Born and bred in one of the most militant inner city barrios of Caracas, 23 de enero, Juan Contreras participated in the urban guerrilla movements that sprang up in Caracas in the mid-1970s and is now a militant in the Bolivarian process. We interviewed Juan in his office – decorated with sporting trophies and political posters of revolutionary struggles from across Latin America and Palestine – located at the headquarters of the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar in 23 de enero.
Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber (SS and JRW): Can you tell us about your political history and how you got involved in the struggle?
Juan Contreras (JC): I became active politically at the age of 12-13 years old. I am a product of circumstance rather than design. If you asked me what I wanted to do with my life I would answer, “I want to be the best soccer player on the planet.” Indeed, sport is my biggest passion; I am a frustrated athlete now dedicated to politics [laughs]. I was born in the barrio 23 de enero; my parents have also lived here most of their lives.
When I was growing up in the barrio many of the people around me were involved in armed struggle. It was the 1970s; I grew up in the middle of the political repression. State security forces would enter our apartments; they would persecute us. I grew up watching the confrontations between the urban guerrillas and the police and the military. They were always harassing us. The least they would do is ask you for your identity card. They would teach you to get used to getting clobbered. At one point in my life I had a full head of hair like you [referring to Jeff's hair]. I had a huge Afro. The military would grab us by the hair and beat us. They would chase us into the elevators and beat us with their helmets. With this kind of treatment, it is no wonder that the resentment of young people like me would grow. Eventually, this resentment would harden anyone's character and force him or her to rebel. When the military would come we would prepare Molotov cocktails to throw at them because, well, because otherwise they would beat us, throw things at us, and put us in jail. All of the idealism of my youth – the desire to study, to be an athlete – was channelled instead into this path of rebellion.
So, this is the context in which I learned about politics. I come from a very humble household. My mother was from a family that migrated from the country to the city, looking for what? Education. Health. Housing. Work. Recreation. Looking for those five things that any human being on any part of the planet needs to live well, in Asia, in Oceania, in Africa, in Europe, in the Americas. She worked as a seamstress to earn a living. My father also came to Caracas from another city; he was a mechanic. We grew up with a lot of unmet needs due to the poor economic situation.
My mother was very religious. And the only way to get a good education at the time was to put your kids into a religious institution, so she sent my sister to a school run by nuns and sent me to a school run by priests. And it turned out that the first book I ever read of ideology, a book that I received from a Spanish nun who was giving classes then, Maria de Angeles – a very pretty nun, and you know how nothing attracts the attention of a young boy as a pretty older woman – was a book by Marta Harnecker, Exploiters and Exploited, one of the books from her popular education series. I started with this book in primary school. I started to read books, to participate in activities, etc.
This is why I say that I am a product of the circumstances. I was not born this way; I learned revolutionary ideology bit by bit due to the repression and mistreatment in the barrio, as well as the lack of basic services, and the ideas that I was introduced to along the way. My religious education also taught me to see the world in a different way, how to view life, about the differences between how we live here [in the barrio] and how they live in the east [the wealthy neighbourhoods of Caracas]. From the priests I also learned the importance of trying to change the world, to transform society and reality. This is where my dream to transform this country came from.
When I grew up, it was a time of great social upheaval and combat. I participated in protests and learned to make signs and paint murals featuring Che Guevara, to speak out against the government. I started to militate in the armed struggle that took place here in the mid-1970s up to the 1990s. We were involved in confrontations in the streets and expropriations, which meant that we were also persecuted by the police, thrown in jail, and some us of were killed. My house was invaded 49 times by state security forces; this would happen even when I was a minor. They would invade my house for whatever reason. These raids would continue even when I was in university. They would come to the 23 de enero to look for me.
All these experiences made me a militant of the radical left. More recently, I have participated in the great social leap forward [‘el salto social,’ referring to the missions of the Chávez government] in the communities. My people are from the lower class; Marx would call us the proletariat. A sociologist might call us the “shirtless ones” [‘decamisados,’ or the working poor]. I always say, using popular language, that we are simply poor, meaning that we simply do not have the money to buy the things we need to have a good life.
SS and JRW: What has been the role of the popular organizations in the 23 de enero in the process of change that has been taking place in Venezuela over the past 13 years?
JC: From my personal point of view, it is impossible to have revolution without organized popular movements that also have [revolutionary] consciousness, that is, people that have political formation, ideology. There is no doubt that the popular movements are those which are the force behind the processes of political change that are taking place in Venezuela, but also across the continent. The blood that has moved through the veins of this struggle is the blood of the workers, students, peasants, indigenous and the people of barrios like 23 de enero. This change is not just happening in Venezuela. We see the indigenous behind Evo Morales’ government in Bolivia, behind Rafael Correa's government in Ecuador, and also students, workers, peasants, humble people who have always resisted.
In the 1960s, there was also a generation that fought for socialist revolution in Venezuela; these compañeros were ready to sacrifice their lives. Almost 3000 people lost their lives during this period of revolutionary struggle in the 1960s; they were ‘disappeared’ or killed by state security forces. We also must not forget the two revolutionary civic-military insurrections in the 1960s – the “Carupanazo” and “Porteñazo” – May 4, 1962 and June 2, 1962. Indeed, Chávez is far from being the first progressive military leader in the history of Venezuela. The Communist Party and the Movement of the Revolutionary Left [Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria, MIR], a group of young revolutionaries broke off from the Democratic Action Party (the social democratic party that came to power in 1959), were involved in revolutionary struggles. These parties were the bases of the popular movement at the time. The Communist Party of Venezuela launched a strategy that suggested that the only way to change Venezuela was to form a military-civilian alliance to sponsor an insurrection within the military.
This history helps to explain why no one should be surprised that there are progressive sectors of the military in Venezuela. It is also important to note that the elite does not control promotion within the military in this country. This makes us different from Argentina, where you need an Italian last name to be promoted within the military, and Chile, where you need a German last name. Here in Venezuela, we say, anyone who can set foot on earth can be promoted in the military. Chávez is an example; he comes from a peasant family and he had a successful career in the military.
The Caracazo was also an important event in the recent history of Venezuela. This was when popular protests against IMF-imposed austerity policies were violently repressed on February 27-28, 1989. The government at the time claimed that only 300 people died during the Caracazo, but subsequent investigations by human rights organizations have demonstrated that 3000 people died. So, the people have always gone into the streets to fight and have given their blood.
Other important events that have led up to the current process are the attempted military coups of February 4 and November 27, 1992. The same military was indebted to the people since they had repressed the protesters three years before (the Caracazo) and later the people had taken to the streets to rebel against the same kinds of economic policies as those that set off the Caracazo. April 11-13, 2002 [the failed coup against Chávez organized by the opposition] was also a process in which the people took to the streets to return Chávez to power.
“The people were always there...”
I am telling you these dates to emphasize the point that the people were always there, in rebellion. The people, the popular movements, have always played a fundamental role in this process that we are living in Venezuela. There can be no revolution without the five different sectors that I keep mentioning: the workers, the students, the peasants, the indigenous, and people in the barrios. We are the people who have faith, who have hope, those who have fought and keep fighting. Just like those before us in the nineteenth century who fought for our independence, such as Simón Bolívar, José Martí, Sucre, Miranda, and going even further back still, the original people of the Americas; all of these peoples fought against Spanish imperialism.
The fundamental basis of this process is the popular movement. One of the main tasks before the popular movement – for there is a lot that still needs to be done – is to get rid of the old structure of the state, which is still under the logic of capital. The way that Antonio Gramsci describes the problem of transition, which Chávez also mentions, is useful here: we are trapped by a state that refuses to die, and a state that refuses to be born. We have to get rid of the old structures, the old ideas, and these old problems that we inherited from the past, which impede the process being led by Chávez. Of course, there are those in the government who think that they can impose ‘revolution’ from above. But we are in a transitional phase, and the way forward depends on the popular movements. From October 8, 2012 onward [the day after the Presidential elections this fall], our goal is to build a true, representative, protagonist democracy – this is the work that we have left to do.
SS and JRW: How do you characterize the different phases of the process since Chávez won the elections in 1998?
JC: The process from 1998-2012 has been a process of political awakening, raising the levels of popular consciousness. Right now it is time to cash in (‘cobrar’). I don't mean this in an economic sense. The people should assume their historic, protagonist role in this process. We need to kick some ass (‘da la pata’) in terms of fixing the bureaucracy and resolving the problem of corruption. We have a lot left to do, but at least we know what our problems are; they are out in the open. Just like how Pablo Milanes, referring to Cuba, puts it in that song: We do not live in a perfect society. We are building a new society, based upon the work of women and men, who have weaknesses.
But I am hopeful about the next phase, 2013-2019, since now we are working with a much more advanced popular movement; people are much more organized, with much higher levels of political [revolutionary] consciousness. In the next phase we will be able to deepen this process. We are now talking about the possibility of breaking the structures of capitalism, and constructing something new: a new socialist society, a participatory and protagonist democracy. We already stopped a coup d'état in 2002 when we filled the streets with no arms and nothing to protect us but our courage, putting our physical integrity at risk to defend our revolution against the fascists who wanted to dispose of Chávez. And also the bosses’ strike, the other acts of sabotage. Who stopped all this? The people.
You did not ask me this question, but I would like to address the issue of Chávez's health problems. Obviously Chávez plays an important role in this process. He is an extremely charismatic leader. I see him as the bridge that has helped us travel along this path. But more than Chávez, this revolution is about a people who are full of hope, people who have been fighting for all of this history. No one is able to snatch this hope away from us. We are fighting for a better future for our children, for our grandchildren, for future generations. This is what we mean by “la patria” [literally, homeland]. When Chávez gets sick, we feel sad, obviously, I don't want to be misunderstood here. But it is the oligarchy that thinks that Chávez is the problem. They do not understand that the problem is the millions of Venezuelans that have said, “Enough!” And they are not going to be able to squash our dreams. The changes, thanks to programs like the missions, are too deep.
It may be true that missions such as Barrio Adentro [the health program in poor neighbourhoods], Misión Ribas [adult secondary education mission], Mission Robinson I and II [the literacy missions] were decreed ‘from above,’ but the way in which they are delivered is bottom-up. Many people in my country did not know how to read and write because of the privatization of education during the neoliberal period. In the previous period, it was unthinkable that poor people would go to university. But now everyone has access, workers and peasants, everyone is studying with great enthusiasm. Using his military language Chávez tells us to “go to battle,” calling upon us to join these social programs to reduce the social inequalities that we have inherited from the past. We would often say that participating in these educational missions is the noblest way to participate in ‘the process’ since their aim is to teach others who are closest to us – our mothers, our fathers, our uncles and aunts, our nephews and nieces, our neighbours – to read and write. And who jumped to participate in these educational missions? Again, the people of the barrios.
Now we have a strong, educated popular movement, but there is a lot left to do. In the next phase, 2013-2019, we have to figure out a way to create a collective leadership that will move us in the direction of revolution but go beyond the political party structure. Chávez's charisma is at once a strength and a weakness for the movement. When he got sick recently, there was a power gap, no one talked about ‘revolution,’ we were all paralyzed. Like any mortal, Chávez could die any day. Anything could happen to him; he could choke on a fish bone. This is why we need a collective leadership (‘dirección colectiva’). And secondly, we need an alliance between the party and the popular movements that moves us beyond the electoral spectacle (‘festín electoral’). This relationship needs to be one of equals. Not one in which the party is above the popular movement or vice versa; it needs to be a strategic relationship. The next phase needs to be a movement of popular movements.
SS and JRW: What is the importance of the elections on October 7, 2012?
JC: I would like to answer this question visually. We made a poster that has a map of Latin America and a picture of Chávez that says, “The Presidential office is ours, and it is staying that way, dammit!” Winning electoral office is not up for question. We, the poor, have won this office and we will decide whom we want to serve in this office. But we are also deciding the future of Latin America and the Caribbean, because this election is about continuing the historical project of Bolivarianism.
There is a fundamental transformation in the political landscape of Latin America. The Bolivarian process includes many governments, including Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. (Although the recent coup has upset this process – it is important to remember that the people of Paraguay did not vote for the Partido Colorado or the traditional political parties. They voted for the agenda represented by Lugo. This has to be respected.) In Uruguay we had two presidents who identified with the process under the government of the Frente Amplio, led by Tabaré Vásquez and Pepe Mujica. Pepe is one of the historical figures from the Tupamaro movement [an urban guerrilla movement of the 1970s and 1980s that was brutally repressed by the authoritarian government]. In Central America, we can also mention the Sandinistas who are back in power under Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Also, we finally have a revolutionary government in El Salvador, after 12 years of bloody civil war during which 75,000 people lost their lives and 20 years of suffering under right-wing governments. The journalist Mauricio Funes came to power with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front [Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN]. Cuba also remains a bastion of dignity and rebellion. I am not mistaken to say that all of these political transformations in Latin America and the Caribbean are thanks to the process that we started in Venezuela.
I also think that Chávez has been really strategic in resurrecting the words of liberators [like Simón Bolívar] who use the language of unity, making one great project for the Americas, one great nation. And although it might sound bad, we have something in Venezuela that the others don't – we have petroleum for 300, 400, 500, 600 years, and we have coal, gas and water, which are the elements that make energy, and as of yet, there are no alternatives. This natural resource wealth gives us a privileged position for starting the revolution. We are also involved in trade agreements that seek regional integration, such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America [Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, ALBA], the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States [Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños, CELAC], and the Southern Common Market [Mercado Común del Sur, MERCOSUR], which Venezuela just joined. MERCOSUR is more economic than the others, but we can insert a social agenda there, too. These agreements are about internationalizing the revolution.
When Chávez was first elected, he was talking about the “Third Way,” but he evolved. He started to talk about Marx. The goal is not only to have revolution in one country, but for all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and the rest of the world. This is especially important with the economic crises in Spain, Portugal and Greece, which have been destroyed by the recipe of the International Monetary Fund. Venezuela can provide an example to all of these countries. Right now in the countries of Europe they are cutting all the social benefits and attacking workers’ rights, confiscating the gains of the previous eras. Here it is the opposite; we are regaining the benefits that we lost under the neoliberal period.
The enthusiasm and happiness of the people in the streets is palpable. You feel it and see it when you go from house to house, how people want to vote for the “patria.” People support this process because the Constitution allows for them to participate in decision-making over their own budgets, to decide how to use their own resources, to manage from the bottom-up and to make public policy. These are the fruits of the struggles that we have waged since the 1980s and 1990s, for example, for free tuition, which is now guaranteed by the Constitution. Again, I repeat, this process does not belong to Chávez; Chávez is simply a circumstance. He assumed a role in the process that has its own dynamic. A decade ago, people had no face, no voice. Now the people are speaking louder than Chávez.
SS and JRW: What are the most dynamic forms of popular organization in this current period?
JC: There are two types of organizations that are part of the revolutionary process: those that pre-dated Chávez and those that were born during the process. The organizations that we now call communal councils existed before under other names, such as the neighbourhood councils (juntas vecinales). People in the barrios established these organizations in order to resolve their basic problems. Now these structures help to plan where to put the infrastructure in a more rational manner compared to when some technocrat who sits in an air-conditioned office who has never set foot in the community makes all the decisions. The community members know, for example, where to put the stairs, where to put the football field.
The second type of organization was born in the heat of the revolutionary process, such as the Coordinadora Popular de Caracas and the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar. There are also new organizations such as the student and peasant fronts, as well as the workers’ councils. The law now recognizes all of these organizations. These organizations are uneven, however. For example, some workers’ unions have lost their popular legitimacy, but others work.
I want to be clear that I do not privilege one form of organization over another. All popular organizations are important: civic organizations, civic-military movements, and articulations of popular movements. All of these forms of organization are important for advancing the revolution.
SS and JRW: Can you tell us a bit more about the relationship between the popular movements and the party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, [Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV]?
JC: The popular movements have their own dynamic, their own autonomy. They have their own rules and their own way of understanding things. There are many militants in the popular movements who are not members of the party. Sometimes, these two ways of organizing come into conflict. Chávez created the Great Patriotic Pole [Gran Polo Patriótico, GPP] for the people who believe in the process, believe in Chávez, believe in revolution, but are not members of the party. The women's movement, the LBGT movement are part of the GPP, too, since this is a really macho society and their demands are also revolutionary.
Of course, sometimes the GPP and the party struggle for power – one wants to be the protagonist and assume the role of the other. But instead, the relationship should be one of a strategic alliance. It always needs to be remembered that popular movements form the base of this process, not the party. And the same is true in other parts of the world. In Bolivia, Evo Morales did not come to power because of the Movement Toward Socialism [Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS]; he came to power because of the support of the indigenous movements and all of the peasant movements who are struggling against the ‘media luna,’ [referring to the elite in the eastern provinces that form the shape of a crescent moon], the police strike, etc.
This strategic alliance must also transcend the election, because if the alliance is merely about elections, the people will feel used. They will feel that “They only call me when it is time to vote.” •
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).