Venezuela: Eyewitness report from the heart of the revolution
By Ramon Samblas
Wednesday, 07 September 2005
This summer up to 17,000 young internationalists from 144 countries gathered in Caracas for one week to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students. Ramon Samblas who was there from Britain gives his impression of the festival and the general mood in Venezuela.
One hundred and sixty years ago, Ezequiel Zamora – a Venezuelan revolutionary peasant influenced by the ideas of the French revolution and utopian socialism - also known as the General of the Sovereign People, led crowds of peasants who were fighting for land reform, freedom and democracy. In his flag everybody could read “Horror to the Oligarchy”. For the past six years the Venezuelan masses have been involved in a process that is filling the oligarchy and their imperialist allies in the US with horror- the Bolivarian revolution.
Since the beginning of 2005 there has been a growing interest in this movement initially inspired by the ideas of the father of Venezuela’s independence Simon Bolivar. Hugo Chavez’s comments praising socialism as the way forward for Venezuela’s revolution triggered the wave of interest in this Latin American country and its revolution, often dismissed by wide layers on the left. On the other hand the heroic struggle of the Venezuelan masses to have control over their own affairs, has caught the imagination of many students, trade unionists and activists on the left, all over the world.
This summer up to 17,000 young internationalists from 144 countries gathered in Caracas for one week. The reason was to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students, but the majority of delegates decided to take advantage of this festival to find out what is really going on in Venezuela.
In order to understand the current situation within the Venezuelan revolution we must go back one year. On August 15, 2004, 70% of Venezuelans turned out in the recall referendum to decide on whether President Chavez should stay or go. Many realised that the success or the defeat of that referendum was going to have important consequences beyond the position of Chavez himself.
Since then there have been other successes on the electoral, social and economic fronts. Just 45 days after the recall referendum, on October 31, the so-called “democratic opposition” managed to hold on to just two Federal states. These were blows that the social base of the opposition could not cope with and they became completely demoralised. Most of them decided to pack up and go back home hoping that things might get better for them some day in the future.
Gradually, the attention of the masses moved away from the external enemy or “the beast” (US imperialism and the reactionary Venezuelan ruling class) to the Bolivarian movement itself. Since then, the movement has been going forward, but even more significantly, the left or revolutionary sectors within the Bolivarian movement have been strengthened.
There have been developments, such as the debate on socialism sparked off by Chavez’s comments at the World Social Forum, the nationalisation of two companies, the introduction of “co-gestion” or co-management in companies such as ALCASA, INVEVAL, INVEPAL amongst others and the calls of Hugo Chavez to fight corruption, which have pushed the movement to the left.
This does not mean that imperialism has been defeated. They are getting ready to crush the Venezuelan revolution at the first opportunity, but so far they have proven incapable of mobilising on the streets. This is why the imperialists and their allies in Venezuela are looking for diplomatic provocations to stir up problems from outside.
The latest example of this was the terrorist statements of Pat Robertson on a fundamentalist TV channel. Before this incident, we had the diplomatic clash over the DEA. Hugo Chavez accused this body of doing nothing about the drugs problem, and of being a cover for intelligence gathering operations against Venezuela on the part of the Bush Administration. Aporrea.org reported at the end of August that diplomatic immunity had been removed from DEA civil servants operating in Venezuela.
The feelings and beliefs of the Venezuelan people about the current situation are generally optimistic, but obviously the answers I got from the people I spoke to were varied. Those people that are not very involved in the revolution but have allegiance to Chavez and the movement tend to think that the situation is very stable. They are happy that there are no troubles or riots on the streets - like before the recall referendum - and they are quite happy that Hugo Chavez is going to stay in office for some time.
Those activists and people who are heavily involved in the revolution and stand on the left of the process, have somewhat different views. They can see problems emanating from the bureaucracy. Although they are aware of this and they are determined to fight, they do not have a clear idea of how to do this. They are absolutely critical about the situation.
There are wide layers of the population that are very critical about the people that work with the president. While Hugo Chavez enjoys full support from the masses, activists and local leaderships, the people he works with do not enjoy this level of support. Some of them are even hated by the movement, like Barreto and Bernal (the two mayors of Caracas) who have been really discredited since they took the Mayors’ office.
The distrust of the ranks of movement towards the leading individuals that are positioned between Chavez and the rank and file is clear. The recent local elections that took place on August 8 exposed this fact. The MVR (Chavez’s party) used the slogan “true Chavistas” while their local candidates sought to get a picture of themselves with the President. This desperate attempt to portray all candidates as being fully supported by Hugo Chavez did not avoid an abstention rate of 68%. We cannot say that all these abstentions can be explained by the boycott campaign launched by the opposition parties, because in true Chavista areas the abstention rate only reached 45% to 50%. As a resident of one of the popular neighbourhoods “23 de Enero” told me, “had Chavez been put forward as a candidate in the local elections instead of these unknown people, we would have had the Venezuelans queuing up outside the polling booths just like on August 15.”
In spite of all this, in these elections the parties that support the revolution won 80% of the council seats. Of this total 58% were won by the MVR. These elections also indicated other changes in the mood of Venezuelan society. Gregory Wilpert from venezuelanalysis pointed out the following:
“An examination of some of the city council elections shows that there was a trend towards class polarization, so that in middle to upper class Caracas neighborhoods such as Chacao and Baruta, where Chavistas lost seats to the opposition and in poorer Caracas neighborhoods, such as Sucre and Libertador Chavistas gained seats.”
The reason for this could be that the last elections took place in 2000. Then, social and political polarisation was not as sharp as it is now in Venezuela, and even some bourgeois sectors supported the Chavez government.
Bureaucracy and Revolution
Bureaucracy and corruption are big issues in Venezuela. It is very significant that President Chavez himself has taken a clear stand against bureaucracy. This echoes the pressure he is feeling from below, but at the same time his statements against bureaucracy boost the confidence of the masses who are strengthened in their resolve to implement this struggle.
Recently, the Ministry of Information published Che Guevara’s pamphlet “Against Bureaucracy” and also calendars, posters and other material advocating Socialism and fighting bureaucracy. Cases of bureaucracy have been in the limelight of Venezuelan politics recently. Chavez himself criticised his own Housing Minister on national TV because he had not even reached 50% of the target for public housing. To be precise, only 43,000 homes out of the target of 120,000 have been built. Official figures would indicate that 2.8 billion dollars have been spent, and everyone in Venezuela is wondering where all this money has gone.
The nurses who are part of the ‘Barrio Adentro’ programme also came into conflict with the bureaucracy. The Minister of Health ended his term in office after Hugo Chavez himself sacked him. When it was discovered that he had withheld payments to the nurses and on top of that he accused them of being “escualidos”, the president did not hesitate to kick him out.
At the end of the day, this amazing level of corruption that this layer of bureaucrats is involved in is the direct result of the hesitations on the part of the leadership of the Bolivarian revolution to smash the capitalist state apparatus and replace it with the true government of the working people. Leon Trotsky in his article “Against bureaucracy, progressive and unprogressive” published in “Problems of Everyday Life” says the following:
“No government, even the most active and enterprising, can possibly transform life without the broadest initiative of the masses. The state can organise conditions of life down to the last cell of the community, the family, but unless these cells combine their own choice and will into a commonwealth no serious and radical changes can possibly be achieved in Economic conditions and Home life.”
Even though Leon Trotsky was referring to a state that had already destroyed capitalism (Russia after the 1917 revolution), these words really do apply to the day-to-day reality of Venezuela. The amazing level of participation of the masses has been the key to keeping the revolution alive and to consolidating it. It has been thanks to the organised communities that the social programmes have been successful. No one can imagine that healthcare programmes such as the ‘Barrio Adentro’ (Into the Neighbourhood) would have been possible without the thousands of volunteers that opened up the shantytowns for the volunteer doctors.
Clearly, what this rightwing bureaucratic clique - that has its fingers in all the ministries - is aiming at is to eliminate the participation of the masses from the process. They see this as a way of keeping the movement under their own control and thus making it wither away. But this is going to be a difficult task.
One of the features of this revolution is the huge scale of participation of the masses in the tasks of everyday life. There are thousands of examples and facts to illustrate this. For instance, Olga Marina is a 70-year-old grandmother who I met in La Pastora, Caracas. In spite of her age, she was part of a “healthcare committee” which organised the distribution of food and managed refurbishment works in her neighbours’ houses.
Another example is the Bolivarian Taxi Drivers’ Force. One night, we hired what looked like the scruffiest cab in Caracas. After a few minutes, an Italian comrade and I dared to ask the taxi driver about his opinions on the process. He gave us a full report of the 900-driver strong organisation and how on the day of the local elections they had organised patrols of taxi drivers to go to the areas and give free lifts to the people who wished to go to the polling stations, as a way of breaking the abstention campaign launched by the so-called “democratic opposition”. He also told us that the couriers are organised in similar fashion.
These are not isolated cases, at all. Another thing we found in different working class areas of Caracas and in the State of Miranda was that everybody was very willing to say how the process had improved their lives in a dramatic way. We could fill books with the explanations we got about people’s medical operations in Cuba. It is very clear that the revolution has improved people’s lives in a very concrete manner.
A very striking feature of this revolution is that it has given pride back to the downtrodden. People in the working class “barrios” of Caracas have painted their houses with very bright colours in a show of optimism and pride. They refer to Venezuela as “our country”, but not in a chauvinistic way. The meaning they were giving to this was that now Venezuela belongs to everybody and not to the elite that has historically ruled the country. People also has a very internationalist sense of the revolution. More than once I would hear people saying, “As comandante Chavez says, this revolution does not belong to the Venezuelans anymore, this revolution belongs to the Latin American and the peoples of the world.”
Although the structures of the Venezuelan state remain capitalist, this does not mean that within it there is not a ferocious struggle taking place between revolutionaries and sectors that think that the revolution has gone too far. There is a huge division between the reformists and revolutionaries within the Miraflores palace, the ministries and all kinds of public offices. In some ministries, the left is strong like for instance in the Ministry of Labour. Cristina Iglesias is actually working shoulder to shoulder with the UNT in order to tackle the anti-worker practices of the bosses, trying to boost the participation of workers in trade unions and trying to take further the co-management measures.
However, all of this is not free from attempts at internal boycott. Sometimes because of this division and internal fighting things are really slow and are not getting done. The delegates of the World Festival of the Youth saw the practical results of this situation. Transport was never on time, buses with delegates were stopped two and three times to be checked by different bodies (National Guard, Miranda State police and the organisers of the festival). International guests had their invitations and plane tickets cancelled with no reason whatsoever or simply never received them.
In spite of this, it is clear that the fact that the state apparatus is in the middle of a revolution is not all negative. The Army and National Guard rank and file troops mix with the crowds of civilians and they are no longer seen as their enemies but as their brothers. It is a really amazing to see a young soldier carrying a submachine gun in one hand and at the same time reading with a lot of interest a revolutionary leaflet.
Another example is the second state TV channel – Vive TV. I was invited to speak at this TV channel together with another comrade of the Hands Off Venezuela campaign and a female activist from the “23 de Enero” neighbourhood in Caracas. When we entered the building of the TV station we were really surprised to see that no one was wearing a suit. Everybody looked very young, and revolutionary posters featuring Che Guevara, the fight against bureaucracy and solidarity with the Iraqi resistance were everywhere.
We were praised by Thierry, the vice-chairperson of the channel because of the report we gave on air about the solidarity work with Venezuela we are doing in Britain. It was even more revealing when the female activist told the vice-chairperson of Vive TV that “there are not enough programmes that go into women’s problems”. Thierry agreed with her and replied, “Yes, that is true. You should come more often onto our TV programmes, because we need to highlight the situation of those women that live in working class communities. I am not very keen on these female intellectuals that have studied an MA or a PhD in Sociology in Canada, but do not have a clue about the situation of women in the working class communities.” Later on a French cameraman that works for Vive TV told us that most of them used to work in alternative and community media outlets.
However, the situation cannot remain like this forever on capitalist basis. Sooner or later, the situation has to be resolved, in one way or another. The capitalist apparatus of the state is working against the revolution.
Debate on Socialism
Since Hugo Chavez opened up the debate on socialism, it has become very easy in Venezuela to raise Marxism in discussions with Bolivarian activists. The very fact that this debate is taking place indicates how the movement is maturing and how the masses are learning from their own experience –sometimes, a bitter experience. “An ounce of action is worth a tone of theory,” Lenin used to say. The “necessity to transcend capitalism, […] but through socialism, true socialism,” as Hugo Chavez put it for the first time at the beginning of this year, has connected very easily with the experience of the Venezuelan masses.
Socialism has affected the Venezuelan revolution in a very dramatic way. There are murals, t-shirts, slogans, posters, graffiti… that express this will of the people to move towards socialism. It was very significant that during the parade that opened the World Festival of the Youth and the Students, an entertainer welcomed the different delegations to the “Socialist Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”.
However, this debate is facing the same problems as the one on “the revolution within the revolution”. The rightwing is trying to appropriate this new concept (socialism in this case) and is aiming to remove the real content of this word. I had the opportunity to attend the debate on “The Bolivarian revolution and Socialism of the 21st century” and it was really annoying to see a CPV bureaucrat just mouthing in parrot fashion the words, phrases and expressions that Hugo Chavez had used in one of his speeches not long before, but without any life in these words. Then there are others that just try to marry this concept to the existence of the market economy and private property.
What I have seen and experienced in Venezuela has reasserted my beliefs on the key role that the Venezuelan revolution will play in the overthrow of capitalism in Latin America. The Venezuelan revolution is taking place in a context where revolution is at the top of the agenda of the Latin American masses. The social unrest that has recently taken place in Ecuador and Bolivia altogether with the Cuban revolution that has resisted imperialist harassment for more than 45 years indicate that there are good prospects for the Venezuelan revolution.
However, the Venezuelan revolution is not free from threats. Enemies inside and outside the country, as well as in and outside the movement, threaten the Venezuelan revolution. In Venezuela the concrete carrying out of socialism is an unaccomplished task facing the movement. Internationally, the trade unions, the students and everybody standing on the left should build solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution. The Hands Off Venezuela campaign has been already doing a serious and effective work on this front. http://www.handsoffvenezuela.org http://www.ushov.org