The Venezuelan situation is complex, yet if we look at its balance sheet, it shows that after 20 years in power, the project of Chavismo has been a deep failure for the Venezuelan working class.
Written by Alejandro Iturbe, International Workers League [article reviewed and edited by Workers’ Voice for context]
What remains today of chavismo was a process that initially began with great promises of changes in the social-economic structure of Venezuela for workers and the masses, the so-called “Socialism of the 21st Century”. It ended however with the sad reality of producing hunger, misery and repression. What happened throughout these years? It is essential to make this balance sheet to draw conclusions about the present and, mainly for the future.
The Appeal of “Socialism of the 21th Century”
As we already argued in 2013 recapitulating the history of chavismo: “Chávez and Chavismo emerged in a particular international social reality. The fall of the USSR … and the capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe and China caused in the great majority of the world Left a deep shift to the right in their programs, conceptions and political proposals. […] Not only most of the communist organizations and currents but also many of those who claimed to be “revolutionary” and even “Trotskyist” abandoned the proposals for social change through a socialist revolution and defended instead reformist policies within the capitalist system. An important part of these currents promoted a new “possibilism” (the world could be changed without defeating capitalism) embodied in the World Social Forums and synthesized in the slogan: ‘Another world is possible’. […] ”
“There was thus a vacuum of political alternatives. Thousands of social activists sensed that without the radicalizing the class struggle to its end, and without seizing power, it was not possible to change the roots of the injustices produced by capitalism. They were left without any clear international political reference and it was at that precise time Chávez and Chavism emerged. They had just come to power in Venezuela, were speaking of a ‘Bolivarian revolution’, were dressed in red, and they launched their proposal of a “Socialism of the XXI Century.” In their speeches, they violently attacked imperialism, and Chávez even came around to vindicate Trotsky and his conception of a “permanent revolution”. The leaders of Chavismo began to occupy the large political vacuum left by the Stalinist Left, and many activists and organizations saw in them a new alternative. Although it never had a centralized organizational form, an international Chavist current was formed de facto, and developed great weight in Latin America and in semi-colonial countries, becoming possibly one of the most important in recent years “.
Today’s reality and crisis shows that the promises and program of Chavismo were nothing but “deceptive propaganda,” and this revelation feeds the ongoing disappointment and scepticism of many of those who believed in it. This is why it is so necessary to analyze what chavismo really was since its beginning and how it evolved.
The Class Roots of Chavismo
The starting point of our differences with the majority of the world left that supports chavismo begins with the analysis of the class roots and the characterization of the political project led by Hugo Chávez.
“Our deep difference, antagonistic we would say, with most of the leftist currents that support Chavismo is that for them the electoral triumph of Chavez in 1998 and its subsequent government are the direct product of the mass uprising known as the Caracazo which began in 1989, and the popular struggles that followed. They see chavismo as genuine and progressive political expression of this popular movement. For us, however, Chavismo is only a secondary by-product of the Caracazo, it is a movement of the second line of command of military officers, who rode on the ascent to stop it or, at least, control it, preventing its transformation into a socialist revolution. We understand the role of chavismo as establishing direct links with the mass struggles in order to close the fracture of the army, and thus fully rebuild the bourgeois state. It is true that Chavismo created a new political regime (which we will analyse later), but, with respect to the workers’ and socialist revolution, this regime has not fulfilled a progressive role of promoting it, but rather a regressive role of defending the essential features of the bourgeois state, rebuilding the army and defending capitalist property, within the framework of the class struggle opened by the Caracazo.”
“Another important difference we have with the majority of the Left is its their misreading of the social characterization of Chavismo. For most political organizations, Chavismo is a petty-bourgeois movement that expresses the radicalization of this social sector […]. As we pointed out, this analysis is doubly wrong. First because such an analysis uses a non-Marxist method to define a political movement or government by focusing mainly on the class origin of its members, without taking into account the program they defend or the class character of the state they lead. If we applied this criteria to other countries of the continent, we would have to say, for example, that in Brazil there was a ‘workers’ government’ with Lula; and that in Argentina or Uruguay it was a ‘petty bourgeois’ one when the Kirchners and the Broad Front were in power respectively.” .
The Semi-Colonial Oil Model
An essential aspect in which the bourgeois character of the project was expressed is that “… with Chávez, the country maintained (and even accentuated) its character as a capitalist semi-colony based on oil exports, with rentier economy and a parasitic ruling class that lives off the oil rent, and imports important part of the food and industrial products it consumes. Let’s see some data: oil went from representing 64% of exports in 1998, to 92% in 2012. At the same time, the country became deindustrialized: this sector represented 18% of GDP, in 1998, while in 2012 it fell to 14%. Even Chávez’s governments did not take advantage of the nationalizations to boost industrial development. The production of Sidor (steel) fell 30% since its nationalization, and ALCASA (aluminium) only produces 70,000 tons with an installed capacity of 210,000. As we said, it is a rentier economy based on speculation: a large part of the bourgeoisie (government or opposition) is dedicated to negotiations over the exchange rate between the official dollar and the currency or with government bonds “.
Another central aspect that shows the bourgeois character of Chavismo is the emergence, within the framework of this parasitic rentier economy, of a boli-bourgeoisie (short of bolivarian bourgeoisie), deeply associated with the leadership of the armed forces and the high political cadres of the Chavez regime.
Boom and Decay
In this context, as throughout the modern history of Venezuela, the rise and decline of Chavismo runs parallel to the ups and downs of oil prices in international markets:
“The permanent increase of the oil barrel price [since 2002] in international markets (it exceeded the barrier of 100 dollars and came to trade at 140), allowed a great growth of the oil rent that remained in the bourgeois state, allowing it to fuel its relations with all the social sectors. The increase in oil income boosted an annual GDP growth of 12%, and, on that basis, it was possible for the regime to keep its business with imperialist interests, and with the traditional bourgeoisie, to pay the external debt (even in advance in some cases), to create its own boli-bourgeoisie ( …) and to make concessions to the masses with greater investments in the social area (health programs, education, construction of popular houses and micro-enterprises) “.
“These were ‘welfare measures’ that did not break any capitalist criteria or change the socio-economic structure of the country, they were even recommended by the UN agencies. But they meant a real improvement in the life of extreme poverty of sectors of the population that, for example, gained for the first time access to medical care. For this reason, the social organizations responsible for these policies (the Missions) were deeply implanted in the poorest neighbourhoods. Chavismo reinforced its electoral base in those areas, and strengthened its mass support, which allowed Chávez to win all the elections he ran for. He was even able to nationalize some companies such as the telephone CANTV, Electricidad de Caracas and Sidor (Siderúrgica Orinoco). These measures, although they can be considered “progressive”, have nothing in common with “socialism” since they were made according to the accepted capitalist rules (purchase of the stock package)“. Those years of boom were those in which Chavismo appeared the most to be a Left government.
However, when the prices of the barrel of oil began to fall (and with it a dramatic decrease in the income of dollars of the Venezuelan State) , the entire structure of government collapsed: relations with the opposition bourgeoisie were strained, and so appeared tensions within the Chavist apparatus itself, but more importantly and, the workers and popular masses began to distance themselves from Chavismo and to struggle against it. This was a consequence of the fact that, when the dollars for exports were scarce or disappeared, there was a very high annual inflation (before today’s hyperinflation), and a chronic shortage of products that hit hard the purchasing power and the standard of living of the population, most of whom are currently barely surviving.
A Word on Chavez’ “Anti-imperialism”
In a recent debate in which I participated in the oil workers’ union in Rio de Janeiro, a member of the leadership of the PCB (Brazilian Communist Party) said that the Maduro government was attacked by Trump because the Chavismo process, although it was bourgeois (no longer considered “socialist” as they claimed years ago) was, at the same time, anti-imperialist and had built “popular power” . We do not agree with any of these last two statements.
It is true that Chávez had some friction with imperialism in his first years of government, and that he the US, under President Bush, had tried to overthrow him through a coup and an employer lockout, in 2002, but, once the workers and the masses defeated these attempts, the reality changed and Chavismo became politically subordinated to imperialism. Today, foreign oil companies control 50% of Venezuelan oil, with much weight from the “American sisters” such as Exxon, Chevron and Amoco. This is a policy that Maduro has deepened, directly delivering parts of the territory of the so-called Orinoco Belt to foreign companies . In the case of the automotive industry, the control of the imperialist companies is 100%.
But even Chávez’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, with very high decibels at the time of Bush, and which helped to build much of his prestige and influence, disappeared from Chavez’s discourse and became much more “friendly” with Barack Obama. Recall Chávez’s statements before the 2012 US presidential election: “If I were an American, I would vote for Obama. And I believe that if Obama were from Barlovento or a Caracas neighborhood, he would vote for Chávez. I’m sure “.
But if there is anything that demonstrates the absence of anti-imperialism in the Chavist project as a whole, it was the regular payment (even advanced, in certain cases) of the Venezuelan external debt, one of the main mechanisms of economic control and looting of wealth that the imperialism. Even in the midst of the social catastrophe experienced by the Venezuelan people, Maduro boasted of having paid 74 billion dollars of external debt . That is, he preferred to fulfil the “commitments” with imperialism than to use that money to mitigate the serious hardships of the Venezuelan people. As the saying goes: there are times when a fact is worth more than a thousand words.
 To deepen this analysis, we recommend reading the book “Venezuela after Chávez: a necessary balance”, Editions Marxism Vivo, San Pablo, Brazil (2013), numerous articles published on the IWL-FI site (www.litci .org) and editions 14 (2015) and 18 (2017) of International Courier magazine, third period.
 See the first part of the book quoted in https://litci.org/es/menu/mundo/latinoamerica/venezuela/Chavism-balance-necesario/?fbclid=IwAR3SKaay2iB63uGM3ukNle3MFqmsmz5G8jewSV7v2O4_-Txqy-Ly6b0carY
 The price of a barrel of oil currently ranges between 56 and 66 dollars. In 2015, he reached a floor close to 40 dollars.
 See the article “Multinationals and Venezuela” in the magazine Correo Internacional n. 18, San Pablo, Brazil, September 2017.
The Responsibility of Chavismo in the Current Situation, PART 2
It is also false that Chavism has built popular power. It is doubly false because not only did it not build it, but it also destroyed the embryos of this power that had been inherited from the Caracazo and that took a leap in the fight against the coup and the 2002 lockout.
In the struggle against the coup numerous “Bolivarian committees” that mobilized the masses and defeated the employer-imperialist attempt sprang up in the working and popular neighbourhoods of Caracas and other cities of the country. In the fight against the lockout, committees of workers were formed in different centres of PDVSA and in many private industries. They retook the plants and put them to production, in a very rich process of double power and workers’ control of production.
Showing its deep bourgeois roots, the government of Hugo Chávez destroyed both processes. First, he transformed the Bolivarian Committees of fight organisms into electoral committees, then into Missions agencies and, finally, many of them have been transformed into armed paramilitary groups of the Maduro government or, directly, into gangs of delinquents (see article on this theme in this same edition). The workers’ committees of PDVSA were dismantled and trusted cadres of the Chavist apparatus were placed at the head of the company’s plants .
That is, instead of taking advantage of the very favourable situation of the class struggle to advance the coup bourgeoisie and imperialism, in a real process of socio-economic transformation, Chavism chose the path of controlling and restricting the masses using the apparatus of the bourgeois state.
What kind of political regime did Chavism build?
We must recognize that, in the debates we have held with the majority of the left in all these years, we have taken a step forward: both we and our opponents agree that the Chavist process is “bourgeois”. This means that Venezuela is a capitalist state and that the political regime that built Chavism is also bourgeois (that is, at the service of maintaining the capitalist character of that State).
But what kind of political regime is and what has been its dynamics in these years? For us, from the beginning, the system of Venezuelan State institutions can be characterized as a sui generis Bonapartist regime, of the type that Trotsky analysed in Mexico in the 1930s .
We want to highlight some issues developed in that analysis. The first is that these regimes expressed the attempt of the national bourgeoisies of the semi-colonial countries to negotiate with imperialism a greater political and economic space. That is why, given their relative weakness as a class against imperialism, they sought to rely on a limited degree of mobilization of the proletariat and the masses to put pressure on it. At the same time, these bourgeoisies needed to exert an iron grip on the movement of the masses in order to prevent the latter from overflowing them and threatening the bourgeois character of the State and the regime. Reality shows that, even in their heyday, they repress the independent workers struggles and their leaders.
Therefore, it is a different regime from the bourgeois-democratic, its central institutions are the commander-president, the Armed Forces and the regime’s party. The institutions of bourgeois democracy, such as the presidential elections and the parliament, are complementary and only really work to the extent that the regime is able to guarantee its majority and its predominance.
In the Venezuelan case, the most progressive aspects of the Chavez regime (some friction with imperialism and concessions limited to the masses) have been disappearing along with the end of the oil bonanza. Then, “in Venezuela we have a decadent Bonapartist regime in, supported by the Armed Forces (whose leadership has become a ‘bolibourgeoisie’), that is corrupt and undemocratic (ignored the Parliament, made a complete fraud in the election of the Constituent and in the last election presidential so that a minority becomes a majority) and repressive (more than a hundred dead, hundreds of prisoners, paramilitary bands, etc.). That, to the service of delivering the oil, to pay the external debt to the cost of the hunger of the Venezuelan people, and to assure the businesses of the bolibourgeois. For us, that is very similar to a dictatorship, which has nothing progressive, and which the struggle of the workers and the masses must overthrow “.
A new proposal
“At this point, a sector of the defenders of the Castro-Chavez movement advances a position and formulates a reasoning that, until now, we had not heard so explicitly. In the recent debate on the reality of Nicaragua under the regime of Ortega-FSLN , Breno Altman (an important cadre of the Brazilian PT) stated that to the extent that this current has abandoned the strategy of taking power to begin the transition to socialism, the strategy is to promote ‘progressive processes’ within the framework of bourgeois institutions. But it is not enough to achieve government through an election because, within the framework of bourgeois democratic regimes, not only can elections be lost but their leaders can be subject to impeachment as happened to Dilma Rousseff “.
“Therefore (they argue) it would be necessary to advance in the control of the institutions of the bourgeois state, especially the armed forces and also the Justice and the electoral courts. In other words, it is necessary to build bonapartist regimes (that Trotsky called bonapartist sui generis regimes). To defend such regimes, if it is necessary to restrict democratic freedoms and repress opponents, they think that is totally valid, even though that repression is also against the mobilization of popular sectors with just demands. Ultimately, these mobilizations would be driven by imperialism and the right, and the repression of mass sectors would be a kind of ‘collateral damage’ in the just defence of ‘progressive process’. That’s why (they think) what Maduro and Ortega did was very good. Breno also stated that this should be the main self-criticism inside the PT, for having surrendered without a fight “.
There is one aspect of this debate (the abandonment of the strategy of taking power by workers to initiate the transition to socialism that changes the socioeconomic bases and the semi-colonial character of Latin American countries) that we will address at the end of this article. What we want to reaffirm here is that those regimes to which Breno Altman refers have lost any progressive character and today act only in the defence of the imperialist interests and the bourgeois sector they represent. They repress the workers and the masses for that reason and not in defence of a “progressive process”. That is why they have become (or are going to be) classic dictatorships.
That kind of reasoning has led these currents not only to the defence of dictatorships like Maduro and Ortega in Latin America but also to the genocidal regime of al-Assad in Syria or the reactionary regime of Putin in Russia. Hugo Chávez himself and the Cuban Raúl Castro came to defend the “red” capitalist dictatorship of the Chinese CP, which promotes one of the highest levels of workers’ super-exploitation in the world.
The political consequences
We have tried to show that, prior to the current imperialist interference, Chavism itself is responsible for the current social catastrophe experienced by the Venezuelan workers and people. It is because of the deep limitations imposed on it by its bourgeois character and because of that, for not having really confronted imperialism or the traditional bourgeois sectors, and for having maintained the semi-colonial capitalist character of the country. At the same time, it was dedicated to freezing the revolutionary rise originated in the Caracazo, which took a leap in 2002, and destroyed the genuine organization of the workers and the masses that had emerged in those processes.
Currently, it denies even the harsh reality of the economic-social catastrophe that the country is experiencing (while the Bolibourgeois obscenely displays its wealth) or blames imperialist interference (which may have aggravated the picture but did not create it). Chavism clings to power with a repressive and undemocratic turn against the Venezuelan people.
The big problem is that this failure (and the ugly face of current reality) is presented as “socialism” or as a “popular anti-imperialist” process. The serious consequence of this is that it pushes the workers and the masses (who previously supported Chavez) to the arms of the traditional right and of imperialism, expressed by the calls of Guaidó, which they end up seeing as the only possible immediate alternative to end the nightmare they live in. It is the failure of the Chavist project that opened the space for the likes of Guaidó.
It is not by chance that the figures of the continental right, such as Trump, Bolsonaro or Macri, sloganize that “we do not want to end up like Venezuela”. The policy of support to the government of Maduro (or of its defence), that supposedly is based on the need to “face imperialism and the right”, ends on the contrary bringing water to its mill. Because the workers look at the Venezuelan reality and say, “I do not want that” or “they are all the same”, falling into the scepticism that there is no alternative to change things at the root: it is only to choose the “lesser evil”.
Therefore, this policy of support or capitulation to Chavism and Maduro becomes a gigantic obstacle to the construction of a true anti-imperialist and socialist alternative for the workers and the masses in Venezuela, in Latin America and in the world.
From the beginning the IWL-FI have been opposed to Chavism from a perspective of the working class, we have anticipated that this would be the sad end of its failure, and we have fought permanently to build that alternative of the workers. Therefore, we are not responsible for, or accomplices of, this failure.
However, that is now, ultimately, secondary. What is essential is to discuss the balance sheet of Chavism with the fighters and the masses, understand the reasons for their its and draw the necessary conclusions. That is, the only alternative to change the economic-social roots of a country, defeat imperialism and solve the very serious problems of workers is offered by the teachings of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The organized working class, leading the struggle of the oppressed masses, must have no confidence in imperialism and the national bourgeoisies but wage a mortal combat against them. The working class must build democratic bodies of struggle, and a revolutionary workers’ party to lead this process.
This means a hard political battle against those who refuse to support this revolutionary prospective (or disguise their opposition to it) and continue to support or defend Chavism.
 See article “Attempt of blow, construction of resistance and workers’ control” in the magazine Correo Internacional 14.
 See, for example, the article “The nationalization of oil and the nationalized industry” (1939), included in Latin American Writings, CEIP, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2000.
 Watch the online video “Debate on Nicaragua”, available at: https://litci.org/es/menu/mundo/latinoamerica/nicaragua/vea-aqui-la-transmision-online-del-debate-nicaragua/, 8/25/2018.