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The hidden victory of Chavismo and another twist on the Pink Tide

by Luis F. Angosto-Ferrández on August 9, 2017
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In January 2016, Henry Ramos Allup, president of the then newly installed Venezuelan parliament, hastened to make a demonstration of institutional power. The opposition bloc had obtained a strong victory in the legislative elections of 2015, and the veteran political leader of Acción Democrática was probably thinking that Venezuela would soon follow Argentina’s suit and do away with its leftist government – indeed, in his inaugural speech, Ramos Allup would go to remark that the Executive’s mandate “could be terminated before [its statutory] chronological time for any of the causes that the constitution stipulates”, and in fact presented such termination as a commitment that the new Assembly would try to achieve in a period of six months.

At any rate, Allup had an early start in his first day in office in January 2016. And, as soon as he was sure that smart phones around him were ready for a recording, he gave his first commands as the new maximum authority in the Legislative premises: all pictures of Chávez should be taken away from the building and sent away to Sabaneta (Chávez’s birthplace), or else thrown into the rubbish bin. Furthermore, he also asked removal workers to do away with all recent representations of Simón Bolívar, which Allup dismissed as ‘an invention of that mister [Chávez], a crazy thing’.

A year and a half later, on 4 August 2017, pictures and paintings with the images of Chávez and that same Bolívar that Allup considered ‘a crazy thing’ returned to the Legislative palace, heading the march of the elected members of the new Constituent Assembly.

This movement of political symbols in and out from the Legislative premises represents far more than a mere display of political allegiances and wills. The return of those images of Chávez and Bolívar to the Legislative palace is a dramatised materialisation of a somewhat hidden victory of chavismo: Chávez-as-symbol has not only survived the temporary exile from these quarters, it has returned strengthened.

To understand this strengthening (and the victory that it represents for chavismo) one just has to look at the manoeuvring of prominent Venezuelan and international political actors during the past few months – particularly since the new crisis of the so-called guarimbas started in April 2017. In another episode of the ever extraordinary recent history of the country, we have listened how even most bitter enemies of the late Hugo Chávez now praise his government outcomes and/or recognise the legitimacy of the electoral majorities that sustained them during his 14 years in government.

In illustrative recent examples, on 6 August, Henrique Capriles, one of the (contested) leaders of the opposition and a (defeated) presidential rival of Chávez, first, and Maduro, subsequently, remarked the following on a public forum: “For many years […], when Chávez was supported by a majority [of Venezuelans], within the opposition bloc we aimed to ignore that majority, and it is to be seen how we crashed against a wall”.

A few weeks earlier (in June), Spanish ex-president Felipe González (an informal spokesman of right-wing critics of Chávez while the latter was in government), denominated Maduro’s call for a Constituent Assembly as “anti-chavista”, in a bizarre attempt at delegitimising it.

While all these declarations are obviously part of the desperate, ‘everything-goes’ attempt at eroding the legitimacy of Maduro’s government and at symbolically detaching the latter from a chavista legacy, it is also the recognition of political defeat, and moreover an indirect acknowledgement that anyone who wants to govern in Venezuela now (or in the medium term) will have to be, at least to start with, careful with the type of policy that is proposed and implemented: the centre of the political board has been shifted to the left, and even amidst a brutal economic crisis a very large share of Venezuelans don’t even consider the possibility of following the siren chants that would return them to an open neoliberal political frame. Bolivarian governments have generated some doubts and uncertainties among many of their supporters, but also sowed among them some crucial certitudes: historical processes need to be read beyond specific governments, and what is currently at stake in Venezuela is a definition of the future of the country, of the terms of Venezuelan insertion into global capitalism and the possibilities of clearing grounds to post-capitalist experiences.

In this respect, the millions of Venezuelans that voted on July 30th to elect the members of the Constituent Assembly were doing something that demonstrates, once again, the successful and lasting effects of what came to be known as the Pink Tide in Latin America. These effects are still to be felt in countries in which leftist blocs gained shares of state power thanks to strong and in many cases repeated electoral victories. Those victories kept the nowadays naturalised neoliberal motion of public policy on the back foot, but furthermore (and crucially given the current global scenario) they contributed to cement collective subjects (state-supporting social movements) that  did not exist before the Pink Tide. These collective subjects have transcended electoral defeat, for even when the latter occurred (such as in Argentina in 2015) they still deliver a presence as close, realistic contenders for government. Let us remember that the victory of Macri was very narrow, and that other cases that are used as examples of the withdrawal of the Tide also represent narrow victories of rightist forces (e.g. the defeat of Evo Morales’ bloc in the Bolivian referendum for constitutional reform in February 2016). Furthermore, in yet other cases used to certify the alleged historical defeat of the Pink Tide, such as Brazil, the national rightist forces try to avoid an open electoral confrontation with leftist rivals – not only did they remove Dilma Roussef in a parliamentary coup, but they also manoeuvred to ensure that Lula could not become a presidential candidate again.

In Venezuela, the collective subject that was created with the Pink Tide, or to be more exact by the shares of state power that access to government facilitated, remains alive too, as the vote of the Constituent Assembly demonstrates.

Despite the amount of messages that some progressives from all over the world send to chavismo, and despite the amount of death certificates that have been produced to facilitate the aseptic burial of the Latin American Pink Tide, the left in Venezuela and Latin America remains exceptionally successful by any globally applicable standard. It has not only been capable of showing effective alternatives to neoliberal governance for a good while, but has also brought political precariousness to right-wing governments in many countries.

Left-leaning blocs remain as clear options for post-neoliberal government even in moments of crisis.

Considering how far that reality is from most of Europe, North America or Australia, and considering also the type of post-neoliberal subjects that are shaping in other parts of the world, often led by proto-fascist forces or by anarchic extreme right-wingers, it is certainly not difficult to give another twist of positive appraisal to the Pink Tide.

Luis F. Angosto-Ferrández

Luis F. Angosto-Ferrández lectures in anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Sydney. His recent publications include ‘Venezuela Reframed: Bolivarianism, Indigenous Peoples and the Socialisms of the 21st Century’ (Zed Books, 2015) and ‘Democracy, Revolution and Geopolitics in Latin America: Venezuela and the International Politics of Discontent’ (Routledge, 2014).

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