ALBA: The unity and integration of Our Americas is our goal

Latin America's social movements map solidarity with ALBA
Federico Fuentes
An important summit of global significance, held in Brazil May 16-20, has largely passed below the radar of most media outlets, including many left and progressive sources.

This summit was not the usual type, involving heads of states and business leaders.

Instead, it was a gathering of social movement representatives from across Latin America and the Caribbean -- the site of some of the most intense struggles and popular rebellions of the past few decades.

An alternative to neoliberalism - ALBA
This region also remains the only one where an alternative to neoliberal capitalism has emerged. Pushing this alternative is the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA). Spearheaded by the radical governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba, it has eight member states, but seeks to relate to people's movements, not just governments.

The purpose of the Brazilian gathering, the First Continental Assembly of Social Movements Towards ALBA, was to go beyond a simple talk shop. It aimed to set up a region-wide coalition that could, as its final declaration states, “build continental integration of social movements from below and from the left, promoting ALBA and peoples’ solidarity against imperialism’s project”.

What is ALBA
The document defines ALBA as “essentially a political, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist project. It is based on the principles of cooperation, complementarity and solidarity, that seeks to accumulate popular and institutional forces for a new declaration of Latin American independence.

"It is a movement of peoples and for peoples, for peoples’ integration, for life, justice, peace, sovereignty, identity, equality, for the liberation of Latin America, through an authentic emancipation that envisions Indo-Afro-American socialism.”

The assembly also adopted the name “Hugo Chavez” in honour of the recently deceased Venezuelan president, who together with Cuban leader Fidel Castro first proposed ALBA.

It was no coincidence that the assembly was held in the state of Sao Paulo at the national education school of Brazil’s Movement of Landless Workers’ (MST), not only the largest and best-known social movement in the region but also a key proponent of this initiative.

Speaking to Green Left Weekly in November 2011, the coordinator of the ALBA social movement’s council, Ruben Pereira said: “At the ninth ALBA summit in Caracas in April [2010], the social movement council was proposed as a space to propose social and economic polices for ALBA, rather than to simply raise sectorial concerns.”

This ALBA conference was from social movements
However, it quickly became clear that many social movements from non-ALBA countries, in particular Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement (MST), which had met with Chavez to discuss the initiative, wanted to be part of a coalition of all social movements supporting the ALBA project.

Addressing the assembly, MST leader Joao Pedro Stedile said the gathering represented a third phase in the struggle of Latin America’s social movements.

First Phase: Resistance to Neoliberalism
According to a May 16 Comunicacion ALBA-Movimientos report, Stedile said the first phase, from 1990 to 1998, represented “a moment of resistance, in which we were able to halt the advance of neoliberalism and imperialism, and when networks, organisations and continental forums began to emerge, and which had as its culminating point the overwhelming victory of Chavez” in 1998, when he was first elected president.

Second phase: Creation of Assembly of Social Movements
The second phase involved a series of debates and gatherings that led to the creation of the Assembly of Social Movements, a broad anti-neoliberal alliance, but one that did not have socialism as its explicit goal. This period also involved the election of other progressive governments and the creation of government-based regional integration organisations.

Third phase: Independence to critical support and unity
However, the third phase now required social movements to “create a proposal for integration independent of the governments, although united behind the same project,” said Stedile. Social movements needed “an autonomous space, with the moral obligation to criticise and support these governments when needed.”

An example of this stance of critical support was the assembly’s call to end the United Nations occupation of Haiti, which involves troops from a number of Latin American countries, including ALBA member Bolivia.

Main enemy: U.S. Imperialism
However, the newly formed Continental Coalition of Social Movements towards ALBA was clear in identifying its main enemy: US imperialism.

The final document notes that since the onset of the global economic crisis, the US has unleashed “an even greater imperialist counteroffensive across the continent, expressed through an increased presence of transnationals in our territories; the plundering of our natural resources and the privatization of social rights; the militarization of the continent, the criminalization and repression of popular protest; US involvement in coups in Honduras and Paraguay; the permanent destabilization of progressive Latin American governments; the attempt to recover political and economic influence through initiatives such as the Pacific Alliance and other international agreements.

“Within this context marked by an imperialist offensive on the one hand, but also by the opening up of new possibilities in the direction of the project outlined by the ALBA governments, coordination among social movements across the continent is more necessary than ever.”

A number of proposals were adopted including the creation of a publishing house, establishment of a network of ALBA movement media outlets, and continent-wide days of action against the occupation of Haiti, in support of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro and the Bolivarian revolution, against militarisation, and in defence of the environment.

Secretariat and Coordination Commission
An organisational secretariat was formed, comprised of delegates from Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia, with the aim of helping consolidate local based chapters of the coalition. Similarly, a coordinating commission made up of two representatives from each country and a number of working groups - media, education, mobilisation/solidarity - were established
Below is a translation of the final declaration of the Assembly.

* * *
From the 16th to the 20th of May, at the Florestan Fernandes National School, in the municipality of Guararema, state of São Paulo, Brazil, we – more than 200 delegates representing women’s, peasant, urban, indigenous, student, youth, worker’s and agro-ecological movements and organisations from 22 countries – made up the First Continental Assembly of Social Movements towards ALBA (The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas).

We came here as part of a historic process that has seen us unite in forums, campaigns, international networks, sectorial organisations and diverse struggles within our countries, raising the same banners of struggle and sharing the same dreams for real social transformation.

We are living through a new epoch in Our Americas, which over the last few years has expressed itself in diverse mobilisations and popular rebellions, attempts to overcome neoliberalism and in the construction of an alternative society which is just and inclusive, something that is now both possible and necessary.

The defeat of the FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas) in 2005 was evidence of the existence of social movement resistance and a new continental geopolitical configuration, characterized by the emergence of popular governments that have dared to confront the empire. Its most advanced element in this regard, launched in 2004 by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, is today called the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA).

ALBA is essentially a political, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist project, it is based on the principles of cooperation, complementarity and solidarity, that seeks to accumulate popular and institutional forces for a new declaration of Latin American independence, a movement of peoples and for peoples, for people's integration, for life, justice, peace, sovereignty, identity, equality, for the liberation of Latin America, through an authentic emancipation that envisions Indo-Afro-American socialism.

However, the empire continues to mobilise against the reorganization of popular forces and the emergence of new autonomous projects for the integration of the Great Homeland. In the wake of the first anti-neoliberal rebellions, the US has begun to reorient its foreign policy, seeking to recover its hegemony over the continental process across various spheres: economic, military, legal, cultural, media, political and territorial.

The explosion of the capitalist crisis in the heart of Wall Street in 2008 reinforced these plans. Since then, we have seen an even greater imperialist counteroffensive across the continent, expressed through an increased presence of transnationals in our territories, the plundering of our natural resources and the privatization of social rights; the militarization of the continent, the criminalization and repression of popular protest; US involvement in coups in Honduras and Paraguay; the permanent destabilization of progressive Latin American governments; the attempt to recover political and economic influence through initiatives such as the Pacific Alliance and other international agreements.

Within this context marked by an imperialist offensive on the one hand, but also by the opening up of new possibilities in the direction of the project outlined by the ALBA governments, coordination among social movements across the continent is more necessary than ever.

We have to assume the historic challenge of coordinating our resistances and go on the offensive with an original ideology and new proposals for models of civilisation, that build upon the best traditions of our peoples.

We ratify the principles, guidelines and objectives set out in our first Charter of Social Movements of the Americas to build continental integration of social movements from below and from the left, promoting ALBA and peoples solidarity against imperialism’s project.

We affirm our commitment to the project of Latin American integration, to continue the anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-patriarchal struggles, based on the principle of permanent and active solidarity between the peoples, via concrete actions against all forms of power that oppress and dominate.

We reaffirm our commitment to achieving the self-determination of our peoples, and popular sovereignty in all spheres: territorial, food, energy, economic, political, cultural and social.

We will defend the sovereignty of our peoples to decide what happens in their territories, to their natural resources and we commit ourselves to defending the rights of Mother Earth.

The social movements of Our Americas call for:
* The promotion of regional unity and integration cantered on an alternative, sustainable, durable and solidarity-based model, where the modes of production and reproduction are in the service of the peoples.

* The re-launching of the struggles of the masses and the class struggle at the national, regional and continental level, in order to halt and dismantle neoliberal capitalist programs and projects.

* The creation of effective networks and coordination between popular media outlets, that can allow us to carry out a battle of ideas, and put a halt to the manipulation of information by media corporations.

* Deepen our processes of political and ideological education in order to strengthen our organisations, as well as advance in processes of unity that are consistent and consciously in accord with needed transformations.

At the same time,
* We declare our support and solidarity with the Colombian people during this crucial moment in the process of dialogue and negotiation towards the signing of a peace agreement based on social justice, and that truly resolves the problems that gave rise to the armed conflict. We are attentive to the development of this process, and willing to collaborate and accompany it in any manner the Colombian people see fit.

* We declare our support for the Bolivarian government of Venezuela, headed by comrade President Nicolas Maduro, who represents the unmistakable popular will of the Venezuelan people as reflected in the elections of April 14, in the face of continuous attempts at destabilization by the right that seek to ignore the sovereign decision of the people and lead the country towards a political, institutional and economic crisis.

This Continental Coalition of Social Movements towards ALBA is part of an emancipatory process that since the Haitian revolution until today has sought to construct a more just and profoundly human society. Our commitment is to continue the legacy of millions of revolutionaries such as Bolívar, San Martín, Dolores Cacuango, Toussaint L’Overture, José María Morelos, Francisco Morazán, Bartolina Sisa and many others who in solidarity dedicated their lives for these ideals.

Reaffirming our own history, our Assembly has adopted the name of one of them, that of our Comandante Hugo Chavez, whom we honour by re-raising his banners of struggle for unity and fraternity between all the peoples of this great, free and sovereign Homeland.

“The unity and integration of Our Americas is our goal and our path!”
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[Translated by Federico Fuentes. Together with Roger Burbach and Michael Fox, he is the co-author of Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Socialism (Zed Books 2013). Fuentes also edits Bolivia Rising.]

Building Socialism in Venezuela With The Elementary Socialist Triangle

Socialism for the 21st Century
Interview with Michael A. Lebowitz

Originally published in Serbian at Centre for Politics of Emancipation and published in English on LeftEast website.

Darko Vesić and Aleksandar Stojanović (DV and AS): Capitalism has been in crisis for several years now and in response to this crisis the capitalist states began to practice the so-called austerity measures. If we look at the historical dynamics of capitalism in the last half of the century, we can see that they responded to the crisis of the seventies with a package of reforms that are now called “neoliberalism.” Now, if the restoration of growth is what must be carried out as a response to the crisis, we can say that neoliberalism as a response to the crisis of the seventies was successful. Yet, can we say the same of the present day “austerity measures”?

Michael A. Lebowitz (ML): I think that some premises of this question have to be examined. Firstly, we need to recognize that not all Marxists accept that capitalism as a whole is in crisis – as opposed to particular capitals in particular localities. Secondly, if capital is in crisis – in general or in particular, then what was its source?

I begin from Marx's stress on overaccumulation. Capital has a tendency to accumulate and expand without regard for the antagonistic conditions in which it must function. Marx's comment was that the fundamental contradiction of developed capital was its tendency for overproduction. In other words, there is a tendency for capital to grow too much; and when that occurs, capital runs into a problem in converting latent surplus value (what it extracts from workers) into real surplus value – in other words, it faces a realization problem. And if capital cannot turn that latent surplus value into profits, then why produce it? So it cuts back on production, which generates unemployment which increases and deepens the problem. Add to that the destruction of what Marx called fictitious capitals (all those values such as stock prices) which have only a tenuous connection to the real underlying economy and which crash dramatically when problems emerge in the real economy. Capital is destroyed in such a crisis within capitalism, and this provides conditions for the renewal of the cycle. Crises, Marx said, are not permanent.

One of the first clear signs of the tendency toward overaccumulation is the increasing intensity of competition among capitals. Capitals compete to make real the profits contained latently in the commodities they bring to the market. All capitals, however, are not equal. The problem of overaccumulation does not bear evenly upon all capitals. The older capitals suffer more than the new emerging and expanding capitals that have contributed principally to overaccumulation.

Crisis of Capitalism Applied to World View

I think this theory of overaccumulation has been confirmed by experience. The pattern of growing intensity of competition began in the late 1950s. I could see this from my vantage point working as an economic analyst in the electrical products industry in the United States: toward the end of the 1950s, the industry magazines began to be filled with discussions of the problem of European imports of equipment. “Buy American” became a theme in that industry, and I'm certain that it was mirrored in other U.S. industries. The particular circumstances that had existed after World War II and which created the basis for the so-called Golden Age were coming to an end. And that pattern continued with significant additions to productive capital in Europe and Japan. Transnational corporations outside the U.S. were growing much more rapidly. After that impact came the enormous increases in productive capacity occurring in countries such as China, India, Brazil, etc. [i.e., the BRICS].

The effects of overaccumulation have been felt particularly in the United States, the European Union and all the old centers of capital. But is this a crisis of capitalism as a whole? Not if you look at China, India, Brazil and many other new centers of capital. Rather, we see a very significant international restructuring of capitalism occurring [reflected in the shift from the G7 to the G20]. There is certainly a crisis within those old capitalist centers. It is not necessarily a crisis of capitalist corporations because they can move to the new centers where wages are lower and new productive techniques (and old ones with no protection for workers) make production there very profitable. The same companies which produced in the old capitalist centers are in a position to produce increasingly outside and to ship back completed products or semi manufactures for assembly to the old centers.

It is a familiar mistake to identify capitalism simply with capitalism in the old centers. That is something done in particular by analysts in the old centers. However, if we are to analyze the current situation of capitalism, we have to examine world capitalism not a subset. We cannot let one finger stand for ten.

In this context (the context of particular crises), what is the response of capital and capitalist governments in the old centers? Be more competitive. Therefore, destroy trade unions, remove the social safety net, reduce expectations and force people to work harder for less. Also, in order to encourage capital to stay and not abandon those old centers, the policy is to reduce taxes and increase incentive for localized investment.

Does Neoliberalism and Austerity Provide Growth?

This is what occurred under neoliberalism. I don't make, however, a real distinction between neoliberalism and austerity. Both are part of the same response of the old centers. Austerity builds further on the existing neoliberal policy because of the pressure of government deficits which themselves in many ways reflect the initial program of neoliberalism which generated low wages, unemployment and falling production as well as lower taxes on capital and high income earners.

In short, the policy continues. The struggle continues – the struggle against workers in the old centers on the part of capital. Can this policy provide growth?

Neoliberalism and austerity theoretically could provide growth for a particular country if only that country were pursuing this policy; it would then gain at the expense of other countries. However, we always have to remember the problem of the fallacy of composition: what is true of one is not necessarily true of all simultaneously. If all countries pursue this same policy, its principal effect will be to worsen the situation. So, why, then, is neoliberalism and austerity advanced as a general policy? Why does international capital which dominates the old centers advocate these policies for all countries? Simply because it is a way to beat down workers in every country.

DV and AS: Some of the possible answers to the current crisis are going toward restoring the Keynesian model of welfare state, in which the rise of taxes and state spending should lead to intensification of economic activity and raise social standard of living. Considering the increasing mobility of capital and that Keynesianism as an economic policy of the welfare state was established only by the pressure of the organized working-class, how should we today interpret the story of the return to the Keynesian model?

Return to Keynesian Model of Welfare State?

ML: The Keynesian model of increasing aggregate demand through government spending worked well as a theory as long as people spent their additional income on products produced in the country engaging in this policy. It was a national solution for national capital. It worked to some extent during the so-called Golden Age because economies were more nationally based. Presumably, that condition could be replicated if it were accompanied by significant protectionism. But under current conditions, if one country alone were to pursue such a policy it would find itself in great trouble because of the effect upon its trade balance and international indebtedness. Some would argue that the Keynesian solution could work if it were undertaken simultaneously by all countries – i.e. international Keynesian or reflationary policy. That might work in terms of the relative position of capitals in the old centers. But it is not likely to be a policy that would be undertaken simultaneously by capital's new centers. In this respect, it could be a policy that could provide relief in the short term if accompanied by protectionist measures or the equivalent – significant devaluation. Capitalist governments may try such approaches in desperation at the continuation of this particular crisis. But the underlying problem of overaccumulation in its particular effects on the old centers would still be present, and there would always be an incentive for individual countries to break ranks and support continued austerity programs in order to be more competitive or to devalue (again another solution falsified by the fallacy of composition).

“I think that unless workers fight against capital's assault upon them, capital will succeed as it has in the past. ”

In short, I don't think Keynesian solutions will solve the problem for the countries bearing the brunt of this process of restructuring. So, what are the options? I think that unless workers fight against capital's assault upon them, capital will succeed as it has in the past. There is a crisis in capital in those centers but not a crisis of capital. A crisis of capital requires a working-class prepared to struggle to put an end to capitalism, and I think a vision of an alternative, socialist model should be embodied in all such struggles.

Alternatives and Options to Counter Capitalism

DV and AS: Today, when we talk about the possibility of building socialism, critics and opponents of this proposal state that the experiences of real socialism, in their opinion, show that all the possibilities of this alternative had been completely exhausted. The fact is that these societies were characterized by many contradictions. On the one hand, they have brought a sudden modernization in a part of the world that would otherwise remain peripheral and for certain parts of the population this meant better standards of living. On the other hand, despite the fact that the governing nomenclature insisted that they were the representatives of the interests of the working-class these societies were seen as profoundly undemocratic. The vanguard party was seen as a tool for the exploitation of a part of the population (the working-class) whose interests it supposedly represented. What are the structural conditions that led to this?

Vanguard Approach to Socialism

ML: After the success of the Soviet Union in rapid industrialization, the widely accepted assumption (including in Yugoslavia until 1950) was that there was only one model of socialism, and that model needed to be adopted by all countries which proceeded on what was viewed as a socialist path. This model, I suggest, was characterized by vanguard relations of production. Essential to that particular model is the assumption that the vanguard knows all the answers. Only the vanguard (like the orchestra conductor) can see the whole; only the vanguard has the plan as opposed to individual players who have particular parts and no sense of the whole. Accordingly, it is the responsibility of the vanguard to deliver socialism to the underlying people, to bring it a gift by those who know to those who don't know. But to do that the vanguard must impose the discipline of the orchestra conductor. Direction from above and hierarchy permeates that model rather than a focus upon the development of human capacities, a process which requires initiative and practice from below and, indeed, the ability to engage in spontaneous activity. In my book, Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: the conductor and the conducted, I see this as the fundamental contradiction of what was called “real socialism” – the inability of working people to develop the capacities necessary for a socialist economy in this model. And I suggest that the same results would occur everywhere that this model is adopted – whether the economy is underdeveloped or developed.

Cooperatives Essential to Build Socialism

If we look at the Soviet Union, where the model emerged, I think it is essential to recognize that nothing was inevitable. There are always choices. For example, Lenin stressed the necessity to build cooperatives in the countryside in 1923. His view was that cooperatives were absolutely essential to build socialism. He died shortly after and very little was done in this direction. In general, I think there is always a choice which faces you when you try to build socialism: it is a choice between ordering things from above versus creating the possibility for people to develop their capacities from below (as is occurring dramatically in the case of the development of communal councils and communes in Venezuela). Of course, there are objective constraints in particular cases. Certainly in the case of the Soviet Union, there was the problem of the Civil War, a destroyed economy and, indeed, a relatively backward economy under the threat of imperialism. In particular, the problem of imperialism made a slow, organic development a luxury. However, I think that a greater sensitivity to the nature of the peasant economy could have avoided the massive destruction which was the result of the collectivization program.

DV and AS:
Yugoslavia represents an exception to the attempts of constructing socialism. After the conflict with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia started its own “road to socialism,” which is characterized by experiments with the market and self-management. Attempts to introduce workers’ self-management are the most interesting from the perspective of those who are trying to build a society not based on the despotism of capital. However, the very mentioning of “self-management” in the post-Yugoslavian region today is met with a certain kind of cynicism. What are the structural conditions that prevented the implementation of self-management as a successful mode of organizing economic activity? How should the contemporary left respond to this kind of objection?


ML: With respect to the Yugoslav experience of market self-management, it is essential to point out the enormous potential of the society based on worker self-management for the development of peoples' capacities and sense of pride and dignity. However, we also need to be quite clear about the flaw of trying to build socialism without a focus on building a community based upon solidarity. The emphasis in the market self-management model of Yugoslavia upon individual and separate enterprises all attempting to maximize the income of those individual members is not at all a recipe for building socialist society.

As I argued in my book, The Socialist Alternative: real human development, focus upon self-interest fosters characteristics of capitalism not socialism. This is something which Che Guevara recognized in observing the model in Yugoslavia. In 1959 he commented that competition between workers distorted the socialist spirit. And subsequently in his Socialism and Man in Cuba, Che wrote that the pipe dream that socialism can be achieved by relying upon the commodity and upon individual material interest leads you to a dead end, and “it's hard to figure out just where you took the wrong turn.” I think that describes quite well what happened with market self-management in Yugoslavia but we should be able to recognize now where it took the wrong turn. To recognize what was positive (both in fact and potentially) and what was problematic in the model is essential.

"The Elementary Socialist Triangle" in Venezuela

The vision of socialism which emerged as a goal in Venezuela – the concept of socialism as an organic system characterized by (a) social ownership of the means of production, (b) social production organized by workers and (c) production for social needs and purposes (what Chavez called “the elementary socialist triangle”) – can reopen discussion in a way which can appeal to many who are cynical.

DV and AS: Venezuela today is a synonym for “socialism of the 21st century.” It is well known that at some point of your career you participated in an attempt to build socialism in Venezuela. Given that experience, how do you see the possibility of the construction of socialism on the periphery of capitalism in general, that is, in the position in which Serbia finds itself now? How do you see the political path toward that goal, i.e. by which specific means should the socialist politics be lead? And second, how do you see the way in which this system should be built – how it differs from the so-called “really existing socialism” and on what basis can we claim that the new socialism has a chance not to fall into those contradictions into which the “old one” has slipped?

ML: The fact of being on a periphery as such is not sufficient to identify societies. Much of the population of Latin America has an enormous inherited poverty, an enormous human deficit. The effect of neoliberal policies from the 1980s on and the recognition of the role of U.S. imperialism in supporting reproduction of those incredibly unjust societies were important factors in mobilizing masses against the local oligarchies. But the relation of Serbia and other parts of the European periphery is quite different. The weakness of these economies has produced a great impact as a result of capital's attempt to solve its localized crisis on the backs of workers. Serbia and other countries which experienced attempts at building socialism, though, have something that Latin American countries lack – the memory of desirable elements in the old societies and a sense of justice and fairness which can be a basis upon which to mobilize people. And, that is the starting point in challenging the capitalist assault.

Communal Councils Building Solidarity at the Base

But I think it is important to organize solidly at the base with local committees engaged in local actions much as in the anti-fascist liberation struggles. In Venezuela, one of the most important political and theoretical developments has been the establishment of communal (or neighborhood) councils of roughly 100-200 families in urban areas (and 20 in rural areas), and these councils are what Chavez called “cells of the new socialist state.” To the extent that you empower people at the local level and those institutions become the source of the identification of the needs of people, you build a solidarian society which can strengthen you against repeating history.

Michael A. Lebowitz is a professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He is one of the leading Marxist authors in the world, and has spent a big part of his research on the problem of the possibilities of building a socialist alternative. One of the specific aspects of his work is that he has spent six years (2004-2010) in Venezuela working as a director of the program for Transformative practice and human development in International Center Miranda (CIM) in Caracas, where he had the opportunity to participate in building of “socialism for 21st century.”

On Monday, May 6th, on the invitation of the Belgrade based Center for Politics of Emancipation (CPE), Michael A. Lebowitz gave a lecture titled “Contested reproduction and the contradictions of socialism.” CPE is an organization dedicated to the promotion of left-wing ideas and analyses and critical activist perspectives and practices regarding the current socio-economic conditions, confronting the prevailing social values and policies of the neoliberal system in the so-called transitional societies.
We talked with Michael about the contemporary crisis and the possibilities of overcoming it, about the experiences and contradictions that characterized the societies of “real socialism” in the 20th century, and also about the possibilities of building a socialist alternative that would not be limited within the boundaries set by similar attempts in the last century. Darko Vesić and Aleksandar Stojanović

The People, Representation, and Revolutionary Culture

An Interview with Reinaldo Iturriza, Venezuela’s New Minister of Communes

by George Ciccariello-Maher
I conducted the following interview with Reinaldo Iturriza, Venezuela’s New Minister of Communes, in the aftermath of Hugo Chávez’s re-election on October 7th 2012, but two factors have increased its relevance for the present moment: first, the tight margin of victory in Nicolás Maduro’s election on April 14th 2013, which points toward a sharpening of the conflicts Iturriza notes below; second, the fact that Iturriza himself was recently named to Maduro’s cabinet as Minister of Communes. I have edited the interview for clarity and relevance.

GCM: How do you see the political scenario in the aftermath of Hugo Chávez’s re-election on October 7th2012?

RI: What is interesting to me about the political situation is that October 7th wasn’t the overwhelming victory that some polls were predicting, but nor was it the technical tie that the opposition had been claiming. We need to recognize there are deficits, things that aren’t working, there is a certain exhaustion of the model, which doesn’t mean that we’ve entered into a phase of decline, nothing of the sort, but simply that there are things that aren’t working.

Reinaldo Iturria, Minister of Communes

In this sense, there are several things that we need to discuss. First, the subject of representation. It seems like a waste of time to plunge yet again into the question of bureaucracy and the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela], internal elections, internal democracy, the need to democratize, to listen to the bases. We can say all of those things, but the problem isn’t the actually existing Party. The Party is a problem but it won’t necessarily be solved with new faces, by getting rid of so-and-so.

PSUV - Problems of Representation

I think that what we need to identify is a political logic, a way of doing politics. The Bolivarian Revolution cannot be understood without a critique of the idea of political representation. In fact, this was put forth explicitly during the first years of the Revolution, which has in a series of opportunities attempted to resolve the problem of the instrument [i.e. the Party]. I believe that at this point, we need to recognize that this problem was not resolved, and insofar as it hasn’t been resolved, we need to return to these original debates on the crisis of representation.

GCM: So the question of internal democracy isn’t going deep enough?

RI: It’s about a political logic, and we need to identify the concrete practices that define that logic. If we say, “we don’t want the endogenous right [moderate Chavistas] anymore” we aren’t saying anything, because we aren’t identifying a way of doing politics. We need to identify in detail a practice, a set of practices, what could be called an “apparatus” [dispositivo], a way of understanding politics, and it seems to me that all of this passes through the question of representation, as Foucault would say “speaking for others.” The Bolivarian Revolution is the creation of those who didn’t have a voice, it is the process through which the people, the vast majority who never had the possibility of speaking could speak, the historically invisibilized made themselves visible.

Elections in Venezuela are Referendums

What I call “officialism” invisibilized part of the people once again. We can look the other way if we want, but this has a political cost, and this political cost in Venezuela is fundamentally expressed through elections. Venezuelan elections are not a concession we are making to liberalism: elections are referendums in which not only Chávez or the homeland is at stake, but the process as a whole, which is subjected to permanent elections.

When we evaluate Chavista mayors and there is abstention, it is because the people don’t believe in them, because they are terrible, because they turn their backs on the people, because they have thirty bodyguards, because they aren’t in close contact with the barrios. When we don’t vote, we aren’t saying that they aren’t resolving our problems or their administration is bad, we are evaluating the process as a whole: the way these mayors do politics is a lot like what existed before, and I don’t believe in that.

Chavistas protest with their votes, and I believe this was expressed on October 7th. Despite its effectiveness as an electoral machine, the PSUV doesn’t manage to convoke the people, it isn’t imbricated with the popular masses, it doesn’t do mass work, it doesn’t do political work. The people don’t identify with this party, they identify with Chávez, which is a completely different thing.

I have seen the most radical critiques of the PSUV right now during this campaign. I visited Valles del Tuy and I didn’t know there were places that were so Chavista, huge areas with tens of thousands of residents, and they are radically Chavista. But those people don’t want anything to do with the Party or with mayors, they vote for Chávez. Elections are moments when the process as a whole is evaluated, so when we’re talking about the margin of victory, about where there was abstention or not, we are evaluating the entire process.

In the Great Patriotic Pole, which was not simply supposed to be an alliance of parties, and which succeeded in collecting the discontented and dispersed elements of Chavismo, nevertheless reproduced the same thing, and so it’s important to determine what that logic is. And it’s not enough to identify a logic, we need to identify practices. So this is relevant to your book, when you discuss the moment when the left begins to revise its understanding of vanguardism. Because this remains intact today, the very vanguardist idea that I’m the one who knows and that the problem with the revolution is that the people don’t understand, the people aren’t at the height of my theory.

GCM: There is a tendency to dismiss the people as bearers of false consciousness?

RI: Yes, and with all that might exist of this, I think the point is exactly the opposite. I believe that there’s a Chavista political class that is very far behind popular consciousness. I’m not trying to reproduce a romantic view in which the people know everything, not at all. I’m talking about the Chavista people in all their misery, who have time and again shown their political clarity.

GCM: Like in resisting the coup of April of 2002?

RI: Exactly, and like October 7th too.

GCM: So it’s not as simple as critiquing the PSUV or building an alternative?
RI: No, because despite the votes won by the smaller parties, the problem is how to do politics with the 6.5 million who voted for the PSUV. Who are those 6.5 million? That’s where Chavismo is, popular Chavismo is there voting for the PSUV, despite not recognizing themselves in it. Why? Because that’s the party of Chávez. The votes won by other parties were important and significant, but for example for the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) to say those 500,000 votes were their militants or the result of their political work… you can’t be very serious about politics and say things like that.

Giving the people of the Barrios a Voice and Representation

That is very common in Venezuela, to say, “that was thanks to me.” Hermano, you need to put yourself on the level of the people. We are too lacking in humility, we need to really get inside the people and listen to what the people are thinking, what they are feeling, what is bothering them, why they vote or why they don’t. But in terms of representation and of the Party there’s none of this. No one should be taking credit for what isn’t theirs, and insofar as this happens, it means we haven’t overcome that defect inherited from the traditional left.

GCM: So the question isn’t one of rejecting the PSUV and creating another structure, but of first understanding why people vote for it. This reminds me of when C.L.R. James’ critiqued Trotsky for arguing that Stalin had simply duped the workers.
RI: Yes, C.L.R. James would say something very similar about Venezuela, but what you raise is also very important because what is happening in Venezuela isn’t unprecedented, it’s more or less the history of the left. You need to get your teeth into it, to work on it, to think it through, and to think it through popularly. The key in Venezuela is the category of the popular [lo popular]: how it is expressed, how it is translated. Instead of trying to represent the social base of the revolution, I believe that what needs to be done is to give the people the free rein to express themselves. How? Well, that’s the political challenge we have ahead of us.

It’s not that we can’t be critical, but we need to make sure our critique is on target, because what if we take the ideal situation of the radicals and we replace the PSUV with something that winds up being the same thing? We replaced the MVR [Fifth Republic Movement] with the PSUV, and Chávez’s early speeches about the PSUV were historic speeches about making it the party we all want. So then why did it become what it is? Not because I say so, but because the people don’t identify with it.

GCM: Do you believe that among the leadership of the PSUV there exists the will, capacity, or culture to look at things this way?

RI: On the intellectual level, I would say no, I don’t see it among what is often recognized as the intellectual stratum of Chavismo. I do see many people building, experimenting with organizational forms, working all the time, inventing, and I believe that there is a disjunction between that stratum and those practices. It’s not that nothing is happening: there is a lot happening, but we aren’t understanding it. My perspective isn’t that of the traditional pessimistic observer, no, I’m telling you that some extraordinary things are happening and we are missing them.

Including the Concerns of the Middle Class

So there is unhappiness with the party, and this needs to be resolved. I might not agree with how things are being understood, but I need to link up with a machinery that functions effectively, but which we also need to work on so that it functions more like a popular machine.

What’s the difference between a traditional machine and a popular machine? In Petare, which we lost as a parish but won in the popular barrios, with significant reductions in abstention, what the compañeros told me was that one of the phenomena that emerged is that people were organizing and working for Chávez’s victory without expecting anything in return. The people are no longer waiting for the Party to provide propaganda, the people are taking care of things as well as they can with the few resources they have, but they aren’t waiting for anyone, they are activated.

The question of representation includes all of this, because it’s a question of culture, and this connects to the question of the middle class, to how the Revolution has not been able to communicate with or persuade the middle class. I do believe that the revolution has the obligation to do work for the middle class: the middle class must be won. But it’s obvious that this can’t be the main work of the revolution, although this isn’t obvious for some people.

There are people who during the campaign said that there is a discontent within Chavismo, but that this was within the middle class. No, pana, the discontent is fundamentally in the popular sectors! And that’s your foundation, your social base! I don’t understand this view, I think it’s a very middle-class way of looking at the question of the middle class, and I think what we need to do is to focus on the popular question.

The institutions are in the hands of the middle class, politics is directed by the middle class. I’m not saying that this is necessarily bad, but it’s a fact, that’s how it is: the institutions are in the hands of people who have been educated in a certain way, who have certain values and prejudices toward the popular sector, and on the cultural level this seems absolutely clear to me. It is expressed in the movies and television programs we make, in the literature we create, it is expressed generally in the field of culture.

GCM: Is the idea that the poor are already with us because they are attached to Chávez, so we need to focus strategically on winning the middle class?

The people defend the benefits they have won

RI: Yes, because as some people would put it, “the people have benefited tremendously from the revolution.” What the hell is that? That isn’t what has happened here. This isn’t to imply that the people haven’t benefited, but that firstly, the people won this and have defended it and defended Chávez when they put him back in power after he was overthrown in April 2002, when they resisting the oil sabotage [December 2002-January 2003] and opposition guarimbas [street blockades that emerged in 2004]. If the people have done all this, it is because they believe that this government needs to be in power for them to continue to advance, to have the right to keep winning new rights.

But to return to the question of political logic and representation, it’s clear that officialism, which doesn’t mean the entire government or all the ministers, is a practice. What is this practice? Contempt for the people, privileging clientelistic relations instead of political relations, seeing the people as beneficiaries rather than as a protagonists. You hear this all the time in public media: “beneficiaries, beneficiaries, beneficiaries.”

Where are the popular aesthetics? Where are the properly popular discourses? Where are the people making their own programs? Where is popular film? This is a very delicate and polemical subject, because it touches on the question of delinquency, but there you have [the notoriously violent homemade film] Azotes del Barrio, a scandalous and abominable thing that can’t be mentioned in middle-class Chavismo. There are many of those cultural codes, that middle-class imaginary that is still prevalent.

The popular sector appears in the public media in Venezuela is as beneficiaries, as recipients of our good efforts. If they complain it’s because they are ungrateful, and so they don’t complain, I deepen the clientelistic relation, I give them everything, but only so they won’t complain. And all this reproduces a profoundly anti-popular logic.

Street Vendors and Youth and class prejudice

GCM: This is very similar to the question of the buhoneros, or street vendors, who many Chavistas dismiss as petty-capitalists or even lumpen. We saw this as well in the 2011 London riots when people on the left like David Harvey dismissed the rioters as a reflection of savage capitalism. There is a tendency in the history of the left, or a certain kind of Marxist orthodoxy, that says that there is a historical subject, and those black people selling drugs on the corner aren’t it, that street gangs have no political relevance. You have been involved in the Chávez Es Otro Beta movement, which seeks precisely to reclaim, dignify, and resignify the negative aspects of barrio youth culture. Has there been resistance to Otro Beta?

Iris Valera, Ministry of Penitentiary Affairs

RI: Within Chavismo? Not publicly, but of course there has. The PSUV in Petare detests the kids from Otro Beta because they are political competition, but beyond the question of political quotas and their fear of losing influence, there is also prejudice—prejudice, chamo! And it’s a class prejudice! They behave like an elite. It’s that same culture all over again, George, vanguardism, the same old thing, la misma vaina. But now it’s people who dress in red and repeat everything Chávez says that consider themselves the vanguard. They aren’t a vanguard at all, and that’s why the people don’t respect them.

GCM: This cultural prejudice among Chavistas has left the door open to the opposition, which has for years strategically targeted barrios like Petare with sports programs. While some argue that the strategy has failed, others claim that the opposition has made serious inroads into Chavismo’s urban base. How do you see the situation?

RI: There is a powerful political, cultural, and economic potential that is being wasted simply because we don’t like the music they listen to, we don’t like the way they talk, we don’t like how they dress, because they are abandoned to the market, they are alienated… But that’s not all: how is it possible that the prison population in Venezuela has more than doubled since 2005 due to the criminalization of micro-trafficking? How is this even conceivable in a revolution? So you have muchachos in prison for smoking marijuana. Inconceivable!

Opposition to Prison Reforms

GCM: The recent crisis in Venezuelan prisons led Chávez to create a new Ministry of Penitentiary Affairs in 2012. What is your opinion of the Minister, Iris Varela, who has been committed to halting imprisonment and releasing as many inmates as possible?

RI: She doesn’t have the support of the penal system as a whole, and is in permanent conflict with the attorney general and the entire judicial structure. But I have been very impressed with her, because the first thing she did was to travel to all the prisons and listen to what the prisoners had to say. That seemed absolutely correct to me, it was what had do be done, and that Iris deserves a lot of respect for that. There’s still a great deal to be done to fight the mafias, and there are still riots and massacres.

GCM: Do you believe it’s possible to humanize prisons?

RI: Absolutely: in revolution, anything is possible, and I don’t mean that as a cliché.

First Printed in

George Ciccariello-Maher, teaches political theory at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke University Press, May 2013), and can be reached at gjcm(at)

President Obama -- Product of two-faced imperialist morals

We Are a Nation of Peace, President Obama

The Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela rejects with all the force of its Bolivarian dignity the statements made by the president of the United States, Barack Obama, in Mexico City on May 3, 2013.

Once again, President Obama attacks the legitimate government of Venezuela which was elected on April 14 through a transparent electoral process, whose results were recognized by electoral accompaniers coming from the whole continent and other countries of the world, including the Electoral Mission of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) as well as by all the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean and other continents.

By making statements such as “the people of Venezuela deserve to determine their own destiny free from the kinds of practices that the entire hemisphere generally has moved away from,” President Obama seems to ignore that during 14 years of Bolivarian Government, we the Venezuelan people have adopted an electoral system that stems from a constitutional recognition of the importance of this issue through the creation of a new branch, the Electoral Branch, whose governing body is the National Electoral Council (CNE).

President Obama, please get informed. The CNE has been able to overcome the terrible practices that used to violate people’s will, and that the U.S. supported in order to have governments docile to its mandates. This was attained by establishing an automated voting system in which a voter casts his or her vote through a voting machine that tallies the votes at the end of the process and transmits the results to the CNE counting center. Additionally, a series of audits are carried out before, during and after the electoral process, to guarantee the accuracy of the data shown by the respective ballots.

Similarly, you, President Obama, state that “there are reports indicating that basic principles of human rights, democracy, press freedom and freedom of assembly are not observed in Venezuela.” Although we are no longer surprised by such unfounded statements, we are obliged to respond with what the rest of the hemisphere already knows, which is that human rights are totally and absolutely respected in Venezuela, since the moment Commander Hugo Chávez assumed leadership of the Venezuelan State and proposed the composition of a new constitution possesses the most advanced catalog of human rights in the whole region.

Since then, we have created several institutions to ensure respect for and greater access to human rights and new public policies that today allow all people living in this dignified country to have more and better guarantees regarding access to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as to the collective rights of our peoples.

President Obama, the people of Venezuela fully exercise many rights and freedoms that U.S. society is still a long way from reaching.

Finally, it is a source of outrage for the Venezuelan people, and especially the families of those who died on April 15, 2013, that you would falsely claim that “the entire hemisphere has been watching the violence, the protests, the attacks on the opposition.

Certainly, and despite the self-censorship of the media’s large “information” corporations against Venezuela, the hemisphere witnessed how the losing candidate of the opposition and his call to hate and violence in the streets caused the political assassinations of nine compatriots, Bolivarian leaders, pro-Chávez people committed to the revolution led today by President Nicolás Maduro, under the doctrine given to us by the eternal commander of the Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chávez.

Added to the violent record of these opposition groups are several more acts, namely the storming of several health centers in the presence of Cuban doctors as an act of xenophobia, the burning of public buildings and properties and offices of democratic political organizations, among other acts of vandalism.

For you and your government, these occurrences were not a source of concern. This is the nature of two-faced imperialist morals.

As for the rest, what the whole hemisphere and all of humanity watch in horror are the events at the illegal prison of Guantánamo where torture and other cruel treatment degrading to human beings has been practiced for more than a decade. This is one of the most shameful chapters of human history.

The noble of the world are shocked by the manner in which you have failed in your promise made in 2008 and 2012 to shut down that prison which is an embarrassment to the people of the United States, a great people.

President Obama, the government of President Nicolás Maduro, inheritor of the ideals of Commander Chávez and the National Plan for the 2013-2019 period, has the historical goal of achieving peace on the planet as the only way to save the human race. We are a nation of peace that works arduously alongside our Latin American and Caribbean brothers in order to achieve the true unity of our peoples, in order to be free and sovereign and consolidate ourselves as a zone of peace.

Your false, harsh and interventionist statements do not help to improve bilateral relations between the U.S. and Venezuela; on the contrary, they drive them toward further deterioration, which only confirms to the world the policy of aggression that you and your government maintain against our nation.

President Obama, your statements promote the emergence of a Pinochet in Venezuela. You must assume your responsibility before history; as for us, we will assume ours, which is to defend peace and independence in the homeland of Bolívar.

We alert all the independent governments of the world, the peoples and their political and social organizations to the U.S. government’s plan to provoke the so-called “dogs of war” in Venezuela in order to justify an imperialist intervention.

May our friends around the world know that we, as descendants of our Liberator Simón Bolívar and Commander Hugo Chávez, are ready to defend our right to be free against any form of imperial domination.

We call all friends of the Venezuelan cause to display the most active solidarity with our people. Today, just as Bolívar said in 1818, we repeat “fortunately, a handful of free people have often been known to defeat powerful empires.”

Compatriots, let us take up the sling of David to face this new aggression by Goliath.

Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in the U.S.

U.S. Inspires Right-Wing Violence

Honor Venezuela's election
April 30, 2013
By Daniel Kovalik

I just returned from Venezuela where I was one of 170 international election observers from around the world, including India, Brazil, Great Britain, Argentina, South Korea and France. Among the observers were two former presidents (of Guatemala and the Dominican Republic), judges, lawyers and high-ranking officials of national electoral councils.

What we found was a transparent, reliable, well-run and thoroughly audited electoral system. Two unique and endearing features of the Venezuelan process is that both campaigning and alcohol sales are forbidden in the final two days before an election.

What has been barely mentioned by the U.S. mainstream press is that over 54 percent of the voting machines in the April 14 election have been audited to ensure that the electronic votes match the back-up paper receipts. This was done in the presence of witnesses from both the governing and opposition parties right in the local polling places. I witnessed such an audit, and the Venezuelan electoral commission has since agreed to audit 100 percent of the ballots.

An election observer and former president of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom, called the vote "secure" and easily verifiable. All told, the experience of this year's observers aligns with that of former President Jimmy Carter, who observed last year's elections and called Venezuela's electoral system "the best in the world."
What were the results? With an impressive 79 percent of registered voters going to the polls, Nicolas Maduro, heir to Hugo Chavez, won by more than 260,000 votes -- 1.8 percent -- over opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
While this was certainly a close race, 260,000 votes is a comfortable margin. Recall that John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in 1960 by only 0.1 percent. George W. Bush became president in 2000 after losing the popular vote to Al Gore but winning by only a few hundred votes in Florida -- where a recount was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In none of these U.S. elections did any other nation insist upon a recount or hesitate in recognizing the declared winner. Had a country like Venezuela done so, we would have found such a position absurd.
The United States' refusal to recognize the April 14 Venezuelan election is no less absurd, especially given the electoral commission's agreement to audit all of the votes. Ironically, President Barack Obama won re-election last year by a mere 0.7 percent of votes cast.

The U.S. position is all the more ridiculous considering that it helped engineer and quickly recognized a coup government in Paraguay last year and approved the results of a 2009 election in Honduras even though the previous president, ousted by the military, was not allowed to compete. Of course, this pales in comparison to U.S. involvement in violent coups against democratically elected leaders in Latin America, such as those against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and Bertrand Aristide in Haiti in 2004.

The U.S. refusal to recognize the April 14 Venezuelan election is having devastating consequences because it is emboldening some in the opposition to use violence to destabilize the country. Al Gore in 2000 stepped aside for George W. Bush in the interest of his country, but Henrique Capriles and his backers would rather foster chaos and crisis in an attempt to topple the Maduro government. The same conservative forces represented by Mr. Capriles kidnapped and briefly overthrew Mr. Chavez in 2002 -- with U.S. support.

The opposition has been burning down health clinics, attacking Cuban doctors and destroying ruling-party buildings, reasonably believing itself to have the backing of the U.S. government and military. So far, at least nine Venezuelans are dead and dozens have been injured.

The United States could halt this violence quickly by recognizing the results of the April 14 elections. The reason it does not do so is obvious -- it does not like the government chosen by the Venezuelan people and would be glad to see it collapse in the face of violence.

We should all understand that the United States is undermining, not supporting, democracy and stability in Venezuela.

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer with extensive experience in South America who teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

First Published