Venezuela continues to make headlines globally, for example for the disturbing (however absurd) threats launched by U.S. President Donald Trump against the Bolivarian government. On the other hand, after the election of the Constituent Assembly the internal situation in the country seems to be in many ways changed, especially because of the way President Nicolas Maduro has managed the upcoming regional elections. The division of the Venezuelan right (structurally authoritarian, racist and disposed to making coups) is still good news. But that isn’t the focus of this article.
We are interested in thinking about what we see as a profound crisis of the Bolivarian project, as part of a more general crisis of the Latin American “progressive” governments of the last 15 years. Those governments represented an important bellwether for the left and for social movements in many parts of the world (including Europe) and which seemed to be a promising point of reference within which to test a theory and practice for social transformation in the 21st century.
We are hard pressed to deny, from this point of view, the importance of the Venezuelan experience. What seemed to emerge in the early years of chavism was indeed a clear indication of a twofold problem that came across in all the “progressive” governments of the region: on the one hand, the conquest of the government through the elections meant occupying a top position within an institutional structure of the state historically characterized by the rule of oligarchy and long-term processes of exclusion of the vast majority of “popular” and subordinate sectors; on the other hand, the economy of the country turned entirely around the oil yield, controlled by a narrow elite within precise imperial geographies.
In the face of these problems, the government attempted to build — through the misiones system — forms of popular power outside the state structure, engaging them in self-organizing and self-governing experiences already in place to develop innovative and radical social policies, for example in the field of education and health. At the same time, it could be assumed that this consolidation of counter-balancing power centers (in particular in the form of communal and communal councils), still funded through oil yields, determined the conditions for a transformation and diversification of the ‘development model’ — as well as the state institutions. It must be acknowledged that this has not happened, and it is here that the origin of the crisis (of innovation capacity, in the first place) of the Bolivarian process must be identified.
Even before the death of Chavez (especially after the founding of the PSUV in 2007) some elements of this crisis had clearly begun to emerge: the characteristics of centralization of the oil economy have been reflected in a renewed centrality of the party-state relationship, at the expense of the autonomous experiences that had flourished in previous years.
Both the authoritarian traits that characterize the style and practice of the current Venezuelan government (among other things with an increasingly pronounced role of the military) and the creation of what is known as the “boli-bourgeoisie” derive precisely from this link between the continuation of an extractive model of development and the attempt to govern it from the centrality of the state.
This is, as already mentioned, a problem which — albeit particular in form — has been present in the experiences of all the progressive Latin American governments of recent years (and that the rhetoric of “21st century Socialism” or “Populist Left” are certainly not enough to hide). Identifying this problem does not mean for us to liquidate these experiences. The long-term continuity of the mining model and its connection with a policy centered around the state — in particular with the gradual easing of the regional integration processes that Chavez had among others helped to start. They have, however, ended up emptying innovative content and ultimately weakening “progressive” governments. A significant role, in this sense, was also played by a reading of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 simply as an “opportunity.”
If this could actually make sense in terms of “tactics” in the short term, during this decade, the slowdown in Asian demand (which was an essential lever for “progressive” governments) and the violent fluctuations in commodity prices have also manifested Latin America on account of the global nature of the crisis.
The intensification of the mining model is today the characteristic trait of government action in Venezuela (Edgardo Lander also in il manifesto about the project of the “Mine Arch of the Orinoco”), Ecuador and Bolivia.
In the latter case, the “popular and indigenous” independence struggles that had created the conditions for the rise of Evo Morales to the presidency are directed to a large extent against its government — for example in the case of the construction of the motorway through the indigenous territory of the TipNis. The Morales government’s capacity for political innovation appears drastically reduced, while on a Latin American scale the internal developments in two countries as important as Brazil and Argentina threaten to move the region toward a neoliberal restoration.
There are significant differences to keep in mind — from the fact that Macri’s government in Argentina has an electoral legitimacy that Temer lacks in Brazil. But the general framework within which the new Latin American right is moving is clear enough: raising public debt, aligning itself with the United States in foreign policy, fierce aggression on wages and radical neoliberal labor reforms.
Within this framework is no less the push to intensify extraction and the multiplication of violent conflicts. Nor has the leftist leadership questioned the process of financing popular consumption, which the “progressive” governments have initiated through an effective link between state subsidies and private debt. Security-centered policies, at the same time, make violence a real form of government, particularly within “peripheral” territories (both metropolitan and rural) — often intertwining private violence beyond the point of mediation.
In this situation, we are convinced it’s not necessary to oppose neoliberalism with some re-edition of “leftist populism” or the rhetoric of “socialism for the 21st century.” But it may well be necessary to defend this or that “progressive” government from the attacks of the right.
But a new strategy for a radical politics in Latin America can arise only (as with the greatest fights of the century) from movements that today are fighting against a development model that disseminates violence in the territories and against a rearrangement of labor relations, of life, of the link between production and reproduction of precariousness. From the extraordinary feminist mobilizations over the past two years (which have reinvented the strike), to the environmental conflicts, to the new indigenous struggles, to the mobilization of unions and students in countries such as Argentina, Chile and Brazil, these movements interpret real and imagined social behavior — in some ways incorporating in their premise some achievements of the era of “progressive” governments. Above all, in any case, they begin to define new forms of struggle, new organizational tools and a new political vocabulary at the height of today’s challenges.
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