The Bolivarian Circles, with 2.2 million members, are the backbone of the democratic revolution unfolding in Venezuela. After the attempted US-backed coup against Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez on April 11, 2002, the Bolivarian Circles helped organise the uprising that reinstated the pro-poor president. The Bolivarian Circles have also organised mass resistance against the corporate managers' and corrupt union officials' attempt to destroy the country's oil industry. DR RODRIGO CHAVEZ, coordinator of the Bolivarian Circles in Venezuela, was interviewed by TOM BURKE of the Colombia Solidarity Committee in Chicago.
What are the Bolivarian Circles? What ideas do they promote and what do they do?
The Bolivarian Circles are the most basic form of participation in the democratic process in Venezuela, although not the only one. There are also neighbourhood associations and cooperatives, among others.
The difference between Bolivarian Circles and other people's organisations is in their express commitment to the defence of the revolution and the 1999 Bolivarian constitution, which was designed by the people and approved with 86% of the popular vote. Bolivarian Circles also get involved in country-wide and international issues, which neighbourhood associations might not.
What is the relationship between the Bolivarian Circles and the government of President Hugo Chavez?
President Chavez has made permanent calls for people to get organised and to fight for their rights. Political parties were not the best way to guarantee people's participation in the democratic process because of their infighting and struggle for positions of leadership. With these problems in mind, in 2000, he specifically called for the formation of Bolivarian Circles and empowered Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of the Republic, to provide all the necessary support to form the Bolivarian Circles as independent cells of support for the revolution.
The fact that Bolivarian Circles were founded under a presidential call has made people think that the Bolivarian Circles are dependent on the government, but, in reality, they are autonomous and do not receive government funds. Bolivarian Circles are not corporations — therefore they cannot access funds directly — but they educate people and communities on how to access credit from different lending institutions. They also allow people with common interests to form co-operatives, associations, non-profit corporations, etc.
The rich landowners and big bosses in Venezuela, backed by US President George Bush and the CIA, tried to overthrow Venezuela's democratically elected president on April 11, 2002. How did the Bolivarian Circles respond to the coup?
The Bolivarian Circles played a fundamental role in the re-establishment of the constitutional process in Venezuela. It was a spontaneous movement that had no government guidance. It was the Bolivarian Circles, which, through their organisation and understanding of the need to defend the democratic process, that started to take control of different parts of the country, and, together with the pro-constitution military, reversed the coup. For the first time in history, a deposed president was restored to power in less than 48 hours.
How did the Bolivarian Circles respond during the recent sabotage of the national oil industry by criminal company officials and corrupt oil union leaders?
The Bolivarian Circles provided free labour, groups to defend oil installations and connections to former oil workers. In addition, many oil workers are themselves members of Bolivarian Circles, and they created a network of support that allowed the recovery of oil production in record time.
Do the Bolivarian Circles work with the trade unions?
As I mentioned before, many members of the Bolivarian Circles are unionised workers and union leaders. The Bolivarian Circles provide a forum to integrate union members and the rest of the community — in fact, making the labour movement and the people's movement one.
It's not that we don't perceive differences between the labour movement's struggles and, for example, the struggle of the community for better education, but we have been able to identify the commonalities rather than differences between the different movements.
The integration of the struggles and demands of the labour movement with those of the community are a fundamental factor in the current trend to form a new kind of labour movement. In fact, most important labour unions have abandoned the pro-coup Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) to form the recently created Union of Workers (UNETE) in response to the corruption of the CTV.
What motivates you to organise and fight for the self-determination of the Venezuelan people? Why focus on the Bolivarian Circles?
As a medical doctor, I was concerned that, in Venezuela, health was perceived of as simply the treatment of diseases. I believe in a more holistic approach. I believe in education and prevention, but the more I got involved in trying to address that situation, the more convinced I became that only the people themselves could solve their own problems. Health problems were just another expression of our society's ills. From this understanding to seeing the need for the Bolivarian Circles is just a small step.
What are the Bolivarian movement's goals? Is socialism on the agenda?
The goal is the defence of the revolutionary process to form a society with social justice, with economic justice, with a guarantee for real political participation for all. This last point deserves special attention. I am not talking here about voting every four or five years, or whatever the electoral cycle is. I am talking about people being able to directly design, supervise and carry out their development projects without intermediaries, without people representing them.
Through Bolivarian Circles, neighbourhood associations and cooperatives, people can represent themselves before city hall and governors. The citizens' assembly is a constitutional right. Articles 166 and 192 of the constitution establish that governors and mayors must allow for communities to participate in the design and implementation of their budgets. What do you call this? Socialism? Communism? Populism? It's up to you. We just don't care about the name as long as the process works. We call it Bolivarianism and participatory democracy.
Of course, Venezuela's problems are similar to those of other countries in Latin America and the world. We should be receiving all the support of the world as we try to solve problems in a way that has never been tried before, as we confront powerful forces trying to maintain the status quo.
That support has not materialised yet, and, if anything, our efforts have been received with scepticism. But we just keep going against all the odds trying to create an alternative model for Venezuela and other countries. We are sure that the ideas of a unified Latin America are closer than ever, because only people unite people. It has been the interests of corporations and the wealthy which have separated us in different countries and as a people. The unity of Latin America is an essential component of our ideas.
Does the Bolivarian movement relate to movements in other countries?
We relate to movements pursuing peace with social and economic justice — fighting for the rights of the indigenous people, of the poor and of workers. That is why we have a close relationship with indigenous people's movements in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Canada and Guatemala. We are initiating relationships with the Zapatistas in Mexico. We also have relationships with the progressive movements in Africa, Asia, Europe, the United States; with the Workers Party in Brazil and with the revolutionary process in Cuba.
What are the important lessons you wish to share with our readers?
We knew we were confronting powerful interests and powerful forces, we just did not know how powerful they were. Attempts to overthrow the government and to put an end to our struggle continue. More 100 community leaders have been killed, mostly during the days of the coup.
The key has been organisation and community participation in the decision-making process. We do not have great individual leaders and we do not try to create them; we think that communities have their own leaders and that new leaders are emerging all the time. People are not following a leader — they are working for their own projects and trying to build a future of their own.
Hugo Chavez is, without a doubt, a leader for all communities, but we do not depend on him. We accept his leadership at a national level, as the person who has opened the political space and allowed for us — the forgotten, the neglected, the oppressed — to be able to stand up for our rights.
What can people in other parts of the world do to support the struggle of the working people in Venezuela?
People should try to become more aware about what is really going on in Venezuela. They can try to learn about our constitution and try to implement similar reforms in their countries. They can form Bolivarian Circles too!
In the United States, people must oppose the US government's intervention in other countries' affairs and denounce the mass media's distorted portrayal of Venezuela's and other countries' struggles to resist US corporate attempts to control their resources and dominate their politics.
From Green Left Weekly, June 4, 2003.
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