(Semi-)Live Blog of “Venezuela After Chávez” Conference, Watson Center, Brown University

[We have updated and revised this from its original version (and may do so again) in response to participant comments and working through more of our notes. You can watch a webstream of the first two panels here.]

David Smilde & Rebecca Hanson

What is to be Done?

4:55 Maria Casullo questioned whether in the current context polarization was producing positive change in any direction. She suggested that one of the key themes of the day had been the eclipse of politics and the need to bring it back in. David Smilde suggested that we need to focus on the relationship of polarization and politicization. While there clear was a period in which polarization politicized a depoliticized context, in recent years polarization had a depoliticizing function as it allowed political leaders to ignore the legitimate demands of citizens by dehumanizing their opponents and portraying them as an imminent threat to well-being.  

4:50 George Ciccariello Maher said that automatic opposition to “polarization” is a little simplistic. He suggested that the term “polarization” often simply refer to the political emergence of popular sectors which is seen as threatening by the previously dominant political elite. Polarization engenders increasing consciousness.

4:45 Naomi Schiller suggested that there is a lot of state-building going on in Venezuela but that liberal reifications of state and society block it from our view. All of the different participatory initiatives sponsored or supported by the government amount to everyday forms of state-building.

4:40 Richard Snyder suggested two things that stand out to him about Venezuela is the ineffective statebuilding of Chavismo as well as the lackluster opposition. On the latter point he suggested that the nature of the previous regime often leaves its imprint on the opposition to the following regime. (This might suggest that the pacted nature of Punto Fijo democracy has resulted in an opposition that that looks inward and negotiates between allied parties rather than reaching out and engaging voters regardging their concerns.) On the first point Snyder suggested that perhaps the biggest problem is with the electoral authorities. He suggested that attention needs to be paid to making electoral processes, including campaign conditions, are fairer and trusted.

4:35 David Smilde responded to the three questions with three separate suggestions. First, the Unasur sponsored dialogues were the most important development in a long time and could have a depolarizing effect since sitting down and talking face to face inevitably tends to humanize.  It should be supported. Second, the militarization of citizen security needs to be relentlessly critiqued. The long term military character of policing in Venezuela has a lot to do with its corruption and futility and the return to that model under Maduro is unfortunate. Furthermore, there have been many more human rights complaints against the National Guard than against the National Police which shows that the latter’s human rights training and restrictions have had an impact.  Regarding the economy Smilde suggested that ensuring a positive renewal of electoral authorities is the best remedy for Venezuela’s economic tailspin. As long as Chavismo has to win elections it will seek to have a productive economy with a robust private sector.

4:15 The final session was led by Abe Lowenthal who suggested that after listening carefully to the day’s discussion he had the impression that neither the Chavista leadership and followers nor the organized opposition were at all close to achieving their very different visions for Venezuela’s future, but that there is some convergence of description regarding intensified polarization, increased violence and economic deterioration, with contrasting explanations for these observed tendencies. He asked what could be done by different actors from different perspectives to increase the likelihood that Venezuela will make progress toward social justice, broad political participation, equitable economic growth, diminished violence, broader consensus and durable institutions. What could be done toward these ends by the Maduro government, by the organized Venezuelan political opposition, by the ni-nis, by the Church, by the Venezuelan armed forces, and by various parts of the “international community” such as UNASUR, the OAS, the US government and leading NGOs such as Human Rights Watch. Finally he asked what could be done by academic researchers and by journalists and the media to illuminate trends in Venezuela and to increase the likelihood of finding a path toward a brighter future. 

Living in a state of Fear: Violence and Citizen Security in Times of Bolivarian Revolution.

3:00 Rebecca Hanson spoke on citizen security reform. Shows data that reveals people think a decline in family values is the most important cause in crime. She reviews the elements of police reform and shows that 48% of respondents said Policia Nacional were not the most effective security body. Paradoxically people suggested that to make the police more effective they should have more human rights training. About equal percentages evaluate police reforms positively and negatively. Interestingly, polarization has a large impact on these percentages. On the one hand, pro-government and opposition respondents have similar views regarding causes of crime and what would make better police. But with respect to views of the actual reforms the differences are startling 75% of pro-government respondents and only 17% of opposition respondents think the reforms are good. Overall it is positive that people seem to value human rights training, professionalization and don’t support militarization. Negatively, the issue of crime is privatized and has a gender component. Families and mothers are held responsible. Perception of reform is seriously polarized. National Guard is still the preferred security body. They are preferred over police 57% to 14%.

2:40 Veronica Zubillaga spoke of the “paradox of Bolivarian Venezuela”: less poverty but more violence. Thanks to social programs there has been important improvements in social conditions. At the same time there has been an important increase in homicide rates in Venezuela. Furthermore, most homicide victims are from among the poor. 2009 there were 7k kidnappings in Caracas, 19 kidnappings a day. 

Zubillaga also discussed the new spatialization of violence in Venezuela. It has become an important bridge in drug trafficking. While violence has stayed high in urban centers, there has been a ruralization of violence especially among drug trafficking routes because of the presence of non-state, armed actors. Another factor is the inability of local and national leaders to work together when they are of different partisan affiliations.

Citizen security is also undergoing an important mlitarization. 2010 the Dispositivo Bicentenario de Seguridad (National Guard). In 2013 this was transformed into Plan Patria Segura. Now the Minister of Interior and Justice is a military officers as well as others in key positions. These military plans are good at putting young poor people in jail but not at reducing crime. During years of DIBISE homicides increased from 45 per 100k to 53 per 100k despite a 20% increase in incarceration. One of the root causes is the lack of political will to effectively push forward with gun control.  

2:20 Robert Samet talked about the emergence of crime victims associations and what it means. His research showed that victims were the primary subjects and objects of crime journalism in Caracas. This of course is a part of the instrumentalization of crime. Crime and violence serve as a metonym for a litany of complaints. “Denuncias” are made in the name of victims, they blame those in power, they are self conscious “speech acts.” They do things. Two styles of denunciations, reformist and populist. The reformist style seeks to address a specific injustice. The populist style seeks revolutionary change. Elsewhere it has been shown that victims movements are crucial in the rise of punitive populism and the prison industrial complex. Across the developing world, rising crime is a reality. The response has been uniform: a turn to prisons and heavy handed policing. Venezuela was an exception in rejection of “mano dura” policies. HCF did not embrace the victim focus. Under Maduro, immediate and perceptive shift in rhetoric around crime towards a mano dura discourse.

A View from Below: People’s Movements in the Chávez and Post-Chavez Era’s

12:30 In the Q&A Boris Muñoz asked George Ciccariello Maher whether it was democratic to have armed popular groups defending the revolution. Ciccariello Maher responded by asking whether the monopoly of violence is a sin qua non of democracy. These armed groups have been instrumental in resisting anti-democratic forces, such as in April 2002. They were effectively defending the democratic order. In any case the real problem is the attribution of uniform agency to “collectives” in violent actions. These violent actions are most likely not from groups that consider themselves “colectivos” but from less organized pro-government actors. Muñoz pushed back asking how these groups differed from paramilitaries. Ciccariello Maher responded that these collectives have an education and ideology that guide them rather than being  opportunists.

David Smilde asked Naomi Schiller if the fact that participants in community media were focusing on criticizing the state but not trying to overthrow it and focusing also on what they could do to solve their own problems was not consistent with the idea that they were overpowered by the state. She said that the point was not that they were simply going to take care of their own problems but take the initiative in making them known and demanding solutions. This is different from a neoliberal devolution of responsibilities to local communities. 

12:10 Naomi Schiller spoke of polarized representations of the media context in Venezuela. The primary binary used to understand is autonomy versus dependence. This ignores the intertwined history of state and non-state projects. It also ignores the nature of information creation in state media. Perhaps with reference to Alejandro’s project they are trying to produce critique that is ante el gobierno instead of anti-gobierno. Community media developed as part of the Bolivarian project especially in the aftermath of the 2002 coup. Her fieldwork was with CatiaTV and Vive TV. The producers struggle against a binary approach to autonomy vs. dependency. A focus on “denuncias” tends to focus on concrete issues rather than regime change. Instead they tend to embrace the Bolivarian state as a collective work in progress. There is also an increasing emphasis on the need for community contribution to solving local problems. Community producers at Catia TV and their allies at Vive TV challenge the idea that the revolution is a finished project that can be sold to audiences. They advocate for television content that approaches the revolution as a work-in-progress to be judged and constructed by the poor.

11:40 Alejandro Velasco spoke about the current cycle of protests and how similar they are to previous cycles. Protests have remained largely although not exclusively confined to middle class sectors. Have not incorporated disenchanted Chavistas. If conditions have worsened why have the popular sectors not joined the protests? Velasco argues that indeed we have seen over recent years massive mobilization of popular sectors regarding social and economic rights, for example protesting because a lack of water in their neighborhood, rather than political and civil rights. So Jorge Rodriguez is not correct in suggesting that the popular sectors have not protested. So is it fear? The threat of collectives cannot explain it because they are not widespread enough in their reach. Nor can simply loyalty to Chavismo and distrust of the opposition. Popular sectors in Venezuela have long seen democracy as a dynamic interplay between protest and the vote. Protests that are ante el gobierno (before the government) are different from protests that are anti-gobierno (seeking its removal). Popular sectors see the first as democratic and the second as anti-democratic.

Throughout Venezuela’s democratic history popular sectors have chaffed against and challenged authoritarian projects. But they have seen the vote as the way to do this and have frequently carried out street mobilizations against attempts to circumvent the vote. Didn’t see significant popular support for 1992 coup attempts. Extra-institutional protest is used to demand accountability.1989 Caracazo was in response to violation of a promise.

Popular sectors protest for the right to elect governments and to hold them accountable. They tend not to protest against the legitimacy of a democratically elected government.

11:15 George Ciccariello-Maher spoke on the collectives as a new symbol for opposition and source of collective panic. The term has no fixed meaning and can be used for any unidentified source of violence. Collectives are organizations not violence. To demonize them is to demonize and criminalize organization of the poor in the Bolivarian process. It overlooks that popular organizations are the fundamental building block of the Bolivarian process. It understands their autonomy from the state. Collectives precede Chávez. They have supported the government at the same time that they have built their own spaces. 

Push for communes attempts to bring popular organizations together into productive units to change the foundations of the country’s productive base. 

Theorizing the Venezuelan State in the Chávez and post-Chávez Era

10:50 

Alejandro Velasco started the Q&A asking if the inefficiency and low state effectiveness we were seeing in Venezuela was not simply a characteristic of “petro states” everywhere. McGuire argued that certainly there are some common characteristics but that some petro states do better than others. Indonesia used oil revenues for a much more successful development effort than Venezuela has. George Ciccariello Maher also suggested that it is not surprising that other countries showed greater improvement in literacy than Venezuela since Venezuela had a lower starting point. McGuire said that that is not true. He is measuring it in percentage change, not absolute percentages.

10:30 James McGuire compared Juan Perón, Getúlio Vargas, and Hugo Chávez, as well as their respective populist regimes and political movements, in order to make some tentative generalizations about the sources of populist resilience. He found that Peronismo had qualities that enabled it to cohere and survive that Chavismo did not share. First, Perón spent 18 years in exile after the 1955 coup that ended his initial regime, whereas Chávez, like Vargas, died in office. The hope that Perón might return helped Peronismo remain cohesive and survive the movement’s initial years out of power. Second, labor and the poor gained more materially under Perón than under Vargas or Chávez, and Perón in 1955, as well as Vargas in 1954, left their respective countries in better shape than Chávez left Venezuela in 2013. Third, Peronismo and Getulismo are ideologically centrist, whereas Chavismo tilts sharply to the left. Chavismo’s ability to attract followers from throughout the ideological spectrum is thus lower than Peronismo’s or Getulismo’s. Fourth, Perón, Vargas, and Chávez each created poorly-institutionalized political parties, but Peronismo had an alternative organizational base in the powerful and autonomous labor unions. Neither Getulismo nor Chavismo, whose linkages to citizens ran principally through state rather than civil society channels, had anything similar.

Accordingly, McGuire concluded that Chavismo over the next sixty years is likely to become a diffuse and diminishing influence on Venezuelan political culture and institutions, like Getulismo in Brazil, rather than a cohesive and powerful participant in electoral politics, like Peronismo in Argentina. Chavismo, like Getulismo, is a case of what Ruth Berins Collier and David Collier in Shaping the Political Arena (1991) called “state incorporation.” Although Chavismo incorporated informal- rather than formal-sector urban workers, it did so not so much through party or union organizations, but through a multitude of state-sponsored communal groups. If a populist movement is to play a role in democratic politics its organization must be based in civil society, because state institutions in a democracy cannot be partisan. In a democratic political system a populist movement’s organizational base will usually be a political party, although labor unions, or even neighborhood, ethnic, or religious organizations, might conceivably serve as such a foundation. If its organizational base is entirely within the state – for example, in the armed forces or in state-sponsored communal groups – the populist movement could conceivably survive in an authoritarian political system, but not in a democratic one.

10:00 David Smilde suggested that to understand Venezuela we need a “full conflict theory” rather than the “partial conflict theories” that predominate. Most commentary on Venezuela comes from one of two scholarly perspectives: pluralism or Marxism. Pluralism sees state institutions as ultimately decisive and provides perspicacious critiques of the concentration of power. Yet it seems tone deaf to social, economic and cultural inequalities. Marxism sees economics as ultimately decisive and provides searing critiques of capitalism and its effects. Yet it becomes Pollyannaish when it comes to the concentration of power in a revolutionary state. We need instead a neoweberian theory of Venezuelan conflict that works with multiple, conjunctural causality, in other words, does not see one causal factor as most fundamental and decisive. Smilde pointed to the work of neoweberian Michael Mann whose describes ideological, economic, military and political power networks and sees how they compete and work together in empirical context.

Using this perspective, Smilde critiqued the past year in Venezuelan politics. In his first year Maduro has continued to concentrate power in the central government through the criminalization of protests and control over the media. This latter has reached new levels in the past few months with open censorship and high level cases of self-censorship. Since February 12 there has been little information on protests in the broadcast media. The unsustainability of the economic model has become clear. Citizen security has been thoroughly militarized.

The opposition continues to be plagued with its long term tendency to think it is the majority and that the government is illegitimate. This leads it to eschew engagement of the electorate and grassroots organizing. In December and January the MUD was working towards reversing this, i.e. trying to grow the opposition coalition by winning the battle of ideas. However the protest movement was organized not only in opposition to the Maduro government but in defiance of the political opposition. Much of it, including the symbol “SOS Venezuela” has been oriented towards drawing international intervention in Venezuela since the opposition does not feel it has alternatives within Venezuela.

The dialogue process has been the most important achievement of UNASUR since its creation. Both the MUD and the Maduro government deserve praise for assuming the political costs and risks of participating. Insiders suggest it is going well. 

9:30 Boris Muñoz argued that from the beginning of the Chávez administration the media was considered a sphere to be conquered. Indeed controlling the media was just as important as controlling structures of the state. Chávez’s mistrust of the media had a basis as the private media operated as a slander machine against the government from early on. But he also saw this battle as part of historical struggle and declared war on media and journalists.

As a result the private media became the trenches of the opposition and factual journalism was replaced by opinion based journalism. Investigative journalism was abandoned and journalists became caught between government and private media interests.

However, Chávez largely played a cat and mouse game with media without killing them off, he never impeded freedom of press as his successors have done. In the past year we have seen Globovision and Cadena Capriles, important spaces for the opposition voice, sold off to groups sympathetic to the government.

This increased censorship can be seen with the protests. Both CNN and TNT24 were thrown out of the country for covering the protests.  In broadcast media in the country you cannot find information on the protests. Thus, in the absence of a leader media repression has only increased.

9:16: Veronica Zubillaga gives her introductory marks, noting that the opposition and their protests are very diverse, and our goal today in part is to understand this diversity and their impact.

9:10 Richard Snyder gives introductory remarks noting that the situation in the country requires analysis in a post-Chavez possibly post-populist context. He notes that the previous polarization has been compounded by protests and violence that has ensued. The goal for today will be to think about the causes and dynamics of current crisis.