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Chasing Chavez


Twenty Eight months ago, over night a change transformed what had already been a long standing but relatively low energy “project” of mine from very long shot to a seeming sure shot. The project went from commanding very partial attention in the flow of all else on my plate, sort of like an important side dish – to being the main course in my focus. It relegated all else to second, third, or lesser position.

What happened in mid February 2008 is that as a favor Noam Chomsky sent a message to Andres Izarra, then Communications Minister of Venezuela, addressed, however, to President Chavez. Chomsky’s message accompanied a second message and three “proposals” I prepared, and testified to the proposal’s value and my seriousness. Later, a fourth proposal was added to the list.

The first proposal suggested establishing a yearly Bolivar Internationalist Solidarity Prize on the same fiscal, celebratory, and media scale as the yearly Swedish Nobel Prize, but awarded in Caracas not Stockholm, and given for revolutionary contributions not science.

The prize would create solidarity ties between recipients and sponsors, plus positive media attention for Venezuela and recipients to promote exemplary political activities around the world. Various features were proposed such as that recipients give half their prize to people in other countries doing related work.

The second proposal suggested establishing a Bolivarian publishing project to initiate and or translate books from around the world for a mass audience in Venezuela and Latin America. The publishing project would pick worthy books by trustworthy authors from all continents. The authors could in turn be given a typical commercial advance and would visit Venezuela for talks. ??The publishing project would provide excellent books to Venezuelans and other Spanish readers, while generating unchallengeable financial support for leftists around the world and, via the conduit of those leftists, for diverse projects, movements, etc. The commercial financial arrangement would be unimpeachable in the mainstream, even as the authors – given who they would be – would redistribute advances to revolutionary projects and movements.

The third proposal requested an in-depth interview with President Chavez with two main purposes – that the President offer lessons and inspiration from the Bolivarian experience for activists around the world, and also address serious concerns that sincere supporters and critics have, especially concerns which impede solidarity from international activists.

The fourth proposal – added a bit later – was an invitation to participate in the project called Reimagining Society, thereby adding a whole new dimension to that project’s exchange of visionary and strategic ideas, and also a suggested that Venezuela consider the possibility of hosting a gathering of from as few as 200 to as many as 2,000 or more participants aimed at arriving at shared vision and strategy sufficient to sustain new national and international organization and program.

Still later, when President Chavez announced a call for a New International, the fourth proposal morphed into a new form which sought endorsement of the Proposal for a Participatory Socialist International spin off from the Resoc project.

The aim was for the internationally based PSI Proposal to become a focus for further discussion and exploration of ideas about a new International, preparatory to convening one.

From the outset, the interview proposal was intended to be extensive. Core questions were conceived and conveyed (and at the end of this post, for those interested, I include a much abbreviated list of those questions) addressing the following broad areas of focus…

The interview would start with questions about Bolivarian politics including priority attention to the nature, role, strategies, and lessons of the Communal Councils and political parties, concerns about a Chavez’s own centrality and even a possible cult of personality, the issue of term limits, the problems of dealing with diverse types of opposition and intervention, various issues of law and courts, and various issues of current and envisioned future communications and media, and of course associated lessons.

Next up was to be 21st Century Socialist or Bolivarian economics, including the scope of its anti capitalist and socialist attachments and specifically its attitudes to property, income, division of labor, economic decision making, and markets and central planning as well as allocation more generally. This economic section was to explore Venezuela’s recent economic history and especially its aims vis a vis economic structures for the future. Also up for discussion would be matters of education and health, matters of the ecology and global warming including Venezuelan oil prices and policies, and matters of the conditions of the whole economy.

The third set of questions was to focus on matters of kinship and gender, culture and community, including experiences, lessons and concerns regarding the situation of women and feminism, matters of family law and familial relations, and of sexuality and age, and of race, ethnicity, religion, and culture more broadly.

Another proposed interview focus was to be international relations including left foreign policy, new positive but also questionable Venezuelan alliances, current and ideal trade policies in Latin America and more broadly, left activist solidarity in general and particularly regarding Venezuela, and of course US imperialism including its machinations and Venezuelan plans, plus related discussion of the idea for and possible members, aims, methods, and structure of a new International.

Returning to the pivotal day twenty eight months ago, the morning after Chomsky sent his and my letters and the proposals, I went to my desk ready for a day’s work on Z matters. The first item in my inbox, however, was an email from Chomsky, telling me that the package had gone. The second item was a message from Minister Izarra, but before I could even open it, there was a phone call I answered, and it was Minister Izarra replying to the package. With me a bit flustered and incredibly surprised by the rapid response, we chatted.

My surprise kept escalating as Izarra told me that he and the President really liked all the proposals and the interview and I should prepare to come down and hammer out details of the former and conduct the later – with he, the President, and me meeting for the purpose. He and the President were off to Brazil for meetings in just a couple of days – and could I join them? While agreeing to go, I however also suggested it might be better to wait until they returned to do an uninterrupted interview, to which Izarra agreed.

They returned about a week later, and there then ensued the roller coaster experience that has dominated relations since. To detail the ups and downs would take way to long. Monthly, weekly, and sometimes even daily letters from Chomsky and I, meetings by me with the Venezuelan Embassy Ambassador, UN Ambassador, the Boston and New York Consul Generals – a trip to Venezuela to get a prize and give a speech, and, more important, to interview a number of Venezuelans about the revolution (those interviews are online on ZCom, of course). More back and forth, more up and down. Then a trip to Caracas with Chomsky, talks, sessions, and also a meeting with Chavez, with agreements to proceed, even right then – but it didn’t happen – and then later through intermediaries a few times additional positive plans, but again, it hasn’t happened. 

Obviously the President of any country is very busy – and in the case of Venezuela with its central role in international affairs and prospects and its tumultuous revolution, all the more so, and then some. So diverse and long delays were expected. Still, twenty eight months should cause even the most optimistic to wonder, is it just the difficulty of scheduling such extensive sessions that has interfered, as has been repeatedly suggested, or have I perhaps done something to disrupt or diminish the probability of a successful conclusion to this saga?

I don’t know the answer to that, but the need for a serious interview to address left concerns around the world is so great, and the possible value of the various proposals is so great, that I feel the time has come to make known the possibilities so others may pick up the ball if I have in fact been a poor carrier of it.

The experience to date has included, I should say, a remarkable level of support from a number of folks working incredibly hard and tirelessly to bring this process to a successful conclusion including Greg Wilpert of Venezuela Analysis and numerous Venezuelan officials. We have all been largely publicly silent about the ongoing status of the process because after telling people 28 months ago about Minister Izarra’s communiques, we realized that to raise people’s hopes without certainty was harmful…and so beyond close friends, we kept mum at each step, always feeling that success and meetings, and thus visibility, were just a phone call away.

Here then, believe it or not, is the shortest list of proposed questions I have prepared for President Chavez. A much much longer list exists as well – and while I will certainly have the longer list available if I get to sit with the President, a sense of proportion about his time pressures suggests that even this short list may stretch the bounds of the possible.

Of course another interviewer would prepare their own queries, longer or shorter or both. I would hope, however, that if I, or someone else, does get the opportunity to sit with President Chavez, that that other person or I will successfully explore at least the issues represented here, addressing both lessons and concerns, and thereby assessing diverse centrally important aspects of the Bolivarian revolutionary experience.

The Proposed Interview Questions

Communal Councils…

Is it correct that you seek to bring into existence 50,000 communal councils containing essentially the whole population of Venezuela in these grass roots organs of power? Do they then become the new seat and source of power? How would this work? How do the local councils transcend or replace more familiar institutions?

What plans exist for federations of councils above the local level to deal with more encompassing issues, propel broader debates, etc.? Is this what you are calling communes?

Political Parties

??It has been said that that the PSUV is everyone who supports the revolution. Couldn’t some people take that to mean that anyone who isn’t in the party doesn’t support the revolution, and isn’t that a recipe for narrowing debate and elitist exclusion?

Can you have 2, 3, or more parties all of which support the revolution, but which have different views about program, or is the idea that there would one party and factions inside the party that would express different views? If the latter, what prevents the familiar historic subordination and finally dissolution of such factions?

I have heard that the bylaws of the new party state that it operates under the principle of “democratic centralism”. If so, do you respond to widespread criticism that “democratic centralism” is in fact fundamentally anti-democratic and incompatible with the development of factions and diversity generally within the party and then also in the broader society?

Personality Cult?

On a point that concerns many supporters, you know that many folks say that there is a personality cult around you. They base their argument on the lack of leaders who enjoy anything like as much popularity as you and on the existence of slogans such as "Chavez is the people" "With Chavez anything without Chavez nothing" "Who is against Chavez is against the people." What do you say about this concern?

History has shown that slipping into authoritarian patterns can be very hard to avoid, and when there is such love for a leader, there is little inclination to be vigilant against authoritarian trends. What do you think?

Term Limits

I asked Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice Fernando Vegas what he thought about changing the laws so you could run for office over and over, something that bothers many leftists who fully support the Bolivarian revolution. Vegas’s reply was, why not? I said in 2012 – Vegas said yes. I said in 2018, 2024, Vegas said maybe.

So what do you think about all this – both putting too much power in too few hands, and the absence of more hands ready to participate? And to make the concern even more clear – if I could use an analogy, what would have been your reaction, were you in the U.S., if Reagan or Bush, or for that matter Clinton or Obama, sought to eliminate term limits?

Dealing with Opponents

Your government’s most aggressive opponent is not only the elements responsible for trying to topple you outright, but also those working more legally, but concerned to protect old ways against new ways. This includes owners not wanting to give up their high rates of profit and even property holdings blocking economic programs, officials like mayors and governors from the old regimes wanting to preserve or return to oligarchic ways and blocking the communal councils, many managers and professionals wanting to forestall a drive toward more equitable distribution of power and wealth blocking redistribution and holding back worker’s democracy, old media moguls constantly attacking you and the Bolivarian project blaming you for all the delays and disruptions caused by the above opponents, and old police units and others as well engaged in violent intimidation, corruption, and crime – and it even includes some working people who are fixed in their ways and worried about change, mostly about mythological assertions of scary Bolivarian aims, but sometimes about real issues they would find disruptive.

I know this is a big question, but I wonder what your strategies are for dealing with these various opponents?

21st Century Socialist Economics?

What does being anti-capitalist mean to you? Do you reject capitalism’s defining features including private ownership of productive assets, income given for property, power, and/or output, corporate divisions of labor where about 20% of those who work empowered by their responsibilities and about 80% of those who work reduced to rote obedience by their tasks, and competitive markets for allocation?

You are for 21st Century Socialism. What does that mean? First, Regarding Property, do you think private ownership of productive property needs to be reduced and finally eliminated to attain an economy without class hierarchies and if so, what obstacles obstruct eliminating private ownership at a faster pace right away in Venezuela?

Second, Regarding Income, suppose someone in factory who has a job much more onerous than another person in the same factory says to you that she thinks she deserves higher pay than the manager who works in an air conditioned office. Do you have sympathy with her view? What would you say to her?

More generally, instead of paying people for their property or their bargaining power or even for their output, what do you think about remunerating people only for how long they work, for how hard they work, and for the onerousness of conditions under which they do their socially valued labor? ??What impedes the government from deciding tomorrow to rebuild the barrios in a massive public works project that would create better housing and schools, improving the lot of so many people?

Third, Regarding Division of Labor, in 20th century socialism, and also under capitalism, about 20% of the workforce does all the empowering work and, by virtue of that, also earns way more income and has way more influence than more rote workers below. About 80%, in contrast, do rote and repetitive work that leaves them exhausted and steadily less knowledgeable and confident. To transcend this division, what do you think of the idea of each worker having a mix of tasks in their overall responsibilities, so that each does some empowering work and some rote work and on average the empowerment effect of work is comparable for all workers?

What prevents beginning to incorporate a new division of labor in state enterprises and public administration now, or whatever other steps would reduce class hierarchy there?

Fourth, Regarding Economic Decision Making, in capitalism workplaces are incredibly authoritarian. What do you think about the decision making norm that people should have a say in decisions in proportion to the extent they are affected by those decisions?

What obstructs implementing such self-managing structures in Venezuelan workplaces right now? What plans are there to overcome the obstacles?

Fifth, Regarding Allocation, what is your feeling about markets where each actor competes with the rest, and prices are determined by that competition?

Do you have a reaction to what’s called participatory planning – where workers and consumers councils cooperatively negotiate inputs and outputs in light of full social and environmental costs and benefits and without competition or top down imposition?

As a long term goal, do you want to have markets or central planning for allocation, or would it be more accurate to say you want to have some kind of cooperative negotiation between producers’ councils and consumers’ councils that arrive at a plan for the economy, without a command structure at the top and without competition?

Finally, regarding the Whole Economy, is it fair to say in light of your earlier answers, that unlike what has characterized 20th Century socialism, you are seeking participation as a key ingredient, and self management via worker and consumer councils, and equitable remuneration? And that you reject markets and central planning and prefer some kind of cooperative decentralized negotiation?

If you are dropping markets, central planning, corporate divisions of labor, and remuneration for power and output, all of which have characterized socialism until now, I wonder, why do you want to keep the name socialism? Doesn’t it risk confusing people about your aims? Why not call what you are seeking for the economy, Bolivarian Economics or perhaps even Participatory Economics? And then, if you want to keep the word socialism, perhaps the whole society could be called participatory socialism? What is your reaction to this?

Communications and Media

Regarding the mainstream newspapers and other media owned and controlled by the rich, so active in attempting to create mayhem and hate, what is the cause of your patience in allowing them to persist? Is it concern about free speech, or is it more about the tactics of how to go about social change successfully?

Venezuela seems to be torn between private media, controlled by a few elites, and state media, controlled by the government, with a smaller role played by community media. But what about truly grassroots, democratic media? Could that be the media of the future for Venezuela? 

Judiciary: Law and Courts

In September 2008, I interviewed Fernando Vegas, justice of the Venezuelan Supreme Court. For Vegas the key idea seemed to be that the constitution says that Venezuela is a state of law and social justice, not just law. What are the implications of saying it is law and justice, rather than just law?

What do you think would happen now and what do you think should happen, if a worker came to the Venezuelan courts and said, I know the law says that it is okay for my employer to pay me the wage I am getting, but it is unjust. I should be paid much more. How would, or should, the court react?

Old Laws in New Context

To what extent does it make sense, or not, for the Bolivarian Revolution to obey laws constructed for an entirely different time and purpose and to abide institutions with those old roots, as well?

As an example, the old law says that the owner has a right to their property and to the profit they can generate via paying exploitative wages, and Venezuela still abides that law.

Insofar as you are an advocate of revolution, don’t you feel torn at times, by old laws you hope to transcend yet you must defend?

Education

You didn’t take over the old universities and public schools as your strategy, but instead created a new Bolivarian University and local literacy missions.

What is the difference from the old to the new?

What was the strategy in building these new models next to the old failed approaches, but not taking over the whole system directly? Is the strategy working?

Health

The U.S. the health system is profit driven. If profits can be enhanced by delivering health, that is fine with the owners – but if profits require acts that subvert the health of workers on the job, communities, and even actual patients – that’s okay with profit-seekers too.

What is it about prior approaches to health care that you reject and seek to get beyond?

What alternative health care ideas are being developed in Venezuela? What should be the character of health care in a good society?

Kinship and Gender

You said, at the WSF in Caracas, that Venezuela’s socialism would be feminist. What does that mean to you? What efforts are being pursued to make Venezuela a feminist society?

Are the changes that are occurring in daycare, health, and education leading to changes in the way men and women are relating in the household?

What else is being done to reduce machismo, to get men to share housework and take responsibility for child care?

Are men different now than they were in the past? Are you? Is there any discussion in Venezuela about changing family structure, marriage, or parenting? Are there efforts to address homophobia and the rights of gays and lesbians more generally?

Culture and Community

What do you feel ought to be the future relation between church and state? How are you handling this relationship currently?

What is the scale of the problem that still exists around race in Venezuela, regarding the indigenous and afro-Venezuelan black communities?

What is the goal regarding issues of race, ethnicity, religion, and cultural communities more broadly?

Regarding race and religion, what do you think should be the situation of different racial groups, ethnic groups, and religions, in a future Venezuela?

Ecology and Global Warming

How would Bolivarian economics or perhaps we can all it participatory socialism to encompass the government and other aspects as well, make a difference both in Venezuela – and, then, were it to exist more widely, internationally, regarding global warming and ecology more broadly as well?

What can be done, given the historical legacy and context, about Venezuela’s antiGreen oil price/subsidy system?

Given that Venezuela is a major oil exporter and that the buring of oil is the primary factor in causing global warming, how do you see Venezuela’s responsibility with regard to preventing global warming?

International Relations

Looking into the future, what do you think ought to be the foreign policy approach of a worthy, desirable society, in a revolutionized world full of revolutionized countries?

In contrast, what do you think ought to be the foreign policy approach of a worthy, desirable society, such as Venezuela today, in the current world, that is full of imperial greed and violence?

Many sincere and supportive progressives around the world have been concerned about your government’s collaboration with governments that they consider to be human rights abusers such as the government of Iran or China. Do you think it is necessary for a progressive/socialist government to engage with governments that massively abuse human rights and repress their own populations?

Couldn’t this lead to muting criticism of Iran’s religious police or of China’s treatment of Tibet, for example, because of the needs of international diplomacy? More generally, how do you think a progressive government should deal with such issues?

Current Trade Policies

When engaging in trade, does Venezuela exchange at going market rates, or do you negotiate terms of exchange with other variables in mind?

What permits Venezuela to pay attention to other variables, ignoring or violating market prices when justice requires doing so?

Can you explain the Bolivarian effort to forge Latin American alliances and, particularly, to engage in exchanges not on market terms but negotiated for fairness – and can you perhaps also explain why you aren’t even more aggressive about promoting these efforts so others hear about them, and about urging the importance of others behaving similarly?

Left Solidarity

What do you think should be the role of leftists around the world vis a vis Venezuela? What do you think we who are outside of Venezuela could do differently and better?


US Imperialism

The major role of U.S. government and U.S. government funded groups such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Agency for International Development (AID) in funding opposition groups in Venezuela to overthrow your government through electoral and other means including violence are well known. Their behavior recalls Chile from 1970 to 1973, and Nicaragua from 1970 to 1990. Why don’t you ban their activities in Venezuela and their funding and organizing of the opposition?

To justify overt intervention rather than just economic pressure, the U.S. might seek to promote secessionist movements of oil regions, and use those domestic desires – real or fabricated – as a pretext for intervention. Do you have any plans to forestall this?


The Fifth International

You have announced that Venezuela is going to take initiative in convening a fifth International. Can you clarify what you have in mind for this project? Who do you think will be part of it? Parties? Unions? Projects? Movements?

What do you think will be, or should be, the conditions to be a member?

What do you think will be, or should be, the International’s overarching goals?

How do you think the International will or should, function?

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