People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 26

June 30, 2013



“No Hay Pueblo Vencido”

There Is No Such Thing as Defeated People


R Arun Kumar


WHAT will happen to Venezuela now, was one question that was on the top of everybody's mind when the news of Hugo Chavez's death shook the entire anti-imperialist world. In a country where the person, Chavez, was always seen as larger than the process, the Bolivarian process of socialist construction, (as Chavez himself termed it) this anxiety is quite justified. The book, We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution contributes enormously to understand Venezuela today, what is going on in the country, the Bolivarian process, the person Chavez and the question haunting us: will Chavismo survive and Venezuela continue in the path proclaimed by Chavez. George Ciccariello-Maher, the author of the book, does an excellent job in acquainting the reader with the history of Venezuela – the peoples' history. What makes the book an absorbing read is that, he concentrates extensively on the movements and struggles that laid the conditions for Chavismo, rather than on Chavez himself. This is an interesting departure from many of the narratives that are emerging from the continent, ever since Chavez had brought Venezuela, an obscure, far-off country into the everyday discussions of everyone who is concerned for a better future.


Ciccariello-Maher presents four important arguments in the book – (i) the lessons learnt by the guerilla movements from their failures (ii) the entire discussion that took place in Venezuela on spontaneity versus organisation, horizontal versus vertical organisation structures and the role of organisations, State, etc., (iii) the changes in the class relations in Venezuela, particularly in the working class, how the progressive forces understood them and (iv) the existence of 'dual-power' in Venezuela today.


Chavez had acknowledged many a times that his interest in politics developed from the events of 1989, the Caracazo, where hundreds of protesters fighting the neo-liberal policies were brutally shot dead by the then regime. Chavez stated: “The Caracazo was the spark that ignited the engine of the Bolivarian Revolution”. It had inspired him to lead the failed coup in 1992 and changed his future vision for Venezuela, as he saw his defeat only, “por ahora”, 'for now'.


Ciccariello-Maher, in this book, takes us even beyond Caracazo, indeed to 1958, so that we can understand what led to Caracazo, which provided the ignition for the Bolivarian revolution. It is the period when the first democratic government was established in Venezuela as was the two-party system that continued till Chavez broke it with his election as the president in 1998. The period since 1958 saw the settling of capitalist relations in Venezuela and the intensification of imperialist exploitation of the country. Land relations changed, with further concentration of latifundismo. Migration to the cities took place on a massive scale. The barrios, became some of the thickly populated areas in the cities with the poorer sections of the society. This is particularly so predominant a phenomenon in the capital city, Caracas. It was also a period when the influence of Cuba and the barbudos, the bearded guerillas was at its highest. The entire continent was at that time witnessing guerilla struggles in many of the countries. Venezuela too fell under this influence and was home to guerilla struggles. Ciccariello-Maher provides us with this historical background that is necessary to understand today's Venezuela.


Ciccariello-Maher analyses the splits, failures and the lessons learnt by the various guerillas and states that these had contributed to the growth of socio-political consciousness of the Venezuelan people. He particularly discusses at length the feature of vanguardismo that was prevalent in almost all the guerilla groups of this period and shows how it had isolated them from the people and ultimately resulted in their defeat. According to Ciccariello-Maher, some of the guerilla leaders realised this mistaken approach and sought to correct it by giving up the path of armed struggle and joining the existing revolutionary parties or establishing their own parties. Initially, it is the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), which was the fountain-head of these guerilla movements. So naturally, the resultant debates and splits also hurt it the most, weakening it considerably. Some of the guerillas during this course drifted to the right in Venezuelan politics, a phenomenon not strange to us in India.


As some of the guerillas were working in urban areas, they had considerable influence among the barrios. After giving up the armed struggle, they indulged in extensive ideological debates and discussions which included the forms and paths of organisation and the State itself. Ciccariello-Maher argues that those guerillas who had reasoned their failure to the vanguardismo and foquistas (adventurists) mentality, worked among the people in the barrios to rectify this lacunae. From this sprang the community councils, precursors to the social movements that we witness in many parts of Latin America today.


For Ciccariello-Maher, it is this work through the community councils that brought the people out during the Caracazo. Ciccariello-Maher, does not buy the argument of spontaneity and horizontal-structureless organisations. This, however, does not mean that he is a great fan of the vertical, hegemonic organisations. He provides the historic basis not only to negate the argument that Caracazo was a result of spontaneity, but also to show that the rudimentary organisations existing in the barrios were also responsible for providing the launching pad for Chavez. This is a fact so obscured, that many of Chavez admirers too, often, wonder how Chavez had sprung from defeat and imprisonment to claim presidency in 1998. Ciccariello-Maher tries to provide some answers.


Ciccariello-Maher also shows how the former militants of the guerilla movement contributed to the growth of various organisations and movements among the students, women, peasants, indigenous and Afro-indigenous groups. They worked in an atmosphere where neo-liberal policies were pursued vigorously by the successive governments, as both the official parties did not differ in their intent for implementation. In spite of their limitations, the persistent work these organisations had carried out among the masses certainly developed political consciousness among the Venezuelans. They had extensively used the existing cultural symbols in their campaign, even those associated with the State like the National Anthem. The word pueblo, people, too was given a more revolutionary meaning – not the manso pueblo (docile people) but the montaraz pueblo (fierce people).


Analysing the class structures in Venezuela and how they had transformed over times, particularly the working class, he extensively deals about the growth of informal sectors in the economy and their role in the radicalisation of the country. He shows us how the 'official' trade union of the country was co-opted by the ruling party to serve the interests of the ruling classes. The classic safety-valve theory was put into practice. The break-up of the revolutionary sections did not take place till a much later date (2003). That is one of the reasons why the organised working class failed to even to rally behind the people during the Caracazo, forget about leading it. However, according to Ciccariello-Maher, the workers in the informal sector were active participants in the Caracazo and the restoration of Chavez to presidency after the US-instigated brief coup attempt to overthrow him in 2002. This was possible because, they lived in large numbers in the barrios which were already under the progressive influence of the radicals living there. Ciccariello-Maher also points out that the workers in the informal sector constitute an important support base to the Bolivarian process of social transformation.


It is these chapters that offer an important lesson to all the people in the third world, where there is a substantial growth in the informal economy and unorganised work force. Ciccariello-Maher has an interesting argument and does not agree to ignore such an important section of the working force by terming them lumpen. The discussion around worker take-over of factories also shows us the intense ideological battle involved, not only at the peripheral level (on the question of taking over) but also at the core (the necessity for developing workers' consciousness for such a step).


He argues that it is always the people, specially those from the barrios, organised in the community councils that pushed Chavez further in the process of Bolivarian process of revolutionary transformation. Chavez, in spite of all his charisma and popularity, encountered stiff resistance even from within his supporters (and later his party comrades) whenever steps were initiated for further empowering the people, worker take-over of factories, nationalisation of certain sectors of industries and most importantly implementing land reforms. It is only due to the pressure from below, the montaraz pueblo, that helped in the radicalism of Chavez and pushed the socialisation process further. The community councils that the Venezuelan Constitution recognises, the revolutionary Labour Law and the Law on Land Reforms were all a result of this process.


The community councils, in which people of that community sit together to decide on many things concerned with their community, according to Ciccariello-Maher, are true expressions of peoples’ power. Tracing the commonalities between the revolutionary situation in Russia in 1917, where Lenin brings in the concept of dual-power – the peoples' Soviets and the Duma – Ciccariello-Maher identifies the community councils in Venezuela with the Soviets. The tension and contradiction between the 'dual-power' can be resolved in favour of people only if they continue their vigilantism and check the hegemonic classes from using the State against them.


Ciccariello-Maher states that the role of Chavez becomes important here, where he used his State power not against the people, as was a common feature during earlier regimes, but in favour of the common people. Even here too, Chavez did not act on his own, but the people constantly pushed him to act. Here, Ciccariello-Maher once again brings in the discussion amongst the various former guerillas, their understanding of the State which determines their attitude towards Chavez and the Bolivarian process. He does not agree with those who are sceptical of Chavez as just another representative of the State. He does not subscribe to the anarchist view on State and wants them to understand that through creative usage, the State can be used to better the lives of common people. Of course, the pressure from below, for this is indispensable.


We Created Chavez is a thoroughly researched book. Ciccariello-Maher gives us many details about how the popular movements (the We in the title) had acted during every step in the course of the revolutionary transformation of Venezuela that we are witnessing today. Chavez’ victory was built on the failures of all the earlier militant, popular struggles. So, without undermining any of his greatness, the book shows that Chavez is a 'product of the times' who had played his part in the entire process. As some of the guerillas had expressed, the struggle for social transformation in Venezuela was there before Chavez, with Chavez and therefore will exist even without Chavez – they are more concerned about the el proceso than el presidente.


Though the book is published only in May 2013, three full months after the death of Chavez, it does not talk about the 'now' in Venezuela, a country without Chavez. Might be, as the subject of the book is not Chavez but the creators of Chavez (We), the author did not feel it so necessary to deal with the situation where the creation is now no more. The creators still exist and will exist. And the author is confident that as long as they are conscious and vigilant, the process will be alive. Not por ahora but siempre (forever).


We love to read some books and read some others to learn. This is one book from which we would love to learn.