All over the world, the international Left – including the global social justice movement – is peering sceptically at Venezuela, unsure of what to make of President Hugo Chávez’ alleged democratic revolution. Is Chávez the next Allende? Is the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ really revolutionary? Is it anti-capitalist? Or does he merely represent another chimera in a long line of populists who rile up the masses with rousing condemnations of US Imperialism, only to quietly cut deals with international capital?
Hesitation, wariness, doubts – these feelings are understandable; the Left has been taken in before by Latin America’s infamous, ephemeral caudillo. But it is wrong to merely lump Chávez in with that sordid history of pseudo-revolutionaries. Yet placing him in Allende’s lineage is not entirely accurate either. Chávez is, after all, not exactly socialist. He hasn’t even nationalized anything (yet). But the relevance of the Venezuelan experience to the Left is fundamental. Something is happening in Venezuela that should inspire progressives everywhere, and it is the responsibility of the Left to learn from this experience – and more than that – to ensure that it is not extinguished before it has a chance to catch.
At this key and contested juncture in Latin American history, the Bolivarian revolution has been leading the regional struggle against neoliberalism, including the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA); it has been fomenting regional cooperation; and developing elements of a hopeful model of participatory democracy. Venezuela’s leadership has been based on a serious alternative model of democratic development, backed by a politicized and well-organized alliance between grassroots organizations and the executive of the state.
Since Venezuela’s ‘democracy’ was born in 1958 the political system has been dominated by Accion Democratica (AD-social-democratic) and Copei (social-christian)-essentially a two-party polyarchy that kept oil-rents circulating in elite circles. But by the 1990s corruption and unpopular structural adjustment programs led to a nationwide rejection of traditional politics and opened a space for an alternative political movement. Hugo Chávez, a former paratrooper, filled the void with a radical critique of the old politics, and a new constitution aimed at profoundly transforming the economic, political, and social organization of Venezuelan society. Chávez won the presidential elections in 1998 and again in 2000 with over 50 per cent of the vote, and his movement has since won a series of elections, plebiscites and referenda.
Article 73 of the Constitution obliges the state to keep its citizens informed about the implications of issues under negotiation in the FTAA.” It states that, “International treaties, conventions, and agreements that could compromise national sovereignty or transfer power to supranational entities shall be submitted to referendum.” This position on the FTAA is more than xenophobia, more than casual resistance to US influence, more, even, than anti-neoliberal: it is democratic.
In attempting to foster a viable challenge to US-led neoliberalism, the Bolivarian revolution has developed a broad, participatory democratic model that includes economic and social rights as well as the goal of a complete redefinition of political rights. Venezuela’s unusual combination of oil wealth and the considerable support for the revolution within the military has allowed it to limit the degree of its dependence on international financial institutions and the US.
The Revolution on the Ground
Unlike the populist caudillos who promised, and occasionally actually did things for the working poor, Chávez’ emphasis and commitment have been to providing support and resources for developing their organizational capacities.
One of the most interesting examples of this revolutionary redefinition of democracy is the funding of community organizations such as the Organizaciones Comunitario Viviendo (OCVs-Community Living Organizations) – the most local level of a network of community, district, and municipal organizations at the centre of the Bolivarian revolution’s project of decentralization. These OCVs are made up of one member from a maximum of 30 families who allocate funding received from the municipality (and ultimately from the state oil company PDVSA) according to their needs. Autonomous decision-making at the community level and the broader movement towards decentralization have combined with access to free education, childcare and health-care to politicize many Venezuelan communities, providing them with the impetus and the ability to lay the foundation for a more profound, long-term revolutionary transformation.
Free educational projects now provide education from basic literacy to university-level in classrooms located in poor areas all over the country. Free childcare facilities are coming to more and more communities, extending the right to education to overwhelmed parents. A similar project known as ‘Barrio Adentro’ (Inside the Neighbourhood) uses Cuban doctors to provide primary health-care in some of Venezuela’s poorest and most inaccessible hillside barrios.
Yet it is difficult to completely transform political, economic and social relations overnight – especially in a country with so much wealth at stake. Many elements of the old state remain, and a forty-year tradition of bureaucratic corruption will not disappear quietly. At root is the fact that Venezuela remains a capitalist state and state structures remain oriented towards the global economy, rather than towards extending and applying Venezuelan democracy to the economy. Compounding these internal limitations is the Venezuelan opposition, at core the old elite, who remain in control of production and of the media.
Internal and External Opposition
Domestic opposition to Chávez comes for the most part from the old ruling elite, and their reach is considerable: many white collar workers in the state oil company (PDVSA); media magnates controlling all mainstream private television and most print media; and big-business interests in oil, finance, and industry. But a key element of the opposition also comes from the middle class-the journalists, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who have been turned off the Bolívarian revolution mostly due to economic policies that have benefited the 80 per cent of the population living in poverty, at the expense of the middle- and upper-classes.
The same disenchantment with traditional politics that brought Chávez to power in 1998 dealt such a blow to AD and Copei that they did not even field candidates. Six years later they have begun to recover and represent the foundation of the Coordinadora Democratica-a political body lumping together the fractious, chaotic mish-mash of ‘anti-chavists’ who form a large part of ‘the opposition’.
The political campaign to topple Chávez is being waged on several fronts: extra-legal/violent, legal/political, and the all-important realm of public opinion. The most striking example of the extra-legal/violent strategy was the briefly successful coup of April 11, 2002, reversed 48 hours later by the alliance of loyal elements in the Military and the determined support of millions of Venezuelans who gathered outside the Presidential palace to demand Chávez’s return.
The legal/political route has only been considered recently, and in the face of the failure of violent, extra-legal means. It centres around a recall referendum scheduled for August 15, 2004.
Arguably the most important, and certainly the most international, aspect of opposition to Chávez is the battle is being waged predominantly in the mainstream media – joined regularly by certain human rights groups – often outweighing their commitment to objective-reporting. These news organizations, while pretending to objectivity, actually held meetings of the coup conspirators in news stations and private residences of reporters and station owners prior to the coup.
International print and television media are also guilty of employing active members of the Venezuelan opposition as correspondents. It is on this last front that many believe the battle for Venezuela will be lost; for, even many on the Left appear to have been dissuaded from taking much interest in Venezuela by the constant barrage of misreportage.
A Space for the Left
Whatever the limitations and flaws of Venezuela’s revolutionary process, activists in the ‘North’ have a responsibility to participate, criticize, advise, and agitate. Two main areas demand the Left’s attention: international policies towards (against) Venezuela; and contributions to the movement itself.
The Canadian government’s differences with the U.S. on Iraq did not signal a fundamental break in their relationship. In fact, since the tensions over Iraq, the Canadian government has been bending over backwards to confirm its place within the American empire. This was evident in Haiti, and it continues to be so as the Canadian government toes the OAS line on Venezuela. The OAS being what it is – a cosmetic front for U.S. meddling – Canada is partly responsible for the reactionary role the OAS has played to date in Venezuela. It is for the Canadian Left to make this an issue in Canada, to force the government to defend its position and the hardly objective role of the OAS to the Canadian public.
However, in the final analysis what is missing most in Venezuela is the kind of international solidarity that those fighting from below deserve. More than anything, it is up to the Left to realize that there is a uniquely significant social, political, economic-humanist revolution at stake in Venezuela. And it is up to us to commit to participating, criticizing, and supporting the Venezuelan revolution in order to ensure that it is not extinguished by the machinations of the U.S., that it does not disappear from Left consciousness before it has even arrived.
Jonah Gindin is a Canadian journalist living and working in Caracas, Venezuela. He writes regularly for www.venezuelanalysis.com
This article appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .