INTERNATIONAL

Venezuelan Travelogue: Experiencing the Bolivarian Revolutionary Process

[Two comrades from CPI(ML), Surya and Tamarai, visited Venezuela for 10 days in December 2005. They have written this travelogue based on their firsthand impressions.]

As the plane lands at the Bolivar international airport, between the mountain and the ocean, one is struck by the light from the mountainside. The mountainside is where the poor and working people live and struggle. A cursory look around Caracas from the skyline to the shopping malls, one cannot but miss the imprint of the multinational corporations (MNCs) and the Venezuelan oligarchy. In the midst of this landscape, the Bolivarian revolutionary struggle is being fought from the mountains of Caracas to the rainforests of the Orinoco . This struggle for a new world attracted us to Venezuela 's Bolivarian revolutionary process and the following is what we experienced.

Venezuela is a country with a population of 24 million with most of the population living in the urban centers. The capital Caracas is the biggest city with 8 million inhabitants. Simon Bolivar is considered the liberatador (liberator) of Venezuela as he was instrumental in winning independence from the Spanish colonisers. Venezuela has been undergoing an accelerated process of political and socio-economic transformation since 1998 when President Hugo Chavez was elected. At that time an estimated 80 percent of the population lived in poverty and more than half of the employment was in the informal sector.

Peoples' TV at ViVe

First we visit the recently launched people's TV station ViVe. ViVe produces programs by workers, peasants, women, indigenous people, and barrio (neighbourhood) activists. Vive is part of the initiative to promote community media in Venezuela . Private molopolies Venevision (Cisneros group), Radio Caracas Television (Phelps-Granier), Televen, and Globovision control 44 regional television networks in addition to the radio and national press [3]. During the April 2002 coup the government and community media were shut down and false anti-Chavez propaganda was broadcast via the private channels. ViVe is part of the initiative to promote peoples media organizations to counter the lies and propaganda of the commercial media. To see women activists in leadership roles at ViVe is not only refreshing but also quite telling of the revolutionary process. Our interactions with the different departments at ViVe and the Vice President of production revealed that they will do their utmost to ensure that 'the revolution will be televised.'

Housing Cooperative at La Ladera

Caracas is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains. The workers and poor people have to live in small shacks in barrios on the mountainsides. The new national housing policy act provides for the legalization of land holdings on occupied and unproductive land affecting 60% of the population. Approximately 84,000 titles benefiting 630,000 families have been issued [6]. Inspired by this act the people of barrio La Ladera decided to take over 63 hectares of unproductive and vacant land owned by a sports goods manufacturer. They have setup temporary shelters and a community kitchen and are claiming rights to build on this land. The president of the housing cooperative informs us that since the government is treading carefully with these influential capitalists the land is not legally theirs. Pointing to the mountain in front, he told us that it is obscene that a couple of people own this mountain and the next one, while thousands of families do not even have a place to live. The housing cooperative continues to struggle and the case is presently awaiting a decision from the President. The activists have organised numerous protests including a 20-km march to the presidential palace that stranded traffic for hours on a national highway.

Missions at Barrio La Vega

A walk through barrio La Vega, a settled older neighbourhood near Caracas , reminds one of the state of the poor throughout the world. The barrios barely have any potable water and sewage facilities. In the last few years, three million people have received potable water for the first time and one million have received sewage services. The medical facilities were non-existent but now with the help of the volunteering 20,000 Cuban doctors, as part of Barrio Adentro Program, one doctor per 200 families has been made possible [4]. A conversation with a veteran barrio organizer, a libertarian anarchist, explains how the decades-long struggle has shaped the present Bolivarian revolutionary process and Chavez is a product of these struggles. In addition to Barrio Adentro, the barrio now has Mission Mercal, a major initiative to provide subsidised food, and Infocenter, which provides free high speed Internet access for the community. Their house also has a community kitchen for the elderly and disabled. The people in the barrio emphasize that these are gains of years of struggle and that they are going to defend the revolutionary process at any cost.

Co-Management at Inveval

An important initiative that exemplifies one of the ways in which the Bolivarian revolution is rejecting neo-liberalism and capitalism is the establishment of co-management in factories. Cogestion (co-management) is the joint management of the factory with workers and the state. Succinctly stated at a meeting organised by National Union of Workers (UNT), "the point of co-management is to put an end to capitalist exploitation and to create the potential for building a truly human society" [5]. Co-management is part of the new Venezuelan constitution that was passed in 1999. A visit to Inveval, a valve factory supplying to the petroleum industry, located in the beautiful hills near Caracas is an example of co-management. Workers who struggled through several owner lockouts and other coercive tactics recently were able to convert their factory into co-management. The president of the union, a socialist, showed how the factory is being run by workers. The workers not only participate in decision-making and work with the local community, they are part of the pro-Bolivarian revolutionary union the UNT. They are also actively running Marxist study circles. Besides the well-known struggles at the aluminium factory (Alcasa) and paper mill (Invepal), almost 200 mostly small companies in financial duress have voluntarily agreed to adopt co-management.

The union president informs us that Inveval previously called Constructora Nacional de Valvulas (CNV) was a monopoly producer of high-pressure valves for the state-owned oil company PDVSA for more than 30 years. CNV owner Andres Sosa Pietri belongs to the traditional Los Amos del Valle (The Rulers of the Valley) i.e. the Venezuelan oligarchy. Sosa Pietri closed the CNV in December 2002 during the oligarchy-organised lockout against the Chavez government. After the failed lockout, Pietri refused to pay wages and so workers started picketing the factory entrance starting April 2003 [2, 7]. After two years of struggle, which included occupation of the factory for several months, the workers won with nationalisation and co-management in 2005. It is now in the process of starting production in March.

Bolivarian Revolutionary Process

Bolivarian circles with more than 2.3 million members are vital to the revolutionary process and participative democracy [1]. Citizens' assemblies are a constitutional right and people represent themselves through these neighbourhood associations, cooperatives and Bolivarian circles. The Bolivarian circle members are usually also members of other organisations such as unions. The people organised in different types of organisations provide vibrancy to the movement. This multitude of more than a million descended from the mountainsides and surrounded the palace thus foiling the 2002 coup and bringing Chavez back within 48 hours.

The circles activities involve working with the Misiones (Missions), the core of the social programs. In addition to Mission Mercal (subsidised food), there are missions in education namely Mission Robinson I and II (literacy and primary), Mission Ribas (high school) and Mission Sucre (university). In a short period, Mission Robinson has already eradicated illiteracy by educating more than 1.5 million people. Other important missions are to improve indigenous peoples' condition (Mission Guicapuro) and to help campesinos (peasants) with land struggles (Mission Zamora). The state oil profits of $25 billion (2004) have helped fund these missions.

Thousands of women from housewives to former guerrillas have joined to form the Constitutional Front of Women of the Fifth Republic Movement (FCMMVR). New laws such the Law of Violence Against Women (1998) and the Law for Equal Opportunities for Women (1999) have been possible through their struggles. The National Institute for Women (INAMUJER), headed by a former guerrilla leader, is educating women about defending their political rights [8]. Women have not only actively participated in various organisations and are in leadership positions in the government but have also formed cooperatives, which total about 70,000. Housework has also been designated an economically productive activity entitling them to social security benefits.

The Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela has seen a convergence of people from various streams ranging from socialist to anarchists. Although they come with different beliefs and experiences and disagree about the details, they are united in struggle against the elite. What also stands out is the participative nature of the process. Venezuelan people are experimenting with different types of participative decision making from the factories to the barrios. Venezuela is a country fighting capitalism in its neo-liberalism avatar. Since most of the people live in urban areas the struggles have been for work, housing, food, and other basic necessities. In these struggles, they are constantly experimenting with new tactics and strategies.

For the last decade, Venezuela has been the battleground for anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles and the contradictions are sharpening. On the one hand are the old capitalist structures that are attempting to bring back the rule of the oligarchy while the Bolivarian revolutionary process is endeavouring to create socialism of the 21st century. On the other hand, Venezuela has to quench the imperial thirst for fossil fuels by being one of its biggest oil suppliers and concurrently fight imperialism. Venezuelan elite in collusion with the US continue to use all weapons in their arsenal from a military coup to an economic strike to defeat the revolutionary process. The contradictions are manifested on faces of activists and organizers of the revolutionary process the resolve of struggle, the smile of achievement, and the anxiety for what tomorrow may bring.

At the 2005 World Social Forum (WSF), Hugo Chavez emphatically said, " it is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism can't be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice." The juggernaut of peoples' organisations, united in struggle, has been able to successfully fight back US imperialism and Venezuelan oligarchy since 1998. The Venezuelan people have resolved to build their own path towards socialism. We depart from Venezuela inspired by the revolutionary process.

References

1. Chaves, R. and Burke, T., The Bolivarian Circles, Fight Back News Service, July 30, 2003 .

2. Cunich, S., Venezuela : Occupied factory nationalised, Green Left Weekly, May 4, 2005 .

3. Fernandes, S., Community Radio in Venezuela , Economic and Political Weekly, Jan. 28, 2006 .

4. Gable, D., Venezuela : Snapshots from its history, Workers World, Jan. 8, 2004 .

5. Lebowitz, M. A., Constructing Co-Management in Venezuela : Contradictions along the Path, MR Zine, Oct 27, 2005 .

6. Lendman, S., Venezuela 's Bolivarian Movement: Its Promise and Perils, Venezuelanalysis.com, Jan. 04, 2006 .

7. Martín, J., The struggle for workers' control at Venezuela 's CNV: A new Venepal? Hands Off Venezuela , Apr 08, 2005 .

8. Wagner, S., Women in Bolivarian Venezuela :Women and Venezuela 's Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuelanalysis.com, Jan. 15, 2005 .

Acknowledgement: The experience would not be possible without the enormous help of Corina, Dozthor, Gary, Jorge, Maria, Pablo, and Sandra.