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The Left Must Watch Venezuela Closely…

Hugo Chavez is gravely ill. It is likely he will no longer be president of Venezuela. Are there individuals who can replace him? Is the radical grassroots ready to accelerate the building of power from below? Regardless of the state of the Venezuelan left, the Venezualan right and the U.S. are probably doing some rapid-fire strategic simulations right now to figure out how they want to destabilize things.

I understand the critiques of Chavez and the Venezuelan process from the left, especially from anarchists. So much of it is well-founded. However, despite all the immense contradictions, there is no other country where bottom-up participatory socialist ideas have such a strong cultural and intellectual hegemony…even if the institutional reality hasn’t matched the ideals. There are millions of Venezualans who actively discuss and attempt to build bottom-up popular power in their communities. Millions is a big number. If that process is crushed or degenerates into either violence or pure apathy, what a huge setback for the global left.

All of us have a stake in this. Anti-authoritarians, specifically, have a stake in aggressively supporting and advocating for the radical grassroots positions that will emerge in the absence of Chavez. Are you watching? Are you paying attention? Anarchists, if you ignore this because you hate Chavez, you are missing something of global, historic significance…a process that needs speeding up, but which is in danger of ending.

Also, check this out by George Ciccariello-Maher, Dual Power in the Venezuelan Revolution.

Quick Venezuelan election update…

Things are certainly complicated. While in almost any other electoral context the Venezuelan regional elections would have been considered a near-sweep for Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the situation is actually not so clear-cut.

The election had record-breaking participation (65.45%) and the PSUV won 17 of 23 state governorships, but lost some really crucial states. It also seems that they lost pretty handily in Caracas itself. Now, this is the first election for this new socialist party, so one could argue that they kicked ass. But reading commentary on some Chavista sites, it seems that this shows a decline for their candidates…and it specifically shows a dissatisfaction with the way that Chavista politicians (not necessarily Chavez himself) are governing.

Looks like the next couple of years will be rocky for the Venezuelan process. Just like the aftermath of Chavez’s failed constitutional reform last year, he’s going to have to shake stuff up, and there is a big question of whether changes will fall to the right or to the left. If he’s listening to his base, it sounds like they want more power for the communal councils, more accountability from the representative elements of the government, and less corruption and clientelism.

I’ll hope to keep writing about this as my understanding gets better (or my questions get more profound), but for now I’m afraid I have little to say that’s not being said on Venezuela Analysis.

Meanwhile, in Ecuador, general elections to elect the new government after the recent passing of the new constitution will be held in late April. And in Bolivia and Paraguay? Hmm…don’t know. Should do some reading about that.

Eyes on El Salvador in 2009…

Just a quick note. Last night Glendi and I attended an event talking about elections in El Salvador in 2009. They take place in March, and though there is always danger of US intervention and fraud, right now the FMLN (former guerrilla group turned political party) candidate, Mauricio Funes is on track to win.

This will be a big deal if it happens. Not only because it’ll be the second ex-guerrilla group after the Sandinistas to win power in Central America, but also because it will keep the leftward tide moving in Latin America. Who knows, maybe 2012 in Mexico? It also will of course have interesting implications for Guatemala, and their weak center-leftist president, Colom.

In other news, Venezuela has its regional elections on Sunday, will almost all the governorships and mayor positions in play. It’s the first vote after the Chavistas’ constitutional referendum loss, and Chavez and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela are putting A TON of energy into it. I’ll be watching closely, as it will be a good gauge of what direction the Venezuelan revolution is moving.

During the 2005 World Social Forum in Brazil, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez helped put socialism back on the geopolitical menu by declaring himself in favor of “socialism for the 21st century.” He claimed that his previous belief in a “third way” between capitalism and socialism was mistaken, and he envisioned a new path toward socialism that would not repeat the mistakes of failed past experiments. In a climate of deep and accelerating disillusionment with neoliberal capitalism, a major world leader made the “S-word” a little bit safer to say, and he fired up the imagination of millions who saw the possibility of a new direction for Latin America and the world.

Chávez’ words fired me up, too, along with so many of his speeches and declarations since. As I have gushed about many times on this blog, the Venezuelan/Latin American process toward socialism is no joke; there is something real happening there, and it fills me with a deep, warm hope. There is no question that they are doing it their own way, with all of the questions, and blunders, and contradictions that it entails. Indeed, all over Venezuela, South America, the global south, and the world, people are carrying out experiments in participatory democracy, and in community and worker control of resources. As the long winter of U.S. imperialism gives way to a multi-polar spring, these experiments are poised to bloom like thousands of beautiful flowers. Chávez’ words were a powerful recognition of this visionary reality, and a vital endorsement (many would say co-optation) of its revolutionary potential. For me personally, they made me feel like I wasn’t crazy for being a radical.

But this brings up a simple but very dangerous problem that I want to confront here. It’s the problem of–to use Tom Cruise’s fluid and profound Scientology vocabulary–Spectatorism. It does very little good to simple watch and romanticize and ooh and aah about the struggles and victories of folks across the world. One should not only maintain a critical eye for the differences between rhetoric and reality, but more importantly, one should use the inspiring examples of others to push against one’s own edges (what that wonderful man Paulo Freire called one’s “limit situations”) and grow to new levels of revolutionary work. I don’t want to be only a spectator of the beautiful work of the Venezuelan revolution, or of the Zapatistas, or of the militant South Korean trade unions, or of U.S. groups like INCITE! or Critical Resistance. I don’t want to be just a revolutionary consumerist, reading my Left Turn and listening to my Blue Scholars while I rent eye-opening documentaries on Netflix.

While I am still here sharing this life with you, while my mind still feels clear and my hands, feet and body still serve me, while my bank account is healthy and while I feel so much love and support from so many directions, I want to be of use. I want to make as big as contribution as I can. And when or if all of those things go, I want to still contribute just as much, if not more.

If Chávez’ speech is just greeted with a spectator’s excitement (or boredom or cynicism), then it is guaranteed to become what some fear: another example of revolutionary work being co-opted by top-down leaders at the expense of authentic grassroots democracy. But if Chávez’ speech is greeted as a challenge, as an invitation (whether intended by Hugo or not) to make our mark and give our 2 cents to the revolutionary project, then we can really get somewhere. I choose the latter. And here I want to confront my Spectatorism a little bit by talking about how we can build (in fact, are building!!!) a 21st century anarchism in the U.S. that can parallel the Bolivarians’ 21st century socialism.

(To be continued…)

So, I can’t bring myself to talk about myself right now on the blog, so instead I’ll talk about politics.

A lot has happened while I’ve been away, and there is a lot that I’d like to cover (Burma, gender justice, the US anti-war movement, immigration justice, and so much more), but I want to make sure that I cover that which I’ve been best at covering: shifts in power in Latin America.

About a month ago, Rafael Correa’s leftist coalition in Ecuador triumphed in their elections to the constitutional assembly. They have more than a sufficient majority to write any constitution they want, and the draft of the constitution that they are discussing is really promising. They are heading toward a similar kind of “socialism for the 21st century” as Venezuela…not the neo-liberal stuff of Chile and Brazil. I’m excited about this process, and I think they have a lot more momentum in their favor than the constitutional assembly in Bolivia, which is just having a really, really hard time right now.

At the beginning of November, the center-leftist Alvaro Colom defeated the right wing ex-general (and school of the Americas graduate, and ex-head of the secret police) Otto Perez Molina, to become the president-elect of Guatemala. It’s so weird, Glendi and I have actually seen him speak in person, so I’ve been within 15 feet of the future president of Guatemala! I wasn’t hopeful during his campaign, but his victory speech was so directly tied to his ideas and his social-democratic ideology, and his follow-up announcements as well, that I believe that he does want to bring change to the country. Also, in a Telesur interview they asked him if he’s a leftist, and he said something like, “if being against neo-liberalism, which has brought so much misery to Latin America makes me a leftist, then yes, I’m a leftist.” That was impressive. He also declared that he would have normal, friendly relations with Cuba and Venezuela, and is already set to discuss petroleum deals with Hugo Chavez in December! This is a good sign…he’s not playing to the powerful by distancing himself from the Latin American left. He’s also not afraid to reference Jacobo Arbenz, the last lefty or center-lefty that Guatemala’s had…who was ousted in a coup in 1954. I’ll keep blogging about Colom, but for now I’m enthusiastic.

On December 2, Venezuelans will vote on new constitutional reforms…69 of them in total (voted in two bloques). These are designed to “deepen” and “accelerate” the move towards socialism and popular power. The media has focused primarily on the reforms which would allow indefinite re-election of Chavez, and which would allow for certain democratic liberties to be suspended in states of emergency…and I think there is real room to criticize these. However, the reforms also include major strengthening of the super-democratic communal councils, prohibition of discrimination against LGBTQ people, social security for informal workers, lowering the voting age to 16, a 36 hour work-week, free education through the university level, separating popular militias from the military command…and more. I think it’s certain that if this passes (and polls are all over the place on this one), the process in Venezuela really will change significantly. That country is moving!

In Paraguay, a popular ex-bishop, who is rooted in liberation theology, Fernando Lugo, is running for president and is ahead in the polls. They call him “the red bishop.” Elections aren’t until 2008, so we’ll see. But this looks really promising.

Also promising is Mauricio Funes, a respected long-time journalist in El Salvador who is now running for president with the ex-guerrila group, the FMLN. He has a really strong chance of winning, and watching videos of him on youtube, I totally think he’s got what it takes. If he wins, then Central America will definitely be considered as part of the leftist trend in Latin America. Right now, it’s too much of a mixed bag to tell. Now come on Mexico! Must we wait until the 2012 elections for you to go left, or might you have a revolution before that?

This was just a little update. In future weeks I’ll want to write more about Venezuela, and maybe about Colom, but for now this is fine. I’m just trying to get in the habit of writing again.

Hope you all are doing well!

Bolivarian Student Leaders Kick Ass!

Read this now.

If you understand Spanish, you can then watch the whole National Assembly debate here, and it is amazing. It’s history in the making, a major victory for the Venezuelan revolutionary process, and a clear sign of the kind of deep debate that many Bolivarians are willing to accept and are pushing for down there. What an incredible blow against the opposition.

You also should check venezuela analysis to read some other new articles about the progress of the revolution, and especially the article about communal power vs. capitalism…it’s all so exciting.

I’m doing well. VERY busy, but doing well.

Well, as you can imagine I’ve been busy in my personal life, and I haven’t updated the blog in a little while.

In the meantime, however, I have been keeping up with current events, and I have been especially intrigued by how closely U.S. mainstream media is following the situation in Venezuela regarding the decision to not renew the broadcasting license of RCTV (think of a network like NBC, and the government deciding to not renew its license at the expiration date), and to replace the channel with a new public broadcasting channel called TVes. RCTV was one of the biggest media opponents of Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution, they were involved in the coup in 2002, among other things, and lately there have been major protests over this issue, and on Sunday there were violent demonstrations that left both protesters and police injured.

Things are heating up down there, as is coverage in U.S. media, and I want to analyze it a bit…but no today. I just got home from work and I’m tired. But I do want to encourage folks to visit to catch up on your own. This situation could turn out to be significant.

I support the government’s decision in this case, and following the discourse about plans for the new channel has actually been quite inspiring. Just imagine one of the big capitalist networks losing public airwaves and those airwaves being given to independent, participatory, community media (that is, this will be independent public media, not state media). That’s something I could get being. These public airwaves networks are essentially examples of corporate welfar anyway, in my view.

More later.

Last week, Rafael Correa, the president of ecuador gave a brief and hastily organized press conference in which he spoke out strongly against the actions of his brother, Fabricio, to create a new “Correaist” organization, called the RCD movement (citizens democratic revolution…but also Rafael Correa’s initials). This organization was organized in support of the president, with aims of participating in the constitutional assembly, but the president called it ridiculous and absurd, saying that the revolution needs to be based not on family ties and personalities, and not a cult of personality, but in the power of the people.

He repeated in a variety of ways about the need for unity and not dividing into new groups, as well as his rejection of the cult of personality, and his rejection of tying Ecuador’s “magical moment” up with his personality or that of his family, or with an organization, or with the government, insisting instead that Ecuador’s moment should be seen as a time for the people, once the people have awoken. He has also specifically said that he doesn’t want to hear anyone calling themselves “Correistas.” Hmmm….interesting.

I have said many times that I like this guy. Now I like him even more. Similar strategies and politics and bravery as Chavez, but very different stylistically, and I think it will have implications for the future.

But I should note something else interesting here, and that is the class differences between Correa and Chavez. Correa is Univeristy of Chicago educated, middle class. Chavez is a working-class ex-soldier. Correa’s style seems different, more moderated, more…well…middle class. Whereas Chavez speaks in a much more working class style…which can actually draw some comparisons with George W. Bush, style-wise…at least in that he is speaking to his base and not to the intelligentsia (although I don’t think Chavez is faking it). I enjoy listening to Chavez speak, because he packs a hell of a lot of substance into all of his speeches (he always seems to have a book ready to pick up and talk about…like it’s an episode of Reading Rainbow or something…I’ve never seen any other world leader do that), but his style can also be really annoying to me, and I want to think some more about why that is. It definitely irks me and my anarchist tendencies, but there is more going on than that, I’m sure.

But still, this press conference by Correa really interested me, although I’d bet there is some other stuff going on behind the scenes with his brother. Only time will tell.

Read this now.

Just last week, speaking to an international gathering of women, president Chavez declared that the socialist revolution will end machismo in Venezuela, that he is an enemy of machismo. He also said that he used to be a machista. He praised the women of Venezuela as being on the front lines in the struggle for the new society.

Bueno. Nice words, Hugo. Yet I am far more likely to side with the perspective expressed in the linked article above. Although I support the Venezuelan revolution, and although I am inspired by that revolution, there is absolutely always room to be critical, even disgusted, and I am disgusted with the way Chavez’ relationship with Iran plays out continuously. But it’s not just limited to Iran. What about the relationship with the Chinese government? What about his ally, Daniel Ortega, now leftist president of Nicaragua, and his step-daughter who came forward and declared him a child sexual abuser? Just CIA spin, or is that a not-so subtle leftist smokescreen to avoid holding him accountable? I side with her.

I understand oil-power politics, and the need for Iran and Venezuela to stick together to survive US imperialism, but still we must ask ourselves, in order to keep our souls, at what cost? And we cannot just look away from the fact of who pays those costs…the women of these nations, especially the women of Iran.

I believe that Venezuelan women are probably way better off under Chavez than before. I met many women there who were returning to school, becoming organizers, starting businesses with loans from the incredible women’s bank…these are real victories for Venezuelan women, and they are related to Chavez’ policies, but we can hold these truths and still acknowledge the unacceptable, the unjust, the unthinkable that is still happening, even with male leftist revolutionaries supposedly moving toward a “non-machista” society.

Fantastic Venezuela Article!

Just read this piece by Sujatha Fernandes, about the relationship between Venezuela’s popular movements (at least in Caracas) and Chavez’s government. It’s really quite good, and it illustrates alot of the dynamics between top-down and bottom-up revolutionary approaches that I’ve been talking about on this blog for awhile now.

The Venezuelan process is interested for so, so many reasons, but one of those reasons definitely is how the state-civil society interaction is happening, and how a radicalized mass-base is pushing forward the radicalization of a government, so far using incredibly open and peaceful means.

Good stuff, and it makes me happy on this rainy Sunday.

Venezuela: Some Kind of Dictatorship, Huh?

The Venezuelan Electoral Council has approved 28 requests for recall referenda, something that their [rather amazing] constitution allows, and which was first practiced against Hugo himself in 2004. Yet still, our media, our politicians, the elites will look down so condescendingly at the “democratic dictatorship” of that country, while, what, we have illegal wiretapping, uncountable (an unaccountable!) detentions of mostly immigrant people, etc., etc.. It is such a farce, such a farce, the political discourse of this country.

It really is maddening, isn’t it, knowing that you’re living within the belly of the empire, and that the entire system is set up around you to make you okay with it, to make you want to revel in it, to glorify it and feel pride it and believe it? It’s just wild.

Rigoberta Menchu and Chavez Updates…

Here are some articles about Rigoberta Menchú’s run for the presidency of Guatemala (one, two). Seems like most commentators think that this year will be more a practice run for her, and that her real chances to win will be in 2012. If that’s the case, then Alvaro Colom will hopefully win, and we’ll at least get some kinda-sorta leftist in that country. But who know’s what’s going to happen by September?

Chávez has been cranky lately about other radical Venezuelan parties and organizations not being willing to dissolve themselves to join his new united socialist party, and I think his reaction is really telling. I mean, come on, how can he so easily expect the Venezuelan Communist Party — with decades and decades of history of struggle — to dissolve themselves so easily to join a party that will clearly maintain Hugo has the figurehead? His reaction really bothers me and I don’t think it bodes well for the future of the process…which overall is still beautiful, but seriously, Hugo, practice what you preach and move aside a little bit!

Hugo and Barbara…

You can check out the Barbara Walters story on Hugo Chavez here (bottom video)…better than I expected, frankly.

There was some stuff cut about his comments about Condoleeza Rice, which I think is interesting, because honestly what he has said about her is flat out unacceptable (stuff along the lines of needing a good man to loosen her up and shit like that).  I think he’s basically a typical sexist male leftist in many ways, and even the marriage pieces kind of hint at that…what a simplification to suggest that he’s just too dedicated to the poor of the earth to be able to stick with his family…and those of us who struggle to be good partners and family members are less dedicated?  Hmmm…. 

Watch the first video–especially near the end–if you want to see some of Walters’ own commentary.  She seems downright sympathetic of him, not really even reacting strongly when she says he’s a socialist, which I thought was significant.

Chavez’s New United Socialist Party…

Just got done reading an article and watching a video about the Chavez government’s plan to form a new United Socialist Party in Venezuela. If we take them at their word, the plan matches their stated goals of expanding grassroots democracy and building socialism from below using militant bases as the first steps towards broader debates, elections, and then a founding conference, and then finally a referendum on the founding document of the party. If one compares it to other existing political parties it really does seem pretty cool, but I still worry about the idea of so many existing radical parties and organizations folding into this one party…what about plurality and ideological diversity? What price do revolutionary processes pay in the name of the unity?

One positive possibility in the formation of this party is that so far the Venezuelan process has been characterized by a unity around Chavez, but a disunity around ideology, program, trajectory, levels of radicalism, etc. The formation of a massive grassroots-based party with a clear political program and ideology could shift the possibilities for revolutionary unity away from the persona of Chavez and toward an actual mass-based politics. We’ll see if they pursue this angle…but frankly I’m worried that once a cult of personality has begun, it will be hard to move away from it…at least until Chavez is out of office or retired completely.

Regardless of the outcome, all of this just reinforces why Venezuela is so interesting to me…because it is an actual PROCESS. Not just rhetoric or vague visions of a possible lefty future. They are trying to construct something within a certain context, with certain conditions and certain opposition, and the simple fact of that, the simple existence of this process in the world is fascinating to me. Just fascinating.

Venezuela’s Communal Councils

Just read this article and thought I’d link to it. It’s a good overview of Venezuela’s communal councils, and I think it does a good job of exploring the numerous questions that are bound to be raised in a process like this. A lot of these questions remind me, on a much smaller scale, of questions raised in the high school transformation work I’ve been doing these last few years.

Speaking of which, I’ve been feeling very overworked and emotionally exhausted working at the high school, and that is a big reason for why I haven’t posted since Saturday night. This is sad, because there is much that I want to talk about. I have a whole list of topics that I keep on a crumbled piece of paper in my pocket.

For now, though, I feel safe in asking you to go rent the documentary Jesus Camp and then please come back here and comment on it. Anyone who’s been around me these last few years knows how much I talk about and think about the Evangelical Right and their movement-building work, and this movie really puts faces on the stuff I’ve been thinking about; namely that they are trying to build a rich, parallel subculture which acts a base for eventually winning power in the US. This movie is especially interesting because it focuses on one of the most essential elements of any culture or subculture which hopes to sustain and reproduce itself: the children. It’s a freaky vision of what’s happening out there, but I hope also that it’s a wake-up call. I will write more about this in the future.

Been playing the board game Carcassone a lot with my brother and his wife. Damn is that game fun! Especially with the towers expansion, which makes the game a lot more cutthroat and interactive.

The 5 Motors of the Venezuelan Revolution…

Right now, the Venezuelan government is using some really consistant messaging regarding its objectives and plans in its “march toward socialism,” framing much of their current work in terms of “5 motors” that will speed Venezuela like a locomotive towards their socialist future.

These motors are (and you can see an interesting graphic in Spanish here: ):

1) The enabling law: “The direct route to socialism.” This is the law that will allow Chavez to pass certain laws without congressional approval for 18 months. The argument is that there are many people in the National Assembly who claim to be Chavistas (the whole assembly is filled with Chavez supporters, since the oppisition backed out of the last elections in a bid to discredit the process…and because they knew they were going to lose anyway) but who will hold back and sabotage the process, and so Chavez says he needs this so that the people don’t have to wait any longer for the changes they are demanding…this is the argument, anyway.

2) Constitutional reform: “A socialist state of law.” Chavez has called for the election of a new constitutional assembly to change the constitution to make it more in-line with a socialist nation…that is, stronger labor rights, and especially they are talking about highlighting “social property” rights over private property rights. The new constitution will have to be approved through a national referendum.

3) Morals and enlightment: “Education with socialist values.” Chavez’ brother Adan seems to be in charge of this one, and it’s a massive educational project to push the country in a socialist direction culturally and ideologically. It will affect the public school system as well as the universities and I also imagine that it will involve “promoters” or trained organizers who will be pushing for socialist ethics in their communities and workplaces…it’s essentially training to create a socialist mass base.

4) The new geometry of power: “The socialist reordering of the geopolitics of the nation.” This is about transforming government infrastructure (as well as foreign policy relationships) to get rid of old structures and bureaucracies that ostensibly are slowing the process down, and to form basically a new Venezuelan state that is in line with their notion of “21st century socialism.”

5) Explosion of communal power: “Protagonistic democracy, revolutionary and socialist!” This is what I was talking about earlier…transforming the state by basing it much more strongly in local, grassroots communal power through communal councils. The vice president has been talking alot about this lately, telling the communal councils more or less to get ready to become the new government.

Now let me be clear that most of these both excite me and scare me. They excite me because they are a new discussion of socialism that is consciously post-Soviet, in that they consistantly and explictly declare that they don’t want to be like Russia, China, or Cuba…and that they don’t want to have Bolshevik or Stalinist structures (Chavez himself speaks very well about these historic lessons). They excite me because 2 years ago Chavez had just barely mentioned socialism in a World Social Forum speech, and now it’s plastered all over the government websites…that is, they are rapidly speeding up and radicalizing. But they scare me because it is a massive, powerful state with a strong figurehead, and so many of these “motors” can easily just be methods for indoctrination and solidification of state control. What is socialist education? Because of US cold war brainwashing, it seems almost inherently totalitarian…but really it’s also what I really would like to see. It all depends on the actual content of what these motors are. What kinds of laws will Chavez fast-track? How will the new constitution be different? What are socialist values? On the values question, I’ve seen Adan Chavez speak on youtube and stuff and it seems like they are trying to challenge notions like competition, speculation, profit-seeking, egoism…maybe even machismo and racism. This could be powerful education…or it could just be indoctrination into patriotism and loyalty to the state. We have to wait and see.

But this brings me back to why I’m most excited: because of that 5th motor. The explosion of popular power is the final motor because the government sees it is the most important and final step…the transition from a top-down statist past (and process) towards a new Venezuela based in grassroots popular power. That’s not me projecting my anarchist wishes…that is how these folks actually talk. The discourse is about popular power, the 5th motor is the goal. And if that really is true, if that desire is authentic, then I believe that grassroots energies can keep Chavez’ ego in check and keep the state in check so that the revolution doesn’t get diverted into yet another form of state domination. This is what’s interesting about the Venezuelan process: that their strategy is so based in activating and inspiring the grassroots base to take up more space and initiate more projects (they support grassroots indymedia, Chavez has called on workers to take over their factories, etc…). Now I’ve read so often that this kind of thing is common in the early years of revolutions, then the state gets scared of the people and clamps down, so I’m still waiting and watching for that other shoe to drop.

And in many ways it already has. The Venezuelan process is also really gross in many ways, beyond the cult of personality. The oil politics create a lot of contradictions with ecological values. Indigenous rights are not respected as much as is claimed, especially regarding industry and land use. Abortion is still illegal (although hopefully not for long). Anarchist critics of the state are harassed and lumped together with the right-wing opposition…and many times criticism of Chavez is treated as a no-no. I have heard from a number of people that Chavez is quite a womanizer (he’s separated from his wife…his second wife). The government is spending billions on new weapons (perhaps justified but the military presence really is strong down there), etc.

I am an excited yet critical supporter of this whole thing. History tells us that this great experiment can only end badly, as all other experiments with state-driven revolution have. But not all revolutions end in dictatorship…so even if the powers that be do settle in and slow down the Venezuelan process before it truly bares fruit…at least the people might get some new schools and hospitals out of it. But imagine, just imagine, if they actually manage to form an entirely new kind of country out of it. New forms of decision-making and participation. New forms of economic production, consumption, and exchange….

Oil money and modern online tools for information-sharing and democratic decision-making might make it possible. I hope, I hope, I hope!

I Love You, Venezuela…

When I was 14, I kind of decided that I wanted to be a revolutionary.

That decision transformed my life.

Being who I am, with all of the privileges associated with a white, male, middle-class identity, I have always just been sure that I will see global revolution in my lifetime…just like other kids of my identity were sure that they could become doctors and politicians and businessmen. The mythology of our culture is, after all, that we can do anything we put our minds to…I just applied that to global social transformation. And that has always made me one of the most optimistic radicals that I know.

Well recently I’ve been talking with old radical friends and we get to talking about we’ve grown and changed and settled and compromised…and we get to talking about hope, and I say, “yeah, I feel like I have more hope for revolution now than I’ve ever had before.”

…and they just kind of stare at me. Or can’t believe it.

And really, to respond, I only need one word: Venezuela.

There is something magical happening in Venezuela. It is the magic that happens when the energies and aspirations and minds of millions of ordinary people are awakened into social movements. There is a genuine revolution happening there. And it is speeding up so fast that I don’t think the English translators have caught up yet.

It’s not all about Hugo Chavez. Yes, he is the leader, the icon, the figurehead…yes he has tons of power (and now more with the “enabling law” which allows him to fast-track new laws without approval from congress)…and yes there is a gross cult of personality around him (seriously, it’s really gross). But it really isn’t all about him. What he symbolizes, what he talks about, and what he is trying to create is not all about him…it is literally about giving power to the people. I know that sounds weird…especially coming from an anarchist. But it’s the truth.

From the beginning, Chavez has said that to end poverty power must be given to the poor, and since the beginning he and his people have been transforming Venezuelan infrastructure to open up more spaces for popular participation and organization.

Down there, the discourse is very lively around democracy. WAY more lively than here. Unlike supporting Hillary or Obama or McCain or whatever, down there supporting Chavez implies wanted to actually be A PART of the process. They are very critical of representative democracy down there. They talk a lot more about participatory and DIRECT democracy.

And institutionally, these new forms of democracy are blossoming. The Venezuelan state is massively funding new Communal Councils…which are directly elected and recallable councils that represent 200-400 families only…and they are being given state funds to improve their own communities…also there is more and more talk about workers councils…about democracy in schools…about participatory budgets. The discussion of economic democracy and Socialism is now mainstream in Venezuela. The movement toward democratic socialism is now a mainstream debate…and it is a fiery one.

What I see in Venezuela is millions of people engaged in a very messy process that a lot of people outside of Venezuela don’t really understand (and I KNOW that I don’t fully understand it…but I’m reading about it, in Spanish, every day). It is a process that my radical friends and I have only been dreaming about…but down there they are building it. And soon, too, in Ecuador, in Bolivia…maybe in Cuba someday. Maybe in Nicaragua…maybe even in Guatemala.

So yeah…I still consider myself a revolutionary. And I still believe that we can do it. Venezuela can’t show us the way…because the US is much too different. But it should definitely be lighting a fire under our asses.

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