Written by: Josh Newmark
With mass demonstrations, a dramatic challenge to the Presidency, and the possibility of foreign intervention in the air, recent events in Venezuela have focused attention around the embattled strongman regime of Nicolas Maduro. This reinforces the tendency towards a ‘Great Man’ conception of Venezuela which has framed most common understandings of recent history around Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, and the regime he left behind. While Chávez was a complex and intriguing character (somewhat unfairly reduced to a one-dimensional tyrant in certain takes), this focus on the Bolivarian Revolution (the name given to the historical process of constitutional and socioeconomic change commenced by Chávez’s election in 1998) from above provides only half, or less, of the story. George Ciccariello-Maher’s work contextualises the Bolivarian Revolution and provides insight into how it was experienced by ordinary people. Although far from a non-partisan source, Ciccariello-Maher never claims to be one, and his knowledge of the Revolution from the bottom-up makes for fascinating reading.
The title of his 2013 book We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution reflects Ciccariello-Maher’s crucial argument for a fluid distinction between the Revolutionary state and Revolutionary social movements. Ciccariello-Maher shows how the Revolution grew out of a long history of struggles against social and political exclusion in Venezuela’s post-1958 ‘pacted democracy’, and more generally within a global revolt against neo-liberalism. The latter saw Venezuela erupt in 1989 in the so-called Caracazo riots, initially sparked by a massive hike in bus fares, which saw poor inhabitants of Caracas streaming down from the hills and eventually being repressed by gunfire. For the author, Chávez was, and is, a product and symbol of the struggle rather than the prime mover. More a history of activism than a ‘people’s history’, the book uses memoirs as his source material and the author’s interviews with Venezuela’s Cuba-inspired guerrilla movement, and organisers for urban communities, students, women, labour, peasants, and Venezuelans of colour to show the different inputs that constitute the Revolution. This approach yields important insights: for example, the failure of Venezuela’s Cuba-inspired guerrilla movement due to its detachment from the masses; the conflict between ‘feminists’ and ‘Party women’, left-wing women’s activists who did not believe female emancipation could exist outside of the class struggle; and the origins of the armed urban militias, which commentators have pointed to as part of Maduro’s infrastructure of authoritarianism, as independent grassroots initiatives in working-class communities to stamp out the drug trade amid widespread police corruption.
At times, Ciccariello-Maher’s fervent support for the Revolution and reliance on radical activist sources precludes the critical analysis and objectivity that a social history requires. For example, the chapter on the student movement features some anecdotes from his own time teaching in Venezuela in which he boasts ‘without apology’ that his own students were ‘the most militant’ whilst pouring scorn on ‘opposition’ student activists, at the expense of more a concrete analysis. Indeed, the penultimate chapter, on Venezuela’s urban ‘informal proletariat’, who constitute a majority of Venezuelan society, is distinctive for its use of a more ethnographical account rather than a sole focus on activists. The author argues that vestiges of rural life foster a communitarian ‘barrio culture’, and that the sheer precarity and indignity of this class’ socio-economic experience, and their social, cultural, and political exclusion from national life, direct them to a political movement like Bolivarianism, rather than simply making economic demands.
Ciccariello-Maher’s 2016 work Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela is a fascinating, albeit brief, insight into the divisions within Venezuela that one must grasp in order to understand its current situation. The book expands on some of Venezuela’s dire social cleavages mentioned in his prior book, and shows the overlap between elements of political opposition, and hostility to social progress. For example, the author describes how opposition protests have sometimes targeted social housing built by the government, and health clinics for the poor staffed by Cuban doctors, or how opposition commentators have recycled racist tropes to describe Chávez and his supporters. In some ways, this book is far more a ‘people’s history’ than the previous one, in that it describes ordinary people’s engagement with the Revolution rather than purely those who were already activists, through the process of developing communes (forms of local participatory democracy and common economic ownership). A pertinent example describes the Zancudo Commune in remote southern Venezuela, where one radical organiser helped the locals to start their own communally-run fish farm in ditches left behind by road construction, which (at the time of the author’s research) turns a profit for the community; when they formally became a commune under the auspices of the law, ‘some of the teenagers whose only political education had been the process of cultivating the fish were elected as its spokespeople’. These are far removed from the common stock images one has of contemporary Venezuela, which generally revolve around mass rallies and riot police in Caracas. But the communes are not an entirely grassroots endeavour, having been fostered by Chávez and the Left of his Party, and were posited by the former as the key to the future of the Revolution. In one tantalising passage, the curious overlap between the Chavista state and the Revolutionary social movements is made evident as the author asks veteran-activist-turned-cabinet-minister, Rosángela Orozco, if the communal state could displace the existing state: ‘Should I answer for the ministry, or as a militant?’ This raises the question of the legacy of Chavismo: Is the Revolution from above coming to an end? Indeed, having been published shortly after the Opposition victory in the 2015 National Assembly elections, Building the Commune engages more with the future of the Revolution. Drawing repeatedly on Chávez’s last major speech before his death, the so-called Golpe de Timón, ‘changing course,’ which attacked the corruption and bureaucratisation resulting from a separation of the Party elite from the base, Ciccariello-Maher continues with the theme of his previous book on the Revolution’s essential independence from the regime. For Ciccariello-Maher, the communes are the essence of the Bolivarian Revolution’s politicisation and mobilisation of Venezuela’s marginalised peoples.
It remains to be seen what will come to pass in Venezuela in the months and years ahead, with all attention focused on a regime delegitimised by the West and backed by Moscow and Beijing, but Ciccariello-Maher’s work opens our eyes to the political questions – aside from the question of who occupies the presidency. While the doubling down of Maduro’s authoritarianism appears to render nuance as mere complicity, and the onset of hyperinflation and mass, levelling impoverishment seems to render social inequality a moot point, a political movement as potent as a Revolution is unlikely to simply disappear, and we should aim to understand its causes and content. Both those desperate to use Venezuela as a mere polemical stick to bash the Left, and Left-wingers eager to disavow our blatant admiration for the Venezuelan Revolution during its better years, are in danger of missing its lessons.
Image: Front cover of George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chávez