Russia is one of numerous countries to back the upcoming Venezuelan electoral process this week following the visit of Tibisay Lucena, the president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council.
Her visit, which is a part of a tour to several African and European countries, looked to promote the strength of Venezuela’s electoral system in the world following attacks from the US government and their allies.
Lucena was welcomed by Russia’s vice foreign minister, Sergey Riabkov, who acknowledged that there is an international attack on Venezuela’s democracy.
“We support the efforts of the Venezuelan electoral authorities and wish the people of Venezuela success and peace in the upcoming elections,” he said.
The Russian official also declared that Moscow will be sending a team of international observers for the May 20 presidential elections. The news came as Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza confirmed that the UN has rejected an offer to accompany the process. Arreaza said that the UN cited a lack of time to organise the mission as the apparent reason.
Similarly, Latin America’s Council of Electoral Experts (CEELA), which perennially sends observer missions to Venezuela, offered declarations reaffirming the transparent and fair nature of the country’s electoral process.
“There has never existed a difference between the digital votes and the manually counted votes. We have tested the process step by step so there can’t exist a single suspicion of fraud,” said CEELA President Nicanor Moscoso.
Venezuela’s electoral system uses electronic voting machines but every vote also produces a paper ballot which is used to publically audit the electronic count at the close of voting in what is known as the citizen’s audit.
CEELA, which brings together electoral technicians and authorities from across the continent, accompanies all off the twenty-plus audits of the voting system which are carried out before and after election day. They are also present for the vote itself.
“The communes should be the space in which we are going to give birth to socialism.” – these were the words of Hugo Chávez in one of his famous presidential broadcasts. To discuss the Venezuelan communes and the new forms of participation, as well as its successes, difficulties and contradictions, we have interviewed Dario Azzellini*. He has investigated and documented theses issues throughout the Bolivarian Revolution. His book Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela has recently been released in paperback by Haymarket Books.
In your book you talk about a “two-track process” in Venezuela, from above and from below. Can you explain this?
Traditionally, some people have a vision that change is coming from above, so you have to take over state power and the government and then you change everything from above. Others disagree and defend that you have to do everything from the bottom-up and the grassroots, and overcome the state.
I think Venezuela shows that the state is there, whether you want it or not, it does not go away if you ignore it. On the other hand, we also have the experience that if you try to change something from above without having the self-organised structures in society to sustain it, then the conscience of people is not really changed and everything can fall apart like a house of cards a few seconds after you lose state power.
A characteristic feature of a few recent processes in Latin America, and in Venezuela especially, with all their difficulties and contradictions, has been the combination between certain kinds of changes and reforms from above with a strong self-organisation on the ground. Also if we look at it, especially in Venezuela, many of the proposals that were successful, from the recuperated workplaces to the local self-administrations of communal councils and communes, were things that were created by the people, at the bottom, and then picked up by Chávez and turned into government policies.
The “two-track” approach means that you have at the same time these efforts for change from above and from below. From a logic standpoint, you can have a bottom-up logic in some state institutions as you can also have a hierarchical top-down conception in some of the grassroots movements. So it is more complicated than it seems.
What are the contradictions that emerge?
There are strong contradictions, it still is a constant relationship of cooperation and conflict. Because these are two completely contradictory logics, even if they declare to pursue the same objectives.
The logic of an institution is always to measure everything with statistics, whereas the social logic is often not measurable in statistics. When I was working in Venezuela with communal councils, you could have the communities, for instance, starting to meet once a week to watch a film together and then discuss. Or they could start cooperating with the adjacent community council on some common issues, maybe solving some conflict that had long existed between the communities (and nobody remembers why!).
At the same time, from an institutional standpoint, a government body or a ministry that is responsible for the construction of these communal councils, has to prove its worth to the next institutional level, it has to measure something. Watching a film or cooperating with the neighbouring community cannot be fit into any statistic. But if this community builds 2 kms of a new asphalt road, then it is great! We can report the 2 kms of road, the cubic meters of asphalt needed, and the money spent, to show they have been doing something. However from a social and political logic, it is much more valuable to watch a film or cooperate with the other community.
The logic of the institution is always a logic of representation and it is always questioning any non-representational body even if they formally agree with it. Someone sitting in an institution, who has to explain to his boss and institution what he has been doing, is weary of letting the people decide. What if the people decide wrong!? Thus he may feel inclined to decide himself what is best. You have these contradictory logics all the time.
Moreover, there is the contradiction of a power asymmetry. The institutions control the finances and have privileged access to media and other institutional levels. Therefore this power asymmetry has to be taken into account.
What about situations in which the state was (at least in principle) on one side, like struggles for workers’ control?
You still find these contradictions at play in cases like workplace occupations. For instance, workers would occupy a given company, and an institution that was very eager to support them would come in immediately, and after two weeks expropriate the workplace. But the workers did not have the time to form a collective, to grow in the struggle, to really figure out what they want.
This expropriated workplace would then hardly ever make it into a self-organised, worker-controlled workplace, because it could not grow organically. At the same time the institution that intervened or the new administration might have no interest in surrendering control to the workers, or even actively sabotage and hinder workers’ control. And once the workers’ councils were introduced, they tried to undermine them, co-opt them, or reduce them to consulting bodies without any real power, while workers fought and still fight for workers’ participation and control.
So that is why I say it is a constant logic of conflict and cooperation between these two: between the constituent power (workers, grassroots movements, etc.) and the constituted power (state institutions). And that is the motor of history.
Therefore with all the problems that have plagued recent Latin American processes, due to pressures from the outside, from the right, from the inside, from mistakes that were made, etc., what happened over the past 20 years has the imprint of both the constituent and constituted power. And it is based on the friction between these two powers.
It is interesting that we are used to seeing class struggle for the state or outside the state, but here it is somehow brought into the institutions…
It is both inside and outside. We could say it is “inside, outside, with, against and beyond” the state and the institutions! Which is really complicated and contradictory. We have to keep in mind that these are (at best) bourgeois institutions, so their tendency is to assimilate and co-opt everything, not to build socialism or participation, obviously. Therefore it is a very complicated and contradictory struggle, which has been an important element in countries like Venezuela.
In countries that are built around very few extractive industries, oil in the Venezuelan case, class struggle has not been direct but mostly about access to the state, which was the big distributor of the oil rent. This was true even before Chávez. You had private capitalists trying to get as much money as possible, while workers also directed their demands to the state. After 1998, with the election of Chávez, this struggle was moved also inside the state and it is still there.
Unfortunately I think that huge pressure from the outside is silencing too many contradictions and struggles. In a moment when the threat from the outside is so strong many of the movements who would have critiques to voice have to close ranks. Because obviously if the opposition takes back power, or if the US intervenes militarily, directly or using Colombia as a proxy (which I think is more probable), then there is not even a chance to have these discussions because everything in the Bolivarian Revolution would be eliminated.
Let us make a little detour. Whenever Venezuela is discussed in the media, or even within leftist circles, the focus is never on these struggles, or the new models of participation that we will get to, but always on the supposed shortcomings from the perspective of “liberal democracy”. But in the book you argue that this is not the proper, or the more relevant, “yardstick”. Why is that?
The Bolivarian Revolution is a result of the failure of liberal democracy. This is not specific to Venezuela, liberal democracy has been a failure everywhere. We have seen in the recent past millions of people out on the streets because they think that liberal democracy is not democratic. All the new movements, progressive or leftist, that we have seen emerging, are a result of the non-democratic nature and the failures of liberal democracy. And the same is true for the right-wing populist movements we see in Europe, or in the US with Trump.
Even the term “liberal democracy” is a contradiction in itself, because we should remember that liberalism and democracy were two opposites. They had been fighting each other for hundreds of years. Liberal democracy came to be when the liberals managed to exclude from the democratic process the economic and social spheres, thus reducing participation to the political sphere through the act of voting for representation. Therefore liberal democracy has in fact very little to do with democracy.
The starting point for Venezuela and most of the movements in Latin America is the failure of liberal democracy, the failure of allowing for social advances, the failure of improving people’s lives, the failure of being democratic, the failure of making people feel that they have a say. If this is the starting point, we cannot be criticising or measuring what is happening with liberal democracy as the yardstick. Liberal democracy is what has to be overcome.
From the very start of the Bolivarian Revolution, and with the 1999 Constitution, there is a new emphasis on participation and protagonist democracy and there are several experiments, some successful, others not so much, until you arrive at the communal councils. Why were the communal councils the first ones to really succeed?
From the very early 2000s the Bolivarian government was already thinking about mechanisms of popular participation in institutional decisions. The first examples mirrored experiments that existed in other places, like the participatory budgets. Then they started with experiments of creating bodies to bring together institutional (e.g. the municipalities) and grassroots representatives. And these failed, because those were still largely representative bodies with a very clear power inequality or asymmetry, like I described before. This made it impossible to have any kind of grassroots autonomy or decision-making.
These difficulties were not exclusive to opposition mayors or municipalities, they also happened with chavista ones. The communal councils were the first attempt to separate these structures as much as possible (1). A communal council is the assembly of a self-chosen territory. In urban areas it comprises 150-200 families or living units, in rural areas 20-30 and in indigenous areas, that are even less densely populated, 10-20, and they decide themselves what is the territory of the community. The communal council is the assembly of all people of the community that decides on all matters.
The communal councils form workgroups for different issues, depending on their needs: infrastructure, water, sports, culture, etc., and these workgroups elaborate proposals that are then voted by the community assembly to establish what is more important. Then they get the projects financed through public institutions. The financing structure that was created was no longer attached to the representative institutions at a local level, which would have brought them into this direct, unequal competition I had mentioned. Instead it was situated at a national or at least regional levels. And this created a possibility to have a more community centred, more independent, projecting and decision-making.
How many communal councils are there in Venezuela? And how do we get to the communes?
Nowadays there are formally 47.000 communal councils. Obviously that is a huge number and I do not sincerely think that all of them work as democratic popular assemblies. There will be many of them that probably do not really work, especially with the economic crisis. Others will be driven by a few activists that have the support but not the active participation of the community, while many others are really working as community assemblies.
The next step was the creation of communes, which again started by self-deciding on the territory. They do not have to correspond to the official territorial divisions, they can stretch across different municipalities or even states. For example in the outskirts of Caracas you have communities that formally belong to the state of Vargas on the coast, but because of the cordillera they do not even have a road connecting them to Vargas. Their infrastructure and cultural links are with the city of Caracas, so they form communes together with communities that are officially part of Caracas.
Communes in urban areas are usually made up of 25-40 communal councils, and in rural areas between 6-10 or 15, it depends. And also have the participation not only of the different community councils but also of other organisations existing in the territory. These may be peasant organisations, or the community radio, or organisations like the Corriente Revolucionaria Bolívar y Zamora. All organisations existing in the territory take part in the assemblies of the commune.
How do the communes function?
The commune is again only a place to coordinate proposals and take them further. The basic decisions are still taken in the communal councils. And the next step beyond that would be a communal city, which would not necessarily be structured as a city, but rather it is made up of different communes. There are a few communal cities, even if there is still no law about them!
This is a familiar pattern. The communal councils started being built from below, with different names, some even had institutional backing, and no law regulating them. Then Chávez saw these assemblies and named them communal councils, and by the time the law was drafted in 2006 there were already some 5000 of these councils running. The same thing happened with the communes. They started to be built exist because the communities needed a bigger structure to decide on bigger projects, and by the time the law of communes was passed there were already hundreds of them in existence.
And they had to pressure the institutions to recognise them and register them officially as communes, because during the first years the institutions were declaring all communes as “communes under construction”. From an institutional logic, it is in their interest to declare as many communes as possible as needing their support. Once a commune is declared as functioning that is no longer the case. So in the end the communes needed to force the institutions to register them.
And how many communes exist nowadays?
Now there are around 1600 registered communes. Again, as with the communal councils, I would say they fall into three groups. Some are not really functioning after state support disappeared because of the crisis, others keep on functioning because of some well-organised activists that do the heavy lifting, with the support of the communities but without the assemblies meeting regularly, and other ones that are still functioning well.
One thing that I would definitely say is that the communes that are working are the structures that are being more successful in confronting problems that people are facing. There are interesting experiments with huge community controlled production facilities, or closed-down workplaces that were taken over by the community and the workers to set up all kinds of production. During this very difficult crisis, that strains social networks by pushing people to more individualism, these things are very relevant.
What has been the role of women in these participatory bodies?
Women have been the driving force. In the community councils, especially in urban areas, I would say over 70% of the people taking responsibility and pushing the struggle are women. There are many reasons for this. On one hand the rentier model of Venezuela has generated lots of speculative and informal activities that do not always supply regular work, and this naturally becomes worse in times of economic difficulties. But while this affects men mostly, women retain the experience of regular work because of all the other responsibilities (children, domestic work, etc.).
Therefore women are very much the centre of the household, and the centre of community life. This also has historical roots. If you read anthropological literature, in a Caribbean societies like Venezuela, the trans-Atlantic slave trade implied that men were sold more often, and thus women were the more stable part of slave society. This is some kind of late consequence of that, reinforced by the long-standing economic model.
One of the features that you mentioned is that the communal councils and the communes emerged from the bottom-up and then there was legislation to follow. This contrasts a bit with the (media-pushed) perception that somehow everything was happening via a Chávez decree…
I think that one of Chávez’s extraordinary capacities was that he was able to pick up what the people were doing, and what was working, and then function as a kind of loudspeaker! He would propagate these things that he saw as being successful, something that political scientists might call “good practices”, and make them widely known. And obviously because he was so charismatic and people trusted him, he was able to make them immediately discussed and propagated, so they would expand.
So contrary to the general perception like you say, most initiatives that Chávez launched and were successful, succeeded because they were practices that the people were doing already. He broadened them, made them better known and helped them expand, and at a certain point gave them a legal standing. This of course is not exclusive to Venezuela. For example the workers of Rimaflow in Italy (2) used to discuss how every law favouring workers in Italy came into being after the practice already existed, after different struggles and strikes had already forced them into place. So even in what can be considered as a favourable context like Venezuela, these “good practices” are often implemented first and later made legal.
On the larger issue of the communes, Chávez stressed very often that communes were the “Venezuelan way to socialism”. How do communes help us reach socialism?
Well, according to Marx, the commune is the finally discovered political form to emancipate labour (3). It is a step of decentralisation, of local self-government, that is connected to workers’ and community control, which is very important as a step towards socialism. It makes it possible to create different values, to create a different consciousness from the bottom-up, to create a self-organisation oriented towards the collective advancement of people in communities beyond capitalism.
The communes allow for a tendential overcoming of the separation between political, economic and social spheres, turning more resources into commons, to be managed by the community. (I say tendential because this is still a parallel structure amidst still existing representative, institutional structures, and capitalism in general.) This is what socialism was in the imagination of Karl Marx and many others.
Can we see these advances of these participatory forms of democracy in a more global context, connected to the failure of liberal democracy that we discussed before?
Indeed. The last huge uproar of council socialism were the workers’ councils in the early 20th century. After that the model of representation also took grip of the left and the communist movements, imposing itself as the hegemonic model even for socialist transformations.
So these currents become a minority while the Fordist model of production also reflected itself in an imagination of socialism as a representative, top-down paradigm. Now that Fordism is exhausted as a production model, liberal democracy as the political model serving Fordism is also at its limits. We should remember that the rights gained were not because of liberal democracy. They were forced on liberal democracy, they were won in struggle. For a while it was possible to push and advance progressive struggles within the framework of liberal democracy, but now it is clearly no longer the case.
This is the reason why we are witnessing a resurgence of socialist/communist/anarchist ideas, whatever you want to call them, models of self-administration, of council democracy, of self-organised socialism. The first internationally visible case was the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, we saw it in Venezuela like we have been discussing, but also in places like Argentina, Bolivia or even Kurdistan, always in different forms. We saw it in the workplace recuperations that occurred worldwide, we saw it in Occupy Wall Street and 15M, in Gezi and Tahrir, as well as plenty of other cases that we barely heard about, for example in Africa.
In summary I would definitely say that there is a resurgence of these concepts and ideas of socialism based on direct, council democracy, on self-management, on self-organisation – on this long history of people themselves organising their lives.
Going back to the Venezuelan communes, one of the discussions/debates within this spirit of conflict and cooperation with the state is that once you create a Ministry for Communes, there is a risk that they start being seen as just a sector of society, and not as something that is supposed to replace the state in the long run…
That is exactly one of the problems. Chávez was very clear about the idea of the council democracy replacing the institutional framework, and he coined this term of the “communal state”. Which is a bit of an oxymoron, because if it is communal it is not a state anymore! But this is a long-standing confusion in the whole socialist and communist movement. For example, Marx insisted that the Paris Commune was not a state at all, but a government, while the council communists of the early 20th century were mainly arguing that council democracy is not government (some of them later called it a proletarian state).
Chávez insisted and was adamant that the communes should at some point overcome the bourgeois state. It is not that clear whether the same view is held among government officials and institutional actors in the rest of Venezuela, there are many that see the communes as a kind of permanent parallel structure to the representative bodies.
And at the local level there are often conflicts with the communes, which may be seen as a threat…
Yes, definitely. Local and regional administrations are very often in conflict with the communes because they see them as a direct threat, and they are a direct threat! That is the point of the whole thing! They are representing structures that have to be overcome by the communal system. Of course politically they are supposed support it and not fight it, but this goes back to the clash between the participatory/communal and representational logics that I talked about before.
Let us talk about workers’ control, which is a subject that you discuss in great detail in the book. How did this logic of conflict and cooperation affect the struggles for workers’ control, for example in the basic industries in the state of Bolívar?
It affected them in a very problematic way. The whole workers’ control struggle in Bolívar, in the heavy industries (aluminium, iron, steel), did not advance at all. Through the years there were a lot of efforts, but eventually they stalled, while at the same time the production also did not really advance. Corruption and sabotage involving local power structures, institutional resistance, and contradictions within the workers’ movement doomed the struggle to failure. The basic industries are in a really troubling situation today.
In other cases, like state-owned Lácteos Los Andes (a big milk, yoghurt and juice producer) and in Aceites Diana (the biggest margarine and oil producer) there were strong workers’ struggles in 2013, and as a result the government agreed that the gradual workers’ control would be introduced, but still the question did not advance. There have been successes on a smaller scale, for example production facilities that have been taken over by workers together with communes. There is Proletarios Uníos, which used to be the Brazilian Brahma Beer producer, they are now bottling drinking water from a deep well. They have also set up animal food production, all in cooperation with the surrounding communes, for example exchanging with another worker-controlled facility that raises chickens.
To conclude, there is a very clear economic crisis and economic war in Venezuela today. Where does that leave the model of communes and workers’ control? Is it still the way forward?
I would say yes. With all the problems and contradictions that exist, the “new Venezuela” of the people, the new idea of socialism, of collectivism, is being developed in the communes and the communal councils and the recuperated workplaces. And this is not just an academic debate. We should remember for example that during the oil sabotage or lockout of 2002-03, the heavy industries and the oil industry were saved by workers taking control. The organised workers and communities have always offered the staunchest defence of the Bolivarian Revolution.
But obviously with the economic crisis and the death of Chávez the current context is not favourable for the communes and for workers’ control. A few years ago there might have been an expectation that the government would solve everything, but nowadays most grassroots organisations, movements and communes are convinced that they are the ones that will have to build socialism. They support the government in avoiding a military intervention, fighting against the financial blockade and economic war, they understand that they need to close ranks otherwise even the possibility of discussing more structural changes will disappear. But they do not expect any significant steps towards socialism to be taken from above. Rather, they hope to be afforded the space to keep building socialism from below.
*Dario Azzellini is a sociologist, political scientist, author and documentary filmmaker. He has worked and written extensively on the issue of workers’ control and self-government. Together with Oliver Ressler he has produced two documentaries about Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela from below andCommune under construction. His latest book on Venezuela, Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela. Building 21st Century Socialism from Below, has recently been released in paperback. More information on his work can be found on his website.
(1) On this matter Chávez said “[…] a grave error was committed, the communal councils cannot be converted into extensions of the mayoralties […]. That would be to kill them […] before they were born.” (Aló Presidente 246)
(2) A former manufacturer of air-conditioning pipes for BMW in Milan, Rimaflow was taken over by the workers when abandoned by the owner and now engages in a number of activities, from recycling industrial pallets to producing artisanal liquor. For more, see our previous interview with Dario Azzellini, or the documentary “Occupy, Resist, Produce” (by Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler).
(3) Karl Marx described the Paris Commune in these terms: “It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”
By Joe Emersberger, FAIR
A Reuters article (4/18/18) reports that the European Union “could impose further sanctions on Venezuela if it believes democracy is being undermined there.”
The line nicely illustrates the kind of journalistic shorthand Western media have developed, over years of repetition, for conveying distortions and whitewashing gross imperial hypocrisy about Venezuela. A passing remark can convey and conceal so much.
The EU’s sincerity in acting on what it “believes” about Venezuelan democracy is unquestioned by the London-based Reuters. Meanwhile Spain, an EU member, is pursuing the democratically elected president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, for the crime of organizing an illegal independence referendum last year. Weeks ago, he was arrested in Germany at Spain’s request, and other elected representatives have been arrested in Catalonia, where Spain’s federal government deposed the elected regional government after the referendum.
In July 2017, a few months before the referendum in Catalonia, Venezuela’s opposition also organized an illegal referendum. One of the questions asked if the military should obey the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which was an extremely provocative question, given the opposition’s various efforts to overthrow the government by force since 2002. The referendum required an extremely high level of political expression, organization and participation. It allegedly involved 7 million voters. The Venezuelan government disregarded the results—as Spain disregarded the Catalan referendum results—but unlike Spain, did not jail people for organizing it, or send police to brutally repress voters. In fact, two weeks later, Venezuelan voters (overwhelmingly government supporters, since the opposition boycotted and did not field candidates) were violently attacked by opposition militants when they elected a constituent assembly. The attacks resulted in several deaths.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has hardly failed to call attention to the hypocrisy of both the EU and Spain, but the Reuters article made no mention of it.
Reuters also reported that “the country’s two most popular opposition leaders have been banned from competing” from Venezuela’s presidential election on May 20. Reuters didn’t name the two supposedly “most popular opposition leaders,” but in the past (e.g., 4/12/18, 2/28/18, 2/19/18) the wire service has identified them as Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles. As it happens, according to the opposition-aligned pollster Datanalisis, whose results have been uncritically reported by Western media like Reuters for years, opposition presidential candidate Henri Falcón has been significantly more popular than Capriles in recent months, and barely less so than Lopez.
Mark Weisbrot (in an opinion piece for US News, 3/3/18) broke the news that US government officials had been secretly pressuring Falcón not to run, so that the election could be discredited as including no viable opposition candidate. Two weeks later, Reuters (3/19/18) discreetly reported Weisbrot’s scoop.
However, by far the most important thing Reuters neglects telling readers about the “two most popular opposition leaders” is that had they done in the EU what they’ve done in Venezuela since April 2002, Lopez and Capriles would both be serving long jail terms.
Capriles and Lopez together led the kidnapping of a government minister during a briefly successful US-backed military coup in 2002 that ousted Venezuela’s democratically elected president, the late Hugo Chávez, for two days. Lopez boasted to local TV that the dictator installed by the coup (whom Lopez called “President Carmona”) was “updated” on the kidnapping.
Imagine what Carles Puigdemont’s predicament would be if, rather than organizing a peaceful referendum, he had participated in a foreign-backed, ultimately unsuccessful military coup against the Spanish government. Needless to say, running for public office would not be on the table. That would be the least of his worries.
In Venezuela, Capriles eventually served a few months in prison for participating in the coup, while Lopez avoided doing any time, thanks to a general amnesty granted by Chávez. Lopez was finally arrested in 2014 for leading another violent effort to overthrow the government.
I’ve reviewed before (teleSUR, 1/9/18) violent efforts to overthrow the government that Lopez, Capriles and other prominent opposition leaders have been involved with since the 2002 coup. I also described how Julio Borges and Henry Ramos (two other prominent opposition leaders) have openly sought to starve the Venezuelan government of foreign loans as it struggles with a severe economic crisis.
In August, Trump’s administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s entire economy that will cost Maduro’s government billions of dollars this year (FAIR.org, 3/22/18). It has threatened to go even further, brandishing an oil embargo or even a military attack. With sufficiently compliant media (and the collusion of big human rights NGOs like Amnesty International), such depravity becomes possible.
The Reuters article also says that Venezuela’s economic “collapse has driven an estimated 3 million people to flee the country.” No need to tell readers when the economic “collapse” began—2014—much less who made the estimates or if other sources contradict them. In fact, the UN’s 2017 population division numbers estimate Venezuela’s total expat population as of 2017 at about 650,000—only about 300,000 higher than it was when Chávez first took office in 1999. Even a group of fiercely anti-government Venezuelan academics estimated less than 1 million have left since the economic crisis began. (See FAIR.org, 2/18/18.)
Cherry-picked statistics aside, when Western powers want a democratically elected government overthrown, the approach is clear. Complete tolerance for violent foreign-backed subversion—which the powerful states and their allies would never be expected to tolerate—becomes the test for whether or not a state is a democracy. The targeted government fails the test, is depicted as a dictatorship, and all is permitted. Only the tactics required to bring it down need be debated.
Messages to Reuters can be sent here (or via Twitter: @Reuters). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.
By Dae-Han Song
(Chief English Editor, The [su:p])
The following analyzes the current situation in Venezuela within the global struggle, effort and creation of a world beyond capitalism. It is based on research and informed by an interview with Jehyson Guzman, one of 545 members in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) — Venezuela’s highest power superseding even the president. The NCA is made up of representatives elected from communities and social sectors. Jehyson was elected by 82% of the vote to represent the community of Libertador municipality in Merida state. Before the NCA, he was part of the student movement in high school and then college and served in various ministerial posts in government for education.
Exploring the current situation in Venezuela, it’s clear that Chavistas are waging a fierce fight for the survival of 21st century socialism. While the drop in global oil prices, reporting, many people are also limited by their own blind spots: Venezuela’s political context is wholly different from that of most our countries. Free of context, it is easy to liken a Venezuelan protester with a mask over the mouth throwing rocks or molotov cocktails with protesters fighting global inequality in the 1999 anti-WTO struggles in Seattle. But the former is part of protests instigated by Venezuela’s elite and part of a larger movement funded by the U.S. government to destabilize the government. Police in riot gear pacify violent protesters. Yet, their reaction must be contextualized with the reality of protesters burning police cars and destroying government buildings and local health clinics. The police maintain law and order not for the interests of the 1%, but to protect a revolutionary process that for the past 18 years has uplifted people with social programs and transformed them into social protagonists. And while at the heat of the moment, clashes between protesters and police may turn complicated and murky, people need to challenge their simplistic notion that police are bad and protesters are good.
Venezuela is at the vanguard of a handful of countries where left revolutionary movements have taken power. They face these problems because they’ve advanced to a stage where the old has not yet died, and the new is being born. In this moment, the old customs and elite fight fiercely to stay in power, while the new government has yet to win the cultural hegemony necessary to dismantle the old structures of society and build new ones. If the goal is social transformation to a world beyond capitalism, then Venezuela is further advanced than the United States, where the right has won the presidency. It’s also more advanced than in Europe where a growing resurgence of the left has received much acclaim, but is still where Venezuela’s left was before taking power in 1999. Because Venezuela’s 21st century socialism involves transforming social relations not only domestically but regionally in Latin America, this path puts Venezuela on a direct collision course with the U.S. empire and its agents in Venezuela and Latin America.
President Maduro’s convening of a National Constituent Assembly — existent until 2019 and charged with creating a new constitution and endowed with an authority exceeding the five branches of government — has stirred great controversy in the mainstream media. The opposition’s boycott of the election for delegates to the NCA resulted in their ultimate absence from this body. The media broadcast widely the opposition’s message of protest: the NCA was illegitimate because it did not carry out the necessary national referendum; delegates representing social sectors were a ploy to introduce pro-government delegates. Yet, absent or marginalized from the coverage is the fact that President Maduro is constitutionally endowed (by article 348) with the power to create an NCA superseding not only the National Assembly (currently dominated by the opposition) but also the president himself. In fact, the opposition dominated National Assembly (with a ⅔ approval), the municipal councils (with a ⅔ approval) and even the general population (with 15% of the electorate) is endowed with this same authority.
Absent from mainstream discourse is the National Constituent Assembly’s consistency with a radical notion of democracy and sovereignty: the original constituent power rests with the people (article 347), it can even be convened by 15% of the electorate (article 348) and its proposed constitution once ratified by a national referendum cannot be overturned by the president (article 349).
Furthermore, is the rationale of creating a supreme NCA to deal with the extraordinary circumstance facing Venezuela: in moments of extreme crisis, the ultimate decision making power passes onto the people. Jehyson Guzman, a delegate of the NCA, explains that it was the extraordinary threat of the opposition’s shutdown of the government, its violence and U.S. government’s destabilizing the government that forced President Maduro to convene an NCA with authority to override all the other branches of government.
Venezuela’s process may at times be murky, corrupt, problematic, but it is democratic. The National Constituent Assembly — unlike political institutions in most countries and definitely in the United States and South Korea — is directly accountable to the sectors and communities that elected it. The delegates are unaffiliated to political parties. This is significant in creating a greater sense of inclusiveness as delegates were not beholden to an political party machinery to get elected and are not beholden to a political party line. Rather, their duty is to represent the communities and sectors they represent and are in ongoing discussion with. Jehyson explains, “Most of the time, creating a constitution is a negotiation between one political party with another. Political parties don’t have the problem of the work week or of maternity leave. But a worker, a mother does have these problems. They not only have the problem but can also create proposals to solve them.” It is for that reason that the various sectors (e.g. fisherpeople, the disabled, farmers, the elderly) are represented in this process. Guzman explains that NCA members “don’t have to be a part of a political party. They simply have to represent that sector.”
Furthermore, including representatives from the business sector in the National Constituent Assembly opens indirect spaces for negotiation and even compromise with a business sector that has been destabilizing the economy through shortages and inflation. To protect consumers and the economy, the NCA is passing laws to battle the economic war by controlling the currency and safeguarding established prices for consumers. However, it is also listening to the demands of the business sector with a “law to allow greater dynamism in export” by facilitating the “export [of] tropical fruits, coffee and cacao” to places, Jehyson adds, such as Korea.
Furthermore, the National Constituent Assembly would incorporate the rights already won — such as the right to study at a university, or to own a personal computer — into the constitution. Jehyson elaborates, “President Chavez created the canaima computer that is given out to all students. That way they can increase their knowledge and capacity and access to knowledge. We want to incorporate this into the constitution as a right.” In addition, while the first constitution “specified a 44-45 hour work-week, the constitution would be amended to reflect the current reality where “the work-week in Venezuela is 36 hours of work with 4 hours dedicated to personal development.”
Ultimately, the National Constituent Assembly is about winning peace and order by achieving a new inclusive social contract reached through dialogue. Greater harmony and thus social consensus creates greater unity in staving off U.S. and Organization of American States (OAS) intervention. As Guzman explains, “The call for an NCA knocks down all the strategies of the United States. Through the NCA all of the country is united in creating a new legal system and a new social pact that we can all respect which recognizes the laws and the institutions and to start the revitalization of the powers.”
While uniting Venezuelans under a National Constituent Assembly representing and addressing people’s needs by community and sector is currently more of a goal than a reality, the latest elections indicate that support for the government’s actions and direction is increasing among the public. The Oct. 15 governors’ elections yielded 18 out of 23 states to the Chavista PSUV. Furthermore, the Dec. 10 local elections added another governorship and yielded 308 out of 335 mayoralties with 23 of the 24 state capital cities (including Caracas, Venezuela’s capital city) to PSUV and its allies.
The government is establishing rule and order in the country. Its process at times appears chaotic and troubled. It’s a contested process. It’s also a democratic one where the opposition has access to domestic and global media outlets — even greater than the government’s. More importantly, the whole process involves the people, a refreshing approach to the author living in Korea where politics including the constitutional reform process happens behind closed doors in negotiation between the parties. The Bolivarian Revolutionary process may err, falter, regress, but it still remains the most advanced in building a world beyond capitalism decided and built by the people. From those of us in countries lagging behind fighting to join that construction, Venezuela deserves closer inspection and even some of our humility.
- Venezuela’s wealth in oil has created dutch disease: High demand for its oil results in a high currency thus eliminating the economic competitiveness of cheap production that helps a country industrialize through production for domestic and global consumption. In short, it is cheaper and easier to use dollars acquired from the sale of oil to buy goods produced abroad than to produce them domestically. Though there were efforts to industrialize Venezuela’s economic base ever since Hugo Chavez took power, Venezuela’s economy and its social programs remain dependent on the global sale — and thus price — of petroleum. Efforts to increase agricultural production also face the same problem.[/ref[ corruption and incompetence by the government contribute to Venezuela’s problems, the often overlooked siege — by the old ruling elite (which still controls the country’s production and imports) and the U.S. State Department — turns these problems into existential crises. At stake is the political direction of Venezuela: Will it advance towards 21st century socialism based on the power of people or will it revert to capitalism based on the interests of a small minority? Despite this reality, many of us misunderstand the events in Venezuela, looking upon them in isolation, ignoring or failing to understand the framework and political context. This has led to people’s interpretation that the National Constituent Assembly is an illegitimate dethroning of the opposition-dominated National Assembly despite the fact that such action is allowed by the constitution, can be explained by Venezuela’s crisis and is consistent with radical democracy and people’s sovereignty.The media is to blame for their partial and isolated. An example of such out-of-context reporting is challenged by FAIR: a seizure of toys from a toy company hoarding with the intent of selling the toys at an inflated price is likened by CNN to President Maduro being a Grinch. Yet, missing is not simply the fact that those toys will be handed out to the children of impoverished families, but also that the criminalization and confiscation of hoarded goods is an effective means of combating an economic elite that is using their control of production and imports to immiserate the lives of ordinary Venezuelans and destabilize the government. https://fair.org/home/venezuela-brings-toys-to-poor-kids-gets-called-grinch-on-cnn/
- Protests — following the 2013 elections in which PSUV candidate Nicolas Maduro beat opposition MUD candidate Henrique Capriles by 1.5% — targeted health clinics based on the accusation that Cuban doctors were housing stolen ballot boxes.
- In here we refer to cultural hegemony as the act of winning the hearts of people. Or rather, as Marta Harnecker states, when a class’s “values, its proposals, its societal project are accepted, looked upon sympathetically and taken up as their own by broad sections of society.” Thus winning hegemony is a democratic process “the opposite of imposition by force.”http://ouleft.org/wp-content/uploads/harnecker1.pdf
- While most of the world has three governmental powers/branches — the executive, the legislative and the judicial – Venezuela has two more created by President Chavez and included in the constitution: the electoral power in charge of the electoral system and the citizen’s power that guarantees the coexistence of all the powers and transparency in the government.
- Despite the opposition-led boycott and voter intimidation by violent protests, 41.5% of the electorate voted for the National Constituent Assembly.
- In “The Visible Hand of the Market,” Pasqualina Curcio Curcio first points out the contradiction between increasing GDP (outpacing consumption demand), increasing share of GDP by agricultural products (a growing share of food products in the economy), increasing foreign currency given to importers (which taken all together should increase the supply of goods) and the shortage of essential goods in Venezuela. This disparity is explained by the increasing cost of imports in dollars (far greater than changes in the fixed exchange rate provided by the government to these importers) of essential goods such as food (measured by an increase in the dollar cost of 1 kilogram of food). In short, the food importers are charging more per kilogram of food not accounted by an increase in global prices nor the exchange rate they are being provided by the government to buy this food. This disparity is explained by the increasing dollar reserves in foreign accounts by these importers.
- Curcio shows the connection between inflation and a manipulated black market exchange rate (BMER). She first proves through economic models that the BMER listed in online websites lacks an economic basis (i.e. determined by the foreign currency reserve or monetary liquidity) and has been manipulated since 2012. Secondly, she shows that 70%* of the national price of goods is determined by the BMER. This is explained by 1) Venezuela’s historic and present dependence on imports for inputs in production as well as final product.** 2) the monopolization of imports by 3% of Venezuela’s companies. Despite receiving dollars for imports of essential goods at a low fixed rate, these companies are able to charge prices at the far higher BMER because of the essential nature of goods such as food and medicine.
- In the opposite direction, some such as Mark Weisbrot of Center for Economic Policy Research advocate a floating currency exchange that in one fell swoop would cut open the Gordian knot of inflation and parallel currency exchange rates. Some could argue that such move would be politically risky especially in a period of political and economic siege.https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/11044
- Despite the opposition’s active participation in the election, 61% of the electorate voted: 55% for the coalition political party of the government and 44% for the opposition.
- While much of the opposition boycotted the election, not all of it did. In the end, 47% of the electorate voted. The overwhelming number of votes went either to PSUV or to other Chavista political parties that took the opposition’s boycott as an opportunity to field their own candidates against PSUV. Compared to 2013, the 2017 election voter turnout was 11.6% lower revealing the limited impact of the boycott. The fact that the Chavistas had a landslide victory among the 47% that voted and that 11.6% of voters boycotted in support of the opposition’s call lets us discern the weakness of the opposition in the latest elections. In comparison, the 2017 municipal elections for mayor in Los Angeles had 20% voter turnout and New York had 14%.
- The governor elected on Oct. 15 for the state of Zulia was removed from office after refusing to be sworn in by the NCA. Thus, the position was up for election again.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says Venezuela will “emerge triumphant” from the May 20 presidential elections, which will serve to strengthen the country.
“Rain or shine, we’ll have elections on May 20,” Maduro told a press conference on Friday. “We do not care about what foreign countries say.
“No matter what the governments of Santos and Macri tell us, the Venezuelan people will emerge triumphant from this electoral process.
“In Venezuela, rain, thunder or lightning on May 20, there will be elections and the Venezuelan people are going to vote.”
Maduro emphasized that Venezuela was fully complying with all laws and norms to provide proper electoral guarantees for the elections.
“Yankee imperialism is obsessed with the Bolivarian Revolution,” the president said, condemning foreign interference.
“The only thing we ask from the world is respect, that no country tries to get involved in our internal affairs… we are totally willing to re-establish relations with all nations so long as they respect us.”
Addressing Panama, which recently cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela, Maduro said that he is “completely willing” to re-establish relations as soon as Panama is ready.
Operations to counter the economic war affecting Venezuela’s national currency value and product availability have so far been successful, Maduro said.
He noted that “‘Operation Paper Hands’ has been a total success,” and that officials “have arrested more than 125 people and we are looking for 75 more involved in the business of affecting the price of the national currency and economy.”
The president also congratulated Bolivian President Evo Morales for his assumption of the pro tempore presidency of regional integration bloc the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), and said that “Latin American revolutionaries will defend Unasur.”