Of Chavistas and anarquistas: brief sketch of a visit to Venezuela (November-December, 2004)

Chavez supporters

A report from two American anarchists of their time traveling around Venezuela, meeting anarchists and observing both Chavist and anarchist community programmes.

For almost a month, from mid-November until mid-December, 2004, we traveled in Venezuela, meeting an array of politically engaged activists from a variety of perspectives. Without a doubt, the foremost lesson we learned during our brief time there concerned the complexity of the social and political situation in the country, which has been consistently over-simplified in the United States. Where the mainstream media in this country portrays President Hugo Chavez as the next Fidel Castro, busily turning Venezuela into a Communist (or at least anti-US) dictatorship, the US left in general has welcomed Chavez uncritically as the new face of progressive struggle in Latin America. North American anarchists, meanwhile, struggle to understand the situation, and are too often torn between these two opposing but comparably one-sided perspectives.

Time spent on the ground in Venezuela, if nothing else, demonstrated to us the inadequacy of both these approaches. This essay is a brief attempt to convey some of our experience, with the goal of broadening the anarchist and left discussion of the situation on the ground. We spent time with both anarchists and Chavistas, and in both contexts met people who represented a range of positions from more orthodox and dogmatic to more hybrid and flexible. This was a second visit to Venezuela for one of us, and a first visit for the other, but both of us have significant experience living and traveling in Latin America. Our travels took us through three large cities and a similar number of small towns, and while we would never identify ourselves as experts of any sort on Venezuela, we feel reasonably qualified to draw some tentative conclusions based on the range of our experiences.

The Chavista project in practice: rural development
About half of our visit was spent with Chavistas, partly in Caracas but largely in the east and southeast of the country. We traveled with an acquaintance who works for the national government on rural development issues, accompanying him on a visit to a small town on the banks of the Orinoco River, twenty hours’ drive from Caracas. Here we encountered a small group of Chavista activists-turned-government-officials working on land tenure reform, attempting to start farming cooperatives and similar projects. This group wanted help dealing with a collection of families, living an hour’s drive outside the small town, who were interested in starting some sort of agricultural production collective. The families were attempting to deal with the harsh economic side effects of the failed general strike of 2003, which had threatened their already precarious economic position as marginal producers of grains and legumes.

We were invited to sit in on a general meeting between the families (most of whom were in full attendance, from great-grandparents to great-grandchildren) and the government functionaries. The meeting was hosted by one of the families at a homestead constructed entirely of adobe; they provided everyone present with the standard afternoon shot of coffee, though the shortage of cups meant that people had to wait their turn. The dynamic at the meeting seemed to us a classic example of ships passing in the night: the Chavistas attempted to explain the value of incorporating as a cooperative under the provisions of the new “Bolivarian” constitution, while the families were more interested in simply making sure they had enough to eat. Our acquaintance expressed shock that no one among the families had a copy of the constitution (devout Chavistas carry copies in their pockets at all times), but failed to acknowledge the fact that a majority of the people in the community were illiterate, which became clear when the heads of each household were asked to sign a document that authorized a census of the community: almost everyone “signed” the document by giving a thumbprint.

The Chavistas outlined the bureaucratic process of establishing a cooperative, beginning with the full census of the community – how many men, women and children, as well as how many cows, chickens, and acres of tilled land. The community was willing to comply, but seemed skeptical of the government offer of assistance in obtaining title to their land: no one appeared to be sure that it would really happen, and one spokesman for the families pointed out that no government had ever done anything for them in a hundred years living on land that didn’t legally belong to them. For their part, it was clear that the government officials were sincerely interested in helping the community, but their political agenda kept them from seeing either the complexity or the patronizing aspects of this task.

From our perspective, the census was one example of the modernizing project undertaken by the Chavez government in an attempt to legitimate a higher level of government intervention in everyday life than Venezuela has previously known. A much larger example is the media reform law enacted just before Christmas, which was designed to weaken the power of the right-wing media conglomerates that dominate mass media in Venezuela; the methods, however, include the establishment of a regulatory apparatus that the Chavistas themselves say is largely modeled on the FCC in the US.

In the case of the community of families we met, the practical implications of this project may well be positive: the law allows them to take possession of their land, and obtain government grants and low-interest loans that should improve their livelihoods. The flipside of this process, however, is a large scale expansion of both state power and market-based economic relations; the families we met were far from fully integrated into the market economy, as their food production was in significant part subsistence-focused. Whatever the benefits of incorporating as a cooperative, it seemed certain that the process would draw them further into exchange relations, as a higher percentage of their agricultural product will be sold in order to pay off their new loans.

The Chavista project in practice: community organizing
After the discussion with the families was finished, we headed along with our acquaintance to the nearest large city, Ciudad Guayana, where a conference of community organizations was taking place. The conference was one of several regional gatherings in advance of a national convention of community organizations held near Caracas in December; the participants were delegates from dozens or possibly hundreds of grassroots urban and rural neighborhood groups in the eastern part of the country. We attended one afternoon of the conference, sitting in on a plenary session featuring report-backs from small groups.

The materials prepared for the conference described the process as the result of a provision in the new constitution that demanded the participation of autonomous community groups in the development of national domestic policy. In theory any community organization in the country could participate in this process, regardless of political affiliation. In practice, it was clear that the majority of participants were more or less Chavistas, while the opposition seemed to have either largely refused, or been excluded from, participating. Nonetheless, there was no single party line, and the report-back included a fair bit of debate on political and strategic questions. At the very least, during our short encounter, the delegates appeared to be mostly everyday people, rather than ideologues or functionaries, and they displayed a level of enthusiasm that indicated they felt empowered to make decisions for themselves.

From our perspective, the entire process encapsulated the grand contradiction of the Chavista project: on the one hand, it was designed from the top down, the result of a constitutional directive rather than a grassroots demand, while at the same time the process was being used by a variety of working class communities to further a range of demands and build a network of solidarity that in principle at least could develop well outside the control of the Chavez government. Much of Venezuela’s future depends upon whether experiments like this one become safety valves that limit social unrest or breeding grounds that expand demands for community self-management.

The Chavista project in practice: Bolivarian schools and the misiones
The Venezuelan government has gained widespread attention through the implementation of social reforms in the areas of education and healthcare. Many of these programs have been able to run successfully with the help of personnel, donated materials, and other resources from Cuba. These literacy and medical programs, called “Misiones” (Missions), provide services to poor and working class neighborhoods and communities in all parts of Venezuela.

Mision Barrio Adentro works in collaboration with the Cuban government to bring Cuban doctors to the poorest sectors of Venezuelan society. These volunteer doctors, who intentionally live within the barrios, provide door-to-door medical visits and operate free clinics in these communities. We were able to interview a few of these doctors in Caracas and they emphasized the harsh reality that these low-income neighborhoods have been ignored for years without access to a nearby clinic. This was one of the few government programs that seemed to have near-total grassroots support, even among those who were otherwise highly critical of the so-called Bolivarian revolution. Many anarchists were quick to point out the band-aid nature of this sort of low-level health care, but this was the harshest criticism we heard.

Mision Plan Robinson, named after one of Simon Bolivar’s teachers, is a program that combats illiteracy by providing a primary school education to adults. Mision Ribas takes this one step further by allowing graduates of the Plan Robinson program, or high school dropouts, to continue and obtain a secondary education degree. Again, Cuba has been instrumental in the success of this program providing literacy advisors, television sets for the classes, and other literacy materials. We had the opportunity to observe one of the classes; one striking aspect of the class was the limited importance of the instructor, limited because the entire class was taught by a video presentation that walked the students through the workbooks. The Cuban produced workbooks also betrayed a level of simplified patriotism that verged on indoctrination. This suspicion was confirmed when we watched part of a televised commencement ceremony for Plan Ribas graduates: Chavez himself was the keynote speaker, and his remarks floated back and forth between platitudes about the importance of education and self-congratulation over the government’s recent purchase of military helicopters from Russia. This pep rally for militarism dovetailed nicely with the new requirements for ROTC-style military instruction in all high schools.

A final component of Chavez’ education reform is the establishment of Bolivarian Schools. These schools are newly repaired and upgraded buildings that provide full-day instruction, including three meals, to students living in poor communities (whether rural or urban) throughout the country. The traditional school model only provides half-day sessions with one meal. The Bolivarian Schools also provide many cultural and sports activities for the students to participate in. While the schools are often touted as being very progressive, we were far from convinced after a half-day visit to one of them. The setting of the school, situated in the mountains with beautiful views, was very conducive to learning, but the pedagogy was much less impressive. The emphasis appeared to be on memorization and recitation, rather than on open-ended exploration, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. The strong patriotic component was present here as well, with flags posted in all strategic locations.

As in other areas, the educational aspects of the Bolivarian revolution seem to hint at the possibility of real social change, but the reality of the Venezuelan educational system remains pedagogically backwards and dangerously tied to a nationalistic militarism. This places sharp limits on the potential for dramatic social change emerging from within the education system, although it may have the unintended consequence of radicalizing traditional forms of youth rebellion.

Anarchist perspectives on Chavismo
When we were not observing various Chavista projects, we spent much of our time with a variety of anarchists in several parts of the country. Without exception, the anarchists we met were outrageously generous and friendly, and also exceptionally talkative. As a result, we quickly learned a lot about the perspectives of Venezuelan anarchists on Chavismo and its related manifestations. These perspectives were as varied as you might expect, given the old joke that ten anarchists will produce eleven opinions on any topic of political importance. However, we were able to distill three fairly distinct sorts of anarchist responses to Chavismo, which could be labeled the lesser evil approach, the makes no difference attitude, and the grand distraction analysis.

A number of anarchists we encountered, in both small towns and larger cities, held the view that Chavez was better for Venezuela than the opposition would have been. These people were clearly still anarchists – they opposed Chavez and his policies, but they believed that an opening had been created that held the possibility of fundamentally radicalizing the population as a whole. Their strategy was to push the populist and socialist tendencies of Chavismo to their furthest extremes, where the Chavista leadership would be likely to repudiate the logical conclusions of their own rhetoric. The intended result seems to be a popular uprising in support of the best aspects of Chavismo, but against Chavez and his core leadership.

The most sophisticated version of this approach was the broadly revolutionary group ONDA, based in the university city of Merida. ONDA (whose mysterious acronym of a name means “wave” in Spanish) included a range of old and new leftists, including at least a couple anarchists (one of whom was our host during several days spent in the city). The group had made something of a splash during the previous local elections in November, when they sponsored a line on the mayoral ballot that constituted a vote for the Chavista mayoral candidate but against his policies. This option gained a few thousand votes in a city of 250,000, and accurately sums up the intriguing if confused perspective of its membership. At the general meeting we attended, the assembled members (approximately 40 people) decided that their next project would be to push for the creation of neighborhood assemblies; these assemblies are allowed under the new constitution, but ONDA wanted them to have full decision-making power, rather than merely being advisory to the city council. Whether this project, or the potentially anarchist approach it represents, will draw the group closer to or further away from mainstream electoral Chavismo remains to be seen.

The second anarchist analysis we encountered was best represented by two comrades who were our hosts in Caracas at the beginning and end of our stay. They argued that Chavez was on the whole neither better nor worse than the opposition would be were it in power. In essence, they said, the masses of Venezuelans were wasting their time debating for or against Chavez, when in fact the true class interests of the majority cut across these divisions. From their perspective, a sizeable majority of the Chavista rank and file was potentially open to anarchist analysis and action, while a substantial portion of the anti-Chavista popular base was similarly accessible, despite the apparently stark divisions between the two movements.

In their work around a local anarchist community space (not unlike the infoshop model made popular in the US in the 1990’s), our hosts befriended both rank and file Chavistas and anti-Chavistas, and attempted to build organizing ties with both groups. If successful, such efforts could have the effect of strengthening the popular base of each movement and drawing the two groups closer together, while undermining the relationship between each movement and its own self-designated “leadership.” This approach could have truly radical long-term implications, although it necessitates an uphill battle against the popular understanding that Chavismo and anti-Chavismo have nothing in common.

Our Caracas hosts were active members of the Comision de Relaciones Anarquistas (CRA, or the Anarchist Relations Commission), which publishes a popular bi-monthly newspaper entitled “El Libertario” (“The Libertarian,” in the anarchist sense). It appeared that their view was popular within the CRA, but there did not seem to be any organization-wide “line” on the Chavez question.

The third major anarchist perspective on Chavez was also represented by members of the CRA, although this analysis seemed to be less popular in the group overall. According to this view, Chavez is actually worse for Venezuela than the opposition would have been at this historical juncture. The argument here is two-fold, both economic and political. First, due to his popular persona as a radical reformer and anti-imperialist, only Chavez could have forced through the range of petroleum and other resource concessions to multi-national corporations that have been approved in the past few years, because these same maneuvers would have faced massive opposition had they been proposed by the traditional parties that make up the opposition. Second, Chavez has been able to use his social reforms (literacy programs and the like) to cover for a massive centralization of political power in the hands of the presidency, where the opposition would have been confronted as authoritarian extremists had they attempted the same power grab.

The advocates of this approach seemed to believe that the main task facing anarchists in Venezuela was to confront and oppose Chavismo as a fraudulent ruse aimed at distracting the country from a pro-capitalist and authoritarian shift in ruling class politics. Since we spent the least amount of time with advocates of this analysis, we don’t feel qualified to speculate about the strategic implications drawn by its proponents.

It is important to note here that these three perspectives did not appear to be mutually exclusive: the most vehement anti-Chavez anarchists would acknowledge good aspects to the literacy and medical care programs instituted by the government, while those anarchists most optimistic about the prospects of Chavismo harshly criticized the government for successfully selling off huge chunks of the country’s resources to foreign corporations. The divisions between the perspectives seemed to have much more to do with the strategic approach that each encouraged. At this early date, and given our extremely brief time in the country, we feel unable to assess the relative merits of each strategy beyond our own gut instincts.

Anarchist practice in Venezuela: two examples
Beyond simple analysis, most of the anarchists we met were involved in a range of practical work. In Caracas, in particular, the CRA not only publishes “El Libertario” (several thousand copies of each issue are apparently sold or otherwise distributed), it also maintains the newly opened community center mentioned previously, known as the Centro de Estudios Sociales Libertarios (Center for Libertarian Social Studies). This space, which opened in early November 2004, serves as both library and event space, as well as being a meeting location and a study space for participants in the various Chavista-sponsored literacy programs. The goal of the Centro seems to be similar to that of many infoshops in the US during the 1990’s: to provide an infrastructure for anarchist organizing, while creating ties between anarchists and other residents of the community.

While it is too soon to say, the Centro may well face the wide range of problems experienced by US infoshops: confusion about long-term goals, tension between the anarchist-focused and community-focused aspects of the project, and frustration due to the painful dynamic between burnout and laziness, among many others. For the present, however, the Centro benefits from the enthusiasm and dedication of a wide range of participants, from teenage punks to elderly veterans of the Spanish Civil War.

A different model for practical work is being developed more or less single-handedly by an anarchist we met in a small town in the western mountains of Venezuela. This highly dedicated organizer (known universally as “El Frances,” or the Frenchman, after the country in which he was raised by Venezuelan parents before returning a few years ago) was perhaps the most friendly and outgoing anarchist we met, and regularly sells a dozen or more copies of “El Libertario” in a town of only a few thousand people. As a result, anarchism has a higher profile (at least per-capita) in this town than in anywhere else in Venezuela. El Frances operates a small booth in the public market from which he sells anarchist literature, punk music, and other items. During our visit he was attempting to organize the other vendors to take over the management of the market, which had until then been operated on a landlord-tenant basis that aggravated many of the vendor tenants. El Frances had also started a small anarchist collective, made up largely of younger people new to anarchism but interested in social change, and was attempting to develop a community space on the model of the Centro in Caracas.

The dangers of the one man show approach taken by El Frances are obvious: for now, at least, anarchism in this small town lives or dies with his effort alone, and the sort of anarchism developed in the community will tend heavily toward whatever idiosyncrasies his own politics contain. However, the optimism he brings to his organizing efforts will almost certainly lead to positive outcomes, at least in the short run.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Venezuela was the enthusiasm shown by nearly everyone we met, regardless of their political outlook (or lack thereof, in some cases). Wherever we turned, people not only wanted to show us their favorite parts of town, they also wanted to share their analysis of the political situation. Whether they thought of themselves as pro-Chavez or anti-Chavez (or somewhere in between), people displayed no trepidation about sharing their opinions with us. This openness stood in stark contrast to our experiences in other Latin American countries, where much of the population is reserved, especially in discussing political matters. It was unclear to us how much of this enthusiasm was a result of the changes wrought by Chavismo, and to what extent it pre-dated his rise to power; many people claimed the openness was a new phenomenon, while others argued that it has long been part of the “national character.”

Regardless, it seemed to us that these unique circumstances presented an amazing opportunity for anarchists in Venezuela. In the US, it often seems that the biggest impediment to anarchist organizing is the sort of cynicism and irony that characterized the presidential election of 2004: how can people be convinced of the possibility of revolution if a majority think that everything revolves around picking the lesser of two evils? The situation in Venezuela is refreshingly different, because a massive section of the population is not only open to the possibility of radical change, but seems actively interested in comparing alternative visions and strategies. It remains to be seen whether the anarchists in Venezuela have the numbers, the resources, the skill and the fortitude necessary to have a noticeable impact on the ground. Nonetheless, through both propaganda efforts like “El Libertario” and grassroots projects like the Centro, anarchists have a real chance to change the political trajectory of Venezuela, and possibly even the continent.

By Michael Staudenmaier, with Anne Carlson. March/June 2005
Taken from the Anarkismo.net website.