Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone on Venezuela

Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, in conversation with Calvin Tucker, co-editor of 21st Century Socialism. Part 1: Venezuela, Cuba, China, and the changing global economy. [Excerpt]
Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and Venezuela's President Chavez. (BBC)

Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, in
conversation with Calvin Tucker, co-editor of 21st Century Socialism.
Part 1: Venezuela, Cuba, China, and the changing global economy.

You have recently been offered a new job by Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan
President.  What exactly are you going to be doing in Caracas?

Livingstone:  A job is overstating it; you know we had
this deal that was done between London and Venezuela. President Chavez
organized that we would get £14 million off the price of our oil bill
for London's buses, and in exchange, Transport for London and the
Greater London Authority would give lots of advice on how to run a
modern city. And Caracas has huge problems. And the deal was cancelled
by Boris Johnson [the new Conservative Mayor of London] on the grounds
that it was obscene that one of the poorest societies was supporting
one of the richest.  What Boris didn't realize was that the Central
Bank, the Treasury in Caracas, has $39 billion of reserves. 

Venezuela's problem is not, given that they have the third largest oil
reserves in the world, the lack of financial resources, it's actually
the expertise. For example, to get a major programme to build decent
housing. Because most of the people in Caracas live in the barrios,
which are prone to collapsing down the sides of the hills in torrential
rain. About ten years ago, 20,000 people were buried alive in a
mudslide near Caracas. And with the cancellation of the London –
Caracas deal, President Chavez asked me what I could do to globalise
advice and strategy.

So I met with Chavez's candidates for the various local authorities in
Caracas, and they haven't got the sort of strong modern government they
need. You have five lower authorities, and Chavez's party will win the
two which have about 80% of the population, which is poor. And most
probably the three smaller ones in which the rich people live will
elect rival candidates. If Chavez's candidates can win those two, plus
the mayor of the overall greater Caracas region, they can work together
for the sort of long term planning that we tried in London, on
transport, housing, waste, recycling, all those things. I pulled
together a team of people that can go over there and give advice. 

It's all got to be done by Venezuelans, but there is no reason why they
have to replicate the mistakes that we made in London over 150 years. 
What people forget is that if you look at the problems with Caracas or
Lagos or Mumbai today, they are the problems that London had in the
middle of the 19th Century. When peasants leave the land, they arrive
in the cities, they die in their millions. There was a time when, in
1840, the average lifespan in Britain was around 42. In London, it was
35 years. Broadly, all the history of London is about how to create the
modern social infrastructure that gives its citizens a decent quality
of life. 

So, it is not really a job in that sense.  I'll be orchestrating people
to go over there. I mean, it won't require much of my time; it's a
question of identifying those people who have the skills and expertise
in these fields so that they can tap into them.

Tucker: You are a well known supporter of the Venezuelan revolution, as it's called, and you're the honorary president of the Venezuela Information Centre.

Livingstone: That's right, yes.

Tucker: How would you
characterize the Venezuelan revolution?  Do you see this as a real
revolution, if you like, a revolution in the traditional sense? 

Livingstone:  No, not a revolution in the traditional
sense, because the poor people haven't fired any guns. And therefore it
is not in that same sort of broad category as, say, Russia, China and
Cuba.  What you had before Chavez was the 200 richest families, the
oligarchs, taking their share of the oil wealth that wasn't being taken
by the international oil companies, living a life completely cut off
from the mass of the population, and having most of their money abroad,
so that they could get out if there was ever a real revolution.

Chavez won the election and has changed the tax regime, nationalized
the oil companies. And when the middle class organized a strike, he
took over and ran Pdvsa, the oil company, and has used that wealth to
give people healthcare and good education, so you have now got 100%
literacy. You see people who are 35 years old with braces on their
teeth, because before Chavez no one except the rich saw a doctor or a

Now they are moving on to what is the next stage, in a sense. The
vast majority of the population have left the villages and the jungles,
and moved to the towns. But the oil industry only employs 80,000
people, and they have now got the same problem we had in 1980. The oil
reserves and the wealth which that generates has raised the exchange
rate, so that it squeezes out all the other forms of employment that
could come, and in a sense when you actually look at their economy,
they are one of the few governments in the world that desperately needs
to spend more money in order to bring down the exchange rate. Most
other countries have the problem that if they spend too much, the
exchange rate goes down and the international speculators flee. 

They want to re-balance the economy, so that with a better exchange
rate they can make other industries viable, and other forms of
employment viable.  In a sense, what Chavez has done is really combine
the sort of work of Britain's 1906 Liberal government with the 1945
Labour government. It's a huge package of social reform.  It looks
pretty revolutionary if you are one of the peasants who have been
driven off the land and is living in squalor in the barrio.

Tucker:  There is even a shade of Roosevelt's New Deal
or the 'Great Society' in the USA, but the question I want to ask is
this. On the one hand there is economic reforms which echo some of the
social progress we have made in Britain, in Western Europe, or even to
some extent in the United States.  On the other hand, there is a
political dimension to this process; if you like, an attempt to
transfer political power from the old hierarchy and the ruling class,
with the development of communal councils and so on. And it strikes me
that if you look at the political aspect combined with the economic
aspect, what is occuring in Venezuela could perhaps be accurately
described as a revolutionary process.  Would you share that view?

Livingstone:  It is a complete transformation. I mean,
because it is happening in such a short space of time, it's much more
dramatic than, say, the 20th Century was for Britain. And in the sense
that the American-backed coup in 2002 was an attempt to overthrow it,
it really is much more potentially violent because America has sent
killers down there to bump off Chavez,  because the local generals were
a bit nervous about doing it. It came down to the fact that Chavez
refused to sign the paper saying 'I resign'.

What was interesting about Chavez is that he didn't then go after
everybody involved in the coup. The generals retired, they didn't go to
prison. The TV Company that had urged people to overthrow the
government carried on until its license expired. As you can imagine, if
the BBC or ITV were urging people to overthrow the government here,
they would all be inside for a very long time. So he took a very
lenient view.  And I know Amnesty International was critical, but a lot
of the soldiers who had gunned down peasants should have been
prosecuted. But he took the view of binding up the society rather than
having a vast purge.

So it is certainly a very exciting time and there could be terrible
violence if America tried again to overthrow the government, but I
think that the problems they have in the Middle East means that America
is a bit overstretched at the moment.  Let me get you a coffee.  Do you
want milk or water with that? Sugar?

Just milk would be great, thanks.  So to finish off on Venezuela.  One
thing I found very interesting about Chavez's rise to power is that it
didn't happen in the traditional revolutionary way – of course there is
never the right sort of revolution, each one is different and has its
own unique characteristics –  but what you had in Venezuela was a
collapse of the old party system, the old two party corrupt system,
which as you know had come together in a power sharing pact called the
Pact of Punto Fijo.

Livingstone: Was that in 1958?

Tucker: Yes,
after the overthrow of the dictatorship.  What I found interesting was 
the loss of ideological hegemony. I mean, the system just simply could
not carry on in the old way. Nobody trusted the political parties.
Chavez did not come in as a representative of one of the remnants of
the 20th Century communist parties or Trotskyist parties or Maoist or
social democratic parties.  It was something completely different.

Livingstone:  And in the beginning when he had just
been elected, he came to London take part in one of Tony Blair's 'Third
Way' debates. He arrived – here's a soldier who tries a coup when he
realizes that society is going nowhere. It fails, but the speech he
makes is a bit like Nelson Mandela's, it reverberates. He gets elected
and he is desperately looking… he is not anti-American,  I mean the
ideals of America he finds very attractive, and he is a practicing
Catholic. He is not some Marxist trained guerrilla who has planned and
plotted.  He has moved leftwards empirically,  because he has seen what
doesn't work. I see him as a sort of socialist. He is definitely not a
Marxist revolutionary, but in the context of Latin America, Venezuela
stands out like a great beacon.

In the same way that the old orthodoxies collapsed in Venezuela,  they
are collapsing over most of Latin America.  It is only in Colombia,
where Uribe is propped up by vast American wealth and also American
fire power, that that old order is still hanging on. You've got trade
unionists being hounded by death squads and so on.

And what Chavez has done, he's spent $8 billion buying Argentinean
bonds to make sure that Argentina's government doesn't collapse. Having
had such progress by all sorts of left of centre governments, there is
always the danger now as the world economy goes bad, that the backlash
will bring back the right in some new form. So he is doing a lot with
his money to try and prevent that happening.