Human Rights and Radical Social Change: Liberalism, Marxism and Progressive Populism in Venezuela

By Tillman Clark
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 6/11 |

It is not hard to see how such a situation could engender claims of violations from a liberal theoretical perspective, and even in some way more threatening than a direct Marxist position because of its ambiguity. Moreover, under conditions of top-down relationships with the leader and the masses, a direct link of sorts, it can be argued that most citizens vote on the basis of loyalties rather than leadership qualities. This loyalty functions within party organizations’ control of access to public office, and their recruitment and socialization activities serve to channel and filter political ambitions.36 Even further, it can have an added component of danger when it is associated with the military and in any case can lead to , nepotism and institutionalized favoritism.

Where populist leaders are associated with institutional support from the armed forces, rather than parties or other organizations, they usually expand the political role of the military and draw it into functions that are far removed from its normal responsibilities. This is dangerous for two reasons. One, it blurs the line between the role of the military and civilian institutions, usually to the detriment of the latter. The military enjoys government support and funding based upon a long tradition while civilian institutions, especially under new governments, rely on secondary forms of funding and are delegated responsibilities based upon their abilities and capabilities as opposed to sort of “providence” which is the case when it comes to certain duties of the military such as defense. Second, making the military political is never a guarantee of loyalty. especially has a long history of military coups, even in cases of progressive populism in which members of the military find that they can do a “better job” than the democratically elected government.37

Anti-corruption is a regular component of the legitimization of populist transcendence of traditional parties, but the cure is often worse than the disease. The lack of institutional accountability and the tendency towards opportunism and favoritism under populist governments presents an incentive (especially in poorer countries where government positions are not necessarily well paying) to corruption between public authorities and private agents. Additionally, promises to put an end to corruption are hard to take seriously in cases when populist leaders must fill the void presented by a lack of organized support and experienced associates and thus must simply do so by appointing inexperienced loyalists to government positions.

Populism is limited both as a political ideology and in theory. Since it emerges, in its progressive form, with the intention of overcoming a corrupt past or instituting a new socio-economic model, its relationship to human rights can be seen to emulate parts of Marxism. Additionally, its rejection of traditional systems of governance makes it an easy target for liberal human rights theory. Since its inviability lies in it ambiguity and reaction instead of systematic analysis, it cannot be endorsed as a state whose human rights violations can be justified.

Chávismo Populism

Latin has no shortage of Left-wing military coup attempts, but Chávez’ case is unique. Following a failed coup attempt in 1992 that he personally led, Chávez’ name was catapulted to political prominence and he was democratically elected on a ticket to transform the national constitution in 1998 with close to 60% of the vote. Using a discourse of , anti-imperialism and claiming to support a “Third way” that was not completely socialist/communist or completely capitalist, Chávez discredited the institutions associated with neoliberalism while employing a charismatic personality that marginalized masses associated with. By instituting certain measures, such as re-nationalizing the national oil company (which had been previously nationalized but had more or less degenerated into a “state with in the state,” no longer answered to the government and was thus close to a private company), setting up subsidized medical services and food (through the much reported “Missions”), and generally supporting a larger role of the state in the economy, Venezuela began to move away from the type of economic orthodoxy associated with neoliberalism. Following a U.S. supported coup attempt against Chavez, led largely by big business, in early 2002 and a strike, again led by big business, in late 2002, Chávez’ rhetoric and actions became increasingly progressive and radical. It was following these events that Chávez began to employ a heightened discourse of anti-capitalism and supported a new, yet largely ambiguous, vision of “21st Century Socialism.”38 Following his election and throughout his terms as president, Chávez has consistently, if we use the guidelines set above, used a populist discourse and created a movement with a similar political project and ideology.

Chavez’ rise to power must be seen through the lens of the historical conditions predating his election. As indicated above, an important element of the rise of populism is the failure of traditional models to incorporate popular demands and that large disaffected sectors of society are available for mobilization. In 1989, rioting throughout the country brought about by neoliberal reforms resulted in severe repression from the government and hundreds if not thousands of people were killed.39 It was following this event that the traditional model of political representation (marked by decades of representative alternation between to parties, Copei and Ación Democratica) was discredited in the eyes of many segments of the Venezuela population. Chávez’ attempted coup in 1992 was a reaction to this event and although it failed, its timely arrival was enough to place him as a courageous, anti-establishment revolutionary that was what was needed to change the country. This characterization is what propelled Chávez to victory and is part of what continues to sustain his legitimacy.

As indicated above, the key element that makes a discourse and movement populist is its tendency to use a logic and rhetoric of "alien" elements infecting the unified and potentially balanced social whole, and so suggesting a solution of finding and destroying the problem-causing invaders. This applied to Chávez more so in his earlier discourse than his latter, after the adoption of a “21st Century Socialism” program, but has held through his administration.

In terms of rhetoric, the Chávez presidency can be historically divided by two stages. The first stage was one of a moderate political and economic stance roughly corresponding to the period of 1999-2003. The second stage was one of a more radicalized discourse that adopted the rhetoric of Marxism and roughly corresponds to the period of 2004-present. It is important to differentiate between these two periods because the reference to alien elements that upset social unity has remained in both periods, but has largely changed in regards to context and terminology.

The first stage was marked by the use of a “third-way” nationalism, in which the state was seen as being hijacked by corrupt politicians who did not have the interests of the Venezuelan people at heart and that Chávez’ movement (which was made up of a variety of different ideology backgrounds, a telltale mark of populism, but more heavily leaning towards to left) was elected to overcome. Additionally, Chávez employed an inconsistent (in terms of rhetoric vs. practice) anti-neoliberal position that rejected the principles of privatization and fiscal austerity, and was institutionalized on paper through the new 1999 Constitution, but nonetheless failed to substantially materialize initially as many neoliberal positions were continued, and even new ones put into practice.40 As opposed to traditional and radical discourse, this viewpoint saw capitalism as neither inherently stable or problematic but instead saw the results of neoliberalism as a negative outgrowth of poor political decisions marred by corruption and a failure to be adequately patriotic.

Following the 2002 coup attempt, Chávez attempted to reduce the tension caused by the event by employing an even more moderate rhetoric and offering compromises to the coup plotters. This was obviously an attempt to stem the virulent opposition to his anti-neoliberal policy prescriptions, which will be discussed below. This conciliatory gesture obviously did not work as intended, for from late 2002 to 2003 an eight-week long strike headed by commercial and business interests practically shut down the oil industry and crippled the country’s economy. Chávez, speaking on this , noted; “[T]he oil belongs to the entire nation, not just an elite.”41 This confrontation marked the beginning of the second stage of the Chávez presidency and a new contextual populist terminology displayed by the aforementioned quote on “elites.”

Following a recall election in 2004, which he won in a landslide, Chávez began to declare his government “anti-imperialist” and began calling for a rejection of capitalism and a new “Socialism for the 21st Century.”42 While this transition can be characterized as a qualitative change,43 it is obvious that the massive opposition to his initially moderate changes by business and old political interests were the main catalyst of Chávez’ radicalization and that the ideological coordinates and long term goals still remained intensely ambiguous. That is to say, Chávez was not necessarily radicalized by a theoretical shift in consciousness, but instead by a recognition that his goals could only be met by taking a different path. Earlier, a part of the nature of populism was identified as the lack of a single, unitary narrative and the ability to change positions depending on the conditions that are most “popular.” Additionally, Chávez initially said the he “is not a Marxist” and that the working class is not a privileged agent of r, 44 but has since then taken many stances of an opposite nature. While things are always changing in populist discourse depending on convenience, it is enough to say that this was a key element discussed earlier on populism. This stage in the presidency marked a new policy direction in which structural changes in the economy were to be mitigated by larger state intervention and an introduction of parallel political organization (such as the community councils) was to be implemented. Again, it is important to recognize the populist nature of these changes especially given that the new economic policies of redistribution and state intervention were accompanied by a gigantic spike in world oil prices that swelled state revenue. Furthermore, the frequent reference to the “oligarchy,” the influences of imperialism, and the Venezuelan “elites” continued alongside this new rejection of capitalism and thus, even under this more radical context, we see the rhetoric of “alien elements” that infect social unity still being employed.45

The economic policies of the Chávez government are very reminiscent of previous populist governments in the sense that it involves a larger role for the state , especially in regards to redistribution and regulations, and a new form of import substitution titled “endogenous development.”46 Large scale nationalization of certain key industries such as key electric companies and construction oriented industries increased the centralization of the economy under the state, as these “strategic” areas of the economy were made exempt from the experiments of workplace going on in other sectors.47 This centralization of the economy is not necessarily an element of populism, but when one looks at the corresponding political situation, things become different. For instance, the states use of large oil revenues is largely a mixed blessing. Zizek, for instance, sees Chávez’ limitation lying in

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