This is a comprehensive and interesting interview by Ali Mustafa with Federico Fuentes and Kiraz Janicke, conducted in Toronto during their Canadian tour in defense of Venezuela. It discusses the positive accomplishments of the government but also warns of the threats the revolution posed by U.S. imperialism and counterrevolutionary forces within Venezuela, as well as the challenges the revolution faces in continuing its forward march. We are serialising the article to compensate for its length. This is the first installment.
'For Venezuela, There is No Going Back': A Discussion with Federico Fuentes and Kiraz Janicke
By Ali Mustafa
As Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution enters a new decade of struggle and defiantly advances towards its goal of '21st Century Socialism,' serious challenges to the future of the process emerging from both inside and outside the country still abound. As a result, key questions surrounding Venezuela's mounting tensions with the West, the role played by its fiery and outspoken leader Hugo Chavez, and the future of the process itself remain as relevant today as ever before. Australian-based journalists and long-time Venezuela solidarity activists Federico Fuentes and Kiraz Janicke have been carefully following Venezuela's ongoing political transformation for several years now, countering mainstream media Spin and providing invaluable on-the-ground coverage and analysis about the process as it unfolds. I had the fortunate opportunity to sit down and speak with them both in Toronto before they were set to return to Caracas, following a 10-day Canadian solidarity tour.
Ali Mustafa: Over a decade now has passed since the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Can you provide an overview of the type of gains that have been made since President Hugo Chavez has come to power and what Venezuela looks like today?
Federico Fuentes: Well, I think the first thing to note in regards to the gains that have been made in the 10 years of the Venezuelan Revolution is the huge improvement that has occurred in peoples' daily lives. The fact that the previously excluded majority of people now have access to free health care, free education, unemployment has fallen by more than half of what is was before, the level of poverty has decreased, and many other statistics and social indicators that show that general Venezuelan living standards have improved dramatically. But also extremely important has been the active political participation of people in daily life; we are talking about a country where, literally, something like 80 percent of the nation were excluded and felt that they were not represented at all by the sort of representative democracy and two party system that had existed.
It's the collapse of that system and the important movement for change that erupted -- prior to Chavez's election but, of course, which then has been stimulated even further by Chavez's election -- in the re-writing of the new constitution that's brought about these important gains that Venezuelans have been able to achieve... This reflected itself in important mobilizations that occurred particularly in 2001, 2002, 2003 that defeated a military coup and an attempt by the capitalist class to strangle the economy, which of course meant that the government basically was unable to carry out a lot of the 'missions' that it first set out for itself, but through that struggle was able to move into a position where it could begin to carry out a lot of these social programs, and as always places emphasis on the people involved in them. I think one of the most exciting things is, for instance, the health care social missions -- it's not just that free health care is now being provided but that this health care is being carried out by the people, for the people.
So, I think the Venezuela that exists today is fundamentally different from what it was like 10, 11 years ago in the social aspect, in the political aspect -- and I think it's a Venezuela that today, in its large bulk, refuses to go back to what existed before. That's one of the most common things that you'll find amongst Venezuelan people: that no matter what problems, or whatever they may be encountering, they strongly feel that there is no going back to what Venezuela was like before and they are willing to die to defend what they've won.
Kiraz Janicke: Yeah, I think that for the first time the Venezuelan people have a government that's actually truly independent of US imperialism. But of course in addition to all of the social gains, one of the most fundamental changes is this kind of mass political awakening of the Venezuelan people and the amount of participation of the Venezuelan people in political life through many instances of grassroots participatory democracy. For instance, the communal councils that since the end of 2005 have developed and spread all around the country. You have now approximately 35,000 of these communal councils...where the highest decision making body is the General Assembly of the local community, and importantly they have the ability to recall elected officials or elected spokespeople. This is something that was also another major democratic gain of the 1999 Constitution...which was the first constitution that the Venezuelan people were ever able to democratically decide upon themselves. They democratically voted on that constitution in a popular referendum, and that in many ways has provided a legal framework for further changes. But the real driving force behind the change has been the mobilization of the people.
Initially when the Chavez government came to power, Chavez said he thought that there was a third way between Capitalism and Socialism and that it was possible to create Capitalism with a human face. For every time that the government attempted to implement reforms in the interest of the poor majority of Venezuelans, they were met with extremely violent resistance by the traditional ruling elite; for instance, the carrying out of the coup in 2002, the bosses lockout of the oil industry, and so on. It's actually been through this process that Chavez himself came out and said that, 'I've come to the conclusion that it's not simply possible to reform the system but it's necessary to change the system entirely,' and he came out and made his famous speech at the Porto Alegre World Social Forum in 2005, where he called for 'Socialism of the 21st century'. And that really has sparked a huge debate in Venezuela... People are very politically aware, people are participating and debating and discussing an alternative to the capitalist system, which is currently in crisis.
AM: Can you further elaborate on the formation of these communal councils and how they fit into the notion of participatory democracy currently taking root in Venezuela?
FF: Well, when Chavez was elected he said that the only way to get rid of poverty was to give power to the people, and I think that the communal councils are probably the most concrete example of that. The background to the communal councils is that throughout the 90's there was an explosion of community organizing -- particularly in the poor areas in Caracas, but also in some of the other large cities -- and what you saw was the emergence of a lot of small, localized committees dealing with a lot of issues: health, education, housing, roads, water, but all campaigning around local issues. The communal councils emerge out of that necessity to bring together all of these committees, so that rather than being just simply campaigning groups to demand that the government or state do things, it's actually organizing those communities so that they themselves can take control over these issues.
The communal councils today represent 200-400 families in an urban area, 20-50 families in a rural area (given that they are more spread out), and it's essentially the community getting together to discuss what are their most urgent needs and, within those needs, which are the ones that they as a community...can collectively come up with a plan for how to combat those problems... The emphasis is, again, not on asking someone else to do it, but doing it themselves -- of course with the help of the government -- but really empowering the people through that process.
KJ: And there's a vision that is being presented now -- and it's a very new development in Venezuela -- that is, the formation of what they call communes. These are more than just an aggregate number of communal councils but also other organizations such as cooperatives in a particular geographical area that will coordinate grassroots decision-making on a larger scale than what a communal council can do. For instance, a communal council can make a decision over a smaller project in their local community but they can't necessarily make a decision to build a new school because that's something that affects a much larger area. But the important aspect of these communes is the idea that they have communally owned property or control over the means of production in their local area. So, the idea is not only that communities can get together and make decisions about how resources are distributed; they can also own the means of production that benefit these communities and collectively control them...
This fits into the idea that Chavez has spoken of many times and was part of his proposed reform referendum in 2007 of what he refers to as 'creating a new geometry of power in Venezuela,' and essentially this is a vision of creating a new superstructure that's different to the old superstructure of the traditional Venezuelan state. So, in addition to creating the communal councils and the communes, there's a vision of coordinating the activities of communes on a broader scale; so, for instance, creating communal towns or communal cities and then ultimately what they call communal territories. And just before we left Venezuela, there was a new law passed called the 'Law of the Federal Government Council', and the idea is that it will create a space where these representatives or spokespeople for these grassroots institutions -- as well as representatives of the traditional structures such as governors and mayors and the national executive -- can participate...This is one key example where you see an attempt to decentralize power from the traditional structures of the capitalist state...
AM: Typically, media coverage surrounding Venezuela tends to represent one of two extremes: uncritical praise and acclamation from supporters on one hand, and of course, especially in the Western mainstream media, a sort of reflexive, de-contextualized vilification of Chavez on the other. As two individuals who have spent much time covering Venezuela both inside and outside the country, what is the main misconception about the Bolivarian Revolution that you would like to dispel?
KJ: Well, for me, I think the main misconception or lie that is often repeated in the media is the idea that this is an undemocratic government -- that Chavez is a dictator. Most of the international media overwhelmingly focuses on Chavez, but they always ignore the fact that the Bolivarian movement, which is led by Chavez, is a movement that's made up by millions of people that support Chavez: the workers, the urban poor, campesinos, students, sectors from right across Venezuelan society... They feel that the Chavez government is implementing policies that are in their interests. If you look at all the opinion polls over the years, they will show that Chavez has consistently higher levels of support within Venezuelan society, and it's always hovering around 60% support. And it's not only that people are just passive supporters of Chavez, they are active supporters as well, and active participants in the Bolivarian Revolution.
FF: Yeah, I think that definitely one of the main myths of the media is this idea of Venezuela drifting towards an undemocratic dictatorship -- which is ironic because I think there is possibly no other country in the world that has more electoral processes than Venezuela. Almost every year there is an election, and there has been at least one example of an election that the government has lost, and that was the Constitutional reform vote in 2007, which generally under a dictatorship doesn't happen... The other major lie is this idea of the restriction of the freedom of the press; I think it's an important issue, particularly in the case of RCTV [Radio Caracas Television Internacional]...It's worth just quickly explaining that no TV station has ever been shut down in Venezuela. What we have is RCTV, which in 2007 -- after having actively participated in provoking and carrying out a coup that, by law, would have easily justified them being taken off air in any country -- was not taken off air; instead, their license was up for renewal...and the government, or the broadcasting authority, decided that at this time it was not in its best interests to continue to give a license to a company that would use it to destabilize the country.
TO BE CONTINUED...