The brand of socialism that has emerged in Venezuela under the presidency of Hugo Chávez differs in fundamental ways from orthodox Marxism and past socialist experiences in large part because of its emphasis on social as opposed to economic objectives. In addition, in contrast to leftist doctrines associated with really existing socialism, the Venezuelan government’s social policies appeal to the non-wealthy in general but prioritize the needs of the non-proletariat, underprivileged sectors of the population, specifically workers in the informal economy, those employed in small non-unionized firms in the formal economy and the rural work force. The Chávez government has placed a premium on the incorporation of these excluded and semi-excluded groups into the political, economic and cultural life of the nation and their participation in decision making, particularly in the local arena. The following article uses the term “social-based democracy” to refer to the Chavista strategy of promoting incorporation on a massive scale in a way that is designed to enhance the legitimacy of a government whose democratic credentials have been consistently questioned by its adversaries.
An underlining assumption accepted by much of the Chavista movement is that the non-incorporated, non-privileged sectors in Venezuela have a high level of political awareness but lack the experience, organizational skills, and discipline to play a protagonist role in the process of radical transformation. Chavista leaders and activists, for instance, attribute the failures of a significant number of cooperatives and community councils to the lack of preparation of their members. In an attempt to stimulate interest and enthusiasm for social programs such as cooperatives and community councils, the government, in effect, jumpstarted them by injecting large sums of money facilitated by exceptionally high oil prices into rudimentary structures. The institutional flexibility and leeway and lack of strict controls over massive allocations for these programs are designed to encourage the participation of those who have been traditionally apathetic and skeptical and imbued with a sense of powerlessness.
Orthodox Marxism framed the issue of backwardness and the lag in conditions essential for socialist transformation along different lines. Soviet Communists after 1917 viewed the main challenge facing their revolution as the need to expand the nation’s industrial productive capacity in order to increase the size of the proletariat, which was considered to be class conscious and the main agent of socialism. This imperative became all the more urgent in the 1930s when rapid industrialization became a logical response to the imminence of a German invasion of the Soviet Union. In addition, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and orthodox Communist parties in Latin America (unlike unorthodox Communist thinkers such as José Antonio Mariátegui) held ambivalent attitudes toward the peasantry, which was often considered an unstable ally due to its petty-bourgeois makeup. The focus on objective conditions, namely the structural transformation of the economy and the work force, was designed to increase the size of the proletariat in developing nations and reduce, if not completely eliminate, the peasant class. This process was seen as a sine qua non for achieving true socialism in areas like Latin America (as well as for achieving true communism). In contrast, Chávez throughout most of his presidency stopped short of glorifying the organized working class, at the same time that the Chavistas emphasized the transformation of the values and capacities of the underprivileged in general, which the social programs were designed to promote.
Chávez´s rule in Venezuela is different from really existing socialism in other ways. The Chavistas´ call for a democratic, peaceful, gradual path to socialism is the complete opposite of the one-party system that Communists defended in Eastern Europe, China and Cuba. Furthermore, the Venezuelan model draws on the tradition of radical democracy dating back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau with its defense of majority rule and direct participation in decision making. In contrast to Communist nations of the past, a key dimension of participation in Venezuela has taken in activity channeled along electoral lines. Under the Chávez presidency a record number of elections, including referenda, recall elections and party primaries, have been held. At the same time, the Chávez government and movement have stimulated the mass mobilization of non-privileged sectors and their participation in organizations and social programs, in accordance with social-based democracy.
Radical democracy and social-based democracy are often conducive to weak institutions. The concept of majority rule embodied by radical democracy discards the institutional mechanisms that are designed to protect minority rights (in accordance with liberal democracy) and thus may end up weakening a nation’s institutional makeup. Social-based democracy, for its part, promotes flexibility and avoids strong institutions and institutional rules in order to avoid discouraging participation of those who lack organizational experience. This article will argue that the Chavistas, in their determination to achieve radical and social-based democracy, have to an extent sacrificed the goal of institution building.
In general, the article will look at the way social-based democracy has played itself out in Venezuela. Specifically, it will attempt to differentiate between social-based democracy, which sets as a basic goal the incorporation of previously excluded sectors on a number of fronts, and reformist governments that promote welfare programs with a heavy dose of paternalism aimed at alleviating pressing economic conditions. The article argues that Venezuela’s social-based democracy is not only quantitatively and quantitatively different from these welfare-state approaches, but the tradeoffs and zero-sum game that characterize it have no equivalent among moderate reformist governments. The article will then examine the debate within the Chavista movement over such issues as subjective conditions, the role of the state and the pace of change, all of which have a direct bearing on the strategies underlying social-based democracy. Final remarks place Venezuela’s social-based democracy in a broader context and attempt to show that diverse political challenges as well as conflicting priorities and ideological formulations bear heavily on the prospects for the model’s consolidation.
The article breaks new ground by centering on the originality of the Venezuelan experience under Chávez vis-à-vis other leftist experiences throughout the world. The uniqueness of the Venezuelan case stems from the combination of social-based democracy, featuring social incorporation on a massive scale, and radical democracy, whose salient characteristics include extreme polarization and a commitment to eliminate capitalism.
Social-Based Democracy in National and International Contexts
The Chavista movement, which emerged within the military in 1982 and organized an abortive coup ten years later, embraced increasingly far-reaching policies and goals in the course of Chávez’s first eleven and a half years in office. During the presidential campaign for the 1998 elections and Chávez’s early rule, radical socio-economic goals were subordinated to the drafting and ratification of a new constitution which promoted ‘participatory democracy’. This emphasis changed in 2001 when the government passed legislation that reversed neoliberal economic measures of the previous decade. In 2005 the government committed itself to socialism at the same time that it turned over the management of several companies that had closed down to the workers. Following Chávez’s third presidential election in 2006, the government nationalized various strategic industries and subsequently expropriated a larger number of smaller enterprises for diverse reasons.
Radicalization in general and social-based democracy in particular was a response to the opposition’s increasingly aggressive tactics that culminated in the April 2002 attempted coup and the two-month general strike in 2002-2003. As a result, the Chavista government went beyond the rhetoric of ‘participatory democracy’ by implementing social programs that appealed to the popular classes, which had actively and massively supported Chavismo during both crises. On the social front the government prioritized makeshift programs in the barrios known as ‘missions’ in the areas of health (the Barrio Adentro Mission), education (Robinson, Ribas and Sucre Missions) and food distribution (MERCAL). In subsequent years, government funding stimulated the creation of approximately 60,000 worker cooperatives and (after 2006) 30,000 community councils that were concentrated in underprivileged communities. The community councils design and execute public works projects in their communities and ensure preferential hiring for neighbourhood residents.
Although the radicalization of the Chávez government was a reaction to the insurgent tactics of the opposition, the arguments for social-based democracy and radical democracy were in large part a response to the failures of both Venezuela’s liberal democracy and the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe. Both before and after the abortive military cou