Venezuela: The Times They Are
Venezuela is changing. Fast. No other word captures the speed and magnitude of change as well as that weighty word -- revolution. This is indeed the word used by many of the Venezuelans I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing during ten days in March. Venezuela is undergoing a 'Bolivarian' revolution. But what does 'Bolivarianism' entail?
To be honest, Zhou Enlai's quip about the results of the French Revolution -- that it is "too early to tell" -- is doubly applicable to Venezuela. Radically different constituencies, political visions and potential futures are today co-existing more or less harmoniously within the dramatic process of change. This is perhaps inevitable. But some of the wide ranging ambiguity about the future direction of Bolivarianism has to do with Chavez's crucial strategic choice in favor of peaceful social change. Contrary to the image often portrayed in the foreign media, Chavez has gone overboard in seeking to include as many as possible in the Bolivarian state. He has time and again extended an olive branch to his enemies.
For example, immediately after the failed coup against him, his first act was to guarantee the constitutional rights of the coup leaders, none of whom have been harmed. Likewise, he has consistently avoided using military and police forces under his command to repress the opposition, and had been exceedingly cautious towards foreign companies and investors. Some of his strongest supporters therefore consider Chavez excessively soft. The ideological message of Bolivarianism is straddling this society -- deeply divided by class -- with a strong Venezuelan and pan-Latinoamerican nationalism. The ambiguity is patently visible in the street iconography of Caracas, which combines the faces of the aristocratic liberal Simon Bolivar and the radical communist Che Guevara, both sharing the landscape with huge billboards of fashionable young women advertising beer.
Yet if the future is foggy, the present is dramatically clear. Under pressure from Venezuela's poor, on whose support Chavez's political survival depends, the government moved decidedly leftwards over the course of the last few years. This leftward move consists in two processes: democratization and redistribution.
First, redistribution. Having wrestled control of the national oil company from the old oligarchy, Chavez redirected a portion of Venezuela's significant oil revenues to new social projects, called missions, each targeting a specific social privation. The bulk of the resources were earmarked for non-cash benefits such as education and health. But government policies have also helped more people to move out of the informal economy and take formal jobs, affecting a significant rise in cash wages for the poorest workers. An international chorus of snickers erupts whenever these social spending programs are mentioned. Most completely miss the point. Is there corruption? Inefficiency? Probably. But by relying on the army, the national oil company, and ad hoc communal organizing rather than on the traditional state bureaucracy, the social missions manage a level of efficiency that is quite stunning.
As a small example, take the latest mission, 'energy revolution,' announced in November 2006. Its first project was to change all the light bulbs in Venezuela (52 million of them) to energy efficient ones by the end of 2007. The goal is to reduce the consumption of oil in electricity generation by about 25 million barrels a year, and cut a typical family's monthly expenses by $4.6 (a non-trivial sum in the poor neighborhoods). The distribution of free bulbs is carried out by different means: youth organizations, community councils, and reserve units. By mid February 2007, over 30 million bulbs have been distributed, 10% faster than planned. The white glow that rises at night from both the poor neighborhoods and the houses of the better-off confirms the statistics.
More complex missions, such as mission Robinson and Riba, which provide adult primary and secondary education with Cuban help, have been no less spectacular. "Proofs" that these missions are bogus are a dime a dozen in the Western media. Yet in Venezuela, even fierce Chavez's critics I spoke with conceded that the missions were having a strongly positive effect on the life of the poor. The change is fast and visible. In a peasant community's primary school in western Venezuela I saw the preparation for an internet room for both the pupils and the larger community. In the nearby high school -- a school that only a few years ago did not exist -- students who divided their time between the classroom and their families' coffee fields talked of going to university.
Another common criticism is that the missions are not sustainable because they depend on oil prices remaining high. No doubt a drop in oil prices would force the government to cut spending (leaving aside the unresolved question as to whether high oil prices are themselves sustainable or not.) However, the thousands of people who learned to read during the oil boom would remain literate even if oil prices dropped. Nor would such a drop deprive the beneficiaries of an oil-financed cataract removal surgery of their vision. A more enlightened view would note that access to such basic services as dental and eye care is valuable in itself. But even if one were to look at Venezuela from the most narrow-minded economist perspective, one that only values economic growth, it would be impossible to find an oil-producing country that uses its oil bonanza in a better way. Improving health, education, housing and infrastructure contributes more to prosperity and economic growth than the preferred choice of conventional wisdom -- hoarding a large portfolio of U.S. bonds.
The proof is in the pudding. Caracas is booming. Fancy consumer malls are mushrooming, trendy shops and restaurants ring the cash register. In one mall, strongly anti-Chavez store managers expressed gloom and resignation about the government's economic policies while conceding that business was excellent. But in a restaurant off the airport highway, the owner, a man of humble background, took us with pride through the private orchard from whose fruits he serves fresh juice to his customers, and explained the situation thus: "Chavez is good for people who want to work….they dislike Chavez because the government now collects taxes from businesses." The opposition to Chavez is surely more than just about reinvigorated tax collection; a recent (and perhaps not fully trustworthy) survey shows a loss of income over 20% at the high end of the extremely skewed income pyramid. But there is little doubt that the boost to the income of poor households (80% of the population) is driving Venezuela's impressive economic expansion (9.4% in 2006) and also trickling up significantly to the better-off, especially those in the fast expanding retail sector -- the delivery period for a new imported car, including luxury models, can be longer than six months.
The democratization focus of the Bolivarian revolution involves structural changes to both politics and economics. Politically, those measures that help the foreign media paint Chavez as an autocrat are precisely those perceived in Venezuela as means of political decentralization and democratization -- the rule by decree, the formation of a unified party, and the direct executive control of funds. To understand the paradox it is necessary to grasp the historical context: the political parties, the parliament and the governmental bureaucracy have been, and still are, bastions of corruption and clientelism, providing the main interface between political power and economic wealth. It is quite possible in theory that the creation of alternative political mechanisms under Chavez's personal rule will lead to a new centralization of autocratic power. But mitigating that danger is the new sense of political entitlement of commoners, a deep cognizance of their own rights, and foremost the right to organize and take control over decisions that affect their lives. Encountering the strength of this democratic consciousness, fostered by education, public awareness campaigns, Chavez's speeches, and the recurrence of popular mobilizations, is one of the most intense experiences one has as a visitor to Venezuela today. While Chavez is the undisputable hero of this popular awakening, the latter is anything but a docile body of followers. On the contrary. Visiting a community center in Barquisimeto, we saw a local TV and radio station run by locals. The organizers were supposed to be trained by a professional government manager. Relations with the official boss however soured quickly and the community expelled the imposed manager, locking her out of the building. It took a month of struggle, but the new locally chosen administration was eventually recognized as legitimate. He would be a strange autocrat who encouraged small communities to run their own TV and radio station, free of government control. But this is exactly what the current government's policy is. Finally, the most important political development following the last elections is the plan to constitutionally empower local councils (of 200-400 households each) to take control of budgetary priorities and local services. This institutionalization of participatory democracy would irreversibly transform Venezuelan politics.
The linchpin of the change is economic structure is the fast growth in co-operatives -- worker managed businesses with a variety of internal democratic structures. The co-operative movement in Venezuela predates Chavez. However, with government support, this form of economic organization changed from a radical but marginal element to a significant component of the economy. Already in 2004 4.6% of jobs in Venezuela depended on co-operatives. By extrapolation, the over 100,000 co-operatives operating today in Venezuela probably account for 15% of jobs.
Government help consists in technical support, managerial training, loans on preferential terms and often the rent-free provision of facilities. There are co-operatives everywhere, from street vendors to textile manufacturing, from organic agriculture and up to the hotel we stayed in, which used to belong to the ministry of tourism and became a co-operative in 2001. The hotel's kitchen workers explained that most decisions were taken by general consultation but an executive committee elected for three year terms was in charge of salaries. Building successful cooperatives in Venezuela is not easier -- indeed is probably more difficult -- than starting a viable business anywhere. There is bureaucracy, corruption, competition, personal frictions, lack of capital, lack of know-how, etc. Time will tell how many of these co-operatives survive. It is too early to declare that Venezuela has found a cure to the endemic poverty of the urban slums that weighs so heavily on the Third World. But the Venezuelan experiment is not only real, serious and popular, but also quite uniquely so in the world. One thing the many co-operative members we met had in common was that they were all glowing with pride about their work. Finally, it is worth mentioning that co-operatives are not the only form of entrepreneurship blossoming in Venezuela. The government is pushing banks to make more small business loans to the poor, and a general sense of optimism is both palpable and reflected in surveys. We visited the home of a woman who had recently turned the front of her slum house into a general shop and ran into a young man who was planning to start a tourist business in the mountains. How unwelcome multinationals like Verizon are in Venezuela is an open question, but there is clearly a new feeling of opportunity for regular people to work and to improve their lives.
There is a lot to be fearful about in Venezuela -- the high level of crime, the dead weight of entrenched corruption, the unresolved tension between consumerist and socialist values, the danger inherent in Chavez's outsized shadow, and not the least the certain intensification of U.S. destabilization efforts. But outside the small pockets of privilege and affluent ressentiment, the Venezuela I saw is not in the grip of fear. On the contrary, it is in the grip of hope, pride and an infectious sense of self-confidence and ownership.
Gabriel Ash is an activist and writer who writes because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword and sometimes not. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. Copyright 2000-2007. Sanders Research Associates. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission from http://sandersresearch.com/.
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