What is Happening in Venezuela? : An Interview With Jonah Gindin
M. Junaid Alam with Jonah Gindin
Jonah, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with Left Hook.
Nearly 2 months later….I'm sure you find the above statement somewhat ironic.
First, tell us a little bit about yourself and your initial experience in Venezuela - you attended college at Canada's McGill University, and now you have been living, writing, and working from Caracas, Venezuela as a journalist. What was it about the social transformation taking place there that impelled you to go down there? How did events on the ground match up with what you anticipated, and how did you prepare yourself?
I did a joint-honors degree at McGill in History and International Development Studies. Part of that program required me to write an undergraduate thesis. I took a reading course with a Political Science professor, Dr. Samuel J. Noumoff, with whom I had studied previously, and a joint undergraduate-graduate history course with Dr. Catherine LeGrand. I was interested in studying a movement that was combating neoliberalism in Latin America. I had long ago settled on Latin America as the most dynamic site of anti-capitalist struggle essentially since the beginning of the cold war. However, I knew nothing of Venezuela at this time. Like so many other foreigners now either in, or involved in, Venezuela, I became aware of the political project of Hugo Chávez and the Bolívarian revolution because of the coup in April 2002.
After reading up on the history of Chávez' government (ie reading Richard Gott's In the Shadow of the Liberator), I chose Venezuela and the Bolívarian revolution as the subject of my undergrad thesis. It seemed undeniably the most interesting site of resistance to the neoliberal project-and potentially a powerful resistance to capitalism in general. Besides Chávez' vehemently anti-neoliberal rhetoric, and the existence of several interesting grassroots strategies, what made Venezuela so promising was specifically that an anti-neoliberal movement controlled state power. The landless workers movement in Brazil, the Piqueteros in Argentina, the Zapatistas, the Andean indigenous movements, have all inevitably been checked at some point by state power within their own countries, and sometimes without.
Even a cursory examination of Chávez' Bolívarian project immediately encourages the imagination. What if a Chávez were elected in Brazil? Or in Argentina, or Ecuador? What these questions are really asking is 'what if it were possible to combine the possibilities of state power in the hands of Chávez, and grassroots mobilization such as exists in many Latin American countries?'-though Venezuela is not among them. An interesting product of Venezuela's 40 year bout of 'partyarchy'-where two parties dominated politics-was the cooptation of community organizations, many social movements, and neighborhood associations by the elite parties.
At this point I did not yet speak Spanish, though I could read it a little. Most of the research that I did was in English. After about 18 months reading and thinking nothing but Venezuela I decided I had to see the country, and the movement, for myself. After graduating from McGill in June 2003 and working for 6 months to save money, I flew down to Venezuela arriving on March 3rd, the last day of violent street protests by the opposition preceding an expected unfavorable decision by the National Electoral Committee (CNE).
On the ground I found the community organizing and general mobilization of the grassroots that had historically been absent in Venezuelan politics. Strong social movements had never existed, nor did they now. However, one of the most radical aspects of the Bolívarian project is its emphasis on mobilization. Some on the Left have criticized Chávez for being a social-democrat. Of course it's true that reforms have so far been limited largely to education and health care, but I would argue that revolutionary transformations must be preceded by widespread cultural transformations, in the form of education that can provide the kind of increase in political consciousness that would allow socio-economic transformations to occur democratically.
The raison d'etre of social democracy is expressly to prevent such cultural transformations from occurring, to co-opt the potentially radical elements of society before their politicization precludes their continued acceptance of the capitalist system. In this sense, what makes Chávez' Bolívarian project revolutionary as opposed to reformist is the impressively thorough degree of mobilization that has occurred in only 6 years. One example: in the 2 months of the referendum campaign last summer an estimated 1.2 million Chavistas organized themselves into 'Electoral Battle Units' to actively campaign in the referendum. That's 1.2 million militant activists out of a total population of 25-30 million. In poor communities (anywhere from 60-80% of Venezuelans live below the poverty line) a stunningly high number of residents are members of one community organization or another-all organizations created in the last 6 years under Chávez.
That was a bit of a tangent…but all of this is what drew me to Venezuela.
Chavez decisively won the August 15th referendum. How have the balance of forces changed and developed been between the Chavistas and the opposition in the referendum's aftermath? Could you briefly outline what moves Chavez has made to solidify and entrench the revolutionary process on the political level?
After winning the referendum with 60% of the vote, Chávez-and those politically astute enough to be seen with him-have gained a momentum that will be difficult to stop for at least the next few years. That momentum gave candidates affiliated to Chávez an overwhelming victory in the regional elections on October 31st, leaving no legitimate corner of the political landscape open to the opposition until Presidential elections in 2006-and likely not even then. I doubt if any political movement has ever been so hegemonic in the history of Venezuelan democracy. Chavistas now dominate all four tiers of power-the executive, the legislature (with a small majority, though one likely to increase in this year's elections to the National Assembly), the state, and the municipal.
At this point the opposition is in complete disarray. They have effectively imploded, though due nearly as much to their own greedy sectarianism and ineptitude as to the challenge represented by Chávez. In this context, Chávez has wisely begun to focus on the widespread corruption, opportunism, and inefficiency within the Bolívarian project. Whether much will come of this new crusade against corruption is hard to say. At this early juncture the strategy appears to be a clamp-down on inefficient and/or corrupt ministers and other highers-up. However, without some kind of concrete institutional regeneration, the Venezuelan bureaucracy cannot possibly be cleansed. Here again education is the key.
While the government will likely eventually come to the conclusion that it is necessary to retire as much of the civil service as is possible, it is supremely unlikely that this action alone will have the desired effect. Of an estimated 800,000 civil servants at the various levels of government, it is unlikely that more than a third of those could be encouraged into early retirement-it's probably much less. For the kind of institutional change necessary in the Venezuelan bureaucracy, the worst of the worst-those actively engaged in political sabotage-will have to be laid off. But this can be only a small number, since the current unemployment and underemployment rate leaves these people few alternative employment options.
For the large majority of civil servants education will be key. To avoid the clientelist and inefficient policies of the past a new philosophy of public administration must be developed, and it must be ingrained in new and existing civil servants.
Despite the clear referendum victory, four million Venezuelans did vote against Chavez. Are these largely elements of the middle class, or is there some substantial sector of the poor that has not been swayed by the Bolivarian program? To what extent is this attributable to the heavy anti-Chavez bias of the Venezuelan corporate media?
The approximately 4 million Venezuelans voted against Chávez in last August's referendum do come mainly from the middle and upper classes, but obviously not exclusively. There are elements of the working and middle classes that support Chávez, and of course there are elements of the most impoverished who oppose him. In explaining opposition to Chávez among poor Venezuelans the most important factor is undoubtedly the media. Their relentless campaign to paint Chávez as a power hungry dictator ready to massacre the people in order to keep his hold on power could fairly claim responsibility for maintaining a good number of Venezuelans confused, or opposed.
But it's not only the media. There are policies that Chávez has promoted that have engendered opposition. Many of these had the effect of pushing some members of the middle class down a rung or two-most of them becoming cab drivers. One of these was to fix the currency, leaving many businessmen who do their buying in dollars and their selling in Bolivares in the lurch. Another policy that alienated middle class Venezuelans was the mass-firing of oil workers suspected of involvement in the oil strike/lock-out and sabotage. This accounted for 18,000 workers losing Venezuela's most lucrative blue-collar jobs, and forever earned the state the enmity of these workers.
The firings were certainly justified in the case of many, for whom losing their jobs should not have been the worst of their punishment (none of the saboteurs saw jail time). However, it is very possible that many, likely most, of these workers were in fact innocent. Many were fired simply for not having shown up at work during the strike. Many of these workers were offered vacation pay and told not to come to work by their employers, and in any case, those that disobeyed faced violent picket lines that would have been dangerous to cross.
Finally, one cannot entirely dismiss the grassroots organizing abilities of the traditional parties (mainly Acción Democratica (AD), and the new Primero Justicia, which is essentially a mélange of AD and Copei with an emphasis on young, good looking leadership). AD in particular developed a sophisticated and effective grassroots organizing strategy that had usually won over a majority of the Venezuelan poor in the past. While chavismo managed to swipe 80% of those supporters in an astonishingly short period, some poor Venezuelans remain adecos; the yet some of the party's networks remain.
I want to delve into the details of the corporate media a bit more, since it seems some lessons could be drawn here for the American Left. Even though all the private media have been vociferously anti-Chavez, they are still allowed to operate freely by the government? How has Chavez been able to counter their propaganda? How far along is the development of efforts by Bolivarian Circles to broadcast pro-government viewpoints with short-range radio transistors and other means?
One could easily imagine the North American media playing a similar role to the Venezuelan media were leftist governments ever to be elected there. In early December the Venezuelan National Assembly passed a law on social responsibility in the media. Critics, predictably including the Inter-American Press Association (an owners' club masquerading unconvincingly as a journalists' rights association), have denounced the new law as an attack on free speech. What they of course mean is that it is an attack on their unfettered power to manipulate Venezuelan politics from the newsroom.
The new law threatens strict sanctions against any news corporation not complying with new guidelines. These sanctions have been one of the most controversial aspects of the law for many critics, particularly the IAPA. But why worry about the sanctions? If the law is fair, the sanctions should be relatively unimportant. And if the law is unfair, why accept it at all?
Another particularly controversial element of the law bans advertising cigarettes and alcohol on television. Venezuela's two wealthiest families (including the Cisneros Group-media barons not only in Venezuela, but all over the continent) have monopolized the beer market. Alone they must provide an unseemly portion of the opposition's financial backbone, and Enrique Mendoza (a member of the Mendoza family that owns Venezuela's best-selling beer Polar) was a possible Presidential candidate for the opposition in the 2006 elections, until he lost his post as governor of the central state of Miranda unceremoniously to Chávez-loyalist and former Vice-President Diosdado Cabello in the October regional elections.
The law generally makes it more difficult for the private media to continue to fill the void that the traditional political parties left when they were so soundly defeated in 1998. One criticism that is certainly valid is the vague wording of the law when it comes to sanctions against television programs that threaten 'National Security'. The wording will certainly be familiar to Americans and Canadians still incensed at the frequency with which the term is used as an excuse for the American empire's most base and inexcusable trampling of human rights-abroad and at home.
The authors of the law quite obviously had the April, 2002 coup in mind when writing this section of the law. During the coup the media fabricated a complex pre-meditated series of events meant to justify the coup against Chávez. Chávez was blamed with ordering his supporters to fire on unarmed opposition protesters, at which point the viewer is intended to believe that the noble, moral Venezuelan military stepped in to prevent more innocent deaths. In actual fact (as the Irish film The Revolution Will not be Televised showed) the footage was blatantly manipulated, with a split screen showing two events occurring in two different parts of the city, though the media pretended they were the same event. Instead of firing against unarmed opposition protesters allegedly marching below, it became apparent that chavistas were firing at Metropolitan Police in a deserted street who had provoked the chavistas by opening fire on them as part of the coup plot.
One more quick example just to give the context of this law. During the coup the opposition/media maintained that Chávez had resigned, though no signed document to this effect had yet been produced. The coup-government prevailed upon Chávez' attorney general Isaias Rodriguez to make a public statement attesting to Chávez' resignation, to be broadcast live. Rodriguez agreed and began his statement according to plan, with the cameras rolling. Then, abruptly, he changed course and stated clearly to the world that Chávez had not resigned, that he had been kidnapped and that what had, in fact, occurred was a coup. He caught the media channels by surprise, but as soon as they realized what he was saying, every single one of them cut the broadcast in mid transmission, replacing him with cartoons, baseball games, and stunned newscasters forced to improvise explanations for Rodriguez' sudden departure.
This is the manipulation, and blatant fabrication, that the Venezuelan media has perfected since Chávez assumed power in 1998. But while it is perhaps easy to see where the National Assembly would be concerned given the media's direct threat to national security during the 2002 coup, the vaguely worded part of the law covering threats to national security could clearly be abused.
Countering the private media's propaganda has not been easy. Venezuelan state television does its very best, but I think that to the extent that the Chávez government has been able to do so, the credit lies with successful policies. The social missions providing the Venezuelan poor with free and accessible health care and education are enormously popular. When presented with these concrete benefits brought to poor communities by the Bolivarian revolution, opposition propaganda becomes increasingly transparent.
As for community radio stations, the Circulo Bolivarianos have had little direct role. 'Endogenous Nucleii'-community development centers that include mini-hospitals, schools, cooperative-training and work programs-that have been established in several communities are most often equipped with community radio facilities. However, interestingly, it appears to be the opposition, rather than Chavistas, that has taken advantage of legislation that provides funding for community radio. There are far more community radios emitting a constant stream of opposition propaganda than there are Chavista equivalents.
How would you characterize the overall development and direction of the revolutionary process? It appears to defy both the traditional socialist model and, even more so, the anarchist-autonomist ideas popular on the Left today. Is there a tension among various forces within the revolution, between demands for moderation versus radicalization?
I think there is always that tension, between moderation and radicalism, reform and revolution. I would be hard-pressed to characterize the Bolívarian revolution at this point, since I do not think it has yet characterized itself. Even Chávez' discourse is constantly changing, and often contradictory. What I see is potential. Right now, Chávez has nothing to offer to either old socialists or anti-globalizationiks in terms of a concrete strategy. He has no 'third way' (thankfully), but neither does he have anything that is yet a coherent improvement on past strategies.
This is hardly surprising considering that Chávez' government has been under siege since 2000, only finding a measure of respite in the wake of regional elections held last October. Even that victory was marred by the car-bomb assassination of state prosecutor Danilo Anderson on November 18th, signifying the opposition's continuing campaign of contra-style destabilization. This opposition strategy also puts the media-war and the involvement of the National Endowment of Democracy (NED) and the CIA in perspective.
At this moment, the movement needs introspection more than anything else. Corruption, sabotage, inefficiency, and lack of direction plague the ministries and every other government institution. For el proceso to advance, whatever the exact direction, the bureaucracy must be thoroughly renovated. However, this is the moment that I forsee the Bolívarian revolution making the most promising ideological advances in its 6 year existence. Post-referendum, post-regional election Venezuela is undoubtedly a new stage, and in the two years leading up to the 2006 Presidential elections, I expect to see Chávez, and the rest of his government, narrowing in on a more coherent economic and political strategy.
Jonah Gindin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. M. Junaid Alam, 21, is co-editor of the radical youth journal Left Hook, and can be reached at email@example.com.