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Transformative nationalism in Latin America

Louise Jeffries


The excitement of a newly articulated national identity, combined with new methods of participatory decision-making, can draw people into an ongoing process of social change.


Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of the left in Latin American political thought.After more than two decades of economic stagnation and social devastation felt across much of the region the desire and need to define an alternative political model was acute. Increasing instances of popular resistance to further privatisation and liberalisation evidenced growing discontent throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. This article considers how President Chávez in Venezuela and President Morales in Bolivia have sought to channel this sense of defiance into a purposive movement for political change.

Chávez and Morales are certainly two of the most controversial figures in contemporary world politics – often portrayed as lunatics, authoritarian throwbacks from Latin America’s brutal past, or doomed socialists. A full assessment of the successes, failures, dangers or downfalls of these regimes is not the purpose here. But what cannot be denied is that they have both managed to alter the political cultures in their respective societies such that the plight and needs of the impoverished and marginalised majorities are now firmly on the political agenda. The nature of politics has been expanded beyond the preserve of the elite to an arena for cross-class action and protest. What is under consideration here is how they managed to open the space to bring about and consolidate such a dramatic change.


The importance of the nation

Many social theorists report the ‘end of the nation state’, with national communities and their affiliated institutional arrangements seen as an outmoded and declining form of societal organisation (Ohmae, 1995). But contemporary social reality attests to the enduring power of the nation as both ‘symbolic system and as societal structure’ (Pickel, 2003, 114). The national remains the predominant level at which politics functions, with many supposedly ‘global’ developments better characterised as the rise of regional blocs, in which nation-states remain the primary actors (Hirst and Thompson, 1996). Functionally, the nation remains a workable arena within which to address problems and to organise politically and socially (Mayerfeld, 1998).

Furthermore, nations remain the form of social organisation to which people feel attached and identify themselves with. One of the most striking findings of the World Values Survey, which questioned people on their personal attachments, was that, currently, local and national identification by far outweigh any sense of communal global membership (Norris, 2003). The ‘potency’ of the nation as a context for identification stems from its deep-rooted, visceral appeal as a historical community (Held and McGrew, 2003, 16). While in certain circles ties of nationality have been deemed vulgar and sentimental, belonging in the past, the globalist theories and hopes of Western elites do not equate with the popular desire for ‘moorings in place and time’ (Kaufmann, 2007, 79).

On this basis nationalism should be distinguished from political doctrines such as statism or protectionism, and seen instead as a pervasive process, present in every societal context (Barrington, 1997). This process has a dual character: with both structural and agential, organic and deliberate, aspects. (I found this a bit opaque) Structurally, there is the historically rooted ‘cultural script’ that defines and shapes the national community and its identity, which operates as a frame of reference through which members of the nation function socially and build solidarity (Itzigsohn and Vom Hau, 2006). On the other hand, the process is one of conscious articulation by various actors, involving the construction and dissemination of discourse which attaches meanings to ‘the nation’ and national membership, and dictates perceptions of national interests (Miller, 1995).

Viewing nationalism as a process captures its fluidity, variance and transformative potential. While historically path-dependent, the national ‘cultural script’ is not structurally monolithic, but open to reinterpretation by a variety of agents. Manipulation of the nationalism process, so as to define the nation, its membership and member’ identity in a certain way, can generate a national discourse and subsequent articulation of national interests that posits a particular political order as optimal for that nation.

The nationalism process has the power to legitimate existent social and political orders, or generate mass support and action for alternatives. It can legitimate the existent order if those in power manage to enforce a ‘hegemonic national discourse’ which supports the established political regime (Itzigsohn and Vom Hau, 2006,194). If the political order is perceived as in the national interest it will gain support (De Cillia et al, 1999). But nationalism can also be employed by social movements and excluded groups to advance contending alternatives. Particularly for national communities that are highly polarised, characterised by chronic social problems and vast inequalities, a crisis of the established order can present an opportunity to redefine the content of the national identity and interests in a ‘moment of change’. When alternative groups are successful in challenging the hegemonic official discourse they effectively promote an alternative vision of the nation and its interest. Three central strategies used by political movements to legitimate their transformative agenda have been deinstitutionalised leadership, revisionist historiography and popular education initiatives (Jeffries, 2007). Transformative nationalism that seeks to redefine the political order, including the institutional setting of the nation, is necessarily a process in which agency triumphs over structure.


Crises of identity

In Venezuela, the political unrest and instability that intensified throughout the 1980s and 1990s can be precisely related to a lack of confluence between the dominant national discourse and identity, and social reality. Venezuela was depicted as western and wealthy, a vision which originally served to unite the nation behind the hope of a prosperous future. But the conspicuous wealth of the elite was increasingly in stark contrast to the living standards of the majority, and the lack of improvement from the 1970s onwards induced deep-seated anger towards the ruling classes (Villareal, 1990). Holding up Venezuelan democracy and leaders as exemplary, and the country as exceptional in its regional setting, became less and less plausible after the Caracazo streetriots of 1989, leading Venezuelans to examine and question the premises of the exceptionalism thesis (Ellner and Salas, 2005).

The political system offered little opportunity to challenge this vision of the country (Shifter, 2006). The growing disconnect between official discourse and popular experience meant that the nationalism process did not serve to legitimate the political system and instead a ‘crisis of governability’ arose, as the credibility of the system deteriorated. Lacking a political alternative within the existent system, voter abstentionism increased dramatically (DiJohn, 2005). The voice of the majority had been excluded from the democratic process, and as such political activity was considered uncharacteristic of the Venezuelan people. However, the Caracazo effectively served to recapture popular political action as Venezuelan, bringing the many instances of such protests since 1958 back into the national discourse (Canache, 2002).

In Bolivia, political unrest had led to mass protest long before the election of Morales. The events in Cochabamba in 2000 were conceivably the turning point. The increase in water rates by the U.S. owned water provider sparked riots in the town, and the murder of a seventeen year old protester by the army further fuelled the people’s rage. In an unprecedented victory, the town council reclaimed control of water provision and established a fairer system of access for the poor. Protests against further privatization in energy resources occurred in Santa Cruz in 2003. However, unlike earlier struggles, they were not led by trade unions or leftist parties. Instead, it was a ‘leaderless Aymara uprising, rooted in the history of communal Indian struggle dating back over two centuries’ (Ali, 2007, 92).


The charismatic moment

Both Chávez and Morales presented themselves as not just alternative presidential candidates, but as leaders of cultural and political revolutions, signalling a distinct break from all that had gone before. In order to appeal to the previously disenfranchised, the new regimes had to represent something apart from traditional politics and disconnected with the oligarchy. Their strong leaderships, appealing directly to the people, without the mediation of institutional channels, were well positioned to claim anti-politics status. Both are concerned to continually demonstrate their identification, understanding, and closeness with the public.

This de-institutionalisation of political authority has been described as a ‘New Populism’ (DiJohn, 2005). Populists reflect the hostility of the majority population towards traditional politics of corruption and privilege, claiming to by-pass the elite, often calling for issues of popular concern to be decided by public referendum. This is not an emergent phenomenon; Juan Peron’s leadership in Argentina is archetypal. While movements that employ populist strategies are often viewed as threatening to democracy, new populists claim to be genuine democrats, with the reclamation of power and voice for the people. Anti-vanguardist populism can be seen as providing an underpinning for direct, participatory democracy, rather than the liberal representative model (Canovan, 2004).

Charismatic leaders can command sufficient popular support to defy, albeit temporarily, deeply entrenched structures (James, 1988). Although often dismissed as irrational and fleeting triumphs of popular sentiment, the charismatic moment can be seen as a ‘means to a substantive rational end’ (DiPiramo, 2004, 4). When charismatic authority prevails, the interaction between agency and structure can allow for the rejection of supposedly accepted values and cultural reference points, and consequently, call into question collective and individual identities (Nakano, 2003). The direct democracy of the charismatic moment can serve to reconnect the apathetic populace with a more easily comprehensible and accessible form of politics (DiPiramo, 2004).

However, charismatic leaders who promise dramatic change often cannot survive the turbulent political reality. While the temporary de-institutionalisation of political authority opens space for the renegotiation of national discourse, the maintenance and advance of the transformative project is dependent upon it being given historical roots and ‘anchorage in political institutions’ (Goebel, 2007, 316).


Alternative histories

Morales, being of indigenous descent, was in a strong position to use the existent anti-establishment feeling to generate support for his vision of Bolivia, in which the history, contribution and welfare of the indigenous majority are central elements. Morales draws on deep-rooted indigenous beliefs and stories, and presents the Bolivian indigenous as a ‘chosen people’, united by an ancient, sacred culture and territory, and a common destiny. In particular he recalls the words of an Indian militia leader, Tupac Katari, whose prophesized upon his execution by Spanish forces, ‘I shall return and I shall be millions’ (Benschop, 2007).

But in focusing on the indigenous quest to ‘reclaim’ Bolivia, Morales has to some extent replicated the exclusivity of the previous national identity, without finding a middle ground of Bolivian meaning that includes those of non-indigenous descent. As such Bolivia now faces deadlock in trying to resolve the issue of a new constitution, with the mostly indigenous Western Highlands in favour of Morales’ proposal, while three lowland states, including Santa Cruz, fiercely oppose him. This is a dangerous situation, as the new definition of Bolivia is perhaps incapable of healing deep historical divisions within the country, necessary for its positive future development.

In Venezuela, rather than focusing on ethnic heritage, Chávez has sought to recapture a national tradition of revolutionary and anti-imperialist spirit. Chávez did not emerge from a vacuum and can be seen as the heir to a strong Venezuelan leftist legacy (Raby, 2006). This aspect of national identity had previously been repudiated, as a characterisation highlighting passivity and stability better served the needs of the ruling classes (Ellner and Salas, 2005). Yet Chávez linked ‘the people’ to the great achievements of the nineteenth century, particularly their role in the bloody war of independence, and the Federal War, always portraying them as ‘brave, noble, beautiful and valiant – the protagonist in history’ (DiJohn, 2005, 22). Particular attention has been given to the exemplary virtues of national heroes, such as Simon Bolivar’s anti-imperialism, Simon Rodriguez’s inclusive educational philosophy, and Ezquiel Zamora’s combination of popular and military power (Raby, 2006, 147). Chavez argues that while the Venezuelan people were successful in ‘breaking the chains of Spain’, the social revolution was not yet complete, and that now the people again face a battle from oppression, except this time it is a ‘peaceful battle … a democratic battle’ (quoted in Hellinger, 2005, 17).

Chávez has been accused of simplifying a complex history through an overreaction to exceptionalism thinking (Ellner and Salas, 2005). Other critics of the proposal for a positive, self-affirming national identity argue that shaping such an identity amounts to a denial of history and breeds an incapacity for self-criticism (Mayerfeld, 1998). But this may be less about denying history than breaking a cycle of negative self-image. The reinterpretation of national history can help to legitimate an alternative national discourse by giving it historical roots, and demonstrating the extent to which the previously hegemonic official discourse was but one interpretation of the nation and its past. This transformation can build national confidence and pride, fostering collective thinking and commitment to the nation’s future. Given the dire social circumstances in which the majority of Venezuelans found themselves under the previous regime, an identity that exaggerates the historical precedent of popular action leading to transformation is surely one which will have more positive outcomes than one which emphasises passivity and acceptance of oppression.


Expanding democracy

A new vision of the nation may capture the imagination of those excluded from previous definitions, yet this alone cannot cement lasting political change. In many Latin American contexts, the participation of the people in politics is coming to be viewed as the first step towards profound change, away from extreme inequality, exclusion and hopelessness. The particular nature of the desired change, towards a more socially inclusive and equitable model, ‘requires that the people, and not the state or the party, be its main protagonists’ (Lopez, 2005, 43).

The example of participatory budgeting in Brazil has proved inspirational throughout the continent. Its advocates point out that although contributing to economic efficiency by better allocating resources to social need, the key rationale for participatory budgeting is the contribution it makes to social inclusion. When people feel that they have a real opportunity to influence decisions that affect their lives, community level initiatives can be empowering. This represents a distinct shift away from the traditional Latin American political culture, where information and decisions were firmly in the hands of a small political elite who had no desire or need to account for themselves to the general public.

Prior to the election of Chávez, Venezuela had initiated a process of local devolution, in particular through the creation of mayors to strengthen local government. The difference in the type of decentralisation promoted by Chávez is that power is distributed directly to local people rather than local branches of government, creating a sense of local autonomy and genuine access to decision-making, absent when local power was in the hands of mayors and the frequently dysfunctional local bureaucracy (Willis, Garman and Haggard, 1999). In 2006, following his re-election, Chávez launched communal councils, describing them as ‘a basic cell of the future society’ (Lerner, 2007). The recommended size for these locally organised and elected bodies is an area occupied by 200-400 families. Already over 15,000 such groups have been created (Fox, 2007). Communal councils receive grants from central and local government, and fundraise themselves. They make decisions regarding local spending priorities for infrastructure and service provision. Still in their infancy, there are many unresolved issues regarding channels for funding allocation and managing disagreements within the councils. Part of the problem is that the Bolivarian Revolution has inherited an old bureaucracy ill-equipped to manage and deliver the radical programmes.

The councils are seen not just as a means of improving service provision. The intention is to foster a sense of community spirit and common purpose. In some cases the allocated grants have not been enough to cover all the costs for a project, yet there are many reported instances where the materials and expertise have been provided and the locals have contributed the labour themselves (Lerner, 2007). Project such as these have been successful in generating a sense of pride and investment in neighbourhoods, even in the most notoriously dangerous Caracas barrios. This new found confidence and involvement will not easily be silenced or taken back by the traditional elite(Munckton, 2007).

Chávez has also sought to extend involvement from below into the workplace, introducing ‘co-management’ initiatives in state owned companies. The schemes provide not only for consultation with workers, but for decisions about the direction and policies of the company to be democratically decided. The aim is to break down the hierarchical barriers between ‘those who do the thinking and those who do the work’ (Bruce, 2005). In a state aluminium plant in Puerto Ordaz production has increased by 11 per cent, which the president attributes to democratic planning. While initially confined to state enterprises, and two bankrupt companies, the scheme is being extended to private companies, offering state assistance to implement co-management.


Popular education

Educational misiones are a key means by which the symbols, values and aims of the Bolivarian revolution are disseminated and consolidated, representing a direct point of contact and engagement between those previously on the very margins of society, such as largely illiterate rural communities or peasants who migrated to urban centres, and the new Venezuelan political culture. Mision Robinson is a programme of alphabetisation designed to teach one million Venezuelans literacy and basic numeracy skills (Williams, 2004). The content of the lessons focuses upon the stories of the Venezuelan popular heroes, so central to the Chávez project (Gott, 2006). For those who had not completed primary education this was the first access to formal accounts of national history and as such an ideal opportunity to bolster the revisionist version.

Opponents deride the mision for its political content, in particular citing the Cuban origin of some of the educational materials, and accuse Chávez of using the literacy programme as a cynical means to boost his standing among the previously abstentionist rural and indigenous peoples (Williams, 2004). However, a social initiative that aims to politicise and include the previously disenfranchised cannot be dismissed as trying to ‘buy the poor’. Even if the literacy initiative flagrantly promotes the movement, giving communities a television on which to watch Alo Presidente also exposes them to the plethora of broadcasts that are overtly anti-Chávez (Fletcher and Persaud, 2005).

Particularly significant was the role of this mision with regards the new constitution. Articles of the newly defined Bolivarian constitution were discussed in the literacy initiatives (Williams, 2004). They were also printed on the packets of subsidised foodstuffs, for sale in the barrios, serving to connect gains in social conditions with the movement. Some of the literacy material required television and VCR equipment, which was provided to remote communities (Williams, 2004). Thus, such communities are now aware of national political developments, with access to broadcasts such as Chávez’s Alo Presidente weekly broadcast.

In December 2007 President Chávez lost his first referendum. He wanted to change the constitution so that he could run for unlimited re-election, and increase the term in office from six to seven years. His defeat may be evidence that the Venezuelan people are becoming attached to genuine democracy and their role in it, rather than just the charismatic figurehead of the Bolivarian movement. The experience of engaging and participating in political debate and activity is creating a more demanding and active populace, able to articulate themselves in the language of the political culture, and more aware of their role to play in the development of their society.



Chávez and Morales and gained power in exceptional circumstances of discontent and a growing desire for decisive action. The extreme conditions of inequality and crises of state legitimacy meant that the space was open for a radical re-articulation of national citizenship. But conditions of inequality and popular disaffection are not rare in the contemporary world. Although the Latin American crises of political legitimacy were particularly acute, rich Western countries are facing some similar difficulties.

In the UK, Gordon Brown hopes that through debate a ‘broad consensus’ about the meaning of Britishness can be reached, from which a ‘rich agenda for change’ will flow (Brown, 2006). He has talked of looking to our history and deriving certain inspirational guiding values that define us as a nation, moving beyond the old left’s embarrassed evasion of explicit patriotism. Linked to this project is an argument for more direct engagement with and participation by ‘the people’ as a desirable way forward for British democracy. A range of participatory initiatives, from citizens’ juries to national community service are being discussed. Hazel Blears has taken up participatory budgeting while David Miliband has talked of a ‘double devolution’ of power from ‘Whitehall to the town hall and from the town hall to citizens and local communities’ (Miliband quoted in Weaver, 2006). The rationale for such initiatives goes beyond mere improvements in service delivery to a possible restoration of community cohesion and reversal of political apathy.

The ultimate success of Chávez and Morales as political leaders is perhaps less important than the legacy they have bequeathed their societies. In both cases a popular progressive nationalism, combined with community-based initiatives aimed at involving hitherto excluded social strata in policymaking, have driven forward social reforms and shifted the national political culture in a more collectivist and egalitarian direction. The excitement of a newly articulated national identity and new methods of participatory decision-making has the potential to draw new people into an ongoing process of political and social change.



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