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Like hydrogen without oxygen? Politics, Economics and Society in Chavez's 21st Century Socialism


President Hugo Chavez opened last night's Canning House speech by saying that making economic policy without consideration for social goals is like having hydrogen without oxygen - in other words, having only half of the ingredients necessary to create water and therefore sustain life.  His vision of '21st Century Socialism' spelled out in the speech and other recent statements and publications involves using economic policy - namely the revenues of Venezuela's ongoing petrol boom - to fund social spending in health, education and nutrition.  The President was awash with statistics about how well this 'new model' is doing in reinventing Venezuelan society, and in presenting an alternative to moribund global economic models.

While the validity of the statistics cited by the President may rightfully be debated by each side of the pro and anti-Chavez camp, a more fruitful discussion may involve questioning what has happened to the 'forgotten third' element necessary to sustain national life - politics.  This is not to say that the President's 'socialism' is apolitical, it is indeed far from it, as the chanting pro and anti protestors outside last night's venue attest to.  But the classical conception of 'political economy' - or economics as a social science intrinsically linked to politics - is somehow strangely absent from the conversation on Latin America's current trajectory.  Few are looking at the political roots of the economic and social challenges at hand - or the consequences of these trends on the fabric of Latin American political institutions.  

Many recent commentators (including those at ODI) have been at pains to point out that the emergence of the Latin American 'left' is far from a homogenous trend.   The divergence between Latin American leaders pursuing moderate versions of European-style social democracy (Lula, Bachelet) and those pursuing more nationalistic and radically redistributive socio-economic models (Chavez, Morales) has much to do with the underlying structure of the pre-existing political system.  Connections between organised politics (e.g. political parties) and citizens run deep in the countries in which the former are being pursued.   Lula's Worker's Party (PT) for example is an 'old' party, and almost unquestionably Brazil's strongest and most disciplined.  In a country where deputies switch parties at will in order to escape the directives of party whips, the PT is marked by an unusually high loyalty from its politicians.  Additionally the PT has always enjoyed a close connection to its grass roots base.  And while the natural compromises of governing over the past four years have put some strain on those ties, it is clear that Brazilian democracy is more formally linked to its active civil society than is the case in either Venezuela or Bolivia, where leaders have emerged from either loosely structured popular dissatisfaction and / or alternative power sources (e.g. the military) rather than through the testing ground of the institutionalised democratic system.  

This in turn means that the dedication of such leaders to preserving these institutions is necessarily weaker.  While some may argue that the institutions weren't worth upholding in the first place, it is clear that undermining them without building something in their place will simply leave a vacuum when today's leaders fade from public life (or run out of natural resource revenues - however unimaginable this may be in a period where the increasing price of petrol seems a 'structural' feature of the international economy), impoverishing the country's social, economic and political future.