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Radical islands in a sea of Western democracy: A comparison of Zimbabwe and Venezuela

18th August 2010

By: In On Africa IOA


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Since the 1990's, there has been a rise against neoliberalism, manifested as a phenomenon that incorporates radicalism, socialism and authoritarianism through social movements and Leftist politics in the third world, particularly in Latin America and some African countries. Both state radicalism and revolutionary approaches in the state-society system have been attributed to Venezuela and Zimbabwe, who emerged from revolutionary situations in their opposition to the neoliberal West. Although Mugabe and Chavez have initiated certain reforms through the radicalised state, their ideas on populism remain fundamentally different. Many theorists and the international media point out exclusion of civil society and prevalence of human rights abuses in these one-party state interventionist systems.



This brief examines Mugabe and Chavez' representation of the masses and genuine rural support, as well as their differing degrees of radicalisation and opening of spaces for civil society participation. Although both leaders strongly oppose neo-colonialism and embrace revolutionary policies, this brief compares the vibrant civil society and relative stability of the Chavez government to the invisible civil society and catastrophic circumstances and crisis under Mugabe.



The radicalised state and civil society


The radicalised state emerged out of the revolutionary experiences of "the persistence of dismal poverty, inequality, high unemployment, lack of competitiveness, and poor infrastructure"(2) created by neo-colonialism and neoliberalism. The radicalised state takes a Leftist path which stresses social movements, egalitarian distribution of wealth, sovereignty and democracy. Inherently this approach draws on populism: the state attempts to appease the masses in order to find an alternative economic system that does not adhere to Western capitalism.


According to Sam Moyo, these "welfarist" programmes effectively exclude civil society, especially one that "conforms to ‘proper' procedure and content of ‘oppositional' politics in accordance with the liberal formula."(3) Defining civil society and who it represents is a difficult task: the concept of civil society as independent of the state in a radicalised populist state system is paradoxical. The radicalised state, and in particular one that follows strong anti-imperialist politics, is marked by socialist and interventionist strategies, as well as authoritarianism that can prohibit the democratic participation of civil society. Does a civil society largely based on urban mobilisation and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) represent the needs and civic rights of the entire population or just the pro-Western interests of the middle class? Rural civil society remains largely invisible and divided and does not have the same power or resources as urban civil society.

A populist state is supported by the masses (usually the rural poor), however. They keep voting for the authoritarian one-party government that is all too often branded as tyrannical and despotic by Western countries and international media as not ‘democratic.' Given that Western bourgeois urban civil society contradicts the anti-imperialist stance adopted by the state and stands in the way of populist appeasement, do radicalised states like Zimbabwe and Venezuela initiate an active exclusion of civil society with liberal tendencies and global allies from neoliberal organisations? Or do these states include Western bourgeois urban civil society and oppositional politics in attempts to stress ‘democracy' and participation, in so doing gaining more validity in the global system? Active participation and inclusion of liberal oppositional politics can define a party a one with Western interests which will ultimately benefit the middle class elite.

It follows that tension prevails in radicalised states between, on the one hand, ‘necessary' authoritarianism genuinely supported by rural masses and opposing Western imperialism, and the inclusion of basic human rights that encompass democracy and participation, on the other. A social and economic movement that seeks to gain credit in the global system as an alternative to neoliberalism needs to embrace respect for basic human rights and democratic participation.

Mugabe: Liberation hero and tyrant


After Zimbabwe's 1980's independence, a possible future as one of the top four more industrialised countries in Africa was a glimmering possibility.(4) At the time, the country appeared to live up to these ideals by increasing its investment in social development, characterised by massive expansion in education and social sectors; the economy was growing and Zimbabwe was an "oasis of stability" in a region marked by conflict in Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and South Africa.(5) Historically, an organised civil society that made radical demands for land reform and/or land distribution was absent from the national scene. The civil society that existed in the postcolonial period was predominantly middle class groupings with strong international aid linkages and they later militated against radical land reform.(6)


Today, the 1990's is described as "the wasted decade" for Zimbabwe, due to the absence of an influential civil society and an active dictator who is blamed for the country's descent into hyperinflation and poverty.(7) Ruling party Zanu-PF has displayed authoritarian methods of anti-neoliberal reform, whilst civil society's response has been marked by extreme nationalism.

An ‘interrupted' revolution


According to Moyo and Yeros, a revolution is a situation in which society "is highly mobilised and in conflict, both among its socio-political formations and between them and the state."(8) It includes a progressive way forward where bourgeois institutions and basic bureaucratic structures and hierarchies come under threat or are suspended. Zimbabwe's revolution was interrupted in the 1990's, a decade marked by rebellion against neo-colonialism, state intervention in the economy with the suspension of structural adjustment, and radical agrarian land reform. The adoption of economic structural adjustment programmes (ESAPs) increased unemployment from 30% to 50%.(9) The domestic market lost its competitive edge and manufacturing sectors were hit by deindustrialisation. The economy was in a much weaker state after neoliberal ESAPs were implemented. The 90's also saw an increase in civic movements and the emergence of stronger oppositional politics (the Movement for Democratic Change and unionism), however, which facilitated an intellectual deconstruction of nationalism through more liberal politics.(10) There was a strong urban civil society at the time. The urban civil society that follows ‘liberal' procedures is strongly juxtaposed against a spontaneous rural movement, which operates outside "the ‘civil' framework' that seeks to transform inherited property regimes as well as national policy making processes."(11) This rural civil society welcomes authoritarianism and is enforced through powerful and influential war veterans. It maintains the populist state and forces an active exclusion of oppositional and liberal politics.


Through rural appeasement, Zimbabwe became a revolutionary and radicalised state, which resulted in grim economic, political and social crises that question basic human rights, democracy and tyranny. Despite the increased sophistication of urban civil society and the emergence of an opposition party in the nineties, these movements were met with hard intimidation and violence particularly during the 2002 election. Mugabe "concentrated on his national credentials, anti-Western imperialist attacks and above all on the land question. Those who had the temerity to criticise his program were dismissed as ‘sell-outs' to Western imperialism and to the remaining small white community."(12) Economic stagnation has enabled Zanu-PF to maintain and dominate the rural vote through an emphasis on historical injustices, land distribution, political and social terrorisation tactics and corruption.


The Government continues to reject neoliberal orthodoxy and it controls monetary and investment policy; it imposes heavy regulation of banks; the trade policy is under total Government control and the controversial land policy has turned from a structured process into chaos.(13) There is little, if any, space for civil society participation and democratic engagement. Traditional leaders fight amongst themselves and with Government; there are violent clashes between the Shona and Ndebele ethnicity leaders. The role of the war veterans have terrorised the land and centralisation of power has enabled the state to maintain its confrontational stance against sanctions and widened the gulf between state and society.(14) In order to retain an anti-imperialist and nationalist agenda, the radicalised Zimbabwean state pursues leftist populism and radical socialism at the expense of democracy. The Zimbabwean authoritarian regime finds it necessary to close any space for organised liberal civil society whilst the rural civil society remains decentralised, divided, and bound by customs, traditions and inefficient local governance. The Zimbabwean anti-imperialist discourse has mobilised nationalism and concealed elite accumulation, oppression and authoritarian politics.

Chavez - Combining two approaches


In Venezuela an anti-Western ideology and a radical socialist policy do not necessarily require the active expulsion of organised liberal civil society. Under Chavez's rule there are no political prisoners and no censorship. Citizens enjoy freedom of assembly: one can see protests, strikes and demonstrations that are treated more leniently than under most United States city governments.(15) This stands stark contrast to Mugabe's regime where censorship, intervention and political prisoners are characteristic of the despotism in Mugabe's policy.


Kozloff described Chavez as a "seemingly unstoppable political juggernaut."(16) Like Mugabe, Chavez is seen by many as a hero of the people. Those who support radical leaders like Chavez and Mugabe are the ones most affected by International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies and neoliberalist structural adjustment. Bilateral and multilateral institutions (IMF and World Bank in particular) are dominated by the geopolitical interests of the Western imperialist states (particularly the US and the United Kingdom) they are subject to. Mugabe and Chavez have both waged propaganda wars on these institutions, which they characterise as imperialist and neo-colonialist. The difference between the two governments lies in the political structuring within their parties and their views on revolutionary-radical transformation.


Two Paths of Radical Populism


Within the Chavez Government there lie two paths of radical populism - one remains a hard-lined (revolutionary opportunity) vision that entails a "peaceful radicalisation process as a result of the intensification and escalation of conflict."(17) The creation of parallel structures is more prevalent in the labour movement, civil society and public administration, thus re-creating a new society at the expense of previous structures. On the other hand, soft-line Chavismo (non-revolutionary transformation) considers new parallel structures complimentary of old ones. Political struggle that penetrates and dominates, rather than eliminate old structures, is favoured.(18) Both approaches spring from radical populism, the main characteristic of the Chavez movement, but the underlying differences have created a split in Chavismo leadership and ideology and consequently also a lack of ideological clarity, as well as procedural and strategic contradictions.


Mugabe opted for the extreme left radicalisation of revolutionary populism. He replaced old structures with new ones that left the country in a calamity. In Venezuela, there is a deadlock between the two options and Chavez has managed to stick to both paths, veering slightly to the right, the non-revolutionary approach. Mugabe's approach is a socialist, anti-imperialist populist stance and although some believe that Chavez follows the same path, his ideology is separate from his praxis. His approach includes the creation of mass-based parties that rely on ‘politics for the masses' and encompass strong populism and participation.(19)


Chavez embraced aspects of both paths by creating a mass-based party whilst at the same time promoting strong revolutionary actions against neoliberalism, without adopting complete socialism. His appeals to nationalism and racial and ethnic pride have produced results that are contrary to the ethnic fighting in Zimbabwe. Although there are many contradictions in what Chavez says and what he does, the clear lack of definition and ideology can be attributed to the political and ideological divide within his party. Both non-revolutionary transformation and revolutionary opportunity are reflected in Chavez's discourse. He has imported many revolutionary strategies, for example the reduction of the number of political parties and emphasis on participation through elections and referendums, thus calling for active engagement of civil society. He has, particularly in his first years in office, passed radical socio-economic legislation that calls for agrarian reform and state-controlled oil ventures, state support for worker cooperatives and undoing of privatisation.(20) In the light of non-revolutionary approaches Chavez has refrained from socialism and guaranteed private property and certain privatisation laws. He has done little to change or threaten the prevailing economic system. According to Ellner (2005) Chavez has a tendency to view civil society as synonymous with ‘the people.'(21) He goes against the rank-file leadership of political and social organisation and tends to have a patient and protracted bottom-up strategy that coincides with a non-revolutionary transition.


In Venezuela, the Government and region remain highly vulnerable to pressures from organisations, corporations and governments of the developed world as well as internal pressures from the liberal bourgeois class.(22) Despite opposition from urban civil society, international organisations and media, Chavez has maintained open space for opposition and criticism to his Government. Chavez's authoritarian Government has shown it is capable of solving certain economic difficulties (23) as well as includes democratic participation of civil society.


The Bolivarian Democracy of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez represents, according to Figueroa, an attempt to liberate Venezuela from the neoliberal framework without becoming completely ant-capitalist or anti-imperialist. Chavez recognises the need for capital investment in the development of Venezuela, as well as to appease certain Western powers like the US in certain cases.(24) His efforts to combat economic and social exclusion have opened doors for inclusive democracy.(25) Chavez resisted the temptation to harden his Government the way Mugabe did in order to preserve his efforts at democratisation. He encourages and emphasises a Bolivarian ideology and popular participation, but he reinforces this in a democracy where there are real choices, including opposition.




How can a poor country move ahead in a global context of neoliberalism, reduce unemployment, hasten economic improvement and reduce indebtedness,(26) whilst at the same time remaining true to nationalism, patriotism and a personal anti-Western ideology?


Mugabe and Chavez established themselves through radical populism and the two leaders share a similar outlook on Western hegemony. Venezuela, however, enjoys active participation, strong political consciousness and a vibrant civil society. Despite being branded as a militant radical figure by the West and international media, Chavez' focus remains with the people. There are stark differences between Venezuela and Zimbabwe, where political freedom is exists as treachery and the economy has disintegrated into hyper-inflation. Mugabe tends to use his anti-Western ideology to justify extreme authoritarianism, human rights abuses and injustice. Statism does not necessarily have to detract from civil society and participation, as long as the state represents the people and a healthy state-society system prevails. Authoritarianism therefore needs to be balanced with open democratisation. Political opposition and liberal civil society must be included in order to validate an alternative system that can contribute on its own terms in the international arena, free from Western neoliberalism.

Written by: Alex Kaminski (1)


(1) Contact Alex Kaminski through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Eyes on Africa Unit (
(2) Lebowitz, M. 2007. "Venezuela: a good example of the bad left in Latin America." in Monthly Review, 59:3.
(3) Moyo, S. 2001. "The land occupation movement and democratisation in Zimbabwe: contradictions of neoliberalism." in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30:2.
(4) Sachikonye, L. M. 2003. "Whither Zimbabwe? Crisis and democratisation." in Review of African Political Economy, 29:91.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Moyo, S. and Yeros, P. 2007a. "The radicalised state: Zimbabwe's uninterrupted revolution." in Review of African Political Economy, 34:111.
(7) Mamdani, M. 2008. Lessons of Zimbabwe. London Review of Books, 4 December 2008.
(8) Moyo, S. and Yeros, P. 2007a. ‘The radicalised state: Zimbabwe's uninterrupted revolution' in Review of African Political Economy, 34:111.
(9) Sachikonye, L. M. 2003. "Whither Zimbabwe? Crisis and democratisation." in Review of African Political Economy, 29:91.
(10) Raftopoulos, B. 2 006. "The Zimbabwean crisis and the challenges for the left" in Journal of Southern African Studies, 32:2.
(11) Moyo, S. and Yeros, P. 2007a. "The radicalised state: Zimbabwe's uninterrupted revolution." in Review of African Political Economy, 34:111.
(12) Sachikonye, L. M. 2003. "Whither Zimbabwe? Crisis and democratisation." in Review of African Political Economy, 29:91.
(13) Moyo, S. and Yeros, P. 2007b. "The Zimbabwe question and the two lefts." in Historical Materialism, 14:4.
(14) Moyo, S. and Yeros, P. 2007a. "The radicalised state: Zimbabwe's uninterrupted revolution." in Review of African Political Economy, 34:111.
(15) Wilpert, G. 2003. "Collision in Venezuela." in New Left Review, II:21.
(16) Kozloff, N. 2006. Hugo Chavez: oil, politics and the challenge to the United States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
(17) Ellner, S. 2005. "Revolutionary and non-revolutionary paths of radical populism: Directions of the Chavista movement in Venezuela." in Science and Society, 69:2.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Ellner, S. 2005. "Revolutionary and non-revolutionary paths of radical populism: Directions of the Chavista movement in Venezuela." in Science and Society, 69:2.
(21) Ibid.
(22) Figueroa, V. 2006. "The Bolivarian government of Hugo Chavez: Democratic alternative for Latin America?" in Critical Sociology, 32(1).
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Lebowitz, M. 2007. "Venezuela: A good example of the bad left of Latin America." in Monthly Review, 59:3.
(26) Kozloff, N. 2006. Hugo Chavez: Oil, politics and the challenge to the United States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.




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