The Limits of Chávez’s Communal State

The Limits of Chávez’s Communal State

Venezuela’s communal network was supposed to deliver economic and political autonomy. But international commodity markets and the power of the state have undermined these goals.

Mural for El Maizal, one of the most emblematic rural communes in Venezuela

This article is part of a forum on the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.

In the twenty-first century, Venezuela has been a laboratory of political experimentation. It was the biggest stage on which anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist politics played out. The Chavista project promised to bring about political, socioeconomic, and cultural transformation by empowering dispossessed sectors and delivering social justice through participatory democracy. These transformations depended on fundamental changes to Venezuela’s economy, one of the most important being the development of communal enterprises and organizations. The experience of the communes reveals a central truth about Chavismo: it contained both the decentralizing, horizontal dynamics of community organizations and social movements alongside centralizing, vertical dynamics. The latter have proved deeply damaging to the democratic aspirations that many had for the Chavista experiment.

President Hugo Chávez won election in 1998 with a platform that emphasized social justice, participation, and the fight against state corruption and inefficiency. Originally, this language not only attracted parties of the left, popular sectors, and social movements, but a part of the middle class as well. Once in power, Chavéz set in motion a legal process that resulted in the Constitution of 1999, which garnered widespread approval and put these principles into action. But to legislate and implement those policies, he took on extraordinary powers and legislated by decree, using enabling laws that divided the population into Chavistas and anti-Chavistas. The majority of the middle class, seeing its class interests—such as private property—affected, was among the anti-Chavistas, as were some groups of the left (especially anti-militarists) and liberal social movements.

After the coup d’etat of 2002—in which Chávez was briefly removed from office—and the oil strike of 2002–2003, Chávez radicalized his discourse and political project. He excluded the opposition from playing a role in public policy and tried to take control of state institutions, including the state oil company, PDVSA. Meanwhile, the Chavista project of inclusion and social justice relied on an economic development model dependent on the extraction of natural resources, most notably oil but more recently including large-scale mining projects such as the Orinoco Mining Arc. Although the government has labeled this project “sustainable,” it involves opening more than 40,000 square miles in a fragile ecosystem inhabited by indigenous communities to transnational corporations. Environmental activist Emiliano Terán has called it the “final assault on indigenous people and on one of the last pristine areas of the world.” This model does not break with neoliberal developmentalism and contradicts the government’s anti-globalization discourse. As journalist Raúl Zibechi has argued, the neo-extractivist model cannot work without “subordinate international insertion” into “commercial and financial capitalist globalization and the advance of territorial fragmentation.”

While the Chavista left has justified this model for funding its fight against poverty, in the long run that fight has proved more of a discursive achievement than a real one. The Chávez government reduced poverty and social inequality in its first twelve years, but they have since risen abruptly. Today, Venezuelans face grave scarcities of food, medicine, and basic goods, and levels of poverty have surged beyond the levels before Chávez came to power. Furthermore, the benefits of Chavista policy have always flowed selectively, excluding groups of the population that were not ideologically close to the government, including some in the popular sectors.

Popular groups and movements were privileged as the main interlocutors and beneficiaries of the Chavista project, because Chavismo was organizationally weak and they could provide it with a social and political base (when political parties lacked credibility). An extensive organizational network was created and financed by the government. The most important organizations were the communal councils and the communes, considered by Hugo Chávez as the fundamental units or pillars of the “communal state.”

The achievements of the policies that tried to bring about the participation of popular organizations and social movements in the management of local, regional, and national levels of government have been uneven. As sociologist Edgardo Lander says, the social-organizational network promoted by the government is a “heterogeneous and diffuse popular social fabric that is characterized more by its capacity to mobilize and respond to changing situations than by its organic continuity.” On the one hand, communal council policies were based on a Gramscian conception of democratic participation at the local or community level, compatible with representative democracy; on the other hand, participation was linked to an orthodox Leninist conception of direct democracy intended to substitute representative democracy at the local and regional levels with a radical democracy at the national level through the communal state. These tendencies created acute conflicts.

While many urban commune experiences have been a failure, there are some successful experiences of rural communes. One of the most emblematic, given its high agricultural and livestock production and its high levels of participation, is known as El Maizal. Spanning two states and including more than 9,000 people as of 2018, El Maizal is an important part of the local economy. The means of production are held in common and decision-making is done through a Communal Parliament composed of fifty-two members and three executive spokespeople.

Nonetheless, even in the few successful experiences, there are frequent conflicts between the state and the communes due to bureaucratic requirements, the state’s pressure to institutionalize them, and the communes’ attempts to defend their autonomy. For example, El Maizal has taken over abandoned state projects and experienced troubles with the state-run agricultural enterprise, which is supposed to purchase the commune’s surplus and provide it with supplies. In May 2018, one of the commune’s leaders was briefly arrested for buying black market supplies when the state-run supplier did not provide necessary materials on time (because those materials were also being sold on the black market). Some communes also complain that when there were disagreements with the government guidelines and policies, the government did not consult with them. They also argue that leaders were often imposed by the state, and that they responded to political rather than social needs and were under increasing control of the state, the ruling party, and more recently the military.

Some on the left have criticized these participatory policies for institutionalizing a centralized model that excluded popular community organizations from decision-making and served to control them by means of direct financing. As Roland Denis, Vice-Minister of Planning and Development from 2002 to 2003, put it in an interview with Raul Zelik in 2006,

We tried to deepen community control, that is to say, to give to the communities the power that is needed to develop new relations with the state; relations of co-governance and co-management. This practice caused resistance from the existing institutions, from the “old state” that continues to exist in Venezuela, in spite of the changes. There is no concrete vision within the Chávez government, as to how bureaucratic and economic interests could be effectively eliminated, so as to deeply transform the state.

Within a highly corrupt and inefficient system, the communes became a mechanism to redistribute oil revenue and, in moments of political crisis, to mobilize political support for the government. They were supposed to help create a more self-sufficient socioeconomic base in Venezuela, but the governments of Chávez and Maduro have promoted political autonomy without economic autonomy. Moreover, the communes are subject to fluctuations in the price of oil in international markets because of their direct government financing; this dependence has undermined their political independence and left them to compete with each other for scarce resources. This has made solidarity and a culture oriented toward the collective and common good more difficult to sustain. Atenea Jiménez, founder of the National Network of Commoners, has spoken about the positive experiences of democracy carried out within the communes but also noted the negative consequences of the competition over oil wealth: “deepening sectarianism and not creating real emancipation,” economic individualism and power disputes, and weakening mutual aid and solidarity.

The communal network, born under state tutelage, has produced serious dilemmas for communes and social movements. Joining the state organizational network makes it more difficult to preserve their autonomy and creates debilitating compromises. For this reason, members of the most successful communes developed dual memberships, as members of the commune and of the “movimiento comunero” (commune movement) at the same time. In some cases, the state officially tried to replace social movements it accused of “excessive” radicalism—in other words, of taking critical positions—by promoting para-movements and excluding social movements from events like the World Social Forum.

The economic crisis has deepened the politics of clientelism, in which political loyalty is rewarded with economic benefits. The new Local Committees on Food Supply (CLAPs), which distribute basic goods in coordination with the military and the ruling party, have relegated communal councils to a distant secondary role. The CLAPs represent the failure of the democratic model of inclusion and the turn to authoritarianism and clientelism; they are based on direct aid and are incapable of generating wealth. In this context, neither the communal councils nor the communes have ended up advancing democratization, empowerment, or the inclusion of excluded sectors. Today, many communal councils and communes are inactive due to a lack of resources. For some intellectuals and left activists, the failure of the communes has come to signify the lack of viability of the political, social, and economic model of the communal state envisioned by Chávez.

New voices have emerged out of the current economic and humanitarian crisis that do not fit into the standard polarization of the country around Chavistas and anti-Chavistas. They can be seen in the mobilizations in favor of basic human rights like health, food, water, energy, transportation, communication, fair salaries, the dignity of the elderly, and gender and ethnic rights, all proclaimed with a certain level of autonomy from the state. These voices are being actively silenced by severe repression. A government that describes itself as belonging to the left and two decades ago constitutionally recognized social movements and appropriated their agenda for change now marginalizes, excludes, and criminalizes them when they defend constitutional rights or demonstrate in favor of an alternative economic development model that guarantees social justice and transcends global capitalism. Today, we are faced with a difficult question: whether the existing polarization and ideological heterogeneity of the left could enrich an alternative project of radical democracy, such as one rooted in the communes, or if this heterogeneity impedes the left’s ability to articulate a broader platform.

María Pilar García-Guadilla is a professor at Universidad Simón Bolívar and an environmental and feminist activist.