[Part I] One Interview, Two Voices: A Look at Venezuela Today

A year and a half before Venezuela’s December 2012 presidential elections, the debate has already begun. As is often the case, both pro-Chavez and opposition forces are discussing their views amongst themselves, and not with each other. In an attempt to bring opposing Venezuelan voices together, two members of opposing political forces were asked a series of questions relating to political life, education, and the media, among other things. Here are their answers.

By Juan Reardon, Maria Perez, and Edwin Chirinos Duque - Venezuelanalysis.com
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For part II click here.

A year and a half before Venezuela’s December 2012 presidential elections, the debate has already begun. As is often the case, both pro-Chavez and opposition forces are discussing their views amongst themselves, and not with each other. In an attempt to bring opposing Venezuelan voices together and allow a comparison of both views of this historical moment (Mid 2011), two activists from Venezuela's opposing political forces were asked a series of questions relating to political life, education, and the media, among other things. 

Both interviewees, based in Merida city, capital of Merida state, were selected for their active participation in the country’s political life. The first, Edwin Chirinos Duque, is a professor at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela in Merida (UBV-Merida) and an active supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The second, Maria Perez, is a recent graduate of the University of the Andes (ULA) and an active member of Acción Democrática, or Democratic Action (AD), an opposition party with historical significance now operating within the opposition’s Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) - a coalition of anti-Chavez political forces.

The following interview, divided into two parts, was developed to bring these Venezuelan voices together. Each question posed by Venezuelanalysis.com’s Juan Reardon [JR, in bold] is answered by both Edwin Chirinos [EC Chavismo, in Italics] and Maria Perez [MP, Opposition, in Plain Text], in an alternating order so as to provide a fair organization of their replies.

Part one, below, introduces us to the persons interviewed, their reading on the lives and times of Venezuela today, and their thoughts on the political moment and climate in the run up to next December's presidential elections.  

Part I ~

[Jr] 1. When did you begin your involvement in Venezuelan political life? What led you to become involved in politics, and in what concrete political space to you currently participate (the principal organization, movement or institution)? What does your organization propose for Venezuela’s future (vision/mission)?

[EC, Chavismo] My political participation in national politics began in the ‘90s. At that time, I began working with a couple grassroots chirstian organizations inspired by liberation theology and later I dedicated myself to one organization in particular – the School of Peace and Human Rights “Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero,” a community-based organization that promotes education for peace and human rights. While with the organization, I worked in Los Curos and Los Aguacates, a popular neighborhood in the city of Merida, about 680 km (400 miles) southeast of Caracas.

I have no doubt that it was my family background - of a working class nature, rooted in very humble conditions - that led me to get involved with the community from a very young age. My father and mother are the driving force behind my own inclination towards communist and radical social-christian ideals. 

Having been a militant in social organizations (the ANCLA Youth Movement “Antonio Claret” and the School of Peace and Human Rights “Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero”), I had a sort of awakening in terms of developing a humanist vision of social justice. This, later on, led me to join the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) in the year 2004.

The objectives of the UBV which first caught my attention, and which continue to keep me committed to this institution, have led me to consolidate my efforts at this so-called “House of Knowledge.” I now work as both a professor and researcher at the UBV, and as an organization we aim to offer the Venezuelan people a real, a concrete option, in terms of university-level education. We seek to break the barriers of exclusion caused by years of a bourgeoisie Venezuelan state - a state that experienced a strong dose of neo-liberalism in the 1980s, as did the rest of Latin America. 

The UBV, as a novel institution in the country, has begun to break the previously existing schemes of exclusive university education and has begun to offer the country Programs for Undergraduate Education (PFGs).

The PFGs exist in both social and technical fields of study, fields that used to be invisible in our homeland. These PFGs serve to break through the logic of capital and they allow for the development of courses and coursework that offer the people concrete paths towards emancipation and social transformation within Venezuelan, Latin American and Caribbean realities. As such, our historical processes are studied and evaluated by the UBV. These processes are brought to life by these efforts, and as they extend into the entire university community there is a profound sense of identity and integration with the existing social processes. This is precisely what the elites, the groups of the powerful, had previously kidnapped and taken away from our people.

The ideological and axiological seeding/sowing that is taking place within the UBV can be seen on many levels – on immediate present, short, and long term-term levels. To develop men and women with a profound humanist, Bolivarian, and socialist vision is not a contribution that can be measured o quantified, per se. The present society in which we live continues to be scarred by the characteristics of both neo-capitalism and neo-colonialism.

The most important contribution of the UBV, without being vain about it, is the development of men and women that are conscience of their historic and cultural role in society, men and women who understand the geo-historical circumstance we face as a people and identify the need we have to defeat colonialist empires, especially that of the United States (U.S.).

[MP, Opposition] I have participated in Venezuela’s political life since I was more or less 18 years old, meaning it has now been over nine (9) years. I began my involvement because I have always been concerned with my community’s needs here in Merida, as well as the general situation my country is living through. I remember first participating in local assemblies – what were previously known as neighbor’s associations – which came together to resolve the community’s problems. We would also do political education, increase people’s awareness, and help organize people to vote. I’ve been involved in every one of the electoral processes we have had in the past nine years, including and especially the 2004 recall referendum.

The organization in which I am currently involved is called Democratic Action (AD). Ours is a political party with an important history in Venezuelan politics, and we maintain a vision of equality in conditions for all Venezuelans, without any distinctions. Ideologically, we are a social-democratic organization that seeks to ensure the active participation of all sectors of Venezuelan society in the reconstruction of our country. The social-democratic principles that guide us are: the right to health, education, and housing, a respect for private property and a dignified job for all Venezuelans. Our slogan is ‘Bread, Land, and Work.”

It’s worth mentioning that our organization is a founding member of the Socialist International (SI); that we maintain our voice and vote within the organization, and as an active member of Democratic Action Youth I am also a member of the SI’s Socialist Youth.

Democratic Action seeks to be the driving force behind reestablishing Venezuela as a country of economic openness, of commercial trade between nations. We want Venezuela to export its riches, to overcome its condition of mere importer and consumer. We want the state to play its role, to control and monitor the economy and the nation’s wealth, for the overall well being of the country’s citizens. We also want to see Venezuela reestablish friendly relations with all countries and organizations, not just a small few.

[Jr] 2. How would you define the current (political, social, economic) moment Venezuela is living today? Overall, how is Venezuela doing in 2011? In this same respect, what would you say is the principal challenge/problem faced by the Venezuelan people today?

[MP, Opposition] Well, the principal problem that we, the Venezuelan people are facing is the ongoing deterioration, or worsening, of our quality of life. This worsening is the direct result of a lack of private investments and initiative, which limits the growth of job opportunities. Small and medium sized business are closing for lack of inputs, permanent shortages are making basic goods hard to come by, and an uncontrollable rate of inflation (30% annually) is making things more and more expensive. And that’s without mentioning the lack of investments in the most important health centers (large hospitals, outpatient clinics, etc.). All this, coupled with salaries that are not even sufficient to survive, result in the worsening of quality of life on a daily basis.

As a result of all this, we have elevated rates of crime, delinquency, and insecurity in Venezuela. And these social ills affect all people across the board, regardless of their political leanings, regardless if they’re of the pro-Chavez or opposition camps. 

[EC, Chavismo] The political dynamic of the last decade (2000-2010) has been defined by a marked rupture from the previous phylosophy/system imposed on the Venezuelan landscape for over a century, a system that had Venezuela striving for similarity and living in the image of “yankee culture.” Our cities, for example, look nothing like other metropolitan areas of Latin America. Instead, they have a lot in common with the “gringo” urban centers. Caracas, for example, doesn’t look anything like Bogotá or Buenos Aires, but instead has numerous parallels to U.S. capital cities.

The Bolivarian revolution has had to learn along the way. We’ve had to learn how to make a government and learn how to coexist with a state apparatus of a disproportionate size in terms of  what it provides to its citizens. Starting by refounding the nation, a firm step towards bringing dignity to the nation was elaborating and immediately approving a new National Constitution (1999). By doing so, we elevated the concept of "the nation" to a higher level. We made defending the people’s interests, the people as such, the ultimate objective. We made life, as such, the supreme priority.

But now, in 2011, it’s the economic realm in which the fiercest battle is being fought. This struggle is rooted in the humanist belief that another world is possible, and is necessary to ensure the just distribution of the revenue born of our nation’s economy and the abundant natural resources found in our ecosystems.

Being a country that relies on the monocultural export of fossil fuels, the extraction of raw materials, and being a port-oriented economy, all combined to create a terrible dependence on the international raw material markets. The greatest challenge we have faced in the past decade has been the transformation of our productive apparatus and petroleum-based financial system, seeking to diversify our national income and break the hegemony of dependence on foreign currencies.

The efforts in the economic realm are dedicated to transforming the petroleum-based income into a sustainable and viable economy. This involves disassembling the cultural anchors as well as the interests of savage capitalism that have installed themselves in our society.

The challenges faced by the Venezuelan state, especially the revolution as representative of the people, is to sustain itself in a world marked by globalization and U.S. hegemony. Venezuela is the last revolution born in the past century, at a global scale, and in line with the democratic protocols enacted by recognized international institutions and our own National Constitution of 1999.

Dismantling the bourgeoisie Venezuela state, with its combined colonial roots and modernized capitalism, is the greatest challenge faced by the Bolivarian and Socialist revolution. To meet this challenge there has been a great deal of human energy directed at the electoral scenario – based on the basic premise of transforming the nation with the jagged weapons that we found in the socio-economic apparatus of the past. The result has not been entirely in our favor, since commander Hugo Chavez Frias is the only one who has been able to bear the attacks of the political piti-yankee class. The threats from the U.S. Empire have never once ceased, with their coup de etats, their sabotaging of the electric grid, the economic asphyxiation – these have been the daily bread at the national level.

The social debt has been reduced considerably, but the current dimensions (size, distribution, conditions) of our population make attending to each citizen very difficult – no one had ever even tried to overcome such obstacles. We have to eradicate the culture of “give me for free, give me gifts,” a culture which has installed itself in the social imagination of the majorities. This culture has been inserted into our minds by capitalism, and we have to replace it with a culture based on efforts and study as sustainable paths towards the liberation and emancipation of our people. 

[Jr] 3. Politically speaking, how do you see the current situation of officialism (the pro-Chavez camp) and of the opposition (the Democratic Unity Roundtable, MUD)? Please compare both, giving your criteria on the strengths and weaknesses of each.

[EC, Chavismo] The Chavez camp is trapped trying to build a party that looks something like the socialism that the revolution needs. However, the task that most occupies the party’s time is electoral. This has been the case since the days of the MVR-200, the MVR, and now it’s the case with the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela). The priority has now been placed on making an effective, efficient organization that transcends the mere electoral struggle and distances itself from the shady areas inhabited by the parties of the fourth republic (1958-1998). Sadly, most of the PSUV’s members, with a few honorable exceptions, lived through that recent past and have within their genes the vices of decadence and immorality born of the capitalist system.

The PSUV is not a homogenous and compact block. The differing interests and quotas of sectarianism are rather evident, not to mention a party apparatus that observes the contradictions and inconsistencies of its militants and keeps quiet so that those who obtain votes can continue to hack away at the consciousness of those at the base who are ever more aware and alert of the deviations that exist in those who hold public office or play some mediating role in the government.

The greatest challenge the PSUV will face is to integrate itself into the establishment of the Patriotic Pole, which is intended to be the major electoral force that will guarantee the triumph of Commander Hugo Chavez.

The burnout and the mistakes of the government will all by put on one individual, in this case the president. The different electoral scenarios which have yet to be defined by the National Electoral Council (CNE) are the mega electoral event yet to be determined. We still don’t know if there will be one single election or several elections; if the election for president will be the same day as elections for governors, mayors, etc. If the election is a combined event, it’s likely the president will suffer the consequences of many inefficient and unproductive pro-Chavez governors that the revolution helped secure posts for.

With respect to the opposition forces, with their obvious fascist and neoliberal tendencies, the subject is much more complex. First of all, their owners and guides at the U.S. State Department are growingly desperate because they see that the objectives on the ground are not being met while the dollars provided to their opposition are being wasted. The opposition is motivated by a hatred for the most poor and a desire to return to the government structures they were removed from when the revolution arrived.

The chaos, division, and defense of transnational interests make the opposition look like a sack full of “cats and dogs crammed together”. We’ve seen how the so-called Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) begins to see its “unity” crack. The so-called Progressive Front for Change is an example in which these forces can’t help but push each one of their individualities, and this could be a problem in their search for a single candidate.

In the other scenarios (governorships, mayoralities, etc.) the contests will be very symmetric. If the opposition wins new mayoralities they’ll likely lose governorships that they currently hold, and vice versa. They have yet to accept that they are a minority and their conduct is a permanent display of contempt for the people.

It would be pure fantasy to think that the 2012 elections will be the easiest vote of recent times. The U.S. Empire is going to pour all its rage on this one in another attempt to dethrone Commander Chavez. Remember that Chavez is the principal global leader that denounces the Empire’s barbarities, calling people’s attention to the capitalism’s demise and the threat it poses to humanity’s existence on this planet.

[MP, Opposition] The current situation within the MUD is complex, and it has always been so because of the large diversity of organizations that make of the MUD and the corresponding diversity of existing ideologies. Nevertheless, and regardless of the many challenges we’ve faced, we have been able to achieve positive results and important political gains in recent times - just look at the last elections (September 2010), in which over 52% of voters preferred the option of change.

I think that our original weakness (our diversity) has become our strength. We are seeing a growing openness, unity, respect, and dialogue between our forces and that is what the Venezuelan people want.

Speaking now of the pro-Chavez camp, I’d say that they’ve succeeded in maintaining their unity as well but that their lack of openness to dialogue and criticisms from within, their lack of plurality, lack of new faces, and their following of only one person – basically they are a large group that only follows one man, one leader – has reduced their overall force in the country. As a result of their reduced potential, the pro-Chavez forces have begun using terror in order to keep their voters with them. Chavistas are forced to attend pro-government marches, forced to join the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in order to find work, forced to vote for PSUV candidates in elections, forced to follow PSUV mandates, forced to pay PSUV fees, etc.

[Jr] 4. Given your response to the last question, what is your precise analysis of the presidential elections scheduled for December 2012? What are the principal factors that will influence the election results?

[MP, Opposition] As I just explained, the excitement in the pro-Chavez camp is minimal, as within the PSUV they won’t even be having primaries. They already have one, and only one candidate. Again, I am left asking: what participation and rejuvenation they are always talking about? It’s been 13 years of the same person, a person who had in his ranks numerous qualified alternative presidential candidates – including the Henry Falcon, governor of Lara, forced out of the PSUV for considering a presidential bid from within the socialist party.

Within the ranks of the opposition we are living an active moment of political participation. All of the different people and forces that support their specific presidential candidates are currently working “individually” to get their candidate through the primaries. After the primaries are held, all members of the opposition will be supporting the one opposition candidate we’ve chosen – this is a commitment all of us have, regardless of which political candidate wins the MUD primary.

I for one believe that the determining factor in next year’s election will be what occurs in the economic realm. Since there continues to be a large percentage of undecided voters – those who are unaffiliated with the opposition or the pro-Chavez forces – the economic factor is sure to be the factor that most affects the presidential election result.

[EC, Chavismo] The final balance between created expectations and tangible achievements is going to be the principal element that Chavez is going to hand to the electorate as they make their decision. The clear choice between socialism and neoliberalism is what is going to define the future of this nation. The frankness in his discourse is the most important weapon in Chavez’s arsenal to convince the electorate, especially those who have yet to make their choice the day of the election. It would also be naïve to think that from a mathematical perspective there are slim possibilities for a Chavez loss. The systematic role played by the private means of communication and all the other tools used by the Yankee Empire will come into play in order to influence this election.

The psychological laboratories will be another important source of strategic influence used to create panic and pain, two sentiments that will be instigated in the heat of the election campaign so as to capture those undecided voters who might fall into the opposition’s aspirations.

The truth is that Chavez’s enemy is not going to be an opposition candidate from the MUD. No, Chavez’s real problem are those who call themselves “chavistas” and hold all kinds of government positions when they are not up to the task and expectations that the people have of Chavez, of the revolution, of this process of transformations.

[Jr] 5. Recognizing the important role played by the means of communication in the development of a healthy political debate in any country, how would you describe the quality of journalism in Venezuela? Please compare this quality in the private and public media, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of both. And finally, what are your thoughts about Freedom of Speech in Venezuela?

[E.C.] Many thinkers around the world attribute a great deal of power to the means of communication, the new technologies and internet-based social media networks. An important detail in the Venezuelan case, in which our people were the last of the 20th century to launch a revolutionary pursuit, is that private media corporations are owned by private citizens and these are members of the international elite. Everything these media elite produce is created in the image of their economic interests, including their disgraceful attempts to coerce leaders and secure electoral victories against parties and leaders they disagree with. The corporate media is a supranational entity that uses threats and manipulation to guarantee its interests are defended, overriding many of the most fundamental national judicial mechanisms. 

The Venezuelan case is both disgusting and outrageous. Here, a pool of television channels and radio stations, in addition to their internet-based allies, go about shamelessly lying, experimenting with all of the ideological venoms produced in U.S. and European labs. Their objective is to keep their follows following, founded in a submissive mindset, individual chains which are stronger than real, physical chains. If one takes a look at the programming on Venezuelan television, a majority of shows are based on fascist, right wing content that advances their political interests.

The globalizing banner of Freedom of Speech, which the private media in Venezuela have used to defend their conduct, ends up drowning journalism in the toilets of capitalism and U.S. Empire. Sadly, the pestilence and stench of this media roams streets around the world.

Meanwhile, the programming offered on public television in Venezuela has attempted to wage this important battle in the asymmetrical communicational war of recent years. The updating of technologies, the launching of numerous local, national, and regional radio, television, and internet-based medias has succeeded in breaking the hegemonic communicational barriers imposed by the global elite.

The expectations of Mass Media users around the world, across Venezuela, grow daily. The voluminous content and the ever-increasing quality are processed by viewers that are more and more conscious and prepared to digest the information thrown at them. We are now more capable of perceiving and differentiating who and what is being defended behind the messages we receive.

Today, the social communication networks that secure us our Freedom of Speech have been transferred over to the majorities. In the case of Venezuelan public television we have begun using the media to reproduce socialist and humanist values as a political and social guarantee for our educational, recreational, and universal intentions.

[MP] In Venezuela Freedom of Speech is of vital importance and it’s no secret to anyone that the closure of our oldest running television channel, RCTV, had a huge impact on Venezuelan society. After RCTV was closed, a large number of young people and other members of civil society raised their voice, and continue to do so, on behalf of freedom of expression. From that moment on people began to understand the importance of keeping themselves informed. Meanwhile, the government has gone on to close numerous other means of communication, including approximately 362 radio broadcasts and many other written media, though they maintain the independent media outlets that they consider too dangerous to close because of the enormous social backing and support they have – Globovision, for example.

That’s why the polarization of the means of communication was inevitable; with a great majority of media now controlled by the government, and with only a few independent channels that must watch what they say for fear of government reprisal, fines, and possible closure of their media outlet.

I think as Venezuelans have learned to be more discerning, to inform ourselves by taking on the role of investigator through social media networks such as twitter and facebook so as to keep ourselves informed in light of the serious lack of information regarding the different difficulties our country is facing.

Here are just a few of the channels controlled by the government: VTV, TVES, AVILATV, ANTV, VIVE, CANAL, TELESUR, VARIOS CANALES COMUNITARIOS. And it’s worth noting that these channels are channels with open signals, meaning that in every corner of every community throughout country, so long as there is a television set, these channels are there.

Thinking now of channels that are considered to be of the opposition, we have GLOBOVISION. Now this channel can only be watched by people who have cable television, or if you are in the central part of the country and have an open signal source.

And there are the self-censured channels, which include: VENEVISION, TELEVEN, LA TELE.

I say all this just to exemplify the amount of control the government has over the televised means of communication. Taking a look at the quantity of government controlled media, I think it becomes obvious that this generates a type of polarization and lack of equilibrium in the information provided by both camps. 

Part II coming soon...