Voices from Venezuela — Behind the Bolivarian revolution
By Coral Wynter & Jim McIlroy
Resistance Books, 2008
Available from Resistance Books
Why should Australian working people take any notice of far-off, Spanish-speaking, oil-exporting, baseball-playing Venezuela?
Coral Wynter and Jim McIlroy's book Voices from Venezuela
tells us why, and does it in the best possible way – by handing a
microphone to a wide range of Venezuelans, participants in the
excitement, stress and strain of the "Bolivarian revolution" that began
in 1998 with the election as president of former paratrooper Hugo
The enormous value of the book is that it provides an
English-speaking readership with the lived experience of Venezuela's
roller coaster of a revolution in the straightforward words of those
who are making it.
The reader will learn many things, but probably the first lesson
that strikes home is that the Bolivarian revolution is very much the
product of Venezuela's peculiar history.
For example, the revolution didn't develop its strength as a
movement against dictatorship (as in Cuba). The Venezuelan people threw
out their last dictatorship back in 1958, when torturer Marcos Perez
Jimenez fell after a month of protests ending in a general strike.
The Bolivarian revolution emerged as a protest movement against the
corrupt two-party oligarchy that was set up, with US blessing, to
replace Perez Jimenez.
Over 40 years, Christian Democrat and Social Democrat administrations
alternated, often posing as friends of revolution in other Latin
American countries, but letting the obscenely wealthy Venezuelan elite
send at least $100 billion abroad while millions of their compatriots
starved, died of preventable diseases and remained mired in illiteracy
The beginning of the end of this "Fourth Republic" was the 1989
uprising of the people of Caracas against IMF-imposed price increases
on basic necessities. This led to a failed 1992 coup by Chavez, and to
the last-ditch "progressive" presidency of one-time Christian Democrat
president Rafael Caldera, who created a new political movement allied
with the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) and the Movement Towards
Mass disappointment with Caldera's 1994-1998 rule prepared the
ground for the emergence of Chavez's successful Movement for the Fifth
Republic and the adoption in 1999 of the new, radically progressive,
constitution of the "Fifth Republic".
The reader of Voices from Venezuela will learn what this
constitution means for the Venezuelan masses. In the words of Dr
Marcelo Alfonso, director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine at
the Central University of Venezuela: "Yesterday, someone asked me,
‘What is the best move that Chavez ever made?'. I said the new
constitution of 1999, because in order to make a new society, you need
a new political instrument and a new ideology. The constitution is a
new base: everything that has changed has come via that constitution."
Which leads straight to the second lesson that the reader will draw from reading Voices from Venezuela.
The Bolivarian revolution has developed in a strictly constitutional
way, acquiring and reinforcing its legitimacy – and delegitimising its
enemies – through winning majorities at fair elections and referenda.
In the one case where a Chavez proposal has failed to win support –
the December 2007 referendum on amendments that would have changed the
constitution into a socialist magna carta – Chavez accepted the
decision, drawing the lesson that a lot remained to be done to win
people to the revolution's now openly socialist objective.
Voices from Venezuela devotes a specific section to this
aspect, but it also permeates the comments of many of the book's
interviewees, reflecting the underlying reality that the Bolivarian
revolution is a permanent struggle for hearts and minds in a country
where the economic power of the capitalist class has yet to be broken.
The third strength of Voices from Venezuela is that it
imparts the deeply human content of the revolution. No one who finishes
the book will be in any doubt as to why it enjoys and builds on mass
In one sense its motor force is simple – since 1998 the country's
oil wealth has increasingly been directed to improving the lives of the
mass of the people, beginning with the poorest, the most marginalised
and most remote. This has been achieved by creating a network of
"missions" parallel to and in action against the bloated, corrupt, lazy
and incompetent state apparatus inherited from the Fourth Republic.
The missions, staffed by the revolution's most enthusiastic
supporters and, in the case of health, by Cuban volunteer doctors and
nurses, have succeeded in eliminating illiteracy, installed new health
care centres in thousands of townships and villages, equipping hundreds
and thousands of people with useful skills and education, providing
food and other essentials at big discounts to the poorest, and created
the first ever services to the homeless, drug addicts and the mentally
How this immense job was done comes through in a moving interview
with the son of Dr Gilberto Rodrigues Ochoa, the first health minister
of the Chavez government. According to Andres Eloy Rodrigues Ochoa: "At
the start [my father] had to confront the disaster that was the health
ministry and the disaster that was the health system.
"Barrio Adentro [‘Into the Neighbourhood', the basic public health
mission] was born from an idea of my father's. He called it ‘integral
medicine', but it was part of the plan to decentralise and remove the
overcrowding from hospitals. This was the only way you could properly
use the hospitals' resources … The majority of patients could be
treated in community consulting rooms.
"With the overcrowding of the hospitals there are now centres of
integrated diagnosis, where all treatment is free and of the highest
quality. This is all part of the public health system, so people don't
have to pay for something my father considered a fundamental right for
everyone and a responsibility of the state. This right is now
recognised in the Bolivarian constitution."
But redistribution of oil income from the wealthy to social need is
not socialism. However, the steps the Bolivarian revolution has already
taken in increasing social justice for the Venezuelan people has set up
a permanent conflict with the capitalist class. Up until now this has
been softened by the high price of oil and the booming economy, which
has enabled the rich to stay rich even as the Venezuelan state has
increasingly been removed from their control.
But a showdown will come sooner or later, not only because
socialism is the avowed goal of the revolution, but also because the
social spending and other development plans of the Chavez government
will at a certain point require increasing control of the "commanding
heights" of the economy, in particular the finance sector. (A straw in
the wind is the recent nationalisation of the Bank of Venezuela, local
affiliate of the Spanish Santander banking group.)
This need to "make despotic inroads into the rights of property", as the Communist Manifesto puts it, demands that the self-organisation of the working people and poor that Voices from Venezuela
details so well must reach new heights. After all, these "despotic
inroads" can only be the work of the mass of the working class,
peasantry and urban poor, becoming conscious from their own lives of
their vocation for socialism.
The fourth strength of Voices from Venezuela is that it vividly charts the strengths and weaknesses of these forces for socialist transformation of Venezuela.
The reader will learn of the still difficult situation of organised
labour, which has shed the old bureaucratic straitjacket of the
Confederation of Workers of Venezuela without yet managing to build a
strong and unified replacement intent on helping the workers organise
to advance the revolution.
The book also tells of the creativity and determination that
sections of the working class, shown in the creation of co-operatives
and in forcing the recent nationalisation of the country's biggest
steel plant, Sidor. The generalisation of that creativity will be
critical to the revolution's advance.
Other chapters deal with the struggles and gains of women, students
and the country's indigenous peoples – the other forces most committed
to socialist transformation.
Today, two years after Jim McIlroy and Coral Wynter returned to
Australia, the Venezuelan revolution continues to advance in its
inimitable and nerve-wracking zig-zag way. As Chavez himself has often
said, the Bolivarian revolution has made its biggest advances by having
to mobilise to defeat the counter-revolution – against a coup in 2002,
a lock-out by the state oil company bosses in 2002-03 and a recall
referendum against Chavez in 2004.
Readers of Voices from Venezuela will grasp this dynamic
and come away inspired with the importance of the Bolivarian revolution
as a uniquely Venezuelan expression of a global need – to throw off the
shackles of an obsolete capitalism and begin the building of a
human-centred, just and sustainable society.
As such, it will also help readers strengthen their commitment to
the struggle for socialism in our very different, but not so different,
From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #772 29 October 2008.