This post is part of a series on the Latin American pink tide, moderated and edited by Massimiliano Mollona (Goldsmiths, University of London).
After heading the pink tide in Latin America, the Bolivarian government in Venezuela has most recently experienced significant challenges (Bolton 2016). With oil prices sinking, inflation skyrocketing, and consumption goods chains being blocked by commercial networks sympathetic of the opposition, the government has started losing support in its base. Gloating over power cuts and “food shortages”—or more accurately, deficits of certain consumables—opposition-supporting international and Venezuelan private media are hysterically preparing for a pyrrhic victory of the free market over socialism. Scandalized by ever-stronger reactions against Dilma Rouseff’s presidency in Brazil, Venezuelan government supporters home and abroad take an ever more defensive stance shielding the government from internal and external critique alike.
While the dignity and empowerment that the Bolivarian process has brought to Venezuelans is undeniable (Åsedotter Strønen 2016), with this contribution I argue that the closure of the regime to internal critique and self-rectification has contributed to the current dead-end street for progressive politics in the country. Critiques against the overreliance of the government on oil, the failure to diversify its Dutch disease economy, and poor financial decisions of the government have not been taken into consideration. They have been either silenced or sanctioned. And while critical feedback is crucial for strengthening the Bolivarian regime, in what follows I use material from my fieldwork in Caracas in 2008 and 2009 to show some mechanisms at play that silence radical critique.
I met Michael Lebowitz in May 2013 in Belgrade, two months after the death of President Hugo Chávez. He was invited by left groups and the Rosa Luxemburg foundation to speak about Yugoslav and Venezuelan forms of workers control. I first saw the Canadian political economist in Caracas in 2009, where he and his partner, writer and activist Marta Harnecker, were part of the International Center Francisco de Miranda (Centro Internacional Miranda, CIM), a think tank sponsored by the Ministry of Higher Education. CIM was proposed to Chávez by Lebowitz and Harnecker, then a President’s advisor. Based in the nationalized hotel Anauco Suites in downtown Caracas, CIM-affiliated left-wing intellectuals produced research and provided training to government officials. In Belgrade I mentioned the forum “Intellectuals for Socialism and Democracy.” “Were you really at that important, intense meeting?” Michael asked, his eyes shining.
The forum “Intellectuals for Socialism and Democracy: One-way Streets and the Ways Ahead” in June 2009 offered constructive intellectual critique and discussion of alternative solutions to the emerging contradictions of the Bolivarian process. Yet, more than opportunity opening, it presented a critical juncture moment (Kalb and Takk 2005): it allowed institutional arrangements to emerge, which become difficult to change. The forum aimed to galvanize reform from within. Yet, it ended producing a conjuncture in which less and less critique was possible. Instead of serving to offer critical corrective, well-established left intellectuals had to conform to the hierarchy of radicality of the revolution, in which the figure of Chávez had to be placed on top.
The referendum for the eternal reelection of the Venezuelan president took place in February 2009. It followed two lost election campaigns for the Bolivarian movement: the 2007 constitutional referendum won by the “no” vote and marked by a low turnout and demoralization among the Chavista base, and the partial loss of the November 2008 local elections when the battle for the capital Caracas was won by an opposition mayor. Chávez and his United Socialist Party (PSUV) did not contest the results, confirming their firm democratic stance. Yet, more than 50 percent of votes were for PSUV candidates throughout the country and were seen as a reason for Chávez to appoint a new referendum on end of term limit.
When I first arrived in Venezuela before the November 2008 local elections, there was a consensual silence among Chavistas about the controversies and failures within the Bolivarian process. The discussions that took place at spaces of intellectual and popular debate in Caracas were marked by a peculiar self-censure. The electoral losses were attributed not to the government, PSUV, or the president but exclusively to the persisting structures of the old bourgeois state and its representative democracy. Yet, the surprising second election campaign in just two months coincided with the first blows of the world financial crisis on Venezuela. Supporters contested the campaign’s expenditure and the austerity measures after the steep decline of oil prices. Budgets were cut and Chavista contract workers from the popular sectors were suspended while permanent employees loyal to previous regimes kept their jobs. Protests of students and workers followed (Wilpert 2009). Even though Chávez and PSUV won the referendum in 2009 with 54% percent, the strategy of government supporters after the 2002 coup d’état “not to give arms to the enemy” started to dissipate, and critical voices emerged.
Against this background the chair of CIM, Luis Bonilla Molina, organized the public Forum “Intellectuals, Socialism and Democracy.” As Michael Lebowitz told me in 2013, neither Bonilla nor the rest of CIM intellectuals could predict “all what happened afterwards.” The forum was opened by Spanish scholar, Juan-Carlos Monedero—later an adviser of PODEMOS. Monedero declared that the revolution was suffocating under the “hyperleadership of Chávez.” The second speaker in the encounter was sociologist Vladimir Acosta, professor in sociology at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), famous for his program on national TV and ardent support to the government, and former member of Youth Section of Venezuela’s Communist Party (JPCV). Acosta started his speech with a surprising statement:
I celebrate, of course, our extraordinary achievements over the last ten years. However, important unnoticed or underestimated problems have accumulated and have become a menace to the advancement and deepening of this process, which, I believe, we all wish to be successful.
Amid increasing silence, Acosta enumerated thirteen crucial problems that he saw as threatening the revolution. He critiqued the lack of clear political program in the face of the vague generic idea of socialism of the twenty-first century. He outlined the contradiction between the revolution as a collective effort and the centrality of Chávez’s leadership. For Acosta PSUV was not a revolutionary party but rather an electoral instrument of the Bolivarian government. He criticized the persistent capitalist relations of production, the failure of the government to challenge consumerism among the population, the lack of transparency in public expenditure, and the timid nationalization not affecting the rich. He emphasized that the commercial media were the number one power holder in Venezuela and that moderate currents dominated PSUV. Calling Chávez “the soul, heart, nerve, and force of this process,” he still pleaded government supporters not to suppress their critique.
Acosta’s speech released an avalanche of critical interventions: some prepared, others improvised. UCV’s feminist anthropologist Iraida Vargas asked provocatively if the revolution needed a state. Michael Lebowitz insisted that revolutionary intellectuals should subject themselves to discipline by the revolutionary party but reminded that PSUV was still far from such a party. Historian Roberto Lopéz from Maracaibo—a former Maoist rural guerilla member in the 1980s—spoke of the division of center and periphery in which the countryside was neglected by the revolution. Economist Victor Álvarez, former Minister of Basic Industry, showed National Statistics Office data on the actual increase of the share of private companies during Chávez’s presidency. Miguel-Angel Pérez Pirella from the government-sponsored research institute IDEA demonstrated that science in Venezuela still worked as individual effort, rather than radically reorganized collective endeavor. Gonzalo Gomez—former student organizer and editor-in-chief of the government-supported online comment and analyses website Aporrea—spoke of the failure of the state media to create revolutionary content and format. Many other critical interventions followed (Aporrea 2009).
The men and women presenting at the forum had a record of work as popular educators, community and trade union organizers. Speakers stated, “This is not an attack. We are here to show support the Revolution.” Many said they were previously reticent to voice critique as it could be used by the opposition to destabilize Chávez’s rule. They had living memory of the coups against democratically elected governments in 1973 in Chile and in 2002 in Venezuela.
The meeting went on in the spirit of a shared direction. Yet the anticipated new avenues for critical reflection of the Bolivarian process turned into a one-way street. The first attack came from Chavista newspaper El Diario Vea’s regular column Grain of Corn (Un Grano de Maiz). It was authored by an activist close to Rafael Ramírez—Michael Lebowitz recalled—head of PDVSA, a strong opponent of workers’ control. In 2008 Ramírez withheld information on the oil industry from the Minister of Planning, hindering economic planning. El Grano de Maiz called the forum intellectuals “infiltrated bourgeois” who tried to destabilize the revolution. In Aporrea, critics called intellectuals destructive and criticized the Bolivarian division of labor that championed “quazi intellectuals” to common people (Linares 2009).
Chávez’s awaited response came through national TV. Seated in an open-air studio, he scorned the “armchair theorists,” sarcastically stating, “Who called these intellectuals Chavista? I didn’t!” If they thought they could solve Venezuela’s problems, the president pleaded, “Let them come on Sunday. I will happily spend time with my family” (YVKE Mundial 2009). His next Sunday show, Alo Presidente, launched its “theoretical” version, Alo Presidente Theorico (VTV 2009). Chávez entered Venezuelans homes discussing Marxist theory. In one of the shows, he discussed exploitation with a teenager who wished for a phone company job. And while Lebowitz was fascinated by the show, its lunch after the forum could be read as rendering intellectuals replaceable.
CIM intellectuals published their interventions in a new journal, La Comuna. Their collective response on Aporrea stated that deep inside Chávez’s arguments “coincided with the main points in the forum.” Later some of them told me that Chávez threatened to expel them from PSUV, but late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and the president’s also late adviser General Alberto Müller Rojas made him reconsider, the latter warning that Chávez was “surrounded by a nest of scorpions.”
In 2013 Michael Lebowitz remembered the forum with somewhat bitter nostalgia. He seemed truly sad about the death of el Comendante, whom he dearly admired. “He was so eager to learn,” Michael recalled a spontaneous midnight phone call from the president as Chávez was eager to discuss with him and Harnecker a book he was reading. In Michael’s eyes, “Chávez didn’t like public critique—private he took earnestly … But then, the president called into a TV station where Juan-Carlos Monedero was interviewed and said Juan-Carlos was right about his presidency being a ‘hyperleadership.”” For Michael it was people in Chávez’s closest circle who defied critique and rejected the bottom-up change that Chávez embraced. As Michael said, graphically “When it hit the fan we had to struggle for our lives … not literally, but attacks began from everywhere.” Minister of Higher Education Luis Acuna wanted to close CIM or hand it over to another ministry as “he just didn’t want the added headache.”
For Michael, some positive responses from activists and workers on Aporrea testified that the forum had support at the base. Yet, Cilia Flores, then vice president of PSUV and chair of the National Assembly, and her husband, Nicolas Maduro—later nominated by Chávez and elected as Venezuelan president—opposed the forum. Immediately after the forum, Flores confiscated all issues of journal Comuna that Bonilla Molina had distributed at a PSUV meeting. “Strikingly, the party leaders obediently handed her the issues!” Michael exclaimed. Michael recalled that after Chávez’s critique, Maduro said on TV that intellectuals talked “straw.”
After the forum, CIM was not given further funding and its programs slowly dissolved. Lebowitz and Harnecker have left Venezuela on good terms and have returned upon occasions but have since worked in Cuba, Ecuador, and Canada. In 2013 Michael feared Maduro would share Rafael Ramirez’s Cuban top-down approach to workers’ control. He said, “This makes me seriously concerned about the direction of the revolution.” In our correspondence in March 2016 Michael insisted that the struggle continued. Maduro, he said, had adopted some critiques from Harnecker’s work, was admired by the commune militants, and had “moved some of the scorpions out.”
For me, however, not only the struggle but also the concern continues. The forum presented a turning point in which the possibility for critique of the Bolivarian government was opened and then closed. Unlike authoritarian left-wing governments in the twentieth century, the Bolivarian government did not apply any violence. Yet, the reactions of Chávez and the Chavista media and PSUV showed mechanisms of shunning constructive critique and disregarding legitimate discontent. In an increasingly top-down process, left-wing intellectuals and militants with a significant past in the struggle against exploitation and injustice were not recognized as a corrective to the revolutionary power. No further attempt was made to reestablish an intellectual tribune that would become a critical corrective to the government. Since Chávez suffered an untimely death, the internal critique of the Revolution shifted from “no weapons to the enemy” to “de mortuis aut nihil aut bene.”
Mariya Ivancheva is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Equality Studies Centre at the University College Dublin and a member of the editorial collective of LeftEast web portal. Her PhD dissertation from Central European University’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology (2013) explores the role of socialist intellectuals in the university reform of the Bolivarian Venezuela. Mariya works on the role of academic elites and higher education in the legacy and present of radical movements and socialist regimes.
 Recently, Marxist political economist Manuel Sutherland has been suspended from the Bolivarian University after the publication of his article giving alternative critical explanations of the “economic war” against the government (see Sutherland 2015 and López Sánchez 2016)
All the presentations from the forum were live streamed on national TV. They were uploaded and transcribed on Aporrea (see Aporrea 2009).
 Diario Vea’s archive is available online only after 2014; the column was reprinted on the blog of Un Grano de Maiz (2009).
 Latin, “of the dead, either [speak] good or [say] nothing”
Aporrea. 2009. “Noticias sobre Encuentro Intelectuales, Socialismo y Democracia” (accessed 19 May 2016).
Åsedotter Strønen, Iselin. 2016. “After the Bolivarian Revolution: What’s in store for Margarita?” FocaalBlog, 1 April 2016 (accessed 19 May 2016).
Bolton, Peter. 2016. “The other explanation for Venezuela’s economic crisis.” Venezuela Analysis, 28 March (accessed 19 May 2016).
Kalb, Don, and Herman Takk 2005. Critical junctions: Anthropology and history beyond the cultural turn. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Linares, Rubén. 2009. “La relación entre los gandoleros del combustible y los ‘intelectuales.’” Aporrea, 16 June (accessed 19 May 2016).
López Sánchez, Roberto. 2016. “Solidaridad con Manuel Sutherland, despedido de su cargo docente en la UBV.” Aporrea, 23 February (accessed 19 May 2016).
Sutherland, Manuel. 2015. “Crisis económica o la falaz ‘guerra económica’… derrota histórica y grises perspectivas.”Aporrea, 15 December (accessed 19 May 2016).
Un Grano de Maiz. 2009. “El mapa de hoy.” Un Grano de Maiz, 6 June (accessed 19 May 2016).
Venezolana de Televisión. 2014. “Alo Presidente Teorico.” VTV, 16 February (accessed 19 May 2016)
Wilpert, Gregory. 2009. “An important but risky victory for Venezuela and for socialism.” Venezuela Analysis (accessed 19 May 2016).
YVKE Mundial. 2009. “Chávez responde a intelectuales de izquierda que critican su ‘hiperliderazgo.’” Aporrea, 14 June (accessed 19 May 2016).
Cite as: Ivancheva, Mariya. 2016. “The revolution will not be criticized? The (im)possibility of left-wing critique in Venezuela.” FocaalBlog, 24 May. www.focaalblog.com/2016/05/24/mariya-ivancheva-the-revolution-will-not-be-criticized-the-impossibility-of-left-wing-critique-in-venezuela.