Latin America and Venezuela in Transformation

An interview with Marta Harnecker, who talks about the transformations going in Venezuela and in Latin America in general and about the strategies that the left ought to be pursuing.

Interview with Marta Harnecker by Mário Augusto Jakobskind of Brazil de Fato, January 10, 2005

For many people, especially those who have been keeping up with the transformations in Latin America, the name of the political scientist Marta Harnecker is well known. Her analyses, for years, have been essential for understanding what is happening in the continent. Born in Chile, lived for many years in Cuba after escaping Augusto Pinochet’s repressive regime. This thinker has been tuned with the worker’s movement and has travelled to many countries, including Brazil, to find out the reality of social and popular movements. Now she is involved with the Bolivarian revolution led by Hugo Chávez Frias. Marta Harnecker was recently in Rio de Janeiro, as part of the Venezuelan government team attending the Rio de Janeiro Summit.

Brasil de Fato – How do you see the situation of Latin America after the re-election of George W. Bush?

Marta Harnecker – We all knew that there wouldn’t be great differences between John Kerry and George W. Bush as far as the international policy is concerned. John Kerry would not have changed US foreign policy very much, but there would have been a difference. That is why I was on the side of those in the United States who supported the democratic candidate. For our struggles the situation does not change very much. We must face the empire with all its power.

BF – Nothing will change for us then?

Marta – I believe, and repeat, that our tasks do not change very much, because in our continent the resistance against the neoliberal model, be it under Kerry or Bush, advances. There is still a lot left to build, but we are advancing. The election results in the last few years reflect that. Our people are choosing candidates that, at least symbolically, represent an alternative to neoliberalism. I say symbolically because, between the execution of a programme and the practice, in some cases there are great distances. Distances that, if they are not shortened, receive the punishment of people, as the example of President Lucio Gutiérrez, in Equador.

BF – And when the promises are not kept?

Marta – In the case of Ecuador, it is obvious that the indigenous movements who supported Gutierrez have come to the conclusion that they made a mistake and have to look for alternatives. It would not be a surprise if the president is overthrown. Our people have reached a stage in which they are at least prepared to resist. They have managed to change governments, such Fernando de la Rua’s, in Argentina, and, in Bolivia, the exchange between Gonzalo de Lozada and Carlos Mesa. But it is not enough to resist, or overthrow governments. We are not in the days of the destructive left, but at a moment when the left can create alternatives. Popular organizations are essential for that. Now, without it, no alternative is possible. That is what Venezuela shows us, where president Chavez won eight electoral processes, it was confirmed democratically. He succeeded in wining and growing because people were organizing.

BF – Can you explain it better?

Marta – The Venezuelan government is moving in an inherited institutional frame, but is making great efforts to change it. It was the only Latin American government that established as fundamental that, to take a peaceful route, the rules of the former institutional game would have to be changed. It succeeded in changing the Constitution, but that is not enough. They must create laws, to have the correlation of power in the Parliament to allow it. The institutional and bureaucratic apparatus, be it in the ministries, in state and city governments was inherited. Such apparatus obstructs the materialization of a Project for a different and transforming country.

BF – How did Chavez’ government change that scenario?

Marta – The institutional apparatus can crush cadres. To advance in social measures, to solve the most acute problems of the people such as poverty, illiteracy, education, health, the Bolivarian government created missions, in other words, acting spaces outside of the ministries. That was the way to care for people who had never being taken care before, because the ministries were structurally not capable of doing it.

BF – That happens in Brazil and in the whole of Latin America.

Marta – Of course. Within a scheme full of vices it was not possible to accomplish all the social tasks. President Chavez started new forms of organization of the ministries, and even created some. In those, the people organized would have to actively participate, both in establishing local goals and in the monitoring of the tasks. None of this would have been possible without organization and pressure. People have to help, and the government must accept popular pressure.

BF – And when that happens?

Marta – This is a very complicated topic for the left; what to do when there are no candidates who represent it. That is what happened in the last elections in Venezuela, when there were candidates without much support, but were pushed from above. Voters complained that those candidates were elected. We must analyse the issue of abstention in Venezuela, which was big.

BF – How big?

Marta – Around 60%. In the Venezuelan process, I maintain that the pedagogy of president Chávez leads to the political growth of the people. The same people who went to the streets and succeeded in getting Chávez to return, without any political orientation, feeling themselves as protagonists, in spite of the media campaign against the government. A people who, besides that, decided to block information, simply by not watching the opposition TV and not buying the newspapers from these groups.

BF – Then the role of the media is relevant?

Marta – We know that the current war is a media war. I always remember what Noam Chomsky says: repression is for a dictatorship what propaganda is for the democracy. In other words, the bourgeois democracy succeeds because the media convinces people that this is the best of all worlds, it creates illusions with soap-operas, which are the opium of the people nowadays. In Brazil it astonishes me that there can be so many slums, but there is always a TV antenna in each house.

BF – How to stand up for the media power?

Marta –There is nothing like the progressive forces competing with the bourgeois media. What is the way out? Why in Porto Alegre, for a long time, in spite of the media, did the left advance? Because there was a different political practice and people saw it, and when that happens, when confronted with the messages of the opposition, a critical distance arises.

BF – In Uruguay, besides the victory of Tabaré Vasquez, was it important for the left to also reach parliamentary majority?

Marta – Of course. That also applies to Lula, because we cannot judge governments without an analysis of the correlation of power. When the left analyses a government, many times it forgets the correlation of power. We cannot compare Chávez’ government and Lula’s government. The former, as Chavez himself states it, it is a peaceful route, but not without arms. What does that mean? That the people are armed? No. It means that it is a peaceful route that has the support of the institutional armed force, in other words, the great majority of the army supports Chávez.

BF – And in Brazil?

Marta – Chávez is the first government that puts as its banner for its election the change of the rules of the institutional game, because it knew that it would need a new Constitution and its electoral ads advocated for a Constitutional Assembly. He managed to change the constitution and, therefore, the correlation of forces of the institutional apparatus. Lula did not manage to do that. Even if Lula won the election with a larger electoral support margin than Chávez, in 1998, we cannot forget that these results were the product of broad political alliances, which were necessary to win in the ballot-box, and even more necessary to govern the country. The Worker’s Party [PT] is a minority in both chambers of the Legislative Power. Add to that that Brazil depends much more on international financial capital than Venezuela with its oil.

BF – How do you see the differences between the government in Venezuela and other governments in Latin America such as Brazil and Argentina, for example?

Marta – Besides the correlation of power, the change of the Constitution, of a new correlation of power in the institutions, and of betting on popular organizations, there is the issue of oil. In other words, Venezuela is an immensely rich country and receives very large dividends from oil, which, in the first moment was blocked by the opposition. Nowadays, with the dividends from oil, Venezuela has the possibility of not depending on the policies of the International Monetary Fund. That is not the situation in most Latin American countries. Other countries do not have the economic freedom that Venezuela does.

BF – Do you criticize the criticisms from the left towards Lula?

Marta – I think we need to take into consideration many elements and, sometimes, criticisms can be a bit superficial. We need to create alternatives. I applaud those who say that they do not agree with what is happening in Brazil, but recognise that there is a government in dispute and there is no power capable of tipping the scale, which means that things stay that way. Those who criticize have a very big responsibility. To be a radical does not mean to declare one’s opinion towards more radical solutions, but to create conditions to do things. I remember that Salvadorans discussed organising public demonstrations for peace and they would discuss if they should carry the flag of socialism or the peace flag. The more radical ones wanted the former. The others would say that with the peace flag they would gather Christians and people who were not socialists. They finally decided to have a march for peace and gathered an enormous number of people. All those who participated left feeling stronger to continue the struggle. That is much more radical.

BF – Then what is the way?

Marta – I believe very much in building forces. I would say that that is my theme. The art of politics is: to create forces to be able do in the future what we cannot do now. It has been said that an opportunist is someone who does not have power and adapts. The revolutionary is the one who knows that does not have power, but looks for ways to create the necessary conditions for it. Inventing, searching how to change the correlation of power. Those are two very distinct positions: one is conformist, opportunistic, the other, for me, is revolutionary, one that works to build the forces that will allow them to reach the objectives. Those who believe they are more left because they give more leftist speeches have been mislead. I go even further: those who want to be radical should work to build the social and political forces that will allow them to be. We struggle creating. That is why I like the idea of distinguishing between the destructive left and the constructive one.

(Participation Beatriz Bissio) Brazil de Fato The only left newspaper in Brazil It is the result of the hopes of thousands of people struggling in popular movements, left intellectuals, trade unisons, journalists and artists who got together to form a broad national and international network of collaborators.