Chris Harman


Latin America: the return of Popular Power

(Spring 2007)

From International Socialism, No. 114, Spring 2007.
Copyright © 2007 International Socialism.
Downloaded with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

An old slogan has been reborn in Latin America – that of ‘Poder Popular’, ‘Popular Power’. It has been raised because people in this region see it as more appropriate to deep-seated processes of social change than parliamentarianism.

It was raised very sharply in the Mexican city of Oaxaca last year as a teachers’ strike turned into a massive campaign to oust the state governor. As the struggle escalated – with police attacks on the protesters, and demonstrations of 100,000, 120,000 and then 400,000 (in a state with a population of only 3.5 million) – the popular movement took control of the city last June. Oaxaca resident George Salzma [1] tells how representatives of 85 organisations came together to form the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (known by its Spanish initials Appo). Present ‘were all the SNTE teachers’ delegates, union members, social and political organisations, non-governmental organisations, collectives, human rights organisations, parents, tenant farmers, municipalities, and citizens of the entire state of Oaxaca’. Appo ‘adopted a truly revolutionary programme by declaring itself the supreme authority in Oaxaca, and asserting the illegitimacy of the entire political structure … Appo’s deliberately broad representation evidently excluded any explicitly political groups, i.e. it was to be a “non-political” formation, truly a peoples’ government’. The Appo committee controlled the city until the forces of the state smashed their way through, using massive repression, in late November.

The ‘Poder Popular’ slogan has also featured in the succession of mass movements in Bolivia over the past three and a half years. There was an attempt to set up a popular revolutionary assembly to take control of the city of El Alto, the satellite of the capital, La Paz, during the June 2005 rising. In the city of Cochabamba a coordinating committee called for a struggle ‘little by little to create forms of our own self-government’.

Now in Venezuela the government itself is talking of ‘an explosion of popular power’. This reflects widespread and increasing frustration at obstacles slowing the revolutionary process. President Hugo Chavez has used increasingly radical language, which has not been matched by changes on the ground despite his getting 62 percent of the poll on a 75 percent turnout in December’s presidential election – a level of popular support detractors such as Bush and Blair cannot even dream of.

Reforms have provided important benefits – particularly in health and education – for some of the poorest sections of the population. But these reforms have only made a small dent in the massive poverty and insecurity that exists. Half the population in the capital, Caracas, still try to make a living in the informal sector, selling cheap goods in the city’s almost endless street markets or doing bits of casual labour. The minimum wage is still half what is needed to buy a ‘basket’ of essential goods, according to government calculations.

Meanwhile, the very rich and the upper middle class have prospered on the back of the boom in the oil price, with the Financial Times reporting a soaring Caracas stock exchange (a small fall in January still left it 80 percent higher than six months earlier) and record sales of luxury cars. Capitalists have not been prevented from making record profits but they have been frightened enough to move those profits abroad. Until he was replaced in January, the head of the national bank was using interest rates to get unemployment to a level he thought necessary to control inflation – a neoliberal approach. Despite his efforts, inflation has been accelerating and the black market rate of the national currency, the bolivar, to the dollar is now twice the official rate.

A very large number of Chavista activists blame this state of affairs on ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘corruption’ by those in the state machine and local government. This is a theme Chavez himself has taken up since the election, asking on television on 5 March, ‘Which party has supported the president in the fight against the latifundia, against corruption or the articulation of the peasantry or working class? Where are they? They do not exist.’

He has responded with a number of measures. Significant are:

Chavez at least half recognises that he has been attempting to push through reforms in what remains a capitalist country, using a state whose personnel are often hostile to his aims. There is no instrument capable of implementing many of the policies Chavez endorses – or even of responding in more than ad hoc fashion to regulate society to keep things ticking over from day to day. The situation is, as the left wing activist Roland Denis puts it, one of ‘chaos’.

Chavez’s proposals cannot solve these problems. Rule by decree means instructions can be issued quickly. But it does not provide a mechanism for implementing them, other than the existing state structures. Neither does it provide any way to monitor their effectiveness from below.

The call for a united socialist party is popular with many activists sick of the careerism, opportunism and jockeying for position of the three main parliamentary Chavista parties (MVR, Podemos and PPT). But it cannot provide an answer to the chaos because it will reflect in itself all the contradictory attitudes within the Chavista ranks. A party, in the real meaning of the term, is an organised current of people committed to a single political orientation. Chavism contains three such currents at present. There are those who want ‘consolidation’ through a cessation of any further threats to the privileges of capital and the upper classes; those who hanker after a Cuban-style authoritarian regime (at the very time that powerful forces in the Cuban regime are hankering after a replica of the Chinese approach, combining authoritarianism and the market); and those who want a thoroughgoing social transformation, the destruction of capitalism and genuine revolutionary democracy involving mass participation. The attempt to combine in a single organisation what are effectively three different parties cannot overcome the chaos.

Poder Popular’ is a partial recognition that a genuine revolution has to take place from the bottom up. But it is only a partial recognition. Most of the stress is on the communal councils, but their ability to exercise control from below is limited.

‘Communities’ are not, in themselves, social forces. Occasionally they represent the local segment of a particular class – for instance when all the workers in a factory live in the same poor neighbourhood. But usually they involve a mixture of people making a livelihood in different, sometimes opposed, ways. This can even be true of a poor barrio: some people are workers, with a collectivist mentality, some are self-employed stallholders, whose position encourages a tendency towards individualism, some are unemployed and prone to demoralisation, and a few have relatively privileged positions in the state or good incomes from running barrio businesses. What is more, within barrios and between barrios there are often tensions – over access to water supplies, the attempts of newcomers to build on vacant land, resentment between those who are a bit better off and those who are worse off, and so on.

For this reason ‘community’ movements rarely enjoy organic links with the whole population they claim to represent. They tend to be movements of minorities, even if they can sometimes win majority support. The minorities can be very radical – in some of the poorer Caracas barrios activists with a long history of urban guerrilla activism against the state form the core of the movement. But they cannot by themselves mobilise and organise the forces needed to take control of society from below in opposition to the existing state.

The stress on the ‘communal’ nature of ‘Popular Power’ will suit the tendencies within Chavism that shy away from the exercise of mass -decision making. These tendencies will see communal structures as open to manipulation from above. After all, ‘Poder Popular’ is the name used in Cuba to describe a top-down pyramidic structure which does not provide any possibility for anyone to challenge the direction of ‘revolutionary’ development laid down by a monolithic party with a central leadership dominated by military officers. Those who want the ‘process’ in Venezuela to culminate in a real revolution from below will have to struggle within the communities, but put the stress elsewhere – on class movements.

Class movements arising from the point of production have a much greater capacity than most community movements to draw the overwhelming majority of people into action. So even in very non-revolutionary times strikes can be 100 percent solid, despite sometimes imposing great sacrifices on those involved. Class movements also have the power not merely to protest but to begin to take control of events. Talk of ‘Popular Power’ can only translate into a real counter-power if there is a central lever of class organisation. Organisations of the street stallholders, the unemployed, the barrios and so on are important. But they require a central focus based on those connected to the means of production and therefore capable of taking over and transforming the central core of capitalist society. Even if regularly employed workers form a minority of the population, as they do in Venezuela, they are still the biggest socially structured minority, the one with the greatest potential for self-organisation and for leading the other oppressed sectors.

What is more, ‘Popular Power’ means little if it does not penetrate the ‘bodies of armed men’ that constitute the core of the state, ie if there are not rank and file soldiers’ councils linked to those in the workplaces and communities.

Such a revolutionary notion of ‘Poder Popular’ goes far beyond the present presidential decree, even if this provides an opening for agitating for it. A genuine revolution, in the sense of those at the bottom of society taking control of the top, cannot be brought about by decrees from above. It requires a new upsurge of struggle from below.

Previous upsurges in 2002–3 and 2004 came in response to offensives from the right. One of the paradoxes of the Venezuelan situation since then has been that Chavez’s capacity to deliver reforms, because of the high price of oil on world markets, has been one of the factors working against such an upsurge. The workers, the urban poor and the peasants have not been forced to organise themselves against the state in the way that the striking teachers and the mass of people who entered into struggle behind them were in Oaxaca. There is still a very widespread mood among people that Chavez, as ‘Commandante’, will do everything for them. Roland Denis estimates that at most 20 percent of the population are actively involved in the process. The other 40 percent who voted for Chavez are passively looking on – and many people are still standing on the sidelines. Yet oil wealth alone does not provide an answer to all the economic and social problems arising in a capitalist economy, especially a relatively weak one like Venezuela’s. Inflation, the weakness of the national currency and the tendency of capitalists to move their record profits abroad are signs of this. Another round of confrontation is inevitable at some point, and then a revolutionary approach to ‘Poder Popular’ – one with a basis in workers’ power but not limited to it – will be necessary.


1. George Salzman, The Revolutionary Surge in Oaxaca, Counterpunch, 30 August 2006.

Last updated on 28.11.2011