“The process of building socialism, as shown in Venezuela, is very complex. It is often a matter of two steps forward, one step back,” said John Cleary, coordinator of the May Day 2011 solidarity brigade to Venezuela, at a forum at the Brisbane Activist Centre on September 17.
The Brisbane forum, sponsored by the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network (AVSN), heard a report from Cleary about his recent trip to Venezuela, and to Bolivia on the brigade that followed.
It followed another public meeting addressed by Cleary (and hosted by the AVSN and the Latin America Social Forum in Sydney) on September 14.
Venezuela's ambassador to Australia, Nelson Davila, and Bolivia's honourary consul in Australia, Antonio Moron Navas joined the Sydney discussion.
Cleary is a former organiser for the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), who has visited Venezuela seven times. The May Day 2011 brigade was the 11th tour the AVSN had organised since 2005.
Cleary said in Brisbane: “There are many problems facing the people’s revolution in Venezuela, including a popular consciousness still affected by capitalist consumerism.
“But this is a tremendously democratic process, under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez.
“His goal of socialism of the 21st century is clearly distinguished from the bureaucratic socialism of the Soviet bloc, [which] collapse[d] in the early 1990s.
“The Venezuelan revolution is totally opposed to the neoliberal capitalism, which rules most of the planet today.
“The International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which dominate so many countries at present, have no influence in Venezuela at present.”
He also said: “There has been a massive redistribution of wealth, gained from oil, from the rich to the poor through social programs in Venezuela.
“Social missions, such as Barrio Adentro, which has transformed public health, and the education missions, which have eliminated illiteracy in the country, with Cuban help, have changed the face of the country.
“At least 14 new Bolivarian universities have been established, alongside the old, traditional universities. Chavez has announced a massive program to build new public housing.”
Cleary explained that Venezuela was in a state of near-collapse when Chavez was first elected president in 1998.
He said: “A radical program of land redistribution is now under way. But the Venezuelan ruling class is fighting back.
“For example, more than 200 leaders of the peasant movement have been murdered by Colombian paramilitaries in the pay of Venezuelan landowners.
“But living standards are improving. The basic wage is significantly increased each year. And the import of food has fallen over the past few years, despite an increase in general consumption levels.”
He outlined several highlights of the recent May Day brigade. He discussed the visits to co-operatives, educational institutions, the Banmujer women’s bank, an Indigenous community, a youth TV station, the Latin American School of Medicine, and an organic farm.
The brigade also visited offices of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and the National Union of Workers.
Cleary said the development of grassroots organisations of popular power — from the communal councils at neighbourhood level, to the communes at a municipal level — was of key importance.
He also said the development of the movement for workers’ control in the workplaces was significant.
He spoke about the various experiences of worker co-operatives, workers’ control measures and the struggles for nationalisation of key industries, such the giant SIDOR steel plant in the east of the country.
Cleary said: “Both these processes — communal councils and workers’ control — represent different forms of empowerment of the people, in their communities and in their workplaces.
“If these processes can continue to fruition, it will entrench the revolutionary process in the country.”
Cleary also outlined the experience of the first Australian brigade organised to Bolivia, which followed the Venezuela brigade. Bolivia has also undergone a revolutionary process in recent years, but different to Venezuela.
“The Bolivian process is driven by social movements, which preceded the revolution, unlike in Venezuela,” Cleary said.
“These movements, which have a long history of struggle in Bolivia, effectively put President Evo Morales into power.
“Now there are continuing clashes between sectors, such as the powerful indigenous movement, and the state over priorities for the process of transformation in the country.
The first Australian solidarity brigade to Bolivia observed these changes, and visited several social organisations active in the Bolivian revolution.
Cleary’s talk was followed by a lively discussion from the audience, who were urged to join the next AVSN brigade to Venezuela, most likely due in late September-early October next year — to coincide with the next presidential elections now set for Sunday October 7, 2012.
A further visit to Bolivia is being considered for around the same time.
[For more information, visit the AVSN website www.venezuelasolidarity.org .]