Iselin Asedrotter Stronen is a social anthropologist, studying for a PhD at the University of Bergen, Norway. She is researching social movements in Venezuela, doing her fieldwork in the barrios of Caracas. In discussion with Samuel Grove she explores in detail an extensive range of issues concerning the nature and prospects of Bolivarian Socialism.
Why don’t you begin by saying a little bit about how you became in interested in Venezuela.
I became interested in Venezuela in 2005, when I was looking for a research topic for my Master’s thesis in Anthropology of Development. However I had been interested in Latin America and Latin American politics for a long time, and had also studied Politics and Human Rights in Chile. As I learned more about Venezuela, I became more curious, and went off to do fieldwork in Caracas for 6 months. In 2006 I also made a documentary from Venezuela together with a friend.
What is your line of research?
In my Master’s thesis I looked primarily at social movements. I have now expanded on this for my doctoral thesis, which also takes a bottom-up perspective from the barrios (shantytowns) in Caracas. I am looking at the Communal Councils (organs of grass roots decision making established over the past few years) as a way to understand issues of resource distribution, local development and the changing relationship between the popular sectors and the state. Furthermore, I look at questions of political conflicts at various levels particularly in a context of Venezuela being an oil state; asking how this affects society, from a historical and contemporary perspective.
Hugo Chavez has been president of Venezuela for twelve years, winning 15 out of 16 elections or referenda in the process. What is the secret of his electoral success?
His popularity derives from a number of factors. Firstly, it is important to put it into context: he was elected after almost two decades of increasing poverty and a crisis of legitimacy for the traditional political elites. Hence, he didn’t just pop out of a box. It is perhaps better to see him as a catalyst for long-simmering social grievances.
Former governments presided over a significant degree of social exclusion of the popular sectors, as well as a substantial amount of state violence in order to perpetuate their exclusion. Perhaps the most significant event in recent political history was el Caracazo—a popular riot in 1989 when hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand were killed. The riot was triggered by a new round of IMF reforms, after several years of increasing poverty and social unrest. In 1992, Chavez led a military uprising against the president who had ordered the military to quash the riots. Even though Chavez failed, he became extremely popular. That says something about the social and political crisis that the country was in.
It is also important to be aware of the huge difference between rich and poor in Venezuelan society. Spatially, socially and economically they live very different lives, and have very different lived experiences and historical memories. The better off have a lot of poorly hidden class and race based resentment towards the popular sectors, and while some leaders from the opposition now try to “reach out to the poor”, they have a real lack of credibility.
Under Chavez there have been major improvements in the quality of life for the country’s poor. The Gini-coefficient (measuring the income difference between the rich and poor) has been lowered and social improvements in the form of health, education, alimentation, sports, culture, and on a range of other fields have been significant.
These achievements have been very dependent on grass roots participation. Having grown up in poverty himself, Chavez communicates extremely well with the popular sectors; something which has facilitated their inclusion in the political realm. People have moved from a state of marginalization to taking an active part in social and political public life. Besides reducing poverty, recognition and inclusion into society are perhaps the most important factors for Chavez’s electoral success.
And of course, the opposition has so far not been able to present a credible alternative to Chavez. It is however important to be aware that there is more support for Chavez as President than support for his party, something that was reflected in the recent elections to the National Assembly, when the pro-government parties failed to secure an absolute majority.
Criticism from the right has maintained that Chavez has resorted to more insidious means for holding on to power. In particular there is a lot of talk about the breakdown of freedom of the press. What is your evaluation of the level of press freedom in Venezuela?
In terms of audience share, the private media overwhelmingly dominates the media spectrum. Te be precise, private open channels and pay-tv have a share of more than 94 percent, according to a report by Mark Weisbrot and Tara Ruttenberg from the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC. Few people in Venezuela still consider the national private media as a media outlet as such, but rather largely as a propaganda machine for the opposition. The most aggressive now are the TV station Globovision, and the newspapers El Nacional and El Universal. It is beyond doubt that the major private TV-stations were involved in the 2002 coup attempt, and the opposition media both airs and puts in print things that would be considered far beyond journalistic standards, and even subject to sanctions, in other countries.
The most infamous case of “breakdown of freedom of press” in Venezuela was when the government’s broadcasting regulation body refused to renew the public broadcasting license of the private channel RCTV in 2007- which continued broadcasting from Miami by cable. This was strictly speaking a legal right granted to a government body, and it was done both on the grounds of RCTVs clear involvement in the 2002 coup, and because of repeated administrative-legal infringes. One can ask oneself if this was a violation of the freedom of press, or if it was a state’s legitimate decision within a country’s legal framework. The answer to that depends on the eyes of the beholder, but is also closely related to the qualitative content of the “freedom of the press”-ethos. Is it legitimate of a media outlet to call for the overthrow of a democratically elected government? To what extent is it reasonable that the corporate media use their aggregated power to actively pursue their owner’s private political and economical agendas? How far can they pull the string of journalistic work ethics and still claim to be “the media”? Is freedom of the press an absolute right? What happens when the media breaks with the responsibility entrusted to them as the custodians of an informed public debate? A lot of polemics on the media in Venezuela revolves around issues like this.
Many people have learned to become quite media savvy- they view the media with skepticism. The government-associated media outlets have various practices. There are many good debates, documentaries and creative programs aired on the government-sympathizing channels, and many are made by or with people emerging from the popular sectors. This is important, because these are voices that were previously excluded from the public debate. The government news channel VTV reports from the government’s point of view as well, but have a very limited audience in comparison with Globovision for example.
In the international media, it often seems that “everything is allowed” when it comes to Venezuela: obvious biases, selective use of sources and inaccuracies. The mainstream journalist community in Caracas moves around in their own little circle, and primarily spends time with people with an opposition bias. Their reporting reflects that. But of course, this doesn’t only come down to individual journalists. The biases of the international mainstream media are a lot more complex than that.
There also seems to be a great deal of distortion ‘by omission’. For many of us on the Left it is the creation and proliferation of community councils that is the most interesting and inspiring feature of the Bolivarian process; however we in the West don’t get to hear very much about them. Can you say a little bit about what they are and what they do?
The Communal Councils grew out of the multiple forms of grass roots organization that emerged after Chavez was elected – in particular the “social missions”. These depended on local level organization and a lot of organizational experience was conceived through this.
In short, a Communal Council consists of 150-400 families in urban areas (less in rural and indigenous areas). It plans and carries out local development projects with resources from the state. The projects so far have primarily been focusing on infrastructure and housing, but it can also be on whatever the community deems necessary—health, education, culture, sports, gender equality, socio-economic activities and so on. They have quite a complicated legal structure, so I won’t go into details—but basically, the community elects a group of people to head the Community Council- they are called spokespersons. All major decisions are taken in a Citizen Assembly and prior to deciding on projects, quite an exhaustive social diagnostic is carried out identifying the needs and resources in the community.
Around 30 000 Communal Councils have been registered around the country, though far from all of them are active. The decision to form a Communal Councils is taken by the community itself. The resources come from special state funds and are channeled through the state institution Fundacomunal, which also does the administrative follow up. They can also solicit funds from the Municipality, other government institution and some state banks.
It is often quite impressive what they have been able to achieve in terms of local improvements for the community, although there have also been a lot of problems along the way. The law was revised in 2009 to try to address this.
Some of the issues were insufficient coordination and oversight over the institutional follow-up, which provided space for economic mismanagement as well as inadequate institutional assistance. Other issues also dealt with the legal design of the Communal Councils- now the whole elected Council is a judicial body for example, and there are more chances to legally process cases of corruption. Elected spokespersons can also be revoked from the position if they don’t follow up on their responsibility. The new law also lowered the required number of families in a Communal Council area to provide better flexibility for organizing around “natural belonging”. But I think it is also important to underscore that these past years- or the first Communal Council “electoral cycle” if you can call it that- has been a learning process, both for the institutions and the Communal Councils. It is unrealistic to think that everything will go smooth from the very beginning. Prior to the revision of the law there was a major popular consultation across the country. Now, the question is of course to see what effects the “lessons learned” has had- on all levels. I am planning on going back to Venezuela this year to follow up on that.
In 2005 Chavez rejected capitalism as a model for Venezuela and called for the creation of 21st century socialism. Presumably the community councils are fundamental to this vision?
In general, they have distanced themselves from Socialist experiences from the past, and one of the basic ideas is that it is a non-dogmatic approach to Socialism – dependent on the particular conditions of each society.
The discourse revolves around a combination of state control over strategic sectors, combined with extensive spaces and mechanisms for bottom-up collective organization. Private property and initiatives are vital, but new forms of ownership and management are also introduced. For example they talk of social ownership, where the whole community, and not only a cooperative, “own” and benefits from a locally based production unit. One of the main pieces in the bottom-up component is the Communal Councils. The long term vision is that these will eventually “give birth” to a Socialist Commune (Comuna) – a “confederation” of various Communal Councils that take on more and more responsibility for the public services and local development in an area. Some areas have been constituted as a Commune already, but the experiences so far are limited and quite varied. It is hard to say to what extent the Commune will actually materialize in the form that it is envisioned, I don’t think that either the people or the state institutions are really prepared for this yet, as it implies a lot of legal and institutional issues. However, the law regulating it was approved in December 2010, so time will tell.
The reforms that Chavez promoted- and narrowly lost- in a popular vote in 2006 were about changing certain structural conditions for speeding up change. However, Venezuela is still by all means a capitalist economy in spite of increased welfare services, broader political participation, experiments with collective production-and decision making organs, and more state intervention in basic sectors. It is far from clear what “Socialism of the 21st Century” really means.
You mentioned the fact that in the recent elections for the National Assembly the PSUV (Chavez’s party) didn’t achieve an outright majority. Perhaps more ominously the PSUV only received one percent more than the opposition coalition in the popular vote. As you say this does not necessarily reflect a major shift in public sentiment towards Chavez himself. However it does (at the very least) indicate a certain degree of public exhaustion with the government. What do the recent National Assembly elections suggest for the long term prospects of ‘Bolivarian Socialism’?
I am not very fond of predicting the future, but perhaps in a few months time it will be easier to say something, when we see how the new National Assembly work together. It will be interesting to observe what attitude the opposition block (which has been absent for the past five years because they chose to boycott the 2005 elections) will assume, and if the two blocks can actually find a way to dialogue. Perhaps it is telling that the first thing some of the newly elected opposition lawmakers did, instead of showing up for the first session in the National Assembly, was to go to Washington and make an appeal to the President and various member of the Organization for American States (OAS) to react against the “devastation” of the Venezuelan democracy. This reflects the oppositions’ general strategy to shore up support abroad, above all in the US, for their opposition to Chavez. I think many of the new opposition lawmakers will use their position as a platform to agitate against Chavez, both at home and abroad, instead of actually engaging in political discussions.
The issue in particular that they vented in Washington was the Enabling Laws that Chavez was granted by the National Assembly in the beginning of the December. This came in the aftermath of the torrential rains that destroyed large parts of the infrastructure and agricultural crops, killed several dozens of people, and left well over 100 000 homeless. Through the Enabling Laws, which is a constitutional right, Chavez himself can submit law proposals to the National Assembly- within the framework and areas that the legislature has defined. The opposition claims that this is a way to stall the work of the new National Assembly, whilst the government claims that it is necessary in order to address in a substantial way the reconstruction work and preventive measures in the aftermath of the disaster. However, it is interesting to note that Chavez, in his first speech to the National Assembly, asked the lawmakers to reduce the time lapse of the Enabling Laws to five months instead of 18 months, as he originally was granted. This indicates that he is eager to show that he is stretching out a hand to cooperate with the opposition. He also vetoed a new Educational Law that had attracted a lot of criticism by the opposition, and sent it back to the new National Assembly for a new round of discussions.
I think that the failure to secure an absolute majority worries the government more than they will admit, but it is also important to recognize that the opposition actually secured fewer seats now than the last time they participated- in the 2000 elections. But I think it is good that they are back in, also for the government block. There is a need for dialogue between the two sides.
What other problems does the government currently face?
The main problems are, in short, corruption, bureaucracy and crime. Corruption was one of the main sources of anger towards the old elites, so it is a huge problem that continues under the current government, in spite of occasional crack-downs both on government-and opposition figures. Though to what extent is of course difficult to quantify, but there is an increasing frustration among the people. There is however a lot of awareness of it, and on a lower level there is an impetus to change practices- in some communities people demand to supervise public work- to exercise a form of social controllership through the Communal Councils. The bureaucracy is also too slow, too inefficient, and has not been properly able to adapt to the new policies. Many who work in the grass roots are really frustrated because their initiatives get halted in the bureaucratic grind mill. Crime is also a major problem. Somehow (and somewhat counter-intuitively) crime rates have risen in spite of major social improvements. That is a bit of a puzzle for many who work with Venezuela.
In a long-term perspective I would say that the main challenge is to diversify the economy away from its major dependence on oil. This is a huge structural endeavor.
Yes. I think they call it Dutch disease (the precipitate decline in the manufacturing sector accompanying an increase in natural resource extraction). At the Copenhagen Summit last year Chavez spoke of urgency of the world moving to a post-oil era—and yet, as you say, Venezuela is more reliant on oil than most. What steps is Venezuela taking towards a “post-oil era”?
I don’t think that they are seriously thinking of making the leap to a post-oil nation; rather the opposite. PDVSA has an ambitious strategy plan for expanding the oil-and gas industry. Many researchers, myself included, are concerned with the continuation of a vision of progress that relies on extractive industries as the cornerstone for national development. This issue is a blind spot in political debate, and goes to the heart of Venezuelan identity, history and society as such.
But in order to try to diversify the economy they are working on various fronts, both strengthening the national industry and national agricultural production. The countryside was gradually abandoned as oil revenues started to pour into state coffers more than half a century back, and the great bulk of the population lives in urban centers and along the coast line. This of course also puts major pressure on infrastructure, public services, and employment, as well as a whole range of other areas.
Venezuela also imports around 70 percent of their food, and the government has defined increased food self sufficiency as one of its major goals. As in other Latin American countries, there is a perverse concentration of land in very few hands, and much of it is lying idle. To increase food production and employment, the government has redistributed land to small farmers- campesinos- through land reforms, set up agricultural schemes and training and whole range of other initiatives, like making tractors with the help of Iran for example. But there is a long way to go here. Many campesinos have also been killed by hit men hired by the rich landowners.
State-controlled banks also have special financing schemes for productive activities. There are many more or less pinned down plans for stimulating local production in urban areas, as well as drawing up a new “production map” for the country- stimulating to increased local production based on each region’s specificities. This was also a central part of the reform package that the government lost in the 2006 referendum.
But to return to the original question: even though the non-oil sector has grown more than the oil sector during the past years, the overwhelming share of export incomes still come from oil, and Venezuela is in every sense an oil economy. To some extent, new production initiatives have had some success, but to radically change production-, consumption-, and settlement patterns is extremely complex. So they have a long way to go, and substantial success is far from given.
Samuel Grove is an editor of www.alborada.net, a website covering politics, media and culture in Latin America. He is the associate producer of the feature-length documentary ‘Inside the Revolution: A Journey Into the Heart of Venezuela’ (Alborada Films, 2009). He is also is one of the founders of Level Ground, an organisation that challenges elite opinion and showcases alternatives (see www.levelground.info). He has published articles on global politics for magazines such as ‘Red Pepper’ in the UK and websites such as ‘Monthly Review Online’ and ‘Upside Down World’. He is a PhD student at Nottingham University in the UK.