Venezuela: 'A festival of the oppressed'

"Our experience of Venezuela is of a mass people's revolution. It was something completely different from anything I had experienced in my life … simply the feeling of a mass revolution is something fantastic. It is reminiscent of [Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin's] phrase that 'a revolution is the festival of the oppressed'."

This is how Jim McIlroy, who along with Coral Wynter spent 2006 in Venezuela as a correspondent for Green Left Weekly, described living through the revolutionary process that is gripping Venezuela. Both spoke to GLW about their experience.

Led by socialist President Hugo Chavez since he was first elected in 1998, the Bolivarian revolution has been transforming Venezuela by using the country's oil wealth to tackle poverty and develop the nation, as well as empowering working people to participate in governing the world's fifth-largest oil supplier. However, these moves have angered the corporate elite, which has repeatedly attempted to overthrow the government. This led Chavez, in 2005, to argue that in order to achieve social justice, it was necessary to break with capitalism and build a "new socialism of the 21st century".

One of the most significant events in 2006 was the December 3 presidential election, which Chavez insisted would be a referendum on socialism. With 63% of the vote, Chavez defeated the pro-capitalist opposition candidate Manuel Rosales. McIlroy told GLW that "the election campaign was not just a normal election campaign, it was a political struggle that was carried out over the whole year. The right-wing kept putting forward its pro-imperialist alternative, but got pushed back and was defeated."

McIlroy emphasised that this victory was a mandate to go much further, as Chavez "won the argument" over the need to use Venezuela's wealth to help construct a new economy based on solidarity and cooperation. "There were under 1000 cooperatives when Chavez came to power, now there are more than 100,000 and more being formed every day. The movement for [workers'] co-management, while still limited, continues to develop … they are still moving forward developing these alternative forms of economic production."

The government has "a massive plan", McIlroy told GLW, "aimed at national development. They are developing a whole network of railways, and this is counterposed to simply building more roads for private cars. It is a plan for a social network of publicly owned railways servicing publicly built housing."

Mass participation

McIlroy said the revolution has led to an explosion of mass organising by working people inspired by the gains and feeling that for the first time ever they have a government on their side. While the media constantly talks about the role of Chavez, "this is only one side of the equation. The other side is of the genuine popular mass movement that is extremely broad."

McIlroy spoke about attending many pro-revolution mass demonstrations over the year, the largest of which was 2.5 million-strong. "You go to these mass rallies and you have a mass of people all in red T-shirts, but all the red T-shirts have different organisations on them. So many of them you would never have heard of. You have an incredible diversity of organisations, but they are all committed to the concepts of the Bolivarian revolution."

Wynter told GLW: "One of the brilliant characteristics of Chavez is he has been able to build the commitment of ordinary people into a mass movement. There had been a depoliticisation among the poor as a result of decades of marginalisation, but because of his ability to communicate directly with the poor, Chavez has been able to draw in the impoverished majority who had nothing under the old system.

"Chavez has been able to help facilitate this with his continual discussion and talks on television and radio about revolutionary ideas and the tasks facing the nation. He has been able to educate people, and draw them into the process."

McIlroy explained that "one vehicle of particular importance" in building popular power is the Communal Councils, which were created in 2006. These grassroots bodies, based on 200-400 families that have control over government programs in their area, are being promoted as the building blocks of a "new, revolutionary state" by Chavez, who has called for their extension across the country. "This will be crucial", McIlroy argued. "They are looking at a complete transformation in how political power is organised, and it is going to be based on mass organisation.

"There are other organisations too. The social missions [government-funded social programs tackling the needs of the poor] have a real mass character, and they are organs of struggle as well. They are not just social welfare organisations, but they mobilise people. The people who get involved in them and receive assistance, via this involvement are drawn into the political struggle."

Wynter added: "This shift of power to the councils is going to be a real rupture with the past. When the Communal Councils are properly formed, and they decide on a project in the community, and it has been vetted by the relevant technical experts who say it is possible, and then it is submitted to the presidential office or whatever authority oversees the area, it is automatically approved. There is no veto power in the hands of the president or any other section of the national government. The project is automatically given money. So the councils have actual power."

Overcoming hurdles

However, McIlroy and Wynter both emphasised that attempts to build popular power face hurdles, both from much of the existing state bureaucracy that is widely criticised for being corrupt and often hostile to the radical measures of the revolution, but also from some forces within the pro-Chavez camp who see institutions like the Communal Councils as an attack on their power.

McIrlroy told GLW that much of "the old bureaucratic state structure [inherited from before Chavez came to power] is still there. A lot of the ministries, especially education, health and the police, are still controlled by conservative elements. So what has happened is the revolutionary forces are to some extent going around these structures and building alternative vehicles through the missions."

However, McIlroy claimed that this was not sustainable: "In the long run, something has to give. In the coming year we are going to see some important measures in this area. For example, Chavez has reportedly said he is going to reduce the salaries of public officials to a reasonable level, such as that of a school teacher. This is going to be a bit of a blow to some people."

Wynter argued that the opposition to building popular power extended into the heterogenous pro-Chavez camp. "You also have people in different levels of the government who are opposed to handing power" over to the poor via institutions like the Communal Councils. "They want to hang on to their power, they are part of the 'educated class' who have been trained in the old form of government" whereby people get to vote every few years, but power is exercised by an elite. "They maintain their power via the ability to hand out jobs and control positions to their 'clientele'. They want to hang onto that power and control, although they declare themselves 'Chavistas'."

Wynter claimed that among government officials and within the National Assembly — which is entirely composed of supporters of Chavez after opposition forces boycotted the December 2005 elections — there are "some who don't agree with this process. So there is a sorting process at work, with people moving in and out of positions. Chavez is developing out of this process a group of people who he can rely on, who share his way of thinking."

The crucial element of Chavez's political approach, Wynter argued, was his complete commitment to democracy. The Venezuelan revolutionaries "have learned from the errors of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. They are determined to make the revolution totally democratic." As well as from more moderate forces within the Chavista camp, Chavez also faces pressure from "an ultraleft element that just wants Chavez, if there is a problem, to step in and seize power". However, Wynter says Chavez "won't do that" because he believes that to transform society it is necessary to empower the people.

"He is pushing and pushing for the grassroots to organise themselves, that it has to be participatory democracy, with the poor actively involved. Things won't be done just because Chavez thinks they should be done. People have to be convinced, and then they have to be able to make it happen themselves."

McIlroy emphasised that "This is a successful strategy". By repeatedly turning to the people in a series of referendums and national elections, (pro-Chavez forces have won 11 straight national elections in eight years), as well as respecting the democratic rights of his opponents, even when they organised a military coup and then economic sabotage to try and overthrow his government, Chavez's support has been continuously rising since he was first elected. In the December presidential election, he scored the highest number of votes — 7.3 million — in Venezuelan history, over 1 million more than last time he faced a vote in 2004.

Both McIlroy and Wynter emphasised that the revolution has an international character, and that Chavez has urged a "global offensive against the system of corporate domination". They explained this is why they have returned to Australia — to take up the struggle for a revolution here.