[Part II] 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 the second half of their responses. 

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.

After getting to know our interviewees and their views on Venezuela’s political reality in Part I of this interview, we now move on to Part II in which both respondents speak of the Chavez proposal to consolidate “people’s power” as well as the ongoing debate on how to improve the quality of education at Venezuela’s universities. We close the interview with a few words directed specifically to the readers of Venezuelanalysis.com. 

Part II ~

[Jr] 6. Now that we have discussed the overall political context in Venezuela, let’s talk about the ongoing Chavez proposal to re-organize the country’s political structures? That is, what are your thoughts on so-called “People’s Power” (Communal Councils, Communes, the Communal Cities, etc.) and what does “People’s Power” mean for the structures that have existed in Venezuela for many years (Mayoralties, Governorships, etc.)?

[MP, Opposition] Personally, I consider the so-called “reorganization” or “people’s power” to be unconstitutional. The proposal itself has no legal basis in our constitution, especially when considering that Title I (Articles 4 and 6) and II (Article 16) establish a clear territorial and political division of the nation that don’t include said structures. More importantly, the reorganization of said political structures was clearly rejected by a large majority of Venezuelans when we voted in rejection of the constitutional reforms proposed by Chavez in 2007.

Our constitution clearly establishes the organization of the nation state as a federal, democratic and decentralized country divided into states, districts, and municipalities. As such, the aforementioned proposal of the pro-Chavez camp is unconstitutional and, as I said above, was very specifically rejected in the December 2007 vote against the so-called “Project of Constitutional Reform” which sought to reform over 68 articles (approximately 10% of the entire constitution). By developing and maintaining these parallel structures, they (Chavismo) failing to respect the sovereign decision of the Venezuelan people. 

Another aspect we have observed in these “reorganized” spaces is the absence of any sort of comptroller, which leads to numerous irregularities in the development of projects as well as a failure to complete projects in their entirety.

Also worth mentioning is the fact that within “people’s power” elections that have taken place to elect communal council representatives there are blatant acts of discrimination against opposition members of the community – in direct violation of the constitution’s Preamble and Article 21, both which guarantee equal rights to all members of Venezuelan society, regardless of political affiliation. Communal council elections discriminate against those who do not share the political thinking of the pro-Chavez camp as they don’t allow opposition members of the community to partake in the different teams and committees of said councils. I am often left asking myself about what inclusion and participation the pro-Chavez forces are always talking about?

[EC, Chavismo] Radical changes in the judicial structures of the state are the clearest path towards the transformation of Venezuela’s socio-economic realities. But this is a very classic way of going about impacting the cultural life of Venezuela – thinking that a law will somehow resolve the problems of a decaying state plagued by inefficiency and idleness. Remaining stuck in this “classic” way of thinking is to fall short in both the vision and the understanding of the problem’s dimensions.

To think about reorganizing the country, transforming it from a bourgeoisie-capital state to a social-communal state, with a people who are contaminated by savage capitalism, is to confront a profound contradiction. Nationwide, we continue to debate precisely what conception of socialism we will be building this century – a socialism that can be maintained over time, looking further than any given electoral cycle because at one time or another the leader (Chavez) will have to cede his authority, even if only for biological reasons, as was the case with Commander Fidel Castro in Cuba. That is the greater goal, the long term.  

Will we be ready in 2036, for example, to maintain the construction of Venezuelan socialism? That’s the question, from a social-communal state perspective, that we must ask ourselves constantly. And it’s important to remember that the political and territorial division of the country is rooted in the structures designed for the management of colonial provinces, as are the figures of mayor and governor. These are true and exact copies of structures from old Europe. Through these outdated structures we will not be able to change that old vision of our reality.

The interactions and relationships established across the country in the last 20 years have overcome the previously established political and territorial organization. The interests that move people today, in 2011, and the relationships established between people and power have clearly overridden that colonial vision. The creation of new territorial axes that serve to advance new dynamics and new relations of exchange and distribution should be the guiding south of the revolution for the coming decades, but it should begin by changing and dismantling the old structures.

The edification of people’s power can not just be a slogan verbalized and exercised by Commander Chavez. It should be the driving force, the lifeblood of all militants of the revolution. All the technical, scientific, and human tools available should be utilized so as to empower the people of Venezuela – empowered by their own history so as to find the solutions to their own problems as they arise. Or as our forefather Simon Bolivar put it: make it so that the people enjoy the greatest amount of happiness possible.

I repeat, using the existing bourgeoisie Venezuelan state as the strategy of the revolution to achieve the strategic objective of people’s power “is to strangle oneself.” In same cases, some places, people’s power has already been strangled. We have only one path, and our greatest force is to be found in the consolidation of a robust and live people’s power that walks towards socialism, a socialism that is humanity’s, especially Venezuela’s, last hope.

[Jr] 7. Let’s change the subject slightly, keeping in mind your thoughts on “people’s power,” and talk about the reality of Venezuelan universities today? What do they need, concretely, to improve the quality of education?

[EC, Chavismo] The traditional university in Venezuela (the university) is the last little island left of the Venezuelan opposition; vulgar and shameless little islands that coexist “legally” alongside elected, socialist, and Bolivarian governments. The Venezuelan university, both before and after the revolution arrived, is the apparatus of domination and reproduction of the colonial-imperial model of society that produces the basis for the neoliberal system.  

Under the pretext of bringing “wisdom and knowledge” to the people, the university has encysted itself in our society. The interests promoted and defended by the university are not the interests of the people; they are the interests of a dominant caste that ruled during decades past. If one takes a look at the statistics on university-level social inclusion one sees that only a few years ago the university was a space that existed only for the top one percent of Venezuelan society. The macro objective was clear: by keep the majority of people away from education, the elite maintained the possibility for exploitation and submission to benefit their caste of society.

Now, a more just distribution of public resources and an efficient maximization of said resources would allow a greater number of people to benefit from quality public education. To be able to build and consolidate new physical structures, equipped with the best technological, bibliographical, artistic, and professional conditions would be the ideal way of going about developing new men and women committed to the sacred interests of the people.

We must also insist on an academic development of new educators who will exercise the guidance and education of present and future generations with socialist values based on humanist, scientific, and popular knowledge. 

In addition, the concept of educational quality that should be used to measure the university processes can not be the same as the one used by corporations and savage neoliberalism to develop their statistical analyses. Here we must be quite vigilant – we can not objectify our goals and processes. We must, instead, humanize our criteria without falling into the temptation of converting this practice into a “pedagogy of shame,” castrating and sterilizing human talent.

It’s also important to distinguish between two existing conducts at the traditional Venezuelan university: one conduct, which represents the state’s limited capacity to provide public resources so as to secure the normal functioning of this sub-system of public education, and another conduct, of the revolutionary and socialist government that has adjusted to this sub-system within a new economic geometry with finite margins.

[MP, Opposition] From an academic perspective Venezuela’s universities need greater investments in books, in audiovisual materials, and equipment, etc. In terms of planning and a more effective use of resources, I think that the Ministry of Higher Education should consult with universities nationwide to determine which fields of professional development should be promoted, invested in, and improved; based on what the country needs most. I believe that the country has changed, and with it, so have the country’s needs. Studies should be conducted to determine the quantities of professionals needed in the different branches of professional development and universities should design course offerings for the incoming university students based on said needs.  

Also, a more just salary needs to be paid to the staff and faculty at Venezuela’s universities. Professors should be paid in accordance with their professional development and the national government should provide the resources necessary to increase salaries based on the established norms of wage increases. Only by doing so can we be sure to keep committed, responsible, motivated, and above all else, professional staff and faculty at the universities.

[Jr] 8. Speaking specifically about the controversial Organic Law of University Education (LOEU), help us understand why of the dozens of laws passed by the outgoing national assembly in late 2010 and signed by President Chavez, the only law he returned to the assembly for further debate/discussion was the LOEU. In your opinion, why did Chavez not sign the legislation into law?

[MP, Opposition] The law was returned to the national assembly for a number of reasons. First of all, the fact that the outgoing assembly sought to pass the law after only one legislative discussion made the law unconstitutional – they had intended to pass it without members of the university community participating in the debate. If it had been passed, it would have led to an outbreak of social chaos. Everyone knows that the university is the only space that the government has been unable to control and that, as a result, the university has played an important role in putting the breaks on numerous attempts by the government to intervene in the different faculties/departments/universities.

We, the people of Venezuela, understand the fundamental role that our autonomous universities play in developing free-thinking youth and future professionals, but above all else, how important the university is as an open space for all – without any discrimination based on color, race, or political party. Precisely because the university is such an open space, young people, professors and members of the university-based community have dedicated themselves to defending this space throughout the course of the past 12 years. As a result, and as I mentioned above, the university continues being the one space that the government has been unable to intervene in.

In the process of trying to force this law on us the government provoked the formation of numerous social, labor, and student movements that are really very strong and who outright rejected the proposed law. This is why the national assembly tried passing the law during a period of vacations, right when the university community was away for the holidays. But even with this attempt to pass a law during the holiday season, protests erupted nationwide over the course of Christmas and New Years. Young people and professionals mobilized to defend university autonomy, demanding details about the law that was then being discussed behind the national assembly’s closed doors. That is why the law wasn’t passed; because it provoked a social movement and a reaction on the part of the university-based community.

[EC, Chavismo] I think the now extinct Organic Law of University Education (LOEU) became stuck in a political deadlock in which our forces didn’t even muster the organization to go out to defend the proposed law. We were focused on a decisive electoral moment (September 2010) in which we needed to elect new legislators. Our intent was to utilize the political advantage we had at that time, with no opposition in the legislature and with their mandate coming to a close, to produce a useful tool in the struggle to transform society from the space represented by the university.

From my point of view the law should not have been vetoed. We could have used another legal mechanism to improve the law after getting it signed into law. It could have been reformed, amended, etc. We could have maintained its core structure and principles, made changes, but after making it law. But President Chavez didn’t take that route. I think he was thinking political tactics over strategy. In the end, those who were “vetoed” the most with that decision was us, the UBV, since the content of that law, both conceptually and philosophically, coincide almost entirely with our so-called House of Knowledge (UBV).

[Jr] 9. And what is your analysis of the LOEU as such? What was good about it? What isn’t? What do you think about the debates underway across the country to re-develop its content and will a new Organic Law of University Education be passed in 2011?

[EC, Chavismo] The revolution, the people of Venezuela, lost the opportunity to have a legal instrument that was to permanently transform the university subsystem of public education. It’s qualitatively painful to even think about it. That law, which was vetoed, would have placed university-based citizens (students, workers, staff and faculty) at the social and political vanguard of university life. It would have territorialized university-level opportunities and would have secured a more just distribution of resources to the different areas of most need, just to name a few of its concepts/components. The democratization of power within the university, a new space for people’s power in the university, were going to cancel historical debts and resolve the ancestral revindications to attain equality and dignity for the human condition. 

The vetoed law would have allowed us to dismantle the parasitic, paralyzed, and para-state which is the Venezuelan university. A para-state which is present within all public universities built before the arrival of the Bolivarian and socialist revolution. In my opinion, the only thing negative about the LOEU was that it contained vanguard concepts for socialism in the university and this left it highly vulnerable to forces in the existing bourgeoisie Venezuelan state.

The development of a new LOEU has been held back by the attrition of revolutionary discourse. It’s no longer a political priority. Today, no one even talks of the LOEU. Now it’s all a question of salary increases and adjustments, of a so-called University Transformation which to me sounds more like a cliché invented by officials in the Ministry of Higher Education. This so-called “transformation” has nothing to do with a revolutionary conduct, a people’s power that seeks to consolidate itself within university walls and modify the genetic makeup of those old structures. Honestly, the LOEU has disappeared from both the government and opposition’s political agenda. It’s not legislatively interesting at this time, and as a result, it’s politically frozen.  

I for one recognize the struggles on the streets, in the classrooms, in the hallways. These struggles are made real by organizations, collectives, and movements that continue to debate the LOEU and they are doing so in an attempt to empower the people. Sadly however, not even the former lawmakers who first proposed the law are participating in the current debates. For me, in short, the people lost an important opportunity here. Never again will we have a national assembly with the super majority we had at the end of 2010.

[MP, Opposition] There are a number of reasons Venezuelans linked to the university rejected the LOEU. Among these reasons are the following concrete components of the law:

It eliminates university autonomy, making universities an institution that is entirely dependent on the executive branch of the national government. It gives the Ministry of Higher Education authority in the majority of the decisions that currently pertain to each autonomous university.

It fails to recognize the rule of law by including concepts and articles related to socialist education, endogenous development, modification of the academic community and content, all of which attempt to force the university into a socialist project that goes against pluralism – a project that was rejected by the voters in the December 2007 constitutional reform referendum.

It distorts the spaces of academic decision-making by incorporating representatives of the government into the university using the so-called “organizations of people’s power.” These organizational entities are not referred to in our national constitution, they depend economically on the executive branch of the national government, they are controlled by the presidency, and there has never been anything formally established to determine how they go about electing their representatives.

It is a centralizing law, which directly subordinates regional and national decision-making to the decisions of the Ministry of Higher Education. The National Council for University Transformation is designed to coordinate and implement policies that the ministry defines as national policy and it would have an increased number of representatives designated by the executive. The Territorial Councils for University Transformation would be created by the ministry itself, which would determine their organization and function, and that would end all possibility of autonomous regulation at the university as well as adequate levels of efficiency and functionality.

It is also highly discretionary since the Ministry of Higher Education would regulate the creation of specific undergraduate and graduate programs, student admission policies, the creation or suppression of specific extension centers, university departments, etc. It would also manage the participation of the so-called organizations of “people’s power,” determine the electoral rules for the university’s authorities, the rules for how each university’s governing bodies operate, and it would establish the political lines of thought as it relates to professional development of university professors.

The law manipulates the notion of egalitarianism by eliminating the distinctions between community members at the time of voting. It not only fails to recognize the name of the professors as such, but it hides a perverse intent: The peer equality vote is an attempt to distract people’s attention from the fact that the ministry will be granted supreme authority over the universities. To amplify the electoral base of a university government that is to lack real decision-making authority, whose power will have been usurped by a minister who was never once democratically elected, who is instead appointed directly by the president, all this is a form of manipulation that will only result in the politicizing of academic life at the university, a politicizing that will be implemented by outsiders of the university community.

It liquidates independent organizing, by flattening out autonomous organizations of professors, students, and workers. It nullifies independent unions by giving the Ministry of Higher Education the authority to regulate the unions that exist within our schools, making it impossible for the university-based organizations to defend and demand our rights be respected.

And finally, it also closes the remaining spaces of dialogue. The way in which the law was elaborated lacked dialogue, lacked a serious discussion, lacked depth in the debate. It’s exactly why we have said that the degree of authoritarianism used to move the law forward is proportional to its anti-democratic content. The impulsive haste, the secrecy, the lack of information surrounding the other laws based on popular initiatives – all these aspects explain why we have come to call late December’s (2010) approval of multiple laws by the outgoing national assembly the “early morning outrage.”

[Jr] 10. To conclude this interview, and considering the fact that Venezuelanalysis.com’s readers are mostly based in the English-speaking world, what would you recommend to this international audience with respect to its relationship with the Venezuelan people and government? Would you say the “international community” is doing a lot, very little, or perhaps too much, with respect to Venezuela?

[MP, Opposition] I think the international community should by continuously keeping itself informed as to the situation of the Venezuelan people. They should do so by accessing all the different means of communication available (both pro-government and independent media) as well as by consulting information disseminated by the non governmental organizations (NGOs) since their opinion is also of great importance in cases, for example, in which human rights need defending. Situations such as those in the Venezuelan prisons, to cite another example, should not go unnoticed in international public opinion – which has a lot of weight and which in reality must help denounce these types of situations in which the fundamental rights of citizens are being violated. By providing their support the international community can help ensure that people’s rights are respected and that the government complies with what is established in different international agreements/accords such as the Inter-American Human Rights Agreement, etc.

[EC, Chavismo] To the international readers of your important web-based source of news and analysis, I’d like only to emphasize that the Bolivarian revolution, a socialist revolution under the leadership of Commander President Hugo Chavez, is committed to the humanist principles of emancipation and critical thought – a type of critical thinking which becomes more and more valid each day.

Our revolution, our principles, and our proposal for critical thought are constantly under threat by the U.S. and European Empires who disapprove of our permanent denunciation of capitalism’s crimes, of empire’s atrocities (in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, etc.)

I invite your readers to come to Venezuela and get to know our revolutionary initiatives, especially those organizations of people’s power that are working to consolidate our Venezuelan version of 21st Century Socialism. We are committed to converting our country into a regional power, but with the values and principles that serve to guarantee the life and future of humankind.

There are numerous important experiences in this attempt to construct socialism, from popular workers’ councils to on-the-ground efforts to consolidate communes. All are worth knowing, investigating, and learning from. Your readers should consider Venezuela a place in which our lives and struggle are now dedicated to seeing utopian dreams of human emancipation come true.

And well, living in a territory freed by victorious Bolivarian and Caribbean fighters, which just last year celebrated 200 years of independence, I’d end by saying that we welcome all opportunities to unite our struggles and free ourselves from all existing empires.