Venezuela at a Crossroads

After the Referendum, Toward the New Party and Beyond
Talk by Suzanne Weiss and John Riddell to a joint forum of Toronto Socialist Project and Socialist Voice, January 13, 2008

Suzanne: There is the Venezuela we know from the Internet—from the expert reports and well-informed discussion—and the Venezuela of the streets. They relate to the same reality, but the texture is different. John and I were on those streets six weeks ago. Much has happened since, but we’ll focus on what we heard and saw.

What is going in Venezuela? The Venezuelan majority, the poor, are taking matters into their own hands to provide themselves with the essentials of life. In alliance with the Bolivarian government, poor people in Venezuela are pulling out of their poverty, and are beginning to address their problems with new forms of government, including communal councils.

John and I arrived in Venezuela during a national debate on the government’s proposed constitutional reform. We went to two massive demonstrations of reform supporters, one of 750,000 people. In a sea of red clothing and banners, our Canadian banner stood out, and people ran up to welcome and thank us. We talked to hundreds of people, there and in visits in Caracas and elsewhere, and in street encounters.

For millions of people in Venezuela, there is a birth of hope, a sense that their lives are improving, and that this is a result of not just of government efforts but of what they themselves are doing in their own communities.

What are their priorities? Water in their homes, accessible health care, improved housing, universal education, secure food distribution, access to employment, assistance for family businesses.

Most people we spoke with felt the reform would promote such goals. They referred specifically to key aspects of the reform, often citing the clauses by number. They were deeply interested in the political life of their country. They felt part of a revolution.

What have these people achieved? Here are a few of the things we saw:

1. First, you have all heard about Venezuela’s great public health program, Barrio Adentro, which has brought free care, medicines, and hospitals to the 70% of the population that were previously neglected. We found the new system superior in many ways to what we have here. For instance doctors give prompt service at any time of day or night. Barrio Adentro is a community-built and community-run system.

As you know, Cuba provided 20,000 medical personnel for this program. Venezuela now has 19,000 medical students, most headed for the public system. A new host of doctors, pledged to serve the poor: this is a radical political shift.

2. On voting day, we ate lunch in a kitchen in a mountainside district of Caracas. The kitchen was well equipped with industrial sized utensils. Every day, it feeds 150 of the most vulnerable local residents—the sick, the old, pregnant single women, single mothers and their children. The space is donated by a local family; neighbors do the cooking; equipment and food comes from the government. There are 3,000 of these new kitchens in Venezuela, serving free meals to half a million people a day.

3. The Venezuelan police are holdovers from the old regime— and they are not trusted. One community we visited decided to build their local police a headquarters. The police there never had buildings before—a symbol of substandard service. Community people secured the land, raised the money, and provided the labour. The grateful police, immensely proud of their building, donated an office in their station to the community, to better coordinate their work with community needs.

4. One of the neighborhood projects that we visited in Libertador, in the state of Carabobo, was a centre for street children. These kids used to work as rag-pickers in a huge rubbish dump run by criminal gangs. 98% of these kids no longer rummage the dumps and are now in school. In Libertador, child homelessness has now almost vanished.

The children’s centre has a drum orchestra and a marshal arts school—both of extremely high caliber, who have competed internationally. The kids have had a rough life so far, but they are affectionate and supportive of each other. They are the pride of their municipality.

5. We went to a mountain farming community of 200 persons called Altos de Uslar. We reached it through the world’s worst road—splashing through a river five centimeters deep in dry weather.

Residents are organized in a communal council, which decides on local projects, spends the money, and administrates them. Their first action was to build a community centre, which also serves as a school. We saw them building a new structure for a pre-school. The community meet every two weeks—sometimes every week—with 40 to 100 in attendance. All the community work is voluntary and unpaid. They have no executive: all decisions are taken by the assembly. There are more than 10,000 councils like this in Venezuela.

6. Karl Marx said that workers rule means cheap government. Here it is in action. Councils use their connections, ingenuity, and labour to keep costs down. If they have money left over, it goes for other local projects. A community leader told us her council had received funds to electrify one of its 14 hamlets. With careful management, they stretched the funds to bring power to three of the hamlets.

7. The most urgent appeals we heard were for more housing. Nationally, there is a deficit of 2.7 million homes, and another 1.3 million houses are improvised shacks. Construction is limited by the lack of building materials. In 2006, 200,000 homes were built; last year was better.

Argenis Loreto, mayor of Libertador, explained that the way to resolve this crisis is for community councils to receive the money and build the homes themselves. He gave the example of one local community was given money to build 10 houses but instead built 15.

8. Seven years ago, the mayor organized a survey asking residents what was their most urgent need. Health and education led the list by a wide margin, and that’s been the focus of efforts. Then, they had nine health centres; now they have 74. They built 48 schools this year. They recently did the survey again. No one mentioned health as an area of need; only one or two mentioned education.

The people we met in Venezuela were high-spirited and full of hope. They understand that have many obstacles, the greatest one being imperialism.

John: The 69 constitutional reform proposals aimed at entrenching the communal councils and various social reforms in the constitution, giving official recognition to various forms of social property, and deepening social inclusion. There were measures to grant state pensions to all working people including housewives, to counter discrimination against women, to shorten the work week, and to remove the two-term limit on presidents. The package was presented as a way to open the road to an advance toward socialism.

All this was misrepresented in the private media, and there was much talk of totalitarianism, presidential dictatorship, seizure of personal property, and the like. As you know, a large part of the Bolivarian ranks stayed home, and the reform was narrowly defeated. (See Chávez Pledges to Continue the Struggle)

Much has been said about the role of tactical errors by the government in this defeat. We’d like to pose the question differently. The vote shows that the Bolivarians have a majority only when the issue is clearly posed and their ranks fully mobilized. The vote reveals the underlying relationship of forces between these two camps.

What are the continuing sources of oligarchic influence, and how can the relationship of forces be shifted to the advantage of popular forces? How can poor people gain social hegemony?

Some socialists have argued that the masses are turning against Chávez because they gained little from the revolution. That was not our impression. The masses won a great deal from social reforms and also benefit from the booming economy. Indeed they now have a stake in the status quo – that is, in the continuation of Bolivarian reform.

We also noted that the left critics of Chávez who are so often quoted in the international Marxist press were not visible during our visit; we saw no trace of their organizations, newspapers, or slogans.

But the lives of Venezuelan working people remain shaped by capitalist productive relations, which generate capitalist consciousness. Tens of thousands of cooperatives have been formed, but they are still dependent on the capitalist market for raw materials and sales outlets. Linking coops together in networks is at a very early stage. The coops that we visited were related to the informal family-based economy: restaurants, beauty salons, handicrafts, artisanry, farming.

How can an alternative socialist economy be created? There are compelling reasons for the revolution to expropriate the oligarchy’s land and giant businesses. But we did not see that concept expressed in Venezuela. Should the banks be taken over, for example? We did hear workers cuss out the banks, but they thought in terms of creating new Bolivarian financial institutions, not expropriation.

According to planning minister Haiman El Troudi, the Venezuelan state already controls almost 70% of economic activity. But in this sector, he says, bureaucratism, inefficiency and corruption are rife, and the workers are exploited. What would be gained by extending this pattern to the rest of the economy? (See Socialisms in the 21st Century)

The remedy here is obvious: a revolutionary movement of industrial workers, acting on behalf of the entire people’s movement, that contests for control of the economy. But since the heroic days of the bosses’ strike four years ago, there’s been little sign of that. The unions have been the weak link of the Bolivarian movement. In the referendum fight, we saw one leaflet, short but good, from the paper workers. We saw some union T-shirts in the mass actions. Aside from that—nothing: no banners, no publications. The Bolivarian unions remain consumed by factional strife; the workers’ control movement has found little resonance there; union officers reputed to be the most radical are estranged from the Chávez leadership.

What of the media? During Chávez’s speech to the mass rally Suzanne referred to, he warned Globovision, the right-wing TV monopoly, that if they broke electoral law by prematurely revealing results, they would be expropriated. The crowd was ecstatic. The private media are deeply hated for their lies and slanders. Moreover, they portray a society that is privileged and European – North American in its values – to a working population that is poor and dark-skinned. Simply to shut them down would be resented: Globovision’s shows are popular.

But how ready is the Bolivarian movement to create its own compelling TV dramas? Working-class youth are now flooding into the universities; let’s hope that many are taking media studies.

Why such obsessing over the media? Because what we see in Venezuela is in part a struggle for influence over the popular imagination. This crops up in unexpected ways. Consider, for example, the controversy over the prisoner exchange in Colombia. In the days before the referendum, this was consistently the top headline issue.

When Colombian president Uribe rejected Chávez’s attempt to negotiate a prisoner exchange, the media played this up as a sign of Venezuela’s isolation. That was a factor in the referendum defeat. I have not seen it mentioned in any left commentary.

This shows that many socialists abroad are underestimating the importance of international issues in the Venezuelan struggle for power. What is at stake in the prisoner exchange issue? Chávez says that the war in Colombia should be resolved in a Latin American framework, without U.S. interference. Uribe is for continuing the war because it is essential to maintaining the country’s alliance with the U.S. And this question – a Latin American framework or an orientation to the U.S. – is the fundamental issue in the battle for Venezuelan public imagination.

Venezuela’s success in forging ties with other anti-imperialist governments challenges the oligarchy’s vision and validates the Bolivarian project. No wonder that the main battlefield in imperialism’s counterattack against Venezuela is now the desperate struggle in its ally, Bolivia.

Suzanne: Or consider for example the communal councils, the institutions of “people’s power.” Thousands have been formed, and as I described, their assemblies have considerable executive power, including over spending. Hundreds of thousands of working people are taking part in government, making decisions on their community’s welfare. For participants, this is a living refutation of capitalist values. The build-out of councils is uneven, and they function better in some areas than in others. Chávez says strengthening them will be a big priority this year – good news for Venezuela.

But the promise of the councils is undone by governmental obstruction. Libertator is one of the places where the councils originated. In his article on people’s power, John told the story of how the ministry of the environment quashed local plans to solve a problem of pollution from hog raising operations. Here’s another example: local bodies developed a plan to construct 15 ponds, to stabilize the local water supply and also enable local farmers to raise trout. The environmental ministry said no: that was against zoning regulations.

What explanations do the ministry provide? “None whatsoever,” says mayor Argenis Loreto. “Just as we always say: this bureaucracy is eating us alive… We can’t change things with this type of state.” Even among inherited municipal officials, “the apathy is barbaric. We have to establish a new conception of a staffer,” Argenis says. “I’d like to dissolve the municipal administration … and create a confederation of community governments.”

To take another example: a few years ago, the Bolivarian government launched a campaign to grant legal status and voting rights to millions of immigrant workers. The campaign was an immense success. But since then, a Colombian immigrant told us, the number of undocumented workers has risen rapidly. The legal framework is fine – they have the right to receive papers. But the bureaucratic procedures are too onerous and the officials are hostile.

John: The problem does not come solely from holdovers from the old regime. Radical Bolivarians we spoke to all explained that the movement is divided between two wings, the revolutionaries, led by Chávez, who want to advance toward socialism, and conservative officials who want to call a halt. They add that many in the conservative wing work behind the scenes to frustrate Chávez’s initiatives, like the constitutional reform – or to disrupt the communal councils that we visited in Libertador.

Obviously, the Bolivarian administration is sending mixed messages, and one of these messages is reinforcing the opposition. Chávez spoke to this question with great emphasis on Friday. He said he realizes that there is an “ill feeling [among the people] due to the contradiction between the words of the leader and the reality.” (Fred Fuentes in Venezuelanalysis)

One of the “tactical mistakes” contributing to the referendum defeat was a failure to sense this “ill feeling.” In discussions before the referendum, we were repeatedly told that “yes” support was running well behind Chávez’s vote in last year’s elections. But how was that fact to be communicated to the top? Opinion polls? They often conceal darker impulses. Reports? But there is no articulation, no system of common discussion and thought, between leadership and ranks.

Last January, Chávez proposed to establish such a common framework through foundation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Members were enrolled and base units were formed, but the party itself was not structured. Meanwhile, the party’s provisional governing bodies were formed of holdovers from the old political elites.

At party meetings we attended, members were enthusiastic and energetic, but lacked experience and know-how in political organizing. New leaders will emerge from among these activists, but it will take time. Meanwhile, the small scattering of members with previous revolutionary experience take the lead. We met many such leaders. They were from diverse backgrounds: Christian socialism, Trotskyism, armed struggle, the early Bolivarian movement in the army, ultra-leftism – yet they all had much the same approach. We heard of preparations to organize a revolutionary wing at the future congress.

We also met half a dozen members of the Communist Party of Venezuela, all of whom indicated regret over their party’s decision to stay out of the PSUV. We share this regret. Experienced socialist cadres can contribute much more inside the united party than on the sidelines. The new party is among other things an effort to desectarianize the Bolivarian movement. This effort is understandably jarring to some established currents, but we hope it succeeds.

The PSUV provides the best chance of uniting the Chávez leadership with rank-and-file activists in a common vehicle for united discussion, decision-making, and action. The need to consolidate this vehicle is the main lesson of the referendum defeat.

Thus the best news from Venezuela since the voting is that yesterday, after many postponements, the PSUV’s founding congress finally met in initial session. “Enough with betraying the people,” Chávez told the delegates."We have arrived here to make a real revolution or die trying.” He called for a struggle against the rise of a “new Bolivarian oligarchy.” (Venezuela Analysis)

Chávez’s proposals for the new year are to consolidate, rectify, and resume the revolution’s advance, particularly with respect to the communal councils and the PSUV. This seems a wise course. There must be a response to the discontent of the Bolivarian ranks, and the mass movement must resume its forward march. Only in this way can the delicately balanced relationship of forces shift in favour of working people.

Some of those we talked to felt that Chávez has too much influence and that his term of office should be limited. But we heard this view only from the opposition, not from the revolutionary ranks. Their confidence in him is clearly based on his consistent record of having acted on their behalf. Indeed, he is a revolutionary leader of a caliber not seen in Latin America since the Cuban revolution.

The course he has mapped out in the past week coincides with our impression that there is no impulse from the Bolivarian ranks for an immediate revolutionary offensive and showdown with Venezuelan capitalism.

But this status quo is not sustainable. Only the mass movement sustains the Bolivarian government, and for it to survive, it must make tangible gains. On the other hand, if the mass movement can be worn down and demobilized, the way will be clear for the oligarchy and its U.S. backers to reassert control.

The oligarchy’s agenda is not “Bolivarianism without Chávez”; it is the reassertion of the old order, including direct U.S. control, particularly over Venezuela’s oil. The oligarchy is committed to violence: its backers carried out many partisan murders during the referendum campaign. Pinochet’s Chile, the Canada-U.S. conquest of Haiti, the endless war against the Colombian people: these are the menu of U.S. alternatives to destroy Bolivarianism.

What Venezuela has witnessed is a great uprising for democracy and against imperialist domination. This rebellion has engaged the working class masses, who have created a movement for socialism. To hold open that socialist potential, we must defend Venezuela for what it is today: a giant breakthrough against neoliberalism and the U.S. empire.

Suzanne: The best conclusion is the words of Argenis Loreto to us in Libertador: “We thank you infinitely for the support you are giving. For us you are the first line of defense internationally. We are up against a huge monster that is trying to destroy us. You can break the wall of silence. We can’t do this; we depend on you. You are like brothers and sisters to us.”

We have a big job here in Canada. We need not only to learn how the people in Venezuela are changing their lives, but act in Canada to defend their efforts.

The Venezuela We Are With You Coalition is composed of a wide range of organizations and individuals interested in Latin American solidarity in the spirit of Bolivar. It includes more than half a dozen socialist currents.

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