Venezuela from Below

An interview with George Ciccariello-Maher, the author of the forthcoming book, We Created Him: A People's History of the Bolivarian Revolution. In the interview Ciccariello-Maher discusses the history and social forces behind the Bolivarian Revolution.

La Piedrita
Click on the photo for a larger view.

(1) I thought it might be best to begin the conversation by getting a sense of your personal political trajectory, how you were drawn to Venezuela, some of your most memorable experiences from your time in Caracas, and how all of this has translated into your perspective on revolutionary change.  In short, what did Venezuela do to you?

I decided to move to Venezuela in an effort to both get to know and to participate in what seemed — at least from afar — to be a unique and exciting political process.  What I found was infinitely more complex than anything that I had read about either academically or in the U.S. press.  Instead of the successful socialist experiment we hear about from the left or the authoritarian populism decried by both Fox News and some U.S. anarchists, what I found in the Bolivarian Revolution is an instance of political struggle, one composed itself of thousands of micro-instances of struggle.  By describing the process as a struggle (and I could equally say “battle), I just mean that the verdict isn’t in yet.

If radicals worried about the conservative or authoritarian elements of the process fail to fight for it, then it will certainly come to fulfill their negative expectations.  But, on the other hand, if revolutionaries throw their weight into the struggle, strategically attacking and winning increasingly more space within the process, it will be radicalized.  And this is what history has shown us is happening.  When Chávez was elected, he was a moderate social democrat.  But as his political reliance on the power of revolutionary grassroots organizations to mobilize has increased — after all, without such organizations, he would never have returned to power after the April 2002 coup — the process itself has come to reflect the perspectives of those same revolutionary movements.

In this way, the Bolivarian Revolution has given me a powerful concrete example for theoretical work dealing with a question that has long interested me: the relationship between “communism” and “anarchism.”  What the Venezuelan example helps us to see is that neither of these is free of its own imperialism: communism has long meant an imposed Comintern line (replete with stageism, economism, and determinism) and what passes for anarchism in North America and Europe has also implied imposing a colonial model on the rest of the world: “if it isn’t purely anarchist, I won’t support it.”

In terms of what Venezuela has “done to me,” I can only say that my hope is that it has reproduced in me what I see in those Venezuelan revolutionaries I most respect: a combination of hard-nosed insistence on strategy and a loving sense of revolutionary hospitality.  Regardless of who I was working with — whether it be former guerrilla commanders from the 1960s or Guevaraist militia leaders from the present, Afro-Venezuelan activists or revolutionary student movements — I was always a bit shocked by the welcome I received and the degree of access I was given to materials that could compromise those involved.  In other words, these Venezuelan comrades took a risk on me, and I can only hope to pay it back.

(2) What’s your take on how far the Bolivarian revolutionary process has come after close to a decade?  Steve Ellner’s latest book, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon, for example, talks about the increasing radicalization since 1998, through a moderate stage (1999-2000), an anti-neoliberal stage (2001-2004), a  stage where we witnessed the emergence of the contours of a “new economic model” (2004-2006), and the current phase since Chávez’s reelection in December 2006, where still  deeper radical changes have been carried out to further the “revolutionary process.”  Yet, Ellner stresses that “by no stretch of the imagination can Venezuela until now be labeled ‘communist’ or ‘socialist.'”  Is the country moving towards socialism?  What are the main obstacles standing in the way?

I more or less coincide with Steve in terms of the progressive radicalization of the Revolution.  But I would add that he determines these stages according to the policy content of the Chávez government.  To fully understand the political dynamics that explain why the process has radicalized, we need to understand these stages in more conflictual terms.

The first stage (1999-2000) was indeed a period of moderation, when Chávez himself admits that he believed in the possibility of a sort of “third way” between capitalism and socialism.  What changed?  Even before any particularly radical changes were instituted, the anti-Chavista opposition began to attack the government, in what Marta Harnecker has called the “counter-revolution without a revolution.” So, in the face of this inexplicable conflict, and prodded by revolutionary movements from below, Chávez began to rethink his own world-view.

This conflict heightened during the second stage (2001-2004), which I would characterize as the period of the consolidation of Chavista hegemony.  This consolidation took the form of a dialectic of conflict, in which the heightened tension and all-out war declared by the oligarchic elites effectively empowered the Revolution rather than defeating it.  This took place in three steps: the opposition in the military was disgraced and defeated in the failed coup of April 2002, reinforcing Chávez’s control of the Armed Forces; the opposition’s economic clout was destroyed during the oil sabotage of late 2002 and early 2003, which allowed the government to reassert control over the state oil company PDVSA; and finally, the opposition was politically defeated when, in a referendum on Chávez’s rule in August 2004, he received nearly 60% of the vote.  The Revolution emerged from this period strengthened, and with a great deal of autonomy in all senses.

The third stage (2004-2006) really saw the transformative effects of this consolidated power.  Whereas earlier stages had seen some social programs, control of PDVSA allowed these programs to expand exponentially.  And more than mere social policy, we began to see programs aimed at politically transforming the political landscape (like cooperatives, communal councils, etc.).

The most recent stage, since the 2007 referendum defeat, has yet to be fully revealed to us.  According to many, it has seen the rise of the “endogenous right,” those moderates among the Chavistas whose vision is limited to a change in the ruling class and some scraps for the poor.  But as the visibility of this “endogenous right” has increased and as the denunciations have become more frequent, so too has opposition from the left increased.  For a while, it seemed (with the abovementioned defeats of the “official” opposition) that Chavistas were relaxing a bit, certainly too much.  Now people need to turn their attention to this internal enemy and mobilize on a mass scale for its defeat.

Which is to say that the dialectic of conflict needs to be maintained, since it’s necessary for the continued radicalization of the Revolution.  And it involved another dialectic, crucial to grasping the Bolivarian process: the top-bottom dialectic that exists between Chávez and others within the state apparatus and the revolutionary base movements.  What we have seen in many cases is that Chávez can be drawn into alliance with the masses to defeat conservative sectors of the state, of bureaucratic institutions, and this alliance has been central to the process thus far.

(3) In a recent article in Monthly Review you focused on the role of communal councils and the concept of dual power, which, you argued, can help us to transcend the “simplistic debate between taking or opposing state power.”  In a few words, can you provide a sense of what communal councils are in Venezuela and what you mean by dual power.

Dual power is the most explosively revolutionary element of Leninism, and that’s why we see a number of self-professed anarchists adopting the concept and turning it to their own purposes.  It refers to a popular power that is seized directly from below, and so it captures a bit of the prefigurative element of the anarchist legacy, the creating of another world in the here and now of everyday practices.  But it also entails a strategic element, one which is probably overstated by Lenin: that of taking power.  When I use the term, what I mean is a reservoir of revolutionary power at the base, grassroots level, which is capable — not necessarily of “seizing” the state — but certainly of acting as a counterweight in hopes of transforming it, dismantling it, and replacing the state with institutions which are less alienated from the people.  This is what I mean by transcending a simplistic debate: neither “seizing” nor “opposing” the state are sufficient responses.  Instead we need to understand why we oppose the state (because it is an alienated group of institutions) and how we can dismantle it and replace it (not merely “seize” it and use it as it is).

In Venezuela, communal councils are a crucial element of this developing reservoir of dual power.  These are small councils operating on a directly democratic basis in open assemblies, endowed with significant power for decision making on the local level (and arguably above the local level).  The blossoming of the communal councils — now numbering in the tens of thousands — is incredible and inspiring in and of itself, but it doesn’t yet represent a proper “dual power.”  Lenin also emphasizes the need for a dual power to be armed, and we see that this imperative is obviously true in Venezuela: if the state maintains a monopoly on force, then any transformation of that state could only occur with the state’s (or more precisely, the military’s) consent.  But if communal councils merge with local revolutionary militia structures and self-defense organizations (which in some cases have constituted a de facto dual power for decades in some areas) the equation changes, and local communities and revolutionary organizations can make demands of the state, demands with teeth.

The basic point is that you can’t trust the state to decree its own dissolution (as in the Leninist fantasy of State and Revolution).  Nor can you ignore it (in the equally ridiculous anarchist fantasy).  All that we can do is to force transformation on the state, and dual power is a mechanism for doing just that.

(4) If communal councils are one fundamental component of the Bolivarian process, another aspect that seems sometimes to receive less serious attention is the debate around workers’ control in the new nationalized industries.  Take us through some of the most recent nationalizations, the role of the labour movement in these sectors, and explain your perspective on the reluctance of the Chávez administration to recognize the need for workers’ control in “strategic” industries.

Ironically given the claims of the Venezuelan government, organized labor could be the sphere in which we have seen the least progress in recent years.  Certainly, this has to do with the fact that the Chavista trade union confederation the UNT has never come anywhere close to unifying around a common goal.  But it also says a great deal about those who have been governing: for example, the until-recently Minister of Labor José Ramón Rivero was referred to by many leftists as the “Minister of Capital” for his pro-business stance and efforts to divide and conquer organized labor.

It is only recently that things have taken a turn for the better: in response to labor action at the steel plant SIDOR (controlled by an Argentinean transnational, Ternium), the industry was re-nationalized by Chávez, and Rivero was sacked and replaced by a communist, Roberto Hernández (another example of the top-bottom dialectic).  While SIDOR wasn’t the government’s first nationalization in “strategic industries” (the telephone company and local electricity providers were previously nationalized), it clearly represents a turning point.  And more nationalizations have followed since: in April, the government announced the nationalization of cement production (currently controlled by Mexican firm Cemex), an industry considered strategic since it represents a bottleneck in the construction of public housing (cement was being exported from Venezuela, while the government was awaiting supplies to build housing for poor barrio residents).  There have also been suggestions of the nationalization of gasoline and natural gas distribution networks, and last month the nationalization of Banco de Venezuela was announced, “which almost doubles the state’s control of the financial sector.”

But clearly, nationalization does not mean workers’ control.  In fact, after earlier experiments with “co-management,” the very concept of workers’ control has been under attack and in decline, and the organized working class has not been capable (or willing) to defend it.  But as nationalizations have gained pace, Chávez himself has begun to speak more openly about working-class control, and some are suggesting that parallel workers’ councils (as well as peasant’s councils) might develop in tandem with the political organization of the communal councils.

(5) Shifting gears a little, what was behind the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and how successful has this process been?  Has the process of forming the PSUV been effective in formalizing structures of internal debate wtihin Chavismo?  Has it helped bring to the fore important ideological divisisions within the movement?  Has it clarified at all the path forward, where the process should be heading?

The establishment of the PSUV has been perhaps the best example of an instance of struggle within the Revolution. I say “instance of struggle” because too often, battles like that for the PSUV are seen as lost from the outset, as people take the very real conservative tendencies within the party to be predominant.  But Venezuelan revolutionaries have refused to back down and have thrown their weight into the party and its often problematic institutional structures.  There have been complaints over the internal party structure, that it hasn’t proven as democratic in practice as it was supposed to be, that Chávez’s authority is overpowering, etc.  But while we in other countries may use these difficulties as a means to reject the PSUV as a whole, most Venezuelans have not, and have instead redoubled efforts to transform the institution in their favor.  This is in part because the PSUV represents the ideological direction that the revolution needs to move in, and moreover, it is far more democratic than most Venezuelan parties.

In terms of ideological debate, the PSUV has allowed for the crystallization of “currents” within Chavismo, currents that were always there but never out in the open.  With the “official” opposition roundly defeated, Chavistas have been able to focus on internal enemies, or what has come to be known as the “endogenous right.”  Within the PSUV, it was this contingent that in some ways revealed itself by insisting that the party should be defined as “anti-imperialist” but not “anti-capitalist.”  This was a battle that was won by the more radical contingent, and it helped to sharpen the ideological contradictions present.  With most revolutionaries agreeing on the need for a party to unify revolutionary forces and ideology, it is likely that the PSUV will increasingly become the center stage on which these internal conflicts are played-out.

(6) We’ve talked a bit about communal councils, the labour movement and workers’ control, and the formation of the PSUV.  I wonder if you can give us a sense of gender politics within the Chavista movement, both within the formal structures of the PSUV and within the grassroots.

Gender politics are intriguing and crucial in Venezuela, but we need to avoid imposing what we see as a proper “gender line” on the Venezuelan process (again, to do so would smack of imperialism).  Venezuelan women have a long history of radical organizing, both autonomously and within political organizations, guerrilla units, etc.  But gender politics in Venezuela have long been characterized by what I call in my book the “Manuelita Complex,” in which the value of women is often determined by their contribution to the accomplishments of the great men they accompany.  But Manuelita Saénz — the mistress of Simón Bolívar — herself represents something more than simple servility and passivity: understood properly, she was someone who both contributed to the struggle but also constantly disrupted sex and gender roles.

Machismo clearly exists: you couldn’t be in Venezuela for an hour without recognizing this.  But the revolutionary process has seen increasing numbers of women becoming involved in political organizing: thanks to the educational missions more women are literate, thanks to government stipends and the Women’s Development Bank (Banmujer, currently headed by former guerrilla Nora Castañeda) more women have financial autonomy, thanks to communal councils more women are fighting for control of their own lives, and thanks to gender quotas in political parties more of those women will be able to occupy higher positions of power.  But if women’s power has increased as a result of the revolution, this has also — crucially — been as a result of the tenacity of decades of women’s organization.  As they say, “only the people can save the people,” and it’s certainly true by extension that “only women can save women.”

(7) One of the long-standing myths of Venezuelan society turned on the idea of a unique national history of racial and class harmony.  How has the advent of chavismo turned these notions upside down, and how effectively has the politics of race been discussed and acted upon within the Bolivarian process?

Venezuela was long dominated by the “myth of mestizaje,” or the belief that everyone was ethnically mixed and hence equal.  This was an ideology plain and simple, and a policy of state to boot: it allowed the destruction of Indigenous and Afro communities and cultures, and operates as a veil concealing the very real racism that is ubiquitous in Venezuela.

Again, Chávez didn’t set out to disrupt these notions on purpose.  Instead, he was seen as a disruption by the racist, white opposition.  Chávez and his darker colleagues are routinely dismissed as “blacks” and “monkeys,” incapable of governing.  But ironically, such attacks have forced yet another conflictual dialectic, this time around the question of identity: darker/poorer Venezuelans identify with Chávez, and this identification has only increased as the opposition attacks the president.  In the process, race and class even come close to merging, in ideas like the “rabble” or the “scum,” routinely used by the opposition to dismiss Chavistas.

It has been this racialization of conflict that has been more crucial than actual government policy, but that isn’t to say that there hasn’t been any policy to speak of.  In the 1999 Constitution, indigenous Venezuelans were granted special recognition allowing for their own autonomous political self-organization.  While the same hasn’t yet occurred for the Afro community (it was part of the failed reform proposal of 2007), it will likely be forthcoming soon, and Afro organizations are also concentrating their forces on instituting an educational reform that would reincorporate elements of Afro-indigenous history into required curricula.

(8) Revolutionary processes tend to open up space for the questioning of all sorts of informal and formal structures of power and domination, in unpredictable ways.  Almost no one to my knowledge has talked about struggles for gay and lesbian rights in Venezuela within the Bolivarian process.  Is this struggle unfolding, is it finding new space within the government and the grassroots of the radical left?

The struggle for gay, lesbian, and transgender rights within the Bolivarian Revolution is one of the more difficult struggles.  But it would be wrong to see Venezuela as a deeply-conservative and closed society in that sense.  Every year, Caracas hosts a quite large pride parade, and while popular prejudices certainly exist, the country also has its fair number of well-known gay, lesbian, and transgendered celebrities, even within the government.

In the run-up to the defeated 2007 constitutional reform, feminists and movements for “sexual diversity” (the Venezuelan version of GLBT) joined forces in a conjunctural organization called “Group S,” which sought to submit a comprehensive proposal for the constitutional reform.  While many of the group’s proposals never made it to the reform, they managed to include a proposal that would have made discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal.  Were the reform not unfortunately defeated, this would have been law.  But the ability of feminist and “sexual diversity” groups to come together (despite some serious conflicts) bodes well for the future.

(9) You managed to spend some time with some of the radical community organizations of the 23 de enero (January 23) barrio, or poor neighbourhood, in Caracas.  Can you give us a sense of the historic significance of this barrio, and how, based on your firsthand experiences, grassroots groups there relate to the Chávez government?

23 de Enero, in western Caracas, has immense historical and political significance.  It is named for the date on which Venezuela’s last dictator — Marcos Pérez Jiménez — was overthrown in 1958, and it has served as the informal command center for many of the revolts that Venezuela has experienced since (from the 1989 Caracazo riot to the popular military operations that returned Chávez to power in April 2002).

What I think is most interesting, however, is the neighborhood’s history of experiments in local control.  There is no presence of official police forces in 23 de Enero, as they were withdrawn through an agreement with the metropolitan mayor some years ago.  Instead, security is controlled by local revolutionary collectives.  I call these “militias” only to emphasize their mass-military orientation, but without any of the negatives that such a term might evoke.  These are just people who believe in revolutionary and democratic self-control of their communities, and have taken up arms to defend themselves from the threat of narcotrafficking and related violence.  As a result, despite sitting in the middle of a massive slum, 23 de Enero is in many ways safer than some of the more affluent areas of Caracas.  On many occasions, my security was explicitly guaranteed by local residents, and even when I was surrounded by armed militia members, it was clear that there was no danger.

La PiedritaWhen you walk into the zone controlled by La Piedrita, one such group, there is a sign reading: “Here we give the orders and the government obeys.”  And for the most part this is true.  La Piedrita has an absolute control over its local area, complete with CCTV cameras and armed guards.  They work hand in hand with the communal council to ensure that there is zero drugs or violence in the neighborhood (and have even begun to address domestic violence and alcoholism).  This is precisely the sort of organic self-defense organization that I have in mind as a counterweight to the power of the state when I speak of “dual power.”  But we should not misread the situation: despite supporting the destruction of the state, La Piedrita nevertheless recognizes the centrality of Chávez to that very process.

(10) What’s your perspective on the state of the domestic right-wing opposition today?  The right seemed for a long time to have been sowing its own demise in a series of debacles beginning with the 2002-2003 coup attempt and lockout (“strike”), through to the August 2004 recall elections and the reelection of Chávez in December of 2006.  But there has been a lot of debate on the left as to the health of the Chavista movement since the defeat of the referendum to reform the Bolivarian Constitution in December 2007.  What’s your view on the significance of the December 2007 referendum results for the Venezuelan right and left? Which side has momentum?

The “official” opposition has zero momentum.  Perhaps it looked as though they had gained some in the referendum defeat, but that was more illusion than anything else: they got as many votes in the referendum as they have in the past.  It was the Chavistas that lost the referendum through their lack of mobilization.  This was in part due to the weakness and over-complexity of the proposal itself, but also due to the failure of some high-ranking Chavistas (especially state governors) to campaign for the “Yes” vote.

So in short, the defeat tells us more about the Chavistas than the opposition.  The “official” opposition is nothing, nearly irrelevant.  But the internal opposition is worrying, and the next months and years will be crucial, as the internal conflict over the future of the revolution is fought out.

(11) In November 2008 there will be new mayoral-gubernatorial elections.  In the 2004 elections of governors and mayors the main opposition groups engaged in a boycott.  This time around, when they are participating in the elections, what do you expect the results to be?  How important are these elections?

In the 2004 gubernatorial elections, the opposition did participate, winning some key states, but the opposition boycotted the later 2005 municipal elections.  This time around, both will be held at the same time in order to minimize abstention, which is always higher on the local level.

In the aftermath of the referendum defeat, the opposition was claiming victory, and had the opportunity to use that slight momentum to move forward into these elections.  But as is their habit, they have squandered any advantage they may have enjoyed through petty bickering.  The opposition’s white whale — the “unity candidate” — remains a rare catch indeed, and while some agreements will likely be reached on the local level, these will already be tainted by the obvious signs of politicking and influence quotas.  One unknown is the role of Podemos, the formerly-Chavista coalition of social democrats that recently joined the opposition.  Podemos was, apart from Chávez´s own (now thankfully deceased) MVR, the biggest vote-winner for Chávez in 2006.  The question is whether Podemos, which has some governorships, will be able to unite with opposition parties in such a way as to defeat Chavista candidates.

These elections are absolutely fundamental.  State governors are powerful figures (Rosales, the opposition candidate against Chávez in 2006, currently governs oil-rich Zulia), and the worry is that if the opposition picks up a couple more state governors, these states will then serve as staging grounds for a more direct attack on Chávez and the revolution.

(12) If you peruse the main opposition newspapers or television media in Venezuela you get a sense of apocalyptic horror.  The main social themes — accompanying the political accusations of dictatorship and totalitarian communism — are bloody murder and citizen insecurity, kidnappings, food scarcity, and inflation.  Inflation and crime have long been mobilizing tools for the right.  What’s been the response of the Chávez government and its social bases?

I won’t deny that these are serious problems, and that Chavistas suffer them as much as anyone else.  Indeed, as elsewhere, it is the poor that suffer most.  But there are a couple of things to bear in mind when we see this sort of hysteria by the opposition.  We should ask questions like: Is it true?  And, Why are they saying it?

Some things are simply not true.  Food production is up, and the only reason that there’s scarcity is because, firstly, the poor have more money and have been eating more (100% more, according to some estimates), and secondly, because opposition capitalists have been refusing to produce or distribute food at regulated prices.  Similarly, inflation and crime are bad, but not as bad as they were before Chávez (especially inflation, which is around 17% now, but which hit 100% during the neoliberal 1990s).  We also need to be aware of how different sectors are affected by things like inflation: the existence of subsidized supermarkets like Mercal means that the poorest segments of society don’t experience the same level of inflation as the wealthy.

SOURCE: Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval, “The Venezuelan Economy in the Chávez Years,” July 2007, p. 16.

(13) Some sectors on the American left seem to have fairly serious delusions that a presidential victory for Barack Obama would mean good things for Latin America in terms of foreign policy.  What do you think US foreign relations with Venezuela would be like if Obama wins?

I think “Obama fever” is a pretty serious illness at this point, and the first symptoms are a total lack of critical perspective.  Democrats historically, and Obama specifically, mean a slightly softer hand in Latin America and elsewhere (think Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress), but the overarching policy of domination remains the same.  And in some senses, the Venezuelan Revolution has benefited from the overtness of the Bush regime.  Obama has deemed Chávez an “oil tyrant” and only differs from McCain in his willingness to dialogue.  If Obama tightens the noose on Latin America while talking sweetly, this would be the worst of both worlds, but if his presidency allows even a bit of breathing room (and here I’m thinking more of somewhere like Bolivia, which is on the verge of a CIA-backed coup) then it might be worth it in the long-run.

(14) To conclude, the big news in Venezuela over the last few weeks has been a new package of almost 30 laws introduced by Chávez.   What’s the significance of this new set of laws?  Are you optimistic that this marks a further step toward radicalization?

While I haven’t read the text of these laws in depth (each of the 26 laws numbers some 50 pages), I can say a few things.  Firstly, many of these were elements of the failed constitutional reform, which were then adjusted to fit within the current constitutional framework.  Above all, these laws represent the further institutionalization of communal councils and popular power more generally, as each new law — whether it be directed toward agriculture, housing, etc. — contains a provision stimulating the expansion of communal council authority to that sphere.  The laws further transform the military in a necessary if tentative direction, they seek to protect the food supply, to protect against consumerist indoctrination through advertising, to reinforce the gender neutrality of Venezuelan institutions, to encourage sustainable agriculture and environmental protection, to expand social security and access to housing, and to reduce government bureaucracy.  So while some of the important changes envisaged in the failed constitutional reform could not be reworked as laws, it’s clear that some important advances have been made nonetheless.

George Ciccariello-Maher is a doctoral candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley, who lived in Caracas for over a year. He contributes regularly to CounterPunch and MRZine, and is currently preparing a book entitled We Created Him: A People’s History of the Bolivarian Revolution.  Jeffery R. Webber is a Canadian socialist who writes frequently on Latin American affairs.  He’s currently in Venezuela.  The above questions and answers are based on written correspondence between Jeff and George carried out between the end of August and beginning of September 2008.

Source: MRZine