We Don’t Have Borders: Tamara Pearson Interviewed by Michael Albert

VA's Tamara Pearson discusses the Bolivarian Revolution, media coverage of Venezuela and Chavez's health with ZNet's Michael Albert.

Venezuelans rally for Chavez

1. If I am not mistaken you are from Australia, originally. Is that correct? Can you tell us a little about the trajectory that has brought you to Venezuela Analysis and to living and engaging inside Venezuela?

After 7 years in Sydney, Australia, as an active member of the DSP, resistance, and the Socialist Alliance, I came to Venezuela in 2007 to learn more about what was going on here, and to support it.

2. Do you have any insights you would like to share about working and being an activist in a country that is not your original one, and about international solidarity more generally?

I guess like most activists and revolutionaries, I’m an internationalist, I believe we should fight for humanity and it doesn’t matter very much where. Of course, being an internationalist doesn’t mean forgetting history, forgetting the debt the first world owes the third world, or the privileges that the first world has had due to that debt and to colonisation. But it’s also more complicated than that; within every first world country there’s usually a third world, and likewise in third world countries- there’s always an elite group of rich people who live materially much better than most working class first world people. So it’s not just about what country you come from, but also what class, and the working class and the poor majority – though our conditions vary from country to country, we don’t have borders. 

Only one person has ever criticised me for doing political work in Venezuela, that person said I shouldn’t “go to a third world country and impose my opinions on them”. However, I would never impose my opinion on anyone, in any country or even in my personal life. Most revolutionaries wouldn’t, it’s not what we’re about. In Australia I’d never think twice about a migrant’s right to participate in politics, and likewise people here don’t think twice about my right, as a migrant as well, to participate. Rather, I think that it’s kinda rude to live somewhere, take from that country – be it your original one or not – and not give back. The only thing is, it’s important to get to know that country first, know its political dynamics. You can’t just import methods from one country to another, every region has its own history, culture, struggles, language and discourse, and customs.

Having said that, having grown up and being active in Australia does help with solidarity – I have strong links with my old groups there, and that helps. Really living in different political situations is great for expanding your political understanding, for questioning preconceived ideas you might have about how political struggle should be done. And having lived in Australia, that helps me write articles for that audience, for activists’ needs there.

On international solidarity in general – someone said that solidarity is sharing out the food and sharing out the hunger. It’s something you do, not just think, and while the first step in international solidarity is definitely being informed, and informing others, about the struggles going on in different countries, the most important solidarity we can do is working and fighting for a better world where we are. Venezuela’s solidarity with Cuba, and Cuba’s solidarity with us – exchanging petroleum for doctors and teachers, is so so real, and wonderful.

3. Can you tell us about Venezuela Analysis as an institution? How does it work, what are its commitments? Why do you devote your energies and creativity to it?

VA is committed to contextualised news, analysis, and opinion articles (and video and audio) written from the perspective of solidarity with the Venezuelan people. This means that often our articles support the Venezuelan government, but not always. We are fighting against a proactive media war against Venezuela, and that means covering various angles of the social missions, the movements and grassroots organisations, and the achievements of the Bolivarian revolution which are completely ignored by English language private media. However, solidarity with the Venezuelan people involves telling the whole story, and to give readers and solidarity activists a complete understanding of the revolution, we also constructively criticise aspects of the Bolivarian revolution when necessary, and we analyse and report on its weaknesses – the bureaucracy, corruption, crime, and other problems.

VA is a democratic media collective – we decide collectively what articles we will write, publish, and other activities. We have three part time writers, and we also collectively decide our pay, working hours, and so on. VA depends on donations, so we pay ourselves very little, because we want the site to survive. We have a range of people voluntarily helping the site – with editing, admin, audio, and fundraising, and the writers, we also work much beyond the minimum hours we set ourselves, because we’re committed to the cause of VA. 

All VA writers live in Venezuela. We participate in the revolution in different ways. We love the revolution, with all its faults, and when we read the English media lies every single morning, about what we and our comrades and mates are doing here, it hurts. So we’re committed to countering those lies, to getting out the real story, and to reminding people that another world is possible, even if building it is a hard and complicated struggle.

4. What do you feel have been some of the successes of VA – and, also, what are some ways in which you think it could perhaps do better in the future?

I guess I think we produce a lot of original news, analysis, interviews, as well as translations of opinion articles written by Venezuelan and Latin American analysts and activists. We’d like to be able to do more – to do more interviews and cover more grassroots struggles and organising across more regions of the country. It’d be great to produce more audio and video content. But as I’ve mentioned, we have extremely limited resources.

5. If you are okay to do it, I would also like to explore your views of Venezuela as someone living and active there – not as a reporter or journalist, so much, but as a citizen activist. Let’s start with media, since that is where you work. Outsiders who actually get to Caracas and pay attention are immediately, typically, quite surprised by the extent of anti Chavez and anti Bolivarian media. How do you assess the Bolivarian approach to information exchange and media – both alternative and mainstream? What do you think has been admirable, and worth learning from for other projects elsewhere in the future? What do you think has fallen short of what it ought to be, or has even been flawed and damaging, in this area?

These are big questions! But briefly, Venezuelan public media is pretty cool – having public media that doesn’t support the rich or pretend to be “objective” by basically supporting the rich and now and then quoting someone who’s somewhat left, is a pretty nice experience. You can turn on VTV (public news/current affairs television channel) and listen to complex interviews and discussions about socialism and see some intense, detailed, anti-capitalist ads. If my communal council is organising something, we can ring up the public and alternative radios and ask them to promote it, and they will. Radiomundial also publishes the lists of mercals available each day, and the new recipients of pensions. Vive TV has a lot of great shows about community work, what individual collectives are up to, and about local traditions. 

But public media has two main problems in my opinion – 1) It’s not very democratic in the way its organised, there are still bosses who hire and fire, and tell journalists what to write about, rather than these decisions being made collectively. 2) Public media, while there are a lot of debate and discussion shows on radio and TV, the media itself, in terms of the positions it takes, and the articles published, isn’t constructively critical of the government. And to fight the bureaucracy and move forward, we really need media that does that. 

The blooming alternative and community run media – radio, television, and some newspapers, does that – but as a media it still isn’t taken as seriously, still isn’t seen as ‘real’ media, except for perhaps community news. 

And of course, as you said, private media is the dominant one for newspapers and radio, and Globovision – the opposition TV news channel, is more watched than VTV. To an extent you can understand it, there’s a media war, and the private media here rarely mentions any of the countless achievements by the people and the government. But constructive criticism is different to the rubbish printed by the private media (disguised as criticism, but mostly it’s just lies), and is important.

Alternative media is really being supported by the government, in terms of resources – especially in terms of technology for radios and television. Soon we hope to see the new ‘popular media’ law passed as well. And sometimes alternative media is allowed into official events and treated just the same as Bloomberg and Reuters journos. But sometimes we’re not, and sometimes to get into events, there’s a lot of bureaucracy and we don’t have the same resources and time to go through that as the private media does.

Finally, Telesur- I love Telesur. It’s not perfect, probably having many of the problems that Venezuelan public media has, but it’s a cross-country initiative, with journalists based all over the continent, and its general perspective is pro-people. Telesur did some really valuable and essential reporting during the coup in Honduras, the coup attempt in Ecuador, etc- and it’s just an awesome alternative to crap like CNN and Fox.

6. In the political side of life, insofar as the Bolivarian project is committed to popular participation and broad self management, what Bolivarian policies and actions have significantly furthered such results? What policies and actions, or lack thereof, have interfered with that result?

This is another huge question, and to list all the laws, financial resources assigned, and organisations set up or promoted, would take some time. But keeping things general, the government has made communal councils legal and serious organisations with a fair bit of authority, though for now that authority is completely limited to local issues. People feel motivated to participate in communal councils because they are real bodies that have the potential to achieve concrete solutions for their communities. 

There are some factors holding participation back in many communal councils, and they include bureaucracy (you can spend years trying to get a project approved), people’s lack of understanding of the importance of popular organisation, and perceptions that the councils are “Chavista”, or political – which they are, but not in the same way that an electoral party is. People also still don’t quite understand communal councils and they expect us (elected spokespeople) to work in the same way mayors and other civil servants do: doing the work for them. In my communal council we have a slogan: Community working for the community, and we try to make it understood that anyone is welcome to participate, whether they have been elected or not, and that only when a large sector of the community is active will we really get anywhere. But it’s a hard battle, people are used to things being done for them, to passiveness, as happens under capitalism, and other people still prefer the alienation and individualism that they’ve grown up with. 

Apart from the councils, the government has encouraged the formation of communes – which go structurally deeper than the councils, as well as community involvement in the missions and in other problems and challenges such as combating food price speculation and hoarding. Chavez has verbally encouraged worker organisation, although within the state institutions that only happens sometimes, and usually when the particular institution has a decent person heading it up. The government also created the Federal Council of the Government (CFG), which is meant to be a link between the government and the councils, and where the two can decide budget allocation together. Sometimes this works, but more often than not the CFG simple informs the councils of its decisions. Sometimes there are meetings called and the councils have a chance to inform on their communities’ major needs, to help in the deciding of priorities, but at least in Merida, these meetings are often convoked the day before, or even hours before, making it difficult for many people to attend them.

Legally, popular power is really well supported: from laws on popular economy, to sections of most laws emphasising people’s organisation as a legitimate possibility. For example, with rubbish collection, the law on that states that an organised community can take on that responsibility, if it can prove its capacity to do so.

However, what the Bolivarian government does to promote the people’s participation in politics is half the story, the other half is what the people (communities, workers, movements of indigenous people and women, etc) do to demand and implement it. You could argue that beyond a few example cases in Bolivar state, the government has done little, concretely (beyond laws, and discourse) to promote worker councils and worker participation. That would be true I think, but if the workers themselves aren’t demanding such power (which they are doing, in a few specific cases, but not generally), well people’s power isn’t necessarily something that can be forced, or imposed. Still, there has been a very definite, obvious increase of independent grassroots organising under this government. Mainly due to an ambient of politics, discussion, news, and participation, movements such as LGBTI ones have grown, despite little direct encouragement from the government.

7. Economically, Chavez and the Bolivarian agenda have been seeking what they call 21st Century Socialism, yet the private sector of capitalist-owned and run firms remains predominant. Why do you think that is? What, if anything, do you think might have been done differently, or might be done now, to more quickly progress toward a more equal, self managing, and solidarious economy?

I guess I think the government is trying to keep this revolution peaceful, and that means nationalising and expropriating when it has the legal basis to do so, and also possibly when its capable of taking more on – has the human labour and experience and willingness to do it. Perhaps it’s not as fast as some revolutionaries overseas and within Venezuela would like, but in Latin America’s context – the repression, murder, disappearance, and torture that revolutions and revolutionaries have suffered in the past – it’s fairly understandable.

Not that the revolution is completely peaceful of course, hundreds of campesinos fighting for land as well as some unionists have been killed. And the other really big thing is all the capitalists (in practice, or ideologically) who are members of the PSUV and of the government – either infiltrating, or just opportunistically. Perhaps in order to keep things peaceful and also to maintain electoral support, Chavez has played a bit of a balancing act between the right and left leaning sides of the PSUV.

To really start attacking capitalist structures, we need a more organised revolutionary left, and greater general consciousness around what capitalism and socialism are. I can get pretty frustrated or disillusioned sometimes when actual PSUV “leaders” (none of them are elected and many aren’t actually chosen for their positions because of any dedication to the socialist cause) actively promote capitalist and traditional values such as consumerism especially, or competitiveness, or even religion (people can be religious if they like, but it’s another thing for the state to be actively promoting praying over organisation and mobilisation as happened earlier this year with Chavez’s illness).

The PSUV is, in my opinion, an electoral and clientalist party, and for things to be deepened, we, the grassroots, need to organise more, work together more, revive initiatives like the Great Patriotic Pole (national organisation grouping around 30,000 grassroots movements and collectives), strengthen ourselves, publically and constructively criticise the revolution or the PSUV and the government, and be even more demanding than we already are.

8. And how do you understand the phrase, 21st Century Socialism? Finally, do you think most folks in Venezuela, even among just those who support the revolution, understand this term similarly?

Well, to be honest, I think that phrase is used a little more by intellectuals and commentators outside Venezuela, than by people active on the ground here. But Chavez has also used it a lot, and I guess the gist of it is Venezuela’s own style of socialism, fought for within its own very particular dynamics (such as a small industrial working sector and much larger state sector and informal economy) and history and culture (eg Bolivarianism, emphasis on independence from US imperialism in its various shapes and forms, etc).

People I work with; agricultural activists, communal council members, teachers in the alternative school I’m with, members of the television collective I know, some members of the PSUV youth and some members of the Venezuelan communist party, and others, tend to just talk about socialism. Frankly, they are extremely clear about what it is; economically, historically, in terms of the creation of a new person, in terms of democratic participation, and in terms of criticising many problems within the Bolivarian revolution. Rather, it’s more a case that a good chunk of the state bureaucracy is pretty clueless, and sees socialism as nothing more than the social missions, as wearing red shirt’s, and campaigning for Chavez at election time.

9. What has been your experience of the revolution, and the society for that matter, regarding gender relations? Can you tell us about steps that have been taken – typically not too widely known outside – and their impact? Do you think there are other steps that ought to be taken, or changes, etc., to move along the feminist agenda here?

Again, I don’t believe it should be entirely up to the government, and though feminist movements have become much stronger over the last 14 years, they are still relatively small. Abortion should be legalised, completely. The beauty competitions need to go. I’d love to see something that clamps down on sexist advertising, but none of these moves would be supported by even a significant minority of the population, unfortunately. We need a stronger women’s movement that has a decisive impact on popular consciousness, and whilst some clearer feminist discourse from the legislators and ministers and so on would possibly help boost that, its ultimately our responsibility.

There have been clear legal gains for women: such as the law against violence which recognises 18 types of violence, and more women than before are mayors, governors, ministers, and even militia soldiers, though still nowhere near 50%. But as I said, whilst these things are a great boost, there needs to be broader awareness of the types of violence and the root causes of such violence, of the origins of women’s oppression and how it is being being maintained today by capitalist institutions and the Church.

The PSUV needs to have the courage to confront the Church, and the big businesses that objectify women and exploit them. But the PSUV is based so much on electoral politics, I don’t see it doing that.

Sexism here (like in most countries) is really ingrained and normalised. You’ll meet really hard working and decent revolutionary men and women who think objectification is fine and good fun. This is one of the hardest battles, and it’s definitely a long term one.

10. Many who worry about prospects in Venezuela, for many years and of course much more so at present, have feared that the great dependence on Chavez’s ingenuity and energy – and on the place he holds in the hearts of the populace – and on the stabilizing value of his ties to the military causing loyalty there – has been risky. The benefits are clear enough, they say, but the dangers are also evident. What if he changes, is one worry. More so, and now so sadly more germane, what if he can no longer contribute, is the other. Can you try to convey the feelings surging through Venezuela and the prospects for the coming period, please?

Supporters of Chavez love him. It’s a new feeling for me, to care this much about someone I don’t personally know. And yet we do know him in a way, for he has just done so much for this country and this continent. While politicians in other countries are finding ways to say as little as possible about anything and to do as little as possible, the list of what Chavez, with his government, has done in the last 14 years is so long (housing, health, education, participation, employment programs, food, agricultural programs, and on and on). And then, he would talk to the people through his show alo president, through announcements, through speeches, by visiting factories and communities. He has so much guts, he works so so hard, he’s just an extremely intelligent, wonderful, if imperfect, human being and fighter. 

So we spent New Year and that period deeply worried about him, and celebrations were sort of toned down. We felt sad. But then the year began, school and work went back, and since then, with Chavez away, his supporters and fellow revolutionaries and activists have been working harder than ever. And they or we have marched en masse a number of times this year already, to defend the revolution. People are understanding now that whatever the future holds, Chavez won’t last forever, and he can’t do everything, and people are radicalising around that notion. 

That we have gone on fighting these last few months gives me a lot of hope, because I was worried about the cult phenomenon, and I still am, but the slogan “Chavez somos todos” – we’re all Chavez- has really taken off, people get that it’s up to us now. I don’t think any leader will take his place either, Maduro and others just aren’t capable of replicating that kind of charisma, passion, and understanding. But Chavez has become a symbol, and those leaders will continue talking in his name, rather than trying to somehow replace him.

11. There is a different version of this same concern, I guess, which I have to say concerns me greatly. The Bolivarian movement has held executive power for over a decade. It has embarked on an impressive array of projects altering society and social relations on behalf of poorer and weaker constituencies in Venezuela. It has won election after election – to the point where there always seems to be an election in progress, one being won. All this, and more that one can easily list, is impressive, yet, also, if we add just one fact to the picture, at least to me, worrisome. The fact is that instead of support for the revolution steadily growing, say from 65% to 85%, and instead of popular clarity about what the end aim is, and what methods can advance the aim, growing from very general commitments to far more specific and informed ones – support has dropped and clarity has stalled, and perhaps even diminished. To me, explaining why the most ambitious and in many respects the most successful project for justice and popular involvement in the world, now, and for many decades past, hasn’t steadily gained support internally, inside Venezuela, seems a priority. Put differently, why should Chavez being unable to continue be more than a horribly sad loss? Why should there also be grave concern that the opposition may be able to win back power and curb and even reverse progress? How do you explain, in one country, the great advances, yet the continuing possibility of opposition electoral success? In short, why aren’t opposition beliefs losing 80% – 20% or more? And, if part of the reason is policies or actions that have not been pursued – shouldn’t they be pursued?

The 80% or so of the population which initially supported Chavez in around 1999 and 2000, and when the new constitution was voted for, did so before he “came out” as socialist, or started talking about socialism – which he only began to do in 2005. Those people saw him more as an alternative to the past undemocratic, repressive, and neoliberal regimes. They liked the new constitution and how it was discussed.

It’s natural that as the revolution has radicalised – even if somewhat slowly, that some of that support has dropped off, with some people now saying that the socialist policies are “going too far”. Also, it makes sense given the media barrage against the Bolivarian revolution. People are told crazy things by the private media, from Chavez eats children, to he’s a dictator, to the leasing law means their houses could be stolen (not true of course) and so on. They are told that Chavez is to blame for inflation, crime, and even flooding (seriously). Many fall for the lies. Crime and the price of food are real issues as well, and for me it’s amazing that after so many years such a high proportion of people have stayed faithful to the cause, to the revolution – not just voting, but marching over and over, and active in their particular areas or projects. This support is despite the bureaucracy (which impacts our lives not just in terms of activist work, but also in terms of teachers not getting paid for six months, for example). Youth are a good proportion of support for the revolution, despite many of them not even remembering what it was like, how bad it was, before Chavez. 28 year olds were 14 when Chavez came to power, they didn’t have to queue all day to buy chicken etc, on the rare occasions it was available, during the 1980s. They don’t remember the difference between 100% inflation then, and 20% inflation now. They don’t know what it’s like to NOT have a barrio adentro health centre just up the road, but they still support the government. 

I know young supporters of the opposition who have bought new cars and new televisions, then go and say that Venezuela is in “economic chaos because of Chavez”. Seriously, the private media is incredibly powerful. In other countries, it would have been unusual for a president or head of state to be re-elected for a third term, just because of that phenomenon of people getting restless, voting vaguely for “change”, etc. But Chavez was not just re-elected, but he had an 11% lead and 81% electoral participation, despite the media lies- and that says a lot about the strength of this revolution. It may be slowish, but we’re not getting tired, we’re in this for the long term.

12. One final question. Let’s agree that a major obstacle to support being much higher – say 80% – is capitalists and other elite elements blocking and sabotaging efforts at innovation and change, on the one hand, and corporate media then blaming the shortcomings and everything else they can dream up on Chavez and the revolution. on the other hand. In that case, wouldn’t a massive campaign about the acts of obstruction and sabotage and even preventing them via very severe penalties have strong benefits? And wouldn’t a massive campaign about what is freedom of speech and good media, including preventing capitalists from dominating and misusing media, again, far more forcefully than up to now, also have many benefits? If so, the question becomes, would the benefits of such campaigns be outweighed by their producing more virulent opposition from elites inside Venezuela, pretext for intervention from outside Venezuela, and also the possibility of over centralisation domestically. Or would the benefits, and the ensuing clarity of public opinion and advances of policies, and thus the growing domestic support, outweigh those costs? I wonder your thoughts on this. What do you personally think is the right mix of moving forward and, as you indicated earlier, understandably and wisely trying to avoid confrontation? 

Right, but the thing is many of those capitalists/elite elements that are sabotaging things are disguised, are working in the PSUV, or have official positions, or are paying people to do their dirty work, or have “friends” in such positions. It’s just not so clear when you’re looking at it on the ground. This is definitely a messy revolution, and that makes sense- the elite won’t give up their privileges so easily. The most logical, stable strategy for them is to on the one hand demonise the revolution, and on the other hand, exploit it – such as those capitalists speculating on the black market, or those who get credits from the state, or use corrupt methods and positions of power to siphon off resources actually destined towards social causes.

That means that yes, you are right, such a campaign would be great, and to an extent the public media, together with Chavez and ministers and so on in speeches, has been waging such a campaign for years. But as I stated previously, the public media will highlight certain sabotage by certain capitalists and opposition members, and will happily criticise the private media, but its less willing to wage an anti “fifth column” (these ‘boli-bourgoise’ – the pro capitalists inside the revolution) campaign. Likewise, a lot of penalties already exist, are sometimes implemented, but the bureaucracy won’t sanction its “friends”.

I guess what you’re suggesting though is we close down Globovision (the opposition news channel), we nationalise Polar (the large food company). That’d be great, I’d be up for that, and in my opinion it’d be worth the retaliation and the bad press Venezuela already gets anyway, in the international mainstream media, no matter what it does. I’d like to see the revolution radicalise. A lot of what is proposed in the government Socialist Plan for 2013-2019 is a very good deepening of the gains so far of the revolution. Funnily enough it’s often the retaliation of the opposition, such as the 2002 coup, that helps force such a radicalisation. It’s useful in that sense to have an opposition.