You live in France, Mexico, Thailand, Spain, India, South Africa, Brazil – the U.S. – where I live – or perhaps even in a sleepy London town – or wherever else. What can you/we do about events in Venezuela, and, more pointedly, regarding the whole Bolivarian project?
That we should want to help the Bolivarian project, at least within our means and circumstances, should be evident to serious anti capitalists, socialists, anarchists, feminists, and anti racists. First, there is the morality of the immediate situation. Second, there are the broader and longer term implications for where the current situation might lead.
To my eyes there is no large scale experiment in social change that warrants more hope and, currently, more worry, than Venezuela. So, what might we do?
We should try to prevent outside interference, as usual. We should try to correct the lies flowing through media, as usual. Yet, before proceeding to less obvious ways we might engage, even those two self evident steps are not occurring at nearly the level needed.
Some analysts suggest that people who might otherwise be doing such work have reservations about aspects of the Bolivarian project. That is certainly true, and it applies to me, too. But so what? Even ignoring that in many cases people’s reservations might be ill conceived outgrowths of lies and silences – why should even totally warranted concerns about Venezuela’s project preclude trying to correct lies and silences and even working/marching to prevent outside interference? It shouldn’t. There should be rallies and marches supporting Bolivarian progress. There should be an outpouring of articles, interviews, blogs, and comments correcting prevalent lies and silences. And, indeed, proactive communications have indeed been picking up, though they are still well shy of what is needed. The marching, however has lagged.
Maybe one problem is that many Venezuelans in countries outside Venezuela favor the opposition. They even rally and march against Venezuela’s Bolivarian project. Who am I, the reasoning may go, to express supportive views about the Bolivarian agenda when Venezuelans in my city urge the opposite? Answer – you are a thinking person, able to arrive at your own conclusions, which should cause you to realize that you do not share either the interests or the biases of the oppositionist Venezuelan “exile” communities.
But still, and now we come to the main point of this article, what about the “critical” part of “critical support”? To voice criticism, or not to voice criticism, that is the question.
Consider the Vietnam war. “One side’s right, one side’s wrong, Victory to the Vietcong,” was one attitude. And, indeed, it is easy to slide into an uncritical stance when one pours oneself into supporting a population. An advocate typically denies problems with their favored side. Yet there were certainly anti war activists who saw that the Vietnamese project was very far from the anti authoritarian effort one would unreservedly celebrate. Yet, most who saw that it had problems, chose not to talk about them. The logic was, if we say anything critical now – particularly those of us inside the U.S., but elsewhere too – it will abet the horrible violence against the Vietnamese by providing rationales to critics and sowing doubt in defenders. Beyond that, Vietnam era anti warriors also felt there was no reason to think our words could have a positive effect inside Vietnam. We chose to focus on ending the war while setting aside even constructive criticism as being counter productive, however well motivated and insightful it might have been. And I do believe that at that time, during that war, that hands-off approach made considerable sense.
Some people would go to Vietnam and literally be so polarized by the violence and vileness of U.S. war-making and by the hypocrisy of U.S. and international media coverage that they could not even see, much less accurately register, very obvious serious problems with the Vietnamese project. Their hatred for the wickedly huge injustice of the war blinded them to even seeing, much less admitting, disturbing truths about “our side.” That “ostrich effect” was not good.
Other people kept their eyes open and internally registered flaws they saw, but kept quiet about them, and unreservedly poured themselves into opposing the imperial violence. That was, in that context, exemplary, I think.
I believe Venezuela’s situation is, however, quite different. While Venezuela is in considerable turmoil, it is not being carpet bombed into the stone age by a merciless and near totally unrestrained America. Merciless we are, yes, but near totally unrestrained, no. Also, the Venezuelan project, perhaps shockingly to the perceptions of some, has been far closer to what a serious internationalist and anti authoritarian left ought to gleefully and nearly unreservedly celebrate, than was Vietnam’s project. This includes, as well, there being a far greater likelihood that observations from outside Venezuela might have positive impact inside Venezuela than that observations from outside could have had positive effects inside in Vietnam. Even more important, whereas avoiding discussing the flaws of the Vietnamese did them no damage and avoided enlarging damage done by others, avoiding discussing the flaws in the Bolivarian project has, I think, an opposite effect. It not only misses opportunities to be heard in Venezuela and perhaps positively impact events there in ways that would strengthen and otherwise aid Bolivarian aims, it misses opportunities to learn lessons that can be valuable elsewhere, in turn extending the benefits that ultimately flow from the Veneuzuelan endeavor. And finally, and ironically and perhaps counter intuitively, in the case of Venezuela, being quiet about its problems doesn’t help to reduce dismissiveness toward Venezuela, but instead tends to fuel it.
If one accepts those claims, what might one say about Venezuela that is critical, but also helpful?
A bit about hopes, first. The perhaps surprising truth is that I hope the Venezuelan government bears great blame for what is occurring. That might sound strange, but consider the alternative. Suppose the most scrupulous, objective, and insightful survey would reveal that the Chavistas have done everything right. Suppose it would show that they have done as well as could be hoped for. After well over a decade of their holding the federal government, they face the situation now unfolding. Assuming they have been operating brilliantly, that would say that you can courageously seek a wonderful outcome virtually perfectly, and nonetheless have chaos unfolding and pain being endured, even after having so long to make things better. The irony is, therefore, that those who find no fault in the Venezuelan project and who blame all the turmoil on the U.S. and on Venezuelan elites are telling a far more depressing story than those who admit to Bolivarian faults.
And, most sadly, I think those saying the faults don’t extend to the government may be nearly true – though I hope they aren’t. Indeed, I hope that instead of all the turmoil, opposition, and, most important, the limited margins of support the Chavistas still hold being attributable to forces of internal and external opposition, the turmoil owes considerably to bad choices by an imperfect government so that after over a decade in office, if there had instead been a nearly optimal project at work, it would now have far greater support and be far less vulnerable to elite machinations.
More, I believe that in the relatively near future people on the left are going to have to decide where the answer lies. If what the Chavistas have done has been everything that a non violent project, utilizing elections, abiding laws, and seeking participation and grass roots structures of democracy and self management could have done, then the implication many will quite reasonably take from Venezuela’s plight is that fully successful change is going to require a very different approach. They will say that this type project, even done perfectly, as is assumed in this line of thought, suffers far too many problems to be a model for elsewhere.
But since I think a project that seeks to avoid violent confrontation, that seeks participation, that seeks to build new institutions, that abides laws, that uses elections and also grass roots activism and institution building, and so on, is the best hope for escaping oppressive structures without devolving into erecting new ones, here are my nominations for mistakes by the government – which is to say my nominations for policies that accomplished less for change than different policies, undertaken instead, could have accomplished.
And I am not asking about proximate issues, such as behavior over the past month, but rather about long term choices. And, again, I am not there, and I have no doubt that many who are there, including folks who I know and think brilliant and committed, and other folks who I don’t know but would feel the same about if I did – will say: no, Michael, you overlooked reasons why what you propose couldn’t be done, or wouldn’t have worked if it had been done, or would even have been harmful had it been done. Maybe so, but I hope not. And I hope they hope not too. I hope they realize that instead of themselves thinking they have no fault for what is happening, and being happy about their “innocense” – and instead of their spending all their time opposing elite opposition from within and without (they must do that, but not exclusively that) – they should assume they have made real and substantial errors and should not glory in denying them, but rather glory in finding them and working to correct them. Revolutionaries shouldn’t be in the business of finding no fault with themselves. They should, instead, hope to find fault, lots of fault, and to then improve, and proceed.
So what might the faults be?
This gets tricky. First, one could rightly claim that deciding to shift power and wealth from its traditional holders to the previously poor and weak led to both internal and external opposition. That is true, but then again, that is the whole point, so while backtracking in that agenda could have forestalled dissent until now, or could even now reduce dissent and disruption, it is not something I or any leftist or anyone with human dignity and concern for populations and not just for the rich, should welcome. So that isn’t a fault to correct – that is the key virtue to preserve and enlarge.
What about so many years with Chavez as President and lynchpin of the process? Was that a big fault, weakening support, provoking needless opposition, blocking development of other talents? Maybe, but honestly, though it certainly had its ill effects, on balance, I doubt it. This is a case where an abstractly less than optimal choice – since one should of course ideally prefer a steady emergence of great new talent and a steady broadening of participants and especially of the range of influential voices at every level – was arguably sensibly trumped by the need for wide popular support and the benefit of Chavez’s special relation not only to the poor but also to the military (neutralizing it as a potential opposition force). Was Chavez so uniquely suited to leading and so uniquely able to galvanize desires that on that basis alone he had to be elevated and retained? Maybe not. But were his ties to the military plus his special talents sufficient to warrant his elevation and duration as President – and longer had he not died? I suspect, probably yes. So maybe this was an error, maybe not, but it was certainly not definitive.
So what should we consider as possible problem areas that might be definitive? I would focus on communications with the base of supporters; communications with the opposition base; development of highly trained, committed, self aware, well informed advocates; media policy; and attitudes toward residual owners and other “oligarchs.”
Why these issues?
Because for me the deep problem for the Bolivarian project isn’t today’s riots per se. It is, instead, that after well over a decade of anti capitalists holding the national government, support for the government and more pointedly for Chavismo is still only a bit over 50%, or perhaps at the outside, 60%, rather than being, say, 75% or 80%. And it is because international support from leftists is incredibly low and ill informed. And it is because there are too many instances of people inside the project who are taking advantage of opportunities for personal gain.
Of course thugs from Colombia, plus U.S. funding and guidance for the opposition, plus homegrown capitalist sabotage and media machinations, are implicated in the current turmoil. And of course that is important to realize and reveal. But that these dynamics exist is unavoidable. They are part and parcel of change. How could they not arise to try to obstruct such an effort at change in our world? What troubles me is rather the considerable success these reactionary agendas have had. Rather than being problems largely dealt with by now, their impact is growing. Which is why I focus on the areas of concern mentioned above.
Okay, let’s take the areas one by one.
Communications with Supporters
Of course there have been the TV shows by Chavez and now Maduro, plus public policy discussions, and new schools and the Bolivarian university approach, and perhaps more importantly at least in intent, the Bolivarian Circles of earlier years, and so on. But I have in mind something more.
Consider that the government discerned a serious problem of consciousness: illiteracy. The government embarked on a massive campaign to overcome that problem: literacy training undertaken all over the country. This project entailed getting people ready to help the illiterate and also generating space, time, and desire to undertake the effort – organizationally – as well as attracting those in need of the training to accept and participate in it.
By analogy, suppose the government thought: we are trying to build a new society and we want people to control their own lives in an informed and solidaritous manner. We know this entails that people are confident of their understanding of social relations and aims – both society’s and their own. We know the old society did not give people the needed knowledge, skill, and confidence. Therefore, we decide that we must embark on a massive campaign, even larger than the literacy program, of political and social discussion, education, and sharing. We know we have to spread known talents and insights, but also, in concert with the population, develop new ones.
To my knowledge while thoughts like that may well have spurred the campaign for Bolivarian Circles, which were to be study groups throughout the country, the follow through was insufficient and no campaign on the needed scale occurred. Why not? Resources? I don’t buy that. Lack of motivation of the base of people who would be learning? I think that is very real, but overcoming that is, of course, a large part of the task, not a reason to forego trying. Motivation of the Bolivarians/Chavistas in government? Perhaps, but I suspect there were more than enough who would have eagerly embraced such a project, had it been really pushed and persisted in by Chavez, say. The opposition stigmatizing such efforts by branding them indoctrination, as happened with the Bolivarian Circles? Sure, that is a factor, but again, that is the Opposition’s job and the relevant issue is not having overcome such stigmatization. What about not realizing to a sufficient degree that this was a task that needed doing, and not feeling there was a curriculum, so to speak, to convey? I suspect this was a big part of the reason. And I think it has been a big factor in the population having support that only goes so deep.
Little clarity among leaders in government and serving in institutions throughout society, about where Bolivarian struggle is trying to go, and thus little spreading of that understanding throughout the population, plus little refining of it and improving it in light of insights that that larger population would generate, is, to me, a very serious problem. I know everyone points to things like crime, or mishandling the exchange rate, and so on. And all that is most certainly very real. But the way the population regards circumstances and owns policies, adapts policies, sees and acknowledges and understands mistakes, and acts to correct them, is the key. And a population that is not confidently involved, and that lacks relevant knowledge, cannot play such a role. Yes, it can vote. Yes, it can go into the streets to rally in support, or to complain, or to celebrate, or even to defend or dissent – but that is a far cry from the public seriously participating, knowledgeably, and wisely. More, uninvolved involvement doesn’t last.
Each new election in Venezuela that has occurred, the Chavistas have celebrated their new victory. I always thought this was horribly ill conceived. It seemed to me, and it still seems to me, that “if you aren’t busy being born, you are busy dying,” and to have your margin of victory steadily decline – or even just not climb – is not a reason for celebration, but a reason for very aggressive correction. The above would have been one such choice for correction.
Communications with Dissenters
What about communications with the opposition’s base? Here too it certainly has happened, to a degree. But, I suspect, very little. Rather, it seems that for years in neighborhoods and among students, there has been little sustained and serious effort to communicate across constituencies. Partly this owes to the absence of shared clarity and confidence mentioned above. How do the Chavistas in a neighborhood engage with those in their neighborhood who dissent, if the Chavistas lack the confidence and knowledge to make a full and compelling case? It is very difficult to communicate convincingly, through extreme tensions, unless one is very confident and well informed. And yet even beyond spreading the needed skills, noted above, there were other possibilities.
Why not have meeting days across campuses? Why not have athletic events, local teams, across neighborhoods? Why not have such “meetings” and gathering and events occur in ways that allow real exchanges of experiences and concerns?
Admirably, the Chavistas didn’t build councils and communes with the intent of having them serve only their supporters. Quite the contrary, councils and communes have been sought in all neighborhoods – opposition and Chavista – but, what wasn’t done, at least that I know of, was to constantly and quite steadfastly and intently, address the opposition. I could be completely crazy about this – but while I understand that students wanting to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and even CEOS have understandable pressures from families, from many faculty, and from their own narrow material interests pushing them into opposition – we also know that students are young, energetic, and at some level likely feel considerable social concern. I bet if those who have become the bulwark of violent dissent had been experiencing first hand, from direct testimony – the views of students with different backgrounds, as well as the views of barrio residents and the like, things might now be different.
If the now opposition students had been hearing the implications of the Bolivarian changes on people’s lives from the people affected, and especially hearing clear discussion of where it is all headed – as compared to having convinced themselves that they live in a country that is occupied by Cuba – many, and perhaps even most of them, would, by now, be unreceptive to opposition machinations. It doesn’t suffice to say they have backgrounds that dispose them to dissent, which is true. It doesn’t suffice to say that they have been lied to, which is also true. That is just reality. That comes with the territory of trying to revamp society in the interests of the poor and excluded. It is unavoidable in such an undertaking. The locus of “blame” and main focus of discussion and action always has to be, instead, what could the movement have done differently.
Even with those background realities, why weren’t these young people better informed, better educated about events, by personal engagement, and perhaps even made into allies rather than enemies? We are talking about people who were not even teenagers when the Bolivarian process began. Could they not have been treated differently? I am not saying the Chavistas could have won over the owners. No. But many owner’s kids, yes. And many professionals and also kids seeking to be professionals, yes. And not by pandering to them at the expense of the poor, but based on unleashing real knowledge and solidarity into their midst, while honestly hearing their feelings and addressing them. If a vote goes roughly 50-50, or even 60-40 for the Chavistas, it doesn’tt mainly mean they won again – though that is true. It mainly means the reactionary side has support that extends way too deep into places where it ought not be welcome.
There is another issue relating to elections. They have been a kind of distraction disease. There are so many, so often, and with such contested campaigns – all really leading nowhere, when you think about it – yet taking so much time and energy and attention. I am not sure the what might have been done in this regard. Certainly the answer wouldn’t be to have no elections. But perhaps a refinement of the electoral process to reduce its duration, eliminate aspects of substance-less engagement and expense, and prioritize contrasts of actual program and debate of real differences.
Creating Effective Agents of Change
What about developing really effective activists among those who are working to create change as their main involvement? This is a related issue to what is discussed above, clearly, but also adds another dimension. Sure, again, it happened somewhat. There were education efforts, for example, in the PSUV. But has there been the kind of internal education, debate, discussion, distillation of shared views, exploration of those views, refinement of those views, and finally carefully cultivated, nurtured, and tested ability on the part of all folks heavily involved in political and social work to further spread the views? Not in what little and admittedly quite modest experience I have had with the situation. And again, I suspect the biggest factor may be the absence of a curriculum, so to speak, as well as not recognizing the importance of this task – which was paramount – but which for the most part did not happen, at least to my knowledge.
I have been told by quite a few folks that for the most part – of course with some exceptions – Chavistas who went through years of opposition struggle are typically far less susceptible to pressures to lie and steal. They are far less likely to be among the corrupt. On the other hand, Chavistas with a short tenure – folks who have come on board without the longer background and without the social ties and relations and understanding those ties brought, are far more susceptible to corruption. What is it about being in struggle for a long duration that generated greater loyalty, insight, and commitment? One might answer that question many ways, but the point is, the new folks didn’t experience those dynamics. So they needed to experience something in the less conflict ridden years of their growing involvement, that would have a similar effect. I think very serious and in depth training, learning, and participation at every level, plus cresting and acting in even larger grassroots activist campaigns, are likely the only compelling answer for what that should have been done. So that too was needed, and was largely absent.
Dealing with Media
The Bolivarian approach to media has had two driving priorities, I think. Commitment to freedom of speech, and fear of provoking dissent at home and international criticism that would abet opposition activity or even lead to intervention.
The government has abided a private media that has been and remains incredibly skewed toward the agendas of its rich and powerful owners. Perhaps some will disagree, but I don’t think that has anything to do with respecting freedom of speech. Rather, freedom of speech should mean that there are venues and means for citizens throughout society, no matter their views, to express their views, offer their insights, debate and criticize policies and events and whole agendas, and to also have access to information of all sorts. Freedom of speech can’t mean simply that one isn’t beat upside the head by the state for things one says. It must include people having a means to say things, and access to information needed to have things to say.
If you have a private media in which a few people decide what is conveyed, and they even do so with blatantly obvious agendas governing their actions – not a concern for truth, but instead pursuit of private power and wealth – then that is not a free speech setting. That is true if the few people overseeing communications are government elites but it is also true if the few people overseeing communications are corporate elites. So, to face the problem, what could the Chavistas have done differently?
My inclination is to think that as with many issues the Chavistas should have proposed for media a very public and transparent positive set of intermediate aims, and also a long term vision. They then should have begun not only building new media (and they have done a lot of this, very admirably, though more and more support are needed) but also altered the media which exists right up to nationalizing, and, much more to the point, for all media including the currently very narrowly conceived statist media, steadily transferred editorial power to public and grassroots oversight and control, plus establishing workers self management.
Would steps of that sort have unleashed howls of (hypocritical) protest? Of course. But the issue has to be broached at some point, and to allow privately held media to distort communications year after year or to settle for state media that is uncreative and restrictively narrow each in hopes of reaching a point where moving to a better system would be less disruptive because the media sway would have already been diminished due to on the ground gains in constructing new grassroots media by the movement, was, I think, an error.
Rather, media matters more than that approach suggests – and more thorough steps should have been initiated and pursued when Chavista strength was greatest, not after the opposition managed to tear away some of that strength – but better late than never. It needs doing now, too.
Dealing with Residual Oligarchs
And then there are the residual owners and other highly elite reactionary elements. This is the media issue writ larger. The reason to allow owners to persist in having grotesquely disproportionate power and influence, as well as massive income by way of control over their businesses, was to avoid overly provoking them and overly provoking forces outside of Venezuela, on the one hand, and to avoid a slip side toward authoritarian structures due to the spread of the kinds of coercive behaviors that would be needed to remove them – to other inappropriate domains than that single action. But this, like with media, is a delicate dance. Because the other implication of going slow is that the owners persist in their power and use it to try to subvert the Bolivarian agenda, and do so quite effectively, over time.
My own inclination would be that the government could have and should have been far more explicit about aims for the economy, not just about particular polices for addressing excess imports, reforming destructive exchange rates, combating inflation, etc., as important as those steps are, but far more basic in the sense of institutional aims for the organization of work and allocation. The government could perhaps have made absolutely binding that any sabotage, any price gouging, and any resistance to worker programs seeking greater workplace well being, equity, and openness, would be cause for expropriation of productive property from owners to workers. There were elements of this mindset. A Supreme Court Judge told me how in the courts there was a new mentality – legal contracts were binding on employers, but not on employees when they were contrary to the interests of employees. Why? Because the imbalanced situation between owners and workers meant that employees agreed to contracts lacking information and more so, lacking alternatives. It was understood that justice isn’t just abiding formal agreements. Justice includes moving toward equitable remuneration and real self management. That attitude, writ larger to the whole economy, and implemented, would have mattered greatly, I believe.
In a struggle to change society there is a kind of contest or race regarding both media and private ownership of other businesses as well. On the opposition side, the idea was to retain control of as much “high ground” conveying power and outreach capacity as they could, and to use it to steadily subvert Bolivarian agendas, influence, and popularity, hoping to reach a point where the opposition could win an election, or, if need be, welcome in external forces to help them reclaim power. On the Bolivarian side, the idea was to avoid a head on clash, violence, and civil war, and even to avoid just getting into a situation of having to be coercive, even with owners, lest the habits of coercion become permanent and subvert more participatory aims – all while building up alternative institutions that would strengthen support, so that at some time in the future full transition might occur with only ineffectual resistance.
I do believe that was an exemplary desire. But I am inclined to think that a better course would have been a major investment of time, energy, and especially edification and creation of new structures that could offset any pressures and tendencies toward centralization – so as to be able to take on private owners far more forthrightly, and early, while guarding against centralization.
If the above suggestions, or any part of them, are correct, it is of course too late to have done things perfectly all along, but it is certainly not too late to take up needed tasks now. And if that is the case, then one hopes that this is the kind of thing we will soon see.