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Venezuela, Socialism to the Highest Bidder
venezuela / colombia | the left | feature Tuesday July 11, 2006 18:33 by Nachie - Red & Anarchist Action Network (RAAN)
A detailed analysis of Chávez and Venezuela from a north American anarchist perspective. The author includes a detailed account of a visit to Venezuela at the time of the WSF and encounters with grassroots organisations and the Tupamaros
Venezuela, Socialism to the Highest Bidder
Prepared by Nachie, for the Red & Anarchist Action Network (RAAN)
Over a period of two months spanning January to March in 2006, I backpacked through Venezuela in a reckless manner on behalf of the Red & Anarchist Action Network (RAAN), in search of first-hand information regarding the country’s current political and social situation and in particular the “Bolivarian Revolution” proclaimed by incumbent president Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías. My goal was to use the VI World Social Forum, held in the capital city of Caracas during the last week in January, as a launchpad to make the kinds of contacts necessary for this study to be a success. As an autonomous communist and affiliate of RAAN, my ultimate aim was to specifically seek out the contradictions that lay within the institutionalized Bolivarian movement and, therefore, to hopefully discover the sectors of Venezuelan society that were developing anti-capitalist critiques of Chávez’s state-driven process.
1. BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
For RAAN, this whole affair began exactly a year ago when I distributed a text entitled Bolivanarchism: The Venezuela Question in Our Movement to comrades in the network and the North American “anti-authoritarian” tendency in general. Written whilst I was on a short trip to Brazil over the point of which I had become particularly fascinated by the process in neighboring Venezuela, this exploratory essay laid the groundwork for everything that was to follow in terms of our tendency’s discussions on the issue. At the time I was criticized for showering attention on a situation seemingly directed exclusively by the Venezuelan State; and it was suggested that the network’s time and energy would be much better spent elsewhere. I am now certain that this - at least for me personally - is not the case, and that this focus on Venezuela will prove to have been useful to both our network and the wider movement.
A few things must be made absolutely clear: firstly, that without this follow-up, the original Bolivanarchism essay would be considered, under RAAN’s “No-Bullshit Policy”, to be more or less an exercise in useless ideological masturbation. Only this on-the-ground investigation and practical follow-through on the tasks set out in that text could possibly justify it within our network’s action-oriented culture. Furthermore, I must clearly state that my time in the country has led me to seriously reconsider many of the positions I had toyed with in that essay - as will be shown below. And finally, one of the essay’s main points has in particular shown itself to be quite outdated: that being my concern over the lack of attention and information on the situation. When Common Ground Relief goes down to ask Chávez for cheap heating oil to New Orleans and the mainstream Left starts riding Trotskyist coattails in an effort to associate itself with the Bolivarian Revolution, I don’t think we have to worry too much about any such neglect; Chávez is in the limelight and poised to become the most important political figure in the world. Now all we need to focus on is the quality of that information concerning Venezuela.
As with all documents produced under the banner of RAAN, this essay strives to be not merely an exercise in theoretical development or information sharing, but a full report concerning the interventions our network has made in the Venezuelan process and what we might further propose as points to act upon in the future. That said, this study exists simply to fulfill the goals set forth last June and I, personally, have no intention of returning to Venezuela in the near future, or organizing around the issue past the objectives lined out over the course of this text. Nevertheless my work has set the material foundation through which other RAAN affiliates may become involved in this process, in accordance with their personal desires.
Before beginning I would like to take the time to thank all those who let me interview them, gave me food, shelter, or in any way assisted in the creation of this report. In particular I would like to thank Alix Santana and the artisans of Valencia, all the anarchists in Caracas but especially Nelson Méndez, Humberto Decarli, and the CA3 Collective, Oswaldo Kanica of the Tupamaros, Red & Anarchist Skin Heads of Venezuela and last, but by no means least, Christian Guerrero of Earth First!
I’d like to also give a shout out to everybody who helped out with this project and the collective editing process and the RAAN crews who have been organizing stateside around this issue.
Giuliano Roma of the Argentine “La Anarquía” periodical deserves mention as well for being among the first to engage in a serious debate with us on this issue. Anne Carlson & Michael Staudenmaier both deserve props, as their 2004 piece “Of Chavistas and Anarquistas” provided a great deal of inspiration for the spirit, if not content, of my own travels.
It is crucial to state that, except where explicitly outlined in the text, no alliance is implied between RAAN and any of the groups that are mentioned over the course of this report. I was often given contradictory information and views on the same situation by different people and have done my best to reconcile these within the overall text. By far the most difficult part of this process was deciding how to represent all these viewpoints simultaneously while giving enough space for the speakers’ backgrounds to be explained; I hope I have succeeded in this task. And lastly, any factual errors or mistranslations are entirely my own fault.
2. A (VERY) BRIEF HISTORY OF VENEZUELA
To a certain extent I will be assuming that the readers of this essay are already familiar with the broad framework and implications of the current regime in Venezuela, and in particular its recent spats with the US government. Nevertheless I have found that one cannot possibly hope to appreciate the complexity of the situation without at least some knowledge of the nation’s political history and that of its “liberation heroes”. Those looking for a more comprehensive analysis can probably find it in Michael McCaughan’s The Battle of Venezuela, (7 Stories Press, 2005) where I have pulled the majority of these dates from. Anyway:
Venezuela’s independence movement truly began in 1806 when “Generalissimo” Francisco De Miranda begins plotting against Spanish rule, but only six years into this he is betrayed by fellow conspirators while trying to set up an independent administration in Caracas. He was then shipped off to Spain to die in jail, in the process becoming the nation’s first Independence Hero.
Miranda was a military man, fighting all over Europe and Florida before turning his attentions to the South, and seeking support from the new United States government in the process. There is little reason to believe that he was to be anything but a tyrant, though government-funded murals and banners across Caracas now display the old bastard as a hunky, square-chinned sexpot who stares squint-eyed into the future as his long platinum hair flows in the wind - something which is really hilarious once you get to see an actual portrait of what he really looked like. The Frente Francisco De Miranda, an apparently mass-non-electoral organization driven by “ultra-left” Chavistas, unites a more modest caricature alongside that of Ché and Bolívar as their symbol, and aside from a scattered statue or street name, provide the most widespread reminder of who this guy was.
So in 1812 we see Miranda leave the stage and his project is picked up by a young prospect known as Simón Bolívar. Now Bolívar, who is known officially as either “The Liberator” or “America’s Genius”, is really quite well known in history, and the crypto-nationalist cult of his image predates Chávez entirely; to compare him to George Washington in terms of his stature as a popular icon would be to gravely understate the situation. Just to give an idea of how deep feelings can run in regards to the man, a poor woman named Victoria once answered me, after I had asked if she thought Chávez was a sincere revolutionary, “After God, Bolívar. After Bolívar, Chávez. And after Chávez, us. The people”. It was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever heard, and serves as a decent example of how profound the adoration and trust of Hugo Chávez really is amongst the people. But I’m getting ahead of myself...
Bolívar was a rich kid. Like most nationalist heroes of the time, brilliance was more or less an effect of his being exposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment. Though born in Caracas he was schooled in France, where in particular his tutor Simón Rodríguez (alias Ribas, now also considered a national hero) helped to expose him to Voltaire, Rousseau, and all that stuff. Add to his experiences a trip to the freshly-independent United States, and you’ll find that he had all the fuel he needed to embark on his revolutionary plans for an independent South America.
Bolívar turns out to be a more than competent leader, as he and his lieutenant Antonio José de Sucre (you guessed it, also a national hero) use his inheritance to romp across the Northwestern continent, secure Colombia in 1819, and rock the Spanish armies in 35 battles including that of Carabobo on June 24, 1821 - gaining independence for all of modern Venezuela. Ever an ambitious fellow, Bolívar declares “Gran Colombia” to exist on the territories of modern-day Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela before the last two were even won from the Spanish Empire. This shining idyll of a South American superpower is more or less the historical and ideological basis for what the Chávez government refers to as its projects of “integración”, and Bolívar’s empire provides a handy reference as to what that might look like (plus Cuba, of course). I was surprised at how openly these ideas were paraded in the country; for example when I read in the December, 2005 issue of El Camino (a publication of the Ministry of Culture) that Evo Morales’ election had “reopened Bolívar’s dream in the territories of Venezuela and the nation that is today Bolivia”.
Anyway, Bolívar gets along fine until about the late 1820’s when, after “liberating” all of Gran Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, his territory begins to fall apart while he is away fighting in the latter. Despite having continually rejected offers of an emperor’s crown, Simón finds that his massive conquests cannot hold under a central government and in 1828 becomes a dictator in an attempt to save it all. In 1830 he miraculously escapes an assassination attempt in Bogotá, after which he says, “Fuck it” and resigns from politics. Sickly, impoverished and without any friends, he dies later that year after declaring, “There have been three great fools in history: Jesus, Don Quixote, and I.”
So there you have El Libertador, who more or less embodies the imagery that Chávez has rode to power. Now some anarchists, at least in light of the Bolivarian Revolution, have since sought to put a “libertarian” spin on Bolívar, giving him the José Martí treatment as someone who was potentially a revolutionary, but either before his time or prevented by history from seeing his dream succeed. They can pull out a number of arguments to back this up; for instance his support for “indigenous rights” or the fact that the patriotic Venezuelan government of Miranda had abolished the slave trade early on - though not slavery itself, which would only disappear in name by 1854 (it continued in practice for quite some time after). Personally, as a North American resident I see little use in opportunistically “recuperating” such a historical figure. After all, it’s just another white guy espousing bourgeois nationalism, and we got enough of those.
Bolívar’s empire soon crumbled to pieces as it was divided between feuding caudillos (“little generals”) who would define Venezuelan and regional politics for at least the rest of the 19th century. There is, of course, as much history of genuine class struggle in Venezuela as there is anywhere else in the world - notably Eziquiel Zamora’s “sovereign army of the people” that in the 1840’s terrorized the landowning classes (Chávez’ great great grandfather was among their ranks) - but for our purposes it is sufficient to say that the nation remained more or less unchanged from this ragged state of affairs, without a truly effective central government or military, until 1908 when the corrupt dictatorship of Cipriano Castro Ruiz (who has been praised by Chávez as a nationalist figure at recent OPEC meetings) was overthrown by his more ruthless lieutenant, Juan Vincente Gómez.
General Gómez was the most successful of Venezuelan dictators, holding onto power until his death in 1935 partly through luck, and partly through skillful planning.
The luck was that Venezuelan oil production truly began in 1914, and during the discovery of massive reserves throughout the early 20’s Gómez was able to capitalize - literally - by making himself sole shareholder in the national oil industry and then selling everything he could to the foreign energy companies: by the 1930’s Shell and Standard Oil owned 85% of the nation’s oil reserves.
The “skillful planning” was in finally being able to unite the country’s armed forces under a centralized command - partly with oil bribes and partly with the help of a Chilean officer enlisted to restructure the military in line with the Prussian model. This is a particularly interesting fact given that Chavistas make such a point about the FAN (National Armed Forces) being “fundamentally” different from the quasi-fascist militaries in such countries as Argentina and... Chile.
After Gómez died, mobs in Caracas set fire to the houses of his relatives and supporters, and even threatened the oil installations in the West of the country with outright destruction - a clear indicator of his legacy. The Venezuelan “Communist” Party (PCV, obviously Leninist) gets founded in 1931, and eventually adopts the rooster as it symbol in reference to a popular novella, El Gallo Canta Claro. Decades later, it’s most important contribution would be to produce the daring guerrilla leader Douglas Bravo, who originally comes up with the idea of organizing an insurrection from within the officer class of the FAN.
As Gómez’ successors struggled to maintain the same level of tight control, a new wave of nationalism in the country led to a movement proclaiming that Bolívar’s dream was an unfinished project, particularly so long as oil revenues did not directly benefit the people. From 1936 to 37 we see a massive strike in the oil industry against “imperialism”, probably the single most important event in the last century of Venezuela’s labor history.
In 1941 the “leftist” Acción Democrática (Democratic Action, AD) party is founded on a platform of European-style Social Democracy, and in 1945 it seizes power with the military via the Unión Patriótico Militar (UPM). The Christian Democratic COPEI party is founded in 1947 to “counterbalance” the AD - both parties embrace and directly copy the Leninist model of efficient centralized organization in order to quickly counter the growing PCV at a national level. Pushing through a number of social reforms that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier, by 1948 they are removed from power in a military coup by General Marcos Pérez Jiménez - the same who had lead the UPM in the first place.
Pérez Jiménez’ rule was relatively short - only a decade - but became known as one of the most brutal dictatorships in the region. Torture, disappearances... if you can name it, it probably happened. During this period we see Venezuela’s first real experiences with modern political diversion and proto-populism as Jiménez seeks to draw attention away from the fact that he is a shitty ruler by constructing a lot of big impressive buildings in Caracas. It doesn’t work.
On New Year’s Day 1958, the airforce begins a bombardment of the Miraflores presidential palace and soon the navy joins the mutiny. By January 21 a general strike is called, but only two days later with the cooperation of the military does Jiménez fall. This drawn out process is nowadays condensed into “El 23 de Enero”, a popular myth that one massive uprising toppled the dictator on the 23rd.
The magic of 23 Enero is compounded by the fact that during the uprising, poor Venezuelans seized several modern apartment blocks surrounding Miraflores, which had been built to house Jiménez’ technocrats, and to this day they remain in the hands of the working class in the heart of the barrios that soon sprang up around them - the most famous of which is itself known as El 23 de Enero.
Nevertheless, the events of early ‘58 were the birth of Venezuela’s 4th Republic. The “Junta Patriotica” - another, more stable civic-military alliance - took power under the auspices of the infamous Punto Fijo pact, a “perfect alliance” between the military, clergy, business, (FEDECAMARAS union) labor, (CTV bureaucracy) and the AD and COPEI, to alternate power indefinitely through a two-party electoral system. The PCV, as usual, did all it could to put a break on the revolutionary process in order to weasel its way into power somehow, but ended up being kicked out of the government it had helped to create in order to appease Washington after visiting President Richard Nixon was nearly lynched in the streets of Caracas by an anti-US mob (awesome!).
New president Romulo Betancourt presides over this process and succeeds in uniting the ultra-right FAN behind electoral democracy by buying officers with oil money and stroking fears of the communist menace. His other great achievements include a literal “shoot first, then ask questions” policy and a comprehensive exchange program with the School of the Americas - another thing to remember the next time a Chavista tells you that the FAN are unlike any other military on the continent. Business as usual is back in place as early as 1959, when a march of 50,000 unemployed workers is fired upon, killing three.
Around this time, the Cuban Revolution had the same affect on Venezuela as it had everywhere else on the continent: it inspired armed struggle. In 1962 the FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) was created from various smaller preexisting rebel groups, and began a comprehensive campaign of violence against the state that lasted well into the ‘70s and included a botched assassination attempt against Betancourt himself in 1963.
All in all, Venezuela’s armed struggle didn’t get too far, but its history is filled with dramatic attacks, escapes, and even mutinies. In 1965 guerrilla leader Douglas Bravo is expelled from the PCV after criticizing it for turning away from the armed struggle to focus on prisoner support and civic organization. This break would clear the way for him to start looking for other possibilities, and in 1980 he succeeded in recruiting a young officer named Hugo Chávez to his plan of insurrection from within the FAN.
The 1970s are a period of ultra-populism for Venezuela. In ‘73 instability in the Middle East shoots the price of oil from $2 to $12 a barrel and in ‘75 President Carlos Andrés Pérez nationalizes oil and iron ore, and then immediately goes on a spending spree. Venezuelans suddenly become used to a high standard of living and everything the country needs (and plenty of stuff it doesn’t) is imported for consumption by the ruling classes. Terribly-implemented social programs nevertheless deliver free childcare and food to thousands, successfully neutralizing the social struggle with paternalism. As we shall see, Chávez’ plans bear more than a passing resemblance to this model. At the same time, the “Andrés Bello Plan” cleverly lets the government save money by allowing certain military officers to leave barracks and attend college to gain professional skills. Supposedly this put them in contact with “leftist professors”, a key argument of those who insist on the “revolutionary” nature of the FAN.
In the earlier part of this decade two groups would split off from the PCV to become Venezuela’s institutional leftist parties. The first, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS - no relation to the ruling party in Bolivia) was more interested in the “Euro-Communism” line and really didn’t do anything exciting aside from disappoint people whenever it actually managed to get into office. The second was known as Venezuela 83 (even though it began in ‘71) for 8 years before becoming La Causa Radical (Radical Cause, Causa R). Causa R has had a much more interesting history than MAS, as it rose directly out of the steelworker’s struggles against the union bureaucracy in Bolívar State before becoming a political party. In 1989 it won the governorship of that state and became the only party in congress to oppose IMF policies.
Another oil price spike caused by the Iran/Iraq war in 1979 keeps Pérez riding high, and the government is even able to maintain a policy of “buying” its neighbors through random gifts (again, a similarity to the present government). In 1983 Hugo Chávez, who had been looking for revolutionary alternatives throughout the late ‘70s, founds the MBR200 (Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement 200, for the bicentenary of Bolívar’s birth) as a clandestine group within the FAN.
Things didn’t get really interesting again until 1983, when world oil prices dropped and Venezuela got hit with inflation for the first time that almost anybody could remember. The only possible solution to the failure of paternalism? Neoliberal policies, of course! In 1989 Pérez runs on an anti-IMF ticket but immediately turns around once he is reelected. On February 25th gas prices are raised, wounding the national pride. Two days later, public transit prices go up and spark what would become the biggest explosion of class war in Venezuela’s recent history.
In response to the higher fares, organized students occupy a bus terminal and in the process manage to get mass support. This is particularly important to remember since many Chavistas insist that the traditional student population (those not enrolled in the new “Bolivarian” University) are exclusively middle-class and incapable of playing an active role in the struggle. But during the events of February 1989, the students were the only organized social movement to be involved from the very beginning.
From the bus terminal, street barricades and marches spread until Caracas itself becomes a riot zone. Pérez was out of the city at the time, and ignored the protests until they had gotten completely out of hand. In Venezuela I had the chance to see some footage from those days, and I can tell you that for sheer comprehensiveness, the looting made anything from Argentina in 2002 look like a walk in the park. The government responded the only way a government could, which was to shoot as many people as possible.
It all depends on whom you ask, but anywhere between 300 and 1,000 people were killed in Caracas by the military. Of course, the “300” figure was suggested by the state itself. If you include Valencia and Maracay, to where the rebellion also spread, the count is probably something like 3,000 dead over 5 days of unrest; mass graves have been found from this period. In Caracas, where soldiers faced working-class snipers defending their neighborhoods, whole apartment buildings were repeatedly strafed with automatic machine gun fire. Many of the young officers directly responsible for this atrocity now hold posts in the Chavez government.
For Pérez’ part, he put on the brave face and made plenty of televised speeches about “restoring order”, “citizen’s duty”, and “getting through this hard period... together.”
If Venezuela is going through a revolutionary process, this is where it all began. Ten years before Seattle, in the first major rebellion against IMF policies.
Of course the Chavista line is a little different. The “Caracazo”, as the riots came to be known, were a tragedy of course, but the “revolution” didn’t begin until February 4th 1992, when Hugo Chávez and his MBR200 burst onto the scene and tried for a coup. Tripping all over themselves with tactical incompetence and abandoned last minute by the Causa R which had promised to support the action (but then decided to hold out for the upcoming elections), Chávez’s followers were quickly mopped up without any particular trouble after attacking Miraflores - though they did see some military success in oil-rich state of Zulia. Before being taken prisoner, Chávez negotiates one minute of TV airtime so as to ask his troops to surrender. What happened next was the genesis of mass Chavismo, as in the process of this appeal he tells the Venezuelan people that he is only laying down his weapons “for now”. Lookin’ all cute in his uniform and paratrooper’s beret, a national icon was born.
Another coup attempt, primarily driven by the airforce, fails with no popular support on the 27th of November, but at this point populism, the Punto Fijo pact, and for all intents and purposes the two main political parties, were already dead. Pérez would be impeached just one year later as it surfaced that he illegally sent $17 million to support the anti-Sandinista candidate in Nicaragua’s 1990 elections.
This whole chain of events (but particularly the Caracazo) created a political vacuum, which then allowed the Venezuelan social movements to come into their own for the first time. Without a dictatorship or populist handouts to suppress them (or the stifling control of an AD/COPEI leadership), the indigenous, environmental, women’s, student, and other movements found themselves in a period of widespread disillusion with the electoral process, and began to press for a sweeping change in the country’s politics. In particular the student movement was able to finally assert its independence from the traditional political parties, peaking as an autonomous force between 1994-96.
After Pérez’ impeachment, Rafael Caldera took office as a “reformist” with the support of MAS. It is now - and even then - widely known that the military burned ballots during his election so as to prevent the victory La Causa R, but the left-wing party accepted the fraudulent results in order to enter the government. Caldera’s only claim to fame is that he made good on a campaign pledge to free Hugo Chávez and his co-conspirators; the rest of his term is a continuation of IMF policies and the “Washington Consensus”. For their part, Chávez and the MBR200 had urged Venezuelans to abstain from the ‘93 elections, confident that the political system was on the verge of collapse.
In 1995 we see the first of the major non-PCV Chavista parties emerge as Patria Para Todos (PPT) splits from Causa R in response to the former’s allying itself with MAS and COPEI. Causa R is rewarded with government posts for supporting the 1998 presidential campaign of Irene Sáez, former Miss Universe and district mayor of Chacao (a small but wealthy sector of Caracas).
By 1996 the MBR200 had grown tired of waiting, abandoned armed struggle, and held a national conference to reformulate itself as a political party known as the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR). Nowadays the MVR is more or less known as “Chávez’s party” but some people are still running under the name of MBR200, as it is a certain stamp of credibility to have been with him from the beginning. This overall change in strategy did not materialize out of nothing - various members of the political and business class had been working to groom Chávez as an “alternative” candidate for years. His campaign was directly funded by private business and the eventual victory speech was broadcast from the offices of a securities multinational in Caracas.
The MVR as a political party came out of practically nothing, united a number of too-small-to-be-important socialist groups, did not have the organization necessary for electoral success, and has been described by ZNet as an “ideological monoculture” (a description that could also be much more widely applied). In practical terms, the MVR only got along by relying on the established PPT, PCV, and PODEMOS (which split from MAS) parties, which did have the internal structure to put up candidates and run national political campaigns. Thus Chavismo, far from being a neutral revolutionary phenomenon, is the force by which the traditional statist and social democratic Left has finally found a way to get itself into power; and its continued participation in the Chávez administration, is the only way that the MVR government can exist.
Hugo Chávez mounted his presidential campaign by leaning on the “Polo Patriotico” (an alliance of left groups), promises to rewrite the constitution, and the flowery imagery of Bolívar’s dream, which hadn’t been successfully harnessed since the height of populism in the 70’s. Irene Sáez’ campaign began strong, but she soon suffered from a few faux pas and withdrew before the election. As oil prices tumbled yet again, Hugo rocketed to victory.
On his first day in office, Chávez fulfilled his promises by signing a decree to create a constitutional assembly. And whilst the traditional oligarchy began courting the new government to see where the opportunities lay, he went ahead and implemented things such as Plan Bolívar 2000, which saw over 40,000 FAN troops leave the barracks to fix roads, schools, and distribute food throughout the country. On the one hand it was the only option for a president looking to bypass the state bureaucracy. On the other hand, it was the first indication of Chávez’ methods for integrating his armed forces with the civilian population.
Simón Bolívar was known as a “caudillo with a human face”, and Chávez latched onto this ideal with a great degree of success. It soon became clear how things were going to go as he stacked the MVR with fellow coup plotters and members of his immediate family (including his brother and longtime Leninist organizer, Adán). Up until this day, Chávez has continued in the democratic tradition by giving out all kinds of posts as rewards for loyalty.
The elections to the constitutional assembly in 1999 attracted a more diverse grouping than any previous process, and resulted in a 90% Chavista victory - with over half of the electorate abstaining. The assembly soon came to see itself as the de facto government, setting up 21 commissions for the debate of different issues and taking in article submissions from hundreds of citizens. Chávez’ own contributions would come to form the outline of the final text.
The majority of Venezuelans who I spoke to expressed a positive view of the constitutional assembly and believed that, on the whole, it was an immensely democratic process - particularly given the alternatives. To be sure, the resulting Bolivarian Constitution has several interesting articles. For one, housewives were for the first time recognized as workers who create value, and thus should have access to welfare and social security. Paragraph 2 of Article 21 declares that the government should “adopt positive measures for groups which could be discriminated, marginalized, or vulnerable”, which is vague, but has since been enthusiastically seized upon by the Gay Revolutionary Movement (an actual tendency). Prior to the new constitution, homosexuality was considered “gross indecency” and punishable by anywhere from 5-12 years in prison. Javier Granadillo, a queer media activist who I met during the World Social Forum, told me with tears in his eyes, “I LOVE my president because he has included gays for the first time”.
This kind of heartfelt loyalty to the Bolivarian process is widespread and must be taken into account by anyone seeking to understand what Venezuela is going through. The new constitution went on to fix the workweek at a maximum of 44 hours, gave the military the right to vote, and reserved the rights of officer promotion for the president and top brass (it had previously been held by the National Assembly). All elected posts in the country were now subject to a recall referendum halfway through the term if 20% of the electorate desired it. 5% could petition for a referendum to reverse presidential decrees, .1% (10,000 people) can send a bill to congress, and 15% can force a referendum on constitutional reform.
Terrified at these implications and the possibility that abortion could be legalized (it was not, and continues to be illegal to this day, with no mass pressure on the issue that I could discern), the media and church began their attack on the constitution - and Chávez - around this time. The key to understanding the extreme-right spin of Venezuela’s 9 private television channels and daily newspapers is knowing that Caracas has the highest percentage of Cuban exiles outside of Miami, and these people have taken their time getting well-entrenched in the news industry. At this point It was useful to think of Chávez as a Venezuelan FDR, the modern bourgeois going up against the established bourgeois. The constitution also did not provide for any libel laws until the 2005 law of “Social Responsibility” (which was decried as censorship) and so for the first several years of Chávez’ government the private media had a field day, attacking the president in any way possible and even declaring him to be developmentally challenged.
But not everything in the Bolivarian Constitution can be looked at as positive. Presidential terms were extended, foreign relations power was centralized in the executive, and business lawyer Allan Brewer-Carías was personally able to insert several articles guaranteeing a protection of private business and property. The constitution supposedly creates a citizen’s branch of government, “republican power”, but in practice Chávez has really done whatever he wants. Federalism is proclaimed while power is centralized, and page after page is loaded with repetitive announcements of human rights that mean nothing when grafted onto the pre-existing police state (which has undergone no reforms). Most worryingly, the constitution makes it completely unnecessary for the government to consult anyone before signing international energy or infrastructure contracts.
In December of 1999 the people voted for the new constitution largely on class lines, which - in a country where anywhere between 55-80% of the population is impoverished - means that it was approved. While Chávez promised, “I will turn Venezuela into a first world nation in 10 years” tens of thousands of the old bourgeoisie fled to countries that already were - notably Spain and the USA (Miami).
In order to cement this new constitutional order, new and massive elections for all governorships, state and national assemblies, president, and local mayors were held in July of 2000. It is at this point that we first begin to see the emergence of Chavismo as an electoral farce - in other words, various politicians of all stripes began to put on the signature red beret or t-shirt in order to get elected. Because Chávez lacked any mass political organization, he found himself needing to get support from wherever he could find it, and could afford to be ideologically promiscuous in the process.
As a result of everything Chávez has done, Venezuela became the first - and possibly, only - country in South America to have saved popular faith in political institutions and electoral participation. The biggest consequence of Chavismo is that it has relegitimized the state and its political class, at the total cost of all gains made in extra-parliamentary struggle over the course of the 90s. Venezuela has been on the verge of popular revolution (even if only a “national democratic” one) for at least half a century, and the crisis of the last decade created a situation where only a non-traditional politician using leftist rhetoric could possibly have salvaged the crumbling state.
In late 2001, Chávez approved the famous “41 Laws” he deems necessary to put the constitution into practice. This proves to be the final straw for the media, church, and national business class, who from this point forward begin to seriously plot against the government. Ironically, it is in these 41 laws that we really begin to see openings for new types of foreign investment in the energy sector and other neo-liberal strategies.
What happened in Venezuela over the next few years is almost common knowledge, and I won’t touch on it too much except to hit the main points:
In April of 2002 the heads of the military ally themselves with the business class and stage a massacre against peaceful Chavista crowds and opposition protestors outside of Miraflores palace. In the confusion caused by a concerted misinformation campaign by the mass media, Chávez is kidnapped from office and a new transitional regime immediately begins dismantling his government. Pro-Chávez crowds surround Miraflores screaming for his return and the loyal Palace Guards retake control of the complex. Through a single-minded concentration on these events, the international Left has built up for itself a myth that the April coup was miraculously reversed by a mass popular uprising with the sympathy of the rank and file in the FAN. This version of events is best represented in the officialist documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, by far the single most accessible source of information on Venezuela for English-speaking North Americans and Europeans. The truth however, is that Chávez’ return had more to do with internal negotiations within the higher levels of the FAN than anything else. As the new regime was put into place via a coup, the Organization of American States would not have recognized it and as a result Chávez remained the only option for the bourgeoisie.
The following year, the business class struck again by calling for a national “strike” in all strategic industries, most notably the state oil company PDVSA (this is commonly known as the “paro petrolero”). Venezuela’s economy dived for months before the bourgeoisie itself called off the lockout in order to save their own livelihoods. The United States in particular had an interest in seeing oil production get back up to speed. Here again the Left has decided to paint the events with a red brush, hailing the heroism of PDVSA workers who defied the lockout to get the pumps working again. The most important effect of the lockout was that it allowed Chávez to fire 18,000 PDVSA employees for walking off the job, including most of its technical staff of geologists, geophysicists and reservoir engineers, and then refill those posts with political supporters (this is the point at which the “new” PDVSA became “the people’s”). In this process all forms of budding worker’s self-management were quickly rolled back under the assurance that PDVSA now “belonged to the people”. Workers also managed to reoccupy a handful of other small factories, which are now being absorbed by the state and tokenized as symbols of “co-management” and glorious revolution.
The oil boom in 2002 saw Chávez rolling in cash, which through the “new” PDVSA, he proceeded to spend on a series of Misiones, or social programs intended to make the decrees of the constitution factual. In 2003 thousands of Cuban doctors and literacy workers entered Venezuela to help in building these programs, the most famous of which are Barrio Adentro (free health care) Robinson (literacy) Ribas (higher education) and Mercal (subsidized food). The real benefits of these programs cannot be denied, but neither can the fact that their implementation is designed to integrate civic society with the state oil industry and make the former even more dependent on the latter than it already was. There is indeed a case to be made that the current implementation of the Misiones is primarily an exercise in building infrastructure for the future, but the material fact is that social spending per capita has not increased past the levels seen during the 1970’s oil bonanza.
The last and most recent concerted attempt to remove Chávez from power came in 2004 with a recall referendum - obviously ironic since such a move would have been impossible under anything other than the Bolivarian Constitution. The “No” (pro-Chávez) vote won this incredibly important election in a landslide that guaranteed the president’s democratic credentials. And yet even the referendum itself is a bit tricky to decode, as of just under 15 million voters, only about 70% participated in the recall; some 5,600,000 for Chávez and 3,800,000 against, shattering the illusion of an undisputable Chavista majority, and exposing the continuing existence of voter apathy. It is also worth noting that the political forces behind the “Yes” vote had and continue to have absolutely no political platform or project other than a rabid anti-Chávez stance. It’s also interesting to point out that after the victory, multinational stocks such as Chevron-Texaco and Crystallex (Canadian gold mining) shot up. Chávez provides a very stable and welcoming environment for foreign investment.
3. NO HAY CAMINO HACIA LA AUTOGESTIÓN, ¡LA AUTOGESTIÓN ES EL CAMINO!
In fact, Chávez provides a very welcoming environment for just about anyone. The man is damn charismatic! It’s like an anarchist sport just to see how long you can watch the president give a speech before saying, “hey maybe he’s not so bad”. His relationship to the people is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They love him. It sounds cliché, but they see themselves in him and have concentrated their hopes into his personage. His personality cult has been built slowly over thousands of hours of televised appearances and meetings with all sorts of different people - and it all began with that little minute in 1992. To give an example of how his “magic” sometimes plays out, it might be useful to relate what I saw of a televised conference in which Chávez presented a series of grants for different “endogenous” community projects to be implemented through the new Bolivarian High Schools. In an auditorium filled with cheering, uniformed school children, Chávez and several ministers listened as one by one, representatives of the nation’s Bolivarian students reported on the development of their new educational institutions.
One young woman, poised to read off the achievements of her school, excused herself and instead used the opportunity to ask the president on national television what he planned to do about the confusion over school uniforms, which come in both blue and beige. The girl wanted to know when they could expect a single color for all school uniforms, and the crowd roared with approval at seeing Chávez caught off guard by this friendly interrogation.
The Venezuelans I had been watching the broadcast with began to laugh with disbelief, saying, “Wow - that little girl just fixed those stupid uniforms!” as on screen, Chávez played up his bewilderment and responded by calling out possible colors for new uniforms, after each of which the crowd of students would cry out for approval or rejection.
To be sure, these little incidents are not necessarily indicative of an actual “revolutionary democracy” and given Chávez’ history of promising various things in the heat of the moment and never following up on them (such as ridding his country of Genetically Modified food companies such as Monsanto), often times do not mean anything at all. Some of the more cynical might even point out that such spectacles could be easily pre-planned in order to look spontaneous and paint a human face on the president. Regardless, the phenomenon they represent and feed is central to any understanding of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Hugo Chávez spends more time on television than probably any other politician, and practically all government ceremonies at which he speaks are seen as opportunities to rearticulate his vision of the revolution before a national audience. His weekly “Aló Presidente” program is only the tip of the iceberg in this nonstop propaganda blitz. The key to appreciating all this aritime is to contrast it with other politicians of past and present, both national and international. George W. Bush for instance, is infamous for spending as little time as possible in front of the cameras, and only speaking briefly whenever he is. Next to this example and the prior tradition of politics in Venezuela, Chávez’ constant rhetoric and openness to the media creates the impression of a process that is constantly developing with the people’s involvement - a societal discussion in which he can continually serve as the moderator.
There is a small but vocal group of radicals, including prominent members of anarchist groups, who have personally met Chávez in the past and confide that this “dialogue” is a sham, and his actual personality is quite authoritarian. Douglas Bravo himself is now one of the major voices in this strand of criticism, and insists that Chávez is nostalgic over his 1992 coup attempt, during which he claims that the future president was openly disdainful of the “unorganized masses” and saw the revolutionary project as the exclusive role of the armed forces, only to be rubber-stamped by the popular movements. In a way this is not difficult to believe, especially given the elevation of February 4th to a national holiday that totally eclipses Chávez’ actual election in terms of relevance to “the process”. On the other hand, the overwhelmingly vocal majority of the Venezuelan working class seems totally convinced of his sincerity, though not that of his immediate allies.
For the sake of this text as well as RAAN’s future organizing around Venezuela, I must insist that the question of whether Chávez - as a single man - is sincere is incredibly irrelevant. For anarchists in particular, the detail of whether or not to support Chávez is a massive distraction that can only lead to divisiveness within the movement and accusations of “petty-bourgeois influence” from without. Regardless of whether or not Chávez is a legitimate revolutionary “leader”, the only tactical course for all revolutionaries remains as it ever was: to press for autonomous and horizontally-applied community and workers’ organization and action against capitalism, focusing on a sustainability independent of all governments, “revolutionary” or not, and especially the limited political and even natural life of any single figure.
4. NINGUNA REVOLUCIÓN SE FINANCIA POR MEDIO DE LAS TRANSNACIONALES
Hugo Chávez is a pragmatist who on more than one occasion has said that he does “not believe we are living in an age of proletarian revolutions”. So the question becomes, just where the hell is this “Socialismo Bolivariano” supposed to come from, then?
Criticizing the current Venezuelan regime, particularly from within the North American movement, is a tricky proposition. There are more than enough people out there wearing red berets and ready to denounce any “attack” against Chávez as tacit support for a US coup. This tendency is of course rather prevalent in Venezuela, and in fact is really quite analogous to the Bush doctrine of either being “with us or against us” - a comparison that needs to be made as much as possible. To those who say that criticizing Chávez hands weapons to the enemy, we must be firm in saying that to not do so is infinitely more dangerous. Those who speak at any time of a “revolutionary government” have, to recall Vaneigem, “a corpse in their mouth”.
The Venezuela issue is so interesting, so very germane to the Red & Anarchist Action Network, because to understand it fully one needs a synthesis of both classical anarchist and Marxist critiques.
From the anarchist side, we have a rejection of all power structures and particularly the vertical implementation of aid or development. So no, of course it’s not “bad” that Chávez is setting up free health care clinics, and of course it’s not “bad” that people are learning how to read and write for the first time, but the extreme rigidity of these programs breeds a direct dependence on state structures that harkens back to the paternalism of the 1970’s. Thus when the leftists exclaim that Chávez has gotten rid of school fees (allowing 600,000 more children to attend class) and RAAN (with its principles calling for the abolition of institutional schooling) is hopelessly “bourgeois” and cannot understand the importance of that in a “Third World” nation, we must explain that Chávez has bought his way through the revolution with frequent “gifts” (such as free school uniforms) and that not only was free schooling already available during the populist years, but it was abandoned due to the unsustainability of the oil-centric economic dependency that Chávez has not only refused to confront, but has in fact deepened exponentially.
We envision self-managed communities with the ability to independently educate themselves according to their local custom via a free access to information and resources. The vertical implementation of government programs seeks to “push through” a “revolution” that in many cases doesn’t actually exist at the level of grassroots consciousness, or at least not in the format specified by the government decrees. This culture of “charity” and dependency is ultimately counter-revolutionary since it ossifies the state bureaucracy and makes it nearly impossible for the people to defend themselves or carry through the revolution in the absence of a “friendly” central government or armed forces - conditions that simply cannot be taken as given!
There are of course exceptions to this - for instance in the autonomous community of La Vega, (a historically combative settlement 40 minutes outside of Caracas, from where the police have been expelled) Mision Ribas and other social programs are directly run by the most active community organizers, without much interference by the state. The problem is, La Vega is not a representative community in Venezuela. Hugo Chávez continually calls, day and night, for the people to organize themselves. Repeatedly he states that the revolution can only go through if the people are organized enough to really make it happen. Such comments as these are always pointed to by those who would insist that Chávez is sincere in his project. I would respond that it really doesn’t matter, and that “with” him or “against” him, the task remains to organize autonomous communities capable of breaking all dependence on Chávez or the guy who comes after him, even if having to utilize government handouts along the way. The problem is, this isn’t what’s happening.
Chávez will decree that by such and such a date, some odd number of localized “cooperatives” will be ready to extend whatever the new project for that month is into a like number of communities across Venezuela. When the deadline comes, less than a third of these cooperatives have actually gotten themselves together, and the project is just dropped from above onto the remaining communities. It is very important to note, these Misiones do not surpass the token level of care already provided for during previous oil bonanzas. Barrio Adentro, for instance, has three levels. The first are the preventative care clinics directly in the neighborhoods that we hear so much about, which aren’t good for much more than a band-aid. The second level encompasses the specialized trauma centers, which only exist in select communities, anyway. And the third level is supposedly the public central hospitals of Venezuela, which remain completely inadequate and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, food consumption is up while actual nutrition is down, and “tropical” diseases like Malaria and Tuberculosis are shockingly on the rise. But none of this matters, because all Chávez needs to do is build another Barrio Adentro and the international Left will shower praise on him like he saved the world. With such tactics he actually spends less on the social programs than he would on any media campaign necessary to promote them, and draws attention away from the fact that all of this is still based on one thing - oil.
This is where the Marxist analysis comes in. In the rush to support an emerging “revolutionary” situation in South America, many radicals have completely forgotten that capitalism is not just some form of government, but a mode of production that is not isolated in one nation, class, or done away with simply by having the workers run “their” own factories. Chávez very skillfully keeps the attention on policy differences with the US government so as to throw up a smokescreen with which to hide the fact that he is actually marching right in step with neo-liberal globalization’s grand scheme for the region.
What possible use is it to go on and on about how unjust the war in Iraq is, for instance, when Halliburton remains the chief services contractor for PDVSA? How enormously distracting is it for Chávez to play verbal war games with Condoleezza Rice while welcoming Chevron - the murderous company she once directed - into the country with open arms, even calling them “great friends of the revolutionary process”?
On the one hand, Venezuela’s oil nationalization left much of the industry’s infrastructure undeveloped, and building relationships with the transnationals is the only way to overcome this without immediately bankrupting the country. Chávez certainly can’t hope to go from relying solely on oil and importing up to 80% of Venezuela’s food, to a completely “sovereign” and self-sufficient nation overnight... but on the other hand there is absolutely nothing to suggest that he is doing anything other than trying to deepen this dependency. Under the banner of socialism and with slogans of “development”, Chávez has presided over the biggest handover of national resources in Venezuela’s history.
And how else could they possibly hope to do it? In late 2003 Bolivia nearly went through a revolution just at the suggestion of privatization. Chávez, on the other hand, is such a “revolutionary” that he can sign over the rights to the massive offshore Deltana Platform - which will create a “dead zone” in the ocean and have access to more gas reserves than ALL of Bolivia combined - and nobody will even realize that it just happened!
For Chávez, anything that brings in money from the country’s energy reserves (combined, the largest in the world) is positive. His single driving goal is to convert Venezuela into the number one energy producing country on earth - and for this to happen he relies not only on the transnationals, but the continuity of the capitalist system that consumes that energy. Despite scattered references to “the environment”, he has absolutely no intention of developing or providing the alternative energy solutions necessary to reduce economic dependency on the oil market. In fact, the only type of energy Chávez seems to be interested in that doesn’t come from gas, petrol, or coal... is nuclear.
But that’s probably a long way off. After all, he recently declared that under his government the integration of South America will become reality, and that Venezuela can provide for the region’s energy needs for the next 200 years - as if the ecosystem could possibly survive that much more sustained consumption! To match the global South’s level of “development” with that of the North (because of course, that’s what a prosperous socialist society should look like) is not only an ecological catastrophe, it’s exactly what international capital demands! Moreover, it’s a path completely removed from the national reality, as Venezuela has already received 60% of its energy from hydroelectric sources for some time and hardly needs a massive expansion in its oil production except as a exporter for the global market.
Chávez won big brownie points with the anti-globalization movement by coming out strong against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, (FTAA, or ALCA in Spanish) and never stopped his tirade against it until it was clear that it would not be going through. He even had the brilliant idea of creating “ALBA”, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. The only problem is, ALBA didn’t even really exist until Evo Morales signed on in late April, and unless Daniel Ortega becomes president of Nicaragua it is unclear if any other countries will be willing to sign up. In theory it’s a wonderful ideal of mutual aid whereby countries trade the services they specialize in without any emphasis on profit, with examples being the literacy, oil-for-doctors, and spinoff programs with Cuba. Chávez pushes the issue whenever he can and throws out oil gifts across the Caribbean, defiant that ALBA (which spells out “dawn”) will be the future. In fact, there seems to be no public framework to define ALBA aside from some of Chávez’ own essays, which make sure to state that the project could never serve as “a barrier to the development of technology” in the participating countries. While ALBA shows a lot of potential and could one day even redefine international trade, (though not free it from the capitalist context) at this point it does not pass for more than a distraction when compared to Venezuela’s much larger economic integration ventures under IIRSA.