This interview examines the impact of US sanctions on the collective subjectivity and contrasts Chavez and Maduro’s way of doing politics.
Lenin Brea is a sociologist, a martial arts enthusiast, and an avid reader of alternative graphic novels. He is the author of a book about the 2017 fascist violence in Venezuela called “Crímenes de odio y violencia incendiaria” (“Hate Crimes and incendiary violence,” 2017). Brea is a member of the Alpargata Solidaria collective, the 15 y Ultimo independent analysis website, and the Universidad Popular de las Comunalidades.
In this interview, we walk through Brea’s reading of Venezuela’s insertion into what he calls “Globalistan” and his analysis of Chavez’s way of forging unity, contraposing it with Nicolas Maduro’s political practices.
In recent months you have theorized about Venezuela’s insertion into “Globalistan,” a category that points to new forms of fluid warfare, the decomposition of nation-states in the periphery, and a permanent state of exception. How is Globalistan taking shape in Venezuela?
There are many aspects of this. However, I would like to concentrate here on Globalistan’s effects on the subjectivity of Venezuelans.
The blockade turns national politics into a dogfight. On the one hand, the government, its agents and its representatives are threatened with something that could be described as worse than death: the sanctions and the discourse of the United States and its allies constitutes an international condemnation, a kind of stigma along the lines of “if you lose power you will lose everything.” On the other side of the political spectrum, the Right is growing and feels that it has a license to do whatever it wants, including political violence. As a result, political life becomes more and more violent, harsher.
It should be said that Venezuela’s guilty verdict is largely due to the fact that the country is geopolitically and symbolically located in the West. More specifically, Venezuela is in the US’s zone of influence which is, obviously, the hegemonic pole in the hemisphere and beyond.
But the guilty verdict is not limited to the leadership of Chavismo and does not extend only to Chavismo as a political movement. It weighs on all Venezuelans. While the sanctions appear to be directed against the government or against Chavismo, the measures target everyone, so everyone is guilty.
Beyond that, the blockade threatens political unity and Venezuela’s sovereignty. That is to say, it calls into question our relationship with our Patria [Homeland], with our economy, with our politics, with our culture, with our own internal affairs, with our destiny and our future, with our decisions.
The blockade constitutes a sort of blackmail. By now, everyone understands how it affects each and every one of us economically, and people are conscious of the arbitrary violence inherent in the measures. However, the blockade’s effectiveness lies in its authoritarian capacity to convince: “If you want peace, normality, tranquillity, then abandon the government.” Of course, bending to the US’s blackmail wouldn’t bring peace, normality or tranquility.
The blockade also makes us more and more dependent on our international allies, mainly China and Russia, and that also curtails our sovereignty.
All this impacts our subjectivity and our emotional lives.
You have argued that as a movement, Chavismo could be understood as a confluence of heterogeneous demands and struggles that at one point in history, namely in the late 1990s, went up against a political order based on exclusion. With Chavez, a plurality of popular struggles were unified and became hegemonic. Let’s talk about this reading.
The hypothesis you mention is the result of an interpretation of Ernesto Laclau’s ideas in my reading of the Venezuelan situation.
With this in mind, I’m trying to understand how Chavismo became the hegemonic political force and the dominant popular political identity. Further, I’m trying to understand the mechanisms by which the majorities identified themselves as Chavistas despite their differences.
Chavismo as a popular movement has a singular identity insofar as it brings together a group of people who commonly identify with the signifier “Chavismo.” However, when we examine the content of this identity, what is most evident are differences, heterogeneity and multiple ways of defining what it is to be a Chavista. Obviously this comes with different (even contradictory) demands, projects, practices, and ideologies.
If we look back at the 1990s, we can see an exclusionary political system on two levels. At a formal level, the system excluded everything that might be interpreted as part of the revolutionary Left. Actually, this was the case since the birth of that political system and constitutional order [4th Republic, 1958‐1999].
Additionally, on a second level, in the past we had institutions – and here I’m mostly referring to parties – which were incapable of representing the demands, interests, projects and ways of thinking of the society as a whole, and in particular of the popular classes.
The political climate in the nineties was one of agitation and struggle. After February 27 [1989, the “Caracazo” insurrection], popular protest became the rule.
To give you a few examples, university students mobilized for the “pasaje estudiantil” [subsidized student transport pass] and for changes in the curriculum; high school students demanded a better educational system and access to higher education; retired people fought for living pensions; health and education workers protested about the lack of resources and low salaries.
In the ‘90s, one could also find street protests demanding access to services; workers demanding wage increases while creating new union structures and other forms of organization. The protestors did this in the face of political violence, but also confronting police violence in the barrios, and out of that sprung a human rights movement formed by a diverse network of civil associations.
The government responded to all these struggles as one would expect: with repression, pigeonholing them as a reincarnation of the historical revolutionary Left. They did this either because they didn’t understand the character of the new protests or because they knew no other way to act.
All these struggles were led by subjects who were diverse in social class terms: people with different conceptions of politics and the world. In turn, the demands resulted in different forms of organization and had different ideological overtones. It is true that February 27, 1989, was a turning point, that it brought the diverse struggles together in a common understanding: that the enemies were the Puntofijismo regime [referring to the “Punto Fijo Pact,” a deal of the elites that established a limited democracy after the fall of the Marcos Perez Jimenez dictatorship in 1958] and the oligarchy… But there was no political unity nor organic unity among them.
The February 4, 1992, insurrection led by Chavez became a unifier of the social struggles, but only through a unified negation of the established order.
Beginning with the February 4 “Por ahora” [“For now”] and until Chavez’s electoral victory  there is a long journey which is key to understanding the process by which Chavismo became the hegemonic popular identity and the dominant political force.
It is important to highlight that the discourse of that early Chavez was essentially a moralistic one focused on corruption. Additionally, while the discourse emphasized inequality and exclusion, it did so from the perspective of social justice. Finally, something similar can be said about the patriotic and Bolivarian content of the discourse, which unified anyone who felt opposition to the political-economic model, despite their differences.
From a theoretical point of view, the conditions for such a thing to occur was that Chavez became a signifier. His utterances had to be imprecise, so that each listener could satisfy his or her particular demands through it. Thus, for the revolutionary left, Chavez represented the socialist revolution, for others the realization of popular democracy, for yet others the pursuit of Bolivarian ideals. And there were even those who conceived of a renovation of Puntofijsimo through Chavez.
More specifically, for students, Chavez meant a better education or access to university; for the middle class, the salvation from what they perceived as inevitable bankruptcy; for the indigenous peoples, their political recognition. Even part of the oligarchy felt represented in that first Chavez. But, one might ask, how did this heterogeneity really come together and what about the contradictions? To give you an example, the demand for “a better education” had different registers. For some this implied a radical reform of the educational system, for others strengthening the existing system, for others access, etc.
So, when Chávez won the presidential elections, he had a tremendous problem on his hands: how to satisfy such a wide and heterogeneous set of demands? How to keep together the diverse movement that had brought him to power? This posed a conflict at the symbolic level, at the level of discourse, but also at the practical level.
At the end of the day the issue was how to govern in a way that would satisfy popular demands – with what political force? – given that satisfying their needs would mean rolling back the established interests.
The first step was the Constituent Assembly, which resulted in a Constitution. The text was too radical for some and too light for others. However, at a symbolic level, it recognized all historical demands as universal rights. Additionally, the Constitution established that the public sphere is the people’s patrimony, a common good, and its main function is to guarantee the realization of the people’s rights.
But this was not enough! In truth, Chavez’s turn to the left happened when he became aware of the need to gain control over the public sphere and, specifically, over our main source of wealth: oil.
The epic of Chavismo as a truly popular movement begins with the struggle to gain full state control over the commons, and particularly over the oil rent. Chavez’s discursive turn to the left, towards the popular, implied scrapping some of the demands that initially constituted the identity of Chavismo. This meant that “Chavez,” “Chavista” or “Chavismo” became signifiers that necessarily excluded some of the early demands. In other words, to the extent that the project went beyond re-founding the Patria, and as it oriented itself towards socialism, the content of the discourse became concrete, specific, and incompatible with some of the demands that brought Chavez to power. In the process part of the middle class moved away from Chavismo.
So Chavismo became a unified plurality. This integration had a discursive basis but it also had, as it developed, a practical popular basis rooted in a government praxis that recognized universal rights while putting the common back into its public form.
So would you say that there was a creative tension between Chavez and the people?
Yes. I think it is important to recognize the tension between the heterogeneous and diverse base of Chavismo and its leadership, in particular, that of Chavez. This tension was constitutive of the movement.
In other words, each of the demands that constituted Chavismo pushed for the realization of what was most particular to it – from the top – but the hegemonic signifier “Chavez” was pushing to bring together the plurality of demands into a single identity. In the process, Chavez couldn’t impose himself (for example, when he tried to realize a single party [the PSUV], he couldn’t) nor could the rank and file impose their particular demands. Thus, the condition for the existence of the movement was a process in which both poles had to sacrifice part of their project in the pursuit of a common one.
To bring tensions to the lowest possible level, Chavez deployed the oil revenue, although the polarization remained throughout. Actually, during Chavez’s presidency, popular protests remained alive and well, and there was a constant questioning of society as a whole. (I should clarify here that I’m not talking about sectors antagonistic to Chavismo.) Faced with this type of protest, the government tried to satisfy their demands. This was an era in which people didn’t think that the government had to be overthrown in order to have water or electricity.
Along these lines, you have reflected about the different ways of doing politics between the governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, with the political logic of the former pulling towards integration and the latter towards fragmentation. Could you elaborate on this?
It’s important to say that President Maduro has had it harder than President Chavez in many ways. He faced a huge drop in oil prices, and he has had to resist the blockade and the constant international aggression.
However, the way in which the president and his government have dealt with this situation isn’t the only possible one. In my opinion, this government has made a clear departure from Chavez’s way of doing politics. (Mind you, this has nothing to do with Chavez’s charisma.)
President Maduro has veered away from the essential policies of Chavez’s government. To give you one example, regarding security policy, Chavez regulated and limited the use of force in the popular sectors. Now, the use of lethal force in popular sectors has become policy.
Additionally, the Maduro government is tremendously opaque while drastically reducing public healthcare and pensions funding. It has also dismantled progressive labor policies.
This makes us wonder whose demands are being satisfied here.
If one looks at the government’s labor policy, it is obvious that it favors the employers, ergo the capitalists, but it also favors public sector employers.
One of the issues that concerns me most is the government’s inability to distinguish between a legitimate protest and one that is not. In other words, it proceeds against any protest, any demand made in the street, as if it were a garrison to be repressed.
Most protests now are not guarimbas, which are violent protests demanding the disappearance of a political tendency [Chavismo], a change in the constitutional order, or call for foreign intervention. The state’s action when it comes to controlling guarimbas is not in question here. However, protests about poor services, the high cost of living, nurses and doctors demanding resources for hospitals, or public employees demanding better wages are not guarimbas and they shouldn’t be treated as such.
The current situation is characterized by official Chavismo’s loss of its hegemony. The sector of Chavismo that is in power does not connect with the popular classes, and it is incapable of responding to their demands.
There is another problem that we have to put on the table, and which exposes the government’s problematic way of doing things. Services are practically free in Venezuela, and that is not a problem if that were a universal policy, that is, if everyone could benefit from it on equal terms. The only problem is how to economically sustain this policy, but I think it is possible.
However, with the services crisis, what is happening is that the system is privileging two sectors: those who can pay on the side [many services such as gas, water or electrical repairs are being paid in dollars] and those who live in privileged areas [such as the center of Caracas]. In a situation like this one, can one expect the unattended sectors to stay committed to the government?
One final problem that I want to address are “bonos” [small, ad hoc subsidies given to citizens] and social policies. President Maduro has turned rights into gifts from the government and from himself. The truth is that Maduro’s government is far more personality-centered than Chavez’s. All this means that the political practices that have emerged are radically opposed to those that constituted Chavismo historically as a political movement.
Obviously, Chavismo is a living force that is part of a popular epic, but it is a force that is currently dispersed. How would you propose reconstituting this force? Is it a matter of recomposing the ethical character of the project in its beginnings as Elias Jaua has proposed? Should we focus our struggles on the rights embodied in the 1999 Constitution, rights that are being cut back? Or should we propose a way forward, wagering everything on the communal project and the proposals of the last Chavez?
[In response to your question I would ask] is reactivating the 1999 Constitution going back? Would it be true to say that the later Chavez was the only one who called for communes and other forms of socio-economic reorganization? Doesn’t the communal project fit in the Constitution?
Beyond these questions, we have to ask ourselves who is the subject, where are its struggles, and what is the path out of the crisis for this subject. Who is the “us” that we are attempting to shape? Would it be all Venezuelans? Communards? The Left? Chavismo? A sector of Chavismo?
There shouldn’t necessarily be (and I place emphasis on “necessarily”) a contradiction between placing our bets on the communal project and defending the 1999 Constitution. To the degree that it is developed, the commune has one of its founding pillars in the Constitution. Its potential growth also has to do with a legal framework that is already in place.
However, if placing our bets on the communal project eventually comes to entail eliminating all property that isn’t communal, or proposing that there should be no other form of economic and social organization than the communal one, that is another matter. That is, if we adopt a radical reading of “Commune or nothing!” – understanding the slogan as “commune for all or total conflict” – then, of course, there is an inexorable contradiction. In that case, from a revolutionary standpoint, the consequent position would be to fight for a new, exclusively communal constitution.
However, the question now is if the communal project (and the subject that pushes it forward) has the necessary force to impose itself – through conviction or through force – in Venezuela as a whole. We could pose the question in another way: can the “commune” signifier or the “Commune or nothing!” slogan work as a representative of a set of popular demands and become a reference point for popular identity or for Chavismo as a whole?
I believe that the communal project is on the defensive right now. It has powerful enemies within the sector of Chavismo that governs. In truth, the subject that pushes the communal project, the part of Chavismo that identifies with the commune, finds itself in a daily struggle for survival, while it is under pressure due to objective tensions.
Additionally, the people who embody the communal project understand that their survival depends on the hegemony of Chavismo at a national level, and on a change in the internal correlation of forces. All this comes with necessary connections and coexistence with other demands and projects within the popular arena. The later may enter into contradiction with the communal project at times, but under the current circumstances, a common front is necessary both for the recovery of Chavismo as a popular identity and in the struggle against the right-wing within Chavismo.
The breadth and scope of the 1999 Constitution, with its recognition of rights, could become a framework for demands coming together, and for the articulation of a common discourse. To the extent that the current situation is characterized by the curtailing of rights, defending the Constitution becomes an affirmation of the common, of a framework that makes it possible to articulate heterogeneous demands and rights.
Chavismo’s key issue is whether it will continue to be the hegemonic political force. By this I’m not so much talking about Chavismo being the governing force, but if it will be the one that represents and is capable of responding to popular demands.
What is particular about the present – the times in which the hegemony of Chavismo is being put into question even though it governs – is that there is no common reference. There isn’t a leader or a vanguard capable of articulating a discourse, or committed to bringing together the multiplicity of demands.
It is necessary to build a new leadership coming from the bases. It is also necessary to reintegrate the struggles and demands that no longer identify with Chavismo. This is a big task, but thesis such as Alfredo Maneiro’s [a very creative left leader, founder of the CausaR party] regarding the vanguard and the building of political blocs are keys to come out of the current maze.
Featured image: Lenin Brea (Venezuelanalysis)