Venezuela : democracy : excellent piece by outside observers


Richard Moore

    The situation in Venezuela is refreshingly different, because
    a massive section of the population is not only open to the
    possibility of radical change, but seems actively interested
    in comparing alternative visions and strategies.

I can't think of a better indicator of emerging democratic spirit,
and a spirit of transformation.




Published: Tuesday, September 27, 2005 
Bylined to: Michael Staudenmaier and Anne Carlson 

    Perhaps the most amazing thing about Venezuela was the
    enthusiasm shown by nearly everyone

El Libertario's Michael Staudenmaier and Anne Carlson write:
For almost a month, from mid-November until mid-December,
2004, we traveled in Venezuela, meeting an array of
politically engaged activists from a variety of perspectives.

Without a doubt, the foremost lesson we learned during our
brief time there concerned the complexity of the social and
political situation in the country, which has been
consistently over-simplified in the United States.

    Where the mainstream media in this country portrays President
    Hugo Chavez as the next Fidel Castro, busily turning Venezuela
    into a Communist (or at least anti-US) dictatorship, the US
    left in general has welcomed Chavez uncritically as the new
    face of progressive struggle in Latin America.

North American anarchists, meanwhile, struggle to understand
the situation, and are too often torn between these two
opposing but comparably one-sided perspectives.

Time spent on the ground in Venezuela, if nothing else,
demonstrated to us the inadequacy of both these approaches.
This essay is a brief attempt to convey some of our
experience, with the goal of broadening the anarchist and left
discussion of the situation on the ground.

We spent time with both anarchists and Chavistas, and in both
contexts met people who represented a range of positions from
more orthodox and dogmatic to more hybrid and flexible. This
was a second visit to Venezuela for one of us, and a first
visit for the other, but both of us have significant
experience living and traveling in Latin America.

Our travels took us through three large cities and a similar
number of small towns, and while we would never identify
ourselves as experts of any sort on Venezuela, we feel
reasonably qualified to draw some tentative conclusions based
on the range of our experiences.

The Chavista Project in Practice: Rural Development

About half of our visit was spent with Chavistas, partly in
Caracas but largely in the east and southeast of the country.
We traveled with an acquaintance who works for the national
government on rural development issues, accompanying him on a
visit to a small town on the banks of the Orinoco River,
twenty hours' drive from Caracas. Here we encountered a small
group of Chavista activists-turned-government-officials
working on land tenure reform, attempting to start farming
cooperatives and similar projects. This group wanted help
dealing with a collection of families, living an hour's drive
outside the small town, who were interested in starting some
sort of agricultural production collective.

The families were attempting to deal with the harsh economic
side effects of the failed general strike of 2003, which had
threatened their already precarious economic position as
marginal producers of grains and legumes.

We were invited to sit in on a general meeting between the
families (most of whom were in full attendance, from
great-grandparents to great-grandchildren) and the government
functionaries. The meeting was hosted by one of the families
at a homestead constructed entirely of adobe; they provided
everyone present with the standard afternoon shot of coffee,
though the shortage of cups meant that people had to wait
their turn. The dynamic at the meeting seemed to us a classic
example of ships passing in the night: the Chavistas attempted
to explain the value of incorporating as a cooperative under
the provisions of the new "Bolivarian" constitution, while the
families were more interested in simply making sure they had
enough to eat.

Our acquaintance expressed shock that no one among the
families had a copy of the constitution (devout Chavistas
carry copies in their pockets at all times) , but failed to
acknowledge the fact that a majority of the people in the
community were illiterate, which became clear when the heads
of each household were asked to sign a document that
authorized a census of the community: almost everyone "signed"
the document by giving a thumbprint.

The Chavistas outlined the bureaucratic process of
establishing a cooperative, beginning with the full census of
the community -- how many men, women and children, as well as
how many cows, chickens, and acres of tilled land. The
community was willing to comply, but seemed skeptical of the
government offer of assistance in obtaining title to their
land: no one appeared to be sure that it would really happen,
and one spokesman for the families pointed out that no
government had ever done anything for them in a hundred years
living on land that didn't legally belong to them.

For their part, it was clear that the government officials
were sincerely interested in helping the community, but their
political agenda kept them from seeing either the complexity
or the patronizing aspects of this task.

    From our perspective, the census was one example of the
    modernizing project undertaken by the Chavez government in an
    attempt to legitimate a higher level of government
    intervention in everyday life than Venezuela has previously

A much larger example is the media reform law enacted just
before Christmas, which was designed to weaken the power of
the right-wing media conglomerates that dominate mass media in
Venezuela; the methods, however, include the establishment of
a regulatory apparatus that the Chavistas themselves say is
largely modeled on the FCC in the US.

In the case of the community of families we met, the practical
implications of this project may well be positive: the law
allows them to take possession of their land, and obtain
government grants and low-interest loans that should improve
their livelihoods. The flipside of this process, however, is a
large scale expansion of both state power and market-based
economic relations; the families we met were far from fully
integrated into the market economy, as their food production
was in significant part subsistence-focused. Whatever the
benefits of incorporating as a cooperative, it seemed certain
that the process would draw them further into exchange
relations, as a higher percentage of their agricultural
product will be sold in order to pay off their new loans.

The Chavista Project in Practice: Community Organizing

After the discussion with the families was finished, we headed
along with our acquaintance to the nearest large city, Ciudad
Guayana, where a conference of community organizations was
taking place. The conference was one of several regional
gatherings in advance of a national convention of community
organizations held near Caracas in December; the participants
were delegates from dozens or possibly hundreds of grassroots
urban and rural neighborhood groups in the eastern part of the
country. We attended one afternoon of the conference, sitting
in on a plenary session featuring report-backs from small

The materials prepared for the conference described the
process as the result of a provision in the new constitution
that demanded the participation of autonomous community groups
in the development of national domestic policy. In theory any
community organization in the country could participate in
this process, regardless of political affiliation. In
practice, it was clear that the majority of participants were
more or less Chavistas, while the opposition seemed to have
either largely refused, or been excluded from, participating.
Nonetheless, there was no single party line, and the
report-back included a fair bit of debate on political and
strategic questions. At the very least, during our short
encounter, the delegates appeared to be mostly everyday
people, rather than ideologues or functionaries, and they
displayed a level of enthusiasm that indicated they felt
empowered to make decisions for themselves.

From our perspective, the entire process encapsulated the
grand contradiction of the Chavista project: on the one hand,
it was designed from the top down, the result of a
constitutional directive rather than a grassroots demand,
while at the same time the process was being used by a variety
of working class communities to further a range of demands and
build a network of solidarity that in principle at least could
develop well outside the control of the Chavez government.

Much of Venezuela's future depends upon whether experiments
like this one become safety valves that limit social unrest or
breeding grounds that expand demands for community

The Chavista Project in Practice: Bolivarian Schools and the

The Venezuelan government has gained widespread attention
through the implementation of social reforms in the areas of
education and healthcare. Many of these programs have been
able to run successfully with the help of personnel, donated
materials, and other resources from Cuba. These literacy and
medical programs, called "Misiones" (Missions), provide
services to poor and working class neighborhoods and
communities in all parts of Venezuela.

Mision Barrio Adentro works in collaboration with the Cuban
government to bring Cuban doctors to the poorest sectors of
Venezuelan society. These volunteer doctors, who intentionally
live within the barrios, provide door-to-door medical visits
and operate free clinics in these communities. We were able to
interview a few of these doctors in Caracas and they
emphasized the harsh reality that these low-income
neighborhoods have been ignored for years without access to a
nearby clinic. This was one of the few government programs
that seemed to have near-total grassroots support, even among
those who were otherwise highly critical of the so-called
Bolivarian revolution. Many anarchists were quick to point out
the band-aid nature of this sort of low-level health care, but
this was the harshest criticism we heard.

Mision Plan Robinson, named after one of Simon Bolivar's
teachers, is a program that combats illiteracy by providing a
primary school education to adults. Mision Ribas takes this
one step further by allowing graduates of the Plan Robinson
program, or high school dropouts, to continue and obtain a
secondary education degree. Again, Cuba has been instrumental
in the success of this program providing literacy advisors,
television sets for the classes, and other literacy materials.
We had the opportunity to observe one of the classes; one
striking aspect of the class was the limited importance of the
instructor, limited because the entire class was taught by a
video presentation that walked the students through the

The Cuban produced workbooks also betrayed a level of
simplified patriotism that verged on indoctrination. This
suspicion was confirmed when we watched part of a televised
commencement ceremony for Plan Ribas graduates: Chavez himself
was the keynote speaker, and his remarks floated back and
forth between platitudes about the importance of education and
self-congratulation over the government's recent purchase of
military helicopters from Russia. This pep rally for
militarism dovetailed nicely with the new requirements for
ROTC-style military instruction in all high schools.

A final component of Chavez' education reform is the
establishment of Bolivarian Schools. These schools are newly
repaired and upgraded buildings that provide full-day
instruction, including three meals, to students living in poor
communities (whether rural or urban) throughout the country.

The traditional school model only provides half-day sessions
with one meal. The Bolivarian Schools also provide many
cultural and sports activities for the students to participate
in. While the schools are often touted as being very
progressive, we were far from convinced after a half-day visit
to one of them. The setting of the school, situated in the
mountains with beautiful views, was very conducive to
learning, but the pedagogy was much less impressive. The
emphasis appeared to be on memorization and recitation, rather
than on open-ended exploration, creativity, critical thinking
and problem solving. The strong patriotic component was
present here as well, with flags posted in all strategic

As in other areas, the educational aspects of the Bolivarian
revolution seem to hint at the possibility of real social
change, but the reality of the Venezuelan educational system
remains pedagogically backwards and dangerously tied to a
nationalistic militarism. This places sharp limits on the
potential for dramatic social change emerging from within the
education system, although it may have the unintended
consequence of radicalizing traditional forms of youth

Anarchist Perspectives on Chavismo

When we were not observing various Chavista projects, we spent
much of our time with a variety of anarchists in several parts
of the country. Without exception, the anarchists we met were
outrageously generous and friendly, and also exceptionally
talkative. As a result, we quickly learned a lot about the
perspectives of Venezuelan anarchists on Chavismo and its
related manifestations. These perspectives were as varied as
you might expect, given the old joke that ten anarchists will
produce eleven opinions on any topic of political importance.

However, we were able to distill three fairly distinct sorts
of anarchist responses to Chavismo, which could be labeled the
lesser evil approach, the makes no difference attitude, and
the grand distraction analysis.

    A number of anarchists we encountered, in both small towns and
    larger cities, held the view that Chavez was better for
    Venezuela than the opposition would have been.

These people were clearly still anarchists -- they opposed
Chavez and his policies, but they believed that an opening had
been created that held the possibility of fundamentally
radicalizing the population as a whole. Their strategy was to
push the populist and socialist tendencies of Chavismo to
their furthest extremes, where the Chavista leadership would
be likely to repudiate the logical conclusions of their own
rhetoric. The intended result seems to be a popular uprising
in support of the best aspects of Chavismo, but against Chavez
and his core leadership.

The most sophisticated version of this approach was the
broadly revolutionary group ONDA, based in the university city
of Merida. ONDA (whose mysterious acronym of a name means
"wave" in Spanish) included a range of old and new leftists,
including at least a couple anarchists (one of whom was our
host during several days spent in the city) . The group had
made something of a splash during the previous local elections
in November, when they sponsored a line on the mayoral ballot
that constituted a vote for the Chavista mayoral candidate but
against his policies. This option gained a few thousand votes
in a city of 250,000, and accurately sums up the intriguing if
confused perspective of its membership. At the general meeting
we attended, the assembled members (approximately 40 people)
decided that their next project would be to push for the
creation of neighborhood assemblies; these assemblies are
allowed under the new constitution, but ONDA wanted them to
have full decision-making power, rather than merely being
advisory to the city council.

Whether this project, or the potentially anarchist approach it
represents, will draw the group closer to or further away from
mainstream electoral Chavismo remains to be seen.

The second anarchist analysis we encountered was best
represented by two comrades who were our hosts in Caracas at
the beginning and end of our stay. They argued that Chavez was
on the whole neither better nor worse than the opposition
would be were it in power. In essence, they said, the masses
of Venezuelans were wasting their time debating for or against
Chavez, when in fact the true class interests of the majority
cut across these divisions. From their perspective, a sizeable
majority of the Chavista rank and file was potentially open to
anarchist analysis and action, while a substantial portion of
the anti-Chavista popular base was similarly accessible,
despite the apparently stark divisions between the two

In their work around a local anarchist community space (not
unlike the infoshop model made popular in the US in the 1990s)
, our hosts befriended both rank and file Chavistas and
anti-Chavistas, and attempted to build organizing ties with
both groups. If successful, such efforts could have the effect
of strengthening the popular base of each movement and drawing
the two groups closer together, while undermining the
relationship between each movement and its own self-designated

This approach could have truly radical long-term implications,
although it necessitates an uphill battle against the popular
understanding that Chavismo and anti-Chavismo have nothing in

Our Caracas hosts were active members of the Comision de
Relaciones Anarquistas (CRA, or the Anarchist Relations
Commission) , which publishes a popular bi-monthly newspaper
entitled "El Libertario" ("The Libertarian," in the anarchist
sense) . It appeared that their view was popular within the
CRA, but there did not seem to be any organization-wide "line"
on the Chavez question.

The third major anarchist perspective on Chavez was also
represented by members of the CRA, although this analysis
seemed to be less popular in the group overall.

According to this view, Chavez is actually worse for Venezuela
than the opposition would have been at this historical
juncture. The argument here is two-fold, both economic and
political. First, due to his popular persona as a radical
reformer and anti-imperialist, only Chavez could have forced
through the range of petroleum and other resource concessions
to multi-national corporations that have been approved in the
past few years, because these same maneuvers would have faced
massive opposition had they been proposed by the traditional
parties that make up the opposition. Second, Chavez has been
able to use his social reforms (literacy programs and the
like) to cover for a massive centralization of political power
in the hands of the presidency, where the opposition would
have been confronted as authoritarian extremists had they
attempted the same power grab.

The advocates of this approach seemed to believe that the main
task facing anarchists in Venezuela was to confront and oppose
Chavismo as a fraudulent ruse aimed at distracting the country
from a pro-capitalist and authoritarian shift in ruling class
politics. Since we spent the least amount of time with
advocates of this analysis, we don't feel qualified to
speculate about the strategic implications drawn by its

It is important to note here that these three perspectives did
not appear to be mutually exclusive: the most vehement
anti-Chavez anarchists would acknowledge good aspects to the
literacy and medical care programs instituted by the
government, while those anarchists most optimistic about the
prospects of Chavismo harshly criticized the government for
successfully selling off huge chunks of the country's
resources to foreign corporations. The divisions between the
perspectives seemed to have much more to do with the strategic
approach that each encouraged. At this early date, and given
our extremely brief time in the country, we feel unable to
assess the relative merits of each strategy beyond our own gut

Anarchist Practice in Venezuela: Two Examples

Beyond simple analysis, most of the anarchists we met were
involved in a range of practical work. In Caracas, in
particular, the CRA not only publishes "El Libertario"
(several thousand copies of each issue are apparently sold or
otherwise distributed) , it also maintains the newly opened
community center mentioned previously, known as the Centro de
Estudios Sociales Libertarios (Center for Libertarian Social
Studies) . This space, which opened in early November 2004,
serves as both library and event space, as well as being a
meeting location and a study space for participants in the
various Chavista-sponsored literacy programs. The goal of the
Centro seems to be similar to that of many infoshops in the US
during the 1990's: to provide an infrastructure for anarchist
organizing, while creating ties between anarchists and other
residents of the community.

While it is too soon to say, the Centro may well face the wide
range of problems experienced by US infoshops: confusion about
long-term goals, tension between the anarchist-focused and
community-focused aspects of the project, and frustration due
to the painful dynamic between burnout and laziness, among
many others. For the present, however, the Centro benefits
from the enthusiasm and dedication of a wide range of
participants, from teenage punks to elderly veterans of the
Spanish Civil War.

A different model for practical work is being developed more
or less single-handedly by an anarchist we met in a small town
in the western mountains of Venezuela. This highly dedicated
organizer (known universally as "El Frances," or the
Frenchman, after the country in which he was raised by
Venezuelan parents before returning a few years ago) was
perhaps the most friendly and outgoing anarchist we met, and
regularly sells a dozen or more copies of "El Libertario" in a
town of only a few thousand people. As a result, anarchism has
a higher profile (at least per-capita) in this town than in
anywhere else in Venezuela. El Frances operates a small booth
in the public market from which he sells anarchist literature,
punk music, and other items. During our visit he was
attempting to organize the other vendors to take over the
management of the market, which had until then been operated
on a landlord-tenant basis that aggravated many of the vendor
tenants. El Frances had also started a small anarchist
collective, made up largely of younger people new to anarchism
but interested in social change, and was attempting to develop
a community space on the model of the Centro in Caracas.

The dangers of the one man show approach taken by El Frances
are obvious: for now, at least, anarchism in this small town
lives or dies with his effort alone, and the sort of anarchism
developed in the community will tend heavily toward whatever
idiosyncrasies his own politics contain. However, the optimism
he brings to his organizing efforts will almost certainly lead
to positive outcomes, at least in the short run.


Perhaps the most amazing thing about Venezuela was the
enthusiasm shown by nearly everyone we met, regardless of
their political outlook (or lack thereof, in some cases) .
Wherever we turned, people not only wanted to show us their
favorite parts of town, they also wanted to share their
analysis of the political situation. Whether they thought of
themselves as pro-Chavez or anti-Chavez (or somewhere in
between) , people displayed no trepidation about sharing their
opinions with us. This openness stood in stark contrast to our
experiences in other Latin American countries, where much of
the population is reserved, especially in discussing political
matters. It was unclear to us how much of this enthusiasm was
a result of the changes wrought by Chavismo, and to what
extent it pre-dated his rise to power; many people claimed the
openness was a new phenomenon, while others argued that it has
long been part of the "national character."

Regardless, it seemed to us that these unique circumstances
presented an amazing opportunity for anarchists in Venezuela.

In the US, it often seems that the biggest impediment to
anarchist organizing is the sort of cynicism and irony that
characterized the presidential election of 2004: how can
people be convinced of the possibility of revolution if a
majority think that everything revolves around picking the
lesser of two evils?

The situation in Venezuela is refreshingly different, because
a massive section of the population is not only open to the
possibility of radical change, but seems actively interested
in comparing alternative visions and strategies.

    It remains to be seen whether the anarchists in Venezuela have
    the numbers, the resources, the skill and the fortitude
    necessary to have a noticeable impact on the ground.

Nonetheless, through both propaganda efforts like "El
Libertario" and grassroots projects like the Centro,
anarchists have a real chance to change the political
trajectory of Venezuela, and possibly even the continent.

"Apocalypse Now and the Brave New World"

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