A Visit With the Bolivarian Revolution

Venezuelan socialism to appears not to be about socialism by decree, nor driven by state or any single party ideology. It is rather socialism by experimentation and education. Venezuelan socialists instead appear deeply tied to the basic principles of social justice, solidarity, and equality.

The third International Forum on Free Knowledge brought together many groups and individuals interested in the development of free software worldwide to the city of Maracaibo. One reason Venezuela choose to host this event is because starting in January, their new free software law, directive 3.390, comes into effect, which mandates all government agencies to migrate to free software over a two year period. I was invited to speak about Telephonia Libre; the use of free software in telecommunications.

While my travel had been planned a number of weeks in advance, as with all travel I have experienced in Latin America, this turned out to be on a different concept of time. I did not hear back at all from Venezuela until the weekend before departure, but this is actually not that remarkable. By Monday the 21st, I knew I would arrive in Maracaibo the next day, and return to the U.S. on the 29th. That much was confirmed to me by Ambar Rodriguez, who works for Conatel, which is their state telephone regulatory agency. I had a chance to speak with Ambar over the weekend prior, but I still did not know which airport I would departing from, or even what airlines I would be flying until Monday morning.

To understand the blissful attitude I had taken, one must know this. I recall one time I was staying with a family in San Paulo, where we were scheduled to take a flight to Porto Alegre. The airport was across town, and our departure time was about a half hour away when we finally wandered out to the car. We did not even travel particularly in a hurry. Yet somehow, in the twisted and bizarre time warp that is Brazil, we arrived on time for our flight anyway, and I never figured that out either. Time often has a very different meaning in Latin America.

Many of the events and presentations at the event were, much like mine, of a rather technical nature. My presentation had some difficulties with the translator I was given, who had no experiance or understanding of the specialized technical terms I was using. This was only corrected near the end when a different person came forward to translate my speech. Some presentations were from groups who were using free software in some social setting. The event was heavily attended by many people, and particular technical directors, from many parts of the Venezuelan government because of their migration plans for next year.

Naturally the web site at the American state department was kind enough to choose to warm me that there are military checkpoints all over the country, often manned by troops who look for bribes. Unfortunately, I failed to encounter any of these, or for that matter, any large posters of Chavez, even at the airport.

I eventually meet up with Jeff Zucker from Perl Mongers, who traveled by bus from Caracas. He also failed to find any of these promised military checkpoints filled with marauding troops. I eventually also met up with the well known international free software activist, Juan Carlos Gentile, who drove all the way from Caracas along the same roads. While it is said to take 10 hours to drive from Caracas to Maracaibo, as he is Italian, naturally I expected he would arrive in only 5. These two, and Ana Isabel Delgato from the Debian Venezuela group, were my primary “translation team” whenever I spoke with others who did not speak english.

The People’s Ministry of Economics

Venezuela is blessed with not one, but two economic ministries. There is the old ministry of economics, which deals with the traditional capitalist economy. It is worth noting that capitalism continues in Venezuela and will likely continue to do for some time. While lands are at times redistributed to landless laborers, for the most part existing industries and businesses are left alone, and left to the old ministry of econimics. Instead, they have a different idea of how to transform society here, and this brings us to the second ministry.

The Ministerio Para La Economia Popular, or roughly, the People’s Economic Ministry, and for simplicity, to be referred to simply as Minep, is tasked with transforming Venezuela into a socialist society. Minep is a quirky institution of very recent origin. Here we find all manner of bright and intelligent left thinking people, some from around the world who came to Venezuela to work for Minep. My impression is that Minep includes people from a very broad mix of socialist backgrounds, including traditional Marxists and communists, as well as those who practice other forms of socialism. There are Libertarian Socialists also represented among the ranks of Minep, although I believe they are still considered the more radical group within it.

The ministry does a number of important tasks. First they provide the educational support and program management for co-management projects, such as done with PDVSA, the state owned oil company. However, I believe the most important task they perform is to train and educate ordinary Venezuelans who volunteer on how to run a socialist worker co-operative.

This is done not by political indoctrination, which is probably fortunate given the wide range of different socialist thinking within the ministry, as it would no doubt spark a war :), but rather by providing co-ops the tools, financing, and practical training they will need in operating a socialist enterprise.

The ministry is in some ways like the socialist version of a “Small Business Administration”. However, rather than teaching people who wish to start small businesses how to put up their homes as collataral or otherwise become indentured to a capitalist owner, the ministry provides real financial resources to help those who wish to help themselves in forming a new socialist economy.

My interest in this aspect of Minep came in part from their interest in providing VOIP services with the computers they are offering to their worker managed co-ops. This was a rather specific technical issue, and one they were very interested in discussing with me.

Many of these worker co-ops are composed of very small startups that typically have 10 people or less. Minep offers training and support, as well as financing, to allow co-ops to purchase computing systems for their business needs. These systems use entirely free software, starting with the Debian GNU/Linux operating system, along with Open Office for general business use, and web hosting under Apache. Co-ops that go through the Minep program also have the ability to host web sites with their own content, and these usually feature the products or services a given co-op wishes to offer.

The Minep co-op training program was piloted last year, with some 3000 such worker managed co-ops formed. By the end of 2005 they had already formed over 45,000 such co-ops nationwide, and they expect to train over 700,000 Venezuelans in how to form and be part of a socialist economy by the end of the year. This also suggests to me that perhaps about 40% of those that go through the Minep program eventually do form a socialist enterprise.

The use of free software and offering of computer systems for business use as part of the co-op program is actually relativily new. This year, they have only trained a few thousand of the co-ops through an initial pilot program. Next year, however, that program, and free software training will be available to all.

Capitalism, I suspect, at best directly benefits at most maybe 100,000 Venezuelans today. Many of the rest are reduced to wage slavery or otherwise indentured through it. While the exact number of those that benefit from capitalism in any given country varies, this basic principle that some few truly benefit while many do not remains a universal. In the ideal of a socialist economy, all the participants benefit.

I think there are already more people who directly benefit from the socialist economy than the capitalist one in Venezuela today, and this will grow over time. Capitalism may not disappear entirely in Venezuela, it is certainly not being threatened or forced to change by the government, but it seems to me that it will be submerged in the rising tide of the new Socialist economy. This then is the future of the Bolivarian Revolution.

The Ministry of Intellectual Prosperity

SAPI, the Independent Service ministry of Propiedad Intellectual, is the ministry that used to define Venezuela’s so called “Intellectual Property” laws. I understand SAPI also at one time concerned itself with the issue of “Piracy”. I would have thought, however, that controlling murderous gangs of anarcho-capitalist “gentlemen of fortune” who raid ships would be the job of the navy, or perhaps the interior ministry.

The term intellectual property itself is of course a new-speak propaganda word that did not even exist 20 years ago. First, the topic it covers varies from Copyright, Patents, Trade Secrets, Trademarks, to a variety of other things, all of which are in reality all very different and unrelated. Second, it is based on the premise that you can give someone something intangible to someone else and yet control it and what other people do as if it or they were your physical property, even the ideas they may have in their mind. Intellectual property amounts in part to thought control through legal fiction. Some may say it amounts to Intellectual Slavery.

The consequence of treating ideas and thoughts as if they are tangible property are the very destruction of science and education and the elimination of individual rights and freedoms. Science is in part built upon the idea that new knowledge is created by incrementally improving ideas. Education is based on the idea that one can learn from existing things and then use that knowledge to create new works. The idea behind “Intellectual Property” interferes with both. It is barbarism, and could well lead to a new dark ages, where only a privileged few are allowed to learn, under the exclusive control of greedy intellectual monopolies.

Since “Intellectual Property” involves exclusive licensing, when public universities do this and then let others license their discoveries, the public is made to fund research that only benefits a small number of people. Even worse, those companies which receive such funding can then use this exclusive grant to sell back to society the fruits of what society already paid for. This can be thought of as paying for something twice. This could also be thought of as public welfare for private capitalism, or more simply, exploitation.

I had the good fortune to meet the current director general of SAPI, Eduardo Samán, while I was in Maracaibo. He has very different ideas for the purpose of SAPI. He is a well known internationalist, and had been a key person in establishing the program for promoting a developing nations agenda within WIPO. Rather than creating new intellectual restrictions, Eduardo proposes that the mission of SAPI should instead become that of promoting “Intellectual Prosperity” by creating laws and services that promote the ability to share knowledge as the common heritage of all mankind rather than hoard it to make a few people wealthier. Assuming that private interests in the developed world today do succeed in the great capitalist program of owning what people are allowed to think, it is very possible that places like Venezuela will become the new leading nations in science and technology.

PDVSA and how oil fuels to Bolivarian Revolution

Maracaibo is also the heartland of the oil industry, and the state run oil company, PDVSA. Oil companies are also traditionally conservative in nature. However, PDVSA also is a contrast, as both the primary wealth producing intuition in the country, and the strongest source of support for President Hugo Chavez’s revolutionary changes.

I had met a number of PDVSA oil workers, who seemed well represented among the ranks of PDVSA management. I also had the chance to talk with one of their directors, Socorro Hernendez, over lunch, as well as Jose Luis Rey, who’s renoun is both as a skilled hacker and financial genius who was involved in helping rebuild the financial trading systems when those were sabotaged in 2003.

Today, the state-run oil company is a major backer of the free software movement (software libre) in Venezuela and is a major sponsor of the 3rd International Forum on Free Knowledge, which is what brought me to Maracaibo. Every question related to the use of free software in Venezuela, and to how the Bolivarian revolution started, seems to come back to PDVSA and the worker lockout in 2002.

Before the worker lockout, the administration of the state oil company was strongly connected to the wealthy elite of Venezuela. Many of the wealthiest people in Venezuela had been getting much richer thanks to the oil company, in part through contracts and corruption, not unlike what has been happening here in the U.S. with politically connected companies like Halliburton.

President Hugo Chavez was originally elected on a platform to use the oil wealth to help pay for the poor of the country through education and health programs, rather than to simply making the country’s wealthy even wealthier. Many of Venezuela’s wealthier citizens, used to having money from the state oil company, would not tolerate this, and so they decided President Hugo Chavez had to go at any cost, even if it meant sabotaging their own nation to do it.

So they tried to close the oil company in December of 2002, by locking out the workers, and hold the oil resources of the nation as a whole hostage by having the entire IT infrastructure under their control. If the data and systems present then had been destroyed, it would have been years before another drop of oil could have been produced.

Out of 4800 managers, about 200 chose to stay behind, and together, with the help of many by then retired former managers who were less corrupt than the ones who left, the workers tried to save the oil company. But the biggest challenge was the computer infrastructure.

Management of IT was at the time contracted to SAIC (Science Applications International Corp), which has well known political and business connections to Cheney’s office, to the U.S. DOD, and the CIA. At first, when the Venezuelan army was called out to secure the oil facilities during the lockout, and the SAIC staff created videos of the troops securing the facilities to claim they were under attack and try and persuade the U.S. congress to give Bush war powers to seize the oil fields. When this scheme failed, the SAIC workers fled the country, but changed all the passwords and kept remote control of all the computer servers of PDVSA. They choose not to destroy the data on them because they thought they would be back in a few months when the government of President Chavez finally would capitulate.

Much of the infrastructure of PDVSA was under Microsoft Windows-based servers, and used proprietary database software such as Microsoft SQL. The IT managers did not expect a bunch of oil workers to be able to thwart their plans. Those same oil workers, working together with local computer hackers, were able to secure control of vital computer servers, and in doing so save the oil infrastructure.

The Venezuelan revolution is perhaps the first revolution in history saved by computer hackers and is one of the reasons the government is so very strong on promoting the use of free software, particularly in public administration. The Venezuelan government wishes never again to have vital infrastructure held hostage or sabotaged by agents of foreign nations. This cannot be accomplished by source secret proprietary software, such as Microsoft Windows, with it’s infamous backdoor NSA key. Even proprietary software from a trustworthy source has to be suspect for possible tampering, and so must be rejected, not just by Venezuela, but by any nation that wishes to protect and maintain it’s sovereignty against sabotage.

Today, everyone I had met from PDVSA appears completely committed at all levels to the basic idea of converting Venezuela’s oil resources into long-term and self-sustaining wealth for the nation as a whole. This is done in part through the development of a new socialist economy, as planned for through Minep.

Capturing this wealth is viewed as an urgent matter because, even though Venezuela posses one of the largest known reserves of oil, they expect world oil production to begin declining and see this wealth as very temporary. Socorro Hernendez said PDVSA believes that nobody will “burn” oil (as for example in automobiles) in as little as 20 years. He also said they believe that while oil will remain important in the many other industries it is used in, the price will settle to $5 a barrel, so now is not only the best, but also the last, chance to create something useful from this wealth.

Conatel and Conclusions

I flew from Maracaibo to Caracas on Saturday. Even in Venezuela’s revolutionary republic, custom officials are still custom officials, and airports are still like airports everywhere. Given the lack of revolutionary posters, pictures of Chavez, or those military checkpoints promised by the state department, what is worth noting is the rather ordinary way society and most institutions operate in Venezuela.

There are also many ministries and government institutions which are not connected ideologically with the revolution, yet many of the civil service I met from these other ministries in their own way seem to support it. Usually this is because of the kind of programs these different agencies have been able to do with funding provided by the Chavez government.

One example, is Conatel, Venezuela’s regulatory agency for telephone and broadcast services, something a bit like the FCC in the United State.

However, in creating a telecenter project for Venezuelan communities, Conatel does now something else as well to benefit poor communities across the country. Many of the people I met from Conatel came themselves from poor families. While they live something of what we might call “middle class” lifestyles, they are very proud of being able to bring projects like telecenters forward. They do not see it as a matter of any ideology, but simply as something that is right to do. For this reason, I believe the civil servants as a whole, even those in very traditional government institutions like Conatel, also strongly support Chavez.

Rita Hermosa is an excellant example of this civil service attitude. While not ideologically motivated, she was particularly proud of the Conatel telecenter project. This is a program supported by the government of Venezuela to offer community computer resources, including VOIP telephones, web browsing, and community educational services, again using free software.

I actually saw their model telecenter at the Conatel building while I was in Caracas. A typical community telecenter comes with up to a dozen PC workstations, and a server. Connectivity is offered through a telecom carrier for both Internet data and for Voice. These systems also entirely use free software, and each telecenter includes a staff of two people.

One of the people is trained to manage and teach how to use the computers and resources of the telecenter, and charged with maintaining the equipment. The second person is someone trained in the social needs of a given community. For example, for a telecenter that is deployed in an agricultural town, the second person would likely be someone who was educated in agriculture. In a mining town, it would likely be a miner.

I believe telecenters are or will be the public libraries of the new millennium. Unfortunately, most existing libraries today elsewhere in the world, while often include computers, understand how they should be used. For example, many libraries in the U.S. have computers, but they are really only used for web browsing, and come “attached” with nutty politicians deeply concerned that library patrons might actually read about sex, along with laws requiring that library content is filtered for this reason.

Venezuelan socialism to appears not to be about socialism by decree, nor driven by state or any single party ideology. It is rather socialism by experimentation and education. Venezuelan socialists instead appear deeply tied to the basic principles of social justice, solidarity, and equality as inspired from Simon Bolivar’s vision of a Latin community stretching from the Rio Grande to the southern tip of Chile, living in peace, independence from colonial masters, equality, and able to determination their own destiny. Many actual policies are open for thought and discussion, and there is a willingness to try new and original solutions. However, rather ironically, none of this would have even been possible without the direct help of the wealthy of Venezuela.

Rather than bringing down the government of Hugo Chavez, by working together with foreign interests to directly sabotage the country’s most vital industry, the wealthy elite of Venezuela instead radicalized the oil workers in a way no other action could. The workers of PDVSA are now fully committed to creating the new economy, and will remain so regardless of who is in power. When the rich of Venezuela ponder who it was that made Venezuela become a revolutionary socialist nation, they should not look at President Hugo Chavez, who may not even have been thinking of this then, and certainly had no means to accomplish it at the time if he had, but rather in the mirror.