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Notes from the Frontlines of Venezuela’s Social War

As Roland Denis puts it: "A powerful confrontation is coming... As long as we
don't create a popular force capable of winning, we could lose power
Notes from the Frontlines of Venezuela's Social War

Nov 2nd 2012, by George Ciccariello-Maher - Warscapes

Venezuela is a society at war. There is no need to sugarcoat this fact, in
part because it is nothing new. But against those voices who would insist
that it was president Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution that
divided Venezuela into two warring camps, it must be said: the camps
already existed; the Revolution has simply revealed them.

*On the Virtues of Open War*

Sometimes, often, open war is preferable to its opposite. I don't call that
opposite "peace" because of the need to destabilize this all-too-common,
all-too-easy opposition. No, this war is nothing new. Instead, it is a
question of rendering visible the war that already exists, that has
existed, and that continues unabated. Whereas Frantz Fanon famously
diagnosed colonial society as Manichean, as cut into two, inhabited by two
deadly opponents whose enmity is as clear as day, things are rarely so
clear in ostensibly postcolonial Latin America.

The war has been going on for many decades, even centuries, but from the
1960s to the 1980s it remained largely concealed under a blanket of
petrodollars. Occasionally, it was measured in bullet-ridden corpses: in
the sporadic guerrilla struggle of the 1960s and in state-sponsored
massacres like Cantaura < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantaura_Massacre>(1982),
Yumare < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yumare_Massacre> (1986), and El
Amparo< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_El_Amparo>(1988). But
most would agree that this war became absolutely undeniable on
February 27th, 1989, in the popular, anti-neoliberal rebellion known as the
Caracazo and the massacre of massacres that followed.

What former president Rafael Caldera called the "showcase window for Latin
American democracy" was irreparably shattered, and no quantity of rhetoric
could repair it. The events of 1989 begat Chávez's failed 1992 coup, and
1992 begat his eventual election in 1998. Suddenly, wealthy elites were
wondering aloud what had happened to their powerful myth of Venezuelan
harmony< link to muse.jhu.edu.

To lose the comforting myth of one's own magnanimity was one thing, but to
lose power to a dark-skinned brute was another thing altogether.

As the Venezuelan anthropologist Jacqueline Clarac recently put
it< http://www.ciudadccs.info/?p=12533>,

"Venezuela has always been polarized," but this has simply been
"invisibilized." She continues, "At present, we could say that the dominant
classes, who have always been on the side of the dominator, have been
displaced in this process, and this has been very traumatic for them."

Where there had been one Venezuela, there were now two, but this was not a
clean division of the existing ŕ la Mao. Rather, it was the reappearance of
the invisibilized, the reemergence of those who had been systematically
excluded from Venezuelan politics. A simple glance at the television, the
halls of power, a beauty pageant, and even the voting rolls in the 1990s
would make it perfectly clear that exclusion was a structuring principle of
this "harmonious" Venezuelan reality. Rather than mere division, an entire
sector of Venezuelan society has *come into being* since 1989.

*From the Part to the Whole*

Michel Foucault identified social war as an unrecognized structuring
premise of modern society, but one that is systematically concealed by the
unitary logic of sovereignty. Despite the inherent tension between
representative democracy and more direct forms of grassroots control that
the Bolivarian process seeks to foster, the Bolivarian Revolution is at
least in part an electoral revolution, and to attempt an electoral
revolution is to agree to play the game of popular sovereignty, to struggle
for the whole. But this is a notoriously dangerous game, and most radical
parties that have played it in Venezuela — from Teodoro Petkoff's
MAS< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movement_for_Socialism_(Venezuela)>to
the late Alfredo
Maneiro's Radical Cause < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Causa_R> — have
been devoured by its logic.

Chávez has played the game of popular sovereignty with more skill than
most, walking the fine line of appealing to the whole while empowering a
part: the poor, the oppressed, the pueblo understood in its most subversive
sense. This peculiarity of the Venezuelan Revolution is best epitomized by
Chávez's relation to the most militant of revolutionary collectives
operating in Venezuela< http://www.counterpunch.org/2008/04/25/embedded-with-the-tupamaros/>.

These groups, many of which constitute veritable anti-state communist
militias, actively and consciously reject the holy right of sovereignty to
a monopoly of violence, and while Chávez occasionally scolds them in
public, he also seems to realize that they are his best protection. At
times, however, this game can seem exasperating to sympathizers, especially
when it cuts against demands for more radical transformation: as longtime
revolutionary Roland Denis recently told me, "Chávez speaks of 'pulverizing
the bourgeois state' while in many ways doing the opposite."

Lest we conclude, however, that the play of popular sovereignty is simply a
ruse, that beneath the rhetoric of unity there lay an ulterior motive of
class conflict, it is worth recalling - as Argentine-Mexican philosopher of
liberation Enrique Dussel has argued - that the struggle of the oppressed
and excluded part is always also a struggle for a new and reconfigured
whole, a war for the sort of harmony that has never existed in Venezuela
except as a governing myth.

*From War of Position to War of Maneuver*

I recently returned to Caracas after four years away, and perhaps the most
visually striking indicator of the city's transformation is the sprouting
up of large apartment buildings — white and red — under the aegis of Misión
Vivienda (Mission Housing). More revealing than the Venezuelan government's
new insistence on fulfilling the needs of the homeless, however, is the
location of this housing. Rather than occupying empty spaces at the
periphery of society, these projects have proliferated like unwelcome but
ineradicable mushrooms in mixed and even opposition neighborhoods.

I travel to El Encantado, which despite translating literally as
"enchanted," is instead the most isolated and neglected part of Petare, the
largest and most dangerous barrio in Venezuela, and arguably all of Latin
America. Here a hydroelectric plant and train line once nourished the
population, but that is all in the past, and today the only way to reach El
Encantado is down a long and unstable dirt path hundreds of feet above the
Guaire River. It used to be a paradise of sorts, but now the river here
stinks of refuse and is visibly choked with garbage.

Local activists associated with the youth movement Chávez Es Otro
Beta< link to www.reuters.com
to me how, despite four years under both an opposition mayor and
governor (the latter being Henrique Capriles, Chávez's opponent in the
recent presidential contest), little has changed. "The opposition doesn't
ever come to this area," they tell me, disgusted but hardly surprised.
"Capriles wouldn't dare to show his face here." The disregard for El
Encantado is even more galling since it sits across a ravine from the
affluent opposition stronghold of El Hatillo, and from this collapsing dirt
road we can see wealthy housing developments jutting into the horizon from
amid otherwise lush countryside.

But these activists draw my attention across this vast geographical and
socio-economic gulf to a series of buildings that is larger and more
prominent than most, which I expect to contain astronomically priced
condos. Not so: they have been seized by Misión Vivienda and are currently
being outfitted to house those displaced from* barrios* like this one. This
is about more than merely providing housing to the poor and those displaced
by the all-too-frequent mudslides that destroy entire *barrios* in an
instant. It is about bringing the war to the enemy in a way that provokes
further polarization and the sharpening of political positions that comes
along with it.

This is, in many ways, the lesson of the recent electoral results. On
October 7, Chávez was re-elected by a margin of 11 percentage points, a
landslide most anywhere on earth, but for a Revolution that won by 25
percent six years ago, this narrowed margin reveals a great deal. Is
Venezuelan society more clearly divided into two chunks organized around
contrasting political outlooks and aspirations? The now popular opposition
phrase — *somos casi la mitad*, "we are nearly half"— certainly suggests as

As one recent commentary put it< http://www.aporrea.org/ideologia/a152392.html>,
these are "not the same votes" as 2006 and 1998, since the socialist
project today is more clearly defined. As a result, the tendency that Gregory
Wilpert identified< link to books.google.com,

according to which "Chávez was elected by the middle class... and confirmed by
the poor," appears to still hold. But the same cannot be said of those who
voted for Henrique Capriles Radonski and an opposition which still lacked a
coherent alternative program, and which, if a leaked governing
plan< http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/09/28/the-election-that-matters/>

to be believed, continues to disguise its neoliberal aspirations
social democratic rhetoric.

One thing clearly stands out from the numbers, however. Venezuela's
presidential race was not a standard electoral contest on the U.S. model,
one in which two parties race to the center in an attempt to win the soft
middle. Although both candidates occasionally softened their rhetoric to
attract the "middle class," votes won do not appear to have been at the
expense of the other side, but rather came through the mobilization of new
or previously disaffected voters. Turnout was massive, and while
proportionally Chávez lost 8 percent compared to 2006, he actually won
nearly a million new votes, while Capriles mobilized more than two million
more than his notably uncharismatic predecessor, Manuel Rosales.

*The War Within Chavismo*

This, however, is not the only, or even most crucial, lesson of the
elections, whose narrower margin cannot be attributed solely to a laudable
sharpening of political positions. The results also point towards an
internal war within the Chavista ranks, one long simmering but which many
expect will come rapidly to a head. "This is Chávez's last chance," one
revolutionary tells me without a hint of hyperbole. Unless revolutionaries
can mobilize their base through radical and effective action, the very
survival of the process will soon be called into question.

Chavismo, according to Roland Denis, is more than just a run-of-the-mill
mass movement: It has become a veritable "movement of popular struggle"
comprising a multiplicity of forms and initiatives. The source of
Chavismo's energy, however, was "attacked" by the attempt to centralize it
within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and as a result of
both the internal dynamics of the party and the "disastrous" experiences of
Chavista governance on a regional level, the movement as a whole is
suffering an internal *desgaste*, or exhaustion.

Confronting this *desgaste* is not a question of selecting better regional
candidates, or about the question of who will succeed Chávez. Instead, it
concerns the problem of whether or not the constellation of forces will
allow radicals to take the reins of the process, steering it in a way that
is at once revolutionary and democratic. And yet, as Chávez's health
remains in question, and as December gubernatorial elections quickly
approach, such questions cannot be cast aside.

Of the three main contenders to succeed Chávez, former soldier Diosdado
Cabello < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diosdado_Cabello> is widely
considered to lead the "endogenous right" - the more conservative
revolutionary forces - and is rumored to be severely corrupt. While he has
proven an electoral failure both in Miranda State and within the United
Socialist Party (PSUV), one anonymous revolutionary recently quipped to me
that "it's not a question of electability, it's a question of the balance
of forces, and Diosdado owns generals, he owns ministries, he has built a
powerful machine." More importantly, this electoral calculation would shift
drastically if more moderate sectors of the opposition ever decide to throw
their lot in with a centrist Chavista.

On the other hand, Elías Jaua < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El%C3%ADas_Jaua>,
until recently Chávez's vice president, has a long history of civilian
militancy with origins in the underground armed struggle of the 1980s and
maintains close relations with grassroots movements today. He is clearly
the choice of the radicals and the youth, and currently faces off (in what
will be a difficult but potentially decisive gubernatorial race in Miranda
State) against none other than Henrique Capriles Radonski. While Jaua
fights a difficult battle, one that Cabello himself has proven incapable of
winning, Nicolás Maduro < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolás_Maduro> sits
comfortably as the newly named vice president, his hands unsullied by
electoral races or practical local governance. A former bus driver and
union leader, Maduro holds his cards closer to his chest and, while
politically powerful, has failed to chart a clear path to either the right
or the left (although some suggest the feasibility of a Jaua-Maduro

*For Reinaldo Iturriza, who works closely with both Jaua and youth
movements like Otro Beta that support him, the challenge is to
fundamentally rethink politics from below. The PSUV will never be fixed, he
tells me, unless the movements are able to generate "an entirely new
political logic" rooted in the critique of representation. "We need to
create a new way of doing politics," he insists, and the fate of not only
the Revolution, but the country, depends upon it. As Denis puts it: "A
powerful confrontation is coming... As long as we don't create a popular
force capable of winning, we could lose power tomorrow."*

*George Ciccariello-Maher** teaches political theory from below at Drexel
University in Philadelphia. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A
People's History of the Bolivarian Revolution (Duke University Press,
2013), and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.*
*Source URL (retrieved on 02/11/2012 - 10:01am):*