Venezuela Speaks!

If mainstream media coverage of Venezuela invokes the singular figure of president Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías as the sole decision-maker of a socialist-bound country, Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots reveals a politically active populace who says that “with or without Chávez” they will continue spearheading the revolution from below, like they always have.

National Gathering of the Urban Land Committees (Sílvia Leindecker)

The book features 17 politically active groups, most of which can trace their beginnings well before 1999, when Chávez first became president. But since then, and with an overhauled constitution that calls on the people to be the creators of this revolution (O inventamos o erramos – Either we invent or we err – is their driving mantra), over 300,000 families have the title to their home, 1.5 million hectares of land have been distributed to approximately 130,000 families, and one labor union succeeded in securing salaries and contractual benefits for the months workers had been on strike.

But the revolutionary process has been far from perfect.

Between October 2007 and November 2009, journalists Michael Fox, Carlos Martinez, and JoJo Farrell hit the ground running, conducting interviews of Venezuela’s politically active groups and their most ardent spokespeople, who are constantly defining, redefining, and kick starting the revolution in their respective communities.

The editors held a launch party at Dolores Street Community Services, and Mission Loc@l spoke with Fox and Martinez about Venezuela’s political climate and what the revolutionary process looks like from the ground up.

ML: On the outset of the book you say, “This book isn’t about Chávez.” And throughout the book various people refer to Chávez as the door, “but on the other side of the door are the people.”

MF: I think that the quote that you just mentioned is the metaphor for pretty much the entire book. [Chávez] is instrumental in bringing together all these different sectors and without the groups he would be nothing. Everyone says if people hadn’t surrounded Miraflores there’s no way he would have come into power [referring to the 2002 coup that temporarily plucked Chávez from office. He was reinstated 47 hours later due to the massive response from Chávez supporters].

CM: The idea was to show the Bolivarian Revolution [Venezuela’s current political process], to show that this thing is actually much bigger than that and includes all of these movements, and we wanted to include that in the discourse, to remind people it’s not just about what Chávez said or did in yesterday’s newspaper.

ML: Just to get into that for a bit. Does Hugo Chávez divert attention away from what’s happening in Venezuela by being such a controversial figure and saying things that many find outlandish?

CM: Sometimes he has played into the hands of the media. There’s always this discourse that he’s using anti-imperialistic rhetoric. Chávez does come off aggressive and then he does end up backtracking, like when he said “the best defense is an offense” [referring to Colombia] and then the next day realizing what he said. Every South American president is criticizing heavily the Colombian government and the media only focuses on what [Chávez] is saying, but Michel [Platini] and Lula [da Silva] are consistently challenging the United States foreign policy, but [Chávez]’s words get manipulated and used.

MF: I think this is really important in the U.S. We say in the intro, we need to be ready to question our own versions, our own vision of how we see the world and be willing to open that up. You go to the U.S., this is one reality, and Venezuela has a completely different reality. When Chávez said, “Wow, it smells like sulfur” [a comment he made about President Barack Obama], this is part of the reason [the people] love Chávez, because he says that. No president in the history of the country has ever done that.

ML: One of the stories that stood out for me is that of Iraida Morocima, a member of the 5 de Julio Pioneer Camp, an urban land committee that works around communal land ownership in Caracas. There’s the notion of taking over land in the countryside, but how does it work in an urban context?

MF: Really the city and the countryside run parallel. One of the enabling laws way back in 2001 was the urban land law which allowed people to acquire titles to their homes. The 5 de Julio [pioneer camp] came out a few years after that, and people thought, this is great, we have titles to our homes, which we thought we’d never have, but what about the kids that grew up in the homes and had to move away? What about those that don’t have the opportunity? What about setting up a social community?

These pioneer groups sprouted all over Venezuela, this was late 2004. There was a lot of hope and it took a long time to even acquire land. This brings up some of the contradictions. You have this pioneer camp who does these occupations of land and in one case the police came and kicked people off the land [referring to the occupation of vacant land in the foothills of Mt. Avila in Caracas]. This is one of the most radical groups, it’s about this is all of ours and if we start selling this house and that house we’ll end up in the same capitalist market [They’re working towards collective social property and believe that with private property, market forces enter the home].

ML: Can you talk about the New Generation of Workers Union that organized within the Mitsubishi Motor Corporation? I was amazed to see them make demands on behalf of subcontracted workers and secure pay for the days they went on strike.

CM: The action that they took and the discourse that they have is at the vanguard of what they’re trying to establish. The old generation union that existed prior essentially became this large labor union bureaucracy. It became highly unrepresentative of its workers and they united with the FEDECAMARAS [Federation of Chambers and Association of Commerce and Production of Venezuela, the country’s elite business federation] to support the oil lockout [a 63 day strike led by the management of the state-owned oil company, which shut down the oil industry and was a follow up to the coup]. In that, it was the greatest form of stabbing the workers in the back.

So this is a great story about how the old union was replaced with a new union and new concept of what this was about. We’re supporting subcontracted workers that aren’t part of the union, they said. So this is a remarkable action that they took in making sure these workers didn’t get fired, because again this is something that is established in the constitution [Article 77 of the Organic Labor Law states that subcontracted work is only allowed for a limited amount of time, under certain circumstances. Mitsubishi was in the habit of using outsourced labor].

ML: I noticed a few running themes throughout the political activities of the groups: a strong sense of ideology, of clarity, and collectiveness.

CM: These are things that are constantly coming up and how education will play a fundamental role. They’re saying it’s beyond political and economic transformation; it’s a cultural revolution. They’re the ones that are going to be at the front of providing that cultural transformation.

MF: The government has been important in throwing out concepts and values and morals. In Alo, Presidente [Chávez’s Sunday television program], Chávez is throwing out concepts and emphasizing the importance of theory and practice. You mention that these themes run through, which is why we thought it was important to compile these interviews. I think it even surprised us how much these things came up over and over again. This is really amazing to see that people know the direction they want to run to.

ML: In the U.S. we tend to have this notion of entitlement, of all the things we have a right to. In reading about the different groups in Venezuela, they also carry this strong sense of entitlement, of what belongs to them, but it seems to pan out in a different way.

MF: I would agree with that. [In the U.S.] we have the right to get and demand. [In Venezuela] I think this plays into about inventamos o erramos [we invent or we err]. For them it’s like, if we need to go down this street by going the other way, then we will. It’s definitely a reinvention of entitlement.

CM: This is something that you do hear, this sense of ownership. That’s what the whole process is about. Venezuela es ahora de todos [Venezuela belongs to all of us] you see in government advertisements. That sounds like a really simple thing than what it actually translates to. I’m going to take over the property if the owner leaves and abandons it. This is my factory because I’ve been working here for years. This is all because of Chávez’s discourse. Like what the [5 de Julio] pioneers are saying, we have a right to this land like rich people, but we don’t want to live like rich people. This is our country also.

ML: In the book there’s mention of the middle class driving the revolution. How so?

MF: You have the grassroots and the reformist sector – they call it the revolutionary and reformist sectors – and you have this conflict between grassroots and the middle class. So I think it can be more of an ideological difference. This personifies the contradiction within the Bolivarian Revolution. Everybody that is around [Chávez] wants to keep the status quo, but the revolutionary sector wants to go further. In the government there’s this reformist sector.

The referendum lost because there weren’t many in the government who were interested in seeing reforms passed because they would lose their power [the 2007 Constitutional Reform Referendum would have redistributed more powers to Venezuela’s 30,000 communal councils and to the president]. These are the subtle contradictions that you really don’t hear about. As much as the opposition exists, these contestations and these conflicts [between reformists and revolutionaries] are even now more conflictive. The reformists say you can have your communal councils [locally organized democratic councils of between 200-400 families], but we don’t want to make them bigger, we don’t want to keep pushing the revolution forward.

ML: What do you hope to achieve during the book tour?

CM: I hope we can transform the discourse on Venezuela so when we talk about Venezuela we talk about the movement and not about Chávez.

MF: Help people break through the media block and the idea that Chávez equals dictator equals bad. I hope the book can shed light on the giant potpourri of this process called the Bolivarian Revolution.

ML: Keeping in mind the huge role foreign media has had in shaping people’s perceptions of Venezuela, what should our role be, as journalists on the outside?

MF: As journalists we need to on a daily level break through the media spin spun by the large mainstream. It’s not just Venezuela. We just need to be very, very careful that we are saying it like it is and that we’re not just pulling copy. What kills me the most is that this happens on a daily basis, and these are the same people that are riling about Venezuela and they’ve never gone. So how can we talk about Venezuela without going and seeing it firsthand, and talking to people and going to their homes? We need to make sure we know what we’re talking about.

This is an edited transcript.