The last time I spoke with long-time influential writer on Latin American politics Marta Harnecker was at the 2003 World Social Forum, where we talked of the “most important anti-neoliberal struggle in the world” unfolding in Venezuela. It was two years later at this same event that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for the first time in the international arena, proclaimed his support for socialism as the only alternative to capitalism.
Harnecker now lives in Venezuela, trying to support the government however she can, including working as an adviser to the new Minister of Participation and Social Development. Meeting her again, I asked her what she thought Chavez’s comments on socialism represented in relation to changes in Venezuela over that period.
“I think you can say that nothing new has happened after the declaration of socialism, because the declaration is nothing more than giving a name to many things that were already occurring in this country. These were all things that were against the logic of capital. Instead they were based on the logic of a humanist solidarity.
“What had been occurring in practice helped to demonstrate to the leadership of this process that the logic of humanism and solidarity that they were proposing would at each step clash with the logic of capital.
“Look at the social missions. The missions are not socialist, but they can only be imagined in a society that wants to construct something different from capitalism, because they permit people to grow, to become subjects in this process and create a new way of looking at society.”
The social missions — which began with Mission Barrio Adentro, taking health care into the poorest barrios of Caracas — have now been extended to incorporate Venezuelans who have traditionally been excluded from the education system through Mission Robinson (literacy), Mission Ribas (high school) and Mission Sucre (university). Other missions have been established to tackle the plight of indigenous peoples (Mission Guicapuro) and the struggle of campesinos (peasants) for land (Mission Zamora), among others.
Harnecker explained that “one of the most important missions is Mercal. Mercal is something that is contrary to the logic of capital. It attempts to give food to people at a price not fixed by the law of demand, but rather at below market prices.” Products in Mercal outlets are usually sold at up to 40% below the market prices.
“It also has attempted to establish a network for national production by buying from cooperatives. One of the problems of cooperatives is the competition they face in the capitalist market. This is resolved by a state market which buys the products for the people and offers them at below market prices, where during the whole process profit is not the objective.
“It is interesting if we look at how the idea of Mercal comes about. It originates from the necessity of food sovereignty, coming out of the bosses’ strike in December 2002.” Harnecker said that the government at that time saw “how weak they were, all the food was in the hands of private businesses, so they could strangle the process through hunger. So the government rapidly saw the necessity to resolve this problem.”
Harnecker noted that the missions “were only possible by going outside the inherited state. One of the biggest problems of this revolution is the inherited state apparatus and the inherited habits of the people. The missions were a way of doing things outside the state and beginning to transform it from the outside, something that is very difficult.”
Along with attempting to transform the state and the logic of the capitalist market, the Bolivarian revolution has fought to replace the so-called representative democracy that existed for 40 years prior to the 1998 election of Chavez and replace it with a real participatory and protagonist democracy, under which the people begin to take control of their lives, their community and their country. It is in this area of popular participation that Harnecker spends most of her time, studying and promoting new experiences and initiatives that are attempting to transfer real decision-making power to the people. For Harnecker, “Venezuela is a country that gives its citizens all the opportunities possible for people to participate”.
We discussed the experience of the community governments in Carabobo. There, in the municipality of Libertador, the mayor has worked on the division of the parroquias into sectors, where community governments are established to decentralise tasks and resources, such as rubbish collection and the maintenance and payment of electricity supply. All these tasks are taken on by the whole community, with resources from the council.
The Chavez government has also promoted the establishment of community committees to tackle problems of health, education, sport and other issues, working closely with the missions. The Comites de Salud (health committees) are one example. They work closely with the Cuban doctors in Mission Barrio Adentro, helping to carry out censuses of the community and encouraging those that are ill to visit the local doctor, whom many couldn’t previously afford to see.
Harnecker explained: “There are many different experiences, with different names, but similar objectives.” Together with the ministry for popular participation and social development, Harnecker is working on the promotion of the communal councils. “One of the problems we have here is that the new constitution has created excellent conditions for the protagonist participation of the people, but these ideas are not always implemented correctly.”
Harnecker cited the example of the Local Councils of Public Planning (CLPPs), established in the constitution and codified into law. These aimed to establish a council involving the mayor, the elected members of the municipal council, the presidents of the Juntas Parroquiales and leaders of the organised community elected in citizens’ assemblies. The idea was that the community would have 50%-plus-one membership of this body and it would help to establish where a certain portion of the municipality’s budget went. Yet in reality there have been many problems in getting these off the ground.
“For example”, said Harnecker, “how do you democratically elect representatives from a community in a citizen’s assembly when we are talking of a geographic area which is inhabited by thousands or tens of thousands of people? Whilst the grassroots of the society are not organised, it will be very difficult for those who make up the CLPP as an expression of the people to be truly representative.
“That is why it is so important to form the communal councils in small communities of 200 to 600 families in urban areas and much smaller in rural areas. The spokespeople of those councils should be the representatives of that community in the CLPP. The councils also help to resolve the problem of the dispersion of the organisations that are in the community. There are many popular organisations which are very focused on their own sector.”
Harnecker explained that what they are proposing with the communal councils is “that the community put forward an organisation or space that articulates all the organisations which exist in a community and that allows the elaboration of a single plan for the community which includes health, education, everything, but that it be a single plan”.
Through increasing popular participation, Harnecker explained that it “will help consolidate this process at the grassroots level, take it forward and broaden it, creating more forces that are in favour of the process.” Facilitating popular participation will also help create a whole new generation of leaders, because “that is where the people will have to do things and will have to demonstrate in practice that they are capable of leading this process. This is why I am enthusiastic about working with the construction of popular participation at the grassroots level, with the ideas of the communal councils, because these people are elected according to the leadership they display in their day-to-day activities.”
This is also how Harnecker sees that the Venezuelan process will be able to overcome one of its biggest weaknesses — the lack of a political instrument. “The different parties and different leaderships have not been able to integrate in a real way, they are too worried about their own group’s interests and there is a big problem within the MVR [Chavez’s party, the Movement for a Fifth Republic], which attempts to impose its hegemony. It is a ‘majoritarian’ party that is not really very generous. The problem is not so much in the top leadership, who understand that it is necessary to give and create spaces for their allies, but because there are many groups within the MVR they need to respond to the requirements of each group and that is where the problem comes from.
“For a while after the referendum it appeared that the UBEs [Units for Electoral Battle], a brilliant form of organisation, would allow Chavez to resolve the issue of the connection with the people and how to organise them. At that moment, a political front could maybe have been created from the UBEs, where the people involved would have really been those who worked in the grassroots, with representatives from the parties, but with a majority who came through because of work in the grassroots. Unfortunately the conditions were not there, particularly from what I have been told about the discussion inside the MVR, to accept the idea.”
Harnecker believes that “unless some very grave event happens that forces [the parties] to put the interests of the process above all else … I foresee a process much longer of construction of leaders, the growth of leaders via popular participation. In six years I believe we are going to have a generation of leaders that will impose themselves on this process.”
Asked whether the revolution has six years to solve the problem, Harnecker replied: “What Chavez is doing is looking for mechanisms to substitute for that deficiency. He is the clear conductor of this process, the process depends a lot on Chavez and that is why the threat of assassination is real. However, with that conductor and with the popular pedagogy and with a process that creates opportunities for the people to participate and grow, this problem is being overcome. It is not a process where the people are waiting for the leader to deliver them a present, it is a process where the people are waking up, are auto-affirming themselves, are growing as people, and are forming themselves in the missions, through [Chavez’s weekly TV program] Alo Presidente, and through their daily participation.”
From Green Left Weekly, October 26, 2005.