisis?

RI: With the communal councils and later the communes, the foundations were laid for building a more democratic society. The fact that these foundations have managed to survive, upheld by thousands of working-class people throughout the country, is in itself a very important victory – however depleted they may be at present.

Invariably, however, Venezuela’s economic downturn led to a popular retreat from politics. The public sphere contracted. And as the crisis worsened, many who were part of the communal network changed their priorities: day-to-day material realities had to come first. Meanwhile, government support for these spaces dropped off. State functionaries believed it was a waste of time to pour effort and resources into building popular power – especially if those resources were scarce. It was easier to govern through patronage and clientelism, even if this meant undermining the revolution’s social base.

At some point in 2017, if memory serves me right, the government issued a directive that the spokespeople of the communal councils would not be elected by an assembly of citizens, as required by law, but would instead be handpicked by the party. If this order had been implemented, it could have meant the total liquidation of the communal experiment. Indeed, this was the outcome in places where popular organization had been significantly weakened. But, thankfully, in many other places the will of communal leadership prevailed and the directive was resisted.

I remain convinced that communal leadership is the true vanguard of the revolutionary process. The communal spaces must be taken seriously in any plan for national reconstruction. The latter necessarily involves strengthening those experiences that put their faith in social property. Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have been anywhere close to even asking questions like these.

GM: When the PSUV was founded, it was on the promise of being the most democratic party in the world. Disappointment soon followed. When the grassroots rejected pro-government candidates, many were appointed by decree, and the years since have seen the party become less a vehicle for permanent democratic debate than a space for intra-elite power struggles. Yet, recently, after a fierce campaign, Ángel Prado, spokesman for the El Maizal Commune, prevailed in the party primary to become the official PSUV candidate for Simón Planas municipality in Lara State, before winning the post in the country’s mega-elections on November 21st. How important was this victory, and how do you see the state of internal democracy within the PSUV?

RI: After the popular retreat from politics that I have mentioned, Chavismo was defeated in the 2015 parliamentary elections. In light of this setback, the Chavista leadership increasingly appealed to clientelism as a campaign strategy. Yet, contrary to what some PSUV politicians claim, this often provoked fierce resistance from the population. The idea that it is possible to win an election by literally buying the support of voters shows profound contempt for the people – and they know it. As such, the government’s approach can only guarantee victory if a significant part of the population abstains. For reasons that are frankly difficult to understand, this was precisely the tactic adopted by most anti-Chavista parties after their victory in 2015: abstention. These pawns of the US bet on delegitimizing of the Venezuelan government by opting out of the electoral process, but they ultimately played into its hands.

Ángel Prado’s victory is of the greatest political importance for several reasons. First, it showed that, despite countless obstacles, Venezuela’s popular machinery is still capable of defeating the bureaucratic and clientelistic machinery. After all, it was the former that guaranteed Chávez’s electoral victories time and again, and Maduro’s first victories as well. On August 8, during the PSUV’s open primaries, those who controlled that bureaucratic machinery in Simón Planas municipality – a clique gathered around the outgoing mayor – tried to disenfranchise the majority. First, they launched a crude patronage campaign, distributing food, medicine, fuel, electrical appliances and money in a discretionary way. But they also resorted to violence, seeking to intimidate the people who supported the communal candidacy. On the night of 7 August, the first physical attacks occurred, and these continued throughout election day. Finally, since the bureaucracy controlled the polling stations, they tried to suppress turnout by slowing down the process. Many people were exhausted after hours of waiting and went home without being able to vote. But despite all these maneuvers, comrade Prado won 47.9% of the votes, beating his rival by an almost 10% margin.

What factors explain this astonishing victory? For one thing, Prado is the symbolic figurehead of the El Maizal Commune and commands great moral authority among its members. He prioritized direct contact with the people: touring almost the entire municipality, speaking to constituents and, above all, listening to them (whereas much of the party leadership had long disappeared from the territory). His campaign was disciplined and well-organized. Because it was confident that it represented the majority, it was able to withstand the undemocratic tactics of the bureaucracy, which it nonetheless refused to needlessly antagonize or provoke. Simón Planas could therefore be said to represent, on a small scale, a phenomenon that can be identified throughout almost the entire country: effective organizing against elites within the PSUV. Prado’s election has shown that it is possible to defeat this new class – whose eventual overthrow will, I hope, enable the Bolivarian Revolution to recover its lost vitality.

Julia Buxton, ‘Venezuela After Chávez’, NLR 99.