Venezuela's Bolivarian Process, Democracy, and Socialism: A View from the PSUV in Mérida
by Jeffery R. Webber
Canadian socialist Jeffery R. Webber interviewed Oscar González, Coordinator of Organization of Social Movements for Popular Power in the Mérida branch of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) – Mérida, Venezuela, September 5, 2008.
JRW: First, can we start off with your name and position in this organization?
OG: My name is Oscar González. I'm the Coordinator of Organization of Social Movements for Popular Power, within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). I am also the publicity representative, for one of the socialist battalions of the grassroots of the PSUV in Mérida.
JRW: How did you become a political activist in this organization?
OG: I responded to the call of our comandante Hugo Chávez Frías, in April 2006. We began to form, from the grassroots, a new party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Various activists began to organize the people in communities, organized meetings, essentially founding the grassroots of the socialist party. This base can be found in the socialist battalions. Each poor neighbourhood (parroquia) has a number of them. The socialist battalions have on average 300 members who meet every week. They elect a spokesperson, a committee person for policy, a committee person for propaganda, for territorial defense. These are the grassroots, the basic cells, of the PSUV.
JRW: Can you describe the trajectory of the Bolivarian process in general terms since 1998? How has the process radicalized over the years?
OG: This process did not begin in 1998. It began with the Caracazo on February 27, 1989, when the people took to the streets in reaction to the policies imposed by the former President Carlos Andrés Pérez. And then there was barbarous military repression on the part of that government of the fourth republic.1
In this context, comandante Chávez founded the Movimiento Bolivariano 200, which made an oath [inaudible]. . . . Next, the coup of February 4, 1992 took place, led by Hugo Chávez Frías. He tried to take power, precisely to return it to the people.
All of this led to him going to jail. The coup failed. However, the people began to see hope. And this hope materialized in 1998 when Chávez won the elections, and arrived in the presidency.
After this moment, there was a radicalization of confrontation. Not on the part of the sectors that supported President Chávez, but rather on the part of wealthy sectors, people who have economic power, and who felt this diminishing in the sense that this government has tried to give power to the poor.2 But Chávez didn't cause this, it's a question of the class struggle. As you know, this is the eternal struggle that we have to confront.
JRW: What have been the most important successes of these years from your perspective?
OG: The most important successes of the revolutionary government of President Chávez have been the missions.3 The education missions have achieved almost 100 percent literacy in the national territory. They have achieved the inclusion of people who were totally excluded from middle and higher level education, with the Mission Río and the Mission Sucre. They have brought medicine to the barrios, the poor sectors, with the Mission Barrio Adentro. They have solved grave problems with the Mission Milagro, operations for people who couldn't see. They have implemented operation [inaudible], for the people living in the streets.
I think that the missions, with all that they lack and all their errors, have been the leading force of the Bolivarian government of Chávez.
JRW: At this conjuncture, what are the most important weaknesses that must be overcome?
OG: I think that the weaknesses are internal. We live in a capitalist society. We're capitalists. From when we're very young they plant a capitalist chip in our heads. For example, when you buy a sweater for your kid, you don't say, "take this sweater, it's for when you are cold," you say, "take this sweater, it's yours," and you plant the chip. So this makes it very difficult to introduce socialism overnight, or to assimilate ourselves to socialism. Proof of this was that we lost the reform [the referendum on reforming the Constitution in December 2007]. The reforms signified the start of socialism in Venezuelan territory.4
So, I think that the principal weakness is ideological. I think that we have to strengthen ourselves in this sense, so that the people really understand what socialism is and the benefits it brings.
That it doesn't mean that your kids will be taken away, or that your house will be taken away [in reference to the scare tactics of the right-wing opposition in Venezuela]. This government is the only government that has given property titles to those [impoverished] people who were living on municipal property. The idea that we are going to take away people's houses is very frustrating. It's all lies.
So, I think that the biggest weakness is ideological, and we have to overcome it.
JRW: From your perspective, what does Twenty-First Century Socialism mean, what does is mean for the PSUV?
OG: Twenty-first century socialism is a socialism that we are building, and we have scarcely started constructing it. One hundred years could pass quickly, and we may still not have become socialists. But we are beginning to establish the foundations in the grassroots. Twenty-first century socialism is what we want, it's what all the Bolivarianos and socialists hope will occur in the future.
JRW: What is the relationship between democracy and this type of socialism? Does it mean the deepening of democracy, and, if so in what way?
OG: That's correct. The socialist democracy that we are trying to introduce is a participatory democracy, not a representative democracy. Capitalist democracy is distinctly representative. That is to say, you elect people to represent you. For us, no, we want to give power to the people, the communal councils, to the communes, so that the people really exercise power.5 Is there anything more democratic than that? It's impossible.
JRW: How has the formation of the new party, the PSUV, gone? Has it been a success? What are its strengths and its ongoing weaknesses?
OG: Obviously, it's been a success, because there is no other party that has been born with 5,700,000 members. Apart from this, the party has allowed for the popular sectors, the people of the grassroots, to participate in many of the structures that were still in the hands of people from the fourth republic.
All of the statutes of the party were discussed in assemblies of the socialist battalions. In this sense, the party has been a success.
Weaknesses? Of course, there are weaknesses. Principally, as I told you, they are ideological ones. But I think that the strengths of the PSUV are what will allow for the success of this revolution.
JRW: The last question. What kind of Venezuela are you struggling for? What type of Venezuela to you want to build?
OG: I want a Venezuela, we want a Venezuela, in which all the necessities of being a human being are covered. In which, as Bolívar said, there exists the highest level of happiness possible. That is to say, no one lacks housing, food, medical services, and satisfactory work.
And more than that, I want to go beyond that. We want a Venezuela where if you were born with a dream . . . if your dream was to be a painter, if your dream was to be a sculptor, if your dream was to be a musician, but you ended up deciding to try to become an engineer because you couldn't earn enough to live doing these other things. . . . We want a Venezuela where dreams become reality, where people live satisfactorily and satisfied, according to their dreams.
1 The Caracazo, named for the events in the capital city of Caracas in February 1989, actually involved protests and rioting against the introduction of neoliberalism across the entire country. Andrés Pérez had just been elected on an anti-neoliberal platform but was now attempting to ram an orthodox restructuring program down the throats of Venezuelans. The president decided to make an example of the protesters, and the urban poor more generally, giving the green light for military and police repression for days, leaving a large number of dead. Estimates range from 300 to 3,000 dead. The "fourth republic" is the pejorative term that Chavistas use to describe the post-1958 era of elitist "pacted democracy," or the arranged sharing of power between the ideologically indistinguishable AD and COPEI parties.
2 Most important in terms of failed counter-revolutionary measures carried out by the far-right were the April 2002 coup attempt, backed by the United States, the oil lockout of 2002-2003, and the 2004 presidential recall referendum.
3 Beginning in 2003, the Chávez administration began its mission programs, which are special programs principally in health and education that are effectively parallel structures running alongside the old ministerial and legal infrastructure of the health and education system.
4 The reform referendum included sixty-nine reforms to the 1999 Constitution that were proposed by the President and the National Assembly. The reforms were defeated in a vote on December 2, 2007 by less than 2 percent.
5 At the outset of 2007 roughly 20,000 communal councils had been formed, each consisting of between 200 and 400 families, and operating essentially as neighbourhood councils, with a budget provided by the government for infrastructural and social programs. See Steve Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2008, pp 127-128.
PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY vs REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.
This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.
Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.
In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.
In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…
Friday, September 19, 2008
Venezuela's Bolivarian Process, Democracy, and Socialism: A View from the PSUV in Mérida