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The People’s Politics in Venezuela: A Q&A With George Ciccariello-Maher

March 23, 2014

George Ciccariello-Maher, PhD, an assistant professor who specializes in social movements and political theory, recently returned from Cairo, Egypt and Amman, Jordan, where he spoke in commemoration of the year anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s death, as well as the 25th anniversary of a wave of major riots and massacres in Venezuela. Invited by the countries’ Venezuelan embassies, Ciccariello-Maher addressed crowds on the lessons learned from the 1989 rebellion, the ongoing clashes in Venezuela, and the parallels between all three countries’ political unrest.

George Ciccariello-Maher, PhDWe spoke to Ciccariello-Maher to learn more about his trip, talk and most recent book, “We Created Chávez”— to be published in Arabic this summer—which explores the political history in Venezuela that led to the election and political career of Hugo Chávez.

Q: Tell us about your book, “We Created Chávez.” How do you challenge conventional wisdom about Hugo Chávez and Venezuela?
A: “We Created Chávez” tells the bottom-up story of recent Venezuelan political history. I wanted to move away from the focus on [recently deceased] Hugo Chávez as the central figure of Venezuelan politics, who is often seen as having set in motion all of these political changes. I wanted to show that Chávez is very much the product of history, not the cause of history.

Q: So what historical political changes gave Chávez his political standing?
A: If you look at Venezuelan political history, Chávez actually comes in very late in the game, so he’s stepping into this space that was created over time by a whole variety of movements. The roots of these social movements actually go back to the 1950s, so these movements have a long history of influencing Venezuelan politics. Even at the height of his power in office, Chávez faced significant pressure from below, either from these movements or their successor movements.

You have the guerrilla struggles in the 1960s that emerge out of the same movements that overthrew the dictatorship in 1958. The dictatorship was replaced with a democracy, but we use that term loosely. The new democracy was really very rigid and limited, with no room for the poor to have their political voice. So the guerrillas, who had actually fought the dictatorship, turned immediately against this non-inclusive democracy.

Then in the 1970s, we saw a whole host of other movements blossoming, from workers’ movements to the women’s movement to the Afro-Venezuelans’ movement to students’ movements. During the economic crises in the 1980s, it was these groups that stepped in to organize the citizens and demand meaningful political change.

Q: What significance does 1989 hold in Venezuelan politics?
A: All of these trends that had built momentum in the 1970s and ’80s really crested in 1989; riots broke out near Caracas and quickly spread through much of Venezuela to protest economic restructuring. It took the government about a week to fully restore order, and the police killed hundreds, maybe even thousands, in the crackdown. We still don’t really know how many Venezuelan citizens were killed during that time.

1989 led directly into 1992, when Chávez made his unsuccessful coup attempt. While Chávez was jailed, he and others became the faces of change, and millions rallied for their release. Chávez capitalized on this support, turned to electoral politics and was eventually elected to the presidency in 1998. So 2014 marks both the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Riots, and the first anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s death. I was invited by the Venezuelan embassies in Cairo, Egypt and Amman, Jordan, to give a special lecture commemorating 1989. My book is currently being translated into Arabic, and the Venezuelan ambassadors have been very helpful and supportive with that project, so this visit is also in advance of my book’s Arabic translation.

Q: Egypt and Jordan have experienced their own tumultuous political changes in recent years. Do you see any parallels between Venezuela in 1989 and Egypt in 2010, 2011?
A: Venezuela has lived through years of tension and struggle between the people and the the powers that be. This tension between taking the state’s power seriously, while not ignoring the power from below, has been pretty clearly reflected in the Arab Spring.

For the people who have lived the Arab Spring, we have to ask if and when and how these moments of great hope and promise become the moments of grave disappointment and brutal repression. As political scientists, we must question how we use political and historical trajectories to think about events in other places and other times.

Q: What was the reaction to your special lecture in Cairo and Amman?
A: In both Cairo and Amman, I was able to address large and politically engaged crowds intent on both understanding Venezuela and using the lessons from Venezuela to grapple with their own political realities. Egypt, especially, is a country that has in very recent history seen leaders deposed by coups and street action as well as massacres, arrests and police abuse. Both countries, of course, are also worried about the Syrian Civil War. So I encountered audiences in both countries that were eager to ask hard questions about movements, coups, democracy and the state.

Q: Venezuela erupted in popular protests in late February 2014. The protests quickly turned deadly; to date at least 20 Venezuelans have been killed. Are these protests more evidence of the Venezuelan people creating their own politics?
A: Yes and no. It’s certainly the case that whenever people take to the streets, this is a political act, but this doesn’t tell us what kind of politics they are engaged in, necessarily. Unlike many of the street mobilizations we have seen worldwide in the past three years—most of which emerged against neoliberal austerity measures—those in the streets of Venezuela come largely from the more affluent classes, and the leadership of these movements would more than likely institute just this sort of measure. The majority of Venezuelans, and especially the poor, still support their elected government, as we saw in the Chavista victory in local elections in December, and this majority continues to create its own politics in social movements, directly democratic communal councils, and workers’ cooperatives. Despite what is said in the media, this has not been a case of a government violently repressing protestors, either—the deaths, all unfortunate, have been on both sides. If anything, the degree to which a small number of the protests have turned openly violent has hurt the credibility of the protestors.

Watch Ciccariello-Maher’s speech at the University of Jordan.