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Venezuela: empowering the poor

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In an extensive study, entitled “Venezuela’s Social-Based Democratic Model: Innovations and Limitations”, Steve Ellner looks at the achievements of the successive Chavez governments in catering to the needs of under-privileged sectors of the population, specifically workers in the informal economy, those employed in small non-unionised firms in the formal economy and the rural workforce. He says that it is Chavez’s concern with these sectors (as opposed to the industrial proletariat) and his social rather than economic objectives that makes Chavez’s brand of socialism different from orthodox Marxism and past socialist experiences.

Ellner concludes that results have been mixed. On the one hand, a large number of underprivileged Venezuelans have participated in social movements and programmes and, through these, have been empowered (a subjective condition, he says), gained access to education on a large scale, and been incorporated into society. All this, he says, has furthered the goals of socially-focused democracy and helps explains Chavez’s extraordinary run of electoral successes.

On the other hand, the high failure rate of cooperatives and community councils, due to the organisational inexperience of their members and the state’s institutional deficiencies, has led to the disillusionment and passivity of some Chavista supporters. A key problem remains the development of institutions able both to channel aspiration and provide organisation, training and ‘discipline’ for these new sectors. As Ellner says, “Radical democracy and social-based democracy are often conducive to weak institutions.”

In all, Ellner concludes that the impact of these diverse experiences on Venezuela’s excluded and semi-excluded population will shape the nation’s politics and social relations long into the future – an important observation as Venezuela faces an increasingly uncertain future in this electoral year.

The full study can be accessed here.