The Radical Foment underneath Venezuela’s (somewhat ) radical leader, the glorified Hugo Chavez

“We don’t want a government, we want to govern!” says Carlos Ortega, co-founder of Radio Perola, a community station at the center of local activism in the Caracas barrio of Caricuao. ”We want to decide what is done, when it’s done and how it’s done in our communities.”

People in Venezuela are in a remarkable position. With the encouragement of the leftist government, approximately one million people there are organizing themselves in a huge popular movement with strong anti-authoritarian strains. The democratically-elected president, Hugo Chavez, is the public face and voice of this monstrous movement– but it does not depend on him.

After seeing a salutary documentary on his successful recovery from the right-wing coup attempted against him in April 2002, it was impossible for me to not feel optimistic. I saw thousands of people take to the streets and force the opposition to return Chavez from a deserted island to the presidential palace.

But what was the real revolutionary potential of the grassroots social change sponsored by Chavez’s Bolivarian Movement? How did Chavez’s position as president affect his ability and motivation to make revolutionary change? More than optimism, I wanted an analysis of Chavez as a tool against US imperialism.

Beyond Bolivarian Circles

Chavez institutes political empowerment and social change through Bolivarian Circles, government-funded neighborhood organizations named after Simon Bolivar, a revolutionary fighter against Spanish colonialism in the early 1800s. The Bolivarian movement is essentially an action-oriented political party, and the official Bolivarian Circles include elements of political action committees in the US. But neighborhood organizing goes beyond government-sanctioned activities.

“Many barrio residents are taking action with little heed for official directives or government sanctions,” Reed Lindsay, a US reporter based in Argentina, wrote in the Manchester Guardian.

In the barrios, Bolivarian Circles fix broken water supply systems and run recycling programs. Committees take censuses and chart family histories as a part of a government plan to give land titles to families who have squatted in slums for decades.

On their own initiative, people organize “citizen assemblies” to discuss everything from neighborhood dynamics to national politics, and create local planning councils where city authorities are forced to share decision-making power with community representatives.

This mobilization led parents and students to take over a barrio elementary school last winter and restart classes with volunteer teachers, when the instructors walked out during the strike called by the right-wing opposition last winter.

And in the absence of Venezuelan doctors, who won’t enter the poor barrios, people receive door-to-door visits from Cuban doctors brought in by Chavez. The doctors operate out of health clinics taken over in the early 1990s by people fueled by what some call the first insurgency, the 1989 Caracas barrio riots that led to Chavez winning the presidency almost 10 years later.

The Venezuelan Constitution is a major force behind public mobilization. While Chavez is charismatic, it is the Constitution, based strongly on ideas of social equality, that people latch onto, read and discuss in the streets. At first I was impressed that Chavez had re-written the Constitution. As it turns out, new governments in many South American countries often bring in a new constitution to lend legitimacy to their regime. But rarely does a Constitution, the cornerstone of a state, provide inspiration for people to organize themselves independently.

“Paradoxically, it has been those leaders with feet of clay who have placed in the people’s hands some tools to develop the politics that will get rid of them, with a clear touch of autonomy and self-management;” writes the Venezuelan anarchist collective El Liberatorio.

Roland Denis, a leftist organizer and ex-minister in Chavez’s government, looks beyond this apparent dilemma. “Here it has been possible to reconcile grassroots movements inspired by anarchism with a conception of a different state…. There are projects in Venezuela that demonstrate that it is possible to transcend the contradiction between self-governance and the state.” If anti-authoritarian organizing permeated Venezuela, would people reinvent the state, or end it?

For the present, regardless of the tenacity of the state, people are making powerful, radical, meaningful changes in their lives and communities.

“It isn’t just about tens of thousands of people in the street, or even the constitutional changes that empower people,” observed solidarity activist Diana Valentine in January 2003. “In everyday encounters there’s this spirit of change–after greeting each other in the street people will immediately start talking about the projects they’re organizing, studying they constitution, establishing cooperatives.”

“What is new is not so much what the government is doing, but what is happening outside it,” says Arlene Espinal, a social worker and resident of a poor Caracas neighborhood. “There’s been a powerful reawakening in the barrios.”

Because the movement and the state are closely related, it is somewhat difficult to determine what would happen if the state changes direction. If a new regime changes the constitution yet again, how will the million people inspired by it on a daily basis react?

“The opposition might be able to slow the reforms and make people suffer–but stopping the revolutionary aspects of the process, the people’s self-organization and empowerment, they will find more difficult,” writes Reed Lindsay.

I would like to give people credit: that they are inspired and will continue to fight.

Who is Chavez?

Predictably, Hugo Chavez is more of a mixed bag than let on by ogling international leftists.

Despite his inspirational radical rhetoric, many of his specific economic reforms are more moderate. The laws governing land reform, oil, banking, and fisheries all impose modest limits and regulations much like what exists in other capitalist countries, especially in Europe.

“Here there are three worlds,” summarizes ex- Chavez minister Roland Denis. “There is a revolutionary process that is not just represented by the government, but by popular movements. Then there is the government, which does not assume clearly defined positions. Finally, there is opposition of the oligarchy and of the middle-classes who are ideologically controlled by the former.”

“The presidential leftist rhetoric is often combined with a favorable policy towards financial and profiteer sectors, suggesting the configuration of a new hegemonic bloc behind the “Bolivarian” regime,” says Francisco Sobrino, editor of the Argentinean journal Herramiente, who accuses Chavez of having a “fickle” relationship with the Venezuelan masses.

His analysis: “Nowadays the neoliberal tide is ebbing in the region, but it is not immediately replaced by a truly popular or revolutionary large wave. New heterogeneous regimes may then emerge filling the power vacuum, as a reflection of or reaction to those deep developing social trends. Chavism is just one of these cases.”

Chavistas want to make the state efficient, not sell it off to foreign interests as suggested by the World Bank, but neither turning it over to collectives and popular control.

“There’s a strong streak of authoritarianism in Chavismo. For all its talk of participation, there’s been a centralization of power in the hands of the president.” says Carlos Correa, of the human rights group Provea.

Some attribute his moderate reforms to an attempt to walk a moderate tightrope between the people’s demands and the looming hand of the United States. But Roland Denis, the radical minister whom Chavez fired after 10 months, thinks differently: “I do not believe that the ambiguity of the Chavez Government has to do with fear of intervention. Rather, it is a consequence of a lack of clarity, debates, and confidence in the capacity of the self-governance of the people. The inhabitants of the barrios unconditionally supported the government during the coups, risking their lives. But the state hardly reaches out to the barrios. There is a closed, almost fort-like conception of power.”

As the Venezuelan anarchists are happy to point out, this is hardly surprising. “To claim that power will dissolve itself is as ludicrous as to claim that History is a mechanical sum of events that will bring us unerringly to freedom and social justice. These will only be conquered by keeping with the anti-capitalist struggle without abandoning, even for a second, our critical spirit and inquisitiveness.”

Revolution or regime change?

Sadly, Chavez’s position is growing more tenuous, as both external and internal forces converge against his leadership.

Chavez and Brazilian President Lula de Silva are the two strongest South American leaders who oppose the US proposal for a NAFTA-modeled Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). While Lula’s opposition is based on market concerns (the US refuses to open it markets to key Brazilian imports), Chavez’s concerns with the FTAA are moral and based on his commitment to social equality. In this sense, he is a stronger anti-globalization ally than Lula. In reaction to his strong stance, the US is funding the right-wing opposition to Chavez.

On Chavez’ s home front, poor Venezuelans, who despite the government’s community organizing have not seen their bottom-line economic situation improve significantly, are getting angry and impatient for concrete change.

And it seems that Chavez is actively eliminating any dissenting views within his government, dismissing ministers more radical than his moderate position.

All this will likely come to a head this March with a mid-term recall election. Up for recall is Chavez himself, 34 Chavista politicians, and 38 opposition politicians, many of whom are former Chavez supporters. Chavez’s support is strongly based with the increasingly-frustrated poor. Will he survive between the rock of angry people and the hard place of US imperial ambitions? Now is certainly the time for Chavez to bite the bullet and align his policies with his radical rhetoric. It’s not like the middle classes, constantly inflamed by “anti-communist” messages from the right-wing media, are going to be swayed by his timid economic reforms.

Chavez’s strength is the poor, and the poor’s strength is themselves. International anti-authoritarians should stand with the people in Venezuela as they use Chavez as a tool to create revolutionary change. The Chavez government opens up space for powerful, concrete, unprecedented change in the lives of millions of previously unempowered poor people. Radical organizing is radical organizing, regardless of whether it happens under the guise of the state or under the boot.

Contact El Libertario, the Venezuelan anarchist collective, via Emilio Tesoro, apartado postal 6303, Carmelitas, Venezuela. or ellibertario@nodo50.org.

Sources:

Francisco T. Sobrino, Filling the Vacuum After neoliberal failure: The confrontation in venezuela. Against the Current 4/30/03

Reed Lindsay, Venezuela’s slum army takes over. The Observer, 8/10/03

El Libertario editorial, Issue 33.

Zelik, Raul. Venezuela and the Popular Movement, an interview with Roland Denis. Z Magazine 8/03