ZNet Book Interview with Gregory Wilpert

Gregory Wilpert discusses what his recently released book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, is about and how and why he wrote it.


Can you tell ZNet, please, what Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso Books, 2007) is about? What is it trying to communicate?

Changing Venezuela by Taking Power is an explanation and analysis of the policies of the Chavez government of Venezuela. It first explains why Chavez came into office and why his political program increasingly radicalized over the course of the first six extremely contentious years of his presidency. The main part of the book takes a look at the Chavez government’s policies, its achievements and its shortcomings. These policies are divided into four main chapters, dealing with, first, what I call “governance” policies (involving constitutional reform, the military, and participatory democracy), then, economic policies, social policies, and foreign policies. Each of these four chapters presents a brief analysis of the ways in which the government’s policies succeed or fail to reach their stated goals of increasing social justice and democracy in Venezuela. The concluding chapter then takes a closer look at the main opportunities, obstacles, and prospects of the Chavez government for the near future. Since the book only covers the Chavez’s first term in office and since he introduced substantial new policy directions for his second term, the book also includes an epilogue that discusses these latest developments and brings the discussion up to May 2007. Finally, since so much of what is discussed in Venezuela has to do with the concept of 21st century socialism, the appendix presents my interpretation of what 21st century socialism might look like.

As the book’s title suggests, it is also an indirect polemic with John Holloway’s notion of “Change the World without Taking Power.” In effect, I try to show that it is possible to change the world for the better by taking (state) power and that the Venezuelan experience even shows that such state power might be necessary if we want to achieve social justice now, rather than in a century or so.

Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

Writing this book was a particularly long and arduous process for me. Not only is this my first book, but (presumably just as many authors who aren’t paid to write books) I had to balance regular work commitments and family life while working on it. I first started working on it shortly after launching the website Venezuelanalysis.com in September 2003. I originally thought I could simply use the articles I wrote for that site and compile them into a book. However, after a little while I realized that this was not all that feasible and began writing the book in parallel to the work I did for the site. As a result, only very little of what appears in the book is also on Venezuelanalysis.com. The book’s content thus comes from my own research and writing while working on the site or from things I learnt from others who wrote articles for the site. Also, over the years I had the opportunity to interview many high-level government officials, to gain insights into their policies and their thinking. The one interview I was not able to get for the book, though, was with President Chavez himself, which is quite disappointing because I really wanted to talk to him about his belief system. Obviously, Chavez plays a very crucial role for the policies of his government and too many interviews with him simply cover old ground, about his upbringing and his experiences as president. What is really needed is an in-depth discussion with him about his political belief system.

What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

My hope is that the book will have an impact, first, among progressives, to show to them that something very important is happening in Venezuela today, something that holds extremely important lessons for the left and for our conceptions of how we might want to organize a better society. Also, I hope that progressives would learn to see Venezuela not in the purely black and white terms that it is usually seen in, as either “the” revolution of our times that is doing everything right or as the result of a typical Latin American populist and demagogue who is imposing authoritarian rule in the name of socialism. Clearly, my perspective on Venezuela is closer to the former, but I also try to introduce some elements of realism by showing that not everything is working that fantastically in Chavez’s Venezuela and that there are some real dangers ahead that could lead this amazing experience astray. I would thus be happy if more progressives embraced what is happening in Venezuela, but that they did not embrace it uncritically.

This is a very tricky subject, of course, because often people believe solidarity should not be critical or should be without reservations because anything else would be an imposition of our own imperial views on another people. This is true, in a sense, if we are clear about who we are in solidarity with – the government or the people. Of course, if the answer is, “with the people,” then critical support for the Chavez government is, in my opinion, the only kind of support one should give. This is the perspective I try to take in my book and my analysis takes me to precisely this kind of critical support. I thus hope my book will draw more people into supporting the Chavez government, but that they do so with their eyes wide open, unlike what all too often happened with earlier socialist movements, such as with the Russian Revolution.

My second hope is that this book might have an impact in the broader culture (beyond progressives), in moving it away from the mostly negative conception of current events in Venezuela and to appreciate that there is a sincere effort to create a society that is neither capitalist, nor social democratic, nor state socialist, but wants to create a new kind of socialism, a more participatory socialism for the 21st century.

The real test of success of this book’s efforts (and that of others like it) would be if it were able to avert further U.S. intervention in Venezuela. A failure would be continued or intensified U.S. intervention and the eventual defeat of the Chavez government as a result of such intervention.

Also, I am aiming this book at Venezuelan readers (it has been translated and will soon be published in Venezuela), in the hope that Venezuelans too might gain something from this analysis – that die hard “Chavistas” might stop confusing Chavez with the people and that die-hard opposition people might see that most of what the government has done has benefited the country’s poor majority. Also, I hope that the book will contribute to the discussion within Venezuela and around the world as to what might constitute “21st century socialism” and whether the government’s policies are really heading in that direction.

Source: ZNet