Freedom of Speech in Media - Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia Media

Open letter to media reporting on Edward Snowden

July 19, 2013

The supposed “irony” of whistle-blower Edward Snowden seeking asylum in countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela has become a media meme. Numerous articles, op-eds, reports and editorials in outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and MSNBC have hammered on this idea since the news first broke that Snowden was seeking asylum in Ecuador. It was a predictable retread of the same meme last year when Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and the Ecuadorian government deliberated his asylum request for months.

Of course, any such “ironies” would be irrelevant even if they were based on factual considerations. The media has never noted the “irony” of the many thousands of people who have taken refuge in the United States, which is currently torturing people in a secret prison at Guantanamo, and regularly kills civilians in drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries. Nor has the press noted the “irony” of refugees who have fled here from terror that was actively funded and sponsored by the U.S. government, e.g. from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, and other countries.

Freedom of the Press
But in fact the “irony” that U.S. journalists mention is fantastically exaggerated. It is based on the notion that the governments of Venezuela under Chávez (and now Maduro) and Ecuador under Correa have clamped down on freedom of the press. Most consumers of the U.S. media unfortunately don’t know better, since they have not been to these countries and have not been able to see that the majority of media are overwhelmingly anti-government, and that it gets away with more than the U.S. media does here in criticizing the government. Imagine if Rupert Murdoch controlled most U.S media outlets, rather than the minority share that his News Corp actually owns -- then you’d start to have some idea what the media landscape in Ecuador, Venezuela and most of Latin America looks like.

The facts:
The fact is that most media outlets in Ecuador and Venezuela are privately-owned, and opposition in their orientation. Yes, the Venezuelan government’s communications authorities let the RCTV channel’s broadcast license expire in 2007. This was not a “shut down”; the channel was found to have violated numerous media regulations regarding explicit content and others -- the same kind of regulations to which media outlets are subject in the U.S. and many other countries. Even José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch -- a fierce critic of Venezuela -- has said that "lack of renewal of the contract [broadcast license], per se, is not a free speech issue." Also rarely mentioned in U.S. reporting on the RCTV case is that the channel and its owner actively and openly supported the short-lived coup d’etat against the democratically-elected government in 2002.

A July 10th piece from the Washington Post’s editorial board -- which has never hid its deep hatred of Venezuela, Ecuador and other left governments in Latin America -- describes another supposed grave instance of the Venezuelan government clamping down on press freedoms. The editorial, which was given greater publicity through Boing Boing and others, describes the case of journalist Nelson Bocaranda, who is credited with breaking the news of Chávez’s cancer in June 2011.

Nelson Bocaranda: U.S. media stooge
The Post champions Bocaranda as a “courage[ous]” “teller of truth” and dismisses the Venezuelan government’s “charges” against him as “patently absurd.” In fact, Bocaranda has not been charged with anything; the Venezuelan government wants to know whether Bocaranda helped incite violence following the April 14 presidential elections, after which extreme sectors of the opposition attacked Cuban-run health clinics and homes and residences of governing party leaders, and in which some nine people were killed -- mostly chavistas. The government cites a Tweet by Bocaranda in which he stated false information that ballot boxes were being hidden in a specific Cuban clinic in Gallo Verde, in Maracaibo state, and that the Cubans were refusing to let them be removed. Bocaranda later deleted the Tweet, but not before it was seen by hundreds of thousands (an image of it can be seen here). So while the Post dismisses the case against Bocaranda as “absurd,” the question remains: why did Bocaranda state such specific information, if he had no evidence to support it? Indeed, any such evidence would be second hand unless Bocaranda had seen the supposed “hidden” ballot boxes and the actions by the Cubans himself. The Venezuelan government's summons for Bocaranda to explain himself is being characterized as a grave assault on press freedom, and perhaps it is an over-reaction -- after all, many journalists report false information all the time. But wasn't Bocaranda's Tweet irresponsible, especially given the context of a volatile political situation?

The role of Ecuador's Correa
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has been widely condemned in the U.S. media -- in much reporting as well as commentary -- for suing a prominent journalist, Emilio Palacio, for defamation. The defamatory content was, in fact, serious. It relates to a 2010 incident in which Correa was first assaulted and then later held captive by rebelling police in what many observers deemed an attempt at a coup d’etat. Military forces ultimately rescued Correa. But in a February 2011 column referring to the episode, Palacio alleged that Correa had committed “crimes against humanity,” and that he had ordered the military forces to fire on the hospital where he was being held at the time. So Correa sued Palacio for defamation and won. What some U.S. media outlets have failed to mention is that he subsequently pardoned Palacio, and had made clear from the beginning that he would have dropped the lawsuit if Palacio ran a correction. In other words, all that Correa did was exercise his right as a citizen under the law to sue someone who had printed an outrageous lie about him. This is a right that most elected officials have in most countries, including the United States.

Former AP reporter Bart Jones has written:
Would a network that aided and abetted a coup against the government be allowed to operate in the United States? The U.S. government probably would have shut down RCTV within five minutes after a failed coup attempt -- and thrown its owners in jail. Chavez's government allowed it to continue operating for five years, and then declined to renew its 20-year license to use the public airwaves.

Considering the massive extent of “national security” overreach following the 9/11 attacks, it is almost incomprehensible to imagine what a U.S. administration’s reaction to a coup attempt would be, but it certainly would not be as restrained as in Ecuador or Venezuela, where a fiercely critical press not only exists, but thrives.

Many commentators have cited Reporters Without Borders and other media watchdog groups’ criticisms of Ecuador’s proposed new “Organic Law of Communication.” In an example of true irony, such supposedly objective journalists have been more critical of Ecuador’s proposed media reforms than RSF itself has been, which noted that:

What are the international legal standards?
…we think that other provisions conform to international legal standards. They include restrictions on broadcasting hours for the protection of minors, the prohibition of racist and discriminatory content and the prohibition of deliberate calls for violence.
Finally, the provisions governing nationally-produced broadcasting content are broadly similar to those in force in most other countries.

Organizations such as RSF and Freedom House are supposed to be impartial arbiters of press freedom around the world and are rarely subject to scrutiny. Yet both have taken funding from the U.S. government and/or U.S.-government supported organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (which was set up to conduct activities “much of [which]” the “CIA used to fund covertly,” as the Washington Post reported at the time, and which also provided funding and training to organizations involved in the afore-mentioned 2002 Venezuelan coup) and other “democracy promotion” groups. The NED has spent millions of dollars in Venezuela and Ecuador in recent years to support groups opposed to the governments there. This conflict of interest is never noted in the press, and RSF and Freedom House, when they are cited, are invariably presented as noble defenders of press freedom, for whom ulterior motives are apparently unimaginable.

The irony in the fight for freedom of speech
The true irony in the cases of Snowden, Assange, Manning and others is that the U.S. government, while claiming to defend freedom of the press, speech and information, has launched an assault on the media that is unprecedented in U.S. history. The extreme lengths to which it has gone to apprehend (witness the forced downing of President Evo Morales' plane in Austria) and punish (Bradley Manning being the most obvious example) whistle-blowers is clear.

Apparently less understood by some U.S. journalists is that it is part of an assault on these very freedoms that the U.S. government pretends to uphold. The U.S. government’s pursuit of Wikileaks -- through grand jury and FBI investigations, and open condemnation of Julian Assange as a “terrorist” -- is a blatant attack on the press.
It seems too many journalists forget -- or willingly overlook -- that Wikileaks is a media organization, and that the leaks that have so infuriated the U.S. government, from the “Collateral Murder” video to “Cablegate”, Wikileaks published in partnership with major media outlets including the New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and others. Now, as Edward Snowden’s leaks are published in The Guardian and other outlets, efforts have been launched to delegitimize journalist Glenn Greenwald, and some in the media have been all too willing to take part in attacking one of their own, simply for exposing government abuse -- i.e. doing journalism.

Traditional partnership with corporate media, U.S. and Latin America
There is a long history of partnership between traditional, corporate media outlets in the U.S. and those in Latin America. Due to a variety of reasons, including educational, class and often racial backgrounds, journalists throughout the hemisphere often tend to share certain biases. It is the journalist’s duty to be as objective as possible, however, and to let the media consumer decide where the truth lies. Likewise, eagerly going along with double standards that reinforce paradigms of “American exceptionalism” and that overlook the U.S.’ long, checkered human rights history and minimize the importance of over a century of U.S. intervention and interference in Latin America does a great injustice to journalism and the public.

Likewise, media distortions of the state of democracy and press freedoms in countries that are routinely condemned by the U.S. government -- such as Venezuela and Ecuador -- contribute to a climate of demonization that enables U.S. aggression against those countries and damages relations between the people of the U.S. and our foreign neighbors.

Thomas Adams, Visiting Professor, Tulane University
Marc Becker, Professor, Department of History, Truman State University
Julia Buxton, Venezuela specialist
Barry Carr, Honorary Research Associate, La Trobe University, Australia
George Ciccariello-Maher, Assistant Professor, Drexel University
Aviva Chomsky, Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American Studies, Salem State University
Luis Duno-Gottberg, Associate Professor, Caribbean and Film Studies, Rice University
Steve Ellner, Professor, Universidad de Oriente, Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela
Arturo Escobar, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Nicole Fabricant, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology/Anthropology, Towson University
Sujatha Fernandes, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
John French, Professor, Department of History, Duke University
Lesley Gill, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University
Greg Grandin, Professor, Department of History, New York University
Daniel Hellinger, Professor, Department of Political Science, Webster University
Forrest Hylton, Lecturer, History and Literature, Harvard University
Chad Montrie, Professor, Department of History, UMASS-Lowell,
Deborah Poole, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University,
Margaret Power, Professor, Department of History, Illinois Institute of Technology
Adolph Reed, Jr., Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
Gerardo Renique, Associate Professor, Department of History, City College of the City University of New York
Suzana Sawyer, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California
T.M. Scruggs, Professor Emeritus, School of Music, University of Iowa
Steve Striffler, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of New Orleans
Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor, Department of History, Pomona College
Sinclair Thomson, Associate Professor, Department of History, New York University
Jeffery R. Webber, Lecturer, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary, University of London
Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Witness a people’s revolution in the making

Join the 2013 solidarity brigade to Venezuela!

The Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network’s 14th solidarity brigade to Venezuela this December is a very special opportunity to observe, learn about and be inspired by the Bolivarian revolution that is transforming Latin America and challenging the greed, exploitation and destructiveness of global capitalism by showing that a better world is possible.

During the 10-day brigade, participants will visit social missions, communal councils and communes, as well as production cooperatives, public health and education services, sustainable development projects, community controlled media stations, and women’s and Indigenous organisations and projects. They will speak to a wide range of grassroots organisations, community activists, trade unions and government representatives about the “socialism of the 21st century” being created by the Venezuelan people.

Since 1998, when the late Hugo Chavez was first elected president, the Bolivarian revolution has achieved remarkable things by putting control of Venezuela’s politics and economy back into the hands of the poor majority. Despite the challenges created by Hugo Chavez’s death on March 5th this year, this people-power driven revolution continues to flourish, defying ongoing attempts by the United States-backed opposition to destroy it.

Brigade registration and costs

The registration deadline for the 2013 brigade is September 1st, 2013, but registrations are open now.

Participants will need to book their own international airfares. Accommodation, transport within Venezuela and English-Spanish translation throughout the brigade will be organised for all participants by the AVSN. In addition to your international airfare, you will need to budget for approximately $1200. This will cover your brigade registration fee ($500 for waged workers or $350 for students/pensioners), and your food, transport and (shared) accommodation in Venezuela.

To register, express your interest, or for more information:
PHONE: Jim McIlroy 0423 741 734, Roberto Jorquera 0425 182 994 or Lisa Macdonald 0413 031 108

Chavismo - A Social and Economic Trajectory

Venezuela: War for oil fuels economic crisis
by Federico Fuentes

With Venezuela’s inflation rate for May soaring to 6.1%, first quarter growth stagnating at 0.7%, and shortages afflicting a number of basic goods, speculation has been rife regarding the country’s economic future. Critics from the right and left have argued these are all signs that Chavismo (the name given to the radical project for change spearheaded by former president Hugo Chavez) has reached its limits.

In most cases, economic woes are primarily attributed to bad policies that have led to an excessively centralised economy presided over by a bureaucratic state increasingly dependent on oil revenue.

Inherited Neo-colonial economy
However, placing the blame solely on the government ignores the neo-colonial economy inherited by Chavismo. It also conceals the ongoing economic war by Venezuela’s elites, who are seeking to regain control over the country’s prize possession ― oil wealth.

This goal requires dismantling Chavismo, which represents an attempt by Venezuela’s historically excluded poor majority to capture the state, stem the flow of oil wealth out of the country and re-orientate it towards meeting their needs.

Oil impacts
The rise of oil production in the 1920s dramatically transformed Venezuela’s economy. Agricultural production slumped as foreign oil companies poured into the country to extract cheap oil and high profits.

Rather than develop local industries, Venezuela’s elites preferred to take part of this oil wealth for themselves. They used some of it to import goods from abroad to sell in the domestic market. Venezuela’s oil-based economy took the form of neo-colonial capitalism: formally an independent nation, Venezuela’s economy was dominated by and dependent upon the economies of imperialist countries ― especially the United States, the main destination for oil exports and origin of imported basic goods.

This economic set-up also profoundly shaped the state and society in Venezuela. As oil transnationals extracted the oil, the state took on the role of making sure that, via taxes, royalties and regulations, some of Venezuela’s oil wealth stayed in the country.

Local business elites, however, became increasingly reliant on their connections to the state in order to secure some of this wealth. This led to a fusion of power and wealth within the state. It spawned a parasitic capitalist class that sought to accumulate capital largely through siphoning off the state’s oil-based revenue.

Lifting People Out of Poverty Presented New Challenges
The state also became a vehicle for creating a new middle class, whose position in society was tied to the state bureaucracy. Further down the ladder were marginalised popular classes, driven from the countryside into the city in search of a livelihood and what they felt was their rightful share of oil wealth. For many, the state was viewed as a means to lift them out of poverty.

This led to a pervasive culture of “clientalism” (whereby access to jobs and services was tied to which political group you supported) and corruption. An extensive array of legal and illegal channels were established to appropriate and and re-distribute the oil money that remained in the country, with the lion’s share going to the elites.

Various bids to develop other sectors of the economy did little to fundamentally alter this scenario.

Neocolonial economy. Instead, “developmentalist” policies (whether aimed at import substitution or export promotion) served to disguise the deepening of the rentier and neo-colonial nature of Venezuela’s capitalist economy.

Policies such as market protection, overvalued currency, low taxes and access to cheap foreign exchange, which were supposed to promote import substitution, simply became vehicles to bolster the flow of oil rent to the local elites. One form this took was buying foreign exchange at the overvalued exchange rate and selling imports at inflated prices. But an overvalued currency made exports expensive, and the limited size of the local economy meant industrial development was dependent on rent transfer.

In both cases, connections to the state, rather than competitiveness, was decisive to economic success. This helped the rise of a few powerful groups of conglomerates with close connections to the state, rather than internal economic development.

The push towards export production fared no better; instead they reflected shifts in the international market.
With some industries proving too expensive to run elsewhere, such as the auto-industry, companies decided to shift production to places such as Venezuela on the proviso that national protection barriers were removed and cheap natural resources made available. From the start, these new enterprises were to be integrated into globalised production chains, orientated towards exporting goods and profits back to the global North.

Nationalisations and Challenges
One important change that occurred was the state gradually became an important economic agent in its own right. Its presence in the economy grew with the oil nationalisation of 1974 and large investment in heavy industries such as steel and aluminium. The aim was to expand the state bureaucracy’s economic base.

This led to tensions with private capital (which generally appeared to be fights against corruption or for greater state efficiency). It served to heighten conflicts within the state between different fractions of capital over priorities (such as state investment in heavy industry versus subsidies for consumer goods industries). High oil prices helped dampen these conflicts, all the while funding the steady reproduction of this model. However, when oil prices tumbled down in the late 1970s and '80s, the state became completely dependent on foreign loans.

This led to a severe crisis of the state. Foreign capital used the state’s debt and deficit crisis to impose harsh austerity measures against the poor, while squeezing more and more wealth out of the country. This, along with rising levels of protest and discontent among Venezuela’s fragmented popular classes, was the backdrop to the rise of Chavismo.

Chavez’s platform when first elected in 1998 was far from radical. In some areas, it represented a continuity with the policies of previous neoliberal governments.

Two Features of Chavismo
However, two features clearly differentiated Chavismo from its predecessors. The first was the Chavez government's push to secure majority state control over oil wealth and redistribute it to the benefit of the poor via poverty alleviation programs and the creation of a “social economy”. The aim was for the “social economy” to co-exist alongside the public and private sector. It was seen as a vehicle to incorporate unemployed and informal workers into the formal economy via promoting cooperatives and small and medium sized social enterprises.

The second was Chavismo’s emphasis on peoples’ participation in all spheres (political, economic, social) as the only means by which to change society. Unsurprisingly, when the Chavez government began to take serious steps to implement its program, in particular to place state oil company PDVSA under the control of the government, Venezuela’s elites unleashed an all out war.

They tried to bring down Chavez's government. This included a failed military coup in April 2002 and a two-month management shutdown of PDVSA starting in December that same year.

Both attempts were defeated by the combined mobilisation of the people and the military. Both also ended with the popular classes capturing control over key parts of the state: the military, now purged of reactionary elements aligned with the old elites, and PDVSA, cleansed of its bureaucracy that walked out on strike and was never allowed to return.

Intensified class struggle also led to a radicalisation of Chavismo. Having secured control over oil money (and imposed strict currency controls to stop capital flight), the Chavez government began re-directing wealth towards meeting peoples’ basic needs. In real terms, per capita social spending jumped 314% between 1998 and 2006. This fuelled important gains in poverty reduction, wage rises and higher consumption levels among the poor. Wealth re-distribution was combined with measures beginning to give Chavismo a clear anti-capitalist character. Rather than relying on the inherited bureaucratic state apparatus, the government circumvented these corrupted institutions by creating “social missions”. These are programs funded by oil wealth that rely on networks of community groups to facilitate access to healthcare, education and subsidised food, among other things. The social economy was increasingly viewed less as a complement and more as an alternative to the capitalist sector. Policy initiatives in this direction such as promoting worker-run factories and cooperatives relied on a reinvigorated working class.

Socialism of the 21st century
Chavez was re-election at the end of 2006, this time on an explicit platform of pushing forward towards “socialism of the 21st century”. This signaled the start of a new phase of radicalisation. Confronted with the shortcomings of a strategy of building parallel institutions and simply promoting alternatives to the capitalist sector, Chavez said they needed to dismantle the old capitalist state and directly confront capital.

Over the next six years, the government carried out a wave of nationalisations, alongside creating new companies. This made the state the dominant player across various strategic sectors. These moves were a response to growing demands by the poor around basic services (electricity, telecommunications), housing (cement, steel) and food (land expropriations, processing companies, supermarket chains).

However, nationalisations alone did not equal socialism. Rather, peoples’ participation in production and distribution was also essential. Worker participation was encouraged in a number of these newly nationalised companies. These companies were also encouraged to link up with cooperatives and other community-owned enterprises. Special emphasis was placed on promoting the communal councils. Funded by the state, these councils sought to build on and link up activists from the various community groups and social missions to collectively discuss and resolve the problems facing local communities.

In 2009, the government took a further step by promoting communes, made up of elected representatives of various communal councils to tackle larger-scale problems. These bodies are also encouraged to create community-owned and -run enterprises, with profits raised going to social projects. These groups were viewed as the building blocks of a new power built from below.

In sum, Chavismo represented an attempt by Venezuela’s popular class to win control of the state and use this position of power to bring strategic sectors of the economy under its control (in particular oil), and re-socialise the wealth towards meeting their needs. Central to achieving this has been direct peoples’ participation in the political, social and economic sphere.

Current problems
The current problems have more to do with the successes rather than the failures of Chavismo. The government, nonetheless, still presides over a capitalist economy that is oil-dependent, even if it has been able to reassert a level of economic sovereignty and plant the seeds of a socialist transformation. Shortages in basic goods, which have contributed to higher inflation, are due less to a “crumbling” economy (which grew 5.6% last year) than to a 10-year long explosion in consumption by the poor due to oil wealth redistribution. Agricultural production levels have generally risen, but they have not been able to keep pace with demand. This led to a surge in imports.

Nonetheless, Venezuela has maintained a constant trade surplus, which last year totaled US$38 billion. Venezuela’s economic elites have sought to take advantage of the problems to fuel discontent against the government. They seek to force it to wind back its controls over the flow of oil money or bring it down. Rather than produce to meet peoples’ needs (something that Venezuelan elites have never done), they preferred to rely on imports, actively hoarded basic goods or sold them on the black market to avoid price controls. This, together with speculation in black market dollars, has pushed up the sale price for imported goods, leading to a shift of oil wealth out of the pockets of workers into the bank accounts of the capitalists.

These manoeuvers have been helped by an inherited state bureaucracy that reproduces corruption and clientalism.

For example, the newly appointed head of the Central Bank of Venezuela said that in May, about US$15-20 billion worth of dollars granted by the Commission for the Administration of Currency Exchange (CADIVI) had ended up in the black market.

In July, the government exposed an extortion ring operating in the state agency responsible for regulating and monitoring price controls. The ring had links all the way to the top of the institution. Overcoming the problems will require deepening the Chavismo model. This means tightening control over the flow of oil wealth to ensure it ends up meeting people's needs, rather than re-directing it to a private sector more interested in enriching itself rather than producing. This will require specific measures to beat back the economic war being waged by the economic elites, as well as a war on corruption within the state.

For these measures to be successful, they will need to be guided by Chavismo’s radical vision of development. This vision sees it not just as a question of economic growth achieved through public investment and social spending, but one of greater peoples’ participation in the political, economic and social spheres.

[Federico Fuentes is co-author, with Roger Burbach and Michael Fox, of Latin America's Turbulent Transitions, which can be ordered at]

Venezuela's democratization of the means of production

The Communal State: Communal Councils, Communes, and Workplace Democracy
by Dario Azzellini
[From the summer 2013 issue of NACLA Report]

The particular character of what Hugo Chávez called the Bolivarian process lies in the understanding that social transformation can be constructed from two directions, “from above” and “from below.” Bolivarianism—or Chavismo—includes among its participants both traditional organizations and new autonomous groups; it encompasses both state-centric and anti-systemic currents. The process thus differs from traditional Leninist or social democratic approaches, both of which see the state as the central agent of change; it differs as well from movement-based approaches that conceive of no role whatsoever for the state in a process of revolutionary change.

The current transformation in Venezuela is thus the product of a tension between constituent and constituted power, with the principal agent of change being the constituent. Constituent power is the legitimate collective creative capacity of human beings expressed in movements and in the organized social base to create something new without having to derive it from something previously existing. In the Bolivarian process, the constituted power—the state and its institutions—accompanies the organized population; it must be the facilitator of bottom-up processes, so that the constituent power can bring forward the steps needed to transform society.

Discussion of two approaches: Interrelationship From Above and Below

This approach was elaborated on various occasions by former president Hugo Chávez and has been confirmed by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, during the recent electoral campaign. It is shared by sectors of the administration and by the majority of the organized movements. Both from the government and from the rank and file of the Bolivarian process, there is a declared commitment to redefine state and society on the basis of an interrelation between top and bottom and thereby to move toward transcending capitalist relations. Although not free of contradictions and conflicts, this two-track approach has been able to uphold and deepen the process of social transformation in Venezuela.

Constituent power, being comprehensive and expansive, has been the fundament for every revolution, democracy, and republic; it is the greatest motor of history, the most powerful, innovative social force. Historically, however, we have seen constituent powers silenced and weakened after barely carrying out their role of legitimating the constituted power. In a genuine revolutionary process, however, the constituent power must maintain its capacity to intervene and to shape the present, to create something new that does not derive from the old. This is what defines revolution: not the act of taking power, but rather a broad process of constructing the new, an act of creation and invention.1 This is the global legacy of the Bolivarian process.

Meaning of Socialism in the 21st Century

In Venezuela, the concept of constituent power arose at the end of the 1980s as the defining trait of a continuous process of social transformation. The main slogan of the neighborhood assemblies was “We don’t want to be a government, we want to govern.” This idea, understood in increasingly radical terms, came to orient the revolutionary transformation, acquiring a hegemonic status in the political-ideological debate of the 1990s.2
The Bolivarian process began by calling for a strengthening of civil and human rights and for the building of a “participatory and protagonistic democracy” in search of a “third way” beyond capitalism and socialism.

Starting in late 2005, however, President Hugo Chávez described socialism as the only alternative for bringing about the necessary transcendence of capitalism. The presidential election of 2006 was defined by Chávez as a choice between capitalism and a path towards socialism. The onset of the era of Chávez’s presidency expanded and reinforced participatory possibilities and council structures and created new ones. The idea of participation was officially defined in terms of popular power, revolutionary democracy, and socialism. Because of the obvious difficulties of defining a clear path to socialism or a clear concept of what socialism can be today, the goal was defined as “socialism of the 21st century,” which is an ongoing project. The name also serves to distinguish it from the “real socialisms” of the 20th century. The process of seeking and building is guided above all by values such as collectivity, equality, solidarity, freedom, and sovereignty.3 It is embodied in the construction of councils.

In January 2007, Chávez proposed to go beyond the bourgeois state by building the communal state. He thus picked up and applied more widely a concern originating with anti-systemic forces. The main idea was to form council structures of all kinds (communal councils, communes, and communal cities, for example), as bottom up structures of self-administration. Councils of workers, students, peasants, and women, among others, would then have to cooperate and coordinate on a higher level in order to gradually replace the bourgeois state with a communal state. According to the National Plan for Economic and Social Development 2007-2013, “since sovereignty resides absolutely in the people, the people can itself direct the state, without needing to delegate its sovereignty as it does in indirect or representative democracy.”4

Power is embodied in councils and the communal state

The notion of a separation between “civil society” and “political society”—as expressed, for example, by NGOs—is thus rejected. The focus is rather upon fostering the potential and the direct capacity of the popular base to analyze, decide, implement, and evaluate what is relevant to its life. The constituent power is embodied in councils, in the institutions of popular power, and in the basic concept of the communal state. As was proposed in the constitutional reform that was rejected in the 2007 referendum, the future communal state must be subordinated to popular power, which replaces bourgeois civil society.5 This would overcome the rift between the economic, the social, and the political—between civil society and political society—which underlies capitalism and the bourgeois state. It would also prevent, at the same time, the over-centralization that characterized the countries of “real socialism.”6

The communal councils are a non-representative structure of direct democracy and the most advanced mechanism of self-organization at the local level in Venezuela. In 2013, approximately 44,000 communal councils had been established throughout the country. Since the new constitution of 1999 defined Venezuela as a “participative and protagonistic democracy,” a variety of mechanisms for the participation of the population in local administration and decision-making have been experimented with. In the beginning they were connected to local representative authorities and integrated into the institutional framework of representative democracy. Competing on the same territory as local authorities and depending on the finances authorized by those bodies, the different initiatives showed little success.

Establishment of Communitarian governments

Communal councils began forming in 2005 as an initiative “from below.” In different parts of Venezuela, rank-and-file organizations, on their own, promoted forms of local self-administration named “local governments” or “communitarian governments.” During 2005, one department of the city administration of Caracas focused on promoting this proposal in the poor neighborhoods of the city. In January 2006, Chávez adopted this initiative and began to spread it. On his weekly TV show, “Aló Presidente,” Chávez presented the communal councils—consejos comunales—as a kind of “good practice.” At this point some 5,000 communal councils already existed. In April 2006, the National Assembly approved the Law of Communal Councils, which was reformed in 2009 following a broad consulting process of councils’ spokespeople. The communal councils in urban areas encompass 150-400 families; in rural zones, a minimum of 20 families; and in indigenous zones, at least 10 families. The councils build a non-representative structure of direct participation that exists parallel to the elected representative bodies of constituted power.

The communal councils are financed directly by national state institutions, thus avoiding interference from municipal organs. The law does not give any entity the authority to accept or reject proposals presented by the councils. The relationship between the councils and established institutions, however, is not always harmonious; conflicts arise principally from the slowness of constituted power to respond to demands made by the councils and from attempts at interference. The communal councils tend to transcend the division between political and civil society (i.e., between those who govern and those who are governed). Hence, liberal analysts who support that division view the communal councils in a negative light, arguing that they are not independent civil-society organizations, but rather are linked to the state. In fact, however, they constitute a parallel structure through which power and control is gradually drawn away from the state in order to govern on their own.7

At a higher level of self-government there is the possibility of creating socialist communes, which can be formed by combining various communal councils in a specific territory. The councils decide themselves about the geography of these communes. These communes can develop medium and long-term projects of greater impact while decisions continue to be made in assemblies of the communal councils. As of 2013 there are more than 200 communes under construction.

In the context of the creation of communes and communal cities, it is important to analytically distinguish between (absolute) political-administrative space and socio-cultural-economic (relational) space.8 Communes reflect the latter; their boundaries do not necessarily correspond to existing political-administrative spaces. As these continue to exist, the institutionalization of the communal councils, communes, and communal cities develops and shapes the socio-cultural-economic space. Thus, the idea of council-based non-representative local self-organization creates a “new power-geometry.” The concept of power in human geography, as elaborated by Doreen Massey, has been put “to positive political use” following the “recognition of the existence and significance, within Venezuela, of highly unequal, and thus undemocratic, power-geometries.”9

Various communes can form communal cities, with administration and planning “from below” if the entire territory is organized in communal councils and communes. The mechanism of the construction of communes and communal cities is flexible; they themselves define their tasks. Thus the construction of self-government begins with what the population itself considers most important, necessary, or opportune. The communal cities that have begun to form so far, for example, are rural and are structured around agriculture, such as the Ciudad Comunal Campesina Socialista Simón Bolívar in the southern state of Apure or the Ciudad Comunal Laberinto in the northwestern state of Zulia. Organizing and the construction of communes and communal cities has been easier in suburban and rural areas than in metropolitan areas, since there is less distraction and less presence of opposition, while at the same time common interests are easier to define.

Socialist Workers Councils

Regarding the democratization of ownership and administration of the means of production, Venezuela has experimented with a series of different models. Between 2001 and 2006, the Venezuelan government—in addition to asserting state control over the core of the oil industry—focused on promoting cooperatives for any type of company, including models of cooperatives co-administrated with the state or private entrepreneurs. The 1999 constitution assigned the cooperatives a special weight. They were conceived as contributing to a new social and economic balance, and thus received massive state assistance. The favorable conditions led to a boom in the number of cooperatives founded. In mid-2010, according to the national cooperative supervisory institute Sunacoop, 73,968 cooperatives were certified as operative, with an estimated total of 2 million members, although some people participated in more than one cooperative and were thus counted twice.10 The initial idea that cooperatives would automatically produce for the satisfaction of social needs and that their internal solidarity based on collective property would extend to their local communities, proved to be an error. Most cooperatives still followed the logic of capital; concentrating on the maximization of net revenue without supporting the surrounding communities, many failed to integrate new members.11 In the light of these experiences the government’s focus in supporting the creation of cooperatives switched to cooperatives controlled and owned by the communities.

In response to the employers’ lockout of 2002–2003, the “entrepreneurs strike,” with the stated intention of toppling the Chávez government, workers began the process of taking over workplaces abandoned by their owners. At first, the government relegated the cases to the labor courts, and then in January 2005 began expropriations. Beginning in July 2005, the government began to pay special attention to the situation of closed businesses, and since then hundreds of such companies have been expropriated. But a systematic policy for expropriations in the productive sector did not exist until 2007. The expropriated enterprises are officially supposed to be turned into “direct social property” under the direct control of workers and communities. In reality most of them are not administered by workers and communities but by state institutions. Working conditions have not fundamentally changed, and expropriations have not automatically produced co-management or workers’ control.

The concept of “direct social property” is also supposed to apply to hundreds of new “socialist factories” built by the government in the context of an overarching strategy of industrialization. The local communal councils select the workers, while the required professionals are drawn from state and government institutions. The aim is to gradually transfer the administration of the factories into the hands of organized workers and communities. But most state institutions involved do little to organize this process or prepare the employees, which has generated growing conflicts between workers and institutions.

In 2007, Chávez picked up the idea of “socialist workers councils,” which was already being discussed by many rank-and-file workers and by existing councils and workers’ initiatives. In fact, there was a network with the same name: Socialist Workers Councils (CST). Chávez presented CST as a good practice and called on workers to form CST at their workplaces. Nevertheless, since most institutions were opposed to workers councils, only a few councils were formed at the beginning, mainly in recovered factories like the valve factory, Inveval, or the water pipe factory, Inefa.

Growing pressure from below led several government institutions to start to accept or even promote the creation of workers councils in institutionally administered workplaces, even without the benefit of an enacted law on workers councils. But while on the one hand the majority of institutions tried to prevent the constitution of workers councils in their workplaces, in others, and in state administered enterprises, the institutions often tried to assume the lead and constitute the CST themselves. This move represented an attempt to distort the councils’ purpose and reduce them to a representative authority dealing with work and salary related questions within the government bureaucracy. As a consequence, the CST turned into another site of struggle for workers control.12

Communal Social Property

The most successful attempt at a democratization of ownership and administration of the means of production is the model of Enterprises of Communal Social Property (EPSC), promoted to create local production units and community services enterprises. The EPSC are collective property of the communities, which decide on the organizational structure of enterprises, the workers incorporated and the eventual use of profits. Government enterprises and institutions have promoted the communal enterprises since 2009, and since 2013 several thousand EPSC have been constituted. Most belong to the sectors of community services like public transport or are engaged in food production and food processing. The state-owned oil company, PDSVA, set up a local liquid gas distribution administered by communities call Gas Comunal.13

Since 2007, the government’s ability to reform has increasingly clashed with the limitations inherent in the bourgeois state and the capitalist system. The movements and initiatives for self-management and self-government, designed to overcome the bourgeois state and its institutions, with the goal of replacing it with a communal state based on popular power, have grown. The broadening of direct grassroots participation brings an increase in the conflicts between the state and its popular base (especially in the sphere of production) as well as within the state itself, which becomes a site of class conflict. Not surprisingly, the deepening of social transformation multiplies the points of confrontation between top-down and bottom-up strategies. But simultaneously, because of the expansion of state institutions’ work along with the consolidation of the Bolivarian process and growing resources, state institutions have been generally strengthened and have become more bureaucratized. Institutions of constituted power aim at controlling social processes and reproducing themselves. Since the institutions of constituted power are at the same time strengthening and limiting constituent power, the transformation process is very complex and contradictory.

Institutions, as well as many individuals in charge in institutions, follow an inherent logic of perpetuating and expanding their institutional power and control to guarantee the institution’s survival. Or as Thamara Esis, a consejo comunal activist from Caracas explains in a personal interview, “These nice people who already made themselves comfortable in their offices, are not willing to renounce their benefits, they live on the needs of the people. It is like a little enterprise, you understand?” This tendency is strengthened in times of profound structural changes when the purpose and existence of any institution is questioned in the context of transformation.

Obstacles to Construction of Communes

In fact, the Ministry of Communes turns out to be one of the biggest obstacles to the construction of communes and most of the communes under construction complain about the Ministry. Only the growing organization “from below,” especially the self-organized network of commune activists that brings together about 70 communes could bring enough pressure on the Ministry of Communes to start changing its politics at the end of 2011. They forced the ministry to register some 20 communes. In return, the communes had to set up the registration sheet since the Ministry of Communes not only did not register any communes in the first three years of it’s existence, but one year after the law on communes had been released, it had not even created an official procedure for the registration of communes. Nevertheless, strategies “from above” and “from below” have maintained themselves in the same process of transformation for 14 years and the conflictive relationship between constituent and constituted power has been the motor of the Bolivarian process. In his government plan for 2013-2019, presented during the electoral campaign for the 2012 presidential elections, Chávez stated clearly “We should not betray ourselves: the still dominant socio-economic formation in Venezuela is of capitalist and rentist character.”14

“Comuna o nada”

In order to move further towards socialism, Chávez underlined the necessity to advance in the construction of communal councils, communes and communal cities, and the “development of social property on the basic and strategic factors and means of production.”15 His successor, Nicolás Maduro, committed to the program, and one of the central slogans of the movements supporting his electoral campaign was “Comuna o nada”.
1. Antonio Negri, Il Potere Costituente (Carnago: Sugarco Edizioni, 1992), 382.
2. Roland Denis, Los fabricantes de la rebelión (Caracas: Primera Linea, 2001), 65.
3. Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Comunicación y la Información, “Líneas generales del Plan de Desarrollo Económico y Social de la Nación 2007-2013,” (Caracas: MinCI, 2007), 30.
4. MinCI, Líneas generales, 30.
5. Asamblea Nacional Dirección General de Investigación y Desarrollo Legislativo, “Ejes Fundamentales del Proyecto de Reforma Constitucional. Consolidación del Nuevo Estado,” (Caracas: AN-DGIDL, 2007).
6. Hugo Chávez, El Poder Popular (Caracas: Ministerio de Comunicación e Información, 2008), 38.
7. Dario Azzellini, Partizipation, Arbeiterkontrolle und die Commune, (Hamburg: VSA, 2010).
8. David Harvey, “Space as a keyword,” in David Harvey. A Critical Reader, ed. Noel Castree and Derek Gregory, (Malden: Blackwell, 2006).
9. Doree Massey, “Concepts of space and power in theory and in political practice,” Doc. Anàl. Geogr 55 (2009)20.
10. Interview with Juan Carlos Baute. Presidente de Sunacoop, accessed January 16, 2009,
11. Dario Azzellini, “From Cooperatives to Enterprises of Direct Social Property in the Venezuelan Process,” in Cooperatives and Socialism. A View from Cuba, ed. Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012): 259-278; Dario Azzellini, “Economía solidaria en Venezuela: Del apoyo al cooperativismo tradicional a la construcción de ciclos comunales,” in A Economia Solidária na América Latina: realidades nacionais e políticas públicas, ed. Sidney Lianza and Flávio Chedid Henriques, (Rio de Janeiro: Pró Reitoria de Extensão UFRJ, 2012): 147-160;
12. Dario Azzellini, “De la Cogestión al Control Obrero. Lucha de clases al interior del proceso bolivariano,” (PhD diss., Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 2012), 183-196.
13. Aurelio Gil Beróes, “Los Consejos Comunales deberán funcionar como bujías de la economía socialista,” accessed January 4, 2010
14. Aurelio Gil Beróes, “Los Consejos Comunales deberán funcionar como bujías de la economía socialista,” accessed January 4, 2010
15. “Propuesta del Candidato,” Chávez, 7.
Dario Azzellini is a visiting fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center and works at the Johannes Kepler University (Linz, Austria). He has published several books and journal articles about popular movements, workers control, local self administration, and privatization of military services, with a regional focus on Latin America.

Venezuelan Hero, Nicolás Maduro, Offers Another Hero Asylum

Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro has offered asylum to Edward Snowden

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro said on Friday he had decided to offer asylum to former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who has petitioned several countries to avoid capture by Washington.

"In the name of America's dignity ... I have decided to offer humanitarian asylum to Edward Snowden," Maduro told a televised military parade marking Venezuela's independence day.

The 30-year-old former National Security Agency contractor is believed to be holed up in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo international airport.

WikiLeaks said on Friday that Snowden had applied to six more nations for asylum, bringing to about 20 the number of countries he has asked for protection from US espionage charges.

Maduro said Venezuela was ready to offer him sanctuary, and that the details Snowden had revealed of a US spy program had exposed the nefarious schemes of the US "empire".

"He has told the truth, in the spirit of rebellion, about the US spying on the whole world," Maduro said.
"Who is the guilty one? A young man ... who denounces war plans, or the US government which launches bombs and arms the terrorist Syrian opposition against the people and legitimate president Bashar al-Assad?"
"Who is the terrorist? Who is the global delinquent?"

Russia has shown signs of growing impatience over Snowden's stay in Moscow. Its deputy foreign minister said on Thursday that Snowden had not sought asylum in that country and needed to choose a place to go.

Moscow has made clear that the longer he stays, the greater the risk of the diplomatic standoff over his fate causing lasting damage to relations with Washington.

Earlier on Friday, Nicaragua said it had received an asylum request from Snowden and could accept the bid "if circumstances permit", president Daniel Ortega said.

"We are an open country, respectful of the right of asylum, and it's clear that if circumstances permit, we would gladly receive Snowden and give him asylum in Nicaragua," Ortega said during a speech in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

Daniel Ortega, an ally of Venezuelan president Maduro, did not elaborate on the conditions that would allow him to offer asylum to Snowden, who has been at the eye of a diplomatic storm since leaking high-level US intelligence data last month.

Options have been narrowing for Snowden as he seeks a country to shelter him from US espionage charges.

U.S. Does not Conceal Its Gangterism

Forcing Down Evo Morales's Plane Was an Act of Air Piracy

by John Pilger,Thursday 4 July 2013

Imagine the aircraft of the president of France being forced down in Latin America on "suspicion" that it was carrying a political refugee to safety – and not just any refugee but someone who has provided the people of the world with proof of criminal activity on an epic scale.

Imagine the response from Paris, let alone the "international community", as the governments of the west call themselves. To a chorus of baying indignation from Whitehall to Washington, Brussels to Madrid, heroic special forces would be dispatched to rescue their leader and, as sport, smash up the source of such flagrant international gangsterism. Editorials would cheer them on, perhaps reminding readers that this kind of piracy was exhibited by the German Reich in the 1930s.

The forcing down of Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane – denied airspace by France, Spain and Portugal, followed by his 14-hour confinement while Austrian officials demanded to "inspect" his aircraft for the "fugitive" Edward Snowden – was an act of air piracy and state terrorism. It was a metaphor for the gangsterism that now rules the world and the cowardice and hypocrisy of bystanders who dare not speak its name.

In Moscow, Morales had been asked about [Edward]Snowden – who remains trapped in the city's airport. "If there were a request [for political asylum]," he said, "of course, we would be willing to debate and consider the idea." That was clearly enough provocation for the Godfather. "We have been in touch with a range of countries that had a chance of having Snowden land or travel through their country," said a US state department official.

The French – having squealed about Washington spying on their every move, as revealed by Snowden – were first off the mark, followed by the Portuguese. The Spanish then did their bit by enforcing a flight ban of their airspace, giving the Godfather's Viennese hirelings enough time to find out if Snowden was indeed invoking article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

Those paid to keep the record straight have played their part with a cat-and-mouse media game that reinforces the Godfather's lie that this heroic young man is running from a system of justice, rather than preordained, vindictive incarceration that amounts to torture – ask Bradley Manning and the living ghosts in Guantánamo.

Historians seem to agree that the rise of fascism in Europe might have been averted had the liberal or left political class understood the true nature of its enemy. The parallels today are very different, but the Damocles sword over Snowden, like the casual abduction of Bolivia's president, ought to stir us into recognising the true nature of the enemy.

Snowden's revelations are not merely about privacy, or civil liberty, or even mass spying. They are about the unmentionable: that the democratic facades of the US now barely conceal a systematic gangsterism historically identified with, if not necessarily the same as, fascism. On Tuesday, a US drone killed 16 people in North Waziristan, "where many of the world's most dangerous militants live", said the few paragraphs I read. That by far the world's most dangerous militants had hurled the drones was not a consideration. President Obama personally sends them every Tuesday.

In his acceptance of the 2005 Nobel prize in literature, Harold Pinter referred to "a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed". He asked why "the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities" of the Soviet Union were well known in the west while America's crimes were "superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged". The most enduring silence of the modern era covered the extinction and dispossession of countless human beings by a rampant US and its agents. "But you wouldn't know it," said Pinter. "It never happened. Even while it was happening it never happened."

This hidden history – not really hidden, of course, but excluded from the consciousness of societies drilled in American myths and priorities – has never been more vulnerable to exposure. Snowden's whistle blowing, like that of Manning and Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, threatens to break the silence Pinter described. In revealing a vast Orwellian police state apparatus servicing history's greatest war-making machine, they illuminate the true extremism of the 21st century. Unprecedented, Germany's Der Spiegel has described the Obama administration as "soft totalitarianism". If the penny is falling, we might all look closer to home.