Editor: Here is a two-part series about what is going on in Venezuela by Peter Bohmer – a former OBcean, who now teaches at Evergreen College in Washington state. Bohmer just recently returned from a ten week visit to Venezuela, and filed this report.
by Peter Bohmer / Special to the OB Rag / June 7, 2012
I spent 10 weeks in Venezuela in early 2012, two months with a group of 30 students from the Evergreen State College and then two weeks continuing my travels with a good friend. I had a similar 10 week experience in early 2009 and also spent three weeks in Venezuela in 2011. Based on my 2009 study and travel in Venezuela, I wrote an article that can be found here. This article here is a continuation of that one. It focuses primarily on the changes in Venezuela since 2009. Most of my time on this trip was spent in Caracas, Mérida, and Barquisimeto.
In the last few years, 2009-2011, the social programs have continued to grow slowly—increasing access to free and quality health care through the Barrio Adentros and larger, more comprehensive health clinics, growing access to higher education and other social programs such as job training, soup kitchens, and the building of affordable new housing. This is impressive as national output (GDP) fell in 2009 and 2010 and grew slowly for most of 2011. (data from Central Bank of Venezuela, www.bcv.org.ve).
The number of communal councils has continued to grow. They continue to be sites for popular control, self-government and substantive discussion and decision making by large numbers of its members in a considerable number of neighborhoods and communities. In most communities, they are mainly vehicles to distribute some of the government budget. In a few places, members of communal councils told us there needed to be more popular education and discussion of participatory democracy and vision in them rather than just being institutions to get money from, for local projects.
Based on my observations and discussion, active participation in communal councils is more common in rural than urban areas; and in relation to population numbers, functioning communal councils are also more frequent in rural than urban communities. Overall, active participation within communal councils has not increased and may have declined from a few years ago. Still, as in my earlier visit in 2009, it was inspiring to see people from the popular classes, men and even more frequently women, involved in self-government.
Both at the communal council level, which is 200-400 families in cities, and a much smaller number of families in the countryside, and in government behavior at the municipal, State and national level, so much depends on whether key people and officials are honest, competent and committed to furthering grass roots participation and economic and social justice or are mainly self-interested.
Comunas (communes) which are aggregation of communal councils were just beginning in 2009 during my last long visit. The comunas have grown more slowly than I expected and are mainly in rural areas, e.g., in Lara, outside of its urban center, Barquisimeto. They sometimes have a production function, e.g., production of milk, clothing, where wages are equal and some of the revenue goes to the broader community. One measure of the future deepening of the Venezuelan revolution is whether these comunas continue to grow in number and active participation.
There has been an increase in nationalization of private enterprises in Venezuela and the formation of new state enterprises, e.g., chocolate, but worker control or co-management between workers and management, or between workers and the state, is still the exception. The private sector dominates the production and distribution of goods and services although its share of GDP is declining.
A new and major labor law was announced on May Day. It has many good aspects: social security for all including the informal sector, for housewives, and for self-employed artisans; and three weeks paid vacation for all workers. It is strong on gender equality and against the discrimination of women in the work place. The process of writing it should have been more participatory and there is little in it about worker control. Workers and unions were asked to comment on the original proposal but not in a continual process of amendment and change. This was a critique we heard while we were there.
The State and the Party Headed by Chavez
We heard a lot of criticisms of local and State governments and of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), headed by Hugo Chávez, of rampant bureaucracy. The word, bureaucracy, has a much broader meaning than in the United States. Bureaucracy in Venezuela includes corruption, favoritism, clientalism, nepotism, incompetence, indifference, and needless red tape, etc. This situation does not seem to have improved in Venezuela since 2009 and perhaps has gotten worse. I think Chávez is very aware of this but most of his criticisms of corruption are aimed at the opposition and not enough is aimed at those PSUV leaders who have power in local, State government, in the National Assembly, and as ministers and who, in addition, do not further democracy and economic equality. The judicial system is universally criticized by the population for its inability to solve crimes, corruption, taking of bribes and lack of fairness.
From the people we met with, mainly groups who supported Hugo Chávez but were somewhat autonomous, there were major criticisms of the PSUV leadership even if they were members of it. For example in Barquisimeto, there is an exciting and large movement of primarily urban land-takeovers who have seized urban land and unoccupied dwellings in order to meet the large unmet need for adequate and affordable housing.
The mayor of Barquisimeto, Amalia Saéz, a PSUV member, ordered the eviction and repression of the residents of some of these land-takeovers. Yet the families occupying the land and the leaders of groups involved in organizing many of these occupations loved Hugo Chávez and felt if he had more power and knowledge of what was going on, the occupiers would have more economic and political support and would be given title to the land and resources to build and improve housing. The very strong love and respect the majority of Venezuelans from the popular classes have for Hugo Chávez is very powerful and apparent. This love and belief in Chávez continues although it translates less than previously into support and respect for other leaders of his party.
The PSUV, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, is primarily a political party organized to win elections with not enough focus on furthering social movements and popular power. There are many, many outstanding individuals in it who are honest and committed to furthering and building “Socialism for the 21st Century”. The PSUV is more connected to the population with more egalitarian policies than for example the Democratic Party in the United States or the Socialist Party in France. Yet there is insufficient political and popular education of its membership, insufficient discussion of direction, and little accountability of its leaders to its base. The PSUV is a party where a significant part of the leadership does not share a participatory democratic vision and/or is primarily concerned with their own advancement. Major changes in the PSUV are necessary.
Modifications in my Analysis
My perspective on Venezuela has changed in two ways from 2009 to the present.
1) In 2009, my viewpoint was what was most important in understanding the ongoing revolution in Venezuela was the dialectic between change from the top and from below. I wrote in “Venezuela: Socialism for the 21st Century” cited on page one that:
“In the last 10 years, social change from above has caused social change from below which has further moved the government of Chávez to the left which has furthered popular power at the grass roots level. What is exciting about Venezuela is the mutually reinforcing process where the Chávez led government is committed to meeting people’s needs and supports activities by the popular classes in transforming their communities, local governance and workplaces. This spurs the government to continue to further support popular power. The popular classes are becoming subjects of their history, protagonists. This process is more profound than just progressive economic and social programs.
It is equally a mistake to only focus on building power from below as some people do who believe the state always supports the capitalist class or is inherently oppressive. … What is also exciting and positive and hopeful is this slowly radicalizing dynamic where President Chávez supports people’s power but does not control it. This growing power from below makes it possible for him to initiate more socialist-oriented policies and structural change to further challenge the power and privileges of capital, e.g., land-takeovers from wealthy landowners where the resulting farm is then run as a collective or a cooperative by the occupants of the land.”
This dynamic of change from above and below reinforcing each other describes the process in some localities, e.g., Carora and the surrounding county, Torres, in the State of Lara. Here the PSUV led government and the PSUV, led by its representative in the National Assembly, Julio Chávez, are playing a very important and positive role in furthering popular power. There are a large increase of communal councils and comunas who are controlling the allocation of most of the budget for the county. There is also growing worker self-management and public ownership of the production of goods and services.
Hugo Chávez’s reelection as president in October, 2012 is necessary and very important for the people of Venezuela. However, more than in my earlier trips to Venezuela, I now see the main focus and hope for liberatory change coming from below and the interrelated growth of alternative and counter institutions in all spheres—the workplace, the economy, community, indigenous communities, politics, women, education, health, media, and culture. The government is an important contributor to this revolutionary change by increasing social spending and social programs, by nationalizations, by building and funding alternate education and health systems, and by preventing a counterrevolution but it is not the major contributor to the transformation of Venezuelan society. In other words, I now see the state as an enabler of this ongoing transformation but not the major actor and agent. .
2) There is some hope among Venezuelans I spoke to that if Chávez is reelected he will become more critical of the corruption and politics of some of the PSUV leadership but so far there is little evidence of this. I have to conclude that Chávez’s values and vision are not totally opposed to the clientalist, top down and only mildly redistributive politics of much of the PSUV and the governments they control at various levels—local, State, national. Although I continue to believe that Hugo Chávez is committed to a more equal and participatory and socialist Venezuela, we cannot totally separate him from the actions of the PSUV and its leadership.
Next Up: Part Two