As Turkey ramps up its bombing of Kurdish forces in northern Syria, VA sits down with Mehmet Ali Dogan, a Kurdish anthropologist and documentary filmmaker from Turkey, who is spokesperson for the Kurdistan-Latin America Solidarity Committee. Dogan is a veteran of the Kurdish liberation struggle, enduring six years as a political prisoner in the jails of the Turkish state. In recent years, he has lived in Latin America, first Bolivia and now Argentina, where he has sought to draw links between counter-hegemonic Latin American integration spearheaded by Venezuela under Hugo Chavez and Kurdish efforts to unify Kurdish and other ethnic communities in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Dogan draws on the thinking of Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Ocalan who since his 1997 imprisonment by Turkey has facilitated a political and ideological refounding of the Kurdish liberation movement, abandoning the objective of a Kurdish nation-state in favor of “democratic confederalism”, which envisions a loose network of federated municipalities, encompassing Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Armenians, and other groups in a self-governing arrangement based on participatory political and economic democracy, independent of colonially-inscribed state borders.
Visiting Caracas for a forum with long time revolutionary Roland Denis, Dogan discusses a wide range of issues, including the relation between the Venezuelan “communal state” and the democratic confederalist model being constructed in the autonomous region of northern Syria known as Rojava, counter-hegemonic strategies and the leftwing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) which garnered an historic 13% of votes in Turkish elections in June, as well as the role of popular power in confronting imperialism and economic war.
Q: How do you view the relation between the project of the “communal state in Venezuela” and the democratic confederalism we see in Rojava and Kurdistan more broadly?
A: For us Kurds, the experience of Venezuela is very important. After the 2002 coup, Comandante Chavez understood very well that power must be exercised by the people. The only guarantee in the face of the Empire is not the state structure, with the army, government, police, but the people. From this experience later emerged the idea of organizing Bolivarian militias, for example, which are very important. We understand that the Bolivarian Revolution must be defended by the people themselves, by the bases. And later, with the birth of the project of the communal councils and communes, it’s the same idea.
In our reading of the Venezuelan experience, the state as a bureaucratic structure cannot be the guarantee of the country’s defense. The state can be progressive, it can be even be revolutionary, but there’s always a bureaucracy that’s necessary to preserve the state. We are not against the state. What we see in the vision of Comandante Chavez is a strategy for diminishing the role of the state. What does this mean? If in a barrio, there is no electricity, the residents do not have to go through the local government: the communal council can solve this problem. If there’s violence against women, the people’s council can sort this out without resorting to the police. This is the logic of communal councils. And not only that, communal councils are key in fighting against inequality and corruption in all of its forms.
The communal councils are an example that demonstrates that not only the revolutionary Venezuelan army, not only the government, the parliament, but the people themselves with their local power can defend the country. It’s not a question of Left or Right, but one of national sovereignty. For us Kurds, we have thoroughly analyzed the Venezuelan example in order to reinforce our claim that the Kurdish strategy is not against the state. Rather, we are concerned with how we can reduce the role of the state. What does this mean? All of the principal decisions in the administration of society- health, education, etc.- can be taken in the localities by the people and this can be organized like the communal councils here. The role of the state is only to assist them, not to make decisions, but to carry out the decisions made by the bases. If the state makes decisions that the people are forced to carry out, bad things happen. This is the experience of the Soviet Union and other progressive governments, it’s the experience of Gaddafi. The Green Revolution was a great idea, but Gaddafi couldn’t popularize his ideology, nor could he transform this progressive revolution into a popular revolution. So for us, Venezuela, thanks to its local popular power, can resist all of the forms of imperialist aggression, economic war, war to destabilize Venezuela in order to reestablish a neoliberal system. For us, this is important.
Q: The institutions of popular power created in Venezuela over the last fifteen years have emerged in the context of a counter-hegemonic struggle, disputing power within the state in order to transform it. This was Chavez’s strategy. However, the Kurds in Rojava seem to have a different strategy it seems, namely, people’s war. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan likewise in his texts speaks against the counter-hegemonic strategy for contesting power. Nonetheless, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) does seem to have a strategy for winning power within the Turkish state. How do you view the counter-hegemonic path?
A: We fear polarization. Our enemy, which is the neoliberal system, succeeded in creating polarization- Right-Left, Turks-Kurds- in Turkey. We succeeded in breaking out of this polarization, because polarization among peoples, between the 80% and 20% is a very dangerous trap. When there is polarization, there is no communication between two parts. If 70% of the population in Turkey is being manipulated by the Turkish state which is under a Islamic nationalist ideology, I can’t communicate with these people, because when I knock on their doors, they say, “you are a Kurd, you are from the PKK”. It’s not the people’s fault, they are manipulated. So we worked a lot on this question of how to break out of this blockade.
Polarization is the same as a blockade: “don’t vote for these enemies”. A poor worker, an unemployed person is being manipulated. It’s not his or her fault. How can we communicate with him or her? We achieved this opening, we fought and sacrificed- more than 12,000 political prisoners and more than 18,000 disappeared- trying to break out of this blockade of polarization, and we managed to create a broad front. Manipulated Turks are now with us, becoming conscious of the lies, the misinformation of the Turkish state. Armenians are together with us, as are Syrians, other peoples, workers, peasants, etc. This is the example of Greece as well- Syriza. It’s the example of Podemos in Spain. Likewise in Spain there was a polarization between the socialist party and the government, but now it doesn’t exist anymore; our Spanish comrades achieved this. We are experiencing throughout the world the birth of another way of making revolution.
Polarization is very dangerous, What did the Empire do here in Venezuela? The polarization of 51% against 49% [in the 2013 presidential elections]. Following President Maduro, we cannot say that 48% of Venezuelans are bourgeois. No, they are manipulated. We have a job to communicate with this part, to convince them, recognize the errors that we’ve made, and figure how we can march with the support of the majority of the population.
This is happening in Bolivia. The miners protest, there are confrontations, but these are the same miners who vote for Evo. So, protests, democratic denunciations do not mean that the government is the enemy of the protesters. The people demand their rights from their sister government. We have to work at this as well. For example, we control mayoral governments in Turkey. Sometimes, the comrades who are co-mayors- because we have a system of co-mayors with one man and one woman- make errors, and the Kurdish people take to the streets to say, “Listen comrade, we don’t want a factory that pollutes the water here.” So they protest against their own party as well. Therefore, democratic demands do not equate to destructive opposition. We have to accept constructive opposition. If we succeed at this, those who are manipulated by the opposition in Venezuela can participate critically [in the Bolivarian process] as Chavistas.
Q: I’m glad you mentioned Syriza. In Greece, in Turkey, and in Venezuela, it seems that revolutionary forces are facing the same problematic of the state, a state that is a neocolonial, bureaucratic matrix of domination. How do you see the problematic of the state and its transformation?
A: We want to take power in Turkey, reach the government, so we can diminish the role of the state. Today if the HDP has 80 deputies, the objective is to have a majority, form a government, and democratize Turkey. And democratize Turkey means a constituent assembly, a new constitution that reduces the role of the state.
If we don’t take power, we can’t change the state. In the existing world, we can’t speak of maneuvering without the state- states are going to exist, their borders exist. But how can we succeed in taking control of the state in order to reduce to a minimum the decision making and administrative capacity exercised by the state over the problems of the people? The people themselves [legislate via] direct democracy, participatory democracy- which for us are the same.
Q: And this problematic of the state is also linked to the problem of regional integration. On the global level, there appear to be two models of regional integration: on the one hand, we have the European Union, NAFTA, NATO, and other forms of neoliberal capitalist-imperialist integration, and on the other, we have the Kurdish project, ALBA [Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas], PetroCaribe, and other instances of counter-hegemonic integration. How do you view the struggle at the level of regional integration?
A: The divisions between national states in the Arab world doesn’t have any anthropological or sociological justification- it’ superficial. We have so many liberators in Latin America. What justifies the separation of Chile from Argentina, Argentina from Uruguay, Bolivia from Paraguay? Nothing.
So what we are doing is similar to the project of ALBA and the Patria Grande [Great Homeland]: the Patria Grande of the Middle East. The Middle East can experience this process, but it’s a long struggle, a struggle that we are going to wage with many sacrifices. But by changing every country, transforming every state, we can achieve this. So for us, the democratic revolutions in Latin America have great value.
Q: I’m happy you mentioned this notion of the Middle Eastern Patria Grande, because there are many Palestinians in Venezuela, and obviously the struggle against Israeli colonialism and apartheid is felt very close here. Are there Palestinian comrades who are inspired by this Kurdish model for Palestine?
A: It’s not a Kurdish model, it’s a model for the Middle East- this we have to define very clearly. It’s not a model for liberating the Kurds- “We liberated ourselves and that’s enough”. No, it’s a model for the liberation of the Middle East. It’s an alternative proposal for all of the peoples of the Middle East to liberate themselves and unite to create the Patria Grande of the Middle East. Because, thousands and thousands of years ago, our peoples lived very well together in this region.
Q: And how does the anti-patriarchal struggle form a part of this vision, as well as the struggle of LGBTQ people? We know that the hegemonic Eurocentric discourse tries to counterpose the supposed “civilized tolerance” of the “West”, particularly Israel, to the “patriarchal barbarism” of non-European societies in the Middle East.
A: We are now at zero, but we have advanced from -1000 to 0. So not everything is fixed but we are on a good path with the liberation struggle of women, who are treated as a class apart and are fighting to establish a new model where women have the same power as men.
Also, [non-hegemonic] sexual preferences are a huge taboo in this region, and we are fighting to go beyond tolerance in order to achieve the acceptance of diverse sexual preferences. Because the word “tolerance” implies “I don’t want you, you are very bad, but I’m going to make an effort to put up with you”. So, what we are doing is, “whatever you are, whatever you want, I accept you”, regardless of your sexual, religious preference, if you are Christian, Jewish, etc.
It’s a mental revolution. Consider this; six million people in Turkey, out of a population of almost 80 million, voted for this project. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has in its program the legalization and acceptance of diverse sexual preferences. We even have homosexual candidates. Six millions of votes- do you know what that means sociologically in a voting population of 30, 40 million people? It’s important, because we received these votes in spite of all the repression, the threats, the fraud. These are conscious votes that signify support for the diverse planks of our platform.
First, the Armenian genocide. Between 1915 and 1923, the Turkish state killed more than 1.5 million Armenians. The world demands recognition of this genocide. The Turkish state has to
correct its errors, it must do justice in reckoning with its past, as is being done in Argentina with justice against the impunity of the dictatorship. Second, homosexuality and women.
This is a mental revolution, but it doesn’t mean that we’ve resolved everything. But if in the Middle East, in Turkey, six million people vote for this project [HDP], for me it’s a revolution.
Q: Last night you discussed the relationship between revolution and state of war: paradoxically, the Syrian Civil War has given the Kurds in Rojava the opportunity to create an alternative society. In Venezuela, we frequently hear that we are in an economic war, but this state of war has not brought with it a new correlation of forces suited to carrying forward the Bolivarian process. On the contrary, there is much division and demobilization among the popular sectors. How do you see the situation in Venezuela in comparison with Rojava?
A: I think we’re in almost the same situation as Venezuela.The progressive movements of the
Kurdistan Union (KCK) succeeded in demonstrating the danger of the Empire. The majority of Kurds, Armenians, Syrians, many Arabs, Turks, Iranians are now conscious of this danger, and for this reason we are very united. In Venezuela, there is direct imperialist economic aggression. I believe the Venezuelan people are conscious that they are in a direct war and have to be more united. I believe in this sense that it is the task of the revolutionary progressive comrades of Venezuela to explain [to the people] that they are at war. Some Venezuelans unfortunately are not conscious that they are victims of aggression. How can the parallel dollar reach 700 [Bolivares]? It’s total economic war. In this sense, we are in the same situation, although our situation is much graver than Venezuela. So what we are hoping is that the Venezuelan people will create more unity in all parts of society in order to form a united front against imperialism.
Q: And how do you view the role of popular power in this economic war?
A: It’s not only popular power. Popular power is important, the central dynamic. The proposal of popular power is how can we socialize more. So, popular power succeeded in socializing health, education. But the problem is how to explain what we achieved through popular power. This a very important task. Venezuelans will understand better in the event that they lose this popular power, when the neoliberal system returns, but by then it will be too late. We cannot allow neoliberalism to govern in Venezuela.
Therefore, popular power is an important dynamic, but there’s also the middle class. The middle class is also the victim of neoliberalism. This we have to explain. And entrepreneurs, honest business people are the victims of neoliberalism as well. Small business people that have 50 employees are not going to exist any more, because they can’t compete with the large transnational monopolies that arrive here. So, how can we create a united front- the petty-bourgeoisie, the middle class, small business people, and popular power. This front is important.