populismo picture

Venezuela, Ecuador AND Bolivia

Por Pili Rosales

The names Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa have become synonymous with controversy. Right wing, conservative and moderate political pundits and political actors from the ruling class and middle class vilify them while moderates, liberals and self-styled leftists have installed the three of them on altars as highly anticipated messiahs. Despite the differences in the political paths they followed to leadership, their different national circumstances and their own styles of speaking, these three figureheads have many peculiarities and points in common. Paradoxically, all three proclaim the urgency of promoting “liberation democracies” in Latin America while simultaneously working to increase the strength and centrality of their own power. Even considering their differences Hugo, Rafael and Evo share one major thing in common, their populist politics within the limiting framework of bourgeoisie nationalism.

While in many ways their visions coincide, the three emerged into their respective political arenas and work in different national contexts, which influences their independent projects. When Chavez was elected as president of Venezuela for the first time in 1999, the progressive sectors there and the worldwide left had high expectations for him. Chavez fashioned his campaign on an agenda of Latin American unity and anti-imperialist and anti-oligarchic rhetoric that resonated with the oppressed, sectors of the middle class and most of the working class. These people constituted the 60% of the popular vote, which legitimized his campaign against the failure of the old bipartisanship.

Chavez’s opposition in Venezuela is diverse: Important sectors of the bourgeoisie, the middle class, students and even some privileged sectors of workers. However the attacks of the “escualidos” (the most right wing and reactionary opposition to Chavez in the country) launching racist and class biased attacks against him and his supporters, have until now fueled the red waves of Chavistas to respond bravely after each incident with slogans like “¡Nos quieren tumbar a nuestro Negro, pero no los vamos a dejar!” (They want us to take our negro down, but we will not let that happen!)

Since taking office in 2006, Morales in Bolivia and Correa in Ecuador have declared their support for Chavez and his proposals for the continent. Their elections had been similar to that of Chavez in Venezuela, in terms of creating a legitimate response and resistance to a decade of destructive neo-liberal attacks on workers and the indigenous populace in South America. In both countries, there has been a rebirth of strong national independence movements that include indigenous groups, who are also part of the working class. The clearest example of that conjecture is the miners in Bolivia.

Morales has promoted the self-employed and small producers on the margins of the national and international bourgeoisie, mainly the cocaleros (coca leaf farmers) proclaiming them as an example of unique “Andean capitalism”.The exaltation of the Aymaran president Evo and his indigenous roots contrasts with the collapse of his support and popularity among the indigenous peoples, like the miners, who seem to be organizing opposition to him, when Morales has failed to follow through on his promises.

On the other hand, Correa is a leftist politician educated abroad, whose speeches are high-minded, challenging, and emotional but attuned to the rhythm of bourgeois society in Ecuador. Unlike the Chavez and Morales in Venezuela and Bolivia, Correa came to power without a political party like the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia or like the coalition of parties in Venezuela. His political rise happened with the support of the Patria Altiva y Soberana alliance, PAIS, where he led a participatory process that incorporated major commonly ignored social issues including environmental conservation.

In the case of both Morales and Correa, the euphoria generated by their electoral success was pronounced. Around both of them debate emerged within the left as to whether or not they lead bourgeois governments and about how they responded to workers’ struggles. The leftist debaters did not want to duplicate the virulent and xenophobic attacks of the reactionary right.

Both presidents, like Chavez, have facilitated the re-distribution of wealth and have granted benefits to communities that previously had none, staying strictly within the limits of the bourgeois order of the capitalist world. This explains their commitment to elections and referendums. Their progressive measures have won them denunciations as “communists, leftists and socialists” among the right wing, ruling class and US imperialist opposition. On the other hand, forces on the left ignore the impact of their programs and focus on the charismatic charm of these populist leaders. There is no denying that these measures have contributed to improving the lives of down-trodden sectors of society but it is also true that all these actions are still only “band-aid solutions” and remain within boundaries that respect bourgeois property rights and institutions.


What is Chavismo?

Chavismo emerged as a reaction against neo-liberalism in the 90’s and was one of the first voices of protest against US imperialism after a decade in which the US declared absolute victory over communism. Chavez’s defiance of the United States quickly enhanced his popularity. Simultaneously, he was able to increase social welfare benefits thanks to an oil boom. New measurable improvements are now rare due to the severe impact of the US and European economic crises which have affected Venezuela directly and harshly.

Here we see clearly the exact nature of these particular regimes: they are bourgeois nationalist regimes with populist hot sauce, in an era of the global crisis of capitalism and unstable relationships between countries. This situation, the actions and the personas of the leaders, in no way resemble Cardenas in 1930s Mexico nor Peron in post-World War II Argentina. This is populism in a time of crisis, confronting an imperialism that does not resemble ascendant US imperialism at the end of the World War II. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are facing the emergence of Brazil as an imperialist power that dominates their natural resources as well as their imports and exports. The three governments have done little or nothing to confront the regional influence of Brazil and instead see it as an ally, so much so that Chavez has called former Brazilian Prime Minister Lula his “big brother.”

It is undeniable that the Chavez’s government has implemented programs that benefit the poor, especially in the areas of housing and food. Despite the now more frequent blackouts and an economic crisis that undermines the promises of the celebrated “socialism of the 21st century”, the “red shirts”, Chavez’s followers, still listen with almost religious adulation to the Sunday program “Hello President”. On the show Hugo Chávez answers calls, makes fun of the “escuálidos”, expropriates some properties and punishes government officials who he accuses of distorting his political agenda.

A Populism Mispronounced Socialism of the 21st Century

“Socialism of the 21st century” is nothing more than populism and pure reverence built on the backs of those that are excluded from the distribution of the taxes and the democratic networks.The love-hate relationship that Chávez, Morales and Correa have with leftists and progressives of theworld perfectly fills a void in the existing political community.

These South American governments have carried out social programs such as assistance to families without incomes, returned land to indigenous communities, health and education programs, subsidized basic food staples, made nationalizations and expropriations and investments in infrastructure as a way of responding to the current political crisis and at the same time fortifying their own respective positions of power.

Obviously, in spite of the fact that are branded as socialists and speak of the establishment of a “Socialism of the 21st century” or even of ”Andean and Bolivariano” socialism, real socialism does not exist there yet.  Even if nationalizations, some expropriations and other measures have taken place in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, the bourgeoisie continues to own and control the majority of the means of production. Actually, a larger and more extensive number of these actions and measures happened in Mexico when the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI) was in power. No one thought at the time that the PRI was a revolutionary regime or that its actions were socialist.

The nationalizations in these three countries have only been the state’s small participatory steps in the income stream without touching the interests and the proprietary rights of the imperialist petroleum companies that continue exploiting the resources of these countries. There have not been expropriations nor has the working class gained power. Instead, the income of the state has increased and the state has attempted, with limited success, to gain greater administrative control.

These leaders have maintained the contradiction of remaining independent while advancing social reforms without upsetting the capitalist state. However this has cost them dearly. The gasolinazo in Bolivia may at first seem surprising, but it should have been expected. Morales has been playing with fire for years. He wanted to please everyone and eventually he had to take sides, and he chose the side with the most power. Correa made the same kind of choice when he ordered the suppression of demonstrations of indigenous people. Even without the economic stability that Venezuela had for a short period, both Bolivia and Ecuador built bourgeois/petit-bourgeois nationalist regimes. They are trying to preserve their independence from imperialism while giving concessions to the impoverished masses, yet without disrupting the capitalist structures of both countries.

The timing is bad for the populist politics of Hugo, Evo and Rafael in this period of world crisis.  Their politics seem silly in a world where a wild and voracious capitalist system does not allow them the room to maneuver that they had until now. Meanwhile the “revolutionary” measures of these governments are used to promote the personality cults of these leaders and to build more extensive bureaucracies without generating worker’s power. “Socialism of the 21st century” is fake… a parody, not even of socialism but of populism.




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