Concrete Utopias

Due to his unique experience in the Bolivarian government, Venezuelanalysis.com chose to interview Minister Navarro on the future of the Bolivarian Revolution in the era of “deepening the revolution.”

Hector Navarro, Minister of Higher Education, PhD Electrical Engineering, and Professor at the Central University of Venezuela, is the longest serving Minister in the Chávez government.  He served as Minister of Education from 1998 to 2001, after which he headed up the newly created Ministry of Higher Education until last week. He is now returning to the Central University in order not to lose his tenure, but continues as an advisor to his replacement at the Ministry of Higher Education.  Due to his unique experience in the Bolivarian government, Venezuelanalysis.com chose to interview him on the future of the Bolivarian Revolution in the era of “deepening the revolution.”

Venezuelanalysis.com: What is the role of education in the Bolivarian revolution?

Hector Navarro: Quality is a very important theme on which we are currently working.  We don’t think that quality and revolution are antagonistic.  Without justice, there cannot be quality.  In a recent conversation I had with a doctor, we were talking about the 6 years of training required to become a doctor.  The doctor said to me: ‘Minister, during World War II the Americans had a serious problem—a crippling lack of doctors to deal with the massive quantities of wounded.  Based on this experience, they developed a strategy for training doctors in 3 to 3.5 years.  And how where they trained?  In the basics: surgery, first aid, basic trauma.’  This experience relates in an important way to our current situation: we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands.  People who are without medical attention need to be treated.  Those who say that these doctors that the U.S. trained in 3 years are not of the same quality as those who have the traditional 6 years fail to consider the grave need for treatment.  This conception of quality is completely divorced from reality.

Hector Navarro, the departing Minister of Higher Education, in his office
Credit: Jonah Gindin

The situation on the ground demands trained doctors.  But, for example, if someone needs a tourniquet and a doctor is present who has not yet completed his 6 years of training, should he say “I’m sorry but I cannot help you because I’m not yet fully trained”?  Should he elect to let the patient bleed to death for this misguided notion of quality?  As a result of the westernized notion of quality, given the influence of Northern medical institutions’ conception of quality, should we conclude that students should stop studying?  Because I will tell you something about those who promote this notion of quality: they are denying the fact that in Venezuela, as in the rest of the world, there are Universities, Universities, and Universities.  And they are apparently unaware that it is now possible to receive a degree in medicine via email.  And what is the quality there?  That person can take their diploma and frame it on the wall in their office just like anyone else.  The theme of quality is hypocrisy.  We would like to convert the theme of quality into a reality, with an impressive ethical basis.

In other words, the opposite of quality is justice.  Without justice there is no quality.  Thus, today in Venezuela quality does not exist.  If I, as a professor at the University, conduct my experiments in the isolation of my laboratory, forgetting that it is directly, fundamentally related to the people outside my laboratory, with nature, with the price of oil, etc…It can be absolutely perfect, thus isolated.

So we have conceived of quality in a different way.  A way that is linked to practice, a way that is more relevant.  When you see the design of the Bolivarian University, for example—this is a university that was born, that is shaped in every way by the most advanced concepts of university education.  Designed around practice, around a trans-disciplinary focus, etc…these are integrally part of the formation of the university.  The bases of quality are there.  And this is also related to the professors that we have.

What type of revolution is this?  How do we define it?

I am of the perspective that, from a theoretical, conceptual point of view no comprehensive or complete definition of the Bolivarian revolution exists.  It doesn’t exist.  In the history of revolutions, I think one error has been common to them all—including the October revolution by the Bolsheviks.  Once they reach power, they come to the conclusion that the success of the revolution has brought them to the final stage in human development.

In the Soviet revolution, for example, when the heads of that revolution got to power, they failed to include dialectics, they failed to include materialists.  They thought that history ended with them.  And so they didn’t move beyond a certain point in terms of theory, of investigation, of answering the question “and afterwards what?”  But a revolution must always be looking to the future, asking “what next? Where to now?”  When a revolution fails to ask those questions, it runs the risk of regressing, of moving backwards.

What are the strategic limits, or the strategic horizon when one speaks of the future of the Bolivarian revolution?

I hope it will be a profoundly humanist process—which is the path that it is currently following.  In the meantime, a revolution based on liberty, the liberty of the people.  Profoundly egalitarian, profoundly just, and that this justice must guarantee the well-being of the people.  When one accepts differences in peoples’ access to institutions, to the community of the state, that is not the revolution with which I identify myself.  Nor is it the revolution with which Bolivar identified himself.

One can take Bolivar’s revolution as a point of departure, but one must develop those ideas and goals further.  It is not enough to say “Bolivar didn’t do that, so therefore, it’s not Bolivarian.”  We don’t believe in that.  We think that there are many things that Bolivar didn’t do, but if he were here today, he would.  The project of ‘Mision Sucre’ [university scholarships] for example: this wasn’t a problem that Bolivar faced in his time.  For him, the problem was basic schooling—he wasn’t suggesting the kind of technological development that we are proposing today.

I don’t think there is a contradiction here, because the revolution must be a humanist revolution, free, of the people, of the majority.  Not so that the majority attacks the minority, but so that the character reflects the weight of the majority.  Where is the revolution going from the point of view of the strategy of this revolution?  It’s difficult to predict.  What is certainly very clear, is that it must evolve.  It must represent a movement committed to humanism at the most profound level; a movement that respects ideas, that respects diversity, and that respects cultures—not one hegemonic ‘culture’, but the diversity of many cultures.

Possible Utopias, Present Realities

I think in the short- to medium-term we are advancing towards this view.  The first success was the constitution.  This constitution, with all the failings it might have, takes many steps towards this profoundly honest mission.  In a forum in Spain, there was a panel of constitutionalists and lawyers that discussed the Bolivarian constitution.  One panellist, a right-wing judge, said the main criticism of the constitution was that it was utopian.  I think this is very important.  For me, this was the most important criticism to come out of the forum, because from this right-wing perspective, he was saying “it is natural for humans to be unjust and thus, the world is unjust.”  “It’s natural for some to force their rights over others, for some to exploit others, and that’s how the world works.  Thus, the constitution is unrealistic, it is utopian, because it is not in accord with this natural logic.”

I disagree.  I think that to be human has to do, in part, with ‘nature’ and in part with culture.  And I think all these elements of the constitution play a cultural role, an educational role.  I think this perspective is valid for that reason, that utopia is important.  One must always look forward to a utopia, but with one’s feet grounded in the reality of the present.  But always looking towards where we want to go.

How do you characterize the revolution now?  What does ‘deepening’ the revolution mean?

I think the President was very clear.  He said “we must deepen the land reform law,” and thus, the land reform must be deepened, expanded.  What happened when we passed the land reform law?  In the National Assembly, several deputies altered the law so that it was no longer, in fact, the law that we originally deemed necessary.  So the land reform law must be changed.  What does that mean?  It means we must improve productivity, we must give small farmers access to capital, we must develop everything that is part of the social economy: cooperatives and cooperativism, credits for the people, the Popular Bank, the Women’s Bank, access to finance, access to technology, putting the technology in the hands of the people.  All this equals the deepening of the revolution.

What does this deepening entail?  In higher education, for example, it means we must ‘municipalize’ higher education.  If everyone has the right to study, as we believe they do, than the state, like the society, has the obligation of putting the tools for study in the hands of the people.  It should not be that those who have access to the internet in their house, have an advantage over those who come from a poor barrio without phone lines, never mind internet.  It is the state’s duty to compensate, and to put computers in the hands of the poor so that when it comes down to one person compared to another, the comparison reveals differing talents, and not opportunities.  Clearly this cannot be achieved when one has all the tools at his disposal—computer, 3 years of training, special shoes, is well-fed—and the other has none.  We have now, more than ever the tools to deepen the revolution.

Transforming the state, building Bolivarian citizens

What we must understand about this process and the reform of the state is that it is not possible to move forward in only one area at a time.  For example, if we say ‘we must change the ministries, the bureaucracies’—but this cannot be decreed from above.  If we say ‘ok, we’ll open the ministries, we’ll plan, we’ll make them more democratic, more participatory’ but it will fail for this reason: inside each ministry, inside each sector of each ministry, are people.  These people are professionals, they are civil servants and they have a certain cultural formation that comes from the 4th republic.  At this moment there does not exist a single civil servant of the 5th Republic—for the 5th Republic has only existed for 5.5 years.[1]

Thus to transform the state, we must slowly, step-by-step transform—first—the people that make up the state.  This must necessarily be a dynamic process of learning because no one has yet experimented with a revolution in the manner in which we are currently experimenting.  I told the members of Misión Sucre during a recent meeting, because someone had asked ‘what do we do now? Where are we going now?’  I told them, ‘I have been working on a research project, a bibliography for reference use.’ And I said, ‘In the course of my research, I could not find a single explanation of how Misión Sucre works.  For Misión Sucre, no academic has studied how it is possible to have placed 250,000 students in university in less than a year.  So we must write it ourselves.’  And the answer is that this is a process of learning to do, and learning by doing—a process of building learning, by doing learning.

Deepening this revolution means deepening the changes to the relations of production; changing the logic of capital for the logic of work.  It means putting the means of production in the hands of the workers.  This doesn’t mean to confiscate property or factories, but rather that social investment most go, in part, towards financing small- and medium-sized businesses—and more than anything towards community cooperatives.  The worker is the object of these changes.  This is a revolution in the very form of education.  For this reason we have Misión Sucre, and training centres that break with traditional teaching and learning paradigms.  Thus, the student taking classes to learn how to teach, learns by giving classes.  We have a slogan here: ‘the essence of the revolution is education.’  Why?  Because each space that we must fill with people, that forms the structure of a ministry, these human beings that are there, if they don’t have the revolution inside them—this new perspective, their capacities, their vocation, with a new ethic of social responsibility—the result is a ‘concealed curriculum’: they talk the revolution, but will do as they have always done, as they have been previously taught to do.  It means we are educating people, but also re-educating them.

Community cells, national networks—locating the state inside the people

At the community level, you have everything that is most important to you: friends, girlfriend, husband, children, school, doctors (Barrio Adentro)—the most important things are there, in your immediate surroundings.  And even if people don’t realize it, it is at the community level that they make the most important decisions, as part of being human.  In this respect, it doesn’t matter in the least who their President is.  From this position, trying to maximize their happiness, what is the name of the President?  it doesn’t matter—it’s irrelevant.  In that, what is most pressing is that my children have food, that they have schooling, that I have a dignified job, that I have access to culture—in this respect, what is the problem with who’s President?  This space is extremely important.

What happened?  The referendum gave us an organizational structure that is the Electoral Battle Units (UBEs) and the ‘patrols’ that are centred geographically.  This is the basic cell of society—the patrols, the UBEs. Thanks to the referendum, these structures are already there. And they’re fundamentally linked to all the other basic cells in the community—like Barrio Adentro.  In every single high-rise project in the barrios, there is a doctor.  Each one has their doctor.  It’s like it used to be with priests in each community, but now it’s doctors.  Right now it’s Cuban doctors, with a few Venezuelans, but the idea is to replace the Cuban doctors with Venezuelans—the Cubans can’t stay forever, we can’t depend on this collaboration indefinitely.

So all these people in their communities, who may be members of Misión Sucre, are also members of their communities.  In Misión Sucre is in constant interaction with Misión Ribas, Misión Robinson, with Misión Vuelvan Caras—these are all directly related to the community, and yet are not part of the basic structure of the community.  Our society is society terribly disintegrated—everything is isolated, the government is isolated, public institutions are isolated from one another.  But society must become linked by a comprehensive network.

The UBEs and the patrols could foment this network, they could act as the necessary links between the different key elements of the community and the state.  And they could serve to pressure for restructuring of the state.  If this is a humanist revolution, as I believe it is and must continue to be, it will often provoke the reaction ‘this is utopian’.  Well, it is utopian.  But it is a concrete utopia.

I have a hypothesis in the concrete utopia: the theme of participatory democracy in Venezuela must be visualized as the theme that will transform humanity.  In the following sense: proposing participatory democracy twenty years ago was really utopian, the reality of Venezuelan society twenty years ago prevented any transfer of power from above to below.

The proposal of participatory democracy is for every citizen to take part in the decision-making process.  When this citizen, this individual is able to link himself with a mission, or with a ministry, or with a public service, directly without the mediation of a political party, without the mediation of a union, but rather he directly creates his relation.  What we’re talking about is a state that has been distributed all over, for it is practically in each citizen.  When I as a citizen can make decisions, I’m part of the state.  This utopia exists as the presence of the state in each citizen, not as a method of controlling society, but rather as a method by which society controls the state.  The state present in each citizen—not to force itself upon the lives of citizens, but that society appropriates the state.  And I think this is a new concept.

[1] The Fourth Republic refers to the period between 1961 and 1999, before Chavez became president. The Fifth Republic, refers to the period after 1999, when the new constitution was approved.