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re:[Marxism] Venezuela-A report by Dawn Gable

To: Activists and scholars in Marxist tradition <marxism@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Subject: re:[Marxism] Venezuela-A report by Dawn Gable
From: Rod Holt <rholt@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Thu, 19 Aug 2004 20:10:25 -0700
Cc: Carole Seligman <caroseligman@xxxxxxx>, Nat Weinstein <nat9sylvia@xxxxxxxxxxx>, Bonnie Weinstein <giobon@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Delivery-date: Thu, 19 Aug 2004 21:13:51 -0600

FWD by rod
Posted: Monday, February 09, 2004
Venezuela's ability to embrace its history and construct a unique model
of development guest commentarist Dawn Gable writes:
A Unique Model of Development
By Dawn Gable
In 1999, by popular referendum, a constituent assembly was called. The
undertaking of re-writing the constitution had been mulled over and
discussed for so many years that it took only six months to write the
document and ratify it, by yet another referendum. The Constitution
marked the beginning of a new era: the Fifth Republic. Not only had the
name of the country been changed, but also the rulebook had been
re-written, with the participation of and to the advantage of el pueblo
(the people).
The preamble of the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of
Venezuela states that one of the Constitution's goals is to establish a
participatory democracy achieved through elected representatives,
popular votes by referendum, and popular mobilization. It points to the
document itself as being a product of this new participation, and it in
fact was.
Social organizations were invited to participate through a multitude of
venues such as forums, workshops, and committees. They were also
encouraged to draft their own proposals for consideration by the
Assembly. Unlike in the years of Constitutional reform when social
actors had little success getting their concerns met, more than 50% of
the 624 proposals brought to the table by civil society were included in
the 1999 Constitution. The document's coverage of a broad range of
issues reflects this diverse public participation.
There are no less than 111 articles spelling out civic rights that
address topics such as culture and education, Indigenous rights,
adequate housing, land distribution, worker safety, protection of family
and children, and priority of the environment. Political participation
is addressed in articles 71-74, which describe the popular referendum
mechanism that affords the public a direct voice in legislation and the
power to recall any publicly elected figure. Article 341 explains the
public's right to initiate constitutional amendments and subjects all
proposed amendments, regardless of their origin, to referendum vote. The
military was granted the right to vote, allowing a large sector of young
(mostly) males from predominately poor backgrounds to participate in the
political character of the country they defend.
Importantly, the document not only lays out the rights of the citizenry,
but also the duties of the state and the public in attaining and
maintaining the ideals of the nation. There are six articles elaborating
the duties of all citizens. These articles formally establish the intent
of the Fifth Republic administration to enlist the general public in the
pursuit of national goals.
Article 132 states that everyone has the duty to fulfill his or her
social responsibilities through participation in the political, civic,
and community life of the country with the goal of promoting and
protecting human rights as the foundation of democratic coexistence and
social peace.
Article 133 repeals forcible recruitment into the armed forces, but
recognizes everyone's duty to perform civilian or military service as
may be necessary for the defense, preservation, and development of the
Article 135 says that the state's obligation to the general welfare of
society does not preclude the obligation of private individuals to
participate according to their abilities. These duties describe
participation much beyond the electoral process. They compel the public
to see themselves as not so much the governed masses, but as active
builders of their own society.
It is evident by the hyper-participation in social movements and other
forms of political expression that the public does feel that they have a
say in the direction of the country in a way that they never had before.
Although many of the organizations whose fundamental goal was to open up
the decision making process dissolved once this goal was reached, other
groups found themselves freed up to pursue their specific concerns such
as the environment, housing, or education. Beyond these previous
players, there are now literally hundreds of thousands of new
neighborhood groups, community organizations, cooperatives, and social
According to PROVEA, a Venezuelan non-profit human rights organization,
the most notable social movement in the country since the beginning of
the Fifth Republic is that of cooperatives. Cooperatives are forming in
every sector of society and within every social movement. There are
artisan, security, cultivation, sanitation, community media, and women's
cooperatives to name few. According to the National Superintendency of
Cooperatives (SUNACOOP) there were 1,900 cooperatives in 2001. By July
2003, this number has risen to 10,000 representing 659,000 individuals.
SUNACOOP lists 34% of all coops in the category of goods and services,
31% in food production, and 23% in transportation.
In June 2003, the president announced that Bs.15 billion of the federal
budget would go to finance cooperatives. In addition, the 2001 Special
Law of Cooperative Associations that lays down the ground rules for
registering and managing a cooperative, states that "In equal
conditions, cooperatives will be given preference by financing and
credit institutes" as well as preference for government contracts. In a
country where the business sector has been traditionally dependent on
government and oil industry contracts, this is a significant incentive.
Also in favor of cooperatives is Article 24 of the Law of the
Intergovernmental Decentralization Fund (FIDES), which assigns at least
20% of the annual resources allotted to States and Municipalities to the
financing of projects presented by organized communities, neighborhood
associations and NGOs.
A cooperative is a legally registered association united with the aim of
fulfilling common needs and solving common problems. Cooperatives are
flexible autonomous bodies whose members each have an equal voice and
whose properties belong to each member equally. Cooperatives are based
on values such as mutual assistance, self-reliance and responsibility,
democracy, equality, and solidarity. Members are held to the ethical
standards of honesty, transparency, social responsibility and duty.
In an effort to overcome party politics and to bring governance closer
to the people, the State has begun to impel a social development that
raises public awareness, harnesses human resources and stimulates a
communitarian lifestyle. Through cooperatives the State aims to induce
communities to assume responsibilities of co-governance in the
supervision, control, administration and execution of public works and
services, education and culture. This model of social organization
decentralizes power beyond Mayorships and town councils to the citizen,
giving the public legal instruments for a modern exercise of
sovereignty. Cooperatives have taken hold in nearly all threads of
social movements. Individual cells within each organizational entity
have begun to group themselves in neighborhood cooperatives, which in
turn are joining regional cooperatives that are nested within national
networks of cooperatives.
For example, the Women's Development Bank (BANMUJER), which was
established in 2001 to award women low interest, small business loans
and to provide counseling to women through all stages of business
creation and management, has moved into the cooperative mode as well.
Economic Association Units (UEA) are cooperatives of five to nine women
involved in productive activities within a community. Groups of UEAs
within the same geographical area are further united into networks. The
idea is the same as with other collectives: more complex cooperative
structures can address more complex issues. In this spirit, BANMUJER
also provides free counseling to women on issues such as sexual and
reproductive rights and political participation and empowerment.
Another example of the spread of cooperatives can be found within the
campesino and barrio movements as well. Land redistribution is being
managed through "land committees." These are elected popular councils
each representing up to 200 families. Around 150,000 people are involved
in these committees directly participating in the formation of the laws
pertaining to land distribution. Working within regional and national
cooperative networks they obtain the technical support necessary to
organize activities such as demarcation of land plots and building of
houses, roads, parks, and utility infrastructures. Land Committees
encourage the formation of cooperative neighborhood base units to
participate in carrying out the work listed above as well as to provide
community services such cooperative childcare, neighborhood vigilance,
and cultural activities.
Many regional and national networks of cooperatives include base units
from various types of community organizations. These diverse collections
of mobilized, purposeful entities are taking an integral approach at
developing community participation and self-governance. Community based
media is a crucial means of linking participants, allowing for the
sharing of concerns, experiences and successes.
The Bolivarian administration granted organized communities throughout
Venezuela the right to local broadcasting licenses. Despite opposition
from traditional professional media associations such as the Venezuelan
Broadcasting Guild (Camara Venezolana de la Industria de la
Radiodifusion), at least 9 TV and 38 radio stations ... some of which
started out as "pirate" broadcasters ... are now legally on the air,
along with a host of yet unlicensed broadcasters. In compliment there
are nearly 500 community newspapers and countless news websites as well.
Many of these news sources originate in barrio communities and all of
them are run by grassroots, "amateur" teams that have learned their
trade in hopes of serving their communities and breaking the monopoly of
information distribution that has strangled the nation. Venezuelan
community media is gaining much attention and support from international
independent media. Many are seeing the important role of community media
vs. alternative media; whereas the latter generally cover the same
topics as corporate media, community media dig deeper and reveal how the
people experience national and worldwide events. Community reporters
gather and present stories of life in areas that the corporate media
have not bothered to visit ... they put cameras in the hands of the
people themselves so that they can tell their own story and share it
with others.
This is crucial in Venezuela today where the opposition-run corporate
media completely ignore the programs being carried out by the state and
the people throughout the nation. Instead, the private mass media keep
the public busy with arguments about oil rents, Colombian guerillas, and
Chavez' manners.
Until recently, Venezuelan media consisted of four corporate television
channels and 10 corporate national newspapers ... all but one of which
was blatantly and directly involved in the April 2002 coup. These
outlets are in fact the skeleton of the opposition. They unabashedly
incite demonstrations, slander government figures, manipulate footage,
and blatantly publish obvious lies. During the 2-month oil strike that
spanned the turning of the last year, the TV stations ran not a single
commercial advertisement, but instead ran an average of 12 anti-Chavez
advertisements per hour.
Another major social movement sweeping the country is the Bolivarian
Circles (Circulos Bolivarianos or CBs). CBs began appearing in 2000.
The government did not start them. They began as community groups
studying the Constitution and Venezuelan history and went on to work on
local community improvement projects. Later, neighboring groups began
addressing larger issues such as health and education. Eventually these
groups expressed their desire to participate directly in the making of
decisions that affect their communities. Realizing this desire, the
president called for the creation of the CBs as a mechanism for this
participation and many of the aforementioned community groups became CBs.
There are now 2.2 million people formally registered as CB members ...
each Circle consists of 7- 10 individuals whose members enjoy equal
status. Each Circle's immediate function is community involvement
consistent with the needs of their specific location. This participation
may manifest in diverse forms such as repairing neighborhood
infrastructure, promoting cultural events, or participating in
nationwide programs. But, as Ulisis Castro, a member of the national
coordination team points out, many of these 200,000 Circles, due to a
lack of guidance and assistance, are not actively functioning in their
Recognizing this deficiency and as if in response to concern that such
small community groups with narrow, material demands may disappear when
their particular needs are met and never grow into broad social
movements, the Circles have taken their organizational structure to a
more complex level in addition to their traditional, local character.
The CBs are now organizing themselves into Bolivarian Houses (Casas
Bolivarianas). This new structure seeks to unify the efforts of the
Circles, along with various other civil society associations, in order
to tackle complex issues that are regional, national or even
international in character. The first House was opened in the Caracas
township "23 de Enero": a long time activist, barrio community. In the
next two years 1,078 Casas will be opened: roughly one per parroquia.
CB literature describes Bolivarian Houses as "community spaces for
meetings, interchanges, articulation, unity and fortification of the
organizations, movements, and institutions linked to the construction
and consolidation of popular power and oriented in the defense,
construction, and development of the proposed project of the country and
the new society described by the Constitution."
Participating civil associations will organize themselves among 10 areas
of activity according to their interests and abilities: planning and
development; education; social economy and productive work; culture, and
communications; food security; health and environment; safety and social
services; infrastructure, urbanization and transport; tourism,
recreation and sports; and Latin American integration, international
solidarity, and sovereignty.
While opponents claim that Circles receive preferential treatment in
comparison to other neighborhood associations, the truth is that Circles
are eligible for funds under the same guidelines and from the same
sources as any other organized group as defined by FIDES, the Special
Law of Cooperatives, and similar laws regarding public resources.
Circles get no funding as an entity. Neither the national coordinator,
nor any members of the national coordination team staff, receives a
salary. The national coordinator specifically instructs Circles to seek
funding through the local channels established by the government for all
groups of organized citizens. The national office offers oversight,
organizational infrastructure, logistical and technical support, but has
no resources itself. This is in keeping with the Bolivarian imperative
that the Revolution is of the people. They must create it themselves.
Even prior to the Bolivarian House Project, Bolivarian Circles have
worked in cooperation with other grassroots organizations on an equal
basis or in fact sometimes in a subordinate role to longer-lived
organizations. For example in the parroqia 23 de Enero, where there is a
long tradition of community activism, the Circles are seen as the new
kids on the block by older groups such as the Tupamaros and Coordinadora
Simon Bolivar, which continue to enjoy a more influential status in the
eyes of the community and the state.
With little resources and while often dealing with harassment from local
authorities, these types of community organizations have been the
cultural lifelines of barrio communities over the past several decades.
The revolutionary government has granted them official legitimacy and
recognition for their past work by piloting many of the new social
programs in their neighborhoods and handing over management of these
programs to them. In response, traditional groups are boldly tackling
ever more ambitious projects.
Some of these projects are being aided by the military. In a country
that has not fought a foreign war since colonial times, many find it
appropriate to broaden the definition of national security to include
domestic issues, therefore adding to the duty of the military the
defense of the public's health and well-being. Taking on this new role,
the military has participated in disaster relief, school construction,
road building, and more. Twenty thousand homes were built through an
Army-community alliance called Avispa, a similar civil- military project
called Reviba has rebuilt 10,000 homes, and soldier-aided Mega Markets
are selling 112,000 tons of food each month in poor regions at discount
To combat undernourishment in Venezuela and to secure national food
self-sufficiency the plan All hands to the Planting (Todas las Manos a
la Siembra) incorporates several programs such as the Urban and Suburban
Agricultural Program (Programa de Agricultura Urbana y Periurbana) and
Zamoran Farms (Fundos Zamoranos). The first program is a campaign to
turn abandoned urban land into community gardens. Army personnel, Cuban
agricultural experts, and neighborhood volunteers are working to move
2,470 acres of Caracas and surrounding areas into vegetable cultivation
within the year. The second program seeks to build civic- academic
alliances. With two pilot farms already in action, university students
are earning degrees in agricultural disciplines working alongside
experienced farmers employed from the surrounding community.
Along with the unconventional social movements mentioned above,
Venezuela has its share of traditional-style social organizations. What
is interesting is that there are a large number of parallel
organizations separated by whether or not they are in agreement with the
Bolivarian Plan. For example, along side the traditional National
Women's Organization is the Bolivarian Women's Movement, accompanying
the Venezuelan Workers Confederation and the is the Bolivarian Workers
Federation, countering the Accion Democratica Youth is the Bolivarian
Youth Foundation. There are Bolivarian student organizations and
Bolivarian federations of doctors and the list goes on. These Bolivarian
versions tend to concern themselves with the same issues as their
counterparts, but usually see a completely different path to resolution.
While some feel that this factionalism has diluted the forces of the
movements as a whole, many recognize these new groups to be stepping
outside the usual boundaries of "issue activism," to see the goals of
their movement as part of a larger overall transformation of society.
It is important not to disqualify the networks of cooperatives,
Bolivarian Circles, community media, civil-military alliances, and
Bolivarian versions of traditional social organizations, from being
considered popular social movements just because they share the ideology
of the current administration and because they enjoy official
logistical, moral and sometimes indirect financial support. Hugo Chavez
is not only the president of a country, the commander and chief of a
military, and the figurehead of a political coalition, but also the
leader of a grassroots social movement that began decades ago.
More and more sectors of society are organizing themselves and aligning
themselves with 'el proceso" (The Process: the popular colloquialism for
the overall Bolivarian Plan) the stated ultimate goal of which is to
create a new society that is fueled by universal participation and based
on social justice and equality. Numerous associations are attempting to
insure that this process will continue whether or not they have a
representative in the presidential palace by cultivating current popular
enthusiasm for participation that stems from the people's newfound sense
of power and purpose.
Social organizations that are opposed to the Bolivarian movement
complain that they are not being taken into account by the current
administration. A good many of these groups were active participants in
the writing of the Fifth Republic Constitution, but discovered that in
the end they were not in agreement with the document or at least not
with its interpretation. Some complain that the established rules of
dialog between civil society and the state are not functioning.
Bolstered by the old economic elites who are losing their grasp on the
nation's wealth, many of these groups have promoted and participated in
civil disturbances, strikes, and the unprecedented propaganda war.
"...Civil Society recognizes the democratic legitimacy of the new
provisional President of the Republic of Venezuela, Dr. Pedro Carmona
Estanga ..." This document of recognition signed by directors of
upper-middle-class social organizations such as Queremos Elegir (We Want
to Choose), Ciudadanía Activa (Active Citizenship), Vision Emergente
(Emergent Vision), Frente Institucional Militar (Institutional Military
Front), Red de Veedores (Electoral Observers Network) illustrates the
complicity of these social organizations in the April, 2002 coup d'etat
that cost the country over $1 billion.
Later these same disgruntled groups, who still hold the keys to much of
the nation's money making apparatus, participated in a strike that
immediately cost Venezuela an estimated $7 billion, or about 9% of gross
domestic product. The long-term damage is not assessable. If the Chavez
government did not have a legitimate excuse for excluding these groups
from the definition of Civil Society before 2002, as the opposition
claims, certainly the reasoning behind exclusion at this date, if it
were in fact the case, would be clear.
Detractors also claim that they are being discriminated against for
access to public resources and they complain that government contracts
should be given out according to free market competition. In reality,
laws pertaining to the allocation of public funds do not contain any
wording that can be used to discriminate against any project based on
political affiliation. However, as the opposition is typically comprised
of citizens of the upper economic echelon and the Fourth Republic
business community, they are less likely to be interested in forming
cooperatives and doing community service that would fulfill criteria for
funding eligibility. Also, the Law of FIDES does state that funds will
be prioritized to the most vulnerable areas and for the most critical
needs. This would, in all likelihood, lead to the exclusion of upper
class Altamira residents, unless they requested funds for projects that
transcend their communities.
Is this fair? It is well known that for at least forty years, Venezuelan
businesses and their foreign custodians were furnished government
contracts based not on free market competition, but on friendships or in
exchange for campaign contributions and kickbacks. The earnings from
these deals by and large were converted to dollars and kept in foreign
banks. Very little private money was invested in research and
development of new technologies and industries. In fact, many industries
were completely abandoned, leading to such strange phenomena as a
rich-soiled, large-landed country importing most of its food.
The Fourth Republic business community could have spearheaded the
diversification of the productive economy, but instead, narrow
self-interest and lack of patriotic commitment greatly contributed to
the economic disaster of the 80s and 90s. Because the traditional
business community did not step up to the plate when the opportunity was
given them in the past, the government today is looking to the new
movers and shakers of the country: "el pueblo unido" (the organized
Some critics assert that campesinos, barrio dwellers, and indigenous
peoples are incapable or at least ill-equipped to take on the rebuilding
of a nation; this outlook is little more than thinly-veiled vanguardist
prejudice and it is much resented by the barrio activists who have
struggled within their communities for decades with no outside help at
all. While it is true that much training and technical and
organizational support will be necessary, it is being provided. The
principal obstacles confronting the success of the Bolivarian project,
from the official point of view is the absence of a culture of
participation and the persistence of the values of representative
democracy. Lack of cultural and national identity, passivity, apathy,
corruption, and individualism stand in the way of Venezuela's
transformation. The Bolivarian model asserts that everyone has the
right, duty and ability to participate in the molding and governing of
Nowhere has this faith been officially extended to include indigenous
communities as it has been in Venezuela. The Bolivarian Constitution
recognizes the indigenous community in a way that is unequalled anywhere
on the continent. It has raised the bar and set the standard of
expectation for natives all across the Americas. In general terms the
Constitution gives indigenous peoples ownership rights to their
traditionally held lands. It recognizes their culture and political
traditions and the right to self-governance. It considers native
languages as the official language in their respective communities and
formalizes intercultural, bilingual education. Thirty indigenous
organizations together make up the second most active social sector in
the nation today, participating in various movements, cooperatives, and
The integration of movements across issues is probably the most
significant feature of the Revolution. Across the globe social movements
separately tackle a diverse array of concerns. Occasionally movements
belonging to the same "camp" will form alliances, but quite often,
narrow specific interests create factionalism and conflict. Rarely, and
only recently have coalitions been formed between different camps, such
as between labor and environmental activists. The Bolivarian Revolution
is formally taking a bold, unique road of integration via networks of
cooperatives, Bolivarian Houses, etc., that function to pull together
the efforts of traditional activist camps in hopes of eliminating the
inefficiency and clashes that plague "issue" activism. The world is
watching as the experiment unfolds and some are even signing on.
While traditional solidarity movements exist throughout the world that
support the Bolivarian Revolution, specific issues of civil society, or
simply Venezuela's right to sovereignty; there is a more profound and
peculiar phenomenon occurring. Members of the international community
are adopting the Revolution's fundamental principles and joining "el
processo" by taking them home with them. For example, there are 22
Bolivarian Circles in the United States, Canada and Western Europe.
According to CB literature, the function of international Circles is not
only to perform acts of solidarity, but also to work for the improvement
and empowerment of their own communities. This is an important departure
from the usual patronizing stance of solidarity movements. It shows
genuine recognition and emulation of the Bolivarian process.
These types of cross border relationships are forming among indigenous
peoples, land workers, independent media, etc. Government supporters
claim that Venezuela's vision for the future is not based on leaving
behind its history and discarding its culture to mimic another, but
instead is based on Venezuela's ability to embrace its history and to
draw from its own culture so as to construct a unique model of
development that is flexible and transferable across nations. The
Bolivarian Revolution invites us all to join in the making of our
collective future.
Dawn Gable

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