Socialism in Venezuela

With the recent elections in Venezuela on May 20th, the country has once again taken the spotlight in western media and twitter. Major news outlets in the United States denounce the current Venezuelan government as a corrupt authoritarian dictatorship, and the United States has announced that it will not recognize the results of this past election, which saw the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) win with 67.8% of the vote.1 The PSUV has won every presidential election since 2012, and the PSUV’s founder, Hugo Chávez, was the elected president from 1999 to his death in 2013. The PSUV is currently lead by Nicolás Maduro, and has been since the death of Hugo Chávez. The international response to the PSUV’s electoral victory is not surprising as Venezuela has been demonized for almost two decades within the western imperial nations. Chairman Mao said that, “to be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing” as the continued attacks against Venezuela in the capitalist press is evidence that the socialist policies of Venezuela are both working and effective at combating the interests of international capital.

Under Chávez, the rate of poverty fell by 14.9%,2 and infant mortality dropped by 35%.3 Furthermore, Chávez enshrined the rights of indigenous peoples and women in the constitution, dropped unemployment by 6.9%,4 and eradicated illiteracy.5

What are the socialist policies of the Venezuelan government that CNN finds to be so nefarious? Whether you hate or love Maduro, you should probably at least know how and why the country is organized as it is. Venezuela is a Democratic Socialist regime where the socialist parties maintain power through electoral victories and work within a framework of mass democratic participation to make reforms. Unlike a country like North Korea, where one party maintains control, in Venezuela, their socialist revolution could be undone if they were to lose their popular elections. What this means is that the country is very much a mixed-market economy and the country retains a capitalist class that continually works to oppose or overthrow the PSUV. Western media and Venezuelan exiles calling Maduro a “dictator” is outrageous as this “dictator” could have lost power in this recent election. However, the opposition boycotted the elections, ensuring a clear PSUV victory.6

The actual government is known as the the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and is a country in the northern end of South America that borders Columbia to its west, Brazil to its south, and Guyana to its east. Like many of the countries in the Americas, Venezuela originated as a colony of Spain in the early 16th century. It eventually gained independence from Spain in 1811, lead by Simón Bolívar, and eventually joined other nearby South American countries, north of Brazil, to form Gran Columbia. Gran Columbia eventually broke apart, and Venezuela gained independence again in 1830. The current Fifth Republic is the result of a constitution, created under Chávez, that was approved through a popular referendum in 1999. Among technical changes to structure of government, the constitution added a recognition of socio-economic human rights like freedom of expression and the right to housing and employment.

Since coming to power in 1999, the Chavistas have greatly restructured the economy, but there still remains a very large private sector. As of 2014, the public sector made up 29% of the economy, and this has only grown.7 The Bolivarian government has not taken a very heavy handed approach towards the socializing of the economy. Unlike in socialist countries like the Soviet Union, and too a lesser extant, China, private property was not seized en masse. The process of socialization has been slow and has been met with serious challenges by local and foreign capitalists. Refusing to cooperate, Venezuelan capitalists have been leaving the country and investing in non-Venezuelan enterprises. As a cornerstone of Chavism is democratic participation, challenges in collectivization are inevitable. Fortunately, the workers have been seizing and democratizing enterprises when the the owners abandon them. This has happened recently with a Kellogg factory.8

What does Chávez’s Venezuelan socialism, known as Bolivarianism, look like? The two most important socialist developments in Venezuela are the communal councils and the workers’ councils. The communal councils democratize the running of the economy, and the workers’ councils democratize the running of enterprises.

The communal councils came into being in 2006, when a law was passed that empowered local communities to establish their own neighborhood governing bodies. The workers’ assemblies are the backbone of the socialist transformation. The communal councils give economic and political power to the people. These communes have the power to pass legislation for their region and, most importantly, pass community development plans.9 Socialism is defined as the social ownership and control of the economy, and with these community development plans, economic development can be controlled by the community as a whole. Instead of development being dependent on the interests of those private individuals who own the necessary capital to invest, decisions of economic development are made based on the needs democratically determined to be in the best interest of the entire community.

The worker’s councils are essentially worker cooperatives. Democratizing the workplace means that the those that work in an enterprise, run that enterprise. Decisions are made democratically, managers are elected, and the collective determines the rules of operation. This is what is meant by “seizing the means of production.” The workers are in control of the tools of their trade, and they run their work as opposed to work running them.

Bolivarianism is at its core anti-imperialist. In many ways, it is reminiscent of other socialist ideologies, like that of Qaddafism, Ba’athism, or even Kemalism, that have risen out of anti-imperialist struggles. The goal of the PSUV is to become independent from the forces of international capital, and the western imperial powers, like the United States, that seek to destroy any perceived challenge to the financial interests of their respectful firms. Can a nation be considered truly independent if they must adopt the policies of a foreign power because their economy is wholly reliant upon said foreign power’s capital? Is a country truly sovereign if a foreign power can overthrow its local government if they implement a policy that goes against the financial interests of a foreign company? The sovereignty of countries in the global south, like Venezuela, is continually violated by those acting on the behalf of international capital. Former colonies are denied the autonomy to make their own decisions. The struggle against imperialism does not end with the ousting of a foreign occupying force, as the policies of the former colonial power continue to be implemented through controlling the economy and government.

Socialism provides a way to fight against modern imperialism. Socialism means self-reliance and independence. A socialist economy is not based upon the continued influx of capital, and is not dependent upon out-competing foreign subsidized goods. An economy that is centered in the public sector is not dependent upon the participation of foreign private enterprises. Sanctions hold less sway if goods can be produced locally as local industries that previously could not compete with cheaper imported goods can be established. Wealthy foreign capitalists also lose political influence as they become less necessary. This is all critical for Venezuela as over 51% of Venezuelan imports go to the United States,10 and in return, the United States has attempted several coups, the most notably being in 2002, to oust the Chavistas.11

Bolivarianism takes its name from the original Venezuelan revolutionary, Simón Bolívar, and the PSUV’s Chávistas, follow in his footsteps. Bolívar lead a pan-American liberal revolution against the the imperialist power of Spain. The original revolution was a liberal, bourgeois, revolution to overthrow the old feudal order, like the American or French revolutions, and establish a liberal democratic system. For Venezuela, Bolívar represents the dialectic in motion. As industrial capitalism began to take root, the mode of production in Venezuela saw the old feudal power structures holding back its development. Independence for Venezuela meant not only a break from the Spanish crown, but a break with the old economic relationships that placed Spain in a position of power. With a new world, there needs to be a new way of working within it.

Bolivarianism takes the revolutionary notions behind Venezuela’s liberal revolution, and applies them to the current socialist revolution. In the same way that Bolívar represented the progressive struggle of his time, Chávez, and his ideology of Chavismo, represents the current progressive struggle. Where Bolívar fought against the decrepit ideology of feudalism and the imperial power, Spain, that forced it upon Venezuela, Chávez fought against the hollowed out notions of neoliberal capitalism and the imperial power, the USA, that continues to support it by any means necessary.

  1. National Electoral Commission. http://www.cne.gov.ve/ResultadosElecciones2018/index.php
  2. Instituto Nacional de Estadística, INE
  3. World Bank
  4. World Bank
  5. “Venezuela: 10 Years Free of Illiteracy” Telesur. October 27, 2015. Accessed June 2, 2018.
  6. “Venezuela Holds Presidential Election But Main Opposition Is Boycotting It,” NPR. May 19, 2018. Accessed June 1, 2018.
  7. International Labor Organization
  8. Corina Pons, Alexandra Ulmer. “Maduro seizes Kellogg plant after it leaves Venezuela due to crisis,” Reuters. May 15, 2018. Accessed June 2, 2018.
  9. “Venezuela’s Communal Councils: Direct Democracy Explained,” Telesur. December 15, 2015. Accessed June 2, 2018.
  10. Bridgat. http://countries.bridgat.com/Venezuela_Trade_Partners.html
  11. “Venezuela coup linked to Bush team,” The Guardian. April 21, 2002. Accessed June 2, 2018.

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