In early September I went to Venezuela to give a talk about economic vision at a conference there. I stayed a week, and with Greg Wilpert interviewed numerous people about the Bolivarian Revolution. These interviews will appear in coming days and weeks on ZCom.
Here, then, is an extensive interview we did about the polity in Venezuela, held with Julio Chavez, Mayor of Carora and prominent activist in all dimensions of the Bolivarian Revolution, especially concerning the Communal Councils.
– Michael Albert
To get started, how would you say being a Bolivarian Mayor is different from being a Mayor before 1998?
When we first came into office, and before that, the Mayor was protecting the interest of the oligarchy, not the people. Only a handful of families was in control of the land, finances, communications, agriculture, and all the assets. And they also upheld and were within the Religious hierarchy. They excluded the majority of the population from determining the life of the society
They even had clubs where they would meet that only family members could enter – and even the Church had sections and seats that were reserved for these family members.
Indeed, up until 1960, this small group of families controlled everything in town. When there was a marriage, the first night the owner of the hacienda sponsoring the wedding would even have the right to spend the night with the bride.
There was for 45 years, during the democratic period, government protecting the interests of the local land owning families. Assets were privatized in a few hands.
When the Bolivarian government came into office, things began to change. The head of the Catholic Church of the municipality, for example, a local Bishop, was until then receiving a lifelong pension from the Major and was cousin of the owners of the largest Hacienda.
We won the Mayoralty without being part of the traditional political structures. We defeated the President’s candidate and also the candidate of the Oligarchy. I was supported by the various social movements and some very left parties, and became Mayor.
When we came into office one of the first decisions was to take away the pension of the Bishop and this elicited attacks from the Church. Everywhere Church officials put up signs saying Mayor Chavez is attacking the Church. Every Sunday during mass, the Church would attack me as the centerpiece of their preaching.
This was because previously the Government and Church worked together hand in hand, as with the Pension for the Bishop. So our removing the pension was an important step because in that way we not only began to reduce the sway of the Oligarchy in general, we also opened the door to other religious groups to participate – which was also mandated in the new Constitution.
One of the other things that we did was to take control of the Municipal Enterprises which had previously been privatized and were in the hands of the prior Mayor, a member of the Oligarchy, in that way ensuring that the revenues of those enterprises would go to the public, the municipality, not the elite.
We took those operations over with the help of their workers who had been very exploited, not even getting a minimum wage much less benefits they should also have gotten.
There was a slaughter house, for example, which with the help of the workers we took over, thereafter incorporating the workers in decision making, improving their conditions, raising their wages, etc.
Another thing that we did was regarding the land where we started to examine the ownership titles and discovered that the Oligarchy was claiming land that had never been theirs, and so the Mayor’s Office began taking that back for the citizens.
Even in the cities the Oligarchy had taken control of much land, but now the people are retaking control of it. Part of the town was an exhibition area for cattle, under control of the land owners, which we also had to take back.
There were even rivers, in the past, that the Oligarchy had redirected for their personal benefit, giving their Hacienda’s and sugar plantations the best water. So another thing we had to do was to redirect the rivers back to their original routes so the populations in the towns down river were no longer cut off from water.
There are many more examples. We had to move from a very statist capitalism toward people having control and power and it was and still is a rocky path.
All kind of radicals and leftists use the phrases `participatory democracy’ and `self management’ but they very rarely explain what they mean. So, what do these terms mean to you in the political sphere of life? I would like to know what is guiding your thinking – philosophically, for the moment, more than examples.
For me participatory democracy has to do with using knowledge and consciousness. It is a process that starts with the political formation and includes building of consciousness and then taking action. It is more than just saying people should make decisions, but instead involves a real transformation of the people involved so they can make decisions.
To be involved in participatory democracy people need to gain knowledge and then to take action. To give the people all the tools necessary so the people can become the state, knowledge, technology, etc.
You described earlier how before the Bolivarian victory a small number of Oligarchs had almost all influence, and most people had none. So the question arises, what is the appropriate level of influence for people to have?
Previously you couldn’t talk about having the knowledge and tools, so you couldn’t talk about having influence, except for the elite families, many of whom studied abroad, in the U.S., etc.
The elite families had all the knowledge. In effect they were representing the people, but were serving mainly themselves. So now, we are trying to give all the tools and knowledge to the people so they can have a say.
But even if you do that, it is still true that sometimes you should have more say, or sometimes someone else should. Well, how do you feel about this norm? The idea that you should have a say in decisions, an influence on decisions, in proportion to the degree you are affected by them?
Yes, but first of all we want to transfer knowledge to the people. We have different levels of assemblies. We have assemblies that name delegates, and these delegates then name council members, which is known in Venezuela as the council for public planning. Now we try to make sure that everyone is discussing and consulting on decisions that were previously made only by the government.
Previously it was just the government that made decisions like a cabal. Now decisions are made in the open, publicly, after people have a say.
The Ministry of popular power, I think it was, said there were 19,000 communal councils in 2007. Where did they come from? In 1997 there were none. Ten years later there are 19,000. How did they come into existence?
Basically, when the President first launched the proposal for Communal Councils, they had to be formed. The national government, state government, and very local government, existed, as before. The President then put out as a goal for them establishing 50,000 communal councils.
So according to the law, they were supposed to form throughout the country, with 200 to 300 families each in cities, and 20 to 40 in rural areas. And then calculating it would take about 50,000 to cover the country.
So you want to know what distinguished whether some area developed a communal council or not? A big variable was support, or not, from the local Mayors.
Some Mayors don’t understand the importance, or don’t like the idea, and don’t try hard to develop the councils. Some feel like the councils are a knife at their throat. They feel like the President is going to deal with the communal councils rather than the mayors and governors, so they are being reduced in their power.
I think that as Mayors we need to realize that developing communal councils is the way we need to go, because this is what the new constitution is mandating for creating participatory democracy. But if you look at our local region, we have a population of about 200,000 people and so far have 523 communal councils in comparison with another nearby area that has about 2 million people but only about the same number of councils, so it is only one tenth as effective.
Did the call to create the councils mean that the Mayor’s Offices should send out organizers to help people join together into these communal councils?
Yes, that is basically the way it worked. I myself, and of course others from our office too, went out to help people get together. And when the President later created a Commission for Communal Councils, I was the only Mayor put on it because we had been so energetic in our efforts.
So for some Mayors the path you suggest feels as if it were suicide, going out and contributing to their own decline.
Let’s look at your attitude. Suppose communal councils here come up with something you don’t like. They have something they want implemented, and you want it not to be implemented. What happens?
The Communal Councils are an expression of the territory where people live, and within that area they are the natural leadership.
In some communal councils our candidates, ones supporting the revolution, were not elected but instead anti-Chavistas. So for example, in our area there is a communal council that belongs to the Oligarchy, essentially. They aren’t with us, but they have invited us to meetings where we discuss their concerns.
But I am trying to understand not just inclusion, but power. When the Mayors think that it is suicide to build the communal councils, I assume it is because they think that the Communal Councils will be able to over rule them and be the real seat of power. Is that your vision? Is that what you want to see happen?
Yes, and I will give you an example. Here in the town of Carora there are revenues from three different sources, one having to do with oil, one with taxes, and the third is a fund from the state and general revenues. But finally 100% of all revenues are going into one fund and the regulations say we have to give some of that to the 17 parishes that are part of the municipality. So the investment budget is about 2 million dollars for the municipality.
The state we are in has nine municipalities. About 40% of the territory is the largest one. Ours is smaller. There are four phases for construction of local public power. First the local budgets, the participatory budget, the communal councils, the overall commune or constituent assembly. And we are creating a constitution for the municipality, following the example of the national level, locally. When the new constitution was created the old ordinances of the Municipalities became obsolete. And now we are working out new rules, not just discussed by specialists and lawyers, but discussed by the population.
So the entire fund we take to the public planning council based on the communal councils. All of the parish councils participate in this. Depending on the size, territory population, and population density, the parishes receive a proportion of the total budget.
So here in the capital, Carora, we do a diagnosis of the needs of the particular parishes. And so, for example, I thought the main problem for Carora itself, where I am Mayor, was holes that marred the roads. But the assembly said the main problem was not the pot holes but instead other problems of the communities. I got upset and asked to speak in the assembly. In the old days, of course, the Mayor just did what he wanted, but no more. So I went to speak to the councils and asked why when we were being attacked in the local press for not fixing the roads, they wanted us to spend the money on something else.
So I went and we had a four hour debate – me as a citizen of the city, and also as the Mayor – with them explaining why fixing the potholes was not a priority. After the four hours, among the priorities that were set up – the task I wanted, was set as third. Sewage was put higher, first. They told me, okay, you will only asphalt these roads we have picked, and they listed the ones the Communal Councils agreed with the transportation companies were really in need of repair, but not all the others I had wanted to repair. In the end, though the roads were for me priority one, for them they were of much less importance.
So you lost the decision, but you were happy about the process and carried out the result?
Yes. Of course. And I realized that one thing is what the media, the opposition, says, and another thing is what people really need.
Roughly, how many Mayors are there in Venezuela?
Out of the 337 how many have your attitude?
I have more fingers than the number of Mayors who see things as I do.
So the goal for the number of Communal Councils is 50,000 and you have 20,000 now, roughly.
Yes, but I think there are more like 30,000 by now.
And the goal is that those Communal Councils will have power like they do here, in your locale?
How is it going to happen? If over 95% of the Mayors will obstruct it, how will it happen?
In every community there are promoters for the communal council that come directly from the Presidency. Chavez sends them. So that is good. But there are some Mayors that provide 20% of the budget to the communal councils, some 50% but very few do a 100%, like here in Carora.
There are also accusations that some Mayors appoint or support council members so that they can then manipulate the whole councils.
But despite opposition from Mayors, the President has appointed a commission, or mission, called April 13th, which is about forming communes, which are combinations of communal councils. and the mission goes around and tries to ensure that things are going properly.
Recently, for example, there was a problem where the President had appointed a member of the Communist Party to be a minister of the communal ministry, and he went around and promoted only the councils that had communists prominent. So that was corrected, and President Chavez replaced that Minister with a different leader, who was previously prominent in the youth organizations, the Francisco Miranda Front, which consists of youth who were partly organized via Cuba and who are directly tied to the President’s office, not any party, and now with their leader in charge of building the councils, things have been greatly improved.
In the City the councils are supposed to have 200 – 400 families, is that right? Are they succeeding in forming them there, and especially in Caracas, or are people slow to participate in them?
There is still a long way to go.
What are the obstacles in Caracas?
I think it is the complexity of the place itself. To Caracas people come from all over the country. It has no special identity of its own. It is like a sum of all the complexities of Venezuela.
For example, I was invited to give talks to communities in Caracas about communal councils and I had the feeling that people do not identify with their communities. People often get up at 4 AM to travel and there is very little connection of people to their local community. It is much easier to organize the councils in rural than in urban areas.
Is the President’s attitude to the communal councils like yours? That is, if you had the 50,000 councils in place and they developed a program and urged that they wanted it, and the President thought it was wrong, and he made his case to them, and they said no, you are wrong, we are right, would he feel like you that that was a great success in that the councils were running the country?
Yes. We respect the President tremendously. So having more information he is probably thinking a bit ahead of us. And he respects the opinions of the communities, so he is likely to agree. And if he differs, often the people will understand and their view may change.
So, for example, the Ministers may bring a proposal to the President and he accepts it as good, but the councils then say it is a bad idea – and then he looks to see their views, and he often changes the proposal.
Yes, but in the case of Carora you said if you and the communal councils disagreed, ultimately, they would decide. They respect you. They think you are a smart guy. You make your case brilliantly. And they still say that you are wrong. And that is healthy, you say, because of course you can be wrong.
So maybe the President is a little smarter and a little more eloquent, I don’t know. But he can still be wrong. And I would like to know what happens if the communal councils say he is wrong? Do they have actual power, or do they just have great access?
From everything that I have experienced the President has asked us to respect the decisions of the Assemblies. But surely the President, a product of the military and quite disciplined, is always concerned that there is a clear line of command – but whenever there is an issue of the community, he doesn’t get involved in that.
The voting age in Venezuela is 18 right now. Suppose the communal councils, one of them, yours, comes up with a proposal that it should be 16. Now all the communal councils discuss the proposal and they all decide that they think the voting age should be 16 in all elections, including the presidential election. Suppose the President thinks it should be 18. He comes and makes his case, and they still think it should be 16. Is it going to be 16 or 18?
That happened in the sense that when they had a discussion in the communal councils of the voting age law for the councils, the resolution from the government was that it should be 18. In the discussions, however, the people wanted 15 as the age. The president wanted 18 but the people made it 15.
So when I asked earlier who decides if they disagree, why didn’t you just say, right away, the councils decide?
Right now the councils are making larger decisions on the level of the commune and the President is giving the general direction for the deliberations.
I don’t want to leave this without being clear, if you don’t mind. Suppose, there are 50,000 councils, so we are talking about in the future. They are functioning well. The President goes to Iran. He wants to make a treaty with Iran. The councils discuss it and don’t want the treaty. Now what happens?
(Laughing) It can’t be something that linear, that easy, because what counts is also the knowledge that people have. So one would have to presuppose that the people have that knowledge.
So the 50,000 councils don’t want the treaty and they invite the President in to make his case to them.
But foreign policy is directed by the President, not the communal councils, so this wouldn’t happen.
That sounds like the U.S….
In the case of Carora, the councils have made some treaties directly between the municipality and Iran. We signed a memorandum of understanding between Venezuela and Iran including specifying construction of cement plants, petrochemical plants, etc. In our discussions we wanted one of the milk plants to be constructed in Carora and it would belong to the community.
People designated by the community councils would operate it. The communal councils would determine the whole management of the company. The President defines the foreign policy of the country, but then we do the local implementation.
I understand. But in the U.S. about 70% of the country is against the war in Iraq. If there were 50,000 councils in the U.S. about 70% of the membership would be against the war. Bush, McCain, Obama and everyone else who has been President says it doesn’t matter what the public wants. The rationalization they give is that they have the information. They are the experienced ones. They know what is going on in the world. We on the left say that is a pile of crap. (a) They are not so much smarter, or even smarter at all. (b) If there was information they have that was important, they should distribute it. It seems to me if the communal councils are to be the primary power, then after due consideration and discussion and debate, Venezuela shouldn’t be able to go to war, nor do much else, against the will of the communal councils, even on foreign policy.
Sure, but there is an important difference. You have Bush. We have Chavez. And we have a constitution that we all approved of. And our constitution doesn’t even allow us to initiate war in other parts of the world. This would never be our foreign policy because it would violate the constitution.
The 350 or so other mayors, when they describe their local approach to the communal councils, I bet they say, we know more, we have more information, we have more experience, we are interested in hearing from the councils what they think, but we want to keep the power when we disagree. In contrast, you say, I think maybe I know more, I think maybe I have a better idea, more experience, but I really do believe in participatory democracy, so I agree that I should be subject to the will of the councils. And honestly, all I am asking, is why it is any different at the level of the President than it is at the level of the Mayor.
We are in the process of construction…
That’s why I said after the 50,000 councils were in place. Did you understand all this time we have been discussing the future?
Right now we have some structures in place. But more are coming. Currently the lowest level of decisions making described in the constitution is the municipality. The President wants to lower that to the community or Parish. The divisions into areas were created by the oligarchy. So what we are proposing, here in our area, is to create new communal territories so there will be a new geography of power, bringing together parishes into communal territories, taking into account geography, culture, etc.
There will be many communes composed of communal councils. And the President talks about this for the future, government by the communes. And the Mayor’s offices would tend to disappear. So we would have a communal government and parliament and judiciary, indeed all five branches from the national level would exist locally as well. And we are proposing this for the entire country. Each territory would have its own communal plan. In our area the main productive activity is cattle. So the problems here are distinct from many other areas. Water exists in some places, not others, and so on. So development plans differ and public services differ, etc.
So for example we abolish the old companies, like water, electricity, etc., and create them anew for particular communal areas, likewise for universities, etc.
When the other Mayors see this, do they think you are crazy?
(laughing) Yes. Exactly. They don’t understand why I am trying to get rid of all my power and transfer it to the community.
It isn’t very common behavior. But moving on to another topic, the 2004 reform of the penal code, I am told it has a provision outlawing disrespect of government officials.
Chavez tried to remove it, but the Assembly overruled and kept it at least for now.
It seems to me you could use this law to put all the other Mayors in jail for disrespecting you…
(laughing) No, no…
But my real question is, how would you reply to the criticism that the communal councils plus the loyalty law might make it possible for the government to use the councils as a kind of spying system to see who disrespects the government. You could establish lots of local organizations to spy on the population and to point out those who were disrespecting the government so they could be prosecuted. Lots of people in the world, including many leftists, worry that that is what the councils are all about.
But no, that is not true at all. First the councils are to be the new authority in society. But, second, we have to recognize that this revolution is under threat and that we are going to institute all mechanisms we can to defend it. We are convinced we have to defend our process from the bottom to the top. And the best way to observe actions that go against socialist ethics and the constitution and the laws sometimes includes people reporting what they see.
All of the mechanisms for defending the revolution have to be decided in the general assemblies. For example, the communal councils have as a task, which they have agreed to, making an inventory of the people who could possibly be in the military reserve of the community, people who could be in the militia, etc. For example, I am obliged to participate in military training and practice. The task of defending the country is in the hands of not only the military but also the organized population. So the President has said we need to pass new laws so this would be systemized in some way. If there weren’t dangers from enemies we would not have to worry about these matters.
If someone in the community has information about narco-trafficing, say, or some other criminal activity that goes against the revolution, of course the community itself has to decide how to deal with it. We are not going to do anything other than defend the revolution.
For example, not too long ago communal councils in a region not far away discovered a religious cult group engaged in counter revolutionary activity, and they made the information available to the national government, and the group was expelled from the country. So, yes, it is the peoples’ task to watch out, but control also rests with the people.
What is the role of political parties, and why was a new party recently created? When you have the 50,000 communal councils, what is the role of parties?
I should say I come from a party that supports the President, but it is not his party. Previously there was no possibility for people working out a shared national vision – only dispersed organizations could have shared views separately from each other. So the President believed it was necessary to have a united party so that people could have a space to develop shared plans. So the new party brings together everyone who shares the same broad vision for Venezuela so we can discuss the big topics to create a politics that relates to the communal councils. It is a way to connect different issues.
So the President says you need to form a party which combines everyone who supports the revolution.
Yes, an instrument that facilitates the transition from capitalism toward a new kind of socialism, which is distinct from the task of the councils.
But if you say that the party is everyone who supports the revolution, doesn’t it imply that anyone who isn’t in the party doesn’t support the revolution?
No, you could be in various other social movements and not belong to any party and still support the revolution.
Yes, but can you have 2,3,4, or 5 parties all of which support the revolution but nonetheless have different views?
The conception that the revolutionary party has is that, instead, there would be factions inside the party that would express the different views.
That is also the view that Lenin had, that inside the party there should be factions for different viewpoints. A few years later, however, he decided, whooops, I made a mistake. Not only should we have one party, but we should have no factions. That kind of thing has happened over and over and as a result some people on the left who don’t like the idea of a one party state think that factions inside a party are good but you also need multiple parties because if you say everyone has to be in one room and Chavez, say, is also in that room, then the outcome will be what Chavez wants. On the other hand, if there are a bunch of rooms, meaning a bunch of parties, then people can get together in their parties and develop their programs and then contend in front of the whole population for which program is better.
The President is saying there should be one party of the revolution that discusses policies and then the government executes the policies that result. But I am convinced that we are not talking about one single party or thought. From a political point of view, operationally, it makes sense to have a party that expresses various contending views and discusses them. We think that the party, the PSUV, should be all the expressions of Chavismo and the revolution, and that it should recognize and respect other parties and social movements, but that this party has the role of being an instrument to take the revolution to the different levels that the peasants and other citizens want.
The party exists to discuss different factions views and particular interests on the road to a strategic unity while still respecting differences.
Critics say that there is a personality cult around President Chavez. They base their argument on the lack of leaders who enjoy anything like as much popularity as him 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.” It sounds a little like North Korea. So what do you say about this accusation?
For us President Chavez has broken many paradigms, has broken with many historical trends. So strong has been the empathy that has been produced by his speeches and acts, and his giving up of all material wealth, his letting go his family and his belongings, and putting his life at risk repeatedly, this example has had tremendous impact, something none of us have ever experienced from a leader before.
It was like an explosion in the heart for us all, and we all connected in a very direct way with Chavez due to it.
Maybe there is a larger issue, but at this point in time Chavez is absolutely necessary, cannot be done without, for our revolutionary process.
We lacked leaders and the people were desperate and had no hope. Chavez was a product of various rebellions. He didn’t come from nowhere. He is not a Messiah. He is the result of an accumulation of experiences of a popular process of the people.
We identified Chavez at a particular moment to take up the anguish and the struggles of the people. And since he resembles the people to such an extent, thinks and acts like the people, and says exactly what he thinks – he is what is needed at this moment. So right now, I think that Chavez is absolutely indispensable.
I am one of those who is fighting against the current that argues for Chavismo without Chavez. To the extent that Fidel Castro sees that his time has come to an end, it is now Hugo Chavez’s time. So the slogans you are quoting that sound very personal, well, it is because Chavez really does embody the personal anguish, the old lack of hope, the new rising hope, and the desires of the people. And that is why we say with him, everything, without him, nothing.
At this moment Chavez is the man. He is at the heart of the process unfolding here in Latin America.
Even accepting everything you are saying as the state of mind and situation now, if we look years into the future wouldn’t it be better if there were other people who could play his role too. And if would be better, doesn’t it imply things should be done to promote that?
I agree, but not right now.
Why not now?
There is a lot of fragility and there are threats. We believe Chavez has the morality and experience to keep us together. All of the things we have discussed and much more have been more or less inspired by President Chavez. So the things I have been explaining, the councils, etc., have come from him. His contacts with and trust with the military are also central. I think new leaders will arise, but not out of the people around Chavez now. Maybe in ten years there will be new leadership corresponding to what people need and want. And surely some of those folks are developing now, in our many social programs.
I know you must go soon. I want to thank you for your time, and wish you great luck moving the revolution forward.