A revolution in contraflow

IVAN BRISCOE listens to the voices of Venezuela’s unemployed, its mobilised, its empowered and its disillusioned to portray the hopes and paradoxes of Hugo Chávez’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’

He has lived on his homestead for only a year since staging a ‘sort of invasion’, but Jovito González is already enjoying the fruits of the Caribbean. Beside a tin-roofed one-room house, where his family of five lives, lemons, sugar cane and yucca grow fast and profusely. Just below the sandy hillcrest on which his home stands, the vast Maracaibo lake, now bled of most of its vast oil reserves, stretches into a blindingly bright horizon.

‘The electricity is stolen,’ González beams contentedly. ‘Everything is illegal: the water and the gas too. We live illegally.’

Like almost all the other 15 impoverished families who fanned across the unoccupied land a year ago, González was emboldened by the words of his country’s leader, Hugo Chávez. ‘We’re not really the invaders,’ he explains. ‘We’re Venezuelans, and we’re only looking for a more comfortable way to live.’

The land itself belongs to a rich businessman allied intimately to Venezuela’s ancien régime, but who has since moved to Miami; in due course, it should be possible for the squatters to claim title to the lots. In the meantime, they will wait. They are used to waiting: neither González nor any of his neighbours has a job.

A project in spate

His predicament is not uncommon in the new, revolutionary Venezuela. The meagre González family income depends on odd-jobs and occasional services to the Chavista cause, notably as part of the ‘reserve’ force of one million people, designed to defend government installations and oilfields from ‘attack’. Yet even amid a surge in petroleum prices and an onslaught of redistributive policies since Chávez’s referendum victory in August 2004 – including the eight ‘missions’ aimed at providing the poorest in society with education, health and work – the panoramic view of the Venezuelan economy is not entirely flattering.

The economy grew in 2005 by 9.4 per cent, one of the highest rates in Latin America. Driven by the extraordinary success of the chain of state-subsidised supermarkets, Mercal, purchases of processed food rose nine per cent – a highly unusual increase even in an economic boom. Yet at the same time, the stock market fell by over 20 points. Official data suggest that a mere 37,000 jobs were created, while half of those people in work continue to languish in the informal economy. In Caracas, this translates into a tide of street stallholders, numbering an estimated 180,000 out of a total city population of five million.

It is perhaps too hasty to blame Chávez for a legacy of oil-dependence and the disrepair caused by the three years of bitter civil strife. ‘21st-century socialism’ as he has named it, is still under construction – and for the moment, there is no viable political alternative. But the start of 2006 has brought with it the signs of a malaise, not with Chávez’s rule as such (or rather, no more so than before), but for the first time with the concrete undertakings of his government.

For the president’s opponents and the country’s two main broadsheet newspapers, global contempt for Chávez has at last found a highly visible emblem. Early in January, a bridge on the main road connecting Caracas with the coastal state of Vargas, site of the country’s main airport, abruptly collapsed. Air passengers arriving at the ultra-modern terminal, dotted with unused plasma screens, currently emerge onto a winding road that cruises for hours over the Ávila cloud forest and through a series of ramshackle hillside settlements – a startling manifestation of an oil state’s discontinuous riches. The blame, opponents says, lies squarely with government incompetence and indifference. According to the country’s school of engineers, ‘infrastructure across the country … is in its worst conditions ever’.

Speaking at a congress late in 2004, Chávez himself dismissed ‘neo-liberals’ for insisting ‘we should be building motorways and buildings. First of all, we’re going to build a sovereign and dignified people.’ Yet even in those laudable terms, grave doubts have arisen over what has been achieved since 1998.

Last year, new data from the National Statistics Institute (INE) indicated that poverty had in fact increased from 1999 to 2005 by 10 points, affecting 53 per cent of the population. In the words of Teodoro Petkoff, former leftwing guerrilla and now an ardent critic of the government’s more authoritarian leanings: ‘Chávez expressed his irritation with the new figures on his Sunday television show, ¡Aló Presidente! , and a few weeks later the INE issued new statistics suggesting poverty had fallen by 15 points… This isn’t statistical method, this is a statistical beauty parlour, and is typical of a government that manipulates information,’ Petkoff insists.

As for Chávez’s supporters, dedication to the government does not preclude frank criticism of what is going wrong; for much as it may surprise Washington’s chorus-line (and its echo in London), Venezuela is no second Cuba. ‘There is discontent among the activists with their national, regional, municipal and community leadership,’ declares a recent report from the executive of the main chavista force, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), obtained by the newspaper El Universal. One loyalist in Maracaibo with excellent government connections put it to me thus: ‘Bureaucracy is eating the revolution.’

Clear evidence of these misgivings came in the parliamentary elections of December 2005, whose turnout – admittedly affected by an opposition boycott – reached only 25 per cent, amid public apathy and suspicion of the electoral authority’s neutrality. In response, the MVR’s report has pointed to public works and the mass provision of loans as the chief means to secure 10 million votes for Chávez in the December 2006 presidential elections. ‘In the campaign,’ the document adds, ‘George Bush will be identified as the main enemy.’

Devil’s excrement, hero’s spawn

It is on the world stage that Chávez still excels, shining as the figurehead of global resistance to capitalist orthodoxy and letting his own people know it. His personal magnetism and his vituperative mockery of the White House, his sense of political opportunism – cheap heating-oil for the Bronx stands out – and his friendships across the Arab world and the east, have guaranteed an extraordinarily high profile. Caracas, the painted walls now tell us, is an ‘insurgent city’; the Venezuelans, lovers of baseball, basketball and gas-happy Chevrolets, are an ‘anti-imperialist’ people.

Yet the bedrock of his sway, in Latin America above all, remains oil (‘the devil’s excrement’, as Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, sometime Venezuelan oil minister and co-founder of Opec, once described it). For neighbouring countries and for the Mercosur trade bloc, which Venezuela has now joined, Chávez has spun a web of supply lines that are already or soon will be essential: gas from the staunch US ally Colombia will be refined in Maracaibo from 2008, a $20 billion pipeline will send Venezuelan fuel through Brazil to Argentina. Within hours of Evo Morales’s inauguration as Bolivian president, Chávez, possibly concerned that his protégé might desert him, announced he would dispatch 200,000 barrels of diesel a month in return for farm goods.

In parallel, the dominance of oil within the Venezuelan economy is more pronounced than ever, accounting for 86.9 per cent of all the country’s exports in 2005. And whereas the street graffiti clamours for rebellion, the other goliath of the economy – the Polar food and drink group, making up around seven per cent of GDP – has stitched a working accord with the government, enabling it to supply the popular Mercal stores.

It is not as if the government is unaware of these paradoxes. Hitler may be a ‘suckling baby’ next to George W Bush – and Bush’s close ally Tony Blair ‘a pawn of imperialism’ – but the oil lines to the United States are still by far the most important. The government may be turning against the crazed materialism of 20th-century Venezuela, but it depends on one industry, presides over a heavily-concentrated economy, and is feeding Latin socialism thanks to barrel prices driven up by world capitalism. Most urgently, it is now grappling with the main dilemma of an ‘oil curse’: how to spread around wealth from the ground; how to wean a people off expectations of free money.


For the moment, the answer appears to lie in co-operatives. Some 70,000 of them are now registered, and their effect on public life has been astounding: it can seem that forming a co-operative, in farming, retail, taxi-driving, tourism, waste disposal or anything else, is the sole topic of conversation, Venezuela’s socialist variation on a property boom. Loans from state banks and ministries are considerable, five times higher than what a private firm might expect.

And although the impetus to form co-operatives has been recent, in many ways they are more deeply ingrained in Venezuelan culture than small businesses. According to journalist Hugo Prieto, an expert on the breeze-block cerros (hillsides) around Caracas, mutual savings funds and community enterprise have been the basis of social life in these areas; after all, 15 million of the country’s population of 26 million are estimated to live in self-built houses that started off not unlike González’s abode by the lake.

Fine words are poured onto these co-operatives by Chávez and his officials, who stress how they will foster a new, sustainable, job-rich development. But they are also seen as the remedy to a pervasive national evil. ‘Venezuela has tried a lot of approaches to its money,’ explains Rafael Parra Zabala, head of oil studies at the University of Zulia, Macaraibo. ‘Big credits were handed to business, giving an impression of investment. But most of this money was placed in Miami or abused in some other way.

‘So the other possibility is popularising capital via a co-operative, which receives a certain amount of money and a guaranteed market. This is a public concept of property: the fear is that if money goes to one person, he or she will run off with it.’

This is not to say that the co-operatives are free from abuse. Yet the principle stands firm: the balance of mutual support and vigilance must surely safeguard against pilfering. The main irony is that to nurture these companies, the chavista oil state, centred on the giant PDVSA conglomerate, has taken on an extraordinary shape, channelling excess income first through the social ‘missions’ and now through a labyrinth of ‘quasi-state’ funds ($6 billion for 2005) under almost total presidential control; alongside social initiatives, these also fund foreign aid, new infrastructure, and arms purchases.

As for eating into Venezuela’s unemployed masses, much has still to be done. Most co-operatives are contracted by, or sell to the government, making spontaneous expansion and job creation hard, if not impossible to achieve. The private sector, for its part, is bordering on collapse, with Venezuela’s main business federation claiming that half of all the country’s firms have closed over the last seven years. If that was not enough, Chávez and his officials rarely seek to assure the private sector of its future: calls within the movement last year for holiday homes and second cars to be expropriated in the wake of the campaign to redistribute large, unused land-estates have not been altogether dismissed.

‘If the sovereign people one day decides that things must be done differently, then the people’s decision is welcome,’ declared the head of the government’s legal service, Marisol Plaza Irigoyen, in a recent interview on this issue with Exxito magazine.

A thousand demons

Suspicion of the private sector, synonymous for Chávez and many Venezuelans with decades of embezzlement and inequity, is natural. Yet some sort of balance must be achieved if the country’s poor are not to remain eternally subsidised and state-dependent. For the government, the ideal would be for a new, socially-conscious entrepreneurial elite to emerge from the co-operatives. ‘It’s like an exorcism,’ Chávez has said. ‘We have to get rid of a 1,000 demons … corruption, the hunger for easy money and material wealth.’

Yet it is here that the chief paradox of the Bolivarian revolution lies. Driven onwards by verbal assaults on the old Venezuelan order and US capitalism – bound to multiply in this, an election year – the government’s domestic goal of a new, oil-free economic order is likely to be subordinated to the needs of political battle. Community organisations are already chafing at government inefficiency and interference. Criticisms of autocratic rule tend to be met with a volley of anti-American bile, most shamefully by the head of the supreme court, Omar Mora, in response to a critical report on judicial meddling from Human Rights Watch. ‘Are the CIA or state department financing them?’ he asked.

It may provide juicy material for the world media, but these hostilities release toxins across the breath of Chávez’s domestic programme. At a time when Venezuela patiently needs to construct its future, it is being sucked into futile antagonism.

At González’s rudimentary home, I ask him what he will be doing in the new reserve force. ‘Learning to kill gringos?’ I joke. He looks at me as if I have gone mad: ‘Why would I want to do that?’

Ivan Briscoe is editor of the English edition of Madrid’s El País. This article was originally published on openDemocracy.net on 10 February 2006 under a Creative Commons Licence. Visit www.opendemocracy.net