Chávez's U-turn on socialism

Venezuela-based economic advisor and analyst, Stephanie Blankenburg, on what could be Chávez's fight

On 2 January, a month on from his defeat in a referendum about a socialist reform of the county’s constitution, President Hugo Chávez Frías of Venezuela performed a stunning political U-turn.

In typically flamboyant style, he made a surprise call to Venezolana de Televisión, the country’s main state-owned TV channel, “to drop a ‘bombita’ (small bomb)” on an unsuspecting public: He had decided to abandon his socialist agenda “for now” in order to form stronger alliances with the country’s middle classes, its private sector and the national bourgeoisie instead.

To dispel any doubts about his seriousness in adopting this new political course, he replaced vice-president, Dr Jorge Rodríguez – the public face of his campaign for “21st century socialism” in Venezuela – with Ramón Carrizales, a military officer and technocrat, known for his good relationships with the country’s business sector.

Perhaps more significantly still, Chávez had already signed an end-of-the year amnesty for imprisoned perpetrators of a right-wing coup attempt against him in 2002.

The President’s version of events

Two days later, on his Sunday TV show “Aló Presidente” (Hallo, President), Chávez presented his fully reshuffled new cabinet and set out to explain the rationale for his action. His socialist project had been defeated, because the country had not been ready for such a radical approach.

The only democratic response was to acknowledge defeat and to adopt a more gradual and inclusive way forward. Apart from broadening alliances to bring private business and the middle classes back into the fold, this would also mean a more careful focus on mass education and communal self-organisation. Socialism had not been abandoned, but postponed, although, by the sound of things, for quite some time to come.

Chávez’ analysis of the current situation certainly has the pleasant ring of reasonableness to it. There also is little doubt, even amongst the most fervent socialists in Venezuela, that the agenda for “21st socialism”, adopted in January 2007 as abruptly as it has now been abandoned, had been rushed in with too much haste, limiting space and time for public consultation and debate of often complex issues.

Yet, the solidity of this analysis stands and falls with the correctness of its main premise – that the failure of voters to approve the constitutional reform project in the referendum of 2 December was a vote against socialism. This is much less clear.

What is clear is that the defeat of Chávez’ reform project at the polls is down to the abstention of roughly three million voters, who only a year earlier had voted for him as their president on the same socialist platform.

Compared to the December 2006 presidential elections, the opposition did not gain any votes. It seems unlikely such a substantial bloc of Chávez supporters should have been deterred merely by deficient campaigning a year after enthusiastically endorsing him.

In fact, a closer look at electoral patterns reveals a clear protest vote, not against a socialist agenda, but against corrupt administrations, at the national and the regional level.

Chavismo and the ‘oil curse’

To understand, where this protest vote came from and why it outweighed the pro-Chavez and pro-socialism vote, it helps to remember that Venezuela is defined by only one thing – oil.

For almost a century, the state has been a gigantic machine to distribute oil rent. In this context, left and right have a rather different meaning from their usual connotations.

On one side of a profound societal divide, there are those who benefit from oil from the very rich elites down to middle-rank state employees with comfortable pension arrangements.

On the other side, there are those who are excluded from a share in this bounty, the poor and the lower middle classes.

Not surprisingly, the main objective of the “insiders” is to defend and expand their share in the country’s oil wealth. Those on the outside divide into the small group with some chance of eventually making it to the inside, and the much larger group of people without any realistic chance of ever getting there.

The latter are, or used to be, core Chávez supporters: Their only hope is structural reform that dismantles the distributive rent state and replaces it by a productive developmental state. Until now, they had set their hopes on Chávez.

That these hopes have been rattled, is only marginally to do with a hasty referendum campaign, or with the people’s ideological immaturity.

On the contrary, one of the most impressive achievements of Chavismo is precisely the very high degree of political awareness and education amongst the poor.

No, the vote outcome has everything to do with the accession of many a Chavista to the rank of “insider” over the past eight years. This process has been gradual, and perhaps inevitable in a society in which institutionalised rentier-mechanisms have been endemic for decades.

But the contradiction between a radical socialist government agenda and the “Chavista elite”, bent on defending its share in the oil rent, effectively came to a head last year.

Far from being a left-wing administration, the bulk of ministerial positions in the old cabinet, as well as many governorships, remained in the hands of the “Chavista right”, or “new insiders”.

For example, the new vice-president, Ramón Carrizales, is also ex-minister of Housing, a core social policy ministry.

All through 2007, the battle between this “Chavista elite” and the “Chavista street” was fought out within government, with the so-called left-wingers, led by Jorge Rodríguez, in the minority.

It is an open secret in Venezuela that many governors, while publicly campaigning for a 'yes' vote in the referendum, used their resources to mobilise for the no-vote behind the scenes.

Equally an open secret is the sudden destabilisation of the economy through food shortages and an escalating black market dollar exchange rate which was at least allowed to linger on for longer than necessary.

A ‘soft coup’ or a return to electoral glory?

So the Chávez U-turn looks a lot less radical. For one, the new cabinet resembles its predecessor more than it differs from it. More importantly, it is not at all obvious the strategy of a shift to the “right” will help to pacify the country and stabilize the economy.

Why? Well if it is correct that the result of 2 December was essentially a protest vote by the “Chavista street” against the “Chavista elite”, then giving the latter free range is unlikely to boost Chávez with the popular base.

Yet, this popular base is all that stands between him and a ‘soft coup’ by an emboldened middle class, made up of the “Chavista elite”, the largely a-political state bureaucracy and moderate such as ex-General Raúl Baduel, a former ally and defence minister who joined the opposition ranks in November 2007.

After all, with the control over the country's state apparatus and economic resources firmly in the hands of these groups, and a weakened popular base for Chávez, perhaps unable to deliver election future victories, why would the middle classes and their allies in the new and old elites still need Chávez?

Chávez is too much of a seasoned politician not to know this. If he still has chosen this course, it is not necessarily because it is of his liking or even of his making alone. It simply reflects the real distribution of power on the ground. His most important response is not the much publicized government reshuffle, but his decision to accelerate the organisation of a Chavista mass party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

The task of getting this new mass party up to speed is an uphill one, especially with a “Chavista” government in place that has no interest in promoting such a move, and the popular base alienated.

But unless Chávez – and the PSUV – win the regional and municipal elections scheduled for November 2008, Venezuela might well have a new president before the year is out.

In charge of the unenviable task to built a mass party in a few months and to win elections by the end of the year is none other than Jorge Rodríguez.

Dr Stephanie Blankenburg is Lecturer in International Political Economy in the Economics Department at the School of Oriental and Social Studies (SOAS), London. She is currently on secondment to Venezuela as an economic advisor and analyst. This article reflects her personal analysis and is unrelated to any government views or policies.

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The alien among us: searching for the meaning of David Bowie

A tribute to the man who reinvented pop culture and changed Britain, by John Gray, Olivia Laing, Philip Hoare, Kate Mosse, Paul Du Noyer, Kate Mossman, John Burnside, Will Self and Yo Zushi.

First published in a special issue of the New Statesman on 15 January, 2016, marking the death of David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016).

Philip Hoare: Lighting up a blacked-out Britain

In the hot summer of 1976, in white school shirt, black evening waistcoat and trousers, my hair slicked back and sprayed gold, I took the train to London where Kraftwerk’s crackling nuclear “Radioactivity” and the surreal brutality of Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou gave way to the man himself, sunken-cheeked, too thin to be caged by the fluorescent array of strip lights behind him. In the oceanic darkness of the arena, I felt I was utterly alone with him, like everyone else. He was in his new incarnation, as dark as the times: Jean Genet out of Man Ray, burned black and white into our monochrome dreams, singing of “the return of the Thin White Duke/throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”. He arrived at Victoria in a slam-door train and was driven away standing in an open-top car like our great dictator.

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John Gray: The shifting shaman of the modern age

If your aim is to be original, you will most likely end up looking and sounding highly derivative. Striving for self-expression, you turn yourself into a mouthpiece for the ruling clichés. David Bowie did the opposite. Knowing himself to be – as a matter of fact or fate – utterly singular, he chose to become a clairvoyant who served as a channel for the shifting spirit of the age. Along the way a succession of selves emerged, each of them novel and original. A commonplace view has it that Bowie was a chameleon who kept reinventing himself in order to exploit the turns of fashion. But his changes served a deeper end. By becoming Nobody, he became many people and at the same time himself. . .

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Kate Mossman: Reading the runes

A week ago, critics were reviewing his new album, Blackstar, and trying to locate the surprise. It had to lie in the music this time, when last time it was all about the delivery. He’d gone and got himself a jazz band, the Donny McCaslin Quartet, whom he first saw playing the 55 Bar in Manhattan early in 2013 (with a power only Bowie could wield, he sent the sax player out to do some of the promotional interviews for the album). Many of the songs are semi-improvised, with a ponderous, ambulatory structure that adds to a sense of mystery unfolding.

The centrepiece title track is a strange, ten-minute movie-of-the-mind that starts in the unsettling soundworld of eastern deserts and then breaks, unexpectedly, into a light Motown-tinged ballad with a tune that wouldn’t be a million miles from Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love”, if you laid one on top of the other. This epic track actually came out last year, along with the album’s two other substantial offerings, “Lazarus” and “Sue”. I wondered if the joke, this time round, was that when you finally got your hands on Bowie’s new album you realised you’d already heard the best stuff for free.

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Yo Zushi: In defence of “bad” Bowie

Tonight remains the Bowie album I return to most often. Its critical panning seems, now that Bowie is gone, an aberration: no album that begins with the seven-minute masterpiece “Loving the Alien” and contains the rocking “Blue Jean” should have received the drubbing it got. The TV-special-style cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” is as stirring, in its cold, almost Brechtian way, as Station to Station’s “Wild Is the Wind” (1976) – it’s like watching Elvis in Vegas through a sheet of ice.

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Kate Mosse: King of the outcast girls and boys

Where were you when you heard the news? My ma had always said she could remember precisely what she was doing, how the day felt, when she heard Elvis Presley had died. I’d never understood what she meant, not really, until today. I thought I would never forget the white of the tablecloth at the Santa Catalina Hotel, the swirl of Spanish and German, a little Russian and English being spoken around me. A half-eaten piece of bread and a third cup of coffee, growing cold. A little cheese and an apple cut in four.

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Will Self: A vaudeville star who spun new worlds

Unlike “Sir Mick” and “Sir Elton”, Bowie had refused state honours from the British government. And he’d done it not once, but twice. The message was clear: he didn’t seek status or preferment in this world, at least not the sort politicians dole out. I never met him myself. Indeed, my only direct connection with him was fairly bizarre: a copy of Alethea Hayter’s classic work of literary-critical history Opium and the Romantic Imagination, with “David Bowie” inscribed on the flyleaf, together with his Swiss address, in charmingly juvenile, cursive handwriting. I’d acquired the book from a friend, Kevin Armstrong, who at the time (mid-1980s) was playing guitar in Bowie’s Tin Machine band. It kicked around the house for some years until, suffering from my conscience, I mailed it back to him.

He never thanked me, even though I’d put a return address, but I bore no ill-will; I reasoned he must be busy. Or, if not busy, like some deity who’d created not just one world but many, he was resting from his ­labours. I wouldn’t claim to have an exhaustive familiarity with Bowie’s oeuvre but then I don’t need to – his music, in common with that of the Beatles, constitutes the backdrop on to which the transitory experiences of my own life have been projected; a romantic imagination indeed.

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A Martian up a ladder throwing paint at a canvas

Bowie turned up at the Factory wearing white Oxford bags and yellow Mary Janes, a slouchy bibbety-bobbity hat pulled low over his long blond hair. He sang his homage “Andy Warhol” to the master (“Tie him up when he’s fast asleep/Send him on a pleasant cruise”), who was reportedly not wholly flattered. Then he performed an earnest mime for the nonplussed Warhol in which he opened up his heart and let his guts spill on the floor.

It spoke, perhaps, of what was to come: the annihilating effects of serious, cult-level fame; the sense of being haunted by his own creations, of careering with them into places inimical to physical and mental health. Bowie was always willing to take a risk, to expose himself, to go further out than anyone else might have thought possible. Album after album wore its influences on its sleeve: the avant-garde German expressionism of Heroes and Low, the Chatterton-meets-Beau Brummell lushness of The Man Who Sold the World.

Like many other rock stars, he started collecting art, including a pair of Tintorettos, a Rubens and a Frank Auerbach. But at some point in the 1980s he began making it, too. He’d got himself stuck creatively, and as a way of edging out of the doldrums he switched media, using painting as a way of swimming back to himself. At first it was a private business, a respite and release from music, and then a fertile way of solving problems and nudging around blocks.

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Paul Du Noyer: Close encounters with the Bromley boy

Where the former Beatles turned their speech into Scouse-American sing-song and Mick Jagger trademarked a high-camp mockney drawl, Bowie’s pronunciation remained as neatly clipped as a Beckenham privet hedge. He chose his words with studious precision and delivered them with the quiet stoicism of an Ealing Studios RAF pilot. He knew that journalists are easily seduced by famous people who remember their names, and could flatter you with earnest inquiries about life back in England.

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This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie