Within the series Thesis Pieces featured on For the Desk Drawer, this is the eighth contribution thus far with this contribution authored by Carolina Cepeda, a visiting PhD researcher from the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia to the University of Nottingham. While researching under the supervision of myself and Andreas Bieler, Carolina has been increasingly drawn to analysing the alter-globalisation movement in Latin America. In this piece she assesses the implications across the region in light of the death of Hugo Chávez and the regional impact this may have on the “Bolivarian Revolution”, following the recent elections in Venezuela.   

Hugo Chávez died on March 5th and now Venezuela has a new president: Nicolás Maduro. Chávez was Venezuela’s President for 14 years during which he transformed the country through social programmes, political and popular education, and the redistribution of wealth, mainly funded through oil revenue. However his performance in power generated huge debates among academics, politicians and civil society in general because his important accomplishments in social policy were accompanied with charges of authoritarian practice and the lack of transparency in some procedures.

Despite these contradictions one cannot deny the importance of Chávez’s government and his legacy. Venezuelan society has been transformed and it is almost impossible to go back in terms of wealth distribution and political participation since most of the social processes have been constructed from below. As a result, Venezuela is now shaped by empowered communities, both in the cities and the countryside, with access to different services and goods that used to be a privilege of bourgeoisie classes.

Regardless of those advances we can say that nowadays there is a situation in Venezuela that could be described as more than complex: Nicolás Maduro, the Chavista candidate, won the last presidential elections by a tight percentage which was strongly disputed by Henrique Capriles, the oppositional candidate of the Democratic Unity coalition, that did not recognise Maduro’s victory and claimed he was not a legitimate president. It is true that Maduro lost almost a million of the votes since the previous election, as well as Capriles gaining almost a million votes since then, which could mean a loss of support for the “Bolivarian” project of Chávez. However, I want to highlight a transformation in the discourse of the opposition in Venezuela: how they have had to recognise Chávez’s legacy and the importance of his social programmes, something that could usher in a rethinking about the inclusion of those empowered communities by those oppositional sectors of Venezuelan society.

ChavezMaduro (1)

Alternatively, this discourse of oppositional sectors could be a strategy to demobilise people away from the Bolivarian project. During the week following the elections, important sectors of society responded to Capriles’ call for mobilisation against the government and the clamour for the non-recognition of Maduro’s victory. There were demands that the National Electoral Council re-count all votes, indicating that the difference between both candidates was too small to be considered valid; especially given the low margin in favour of Maduro, just 1.59% of the vote. Of almost 14.8 million votes cast, fewer than 235,000 separated the two candidates, according to The Economist.

Oppositional sectors are also trying to convince international observers, international organisations and countries from Latin America to reject Maduro’s electoral victory. However, states within the region have clearly recognised the victory and also supported it by congratulating Maduro as the next President of Venezuela. It is important to highlight this gesture with reference in particular to the case of Colombia whose right-wing government has provided a home for some of the self-imposed exiled oppositional groups since Chávez arrived to power.

PinkTideOther states in the region have recognised the victory as well such as the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR) that stated the election was clear and all procedures were transparent. In terms of such international support and recognition one can see the importance of Venezuela and its Bolivarian project in a regional context. Chávez’s transformations were not an exclusive phenomenon of “domestic” politics in Venezuela. He also promoted different ways of conducting regional integration in Latin America through alternative geopolitical relations with the United States. We have to remember that Chávez is the first President in the region of the so-called pink tide, a wave of diverse governments from the left – with important differences among them – that have distanced themselves from neoliberal orthodoxy. There has been an emphasis on renationalisation of some corporations and natural resources, an increase in social investments and expenditures, the more pronounced state regulation of finance, and consequently a less subordinated position vis-à-vis the United States.

Alca (1)We can take the example of the negotiation of the Área de Libre Comercio de las Américas (ALCA, or Free Trade Area of the Americas) in which we can see how some states from Latin America have been able to halt the expansion of neoliberalism, notably linked to alternative policies in Brazil and Venezuela. The idea of the ALCA died and the United States has had to make bilateral agreements with the countries who wanted to “have access to American markets”. Since that moment, at least in Latin America, regional processes of integration have become more important than in previous years.

Regional integration is not a novelty in Latin America nor is it the sole preserve of the Brazilian or Venezuelan governments. The idea has been evident throughout the region since the age of the wars of independence and the beginning of state formation processes. It first appeared as a way of coalescing against Spanish attempts to recover its former colonies. At the end of the nineteenth century the idea of integration reappeared as a defense mechanism against the expansionist behaviour of the United States. At the beginning of the twentieth century there was born the idea of Panamericanism, a way of integrating the Americas, but it generated some suspicions because of the importance and the weight of the United States. By the middle of the century regional integration appeared again but this time it was viewed as a way through which states could achieve economic development. This was pursued through Import Substitution Industrialisation (ISI), as promoted by the Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe  (CEPAL), a model of accumulation subsequently broken up by the debt crisis of the 1980s.

Latin American history has always had an integrationist dimension, ever since the idea of Simón Bolívar to construct the Patria Grande (or Great Homeland). Subsequently, alternative forms of regional integration have included the proposals such as the UNASUR or the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA). However my contention is that the people of Latin America have never had a successful integration process: all of the processes mentioned have been conducted “from above” without incorporating popular demands “from below” within civil society, leaving aside social, political, and economic dimensions.

Colectivos23deEnero (1)Venezuela has been an important player in the recent processes of regional integration and Chávez’s leadership has been crucial. It is clearly going to be a challenge to keep many of the processes initiated by Chávez going in his absence, not only in Venezuela but also across Latin America. In other words, have the processes linked to ALBA been solid enough to secure strong bases in sectors of civil society? And will other states in Latin America, such as Bolivia and Ecuador, remain committed to the ideas of ALBA and keep them alive and kicking?

I think we have to give the proper value to Chávez’s legacy and recognise that he, as a leader, was tremendously important to regional integration. However, we should recover the importance of the people committed to Bolivarian projects and other alternatives: there are civil society organisations working within the frame of ALBA, for example social movements conducting alternative forms of resistance “from below” that may continue Chavismo in Venezuela without Chávez. Across the region of Latin America there are social and political organisations committed to the pursuit of alternatives to the current hegemonic order. The struggle over the Bolivarian Revolution continues.

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