What is happening in Venezuela today? The start of a new year is always a good time to bring new thinking to seemingly intractable situations, and there are few situations more confusing to the North American progressive community than this basic query about the radical South American state. Is it a revolutionary government worthy of support, facing covert or overt intervention from the CIA and other shadowy parts of the U.S. empire? Or is it a reactionary, oil-dependent country which has lost its way since the early days of President Hugo Chavez, when grassroots people were encouraged and empowered to organize for their self-sufficiency and self-determination? Protests critical of current President Nicolas Maduro, sometimes sizable, seem to indicate the latter.
But the truth is more nuanced than most U.S. analysts, even of the left, can easily comprehend, as I learned during a recent trip to Venezuela. Our failure to understand Venezuela today has everything to do with our inability to properly understand contemporary revolution.
Twists and turns
Hugo Chavez was many things: hero of the Bolivarian revolutionary struggle (which initiated an unsuccessful clandestine armed struggle), former political prisoner and leader of the Fifth Republic Movement (which initiated a successful electoral campaign). He became president of Venezuela in 1998 and, in less than two years, had strengthened ties with socialist colleagues throughout South America and the Caribbean — building strategic alliances with fellow OPEC oil-producing nations and diverting oil profits to popular social programs.
Neither the Clinton nor the Bush administrations accepted the legitimacy of Chavez’s government, despite his landslide victory at the voting polls and his domestic popularity. The question, as usual, was about economics and regional political influence, not at all about democracy. A 2002 military coup against Chavez — successful for barely two days — had all the signs of a U.S. “regime change” operation. Once back in power, Chavez intensified his security as well as his public warnings against the machinations of the government of George W. Bush (who he likened to the devil in a speech to the U.N.).
Things became further complicated when Chavez, at only 58 years old, succumbed to an aggressive cancer in 2013. When the beloved leader died, the already-active right-wing saw an opportunity to ratchet up its destabilization efforts. Protests — sometimes nonviolent, but often not — sprung up against the new president, Nicolas Maduro, who had served as Chavez’s foreign minister and vice president. New laws designed to contain the protests angered many, including some leading anarchists. Tensions grew between the Maduro government and these anti-state activists — centered mainly around the Venezuelan Human Rights Education-Action Program, or PROVEA, and its general coordinator Rafael Uzcategui. The work of PROVEA appeared to some like a full-fledged opposition party, not a critical but progressive social change group.
Some of the conflict was fueled by genuine differences in revolutionary approach. Even before the death of Chavez, Uzcategui suggested that the Venezuelan experiment had become more “revolution as spectacle” than any kind of actual radical alternative. Like many Latin American populist regimes, he argued, the state-based reforms were more disempowering to people than an autonomous movement would be. Others reviewing the same conditions and governmental responses came to substantially different conclusions. Sociologist Marta Harnecker suggested not only that Chavez’s approach was more realistic, but that it was, in fact, moving (albeit more slowly than some would like) in an empowering direction.
Today, few of even the most dedicated socialist Chavez-supporters would suggest that the Maduro government is the pinnacle of world revolutionary achievement. In conversations I had throughout several towns and provinces during a recent visit, the following points were repeated again and again: the current government is a coalition, one that contains many elements from both the left and the right. It has within it many who intensely opposed Chavez and want to completely reverse his legacy. There are some who supported and worked with Chavez but are highly critical of Maduro over fiscal, political, personal or tactical differences. Still, others support Maduro in a limited way, because they feel that without doing so they give the imperialists the upper hand. And there are some who genuinely support Maduro in a generally uncritical way.
But for those inside and outside of government most committed to grassroots democracy and some form of economic justice, one thing is clear: the Venezuelan revolution was and is a process. For those committed to the empowerment of women and people of African descent, to building stronger rights and protections for the leadership of Venezuela’s indigenous peoples, and to implementing practical policies of eco-socialist alternatives, the process of change is the revolutionary force.
In our fast-paced society, it is difficult for even the left to understand what this means. For us, revolution is most easily characterized by a date (July 19, May 19, or even July 4); it can be embodied in a man (Mandela, Che, or Ho Chi Minh), rarely by women. Sometimes a single organization can be understood as revolutionary.
In modern-day Venezuela, however, revolution is typically found in small collectives — some with ties to the government, some quite distant from it. The country is filled with whole villages and countless communities, infused with the energy and hope of dialogue, decentralized decision-making and the concrete benefits of working together. This process and the revolutionary movement behind it was in sharp form at the founding of the First Ecosocialist International, held in three small towns in November.
Alternatives at the local level
The gathering was itself a unique, adaptive process. Those who organized the International were committed to bringing together those most affected by the barbarism of modernity, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and all oppression. While it did not exclude any non-grassroots peoples, organizing de-emphasized academic and hierarchical ways of solving the problems of oppression, injustice and war. The representatives of Venezuela’s most radical government ministries, for example, were not asked to attend, while members of key regional indigenous nations — even if they were at odds with the government — were invited and strongly encouraged. The convergence was explicitly not held in the capital or any large city, because it is in the smaller towns where the most successful alternatives have been built.
Understanding some of the origins of the conference proves useful in better comprehending the Venezuelan revolutionary process itself. Livio Rangel, for example — a member of the Venezuelan core group responsible for the International — helped to facilitate the Monte Carmelo Declaration upon which much of the organizing process was based. In 2012, Latin American farm-workers from eight countries met with their Venezuelan counterparts and declared themselves “guardians of the seed.” They created a strategic action plan to take on the U.S.-based agrochemical giant Monsanto and won major concessions through highly coordinated but deeply grassroots-based actions. Not only are these efforts notable for their effective, bottom-up approach, they underscore the regional Bolivarian nature and influence of the Venezuelan example.
Though the towns which hosted our time together are “poor” in an industrial sense (and often with limited electricity and no running water), basic grains, vegetables, fruits and meat are available fresh, direct from the source: local farmers who grow enough for themselves, their families and their communities. While the international agribusiness industry may collude with those who would see the Venezuelan experiment fail, the main effect this has had is to make supermarket shelves in the urban centers stark.
More distinct than the lack of food is the lack of actual cash. In Caracas, there are daily lines in front of banks to withdraw spending money — but not lines for bread. The eco-socialist solution to both problems has been the institution of an inter-village system called “trueke” — a bartering and trading market where people share without cash, and make sure that within a given community, everyone’s needs are met. In the towns we visited, food and other basics were plentiful, and money has almost been made obsolete.
On this same local level, we saw little sign of the “civil war” which international headlines scream is imminent. There are, as noted, significant ideological and political differences within the country. Some very real problems — including gun violence and forces in the military and police who repress dissent and use militarism for their own gains — have been reported. But in the rural villages outside of Caracas, we heard nothing of these problems and experienced a strong sense of peace and calm.
Hallmarks of revolution
Venezuela today is most certainly not a utopia, not a worker’s paradise or a pacifist’s dreamland. It is also not a dictatorship, a state in dire crisis on the verge of collapse or a country whose government is at war with its people.
There is a revolutionary process, which few on the outside begin to comprehend. It cannot be found in the federal government, and it is not personified by any individual. It is not held together in one radical ministry or in a geographic region that serves as a liberated zone. The process of social change involves balancing ties to government with grassroots empowerment, upending power dynamics between the urban elite and poor farming villages, and delinking from the global economy while emphasizing everyone’s responsibility to Mother Earth. These are the hallmarks of revolution in Venezuela today. Built on careful study of past mistakes and experiments, new ways of relating are being developed — with a vision of empowerment and political-economic alternatives meant to spread well beyond its borders.
Whether the revolutionary process pervading Venezuela’s grassroots is allowed to survive is certainly still in question. The role of foreigners, however — especially at a time when the United States openly brags about its disruptive tactics, even in light of upcoming, open elections — could not be clearer. Whether one is a supporter of the revolutionary process or is suspicious and critical of the gains of the past decades, we must force our own government to let Venezuela’s experiment not be hindered by callous interventions.
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