We Don’t Have Borders
ALBERT: If I am not mistaken you are originally from Australia. What brought you to Venezuela Analysis and to living and working inside Venezuela?
PEARSON: After seven years in Sydney, Australia, as an active member of the DSP, resistance, and the Socialist Alliance, I came to Venezuela in 2007 to learn more about what was going on here, and to support it.
Do you have any insights you would like to share about being an activist and about international solidarity more generally?
I guess, like most activists and revolutionaries, I’m an internationalist. I believe we should fight for humanity and it doesn’t matter much where. Of course, being an internationalist doesn’t mean forgetting history, forgetting the debt the first world owes the third world, or the privileges that the first world has had due to that debt and to colonization. But it’s also more complicated than that, as within every first world country there’s usually a third world and, likewise, in third world countries there’s always an elite group of rich people who live materially much better than most working class first world people. So it’s not just about what country you come from, but also what class—though conditions vary from country to country. We don’t have borders.
Only one person has ever criticized me for doing political work in Venezuela. That person said I shouldn’t “Go to a third world country and impose my opinions on them.” However, I would never impose my opinion on anyone, in any country or even in my personal life. Most revolutionaries wouldn’t. It’s not what we’re about. In Australia, I’d never think twice about a migrant’s right to participate in politics and, likewise, people here don’t think twice about my right, as a migrant as well, to participate.
Rather, I think that it’s rude to live somewhere, take from that country—be it your original one or not—and not give back. The only thing is, it’s important to get to know that country first, know its political dynamics. You can’t just import methods from one country to another, every region has its own history, culture, struggles, language and discourse, and customs.
Having said that, having grown up and being active in Australia does help with solidarity. I have strong links with my old groups there and that helps. Living in different political situations is great for expanding your understanding and for questioning preconceived ideas you might have about how political struggle should be done. Having lived in Australia, that helps me write articles for that audience, for activists needs there.
On international solidarity in general, someone said that solidarity is sharing out the food and sharing out the hunger. It’s something you do. While the first step in international solidarity is definitely being informed and informing others about the struggles in different countries, the most important solidarity we can do is working and fighting for a better world where we are. Venezuela’s solidarity with Cuba and Cuba’s solidarity with us—exchanging petroleum for doctors and teachers—is so real and wonderful.
Can you tell us about Venezuela Analysis (VA) as an institution?
VA is committed to contextualized news, analysis, and opinion articles (and video and audio) written from the perspective of solidarity with the Venezuelan people. This means that often our articles support the Venezuelan government, but not always. We are fighting against a proactive media war against Venezuela and that means covering various angles of the social missions, the movements, and grassroots organizations, and the achievements of the Bolivarian revolution, which are completely ignored by English language private media. However, solidarity with the Venezuelan people involves telling the whole story and to give readers and solidarity activists a complete understanding of the revolution. We also constructively criticize aspects of the Bolivarian revolution when necessary and we analyze and report on its weaknesses—the bureaucracy, corruption, crime, and other problems.
VA is a democratic media collective. We decide collectively what articles we will write, publish, and other activities. We have three part-time writers and we also collectively decide our pay, working hours, and so on. VA depends on donations, so we pay ourselves very little, because we want the site to survive. We have a range of people voluntarily helping the site—with editing, administration, audio, and fundraising, and the writers also work much beyond the minimum hours we set ourselves because we’re committed to the cause.
All VA writers live in Venezuela. We participate in the revolution in different ways. We love the revolution, with all its faults, and when we read the English media lies every single morning, about what we and our comrades and mates are doing here, it hurts. So we’re committed to countering those lies, to getting out the real story, and to reminding people that another world is possible, even if building it is a hard and complicated struggle.
What are some of VA’s successes?
I guess I think we produce a lot of original news, analysis, interviews, as well as translations of opinion articles written by Venezuelan and Latin American analysts and activists. We’d like to be able to do more interviews and cover more grassroots struggles and organizing across more regions of the country. It’d be great to produce more audio and video content. But as I’ve mentioned, we have extremely limited resources.
I would also like to explore your views of Venezuela as a citizen activist. Let’s start with media, since that is where you work. Outsiders who get to Caracas and pay attention are surprised by the extent of anti-Chavez and anti-Bolivarian media. How do you assess the Bolivarian approach to information exchange and media—both alternative and mainstream?
Briefly, having public media that doesn’t support the rich or pretend to be “objective” by basically supporting the rich and now and then quoting someone who’s somewhat left, is a pretty nice experience. You can turn on VTV (public news/current affairs television channel) and listen to complex interviews and discussions about socialism and see some intense, detailed, anti-capitalist ads. If my communal council is organizing something, we can ring up the public and alternative radios and ask them to promote it, and they will. Radiomundial also publishes the lists of mercals available each day, and the new recipients of pensions. Vive TV has a lot of great shows about community work, what individual collectives are up to, and about local traditions.
But public media has two main problems in my opinion (1) It’s not very democratic in the way its organized, there are still bosses who hire and fire, and tell journalists what to write, rather than these decisions being made collectively; (2) while there are a lot of debate and discussion shows on radio and TV, the media itself, in terms of the positions it takes, and the articles published, isn’t constructively critical of the government. And to fight the bureaucracy and move forward, we really need media that does that.
The alternative and community-run media still isn’t taken as seriously, still isn’t seen as “real” media, except for perhaps community news. Of course, as you said, private media is the dominant one for newspapers and radio, and Globovision—the opposition TV news channel—is more watched than VTV. To an extent you can understand it, there’s a media war and the private media here rarely mentions any of the countless achievements by the people and the government. But constructive criticism is different from the rubbish printed by the private media (disguised as criticism, but mostly it’s just lies), and is important.
Alternative media is really being supported by the government, in terms of resources—especially in terms of technology for radio and television. Soon we hope to see the new “popular media” law passed as well. And sometimes alternative media is allowed into official events and treated just the same as Bloomberg and Reuters. But sometimes we’re not and sometimes to get into events there’s a lot of bureaucracy and we don’t have the same resources and time to go through that as the private media does.
Finally, Telesur. I love Telesur. It’s not perfect, having many of the problems that Venezuelan public media has, but it’s a cross-country initiative with journalists based all over the continent and its general perspective is pro-people. Telesur did some really valuable and essential reporting during the coup in Honduras, the coup attempt in Ecuador, etc, and it’s just an awesome alternative to crap like CNN and Fox.
In the political side of life, insofar as the Bolivarian project is committed to popular participation and broad self-management, what Bolivarian policies and actions have significantly furthered or interfered with such results?
To list all the laws, financial resources assigned, and organizations set up or promoted, would take some time. But keeping things general, the government has made communal councils legal and serious organizations with a fair bit of authority, though for now that authority is completely limited to local issues. People feel motivated to participate in communal councils because they are real bodies that have the potential to achieve concrete solutions.
There are some factors holding participation back in many communal councils and they include bureaucracy (you can spend years trying to get a project approved), people’s lack of understanding of the importance of popular organization, and perceptions that the councils are “Chavista,” which they are, but not in the same way that an electoral party is. People also still don’t quite understand communal councils and they expect us (elected spokespeople) to work in the same way mayors and other civil servants do, that is, doing the work for them. In my communal council we have a slogan: “Community working for the community,” and we try to make it understood that anyone is welcome to participate, whether they have been elected or not, and that only when a large sector of the community is active will we really get anywhere. But it’s a hard battle, people are used to things being done for them, to passiveness, as happens under capitalism, and other people still prefer the alienation and individualism that they’ve grown up with.
Apart from the councils, the government has encouraged the formation of communes, which go structurally deeper than the councils, as well as community involvement in the missions and in other problems and challenges such as combating food price speculation and hoarding. Chavez has verbally encouraged worker organization, although within the state institutions that only happens sometimes and usually when the particular institution has a decent person heading it. The government also created the Federal Council of the Government (CFG), which is meant to be a link between the government and the councils where the two can decide budget allocations together. Sometimes this works, but more often than not the CFG simple informs the councils of its decisions. Sometimes there are meetings called and the councils have a chance to inform on their communities’ major needs, to help in the deciding of priorities, but at least in Merida, these meetings are often convoked the day before, or even hours before, making it difficult for many people to attend them.
Legally, popular power is well supported: from laws on popular economy to sections of most laws emphasizing people’s organization as a legitimate possibility. For example, with rubbish collection, the law on that states that an organized community can take on that responsibility, if it can prove its capacity to do so.
However, what the Bolivarian government does to promote people’s participation in politics is half the story. The other half is what the people (communities, workers, movements of indigenous people and women, etc) do to demand and implement it. You could argue that, beyond a few examples in Bolivar state, the government has done little, concretely (beyond laws, and discourse) to promote worker councils and worker participation. That would be true I think, but if the workers themselves aren’t demanding such power (which they are doing, in a few specific cases, but not generally), people’s power isn’t necessarily something that can be forced or imposed. Still, there has been a very definite increase in independent grassroots organizing under this government. Mainly, due to an ambient of politics, discussion, news, and participation, movements such as LGBTI have grown, despite little direct encouragement from the government.
Economically, Chavez and the Bolivarian agenda has been seeking what they call 21st Century Socialism, yet the private sector of capitalist-owned and run firms remains predominant. What, if anything, do you think might have been done to more quickly progress toward a more equal economy?
I guess I think the government is trying to keep this revolution peaceful and that means nationalizing and expropriating when it has the legal basis to do so, and also, possibly, when its capable of taking more on—has the human labor and experience and willingness to do it. Perhaps it’s not as fast as some revolutionaries overseas and within Venezuela would like, but in Latin America’s context of repression, murder, disappearances, and torture that revolutions and revolutionaries have suffered in the past, it’s fairly understandable.
Not that the revolution is completely peaceful, of course, hundreds of campesinos fighting for land, as well as some unionists, have been killed. The other really big thing is that perhaps in order to keep things peaceful and also to maintain electoral support, Chavez has played a bit of a balancing act between the right and left leaning sides of the PSUV.
To really start attacking capitalist structures, we need a more organized revolutionary left and greater general consciousness around what capitalism and socialism are. I can get pretty frustrated or disillusioned sometimes when PSUV “leaders” (none of them are elected and many aren’t actually chosen for their dedication to the socialist cause) actively promote capitalist and traditional values, such as consumerism or competitiveness or even religion (people can be religious if they like, but it’s another thing to be actively promoting praying over organization and mobilization as happened earlier this year with Chavez’s illness).
The PSUV is, in my opinion, an electoral and clientalist party, and for things to be deepened, the grassroots need to organize more, work together more, revive initiatives like the Great Patriotic Pole (a national organization grouping of around 30,000 grassroots movements and collectives), and constructively criticize the revolution or the PSUV and the government, and be even more demanding than we already are.
How do you understand the phrase, 21st Century Socialism? Do you think most folks in Venezuela support the revolution and/or understand this term similarly?
To be honest, I think that phrase is used a little more by intellectuals and commentators outside Venezuela, than by people active here. But Chavez also used it a lot. The gist of it is Venezuela’s own style of socialism, fought for within its own very particular dynamics (such as a small industrial working sector and much larger state sector and informal economy) and history and culture (emphasis on independence from U.S. imperialism in its various shapes and forms, etc).
People I work with—agricultural activists, communal council members, teachers in the alternative school I’m with, members of the television collective I know, some members of the PSUV youth, some members of the Venezuelan communist party, and others—tend to just talk about socialism. Frankly, they are extremely clear about what it is; economically, historically, in terms of the creation of a new person, in terms of democratic participation, and in terms of criticizing many problems within the Bolivarian revolution. But a good chunk of the state bureaucracy is pretty clueless and sees socialism as nothing more than the social missions, as wearing red shirt’s and campaigning for Chavez at election time.
What has been your experience of the revolution, and the society for that matter, regarding gender relations?
I don’t believe it should be entirely up to the government and, though feminist movements have become much stronger over the last 14 years, they are still relatively small. Abortion should be legalized, completely. The beauty competitions need to go. I’d love to see something that clamps down on sexist advertising, but none of these moves would be supported by even a significant minority of the population, unfortunately. We need a stronger women’s movement that has a decisive impact on popular consciousness and, while some clearer feminist discourse from the legislators and ministers and so on would possibly help boost that, its ultimately our responsibility.
There have been clear legal gains for women, such as the law against violence which recognizes 18 types of violence. And more women than before are mayors, governors, ministers, and even militia soldiers, though still nowhere near 50 percent. But as I said, while these things are a great boost, there needs to be broader awareness of the types of violence and the root causes of such violence, as well as the origins of women’s oppression and how it is being maintained today by capitalist institutions and the Church.
The PSUV needs to have the courage to confront the Church and the big businesses that objectify women and exploit them. But the PSUV is based so much on electoral politics, I don’t see it doing that.
Sexism here (like in most countries) is really ingrained and normalized. You’ll meet really hard working and decent revolutionary men and women who think objectification is fine and good fun. This is one of the hardest battles and it’s definitely a long term one.
Many who worry about prospects in Venezuela have feared that the great dependence on Chavez’s ingenuity and energy, on the place he holds in the hearts of the populace, and on the stabilizing value of his ties to the military causing loyalty there. The benefits are clear enough, they say, but the dangers are also evident. What if he changes, is one worry. More if he can no longer contribute. Can you try to convey the prospects for the coming period?
Supporters of Chavez love him. It’s a new feeling for me, to care this much about someone I don’t personally know. And yet we do know him in a way, for he has just done so much for this country and this continent. While politicians in other countries are finding ways to say as little as possible about anything and to do as little as possible, the list of what Chavez, with his government, has done is long (housing, health, education, participation, employment programs, food, agricultural programs, and on and on). And then he talked to the people through his show “alo president,” through announcements, through speeches, by visiting factories and communities. He had so much guts, he worked so hard, he was just an extremely intelligent, wonderful, if imperfect, human being and fighter.
The Bolivarian movement has held executive power for over a decade. It has embarked on an impressive array of projects altering society and social relations on behalf of poorer and weaker constituencies in Venezuela yet, the fact is that, instead of support for the revolution steadily growing, say from 65 percent to 85 percent, and instead of popular clarity about what the end aim is, support has dropped and clarity has stalled, and perhaps even diminished. How do you explain the great advances, yet the continuing possibility of opposition electoral success? In short, why aren’t opposition beliefs losing 80 percent to 20 percent or more? And, if part of the reason is policies or actions that have not been pursued, shouldn’t they be pursued?
The 80 percent or so of the population that initially supported Chavez in around 1999 and 2000, and when the new constitution was voted for, did so before he “came out” as socialist, or started talking about socialism. Those people saw him more as an alternative to past undemocratic, repressive, and neoliberal regimes. They liked the new constitution and how it was discussed. It’s natural that as the revolution has radicalized—even if somewhat slowly, and that some of that support has dropped off, with people now saying that the socialist policies are “going too far.” Also, it makes sense, given the media barrage against the Bolivarian revolution. People are told crazy things by the private media, from Chavez eats children to he’s a dictator to the leasing law means their houses could be stolen (not true, of course) and so on.
They are told that Chavez is to blame for inflation, crime, and even flooding (seriously). Many fall for the lies. Crime and the price of food are real issues as well and, for me, it’s amazing that after so many years, such a high proportion of people have stayed faithful to the cause, to the revolution; not just voting, but marching over and over, and active in their particular areas or projects. This support is despite the bureaucracy. Youth are a good proportion of support for the revolution, despite many of them not even remembering what it was like, how bad it was, before Chavez; 28 year olds were 14 when Chavez came to power, they didn’t have to queue all day to buy chicken on the rare occasions it was available, during the 1980s. They don’t remember the difference between 100 percent inflation then and 20 percent inflation now. They don’t know what it’s like to not have a barrio adentro health center just up the road, but they still support the government.
I know young supporters of the opposition who have bought new cars and new televisions, then go and say that Venezuela is in “economic chaos because of Chavez.” Seriously, the private media is incredibly powerful. In other countries, it would have been unusual for a president or head of state to be re-elected for a third term, just because of that phenomenon of people getting restless, voting vaguely for “change.” But Chavez was not just re-elected, he had an 11 percent lead and 81 percent electoral participation, despite the media lies, and that says a lot about the strength of this revolution. It may be slow, but we’re not getting tired, we’re in this for the long term.
Let’s agree that a major obstacle to greater support is capitalists and other elite elements sabotaging efforts at innovation and change. Corporate media then blames the shortcomings and everything else they can dream up on Chavez and the revolution. In that case, wouldn’t a massive campaign about what is freedom of speech and good media, including preventing capitalists from dominating and misusing media far more forcefully also have many benefits? What do you think is the right mix of moving forward while, wisely, trying to avoid confrontation?
The thing is that many of those capitalists/elite elements that are sabotaging things are disguised—are working in the PSUV or have official positions or are paying people to do their dirty work or have “friends” in such positions. It’s just not so clear. This is definitely a messy revolution and that makes sense. The elite won’t give up their privileges so easily. The most logical, stable strategy for them is, on the one hand, to demonize the revolution and, on the other, to exploit it—such as those capitalists speculating on the black market or those who get credits from the state or use corrupt methods and positions of power to siphon off resources actually destined towards social causes.
That means that, you are right, such a campaign would be great. To an extent, the public media, together with Chavez and ministers and so on in speeches, waged such a campaign for years. But as I stated previously, the public media will highlight certain sabotage by certain capitalists and opposition members and will happily criticize the private media, but is less willing to wage an anti “fifth column” (these ‘boli-bourgoisie’—the pro-capitalists inside the revolution) campaign. Likewise, a lot of penalties already exist, are sometimes implemented, but the bureaucracy won’t sanction its “friends.”
I guess what you’re suggesting is we close down Globovision (the opposition news channel), we nationalize Polar (the large food company). That’d be great, I’d be up for that. In my opinion, it’d be worth the retaliation and the bad press Venezuela already gets anyway in the international mainstream media, no matter what it does. I’d like to see the revolution radicalize. A lot of what is proposed in the government Socialist Plan for 2013-2019 is a very good deepening of the gains so far of the revolution. Funnily enough, it’s often the retaliation of the opposition, such as the 2002 coup, that helps force such a radicalization. It’s useful in that sense to have an opposition.
Michael Albert is founder and staff member of Z Communications. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Parecon and the new Z Books, Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy, and Occupy Vision. This interview is one of a number of interviews in a series on ZNet.