Venezuelan Complexities

Reflecting on his recent trip to Venezuela to interview President Nicolas Maduro, Albert discusses the complexities of the Bolivarian process and the challenges faced by Venezuela's revolutionaries.


I have recently returned from two weeks in Caracas. I visited with Greg Wilpert (of Venezuela Analysis) and Omar Sierra (of Venezuela’s Boston Consulate). We were invited and hosted, as previously noted in a blog or two I posted, to interview President Maduro at length and discuss some proposals, as well.  

The interview did not occur.  

A few days after arriving, the interview was scheduled for two evening sessions on two consecutive days. At that moment, however, Venezuelan Security agencies uncovered an extensive plot to assassinate Maduro. Two assassins were arrested while eight others hadn’t yet entered the country, but there was a state of heightened security. Long speeches by Maduro to the public to clarify the events replaced our scheduled interview.  

This emergency regrettably spilled over into the duration of our stay, until we were told to extend our visit for a couple of days. Finally, on the last day of our extended stay in Caracas, we got the call, went to the residence, and set up with a Venezuelan TV film crew, as well as numerous people to view the event, including some ministers, etc. However, President Maduro was at a special meeting called in light of the disruption of 70% of the country’s electric supply – and that meeting went on and on – until, at shortly after midnight, this event, too, was cancelled.  

We left the following morning having been promised, however, that there would soon be a new invitation, with a carefully scheduled set of sessions to complete the Presidential interview and discuss the proposals. Hopefully that will occur. 

The reason for wanting the interview, which we conveyed many times, was twofold. To provide a forum for President Maduro to convey lessons and insights and clarify Bolivarian goals, and to address many concerns and worries that leftists who might otherwise be supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution are feeling. The logic of the proposals was to find ways to convey useful, thorough information about events, to generate ties, and to facilitate activism. 

While in Venezuela, sadly, most of our time had to be spent at the hotel where we were lodged, waiting for the call to begin the sessions. We did, however, manage to get away for some explorations and learning experiences.  

On the one hand, I was interviewed about a new project called WorldSocial. This was very hopeful because everyone we talked with – from friends and acquaintances to PSUV officials, Ministry of Communications workers, and others – were very positive about WorldSocial, feeling Venezuelan involvement for its own merits as well as to help the whole project succeed, made great sense. Also, I interviewed Miguel Rodriquez, Minister of the Interior, mainly about issues of corruption, crime, etc., and that interview will be made public as soon as we manage to transcribe it.  

One very positive event occurred when we went to Ciudad Caribia, a socialist city being built from the ground up, about forty minutes outside Caracas. It is a major undertaking that will be under construction for roughly five more years, but it is already sufficiently complete to be quite an accomplishment. The city had the feel, at least to me, of a large college campus with modest but nice architecture and living spaces, athletic fields, meeting areas, shops, production units, etc. Located on a small mountain that overlooks beautiful terrain and situated only a few minutes from the ocean, this new socialist city – the first? – occupies prime real estate and foreshadows cities the Bolivarians hope to build more broadly.  

Meeting with folks from Ciudad Caribia was quite inspiring. We were shown around by a priest and a spokesperson for the town’s Council. Venezuelan councils  are like Occupy assemblies. In turn, Communes are composed of councils, once there are enough and they federate. The aim is for Communes to be federated as well, into an infrastructure of decision making throughout Venezuela.  

The spokesperson of the local Ciudad Caribia council, a woman with five children who, when working for income, cleans the local high school, was incredibly well informed, highly revolutionary, and very energetic. A priest is, well, a priest, usually. The one in Ciudad Caribia, however, who had presided over Chavez’s funeral services, was a bit different than most of us are used to, being profoundly political, highly engaged, but very informal.  

Without trying to replicate all the discussions or to recount all we saw, suffice it to report there was very little to criticize and a whole lot to admire in Ciudad Caribia. Okay, let me relay at least two interesting exchanges.  

The spokesperson had married young, and had somehow via, in her view, her involvement in the council and the commune, become very confident, capable, and knowledgeable. So much so, that at one point I asked her why she wasn’t teaching in the high school, as compared to cleaning it. She laughed and said she lacked the credentials but was taking courses to finish her own high school equivalency. I said, no, really…wouldn’t you be as good, or better, right now, as all the other teachers. She ultimately acknowledged this was so. So I said, well then, why don’t you spend some time cleaning, as now, but also some time teaching, and why don’t the other teachers, now only teaching, do both types of task, as well? She liked the idea, not surprisingly, and said they should discuss it in the council more generally, although she added that she thought the teachers would present an obstacle, and it seemed to Greg, Omar, and I that she wouldn’t really pursue the idea – too tense a topic.  

Talking with the priest I asked, at one point, how do you get along with the Church, and with other priests? He said it was a very tense set of relations. I laughed and said, do you mean they won’t talk with you, and…vice versa? He said, yes, they had given up on him, realizing there was no way to change him, so they all just kept their space from each other. This meant perhaps the most enlightened priest in Venezuela was serving in a city that was already full of people supporting the revolution. Maduro won the vote in Ciudad Caribia with just under 100%. I liked the priest, and it was clear he was a very constructive and appreciated member of the community, but it did seem like not the best use of his many talents. 

When we were back in Caracas, we met for some time with a group of members of the first council to have ever formed, located in a part of Caracas with a large majority population of opposition supporters. Here the story was mixed. On the positive side, again, people were informed, energetic, and involved. But on the negative side, these folks also felt disconnected. The Bolivarian process was not prioritizing making progress in areas with large majority opposition population and the small minority of supporters living there felt their needs weren’t getting enough attention. This I found very strange. I would have thought opposition stronghold neighborhoods would receive more attention, more activist organizing, not less, than solidly Bolivarian areas – or at least as much attention, at any rate.  

There is a sense in which this reveals, in my view, a seriously problematic prioritization – not unlike the geographic assignment of the priest mentioned above – that may be a ubiquitous problem, not only in Venezuela but in much of the world. Activists, radicals, and revolutionaries, understandably, personally dislike engaging with folks who oppose them, much less with diehard right wingers who hate them. So, instead, local leftists tend to circle their wagons – whether the circled community is as small as typically occurs in the U.S., or as huge as sometimes occurs in Venezuela – and leave the others to their pursuits. But, of course, this is no way to win a new participatory society. Even at great long run cost, outreach gets lost in the urgency of whatever agendas we are pursuing in our own groups and areas. 

The situation reminded me of a typical college campus in the U.S., where the radicals mostly congregate together, and rarely go door to door to enter extended personal discussions with folks who are apolitical or hostile? 

During our stay we also had many discussions with people at all levels of society, from regular folks up to high government officials – legislative, judicial, and finally executive, such as the Minister of Interior we interviewed. These discussions naturally had many focuses including the prominent issues of corruption and crime, and also one of our proposals. 

Corruption is very serious in Venezuela. Consider two kinds. First, the price of gas for one’s car is virtually zero – say a few pennies a gallon. Imagine that was the price of gas in Massachusetts but in New Hampshire, just over the border, it was $4 a gallon. You see the temptation. Buy gas in Massachusetts/Venezuela and cart it across the border – in trucks – to sell in New Hampshire/Colombia. It is illegal, complicating matters, but folks do it, often by loading up fuel in trucks and paying off the border guards to let them pass freely. And the same happens with some other subsidized commodities, milk, etc., at other borders. Because of very strange complexities in exchange rates, it is also possible to make substantial gains fiddling with Bolivars and dollars across borders – particularly traveling to the U.S. and then back to Venezuela – which happens too.  

But there is another type of corruption which is in my mind even more distressing. When people gain the right to ownership of previously privately owned farmland, they have to get a document from the land ministry, like a deed, and without that document they can’t borrow funds to do their farming, etc. So they are supposed to go to the office in their area, and claim their document/deed. This is supposed to be free. Yet, there are tens of thousands of such documents that have not been given to their rightful owners, because the officials who hold them – and are supposed to hand them over – are, in some cases, demanding payments. The scale of the extortion problem isn’t clear, but it is certainly substantial. And in this case, we are talking about government officials, who have helping the poor as their responsibility, instead, using their position to rip off the poor. Of course, police corruption is also major, leading to crimes, etc.  

While I am sure that the amount of corruption (much less legal immorality) and certainly its scale is higher in the U.S., it is less visible, and more taken for granted, barely ever pointed out, and rarely prosecuted. Still, even if not as bad as many other places, how can you make a revolution when so many people are bending morality, or having it bent against them? 

We asked folks about all this and got one answer repeatedly, which didn’t help much, and another answer which I think has very real and important implications. The first reply, very prevalent, was that Venezuela has such a long and deep history of corruption that it is very very difficult to change. People expect to endure corrupt violations and, given the opportunity, to themselves take advantage of others. Okay, I have no way to judge this, but it was repeated so often, it is likely so. Still, even if this identifies some historic roots, that only reveals the context. The issue is moving forward. 

I asked a few prominent folks if they cheated, stole, extorted, etc., and they all said no, and I believed them. I asked why. One factor was that they weren’t in need. And that is clearly part of it. Pay police too little for them to get along, and they will find a way to boost their incomes. But another answer was, in my view, far more important. We went through, before Chavez’s election, years and years of struggle, they told me. This raised our consciousness and changed our values. We simply don’t have the inclinations any more. Okay, some of us do, but mostly we don’t. Other citizens, however, didn’t experience that history of struggle, and didn’t learn from it. Those who were schooled in movements in opposition to capital and the state, became moral and trustworthy in a different way than others. Notice, this also may explain the tendency of Venezuela and other similar experiments to keep the same people rotating through responsible positions year after year. 

So the question arises, and I think it is paramount, how do you have the processes and practices that ensue when you are building a new society serve as a school for the whole population that is as effective in developing their moral inclinations and capacities as the prior movement in struggle had been for a smaller set of cadre? Interestingly, it is not at all obvious that folks in Venezuela had thought in such terms years ago, I think, though many are now starting to.  

If the idea is to create a society in which the population participates and even self manages, then the population has to become competent, confident, and also incorruptible, and the endeavors they pursue have to bring that about. The woman in Ciudad Caribia was a good example – but she was one person among hundreds, because there were too few such slots in the approaches that had been taken for everyone to undergo an experience like hers. So how can the practice of day-to-day life yield transformations for the large majority, rather than for only a small minority? 

Might it be as simple as educational campaigns like the Venezuelan literacy campaign, for example, but about political aims, values, morals, and practices? Perhaps, though, for that to succeed, the aims, values, morals, and practices would have to be clear and coherent enough to teach, not to mention also teaching the habits of mind and conceptual insights essential to people themselves evaluating and creating their own agendas. Would it instead require a greater level of contestation – not just training – perhaps with the opposition, personally?  

I don’t know, but it is a problem that needs a solution, and not only in Venezuela. Of course, I should note that one group believes it has a solution. While there is a deficit of fully informed, committed, and incorruptible revolutionaries, they argue, have the few run the show, ala Bolshevism. But for those who feel that the dangers of centralization and subordination inherent in that solution are too much to risk, their alternative can’t be to deny the problem. To assume everyone will quickly and easily become “new people” is what Venezuelans assumed for years. They believed that as poverty was reduced and prospects for more reduction were obvious, and as dignity was enhanced and prospects for more enhancement were obvious, inclinations toward crime and corruption would dissipate and dissolve. But their experience has now shown instead that that wasn’t automatic, and that self-conscious means are needed.  

From those who had now thought about these matters, what we heard was that the Bolivarian Revolution needs a significant overhaul, mainly centered on two structures. The councils and communes need to generate participation and to democratize and even generate self management, and, in doing so, to elevate citizens’ insights and morals. The PSUV needs to rectify and renovate, inducing massive educational campaigns internally and also while reaching out.  

I hope that the Bolivarian process will add two more priorities. First, that workplaces need to come under workers’ control and then workers’ self management, including establishing transformed divisions of labor, and second, that officials have to come to understand that fear of errors by an empowered population, however much merit such concerns may sometimes have, are far outweighed by fear of passivity on the part of the population and of elitism at the top. 

Of course there are many other issues in Venezuela, including the pace of nationalizations, currency concerns, ecological problems, and the interventionist machinations of the U.S. and others – but what is mentioned above stood out, at least on this trip, as bedrock concerns that will critically affect prospects over the long haul.