The Future of Chavismo Will be Decided in the Barrios as Much as in Miraflores
With the passing of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, debate has erupted on the future of ‘Chavismo’ – the political project that Chávez himself referred to as the ‘Bolivarian Revolution.’ Much of this debate has focused, understandably, on the successor to Chávez, the Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, and his ability to hold together the ruling coalition without the charisma and considerable political skill that Chávez possessed. Maduro, of course, still needs to win the upcoming election, but for many that seems a foregone conclusion, given the recent triumph of Chávez and the ruling party, PSUV in national and regional elections, and the goodwill that Maduro is likely to garner as the ‘Chávez candidate.’ This analysis is probably a fair scenario, though, of course, one can never have complete certainty in democratic elections.
Nevertheless, with Maduro assumed be the next resident in the presidential palace at Miraflores, questions are being posed about his ability to preserve Chavismo, given the cleavages in his own party, economic issues like inflation and dwindling private sector investment and the continuing polarisation of the country. Undoubtedly these are important issues that will play a large role in determining the future of Chavismo. However, one important aspect missing from the analysis, is the role of ordinary Venezuelans themselves – the people in the shanty towns (barrios) who constantly voted Chávez into power, and whose loyalty he repaid not only through the delivery of social services like health, education, housing and subsidised food, but also by facilitating and supporting a number of grassroots institutions through which their self-government could be fostered. These institutions – the communal councils, cooperatives or local communes – mushroomed in Venezuela under Chávez, and form part of the ‘participatory democracy’ model at the core of Chavismo.
Not much attention is usually paid to these institutions, primarily because they fall outside of the traditional institutional framework of representative democracy, leading many critics to decry them as clientelist mechanisms of distributing patronage. While there are undoubtedly problems with some of them – including corruption, waste and political subservience – (problems, incidentally, which the government did acknowledge and try to alleviate), it is also true that a lot of them have worked very well and have led to a flourishing of self-government and democracy at the grassroots level. Contrary to conventional analyses, the citizens organised through these institutions, were not always subservient to Chávez, as evidenced by the failure of the 2007 referendum on constitutional change. If anything, Chávez was reliant on this diverse and amorphous base, as it served as the force that pushed his government further towards reform and experimentation. The political awakening of this previously excluded section of the population could yet be the most significant legacy of Chávez’s time in power.
Now, however, with Chávez gone, the question is whether this experience has left a lasting impression, or whether the critics were right, and that these institutions were no more than structures of patronage. Thus, what happens in the barrios – within the communal councils, cooperatives and communes – is as vital to the future of Chavismo as what happens in Miraflores under Maduro. Will the social movements located there continue to be engaged in the political process? Will they continue to put effective pressure on the government to continue experimenting with social, political and economic structures? Will they continue to demand the further democratisation of the state bureaucracy and party structures in PSUV? Will they be listened to if they do?
These are all important questions to which we may get some partial answers in the coming months and years. There’s no doubt that there are countless obstacles in the way. But for years, Chávez’s supporters and detractors have argued over whether Chavismo is too reliant on one man, or whether it has unleashed something bigger than just the President. The latter view was expressed eloquently by one Chávez’s supporters during his funeral procession on Wednesday, when he declared to The Guardian that ‘the comandante is not dead, no, not dead. He has sowed something in us, the people, and that way he will live.’ In the near future we may get an indication just to what extent these words hold true.