Made in Socialism - taking it as it comes
Opinions are polarised on Venezuela. The western establishment argues that there is a socialist dictatorship while many on the left believe that a true socialist revolution is taking place. Chavez's denunciation of Western military intervention, his rhetorical opposition to capitalist globalisation, and the fact that he has survived an attempted coup make most of the world's anti-war movements likely to sympathise. But there is also disquiet – about the personality cult, about Chavez's own authoritarianism and affinity with other authoritarian rulers, about an economic policy which in reality is based on partnerships with western oil corporations, and for us in WRI the sheer militarism – the creation of uniformed militia, the presence of military officers at the head of “civilian” organisations, the continuing inculcation of a war mentality. At the invitation of PROVEA (an internationally respected human rights education organisation) and the anarchist magazine El Libertario, in May a three-person WRI delegation went to Caracas and also visited the state of Lara.
Hecho en socialismo
Arriving at the airport in Venezuela already something feels different, instead of your Coca-Cola billboard there are huge banners drooping from the ceiling saying Hecho en Socialismo (made in socialism), stating all the achievements of the current Venezuelan government … millions of this, less of that, more of that … something that is being repeated on billboards and posters all over the city, once in a while including a picture of Chavez lifting up a baby or some other scene that is clearly targeted to touch emotions. So from the moment you set a foot in the country the word socialism starts being bombarded to you. In one way it is nice not to have your usual Coca-Cola add, but at the same as you start seeing these billboards more and more, you can not stop thinking that actually they are doing the same as Coca-Cola – selling a product.
On the road from the airport, however, the most striking image is of precarious ramshackle houses, vulnerable to flooding, and in the metro we saw queues sitting and waiting to register for the new Mission Vivienda – the latest attempt (surely timed with the 2012 election in mind) to address Venezuela's housing problem which has worsened under the revolution (Chavez's government is near the bottom of the Latin American league in building new homes).
2010 – the Bicentenario, 200 years since Venezuela declared independence from Spain - was used to the extreme to reinforce nationalist sentiments. We even visited the special monument erected to mark this date, which is called the “Misil Ideológico” (the ideological missile) which is a huge missile painted in red and black, representing the need to arm themselves to protect their ideology. The use of words are always carefully chosen, for example all ministries include the concept people power in their title, for example it is the ministry of people power of education, with this trying to present that it is the people who are leading the ministries, which the reality can not be further away from.
Chavez's rule has been based on promises and on a posture of defying the global superpower. Yet everywhere there is a growing chasm between the image the government seeks to cultivate and the actual practice. It is a strange kind of “anti-imperialism” that sees the US still being the biggest buyer of Venezuelan oil, and doing so hand-in-hand with a global corporation with as bad an environmental, human rights and labour record as Chevron.
Food sovereignty, you might believe, is a key objective for the Bolivarian revolution. Yet the reality is that Venezuela's national agriculture now produces less than before and the dependence on imports, including food, is increasing year by year.
The promotion of cooperatives has been one of the most heralded features of the Venezuelan revolution. We visited the country's biggest cooperative – Cecesesola in the state of Lara – which began back in 1978 by organising funerals, spread into running a bus service, then into agricultural distribution, and now has a weekly fruit and vegetable market supplying 55,000 households and has ploughed back its profits to build a 90-bed hospital. They emphasis the importance of cooperative relationships, organising horizontally and taking decisions by consensus. Under Chavez thousands of cooperatives have applied for government funding, and those that exist – in stark contrast, to Cecesesola – are hierarchical, often with a Party member as boss and imposing work conditions that unions would not accept, and sometimes being little more than maquillas – production lines – for larger corporations, often based outside Venezuela.
Meanwhile, in the name of defending the revolution, Venezuela is one of the biggest spenders in military equipment in South America: in 2000-10 Venezuela spent €2,032 billion on arms imports, 72% of this sum went to Russia - Chavez maybe is not be aware that the cold war is over.
Grass-root led revolution
Many things are forgiven about the Chavez government, arguing that one of the most important aspects of this government is that it has finally given a voice to the poor and to grass-root social movements. So despite the awareness of corruption among the ruling circle and of the impunity enjoyed by police and military officials, these are things you have to put up if you want a people's government. During our visit to Venezuela we visited the Coordinadora Simón Bolivar, based in the “Barrio 23 de Enero “ in Caracas - a working class barrio - which is said to be one of the strongholds of Chavez. The coordinadora does incredible work for the community, with their own radio, an info-centre run entirely on linux, a library, gym, etc and being a place for all sorts of activities in support of the community. All this from premises that used to be a police station. However we could not avoid feeling very uncomfortable when they stated the need of all youth in the barrio to take military training to protect their revolution as well as being a place for youth to learn how to better behave. Also we saw an exaggerated war mentality as even a fish-farming project was presented as being food security in case of invasion.
In 1989, the people of Venezuela rebelled against the IMF's imposition of a packet of neoliberal measures. In Caracas itself, hundreds – if not thousands – were slaughtered during protests that began opposing a rise in transport prices. For Chavez himself this was a turning point, and yet today we find the committee founded by the relatives of the disappeared (COFAVIC) still campaigning for a proper investigation of who was responsible, for the exhumation and identification of names victims, and for the implementation of the recommendations of the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which includes reform of police structures and training.
Visiting the Comité de Víctimas contra la Impunidad del estado Lara (Committee of Victims against the Lara State Impunity), we heard of the continuous and alarming high rate of violence, murders and disappearances of Venezuelan citizens. A broad range of actors are involved, including various state actors: more than 400 executions take place per year by the state police. One of their methods, a 'black sheep' tactic, appeals to a highly sensed feeling of insecurity amongst the population. In this method, police officials gather with neighbourhood representatives and mark the houses where suspected criminals live. This public stigmatisation gives the inhabitants the feeling that problems get solved when they then get executed. The Committee has strong evidence of the connection between government representatives, police officers and crime gangs. There are more and more evidence of how members in government have their hands dirty with crimes. The better known example is the case of the murder of Mijail Martinez. His father, Victor Martinez, is a former member of the Lara legislative council, a comrade and friend of Chavez who slowly started seeing evidence of wrongdoing within member of the government and began to denounce the links between crime gangs, police officers and government representatives in the city of Barquisimeto. Victor is convinced that Mijail was killed as a way of intimidating him and to try to stop him from continue his denunciations. If a revolution is led by its people, it wouldn't be suspected of the disappearances and killing of them.
It is always good to see things for yourself, and this is even more so in the case of Venezuela, given the many diverse images you get of the country depending from whom it comes. After two weeks of work visiting groups from all sectors, we can see an increase of expressions of independent social movements in Venezuela, many of them coming from a left tradition and who supported the Chavez government in its early years, but have been severely disappointed since. As part of our presence in Venezuela we gave a workshop on nonviolent campaigning, looking at how to be more strategical and creative in the actions and campaigns carried out by groups. This was on request by groups in Venezuela who see that it is hard to come out of the routine of doing always the same actions and also the need to make links between different Venezuelan movements. Venezuelan social movements have a rich tradition of creative actions to draw on. Now there is a need to build connections across sectors and to reach out to those confused, passive, and once more feeling powerless. The world media may focus on next year's elections as the key, but whatever happens then autonomous social movement have an important role to play in Venezuela, to counterbalance the monopoly of power by the state, and show that it is not about state revolution or dictatorship, it's about a real grass-root revolution.