What Spain’s Podemos (Fortunately) Learned from Venezuela


This is a translation of an article by journalist and media analyst Pascual Serrano, published in eldiario.es, 28th July 2014.

Whoever visited Caracas, for example in 1997, and went back five years later, discovered a surprising change. Millions of people of humble origins, who lived in slum housing in the suburbs of major cities, who took no interest in politics, or elections, surviving amid misery, drugs and crime were now, to the mobilising cry from their neighbourhood leaders, descending in their thousands on the centre of Caracas to defend a form of politics, brandishing as their main arguments and weapons a book and a leader, the Venezuelan Constitution and Hugo Chávez.

If we were to wander today around Lima or Mexico City, we would hardly be further from the reality of this scene I have described in Caracas. However, this is how Venezuela was before the arrival of Chávez and his Venezuelan revolution. What had happened for this social mutation to unfold? Simply, thousands of citizens who had not felt reflected in their political system had discovered a light, a hope of radical and absolute change. History will show whether they had reason to hope, but this is how they lived it.

There is no doubt that this is one of the cards being played by the leaders of Podemos. They know, that as with Caracas, thousands, millions of people do not believe in the system, they do not mobilise, but they are in a position to stand up if they see a hope. That is why Pablo Iglesias showed no indication of triumph with five MEPs and a million votes. His discourse, in contrast to that of the traditional left, is maximalist. It does not talk about winning two or three more percentage points in the vote or doubling the results. Like Chávez, Podemos talks about winning, about razing (arrasar), about bringing down the system. I am not going to get into whether it is viable or not. It is a matter of generating hope and excitement because they know citizens vote because they want to win, not to get one more deputy for the party.

In the same way, the ambiguity of Podemos’s discourse, which is as sensational for some as it is irritating for others, is also a lesson learned from the Bolivarian process. Chávez made it to the presidency of Venezuela with the electoral promise of a “third way”, something no-one knew what it was. It was only a few years later that he dared to speak of socialism, socialism of the 21st century, and no-one knew what that was either.

History is full of politicians who reach power by adopting left-wing stances and then abandon them, so why could the opposite not happen? To reach power with a moderate and ambiguous discourse so as then to set about deepening changes to the left. It is what happened in Venezuela, in Argentina and in Ecuador. Whilst our socialist parties do the opposite of socialism, in Latin America, without calling themselves socialists or workers, they are doing more for socialism and workers than here. Obviously, to trust that a moderate discourse should finally dare to pursue a left path requires a major dose of faith on the part of the electorate, but has experience not shown us that those who claim to be on the left also requires such a thing?

Let us consider certain provocative unknowns: might it not be an option to reach power with a few basic principles – Julio Anguita [former secretary general of Izquierda Unida] has said that it would be enough to stand up for human rights -and gradually show that the way out of the tunnel lies in the politics of the left? Is it not that the right reaches power by proclaiming universal and incontesable principles and values (justice, freedom, rights, civil society…) only then to place them in the service of an economic and financial oligarchy? Why couldn’t the leaders of Podemos avoid an extreme left discourse in order to reach power and, gradually, show a path with whatever radicalism is necessary?

The spokespersons of Podemos have also adopted a form of action that the politicians of the traditional Spanish left never dared. The opting for audacity during confrontations in the media. Podemos has cast aside the dominant format of reserve and diplomacy used by European politicians when they find themselves in a TV set or in front of a microphone, and has launched into the courageous loquaciousness that characterised Hugo Chávez or Rafael Correa.

Thus Pablo Iglesias surprised us all by calling Sánchez Dragó [prominent right-wing intellectual] a buffoon of the right two minutes after beginning his conversation on a radio station that has a massive audience. Julio Anguita would scarcely have dared to be similarly resounding in his public behaviour or when facing the media. Every day we see our left politicians maintaining infinite composure when up against pseudo-journalists who attack them with absolute impunity on panel debates. People wanted to see other politicians giving it back to them in spades. And they saw this in Pablo Iglesias up against the hawks of the media right.

The rupturist discourse of Podemos also emulates the rupture with the past of the Bolivarian process. Chávez called for the burial of the so-called Fourth Republic (the Venezuelan political system that preceded the arrival of the Bolivarian process) and Juan Carlos Monedero insists on the fraud of the Transition and the need to overcome it. A discourse that proves difficult for an Izquierda Unida with a Spanish Communist Party that is still perceived as part of that fraud for many people.

It is not a matter of whether Podemos’s take-off and the key tactics of its success amount to an injustice to the modus operandi of the traditional left. It is, simply, something that worked in Venezuela and other countries in Latin America, whilst over here there were few sectors of the left who understood anything because they confined themselves to watching Chávez making jokes and singing songs.

Here too, just as in Venezuela, the role of the public is essential in pressurising Podemos -as the Venezuelans did with Chávez by saving him from the putchists- so that it remains firm and radical in its proposals for regime change, for confrontation with the financial powers, for defence of social rights and the role of the State as the guarantor of the economic sovereignty of the country, for fighting against the corruption and for co-operation with all the left organisations that might share that project for change. Many gaps and ambiguities of its programme will have to mature along this clearly revolutionary line. Because in Spain, just as in Venezuela, what is needed is a democratic revolution of citizens.

And just as what happened to the Venezuelan president, now comes the reaction of the mass media. Here too, Podemos must learn from Chávez and stay firm and not give in to pressure. Not even in those media that, without knowing or wanting it, have helped create the beast. Or the beauty, depending how one looks at it.

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