The Insidious Bureaucracy in Venezuela: Biggest Barrier to Social Change

Endless queues, waiting months or years for pay or certificates or signatures, the tedious and repetitive letters humbly addressed to all the necessary institutions, public servants and a party leadership often disconnected from the people and going against the working class: Bureaucracy in Venezuela; how bad is it, why is it as bad as it is, what impact is it having on popular organising, and what is the Bolivarian Revolution doing about it?


Merida, May 17th, 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – For some reason, it was important to society to know how many grains of sand there were on a beach. A Venezuelan, Antonio Aponte, told this story. Four people were assigned the task of counting the sand. The first started to count the sand, grain by grain. The second went to his office and imagined the beach, wrote poems about it then wrote a thesis, then gave lectures, and became very busy. The third named a commission, which solicited offices for the work, created teams to order computers, then nominated a leadership and tried to get that leadership elected to the management of the ministry, and didn’t have much time in the end to count sand. The forth counted the number of grains in a cubic centimetre, then used maths and measuring to arrive at a rough, but close figure.

Aponte says that the first person is a pragmatist, or one who prefers to act without theory, the second is an intellectual who prefers only theory, the third is a bureaucrat and the forth a scientific revolutionary.

Venezuela has all four kinds of people, but the bureaucrat is a special and dominating phenomenon within the government, its institutions, some unions and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and it is holding back the quality of people’s individual lives as well as the development of participatory and popular power.

 What bureaucracy looks like in Venezuela

It might have been my mother who came up with the most succinct definition of bureaucracy, “It’s like coming to a lot of closed doors that say ‘open’”, she said. Einstein, called it “the death of all sound work”, Javier Pascal Salcedo said it was “the art of making the possible impossible,” and Marx of course, added class to the definition, “it’s a circle from which one cannot escape…the top entrusts the understanding of detail to the lower levels, while the lower levels credit the top with understanding the general, and so all are mutually deceived.”

Getting a little more concrete, Mandel defines the bureaucracy as a social layer which has appropriated administrative functions previously exercised by society as a whole, though in Venezuela’s case we might say functions that should be organised by society, movements, or communities, or the country as a whole.

The bureaucracy in Venezuela is basically a layer, or some would argue, a class, of people which hinders productivity and efficiency, and has a virtual monopoly on decision making, and resource allocation.

Venezuela’s large bureaucracy prevents people, collectively and individually, from controlling their lives and achieving what they are trying to achieve as movements or communities, by requiring exhausting amounts of documents and waiting, by not providing people with the correct information. It is a strategy which allows the bureaucracy to maintain itself in employment.

It is a bureaucracy that adapts to each new government. Antonio Padrino wrote in Aporrea, “The bureaucrat.. is a person that is proficient at what they do. They have the ability to blend into whatever governing party until they achieve their final objective, the “fruits of power”. They are the civil servants who are incompetent, inefficient, arrogant, scheming, extreme suck-ups and “fishers” for good positions or posts. They… hound the most efficient and productive workers in the department or ministry because the existence of such workers makes their own mediocrity and lack of revolutionary conscience evident… they act like true mafias.” (My italics).

I interviewed Jose Castro, who is part of the financial unit of my communal council in Merida, is also a communication promoter, and was a teacher in the experimental university for 27 years.

“During the fourth republic [the 40 year period of government before Chavez] it was impossible to get a loan for a house, and now, it pains me to say, under this revolutionary government, I’m experiencing something very sad. I retired from the ministry of education in 2007 and to this date I haven’t received any response about the payment of my pension, of all of our pensions. I sent a letter, with all the necessary documents, directly to the minister explaining my situation, I have severe hypertension. … and until now I still haven’t received a response. It’s likely we’ll have to wait four years to receive our pension, and as you can understand, one loses buying power and with the recent devaluation, we lose half the amount when they finally pay us. For me, this is a clear example of what bureaucracy is,” Castro said.

Everyone here has many stories of their own battles with bureaucracy. Myself, I have stories of needing information, and going from the university administration, who told me to go to the humanities faculty, who told me to speak to the dean, who told me to go back to university management, who sent me back to the dean, and so on until I gave up. Or of going all the way to Caracas to go to the SAIME (passports and identification) head office, and of being sent from room to room, all the workers looking very bored and being very vague, and of getting nowhere.

Marta Zerpa, a long time revolutionary activist and currently a substitute legislator in Merida, is experiencing bureaucracy from the other side. I met her in her office in the legislative building and she literally ran into the room, apologising for being half an hour late. It was just 9.30am, but she’d already spent a few hours working at the primary school, and had a long busy day ahead.

Putting up with the bureaucracy from the inside is also a battle, “If you don’t take on the bad habits of the bureaucracy, you’re a pendejo [idiot],” Zerpa said.

“If you don’t receive favours from friends, you miss out on the benefits. We’re still a rentier state… and bureaucracy is everywhere, above all in public administration. The revolutionary process basically hasn’t changed anything,” she continued.

The picture of bureaucracy in Venezuela includes a red bureaucracy, or as is said here, a “boli-bourgeoise”, those who apparently support the government and the Bolivarian revolution but who act, or are, capitalist in their behaviour. Rumour has it, there’s a restaurant in Caracas where many such people go, and in their red t-shirts they spend all afternoon drinking at 20 bolivars per beer.

Such people come from a mixture of backgrounds; sometimes they are revolutionaries and left wing people who have changed their life style, and sometimes become corrupt, as a result of the financial and or power privileges they get from their position in the government. Sometimes these people are members of the opposition, who were in opposition parties previously, and have adapted to the new government and infiltrated it in order to profit from it career wise, or perhaps to hold it back.

Alejandro Lopez Gonzalez wrote in a Rebelion piece, “For the red bureaucracy the revolution is a torrent of agricultural and industrial credits with which they make their acquaintances comfortable and receive percentages [of the money] without doing anything other than handle a few bits of paper for some “comrades””.

Lopez Gonzalez argued that the reason the opposition in Venezuela lacks objective and specific denunciations against corruption in the public institutions is because they are “utterly complicit” in it all.

He continues, “The rightwing aren’t interested in denouncing [the bureaucracy] nor is the bureaucracy interested in confronting the right.”

Why Venezuela, of all countries, is so saturated with bureaucracy

The key to understanding the dominance of bureaucracy in Venezuela is the fact that Venezuela is a petroleum economy. Because petroleum is such an easy and  profitable export, Venezuela’s non-petroleum productive sector is small, and the number of people working for the state is massive. When you put this into the context of high unemployment – officially it is not that high but in 1999 55% of workers worked in the informal economy, leading an unstable existence selling products in the street, a figure which has since decreased to 45% – you can understand why these large numbers of state employees will do almost anything to justify the continued existence of their job.

Francisco Sierra Corrales, writing for Aporrea, agreed, “Venezuela…is a country that is dependent on just one valuable mineral, petroleum…One of the ways to beat unemployment was to create unproductive jobs in the public administration..and if we add to this the party based clientalism, really, bureaucracy is a good poison for the Bolivarian revolution.”

Another factor in the dominance of the bureaucracy is Venezuela’s condition as a developing country. This means that as well as a lack of experienced cadre revolutionaries, there is a shortage of adequately educated people to lead the government and its ministries, the PSUV, the nationalised industries, and the new social missions. I do not mean there are no doctors in the country to head up the health ministry, but rather there are fewer doctors, and most of the currently licensed ones come from middle to upper class backgrounds, and would be proportionately opposition.

 The Venezuelan government has spent the last 10 years obtaining complete literacy in the country, and many middle aged and older people are entering university for the first time. Many of these politically passionate or more “revolutionary” people may lack the confidence (as opposed to lacking ability) to fulfil such positions or to challenge the bureaucracy.

Ex vice-president of the PSUV, Alberto Muller Rojas, also agreed that there is a lack of cadre, “The thing is, there aren’t enough people, that’s the tragedy. The only party that had politically well trained cadre was the Causa R and later the PPT [Homeland for All Party]…the PCV [Venezuelan Communist Party] has been a bureaucratised party since the time of Medina [president of Venezuela in the early forties].”

Manuel Taibo in Aporrea made a related and interesting argument, suggesting that, “if the level of technology in Venezuela were as high as in developed countries, [Venezuela] would have produced everything necessary to satisfy the people’s daily needs right from the start. In that situation the bureaucracy wouldn’t be able to play an important role, as a high level of technology would imply a high cultural level and the people wouldn’t  allow the bureaucracy to impede it or give it orders.”  By level of technology I imagine Taibo is referring to level of development, and while that doesn’t necessary imply a high cultural level, I think he’s right that it helps.

He continues, “But we’re behind due to centuries of exploitation by imperialism and Creole slave-oligarchy. This is the reason why, despite all the progress; the nationalisation of hydrocarbons, the nationalisation of mining, the nationalisation of basic industries, the socialisation of land, Venezuela hasn’t been possible to produce the amount of goods necessary to satisfy the daily needs of the population. And scarcity of goods implies a struggle for them. The bureaucracy intervenes in these struggles…gives to some and takes from others.”

That is, the bureaucracy is capitalist in culture, desiring individual self reward, acquisition, material advancement and so on.

“And those who have their benefits and who get their salaries, it doesn’t matter if they do the work or not. Because there’s no supervision of the work. Sometimes the general secretary here will spend hours and hours talking on the phone and not doing his job. But he gets paid. And such people say they’re working for the revolution,” Zerpa said.

Finally, there is the legacy of decades of rotten governance, where, as in many countries, people lost faith in the idea of moral and ethical politics and institutions and were aware of how the governing parties, that are now the opposition, enriched themselves with public money.

“It’s like we have the vices and bad habits in our blood,” Zerpa said.

The bureaucracy’s impact on the Bolivarian revolution: drastically slowing down social change and the development of popular, grassroots initiative

We have the interesting situation in Venezuela where, rather than a revolution forming a government, a government is trying to form a revolution. This dynamic means that in many ways, the bureaucracy is playing a leading role in the process of, or attempt at, social change, at the national and state levels. And this bureaucracy within the government, the PSUV, the missions, the unions, the nationalised industries, is, by its very nature, undemocratic, unempowering, and inefficient.

Preventing progress and change.

The bureaucracy stops things being achieved, projects being carried out, and resources arriving when and where they should. It is inefficient, corrupt, and sometimes also panders to big business. Despite wearing red shirts some bureaucrats often, in practice if not in words spoken at rallies and to the press, go against social change and, popular power.

For example, just last week the editorial of Diaro Vea, a daily pro-government newspaper, said that they had not been able to acquire paper for the newspaper, due to the bureaucracy. The newspaper uses around 3000 tonnes of paper per year, paper which must be imported using dollars as it is not produced in the country. To get the dollars, the newspaper must take “long and difficult measures” with CADIVI, and likewise with a bank, in order to get a letter of credit. Other newspapers do not have problems getting this letter as they have accounts with dollar deposits outside the country and those banks promptly provide the letter. However, Diario Vea doesn’t have such accounts, and reports that “the [state owned] Bank of Venezuela converted the expedition of getting a letter of credit into a prolonged and difficult time of suffering. In the mean time we ran out of paper.” Among a range of obstacles, “it took almost a week waiting for the signature of the president of the bank”.

This example is repeated everywhere, with community and collective projects often waiting months or even years for signatures and official responses.

“We’re using the same methods, the same ways of organising as before. It makes it hard for the institutions to go ahead and do the things we need for the revolution, we’re trapped in a slow administration,” Zerpa said.

“When you go to a public office, you’ll be passed from one employee to another, and never get an answer…As legislators we’re trying to change this institution, to do something for the revolution, but what happens, we keep on having the same vices, the same ways of doing things, and people like us, the public servants, we do things to stay in power, we don’t let there be any kind of rotation of positions.”

“For example here in the legislative council- people need to be clear we’re not about helping, we’re here to legislate. But people constantly come here asking for money for travel or for medicine, but this isn’t the right place, and the politicians don’t make the effort to explain to people this isn’t the place because they like to have an entourage of people behind them… people should denounce and apply pressure, but they don’t,” Zerpa explained.

The bureaucracy takes power away from the organised grassroots and often favours the capitalist class over the working class

Probably a good and recent example of this is when our communal council, together with a few other nearby ones, organised with the parroquia, the local government below the municipality, to have a government institution give us a workshop on how to adapt our communal council to the reformed communal council law. The workshop was to be in the local park at 3pm on Sunday. We turned up, but the government institution people did not. We rang the member of the parroquia and he didn’t answer. Later, we found out the workshop had been cancelled, but the parroquia members didn’t bother to inform us. It was not in their interest to do so. As the communal councils become more real and more powerful, they are set to have more of the parroquia and even municipalities’ responsibilities, and hopefully one day replace them with our own elected representatives.

Another time, there was an issue of lots of buhoneros – street sellers- selling food and drinks outside a SAIME office in our community, and blocking the footpath and part of the road as they did.  The (opposition) mayor gave them permits to do so, overriding something that is in our communal council jurisdiction, and really something that we know more about. That is, most local and regional governments do not want to concede their responsibilities and power to the communities and they therefore do not work hard to help us become more organised or achieve what we’d like.

Basically there is a conundrum, where the bureaucracy’s interests are counter-posed to those of popular power, but at the same time, it is the government and its institutions which are in charge of granting the communal councils and other grassroots organisations, movements, and alternative media collectives and so on, resources. And such resources are a big aid to our organising. We can’t get the funding to build a cultural centre and meeting place, for example, from within our own small community.  Hence, there is also a conflict within the government, the institutions, the nationalised industries, and the PSUV, between those genuine revolutionaries or progressives who want those resources to arrive (or projects to work, or whatever), and those bureaucrats who, when it comes to crunch time, do not.

As Zerpa said, bureaucracy is “a method of organising”, one which is mostly unaccountable and not transparent. Through the ministries, media and so on, a lot of necessary information on how to obtain such resources, is made available, but likewise, a lot of information is not. It is another way that things are made harder for grassroots organisations, but it also it also makes it harder for grassroots organisers and people to get involved in the government.

The PSUV for example, is great at providing information on how members can nominate themselves for elections (such as the upcoming national assembly elections), at publishing candidacy lists and press releases, but on the other hand, a new vice-president will be announced, and no-one knows by who or when or why, how to contact this person, if they are being paid and how much.

Such representatives can be difficult to talk to. Zerpa said even when she tried to talk to a member of the Merida public  administration, “he’s always out or busy, there’s always an excuse, and that’s part of the bureaucracy… the excuses.”

Rosa Luxembourg wrote about the German workers movements during her time and said that the Socialist-democratic Party of Germany (SPD), because of its position and interests, tended to favour campaigns and collective bargaining over mass strikes, putting party interests before working class interests.

Clearly the PSUV is a different party in a different context. But being the government party, mass support is in its interests, but not necessarily mass strikes. And, bar election time, when the masses are needed to vote and get others to vote, it is the party officials and the mostly un-elected leadership who do most of the work and decision making.

For example, here in Merida during the regional elections in 2008 and the referendum in early 2009, the big electoral material- the posters, banners, billboards and placards, was designed and produced at a national level, and the campaign was planned by the regional leadership. They organised the distribution of material, the car parade, everything basically, without any attempt at consultation with, or input from the membership. The truth is, most membership do not meet, but with the leaders doing and deciding everything, there isn’t much impetus to do so.

Of course, there are thousands of people in the PSUV, the government and the missions who are genuinely trying to promote popular power. The culture ministry in Merida, for example, did a good job of promoting and organising the Revolutionary Reading Plan, which involved communal councils, work places, schools and universities and any other movements or groups, getting ten people together to form a reading group. Each reading group received 100 very good books on politics, history, literature, popular organisation etc, free from the government. The culture ministry then organised monthly workshops for representatives from each group on the importance of reading, how to read for comprehension, on different ways of doing it with children and adults and on organising reading activities in the community.

The reading groups, or “squadrons”, as they are called, are a great example of popular power, because it is the people organising themselves for their own betterment, an experience they will later be able to use in other areas. The reading groups also usually discuss Marxism, recently passed laws, Venezuela’s history, and other topics that provide great ideological education.

But there is still this separation between grassroots organising and higher up decision making. When the culture ministry organised the annual Venezuelan Book Fair (FILVEN), myself and a few other reading group coordinators were invited to the organising meetings of this book fair, as part of a half hearted attempt to involve “the bases”. However, the meetings were scheduled during working hours, when paid ministry workers could make it and most reading group coordinators could not. Secondly, ministry workers did all the work and made most of the decisions outside the meetings; ordering stall tents, booking rooms, organising guest speakers, then informing the meetings, that for budget reasons or  because “that’s how we did it last time” it had to be that way.

Nevertheless, even in the organising of FILVEN you could see the internal battle, between for example, the revolutionary writer who made an effort to text or ring all reading group organisers and invite them to the workshops, and other ministry workers who did their “job” with the same enthusiasm and less efficiency than your average Dilbert type office worker.

Importantly, there are also many key examples of where bureaucrats have functioned in completely counter-revolutionary and anti-working class ways. One local example was Carlos Leon, the city mayor here until the 2008 elections, a member of the PSUV, who would constantly do deals with and approve shopping centre construction, despite a massive housing shortage, and who employed a range of manoeuvres to defeat a workers’ takeover of a waste plant in the first half of 2008.

Or, another example would be when last year PSUV national assembly deputy Saul Ortega accused Federation of Electrical Sector Workers (Fetraelec), who were demanding greater worker control of the electricity sector and its state company Corpolec, of being greedy and of sabotage.

Bureaucracy causing demotivation and smothering dissent

A third and related impact the bureaucracy is having on the Bolivarian Revolution, is demotivation, both of those working within the government and trying to fight it from within, and the bases fighting it from outside.

“Bureaucracy is the enemy of any revolution… anything that prevents decisions coming from the people and prevents them from having information, that keeps them on the outside, and in the end, with all the waiting, it can kill hope,” Zerpa said.

“If you don’t explain to people why something is happening, the people stop believing,” she added.

Some good activists have left the struggle because of the bureaucracy, and many more are very tired, but hanging in there. However, most people, for now, are able to separate bureaucratic problems from the overall goals of the Bolivarian revolution.

When we spent months last year with daily or twice daily, random two hour electricity black outs, and the management of the state-owned electricity company didn’t explain why or organise scheduled blackouts until January after two youth were killed in protests, it didn’t turn many revolutionaries off Chavez or the Bolivarian revolution. Probably many of the swaying voters, some of the non active middle class were turned off, but while every revolutionary I know was openly critical, saying “It took a death for them to do this”, all of them were clear about the bigger picture and continued organizing in their various areas.

Unfortunately though, lack of information did mean that many of the less conscious swaying voters, rather than blaming the bureaucracy, blamed the workers. Lack of information and transparency allows the bureaucracy to hide.

On the other hand, the national and international opposition have taken on a discourse that blames Chavez for everything, to the point where it has become a left wing joke; “I can’t find my socks!” “It’s Chavez’s fault!”. Those with less consciousness or experience do look towards Chavez for everything and because the bureaucracy doesn’t have its own uniform or colour, it can be hard to separate it out when assigning blame.

Members of my communal council spent a year trying to get a form from Sunacoop in order to open a bank account, and three years trying to get entitlement to some government owned land, to build a communal house there.

“To open an account, we had to go to five different meetings, and each time, they asked for another document. We saw clearly the bureaucracy that our president says we have to eliminate, but it seems that those who are near him don’t understand it, and this has its consequences, in our case of slowing down the formation of the communal council. And when the spokespeople of our council visit the government entities they don’t give us timely answers, they just ask for more and more papers. The result of this is that many people interested in forming communal councils lose the motivation and they leave things half way,” Castro said.

Revolutionaries who enter government institutions hoping to change it from the inside also confront a lot of obstacles. One friend who works for the governor of Merida said to me, “The structure of the state is so complicated, the few communists can’t tackle the problem.”

Another friend commented to me that unorganised revolutionaries in the government institutions can’t do much to fight corruption, “[The government institutions] capture comrades and convert them into people of the institutions and not of the community anymore and then, because it’s their job, they defend the institution and its line and the government line.”

Zerpa, too, was clearly bitter about her experiences confronting the bureaucracy, “When someone comes along who has ideological formation, they want to get rid of them because they feel undermined, like you are undermining their power. So every time someone gets into public administration and tries to improve it, people who have no knowledge, well what they do is they create obstacles.”

Distorting the true nature of things, and the opposition within

The bureaucracy also distorts the true nature of the political situation, exaggerating their achievements and hiding problems, making it harder to analyse the exact state of the process of change. Taibo, in Aporrea, continued, “While it pretends to defend the interests of the people, the bureaucracy really defends its own interests and inevitably smothers anyone who criticises existing inequality. If the bureaucracy struggled for the interests of the people it could punish the people’s enemies, but as the bureaucracy only struggles for its own interests and against those of people, obviously it can’t tell the truth about the innumerable cases of corruption, assassinations of civil servants, assassinations of campesino [rural] leaders…”

Muller Rojas also argued that the role of both public and private bureaucracy was in disguising the real power that controls the country’s material resources.

He said the bureaucracy is a bigger enemy than the opposition and imperialism. If that is the case, it is an ambiguous and hidden enemy, and therefore harder to rally against than U.S bases in Colombia or the opposition’s leaders.

In many ways, it is also the opposition in disguise. “There are a lot of capitalists who paint themselves red and then they are officials of the government,” Zerpa said.

Another comrade, one who works for one of the government agricultural institutions, was organising some socialist education. However, people within the institution who were registered members of the PSUV, blocked her initiative, saying the training shouldn’t be socialist.

“The opposition, consisting of those who are against socialism and the government, has organised its infiltration into the institutions really well and constantly blocks initiatives or manages to get them heavily watered down,” she told me.

Herein lies a dilemma for some. It seems Chavez’s strategy is to try to keep some elements of the bureaucracy on side, to avoid having them more actively working against the Bolivarian revolution, to the point where they might support coups.  An example here, is Diosdado Cabello, a known right wing minister (people chant in marches that he is right wing) but to who Chavez continually assigns responsibility.

Current attempts to erode the bureaucracy

The government is confronting the issue of bureaucracy in three key ways. First, Chavez and others verbally denounce it from an ideological perspective. Second, it is attacking some of the causes of the issue by attempting to increase national production and decrease reliance on the oil industry. Third, it is creating alternative, more democratic and participatory institutions and sources of power with the social missions and the communal councils.

Verbally attacking the bureaucracy and cutting their mega wages

A lot of what the bureaucracy can get away with is about what people will tolerate, hence it useful that Chavez constantly attacks the bureaucracy- as a phenomenon as well as individual members, on his weekly television show and in other arenas.

Last year in March, when the economic crisis was being felt, Chavez laid into the rich bureaucracy, stating “we have to get rid of these mega-salaries, mega-bonuses”,  and signed a presidential decree setting wage limits for higher level public administration workers, prohibiting bonuses and eliminating superfluous and luxurious spending such as international travel, parties, car purchase etc.

The public can also denounce the bureaucracy for certain specific things, for example there is a free number people can call to complain about food hoarding or price speculation.

Castro argued that now such public denunciations are difficult, but more possible than before, because there are more or improved avenues of communication.

“I do think bureaucracy under this government has improved a little bit, but not what we were hoping for… It has improved because despite the obstacles, now one can actually talk about problems to the ministries, and before, that was impossible. Of course it’s easier because of technology, the internet. The Venezuelan social security organisation for example, has improved enormously, in the past it was almost impossible to get social security, but now it’s open to the whole community, the older people have their pensions,” he said.

Increasing local production in order to end dependence on petroleum

This move is attacking the problem at one of its main roots, but so far it has had only minimal success, or achieved quantitative rather than qualitative change.  The government provides subsidies and assistance to productive activity and to productive cooperatives and medium and small industry, is looking at reforming the Bank and Other Financial Institutions Law so that such institutions guarantee financing to Venezuelan based production, is adjusting its trading policies to encourage more local production, is constructing and has completed numerous state owned and run factories and plants, and is promoting public works projects to increase employment . At the start of the year it also devalued the Bolivar, though still not down to its real value, in order to encourage more local production and less importation.

According to Venezuela’s vice president Elias Jaua, in the last 10 years the government has also recuperated 40% of the latifundios or massive private land holders (equivalent to 2.5 million hectares). With all this, in 10 years though, it has only increased national production of food by 21%, Jaua said.

A very gradual transference of power to the grassroots

There are currently around 31,000 communal councils, where communities organise to solve their own problems. The big advantage is it is direct problem solving without any bureaucracy at all, except when the council needs to request resources. The disadvantage is that their power is limited to a small geographic area and for now doesn’t extend to regional or national levels where bureaucracy has the most influence.

However, recently the government has moved a small step in this direction by legalising and creating the Federal Government Council. The council consists of ministers, governors, one mayor per state, 9 representatives from social organisations, and 11 representatives elected from the communal councils, and it is meant to oversee government budgeting and policies.

This is not a solution but it is a micro step towards the grassroots having an impact in how money is assigned, rather than always being the ones requesting it and confronting bureaucracy when they do.

There are also around 200 communes in existence, where, ideally, the community also starts to democratically organise local production and consumption, run or participate in its schools and hospitals and so on, and these communes usually group together around 10 communal councils. Ideally, this is where we want to head, eventually replacing the often corrupt, bureaucratic, and inefficient, mayoralties and states- but if this happens it is far off in the future.

Likewise, in my reading group, we are starting to organise more cultural events in general in the community, with long term aims of reclaiming a community theatre, setting up theatre groups and music groups consisting of the many local singers and musicians in our area, among other things. Such work is what the cultural ministry should typically be doing, and we hope that eventually that ministry will be redundant (or consist solely of representatives from cultural committees, who meet to coordinate only). Again, this is light years in the future.

Meanwhile, in the present, you could say there is a tug-a-war between the two trends, between grassroots power and bureaucratic power, with many grassroots activists having to start working for the bureaucracy. For example, in an alternative school in a poor barrio in Merida, a school organised by and run by community members for children who have missed out on normal schooling, and which also acts as a centre of general community activity and organisation, we have just received the news that we’ll receive enough funding from the ministry of education to pay very low wages to only two teachers. This means four other teachers will have to look for work and spend less time in the school. One has already got work with an institution for children.

Finally, there are also struggles within the PSUV and within the unions to make them more democratic and therefore less bureaucratic, as well. That the PSUV has had primary elections for its regional candidates and for most of its candidates for the upcoming national assembly elections in September, where any member at all could nominate, is significant because people have more say and control than they did before.

However even this process was tainted, with bureaucrats often (but not in all cases) getting elected due to name recognition and access to more resources.

In a few areas, people reported that some candidates who were already members of the national or regional leadership of the PSUV, had staffed campaign tents, t-shirts with their photos, and car parades, even on the day of elections when the norms prohibited campaigning. Others were able to use their position to call press conferences.

Creating parallel institutions, the missions, to replace or to take on work not being done by institutions

The missions were conceived in 2002-3 as a new way of providing social services that was removed from the existing bureaucracy. The missions were also distinct to the traditional welfare organisations because they were, and are, often based in the communities and to a large extent, were meant to be run by them. Many missions, such as those supporting women, rather than just handing down resources, have been run more like movements, with large ideological and training components to them, as well as local participation.

Those missions receiving Cuban support, primarily the health missions, are quite free from bureaucracy. In a Integral Diagnostic Centre (CDI), Mission Barrio Adentro II, usually run and staffed almost entirely by Cubans, but with Venezuelan doctors gradually participating more as they receive the qualifications, if you need to see a doctor the general protocol is to go there at 8am or 2pm, receive a number that places you in a queue, and you are attended that day. However in the public hospital system, such as one hospital I had to visit recently in Merida, you first need a referral, you are then given an appointment that is often months away, you turn up on that day and receive a number, assuming you have the piece of paper they request, which many don’t realise they need.

However, the old bureaucratic traditions, habits, and people, have managed in many instances, to coopt the missions as well. The same old bureaucrats frequently manage to get positions running aspects of the missions. I was teaching in Mission Sucre for 6 months and at one stage the semester started a full three weeks late as the bureaucrats in charge simply failed to get it all together. Teachers often went months without pay due to bureaucratic incompetence, and the meetings between the director and the teachers were conducting in a very traditional, top down way.

What more is needed: Open criticism, ideology, information, and the grassroots as the antidote to the bureaucracy

Beyond the obvious need to construct a true socialist or communist society and so on, there are specific things that need to be strengthened or implemented within the framework of Venezuela’s unique situation in order to win the battle against the bureaucracy beast.

A greater culture of denunciation and greater accountability of all bureaucrats

If all positions in the PSUV, in unions, in institutions and ministries were recallable, it’s possible there would be less bureaucratic manoeuvring. PSUV members have shown they can be unforgiving of this by not re-electing so called Chavista mayors, for example, when they proved to really be on the other side. However the bureaucracy is not going to kill itself and such a right to recall would have to be struggled for from within.

Nevertheless fighting from within is one of those necessary but easier said than done things, given who has the power, the lack of ideology and experience, the pressure to keep ones job, and a hesitation to criticise and therefore be labelled “opposition”.

“There are a lot of things we need to change and we should say so. We’re not revolutionaries if we shut up. We really need to ask ourselves, are we being revolutionaries or are we just maintaining things the same as they’ve always been,” Zerpa said.

“I think the bureaucracy is holding the revolution back and so we should struggle against it united, denouncing the bad things we see,” Castro said.

Indeed, another way of applying accountability is denunciation, making it known in the alternative, local, and mainstream media when an individual or an organisation is doing something wrong, and thereby making it a bit harder for them.

Better media, information, and ideological levels, more education and training

Beyond just denouncing in the media, pro-government media itself needs to be more analytical, informative, transparent, and honest, rather than reporting government initiatives and decisions in an almost brochure type format.

Clearly, the government does this because there is a media war and the opposition press is critical enough. However, there is an important difference between the opposition’s “criticisms”, which are more like distortions, lies, exaggerations, and manipulations, and what could be constructive criticism and an honest portrayal of any problems or challenges by pro-government media.

Sometimes, watching all the amazing things that are going on around the country on VTV for example, is inspiring, but in general if people’s real experiences are too different to what the government media portrays, this will add to their demoralisation and their lack of trust already fostered by a bureaucracy which seeks to maintain itself by portraying things as highly satisfactory.

Ultimately, a higher level of media and amount of information, along with stronger ideological formation, is helpful for creating a culture of honesty, reflection, and clarity, and makes it harder for the bureaucracy to get away with things and is a weapon for those fighting it. It means greater transparency, one of the bureaucracy’s biggest enemies.

Other comrades have argued for a program of general re-training of government workers, a re-education of values and a more in depth understanding of capitalism and socialism.

More concretely, “We need each person who works in public administration to be clear of the methods of organisation that correspond to them…For example, if someone hides materials in order to favour themselves, there’s a whole chain that is affected,” Zerpa said.

Most importantly, a continued strengthening of the communal councils, movements, and work place organising.

As Mandel argued, decisions should be taken at the level where they can most easily be implemented, and the withering away of the bureaucracy depends on a radical increase in the self-activity and self organisation of those doing the implementing, of the grassroots.

Working class passivity and acceptance maximises the potential of the bureaucracy, so in the battle against bureaucracy one of the most useful things we can do is to continue to organise ourselves to the point where we don’t need a paid and removed layer of people to work on our behalf. And when the bureaucracy refuses to educate us or turn up to meetings, or hand over land, or negotiates with a company repressing its workers, or looses our funding, we should denounce it publically and we should look for our own ways to get that funding or the education or win workers’ rights.

“They should give more power to the communal councils. Government offices like the mayor and the state government, they should know that the function of the communal councils isn’t anything but struggling for their communities. What we can do is continue insisting and every time that we can, raise our voice. As Bolivar said, the more obstacles that we are presented with, the more energy we need to use,” said Castro.

Zerpa also thought a strong party was essential for eroding the bureaucracy, “a party that defines positions and strategy and that isn’t a part of the government but rather a government is born out of the party.”

“To change the situation, we have to change things from below… and I do believe in the possibility of change, I do believe humans were made to change things,” she said.

And Castro concluded, “I’m sure that the bureaucracy isn’t going to win this fight while there are people with a true sense of humanity, like our president has.”