Chavez: ‘A Subversive in Miraflores’?


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Chavismo and democracy

The assertion that Venezuela has become a more democratic society under Hugo Chavez is bitterly contested. We can pass over the repeated claims that Chavez is a brutal dictator who has turned Venezuela into a communist state – the people making such allegations are certainly not troubled by the burden of proof. But more serious critics of Chavez have accused him of undermining the check and balances necessary for a democratic system to work. We shall consider three of the main charges, and suggest that while the standard criticisms of Chavez are misguided, his government can be fairly criticised on other grounds.

1) The judiciary

One of the most commonly-heard complaints against the Chavez government is that it has eroded the independence of the judiciary. To deal with this argument, we have to question one of the core assumptions of liberal political theory. In his classic work The State in Capitalist Society, Ralph Miliband addressed the claim that in capitalist democracies, we can rely on the “independent” judiciary to defend citizens against the abuse of power by government:

“Judges of the superior courts (and of the inferior courts as well for that matter) are by no means, and cannot be, independent of a multitude of influences, notably of class origin, education, class situation and professional tendency, which contribute as much to the formation of their view of the world as they do in the case of other men … the judicial elites, like other elites of the state system, are mainly drawn from the upper and middle layers of society: and those judges who are not have clearly come to belong to these layers by the time they reach the bench. Moreover, the conservative bias which their class situation is thus likely to create is here strongly reinforced by the fact that judges are, in many of these systems, also recruited from the legal profession, whose ideological dispositions are traditionally cast in a highly conservative mould.”

When you examine the conduct of senior judges in two of the world’s oldest capitalist democracies, the accuracy of Miliband’s view becomes apparent.

Lord Widgery – then the highest legal official in the UK – was assigned the task of investigating the Bloody Sunday massacre. He had the opportunity to vindicate the right of UK citizens to take part in a peaceful demonstration on the streets of their home city without being gunned down by the forces of the state. It is hard to imagine a case where there was a more pressing need for the judiciary to show its independence and check the abuse of power by the executive branch. Of course, the esteemed lord did nothing of the sort: he produced a deliberate travesty in order to protect the reputation of the British army and justify the murder of 13 unarmed civilians.

Another fundamental democratic liberty was at stake after the US presidential election of 2000: the right of citizens to vote for a candidate of their own choice and see that vote counted towards the final result. The US Supreme Court was in a position to uphold that right. Instead, its majority ordered a halt to the re-count of votes in Florida for nakedly political reasons and put an illegitimate president in the White House.

There are, of course, instances when the courts make a ruling that infuriates the government of the day. But Miliband was right to argue that such judgements were more likely to occur

“the less crucial to the social fabric the issues at stake appear to be, the less they affect the basic pattern of relationships between capital and labour, the less they involve what is taken to be the security of the state and the safety of the social order … the avoidance of outrageous bias is also much more likely in periods of relative social calm than in periods of acute social conflict and stress.”

In the shadow of the “war on terror”, British and American courts have delivered rulings on issues such as the detention of prisoners that were unwelcome to their respective governments. There has been no ruling, however, on the illegality of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and it has never been remotely conceivable that politicians in London or Washington could be put on trial by the legal system of their own country for war crimes. Lord Hutton’s report showed how reluctant senior judges are to tread on the toes of the political class, no matter how brazen their defiance of international law may be.

On the other hand, the judiciary has tended to show a very keen interest in protecting those whose social situation is close to its own. Britain’s Lord Denning may have kept the Birmingham Six in prison rather than contemplate the “appalling vista” which their release would produce, but he was eager to rule against the public transport policy of the Greater London Council when it was led by a group of Labour councillors whose radicalism was well known. At times when private privilege is at stake, the judiciary has often proved itself to be very creative in applying the letter of the law and finding pretexts to block social reform. In the event (now quite remote, to be sure) of a left-wing alliance winning a majority in the Dáil and bringing forward a sweeping programme of reform, we can be sure that the Irish courts would look favourably on legal attempts to frustrate that programme.

This view of the judiciary – as a bulwark against radical change, not a shield of democratic rights – casts a very different light over the actions of the Chavez government. The conservative bias of the old Supreme Court in Venezuela manifested itself most blatantly in August 2002, when the court ordered the release of 4 high-ranking officers who had taken part in the coup against Chavez. It claimed that the events of April 2002 had been a “power vacuum”, not a coup d’état. Chavez himself accepted the ruling while condemning it: “It’s a totally absurd decision. But it’s a decision … we have to swallow it like a fish with bones.”

The Chavista deputies in the National Assembly then set about changing the political composition of the Supreme Court in order to neutralise it as a power centre for the opposition. The use of political criteria in selecting judges is hardly unknown in western states – appointments to the US Supreme Court being a prime example. It is hard to imagine any government leaving the court system as they found it after a ruling that set authoritarian coup plotters free to resume their efforts.

If you see the judiciary as a vital bastion of democracy, such moves will appear very troubling – but that view of the courts is hard to reconcile with their actual conduct in bourgeois-democratic states. Latin American history shows us that when a real threat to democracy exists, the judiciary is at best a weak and ineffective line of defence. Judges in Chile and Argentina were unable to stop the bestial treatment of political dissidents by the military juntas which ruled those countries[i]. A politically conscious and mobilised population is a far more reliable guardian of democratic rights – and the current Venezuelan government has done more to encourage such mobilisation than any of its predecessors. It was the barrios that stopped the Carmona dictatorship in its tracks, not the Supreme Court.

Critics of Chavez would be more persuasive if they warned the Venezuelan president that it is not enough to remove the barriers to social change which unelected, unaccountable power structures like the judiciary represent. They have to be replaced with a new system of checks and balances that does in practice what the old system was meant to do in theory. Executive power should not be concentrated solely in the hands of the president and the National Assembly, even if they both have a popular mandate for their policies.

The Chavez government has to nurture alternative power centres: it’s not enough to put a guy from the barrios in the Miraflores palace, the power which currently flows from the presidential office should be devolved to the barrios themselves. We will discuss this in more detail in another section. So far as the judiciary is concerned, the opportunity should be taken to promote the democratisation of the legal system. In place of a structure where judges are appointed from above, they should be elected from below.

2) The media

The attitude of the Venezuelan government to the media has been perhaps the most controversial issue of all. When the private channel RCTV lost its license for a public frequency, teeth were gnashed and feet were stamped in fury on several continents. The move was presented as a shocking assault on freedom of speech which proved that Venezuela was fast becoming a Russian-style “pseudo-democracy”.

Again, liberal theory has been found wanting by the situation in Venezuela. Liberals have tended to see the main threat to press freedom as coming from the state, ignoring the role of private autocracies (or “corporations” as they are more commonly known) in censoring the mass media. From the days of Lord Northcliffe and Alfred Hugenburg, rich tycoons have always used their media empires to promote a political agenda that serves the interests of their class. The problem has become more urgent than ever before in recent decades with the rise of the electronic media and the emergence of vast media conglomerates that span national or even continental borders. Every single newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch supported the invasion of Iraq – the fact that a private individual can dictate such conformity from one end of the planet to the other is just as troubling as the imposition of censorship by national governments.

The conduct of the private media in Venezuela since 1998 has supplied further evidence of the threat which corporate censorship poses to democracy. Critics of the Venezuelan media do not simply charge it with unrelenting hostility to Chavez and his supporters from the day he became president. Nor is it merely the fact that the anti-Chavez media has been abusive, hysterical and deliberately mendacious which discredits them. The opposition broadcasters and publications have not just been guilty of telling lies; they have consciously incited violence, repeatedly calling for the overthrow of Venezuela’s government and the murder of its president. As detailed in part 2 of this article, they played a crucial role in organising the coup against Chavez.

You can judge the sincerity of those who condemned the removal of RCTV’s public broadcasting license by asking a few simple questions: what did they have to say in April 2002? Did they speak out against the deliberate censorship of information by the opposition channels? Did they condemn the doctoring of footage by Venevision? Did they oppose the black-out on pro-Chavez demonstrations imposed by the private broadcasters? Did they agitate in defence of journalists who lost their jobs after refusing to lie as their bosses wished? If the answer to all of these questions is “yes”, then we should give them a fair hearing when they criticise the actions of Hugo Chavez[ii].

The Chavez government has not imposed a grey censorious regime on the Venezuelan media. Even the bitterly hostile and misleading report published by Human Rights Watch last month acknowledges this fact: “Venezuela still enjoys a vibrant public debate, in which anti-government and pro-government media are equally vocal in their criticism and defense of Chavez.” It has shown greater tolerance than could be expected from any western government facing a comparable situation.

The hysteria surrounding RCTV has blocked serious discussion of genuine problems. Chavez and his ministers appear to have worked out their attitude to the media on the hoof, so to speak. For a long time they did virtually nothing to counter the opposition strangle-hold over public discourse, other than use the president’s legal authority to record messages to the nation that all channels are obliged to broadcast. The experience of the coup and the oil strike must have focused their minds on the need to do something more systematic, and they have followed a number of different tracks.

One of those tracks can be praised without any hesitation. Government policy has encouraged community broadcasting and given a huge boost to that vital democratic space (Human Rights Watch admit that “the government has actively supported the creation of community radio and TV stations, whose broadcasting contribute to media pluralism and diversity in Venezuela”).

A second track, at the national level, raises more difficult questions. The public frequency which RCTV lost was handed over to a new state broadcaster which takes a pro-government line. There will be those who argue that state channels should not be partisan, that they should follow a policy of strict “impartiality”. But “impartiality” has often been a mask for strong political bias at stations like the BBC (even when the journalists in question are unwilling to recognise their own partisanship).

Pure neutrality is an impossible dream and government-controlled stations in Venezuela should not be expected to waste time chasing it – especially when their private competitors make no such efforts. The real breakthrough would come if public broadcasters could replace the fantasy of a single, unbiased point of view with the reality of multiple perspectives from different political currents, each given a platform in the national media. Instead of simply replacing a partisan anti-Chavez channel with a partisan pro-Chavez one, the Venezuelan government should develop the new station as an outlet for the views of social organisations from all over the country.

Ultimately that should be the model for the whole of the print and electronic media in Venezuela. In order to democratise society, the concentrations of private power which control the economy will have to be broken up and brought under social control – and that includes the private media corporations. But the Venezuelan opposition should still be entitled to have its own TV programmes and newspapers, as long as it is able to command the support of a substantial minority. Political parties and social movements should be given access to the mass media in rough proportion to the levels of popular support they receive[iii]. This would be a quantum leap forward compared to the status quo in capitalist societies, where access to the media is regulated by the size of your bank balance.

The third main pillar of the government’s media policy is by far the most problematic. The National Assembly has passed an “insult law” that makes it a criminal offence to defame a public official. The wording of the law is highly subjective and leaves too much room for creative interpretation by politicians or judges who want to stifle free expression (the penalties for a conviction include prison time). So far the “insult law” has not been used in this manner, and the Venezuelan media remains very lively. But the potential for abuse is there as long as the legislation remains on the statute book – if not by the current government, then perhaps by one of its successors. The “insult law” should be revoked before that potential is realised.

3) The 2007 constitutional reform

The constitutional referendum which was narrowly defeated in 2007 prompted another outbreak of hysteria, and again the critics missed the point. Many western newspapers claimed that Hugo Chavez was holding a referendum that would make him president-for-life if it was passed – this was deliberately misinformation. The proposed reform would in fact have removed the two-term limit for presidential candidates and allowed Chavez to run for a third term in office. Chavez would then have needed to win another mandate from the voters before he could actually become a three-term ruler (in which case he would have joined a list of western statesmen and women that includes Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, John Howard and Felipe Gonzalez).

a1_a2_cons_ven_handbook_2.jpgA more sensible line of criticism would focus on two problems with the constitutional reform. First of all, it broke with the precedent set by the 1999 constitution – instead of holding elections to a constituent assembly where delegates would come up with proposals for change, the reform package was drafted by Chavez and his allies without any direct popular consultation before the referendum itself. The election of a national assembly would have been a much better foundation for constitutional reform – the process of voting for delegates would have engaged the Venezuelan people and allowed them to bring forward their own ideas. This would have been followed by extensive debate within the assembly, teasing out the strengths and weaknesses of reform proposals.

The defeat of the referendum can be seen as a punishment for this “original sin”. Chavez and his movement had not done enough to engage their support base and persuade them that the constitutional reforms were necessary. Crude slogans like “Vote Yes with Chavez” just insulted people’s intelligence, as did the president’s claim that anyone who opposed the referendum was voting for George Bush. The opposition did not win the constitutional referendum, Chavez lost it: three million people who had voted for him the previous year stayed at home on polling day, when a small fraction of them could have swung the referendum for the “Yes” side.

Secondly (and doubtless reflecting the way it was produced), the constitutional reform did not tackle the need for devolution of power effectively. It’s not hard to see why Hugo Chavez and his allies considered it necessary to remove the two-term limit: at present, there is no individual in the Bolivarian movement who can remotely match the stature of Chavez, and nobody who stands out as a candidate for the next presidential election. That is the nature of presidential systems – they create a focus on charismatic individuals who enjoy a great deal of autonomy once elected to office. Instead of adapting to that requirement, would it not be wiser for the Bolivarian revolution to discard the presidential frame-work altogether – at the very least, to replace it with a parliamentary form of rule that allows more space for a collective leadership to develop?

There is a broader question at stake here that was identified by Stuart Piper after the re-election of Chavez:

“The central levers of power in Venezuela – including the office of the presidency itself – remain institutionally located, even ‘trapped’, within the old administrative structures. The problem for the Bolivarian movement – and perhaps for most conceivable revolutionary situations in today’s world – is how do you get around the existing apparatus, when you first came to power through it … in the case of Venezuela, this problem is connected to another: how can the movement develop a real collective leadership and free itself from the overarching dominance of one revolutionary ‘caudillo’, however honest and able, as Chavez himself seems to recognise it must?”

Piper noted the remarks on this subject made by Hugo Chavez during his 2007 inauguration ceremony, when he announced plans for a new system of “communal councils”:

“This year with the Communal Councils we need to go beyond the local. We need to begin to create, by law in the first instance, a kind of regional, local and national confederation of Communal Councils. We have to move towards the creation of a communal state. And the old bourgeois state, which is still there, still alive and kicking, we have to begin dismantling it bit by bit, as we build up the communal state, the socialist state, the Bolivarian state – a state that is capable of carrying through a revolution. Almost all states have been born to prevent revolutions. So we have quite a task: to convert a counter-revolutionary state into a revolutionary state.”

While the communal councils are a step in the right direction, they remain flawed by comparison with the Brazilian-style “participatory budgets” which were a partial inspiration. The councils are not strictly autonomous, having been created and regulated by the laws of the central state, from which they also receive their budget. A true participatory democracy requires self-sufficient popular councils that cannot be reined in or dismantled altogether if the central government does not like their decisions. That would be a real system of checks and balances, capable of disrupting the abuse of power by any political institution.

The meaning of “21st century socialism”

In turn, the question of political structures is tightly linked with the social content of the Bolivarian revolution, which remains ambiguous as it enters its second decade. Most western commentators (even those willing to defend the Chavez government) tend to assume that encroachments on private property are a negative development, that the freedom to own large amounts of property and dispose of them as you wish is inseparable from the freedom to express yourself without asking permission from the state. They have certainly never considered the opposing argument: that as long as the key sectors of the economy in finance, agriculture and industry remain under the control of private oligarchies that are not accountable to citizens but influence every aspect of their lives, no society can be fully democratic.

In a very informative article published earlier this year, Venezuelan trade union militants who support Chavez while retaining their critical faculties issued a warning that vital questions are still unresolved. They argue that the nationalisations carried out thus far have not been used to lay the ground-work for a democratic economy based on social ownership:

“In the sectors of electricity and telephones, new brains trusts and new plans of development are being set up by the state apparatus, instead of being based on democratic debate by the workers of these sectors, to allow them to exercise their control and develop their decision-making power. In the oil sector, even with the majority of shares held by the state, the different multi-national companies continue to appropriate a part of our wealth, and the internal structures of PDVSA reproduce the vices of the preceding administrations … if we do not go further, if behind a socialist discourse we maintain the power of capital over the means of production and a private financial system, then in the long run, instead of breaking with the capitalist model we could come to maintain it, and even reinforce it.”

The union organisers link this failure to move against private capital with the fragmentation of the Chavista coalition along class lines. They describe the emergence of a new “Bolivarian” elite which is taking advantage of its privileged position in the state bureaucracy and forging links with the private bourgeoisie:

“The bureaucracy of the state structures is probably the greatest danger which threatens the Bolivarian Revolution at this stage. It is a sector which acts as the transmission belt for interests that are foreign to the revolution, which demoralizes and weakens the mass sectors supporting the revolutionary process … the counter-revolution has undergone a mutation. Its new clothes are those of a Chavism without socialism.”[iv]

Judging by events over the past year, Chavez has been attempting to balance the conservative and radical factions in his alliance (this would explain, for example, the wavering between oligarchic and democratic practices in the new PSUV movement[v]). The juggling act is not sustainable in the long run: sooner or later a choice will have to be made, and the nature of that choice will determine the course of the Bolivarian revolution over the next ten years. If private capital retains a commanding economic position, over the long term it will be able to undermine the social gains that have been made already. The unhappy fate of the New Deal reforms in the USA, which did much to improve the lives of working-class Americans but left the social structure fundamentally intact, should not be forgotten.

A capitulation to the power of big business is also likely to compromise Venezuelan democracy. The example of Zimbabwe is instructive. While the tyrannical nature of Robert Mugabe’s government has been almost universally recognised, the origins of that degeneration are much less appreciated. It was not the radicalism of Zanu-PF, but its failure to carry out a social revolution after the demise of white rule, which helped mould its authoritarian character. Once they had taken power, the party’s leading cadres transformed themselves into a state bureaucracy intimately connected to the private-sector bourgeoisie and were unwilling to hand over the positions which gave them access to such enormous booty. As R.W Johnson argued in a report from Zimbabwe after this year’s elections: “The intransigence of the Zanu-PF leadership derives essentially from the fact that it has used state power to enrich itself and is determined to hang onto its enormous gains.”

A subversive in the palace

In the final section of an absorbing book, Bart Jones recounts his own interview with Chavez in 2007. The Venezuelan president was asked how the coup of 2002 had affected his thinking:

“I came to the conclusion above all after the coup … that any attempt to reach an agreement with the forces of the old regime here, the old order, would be in vain … for several years I had been moving amid a dilemma … of conciliating between the most retrograde forces and the advanced forces … but then I realised it was impossible. I realised the Bible was profoundly correct when it says you can’t be okay with God and with the devil at the same time. Maybe before I was trying to be okay with God and throw an olive branch to the devil. It’s impossible. The devil will stab you.”

Jones also asked Chavez if power had changed him:

“I think I continue to be the same – the same subversive, the same man who has spent years thinking about how to help, how to be useful, how to lead a people to a better destiny … I’m a subversive in Miraflores. I’m always thinking how to subvert the old order, how to turn things around.”

It’s remarkable that Chavez could make such a claim after a decade in office and expect to be taken seriously – as indeed he must. Will he continue to play the role of a subversive, or throw an olive branch to the devil (in whatever form the latter assumes)? The answer to that question will depend on whether Chavez is able and willing to transfer power from the Miraflores palace to the countless subversives in the barrios whose support has given the Bolivarian revolution so much of its energy.

This is the third and final part of a review of Bart Jones’ Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story. Read the first part Chavez: The Hatred of the ‘Dark-Skinned Yokel’ here and the second part Chavez: ‘A Subversive in Miraflores’? here.


[i] One partial exception merely confirms the rule. Colombian magistrates have done brave and important work over the last two years uncovering links between Alvaro Uribe’s government and the paramilitary death squads. But they have been unable to protect Colombia’s people from state atrocities – the vast majority of political murders remain unsolved and unpunished.[ii] We might also ask whether their voices were raised in protest when French president Nicolas Sarkozy took steps to muzzle the state broadcaster earlier this year by directly appointing its president. As Lara Marlowe explained in the Irish Times, the French president was just extending his grip over the electronic media:“Through his friendship with Martin Bouygues, Mr Sarkozy already controls TF1. When he wants to speak on the evening news, the president reportedly calls Mr Bouygues. Last year the deputy director of Mr Sarkozy’s presidential campaign was appointed deputy director of TF1. Earlier this month Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, France’s best-known news presenter, was replaced by Laurence Ferrari. Ms Ferrari successfully sued two publications that claimed she had an affair with Mr Sarkozy between his second and third marriages. He had reportedly told Mr Bouygues he wanted to see her on the evening news.”Readers will no doubt remember the international storm of protest which greeted Sarkozy’s move – it could be heard all the way from one end of a styrofoam cup to the other.

[iii] British socialist Phil Hearse has given a useful outline of the steps which a socialist society should take in order to transform the media: the “abolition of private ownership of the mass media – press, TV and radio” will be necessary in order to “democratise the mass media by making access open to workers and community organisations, political parties, cultural associations, co-operatives of artists and film and programme makers”. He argues that “abolition of the private ownership of the mass media would be fiercely resisted – it is one of the pillars of modern capitalism. Difficult democratic choices would have to be made about which groups could have free access to the national mass media. Political parties of a hundred people would clearly not have control of a national daily newspaper. But the guiding principle should be pluralism, open access and diversity”.

[iv] They also note that Hugo Chavez has identified this current himself, perhaps suggesting that he fears a move against the radicalisation of the Bolivarian movement from within its own ranks:

“Like snakes that are coiled up, they are playing at Chavism without Chavez, at pushing Chavez aside; well, I will be isolated only by God who is our Lord and Master, or by you, the voice of the people.”

[v] Fernando Esteban offered this account from Caracas of the PSUV’s birth-pangs:

“The PSUV is becoming an essential tool in the organization of the Venezuelan social movement, even though only 15 per cent of the members take part in a regular way in its activities and only 40 per cent voted during the various internal elections. During the elections to the leadership, only 80,000 members could vote, without anyone knowing on what criteria this choice was established. Chavez dictated on live television a list of 70 names from which it was necessary to choose the 35 people who would comprise the future national leadership. Finally, the 35 members of the national leadership having been elected, Chavez designated, again on live television, the members of the political bureau. Among them there were only members of the government, and no representative of the social or trade-union movement. The vote of the delegates in each battalion took place without there being any control over or verification of the results.

“People thought that the PSUV had been completely stitched up, when once again Chavez surprised everyone by announcing that the candidates for the regional governments (federal elections) and the local elections would be designated by the rank and file of the party. More than 2 million members took part in internal elections to choose the candidates, without any hitches. Of course, there are many criticisms that could be made of the way the internal campaign was organised. For example, the fact that all the candidates were forbidden to campaign within the PSUV (in the name of democratic equity) in the last resort served the interests of the best known candidates, members of the government or those standing for re-election. Nevertheless, this internal election is to date one of the most important democratic processes, within a party, in all political history.”


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