Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Struggle for Venezuela

I'm indebted to a friend who recently visited Venezuela for this copy of his report to a meeting of the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Committee in Adelaide in December. It's a very positive report, which takes into account the circumstances surrounding the loss of the referendum proposal put up by President Chavez. His final four points are spot on in my opinion.

The report follows:

The Struggle for Venezuela

Before I speak about the Venezuela’s proposed Constitutional reforms, I would like to mention briefly my impressions of that country’s efforts in social inclusion and participatory democracy when I visited in Nov and Dec, 2006. The brigade I participated in visited two places where democracy in the workplace and democracy in the neighborhoods had been established. In the town of Moron we visited INVEPAL, a paper manufacturing plant which is run by workers co-management; and in the city of Coro where we met representatives from Communal Councils.

These two visits demonstrated to me that a social system was in the making where the self-development of the worker is central. The goal of the Venezuelan Revolution is for the ordinary people to have an effective say over what is produced, how it is produced and who shall benefit from its use. In achieving a new society, not only is the old social system changed, the people struggling for its transformation are also transformed. Therefore the focus is on unleashing the full development of all human potential, rather than economic growth for the purposes of profit maximization.

At INVEPAL I learned of the struggles by the workers to stop the closure of the plant in 2004; their 8 month confrontation with management to continue manufacturing; building an alliance with Chavez’s Govt. to confront the company; receiving recognition from the National Assembly in 2005 that INVEPAL become a public industry; once under workers co-management, where there is 51% govt delegates & 49% workers delegates, the emphasis changed from capitalist to a cooperative mode of operation; mutual respect was established for all who worked at the plant; a horizontal wage system for everybody; some of the companies profits go back into the community; there is now collaboration with their community so INVEPAL can assist with their needs; and there are various factory committees and worker’s assemblies that argue out problems and issues and then these opinions are taken to the governing council.

In historic Coro we met two representatives who spoke about Communal Councils and Banks. They explained that a new political and social phenomena is not only replacing the old municipal organizations but is the incipient form of state/political power that is becoming popularly entrenched throughout Venezuela. Many communities in the beginning were apathetic, but changing the way people think is a process. Venezuelans lived for 40 years with paternalism, for the lack of community participation had deep-seated roots in the Venezuelan tradition of populism and charity. Now the country is passing from representative democracy to participatory democracy. Communal councils are based on 200 to 400 families in urban areas, or 20 in rural areas, the principal decision making body of a communal council is the citizens’ assembly. All members of the community above the age of 15 can participate in these assemblies, which have the power to elect and revoke community spokespeople to the communal council, as well as put forward projects and development plans for the community. One of the functions of the Communal councils is that of micro finance banks and these were explained to us in detail.

FONDEMI (The Fund for Microfinanced Development) is one of the government’s institutions that provide money to community banks or micro finance banks across the country for them to distribute to their communities in the form of returnable and non-returnable loans. Communal Councils in Coro aim to fund 10 houses in each locality for those most in need through non-returnable loans. Returnable loans are directed at community and socio-productive projects around the $14,000 US figure, with a 6% interest rate and 36 months to pay them off. Usually 5 people are elected as representatives by the local area to run these micro finance banks. However the local people of the community decide who amongst their members needs the loans most. The purpose is to create direct and indirect employment. In Coro this micro financing has created employment for 80 new jobs. Several watchdog committees overseer the success of the loans and that there is financial transparency in the running of the scheme. The 6% interest rate that accrues from these returnable loans is used for the following purposes: 1.5% of rate for maintaining the bank; 3.5% of rate goes to emergency projects e.g. if a member of the community becomes sick; 1% of rate as a safety net for those who can’t pay back the credit borrowed.

So you can see from these brief descriptions that substantial transformation has taken place to achieve participatory democracy which is not only reshaping economic and social organization of the country but also transforming people’s consciousness and behaviour, which is fundamental to achieving what, is called Socialism of the 21st century.

Now the Constitutional reforms! I’ll comment on this in 2 parts. Firstly, examine some of the elements of the proposed reforms and secondly, why the proposed reforms to the constitution lost and what to do about it.

The areas of the constitution I want to comment on are those that especially hasten the achievement of socialism. These are:
· The strengthening of communal councils and their funding;
· Lowering of the workweek to 36 hrs;
· New forms of collective property and deepening socialist economic development;
· Preference be given to national businesses over foreign businesses in economic decisions;
· The elimination of central bank autonomy;
· The armed forces to be reformed into an anti-imperialist army and the reserves to become a peoples’ militia.

These were really of greater concern for the reactionary opposition than Chavez being able to run for unlimited presidential terms. As much as Chavez is the heart and figurehead of Bolivarian and socialist struggle, he is also a convenient whipping horse for the reactionary opposition. They need him as much as he is as useful for revolution. It provides them with the opportunity to accuse him of being a dictator and a megalomaniac bent on taking away peoples’ freedoms, rights and property. It is a convenient method to divert people’s attention away from the democratic nature that the proposed changes would achieve. To some extent this worked.

Let’s look at what these reforms would achieve.

· At least 12 articles about popular power and communal councils were proposed as changes to the Constitution. Alongside municipal, state and national powers is the creation of popular power where power is devolved down to communal/neighborhood levels, which includes the participation of communities in the management of public enterprises. Communal councils are defined as the executive arm of direct citizen assemblies, which elect and can revoke mandates of the communal council members. However, these communal council members are not representatives but are delegates of the community, who are to execute the community’s decisions and not their own vested interests. This reform now also acknowledges the establishment of worker, student, elderly, women etc. councils. This proposed change to constitution establishes direct democracy, which is essential if one of the hallmarks of socialism is to be achieved: That is workers becoming masters of their own destiny!

· Lowering the working week to 36 hrs is an essential measure for workers emancipation. Reducing the working week (from 44 to 36 hrs per week) would give workers more power in relation to employers. Workers rights are strengthened by this reform for it opens up the possibility for increased participation in worker management, through the workers’ councils. Also, it is a start of liberating workers from work and giving them extra time for personal and family pursuits.

· A number of additional epoch changing articles to the constitution identify new forms of collective property and the beginning of the first steps towards socialist economic development. Here the state takes an interventionist role by promoting an economic model, where the interests of the community prevail over individual interests and guarantee the social and material interests of the people. Now the state is no longer obliged to promote and endorse private enterprise. Changes here to the constitution acknowledge 4 new forms of property: Public property, fully owned and managed by the government; Social property, owned by the Venezuelan people and either managed by the government or by local communities; Collective property, owned and managed by groups of individuals; Mixed property, a combination of ownership and management. This formally acknowledges the explosion of worker managed companies, cooperatives and socialist enterprises that have emerged throughout Venezuela. The intention here is for enterprises of social production to eventually drive the economy and overtake production based on enterprises for private profit! PDVSA, Venezuela’s oil company that has bankrolled the social missions and whose oil wealth has been directed at lifting large segments of the population out of poverty would be totally prohibited from privatization of all of its national components. Alongside the protection of PDVSA is the state’s right to reserve the exploitation of natural resources or provisions of services that are considered strategic to the nation. In addition to strengthening the position of the state and workers relative to private capital, the constitutional reform would also have strengthen the position of domestic business over international business because it removes the requirement that foreign companies be treated the same as national companies.

· The reform to eliminate the autonomy of the Central Bank is essential in pushing Venezuela out of the capitalist/imperialist orbit. Presently the central bank is ostensibly independent but in reality is under the neo-liberal influence of international financial institutions. Their purpose, as everyone knows, is to achieve greater capital accumulation for business corporations at the expense of ordinary peoples’ living standards and retarding social development. Historically, central banks maintain high interest rates and adopt policies that overvalue the currency therefore making imports artificially cheap and the country’s exports too expensive. The intention of this constitutional reform is to defend the economic and monetary stability of the country rather than the interests of Multinational Corporations.

· Finally, the changes to the military through the constitution aimed at transforming it into a patriotic, popular and anti-imperialist force at the service of the Venezuelan people and not for an oligarchy or foreign imperial power are significant. In addition the armed reserves are to become a popular militia, establishing closer links and greater integration between the people and the military. This recognizes the inherently political role of the military alongside the development of a broad-based and popular militia structure that offsets the military hierarchy. The armed forces exist to maintain the state. Whilst Venezuela is incrementally moving out of a capitalist social system all its institutions, including the military, are still tainted by capitalist methodology. It is important to acknowledge that the success of the revolutionary struggle in Venezuela was not only brought about by the mobilization of the people but it was also secured by which direction the army decided to point its weapons. How many times have we seen peoples struggles which have majority support destroyed by oppressive military forces. Therefore not only was it the exploitative economic circumstances that politicized the people to win power in Venezuela it needs to be acknowledged that the prior political work of Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement inside the military are just as significant to the defeat of the reactionary oligarchy. The two go together, for without a peoples’ army the people have nothing!

Now what are some of the reasons for loss of the constitutional referendum and how should the struggle proceed from here?

The incessant destabilization plans of the United States to overthrow the Chavez Govt. no doubt had a role in sabotaging and assisting the NO vote for changes to the constitution. Venezuelan counterintelligence unearthed an internal CIA memorandum from the US Embassy in Caracas called “Operation Pliers”. This sinister plan saw the CIA fund an $8 million propaganda and psychological operation whose express purpose was to sow disinformation and cause disruption during the constitutional campaign. This clandestine memo proposed familiar CIA tactics:

· Take to the streets with violent protests
· Contract polling companies to create fraudulent polls
· Generate a climate of instability through the creation of shortages
· Encourage a rebellion inside sections of the military

A similar situation is being experienced in Bolivia where the Morales Government is also attempting to reform their constitution to transform their nation. Here the right wing opposition, with the sponsorship of the US, and no doubt the CIA, are attempting to stymie efforts of the governing party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), in presenting a progressive constitution for a referendum to the Bolivian People. Similar to Venezuela, big business interests in Bolivia are threatening to create economic chaos by withholding their produce from the market.

These dirty tactics we have all come to expect from the US Empire and they will continue for some time to come in countries attempting to wrest control of their destinies.

However, the most telling feature of the Venezuelan referendum vote was not so much the ‘No vote’ winning by a slender margin, but that the 2.8 million people who voted for Chavez in the presidential elections abstained in the constitutional reform referendum. The question that needs to be asked is that after 9 years of solid mass movement/electoral support and significant material changes to improve the well being of the poor in Venezuela why has it evaporated so rapidly? This requires close attention. It demonstrates that class struggle ebbs and flows and is not always constant. The state of flux within the struggle points to how well opposing sides have mobilized their positions and forces. A number of commentators have outlined a range of reasons for why the Chavista side lost support and consequently the constitutional referendum.

For example:

· The media, of which most is still private, were scare-mongering during the constitution campaign with lies and slanders (such as Chavez would become president for life; people’s private houses would be taken away by the state)
· The use of false polls to influence the less politically conscious sections of the population.
· The church hysterically ranting that the state would take away children from their parents and abolish freedom of religion.
· Forces within the Chavista camp act as a fifth column and fail to carry out and support the effective campaigning amongst the people. Bureaucrats who attempt to divert people away from the issues of the struggle and focus efforts on developing their own power base abound within the Bolivarian movement.
· Whilst much has been done to alleviate the plight of the poor, the many still live in poverty and homelessness is a major problem in Venezuela. Tiredness has set in with the poor. Endless speeches, demonstrations and elections means little if their economic and social circumstances don’t improve dramatically.
· Baduel’s defection (the past Minister of the Armed Forces who played an instrumental role in rescuing Chavez during the 2002 coup) to the opposition has obviously impacted and sown confusion within the Chavista ranks.

The Bolivarian Movement has been ‘dizzy with success’ for the last 9 years till now. Is the movement guilty of taking the mass support it has for granted and assuming it has support for whatever it does? This hiatus in the struggle for Venezuela calls for sober reflection and points out the fact that the road to liberation and socialism is an uneven and a dialectical process.

I’ll finish by posing some thoughts that today’s gathering might like to consider.

- It is time to clear out opportunists from the movement. Make a clear distinction who is a Chavista and who’s not! The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has to complete this task.
- Democracy is not absolute and we need to ask, Democracy for whom? Should the Bolivarian Movement allow the kind of democracy that continues the freedom for Business Corporations to sabotage, to exploit and create poverty? If not the movement needs to stop playing the oligarch’s civic games and start taking away their last vestiges of influence and power now.
- Progress further with socialization of the means of production without seeking legitimacy from the constitution for now and move faster to address people’s material well being, especially housing!
- Finally, further consolidate changes to the army so that it serves the people and is prepared to dispossess the power of the oligarchs and repel foreign intervention.

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