Venezuela is a country in the northern part of South America with a population of about 32 million and abundant oil resources. For the last 20 years, Venezuela has experienced intense social change known as the Bolivarian Revolution (after the 19th century revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar). The long-range goal of the Bolivarian Revolution is establishing an egalitarian socialist society by democratic means. It has already lifted millions of Venezuelans out of dire poverty. The Bolivarian Revolution is the most sustained effort ever to build socialism via an electoral (rather than insurrectionary) process. Thus it should be of intense interest to anyone hoping to construct socialism by nonviolent methods.
Building socialism in a capitalist society is difficult even under the best circumstances. The formation of a socialist economy involves substantial transition costs. These costs are much greater if the transitional society, like Venezuela, is not rich. The propertied classes and the global imperialist establishment will strenuously oppose any drive toward socialism and will often try to derail it with military force. Although the socialist movement can gain state power with a strong electoral majority, this coalition may fracture from unavoidable hardships and controversial decisions.
Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution has had an extremely rocky road. The United States government and the Venezuelan capitalist class have been bitterly antagonistic to the Revolution from the very start. Moreover, the revolutionaries have made some serious mistakes. The Revolution began in 1998 with the election of Hugo Chavez, a charismatic military officer with strong populist and egalitarian commitments. Chavez immediately initiated programs aimed at helping the poor and curtailing the power of the capitalist class. He was briefly ousted in April 2002 by a coup d’état enthusiastically supported by Washington. However, Chavez was soon returned to power by a combination of mass demonstrations and support within the Venezuelan military. The Chavez government also weathered massive capital flight plus a three-month capital strike (December 2002-February 2003). Chavez was re-elected in December 2006 and again in October 2012. He died of cancer in March 2013.
Nicolas Maduro succeeded Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela. Maduro, like Chavez, is also a member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, but he lacks the latter’s charisma and political savvy. Maduro’s government has been seriously harmed by the precipitous drop in oil prices, by rampant economic corruption, and by hostile and increasingly violent street demonstrations. In 2015, the anti-socialist opposition gained a majority within the Venezuelan parliament. To deal with these challenges, Maduro has expanded executive power, used police forces aggressively and made certain concessions to the capitalist classes. He has postponed, but not abandoned, the effort to build socialism. The Venezuelan opposition and the U.S. pro-imperialist mass media both label the Maduro government as a dictatorship.
Last Sunday, Maduro’s United Socialist Party scored an overwhelming victory in Venezuela’s gubernatorial elections. Not surprisingly, the U.S. mass media insinuate electoral fraud. Professor Steve Ellner, a U.S. radical who taught history in Venezuela for 26 years, points out that building socialism via an electoral process requires walking a tightrope between (a) tactical concessions to diffuse political opposition and (b) bold construction of socialist institutions. Ellner faults the U.S. left for ignoring the practical compromises necessary if a socialist movement is to maintain state power within an electoral democracy. But he faults Chavez and Maduro for failing to wean Venezuela from its oil dependency and for insufficient efforts to build participatory democracy.
How should the United States progressives relate to the Bolivarian Revolution? It is vitally important to oppose tyranny in all forms (e.g. Stalinism). Nevertheless, socialist revolutions are rare and precious events. Under conditions of political uncertainty, they deserve the benefit of doubt.
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