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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Divisions within Chavism


Michael Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver Canada. He was director of the Program in Transformative Practice and Human development in Caracas, Venezuela from 2006-2011
Lebowitz discusses the divisions within Chavism and the outlook for Venezuela during Chavez's fourth term. Much of the material for this article is taken from an interview with a Croatian newspaper published on November 1st 2012. The original interview in Croatian can be found here. Although the interview was long before Chavez' death it nevertheless shows many of the problems that the revolutionary movement in Venezuela faces and gives a brief history of developments there that put the situation in context. Lebowitz discusses his general views on socialism, and the problems of promoting socialism in the 21st century, in the interview on the appended video.
Before Chavez was elected, Lebowitz descibes Venezuela as a rentist economy depending upon oil revenues, and a political culture that grew up around and depended upon oil rents. There was a culture of corruption and clientalism. Neoliberal policies resulted in cutbacks to social services and ending of subsidies on basic goods and also privatization. By the 1990s the situation was a disaster, and this helped Chavez get elected at the end of the decade.
Chavez gained power not only with the support of social movements and the poor but much of the middle class who also were fed up with the situation. At the time Chavez was calling for a ""good capitalism" and an ending of neoliberal policies.
He funneled oil revenues into education and health services. While Lebowitz sees these moves as basically populist, meant to maintain and develop political support, he also notes that they meet real needs and gave people the power to develop. In particular Chavez developed communal councils at the local neighbourhood level. These local councils grouped together to form communes which were designed to deal with wider problems.
These groups are what Chavez considered the cells of a socialist state. Also developed were workers' councils. These give working people a say in decision-making. However, Lebowitz points out that the transformation of Venezuelan society is far from smooth.
WIthin Chavism, Lebowitz identifies three main groups. One group is associated with the base and social movements, the local communities, and sections of the working class. A second group are people who have risen along with Chavism and who have enriched themselves through their positions. They continue corruption and clientalism exactly as did political leaders in the old regime. They think the revolution should now stop. They have a nickname in Venezuela the "boli-boourgeoisie". Finally, there is a third group who want to continue the process of change but through authoritarian means from the top down. They see themselves as vanguard leaders whose duty is to impose the proper socialist order from above.
The growth of cooperatives under Chavez has been astonishing. In 1998 when Chavez took power, there were 762 cooperatives in Venezuela but not long ago there were already 84,000. As Lebowitz points out, many of these small cooperatives fail or are discontinued although there are some in rural areas that have been quite successful. Lebowitz sees these cooperatives as schools where people learn to cooperate and to discover that they can carry out useful projects together. However, Lebowitz thinks that even more important as a training ground is involvinng workers in managing state enterprises
Lebowitz's vision of socialism involves people developing their powers through transforming both their circumstances and themselves through their practice. Venezuela has taken steps towards what he calls a protagonistic democracy. Lebowitz sees a considerable struggle within Chavism as well as with the opposition who want to curb the power of the people and return to an earlier period.
Meanwhile Chavez is still demonized quite often by the media in the west often being called a dictator even though he is an elected president in elections with international observers. The issue of demonization is discussed in this Al Jazeera discussion

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