Hugo Chavez became President in 1999 and in that year, largely due to the ravages of neoliberal reforms in the 80s and 90s, the Venezuelan poverty rate had reached 50%. The aim and promise of Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution was to not only eliminate rampant, raging, poverty, but to attain a new economic and social system consistent with the highest standards of human fulfillment and development.
In the 1999 constitution, Article 299, for example, emphasizes "human development" as the cornerstone of social judgements and Article 70 states that the "involvement of people in the exercise of their social and economic affairs should be manifest through citizen service organs, self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms, community enterprises, as well as other kinds of associations guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity."
But, as many skeptics would point out, words are not deeds, and you can find nice words everywhere - including, say, in the constitutions of countries suffering dictatorship and economic and social injustice, as but one example, in the constitution and other literary organs of the the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Words matter some, but they become infinitely more important and reliable as evidence if there are deeds in their support and particularly if institutional relations breathe life into the words every day.
So what about deeds?
Bolivarian Policies and Their Meaning
According to Venezuelan statistics, "unemployment has decreased from 14.7% in 1999 to 7.9% in 2008. Employment in the informal sector has decreased by 6.4% during that same time. The number of people living in poverty has decreased from 50.4% in 1998 to 33.6% in 2007 and the number of those living in extreme poverty has decreased from 20.3% to 9.6% in that same period. The Human Development Index (HDI) increased from 0.72 in 1998 to 0.8 in 2007, and during that time, the GINI coefficient (a measure of economic inequality) decreased from 0.49 to 0.42.5."
These changes, and many more statistical indices that could be offered - tell us there have been monumentally important improvements in the lives of many Venezuelans. But are those improvements a sign of a revolution going down a path that will lead to worthy ends including classlessness, social justice, etc.? Or are the improvements a sign of a corrupt and rotten version of familiar social structures having some of their most egregious excesses reigned back, but with no likelihood for fundamental change? Or are the improvements a marker of revolutionary change that will wind up in rotten results?
By analogy, are the gains worthy and hopeful for a hugely transformed future? Or are they like, say, gains we find in the U.S. under FDR or in Sweden transformed by social democrats? Good, but not fundamental. Or are the gains a sign of a process, temporarily serving diverse popular interests to win allies, but headed toward untoward final relations, like the Bolshevik process?
Why is it that some people see an unfolding revolution that they feel will wind up creating a new society in Venezuela and a beacon for humanity more widely? Yet other people see an unfolding struggle within existing relations, already causing some very wonderful and worthy gains, but going nowhere much beyond that? And other people see a process that is doing nice things at the moment, but which they believe is going to inexorably devolve into familiar authoritarian outcomes that will, in retrospect, compromise it all?
Is it that some people have more information to go on? Is it that there is enough information for all, but some read it one way - and others read it another way due to priori expectations or greater insight? Or is it that the information is vague, and we all tend to read into it based on whether hope or fear is momentarily most active in our consciousnesses?
I think all these reactions happen - and regardless of which is dominant, I am certain more information of a probing sort, getting at the heart of aims and methods, would help.
According to the Superintendence of Cooperatives (SUNACOOP), in Venezuela, there were 910 cooperatives nationwide in 1999, while by the end of 2007, that number had risen to 228,004. According to SUNACOOP, the cooperative sector in Venezuela now represents about 14% of Venezuela’s GDP, and accounts for about 18% of employment in Venezuela. Most of the cooperatives fall under the service sector (61.29%) and the production sector (27%).
But what do these facts tell us? No one could deny that they reveal an incredible dynamism. But about ultimate aims... people will have different reactions.
In one reading, the facts noted indicate that the reform effort to make life better for the poor against the mega rich has utilized coops - a good thing. But in this reading, these facts are not the stuff of revolutionary transformation.
In another reading, the facts noted indicate that Venezuela is on the road to fundamentally transformed economic structures - a true revolution. More, folks with this reading see a revolution not just concerning property relations, but also concerning the division of labor and methods of decision making and remuneration. They see that in a world situation complicated by both a lack of revolutionary aspirations in much of the Venezuelan population and a hostile international context, the Bolivarian process is taking critical steps on the road to profound and worthy revolutionary changes which still are, however, a ways off.
In a third read, these facts show only that in Venezuela there is an appeal to poor constituencies - and while the associated reforms are good in their proximate implications for those constituencies, they are part of fundamental changes which lead in ultimately bad directions along paths we have seen revolutions travel before. Chavez says the Bolivarian goal isn’t twentieth century socialism all over again - but doubters say, sure, what did you expect Chavez to say? Where’s the evidence?
How does one know which read makes most sense, or even have a truly informed estimate? We must know Venezuela’s long term goals and methods as evidenced by structural lasting deeds. We must know how the changes taking place so far are viewed at different levels of society. We must know what steps the changes have involved and, even more so, what steps are in the pipeline to come? But we don’t know these things. Do people who confidently say they know where Venezuela is going use tea leaves to read the future? More understandably, to they read into the future based on what they have seen elsewhere in times past - whether that is, for them, hopeful or fearful?
A report available from Venezuela points out that: "The rise of cooperatives began in 2001, with the Special Law of Cooperative Associations." It emphasizes the importance of the State in "promoting cooperatives through various mechanisms including education, improved access to financial services, direct tax exemption and the prioritization of cooperatives in public contracting" (Article 89). In fact, Venezuelan sources report, "economic growth accelerated in the year 2003 as a result of the implementation of these mechanisms through various state agencies."
For example, one of the most important programs in this regard was the creation of the Vuelvan Caras Mission in early 2004. In its own self description, "this state-run program offers both technical education, such as classes in agriculture, tourism or construction, and orientation as to what the Bolivarian economic projects are about." Rather incredibly, "between March 2004 and August 2007, over 670,000 people completed the program, resulting in the creation of more than 10,000 cooperatives by its alumni, more than 3,000 of which pertain to the agricultural sector."
Is this worthy reform but no more?
Is this the first moves in an inspiring journey toward a truly classless economic and social structure?
Or is this a sop to the poor while establishing a new class rule and even authoritarianism, using but then failing to fulfill poor peoples’ support?
Different people see the events in Venezuela differently - but what is missing to decide with real confidence what we think, is more information about what the goals are, about the extent to which the goals are widely shared and owned by leaders or by everyone, and what the methods are and how they connect up to the goals.
"Vuelvan Caras" is one of 25 "social missions," or state-sponsored social development programs, currently operating in Venezuela "in diverse fields of human development such as education,health, culture and nutrition. They are a fundamental part of Venezuela’s policy of redistributing wealth and making basic social services accessible to all citizens. Studies have found that the social missions contributed to a 9.9% decrease in the poverty rate since 2003."
But what the missions mean - writ larger?
When you compare the Venezuelan government’s agendas and accomplishments to what, say, the U.S. government does for its less privileged and downright poor citizens, the contrast is incredibly stark. But still, having better government policies than the U.S. is not the same as having wonderful policies. So where is it going?
I am no expert, but my guess is if we were to look back at the New Deal in the U.S. we would be able to find, over a period of years, a great many comparable statistical achievements. Similarly, I am sure that if we were to look at the Bolshevik transition in the Soviet Union from one harsh and horrible system, to what turned out to be another, we would again see a huge pile of innovative and positive, albeit it in some cases temporary, gains. And I think we can also easily comprehend how a sincere effort to really transform a capitalist, patriarchal, culturally divided, bureaucratic society into something fundamentally oriented to human well being and development could involve diverse steps like those we see in Venezuela, giving am extensive list of short term gains, but most important also leading forward in worthy new directions. So, again, for Venezuela - which is it?
In September 2007, "Vuelvan Caras" continued under its new name, "Che Guevara," to emphasize the incorporation of new elements into its educational plan. "This new plan aims to educate students about the distinctive socio-economic models that have been evolving over time, including, for example, the Social Production Enterprise (EPS) which is model that has developed in Venezuela within the last few years." These EPSs are defined by the government as "economic entities dedicated to the production of goods or services in which work has its proper and authentic value, with no discrimination associated with any type of work, no privileges related to certain positions or hierarchies and with equality between its members, based on participative planning."
That certainly sounds very good - as words. But what about associated deeds? Are there really units being constructed that involve all actors in planning and decision making and that have real equality of material and social circumstance among members, including equitable remuneration? If there are, what is the make up of these units? What features do they have? What is the plan for those features to become core to the whole economy? Should we be optimistic about these innovations carrying forward? Should we be emulating lessons?
Venezuelans report - though almost no one outside hears the words much less critically engages with them - that "in practical terms, Social Production Enterprises represent an advanced cooperative model, where part of profits are invested into community projects."
Profits? How advanced is it as a real model for a better future, if there are still profits, albeit some enlightenment in their use? "Today, there are at least 3,060 Social Production Enterprises in Venezuela, representing about 30% of the supplier contract value with state enterprises." If these are all internally on a path to classlessness, this is major news, to say the least. If these units are modestly improving internal and broader social relations with nice social policies, it is very good very good news, but unstable and short of revolutionary. If they are on the path to authoritarianism, then there are nice aspects, but no hope for a truly enlightened future. So which is it? Limited reform, careful but innovative and hopeful revolution, or careful but familiar and not too hopeful revolution?
Oil and Venezuela?
PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, we are told, "has taken a lead role in bringing about the move towards a new socio-economic model. 10% of the investment volume of every project carried out by PDVSA goes into a social fund that is used for projects in education, health, infrastructure or the social missions."
This is a good policy, of course, but if Mobil in the U.S. did the same, under pressure or due to a very innovative administration, what would that mean? It would be good, but how good? The answer would depend on whether it was just a temporary policy or a step on a revolutionary path - and on where that path was going.
PDVSA, we are told, "is supporting endogenous (or inward-focused) development in Venezuela. By working hand in hand with the private sector, they plan to invest $56 million in 6 large development projects until the year 2013."
Private sector? And will that persist? And if so, will it eventually bring back all the old crap?
In Venezuela, gas for autos and other vehicles is subsidized so that the price of a tank of gas for your car in Caracas, for example, is a tiny fraction of what people pay in Boston, New York, London, or Rome. What is the logic of this policy - which is ecologically and socially backward in so many respects, but persists due to popular desire? What does not tackling the retrograde approach tell us, if anything?
In 2004, we are told, "PDVSA’s national contracts were valued at $6 billion. Of this amount, 80% was concentrated in the hands of 148 firms. In accordance with the concept of participatory democracy in Venezuela, PDVSA made it a priority to democratize its supplier base, meaning that it opened up to the many small cooperatives prevalent throughout the country. This way, the state oil company fostered an endogenous model of development that is in line with Venezuela’s social principals. By December 2007, PDVSA’s supplier network included more than 3,000 Social Production Enterprises."
But, really, is this about fundamentally transforming the basic underlying structures of the economy - its property relations, division of labor, its modes of decision making, norms of remuneration, methods of allocation - or is it only about ameliorating the most egregious injustices while retaining old structures?
The fact that in their words, PDVSA "developed an extensive program around the inclusion of EPS, having hundreds of people work on the identification of supplier opportunities, a standardized EPS registration system, and an educational program aiming at strengthening social production enterprises and preparing them to do business with PDVSA and other government entities" is undeniably a massive social experiment that is at least, unto itself, extremely progressive. But is it more?
In its "EPS School," the potential suppliers "pass through three phases of socio-economic and technical education, receiving up to 760 hours of preparation, depending on the sophistication of the service to be provided."
But is this education about the techniques of oil provision mostly, or does it have a social and structural component building consciousness headed toward new social relations? And if the latter is true, what are the features and what success and problems are encountered?
We are told that "once an EPS has a contract with PDVSA, it commits itself to contributing about 3% of profits to PDVSA’s Social Fund, which currently holds millions of dollars being invested in community projects."
Okay, is that a small step, but a step nonetheless, on the road to eliminating profit as a social category - or is it just a minor tax on firms, with profits still overwhelmingly in command?
Venezuelans quote from graduates of the EPS programs to demonstrate their impact:
"Today a dream is coming true for us. In the past, doing business with PDVSA was the privilege of a view large enterprises. Small companies found closed doors at PDVSA. This changed with President Chávez...now it’s the first time that small businesses are given the chance to participate as suppliers and partners of PDVSA, contributing in this way to the socio-economic development of our country....and we are feeling proud of this."
Is it just a program redressing gross imbalances? Or is it, beyond what the above person perceived - a program on the road to fundamentally transforming how production, consumption, and allocation are accomplished?
Programs Beyond Our View
Here is another bit of news from Venezuela I was sent. "Beyond the Social Production Enterprises, many other new socio-economic concepts have evolved in recent years, such as the "Nuclei of Endogenous Development" (NUDES)." How many people outside Venezuela had heard of that? I hadn’t.
"In Venezuela NUDES are formed when communities discover potential projects, linked to a physical space in their surroundings (installations, factories, land) and organize in and around this space to carry these projects out. For example, various cooperatives might join to reactivate the area of an abandoned factory, reviving in this way a whole neighborhood and linking the inhabitants of this area to the activities of the NUDE, such as in the case of the Nucleus Fabricio Ojeda."
Again, you can imagine these efforts existing as a broad social democratic effort to improve the distribution of income, engender participation, etc., while maintaining the basic structure of society. Or you can imagine them to be part of a movement and process that will wind up in the old style socialist swamp. Or you can imagine them as a part of a rich and diverse process seeking something entirely new, true classlessness, real participation, even self management.
To judge which picture is real depends on knowing what is said, day to day, back and forth, by the people involved. Are the changes seen as tributaries of a growing tide - or are they seen as the whole point, themselves? Is the process coming ever more under the control of the populace, or is it centralizing outside the purview and influence of the populace?
We hear that, "a huge inventory plant in the neighborhood Catia in Caracas had been inactive for 12 years until the community decided to turn it into a NUDE. In February 2004, 330 persons formed 24 cooperatives for carrying out diverse construction projects in the nucleus and bringing the area back to life. Today, the Nucleus is a flourishing and active community center hosting more than 60 cooperatives in various areas and counting on important facilities and services such as health care clinics, Misión Che Guevara, sports camps and pharmacies, just to name a few. Today one can find more than 100 NUDES in Venezuela including more than 950 cooperatives active in various fields and especially in agriculture."
Again, it is very clearly a vast and exciting social and economic project with extremely progressive implications. That much is certain. But beyond that, we still don’t know.
"Social Production Networks are formed when a Nucleus connects with other Nuclei, or with cooperatives, EPS’s, Socialist Production Units or any form of alternative organization to carry out activities for the benefit of the community."
One person sees in this New Deal innovation and dynamism. Another person sees in it positive programs which, however, will sooner or later be compromised by elite rule. A third person - okay, I am this person - sees an incredibly rich pattern of innovation which seems to auger truly revolutionary aims. What I see seems to be building up, slowly, on a base that was not highly politicized, and in a hostile international context, the infrastructure of new relationships in a kind of parallel economy and polity, that will be ready, in time, to challenge for the future of Venezuela.
Another innovative feature of the Bolivarian project - or revolution - depending on your opinion - are the Socialist Production Units. These "are companies run by the government and marked by extensive community involvement. UPS’s are found predominantly in the agricultural sector, and they promote national agricultural sovereignty. Part of the profits of these companies is invested into community projects, which are identified jointly with local community leaders. In the long term, UPS’s will ideally be handed over directly to the community and run as community enterprises."
Profit? Maybe it is just a word, referring to something other than surpluses accruing to private owners. And what of the internal organization of the "socialist" structures. Are they internally like the 20th century firms of Russia, say, or do they offer something new, or headed toward something new, at least? And if there is originality, what shape does it take? Does it address the division of labor? The norms of remuneration? The modes of decision making? The allocation relations to other firms and consumers?
For example, we are told that the UPS Agrimiro Gabaldon which was "formerly a privately-run coffee plantation" was "forced to close down due to a drop in coffee prices," but "was recently inaugurated as a Socialist Production Unit." The report says that "under the new model, it extended its coffee cultivation area from 35 hectares to 96 hectares in the year 2005, and began selling its output mainly to public entities."
Okay, but did the plantation also alter its internal division of labor? Is it becoming democratic or even self managing? Is it becoming equitable in its approach to wages? Does it compete with other firms - or cooperate?
We hear that "thanks to the creation of these NUDES, Socialist Production Units, and Social Production Networks, an important number of neglected sites and companies have been revived, providing new jobs and linking local economies to local communities to carry out infrastructure and social projects."
In other words, the changes are occurring in firms and neighborhoods where things are virtually falling apart. Is this a wise strategic/tactical way to begin innovations, to make them seen, to develop support for them, and then to spread them? Or is it a kind of emergency method for dealing with horrendous problems, to be transcended later, by settling for more familiar and less innovative and participatory options when the worst problems are left behind?
We hear that "in order to strengthen regional economies and make them less vulnerable to financial crisis, the government of Venezuela has actively supported the rise of barter system and the creation of communal currencies throughout Venezuela. Currently, about 4,000 people practice bartering in 6 different regions in Venezuela (Yaracuy, Falcón, Sucre, Nueva Esparta, Margarita, Barinas, Trujillo). Each has its own local currency. Agricultural products are mainly available for barter trade, and the practice fosters local agriculture."
This reveals that indeed some changes are stopgap and instituted only to deal with problems that wouldn’t be present in a transformed future. Other changes, however, may be part of that future. Which are which?
We hear that "Communal Banks were developed hand in hand with Communal Councils, or elected neighborhood-based councils. Communal Councils oversee local politics and execute development projects geared toward improving the socio-economic status of their communities. The concept of Communal Councils is grounded in the Law of Communal Councils, which was passed in April 2006."
Is this a method for getting out of poverty with support from the population - or even beyond that is it the beginning of structures of local grass roots self management that will eventually override the apparatus of mayors, governors, president, etc.?
Communal Banks "are the financial arm of the Communal Councils. They are constituted as cooperatives and administered democratically by five persons elected to the Citizens’ Assembly, which is the highest decision-making body of the Communal Councils. Communal Banks facilitate the flow of resources toward community development projects."
Is this an example of doing some good things with old structures? Or is it a step away from old structures and toward overcoming market logic and behavior, having investments and production and consumption determined by cooperative negotiations among producers and consumers? We need more information to have a solid opinion.
A New Type of Economy and Polity?
We are told that "according to the Ministry of Popular Power for Participation and Social Development, there were 19,500 Communal Councils in Venezuela by March 2007, and the majority of them received funding from various ministries and state institutions."
Some would say local councils - venues for neighborhood folks to be politically involved - are little more than means for the government to poll a passive populace.
Others would say it is even worse, they are the infrastructure of state intervention and oversight of daily life, via snitches and the like.
Others would suggest, and I am in this last more optimistic camp, that these local structures are the beginning of an effort to build a completely new type of political system - for legislation, adjudication, and also, as per above, for implementation of shared programs.
In Venezuela you have the new, the incredibly new, the old, and the incredibly old - and you could replace the word new with progressive and the word old with reactionary and the sentiment would remain valid. It is not easy to navigate such complex phenomena, with limited consciousness present in the population, with media and finances arrayed against your endeavor, and trying to avoid open warfare and win change peacefully, and to simultaneously be forthright and clear at every stage about where things are headed. It is easy to empathize with the complexity and constraints and to understand why information is limited. Still, if possible, clarity would help win informed allies, supporters, advocates, and perhaps most important, would spur emulation elsewhere as well.
We are told that "by March 2008, the Ministry of Popular Power for the Communal Economy alone has approved more than $400 million to be handed over to 2,540 Communal Banks for productive projects. 1,533 of these banks have already received the whole amount assigned to them, and another 833 received part of the amount. With this money, 21.277 micro-credits were allotted to cooperatives and individual entrepreneurs. Most is used for projects in the service industry, or in commerce or agriculture."
Okay, this is obviously very good by many standards, but is it revolutionary?
"By the end of this year, FONDEMI (the Microfinance Development Fund) plans to finance 3,000 more Communal Banks, distributing yet another $420 million for productive projects."
This is clearly also very pogressive, but will it lead to a temporarily enlightened and certainly better developed Venezuela which is still, however, fundamentally capitalist, patriarchal, etc.? Or will it yield a Venezuela that is socialist in the old manner - the 20th century style? Or will it yield, as Chavez urges, something new, a classless and socially just society?
We are told that "thanks to the thousands of community projects carried out by Communal Councils, many important initiatives such as street pavings, sports fields, medical centers, and sewage and water systems have been financed and implemented."
Is this the New Deal Venezuelan style - and like the New Deal likely only to revert to familiar shapes once crises are averted and development proceeding? Or is it a process using reforms as means of arousing support, but headed toward old socialism? Or is it a process using diverse reforms as means to enlist participation, comprehension, and creativity, not passive support but active participation, toward a truly new type society?
21st Century Socialism?
Hugo Chavez tells us he wants to build twenty first century socialism. He often decries market relations. He regularly excoriates capitalism. His innovative approaches to popular political and economic decision making via councils and his prioritization of radicalized health, education, and other human services via innovative public missions, inspire great hope. But beyond Bolivarian claims and short term policies, where is the Bolivarian Revolution structurally going? What are its main institutional goals and timetables? What are the methods it is employing and will employ to attain its ends? These are questions I think a lot of people need answers to if they are to have solid attitudes about Venezuela.
By self description Hugo Chavez is aggressively anti-capitalist, but what does that mean?
Regarding economics, for example, does the Bolivarian revolution reject private ownership of the means of production? Verbally it says it does, and likewise in many innovative structures - but what about the bulk of the economy?
Does the Bolivarian revolution reject markets? Again, verbally, yes, I think it does. More, internationally, it seems to already often conduct trade and international aid by cooperative negotiation that ignores competitive market dictates. This is wildly hopeful, not just for solidarity in Latin America, but as a challenge to the entire system of market exchange. But is there a path for transcending market relations writ large?
Does the Bolivarian revolution, as an aim, to be attained when able in light of growing consciousness and means, reject capitalistic remuneration such as people getting profit on property, or getting wages for bargaining power or even for output?
Similarly, does the Bolivarian revolution reject capitalism’s typical division of labor in which about 20 percent of the workforce monopolizes all the empowering tasks while the other 80 percent does only rote, repetitive, and obedient labor?
Is the gigantic spurt of Bolivarian attention to innovative education - including not just literacy campaigns but also the Bolivarian University, etc. - meant to catch up to typical educational achievements of developed countries? Or is it meant to create a population able to control its own destiny rather than being ruled from above?
Given that Chavez is against particular capitalist institutions, does he have a feeling for what would replace them in a better economy? Do the other ministers of the government have visionary aims? Do the grassroots activists in the missions and coops? What about the broad public? How are aims to be generated? How are they to become widely advocated? How are they do won? Is there a path of innovation that can bring these features into play?
Put differently, if the Bolivarian Revolution is for twenty first century socialism, I wonder what that means? What is it about the old twentieth century socialism, for example, that Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution rejects? Is it central planning such as we saw in the Soviet Union? Is it markets such as we saw in Yugoslavia? Is it the typical 20th century socialist division of labor as we have seen it in Russia, Yugoslavia, and China, which is essentially the same as the division of labor we see in capitalism? Is it the norms of remuneration these socialisms have employed, which while they have jettisoned profit for property have retained payment for power and output? I hope and suspect it is all those things that are being dumped, but I don’t know. And if it is, saying so would not only help people get excited about supporting the project, but would also inspire people to engage in similar movements elsewhere.
Similarly, in whatever ways Chavez disagrees with "twentieth century socialism," what does he propose to construct in Venezuela instead? And more, beyond the President, to what extent do other Venezuelans have similar aspirations? To what extent will other Venezuelans, especially at the grassroots, help define outcomes and attain them?
A New Participatory Society?
Regarding the economy, does the Bolivarian revolution believe workers and consumers should have a say in economic decisions in proportion as they are affected by them - which would be self management? Does it believe self managing workers and consumers councils, not boards of directors or managers, should be the seat of economic decision making power in each workplace? Does it believe there should be decentralized and participatory planning by these workers and consumers councils, including a cooperative negotiation of allocation rather than top down command allocation or competitive market allocation?
Does it believe workers should be remunerated for how long and for how hard they work, and for enduring onerous conditions, but not for property, power, or even the value of output? If these features aren’t part of the Bolivarian economic agenda, then what is preferred for Venezuela’s future economy and why? When can such features appear in the state sector, in the coop sector, in the private sector? What are the hopes and plans?
And beyond the economy, Chavez has been very vocal not only about democracy in the polity, but about Venezuelans literally being able to have a say over their own social and political lives. Does the Bolivarian revolution reject, not only capitalist economics, but also the typical top down alienated approaches to government we see in the world today? Is the Bolivarian Revolution seeking something fundamentally different for politics with its grass roots assemblies, and if so, what are the values and features it prefers? Will these local assemblies be transmission lines for the will of rulers at the top? Or will these assemblies in time usurp mayors, governors, and the president himself, being the ultimate seat of political participation and influence?
Many international observers are worried there is a personality cult around Chavez. They site the lack of leaders who enjoy anywhere near as much popularity as he does and also slogans such as "Chavez is the people," "With Chavez anything, without Chavez nothing," or "Who is against Chavez is against the people." If these sentiments and the key role of Chavez is a necessary part of the early stages of transforming toward greater participation and self management, shouldn’t their centrality and logic be better explained, and shouldn’t it be very explicitly labelled an interim method, not a permanent goal?
Likewise, is there any exploration, as yet, of new approaches to law enforcement and adjudication? I would bet there are, but I have no idea. And wouldn’t it be good for people to know, if we are to relate as more than voyeurs - and if we are to be able to dig in and try our own hand at related work? On the other side of the coin, human rights groups have criticized Venezuela’s penal code saying that the 2004 reform of the penal code makes certain bad aspects of the penal code worse, such as its provision outlawing disrespect of government officials. Is such a clause really necessary? Why is it there? Why not get rid of it?
And does the Bolivarian revolution have a revolutionary agenda around gender issues and around race issues? Is it ultimately seeking only vastly better gender and race policies but within old structures, a major and profound gain, to be sure - but not the ultimate revolution in culture and gender we all desire. Or are there fundamental changes it seeks in underlying familial and cultural institutions? Policies protecting minorities and advancing the rights women women are exemplary. But does the Bolivarian revolution have ideas about what additional needed structural changes might be, and if not, does it have a method for arriving at potential ideas and then evaluating them? Is there to be that kind of participation?
I would also like to know about Bolivarian media, not least because there is so much confusion, so much ruckus about it. Venezuelan mainstream media are currently narrowly owned and controlled and in no way reflect the desires of the Venezuelan population. Indeed, to whatever extent they are able to do so, Venezuelan mainstream media are hell bent on hindering positive change. I wonder about the Bolivarian view of how media ought to be organized in a better future? And I wonder what the plans are for media in Venezuela.
It has seemed, from far away, that the Bolivarian approach to education, health, coops , and the media as well, and other areas too, has been to construct a parallel set of structures to what now exists - for example, the Bolivarian University, health clinics, thousands of coops, and a Bolivarian state run TV station and I bet a newspaper soon, too - with the idea that these new approaches will in time replace the old ones. Is that the plan? And is there concern that the arena in which this competition between old and new occurs is the arena of the market, which of course does not favor solidarity, sociality, etc.? And does this plan, this approach to discovering, refining, and then spreading new models, given all the difficult constraints it tries to navigate, do a sufficient job of enlisting the leadership of the Venezuelan people in the definition of their new society? Regarding media, for example, rather than a face off between private and state run, what place is there for grassroots community based and otherwise self managed media beholden to the public and its workers, but not owners or the state?
International Relations and Where is Venezuela Going?
As we all know, the United States routinely uses its wealth to bludgeon foreign countries in ways overwhelmingly aimed at preserving and enlarging the power and wealth of U.S. elites not caring a whit about the suffering this imposes on others. Venezuela also seems to be utilizing its assets in the international arena via initiating diverse trading patterns, grants, etc. I wonder what guides these acts? Why isn’t it explicit - thereby providing a norm against which we can all judge international exchanges?
When Venezuela exchanges oil and other products with other countries, is the Bolivarian revolution intent upon exchanging at market rates, or does it have a different attitude about what ought to determine exchange rates, and if so, as certainly seems to be the case, what is it?
And finally, by way of understanding the timing of the Bolivarian Revolution, I wonder what Chavez and other Venezuelan activists expect to be the most important and exemplary accomplishments in Venezuela in the next five or ten years? And I wonder the extent to which Chavez’s views and the views of other Bolivarian government officials, labor leaders, and grass roots activists compare with the views of the broad population? Is the broad public in synch with activist agendas or is it just watching - more or less as by-standing save in moments of crisis? Is the population ready to take initiative in advances or is it being pulled along without taking its own initiatives? And if the public is largely passive, what steps are in place to enliven public involvement and will they be pursued and pursued and pursued, rather than falling back on old models?
The above are just part of the kinds of concerns I have repeatedly heard from sensible and serious leftists about Venezuela. Clarifying may well involve strategic difficulties for the Bolivarian Revolution internally and on the world stage as well. But clarifying also promises a gigantic leap in interest from outside Venezuela and of active support at home, I suspect, as well.
The Brazilian path has been to moderate and accommodate and restrain not just communications, but also policies, in order to prevent massive external opposition. The price of that choice has been to dramatically reduce the worth of the whole undertaking. Hopefully Venezuelans will find a different way to ward off external assault. How about strength domestically and internationally, predicated on people knowing what is occurring and even being part of exploring option, choosing paths, and creating related and supportive commitments.
Michael Albert is the coordinator of ZNet