Venezuela: the Revolution Continues
I spent 10 weeks in
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
The number of communal councils has continued to grow and 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, rather than just being institutions to get money for local projects. Based on my observations and discussion, active participation in communal councils is more common in rural than urban areas. 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, 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 aggregations of communal councils, were just beginning in 2009. The comunas have grown more slowly than I expected and are mainly in rural areas, e.g., Lara and
There has been an increase in nationalization of private enterprises in
A new and major labor law was announced on May Day 2012. It has many good aspects: social security for all including the informal sector—housewives, 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 workplace, although 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 the 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, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)—headed by Hugo Chávez—and rampant bureaucracy—corruption, favoritism, clientalism, nepotism, incompetence, indifference, and needless red tape, etc. This situation does not seem to have improved 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 at those PSUV leaders who have power and the ministers 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, bribes, and the 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
The PSUV is primarily a political party organized to win elections with not enough focus on furthering social movements and popular power. There are many outstanding individuals in it who are honestly committed to 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
Modifications in My Analysis
My perspective on
“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 locales, e.g., Carora and the surrounding county, Torres, in the State of
Hugo Chávez’s reelection as president in October 2012 is necessary and very important for the people of
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 and top-down politics of much of the PSUV and the governments they control at various levels. Although I continue to believe that Chávez is committed to a more equal and participatory and socialist
The 2012 Election
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, which comprise as much as 80 percent of the population. 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, during his next term in office, Chávez cannot continue as president because of health reasons, there does not seem to be another person that has both the vision of Chávez and the strong support of the people.
I found it revealing that the opposition candidate for president, Henrique Capriles Radon- ski, 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. Of course, the right-wing 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. What is 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 number and audience.
The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in
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 percent a year, although the social wage continued to grow. The real wage has also begun to grow again in 2012. The minimum wage is being increased by 32 percent this year.
From what I have 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 overvalued as prices continue to grow at about 25 to 30 percent a year—although less so far this year. 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. 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 percent that is imported. Yet,
A socialist economy in
Democracy and Human Rights
In terms of the more general issue of democracy in
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,
Violent crime continues to be a serious problem and 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 percent of the total violent crimes, although some community groups estimate a higher percentage. Few murders or other serious crimes are solved. The good news is the Chávez-led government is now realizing that crime and insecurity are serious problems that decreases public participation and support and need to be a priority. We visited a new national police university (UNES) that has a significant number of human rights activists as faculty and leaders who are committed to popular education pedagogy. This is hopeful.
It is not clear why poverty has declined significantly over the last nine years, while 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
Internationally, Chávez and the Venezuelan government—and that part of the media that is pro-Chávez—have been very outspoken against the U.S./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, and the rulers in
Hope and Optimism
Hugo Chávez and the construction in Venezuela of Socialism for the 21st Century 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
There are concrete reasons for this hope and optimism about the future in
Peter Bohmer has been opposing the imperial actions of the