Participation and Polarization After Chávez

From the Series: Protests and Polarization in Venezuela After Chávez

Photo by Jorge Silva, Reuters.

Beneath the cacophony of political noise that dominates media coverage of the recent Venezuelan protests, there lies a host of ongoing social, political, and economic processes that demand closer and more considered attention than they are often afforded. Among the most significant of these is the relationship between the chavista state and the grassroots bases that have been central to the electoral victories of Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro. When Chávez was in his pomp following a landslide electoral victory in 2006, one of the major talking points among scholars of Venezuela was his government’s drive to promote new forms of participatory democracy. The government passed a law in 2006 allowing citizens to form neighborhood-level communal councils (consejos comunales, CCs) that could directly administer state funds for community-improvement schemes. Tens of thousands of CCs were formed in the first few years following the law, with an estimated one-billion dollars transferred to local communities to finance their chosen projects. The government followed this by launching a series of experimental communes (comunas), which strove to group together CCs across larger territories and establish the beginnings of a parallel “communal state.” According to Chávez, the long-term aim was to gradually transfer political and economic power to CCs and communes, thereby supplanting the bourgeois state and circumventing its more uncooperative and conservative elements.

What was the impact of these initiatives on those who became involved in them? Between 2008 and 2010, I carried out ethnographic fieldwork with working-class community activists in a shantytown (barrio) in Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city. I found that both the CCs and the communes produced mixed results, with a myriad of competing ideas and understandings characterizing local people’s engagement with them. In the case of the CCs, the community achieved significant material improvements thanks to their projects. These included a community-run bus service that provided cheap travel to the city center and employment for local drivers and collectors, funding for highly successful festivals like Children’s Day (El Día de Los Niños), and support for the community’s elderly residents in the form of trips to the country and social events.

For those who were elected as council spokespeople (voceras or voceros), the majority older women, the CCs offered a chance to tap into state resources, acquire new skills as community organizers, and cultivate social and moral capital. But it was also true that the government’s lofty expectations for mass participation were at odds with a number of more prosaic everyday challenges. Chief among these were frustrations with state-funding providers, who often seemed slow to respond to the community’s requests. There were also significant divisions among different members of the community about the overall mission of the CCs. Some accused their spokespeople of acting in self-interest rather than for the collective good, while more radical actors warned that an obsession with obtaining money was inhibiting the CCs’ most important function: revolutionary self-organization. When I last visited the community in 2012, I concluded that the CCs were best understood as contested spaces in which a complex interplay between individual self-interests, state agendas, and broader ideological imaginings intersected on a daily basis.

A game of futbolito organized by local communal councils in Valencia, Venezuela. Photo by Matt Wilde.

Similar trends were observable in residents’ attempt to build a commune. As plans were put together for a pilot commune, a power struggle emerged between two groups of chavista community leaders, each of which was backed by a different arm of the state. The major bone of contention between the two groups centered on competing understandings of what participatory democracy should look like. While one group wanted to limit the size of the commune and acquire state resources as fast as possible, the other was suspicious of the involvement of state agencies and wanted to focus on slowly building grassroots democratic structures on their own terms. There was thus an unresolved disjuncture between prefigurative and instrumentalist politics, in which contrasting political imaginaries played out amid a series of intransigent structural problems.

Hugo Chávez and Simón Bolívar in Valencia, Venezuela. Photo by Matt Wilde.

How might these dynamics be affected by the recent violence and worsening of relations between the government and its opponents? Aside from the immediate threat of further violence, perhaps the greatest long-term risk for those I worked with is that the kinds of critical exchanges I witnessed will be stifled by the need to close ranks and show loyalty. Many working-class chavistas have justifiable complaints with the Maduro government, but they will not readily risk a return of the elites who denied them dignity and hope for so long. The alliance between barrio residents and mainstream chavismo has always been a contingent one, with electoral support for the government resting on the belief that the significant gains working-class Venezuelans have won will be rolled back should the opposition take power. But in the context of toxic polarization, the danger is that this contingent alliance will cease being a means to an end and become instead an end in itself.