Michael Lebowitz is a retired professor of economics at Simon Fraser University. He is currently living in Venezuela, and is a close observer and frequent commentator on that country’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution.’ On a recent visit to Vancouver, Lebowitz sat down with Derrick O’Keefe of Seven Oaks to discuss the current political situation in Venezuela.
Seven Oaks: August 15 has been set for a referendum on the presidency of Hugo Chavez, who has won numerous elections and of course survived a failed coup d’etat in April, 2002. Is this referendum a ‘make or break’ vote?
Michael Lebowitz: I think it is make or break, in many respects. But you have to put it in the context that the opposition is trying to get rid of Chavez everyway that they can. You know, they tried the coup and that failed. The attempt was to cut off the oil industry, and other industries, in order to cut off the life-blood of the government. They were very confident that they were going to succeed in that. It was early December  and they figured Chavez would be out by Christmas. And that one failed completely. Chavez always responded, ‘look, if you don’t like me, we have a mechanism in our constitution, which is recall. All you need is 20% of the people who voted for me in the last election, and then you can trigger a recall. So, we have that democratic, constitutional road, take it.’ And in fact Chavez himself had recommended this to the Constituent Assembly which wrote the Bolivarian constitution, that there be a right of recall. But in Chavez’s own recommendation it was a 10% trigger. So he was not in anyway opposed to this concept, in fact it’s central to his idea.
S.O.: A recent article on Venezuela in the Washington Post essentially accused Chavez of bribing the poor in that country, by using oil revenue to fund social programs. Perhaps they were upset that Chavez doesn’t understand that bribes are supposed to go only to the upper classes. How are the new social programs, such as the literacy campaign, working to solidify Chavez’s support?
M.L.: Well, the first thing is to recognize what Chavez has done with the oil company, PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela). The company was essentially a state within a state, very little revenue going to the government, much of it just tapped by the oligarchy. Chavez has ensured that that money is now going to support public programs and one of the things that is happening is a diversion of the resources that are generated by the oil company to social programs, to the people. Now that’s not unusual, this is the people’s oil. People sometimes say this is bribery, but if you look at Alaska, the oil revenue goes to every citizen. It’s simply their right. In Venezuela, what’s happening is the oil revenue is going to the people, but in a different way. It’s going for programs that allow for greater education, that allow for greater health care, and it’s also going through the Bank for Economic and Social Development, through the Bank for Women, the micro-finance fund, and it’s also going to establish cooperatives. So people are getting loans to create their own cooperatives. An enormous amount of money is going for that purpose. I think there are one hundred thousand cooperatives waiting to be registered at this very moment under the Law of the Cooperatives.
These programs are in fact being used to transform the country. It’s not simply social programs, for health, education, etc. The most significant program happening right now is called Vuelvan Caras, which is taking people who are coming out of the education programs and putting them into a new program that is to focus on endogenous development. In other words, to create new industries, which are, in some cases, import substitution both in agriculture and in industry. Agriculture, especially, is critical. Venezuela is this warped country, which has amazing agricultural land and imports 70% of its food. One of the focuses of the government is to reverse that situation, to create the infrastructure and conditions under which people will be attracted to work on the land, and will have the funds, equipment, etc., to be able to do that. And to get what Hugo Chavez has called ‘food sovereignty,’ the ability to rely on Venezuela’s own resources.
S.O.: Early in his presidency, Chavez spoke of working to reverse traditional migration trends from the countryside to the city. What is the state of this rural development, and of the process of land reform in Venezuela?
M.L.: They faced a dilemma. They know what the long-term goal has to be. They have to create this development in the countryside, to create centers where people can have amenities so they have a desire to stay in the countryside, rather than to be drawn to live in the hills around the cities. But they can’t simply take this money, that is all coming from oil, and pour it into that, because the mass of the people are in the cities. They have to satisfy the needs of people, and so they are caught in the situation: Either we meet the needs of people in the short run or we have this long run plan. But if we don’t meet people’s expectations now, we’re not going to be around to do the other.
The Minister of Planning really has this vision in terms of what can be done in the interior, but the social cabinet ministers are saying ‘no, we have to work on the cities.’ And they’ve chosen the cities. The most significant social programs right now are in the cities, where people are, and that’s critical. That’s why they’ll get that positive response from people, because they are meeting their expectations. The opposition says ‘look, there’s still poverty, there’s still unemployment,’ and they’ve got to deal with that in the short run. But the long-term goal, and that’s what Vuelvan Caras is about, is to create the basis for internal development and endogenous growth.
In terms of land reform, it continues. I don’t have any figures. Some of the land that is being turned over is state land that was usurped by private owners, through illegal means. In that case, part of the process is getting the land away from the private owners. And here everything revolves around the courts, through legal mechanisms. And it’s important to always remember that everything the Chavez government does is through the legal mechanism.
S.O.: That’s the government, but have there been any cases of land occupations like those of the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil?
M.L.: I think in some of these cases there have been land occupations –not on the scale of the MST. There are land occupations, especially with the indigenous people, that’s where I’ve read about the land occupations. In many cases, one of the problems is that they’re going in with the legal mechanism, and the legal mechanism is held up. And I’m not sure whether they’ve got all the laws passed that are necessary.
This is one of the many problems in the whole revolution. They don’t have a significant majority in the National Assembly –at this point I think it’s five –and they find it difficult to pass laws and everything’s held up. For example, the constitution calls for pensions for housewives, a very strong recognition of the economic contribution that people make working in the home. But the organic law, the law flowing out of the constitution, has not been passed yet.
S.O.: Getting back to the question of the national oil company, since this is the economic engine of the process, what are the dynamics within PDVSA, and what impact do any tensions have?
M.L.: I think, in general, the question of the opposition presence in the oil company was removed thanks to the fact that most of them left…
First of all, the cost of production plummeted after they were gone, even though production was maintained. And the other thing is that they have these gigantic, wonderful new buildings, because they were, you know, basically getting the rent for themselves. So you think about BC Hydro, BC Gas buildings, wonderful buildings, well suddenly 18 000 people aren’t there, the managers and high-level technicians. And so they have empty buildings. I guess it was a year and a half ago I went to the opening of the first Bolivarian University, it was in the old PDVSA building, with wonderful offices, luxurious classrooms. And they bused students from the barrios, who wanted to be in university but were rejected. And it’s all run, the Bolivarian University, on a democratic basis, which means students are making decisions on courses, and faculty who want to teach there have to pass a test, effectively.
But that’s a sidebar. In PDVSA, there are many charges that there are still some golpistas there, oppositionists there, and it’s hard to know whether it’s true or whether it’s gossip. The leadership of PDVSA is under Ali Rodriguez, who was a guerrilla fighter, and went back and did his economics, and was basically the oil opposition spokesperson for years. He was head of OPEC at one point. He doesn’t go out to inflame the opposition, he’s very careful in his statements, but he’s committed to making the oil company a success.
There’s a new board of directors, which includes two representatives from the unions, from the blue-collar unions, because the blue-collar workers kept working during that oil coup. So they have representatives there. But one of the most significant things happening, I think, in PDVSA, is that there’s a movement from below of workers who are organising something called the ‘guide committees.’ And they are organising from below for more workers’ control, basically, of PDVSA.
S.O.: Internationally, the Left, generally, and especially early on, kept its distance from Chavez. Some of the ‘New Left’ disparaged him for leading a ‘top-down’ process, while others rejected a process that wasn’t explicitly Marxist, or even socialist ideologically. Has the process in Venezuela changed from what it was a few years ago, and how would you define the process today? Where is the Bolivarian Revolution going?
M.L.: I think a lot of the criticisms by the ‘New Left’ and by the old, abstract Left, don’t amount to much. You have to concretely look at what is happening in Venezuela; it doesn’t fit any models that we’ve seen before. I think the best way to get a sense of what Venezuela’s about is to look at the constitution. It’s an incredible constitution. The first thing I said when I read it was: ‘who wrote this?’ It basically talks about the need for focus on human development, developing human potential. It’s basically a focus on a profound democracy and struggles and activity from below. And social movements were key in doing that, and I understand that especially the women’s movement and the indigenous movement were most active in sort of shaping the character of that constitution. You look at that constitution, and you say ‘that’s different from any model that I know.’ There were, also, questions every step of the way as to, well, there are beautiful constitutions everywhere, the question is: Is it made real?
I think that at so many points the Revolution could have gone either way. Look, the opposition lived with the constitution until Chavez brought 49 laws by presidential decree, because he couldn’t get them through the Assembly, which started to put meat on the constitution. And that’s the question: Will they follow through? And I’d say, you know, the process changes every step of the way, and what drives this revolution, and has driven this revolution, has been the opposition. The opposition protests and actions against Chavez have deepened the revolution every step of the way. And there were points where I think they could have made more accommodations with capital, but the actions of capital itself, and the actions of the United States in supporting the coup, etc., have created this wedge, have moved the revolution forward, just as I think this referendum has the potential of deepening the whole revolutionary process.
I think that Venezuela is in a very unique situation, that it can proceed to creating an alternative to capitalism without directly confronting capital, in many cases, because it has this oil wealth.
S.O.: Would that then be some kind of a radical social democracy?
M.L.: I don’t like the term, describing it as social democracy. I think there’s a revolutionary process, of which the outcome is unclear. I think that to be true to the constitution, and to Chavez’s own personal sentiments, that that revolution has to continue to in fact become a socialist revolution. But I think that that doesn’t drop from the sky, and that the most significant thing is this sort of growth in the capacity of people through their struggles that’s occurring…there’s no formula to determine who will win. That’s always a question: who will win? That’s going to be determined by people’s struggles.