Readership Responds to COHA’s Assessment of Chávez

COHA received the following letter from Max Ajl in response to its February 10 article ‘Venezuela’s New Constitutional Reform 2009: If Not Chávez, then Whom? PSUV May Not Survive if Chávez Loses the Presidency’, written by Research Fellows Alex Sánchez and Raylsiyaly Rivero. Below, the COHA Staff responds to Mr Ajl’s criticisms and encourages further thoughtful contributions to the debate from its readership.
-COHA Staff

February 10, 2009

Dear COHA,

I rely on COHA for incisive analysis on Latin America. I might disagree with a nuance here, have a quibble there, but on the whole, the reports are reliably right. So COHA’s recent research report on the referendum over indefinite re-elections in Venezuela was a surprise—and not a good one.
Let me start off by saying what I’m not saying, because these letters are often taken the wrong way. One can ask legitimate questions about indefinite re-election’s place in a constitutional democracy. One can wonder if there are sectors of Venezuelan society that resemble a Chávez personality cult. People concerned about Venezuelan society may legitimately criticize aspects of it. But get your facts right, first!

It might seem school-teacherly to find fault in form. But in this case sloppy writing is a symptom of shoddy thinking. From the introduction, and setting the analytical register within which the piece proceeds, we hear of Chávez’s “sneering style of communication,” and his “bizarre references targeting various political foes.” We lack for examples, so I’m forced to guess. But it behooves a non-Venezuelan audience to know that Chávez has faced an opposition that has called for his assassination, and nearly murdered him in a 2002 military coup. It’s quite dandy to call for Habermasian rhetorical norms from Washington, DC; rather less so in a country in which large sectors of the population believe they are fighting a class war.

Moving on, the analysts note that a victory for the referendum followed by a victory in 2013 would result in a “twenty year monopoly of power;” I do not know what that means, since surely the opposition could win a majority of seats in the legislative branch and blockade Chávez’s agenda. Moreover, Chávez, win or lose, will contend with powerful economic sectors of Venezuelan society that despise him. Perchance, they shall have “power” too in that “twenty year” interval, seriously eroding his “monopoly.”

In turn, the authors assert that “Many Venezuelan academics would argue that the Chávez’s Revolution [sic] is in constant change, with no specific route to guide it, other than the pursuit of power and the implementation of a socialist state and, theoretically, a high degree of participatory politics.” This is non-sense. Much to my dismay, Chávez has moved slowly to nationalize the Venezuelan economy (perhaps nationalization is what the authors mean by a “socialist state?”), and agrarian reform has been seriously stymied.

Venezuelan academics are a heterogeneous lot. Some oppose the process. Some support it. Some criticize it. Some don’t. It’s impossible to fence the argument that “many…argue” something, since one hardly knows who the opponent one is dueling with is. (The authors show their hand early, asserting that it is “Chávez’s Revolution,” and cannot mean to so casually insult the sectors of Venezuelan society agitating to deepen the process. The members of the National Peasant Front Ezequiel Zamora I met while down in Venezuela last spring would be shocked to learn that the revolution they fight for—the revolution that over 200 peasant leaders have been gunned down while defending in Western Venezuela—is solely Chávez’s.)

Anyway, the authors assert that “his rhetoric, combined with his view of a strong, central core of beliefs somehow was to mystically reach the country’s lower class.” This is utter condescension—an array of missions, educational programs, and attempts to spread this message exist, whether successful or not. If the authors had been to Venezuela, they would see state-subsidized book-stores and book-fairs wherein revolutionary literature is widely distributed.

The authors go on to write of the “nation’s middle class opposition leadership,” a sociological point they underline when they write of “The fact that many university students are looked upon as the children of the middle-class opposition.” Since it is a widespread delusion that there is no upper-class in America, it’s understandable that the authors neglect to imagine the possibility of an upper-class in Venezuela. Understandable, but wrong. Some of the opposition’s leadership is “middle-class” and some is upper-class. But even the Venezuelan middle-class structurally identifies with the upper-class, since (a) their incomes still dwarf the lower and lower-middle classes and (b) some members of the middle classes used to be upper-class.

Indeed, some quick numbers on Venezuelan income distribution prove the point: in 2006, the bottom income group, class E, 58 percent of the population, earned an average of 830bF a month; the next group, class D, 23 percent of the population, earned 1,171bF a month; the next, C-, 15 percent of the population, 1,929bF a month. The remaining 4 percent, divided into classes C, B, and A, earned an average of over 3,700 bF a month. Those middle-class folk are not sociologically equivalent to Americans driving Toyota Camrys. They are powerful members of the ancien regime.

There are other issues, too: their analysis of the 2008 Venezuelan regional elections is surreally wrong-headed. I shall quote them at length:

More recently, in November 2008, Venezuelans were called on once again to cast their ballots, this time to choose regional governors and mayors. Chávez’s PSUV party turned out a winning performance, but the victory was not as decisive as in past elections. The opposition scored victories in some of the country’s largest cities, including Caracas and Maracaibo. A partial explanation for these important losses to the opposition is that, currently, throughout the country there are shortages of food staples, high inflation and an elevated unemployment rate (up to 7.2% in June 2008, 6.1% in December 2008). These handicaps generated tinder box conditions that could pose dangers to the “Bolivarian government” placing the PSUV candidates in a difficult position. As a result, the poorer stratum of Venezuelan society are beginning to voice discontent over their deteriorating situation in talk-shows such as “La Entrevista” on RCTV, or “Aló Ciudadano” on Globovisión, both of which are anti-government channels. The ineffective measures taken by the authorities to address the current situation in the country up to now seem to render the allure of the PSUV candidates less appealing to voters.

I am unclear on a number of points.
One, the authors compare the victory to “past elections.” Yet the PSUV candidates garnered 53 percent of the vote, and opposition candidates 43 percent. This was a yanking turn-around from the Dec. 2, 2007, election, in which the referendum on economic reconstruction and the elimination of presidential term limits lost by 2 percent. Clearly, that is the relevant benchmark for assessing the results of the most recent electoral cycle. As Venezuelan sociologist Javier Biardeau, surely situated further left than many PSUVistas, comments, “the Venezuelan revolution has recovered significantly from the electoral setback of December 2, 2007 (the day of the failed referendum). As he continues, the elections could have amplified that setback, or they could have “directed the electoral trajectory toward the recovery of the level of support reached in the 2006 electoral cycle,” which is what happened.

Two, the authors note that throughout “the country there are shortages of food staples, high inflation and an elevated unemployment rate (up to 7.2% in June 2008, 6.1% in December 2008)” as explaining part of the losses in Venezuela’s urban centers. They get it dead-wrong. The cities are violent and dirty, due to inadequate sanitation and ineffectual policing. Place the blame for that where you will—inflation did not seem to be a major issue. “Shortages of food staples” is a strange locution to obliquely allude to the Venezuelan poor’s vastly increased purchasing power, and the Venezuelan privately-owned agrarian system’s refusal to disburse food supplies within Venezuela. When poor people have more money and rich food producers are less willing to sell their goods in country, you get food shortages. There have been several cases of trucks laden with supplies heading to Colombia to evade price controls on basic foodstuffs.

Three, a Center for Economic and Policy Research report, comprising the freshest, most definitive, most careful compilation of statistics concerning the economy and social indicators, suggests that “Average caloric intake has risen from 91.0 percent of the recommended levels in 1998 to 101.6 percent in 2007. Even more importantly, malnutrition-related deaths have fallen by more than 50 percent, from 4.9 to 2.3 deaths per 100,000 in population between 1998 and 2006.”

Four, the unemployment statistic is off. A percentage that runs in a trend-line from 7.2 percent in June 2008 to 6.1 percent in December 2008 could not possibly explain decreased chavista/lower-class support for the PSUV in that time-span—positing that there was decreased chavista/lower-class support for the PSUV in that interim, which there was not. The statistic is taken from a month-by-month timeline put out by the Venezuela Statistical Office. They correctly repeat the numbers, but the numbers are useless for understanding the Venezuelan employment rate. Unemployment numbers shift rapidly from month-to-month without necessarily reflecting substantive underlying economic changes. Moreover, according to CEPR, the December numbers, in particular, should be handled carefully. They often reflect a seasonal up-tick in employment numbers. Again, the CEPR report is illuminating: it gives an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent in 2006, 9.2 percent in 2007, and 7.8 percent in 2008. Still, these numbers explain little—particularly since Chávez was arguably at the apogee of his power in 2006, when he won his campaign for re-election with 62.87 percent of the votes.

So five, there has been some decline in support since 2006, and an increase in support since 2007. The prevailing explanations are, as I’ve suggested, terrible violence in the cities and utterly inadequate systems to collect garbage.

Closing in on the end of the article, the authors write of “The world gas crisis has also profoundly affected Venezuela, and Chávez may be forced to cut back on his ‘domestic oil politics’ that have helped him and his party to remain so popular for so long.” Did anyone vet this piece before COHA published it? What could the “world gas crisis” possibly be? What are his “domestic oil politics”? The programs offering subsidized food and free medical care to the Venezuelan poor?

And finally, the authors get to their conclusion: “Arguably, it makes sense that Chávez wishes to remain in power, as no apparent or suitable successor exists from within his party’s ranks or, for that matter, the opposition.” All that piece-by-piece marshalling of information, statistics, biographical details on powerful figures within the PSUV, all for a milquetoast explanation of the drive for indefinite re-election—which is incidentally supported by radical chavistas, for example, anarchist journalist Jose Roberto Duque, who suggests that Chávez’s presidency is merely a bulwark for the project—one Duque conceives of as revolutionary, but not statist. Under the Chávez government, writes Duque, the population “has conquered space to organize and self-govern. So I prefer a democrat like Chávez for 20 years in Miraflores” to the old two-party system of alternating COPEI and AD malgoverance.

Let me re-iterate my point, in the clearest terms possible: I do not dissent from the suggestion that the PSUV has leadership problems. And I do not tar COHA as some US government mouthpiece. It is precisely for that reason that COHA should be making sure to get it right, and not issuing tawdry, third-rate analyses of Bolivarian Venezuela (how about a serious criticism of chavista economic development strategy from a sympathetic perspective?).

I will add that I know that COHA will respond to this letter, which is fine. I know that COHA produces its analyses using unpaid students. That’s fine too. What isn’t fine is disseminating factually incorrect analyses of Bolivarian Venezuela, rife with sociological misinterpretations, condescension to the Venezuelan people, economic errors, and sundry other items that altogether taint the report immeasurably. Leave that kind of stuff to Foreign Policy magazine.

Max Ajl
Brooklyn, NY

COHA Responds:

We thank Max Ajl for an extremely thoughtful letter and take note of his corrections and his reservations, all of which we respect and many of which we accept. However, he should be made aware of the fact that the average 45 researchers who make up COHA’s staff come from a variety of backgrounds, including graduate and undergraduate students, as well as young professional researchers, retirees, and academics on sabbatical, many of whom have gone to distinguish themselves in many fields. COHA has always been a qualified admirer of President Chávez, however, we feel that it does him no disrespect to challenge him when we feel this is necessary. This approach is based on the belief that his revolution is more important than the man and that he is neither imperial nor above criticism.