Venezuela’s oil populism is mired in a deep crisis. Cuba is transiting to a capitalist restoration of its own. But Cuba and Venezuela share a certainty: there are no havens to return to, writes Haroldo Dilla
IF WE are to look at Venezuela from Cuba, and at Venezuela together with Cuba, we should go back to December 1994, when Hugo Chávez, just out of the prison where he had been held since his attempted coup in 1992, arrived in Havana and was welcomed by Fidel Castro with full honours as a future hero.
Chávez, who had just turned 40, made an inflammatory anti-imperialist speech in which he showed his potential as an emerging mass leader, albeit still burdened by the stern verticality of the barracks.
The aim of his visit to Cuba, he said, was the formation of ‘a mutually nurtured Latin American revolutionary project’, which was to be achieved when he would access power through elections and open a new republican period that would leave behind the many frustrations which had been piling up.
This was not of course, far from it, the start of the relationship between the two societies. Ever since the merchants from La Guaira began refilling their ships in Havana in the 16th century, Venezuela and Cuba have been sharing their culture, politics and economy in a hectic relationship marked by encounters and missed encounters.
But as of that moment, and especially in 1998 — when Chávez won a comfortable victory at the elections over the debris of the Punto Fijo Pact republic, Cuba became essential to assessing the Venezuelan scene — to revile its military and security advisors, or to praise its healthcare professionals.
To ordinary Cubans, Venezuela ceased to be only good salsa music and became a kind of revolutionary greening element precisely at a time when the revolution itself had lost its sex appeal and the persistent economic mediocrity was in dire need of solvent financial support.
The relationship was so close that some Chavista leaders — to paraphrase Umberto Eco, turning an excess of virtue in debauchery — went so far as to speak of a political federation that the Cuban leaders carefully discarded, bearing in mind that it is one thing to walk together and quite another thing to spend the night together.
This is why if we are to talk about Cuba, we must talk about Venezuela — and vice versa. Failing to do it is unforgivable. But doing it in an elementary way could lead to illusions, a usual phenomenon in the Cuban scenario, especially in the field of political passions.
When, from the Cuban perspective, the experiences of both societies are made equivalent, Venezuela tends to be seen sometimes as past, sometimes as future. The defenders of Castrist teleology would say that Venezuela is now going through a moment of cleavage and rupture which will lead to the consolidation of a revolutionary political regime, as Cuba did in the distant 60s.
Their always inflamed opponents would argue that Venezuela is treading a civic insurgency path which Cuba will not be long in following too, and thus achieve the restoration of a liberal-democratic order.
These are two crass errors, because although the official discourses have striven to bring the two experiences as close together as possible and have tended to refer them both to a single historical context, we must acknowledge the fact that alongside some quite obvious similarities, there are actually a number of differences which neatly define the nature and itinerary of each process.
Cuba experienced a real social revolution which ended basically in the mid-60s and gave way to a long post-revolutionary period that has gone through different phases.
Building on the rubble of a military dictatorship (but also on the debris of a republic utterly devalued by corruption and inequality), Cuba was able to maneuver successfully on the basis of a totalitarian political system that repressed and exported dissidence with the invaluable support of US imperialist interference.
At the same time, Cuba managed to establish an effective system for the provision of social services which organised regimented personal consumption and promoted the social mobility of large sections of the population.
The existence of this system is key to understanding the capacity of the Cuban State to overcome major crises, as the one it went through between 1990 and 1994, when the economy shrank by 50 per cent. The provision system managed to keep on functioning even in the worst moments, strengthening the legitimising idea of a revolution-that-does-not-abandon-its-people. All of this seasoned the existing political control with strong doses of consensus which is, even today, shared by large sections of the population.
Chavism, on the other hand, was not a revolution — it did not change the structure of property or of power within Venezuelan society, nor did it destroy the old political system.
It was a spirited (and strident) left-wing populist experience coexisting with the bourgeoisie and private capitalist property. And when it did impinge on one or the other through some radical measure, it was actually more a consequence of some leap forward than of future political planning.
Its dynamics have always been dependant on oil prices, like almost everything in Venezuela in the last 60 years, including democracy and socialism.
Although the system has been evolving towards caudillista and authoritarian political forms, it has never eliminated the organised opposition, nor has it achieved anything anywhere near the Cuban monocentric structure. Its social programmes — which had a positive effect on reduction of poverty and social inclusion between 2003 and 2012 — were organised through ‘missions’, in a voluntarist and asystemic way, under the direct authority of the leader.
And the economic support given to governments and related movements for the sake of a Bolivarian continental revolution has not in fact produced the revolution, but it has altered regional geopolitics and dramatically eroded national resources.
To the extent that both Chavism and Castroism originate from political disruption and promise a new order that they call Socialist, both operate on the basis of an over-determination of politics.
But while Castroism has guaranteed its survival by being able to navigate over it, Chavismo has dissolved and shred — simply because the Cuban regime has learned to use politics as an economic resource, while the Venezuelan regime has done the opposite. Whereas Cuban leaders have developed a special ability to delve in other people’s purses, the Venezuelans have turned their country into a most prodigal one.
Since the 16th century, Cuban society has learned to convert politics into merchandise, and I do believe that there is no other society, with the exception of Puerto Rico, that has enjoyed greater quotas of subsidies throughout its history.
The new post-revolutionary elite has successfully appropriated this legacy while, at the same time, balancing accumulation and governance. As a result, Cuba has never enjoyed a golden economic period, but it has always been able to avoid disaster.
Chavismo did have its golden age. This was when, with oil prize at over 110 dollars a barrel, it organised free elections (with a 75 per cent turnout) and won 60 per cent of the votes, significantly reduced poverty, and interfered with continental politics.
Although Hugo Chávez, with that eloquence so typical of populist leaders, once swore that even with ‘the oil at zero’ his revolutionary programs would never stop, we have not had to wait that much: the system shattered when oil prizes fell below 60 dollars.
The soft coexistence between a corrupt State and a speculative market turned into a lethal brew for the average Venezuelans. Today, the Venezuelan economy is not even able to benefit from rising oil prices. That peculiar populist tendency of trying to solve crises by adding more crises has brought the country to the threshold of hecatomb.
Whatever the exact details, however, both Cuba and Venezuela seem to have reached the end of an itinerary.
Nothing indicates the likelihood of a break in Cuba. The island continues to offer — although in an increasingly deficient manner — a safe but mediocre life under a severely controlled political system, and credible propositions of improvement in other areas. The opposition — regardless of its moral and political stock — is weak and not very influential.
The post-revolutionary political class is undergoing a process of change that will eventually produce a new political generation whose mission will be to manage the capitalist restoration (and its own bourgeois metamorphosis) and to restructure the domestic and international pacts that make it possible.
On the other hand, everything seems to indicate that a rupture is quite likely in Venezuela to put an end to an unworthy and obscene government. This could happen in many ways — some politically and humanly more regrettable than others — but it does not seem that the current level of polarisation can be resolved by having the same actors sit at a negotiation table.
But leaving the two different contexts aside, it is crucially important that both societies and their emerging elites understand that there are no havens to return to.
Cuba was not — as exiles and migrants tend to imagine when they look at some yellowish dusty photos — a place to be envied for its neatness, development and freedom. It was a perennially frustrated republic with distressing levels of corruption, inequality and social exclusion, and permanent US interference.
Neither was Venezuela, where despite of its oil wealth, the opulence of its middle class coexisted with extremely high levels of poverty and inequality, alarming corruption and a political erosion that simply became unbearable in the 90s.
The popular masses that supported the Cuban revolution in 1959 and the Chavista challenge in 1998 were not disoriented and they were not lacking in judgement. They were people looking for hope in dead-end streets — as Bertolt Brecht famously put it. And they did so by breaking whatever was needed to regain their dignity. This could happen again if we do not understand that, as Ernesto Laclau notes, neoliberal capitalism can be an even worse enemy of democracy than populism.
OpenDemocracy.net, February 14. Haroldo Dilla is a Cuban sociologist and historian, professor at the Arturo Prat University and the Catholic University in Chile.
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