If you come to Venezuela with glistening eyes, expecting to see the revolution of a romantic and passionate novel, don’t be disappointed when the complexities of reality burst your bubble. While revolution does withhold a sense of romanticism, it’s also full of human error and the grit of everyday life in a society – a nation – undertaking the difficult and tumultuous process of total transformation.
Nothing is perfect here, in the country sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves. But everything is fascinating and intriguing, and the changes from past to present become more visible and tangible every day.
After 100 years of abandonment, as President Hugo Chavez puts it, the Venezuelan people have awoken and begun the gargantuan task of taking power and building a system of social and economic justice. But it’s easier said than done in a culture embedded with corrupt values, resulting from the nation’s vast oil wealth, combined with an overall feeling of entitlement. The bureaucracy is massive and often intimidating, as the people, including the President himself, struggle to erradicate it every day, and replace it with a more horizontal political and economic model.
From the outside, it’s easy to criticize Venezuela. Inflation is high, the economy is in a difficult place, although growing, and relations with countries such as Russia, China and Iran are often painful for foreigners to comprehend. Media portrays much of the power in the nation as concentrated in the hands of one man, Hugo Chavez, and rarely highlights the thousands of positive achievements and successes his government has obtained during the past ten years. Distortion and manipulation reign amongst international public opinion regarding human rights, freedom of expression and political views opposing those of President Chavez, and few media outlets portray a balanced vision of Venezuela today.
While it’s true that there is awful inflation in Venezuela, much of it has been caused by business owners, large-scale private distributors and producers, import-exporters and the economic elite that seek to destabilize and overthrow the Chavez administration. They sell dollars on the black market at pumped up rates and speculate and hike the prices of regular consumer products to provoke panic and desperation among the public, all with the goal of forcing Chavez’s ouster. And despite ongoing economic sabotage, the economy has still grown substantially in comparison to other nations in the region. In fact, according to the neoliberal International Monetary Fund (IMF), Venezuela is the only South American nation to forecast economic growth this year.
How do you build a socialist revolution in an oil economy? It’s not easy. The Chavez government promotes a green agenda, but at the same time, the streets of Caracas – the capital – are still littered with stinky garbage and the air is contaiminated with black smoke emissions from cars and make-shift buses that go uncontrolled and unregulated. Part of the problem is government regulation, but most of the problem is social consciousness. Revolution is impossible if the people aren’t on board.
So, the government gives out millions of free, cold-energy saving lightbulbs, to replace the over-consuming yellow ones, and programs are underway to allow a free trade-in of diesel consuming cars for new natural gas vehicles. The Chavez administration is funding solar energy exploration and research institutes, building wind energy units along the northern Caribbean coast and has implemented a major environmental conservation campaign nationwide. Part of this incredible effort resulted from a horrific six-month long drought that pushed the nation to energy and water rationing, causing countrywide blackouts that weren’t well received. Ironically, one of the world’s largest oil producers is more than 70% dependent on hydroelectric power for internal energy consumption, thanks to the governments past, which only were interested in selling the oil abroad and not using it to improve the lives of their own citizens.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
The foremost achievement of the Bolivarian Revolution, as it is called in Venezuela, taking the namesake of liberator Simon Bolivar, has been the inclusion of a mass majority, previously excluded and invisible, in the nation’s politics and economic decisions. What does this mean? It means that today, millions of Venezuelans have a visible identity and role in nation-making. It means that community members – without regard to class, education or status – are actively encouraged to participate in policy decisions on local and even national matters. Community members, organized in councils, make decisions on how local resources are allocated. They decide if monies are spent on schools, roads, water systems, transportation or housing. They have oversight of spending, can determine if projects are advancing adequately, and even can determine where the workforce should come from; i.e. local workers vs. outside contractors. In essence, this is a true example of an empowered people – or how power is transferred from a “government” to the people.
For the first time in Venezuela’s history, every voice is valued, every voice has the possibility of being heard. And because of this, people actually want to participate. Community media outlets have sprung up by the hundreds, after previously being illegal and shunned by prior governments. New newspapers, magazines, radio programs and even television shows reflect a reality and color of Venezuela that formerly, the elite chose to ignore and exclude. Still, a majority of mass media remains in the hands of a powerful economic elite that uses its capacity to distort and manipulate reality and promote ongoing attempts to undermine the Chavez government. Lest we not forget the mass media’s role in the April 2002 coup d’etat that briefly ousted President Chavez from power, and a subsequent economic sabotage in December of that same year, that imposed a media blackout on information nationwide.
Despite claims by private media outlets alleging violations of freedom of expression, Venezuela remains a nation with one of the world’s most thriving free and independent press. Here, almost anything goes, even plots and plans to kill the President or bring the nation’s economy to its knees; all broadcast live on television, radio, or in print.
The contradictions of building a socialist revolution in a capitalist world are evident here every day. The same self-proclaimed revolutionary, bearing a red shirt, wants to buy your dollars on the black market at an elevated rate. You can get killed in the streets of Caracas for a Blackberry; don’t even think of whipping out an iPhone in public. Even President Chavez himself now fashions a Blackberry to keep his Twitter account up to date. Chavez has “politicized” Twitter, and turned it into a social tool. His account, the most followed in Venezuela, receives thousands of requests and messages daily for everything from jobs, to housing to complaints about bureaucracy and inefficient governance. He even set up a special team of 200 people dedicated to processing the tweets, and he himself responds to as many as he can. Ironically, Chavez has found a way to reconnect with his people in a virtual world.
Deals with Russia, China, Iran, India, European nations and even US corporations are diversifying Venezuela’s trade partners, ensuring technological transfer to aid in national development and progress, and opening up Venezuela’s oil-focused economy. Some question Chavez’s deals with certain countries or companies, but the truth is, today, Venezuela’s economy is stronger and more diverse than ever before. Satellites have been launched, automobile factories built and even the agricultural industry has been revived thanks to Chavez’s vision of foreign policy. When beforehand, relations with foreign nations were based on oil supply and dollar input, today they are founded on the principles of integration, solidarity and cooperation, and most importantly, the transfer of technology to ensure Venezuela’s development.
Revolution is not an easy task. What is happening in Venezuela is possibly one of the most socially and politically compelling and challenging experiences in history. Massive changes are taking place on every level of society – economic, political, cultural and social – and everyone is involved. There have been no national curfews, states of emergencies, killings, disappearances, persecutions, political prisoners or other forms of repression imposed under Chavez’s reign, despite the coup d’etat, economic sabotages, electoral interventions, assassination attempts and other forms of subversion and destabilization that have attempted to overthrow his government during the past ten years. This is an inclusionary revolution, whether or not everyone wants to accept that fact.
Washington’s continued efforts to undermine Venezuela’s democracy through funding opposition campaigns and actions with over $50 million USD during the past seven years, or supporting coups and assassination plots against President Chavez, while at the same time pumping up military forces in the region, have all failed; so far. But, they will continue. Venezuela – like it or not – is on an irrevocable path to revolution. The people have awoken and power is being redistributed. The task at hand now is to prevent corrupt forces within from destroying the new revolutionary model being built.
So while things may not be perfect in Venezuela, it’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses and see revolution for what it is: the trying, alluring, arduous, demanding and thrilling task of forging a just humanity. That’s the Venezuela of today.
Eva Golinger is an award-winning author and attorney. Her first book, The Chavez Code, is a best seller published in six languages and is presently being made into a feature film. Her blog is www.chavezcode.com.