Understanding Venezuela’s Bolivarian Moment

López Maya, Margarita, and Luis E. Lander. 2011. “Participatory Democracy in Venezuela: Origins, Ideas, and Implementation.” In Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture Under Chávez, edited by David Smilde and Daniel Hellinger, 58-79. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

López Maya, Margarita, and Dinolis Alexandra Panzarelli. 2012. “Populismo, rentismo y socialismo del siglo XXI: el caso venezolano.” In ¿Qué democracia en América Latina?, edited by Isidoro Cheresky, 205-235. Buenos Aires: CLACSO and Prometeo Líbros.

Venezuelan historian Margarita López Maya is, without a doubt, one of the most prolific and incisive observers of the “Bolivarian(1) Revolution” still unfolding in her country. The works presented here represent a small fragment of her research on the subject and provide a glimpse of the current state of affairs 15 years after Hugo Chávez was first elected.

The main premise of the chapter co-written with Lander is that during the eight years following the proclamation of the Bolivarian Constitution (1999-2007), the government has implemented policies that led to unprecedented levels of social mobilization and political empowerment, aiming at reversing unfair income and wealth distribution, overcoming discrimination in the enjoyiment of social rights, and establishing a fuller citizenship based on values such as solidarity and participation. In all, state and partisan encroachments, delayed institutionalization, weak accountability, and doubts about long-term economic sustainability have contributed to the contradictory results of those policies; yet empowerment and mobilization are now a fact and will be instrumental in how citizens will determine the future course of events. In turn, the chapter co-written with Panzarelli describes Bolivarian Venezuela as a political system where populist rhetoric is notably strident, polarizing, alienating, and heavily infused with symbolism; and oil profits serve to anchor a rentier state. Moreover, Chávez the charismatic populist leader is said to rely on three major channels to communicate with the masses: the permanent electoral campaign, the heavy use of the media, and grassroots mobilization networks.

When we consider where do these book chapters fall into the grander scheme of things, there are some similarities between López Maya’s stance in both chapters. First, she does not come across as an apologist for chavismo, the predominating political ideology in Venezuela (neither do her co-authors, for that matter). On the contrary, she has no fear in uncovering its not-so-pretty parts. Second, she states that chavismo was born out of demands for true popular empowerment that went all but ignored under the prior political system, known as puntofijismo(2). Finally, the implementation of what she and Lander describe as the most serious attempt at democratizing the political system clashed with entrenched rival interests, and their harsh opposition contributed to polarization. However, there is also a critical difference between both chapters when it comes to how chavismo is presented. In the Smilde and Hellinger volume, López Maya follows its main premise and implies that chavismo has something positive to offer in spite of what she and Lander describe as “challenges” it must overcome, but in the Cheresky volume she and Panzarelli conclude that “the [Venezuelan] Petrostate has facilitated the destruction of institutional checks and the advance of an authoritarian project rather than democratic deepening” (230, my translation). Seemingly, there is a contradiction.

On closer look, however, there may not be a contradiction at all, as the chapters actually complement each other. As mentioned before, the López Maya and Lander chapter focuses on the 1999-2007 period, (even though the volume where it is featured was published in 2011), the cut-off point coinciding with the year after Chávez won the 2006 presidential election and “21st century socialism” made its official debut. Basically, López Maya and Panzarelli pick up the story where she and Lander left it: The forms of citizen participation and social mobilization that were encouraged between 1999 and 2007 gave way from 2006 onward to a different understanding of both — less independent from the Bolivarian state, less democratizing. A case in point brought in both chapters is the creation of the comunal councils in 2006, to which prior participation schemes were locally subsumed into (although the terms are unclear). López Maya mentions two paradigms of social transformation first mentioned elsewhere by co-author Lander: clientelistic/paternalistic and participatory/democratic; as things stand now, the tendency seems to be toward the former.

In the end, what López Maya has done in both chapters is to bring reasonable doubt to any celebratory interpretation of Bolivarian Venezuela. One chapter has a more conciliatory position on the matter than the other, but it is clear that if chavismo wants to reach its full democratizing potential it must put an end to its uglier, populist rhetoric.



1. Chávez and his followers have construed the ideas of Simón Bolívar, Venezuela’s national hero, as an anti-hegemonic manifesto; hence the eponym “Bolivarian”.

2. Puntofijismo refers to the Punto Fijo country retreat ouside Caracas, where in 1958, following the demise of a dictatorship, center-left and center-right politicians agreed to create a consensual democracy that lasted until the first election of Hugo Chávez.

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One Response to Understanding Venezuela’s Bolivarian Moment

  1. Pingback: Dateline: Latin America | Is Caracas Burning?

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