Venezuela: The future of ‘21st century socialism’ after the poll

By Federico Fuentes
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s re-election on October 7 with more than 55% of the vote was vital for two reasons.

First, the Venezuelan people blocked the return to power of the neoliberal right. Had they won, these US-backed forces would have worked to roll back important advances for the poor majority won since Chavez was first elected in 1998.

These include a huge expansion in government providing basic services (such as education, health and housing), the nationalisation of previous privatised strategic industries, and the promotion of popular participation in communities and workplaces.
Second, Chavez’s re-election provides a new mandate for arguably the most radical, anti-capitalist project under way in the world today.

Having emerged as a response to the crisis the country found itself in under neoliberalism, and at a time when socialism appeared moribund, Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution has radicalised to the point where it has explicitly stated its goal to be “socialism of the 21st century”.

The ability to further advance this project in Venezuela will depend on the impact of ongoing US intervention and regional integration, the intensifying class struggle within the pro-Chavez camp, and the political fate and health of Chavez.

Understanding the rise of the Bolivarian revolution requires placing it within the country’s oil-rich history.

The rise of oil production in the 1920s fuelled a dramatic transformation in Venezuela’s economy. Agricultural production, until then the main pillar of the economy, slumped as capital poured into the oil sector.

As oil’s contribution to state revenues rapidly rose, power and wealth became fused within the state. The result was a parasitic capitalist class that primarily sought to enrich itself by appropriating state resources.

These developments also shaped the formation of Venezuela’s popular classes. People fled the countryside en masse, flocking to the cities for their share of the oil rent.

They came to create a huge belt of barrios (shanty towns) where impoverished informal workers tried to eke out an existence. State funds were used by different political interests to win the loyalty of these sectors.

These factors underpinned Venezuela’s pervasive culture of “clientalism” and corruption.

This political set-up was sent into crisis by the economic crises and the gyration of oil prices that hit the world economy from the 1970s onwards.

Venezuela’s 1976 oil nationalisation only deepened this trend. The state oil company PDVSA came to operate as a “state within the state”, operating largely independently of any governmental control.

Within PDVSA, private appropriation of public resources continued unabated, while US-based corporations kept control over oil production.
State income instead experienced a steep decline, falling from US$1500 per person in 1975 to $350 per person in 1999 (in 1998 US dollars).

International financial institutions advised Venezuela’s rulers to resolve the state’s fiscal crisis by shifting the burden onto the people.
A February 1989 International Monetary Fund austerity package caused fuel prices to skyrocket overnight. This was the trigger for an explosion of mass discontent: an immense uprising that rocked Caracas for four days, extending outwards to several other cities and towns.

Although quelled by brutal repression, the Caracazo marked a point of no return for a society reeling from a deep economic slump and a crisis of the state and political system.

Throughout the next decade, about 7000 protests took place as new dynamic forms of local organisation began to emerge in the barrios.
Given the state’s role in controlling the nation’s wealth, the state became the focus of a steady stream of demands that progressively became an unstoppable wave.
Rise of Chavez

Within this context, the leader of a clandestine dissident current within Venezuela’s armed forces — Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez — captured the collective imagination of the poor majority when he led a failed military rebellion in 1992.
Jailed after the rebellion, Chavez emerged two years later resolved to stand in the 1998 presidential elections.

He began campaigning across the country, arguing the only way to achieve real independence and eradicate poverty was by giving power to the people.
Alongside setting up a new electoral party, the Movement for a Fifth Republic (MVR), Chavez called for the formation of a Patriotic Pole (PP) to unite all those parties and organisations that supported his candidature.

Chavez’s message enabled him to tap into the deep discontent among Venezuela’s popular classes and unify the various strands of the left.

On December 6, 1998, Chavez was elected as president, winning 56.2% of the vote.
However, from the beginning it was clear that winning elections was not the same as taking state power. PDVSA remained tightly under the control of the traditional business elites and the allegiance of large sections of the military to any project for radical change remained unknown.

The new government was also conscious that its mass popularity was not rooted in well-organised social organisations. The dispersed and unorganised nature of “chavismo” meant the centre of gravity lay with executive power.

As such, the pace and course of reforms has tended to be driven almost exclusively by initiatives taken from above. Critically, with each advance, Chavez sought to organise and consolidate the social base.

Chavez’s first move was to convene a democratically-elected constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. The aim was to shift the rules of a game that had been traditionally stacked in favor of the old political class.

In opposition to the corrupt “representative” democracy that had allowed the same elites to monopolise power for decades, the new constitution proposed a “participatory and protagonist” democracy, where power resided among the people.
The challenge for the Bolivarian forces was to turn this novel idea into reality, which would require an inevitable showdown with the traditional elites, backed and funded by Washington.

Over the next three years, these two competing blocs faced off in three decisive battles. Each time, the pro-revolution forces came out victorious, and consolidated their military, economic and political hegemony.

The first major showdown occurred on April 11, 2002, when an opposition rally against Chavez morphed into a military coup that overthrew him and installed the head of the country’s chamber of commerce.

The coup was defeated by a civic-military uprising. Hundreds of officers who supported the coup were later removed, taking control of the armed forces out of the hands of the old elites.

The second major bid to bring down Chavez took place at the end of the same year, when an alliance between PDVSA management, capitalist elites, the corporate media and corrupt trade union officials sought to halt production in the strategic oil sector.

In response, loyal PDVSA workers, soldiers, and community activists mobilised to break the back of the bosses’ strike.

This mobilisation from below enabled the Venezuelan government to purge PDVSA of its right-wing bureaucracy, and placed the company firmly in the hands of the government.
The leaps forward in worker and community organisation that occurred during this struggle proved crucial to defeating the third major offensive by the opposition: the August 2004 recall referendum on Chavez’s presidency.

Chavez’s victory, in a poll made possible because of democratic reforms introduced by the new constitution, consolidated his democratic credentials.

With the military and PDVSA under control, and resting on an increasingly organised social base, the Chavez government was able to launch a range of experiments during 2003-2005 aimed at deepening peoples’ power.

These included initiatives such as the social missions that provide free health and education, and economic enterprises such as cooperatives and worker-run factories. These helped tackle poverty while simultaneously increasing the organisational capacity of the masses.

By the time of Chavez's re-election bid at the end of 2006, the Bolivarian revolution could also count on a growing alliance of progressive and left governments in the region. This opened the way to greater regional cooperation and integration, a key objective of the Bolivarian revolution.

However, it was also clear the revolution had not decisively broken the resistance of corporate power and replaced the old, corrupt state that served corporate power with a new power built from below.

Anti-capitalist offensive
After winning the December 2006 presidential elections, Chavez unleashed a new anti-capitalist offensive.

At his January 8 inauguration ceremony, Chavez explained that the goal of this new term was to “transfer political, social, and economic power” to the people. To do so it was vital to dismantle the old state.

Chavez said the goal of 21st century socialism required advancing on three fronts at the same time: increasing social ownership over the means of production, encouraging greater workplace democracy, and directing production toward social needs.
To achieve this ambitious agenda, Chavez called for all revolutionaries to help form a united party of the revolution, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Four-and-a-half million people joined the PSUV in its initial recruitment drive, a clear sign of the level of support for the initiative.

Over the next six years, the Chavez government carried out a wave of nationalisations in the oil, electricity, telecommunications, banking, steel, cement, and food production sector as it tried to reassert national sovereignty over the economy.

The overall result was that the state had the necessary weight across strategic sectors of the economy to dictate production goals. The threat of expropriation loomed for those that refused to cooperate.

The spate of nationalisations was more the result of government initiatives (in response to the needs the poor) than workers’ struggle, and Chavez continuously emphasised that nationalisation alone did not equate with socialism.

To help stimulate worker participation, the government initiated a process of workers’ control in the state-owned steel, aluminium and electricity companies.
The promotion of grassroots communal councils, and later communes (made up of elected representatives from communal councils), was also an important focus of the Chavez government during this term.

These councils were aimed at building upon and linking the various forms of existing community groups. The communal councils were charged with diagnosing the main problems facing their communities and creating a plan to resolve them.

Funding for these projects came from the state, but all major decisions were made in citizen’s assemblies. This was a unique experiment in democratising the redistribution of oil revenue while promoting community empowerment.

In 2009, the government took a further step by promoting the communes. These aim to encompass several communal councils within a self-defined community to collectively tackle problems on a larger scale.

These new forms of organisation have involved unparalleled numbers in community organising. They have come to be seen as the building blocs of a new state.
Internal class struggle

This simultaneous push for nationalisation, workers control and community councils also brought to the fore the class struggle that existed within chavismo.
A 2009 banking crisis led to several banks being nationalised and their owners jailed. This process revealed the existence of a sector within the revolutionary process that had enriched itself through its connections to the state, popularly referred to as the boliburguesia (“Bolivarian bourgeoisie”).

Moves to transfer greater power to workers and communities faced mounting resistance from within the existing state bureaucracy.

Along with the persistent problems of corruption and clientalism, worker and community activists increasingly complained that company and state officials sought to defend their positions of power.

By early last year, Chavez was also denouncing the vices that plagued the PSUV. He warned: “The old way of doing politics is devouring us, the corruption of politics is devouring us … the old capitalist values have infiltrated us from all sides.”
The party needed to return to its principles, otherwise it risked following the path of the MVR, which only really operated as an electoral vehicle.

Recognising these problems, Chavez launched the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) in October last year, calling on all pro-revolution social movements and parties to unite to ensure a decisive victory in the 2012 presidential elections.

More than 30,000 different groups signed up. In the end, the votes of the non-PSUV parties (which numbered around 1.7 million) and social movements that did not appear on the ballot (as they were not electoral registered) and therefore called for a vote for the PSUV despite not being involved in the party, were decisive in securing Chavez’s victory.

As Chavez prepares to start a new term in government, Venezuela’s revolution faces three main challenges.

The first is the threat from the US, which has recently made some gains in the region such as the coup against progressive Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, and the Venezuelan opposition it backs in its bid to oust Chavez.

The second is the revolution's ability to deal with the twin problems of corruption and bureaucratism. Overcoming these challenges will require greater popular participation through initiatives such as the communes and the push for workers’ control.

Consolidating the unity achieved through the GPP could help lead in this regard.
The third challenge, which has become ever more apparent since Chavez’s diagnosis with cancer, is the need to create a collective leadership.

History will record that the Bolivarian revolution succeeded in rolling back neoliberalism and laying the foundations for a transition to 21st century socialism.
The dynamic relationship that has existed so far between Chavez and the masses has been a key factor in ensuring this.

Chavez has played a dominant leadership role in the Venezuelan revolution. This has been criticized in some quarters, but his role must be placed within the historic context outlined: one of a Venezuela marked by intense ferment from below but varying organisational strength of the social movements.

At each step, Chavez has launched initiatives to encourage the self-organisation of the people. Through this process the Venezuelan people have increasingly taken the destiny of their country into their own hands.

His role as the key figure in the revolution and the trust placed in him by the poor majority make Chavez, for now, irreplaceable.

His re-election to the presidency in the face of a reinvigorated opposition, demonstrated once again that most Venezuelans believe he is the sole figure capable of leading the country forward.

The future of the process will depend on increasing the self-organisation of the masses and the development of a collective leadership that can support, and be capable of substituting for Chavez's singular role.

Federico Fuentes is a Socialist Alliance and Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network activist. He has lived in Venezuela as part of Green Left Weekly’s Caracas bureau. With Michael Fox and Roger Burbach, Fuentes is the co-author of the forthcoming book Latin America Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism.]

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January Delegation to Venezuela: Witness Historic Inaugurations and Advances in Food Sovereignty, Human Rights, and Community Power

January 7-17, 2013

With Hugo Chavez’s historic win this October, the Venezuelan people have committed to carry forward the Bolivarian Revolution, with its advances in social equality, human rights, community power, and more. Join us this January to witness the presidential inauguration on January 10th, followed by visits to different parts of the country. One of the focuses of this trip will be food sovereignty, or how both the government and the people are taking back control of the country’s agricultural and food systems. We will also explore other areas of social transformation, including education, healthcare, and direct citizen participation in the political process. There will also be trips to beaches, parks, and other sites of interest.

Cost for Activities: $1100. This will cover all lodging, all ground transportation, 2 meals per day, qualified trip leaders, and Spanish-English interpretation. Additional expenses during the trip will be low.

Airfare not included.

Tentative Itinerary. Start and end in Caracas; visits to the states of Maracay, Yaracuy and Carabobo.

Day 1: Caracas – Arrival; orientation/welcome; visits to social programs and discussions with community leaders and local authorities.
Day 2: Visits to urban agriculture sites and other community initiatives in different communities in Caracas, including 23 de Enero, El Valle, and Petare.

Day 3 and 4: Presidential Inauguration and relates activities.
Days 5 and 6: Visits to rural areas in the states of Yaracuy and Carabobo: learn about agrarian reform and agroecology through visits to agricultural cooperatives, biological control laboratories, food processing coops, and agricultural education programs

Days 7 and 8:
Visit to the Afro-Venezuelan coastal community of Chuao, known for producing some of the world’s best cocoa; learn about artisanal cacao production as well as artisanal fishing and Venezuela’s progressive fishing laws; enjoy beautiful beaches.
Day 9: Caracas: free day for sight seeing, getting souvenirs, etc.
Day 10: departure.

To Learn more and hold a spot for the trip, email Please be in touch as soon as possible, as space is very limited. Please allow several days for responses.

Sponsored by the Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle of New York, USA.
For more information see:
Check out these articles from past delegations:

Venezuela’s Presidential Elections: An Imperfect-Victory
Oct 8th 2012, by Tamara Pearson

Last night we were squashed and pushed as the crowd surged into the Miraflores Palace to hear Chavez’s victory speech. People were so happy, they didn’t mind their feet being trodden on, the humidity of the air and the sweat of bodies and all the standing up, they were exuberant and they shouted and danced and jumped up and down and yelled out to strangers and threw beer up in the air, and even a few shoes. Yet, among them, I felt a bit down, because the results were quite close, because over six million people supported, by voting for Capriles, selfishness (he had focused his campaign on Venezuela ending its solidarity with other countries) and the destruction and sale of their country.

The results
With most votes counted, Chavez won with 8,044,106 votes, or 55.11% to Capriles’ 6,461,612 (44.27%) for a difference of 1,582,494 votes, or almost 11%. Chavez also won (according to the results as they are today) in 21 states and the Capital District (Caracas), and lost to Capriles in Merida and Tachira states,. He won in Zulia and Carabobo- where there are currently opposition governors. No one voted for the other candidates, with third place going to Reina Sequera with 0.47% of the vote.

The election then was about Chavez, and the candidate-against-Chavez. Although 11% is a huge lead by global standards, compared to the 2006 presidentials (when Chavez got 62.9% of the vote, and Manuel Rosales 36.9%; a difference of 26%) it's quite narrow, and its worrying because Chavez tends to garner many more votes on his own than PSUV candidates running in national assembly or regional elections.

Due to high voter turnout, both sides received a record number of votes, but the opposition’s 6.5 million was a good 20-50% more than what has been its standard 4 to 5 million over the last 13 years. The Chavista vote of 8 million was also significantly higher than its standard 6 or so million in elections, though the increase is somewhat less in proportionate terms. Further, poll companies- private and public, were almost consistently giving Capriles around 35% of the vote, from February when he was preselected as a candidate until September. That means a large proportion of the undecided vote went to the opposition.

Nevertheless, the outcome is a clear mandate for Chavez, and for Venezuela’s socialism.

Loving democracy: massive voter turnout
80.9% of Venezuelans, despite rains in some parts of the country, voluntarily voted yesterday; a historic record for Venezuela and a remarkable number compared to voluntary elections in other parts of the world. In the 2006 Venezuelan presidential elections, 75% turned out to vote.

This is significant for many reasons. It shows that Venezuela’s elections have enough real consequences in the minds of the people that they feel motivated to vote, and that Venezuela is quite the opposite of the dictatorship the mainstream media portrays it as. Rather, and in contrast to most other countries, voting day is anticipated, enjoyed, taken seriously, and ends in passionate celebration.

Venezuela is building participatory democracy, and people’s understanding and concern for democracy is much higher than most countries. Venezuela’s electoral system, for the umpteenth time, and despite media characterisations to the contrary, has been proven again to be open, fair, and trusted. That’s a big blow to sectors of the opposition who, in accumulated desperation, had planned to call fraud and including Capriles, spent months trying to cast doubt on the impartiality and honesty of the National Electoral Council (CNE). Their strategy did not work, their supporters on the whole did not buy it, because they voted anyway. There were no major disturbances yesterday, such strategies are not supported by opposition voters, so the opposition is in a hard place because it can’t win in elections, nor by using undemocratic methods.

Why a narrowing gap then between the opposition and Chavez?
There are concrete and legitimate reasons and also invalid and ridiculous ones why people voted against Chavez. To go into the concrete reasons would be a separate article on the problems within the revolution, but in brief I would argue that there is discontent with the perpetual bureaucracy and corruption within the ranks of the PSUV and government institutions, and with the slowness in really addressing the issue of the malfunctioning justice system and of crime rates. There is a layer of Chavista leadership with a low level of consciousness and which doesn’t do its job, and people can see that and are frequently directly affected by it.

Many who voted against Chavez however, did so as a result of the national private media’s intense campaign of lies against the revolution, with comfortable middle class people who have cars, wide screen televisions, and huge daily meals complaining about Venezuela being a “disaster”, there being “scarcity” of food, the economy a “wreck” and so on. The massive international media campaign also helped boost Capriles.

Other voters felt Chavez had taken the socialist project “too far”, beyond progressive social policies and into radical territory, while others had “third term phenomenon”; that belief that a president shouldn’t be in power for “too long” and that any kind of alternative, even if it is a sexist, ignorant, and incompetent person like Capriles, is a “necessary change”. In fact, for a candidate running for a third term, Chavez’s lead was quite huge.

Consequences of the electoral result and next steps
Nevertheless, the opposition will come out of these elections emboldened. Had they received the predicted result of 35%, combined with their already existing disunity, they would have gone to the December regional state elections and the April mayoral elections confused, disorientated, and fighting amongst each other. But a vote of 45% and a narrowing gap gives them optimism. Also, in a number of states, although they lost, the result was close enough that with a strong campaign, or a bad candidate representing the Chavistas, the opposition would have a chance. Those states include Capital District, Amazonas, Anzoategui, Bolivar, Carabobo, Lara, Nueva Esparta, and Zulia, as well as the two states where Capriles won.

A narrower victory also means that the revolution can’t lie down and relax for a while. There will be reflection and self criticism, which is positive, but there will also be a danger for some sectors of the population, including Chavez, to feel somewhat defeated and to try to water down the revolution’s politics in order to accommodate opposition supporters. It’s also likely that, going into the December elections, the grassroots will focus on electoral campaigning, instead of holding the much needed debate and submitting proposals around Chavez’s draft governmental plan for 2013-2019. Such debate could deepen consciousness and radicalise, as well as pave the way for even greater and more informed involvement in the next period. Unfortunately, the PSUV governmental candidates have been chosen by its national executive and Chavez, people who are removed from local realities and unaware of the discontent with many of the candidates they have already selected. This means December is likely to be a much closer battle than the presidential one.

Chavez has said that the next six years should take Venezuela into socialism “beyond the point of no return”. The foundations have been laid, but it’s time now to make community councils and worker councils the norm, it’s time to talk about the hard issues that have been avoided (by the PSUV leadership) in order to avoid losing votes, such as gay rights, abortion and sexism, democratising the PSUV, and consumerism. If we don’t beat corruption and bureaucracy in the next period, we could lose this revolution. Now that the presidential elections are over, we have two main questions: How will we deepen the revolution, and will it survive?

One thing we felt yesterday, in the words of VA journalist Ewan Robertson, is “just how precious this revolution is, how much is at stake...and realising the need to fight even harder”.
A Story about Rubbish: Communities Takeover from Right-wing Opposition Mayor

Sept 19th 2012, by Tamara Pearson

Smack in the middle of tourist season, in little, tranquil, and stunningly beautiful Merida, with the giant green Andes hugging it on all sides, artisans in the plaza, beard trees in the parks, and tourists from Caracas standing in the doorways of pastel coloured posadas with their cameras –the opposition mayor decided to just stop collecting rubbish.

Two weeks passed, and rubbish began to pile up in rather large mountains on every block corner. The heavy rains and dogs ripped open the plastic bags, their guts spilling out and spreading about on the footpath and road. It stank, there were rats and African snails, the vultures that usually hang out high up in the mountains were coming down into the city streets. Communities started reporting health problems, with the environment minister Alejandro Hitcher reporting a significant increase of diarrhoea, respiratory infections, and dengue. The river that runs through the city was visibly much more contaminated.

In desperation, communities started to organise- they hired standard trucks between them and collected the rubbish themselves, swept the streets, and sometimes used venom to kill insect populations. Others burnt the rubbish. But it was an unsustainable solution, not just environmentally, but financially, for at 500bs for truck hire and 250bs to pay to dump the rubbish, divided by perhaps 20 families, three times a week- it was also unaffordable.

Lester Rodriguez, the opposition mayor of Libertador municipality (the central area of Merida city) is a kind of real life version of Lex Luther. A member of the Copei party, he was rector of the University of Los Andes (ULA), before being elected mayor in 2008 and will now run for governor of Merida state in December. As mayor he has spent millions of bolivars uprooting perfectly fine pavement near where I live, then repaving and painting those footpaths, no doubt as a “favour” to some friend of his in construction. He spends tonnes of money on the yearly bullfights in Merida, that the vast majority of locals are against, then smiles pastily at the cameras, and leaves rubbish uncollected for weeks in the poorer barrios of the city. As rector of the ULA it is known he helped hoard weaponry there (as an autonomous university, the police can’t enter it) for the violent and destabilising opposition group, M13. At this pertinent political time, he is currently taking a long holiday in Europe.

In 2009 Rodriguez received Bs 56 million specifically for rubbish collection, then at the start of this year he received a further Bs 12 million. It’s hard to know where that money has gone, but the municipal council (responsible for dealing out money to the mayoralty from the national government) has refused his latest request for further money for rubbish collection, given his complete lack of transparency, not fulfilling basic legal requirements in the request, and concern that they money will instead be directed to the opposition’s current presidential campaign, and Rodriguez’s campaign in December.

In public, Rodriguez has blamed the state owned national electricity company, Corpoelec, because of money owned by it to the mayoralty. Yet the money owed is a small amount, and Rodriguez owes a similar amount to them. The Corpoelec offices are one block from where I live, and a number of times men in balaclavas have dumped truckloads of rubbish on its doorsteps. Most recently, a neighbour who lives across the road from the offices, came out to complain, and was beaten up. He spent the night in hospital after a minor eye operation.

Turning crisis into opportunity
Nevertheless, it turns out this situation has become the crisis, or catalyst, we needed to start taking real action to democratise rubbish – an issue that is at the heart of how we consume and how we relate to our own resources and the planet.
The issue has also revealed some troubling and inspiring power dynamics between the grassroots, the opposition, and the national government that extend beyond little Merida, and can apply generally to the revolution.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) who got the ball rolling. A few environmental activists put the call out for a protest outside the mayoralty on Facebook. Hundreds quickly committed to attend. My communal council called an emergency meeting, and there we decided to support the protest, but we suggested to the organisers that it be a march from the plaza, and they agreed.
That Friday we held an organising meeting for the protest, and around 100 people from various communal councils and movements turned up. People were excited, and rather than talking about the protest, made proposals for a recycled art and graffiti movement, recycling schemes, and to create an EPS directa – a social production company run by the communal councils to collect and recycle rubbish, rehiring the current rubbish collectors who are out of work because of the mayor’s irresponsibility. I also got up and made some more concrete proposals for the march the next day, including that we demand that the mayor resign. People were excited, and clapped loudly.

The meeting ended in frustration though, as the PSUV prefect and one of his employees said they were “against the march” because the organising of it hadn’t gone through PSUV channels. This is despite the fact that almost everyone there was a PSUV member and/or leader. The prefect proposed the march be the following Thursday, rather than the next day (a Saturday), which I saw as a deliberate attempt to create confusion and disperse the enthusiasm. One of the main strategic lines of the PSUV is to support grassroots organising, but as the PSUV Merida executive hadn’t done anything so far, I guess they resented others taking the initiative.

Few of the people who came to that meeting came to the protest on Saturday. Instead of marching, we drew placards in the street, concentrated in one corner, and chanting “no more rubbish!” wrote the that same slogan on the back of cars with shoe polish (a Merida tradition). Despite the small turn out, it was a lively protest, and the municipal council called a press conference meeting for the following Monday.
The Federal Government Council (CFG), the entity where the national government articulates with communal councils and communes and assigns funding distribution, called a meeting of Libertador communal councils. The vice-minister for the environment was meant to attend this meeting, but didn’t. However, some 80 communal councils were represented. The Merida representative of the CFG echoed our original proposal to form an EPS, and said the municipal council was prepared to fund it with the money that the mayor was asking for.

Unfortunately, the next day the environment minister went on television and stated that after consulting with the “popular power” (the grassroots), the national government would take emergency measures to collect the rubbish. He had not actually consulted with us, and this was not the solution we were proposing.

Further, his emergency plan- currently being implemented, was a necessary, but short term solution to the crisis. Together with the tourism institute Cormetur, the (Chavista) Merida state government, and a brigade of volunteers, a contingency plan was designed to collect (but not recycle) the rubbish. The national government also created a municipal institute to rehire the rubbish collectors. The plan is only to be implemented until just after the presidential elections on 7 October, which says to us that in fact the environment ministry is more concerned with votes than with public health and the environment. We have written to the minister asking that the contingency plan last until we can get the EPS up and running, and criticising his lack of consultation and speaking in our name.

Organising community based rubbish recycling
I am excited and inspired by the idea of creating an EPS. This is revolution! This is the people taking power and responsibility into their own hands. We don’t need the lazy, corrupt and greedy mayors, nor the prefects. Eventually, all services should be run through the communities and by the workers. In Merida, the gas in some parroquias (suburbs) is already managed by an EPS.

Currently, Merida’s rubbish is contracted to Spanish company Urbaser. As a private company, it has neglected worker rights and is not actually concerned for the environment. The rubbish trucks are property of Urbaser, not of the population.
An EPS would be the opposite of that. In the following meetings of the mesa tecncia (the technical working group) to form the EPS we discussed the need for land to set up large scale worm farms, the need for local community worm farms and composters, as well as sorted rubbish collection points, the relationship between workers and community, awareness raising, countering consumerism, encouraging companies to produce and package in ways that are easier to recycle (or reducing packaging altogether), working with schools, training, and the administrative, operative, and legal aspects. We would like to use the recycled products to produce housing materials for the housing mission, among other things. After all, as one person said at one of the meetings, “rubbish is a treasure”.

We decided to form 7 EPSs in 7 different regions of the municipality, which would then coordinate together. The first steps will be holding broad community assemblies and discussing the EPS, as well as electing one representative to it per communal council.

Also, according to the Integral Waste Management Law, article 82, competency for waste management can be transferred to popular power if it can prove its capacity to do the job. This means we will have to document all the compost and worm farms that already exist, the one recycling initiative in the botanical gardens, and the way communities have already worked together to collect their rubbish, among other things.

We are also going to study the example of Petare (see photo to the right), which now also has community based rubbish collection (though no recycling), following a similar crisis there. Inhabitants of Petare denounced that the opposition mayor Carlos Oscariz only collected rubbish in the streets of the commercial centres and the middle class apartment buildings, and not the poor areas. He, and the governor of the area at the time; current opposition candidate to the presidential elections, Henrique Capriles, were focusing their time and resources on campaigning, and the streets were full of rubbish.

An environmental revolution?
Chavez’s proposed government plan for the next period, should he win the October election, includes a new section dedicated to the environment. So far, this has not been an environmental revolution. Consumerism hasn’t been tackled, public transport infrastructure has been constructed but car production has also increased. Over the last year the government has encouraged and supported urban agriculture across the country, which is a great complement to composting and worm farming, and community organisation of environmental sustainability. It also inaugurated the Kariña Socialist Oil Pipe Recuperation Factory in 2010, to recycle oil pipes into metal framing for construction, and also make bricks partially from recycled paper. Such initiatives make sense for their sustainability and their affordableness. The fifth section of Chavez’s plan then, provides the basis for a change in direction in Venezuela's state based and grassroots environmentalism, and we hope here in Merida that our EPS can be an example, or a pilot project for something more national.

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Reflections on Venezuela: Food, Health, Democracy, and a Hope for a Better World
by Fred Magdoff
February 2008

These are some brief impressions and reflections in the midst of a short visit to Venezuela. For 10 days I traveled with a wonderful group of 23, mainly from the New York City area (with delegates from Washington, DC, Washington State, and myself from Vermont). It was led by William Camacaro and Christina Schiavoni, with the Bolivarian Circle Alberto Lovera, a group in New York City that supports the Venezuelan revolution. The costs were kept as low as possible to allow an amazingly diverse group of activists, young and not so young and including two Monthly Review subscribers, to see the transformation in Venezuela for themselves. We traveled mainly to the west and Falcon State, but did go east of Caracas to a cacao farming cooperative. (Later this morning, I will be traveling to stay for a few days in a village in a rural area in Lara State and on Friday will be giving a talk on the world food crisis to faculty and students of the Bolivarian University in Caracas.) Anyone in the New York area that would like to learn more about the Bolivarian Circle Alberto Lovera, send me an email: .

It is next to impossible to capture the complexities of what is happening here after such a short visit. However, I hope that some impressions of what we have seen and heard will provide a glimpse into this dynamic and exciting country that is attempting to build "21st Century Socialism."

No Precedent
Something is being attempted in Venezuela that has no precedent in human history -- building socialism from the bottom up in the midst of a capitalist society in a manner that is profoundly democratic (as well as chaotic). When you ask people what they mean by socialism, they speak of taking care of the poorest of the poor, building a society of equality, and establishing democracy where the people really and truly have power -- the power to decide the development and life in their individual communities. And where the purpose of the economy is to serve the people. Many of the new factories and processing plants are really more than cooperatives, where workers share "profits." Here many (but not all) of the cooperatives are in essence socialist units of production, community-owned because any profits are used to promote community needs.

The forces arrayed against the effort of Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan people are certainly formidable. We may think of U.S. imperialism first of all, but lucky for the Venezuelans (though not so for people in the Middle East), the U.S. is presently overcommitted to fighting the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. This, of course, does not mean that the U.S. is not interfering in the internal affairs of this country, only that it has not given it its full attention. We heard a discussion by a member of the National Assembly about the situation with Columbia. It seems clear that the U.S. is doing its best to foment a war with the Columbian forces as a proxy army. However, the internal forces antagonistic to the transformation to socialism are also strong. This is, after all, still a capitalist country with many small shops, with the transnational and large national firms still operating. Additionally, much of the media is antagonistic to Chavez. (Nevertheless, the press and TV seem amazingly free to criticize the government -- some justified but much in the way of venomous attacks. The criticism from the U.S. over the shutting down of a TV station RCTV is almost laughable -- it is currently transmitting by satellite and cable. The only thing that happened is that its right to transmit over the airwaves -- which belong to the people -- was not renewed because of failure to live up to its public service commitments.) Thus there's lots of local money and other resources available to influence and corrupt the process and a most powerful incentive to do so. One of the many real challenges to the revolution is to somehow incorporate at least some of these anti-Chavez forces in the middle class into the revolution -- which is much easier said than done. To date, things have not been bad for the middle class and upper middle class. The economy appears to be thriving -- with all its troubles and contradictions. And with the use of oil revenue to fund so much of the revolutionary projects, there has been no need to requisition resources from the wealthy. In this way, Venezuela is in a very favorable position to effect real change. On the other hand, much of the middle class and very wealthy recognize a long-term threat to their interests in the Bolivarian Revolution that is attempting to bring socialism to Venezuela.

Other internal problems that weaken the revolutionary transformation include corruption and members of the bureaucracy -- including people who consider themselves "Chavistas" -- who really do not want to give power to the people. They consider themselves "revolutionaries" but want to manage in the top-down way that we have seen fail so many times before. On the other hand, there has been an active left movement, and the programs that have been instituted have had direct beneficial effects on the poor and very poor and the landless. Thus, there is very strong backing for Chavez's march toward socialism among the common people.

Food and Land
About 10 years ago, more than 50 percent of the Venezuelan population was in poverty, much of it severe. Today, nine years later, it is estimated that poverty stands at around 30% and severe poverty has been halved to approximately 9%. Moreover, now the extreme poor do not fall through the cracks of society as they once did. A number of social programs, such as feeding houses (casas de alimentación), subsidized food stores (Mercal), and emergency distribution of milk (currently in very short supply); workers taking over abandoned enterprises or setting up cooperatives of production; an agrarian reform (that at this time only transfers poorly used or unused land of large farms -- latifundia -- to people to farm the land); all have contributed to poverty reduction.

The Feeding Houses, in the homes of volunteers and staffed by volunteers, provide the noon meal and afternoon snacks to close to one million Venezuelan young people as well as needy aged and infirm. This is a huge accomplishment in a total national population of around 28 million.

Active assistance is given to campesinos to recover land -- approximately 5 million acres have been turned over to be actively farmed, mainly as cooperatives. Some of these are privately worked (like fish farmers as well as the ocean fisherman we visited) and cooperate on buying inputs and selling their products. Others, like Aracal and its 150 families, work the land in common and are paid according to the amount of work they do. Because agriculture was neglected by former governments and agricultural commodities were fairly cheap (for an oil-exporting country), a very high proportion of the food is currently imported. With the dramatic rise of world food prices-- caused by the competition with agrofuel production, increasing demand for grain feed meat in China, and droughts in a major exporting country -- prices have risen here as around the world. Imported food is, therefore, very expensive. In addition, price controls on locally produced food have caused farmers to produce less and unscrupulous middlemen to attempt to ship food to Columbia where they can get a higher price. (A huge quantity of food headed for Columbia was recently seized and the trucks confiscated.) The price of milk has recently risen 40% to induce dairy farmers to produce more. Thus food sovereignty is an important issue in itself, in addition to the many benefits of having people leave the city slums and return to productive employment in the countryside. Some 85% of Venezuelan's live in the 5% of the north central part of the country. Populating other parts of the country with farmers and workers is a national goal.

Preventive medicine is being promoted and a network of clinics staffed by Cuban doctors spread throughout the country. Some of the clinics are in rooms in a person's house while in some larger communities they have decided that their priority was to build a new clinic. A larger new clinic we visited was beautiful -- brand new and built because the community gave it the highest priority, with the ability to do emergency medicine, X-rays, ophthalmology, electrocardiograms, ultrasound diagnosis, etc. Cuban doctors are also helping train the new cadre of Venezuelan medical students in community medicine that will, hopefully, take over the running of the neighborhood clinics in the not-too-distant future.

Impressive as the gains in land reform (with much more to do), feeding the poor, health promotion, and building new "socialist" units of production such as the food processing plants and new tractor factories are, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Venezuela today is the attempt to actually turn over power to the people at the most local level. Not only must their democratically run community councils turn out a quorum of 50% plus 1 to make decisions, but the councils are setting priorities for investment in their communities. They propose projects to the municipal government, and a very high percent of the municipality's funds goes to the local councils to implement approved projects, from building schools and clinics, repairing roads, to bringing water to the community. Although the other aspects discussed above are extremely important, this is the heart of the attempt to build socialism from the ground up.

Along with true democracy at the grass roots level has come an unprecedented growth of volunteerism. Women using rooms in their homes for feeding houses and small clinics, men and women working at low or no wages in order to construct schools, water distribution systems, clinics, etc. Money and expertise has been provided for these projects that have been proposed at the community level. But the people remain in control of the projects and provide labor in order to keep costs down. This, of course, builds confidence and pride in "common" men and women that is rarely seen in other countries.

Defending the Bolivarian Revolution
Chavez is a true internationalist, helping other countries in Latin America loosen the grip of the U.S. and transnationals. Venezuelans also remember their past heroes as well as others -- for example posters and photos of Che Guevara are everywhere and mention of the Cuban Five (held by the U.S. for trying to stop terrorism based in the U.S. Cuban community) is common. Given the forces arrayed against the revolution -- internal as well as external -- the international left community needs to do what it can to defend this new approach to building socialism where power and resources are handed to the people for them to decide what their own priorities are -- planning from below!

Perhaps we will need "Hands Off Venezuela" committees like those that we had in the U.S. to try to assist Cuba. Other creative forms of support will also be needed.
Perhaps the greatest need is to educate others, especially in the U.S., so they can understand the significance of what is happening here -- that Venezuela under Hugo Chavez's leadership is doing something absolutely unique in modern history, turning more and more power over to the people at the local level while breaking the grip of capitalism and imperialism on Venezuela and the rest of Latin America at the same time. Even though it is fraught with significant dangers and not assured of success, this process is a most exciting one for Venezuela as well as the rest of the world. A better world is possible!
Fred Magdoff is professor of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont in Burlington and a director of the Monthly Review Foundation. He is coauthor with Harry Magdoff of "Approaching Socialism" in the July-August 2005 issue of Monthly Review.