Rosangela Orozco, who is affectionately known as “La Chiqui,” is a young militant from the Caracas barrio 23 de enero and a leading organizer with the Gran Polo Patriótico (Great Patriotic Pole, GPP). The GPP was created in preparation for the October 2012 elections and to deepen the Bolivarian process. The GPP builds on the legacy of the Polo Patriótico, a coalition of left political parties and social organizations that supported Chávez in electoral campaigns and referenda, which was replaced by the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV) founded in 2007. Today, the GPP is conceived as an organization that aims to bring together diverse social movement militants and political party activists who support the revolutionary process but are not necessarily comfortable with the rigid organization of the PSUV. We caught up with Rosangela at a meeting of the Gran Polo Patriótico in Caracas.
Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber: What is your political history?
Rosangela Orozco: I am a militant of a popular grassroots, communal movement that was named after a fallen compañero of the Coordinadora Simón Bolivar from a very popular neighbourhood [where I live] in Caracas, the 23 de enero. This Coordinadora brought together many youth and militants of different left tendencies in the parish of 23 de enero in the 1990s. On April 11, 2002, Alexis Gonzalo was killed during the coup d’état [that tried to oust Chávez].
The coup d’état was primarily a “media” coup, particularly given the lies that the privately owned media and the foreign media tells about Venezuela, about how Chávez is a dictator, and how everything going on inside the country is bad, etc. etc. They kidnapped Chávez with the idea that they would assassinate him, and replace him with someone who would respond to the entire capitalist system, someone with one of the last names of the big families that monopolize everything in this country, including the media that sells information like a commodity. But of course, this coup did not last very long because the people took to the streets.
This compañero Alexis lost his life during this period and we took his name as our motto, because he was an example to us all. He was an internationalist, and an example of a young revolutionary. He participated in the literacy campaigns in Nicaragua. We wanted to preserve his name, but more importantly, to remind ourselves that we need to dedicate our lives and everything we do to revolution, up to and including this interview.
I started as an activist in 1998 when Chávez came to power. I started with the social missions, working at the grassroots on communal issues. We would participate in meetings where we would talk about politics, Marxism, feminism, Guevarism, social change, because this is the reality of what we are living in Venezuela; we have to wake up. But back then, Chávez was not yet talking about socialism; we in the barrios were more politically advanced than Chávez. We were talking about revolution while he was talking about a “government that includes everybody,” the Third Way, etc.
But the representative democracy that Chávez stood for in the early years is an alternative to what we were living in the Fourth Republic [the pejorative phrase denominating the pacted two-party democracy that existed in Venezuela from 1958 until Chávez’s election], and the political repression. We in the 23 de enero, for example, experienced violent state repression on February 27, 1989 [the Caracazo, the day when riots against IMF-imposed austerity were brutally suppressed by the military]. I was only nine-years-old then, but even then I could see how awful it was that arms were being used directly against our community. We didn’t know why or what was happening. The reason that we were attacked is simply because in our neighbourhood there were popular organizations confronting the state in this fight. But we were not the only ones. The same thing happened in La Vega, Petare, in different parishes of Caracas, anywhere that people went to the streets to protest against the brutal neoliberal policies of the government.
Now I have been a militant left activist for ten years, and am active in the Alexis Lives Foundation. We are a studious organization. We call ourselves Marxist-Leninists because we study Marxism, Leninism, and Bolivarianism. We believe in the doctrine of Bolívar, which we adopt for Latin America and also for the international proletariat. These are two very different bodies of thought, I realize. But we are also Chavista, of course. We defend the binding force of Chávez and what he is building in Latin America and the world. He is an international leader. He is responsible for the fact that many countries that fly different flags have united under one philosophical, political and economic program that confronts imperialism and globalization. And he is promoting another kind of exchange, based on an alternative logic of solidarity; this is scientific socialism.
We also believe in the commune that we are constructing, which will eventually exist at the national level in the entire country. Our commune is called “Honeycomb 2021” (El Panal 2021). You are invited to come and visit. We have a lot of relations of exchange. Decisions are made in assembly where the maximum authority is the community, even down to the colour of the walls. People decide upon their own rules of communal living. Due to the lack of popular planning mechanisms in previous governments, we are still dealing with the problems of delinquency and houses in poor condition. Of course, it is not perfect, but today at least we are organized. There are many projects that allow us to improve our material conditions such as the missions, but the foundation of this process is popular participation.
We also have a community radio station, which provides an alternative source of information and the users participate in the programming. They are not professionals, but locals who become journalists and report what is happening in their own communities. There are some professionals involved, of course, but they are also committed to the process. We do not allow advertising. The programming is basically educational. It is another way of producing information. We also have a newspaper that comes out once a month.
We believe in self-management instead of relying on the President [Chávez]. We also have our own factories—one that packages sugar, another that packages grains—which form part of a network of distribution amongst different popular neighbourhoods in order to try to maintain the regulated price of basic foodstuffs and to make sure that the goods arrive. We do all this to make sure that in the event that there is another bosses’ strike, they will not be able to pressure the public or the government by cutting off delivery of basic goods such as food. [When this happens] if you do not have money, it is very difficult to get food. This is how fascism works in Venezuela; it does not matter to them [the elite], that a baby has no milk because her father has no money, that someone cannot get medicine because they are sabotaging production in the laboratory. To them, we poor people are just animals. We don’t matter. This is why we at the commune Honeycomb 2021 we want to help other organizations so that we can form a large network and create a platform, theGran Polo Patriótico.
SS and JRW: Where does the name of your commune Honeycomb 2021 (El Panal 2021) come from?
RO: This is a metaphor since a honeycomb is constructed by many worker bees; each one contributes a little to the community and all benefit from what they have built. We are all part of this community, and we each take from it equally depending on what we need, which in turn, depends on our conditions. Everyone who is part of this commune has to be a worker bee to make sure that the commune has good services, tranquility, it stays clean, it is maintained, we have quality education, recreation, communal spaces. It is not Chávez who does this work, nor is it the municipal government. Rather it is the commoners who do this work. And we also say that we all benefit from the honey that this revolution produces—the benefits that come from the missions, the collective work. This is to say, the tranquility, the public health, the food policies, electricity, public spaces, the cleaning up of the streets; we all provide these benefits collectively.
The other element in the honeycomb is that there are still sicknesses. We consider as sicknesses apathy, the lazy bums that the Fourth Republic left us, problems such as drug addiction, alcoholism, violence, school dropouts, and delinquency. We are all equally responsible to work to rid our commune of these sicknesses.
When Chávez came to visit, he asked me, “Why until 2021?” I answered, “because we are with you at least until 2021.” He laughed and gave me a hug.
SS and JRW: Can you tell us more about the Gran Polo Patriótico (GPP)?
RO: The GPP is a necessary and vital instrument for the revolution. In Venezuela, we now have only one revolutionary party [the PSUV], before this party there were others. The party is just one way of doing politics as a revolutionary militant. There were many social movement organizations that were involved in revolutionary praxis in their large and small spaces, but were not party militants. Chávez, seeing this necessity, created the GPP. This is where the various social movements, from the ecologists to the intellectuals, campesinos, blue and white collar workers (obreros y trabajodores), communal movements, journalists, women, athletes, all of the movements in their diversity are brought together to militate in one organization for revolutionary socialism. This is a space that permits the different organizations to recognize each other’s struggles, to define who we are at the national level. For example, I might be from a movement that has a lot of political weight in Caracas, and when I talk at an assembly my ideas will be heard, but the point here is for everyone [from large and small organizations] to listen to each other, to articulate together. Our goal is to create a large network, to be able to recognize our own weaknesses, to learn from each other. For example, I might learn a lot from the ecologists.
SS and JRW: How is the Polo Patriótico structured in order to deal with the tensions that might emerge related to the politics of representation?
RO: We do not want to repeat the organizational practices of the party, because it has a very rigid structure. Instead, we are forming Patriotic Councils (consejos patrióticos) which are organized along sectoral lines, for example: the women’s council, council of ecologists, sport council, intellectual and technical council, social production council, council of afro-descendants, council of fisher folk, peasant council, youth council, housing and habitat council, and there are also territorial councils, because the problem right now is electoral. [There is also a middle class council, which she did not mention.] We also organize Popular Patriotic Assemblies of the councils, which is a weekly meeting of the different councils. Right now we are talking about the electoral platform sector by sector. We are also discussing how every sector contributes towards this plan. For example, I am involved in the social-productive sector. We have to make sure that the small, medium and large producers find each other in the same space. Some have a corporatist vision although they support Chávez, others believe in relations of production that are not about extracting surplus value, but assume a different form. How do we bring these two visions together and create a proposal for the country?
There are also four commissions: habitat, mobilization, communication and organization, systematization – something really simple without much bureaucracy. This is what we are trying to avoid.
SS and JRW: What is the importance of the elections on October 7, 2012?
RO: The elections are fundamental for the Polo Patriótico, but also for our allies. We Venezuelans who identify with this process want it to deepen. If the elections are lost, we will not accept defeat easily since the people are now awake. We believe in our Constitution. We believe in our popular power. We believe that we have opportunities. We are now used to participating in assemblies and being listened to. We are not used to paying tuition, like we did during the neoliberal period. We are used to having access to food. It will be difficult for the population to accept a reversal of these advances.
We the popular sectors are still the grand majority of Venezuela. The only way that we are going to lose this election is if there is electoral fraud. We are waging this electoral campaign from the bottom up. Chávez is going to each parish, each town to listen to the people who are saying, “There is still bureaucracy. There is still corruption. There are still no answers to these questions. There is still a social deficit.” Now that thirteen years have passed, the economy is still not diversified. Venezuela is still defined by its consumerist character. Because even though we are poor, everyone has one of these [she points to her cell phone]. But Venezuela has wealth. There is still foreign exchange. And Venezuela is much wealthier than it was. This wealth now reaches the popular sectors.
But we know that we need to reinvent our politics; Chávez is not a guarantor of this process. Only the people can guarantee that the process continues to move forward. That being said, with all the diversity between the PSUV, the Polo Patriótico, etc., the one thing that we have in common is Chávez. He is the only leader who is able to create a platform that unites us at the national level. And we know that we are here talking about revolution, socialism, and political economy, in whatever space of the country—not in the academic world but the barrio—speaking of the Paris Comune, of Mao Tzu-Tung, is thanks to Chávez.
There is no [political] repression. In the previous era, there was repression. We were repressed for being poor. Even delinquency is treated differently now, a problem that is an historical problem. Because we had a government in a representative democracy and there was a lot of unmet needs. There were very large social problems: alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, and school dropouts. Things have changed. In my neighbourhood, for example, now you can go to school for free from first grade to university. You pay nothing. And all the children have food to eat; they are given breakfast, lunch and a snack.
Now the schools are better because together with the teachers the community is administering the education system. Now people are not scared of exercising their popular power. If the teacher does not show up for work, it is the community that holds them to account and gives the class instead. Of course, there is still a Ministry of Education, etc., but we now understand that the right to education is guaranteeing that the revolution continues. And that education is the only way to break that ‘genetic code’ of individualism. This is what we mean when we talk about co-responsibility. We cannot say that “Chávez is at fault…” for all of us are responsible. This is why we believe in protagonist participation (la participación protagónica). Chávez gave us a Constitution, political and legal support, but if the revolution does not advance it is because of us. We are not saying, “Go to the mountains with a gun.” We are saying, “Study, organize, commune, Polo Patriótico, whatever you want, but express yourself.”
SS and JRW: What does socialism mean in your barrio and what needs to happen to realize this vision?
RO: We are in a discussion about twenty-first century socialism, or what we call scientific socialism, which is adapted for the conditions of Latin America, Venezuela, Caracas and each community. Of course, we believe in socialism of the twenty-first century because we are living in the twenty-first century! Speaking a bit more abstractly, we are studying this question. We obviously support Chávez when he is talking about this. We were really happy when he raised the flag of socialism of the twenty-first century.
For us, we believe that socialism also refers to the referendum of 2007, many of the articles were going to be added to the constitution, and it was going to modify others. We were deeply involved in the campaign. In our parish we won the referendum since when you walk into my barrio people live and breathe Chávez. They will give their lives for Chávez and for the political project that he represents. We are often not critical enough, however. We try in the barrio to promote the idea that Chávez simply represents a political line. Pedagogically, we try to stress the fact that this is a government of the people. How can we push this process forward [collectively] and at the same time have a direct line of communication with Chávez?
We lost the 2007 referendum. It hurt a lot. That day I felt as if I was dead, my disappointment was so profound. We wanted the Venezuelan population to believe in a more profound transformation but they voted against it. We got up the next day and asked ourselves, “Ok, what do we do next?” We realized that people did not know what we were talking about when we were talking about socialism because we had never lived it. The militants understood, but not the average person on the streets. The majority of the Venezuelan population identifies with Chávez, but they are not militants; they don’t identify with terms like ‘socialism.’ You walk around Caracas and the majority of people who you will see watch television that is mostly mindless entertainment, like banal humour, publicity, and soap operas. They also have really basic education and think that you have to study so that you can “become someone and do something in your life,” to become some technocrat. When you talk about a commune with someone like this, the first thing that they think is that you are going to take their house. The opposition campaign, the campaign of imperialism, has been very successful at delivering this message.
So when we started building our commune at the end of 2006, beginning of 2007, the law of communes did not even exist yet. Chávez was not even talking about communes yet. But we applied political pressure and organized our commune. It is one of the first communes that did not have a legal form but rather popular legitimacy. Right now there is a structure mandated by law. This is the way we taught people about socialism, what exchange looks like in socialism, what a commune is, what an alternative economy looks like, what a popular economy looks like, what alternative community media looks like. The commune derives from political necessity.
SS and JRW: What is the relationship between the Polo Patriótico and social movements? Are there tensions with some movements who put a premium on preserving their autonomy from the state and parties?
RO: We understand that Chávez and his team of Ministers, embedded in the institutions of the state, are caught up in their own internal struggle about the form the state should take. It is not easy for them. We are also conscious of the fact that there are revolutionaries and socialists in these institutions, as members of the cabinet across various ministries—these people understand the logic of the popular movements. But these people are surrounded by others [who do not think the same way]. They face so many obstacles that are difficult to overcome.
We have laws about so many things, a law of the communes, a law of popular power, the law, the law, the law, [she repeats, exasperated], so many laws that try to fill holes and to channel state resources to the popular movements. It used to be the case that only large private foundations and NGOs had access to such resources, so obviously the situation has improved. That being said, there is still much that is lacking on this score. We need administrative mechanisms that respond in a more practical, more operative, more expedient fashion [to resolve problems and meet demands]. The popular movements themselves move at a rapid speed, doing politics, managing things. They are constructing communes, cleaning up their communities, building their own housing; the institutions of the state, by contrast, move at a much slower pace. There is still way too much bureaucracy.
This was one of the two primary motivations for creating the Gran Polo Patriótico: 1) to win the October elections and 2) to deepen the revolution, to deepen socialist practice by overcoming all of this bureaucracy. This is what we are always saying in the movement: if there is no one who is talking about socialism, we will never have socialism. Socialism is not something that you only read about, it is something that you have to practice.
Susan Spronk teaches international development at the University of Ottawa. She is a research associate with the Municipal Services Project and has published various articles on working class formation and water politics in Latin America.
Jeffery R. Webber teaches politics and international relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Red October: Left Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Haymarket, 2012).