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Being Left, Part 5: Venezuela


In December 2013 David Marty did an extensive interview with Michael Albert. We present it in nine parts – of which this is the fifth. Other parts address: Radicalization, Media, Debating Vision, Venezuela, Occupy and IOPS, Fanfare, Chomsky, and a conclusion. 

Why Venezuela?

I know you have been to Venezuela on several occasions and that you spent some time and energy writing about it and most importantly getting in touch with Venezuelan officials there, including Hugo Chavez and more recently Nicolás Maduro. Before we get into the interactions, why Venezuela? Considering all that has been going on in Latin America and the recent transition toward progressive governments in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, etc. Why have you paid such particular attention to the Bolivarian Revolution?

Partly it was an accident of events. I was there, years back, for a WSF gathering, and somewhat before that, too, and I became very interested and also developed some connections. That happened as well, somewhat, for me in Brazil, before Lula was elected, and even for a time after his election, and I had great interest and hope there, as well. But I admit that my Brazil interest never approached my interest in Venezuela. 

I was in Argentina some, too, but I didn’t see comparable possibilities there either, and, again, while I had hope for the movements there, which I have written about quite a bit and taken lessons from, there was never any national trend in Argentina remotely as wide reaching as the Chavistas, much less as successful. 

However, mostly, it wasn’t just fate and the circumstance of having connections that turned my attention to Venezuela, but rather that in my estimation by far the most hopeful efforts have been explored in Venezuela so that that is where the most lessons can be learned and the most gains for leftists around the world elaborated. 

The revolutionaries in Venezuela did not move to the right after taking over to administer the government, as occurred in Brazil, for example, but instead they moved further left. And that contrast ought to be of great interest. The Brazilian PT was a grassroots workers party with socialist commitments. However, on taking power, whether in a city, a state, or in the whole country, each time, the requisites of keeping the trains running on time swamped their prior commitments until the project was at best social democratic, or so it seemed to me. 

In contrast, in Venezuela, on taking executive power sometimes the same trends happened, or worse, with many local mayors, and local police, say. But, in the case of the national government, against the general expectations of leftists of the type I generally align with – the government kept moving leftward. And it wasn’t just that they went left in opting for broad redistributive policies imposed from the top, thus being a faster and more thorough social democratic or coordinatorist approach – they also went leftward in the sense of emphasizing and trying to build structures by which grass roots activists and citizens could not only participate, but could actually govern themselves. As the events progressed, rather than a move to the right, or toward simple coordinatorist centralization, or toward modest social democracy, left leaning efforts were undertaken rather unlike anything I had previously seen – though admittedly I have had limited access and have not travelled nearly as much elsewhere. 

If you look, for example, at a set of interviews I did with Venezuelan officials roughly five years ago, honestly, I think they ought to have spiked the interest of all anti capitalists and anti authoritarians around the world. I have never quite understood why they and other such exchanges didn’t generate that kind of interest – other than that people, even on the left, were succumbing to the messages of mainstream media – plus one other possible factor. That is, for many people I am closest with, politically, their past views and formulations tended to indicate that a national government, particularly with a military man in power – simply could not be undertaking activities that are quite libertarian and in some respects even anarchistic, even while not immediately overthrowing all laws, nationalizing all industry, and creating a civil war to presumably enforce, from the top, something very familiar, or waiting on a public without seeking to facilitate and support its radicalization. So I think many folks who doubt that a president or ministers, can have libertarian inclinations, albeit also juggling many responsibilities and pressures that push in other directions, simply refused to take seriously that it may well be happening, and failed to give it careful and unbiased attention, instead pretty much accepting lots of negative media characterizations. 

You are from Spain and Spain is a pretty good indicator. Along with the U.S. Spain is the place where I think the media gives the highest priority to attacking events in Venezuela, likely because of economic connections, having the same language, etc., and I would bet Spain is the place, along with the U.S., where the left is also most dismissive of Bolivarian efforts. It is quite remarkable when you also consider that Spain – with Greece – are arguably the two European countries where a Bolivarian approach should be attracting the most interest and support. It suggests to me that negative mainstream  messages, which should have had nearly no effect on leftists, have instead had quite a lot. 

The Bolivarian revolution involves at least a very key group of empowered Venezuelans in the federal branch of government, and now in other branches as well, plus a large part of the population that has actively engaged in struggle, espousing very hopeful desires, and acting under very difficult conditions to try to advance them. Meanwhile, leftists with book learning that says this can’t happen unless it looks exactly like their expectations, refuse to see that it has been, in fact, happening. Ironically, by reflexively dismissing it, such folks sadly make the tasks of generating nationwide participation and self management that much more difficult in Venezuela for want of international enthusiasm and support, and also foreclose a very promising avenue of alliance and change inside their own countries.

I agree with you that there are other promising events in Latin America and there were times when very good friends of mine urged me to give more time to, say, Bolivia, in particular – but I had no way to do that, and, honestly, other than Bolivia’s sometimes very radical and instructive attitudes on ecology, I just didn’t see or hear about anything in Bolivia remotely like the grassroots organizing and institution building that I saw in Venezuela. To me the entreaty always seemed a bit odd. In both places, we have a left leaning national government, but one place has massive experiments in developing new self managing institutions, and yet strangely that is the place libertarian people turn away from.

To sit in a government office in Caracas and hear about their plans for self management, many years back, including their very explicit strategies for trying to create 50,000 local assemblies and then to federate them into hundreds of communes – which is now well underway – and to have those communes become the foundation of real democracy and self management, and to hear the difficult obstacles they were struggling with, including not only very aggressive obstruction by the rich, by elements of the church, and by old politicians and police, but also a lack of interest from even various sectors of the population who were otherwise supporting change – which was often understandable but also crippling to the efforts – and about their ideas for how to overcome the obstructions and also their strategies for addressing lingering public cynicism and passivity, was very instructive. And similarly learning about the actual practical problems they encountered in trying to implement workers control, for example, even where workers wanted it, much less where workers did not yet want it – and about the flaws in some of their choices, and the wisdom in others – seemed to me far more valuable for culling lessons than most other events and examples I have encountered. To me, therefore, it was a travesty that Spanish libertarians and anti capitalists, and Greek libertarians and anti capitalists, and so on around the world, and also in the U.S., where I am from, were not trying to learn from the experiences, and it was also a shame and arguably even a kind of a crime that the Venezuelans were themselves not clearly and compellingly communicating their lessons even locally, much less internationally. 

In a sense, from early on, it seemed to me that the Venezuelan activists were trying to carry through a revolution to deliver power to the people by peaceful means and without violating prior legal structures. There has been a highly disciplined emphasis on avoiding violence, on avoiding civil war, on avoiding coercion, and on developing alternatives that attract support away from old relations and institutions and to new ones. And, more, the new alternatives are profoundly radical and, if successful, revolutionary. To see the Bolivarian emphasis on developing workers and consumers councils, and then communes, for example, and their efforts to escape markets without imposing central planning, and to educate and empower citizens of all backgrounds, has been inspiring and hopeful. I don’t want to go over board – there are certainly many problems, with some owing to internal and external opposition and lack of sufficient support from around the world, or even domestically, but with others rooted in poor policy choices and in too much leading and not enough listening, and, in particular, in insufficient internal development of clarity among activists and citizens about aims and methods, and insufficient participation in determining each. But it is not so easy, when you know the details, to say what should instead have been done, though some things are becoming clear, including to the Venezuelans, and, what is also impressive is that when they do arrive at such conclusions – for example, that they did not put enough effort into raising the political consciousness and skills of activists at the base – they try to correct the problems. 

On the one hand, it is true that the only way most people can develop a profound and wise capacity for participating willfully and intelligently in social life is by doing so. On the other hand, if people don’t yet have that capacity for participation and don’t have relevant information due to having endured limited and limiting prior conditions, and yet they are making decisions, well, some of those decisions might not be the best they could be. That much is obvious, clearly.

The former observation says to some people, overthrow everything, now. Everyone should have a say in everything, now. The latter observation says to other people, retain old structures and the elites who are now monopolizing decisions because losing them will provoke disasters due to new people lacking relevant knowledge. Both views, lacking even a little nuance, are wrong. Insights and accumulated experience can be – though they are not always – valuable and even essential in changing society. But just as surely, new perspectives and new people becoming ever more confident is always valuable and even essential. This comes up in countless ways. For example, in a country, do we institute self managing structures that trump more familiar electoral and other forms, sooner, later, or not at all? In a single institution, say a progressive media institution, do we have everyone partake of decisions, or only the founders who have the most experience and relevant knowledge, supposing that in fact they do?

I think of the two options, the latter reaction is far more wrong and also more dangerous. First, the people who do make decisions currently, ostensibly with great experience and confidence – got their relative capacity by way of involvements in practices that have in many cases left them – especially if we are talking about the larger society – unable to have human sympathy, jaded, and even to a considerable extent pathological, and certainly ignorant of many real relations. Think of Obama and his kill lists. Obama is competent and knowledgeable and just exactly what benefit does that convey? 

So it turns out that in practice what we lose by having even the average person on the street make decisions instead of elite leaders is often just horribly vile decisions. And even on the left, where the current elite decision makers may be well motivated and seriously seeking to serve change, still, they are likely to have limited perspectives that might be corrected by wider involvement of more people. But second, the average person, given the opportunity to make choices along with other average folks, will quickly become more informed and thoughtful than they previously were. And third, there is no other route to growing that type of popular participation, wisdom, and confidence – which features, in the end, are essential for serious social improvements.

I think Rosa Luxemburg, the great German revolutionary, when criticizing Leninism, had this third point very clearly in mind. She said, “Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.” And yet, even so, it is not always easy to navigate toward the necessary gain in participation in real conditions.

 

Dealing with Presidents

How did your meetings with Chavez and Maduro go? 

I have not met with President Maduro. On the most recent trip I twice sat literally waiting for him to momentarily appear. One of those times there was a large video team and many other officials present to attend a filmed long interview. The other time we were waiting for many hours for a the phone to ring and instruct us to go and meet him, having been told the call would come imminently, but it did not. Upon leaving at the end of this trip, we were told we would be invited back in a few weeks, to carry the plans through, but we are still waiting on that. 

With Chavez the situation was different. I met him on a trip there with Noam Chomsky, as well as Greg Wilpert of Venezuela Analysis and Omar Sierra of Venezuela’s Boston Consulate. I had already been trying to arrange meetings to do an in depth interview and discuss some proposals, a very draining process that had yielded some new friends and some trips, but no interview. Suddenly, I got an unexpected call that they wanted Noam to come in just a few days to speak to a gathering of officials, military, etc., about Colombia and U.S. policies, and then to talk with Chavez. They wanted me to urge Noam to do the trip and asked for me to come on the trip myself as well, so that, with the other activities completed, we could do the interview and deal with proposals. 

To make a long story short, we went. Noam did a talk – and I actually handled the Q/A afterward with questions trending toward vision and with much interest in parecon, etc. We did a day of revolution watching, with a couple of brief talks, and then we went to Miraflores, which is the Venezuelan Presidential Palace – like the White House in the U.S. – and Noam and Chavez had a discussion that about twenty people sat in on, including myself, for a few hours. At various times before the session with Noam, Chavez reiterated to us that the interview by me would happen after Noam went home, in two or three sessions to deal with so many questions – but it did not occur. Greg and I sat waiting for a week after Noam left, and no call came, and eventually Chavez was off on a big trip, and we left. And then began still another long process of seeking new connections and arrangements. When Chavez’s illness advanced – and actually, I have since been told by the now Minister of the Interior that Chavez was ill even when we were there – prospects for interviewing him at length dissipated. And thus the whole possibility, the interview and the proposals, drifted into the background, but then it all resurfaced as possibly viable when Maduro was elected. As Vice President, we were told Maduro has been eager for the interview with Chavez to take place, and for the proposals to advance, but since he became President it hasn’t happened.

How much did you expect from those meetings? Some would say it is a bit naïve to expect them to implement whatever solutions you might have to offer them. What would you respond?

Solutions to what? And why naive? 

The proposal offered to the Venezuelans was to do an in depth interview for two main purposes. (1) To reveal and explore lessons relevant to people around the world, and (2) to address, and hopefully reduce international left concerns about Venezuelan policies and events. The other aspects of the communications to them, the actual project proposals, had similar purposes: to provide means for Venezuela to further worthy ideas and support worthy endeavors and for Venezuela to develop stronger ties around the world. 

Now this could have all been ill conceived, as your question suggests some may think – but as we saw it, the proposals were very positive for Venezuela and for the left elsewhere, so why not expect interest? Especially when the initial reaction was indeed an incredibly quick and unremittingly positive response, and when, since then, over about five years, no Venezuelan has offered any reason to not proceed and one after another Venezuelan, at all levels of society, have been very eager and optimistic about the proposals. 

I think the reason someone would think my hope was naive – let’s ignore what it says of their view of me – will often turn out to be prejudgement based on “book beliefs” despite little attention to or even awareness of actual related occurrences. Doubt or worry about any social process is certainly warranted – but dismissal ought to be based on more than theoretical expectations. It is all too easy to always predict failures, and therefore to try nothing – thereby often contributing to the predicted failures rather than trying to avert them.

Let me try to make a general case about this. People often think or at least implicitly act as if they think that a social perspective or intellectual framework is rather like a theory in physics. If a physics theory says that electrons will never do x, and will always do y, then you better bet on x and not y, absolutely. But when a social theory – marxism or anarchism or whatever – says, for example, a capitalist will always only pursue profits and never be pro worker or even anti capitalist – you ought not bet on that every time, absolutely, without looking at the case in question. If you do assume the theory will be born out every time, you will certainly have a very high batting average. You will be right, that is, quite often, because it is true that most often people who own the means of production will not be anti capitalist. However, there will also be exceptions – and to take this particular case, Engels, the anti capitalist, owned a factory. To dismiss Engels as being pro capitalist because his books say that capitalists are typically pro capitalist so he must be too would be cute, but also dumb. 

Similarly, take the admonition that power tends to corrupt, absolute power (which is pretty much never operative) corrupts absolutely. The observation and prediction are quite insightful but, nonetheless, it is not like a law in physics. Similarly, and really pretty much the same thing – the observation that a state operating above the people and that state’s chief executive will as its main agenda seek to retain central power and to diminish people’s power, is certainly insightful. People rarely ask why it will occur, however. I think it is because having disproportionate power (a) enables getting still more power, (b) enables using that power for material and social benefit, and (c) typically leads to a rationalization that one deserves those benefits in which case one also comes to believe that good outcomes depend on one keeping the power, which then leads to one feeling a responsibility to defend it. So you don’t find folks often trying to reduce their own power. And therefore betting that most times they will not do so is sensible. But not blindly, not every time. Cases will sometimes diverge. 

So when I sit with a Mayor, in the city of Carora, Venezuela, and I hear him talk about how he believes in people’s power so his administration is willingly and even eagerly subject to the oversight of the local council, and that he works hard not to ignore and subvert that relation but to enlarge participation in that council and even enlarge its sway, I don’t dismiss him as telling me what has to be a lie. Instead, I assess his words, look into his actions, and in the particular case mentioned here, I come to believe him. And that doesn’t cause me to have a nervous breakdown. My identity as an anti authoritarian doesn’t crumple because this particular mayor operates by a different playbook than anarchist teachings say mayors will operate by. Social dynamics are not like physics – an exception to some general advisory neither destroys that advisory nor proves it. 

And so I ask this anti authoritarian mayor, Julio Chavez, (no relation to Hugo) how many other mayors are like him in so aggressively trying to augment direct democracy rather than impede it, and he answers, as I expected, a handful. The thing to ask then is, (a) why is he different, and (b) is there anything that can increase the number of mayors who use the resources of local government to enlarge grassroots power? And (c) if this is unlikely or will be horribly limited and tend to unravel often, what other options exist in the real conditions at play, to succeed even against the opposition of more typical mayors?

And it is the same nationally. That Hugo Chavez, from the top, tried to engage the population and enlarge its power via changes in mindset and even more to the point via the inauguration of new structures is not impossible – and in fact it really happened. To say it didn’t happen because a revered book says it won’t typically happen – or maybe exaggerates and for effect says it can’t ever happen, is nonsensical if before your own eyes you can see that it did happen. Now you can and should explore the situation asking what are the debits and virtues of the approaches taken. And there will typically be some of each. But closing your eyes and dismissing everything, or believing mainstream media about it all, without even looking, because nine times out of ten you will be right to expect nothing anti authoritarian from a federal government – is idiotic in a case where there seems to be quite strong contrary evidence. And it is idiotic even if your worst fears, over time, start to be born out, because there would still be much to learn about why and how the situation unravelled, and especially if anything might have been done differently to preserve and enlarge positive trends rather than have them give way to negative ones. 

Okay, that is an overarching attitude. We should certainly pay attention to analysis – some call it theory – that has over a long time proved instructive, but we should not do it blindly. However, it is not a direct answer to your specific question. 

So here is that answer, too. The meeting possibilities dramatically opened around five years ago. Chomsky and I sent a pair of letters to Andres Izzara, then Minister of Communications, addressed to President Chavez. I had been trying for some time to gain access already, but quite fruitlessly. With Noam willing to get involved, prospects that the letters would be read increased, of course. The letters sought an in-depth interview about the aims and methods of the Bolivarian revolution, to make these more widely available, and also made a few proposals – for example for a particular type of Bolivarian internationalist publishing project, for a Bolivarian Prize in various areas, like the Noble Prize but oriented toward social justice, and for discussion about international organization and possible approaches. In response, I got a totally unexpected call from then Minister of Communications Izzara literally the very next day, saying I should come down right away to do the interviews and to talk about how to best implement the projects. To my incredulous queries during that call, Izzara was adamant that the interview and proposals would proceed and that I should come right away, in time to travel with him and Chavez on a trip to Brazil, doing the interviewing on the plane. I asked if doing an interview on a plane would allow a serious enough exchange, given the kinds of in depth issues we should address, and he thought about it and agreed it would not, and then said, okay, I will get back in touch as soon as we return from Brazil and we can set a date for doing it all in Caracas. We left it like that, but it didn’t happen.

There were many subsequent letters, some visits, etc. Much time and energy was expended. Slowly there were steadily more advocates of the interview and proposals including two ambassadors, members of two and I think maybe more consulates, a Supreme Court judge, a mayor, a prominent General, and so on – plus many people in local councils and ministries. There was also the trip for Noam and myself, mentioned above, and another trip, leading to many interviews, but not with Chavez. After another long delay, there was also the recent trip. And so on.

Did they avoid talking to you? Or was it just bad luck?

How does one answer a question like this – how could I know? I would think, however, if they wanted to avoid interacting, they would just say so. It is hard to see why they would fly me there quite a few times, set up sessions, etc., with no intention of proceeding. And since they have literally said they want to pursue these matters, including two presidents saying so, again, it is hard to see how they could instead be intending to not pursue these matters. 

And though there were reasons given for why things didn’t happen,  at least this most recent time, there was never a rejection of the idea of engaging. On the most recent trip, for example, the day before the first time we were to actually get together an assassination plot was foiled, and on the day we were to have a session, Maduro, giving a talk at an opening of a new subway station, got onto discussing the plot and it just went on and on until the scheduled time for our session was passed. A few days later, just before we were to leave, we were literally called to do the interview. The film crew was all set up, the table set, so to speak, people waiting, but that day 70% of the electric grid went down, and again, Maduro was in meetings that went on until that session was finally cancelled at about 1 AM. So there were proximate reasons. 

I think it is fair to say, also, that the Venezuelan leadership is worried about all kinds of things, and this just resides lower in priority than many of those other concerns. Thus, it gets put off even though it is planned. 

When the last session was cancelled, with the video crew and Maduro’s personal translator and others waiting with us for it to begin, the new Minister of Communications, Delcy Rodriguez, came out to tell us of the cancellation, and then we talked at length. She urged that the President had just reiterated to her that he wanted to do the interview and told us that we would be called back for very carefully scheduled sessions under her leadership within a few weeks. We then went over the proposals, and this was at about 1 AM, and regarding those too, she said not only would they be decided when we came back, but two of the proposals were in her area of focus – communications – and she was eager to get going on implementing them and would start right away, confident that the President would be in favor, as well. So, like all the other times, the pronouncements were all very positive. And yet, here we are, once again waiting for actual fulfillment of the pronouncements.

Do you just wait? This time, and past times?

No. Every time, for over five years, we keep trying. This means writing letters, contacting friends and supporters and urging them to contact others, and so on. It has been a marathon. What makes it particularly frustrating is that there is never a negative verbal or written response, only recommitments that we will soon proceed. And of course, with that inducement, and given what I take to be the potential benefits for all – I have to keep trying. 

Can you tell us what the letters are like?

Okay, here is the most recent letter I have sent, actually just a few hours ago. It is a bit more desperate than most that I have sent in the past, dozens, actually – but since it succinctly summarizes up to the present, it also gives a current sense of it, I guess. The recipients were all those listed in the body, and a few more…

As you all know – some of you more than others – I have been trying for well over five years to get a reply and potentially some action on a few proposals. The most obvious request was to earlier interview President Chavez, and now President Maduro. That proposal, and the accompanying ones which involved internationalist publishing, a yearly Bolivarian Prize, helping international organization, and most recently hosting social networking while rebutting the NSA, have had a few simple motives. 

1. To promote a serious exchange of the more subtle and deeper lessons and insights emerging from the Bolivarian Revolution. 

2. To create diverse means for serious informed international solidarity to benefit Venezuela and, as well, for Venezuelan solidarity to benefit movements around the world.

In all that time you twelve friends and many other people, as well, have positively supported the ideas and even given time and personal focus to bringing them to life. I thank you all very much. Fernando, Greg, Noam, and Omar, in particular have vested much, as have I, of course, in this undertaking – including trips, countless emails, verbal sessions, nagging others, and so on.

In response, in over five years, at no time has anyone from Venezuela or from the U.S. – or anywhere else – suggested that there was any reason to reject the interview or the proposals. 

As but two examples, on receiving the proposals from Noam and myself, then Minister of Communications Andres Izzara was aggressively in favor of them, indicating there would be no problem proceeding. After many trips and connections and so on, and again on hearing the proposals, now Minister of Communications Delcy Rodriquez said the same – we will make this happen, I will make this happen, very soon. It is too important and worthy to delay. And she added that President Maduro agreed.

In between, there have been many other such communications sometimes to me personally as when President Chavez directly told the same thing to Noam, Greg, Omar, and myself, in Miraflores, and other times to Judge Vegas, including by then Vice President Maduro.

We have even come very close to getting together, at least twice that I know of. President Chavez welcomed Greg, Noam, Omar, and myself to Miraflores and stated very clearly that he was eager to do the interview and discuss the proposals and that we would do both, before we left. However, after sitting and waiting a week for his call, we were told it was time to go. And, years later and just months ago, first we were ready to go and meet with President Maduro waiting the call for hours to no avail – and then a few days later we were literally waiting for President Maduro at an interviewing venue, with his translator and others in attendance, but each time it did not occur. 

That it is hard to arrange such a gathering goes without saying. That there are countless things competing for time is obvious. So the disruption of plans is understandable. But five years is a long time. And the overarching problem is that there is another pattern that is equally persistent as the positive verbal and email responses that we keep getting, but far less hopeful. That is, the minute someone in official capacity and with direct connection to Miraflores voices agreement on the proposals, ratifies the importance of the interviews, and pledges to make the connection proceed – that person tends then goes silent. Earlier it was Minister Andres Izarra and then President Chavez, each of whom said “yes, of course, let’s do this,” but then went silent. And currently it is Minister Delcy Rodriguez and Minister Miguel Rodriguez who also said point blank to me that getting the interview and pursuing the projects was and is of great importance and should and will occur – but each has at least to date then gone silent, ignoring all subsequent messages from me, even my seeking to know where we stand. It is like being a jilted suitor, over and over, I guess, but after each dismissal getting a new invitation from yet another direction, except, of course, there is so much more at stake. 

I embarked on this effort against the advice of numerous friends and workmates, including Noam Chomsky and the person I live with, Lydia Sargent. Each told me it was a fool’s errand. They predicted I would uselessly squander huge amounts of time, focus, and particularly emotional and mental energy because whatever some official might at times say, Venezuela would never see clear to relate seriously on such substantive matters.

 I felt that of course Noam and Lydia might be right, but that it was nonetheless worth the time and focus to try to make the interview and proposals happen. I thought and I still think that the understanding of Bolivarian events is so shallow around the world and even in Latin America and, honestly, often even inside Venezuela itself, that any gains in communications and lasting connections would be quite important, and of course I felt the maximum being proposed, with its international potentials, would be profoundly important and valuable.

 And again, everyone who has spoken to me directly, or written to me directly, has agreed. Congressman and ex Mayor Julio Chavez, for example, on the most recent trip, after hearing the social networking proposal, was so eager that it become practice that he urged me to literally not leave Venezuela until the President had heard the ideas directly and, hopefully, decided positively about them. I raise that only to give a flavor of the universal reactions from people we have encountered, in missions, in communes, from workplace councils, and also from the government. The odd addendum is, however, that the practical results don’t remotely reflect all the verbal and email communications.

 I don’t understand any of this. I can hypothesize about it, but it is all guesses. Is someone literally sadistic? That seems unlikely. Is it that there is no real interest, but no one is willing to say so, perhaps out of mistaken courtesy or something like that? Seems possible, though strange. Is it that there is real interest, but there is also real opposition – none of which opposition we have heard or seen, and that the opposition is more powerful than the interest? This was my explanation for unite a few years – and I still think it may be the case. Or is it literally just the exigencies of difficult times and multiple pressures constantly getting in the way of proceeding for over five years? This certainly seems to fit the most recent trip. Or perhaps it is a combination. What the explanation, while incredibly frustrating, it seems it calls for more effort. 

What I know is that an opportunity for spreading important lessons and creating major international connections has been delayed for over five years. Solidarity has been greeted with verbal support, and even invitations, arrangements and plans, but in the end, also dismissal. Everyone around me started with a pessimistic expectation and has had it greatly enforced. They think of me repeatedly getting rebuffed by reality, though courted verbally, as being rather foolish in my endless pursuit. I started, in contrast believing that once Noam wrote in support there would be a positive response – and indeed there was – and that when Minister Izarra became an ally, of course the interview would occur and, actually, given their merit, one or probably more of the proposals would be pursued in one form or another, as Izarra predicted. After each defeat, I became optimistic again each subsequent time that I was told progress was imminent. I took people at their word – how else should one treat revolutionaries? 

However, even as my continuing requests have yielded no tangible lasting progress, the work I am committed to in the U.S. – with its international element as well – Z Communications, is facing a grave crisis. I knew this was in our future back at the beginning of this pursuit, and not only for us but for the whole universe of alternative media around the world due to the impact of both the internet and the current economic crisis on funding. I was right. I also thought ties with Venezuela could alleviate the difficulties not just for Z, but around the world. I think I am correct about that too, but alas, it has not yet happened. 

Similarly, I knew the attitudes of activists around the world were becoming steadily more ignorant of and very often hostile to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, and sadly I was right about that, too. And I also thought an interview could help turn that trend around, especially with the other proposals potentially fostering lasting ties all over the world. And I still think I was right about that too, and that it could yet come to pass. But, alas, not yet.

 At this point, I have no idea what to say to try to cause the interview to occur and the proposals to be addressed. The Beatles had a song that comes to mind – Hello/Goodbye. How about if we reverse it: Goodbye/Hello. Goodbye to the Kafkaesque nightmare of missed possibilities. Hello to a new beginning that will yield real progress.

The truth is, I have come to you in real solidarity seeking benefits for all concerned. We are not proposing luxuries or peripheries, but, instead, real and ever more urgent necessities plus great benefits that could flow from connection. Can we begin anew – and proceed?

 

In Struggle and Hope,

Michael Albert

 

You are not bashful about writing…

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

 

Trusting Politicians?

Forgive me for insisting, but why trust politicians when trying to build a bottom up movement like you’ve been doing all these years? There have been many revolutions before Venezuela, what makes this one any different?

I don’t understand the word “trust,” here. What is the alternative: to not try, to not talk, to not work for valuable possibilities? With other revolutions too, even ones I would have been far more critical of, I would not simply, a priori, assume lying. It depends on context, situation, etc. 

There is an expression “don’t steal defeat from the jaws of victory.” People should think about it. When there is something very valuable and important to accomplish – more so than whatever else you might be doing with the time given to that purpose – there is rarely certainty about succeeding. At no time in over five years, even when flying down at their invitation to fulfill the proposals, or when literally waiting in the room with the translator, have I been certain it would happen. And those doubts have been fulfilled, I guess you might say, to my chagrin, each time. But unlike lots of other folks, I didn’t look at the situation in the beginning, or even now, after so many failures, and say, oh, hey, for this to happen requires that politicians – and even a President – see clear to do something good, and that simply can’t happen, so I won’t even try. Nor do I see continued failures for it to happen as some kind of good thing that ratifies a general view I happen to hold. The payoff of success in benefits for them and perhaps even more so for the left outside Venezuela, is too great to dismiss out of hand that it could happen, and to thus not try. 

Which movement, where in the world, has built more than 40,000 grassroots councils that are defined to be agents of popular participation and decision making? Could it all go to hell in a hand cart? Yes. Should we be hoping for that outcome or assuming it will come to pass on grounds that it will verify some prediction in some book we like, or even in our own beliefs? Of course not. And, for those who are in a position to do so, I would argue instead that we should help the Bolivarian revolution, however little or however much we can, to aid its prospects. 

During your most recent trip to Caracas, the one you mentioned, I know you interviewed the Minister of Interior, Miguel Rodriguez as I read that article online. What is your relationship with him? In your view how did it go? What is your opinion of him as a man? And as a politician?

I have known him for awhile by way of a good friend of mine in Venezuela, Supreme Court Judge Fernando Vegas, who the Minister is good friends with. It was Rodriquez who arranged the most recent trip, I believe, and he is very close to the President, including being responsible for the President’s safety. I think the interview speaks for itself and reveals a very knowledgeable and thoughtful revolutionary. Of course I don’t know him really well, and I can only speak with him through a translator. So my opinion of him can be taken lightly, I guess – but I quite liked him, and I felt he is very serious and committed. There is no pretense or posturing that I could see. He puts on no airs. He was happy to hear criticism and has criticisms of his own, as well. I thought the interview went well – but folks can check the transcript for themselves. An interesting point is that I don’t know of any other site that reprinted it – as compared to all left sites doing so, which is what should have happened. In truth, though, I think few on the left will read it, though that is a shame. Sadly, many will only relate to an interview if it is with the President – even as the same people talk about not elevating individuals.

I would not be surprised if Miguel winds up President sometime in the future, and would certainly be happy, based on the little I know of him, to see that happen. And hopefully that isn’t solely because we got on very well, and I liked his answers quite a bit, and because at the end, while chatting, he voiced his desire to talk further, in the future, specifically about economic vision, because he has come to the conclusion that more shared clarity is needed about what they are seeking. Indeed, we are trying to have that discussion, but it is very difficult. He is very busy!

What about the others you have met, a judge, mayor, the head of the women’s bank. And I suspect you have met many other folks, less famous, but still deeply involved. On a personal level, what has been your impression of the folks you have interacted with?

It has been surprisingly consistent. Folks seem remarkably open, friendly, and unpretentious. They expect no deference even though I am told Venezuela is a society with a lot of history of elevating individuals and requiring deference. I am not sure why there is that seeming difference between what I have seen and that history of the country. The judge, mayor – how do I say this, they are all just nice folks. In a gathering of leftists I know in the U.S., with them present, ignoring language, they would fit right in, and indeed they would stand out for their congeniality and clear speaking as well as intelligence, and certainly they would not seem any more official, by their manner, so to speak, than anyone else – even though, of course, in fact they would be more official. And this would remain true, I suspect, even if the topic of discussion was Venezuela. The three folks that you mention have interviews on ZNet, so, again, people can read those and see for themselves. 

And yes, I have met a lot of other Venezuelans, as well. And I have never once hesitated, with any of the officials, or anyone else, to say precisely what I thought on any issue, including raising very sharp disagreements, offering seriously probing questions, and so on. There seems little if any hesitation to answer, and to voice concerns as well. The only time I encountered what you might call defensiveness, it was an American in Caracas, not a Venezuelan.

It seems to many anarchists in Spain, as well as other progressives, that whatever good might come out of the Bolivarian Revolution, it has so far depended solely on the President’s figure, meaning Hugo Chavez. It also means it will revert sooner than later and become more and more repressive toward dissent. Are they wrong in believing that? 

I don’t know how to put my response, and not seem nasty about it. 

First, as mentioned earlier, Spanish mainstream media is either just a little less bad, or perhaps even a little worse than American media in horribly twisting information about and commentary on Venezuela. I think it ought to concern Spanish leftists that the Spanish left is among the most critical of Venezuela in the world. Is it because Spanish leftists are right and smarter than leftists in other places? Or is it because Spanish leftists have been subjected to more propaganda from the mainstream than have leftists in many other places? 

Second, to what degree is their perception knee-jerk rather than informed? In your question, for example, you don’t say based on this evidence and that evidence, and despite its accomplishments and its massive support among the poor, Spanish anarchists and progressives think…such and such. You say it seems to Spanish leftists…such and such. Well, why does it seem so to them? Is it insight based on information? Or is uninformed bias based on mainstream propaganda, or even based on nothing but an expectation, as discussed earlier, that it must be so because some text says that it will be so?

Third, it strikes me as quite odd that anarchists, so intent – like myself – on the importance of participation and its centrality to good results – would think that everything in Venezuela hinges on one person. Was Chavez very important to what has happened? Certainly he was. Is he alone in being important? No. There is a tremendous dismissiveness, it seems to me, in having never been there and never talked with average folks in councils and communes, and nonetheless decreeing that somehow average folks in councils and communes are irrelevant to what has occurred and their love for Chavez was ignorant or  manipulated. Is it possibly the case? Yes. Should it be assumed to be the case without a whole lot of evidence? No. 

Will the Bolivarian government become more repressive toward dissent as time passes? How about wondering whether the right wing, the death squads, and the U.S. interventions will become more severe? The intent of all that, unless and until it can literally topple the government and take over, is, I would argue, precisely to compel the government of Venezuela to occupy itself with thwarting assassination plots and dealing with sabotage, and, in so doing, to become more centralized and repressive. You can find me asking Minister Rodriquez about that, in that interview we did. And he agrees about it, and recognizes the danger. So, it may happen. But the odds it will happen are increased by every leftist who fails to take seriously what is going on, fails to develop informed opinions about it, and fails to engage in activity relating to it, based on real evidence and not preconceived assumptions.

 

Venezuela’s Future

Don’t you ever doubt it might turn out to be something else? What makes you believe this attempt to slowly turn power to the people is genuine?

Of course I worry about it turning out to be something else, or becoming distorted into something else, or just being overthrown. But why should having doubts about outcomes cause anyone to proclaim that it will fail, or that it is failing, while doing nothing to help? I find that hard to understand. It suggests the aim is to be right in a prediction, or to have views that are acceptable to one’s mates, say – or to only back a certain winner – rather than to play a positive, active, role in what are inevitably uncertain events. 

For the Bolivarian revolution to become repressive and otherwise oriented like many revolutions in the past would be a huge loss of potential benefits for Venezuelans, and, I would say, for the world. What angers me is the folks who would sort of feel vindicated or verified, by the revolution failing, instead of sick at heart over it, should it happen. 

Given the evidence we have, I think there is good reason to take Venezuelan events very seriously. I find it very difficult to look at all the Bolivarian projects and policies, particularly the councils and emerging communes, and to not see sincere desires for libertarian outcomes among many of the ranking revolutionaries, and for virtually every rank and filer I have engaged with. In that situation, to look the other way, to be dismissive, to avoid engaging, seems to me to contribute to the likelihood of bad outcomes, so why would I want to do any of that?

How about judge Afiuni? Even Chomsky protested the government prosecutions against her. 

Actually, that isn’t quite right. Noam wanted her released as a humanitarian gesture because she was ostensibly very ill. That is not an unusual stance, but one that certainly wouldn’t have been used by honest commentators to imply that Noam was anti Venezuela, or even that he had an opinion regarding her guilt or innocence. In fact, I don’t think the Afiuni case for clemency was as clear as Noam thought. She seemed to me to have horribly violated her office. There seemed to be some exaggeration of her illness. The trial wasn’t taking place because the defense was preventing it happy to prolong pretrial confinement. That people in the U.S., with Guantanamo, with the highest incarceration levels in the world, would get overly excited about this not even clear cut case, strikes me as just the usual hypocrisy. Not Noam, who was simply asking for a humanitarian act, as he does in countless cases, but others in the media. 

Folks want the Venezuelans to deal with corruption, cheating, etc. A judge violates her office, favoring an opposition perspective, and is jailed, and everyone goes ballistic that there is some kind of repression going on – not Noam – but media, etc. Then later there will be complaints from the same media about not prosecuting enough people for corruption. The events don’t matter much to the media, just how they can spin them. Afiuni was released into house arrest, by the way, and recently entirely released, on health grounds, I believe.

But, let’s say her violations weren’t so major – which may be true, how would I know for sure – and that her sickness was real, and so on. Then this would be a case worthy of petitioning the government as Noam did, because he believed all that. But it would be incredibly far from reasonable to dismiss the Bolivarian revolution on such grounds. 

I have noticed that in my country of birth, in France, the press reports rather objectively about what goes on in Venezuela, unlike any paper in Spain from the mainstream. I know that in the U.S. it is even worse than Spain. How can anyone separate good reporting from the biased?

My guess would be the French reporting is only good by comparison to Spain, not objectively. I don’t know, though. It is very hard for an average person to make such separations, of course. But for a leftist, much less an anarchist, it should be a lot simpler. a) Their perspective should make them easily as dubious of mainstream reporting about a revolutionary project as it makes them dubious about any revolutionary project itself, b) they have plenty of means to find more information and so they ought to do that, and then compare, and see what they think, and c) in any case, at least in my view, they should not lightly dismiss a project that has so much popular support in Venezuela, has taken such visibly progressive and left stances, and, in particular, has instituted so many institutional changes of great merit. 

Of course you do not want to mindlessly employ the formulation that my enemy’s enemy is my friend – so if the United States is hostile to Venezuela, I have to support Venezuela, even without looking at Venezuela. But you also don’t want to mindlessly employ the formulation that my beliefs tell me that in most cases something like a state-led transformation can’t be good, so I reject every state led transformation, even without looking at actual features. The first mistake is bad and can be harmful, but so is the second. And, by the way, one of the gravest errors of the Venezuelan leadership and to an extent Venezuela’s population too, is similar: enemies of the U.S. are necessarily our friends and anything with origins in the U.S. is necessarily our enemy, are both widespread but harmful Venezuelan views.

 

Current Crises?

Recently there has been what seems like a lot of turmoil in Venezuela, due to policy mistakes causing shortages, cases of corruption, etc., and in response, perhaps a turn toward centralizing and repressing. Is that how you see it?

There is certainly corruption, though I think it is greatly exaggerated as most polls verify. And there are certainly shortages, also exaggerated, but still quite real. But a critical factor in all this, I think, is movements and a national government trying to serve popular interests in a society that still has a capitalist owning class and privately owned media each hell bent on blocking the changes and returning to their past dominance. 

To me, what is happening now looks a lot like the way in which local elites who were backed and spurred on by U.S. policy, combined to eliminate Salvador Allende in Chile. 

  • Mess up the economy by creating shortages and inflation.
  • Disrupt electric networks.
  • Use media to blame it all on the government.
  • Finance an opposition.
  • Challenge for control, militarily if possible, as in Chile, and as tried about a decade ago in Venezuela, but, if that’s not possible, then pursue it more patiently.

So what can the Venezuelan government do? Arguably, one essential step is to prevent relatively few owners from exercising vast impact on social outcomes, and I believe this ultimately requires taking away their control over economic units. They are moving toward that in Venezuela, and rightly so, in my opinion. 

Does doing that involve government interventions? Yes. If old owners resist restraints on their power and losses in their wealth that such changes will impose on them, will they have to be prevented from having their way? Yes, certainly. A very few powerful actors have to lose gargantuan benefits so that those benefits can be shared more fairly throughout society. But here is the key issue. To what extent will the steps toward diminishing concentrations of private wealth and power be undertaken in ways that transfer influence and power from a relatively few owners to the relatively many workers in the affected units, and then, as well, to citizens all over the country, or, to what extent, instead, will it be done in ways that transfer the influence from private elites only to the government? This is a real question, and it represents a potential fork in the road for Venezuela. 

I should add that I think U.S. interventionist policy understands that it has two broad ways that it can win in Venezuela, but only one way that it can lose. Vile U.S. intrusions can win, of course, if they lead to overthrowing the government and replacing it with horribly repressive agents of elite dominance, as occurred in Chile, for example. But U.S. intrusions can also win by causing Venezuela, in self defense, to slide toward authoritarian options, rather than Venezuela further empowering the populace. Then, instead of Venezuela being a good example which might spread to threaten U.S. interests in many more places, it becomes yet another instance of anti capitalism failing to generate desirable results.

In contrast, Venezuela’s people win, the Bolivarian revolution wins, and people worldwide win, if, to ward off the incursions by U.S. policy as well as the reactionary agendas of homegrown Venezuelan elites, Venezuela moves in participatory and radical rather than centralizing and authoritarian directions. Historically, and given the residue of past influences and habits, that is very hard to accomplish. We’ll see what happens, but everyone of good will should be hoping for the participatory and radical outcomes, and should be realizing that it can happen, and therefore, if able, we should contribute to it. 

Are there policies or steps we might see, from outside, that would indicate or reveal which path is being taken?

Yes, I think it will be evident, in time, where it is all headed, but it is hard to say what specific steps would reveal that, because specific choices are so tied up with possibilities at the current moment, and because their implications are so connected to current contextual factors, all of which are hard to know from outside. Broadly, however, I would say that steps that strengthen government power without establishing real limits plus offsetting gains for popular power, would be ominous. Steps that strengthen local councils and communes and that enlarge public participation in general and that reveal aims and develop informed popular support for them, would be promising. 

At that level, abstracting from the details, thinking about Venezuela is not very different than thinking about anywhere else. For Venezuela to become a stable classless economy plus, equally important, feminist, culturally pluralist or intercommunalist and anti-racist, and politically participatory and public, it will have to have a large proportion of its population – let’s say two thirds – fully understanding the sought ends in those areas and committed to accomplishing them. That level of popular clarity plus active involvement, as best I can tell, doesn’t remotely exist, yet – though there may be more of such involvement in Venezuela than in any other country in the world. It follows that success requires a massive advance in the popular understanding of vision for Venezuela. 

How does something like that happen? Well, partly through activity and the lessons of experiences, as it has so far, but also partly through direct consciousness raising about goals and methods – explicit efforts. So, perhaps it would involve a massive education and debate campaign, on the same scale as the prior literacy campaign. This might begin in the PSUV to develop useful procedures, but also in time spread into the whole society. Seeing something broadly like that would be very promising, I think.

Another positive sign would be if there was a very intentional and sustained outreach to opposition supporters in the large cities, in particular. Not to the owners, etc., but explicitly to the working class supporters and the lower level coordinator class supporters of the opposition. This wouldn’t be so much about winning votes, as about gaining real sustained and informed support. And for that reason it won’t be accomplished by political posters in an election campaign, but only by sustained face to face communications, cooperation, etc. So, signs of that kind of outreach would be promising, too, I think.

Another major factor is how to handle the old owners in general, and in the media, in particular. Here I would say that not so promising – though better than nothing – would be typical nationalizations with emissaries of the government coming into the units and running them, but with the structure of the units essentially unchanged other than the removal of past owners. Would that have some positive effects? Yes, I think so, for example curbing the economic war on the Bolivarians that is being waged by those owners. But, beyond that, this kind of nationalization wouldn’t directly do anything for the really libertarian and hopeful possibilities in Venezuela, and actually, it could even impede them in various ways, auguring centralization. On the other hand, if economic units – and media – are liberated from their current owners into the hands of workers in those units, subject, as well, to influence by the rest of society and especially to influence by consumers of the outputs of those units – with the latter occurring perhaps by way of councils and communes, and even by fledgling mechanisms of participatory planning, that would be a very very positive sign. 

One can also imagine, I think, steps having to do with family law and relations, education methods and allocations, clarity about journalism and freedom of expression, minimum wages and other economic policy, trade arrangements, environmental policies such as the price of gasoline, and much else that are not only immediately progressive but would portend more gains to come, all in a form leading very self consciously and clearly toward participatory rather than centralized, and classless rather than coordinatorist outcomes.

Finally, do you think you will eventually get to do the long in depth interview with President Maduro? If you do get to do it, do you think you will be impressed with his answers? Do you think it could help with the consciousness raising effort you mention above, in Venezuela, and outside too, I guess.

I don’t know if it will happen. I hope so. And yes, I think there is much to learn from Venezuela’s experiences that isn’t being shared so that an interview could be very instructive and have very positive effects on people outside in dealing with their own situations – if it is sufficiently in depth, and not mere puffery, so to speak. I also think that ignorance about the Venezuelan experience is obstructing solidarity, and might be greatly reduced by such an interview. 

And if it does happen, yes, I also think and certainly hope that Maduro’s answers will be, for many, very surprising, and very inspiring and impressive. And if that is the case, then yes, I also think they could help greatly with critically important consciousness raising inside Venezuela by putting a very clear formulation of many dimensions of the goals of Bolivarian revolution forward to be learned from, debated ,and refined, finally becoming part of public consciousness able to fuel further advances.

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