In the wake of Hugo Chávez’s fifth consecutive win in the recent Venezuelan national elections after fourteen years in office, many have been asking about the possibilities for ending the on-going polarisation that has characterised Venezuela in recent decades. Chávez himself has pledged to bring about a “national reconciliation” that would heal the rifts that have divided Venezuelan society. But a realistic assessment of whether this could happen requires some analysis of why and how the polarisation has occurred and what steps could be taken to overcome it.
One of the main reasons for political polarisation has been the differences in economic strategy between Chávez and the opposition. Beginning in 2001, Chávez diverged from the free market policies pursued by his predecessors. He nationalized strategic sectors of the economy, enacted land reform, and promoted state production of food and consumer items. This has produced strong reactions from economic and political elites who were set on a path of privatisation prior to Chávez’s arrival.
Class and race have also played an important role in this polarisation. Typically, Venezuelan politics has been dominated by wealthy white elites. The majority black and mixed-race population has not been represented at the upper echelons of the political hierarchy. So when Chávez came into office, as someone with mestizo features and a dark complexion, ordinary poor people could relate to him. Class and race cleavages have always existed in Venezuelan society, but with the arrival of Chávez these cleavages became politicised – this has led to increasing polarisation.
This is not to say that all of the black and mestizo urban poor support Chávez. Some have become dissatisfied with him over recent years due to on-going problems of corruption, bureaucracy and lack of basic services. Others among the urban poor have been long-time supporters of opposition parties like Democratic Action, which often had strong support bases in the urban barrios. And Chávez does have supporters among the middle and upper class. So the fault lines are not as neat and clear as Chávez may often portray them.
But in order for the goal of national reconciliation that Chávez proposes to have any traction, the government would need to continue to seriously address the devastating poverty and inequality that has afflicted Venezuela since the late 1980s. It is only by reducing the tremendous gaps in wealth and income that Venezuelans could begin to move beyond polarisation. The social programmes established under Chávez have played an important role in reducing poverty. If the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski had won the election, he would no doubt have reverted back to the free market agenda with its implications of privatisation and cutbacks in social services. Given Chávez’s health situation – he has undergone several treatments for cancer in recent years – if he does not survive this term in office then early elections may deliver the country back to the opposition. It is unclear whether the social services established under Chávez would be maintained under an opposition-controlled government.
Lastly, while Venezuela has seen political polarisation and social polarisation, it has not seen the kinds of generational polarisation that have been sweeping the Americas with Occupy Wall street in the United States, #yosoy132 in Mexico and the Chilean student movements. In Venezuela, a right-wing student movement consisting mostly of upper-middle class students in the private and public universities has been strongly vocal against Chávez. But there are few signs of a powerful left-wing student movement emerging. Barrio and poor youth in Venezuela have been involved in the missions and other barrio-based movements like community media, but they haven’t come together specifically as young people. Chávez himself may have something to do with that. While he might inflame the business elites, upper classes, and international media, Chávez doesn’t provide an object for militant youth anger like President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico or the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera.
Sujatha Fernandes is a Professor at Queens College, City University, New York