Tag Archives: Venezuela

History is Not Made by One Man

The President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has died at the age of 58, after a long struggle with cancer and repeated visits to Cuba for treatments.  After being imprisoned for a failed coup against the Venezuelan oligarchy in 1992, he was released in 1994.  He went on to be elected president in 1998, and led the country to adopting a radically democratic constitution the following year.  Under Chavez, Venezuela became a hotbed of democratic experimentation, including communal councils, communes, worker-managed enterprises, popular militias, land reform, and other forms of popular participation.  Not only these, but Venezuela has seen poverty plummet and basic needs met for all its citizens.  Hugo Chavez shares in the democratic triumph of the Bolivarian Revolution, and bears a good amount of responsibility for it.  But he is the face of the Revolution, not its heart.  Only the Venezuelan people have made their Revolution.

Despite the dubious pronouncements of Western media, Chavez was not a dictator.  When pressed for evidence of dictatorship, they point to things like the expropriation of corporate property.  This means turning abandoned buildings over to the poor, or seizing uncultivated land and distributing it to tenant farmers.  At the worst, critics point to the denial of a license renewal for a television network that was critical of Chavez.  A dubious assault on press freedom, considering that 90% of Venezuela’s media consists of privately-owned outlets critical of Chavez.  That he cooperated with actual dictators – Libya’s late Qaddafi – is a more justified criticism, though it’s to be expected that he work with other OPEC members.

However, Chavez was no Solon, laying down the new constitution and then leaving for ten years to prevent Athens from becoming dependent on his leadership.  For example, he had an hours-long television program, Alo Presidente, where he personally addressed the nation.  This sort of thing is conducive to leadership of the people, but not leadership by the people.  Democratic republics must destroy cults of personality, but presidential republics like Venezuela (or the United States) are more likely to affirm it.

Some of his reforms were undesirable as well.  In 2007, the Chavez government held a referendum on an omnibus package of constitutional amendments, most of which would have been excellent, had it passed.  It did not pass though, and the government followed up with a more focused proposed constitutional amendment.  Of all the great options to take from the 2007 omnibus amendment, Chavez chose to eliminate presidential term limits, and extend the term by a year.  I have already criticized the democratic failings of unlimited terms of office in this linked article.

Better to groom a successor, or even better, to progress faster towards the “communal state”, in which power is so distributed that it cannot be recaptured.  But the focus on the democratic reorganization of the Venezuelan state seemed to have been replaced by productivism, a focus on rapid expansion of the nation’s industrial base.  Of course, industrial expansion is desirable and necessary for an undeveloped nation like Venezuela.

Chavez was the catalyst for Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.  But catalysts are not necessary conditions for a chemical reaction, but will speed that process.  Chavez was a remarkable man, who should be praised for his virtues and blamed for his failings.

If this post has a critical tone, it is because social movements have a tendency towards martyrology.  This tendency we all have – of investing individuals with historical purpose – is what demobilizes movements.  The men and women who are thought to make history are remarkable people, but they are carried to greatness on the shoulders of the rest of us.


What?  Too soon?

This is What Democracy Looks Like: Communal Councils

We here at Philosophyhelmet bring you the latest in democracy!  Venezuela’s communal councils, assemblies of hundreds of citizens for the administration of their own neighborhoods, are at the forefront of democratic rejuvenation in the world.  Communal councils originated in the attempt of the Venezuelan government to institutionalize participatory budgeting after adoption of Venezuela’s new democratic constitution in 1999.  The government sought to establish administrative organs in municipalities called Local Public Planning Councils that would be the site of participatory budgeting.  However, you can’t legislate democratic participation, only cultivate it.  By 2005, the Planning Councils had been conquered by municipal bureaucracy.  Yet already existing were a multitude of community organizations – local committees for health, education, etc.  In 2006, the National Assembly provided legislation for “communal councils” to unite all of the diverse local committees into singular self-managing neighborhood assemblies of citizens.  Today, (perhaps) one-third of all Venezuelans have organized themselves into communal councils. read more »