Podcast / American Prestige / Mar 5, 2024

Democracy and the Left Turn in Latin America

On this episode of American Prestige, professor Gabriel Hetland on the region’s shift to the left.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

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Democracy and the Left Turn in Latin America | American Prestige
byThe Nation Magazine

On this episode of American Prestige, Danny and Derek speak with Gabriel Hetland, associate professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latina/o Studies and Sociology at the University at Albany, about his book Democracy on the Ground: Local Politics in Latin America’s Left Turn.

We discuss the regional shift to the Left, how right-wing forces reacted to this trend, the ways democracy has been shaped by these conditions, and the different tacks taken by leftist movements, particularly in Bolivia and Venezuela.

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Bolivia protester 2019

A supporter of former president Evo Morales holds a Bolivian flag during clashes with police in La Paz, Bolivia, on November 13, 2019.

(Natacha Pisarenko / AP Photo)

On this episode of American Prestige, we speak with Gabriel Hetland, associate professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latina/o Studies and Sociology at the University at Albany, about his book Democracy on the Ground: Local Politics in Latin America’s Left Turn.

We discuss the regional shift to the left, how right-wing forces reacted to this trend, the ways democracy has been shaped by these conditions, and the different tacks taken by leftist movements, particularly in Bolivia and Venezuela.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Democracy and the Left Turn in Latin America | American Prestige
byThe Nation Magazine

On this episode of American Prestige, Danny and Derek speak with Gabriel Hetland, associate professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latina/o Studies and Sociology at the University at Albany, about his book Democracy on the Ground: Local Politics in Latin America’s Left Turn.

We discuss the regional shift to the Left, how right-wing forces reacted to this trend, the ways democracy has been shaped by these conditions, and the different tacks taken by leftist movements, particularly in Bolivia and Venezuela.

Advertising Inquiries: https://redcircle.com/brands

Privacy & Opt-Out: https://redcircle.com/privacy

This transcript was computer-generated and may contain errors.

SPEAKER 4: Danny

Hello Prestige Heads and welcome to American Prestige.

I’m Danny Bessner here as always with my friend and comrade Derek Davison and we’re very excited to welcome to the podcast today Gabriel Hetland.

Gabriel’s an associate professor in the Department of Latin American, Caribbean and U.S.

Latino Studies and the Department of Sociology at the University at Albany, the State University of

New York and most important he is the author of Democracy on the Ground local politics in Latin America’s left turn and that’s why we’ve invited him to the podcast today so Gabriel thank you so much for joining us thanks so much for having me really pleasure to be here

The Pleasure Is All Ours.

So why don’t we just start with a basic question.

What the hell is the quote unquote left turn in Latin America?

We’ve heard a lot about the pink tide, left turns.

What does this actually mean?

And maybe you could situate it a little bit before we go into the two countries you really focus on, which are Venezuela and Bolivia.

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

Sure, so Latin America has had different sort of regional political shifts over time, and in the 1980s and 90s it experienced a bit of a right-wing shift, which coincided with democratization or re-democratization in most but not all of the region.

and so there’s neoliberal policies implemented in Chile and everywhere else basically in Latin America during those decades and that led to a backlash starting in the late 1990s even earlier but in the late 1990s in places like Venezuela and then throughout the early 2000s where left and center-left parties were brought to office throughout the region so by 2010 roughly two-thirds of Latin Americans

were governed by parties of the left.

So Lula, Chavez, Morales, but different forms of left in different places, and so these leftist parties were implementing heterodox economic policies, there was more state role in the economy, nationalization was happening in some of the countries, so Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia,

other countries were raising workers rages pursuing unionization initiatives and generally speaking just sort of having a more social orientation more of an orientation towards equality helping the poorest helping the vulnerable in some countries like Bolivia there was explicit sort of anti-racist and decolonization pieces and the left turn lasted in its first iteration also called the pink tide as you mentioned through sort of

2013 to 2015 and then there was kind of a right turn happening and now we’re in the midst of what some call a pink tide 2.0 or a left turn 2.0 with leaders like Gustavo Petro, Gabriel Boric in Chile but the first left turn the one that my book is dealing with is really sort of that early 2000s to sort of mid 2010s period when you know most of Latin America is governed by parties of the left

SPEAKER 4: Danny

So now that we’ve had some historical distance from it, what are the major explanations given for this regional wide shift?

And of course, it’s not every country.

It never is in every country.

But what are the sort of collective problems that these governments are dealing with that you have this general shift in, you know, 2000s during the post WTO moment, this war on terror moment?

I’d like to hear like what the historical consensus is beginning to become.

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

Yeah, absolutely.

I mean, there’s sort of a consensus that the terrain for leftism in Latin America was always good in certain ways.

There’s a lot of poverty, there’s a lot of miseration, there’s a lot of clear failure of capitalism to bring prosperity or joy or anything good to a lot of people in Latin America, but that didn’t lead to a left turn.

for, you know, most of Latin American history, even sort of the 20th century, of course.

So the conditions that led to the left turn were this rejection of neoliberalism, a particular and a sort of poignant failure of neoliberal policies in the 1990s, the sort of 1997-1998 global crisis that had some origins in Asian countries felt, you know, really painful in a lot of Latin American countries, and that led to a bit of a throw-them-out

that also coincided in the early 2000s with the commodities boom which was driven in large part by China and sort of the demand from China and so global commodities oil, timber, cotton all sorts of commodities that Latin America has historically produced and

continues to produce in large part we’re we’re booming we’re soaring and so the sort of combination of a rejection of particularly failed neoliberal policies along with widespread poverty widespread inequality that are sort of general conditions in Latin America and the commodity boom were sort of really driving factors and then there was a sort of regional region-wide contagion in a good sense where you know leftists were booing up other leftists and Lula and Chavez

sometimes reputed as the good left and the bad left in US and even Latin American accounts, but they were buddies.

I mean, they were working together really well, they supported each other, they started UNASUR together, they had all sorts of regional initiatives, and so it really was a region-wide phenomena, and I think the other factor that

I haven’t seen this as much of a consensus, but it always strikes me that it’s part of the piece is that there’s kind of an imperial shadow from the U.S.

The U.S.

was not paying as much attention to Latin America because of the wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq in the 2000s, and so that gave a little bit of breathing room, although we want to qualify that the U.S.

still supported the coup in Venezuela in 2002 against Chavez.

They still supported the coup in Honduras in 2007.

They supported one in Haiti.

SPEAKER 4: Danny

you know 2004 so they were not you know sort of it’s funny when the US takes its eye off the ball they only do three coups in a decade you know it’s it’s it’s it’s wild um that’s really interesting and the thing that I want to get into which I think is what your book is designed to do is really focusing on the local politics right like even in your recounting we focused on these individual leaders but maybe you could tell like why the focus on local politics and then we could just get we could use that as an uh a sort of introduction into your first case study

which is Venezuela and you know we talked a little bit about Venezuela on the show but maybe you could give listeners a understanding of what was going on there with Chavez and then how our local politics in particular really crucial to getting what happened going.

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

Absolutely, so the interest I had in the book and a long-standing interest I’ve had is in participatory democracy, so a sort of more real, more genuine form of democracy that ordinary people can actually be affecting decisions that affect their lives, and even this is kind of a downgrade from socialism.

I mean, it’s sort of specifically political decisions and the fact that it’s primarily done at the local level is also a bit of a downgrade, but for all that, it can be very exciting.

It can really give a lot of

Real Power to Ordinary People over Things like Municipal Budgets, so participatory budgeting, which got famous from Porto Alegre in Brazil, spread throughout Latin America, and then throughout the world in the 1990s and 2000s.

And so the left turn, part of the left turn, especially in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia,

sort of this idea of participatory democracy and moving beyond elections to actually empower ordinary citizens to have control over decisions affecting their lives.

And so I wanted to study this in Venezuela and Bolivia, and I wanted to do so at the local level because that’s where it was happening.

So there wasn’t as much participation at the national level, at least not the sort of deep stuff I was interested in.

But at the local level, there was nationwide implementation of participatory budgeting, which did not work by any means.

across Venezuela or any country in Latin America but it was done and it

created sort of interesting political processes and possibilities.

So how did this happen?

SPEAKER 4: Danny

Because this is something that we always talk about amongst American leftists and it almost like never really happens here.

So maybe we could go a little bit into the deep history, you know, about the way you phrase it from crisis to left populist hegemony.

And could you take us through that story?

Because it’s so compelling because it like, maybe it didn’t work, but like there was participatory democracy.

You know, that’s not something that you usually see

really in the second half of the 20th century in the first part of the 21st, so it’s a compelling story.

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

Yeah, absolutely, and Venezuela and Bolivia had a somewhat similar trajectory, so I’ll focus on Venezuela’s, but when we get to Bolivia, I’ll talk a little bit about some of the parallels and the interesting and important contrasts.

So, Venezuela had a crisis of hegemony, a crisis of representation,

in the 1990s.

It had a two party system, two and a half party system sort of from 1958 when there was a restoration of democracy up until the 1990s.

But things really fell apart in the 80s and 90s and the sort of party system crumbled.

And so you can see this electorally, you can see this in the turnout data and the support for the traditional parties.

So by the early 1990s, traditional parties in Venezuela were not getting the support that they had before.

And then Chavez got elected from a total outsider platform in 1998.

He had committed a coup in 1992, went to prison for a couple of years, came out of prison, did four years of really sort of

vigorous organizing around the country, gets elected in a fairly big landslide election in 1998, but he’s kind of moderate when he gets elected.

He comes to Wall Street, he’s talking to Bill Clinton, he’s not shaking things up too much, but elites in Venezuela are still pissed off because he’s displaced them, he’s sort of shaking things up.

So they do not recognize him, they don’t recognize his legitimacy, he’s also mestizo, he’s a sort of darker skin, he has a more folksy,

sort of appeal and way of speaking.

And so there’s this vigorous backlash, and that coincides with low prices of oil, and so Chavez needs to sort of do something to support some of the promises.

He talks about greater equality, sort of capitalism with a human face, so he’s not socialist initially.

And so he gets to radicalizing in 2001, and radicalization takes a few different forms.

There’s some land reform.

some oil reform which is really sort of threatening to elites within Venezuela and this really pisses the elites off and so they launch a series of processes trying to get rid of him there’s a street marches starting in late 2001 continuing into 2002 then there’s this coup against him in 2002 right after he’s shaken up the state-owned oil company the US supports the coup which kicks Chavez out again gets brought back in through popular pressure and splits within the military and then there’s a

you know two or three year period of crisis within Venezuela where it’s sort of a high levels of confrontation between Chavez and the opposition and he’s still fairly moderate I mean he’s starting to radicalize he’s doing more sort of funding of popular initiatives the so-called missions which are sort of anti-poverty and pro-empowerment

initiatives in healthcare and all sorts of other things within Venezuela.

And then by 2005, the opposition starts to be clearly defeated and Chavez is sort of in what I would think of as the golden era.

And this is where I think of what I talk about in the book as a sort of period of leftist hegemony, so we can talk more about that later if we want to, begins.

And Chavez just becomes very politically successful within Venezuela.

He’s defeated the opposition electorally.

He’s sort of defeated them.

Even in the 2004 recall referendum, he wins it by a landslide.

And the opposition changes tact, and they actually start to copy Chavez rather than trying to kill him and overthrow him.

I mean, it sort of would have been unthinkable in 2002, but in the 2006 election, Manuel Rosales, who’s Chavez’s main competitor,

is talking about doing things that sound a little bit Chavista-like.

I mean, using oil revenue to decrease inequality and spend it on the people of Venezuela.

And then at the local level, which I’m particularly interested in, the Chavista, the opposition from the right is actually copying

some of the Chávez policies of participatory budgeting and participatory democracy.

So I’m sort of getting ahead of myself, but it’s basically, you know, to summarize this process, you get Chávez elected an outsider, it leads to a period of right-wing backlash.

He’s able to survive that backlash, and then for particular reasons that we can talk about

He responds to that with a sort of populist mobilization strategy.

And the reason, in large part, is that he wasn’t strongly rooted in the population.

He was an outsider.

He didn’t have a strong political partisan vehicle.

Venezuelan civil society was in a degree of disarray.

And by civil society, I don’t mean the opposition.

unions and you know popular organizations and just sort of the left even within Venezuela and so he’s trying to sort of build a popular bulwark to withstand the continuing pressure from the right and that combined with the sort of oil boom starting in 2003 really

and taking off leads to this period of left populist hegemony within Venezuela which lasts almost through Chavez’s death.

And it’s really remarkable in many ways.

I mean, inequality goes way down, poverty goes way down, you see massive increases in spending on social services, healthcare, education, massive support for the government.

So this is where the sort of right wing and the centrist narrative of Venezuela being authoritarian falls pretty flat because

Venezuelans were over and over and over voting for Chavez and voting for Chavez’s policies and expressing that support in public opinion polls.

And it was just a really remarkable period.

SPEAKER 4: Danny

Let’s dig into this a bit because in the United States you basically, not always, but you’ll basically get sort of demonizations of Chavez and demonizations of the, you know, Chavismo, is that what it’s called?

SPEAKER 1: Derek

Yeah, Chavismo.

SPEAKER 4: Danny

Yeah, yeah, and the Chavista Project.

um but you know you’re an expert so what basically what was good actually and what was bad and how did they accomplish the good and what what what went wrong what got up that we got some of the bad stuff as well

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

Yeah, so there was a lot of good, and I think it’s important to recognize that because we’re seeing a lot of bad right now, and there was some bad, and we can’t disregard that and pretend it didn’t exist even under Chavez, but the good was this incredible sort of project of greater equality, popular empowerment.

There was all sorts of sort of popular empowerment initiatives, communal councils, communes,

water committees, health committees, and these were designed to sort of empower ordinary people to participate actively and directly in their lives.

There was lots of state spending, as I was talking about, and it worked.

I mean, it really worked to sort of decrease poverty, decrease inequality.

The problem, to a significant extent, was that it happened through a sort of creation of a parallel state within Venezuela, and so there was resistance within the state bureaucracy.

SPEAKER 4: Danny

I was going to say, is that just because the state structures were so ossified that the people didn’t really support the project, that they had to create an entire set of new institutions?

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

Yes, I mean, Venezuela’s state has been bloated to a significant extent because of oil.

I mean, the central state is really big because of the oil apparatus, and so there was a lot of figures from the so-called Fourth Republic, the sort of political regime before Chavez, who were opposed to Chavez, or at least not fully on board, who remained in place, bureaucrats, low-level officials throughout the state bureaucracy at all levels,

and Chavez didn’t just fire them all, he started these new parallel initiatives, but that meant that they were sort of two states side by side.

It wasn’t like a Trotskyist dual power situation exactly, but it was complicated, messy, and so the creation of parallel states was an easier way to achieve a lot of initiatives rather than trying to sort of

blow through all the resistance within the actual state bureaucracy he would just create these missions and these new sort of popular initiatives but then the old state was still in existence and so it became a vehicle for tremendous corruption later on and just sort of all sorts of problems that really took off one specific thing that we can pinpoint as a major issue is currency policy so if we’re thinking about what went wrong within Venezuela

in 2002 there was a coup and then shortly thereafter they started currency controls within Venezuela and this is a smart move to prevent capital flight and it worked for a number of years but by 2006-2007 there was no real economic

Justification, not necessarily even a sort of political justification in terms of capital flight anymore, but they kept the controls in place because it gave the government a certain amount of power over the economy and distribution and things like that.

And they kept them in place for years and years and years, I think until 2019 actually.

13, these currency controls were clearly dysfunctional.

There was a huge gap between the official currency and the black market currency.

That gap mushroomed over the years to like a thousand fold, maybe 10,000 fold, so it led to, you know, after Chavez died it led to hyperinflation and just massive economic crisis, but even under Chavez it was a problem.

He was able to sort of manage it and keep it in check.

the currency control it’s important to recognize was a response to imperialist aggressions to you know sort of resistance against Chavez which took undemocratic forms the 2002 coup but then in and of itself it became an issue and then that this dependence on oil is just a long-standing problem within Venezuela and

I think when Chavez got elected in 1998, oil accounted for something like 68% of state revenue.

Partly it was kind of low for Venezuelan standards because of the low price of oil, but when he left office in 2013, it was up to like 96% or something ridiculous like that.

So he clearly did not solve the oil problem within Venezuela, which would be really hard to solve, but that meant that when the price of oil tanked in 2014,

Maduro was left to pay the bill.

And so there’s a whole series of problems that Maduro has had to deal with which initiate under Chavez or really under Venezuela’s whole sort of political economic model.

So this is really just the big context and the book gets into a lot of specifics that are different than this, so to speak.

SPEAKER 4: Danny

great that that larger context is really useful and you know we could spend a lot of time talking about like global global north global south relations and how that kind of limits the possibilities of certain types of structural reform but why don’t we we go into Torres which was described as Venezuela’s first socialist city and which you use as a sort of a case study to explore this participatory democracy so tell us a little bit about Torres

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

Yeah, absolutely.

So, you know, just to give a quick background on Torres and sort of how it fits into the national picture within Venezuela, there was these participatory initiatives that were implemented everywhere in Venezuela, but in many places they didn’t lead to robust participatory democracy in the sense of ordinary

people actually having control over decisions that led to something that some scholars have referred to as participatory clientelism.

So you have sort of participatory mobilization getting pushed into clientelistic distribution of resources.

And that happened in Torres also under a Chavista mayor who was elected in 2000, although he’s kind of a conservative guy who was supported by the Chavistas and the conservatives in the weird period

this sort of thing happened all over Venezuela so he broke with Chavez in 2003 after the coup and sort of when Chavez was clearly not conservative and then that opened up the 2004 election with a radical left opposition leader named Julio Chavez got elected not a Chavista official specifically but he was very identified with the Bolivarian revolution and the Chavista project

he talked about popular power and he implemented this radical participatory budget in 2004 and then in 2006 he did join the Socialist Party so from that point on it was part of a

sort of ruling party, although always with friction and contradictions.

But the participatory budget was 100% of investment budget within Torres.

Ordinary citizens from like 600 communal councils throughout the vast municipality would participate in these parish assemblies where

They would vigorously debate, you know, do we want to spend money on a cultural center or a tractor?

Do we want to spend it on a sports field or a sewer?

And they’d have these vigorous, rich, almost Habermasian deliberative discussions about the benefits of this versus that, and then they would have a vote after that about doing it, and no one except for the citizens could actually have control over that.

So it was really remarkable to see that process happen, and I could see all sorts of links to the national

sort of political project.

The way people talked about what they were doing was referring to it as socialism.

I mean, I don’t know that scholars would necessarily say this is socialism, but people would use that word and say, you know, we’re doing socialism here, we’re doing real democracy, we’re building a more


They didn’t use egalitarian, but they said, you know, we’re building a more equal society.

And they would sort of, you know, really think of it in that way.

And this worked really well.

I mean, it was a really impressive process.

I went throughout the municipality and really was able to see from start to finish that citizens were really empowered.

Projects were actually implemented.

The process was very pluralistic, so it included a lot of

non-Chavistas and Chavistas from different political factions, people from different religious groups, a lot of representation of popular classes, it was ethno-racially diverse, women were very active participants in it.

So in all sorts of measures of inclusivity, this was an amazing process and it was sort of happening on the edge of Chavismo, if you will.

It was like using the Chavista rhetoric, using the Chavista

sort of laws, discourse, institutional forms to implement what Chavismo said it wanted to implement but had repeatedly implemented in a partial fashion or a contradictory fashion.

And the project in Torres tried to push beyond participatory democracy towards something that looks like a sort of municipal level democratic socialism.

And so people would do this in an electric meter factory where worker councils were sort of involved in control over the hours.

the process of trying to get control over a state ministry for actually the profits of the factory.

That was disputed and an unclear outcome while I was doing my research, but there was a lot of initiatives like that.

So this was the most successful of the four cases, and it’s interesting because it’s a left case, so it’s not totally surprising that a left case would have

SPEAKER 4: Danny

sort of successful participatory democracy but it was an opposition one to start with so it had a little bit of a wrinkle and the other cases I had in Venezuela was a right-wing case and so that one is yeah that’s what I want to I want to get how do you is it Sucre how do you pronounce that uh Sucre Sucre so maybe we could talk now a little bit about Sucre which is your sort of contrasting case so actually but before we do today where is Torres is would you say that it’s it’s it’s a successful project is the participatory democracy still happening where is it in 2024

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

So now that mayor who I talked about who was a conservative mayor supported by the Chavistas was re-elected I think in 2022 so the conservatives are back in power which again at least shows that there’s some level of electoral democracy still existing in Venezuela it’s not just you know sort of Maduro choosing who he would want this is an opposition leader it’s sad for Torres but the sort of pro-participation forces were in power for you know from 2004 till 2021 so you know good

16, 17 years.

The last time I did serious research in Torres, which was 2016, the participatory budget was still continuing, it was still pretty vigorous.

That was a period of major crisis and conflict and economic crisis in particular in Venezuela, so you could see the fraying of the participatory budget, but it was still pluralistic, it was still going, it was having some major problems, but they were not able to sort of survive politically all the

SPEAKER 4: Danny

major shifts within Venezuela but nonetheless they were you know that particular party and group of officials was re-elected I think four times or something so it shows a massive political support within what would also be interesting now did it create a different culture of politics in the city I mean like that’s the really thing to watch for the next 10-15 years right did this 15-year experiment in participatory democracy change how politics was done is there any sense of that or it’s too early days as it were

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

um sadly I’m almost positive I think it did for a long time but I don’t think it’s lasted I mean I think the crisis Venezuela has experienced which is one of the biggest crises and you know modern Latin American history was so devastating that the people I know who were involved in the participatory budget are actually trying to leave Venezuela now they’re trying to get out because of their economic difficulty and so I can’t imagine I haven’t been able to get back there because of COVID and this that and the other but

I’m hoping to the summer actually so I’ll have a better answer at that point but as of now my sense is that the crisis has just been too devastating but I do think that there’s probably you know a major sort of learning process that once Venezuela can get some economic recovery they can really build on that although I think it’ll take some years to see but it really did last for many many years I mean well over a decade so it was quite impressive

So turning to Sucre, so the book, you know, just to lay out the overall study, it was a comparison of left and right-run cities in Venezuela and Bolivia, and I sort of entered it with a sort of naive leftist assumption that I would show the right to be, you know, doing interesting Laclauian manipulation of leftist discourse and ideology, but, you know, clearly the left would be the one who would succeed on participation, and the right would not do anything approaching that.

And I was surprised, I didn’t find that in Venezuela.

In the right-governed Venezuelan city that I studied, Sucre, there was a center-right opposition leader named Ocariz, Carlos Ocariz, who was elected in 2008, took office in 2009, and he did a very vigorous participatory budget.

Not as vigorous, not as impressive as Torres, but pretty impressive.

By 2011, 2012, it was 40% of the investment budget, which was over 100 million US dollars.

35 million US dollars a year was going to participatory budgeting at its height.

There was like a thousand meetings a year.

Dozens of officials were going to these meetings.

Thousands of citizens were going, you know, cumulatively.

There was, you know, pretty vigorous discussions about projects.

There was some problem, but what was really impressive to me and surprising was that this right wing

Run Municipality was doing participation at all.

And they were doing it pretty seriously, and they were talking about it in a way that sounded very chavista.

So this guy Carlos Ocariz said, we’re doing popular power.

And if you were in Venezuela in 2011 when I heard him say the phrase and he’d said it for years before as well, that was a Chavista phrase.

Nobody would mistake it for being an opposition phrase.

So he was really identifying his project rhetorically with Chavismo even though he was clearly an opposition leader.

So it was this really fascinating case and this led to the sort of big argument of the book that how do we explain this case of right wing

Participation in the City, and I argue that you can only do so by looking at the national level and looking at the sort of existence of a left populist hegemony at the national level, which really reshaped Venezuelan politics from top to bottom for a number of years, such that Venezuelan politicians had to play the game of politics

On Chavista Terrain, and you can see that in Sucre, where they really are, and they’re doing it pretty explicitly.

I mean, the interviews I have with officials, they say, you know, the government has a project and citizens believe in this project, and we have to do that project if we want to connect with them, and they were doing that.

And then in 2013, when Chavez died,

And the Economic Crisis in Venezuela Starts to Bite.

They basically, they scale it down initially, and then they abandon it in subsequent years, which is sad, but it also sort of speaks to the larger argument of the book, that when these conditions of leftist hegemony don’t exist, the right is just gonna go back to operating the way the right does usually, which is one of two ways with respect to democracy.

Rejected Outright, which we’re seeing now with Trump and the US Republican Party, and which we’ve seen in Latin America and much of the world for much of the political rights history, or trying to make democracy safe.

So accept democracy, but make sure that it doesn’t really challenge elite interests.

And participatory democracy is not usually seen as something that is safe for elites.

They get nervous about it, they don’t like ordinary people,

actually having real sort of political control over decisions.

So you saw this really fascinating period in Sucre where a right wing party was doing that and it lasted for a good five years.

SPEAKER 4: Danny

Before we move on to Bolivia, and I do indeed want to move on to Bolivia, do you think there’s anything, I don’t want to be a parochial American, but I’ll be a parochial American here, is there anything that we could learn amongst American leftists from the Venezuelan experience, or is it just so contextually different that not really?

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

No I think there definitely are and I mean I was thinking when I was sort of finishing up the book it took me a long time to finish up the book I had a kid and all sorts of things happen in life but as I was starting to finish up the book you know it was a Corbin moment in Britain and it was the Sanders moment here and I was thinking about

the sort of left globally and the left in the US and in the UK.

And if Sanders had gotten elected, there would have been a lot of pressure from the Biden wing of the Democratic Party, the Obama wing, the Clinton wing to moderate, to govern in a moderate fashion, to avoid antagonizing the right.

And I think one of the lessons of Venezuela, and Corbyn I think would have the same sort of pressure as well, don’t rock the boat.

I think one of the lessons from the book is that actually the strategy of

doing a real vigorous leftist empowerment, full-throated leftism can work.

If you can actually build a leftist hegemony, you can bring the right with you.

And we saw some versions of this in the US over the years.

I mean, Noam Chomsky has referred to Nixon as the last liberal president, of course, and Nixon famously said, we’re all Keynesians now.

So there was a Keynesian hegemony that even Nixon

had to be pulled along with, and social movements were obviously vigorous in the 60s and 70s in the US.

So if you can actually have some sort of leftist hegemony, you can actually change the political calculus.

And so I think that’s one of the things the Venezuelan case demonstrates.

It of course also demonstrates the fragility of the particular type of leftist hegemony, and I think here there’s particular lessons that are idiosyncratic and general lessons.

Maybe not so much for the US, but for global South countries generally that you need

an economic base, and benefit that didn’t have a sustainable economic base for its leftist hegemony.

It was built on this extractivist model.

It was built on a commodity boom and bust cycle.

It was built on oil, and that was not a sustainable model.

Even politically, it was built on charisma, and that also is not sustainable for years and years.

If somebody dies, you’re out of luck.

So I think there are definite lessons, and then in terms of participatory budgeting, I think there’s other lessons that you could look at.

Very briefly, I would say that

what was particularly striking and amazing about the participatory budgeting that I saw in Torres, and to some extent in Sucre, was the face-to-face character of it, the deliberative character of it, and the fact that it was sort of linked to a much broader, bigger political project.

And that has been missing in a lot of participatory budget experiments in the US.

So in New York City, which is one of the biggest sort of set of processes, they’ve been much smaller, they’ve been sort of rinky-dink budgets for a park bench here or there.

They haven’t been sort of issues that matter that much to ordinary people, and they certainly haven’t been tied into a big political project like socialism of the 21st century.

And sometimes they’ve been online, and I think there’s ways that online participation can be valuable and easy, but it doesn’t give you the face-to-face deliberative aspect.

So I think that’s another sort of more specific set of lessons for the US.


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SPEAKER 4: Danny

all right let’s move on to Bolivia and before we do get into the details once you talk a little bit about how Bolivia differs from Venezuela and why you thought it was an interesting case to include as your second focus you know you have this phrase from active to passive revolution we’ve actually talked about Bolivia less on the show so listeners might need a little bit more

context also Morales is less of a figure in the United States than than Chavez given you know Chavez’s war on terror era con uh comments but um so set the stage for Bolivia

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

all right so Bolivia had you know some remarkable similarities to Venezuela as well as some important differences so 1980s and 1990s just like Venezuela was a period of neoliberal reform within Bolivia itself to deliver on its promises very similar to Venezuela led to a popular sort of rejection of this this took a different form than the one that happened in Venezuela in Venezuela you had a sort of

what I refer to as an involutionary crisis of hegemony where it sort of crumbles from the top down.

In Bolivia you have a sort of more classic revolutionary crisis really from the bottom up.

So between 2000 and 2005 Bolivia has a period of social mobilization, a protest wave that is, you know, amongst the strongest

in the world in this period.

You have the Cochabamba water war in 2000.

You have highland mobilizations in other parts of Bolivia.

You have all sorts of mobilizations happening all over the place.

2003, there’s a famous gas war centered in the city of El Alto, that sort of city above La Paz.

And this succeeds in kicking out the neoliberal president, Gonzalez Sanchez de Lozada, who narrowly beat Evo Morales in the 2002 election.

within Bolivia.

And so he was famously held responsible with reason for the repression that left around 74 people dead in El Alto who were just sort of protesters.

They were vigorously protesting this gas policy.

And then there’s a second gas war which takes place in May and June 2005, which leads to Gonzalez de Lozada’s successor, Carlos Mesa, who’s a sort of interim caretaker president in some ways.

He Gets Overthrown in a Sentence.

I mean, he resigns under pressure.

And this leads to a period of uncertainty for a couple of days.

It’s not clear what’s going to happen, and it gets resolved that there’ll be an election in six months.

And Evo Morales runs in that election, wins in a landslide in December 2005, and he takes office in 2006.

It’s similar to Venezuela in that it’s a crisis of hegemony, but it’s a different character of a crisis of hegemony.

And so one of the reasons that I decided to study Bolivia was that Evo Morales’ trajectory is remarkable.

He’s a social movement leader.

He’s the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history, you know, history of 500 years of

racism and apartheid and sort of colonial rule over the indigenous majority and he comes from social movements from the Cocaleros he’s the leader of the Cocaleros movement very strongly connected to all these sort of social movements that were active in the 2000 to 2005 revolutionary upsurge and so he brings these huge expectations for you know sweeping revolutionary change within Bolivia

and what makes it fascinating in the book is that those expectations in terms of participatory democracy fall flat they’re really not met but before I get into that some of the expectations were met so it’s important to have a sort of nuanced view of Morales when he gets elected you know he faces this period similar to Chavez of intense right-wing backlash you know racist backlash against him he can’t even land his plane in five of the

nine departments of Bolivia for his first few years in office.

There’s a constitutional process rewriting the Constitution, just like in Venezuela, although it takes a few years in Bolivia.

This is vigorously opposed by the right.

There’s right-wing sort of street violence and all sorts of problems and physical violence against indigenous constituent delegates.

And this gets resolved by around 2008, 2009, and Morales consolidates himself vis-a-vis his opponents

And then he takes what is sort of a right-wing turn in office.

From 2010 onwards, he starts making alliances with the racist lowland elite that had tried to overthrow him.

And he’s actually lunching with them by 2012, 2013.

In the City of Santa Cruz, one of the two cities that I study in the book.

He’s making deals with them at the local level, and he’s engaging in some repression of popular movements, including the popular movements that he came from.

One of the most famous or infamous instances of this is the Tipneys conflict over a road through a national park.

In the Lowlands of Bolivia and the Cocaleros and Evo Morales are sort of vigorously in favor of the road.

There’s other indigenous groups and civil society groups throughout Bolivia that are either opposed to it or in favor of a much more consultative process for figuring it out.

And Morales just sort of tries to ram it through.

So, and one person… Why is that?

What is like his calculation there?

Yeah, development is the basic discourse and there’s some Brazilian sort of projects that the coca-leros are interested in having, you know, come through the road.

They see it as a route for various things.

There’s, you know, rumors which I suspect are true that, you know, some of it would have to do with coca trading as well.

So there’s, you know, some, you know, his actual base may have some material interests involved.

So it’s really the coca-leros.

I mean, the road is going to

Open Things Up for Them, and it’s going to develop the region in particular ways.

And the indigenous groups don’t want the pollution.

They don’t want the extractive sort of nature.

They don’t want the change of life.

There’s different sorts of things, and they’re pissed about the fact that this is sort of a violation of the Constitution, a violation of the idea that we’re going to consult with people about development projects.

They demonstrably don’t in this particular instance.

So this is just one sort of demonstration of the change from active revolution in the 2000 to 2005 to passive revolution.

And so this concept of passive revolution has been used by a few different scholars, Massimo Modonesi, who’s at the UNAM in Mexico, Jeff Weber, who I think now is at York University.

A bunch of other scholars as well have used it to think about Morales.

And they’re basically making an argument that I also make in the book that

Under Morales, you see the demobilization of previously activated popular subjects.

So these popular movements that were really, really active before have moved in a very different direction under Evo Morales and they’ve been demobilized by the national state.

And I can see this at the local level in the two cases I look at, but you can also really see it at the national level.

SPEAKER 1: Derek

Gabriel what’s the theory behind why this happens why taking somebody like Chavez who comes out of an elite crisis and builds populism popular sovereignty after he kind of comes to power versus Morales who comes out of a popular movement and deactivates it essentially is it that Morales feels like

He Doesn’t Need This Anymore.

He is the manifestation of popular will and he doesn’t need that support anymore and Chavez is coming from the other direction and has obviously a different need to build a base that can counter the other oppositional elements of the elite.

What’s going on here?

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

Yeah, I would say that’s pretty much it.

So basically under Morales, you know, you have under Chavez and Morales and many leftist governments, you have a right wing reaction after the left gets elected.

Allende, of course, and, you know, pretty much any leftist ever who gets elected, there’s going to be a right wing reaction.

It takes a pretty strong form in Venezuela and Bolivia.

but the connection of the leader to the popular base is really different in the two cases Chavez has a weak connection to a popular base Morales has a really strong connection so just turning to Bolivia specifically there was a real risk of civil war I mean there was you know rating agencies were saying that there was a 56% risk I don’t know how the hell they come up with that particular figure but you know people felt like there was a real significant risk

I have an idea but we can’t share it on a family show I love it so you know there was you know a widespread sentiment shared pretty broadly by different ideological and other actors that there was a real risk of civil war and you can see that there was you know genuine discontent genuine sort of confrontation from the right towards Morales and he didn’t need to build a popular base and he risked

Civil War if he further mobilized the popular base so he could count on them already so there was no reason for him to go ahead and do the things that Chavez was doing in in Venezuela he didn’t need to and there was a risk that he would further escalate further antagonize the right if he did that he also had been on this sort of trajectory so I’m not a big fan of the sort of path dependency model I think it

Can sometimes explain but in this case there’s some you know ways in which from 2002 onwards Morales was consistently choosing a more electoralist path a more sort of mainstream less popular protest oriented path he did that in 2002 to some extent he did that clearly in 2005 pushing for the elections that led him to office one could say maybe he saved Bolivia from civil war so it might have been a smart thing but nonetheless he was continuously sort of pushing that and so after he consolidates himself piece of either right

He just sort of, you know, it doesn’t discard the left, doesn’t discard the sort of popular movements entirely, but he sort of, you know, increasingly distances himself from them and does try to take them over.

I mean, he really wants to control them fully.

And in Venezuela, Chavez

He does try to control movements too, to some extent, and Chavista officials do, but I think that the dynamics there are always more sort of both top down and bottom up at the same time, partly from that earlier sort of period where Chavez had to build popular movements to survive.

And he really did it in this vigorous way that gave them a lot of autonomy.

and he needed them I mean they really saved him in 2002 and I think there was a sort of gratitude so beyond that you know we could get into psychological and other things but I think those conditions and then some people have asked me about the bigger material conditions and oil and things like that and I haven’t been able to come up with like a straightforward explanation but I do think that

there could be a great book that we’ll see in 10 or 15 years that’ll make a nice you know political economy explanation for some of these differences that I’m pointing to but I can’t find a simple one although I imagine that clearly oil matters in Venezuela and clearly you know the political economy of Bolivia shapes things there as well so that can’t be discounted by any means

SPEAKER 4: Danny

So why don’t we now go into the case studies and you start with Santa Cruz or what you call technocratic clientelism or fear of the masses and of course fear of the masses is one of the you know themes of the 20th century so maybe we can get into how this affected things on the ground in Bolivia.

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

yeah so you know again getting back to the research design of the book I’m studying two cases of the left two cases of the right doing participation and I assume that the right is not going to do participation I don’t find that in Venezuela with the right I totally find that in Bolivia with the right so Santa Cruz is a right governed city the officials there are disdainful of participation they’re pretty openly racist of the large sort of indigenous and migrant

Highland Migrant Population so Santa Cruz is a very diverse city it has a lot of Bolivians from all over the country who are living there but it’s run by a sort of white mestizo elite and they just utterly sort of despise any notion of participation so I

Recounting the book that I spent weeks and weeks trying to track down officials who knew anything about this program called Urban Demand.

And when I finally, Neighbor Demand, sorry, that’s what it’s called.

And when I finally found an official who did it, he said it was a disaster.

You know, participation works best when it’s imposed by the executive.

And I’m like, what does that even mean?

I don’t quite understand but over and over officials are just saying the same thing within Santa Cruz and so it’s you know just a total lack of participation it’s elites who are running the city in a very technocratic way but it creates a lot of corruption it creates a lot of clientelism it reinforces these sort of patterns of clientelism you have you know popular organizations that are you know totally

Taken Over by the Mayor and run in a very sort of directly clientelistic fashion where Masistas so the party of Evo Morales which is in the opposition are just sort of shunted aside and then they have a parallel organization but they don’t have any access to resources they can’t even go to meetings there’s all sorts of you know infighting and things like this what

is surprising is that Morales ends up joining with that alliance.

I mean he brokers a deal where the MAS in Santa Cruz as of 2013 supports this right wing mayor and they become part of the alliance of city council supporting it and that leaves popular movements just totally on the out and outs

within Santa Cruz.

So Santa Cruz is a fascinating contrast with Sucre, and I think it helps to make the argument I do in the book that you have to place these cases in their national context because Sucre, again, the right-wing Venezuelan case, and Santa Cruz, the right-wing Bolivian case, look kind of similar on paper.

You know, it looks like, okay, you got a right-wing case in a left-governed country, they both have a kind of similar reformist history, the mayors of the two cities, they both have a large urban poor that tends to support the national left.

Party in Power.

And yet they take these totally different sort of trajectories.

And I think that the different context of Paso Revolution in Bolivia versus the left populist hegemony in Venezuela go a long way to explaining those differences.

SPEAKER 4: Danny

And so let’s conclude by talking about El Alto, which is your left-wing case in Bolivia.

So how does that compare with what was going on in Torres?

And then maybe let’s conclude with some lessons we could take from Bolivia’s experience.

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

Sure, so El Alto was the case where I was sure I would find the most participation.

So as I already talked about, this is the center of the 2003 and 2005 gas wars.

This is known as the rebel city in the literature.

Jeff Weber, who I referred to earlier, called it one of the most rebellious urban locales in Latin America.

that was you know around 2004 all the way through you know the late 2000s really vigorous popular movements the Federation of neighborhood assemblies and the regional workers central were crucial to these sort of uprisings in 2003 and 2005 and in 2000

Ten, the party of Evo Morales gets control of the mayor’s office.

The MAS is in control of the mayor’s office, and that’s right when I go down to start my research there, and so I’m like, all right, let’s see what sort of participation I’m gonna find here.

The answer was almost none, or almost no real participation in the sense of ordinary citizens having control over things.

Instead, I found officials who sounded surprisingly similar to the officials in Santa Cruz.

They were talking about trying to control social actors.

They were talking about the dictatorship of social organizations and the need to get our house in order.

At one point, I gave a presentation about Torres, and I’m this naive grad student.

Coming In.

And I’m like, all right, I’m going to show the leftists how participation works in this wonderful Venezuelan city.

And the officials love my presentation, but they love it because it was pointing to stability and order.

They don’t like the participation at all, and they’re totally uninterested in that.

But they’re like, oh, how do they have order in the city?

Tell us more about that.

And I’m like, that’s the point.

And they’re like, yeah, yeah, yeah.

and so I find that you know El Alto has this perpetuation continuation of clientelism and it has this government that’s really trying to bring civil society to heal and trying to control it not doing participation despite that there is a lot of mobilization going on in El Alto there are a lot of sort of social organizations and so I call it I had a really hard time conceptually figuring out a nice phrase so I have this weird phrase I think I call it involutionary clientelism which is basically

So to point to the weirdness of El Alto where you have really strong social organizations that are effectively holding the local state sort of control but in the service of a clientelistic sort of distribution of benefits rather than a genuine form of participation.

And so you have sort of incoherence at the bureaucratic level, a lot of infighting within civil society, between civil society and the local state, all sorts of criticizing of the Moss, of the mayor, of leaders all the time, and just a sort of lot of people being pissed off and not really getting genuine participation to happen.

And again, you know,

Turning to the Bigger Picture of the Book, it looks similar to Torres on paper.

You know, it looks like you’re gonna have this leftist party that’s rhetorically committed to participatory democracy in a country governed by a strong leftist party at the national level.

They should lead to robust participation, but because Bolivia takes this passive revolutionary turn,

it doesn’t that’s part of the reason why that doesn’t end up happening and so instead you have these remarkable similarities so you know stepping back Torres and Sucre the two Venezuelan cases of the left and the right look really similar not totally but you know surprisingly similar and then El Alto and Santa Cruz the left and right Bolivian cases also look really surprisingly similar and so that really continuously drew my attention to the national picture to the larger context that shapes exactly right

SPEAKER 4: Danny

so so then what what is there to learn from this make your nation good and not bad make sure that your nation has these sorts of structures and political culture because it’s interesting because you know when you when you go down to the local level it seems like ideology is less important in some sense than broader you know structures of participation in political economy so what do you say having studied these two countries in such depth

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel

yeah absolutely I mean great question and I think that I’ll be thinking about this for my whole life I’m sure so I may have a slightly different answer 20 years from now but you know the answer that I have now there’s a few things that come to mind one is that having a hegemonic project a project and a left hegemonic project that really pushes to reshape politics in a vigorous way I think is really important

and in the book I talk about this as you know Hugo Chavez as the Margaret Thatcher of the left and that’s a sort of deliberately provocative phrase that you know you guys may know that Thatcher was asked to her greatest accomplishment was I think in 2000 or 2002 and she said Tony Blair

We Forced Our Opponents to Change Their Minds, and I argue that Hugo Chavez did something similar, that his opponents on the right sounded a lot like Chavez’s because he successfully sort of pursued this hegemonic project and actually imposed a form of hegemony

where he was a sort of moral and intellectual leader.

That sounds absurd today, but it really existed in Venezuela for a number of years.

Of course there’s fragile material and political conditions that didn’t last, but for a while it was there.

So I think one of the lessons is organize and mobilize the people and do it connected to a bigger project.

And if you can vigorously do that and push through right wing opposition, you can actually succeed in going further.

And I think, I was thinking about Obama of all people

I was doing some research for a master’s paper on the Obama campaign of 2008 and that was nowhere close to the Morales or Hugo Chavez, but there was a lot of organizing and mobilizing that was going on and it totally fell apart in January 2009 after Obama took office and people were sort of scratching their heads and some of them thought if we had kept that going, some of the more ambitious reforms that Obama was hoping to push through, maybe he would have been able to do that.

If he had been more like Chavez,

which he would have been anathema to admit to doing, but actually organizing and mobilizing people, maybe he could do things.

And the lesson for me is more about people like Bernie Sanders and Corbyn, that you gotta remain close to and organized with your popular base.

I think there’s also a specific lesson from Torres, which is more about democratic socialism as opposed to left populism.

So Torres, I would say, is the one case that goes beyond left populism.

In Torres, you have real, you know,

Committed Socialist Officials in Control of the Local Municipality, really strongly embedded with vigorous and strong social movements fighting against national bureaucrats and political leaders who are trying to thwart them.

And because of that opposition from above, they’re continuously strongly connected to a mobilized base from below and they’re continuously mobilizing that base in these radical and pretty oppositional ways.

And that keeps things lively and from getting stuck in Torres for many, many… Permanent revolution, baby.

Yeah, exactly.


SPEAKER 4: Danny

This is the old issue.

SPEAKER 2: Gabriel


So Torres, I think, shows you that I think left populism is not the model that I would point to.

It has too many problems.

And you can see that in Venezuela.

But it does have possibilities.

It does have interesting things.

So that’s one big lesson.

The other big lesson, I think,

is one for thinking about democracy at a major level.

I think you’re both familiar with some of the political science literature which says we can only have democracy if it’s safe for elites.

And there’s big books that make this point, and they make it well.

I mean, there’s a lot of evidence that when you piss off elites, they’re gonna end democracy.

And so you have to keep democracy in check by having strong conservative parties and moderate leftist parties as opposed to radical leftist parties.

And I think what the Venezuelan case shows is that actually under some circumstances, you can push democracy to be more real, more genuine, and bring the right with you.

If you can achieve leftist hegemony, you can actually make democracy more real.

It doesn’t just have to be this sort of thin, safe democracy that we’ve gotten used to, and we don’t even have that in the US now.

I mean, that itself is under threat, but to the extent that we’ve had that for many decades,

that form you can go beyond it if you have the right conditions and I think this is a really interesting empirical case because I think it demonstrates that it’s actually possible it’s not just hope it’s not just a speculation this is a place where it did work and then of course you get into the big questions about the sustainability of it and what went wrong in Venezuela and how do you do better and those are really important questions but the experience itself suggests that it is possible and I think that’s a really really important and valuable lesson

SPEAKER 4: Danny

Gabriel Hetland thank you so much for joining us everyone check out his democracy on the ground local politics in Latin America’s left turn.

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a writer and analyst specializing in international affairs and US foreign policy. He is the publisher of the Foreign Exchanges newsletter, cohost of the American Prestige podcast, and former editor of LobeLog.

Daniel Bessner

Daniel Bessner is an historian of US foreign relations, and cohost of American Prestige, a podcast on international affairs.

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