Venezuela: another model of social transformation


Richard Moore

From: Lee Vanderheiden <•••@••.•••>
Subject: What does 'Bolivarianism' entail?  from Sanders Research Associates
Date: Fri, 30 Mar 2007 20:59:34 -0800
To: Richard Moore <•••@••.•••>,

Dear Richard,

This article by Gabrial Ash discusses in good 
detail what participatory democracy can 
achieve....  Venezuela as example.

Hope this finds an audience.




Thanks Lee,

A good article. Again, as with Cuba's 
transformation to sustainability, we see the 
all-important synergy between local initiative 
and top-level government initiative. In Cuba's 
case the transformation was compelled by lack of 
oil, while in Venezuela's case it is being 
enabled by oil abundance. Chavez deserves extra 
credit for taking the initiative without the 

I found Mr. Ash's report to be positive and 
objective, however I take exception to this one 

        "...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

I think he is misunderstanding what motivates 
Chavez. Rather than "moving decidedly leftwards" 
due to being "under pressure from Venezuela's 
poor", I believe Chavez has "mobilized 
Venezuela's poor" in order to "move decidedly 
leftward". Chavez is an inspired visionary, an 
effective activist, a dedicated revolutionary, 
and a true champion of democracy. In Cuba and in 
Venezuela we can see examples of what the 
transition must look like, if we are to achieve 
democracy and sustainability. It does not come 
about by a few changes in policy, but through a 
full-scale mobilization of the national will and 
the dedication of its resources.

I am encouraged by the many parallels between 
these real-world developments and the scenarios I 
present in ETM ( 
The emphasis on local autonomy, the necessity of 
property redistribution (what I call 'reclaiming 
the commons'), the return of more people to the 
land, the  emergence of co-ops, the use of 
open-process decision making, the experience of 
empowerment and  enthusiasm, and the peaceful 
nature of the overall process. All of these are 
anticipated in the book, based primarily on 
system considerations. I take encouragement from 
this as to the viability of the book's other 


Original source URL:

Venezuela: The Times They Are A-Changin'

By Gabriel Ash

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 favour 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 

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. 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 economic 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 overall 
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 workŠ.they [the
         bosses?] 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, 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 
resentment, 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.

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