Venezuela Progresses on Building Grass Roots Participation

Venezuela:communes Providing Hope, Solidarity and Participation
August 28th 2009,
by Kiraz Janicke

Inspired by the ideas of 18th century Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, led by President Hugo Chavez, has been shaking up Latin America and the world over the past decade in its struggle for independence from United States imperialism and for an alternative to rapacious neo-liberal capitalism.

In 2005, Chavez declared the aim of the revolution was to build socialism of the 21st century. This new kind of socialism, he said, would be a "humane socialism'' and emphasise democratic participation.

Direct democracy and popular participation has certainly flourished in Venezuela, expressed in a range of organising forms including urban land committees, health committees, grassroots assemblies, workers' councils and communal councils. However, many of these developing bodies remain localised or disconnected from each other, and often come into conflict with the traditional structures of the capitalist state. A new but developing initiative that aims to connect and extend popular participation in the struggle towards a new political and economic system is the formation of "socialist communes." Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network member Kiraz Janicke, who is currently living in Venezuela, spoke to Daniel Sanchez, a leader of the Rebirth of the South Commune in the city of Valencia, about how the development of "people's power'' is transforming Venezuela.

The idea of the commune
The formation of the communes in Venezuela comes from a proposal by President Chavez, Sanchez explained. "We know that the idea of the commune is not new; communes have existed in the past and exist in various countries today," he added, pointing to examples such as the Paris Commune in 1871 and forms of organising by indigenous communities in Latin America.

"But in Venezuela, we are not copying other models. Our model is constructed by ourselves, by the people themselves, by the grassroots organisations themselves, in the specific geographic territories where the commune experience is being developed." The emphasis on experimentation is a key feature of the Bolivarian revolution, perhaps best encapsulated in an often quoted phrase by Bolivar's teacher Simon Rodriguez: "We invent, or we err." Sanchez explained that there is no blueprint for building the communes: "Up until now we have been experimenting."

"We are part of a national network of communes that we have been developing over the past two years in collaboration with the Ministry of Participation and Social Development. Now, a new Ministry of Communes has been created and together with both ministries we are developing a network of 17 communes nationally."

Commenting on the relationship between the communes and the traditional state structures, Sanchez said, "There is a direct relationship with the national executive, but we are working at the grassroots level to make sure that this relationship is not one of imposition and control, and that there is a harmonious relationship of working together."

The Countryside Poses Different Challenges
A key aspect of this relationship between the popular and communal organisations and the government, he said, is to facilitate the search for solutions to community issues, such as housing, transport, crime, poverty and other social problems.

Communes in urban zones present different challenges to those being built in the countryside, Sanchez explained. "Most of the experiences [of communes] are in the countryside. I work in an urban zone, in Valencia, the state of Carabobo, one of the most important cities in the country, and in one of the poorest parishes in the country, Miguel Pena parish."

One of the most important challenges in the debate about how to build the communes "is to make sure the people are incorporated - the popular organisations, the cultural organisations, and the revolutionary organisations and parties," he said.

There is no exact number of communal councils or organisations that form a commune. Rather, Sanchez said, an ongoing discussion is needed about the "best mechanisms to integrate all the different organisations in the same geographical area, and the best structure for the people to govern themselves in a commune. The structure of the communes is fundamentally a socio-political question, which, of course, has to do with empowering the social bases."

Another important aspect of the communes, Sanchez said, is "to achieve the equitable distribution of resources. As President Chavez explained, the ownership of the means of production has to be in the hands of the commune." "We want to show the world what this socialism we are talking about really is," Sanchez declared. "We are putting it into practice, designing our own forms of communal government, advancing in our own project so that everyone can participate in transforming the current reality."

But in addition to transforming people's material reality, Sanchez argued, it is also necessary to transform human consciousness in order to achieve socialism.

Human consciousness on solidarity
"We don't want to transform Venezuela just on a material level; we don't believe the communes should simply be directed at resolving the material problems of the communities, such as housing, schools, transport, work, etc. All this is very important, but what is also important is the transformation of the human being, the development of human potential."

Therefore, "the type of structures we create logically have to correspond to the type of socialism we want to build; that is, a humanistic socialism. We are building structures based on a social sensibility, a human sensibility, that promotes solidarity and participation."

Sanchez believes that "the biggest challenge we face in building a new society has to do with the construction of the new human being. We need to leave behind individualism, egoism and consumerism - all the 'isms' of capitalism."

When asked what Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution represents for the world today, Sanchez replied with one word, "Hope."

"Hope that a better world is possible," he added.
The Coup in Honduras, ALBA, and the English-Speaking Caribbean
by Faiz Ahmed

The military coup carried out by masked soldiers in the early hours of June 28against the democratically elected President of Honduras, José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, was a bandit act with differing messages intended for different audiences.

One such audience is the oligarchical groupings throughout the hemisphere, who will be emboldened by Washington's tacit tolerance of the coup makers. Another audience is the Latin American leftist and popular governments, who are being told that their agendas can be trumped by non-democratic means.

And there is yet another audience: the predominantly English-speaking Caribbean governments who, like Zelaya, are far from ideologically opposed to capitalism, but are aware of their inability to improve the overall quality of life of their societies within capitalism's current configuration. As a result, many of these island governments are edging towards regional agreements based on principles antithetical to the capitalist system.This is perhaps why English-speaking Caribbean nations account for ten of the eighteen countries participating in the Venezuelan-led regional agreement PetroCaribe. Launched in 2005, PetroCaribe enables Caribbean governments to purchase oil and natural gas on terms that allow for the financing of upwards of 60 percent of the costs over a twenty-five year period at interest rates close to one percent. Also included in the agreement are mechanisms to finance costs associated with building energy infrastructure projects such as refineries and fuel storage facilities, as well as costs of fertilizer purchases to increase food production.

These Caribbean countries typically have been grappling with debt-to-GDP ratios ranging between 50 percent and 150 percent for the better part of the past two decades. They are economically dependent on tourism and the export of a very narrow range of agricultural commodities and natural resources. They remain highly vulnerable to the effects of hurricanes, tropical storms, sea level rises, and climate change. As a result, this new ability to finance a large portion of their energy requirements creates much needed economic space to pursue domestic agendas which, among other objectives, include: creating national food security; repairing and maintaining physical infrastructure such as roadways and airports; and strengthening social services such as healthcare and education. Or more simply, building some degree of self-sufficiency, albeit within a program that does not deviate from a capitalist approach to development.

The ability to more freely pursue their domestic agendas is the main reason why, over the past eighteen months, three English-speaking Caribbean states have developed a rather perspicacious outlook and become members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA -- an acronym that also means "dawn"). In their view, the regional bloc is not oriented towards a competitive model that exploits weaknesses but is instead an example of a cooperative model that creates space for states to cultivate some degree of self-sufficiency. The coup against Zelaya, the utterly illegal removal of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide five and a half years before that, and the short-lived coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez two years before that all show that international capitalism cannot tolerate any domestic agenda which includes an objective of self-sufficiency. Added to this intolerance is capitalism's long-standing fear of the threat of a good example.

Located in the Eastern Caribbean, the three English-speaking states of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines form one-third of the nine-member ALBA. In fact, these islands are also members of three other important regional blocs, namely: the fifteen-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the twelve-member Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), and the nine-member Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).

All of these groupings, composed mainly of English-speaking Caribbean islands, have done much to create a unified relationship among its members. As such, the experiences of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines within ALBA will undoubtedly be watched by other islands in the region. Each of these islands has been trying to mitigate the myriad challenges facing them over the past two decades, yet are experiencing very little success, as demonstrated by their weakening economies, degrading environments, and alarmingly, declining social indicators such as mortality. By one measure, life expectancy in the English-speaking Caribbean has fallen by four years over the past decade.1

ALBA and the Road to Self-sufficiency
Alongside the commitment to facilitate cooperative development, ALBA's strength lies in its ability to identify member-states' weaknesses within capitalism and devise projects to mitigate and overcome their challenges. This analytical quality has allowed for the emergence of a large number of projects organized under ALBA's four main institutions: the ALBA Oil Agreement, the Bank of ALBA, the ALBA Peoples' Trade Agreement, and the ALBA Cultural and Sport Initiative. The sometimes overlapping projects are in various stages of development and implementation and are free to be used or ignored, at will, by any member state.

ALBA Oil Agreement
Modeled on the principles governing PetroCaribe, the ALBA Oil Agreement is a mechanism for member states to finance their oil purchases on a long-term, low-interest basis, of which a portion can be repaid in goods and services. For countries in the Caribbean, whose annual energy costs represent expenditures between 15 percent and 30 percent of their GDPs, the agreement is quite attractive. Furthermore, and similar to what exists under PetroCaribe, infrastructure projects designed to facilitate or increase oil delivery, oil storage capacity, and oil refining capabilities have been undertaken, all of which have the explicit goal of reducing the overall cost of each barrel of oil these countries import. Also within the ALBA Oil Agreement is a project that sees 25 percent of every oil receipt accumulate in what has come to be known as the ALBA fund, which is designed to be loaned to member states to pursue social development projects.

Bank of ALBA
In line with the objectives of the ALBA fund, and probably because of the example set by the fund, the Bank of ALBA was established in 2008 to offer member states access to capital to pursue social development projects. Although the Bank has a total capitalization of only a small fraction of the value of other regional multilateral lending institutions, it offers a far more egalitarian governance structure, exampled by a rotating directorship among member states, and a decision-making structure where each member has an equally weighted vote. Established in the shadow of the ongoing global food crisis, the Bank's first projects have been the establishment of a food-distribution company tasked with creating an efficient distribution network between member states and a regional food-production fund meant to be allocated to member states to assist them with domestic agricultural initiatives. Both projects have an explicit goal of creating some degree of regional food security.

ALBA Peoples' Trade Agreement (ALBA-TCP)
Devised to coordinate the trading of goods and services within the bloc, ALBA-TCP outlines the specific obligations in the form of actions to be taken by each participating member state. The actions stipulated in the agreement attempt to locate areas of need within each participating state and then to match these areas with goods and services available in partnering member states. The result is a series of bilateral agreements between participating member state. To date, only Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela are active in ALBA-TCP.ALBA Cultural and Sport Initiative
The ALBA Cultural and Sport Initiative takes the form of developing localized independent media outlets and cultivating cultural exchange through sport. The most developed of these initiatives is the ALBA Games project, which has been held on a biannual basis since 2005 and is meant to facilitate competition and training among the hundreds of athletes from around the world who participate.

There are very good reasons to project that, left unmolested, ALBA has the potential to offer Caribbean states a space where self-sufficiency can be striven for. An appealing quality of ALBA and its sister initiatives such as PetroCaribe is that they do not have political strings attached to them. Countries are signing on because the regional arrangements primarily offer economic flexibility. Countries are able to follow development paths of their choosing, which in the Caribbean still seem to be a Keynesian-inspired form of state-capitalism. For most countries in the region, this means establishing a much greater degree of self-sufficiency, in the form of food security, social development, and economic growth.

In keeping with imperialism's sordid history, the reactionary forces in Honduras have demonstrated the lengths to which they are prepared to go to obstruct any goal of self-sufficiency that excludes oligarchical domination. The government of Zelaya was not revolutionary. However, it was looking to better the lives of the people who elected it and saw that ALBA was one mechanism by which it could fulfill this objective. This is precisely why the coup against the democratically elected government of Honduras is rightly being seen as a threat against the bloc, and it should also be seen as a threat against like-minded governments throughout the region, who are slowly edging towards ALBA.

1 Life expectancy estimates for the English-speaking Caribbean were taken from United Nations Human Development Reports. Taken in the aggregate, life expectancies in the region have fallen by roughly 6 months over the past decade. However, when the populations of these islands are assigned values based on their proportion to the entire population of the English-speaking Caribbean, we see that life expectancies have fallen by 4 years.
Faiz Ahmed is a doctoral student in sociology and focuses on the study of islands and the political economy of capitalist-led sustainable development plans. His master's thesis titled "An Examination of the Development Path Taken by Small Island Developing States" can be downloaded at

Barrio Nuevo will demolish slum in Caracas

Dear Friends,

The article below describes the plans to demolish the slums that surround Caracas. It will be the site of new housing which will be a commune incorporated into the Habitat Mission, a housing program "which aims to transform the whole system of life, habitat and shelter for the greater Venezuelan family," However, the rightwing forces, have their own profit making plans which are being challenged by the Chavez government as illegal.
Venezuela: Chavez Launches New Housing Program
by Kiraz Janicke

Caracas, August 10th 2009 - With the demolition of 138 shanty homes facing imminent risk of collapse in the Turmerito sector of Caracas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez launched a new housing program called "Barrio Nuevo" or New Neighbourhood during his weekly television program Hello President (Alo Presidente) on Sunday.

Accompanied by Vice President Ramon Carrizalez and Housing and Public Works Minister Diosdado Cabello, Chavez explained that the 138 families (450 people) will be temporarily resettled in apartments in the Fort Tiuna military base while their new houses are built.
The sprawling, chaotic slums that have grown up to surround the Venezuelan capital are "the result of a century of misery and abandonment [by previous governments]," Chavez said.

In the surroundings of Turmerito, "many rich people seized land to build factories, parking lots... they can go elsewhere," said Chavez. "We are going to build housing for the people." The new houses will be painted blue, red and yellow in honour of the Venezuelan flag.

The new program will be incorporated into the Habitat Mission, a housing program "which aims to transform the whole system of life, habitat and shelter for the greater Venezuelan family," Chavez stated. "The Bolivarian Revolution has this commitment: to give the best quality of life to all Venezuelans," he said.

"We must not stop until there is not a single slum left in the country," the president declared.

However, Chavez argued that in addition to housing, it is also necessary to provide productive work. Thus, "A new commune, the Turmerito commune, a socialist commune, is being born," he declared minutes before climbing onto a bulldozer to begin the demolition of the shacks on Sunday.

Earlier this year, Chavez created the Ministry of Communes to promote the formation of "socialist communes" in specific geographical areas together with organized communities. On July 11th, he explained in one of a series of special episodes of Hello President devoted to the theory of social change, "The ownership of the means of production is in the hands of the commune."

In addition to the 320 new apartments under construction in the Turmerito neighbourhood, the land currently being used for parking lots will be converted into agricultural areas and small industrial zones for processing iron and wood under the control of the commune, Minister Cabello reported. A school, as well as transportation, security and health services will also be part of the new development plan in Turmerito, Chavez said.

Chavez also stressed the importance of taking into account environmental factors when building new housing developments. In this respect, he ordered Carrizalez and Cabello to investigate a report published in the Venezuelan daily Ultimas Noticias titled, "Caracas is growing out of control," which detailed the illegal construction of a number of urban developments in the opposition-controlled El Hatillo municipality in southeast Caracas.

"More than 80 urban developments are being built in El Hatillo without viability plans or guarantees for roads or services and it is feared the southeast will collapse when the 100 thousand new residents are incorporated," the article stated.

"This must stop," Chavez said, "because we cannot allow the destruction of protected zones and the violation of city laws."

"It is necessary to review this, even when the mayor is from the opposition and the governor as well; there is a national government here and no mayor can come and say 'I command here,' no. They have powers, but it is the Constitution that rules, it is the people and there are laws," he told Cabello and Carrizalez.

Such works are the product of the capitalist greed that destroys rivers, streams and damages protected areas in order to construct large buildings and sell them off at very high prices to the middle class, Chavez sustained. "It's necessary to protect the middle-class from capitalist greed...they are also Venezuelans and this government is for everyone," he insisted.

A common clause in housing contracts for many low- to middle-income homebuyers in Venezuela is to pay cash at the start of construction, then make additional adjusted payments for inflation between purchase and move-in. The clause is designed to offset rising material and labor costs.

However, in July, Minister Cabello accused the construction industry of abusing the practice and ordered construction companies to repay the inflation charges. The Ministry had received more than 1700 complaints from homebuyers.

In 2008, some 90,000 new homes were built in Venezuela, half by the government and half by the private construction industry. Despite numerous programs to address the problem, it is estimated that Venezuela continues to face a shortfall of some 1.8 million houses.

Statement On Honduras

Solidarity with the Honduras Resistance!
Statement by the Venezuela We Are With You Coalition

June 28, 2009 – the day of the military coup in Honduras – was a day of shame for Canada.

On that day the generals of Honduras, encouraged by Washington, dealt a dagger blow to democracy. But when President Zelaya was kidnapped and exiled, Canada’s government was silent. The world’s governments and peoples rallied to condemn the general’s dictatorial coup, but Canada’s government found nothing to condemn.

Shame on Stephen Harper! Shame on Peter Kent!

But the events in Honduras are also a source of hope and inspiration to the people in Canada. The bold and courageous people of Honduras have defied the army, demonstrating, striking, and setting up roadblocks demanding the restoration of their elected government.

The governments of ALBA, with Nicaragua at their head, have rallied in a sustained campaign to restore democracy in Honduras. Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and other ALBA members have rallied public opinion and gained popular support for President Zelaya and his brave people.Let this be an example to Canada: theirs is an international policy based not on corporate profits, but human solidarity.

The Venezuela We Are With You Coalition congratulates Honduran activists in Toronto and the Latin American Solidarity Network for organizing a sustained campaign here to defend the people of Honduras. Let us continue this struggle.

Long live democracy in Honduras!

Long live President Zelaya and the Honduran people!
Understanding the Softening U.S. Stance

The softening of the US stance of "opposition" to the Honduran military coup, the Tegucigolpe, has been underway for some time. The State Department has inched slowly away from characterizing the coup as a coup, and it now has the status of an "event," in Washington statements.

The thrust of blame for the government crisis in Honduras is now pointed at President Zelaya, not the golpistas. Now, the issue is not Zelaya's "immediate and unconditional return" (OAS formal stance that the US voted for), but finding an acceptable compromise. Hints are made that perhaps even a modified coup government would be more suitable than a castrated Zelaya government.

The weight of evidence seems that the US is now on a course of trying to prolong the death agony of the coup regime, and use delay as a means to disorient and demoralize the mass movement.

From the point of view of the resistance, a key strategic consideration is to fight the coup in the streets with political demands, criticism, and ideas -- not to turn to violence and offer the armed forces excuses to escalate their already savage armed assaults on demonstrators and selected assassinations. Street actions and public protests within the country should be buttressed by similar solidarity actions abroad, especially in Canada and the United States where the main problem is centered.At this point, opting to catapult the country into civil war could bring about a disastrous setback to the country's poor and oppressed. Violence from the masses is always and always should be a last resort, waged in clear and justifiable self-defense.

The challenges before the Honduran and international resistance to the coup are highly and sharply political in nature, and require a sustained battle of ideas and mobilizations, strikes, sit-downs, and other actions that the resistance itself is the best situated to choose what is best. They have already proven the validity of this course despite the evident reality that they have yet to accumulate enough political strength to topple the regime.

Obama could end the regime, as Zelaya has said, in five minutes if he really wanted to. Dragging the crisis out appears to be the preferred option in Washington , and suits the Honduran generals and ruling families just fine.

Felipe Stuart C.
U.S. appears to soften support for Honduras' Zelaya
By Susan Cornwell
Wed Aug 5,

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. policy on Honduras' political crisis is not aimed at supporting any particular individual, the State Department said in a new letter that implied softening support for ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

The letter to Republican Senator Richard Lugar contained criticism of Zelaya, saying the left-leaning former leader had taken provocative actions before his removal by the army.

It also indicated severe U.S. economic sanctions were not being considered against the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti, installed after the June 28 military coup.

Zelaya's ouster has led foreign governments and multinational lenders to freeze some aid programs to the impoverished country and spurred protests at home. Demonstrations turned violent again on Wednesday.

"Our policy and strategy for engagement is not based on supporting any particular politician or individual. Rather, it is based on finding a resolution that best serves the Honduran people and their democratic aspirations," Richard Verma, assistant secretary for legislative affairs, said in the letter.

"We have rejected calls for crippling economic sanctions and made clear that all states should seek to facilitate a solution without calls for violence and with respect for the principle of nonintervention," he said. The letter was dated Tuesday and obtained by Reuters on Wednesday.

One of Zelaya's main backers in Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, also appeared to pull back from pushing for his ally's return to power."The most important thing for Zelaya, as he has told me himself, is not that he returns. The most important thing is that he stays on a path toward what the people want, which is political and social change in Honduras ," Chavez told reporters in Caracas .

President Barack Obama has condemned the coup, refused to recognize Micheletti, cut $16.5 million in military aid and thrown his support behind the mediation efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, whose proposals include Zelaya's reinstatement. Washington is also revoking diplomatic visas for several members of Micheletti's administration.

Zelaya has been asking the United States -- Honduras ' No. 1 trading partner and longtime ally -- to ramp up pressure on the de facto government. "The United States is the one that really has the power to impose measures that go beyond diplomacy," Zelaya told Mexico 's Senate on Wednesday.

"I recognize the firmness of President Obama and Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton , but (the United States ) has acted lukewarmly," Zelaya said on an official visit to Mexico .

The Organization of American States, which suspended Tegucigalpa last month over the coup, said it would send a group of foreign ministers to Honduras in coming days to try to pressure Micheletti into accepting Arias' proposals.

VIiolence in Tegucigalpa

In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, dozens of stone-throwing students supporting Zelaya clashed on Wednesday with police who shot teargas and water cannons to disperse them after they blocked roads around a university.

Police knocked down the university rector when she tried to calm the violence between the students and security forces.

The State Department letter condemned Zelaya's ouster but noted it was preceded by a political conflict between Zelaya and other Honduran institutions.

"We also recognize that President Zelaya's insistence on undertaking provocative actions contributed to the polarization of Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events that led to his removal," it said.

Zelaya was pushing for constitutional reforms that included letting presidents seek re-election. His opponents accused him of trying to stay in power, but he denies the allegation. The Supreme Court ordered his arrest and the Honduran Congress later approved his ouster.

In the letter to Lugar, the State Department said Washington had still not made a decision as to whether Zelaya's ouster constituted a coup.

Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had asked the government to explain its policy on the Honduran crisis.

(Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez and Mica Rosenberg in Mexico City, Fabian Cambero in Tegucigalpa and Ana Isabel Martinez in Caracas; Editing by Peter Cooney)