February 2006

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I got back from Caracas on Monday evening. I’ve been pretty much home sick since then. Nothing serious, just a sore throat and slight fever.

But it’s made it even harder to acclimate back to my life here in Seattle…especially because of all that I experienced down there in Venezuela.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of updates to this blog…the reason I haven’t written isn’t for lack of things to write, but just the opposite. I was having so many back-to-back experiences every day (from 7am to 2am…I only got about four hours of sleep a night) that I couldn’t find time to search for an internet cafe and write up my reflections.

Only now, sick at home and bored, am I finding this time to type something up.

And what do I have to say?

Well, fundamentally, I can say that I have come back to the United States with a whole new level of hope.

For the first time in a long time, I feel like I have real hope for the world that is not based in my own self-generated fantasies of a different society, but rather in concrete processes that are actually taking place. For the first time in a long time, I can sit back and relax as my hope is refilled from an external source rather than from my own rusting reserves of teenage idealism…it feels so refreshing.

In Venezuela–and more broadly in contemporary Latin America and in the World Social Forum–there is something happening. It is something that people like me and my friends have been dreaming about and have been predicting for years, only to be called naive, only to be accused of misunderstanding human nature. There is a process underway that is engaging millions and millions of people in the creation of a new kind of society, based around a handful of key values: inclusion, participatory democracy, socialism, and integration.

The process is not perfect. In fact, it’s a mess. There is corruption. There is mismanagement. There is conflict. There is chaos. There are power struggles and there are injustices. It would be foolish to hide these or to apologize for them. They are real and they are a problem. But at the same time the process is also real. It is not made moot by it’s contradictions, in fact it might end up being strengthened by them…

I know that this is all vague so far. Sorry for that. But what I’m talking about is actually very solid and concrete and measurable…and it goes like this:

Venezuela, historically, has been a tremendously unequal country. 60-80% below the poverty line, while the middle and upper classes have enjoyed a US/Europe style consumer lifestyle…including shopping trips to Miami for new clothes (Venezuela isn’t that far from Florida…or Cuba for that matter). At the same time, it is one of the most oil-rich countries in the world…but historically only the top few have benefited from this wealth. As in most Latin American countries, there have always been social movements in Venezuela…there have been coup attempts, Guerilla movements, protest movements, riots (especially the 1989 riots in Caracas called the “caracazo” which arguably led to the current revolutionary process)…and these have left a legacy which eventually led to a left-wing coup attempt by a young paratrooper named Hugo Chavez Frias in 1992…Chavez’ coup failed, but he became a popular hero, was able to build a movement from jail, and then ran for president in 1998 on a promise to change the entire system, starting with a new constitution. He won. He won by 55+ %, which is rare for Latin American elections…especially since he didn’t really have a party. But he won. And he immediately held a national referendum to ask about rewriting the constitution. This passed. Then he called for elections for form a representative constituent assembly. This happened. Then the constitution was written, hastily debated at all levels of society (but emphasis should be put on the word hasty), and then it was also put up for referendum. It passed…and became one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, spelling out such rare things as social security guarantees for housewives, a whole chapter on indigenous rights, the idea of participatory democracy as opposed to mere representative democracy (that is, citizens actually directly participate in decision-making, they don’t just elect higher representatives to do all that in their name), rights for people with disabilities, etc…I have a copy and it really is quite amazing. It actually became a huge source of pride, especially for poorer Venezuelans, who for the first time began to feel included in the political process.

With the new constitution, Chavez and the entire government needed to be “re-legitimized” and so he and the entire new national assembly were re-elected in 2000…again by majorities. Then the reforms came. Land reforms. Fishing reforms. Oil reforms. The rich became antsy and they began to more seriously resist…

In 2002, with US support, the rich organized a coup. It only lasted 3 days. The poor supporters of Chavez, along with the rank-and-file of the Venezuelan military, came out of their homes and barracks and took the power back, putting Chavez back into the presidency (there is an amazing documentary about this, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and you need to see it).

But the rich didn’t stop. They organized an “oil strike,” shutting down Venezuela’s most important industry and smashing the economy. But over time, this tactic failed as well, because lower-rank oil workers took over oil production, and Chavez filed the upper-bureacracy…stabilizing the economy again…

Then Chavez began deeper reforms. The missions. Mission Robinson, which seeks to complete eliminate illiteracy through free neighborhood reading programs. Mission Ribas and Sucre, which allow adults to finish high school and college, also for free. Mission Barrio Adentro (1, 2, and 3), which provide doctors and clinics within poor neighborhoods for absolutely free care. Mission Mercal, which provides special supermarkets with heavily subsidized foods….all of this paid for by oil profits that previously had only gone to the rich.

And so the rich kept at it…and they tried to use the constitution itself against Chavez…being a progressive constitution, it allows for the population to recall any politician from power, even the president. And so the opposition gathered signatures from 20% of the population (though this is disputed), and there was a recall referendum in 2004…once again Chavez won with a 55% majority. Only solidifying his political stability.

Since then, Chavez has become even more radical in his programs. More money for the missions. More money for social spending. Increased support for the formation of worker’s cooperatives as opposed to traditional top-down capitalist businesses…and just last year he finally used the “s-word”….Socialism. That is the direction that Venezuela is heading in. I couldn’t be happier.

Chavez states, repeatedly, that Venezuelan socialism will be fundamentally different than the USSR, or Cuba, or China…those models do not work (in my view, they aren’t socialist at all). In the Venezuelan process, they are trying to build socialism right alongside this other thing, called participatory democracy. They want equality, but they want it anchored in a democracy that allows people to discuss and debate and have real control over how things develop in the society…and this is what I saw in Venezuela.

In Venezuela, we visited a number of cooperatives, and missions, and community meetings, and we met with a large number of folks who are involved in this revolutionary process, and what I saw in all of this gave me hope. Just as I said in the last post, Chavez is not a dictator. He’s not perfect, and I think he’s too popular (he’s like a folk hero, with t-shirts, and dolls, and posters and all that…not by imposition but genuinely because he’s so popular…which is a problem. No person should be that popular, it’s dangerous), but at the same time there are millions of people trying to make this process happen independent of Chavez…and I think they will succeed. With time, I think they will succeed.

Okay, I’m tired for now…but I want to end this post just by saying that I think we in the US need to study what’s happening in Latin America very carefully. First, because if we don’t then we are going to be taken very much by surprise when we see a whole slew of socialist societies right down there at our South. But second, because we can learn so much from what is happening about how our own society should be changed. Hopefully we can do it without a strong personality like a Chavez…but I hope we do it somehow.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi