Defend Venezuela's Sovereignty!

The Ongoing Campaign to Demonize Venezuela

By Garry Leech
Canada’s Liberal Party MP Jim Karygiannis is the latest to jump on the “demonize Venezuela” bandwagon. While professing to stand for democracy, Karygiannis’s call “to return democracy to Venezuela” exhibits a blatant disregard for the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans who hold their democracy in high regard.

The Liberal MP’s outlandish declarations follow similar propaganda espoused over the past decade by other prominent North Americans such as former assistant secretary of state Otto Reich, former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA director George Tenet. The ongoing campaign to demonize Venezuela’s socialist revolution not only stands in stark contrast to the reality on the ground in that South American nation, but also contradicts the many reports issued by the United Nations and other highly-regarded mainstream organizations.

According to Karygiannis, the Liberal Party’s multicultural critic, “The people of Venezuela are suffering daily at the hands of the Hugo Chávez government, as the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate. We should maintain solidarity with the Venezuelan people and we must do what we can to help alleviate their suffering.”

The Liberal MP also stated, “We have a democracy in crisis and yet the Canadian government hasn’t acted.” He went on to ask, “Why are we not talking about this in Parliament?” And declared that “Canada has to take an effective position … we have to be in the forefront.” In order to achieve this, Karygiannis announced, “I will be calling on the Harper Conservative Government to hold an emergency debate in the House of Commons.”

Karygiannis’s remarks echo the recent attack on Venezuelan democracy made by Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush. Following Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s election victory in November with 54 percent of the vote, Reich lumped Chávez together with other left-leaning leaders in Latin America and labelled them “a collection of authoritarian strongmen who have found a method of undermining the institutions of a democracy in order to stay in power indefinitely and build totalitarian societies.” Reich concluded by declaring, “Winning an election under those circumstances does not make a ruler a democratically elected president.”

Reich’s comments were just the latest in a long line of attacks made by US public officials. In reference to the alleged threat that Chávez poses to the United States, Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “We have been concerned with some of the actions of Venezuelan President Chávez, and his understanding of what a democratic system is all about.” And making it abundantly clear that a democratic system in Latin America should be about defending US interests, CIA director George Tenet arrogantly informed a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Chávez “probably doesn’t have the interests of the United States at heart.”

One solution for addressing the problem posed by a democratically-elected Latin American leader who “doesn’t have the interests of the United States at heart” was proposed by television evangelist and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson. In 2005, Robertson stated on his nationally-broadcast television program, “You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. … We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don’t need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.”

The flagrantly anti-Venezuela rhetoric also dominates the leading dailies in both the United States and Canada. Following Venezuela’s recent elections, the Wall Street Journal noted, “It’s easier to be a petrodemagogue than a run-of-the-mill dictator.” It then contradicted itself by patronizingly stating, “Democracy means the right not to be pitied for the consequences of your political choices” and then declaring Venezuela to be a nation of moochers. Meanwhile, the New York Times has repeatedly pined that both Venezuela’s democratic institutions and its economy have suffered under the country’s “strongman” leader. The US News & World Report followed suit by pronouncing, “President Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan dictator.” For its part, Canada’s Globe and Mail’s post-election coverage also referred to Chávez as a “strongman” and talked about the re-elected Venezuelan leader’s “renewed ability to do economic damage.”

The degree to which such rhetoric contradicts Venezuelan reality is nothing less than astounding. While Karygiannis is calling on the Harper government “to return democracy to Venezuela,” Jimmy Carter, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his democracy promotion work with the Carter Center and who has monitored numerous Venezuelan elections including the most recent one, has nothing but praise for Venezuela’s hi-tech electoral system. According to Carter, “There’s no doubt in our mind, having monitored very closely the election process, that [Chávez] won fairly and squarely. As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”

The Venezuelan people turned out in droves to participate in the last election, resulting in an 81 percent turnout, which puts electoral participation in the United States and Canada to shame. And as for the opinion of the Venezuelan people about their own democracy, a region-wide survey conducted by Latin America’s largest polling firm, the Chile-based Latinobarometro, revealed that 84 percent of Venezuelans viewed their democracy positively, by far the highest in Latin America. And with regard to the Venezuelan government’s socialist economic policies, the citizens of only three countries—Uruguay, Chile and Brazil—were more satisfied with the performance of their nation’s economy than were Venezuelans.

That the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans support Chávez and his government’s policies is not surprising given the dramatic improvements experienced by much of the population over the past decade. The provision of high-quality free healthcare to all citizens and subsidized food to the poor has resulted in average caloric intake increasing by 50 percent and infant malnutrition decreasing by 74 percent. According to the latest report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “We analyze hunger statistics all over the world. There are 800 million people in the world who suffer from hunger, 49 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, but not one of them is Venezuelan.”

The Chávez government has also made education, including university, free to all Venezuelans. The result, according to UNESCO, is that Venezuela has become an “illiteracy-free” nation and post-secondary enrollments have doubled over the past decade. Meanwhile, in accordance with Venezuela’s new constitution, more than 100,000 housewives receive 80 percent of the national minimum wage in recognition that their work in the home and raising children contributes to the social well-being of the nation.

Perhaps the government’s most impressive achievement is the astounding decline in the number of Venezuelans living in poverty, from 55 percent of the population when Chávez was first elected in 1998 to 18 percent in 2011. Furthermore, Venezuela surpassed Chile and Costa Rica in 2008 to become the “most equal” nation in Latin America in terms of wealth distribution. Of course, most of these social gains have been funded by the country’s vast oil wealth which, for the first time, is being used to benefit the Venezuelan people instead of a small domestic elite and foreign corporations.

The anti-Chávez propaganda espoused by the likes of Karygiannis has little to do with the need “to return democracy to Venezuela” in order to “help alleviate their suffering” and more to do with the threat that the Venezuelan socialist example poses to the interests of multinational corporations, particularly oil companies, throughout the region. In other words, Chávez’s greatest sin is not having “the interests of the United States [and Canada] at heart.”

Chavez is not only the patrimony of Venezuela, but of all Latin America.

Venezuela: Huge rally supports revolution and Chavez, defies opposition threats
By Chris Carlson

A huge rally took over the streets of Caracas on January 10 in support of the Bolivarian revolution and President Hugo Chavez. It included members of the Bolivarian militia.

Tens of thousands of supporters gathered in Caracas today [Jan.11, 2012] for a huge rally in support of Venezuela's ill President Hugo Chavez. The gathering was in response to the controversy surrounding his absence on January 10, the date set for his inauguration day after he was re-elected for a new six-year term in October.
Still in Havana recovering from surgery, the Venezuelan head of state could not be present for the customary swearing-in before the National Assembly. The absence has generated much controversy among the Venezuelan opposition, who claim the government should not continue in power without the inauguration ceremony.

In response, the Chavez government organised a huge concentration in the center of Caracas on January 10 with the participation of representatives from 27 different Latin American countries to support the continuation of the Chavez government for the new constitutional term of 2013-2019.

From the early morning hours, tens of thousands of Chavez supporters congregated in various areas of the capital city in yet another show of the immense capacity for mobilisation for which the Bolivarian revolution, led by the Chavez government, is well known.

Venezuela's social movements and the Bolivarian militias went out into the streets of Caracas to support Chavez, and the Bolivarian revolution. Many people brought their constitutions and waved placards saying “yo soy Chavez” (I am Chavez) to signify that the president's influence goes beyond his person, and he represents a movement and an idea.

A seemingly endless sea of red-clad supporters filled the streets surrounding the presidential palace and the adjoining areas in a very festive atmosphere, many holding posters of Chavez.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro and other state officials arrived to the rally in the early afternoon accompanied by Bolivian President Evo Morales, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, as well as several other diplomats and leaders from other Latin American and Caribbean countries.

One by one, the Latin American leaders addressed the concentration with emotive speeches in support of the Chavez government and calls for solidarity with the ailing president.

“Who said Hugo Chavez is absent?,” said former Paraguyan president Fernando Lugo, who was overthrown in a legislative coup backed by Paraguay's land-owning oligarchy. “He is present here in the women, in the farmers.

“Chavez is not only the patrimony of Venezuela, but of all Latin America.”
Bolivian President Evo Morales stressed the importance of the Chavez government for the unity among Latin American countries, and called for more rallies in support of Chavez throughout the region.

“My friends, the situation of our brother Hugo Chavez is not only a concern of the Venezuelan people, but of all those who are a part of this struggle,” he said. “The best tribute and solidarity with Chavez is unity, let’s keep unity between our countries.”

Several leaders of Caribbean and Central American countries also addressed the rally with strong messages of solidarity and support for the Chavez government.
“We are fervently supporting Venezuela, and we are here to say to our friend [Vice President] Maduro that although your leader is going through a difficult time, you can count on Dominica as a reliable friend,” said the president of Dominica, Eliud Williams.

“Venezuela has converted itself into that guiding light for Latin America that the Cuban Revolution was in the 1960s,” said El Salvador's vice president, and member of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, Sanchez Ceren.

Various foreign leaders expressed their amazement with the size of the concentration, and the Chavez government’s great capacity for mobilisation.

“I want to say that this gathering of Chavez supporters is really enviable, this capacity for mobilisation that you have,” said Morales.

“This is the largest concentration of people that I have ever addressed in my life,” said the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves.

The rally was broadcast on live television across the country, including the mandatory broadcast of the leaders’ speeches on the private news channels that were ignoring the event.

The unanimous support for the Chavez government among the region’s leaders seemed to further solidify the government’s victory in the recent feud over the constitution.
On January 9, Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled against the opposition’s interpretation of the constitution, and clarified that the January 10 inauguration was not necessary for the Chavez government to continue in power for the constitutional period of 2013-2019.

Opposition leaders, however, have criticised the decision, calling it a “coup” and claiming the continuation of the Chavez government is illegal.
Maduro ended the rally with a passionate speech reminiscent of those given by Chavez at these types of events, and accused the opposition of trying to manipulate events in the country.

“They are trying to manipulate and opportunistically take advantage of the circumstances of Chavez’s situation in order to destabilise the country,” said Maduro.

“Yet however they come after us, we always beat them. Here we are ready to continue with this revolution. Make no mistake, here the people have demonstrated their strength.”
[Reprinted from Venezuela Analysis.]
‘Learning to Govern Ourselves’ Venezuela’s National Network of Commoners
by Rebecca McMillan and Calais Caswell

News of the deterioration of Chávez's health has Venezuelans increasingly worried. While top government officials and opposition members were meeting behind closed doors in early December to discuss their next steps, other important discussions were taking place amongst grassroots activists on the future of the Bolivarian Process.
Far from the hustle and bustle of Caracas in the lush mountains of the Sierra de San Luis, Falcón State, some 200 Venezuelan community organizers and activists met November 30-December 2, 2012 to debate proposals for the future of the revolutionary state. The occasion was the first congress of the National Network of Commoners (Red Nacional de Comuneros, RNC).

The first meeting of the “Communal Parliament” of the Ataroa Commune in Lara state, April 2012 (DGMAC).

Formed in 2009 with the goal of uniting 16 already-existing communes, the RNC today encompasses over 80 communal ‘processes’ including communes, communal cities, communal territories, direct social property enterprises, direct exchange markets, political training schools, community media groups, revolutionary collectives, and individuals. The network aims to connect and expand the participatory experiences and provide the movements with a space to articulate their vision of socialism.

The objective of the first congress was to debate this vision and develop a proposal to present to the Chávez government in early 2013.

Reinventing the Commune
Communes are a structure of community self-government. Adopted into law in 2010, they are the latest part of the Chávez government's efforts to build a separate, participatory state apparatus referred to as the ‘communal state.’

The idea of the commune is inspired by the experiences of indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan people, as well as socialist ideas and the work of Latin American Marxist thinkers such as Peru's José Carlos Mariátegui.

In theory, the ‘communal state’ is supposed to eventually replace the bourgeois state. The new state will be subordinate to ‘popular power’ and overcome the division between ‘civil society’ and ‘political society’ that underpins the capitalist system. The emphasis on grassroots participation is also seen as a departure from the undemocratic, centralist tendencies of some previous socialist experiences.[1]
In practice, the communes group together all communal councils and other community organizations in a given geographic territory. Communal councils are community planning bodies that encompass 150-400 families in urban areas and about 20 in rural areas.

The communes aim to prioritize and address community needs. The national government transfers funds directly to the communes to execute projects, without the intermediation of state or municipal governments.

The communes also advance the socialist economy by bringing production and services under direct community control. Many communes operate their own banks and community enterprises. For example, El panal 2012 in Caracas's militant 23 de enero neighborhood is packaging and distributing sugar and grains. The Juana Ramírez commune in Antímano parish runs its own bakery and condiment and cleaning-supplies factories. These initiatives ensure that prices remain affordable and that goods reach the people. (In Venezuela, opposition-dominated distribution cartels have frequently withheld supplies of essential products as a form of leverage against the government).

Communes in the states of Lara, Portuguesa, and Yaracuay are also tackling the challenge of food self-sufficiency. They are constructing a Communal Network for the Production and Distribution of Food, which also promotes organic production.

Finally the communes are seen by the comuneros as a ‘classroom’ for political ideology and learning about self-government.

Top Down vs. Bottom Up Perspectives
Given that bureaucrats in the bourgeois state are not interested in reducing the state's power, the creation of the communes hasn't been easy. Debates rage on the relationship between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ initiatives in the Bolivarian process.

As social theorist Dario Azzellini explains[2], those who embrace the top-down view see the state as the primary agent of change and the ‘popular power’ (communal councils, communes, etc.) as part of its administration. Most within the National Network of Commoners would subscribe to what Azzellini calls the ‘bottom-up’ perspective, which views the Chávez government as creating the enabling conditions for building popular power, but sees the ultimate goal as moving beyond the (bourgeois) state form.

Several community orgainizers told us that the government moved too quickly in mandating the creation of the communes; it would have been better to wait until the communal councils were stronger and activists had had a few more years of political and ideological training.

“The relationship of the communal organizations to the existing representative institutions remains an open question and even many Chavista mayors and governors are critical of the communes because they are threatened by the prospect of ceding power to the communes. ”

The ultimate problem, however, is that “no government wants to destroy itself,” as noted by Atenea Jiménez, one of the network's most active militants.[3] The relationship of the communal organizations to the existing representative institutions remains an open question and even many Chavista mayors and governors are critical of the communes because they are threatened by the prospect of ceding power to the communes.

As Jiménez explains, since the autonomous forms of organization they are advancing in the network pose a threat to people in power, they are often overlooked, for example by local and state media.

Drawing Strength from a Revolutionary History
Many of the longest-running and most successful of these experiences are in Falcón state, where the conference was held. There, the communes have self-organized into a ‘confederation’ as a way of connecting and extending popular participation in the state.

In the Sierra de San Luis, the congress site, the idyllic scenery and tranquil ambience belie a radical history. The area is birthplace to José Leonardo Chirino, a black revolutionary who led the first insurrection against the Spanish and fought to abolish slavery.

In the 1960s, Falcón was also a locus of guerrilla struggle. Today, one of the Falconians’ most powerful weapons against oppression is the trueke. Trueke is an alternative economic system based on direct exchange of goods, services, or knowledge. Some 150+ pro-sumidores (pro-sumers or producer-consumers) participate in the money-less market. They also created an alternative currency called the zambo to kick-start the exchange.

The important thing is not the lack of currency, as some Falconian commoners explained to us. The objective of the trueke is to foster non-capitalist social relations by eliminating wages and the generation of profit.

Learning to Govern by Doing
Through these, and other experiences, the Network of Commoners is learning to govern by governing.

“We are new political subjects, attempting to govern ourselves” explains William Gudiño, a long-time militant active in the network.

The model the commoners strive for is, to the extent possible, horizontal and collectivist, breaking the division between those who plan and those who execute the community work. “The network is very important,” said one of the facilitators, “there are no leaders, and it's important that everyone shares the information.”

This philosophy informed the structure of the congress itself. Participants organized themselves into ten working groups to collectively debate the themes and put forward proposals. “We have created a real communal space,” exclaimed Jiménez, “Everyone is even sharing cooking and cleaning responsibilities!”

They nominated a committee to compile the proposals, which will then be debated in each commune. The final proposals will be presented to the government in early 2013.

Rumbo Toward the Communal State
It is the afternoon of Saturday, December 1, and the relaxed atmosphere seems somehow incoherent with the urgency of the subject matter. Around the discussion circles children are playing and stray puppies hang around, hoping for a fallen treat from a distracted debater. Several participants munch pensively on mandarins.

They have saved one of the congress's most pressing topics for last: the creation of the communal state. The facilitator begins by explaining to the group that the historic role of the state has been as a vehicle for one class to oppress the other. Their challenge, he explains, is to think about a new kind of state that embodies different social relations.

The diversity of the group becomes immediately apparent in the discussion that follows. Indeed, the network's membership is ideologically heterogeneous, with members identifying with Marxism, anarchism, and various strains of socialist thought, as well as representing different sectoral interests, such as environmentalists, labour organizers, and indigenous rights activists. So, participants have different views on the role of the state in the transitional process, and of the necessity of representative government.

“Why are we talking about the state to begin with?” argues one participant, gesturing at the bag of mandarins in the centre of the circle. “It's like this bag of oranges. Are we trying to tie up something that should be free?”

But there are limits to horizontality, explains another debater. “At the national level some kind of representation is going to be necessary to bring the people's proposals forward.”

Most of the congress's proposals centered on the creation of a national assembly of commoners, which would unite one spokesperson from each commune, as well as possible representation from sectoral organizations such as labour federations.

They also discussed the creation of a communal state department to articulate with other organizations in the region and globally, with the goal of combating imperialism and working to create socialism at the global level.

Another proposal was for a national council or commission to examine what they term ‘integral security.’ Insecurity and police corruption are perennial concerns in Venezuela leading many participants to call for a new model of security based on the people ‘protecting themselves,’ rather than the police and military defending the people. They highlighted the importance of prevention and expanded their definition of insecurity to include threats to local and national sovereignty.

The two days of debate concluded with participants agreeing to bring the proposals back to their communities.

“We have a historic responsibility right now,” said William Gudiño. “We don't know how President Chávez is. We remain alert, but we need to keep moving forward rapidly and efficiently. We need to go back to our barrios, to our communal councils, to our communes, and keep the process moving forward.”

• Rebecca McMillan and Calais Caswell are graduate students in International Development and Globalization at the University of Ottawa. They were in Venezuela from August-December 2012 researching water and sanitation politics and the role of the technical water committees (mesas técnicas de agua, MTAs) in Caracas. Their research is sponsored the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, the North-South Institute, and the University of Ottawa.

This article first appeared on the website.
1.Dario Azzellini: “2012 Venezuelan Elections and the Future of the Bolivarian Process” Historical Materialism Conference, November 11, 2012, London, UK.
2.Dario Azzellini: “2012 Venezuelan Elections and the Future of the Bolivarian Process” Historical Materialism Conference, November 11, 2012, London, UK.
3.See this article by Atenea Jimenez (Spanish, English translation). Following the October 2012 elections, Chavez reprimanded his cabinet for the lack of progress on stimulating the construction of the communes and asked his newly nominated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, “Where are the communes?” In this piece, Jimenez responds that the communes are alive and well but that their work has been under-recognized for various reasons.