Q: One hears tales of your close friendship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, that he listens closely to your advice. Is that true? How did it happen?
HD: The whole thing developed after the publication of documents on Simón Bolívar that were thought to be lost and which I published in book form after they were recovered. Chávez read the book while he was imprisoned after the failed rebellion of 1992.
In 1999, I learned that Chávez had been elected president of Venezuela from my friend Ali Rodriguez, who was formerly the minister of energy and is now the foreign minister. I resolved to fly to Venezuela to see for myself whether a serious alternative for Latin America was really developing there or merely another new bourgeois government had come to power. When I attempted to contact the new president, he called me. He said he was indebted to me because he had read my Bolívar book in prison and had drawn strength from it. That led to a series of meetings and an extended interview.
Out of this encounter a longer friendship developed, and I traveled to Venezuela a number of times. In December 2001, I sent him a paper in which I predicted that the military would conduct a putsch against him. Unfortunately, he did not take the prediction seriously. Later we developed other ties, and I produced some theoretical material which he came to regard as quite plausible and helpful in that concrete situation. Nevertheless, the term “graduate civil servants [assessors],” used by the Venezuelan public, is misused. We were once close to agreeing upon cooperation on an institutional level. In the end, however, I did not do so, because I never wanted to leave Mexico just as a functionary, a politically integrated intellectual, nor did I want to become an analyst bound to limit his liberty to criticize the process. Thus it remained a beautiful friendship, out of which Chávez takes what appears useful to him. For example, he adopted the concept of the “Latin American Power Bloc — Regional Block of Power,” which I developed. I also contributed the idea of a “socialism of the 21st century,” along with a few other things, in which my modest theoretical contributions can probably help to positively support the process.
Q: The news magazine Der Spiegel hinted that you have a say in Venezuela’s military strategy. And in fact, over the last year a new military doctrine has been put in place. What is new about it and how large was your role in it?
HD: Venezuela’s new military doctrine is what we call an integrated national territorial defense, but since the year 2000 it has been better known as the doctrine of irregular war. It’s the same strategy used by everyone who is faced with an enemy that is much stronger technologically, economically, and demographically. The tendency toward this defense doctrine has been worldwide. Brazil has also made this change.
What’s new about it is that it was forged out of experiences since the war in Vietnam, the military resistance in Iraq, and the understanding that extraordinary military power like that of the United States cannot be broken with conventional forces but rather only through what Mao called a long and continuous people’s war. Irregular war also refers to a situation in which the front and the rear are mixed together, with civilians, militias, and soldiers creating a single fighting unit using a lower level of technology. Essentially, one needs only six or seven weapons systems. All of that is the condensed version of 2000 years of military doctrine of the weak, updated in response to new forms of aggression by the U.S. It’s only logical that Venezuela would adopt this doctrine in view of the real military threats coming from the U.S. There is no other way to survive a military conflict with the U.S.
What did I have to do with all that? Der Spiegel probably did me too much honor. Since 1999, I have gotten to know some of the military people quite well. I am friendly with people who participated in the military-civilian rebellion at that time, e.g. today’s Tourism Minister, Lieutenant Colonel Wilmar Castro, and the present Commander in Chief of the Army, General Raúl Baduel. I also know the Commander in chief of the Navy. I have thus rather many acquaintances and even some friends among high-ranking military commanders. . . .
Q: In 2005, Venezuela introduced a new national bank. What’s the plan there?
HD: The key idea involves the modernization of the role of the central bank, to get rid of an outdated monetarism that has blocked the economic and social development of Venezuela.
There are basically two notions of what a central bank should do. One is the orthodox monetarist view, which restricts itself to the manipulation of liquidity in an effort to control inflation. That’s a role abandoned by larger nations years ago. The prototype of the newer interpretation of the role of the central bank is that of Alan Greenspan, who on the one hand acts as a guardian of the value of currency and on the other gives equal weight to unemployment, all the while keeping an eye on the business cycle.
The central bank in Venezuela was occupied by people opposed to the Bolivarian project. They refused to accept that the democratically elected government had the right to restructure the institution according to the new requirements. They blocked attempts to use surpluses for capital investment, and they blocked every kind of productive assistance of the sort that Greenspan or the European Central Bank would provide. . . .
Q: How would you characterize the direction of the Bolivarian revolution in Latin America? How far has it come?
HD: I would say that one could characterize the process in terms of five macrodynamics. The first is the development of a state capitalism of the kind Friedrich List propagated in Germany 180 years ago and in Venezuela is designated as indigenous development. That’s nothing new. The English invented it; the Germans and Japanese copied it. Today, China and the Asian tigers are following this path because it’s the only kind of development that is possible today within the context of world capitalism. One could speak of a kind of state capitalism of a Keynesian character that includes national dignity.
The second tendency is the defense against the Monroe Doctrine, which is automatically invoked by this development strategy. The third macrodynamic is the intention to arrive at a kind of socialism, in other words to begin the creation of structures and attitudes that can lead to the transition to socialism.
The fourth is based on the fact that neither a democratic socio-economic development nor a defense against U.S. and European interests or even the separate development of socialism in Venezuela is possible. It’s possible only in the context of a Latin American regional bloc. Venezuela surely will not be able to develop economically along social-democratic lines or make a transition to socialism without a regional bloc that includes Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
The result of all is that the emphasis of the measures taken by the government is based on the development perspective of market economics. Venezuela is naturally a capitalist third world economy, completely distorted in its structure of production because everything depends upon oil; it is completely distorted as well in its lack of diversification in the global market, without a single technology for the future, and so forth.
On the one hand, the government must concentrate its efforts on remedial action, while on the other improving the level of labor power and combating outright poverty. From the latter come measures such as the literacy campaign, the opening of new schools and universities and health clinics. That is at the center of the political task.
At the same time, one attempts to make some headway at the socialist project, first of all by beginning to think collectively. In January 2005, Chávez did not tell the World Social Forum, “We are building socialism”; instead, he invited people to think about what a socialism of the 21st century might look like. Together with the Latin American Power Bloc, that takes up 90 per cent of the activities and resources of the government.
The last large dynamic is the bourgeois counter-revolution advanced by the domestic oligarchy and the reactionary sectors of world capitalism.
Q: You state that, in middle range and in the long run, it is the economic elite who set the political course for a country. You are advocating a new kind of Keynesian development. But your Keynesianism proposes to stabilize capitalism rather than dispose of it. One could deduce from that that you want to strengthen the private economy rather than prepare the way for socialism, which seems paradoxical.
HD: We’ll have to see which sectors of the economy are strengthened. If the subsidies flow to large industry, transnational corporations, or wealthy landowners, that would of course strengthen international capital and the oligarchy. Some of these concerns of course have hung on to some subsidies; that is simply a question of their power. For example, Chávez is not in a position to break from the large oil concerns. The great oil companies of the U.S. and Russia are in place, and oil concessions are one method of applying the brakes to pressures from the U.S. But the bulk of the economic development must be organized around the small producers.
In my view, one can only do today in Venezuela what Lenin did in the New Economic Policy. Every other attempt to make steps toward socialism under today’s conditions would lead rapidly to the collapse of the system because there is no basis of power from which to execute it. The bourgeois state has not been destroyed, it has merely reorganized itself into a new way of governing. The church has not lost its influence. Eighty percent of the mass media are in the hands of large companies opposed to the government. Also, the kind of correlation of power that would allow for a repetition of what happened in Cuba or the Soviet Union is lacking.
The new economic policy must be arranged in such a way that the social sectors that until now have been sidelined are strengthened: small farmers, industrial workers, small businesses. Naturally, that does not lead automatically to socialism. But a parallel development is made by devising structures for an economy of equivalence. That’s the decisive difference: It’s not going to be a matter of making a democratic revolution first and following it sometime later with a socialist revolution. It’s a matter of doing both at the same time along parallel paths. That is the new, Latin American solution: safeguard against the Monroe Doctrine for survival while introducing socialist development.
In other revolutions, how was the step toward socialism taken? Lenin defined different requirements for different times. First, there was electrification. That meant the insight that the objective conditions for socialism did not exist — they could be only created. That allowed for the collectivization of agriculture. The whole movement of farm collectives was a result of the political necessity, for the future of the revolution, of bringing under party control the potential within the population of making a decision for it. That was the deciding factor. And Lenin realized, of course, that the Soviet Union would remain bourgeois in the medium term if the peasants were not brought under the ideological direction of the party and the workers.
With the great leap forward, Mao tried the same thing. Against an “ocean of individual properties,” he was supposed to be able to establish, in the mid-1950s, an economically and culturally collectivized economy. He failed in the attempt, and that opened the doors in the medium term for a resurgence of the market economy.
That’s the situation in every transitional phase, one that Chávez, too, cannot escape. He found an established power structure that had the two previously mentioned strategies for development, and to them he attached a third: socialism. He is making the attempt. Whether finally the social-democratic capitalist or the socialist direction will predominate, we don’t know. In the Soviet Union and in China, the bourgeois direction was taken. Until now, all socialist transitions have broken up in the second phase. In the first phase, the seizure of power succeeded, but the construction of the new socialist institutions in economics, politics, etc. did not function in the end. And Chávez is in this crucial situation. The seizure of power to a large extent succeeded, though not as decisively as we wish.
The question is whether we will be more successful in the formative stage than the Soviet Union and China, or whether we will also fail. We have one advantage over both of these historical examples: we are clear today about what a non-market economy is, and we have technical capacities that did not exist in the other two examples. For that reason I would say that today, for the first time, the objective conditions exist that can be used to convert this transition phase into a decision for socialism.
But in any case it must all be done democratically. If at some point the people say, “We have reached the level of development of Costa Rica and that’s good enough for us, we don’t want any socialist experiments in Venezuela,” then there is nothing to be done. Democracy means that the majority rules. If the majority is satisfied with quasi-first world social conditions and does not wish to go any farther, socialism cannot be imposed.
Heinz Dieterich is a sociologist and economist. He has been a professor at Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City since 1977. Since the 1990s, he has been working on “Socialism in the 21st Century,” also called the “New Historical Project.” He has published more than 20 books in 15 countries.