[News] Notes from the Frontlines of Venezuela’s Social War

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Dec 31 12:20:16 EST 2012

  Notes from the Frontlines of Venezuela’s Social War

by George Ciccariello-Maher

“In their housing developments

they placed first, broken bottles on top of their walls,

then, barriers and armed guards,

barbed wire, bars, attack dogs,

and now, triple-wired electric fences

like a Nazi camp… [but]

the concentration camp is the street,

the barrio hills and poverty,

the dust and the junk,

where they live, God willing…

- François Migeot, “Who divides the country?”

Venezuela is a society at war. There is no need to sugarcoat this fact, 
in part because it is nothing new. But against those voices who would 
insist that it was president Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution 
that divided Venezuela into two warring camps, it must be said: the 
camps already existed; the Revolution has simply revealed them.

*On the Virtues of Open War*

Sometimes, often, open war is preferable to its opposite. I don’t call 
that opposite “peace” because of the need to destabilize this 
all-too-common, all-too-easy opposition. No, this war is nothing new. 
Instead, it is a question of rendering visible the war that already 
exists, that has existed, and that continues unabated. Whereas Frantz 
Fanon famously diagnosed colonial society as Manichean, as cut into two, 
inhabited by two deadly opponents whose enmity is as clear as day, 
things are rarely so clear in ostensibly postcolonial Latin America.

The war has been going on for many decades, even centuries, but from the 
1960s to the 1980s it remained largely concealed under a blanket of 
petrodollars. Occasionally, it was measured in bullet-ridden corpses: in 
the sporadic guerrilla struggle of the 1960s and in state-sponsored 
massacres like Cantaura <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantaura_Massacre> 
(1982), Yumare <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yumare_Massacre> (1986), 
and El Amparo <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_El_Amparo> 
(1988). But most would agree that this war became absolutely undeniable 
on February 27th, 1989, in the popular, anti-neoliberal rebellion known 
as the Caracazo and the massacre of massacres that followed.

What former president Rafael Caldera called the “showcase window for 
Latin American democracy” was irreparably shattered, and no quantity of 
rhetoric could repair it. The events of 1989 begat Chávez’s failed 1992 
coup, and 1992 begat his eventual election in 1998. Suddenly, wealthy 
elites were wondering aloud what had happened to their powerful myth of 
Venezuelan harmony 
To lose the comforting myth of one’s own magnanimity was one thing, but 
to lose power to a dark-skinned brute was another thing altogether.

As the Venezuelan anthropologist Jacqueline Clarac recently put it 
<http://www.ciudadccs.info/?p=12533>, “Venezuela has always been 
polarized,” but this has simply been “invisibilized.” She continues, “At 
present, we could say that the dominant classes, who have always been on 
the side of the dominator, have been displaced in this process, and this 
has been very traumatic for them.”

Where there had been one Venezuela, there were now two, but this was not 
a clean division of the existing à la Mao. Rather, it was the 
reappearance of the invisibilized, the reemergence of those who had been 
systematically excluded from Venezuelan politics. A simple glance at the 
television, the halls of power, a beauty pageant, and even the voting 
rolls in the 1990s would make it perfectly clear that exclusion was a 
structuring principle of this “harmonious” Venezuelan reality. Rather 
than mere division, an entire sector of Venezuelan society has /come 
into being/ since 1989.

*From the Part to the Whole*

Michel Foucault identified social war as an unrecognized structuring 
premise of modern society, but one that is systematically concealed by 
the unitary logic of sovereignty. Despite the inherent tension between 
representative democracy and more direct forms of grassroots control 
that the Bolivarian process seeks to foster, the Bolivarian Revolution 
is at least in part an electoral revolution, and to attempt an electoral 
revolution is to agree to play the game of popular sovereignty, to 
struggle for the whole. But this is a notoriously dangerous game, and 
most radical parties that have played it in Venezuela — from Teodoro 
Petkoff’s MAS 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movement_for_Socialism_%28Venezuela%29> to 
the late Alfredo Maneiro’s Radical Cause 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Causa_R> — have been devoured by its 

Chávez has played the game of popular sovereignty with more skill than 
most, walking the fine line of appealing to the whole while empowering a 
part: the poor, the oppressed, the pueblo understood in its most 
subversive sense. This peculiarity of the Venezuelan Revolution is best 
epitomized by Chávez’s relation to the most militant of revolutionary 
collectives operating in Venezuela 
These groups, many of which constitute veritable anti-state communist 
militias, actively and consciously reject the holy right of sovereignty 
to a monopoly of violence, and while Chávez occasionally scolds them in 
public, he also seems to realize that they are his best protection. At 
times, however, this game can seem exasperating to sympathizers, 
especially when it cuts against demands for more radical transformation: 
as longtime revolutionary Roland Denis recently told me, “Chávez speaks 
of ‘pulverizing the bourgeois state’ while in many ways doing the opposite.”

Lest we conclude, however, that the play of popular sovereignty is 
simply a ruse, that beneath the rhetoric of unity there lay an ulterior 
motive of class conflict, it is worth recalling - as Argentine-Mexican 
philosopher of liberation Enrique Dussel has argued - that the struggle 
of the oppressed and excluded part is always also a struggle for a new 
and reconfigured whole, a war for the sort of harmony that has never 
existed in Venezuela except as a governing myth.

*From War of Position to War of Maneuver*

I recently returned to Caracas after four years away, and perhaps the 
most visually striking indicator of the city’s transformation is the 
sprouting up of large apartment buildings — white and red — under the 
aegis of Misión Vivienda (Mission Housing). More revealing than the 
Venezuelan government’s new insistence on fulfilling the needs of the 
homeless, however, is the location of this housing. Rather than 
occupying empty spaces at the periphery of society, these projects have 
proliferated like unwelcome but ineradicable mushrooms in mixed and even 
opposition neighborhoods.

I travel to El Encantado, which despite translating literally as 
“enchanted,” is instead the most isolated and neglected part of Petare, 
the largest and most dangerous barrio in Venezuela, and arguably all of 
Latin America. Here a hydroelectric plant and train line once nourished 
the population, but that is all in the past, and today the only way to 
reach El Encantado is down a long and unstable dirt path hundreds of 
feet above the Guaire River. It used to be a paradise of sorts, but now 
the river here stinks of refuse and is visibly choked with garbage.

Local activists associated with the youth movement Chávez Es Otro Beta 
explain to me how, despite four years under both an opposition mayor and 
governor (the latter being Henrique Capriles, Chávez’s opponent in the 
recent presidential contest), little has changed. “The opposition 
doesn’t ever come to this area,” they tell me, disgusted but hardly 
surprised. “Capriles wouldn’t dare to show his face here.” The disregard 
for El Encantado is even more galling since it sits across a ravine from 
the affluent opposition stronghold of El Hatillo, and from this 
collapsing dirt road we can see wealthy housing developments jutting 
into the horizon from amid otherwise lush countryside.

But these activists draw my attention across this vast geographical and 
socio-economic gulf to a series of buildings that is larger and more 
prominent than most, which I expect to contain astronomically priced 
condos. Not so: they have been seized by Misión Vivienda and are 
currently being outfitted to house those displaced from/ barrios/ like 
this one. This is about more than merely providing housing to the poor 
and those displaced by the all-too-frequent mudslides that destroy 
entire /barrios/ in an instant. It is about bringing the war to the 
enemy in a way that provokes further polarization and the sharpening of 
political positions that comes along with it.

This is, in many ways, the lesson of the recent electoral results. On 
October 7, Chávez was re-elected by a margin of 11 percentage points, a 
landslide most anywhere on earth, but for a Revolution that won by 25 
percent six years ago, this narrowed margin reveals a great deal. Is 
Venezuelan society more clearly divided into two chunks organized around 
contrasting political outlooks and aspirations? The now popular 
opposition phrase — /somos casi la mitad/, “we are nearly half”— 
certainly suggests as much.

As one recent commentary put it 
<http://www.aporrea.org/ideologia/a152392.html>, these are “not the same 
votes” as 2006 and 1998, since the socialist project today is more 
clearly defined. As a result, the tendency that Gregory Wilpert 
according to which “Chávez was elected by the middle class…and confirmed 
by the poor,” appears to still hold. But the same cannot be said of 
those who voted for Henrique Capriles Radonski and an opposition which 
still lacked a coherent alternative program, and which, if a leaked 
governing plan 
<http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/09/28/the-election-that-matters/> is 
to be believed, continues to disguise its neoliberal aspirations beneath 
social democratic rhetoric.

One thing clearly stands out from the numbers, however. Venezuela’s 
presidential race was not a standard electoral contest on the U.S. 
model, one in which two parties race to the center in an attempt to win 
the soft middle. Although both candidates occasionally softened their 
rhetoric to attract the “middle class,” votes won do not appear to have 
been at the expense of the other side, but rather came through the 
mobilization of new or previously disaffected voters. Turnout was 
massive, and while proportionally Chávez lost 8 percent compared to 
2006, he actually won nearly a million new votes, while Capriles 
mobilized more than two million more than his notably uncharismatic 
predecessor, Manuel Rosales.

*The War Within Chavismo*

This, however, is not the only, or even most crucial, lesson of the 
elections, whose narrower margin cannot be attributed solely to a 
laudable sharpening of political positions. The results also point 
towards an internal war within the Chavista ranks, one long simmering 
but which many expect will come rapidly to a head. “This is Chávez’s 
last chance,” one revolutionary tells me without a hint of hyperbole. 
Unless revolutionaries can mobilize their base through radical and 
effective action, the very survival of the process will soon be called 
into question.

Chavismo, according to Roland Denis, is more than just a run-of-the-mill 
mass movement: It has become a veritable “movement of popular struggle” 
comprising a multiplicity of forms and initiatives. The source of 
Chavismo’s energy, however, was “attacked” by the attempt to centralize 
it within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and as a 
result of both the internal dynamics of the party and the “disastrous” 
experiences of Chavista governance on a regional level, the movement as 
a whole is suffering an internal /desgaste/, or exhaustion.

Confronting this /desgaste/ is not a question of selecting better 
regional candidates, or about the question of who will succeed Chávez. 
Instead, it concerns the problem of whether or not the constellation of 
forces will allow radicals to take the reins of the process, steering it 
in a way that is at once revolutionary and democratic. And yet, as 
Chávez’s health remains in question, and as December gubernatorial 
elections quickly approach, such questions cannot be cast aside.

Of the three main contenders to succeed Chávez, former soldier Diosdado 
Cabello <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diosdado_Cabello> is widely 
considered to lead the “endogenous right” - the more conservative 
revolutionary forces - and is rumored to be severely corrupt. While he 
has proven an electoral failure both in Miranda State and within the 
United Socialist Party (PSUV), one anonymous revolutionary recently 
quipped to me that “it’s not a question of electability, it’s a question 
of the balance of forces, and Diosdado owns generals, he owns 
ministries, he has built a powerful machine.” More importantly, this 
electoral calculation would shift drastically if more moderate sectors 
of the opposition ever decide to throw their lot in with a centrist 

On the other hand, Elías Jaua 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El%C3%ADas_Jaua>, until recently Chávez’s 
vice president, has a long history of civilian militancy with origins in 
the underground armed struggle of the 1980s and maintains close 
relations with grassroots movements today. He is clearly the choice of 
the radicals and the youth, and currently faces off (in what will be a 
difficult but potentially decisive gubernatorial race in Miranda State) 
against none other than Henrique Capriles Radonski. While Jaua fights a 
difficult battle, one that Cabello himself has proven incapable of 
winning, Nicolás Maduro 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicol%C3%A1s_Maduro> sits comfortably as 
the newly named vice president, his hands unsullied by electoral races 
or practical local governance. A former bus driver and union leader, 
Maduro holds his cards closer to his chest and, while politically 
powerful, has failed to chart a clear path to either the right or the 
left (although some suggest the feasibility of a Jaua-Maduro alliance).

For Reinaldo Iturriza, who works closely with both Jaua and youth 
movements like Otro Beta that support him, the challenge is to 
fundamentally rethink politics from below. The PSUV will never be fixed, 
he tells me, unless the movements are able to generate “an entirely new 
political logic” rooted in the critique of representation. “We need to 
create a new way of doing politics,” he insists, and the fate of not 
only the Revolution, but the country, depends upon it. As Denis puts it: 
“A powerful confrontation is coming… As long as we don’t create a 
popular force capable of winning, we could lose power tomorrow.”

/*George Ciccariello-Maher* teaches political theory from below at 
Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is the author of We Created 
Chávez: A People's History of the Bolivarian Revolution (Duke University 
Press, 2013), and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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