Oliver Rivas is an organizer based in Caracas, and one of a handful of National Assembly PSUV-bloc candidates with deep roots in the popular movement. He is also a founder and member of La Otra Escuela [The Other School], a Chavista collective that offers political education to cadres with grassroots work. In this VA interview, we talk about the impact of the blockade on Venezuela’s economy and its participatory democracy. Rivas also addresses popular Chavismo’s projects for the upcoming National Assembly.
What is at stake in the upcoming National Assembly elections?
First, the very existence of the Venezuelan nation-state is at stake in the upcoming elections. Of course, all countries on the periphery struggle for their existence in the unequal power relationship that exists between the Global North and the Global South. This is a global class struggle, where the aggressor is the imperialist pole, represented by NATO. They aim to recolonize our continent.
As such, the struggle in the upcoming elections is not with the Venezuelan opposition, which merely reflects the White House’s interests.
Second, in the upcoming elections, the possibility of continuing with the process of institutional changes that began in 1998 is on the line. Obviously, the revolution has suffered a process of stagnation, but it goes forward on the basis of unified progressive and revolutionary forces, with the latter assuming part of the direction.
The devastating force of the imperialist siege has targeted Venezuela’s dependent, capitalist rentier economy. This slashed the state revenues which were being distributed in a more just manner – the Bolivarian Revolution had rolled back more than 500 years of colonization. While it is true that there wasn’t a rupture or complete transformation of Venezuela’s economic structure, Chávez developed public policies that benefited the poor majorities and fostered self-managed and productive initiatives and communal experiences.
For me and for La Otra Escuela what is at stake now is the possibility of continuing to struggle for the Chavista project. For us, it is obvious that a fascist and death-mongering regime controlled by imperialism will not allow us to struggle for our goals in the economic or political arenas.
Beyond the devastating impact of the blockade, what has the government done right and wrong in recent years?
The issue has to be evaluated, recognizing the very special circumstances that we face in Venezuela. We cannot talk about “good” or “bad” governance as if we lived in an idyllic world. This is a government that has faced all sorts of obstacles, including a total siege from the world’s main hegemonic power.
With this being so, if Venezuela has continued to be a sign of hope for the peoples of the world, it is because of the rights we have conquered and, later, because of the proposal of the commune as an exercise in self-government. However, with the oil rent vanishing, there is a process of dismantling some of these achievements, which threatens the very existence of state institutions.
It is also true that there have been many errors. To give you one example, there have been systematic and permanent errors in the forming of political cadres with a revolutionary and socialist horizon. We are also remiss in combating internal vices: deterrent measures are needed, as well as methods and guidelines to promote austerity and revolutionary dynamics in the parties of the Great Patriotic Pole.
But the truth is that these problems cannot be blamed on one specific sector of the Chavista leadership: if we do a self-critique, we will find that these problems are also present in social movements and organizations. A very rigorous analysis of this situation is required.
However, we know that there have been many errors. This is a consumerist economy that is parasitical on oil rent. Private enterprises are also parasitical and structurally corrupt, and this all got worse after Chávez’s death. When that happened, there was a sort of rush to control the oil revenues which, in turn, led to an enormous capital flight.
Here the question is: Is this Maduro’s fault, or is it the logical consequence of sectors conspiring internally to control the state and the rent since the early days of the Bolivarian process?
With all these observations in mind, my evaluation of the government and its policies is positive. To that, I would add that, in these times, we should opt for collectively forging a program that – with a socialist and communal logic, but also understanding the siege imposed on us – will allow us to struggle for working people’s rights. This is a pending task for the popular movement, as it is building a collective direction. One of the things that characterizes us is that we have many disperse struggles that are keeping us from coming together, centralizing agendas, and building consensus on key issues, both tactical and strategic.
There is an institutional tendency to label any dissent within Chavismo as “treason.” This discourse claims that, in the face of the imperialist siege, loyalty to the government should take precedence over any criticism. This attitude has generated friction between the government and some sectors of the popular movement. How do you understand this situation?
The relationship between grassroots organizations and the government has been historically tense. While Chavismo is a potent plebeian force (as Álvaro García Linera would say), it also incorporated left, center-left, and even conservative sectors with a traditional conception of politics, and these elements still continue to have political, institutional, and electoral force. Chavismo is not a monolithic block.
So, yes, it’s true: there is a tendency to identify any critical position as treason. However, that is a sectarian attitude that Maduro himself has criticized.
Nonetheless, generating a new set of practices – a different logic within Chavismo – must come with a renovation. This change within Chavismo would have to include the PSUV as a majority force, but also other smaller parties and a plurality of popular forces, organizations, movements, and communal and grassroots organizations
Going back to the relation between the government and the popular forces, we should understand that it has been tense in some moments, sometimes contradictory or conflictive, sometimes fluid, and sometimes there has been strong cohesion. It hasn’t always been the same. However, Chavismo is a force that has been able to advance in the conquest of rights by maintaining its internal unity.
All this happens while struggling for the cohesion of the nation-state, overcoming fascist attacks and waves of imperialist recolonization. Despite the [internal] contradictions, Chavismo has been able to close ranks in key moments. That is one of its main characteristics.
I am personally hopeful that our big internal contradictions will be solved. These are complex times and a difficult situation, and they forced the state to withdraw from or abandon part of what had been socially achieved. In so doing, it has delegated responsibilities to self-governed social (and especially productive) initiatives. These initiatives are going to be key to overcoming the dependent, exploitive, speculative, and usurer circuit of the Venezuelan economy.
Also, new economic actors will establish themselves here on the basis of the opening to private capital. This is taking place in a context where the state can no longer be expected to act as the sole source for revenue.
Faced with this situation, revolutionary forces must build a program so that we can maneuver in this complex panorama. We must not yield on fundamental issues, and we must build mechanisms to work together and develop agendas. I would even say that we must collectively build a popular and communal economic platform that won’t be tied to the country’s capitalist, dependent, rentier structures.
Is it going to be a harmonious struggle? No, it’s going to be a contradictory one. It will be sometimes violent and sometimes peaceful, as the Bolivarian Revolution has been since its early days.
In recent years there has been a decline in popular democracy here. From your perspective, given the imperialist siege, is this situation inevitable? Is it necessary to recover Chávez's participatory and protagonistic democracy?
I think it is necessary to recover the more ample expressions of Chávez's participatory and protagonistic democracy. From a military point of view, the imperialist siege put us on the defensive, and this comes with a larger degree of disciplining. That, obviously, comes with larger levels of social contention and, in some cases repression, excesses, and abuse. Of course, it is not different from the rest of Latin America, where repression is probably more intense.
However, there are also many cases of false positives in the world’s mainstream media and distorted reports such as the one recently released by Michelle Bachelet. In fact, Bachelet’s report was developed through interviews carried out during the pandemic. The process was too arbitrary to be scientifically rigorous.
Additionally, there have been cases of internal sabotage: agents have been paid to generate problematic situations. Of course, there is nothing surprising about this. We are under siege and the enemy is willing to use any means against us, from the sanctions and the blockade to infiltrations and paramilitary interference, including the recent operation in which the opposition’s fascist leadership hired US “security” contractors to topple Nicolás Maduro.
However, there have been important advances in this sense during the revolution. The National Bolivarian Police was created to break with the corrupt police mafias that participated (and probably still participate) in coups and coup attempts. Under the principle of conscious discipline and gender equity, the police was reorganized, with education being at the core of that process.
Of course, this process was not free of contradictions. It cannot be idealized. Also, in the current material reality, violence has become one of the pathways for survival for police forces. That is the immediate cause of the current excesses. The situation of general collapse, corruption, decomposition, and deterioration of the institutions and the society as a whole leads to the destruction of the Venezuelan nation-state. And that is not accidental.
When faced with this reality, what is revolutionary Chavismo doing? We fight against it because we know that our very existence is on the line. Deterioration is not a state policy.
You are participating in the popular debates taking place in the context of the National Assembly campaign. With this experience, what program would you promote if elected? As a representative who comes from the ranks of the popular movement, how would you concur and differ with the official line?
From our collective [La Otra Escuela] and in coordination with other organizations such as the Continental Platform of Social Movements, we have developed programmatic goals ranging from building communes across the territory and the integral transformation of the habitat, to the construction of a non-capitalist, solidarious economy.
We are going to continue defending that program at the National Assembly. We will do so in conditions that we know are adverse: confronting private enterprises won’t be easy at a time when they, and not the state, have the necessary resources to keep economic activity going. However, it is precisely now, in these difficult times, that popular productive projects that are not dependent on the rent can emerge. These are contradictory times, but tactical opportunities are opening up.
To give you an example, while it is true that the Anti-blockade Law favors private initiative, it is also the case that it allows for the participation of the state and organized popular power. In other words, there is an open battlefield. We must enter it from an on-the-ground perspective. This is not about theory or propaganda.
We understand the National Assembly as a platform from which to promote laws boosting the communal economy. In this regard, President Maduro has already proposed two laws that would foster the creation of communal cities.
Additionally, there is a plan for ten legislative projects. These have been developed through a process of popular consultation, carried out both with digital mechanisms and in public meetings.
In fact, as we speak, I’m just arriving from one such event in the working-class El Valle barrio. In those events, we encounter a high level of dissatisfaction due to the problems people face with lack of public services and low wages. These are wages and services that the blockade and capitalist speculation have destroyed. Nonetheless, debate initiatives and proposals are blooming. We have discovered that in conditions of siege, communal and other forms of small and family production are not only an ideal – they offer real solutions to working people.
To give you one example, Colgate Palmolive sabotaged the production of cleaning and personal hygiene goods. Now, we can find small initiatives and even home production of these goods in every block of every city. There is huge potential here. Cuba succeeded and we will succeed too… through our work, and through mutual cooperation with other countries!
We also have to promote a law for protecting the working class. The text must outline some minimal standards for coexistence in the transition to a mixed economy. The truth is that a mixed economy is the guiding logic of the 1999 Constitution, so the current state of affairs is not a departure from our origins.
Nonetheless, in the current circumstances, we must develop mechanisms for the social control of the economy in general, and of commerce in particular. There is a high level of impunity in the economy. Large capitalist cartels generated this situation and it has developed into a widespread speculative economy which destroyed workers’ wages. This happened along with the dollarization of the economy, which generated all sorts of distortions and illegal activity.
Cuba went through its Special Period, but they took the right measures to survive and resist. The Cuban people struggled for their right to exist and stay afloat in the world, and they did so with a non-capitalist horizon. We are going to do the same… and if that means an internal ideological debate with the conservative sectors along with a wider battle of ideas, so be it.
In conclusion, we hope that the upcoming National Assembly will be not only a body for turning popular initiatives and proposals into legislation, but also a kind of megaphone to make our struggles visible on a national level.