21st Century Socialism, Latin America, and Venezuela

“We certainly don’t want socialism in America to be a carbon copy. It must be a heroic creation. With our own reality, in our own language, we must give life to the Indigenous-American socialism.”
– Jose Carlos Mariategui

21st Century Socialism has been characterized as a “heroic creation” to achieve “full human development.” In contrast to Soviet 20th century socialism’s top-down government, 21st Century Socialism is centered on the full realization of participatory democracy driven by the creativity, energy, and needs of people. The Bolivarian Revolutionary process in Venezuela is at the forefront of theorizing and realizing 21st Century Socialism. Referred to as “el processo” (the process) by its proponents, the Bolivarian Revolution towards 21st Century Socialism has been an evolving process with challenges, advances, and accomplishments. To understand the realization of 21st Century Socialism, it is important to understand Latin America history, and in particular Venezuela and its current process.

The Monroe Doctrine and Post-Independence Latin America
After Latin America gained its independence from Spain and Portugal, in 1823, James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine declaring that Europe was not allowed to intervene in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. While serving as a warning to Europe to not intervene in the newly liberated countries, it also laid the foundation for the US intervention that would immediately follow: the Mexican-American War; the Platt Agreement effectively turning Cuba into a colony of the United States; military-political intervention in Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela, Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, and others. This period is marked by direct military and CIA interventions in the forms of overt coup d’états and assassinations to protect US geopolitical and investment interests at great cost and death to people.

In the 1980s and 90s, US domination began to involve indirect economic pressure and manipulation through the IMF and the World Bank. The “Washington Consensus” with its policies of privatization, the curtailing of the state in development and social welfare, and the opening up of domestic markets to international capital was first introduced by General Augusto Pinochet after a US supported coup d’état against the democratically elected Salvador Allende. The IMF and World Bank became another tool for US domination in the area. In the 1980s, debt in Latin American countries ballooned as a direct result of colonialism, US monetary policy, and the global economic recession. Many countries had to take IMF bail-out loans and in exchange were forced to accept structural adjustment programs. These structural adjustment programs rather than being about long-term development, were about paying back the loans by opening up domestic markets to foreign investors and reducing social spending. In other words, greater exploitation fo the local population by foreign companies and the cutting of social welfare for the population. The left tide sweeping Latin America today is a backlash to the years of pain and suffering brought on by these structural adjustment programs. It is here that the chapter on 21st Century Socialism begins.

Venezuela and Dictatorship
Punto Fijo Pact and Civilian Dictatorship
Formal representative democracy in Venezuela began in 1958. Yet, before the presidential election a pact between the three presidential contending parties was made at Punto Fijo (the Punto Fijo pact). In this pact, the competing parties promised to share power. At first an attempt to stabilize the representative democratic process, it later formed the basis of a two party dictatorship by the ruling parties Democratic Action (AD in Spanish) and COPEI (the Christian Democratic Party) that would rule until Chavez came into power.

The shock that would bring down this two party dictatorship and bring Chavez into power came in 1986: The halving of the global price of oil plunged Venezuela deep into debt. To receive rescue loans from the IMF, Venezuela was forced to accepted structural adjustment programs which included severe austerity measures. “Bread riots” erupted much like in other Latin American countries forced to adopt such austerity measures. Near Caracas, an increase in the public transportation fare sparked a rebellion which spread to the rest of the country and became known as Caracazo. The government used the military to harshly repress the rebellion killing 300 to 3,000 protestors. It was this event that would sow the seeds of dissent within the ranks of the military and eventually lead to a rebellion led by Hugo Chavez.

A Hero Emerges
Realizing disgruntlement among soldiers forced to kill civilians, Hugo Chavez began to organize within the armed forces for a rebellion in 1992. The coup d’état failed; Chavez was captured and, while calling for the surrender of soldiers still fighting the government took full responsibility for the action and made his “we have not succeeded for now” speech. He immediately became a hero as the leader of the rebellion against the perpetrators of Caracazo.

From Reformist to Socialist
1998 Presidential Election
Chavez’s reformist campaign slogans of anti-corruption and anti-poverty and his calls for a new constitution appealed to those tired of the Punto Fijo dictatorship. The middle class came out to support him. Chavez won with 56.2% of the vote. After winning the 1998 presidential election, Chavez immediately initiated the process for a new constitution. The people voted for a National Constituent Assembly that would draft the new constitution. A referendum approved the new constitution with 71.78% of the vote.

The new constitution included greater democratic participation through the recall referendum (the ability to recall elected officials through a referendum) and various human rights such as: “free education up to the tertiary level [i.e. post-high school], free quality health care, access to a clean environment, right of minorities (especially indigenous people) to uphold their own traditional cultures, religions, and languages, among others.” With a new constitution, a general election was convened in which all elected officials would re-run for election under the newly established Fifth Republic. Chavez was re-elected with 59.76% of the vote and his party won 104 out of the 165 National Assembly seats. Fearing the erosion of their power due to the new election results and the enactment of presidential decrees to implement the new constitution, the ruling class would attempt a coup d’état in 2002 which would push Chavez further towards the left.

2002 Coup d’état and 2003 Oil Stoppage
The coup d’état lasted forty seven hours during which the president of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce (FEDECAMARA) took power aided by some elements of the military. He abolished the national government and constitution. Before being foiled, the United States and Spain recognized the new president even as Latin American leaders were condemning it. The coup came to an end when the people took to the streets demanding the return of Chavez and, with the collaboration of some in the armed forces, placed him back into power. A lesson was learnt: at the slightest threat to its power, the ruling class had attempted to topple Chavez; the people had come down from the hill slums and defended the revolution. Chavez realized that the people were the driving force and defenders of the revolution.

The failed coup d’état was followed with a strike at the state company PDVSA that included the management, the professional workers. The oil stoppage would expand into a larger strike by businesses that would shut down their businesses in protest. Supported by the United States, through its quasi-NGO arm – the National Endowment for Democracy – this oil stoppage and business stoppage attempted to sabotage and sow discontent by making miserable the lives of people. The oil stoppage sent the Venezuelan economy into an economic recession. The oil and business strike finally ended with an agreement between Chavez and the opposition (brokered by the Organization of American States) in which attempts to remove Chavez would be done through a recall referendum.

The opposition lost the 2004 recall referendum with 58% voting for Chavez. Its intransigent position and the growing involvement of the urban slums – who had begun to experience improvements in their lives through the social missions – further encouraged Chavez’s radicalization. After winning the 2004 recall referendum, on January 2005, Chavez would declare that his government would build “socialism of the 21st century” and laid out a seven year road map: the 2007-2013 Simon Bolivar National Project: First Socialist Plan.

Characteristics of 21st Century Socialism
Protagonism is central to 21st Century Socialism. People through their energy, efforts, and creativity are to be the protagonists in building a new society. This is in contrast to 20th Century Socialism in which a strong central government enacted change from the top down. In 21st Century Socialism, political, economic, and productive power is given to the people so that they themselves can transform their communities and society. Because 21st Century Socialism is being birthed within capitalism, its realization requires: reforming the current representative democratic system to function at its full potential while carving out ever larger revolutionary democratic spaces for peoples’ protagonism; democratizing production to meet people’s needs and make them its protagonists; and a new ethic of communalism that celebrates diversity, the social being, people’s needs, and accountability.

Even as ever greater efforts are enacted to realize the full potential of representative democracy –through institutions and practices such as a transparent and verifiable voting system and the people’s recall referendum (which allows voters to recall all elected officials including the president) – it is also carving out ever greater political and economic spaces for people’s protagonism through the commune system. At the root of this commune system is the community council where a group of 50-100 rural families or 100-200 urban families in a geographically contiguous area come together to govern and develop their community. They harness the creativity, energy, and knowledge of its members to develop projects desgined to meet the community’s needs. Through government-community spaces called social battle rooms, community councils also serve as vehicles by which a community can directly interact with government officials to identify, carry out projects, as well as implement government policy and projects fitted to a community’s particular characteristics and vision. These community councils come together to form communal cities which together then form communes.

While participatory democracy places political power in the hands of the people, ending capitalism and bringing socialism requires a transformation of the production process itself. The guiding tenet in this transformation is producing to meet people’s needs through worker and community participation and endogenous (i.e. internal) development. The three vehicles by which Venezuela seeks to expand its productive capacity (after years of using oil money to import all its needs) while making this transformation are: state enterprises, mixed private-state enterprises, and cooperatives.

State enterprises are composed of the key strategic sectors of the economy such as PDVSA, the oil company, and CANTV, the telecommunications program. Product prices are affordable; profits are reinvested into community and national programs; workers are organized into worker councils. Mixed private-state enterprises attempt to harness and direct the productive capacity of the private sector. Worker cooperatives are the ultimate form of workplace democratization as ownership and control is placed in the hands of workers. These cooperatives are often formed from businesses that went bankrupt due to participation in the 2003 oil and business strike or whose owners liquidated the business by taking out loans against it that they were not planning on paying back. After being repossessed by the government, they are handed down to the workers.

The second element of production is endogenous development. This mode of development is in direct contradiction to the IMF and World Bank development strategy of attracting foreign direct investment and technology while cutting back on social welfare. Instead, endogenous development harnesses people’s creativity, energy, and knowledge and Venezuela’s own resources to develop. Money is invested in social missions to improve people’s livelihoods as a form of endogenous development: Profits from state enterprises are invested in education, health care, and jobs for people. It is through well educated and healthy people that development will occur.

People are the driving force behind 21st Century Socialism. Yet, even as they build a new world, they are still the products of the current capitalist one. Even as great advances are made in Venezuela – the eradication of illiteracy, the halving of extreme poverty, the expansion of health care – inefficiency, inefficacy, sexism, racism and corruption have yet to be eradicated. They remain: a legacy of oil dependency, capitalist induced individualist self-interest, patriarchy, colonialism, and a mass population whose spirit has been deformed by poverty and oppression. Thus, a new socialist ethic to create new socialist people is necessary. This new socialist ethic is being created by meeting their basic needs, educating them, and keeping them accountable.

As the 2007-2013 Simon Bolivar Plan states, “for the realization – rather than the annulment – of a new ethic, it is necessary to overcome the misery of material and spiritual poverty.” The various social missions nourish people’s material and spiritual poverty and enable them to not just survive but to imagine and create something better. School curriculums are also changed to include history and geography and the thoughts of Latin America’s heroes. Historical sites are restored and a collective identity and history is reconstructed. A new ethic also requires accountability. An ethic of accountability is also instilled through greater citizen participation and power in electing and recalling elected officials as well as through bodies such as social comptrollers that ensure that public funds are used effectively and efficiently.

Venezuela Post-Chavez
In March 5 2013, Chavez passed away dealing a heavy blow to the Bolivarian Revolution. In April 14, Nicolas Maduro was elected president. A unionist and an avowed Chavista, he promised to continue the revolutionary path that Chavez had laid out. The right wing opposition along with the United States and Spain begin attempts to destabilize the revolution through hoarding of basic goods, violence, and sabotage tactics meant to sow discontent and uncertainty against Nicolas Maduro. Yet, not only did Nicolas Maduro win the presidential elections, his power was further consolidated when his party (the PSUV) and its allies won the majority of positions in the December 8 regional and municipal elections. As Maduro and PSUV’s strength became further consolidated, the right wing – unable to win in a democratic manner – is now resorting to desperate acts by fomenting violent protests and encouraging foreign intervention through distorted global media coverage.

These violent actions instigated and led by the ruling class can be seen as an indication that a revolution taking wealth and power from the rulers and giving it to the masses of people is indeed taking place. As the first viable alternative to a capitalism that is starving, oppressing humanity while destroying the planet, it is up to the rest of us around the world to make sure that 21st Century Socialism be realized not only for Venezuelans’ sake, but for that of humanity


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