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Venezuela, indigenous capitalisms and the socialisms of the twenty-first century

by Luis F. Angosto-Ferrández on January 18, 2016
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Venezuelans balloted last month – again. Nothing exceptional in a country where citizens have cast their votes in twenty different nationwide elections over the past 17 years – more than once annually, if one draws an average. Yet elections in the Bolivarian republic generate an extraordinary level of international attention and a flurry of commentary ever since the late Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998. That is what happens when people in an oil-rich country suddenly reveal themselves as rich in political resources too, and furthermore decide that neither their oil nor their politics should be managed in the interest of national and international elites: the latter rapidly deploy the best of their political repertoire (and their media) to make sure that everyone around the world realises how wrong those people in the oil-rich country are.

CaprilesOn this occasion, the spotlight on Venezuelan elections was even more intense than usual. A variety of international analysts and the hostile majority of commercial media had been anticipating a defeat of chavismo. After repeated embarrassments in past pre-electoral prognoses, this time their oracles got it right: the opposition bloc, a permanent occupier of the losing side in previous electoral contests, obtained a strong qualified majority in the new National Assembly.

The economic crisis in Venezuela had already reached enormous dimensions, the government had been under a renewed wave of international pressure and the political vigour of the chavista electorate was at a historical low. The limitations in the government programs seeking to strengthen national production over the past decade could not be ignored anymore, and took their toll. And many chavistas directly criticised the lack of skill of Maduro’s government in successfully addressing the crisis – but they did not mean that the opposition was the solution.

Even in those critical circumstances, more than 5.6 million Venezuelans voted for Bolivarian candidates. This is a strong indication of how deep runs the distrust towards an opposition bloc which cannot fully disguise its neoliberal core and whose leadership has for over a decade oscillated between electorally competing with chavismo and pursuing extra-institutional adventures to oust the government. Let us recall that, unlike Maduro in December, most prominent opposition leaders did not recognise electoral results when they were not favouring them, systematically casting doubts on the electoral system and on the very same National Electoral Council that now certified their victory.

Venezuela Reframed- coverIn the current conjuncture, the future of the Bolivarian project is clearly at risk. As I argue more at length in my book Venezuela Reframed, the transformative potential of this project, still undefined between its post-neoliberal and post-capitalist possibilities, is only plausible if chavismo were to maintain electoral majorities. Despite the radical character of the Bolivarian revolution in some respects, it is once again necessary to underscore that what effectively made the pursuit of a transformative political process possible in the country were elections. Continuing successes in electoral competition guaranteed access to shares of state power that enabled the condensation of fragmented anti-neoliberal forces in the country, and that in turn enhanced the possibilities of further transformation. From a governing position, those shares of power were simultaneously used to facilitate socioeconomic inclusion and to foster popular mobilization.

After the December elections, the composition of the new National Assembly fundamentally recasts the institutional power balance in the country – and the options for the Bolivarian bloc to prevent the gradual dispersion and fragmentation of anti-neoliberal forces in the country. The qualified majority that the opposition has obtained in the Assembly provides it with a variety of institutional means to harness and debilitate the Executive Power in the hands of Maduro, and consequently the Bolivarian forces will lose spaces and mechanisms for their regrouping and reactivation. What is ahead in the next few months is a frontal contest between the Legislative and the Executive that will encapsulate the national-level struggle between chavismo and its historically constituted opposite – and will also decide the medium term prospects of the socialism of the twenty-first century project in the country.

In this conjuncture, a minimal modification in the distribution of allegiances in the National Assembly could make a world of a difference. Because the opposition has just narrowly reached the two thirds qualified majority that endows it with non-negotiable powers to obstruct the initiative of the Executive and to influence the orientation of other Public Powers (including, in the medium term, the appointment of directing figures in those Powers). Without that special majority, the opposition would still dominate the legislative Assembly, but negotiation would become indispensable for certain key decisions. In practical terms that would provide Maduro with a political breather that could prove crucial to regroup chavista forces: the Executive could maintain its creative, generative forces in addition to trying to address the most acute symptoms of the economic crisis. Given the expected recall referendum that the opposition will launch half way throughout the year, that breather could be the life-saving one for Bolivarianism in the short run.

In this scenario, do you know who the opposition depends on in order to maintain its super-qualified majority of two thirds in the Assembly? If you do not, here is a probably unexpected answer: the three indigenous MPs.

The 1999 constitution guarantees minimum representation to the indigenous population in legislative organs at local, regional and national level. In the National Assembly, they are granted three seats, whose occupants are elected in special constituencies (the amalgamation of several federal states). In the past December elections, the three elected indigenous representatives were politically allied with the so-called Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD: Democratic Unity Roundtable) – the political platform of the opposition bloc. Without their support in the Assembly, the opposition would lose its two thirds qualified majority.

In my book Venezuela Reframed I explain the populist political logics that led the opposition bloc to build its own space of indigenous politics. In the 1990s, scholar and long term activist Esteban E. Mosonyi wrote in the preface to a seminal book on indigenous mobilisation written by the Wayúu Nemesio Montiel that in Venezuela the Right ‘does not want to have anything to do with the Indians’. Yet the Bolivarian process has altered so much the political dynamics of the country that at present the Right in Venezuela has occupied itself by having something to do with the Indians.

The opposition bloc harbours the diehard neoliberal forces that during the Constituent Assembly of 1999 sonorously opposed the recognition of indigenous rights. In fact, during that period one of the most adamant spokesmen against indigenous rights was Henrique Capriles, who subsequently became the opposition presidential candidate on two occasions – defeated in each of them by Chávez and Maduro, respectively. In a quasi-miraculous political conversion, 13 years later, during the campaign of the 2012 presidential elections of 2012, Capriles shouted ‘I will demarcate all indigenous lands’ before a congregation of supporters in the capital of Amazonas state – the only federal state in the country with a majority indigenous population. That day he was wearing an indigenous feather crown.

In my book I unveil that electoral pragmatism contributes to explain Capriles’ conversion, and more generally why Venezuelan right-wingers have been seeking to building organised alliances with an indigenous political front. But this question has another side to it, which is the fact that indigenous struggles in Venezuela, as for that matter in the rest of Latin America, cannot be assumed to have anti-capitalist directionalities or inclinations – which is what some people automatically assume.

Despite generalising assumptions and simplifications, the indigenous population in the continent is characterised by economic, cultural and other structural cleavages – rather than merely separated from other sectors of the population by one or all of those divisions. And this fragmentation is expressed in identifiable forms of indigenous collective action that reveal diverse political goals and priorities. Against hyperreal and teleological conceptions of indigeneity and indigenous struggles, this fact has been long ago revealed with clarity in Venezuela and other countries in the continent.

Some of those currents of collective action are anti-capitalist, needless to say, or at least anti-neoliberal. And among those currents some have been nourishing the ranks of the historical collective subject that in Latin America is behind the emergence of the so-called socialisms of the twenty-first century, whereas others have taken a belligerent position before the governments that represent them. But there are other identifiable streams of indigenous collective action that are best characterised as channelling new forms of ‘indigenous capitalisms’, a concept that encapsulates the political goals of activists who seek a successful incorporation into capitalism as an index of self-determination and as expression of cultural strength.

In Venezuela, representatives of those indigenous capitalisms have now a decisive role in the definition of the national struggle between chavismo and anti-chavismo – between post-neoliberal/post-capitalist potentials and a rapid return to neoliberalism. And this is only a visible, institutional example of the way in which the so-called socialisms of the twenty-first century have repoliticised all spheres of national life – including the indigenous ones. The (indigenous) advocates of indigenous capitalisms are an important part in the shaping of contemporary Latin American politics – just as the (indigenous) advocates of the Indoamerican socialisms have been.

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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