Hugo Chávez has committed a grave error in closing down the opposition TV station, which has been on the air a half-century. Like it or not, this was not a frontal attack on the economic elite but rather a blow to the cultural identity of millions of Venezuelans–and it will have severe consequences for the government. Trying to replace popular soap operas and game shows watched by the poor with pathetic “revolutionary” programming is as bad as leaving them without food.
What Chávez has got wrong is his belief that he has made a revolution when in fact he’s simply won some elections. And even those victories are more attributable to an arrogant, bejeweled opposition that lacks mass adherents than to Chávez. This has allowed Chávez to dominate some state institutions and to change some of the rules of the game, but it doesn’t give him the leverage needed to impose the sort of drastic ideological sea change he clearly intends.
In Venezuela there has been no revolutionary rupture, as there was in Cuba and Nicaragua, two countries where there was no democratic history. In Cuba the change was violent and encompassing; all of the institutions were recast. And to date there is no real Cuban opposition–nor are there real elections, freedom of the press or private property. In Nicaragua the change was equally violent, and though mistreated, the institutions of press freedom, political opposition, elections and private property all survived.
Venezuela might be experiencing a period of extreme polarization and social conflict, but that is not a revolution. In revolutionary times, violence becomes prevalent, first in the form of rebellion and later in the form of counterrevolution. So far in Venezuela, political violence has been more verbal than material.
Forty years of peaceful transitions of government power created a democratic culture among Venezuelans that has, fortunately until now, made violence unnecessary. The rule of law might be weak, but there is nevertheless the rule of law. The mistake made by the opposition in the attempted coup of 2002 was precisely to undervalue this democratic tradition. Overthrowing governments is no easy task, nor is peacefully modifying the basic pillars on which they are built. A revolutionary rupture creates a situation of great social exaltation that–for better and worse–opens up spaces to change many things, including prevailing ideologies and cultural traditions. But short of revolution, these things are difficult to change.
Anticapitalist revolutions are fueled more by dictatorships than by poverty. In Venezuela there was no dictatorship, and poverty was not key to Chávez’s ascent. Every revolution imposes austerity, and this is something to which Venezuelans on the right and left remain immune. Venezuela is not an industrial capitalist state but rather one of export and consumerism. Chávez is strengthening the economic role of the state, redistributing oil income and forming new economic elites, all mixed with doses of populism, corruption and business opportunities. All this is new–but it is not revolution and it is not socialism.
Chávez lacks a revolutionary party and instead depends on a fragmented political structure rife with different ideologies. To his right is the military, to his left some intellectuals and below him a politically diverse base. Converting this into a unified party would mean butting heads with a lot of local bosses who like to disagree. Chavismo has accomplished something important by giving power and identity to thousands of Venezuelans who had been marginalized, but it is not cohesive, either ideologically or historically. Rather, it is held together by petrodollars.
Nor does Chávez have a revolutionary army. On the contrary, the army has defeated him twice (1992 and 2002). The complicity of the army with Chávez today rests solely on weapons purchases, and that is much more about corruption than about preparing for war. It’s exactly this sort of privileged corruption that closes the path to authentic revolutionary change. The Venezuelan military will neither kill nor die for Hugo Chávez.
Fidel Castro survived all the many attempts on his life. Daniel Ortega led a successful insurrection in Nicaragua and Evo Morales made a swift transition from the barricades to the presidency of Bolivia. Chávez, by contrast, sells oil to the Americans; on two occasions he surrendered to his enemies with no fight; and he currently sleeps with an enemy army. This pushes him to engage in public provocations in order to burnish his revolutionary credentials, as he has by insulting George W. Bush. Attacks strengthen Chávez. Tolerance weakens him. Chávez needs external enemies to help him hide the corruption of his own functionaries, the incompetence of his government, the division among his supporters and the lack of security in the streets of Caracas.
With his latest acts Chávez has turned the process of accumulation of forces against himself and has suddenly revitalized a demoralized opposition. Maybe he will be able to make some more changes in Venezuela. But he will never be able to get rid of elections. And as long as there are elections, there will be no permanent majorities, no fraud so great as to be insurmountable, no set of alliances that are eternal. Oil money can help Chávez do many things–but it will never be enough to buy himself a revolution.