The anti-globalisation movement has repetitively been criticised for not being clear on the alternative to capitalism. The movement wants to replace capitalism, change the world but does not talk about socialism, which according to some lefties is a clear alternative. Now the Venezuelan government has provided a space on their website to debate socialism.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has for the past months been encouraging people to start thinking on what socialism in the XXI century is. Now you can enter the government website and write your comment on a few lines. Considering the space given at http://www.mci.gov.ve/foros.asp socialism in the XXI century apparently has to be short.
What makes Venezuela so interesting is the development the country is going through. Venezuela is a model of development in a world were “making poverty history” is a bracelet you can buy. In Venezuela they are making poverty history by using the countries wealth to make society richer. And when the rest of the world is saying that it is impossible to erase homelessness in Stockholm, rebuild the underground in New York, or feed and educate everybody in the African continent Venezuela is doing all these things. Neoliberalism is a system that puts on hold the possible and calls it impossible. Maybe socialism in the XXI century is to make people dream about the impossible and make it possible.
Chilean socialist president Salvador Allende was a dream machine of his time: the dream of a better country in a better world was combined with free elections and increased redistribution. There are similarities; the Bolivarian revolution seems to work according to the idea of aiming for a real participatory democracy. Thus, Venezuelan people have been able to articulate their liberal rights extensively, in numerous elections, and through development programs having increasing access to social rights. One of Allende’s objectives was that all children should be able to drink milk every day. He was overthrown in a bloody military coup, as the US and national bourgeoisies can’t stand free elections that lead to redistribution made by people that call themselves socialists. One difference between Allende and Chavez is that Allende was already a socialist when he ran for president; Chavez has become a socialist in the due course of his mandate.
Hugo Chavez has declared himself socialist, he has called for a renewed socialism, and reflections on what socialism in the 21st century might be. It is not obvious why Chavez wants to talk about socialism when he has already managed to irritate the US to the point that they have by now co-financed one coup. The people I speak to in Venezuela are of diverse opinions. Some are afraid that it will generate a more powerful coup, and that their experience will end as Chile -73. Others think it is important and brings clarity to the Bolivarian revolution.
What is unclear about the appeal from Chavez is what socialism is as we understand it? Venezuela is not a socialist country, the economy is an oil-based capitalism and the national bourgeoisie are making a lot of money while pretending they are unhappy. Talking to old and young left wingers in the barrio 23 de Enero in Caracas they are all worried about the speeches on socialism and talk about the great disappointment the real socialist countries became. A young man says: “Socialism in those countries failed, and if that was socialism I don’t want socialism, I want something better”. It is clear that socialism of the XXI century has to replace the socialism of the XX century with something better.
Let us pick one area: international solidarity. Venezuela is a country of parallels and international solidarity is part of that parallelism. There are certainly some characteristics from last centuries’ socialism to be cautious of. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, to veiling facts about trade partners, to cheer every time empire bleeds without analysing how the wound got there, and to force people to choose between two sides – as if nothing else was possible – are examples of that.
The former socialist countries, and the situation of the cold war generated a situation where people were asked to choose, complexity was put aside and an over simplified we-or- them-thinking prevailed. Familiar to Bush’s US and their demand to be either with them or against them. In Venezuela people are aware of the complexity and contradictions of the process. The young left-wing generation, brought up and politicised in a post cold war world where the choice between East and West is not imposed is less inclined to accept that something is “good” because it is not “evil”. Asking for international solidarity by portraying Venezuela as a paradise on earth is not useful for anyone.
In the toilet outside the conference room, in Bolivar were parts of the International Solidarity Meeting with Venezuela takes place, I greet the cleaning lady that has taken the free books about the Bolivarian revolution given to the conference participants. She looks at me with a huge smile and says “It is good that you’re here, I want the world to know that things are getting better here”. I doubt that the International Solidarity Meetings with Venezuela are making that happen. The conferences have taken place three years in a row, the last one was poorly organised, with last minutes invitations and a meagre program. According to previous attendants the last one was not much been better. The world will not be informed if you expect people to buy expensive flight tickets to Venezuela to see documentaries you can see back home, and nevertheless have an apparent limited impact on public opinion. A new socialism has to reinvent international solidarity.
Being aware of the dangers of falling into old tracks, it is also necessary to enlighten new creative ideas, and divulge great initiatives. By creating ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, Venezuela has opened up a road to the old Bolivarian dream of a united Latin America. ALBA is the alternative to ALCA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the US proposal for free trade in the American hemisphere. Even though ALCA is extremely unpopular in all Latin American countries no other president has dared to do what Chavez did; he turned his back on ALCA and created ALBA, launching it as a parallel.
Chavez again proved the impossible to be possible when launching an alternative. Movements around the continent have changed names from being against (ALCA) to be in favour of (ALBA). ALBA is a fantastic tool for grassroots movements to put pressure on their leaders that claim they don’t have an option. A continental referendum between ALCA and ALBA would be a landslide victory in favour of ALBA. It is the opposite of WTO agreements. ALBA is based on fair trade rather than free trade, people have a high knowledge about it and it is popular in wider areas than it is being implemented. How often have we heard about people wanting a trade agreement the last years? The limits are altering. Maybe socialism of the XXI century is to provide people with tools and good examples, instead of answers and already paved ways.
The creation of a united and integrated Latin America has been the dream of all big Latin America leaders, from Bolivar the liberator, to Gaitan, Che Guevara and Allende. Never before has the continent been closer to making the dream come true, thanks to people struggling together.
Nevertheless, trading with Venezuela is not a qualification to be a progressive country. Iran signing a trade agreement with Venezuela does not make repression and total lack of democracy less appalling in Iran. Brazil and Argentina are important allies, but it is still a fact that Brazil is part of the occupying force in Haiti, and the Argentine government is repressing worker-run factories. Trade agreements do not make countries progressive. A socialism of the XXI century has to make clear that you can trade without claiming friendship or resemblance.
On a wall in Ciudad Guayana I read: “Las paredes dejaran de hablar el dia que la prensa diga la verdad”, “the walls will cease to speak the day the media tells the truth”. People know they are cheated, and confidence in the media is low. By launching the Latin American TV-channel Telesur several steps are taken in the right direction to establish confidence, to create a Latin American political debate and to be a fundamental tool in the democratic process of popular education. It is not socialism but still great. It is a real change in power relations.
Mainstream TV channels showed cartoons and baseball while President Chavez was kidnapped and the country was on its feet resisting during the failed coup of April, 2002. The news on the TV-channels owned by the coup-makers told the people that they would soon have freedom and democracy, but the people couldn’t possibly hear; they were out on the street fighting for it.
Socialism is all about democracy and freedom, exactly the same words the Bush jr administration uses to repeatedly intervene in the world. Neoliberalism takes words and deprives them of their meaning. So maybe socialism of the XXI century is to stop giving words a bigger weight than actual changes. What if it doesn’t matter what we call it?
If I would write a short comment on XXI century socialism on the Venezuelan government webpage it would say: Socialism of the XXI century is to start building a better society from the ground and up and let the future generations who live it give it a name.