The Historical Origins of Underdevelopment: An Intra-Class Conflict Theory of Venezuela's Economic and Political Trajectory

Maria Gritsch GRAD/SOC UCLA
Department of Sociology
2201 Hershey Hall; Box 951551
610 Charles E. Young Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1551

Venezuela is considered economically underdeveloped for several reasons: It lacks independently sustainable economic growth involving indigenous industries producing for the local market; it is principally a primary materials exporter of crude oil; it has depended on foreign, often International Monetary Fund (IMF), aid, for much of this century's second half; it is consistently unable to provide all of its citizens' basic needs. Accompanying this economic underdevelopment is evidence that Venezuela is not fully democratized or that, at best, its political situation approximates an elite consensus (Crisp, 1996) or elite hegemony (Schuyler,1996) model of democracy.

General neo-classical (Rostow, 1960; Hirschman, 1968), modernization (Smelser, 1971), and dependency theories (Frank, 1966; Emmanuel, 1972; Wallerstein, 1974; Amin, 1976) descriptively capture economic and political indicators of Venezuela's underdevelopment, and identify associated causal mechanisms. Yet, as non-dependency Marxist critics (Zeitlin, 1984; Warren, 1973, 1980; Brenner, 1976; de Janvry, 1981) contend, such theories do not explain how these indicators and putative 'causal' and principally, economic, mechanisms themselves emerged. Dependency theorists, for example, argue that a nation's international economic interactions with the developed capitalisms, moreso than its intra-national political struggles, cause its contemporary underdevelopment; they do not acknowledge that international relations affect a nation's development only as they are refracted through its structure of class relations (Zeitlin, 1984:15-17). Needed is an historically specific analysis of the antecedent inter- and intra-class relations which engendered a nation's occupying a disadvantageous position in the world system, to the emergence of a comprador class, etc. Such an account would illuminate how international conditions and a social formation's internal structure of class relations interactively produce particular economic and political outcomes.

More recent, non-Marxist case study approaches which specifically focus on Venezuela's political economy can be challenged on theoretical and empirical grounds. First, with other non-Marxist development theorists, these scholars (Levine, 1985; Neuhouser,1992; Schuyler,1996; et al) principally ascribe causal primacy to non-historically specific, and often, economic, factors in explaining Venezuela's economic and political problems. Second, they consider Venezuela democratic, since 1958 (Levine, 1985), whereas evidence suggests Venezuela has perhaps never been democratic (Coronil and Skurski, 1991) or that at best, an 'elite hegemony' model of its 'democracy' (Schuyler, 1996) is more compatible with empirical events than is a class compromise model (Neuhouser, 1992). Third, they explicitly or implicitly suggest that democratic stability, in general (Neuhouser, 1992), and Venezuela's deteriorating democracy and recent legitimacy crises, in particular (Crisp, 1996; Romero, 1997), are correlated with robust or deteriorating economic conditions, respectively.

In this article, I review these general and case study analyses of Venezuela's economic underdevelopment and of its ostensible democratization. In contrast to these approaches, however, and based on historical evidence, I propose that Venezuela's ongoing economic underdevelopment, as well as its recent economic and political crises, have antecedent political, not economic, causes, namely, inter-regional, intra-bourgeois conflict between urban Caracas elites and Andean caudillos, occurring from the 1850s through the early 1940s. Inter-regional, intra-elite conflict between Andean caudillos desiring national political hegemony and Caracas commercial, financial, and governmental elites, combined with evidence that the Andean elites benefitted politically from alliances with extra-national political and capitalist elites, suggests that it was to consolidate their intra-national power that the Andean caudillos consistently adopted pro-imperialist policies. This ongoing conflict between different elite segments and their tenuous hold on power is reflected in the numerous internally-initiated coups which mark this century's political history. Their openness to extra-national sources of political power, particularly to revenue-generating agreements with international petroleum corporations, shaped a political and economic terrain in which This theory can explain Venezuela's otherwise perplexing openness to national sources of political power established a political and economic extra- terrain in which This theory can explain Venezuela's otherwise perplexing openness to foreign petroleum corporations in the 1920s and 1930s, Betancourt's faulure to nationalize the petroleum reserves in 1945, Venezuela's continuance as an enclave of multinational petroleum corporations, the left's marginalization and eventual exclusion from electoral participation and union leadership in 1958, the emergence of an elite consensus model of democracy, and Venezuela's pattern of response to more recent economic difficulties in the 1980s and 1990s.