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 at http://www.zcommunications.org/venezuela-socialism-for-the-21st-century-by-peter-bohmer. 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 PSUV
We heard a lot of criticisms of local and State governments and of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), headed by Hugo Chávez, accusing them 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.
The 2012 Election
It is very important that Hugo Chávez get reelected President in the upcoming October, 2012 election for the revolution to move forward. I am quite certain that Chávez will be reelected as he continues to be very popular and deservedly so with the large majority of Venezuelans from the popular classes. The popular classes comprise as much as 80% of the people of Venezuela. President Chávez has dealt with two serious bouts of cancer in the last year, yet he continues to be an active and involved president. If at some time during his next term in office because of health reasons, Chávez cannot continue as president, there does not seem to be another person that has both the vision of Chávez and also the strong support of the people.
I found it revealing that the opposition candidate for president, Henrique Capriles Radonski, is running on a platform that supports the social programs but with the claim that he will run them better and without the Cubans who are most of the medical staff in the Barrio Adentros (community health clinics) and community health centers. This shows the popularity of these programs and is very different from the 2006 election where the opposition ran on a more open neoliberal platform. Of course, the right-wing totally supports Capriles.
There is a coalition of social movements, community groups, the PSUV and the Communist Party of Venezuela called the Gran Polo Patriotico (Great Patriotic Pole, GPP) that is working on Chávez’s reelection. There is some hope this bloc will continue past the 2012 elections and become more than just an electoral vehicle but this is not that likely as the GPP has been organized with one objective–to win this important election. What is perhaps more hopeful for the future is that there are many individuals and groups organizing in Venezuela who are anti-capitalist with a belief and practice in popular education, building grass-roots organizations and popular power. One important site for this is community media, which is growing in numbers and audience.
The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Venezuela has been growing again for a year although at a slower rate than from 2003 through 2008. Output fell from the second quarter of 2009 through 2010 and only has begun to grow rapidly in 2012 (data from Central Bank of Venezuela, www.bcv.org.ve).
After rapid improvement from 2003 to 2008, there was little or no improvement but no decline in the major social indicators– life expectancy, infant mortality, poverty, access to sanitation, and clean water from 2009 to 2011 (www.ine.gob.ve). Measures of income equality, which also greatly improved from 2003 through 2008, have not improved since. During the recent recession, the real wage (purchasing power of wages) fell by a few per cent a year although the social wage continued to grow. The real wage has begun to grow again in 2012. The minimum wage is being increased by 32% this year, 2012.
From what I read and observed, production of goods is again growing but seems to be primarily in public construction and the related private and state industries. It is difficult to spur production in Venezuela as the currency is still significantly overvalued as prices are continuing to grow at about 25%-30% a year although less so far this year, 2012. Price controls are increasingly being used. The official rate for the currency is 4.3 bolivars to the dollar but we were consistently offered 8 Bolivars or more for our dollars. Using the official rate of 4.3 Bolivars to the dollar, prices of most goods and services are very high. The attempt to diversify production and be less dependent on oil has not yet been very successful and food production is not growing enough to reduce the 70% of food consumption that is imported. Yet, Venezuela is very close to achieving food security, the right for all to have enough food not to be hungry. However, food sovereignty, producing most of one’s food locally and nationally, also a goal, has a long way to go.
To me, a socialist economy in Venezuela would require the continued growth of the state and social economy at the expense of the private sector. By the social economy I mean cooperatives, and firms that are jointly run and owned by the workers and the state, and production organized by communal councils and comunas. The state sector and social economy would merge to become one sector where there is self-management by workers, increasingly equal incomes and an orientation towards living in harmony with the environment. The objective of production would be to meet human needs not maximizing revenues or profits. There would be limited differences in income and alternatives to market determined prices and wages. This merged sector would eventually grow to be the entire Venezuelan political economy. As indicated throughout this paper, there has not been much progress in this direction in the last three years. (See my 2009 article, cited in the introduction to this article for further elaboration.)
Democracy and Human Rights
In terms of the more general issue of democracy in Venezuela, the U.S. and right wing-charges of Venezuela as a dictatorship are ridiculous and hypocritical. We saw demonstrations and protests against specific government policies, and against local or national leaders, almost every day we were there. Some could be called from the left, others from the right; others could not be identified ideologically but were protesting in various ways such as hunger strikes, camping out near government buildings for reasons like not getting paid their salary as public employees for six months or more. For the most part, there was little or no repression of these protests. There continues to be a thriving oppositional private media—television, newspaper and radio with occasional but not common harassment. There are communal councils that are primarily oppositional and get public funds; there are others where funding follows loyalty. It is hard to generalize about Venezuela.
One slightly troubling sign– the word, “escualido” is used more commonly than three years ago against those who criticize Chávez and the PSUV. Escualido means squalid one and is sometimes used to stigmatize honest critics. However, Venezuela does not have the feeling of a repressive state. For the most part, people are not afraid to criticize Chávez, the PSUV, the economic and political system, etc.
Violent crime continues to be a very serious problem and certainly the police and a dysfunctional criminal justice system contribute to it. A government estimate of violent crimes committed by the police is that it is 20% of the total violent crimes; some community groups estimate even a higher proportion are committed by the police. Few murders or other serious crimes are solved. The good news is that the Chávez led government is now realizing that crime and insecurity is a serious problem that decreases public participation and support, and needs to be addressed as a priority. We visited a new national police university (UNES) that has a significant number of human rights activists as faculty and leaders and are committed to popular education pedagogy. This is hopeful.
It is not clear why poverty has declined significantly over the last nine years but violence has increased. There are still millions of marginalized male youth. They make up most of the victims and also most of the perpetrators. In some barrios where there are high levels of popular power and participation and strong community organizations with activities for youth, violent crime has decreased. In most urban communities this is lacking. There is a growing commitment to reduce the number of guns in Venezuela but they are everywhere. It is essential that violent crime decrease substantially in the next few years for popular power to grow and the government to continue to have legitimacy and support by the majority.
Internationally, Chávez and the Venezuelan government and that part of the media that is pro-Chávez have been very outspoken against U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya, and against covert intervention and threats against Syria and Iran. This is commendable. On the other hand, this has sometimes led to verbal support for Kaddafi, Assad, or the rulers in Iran. This is troubling but the Venezuela emphasis has been and continues to be on a strong anti-interventionist stance. Venezuela’s leadership in challenging U.S. global domination in Latin America and beyond continues. For example in December, 2011, Venezuela hosted the formation of CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Its purpose is to be a regional bloc that is a strong voice for its members, that furthers more cooperation amongst them and actively challenges U.S. domination of the region. Unlike the Organization of American States (OAS), CELAC excludes the United States and Canada.
Hugo Chávez and the construction in Venezuela of Socialism for the 21st Century, the ongoing although uneven transformation there, deserve critical support. There are some real problems and violations of individual rights but the criticisms by many human rights organizations are overly harsh and also hypocritical as a stricter standard is often applied to Venezuela than other places, e.g., Honduras. So while the limited progress towards a participatory democracy and democratic socialism since my 2009 visit is somewhat worrisome, Venezuela has not moved backwards.
It was inspiring to see so many Venezuelans whose lives have improved so substantially over the last 13 years, who believe that the lives of their children and communities will continue to improve in major ways. There are concrete and real reasons for this hope and optimism about the future in Venezuela. I remember stopping in Quibor in the State of Lara on March 11th, 2012 where a communal council was just concluding its election and beginning to count the votes. I was with a group of students from the Evergreen State College program that I am co-teaching, which was concluding two months of study and travel in Venezuela. A few residents who had just voted pulled me aside. These women told me that before 1998 and Hugo Chávez’s election, their lives had no value whatsoever to the people who ruled Venezuela, economically and politically, nor did their rural community and that Venezuela had been insignificant in the eyes of the world. These residents of Quibor said they now had a voice in Venezuela, that their lives had improved and changed significantly, and that they mattered to a government that valued poor and rural people. They were proud that Venezuela was a model and experiment that people all over the world were interested in. They felt they were no longer second class citizens of Venezuela and that Venezuela was no longer a second class citizen of the world. It made them feel valued, proud and important that a class from the Evergreen State College had come all the way to Quibor to visit and observe these profound changes. Venezuela is a hopeful place and its people are very inspiring.
Peter Bohmer has been an organizer and participant in the struggle for social and economic justice since the 1960s. In recent years, his political activities have taken him to Venezuela, Cuba, Greece and a number of US cities. He teaches political economy and has been a faculty member at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. since 1987.