by Nachie for the Red & Anarchist Action Network (RAAN)1
"We are trying to contribute a different vision from what the media is giving (even those that call themselves "alternative"). We are neither for Chavez, nor for Fedecamaras or CTV or Coordinadora Democratica... We are for fomenting autonomy and self-management." - Rafa of the CRA (Commission of Anarchist Relationships) of Venezuela
In the past several months we have noticed a growing curiosity over developments in the South American country of Venezuela. Everywhere in our day-to-day projects, people are talking and asking about the populist government of Hugo Chavez and his self-proclaimed "Bolivarian Revolution".2 This is unsurprising due to the accelerating pace of events in the country and the an increasing amount of negative press about Chavez in the international media. Through observing and participating in these informal discussions, however, we became particularly concerned in noticing no corresponding increase in anarchist knowledge of the situation. Although as historians we've dipped our toes into the issue before, for the most part there has been an outright reluctance to engage ourselves in it, this despite the fact that insomuch as Chavez' reforms represent a national movement and policy, they concern the future of millions of people across the entire region. In view of this and with the goal of expanding the nascent dialogue within our wider movement, we have prepared the following statement on behalf of RAAN.
A brief overview of available documents from North-American sources ranging from Trotskyist to anarchist reveals that while there was a flood of essays deconstructing the US-backed coup of April 2002,3 almost nothing has been extensively written on the situation since; this despite rapid developments such as the economic sabotage of the failed bosses' lockout later that year and the resulting occupation and "nationalization under workers' co-management" of the paper company Venepal (now INVEPAL) and the oil valve-producing CNV (now INVEVAL) in the early months of 2005. Even President Chavez' open declaration in February of the "socialist" nature of his country's constitutional restructuring and the need to "transcend capitalism" was met with almost no response from the established anti-capitalist movement, at least here in the United States.
IT'S EASY TO PLAY THE VICTIM
For us it would seem that this silence has its roots in two of our movement's most serious - and interrelated - impotencies. The first and most recognizable is our obsession with US hegemony, specifically its imperialist interests and interference on many levels with ostensibly sovereign regimes across the globe. What becomes important in this self-centered paradigm is the US' immediate actions and the class interests that they reflect rather than the uniquely threatening character of whatever government is in the process of being overthrown. Venezuela appears only of interest so long as it is the bourgeoisie - not the masses of oppressed people - with initiative in the struggle. Even in the aftermath of the unprecedented popular uprising that led to the reversal of the April coup, as an academic movement we failed to seize upon this as an indicator of developing social upheaval and instead chose to focus our attentions on imperialist adventurism elsewhere in the world.
To a wide extent we cannot be blamed for this - the impending attack on Iraq captured the imagination and militancy of millions of activists and it was clearly our place in history to oppose it as a global community. Our failure to effectively do so is not to be discussed here, but perhaps we can learn from that struggle should the need arise to mount a similar defense of our South American brothers and sisters. And since the issue of Venezuela will ultimately encompass not only the US' oil interests (Venezuela is the world's 5th largest exporter of oil) but also the all-important continued imposition of neo-liberalism's "consensus" in America's backyard, we can be sure that an understanding of the unique developments in Venezuela can only aid us in countering the machinations of those who have an interest in seeing the status quo prevail.
Yet even now, at a time when the seeming hopelessness of the Iraqi quagmire has forced our movement to return to more diversified international interests, one still notices a preponderance of articles on the UN occupation of Haiti, for instance, against an almost total silence towards events in Venezuela. To us it would appear that we truly are only comfortable in a victimized discourse, and it becomes much more difficult for us to talk about countries where "anti-capitalism" (including state capitalism) may be taking a firm hold.
And yet this does not fully explain the situation, as such reasoning would seem to ignore the anarchist enthusiasm over piquetero and factory occupation movements in Argentina, which at least for a time held considerable momentum in their struggle. This brings us to our second impotency, which is relevant specifically to the anarchist (or anti-state, libertarian) movement, and particularly the US branch. The problem is that a good many of us seem concerned with turning the anarchist framework into the only framework. Returning to the Argentine experience, we recall a tale of anarchists in Washington, DC raising a black flag at the embassy there during the height of economic collapse, seemingly unaware of the imperialist overtones of such an action. Perhaps it is not within the nature of our movement to consider struggles in which the national flag does not necessarily represent embarrassment, oppression, and genocide. Flag burning is, after all, quite American.
A REGIME WORTH SAVING?
"Our position of uncompromising opposition to Chavism is not simply the result of a mechanical application of anarchist theory but is merely the consequence of our experiences in the social reality of Venezuela these past years that enabled us to verify with total clarity that Chavism has an authoritarian, militarist, corrupt and demagogic praxis of submission to transnational powers that completely invalidates the apparently leftist and anti-globalization discourse that it sometimes presents, particularly with a view to obtaining international political support." - from El Libertario #34
What we absolutely have to realize, and soon, is that the Bolivarian Revolution is without historical precedent - it is not following any predetermined blueprint (other than the obvious self-interest of its visible architects) - and despite the fact that this is what makes it so important, it might also be the reason why we have failed to recognize it. Carlos Herrera's lucid (if quite biased) essay "Socialism and the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela"4 does an excellent job of explaining that what we need to be paying attention to is the actual content of the Revolution, (even if we disagree with him on what that is) and not what labels are being used to describe it.
But that is of course just a fancy way of saying that the events in Venezuela are not taking place within our Anarchist lexicon (oh, dear!) and so we are unsure of what to do when we're expecting to see "liberation fronts" and instead get National Reserves.
Within the anti-state tendency we see two major trends in terms of developing a position on the Bolivarian Revolution. The first is one of cautious optimism, usually from an uneducated individual perspective, and the second is one of total rejection; refusal to see any positive elements in the Revolution due to the distasteful role of the government. Neither position is entirely accurate, and as students of autonomous movements we have to take into account the totality of the situation, recognizing that what makes a movement autonomous is its potential to develop beyond and against governmental mandates. The complexity of the processes underway in what is essentially a slow but total restructuring of the Venezuelan state towards a centralized capitalism means that such a potential exists and must be nurtured.
Why do the factory occupations in Venezuela receive less coverage in the anarchist press than those in Argentina? Both are equally valid examples of autonomous workers' power, (within the context of national capitalism) but in Venezuela some - in all likelihood, soon all - of the factories in question have been recognized by the Bolivarian government and taken into the country's nationalized industry. While this is obviously happening in a way that ultimately increases bureaucracy and the workers' reliance on the government, the fact is that the campaign of nationalization is being undertaken as part of a larger initiative to encourage and increase activity of the masses (specifically, more occupations) in not only the political but also the economic and possibly military spheres. It is in this that we see the most likely chance for the Revolution to spin out of governmental control.
A PEOPLE'S ARMY?
"The Bolivarian revolution is a complete swindle. We could say that in the Venezuela of today there is not a dictatorship, but less, much less, is there a revolution. A revolution does not take the name of a leader because a revolution is something innovating ... Bolivarian revolution is a contradiction in its own terms, is like speaking of the hot ice or the frozen fire. The revolutions take control of highest doses of violence because they are ruptures of the social order, insurgencies of the dark mass that, armed and solved, devastates yet [sic]. A revolution is violent or it is not revolution." - Domingo Alberto Rangel
And what do we mean by people's self-organization in the military sphere? More importantly, what does the Chavez government mean and in what way are they working to implement it in reality? As class-struggle communists and anarchists we see the arming of the masses as a practical necessity when it comes to defending the gains of the revolution against ruling class interests. What does not interest us is the "professionalization" of armed resistance, as with the creation of ideologically motivated guerrilla armies or terrorist networks. Access to arms and military training must be made available to all layers of the proletariat at the same time, as happens during all-out insurrections such as those in Budapest in 1956 or Gwangju in 1980 when government arms caches were seized by a populace in revolt, and self-defense became a common responsibility of all those who had been developing alternative forms of societal organization within the uprising.
What makes the situation in Venezuela unique is that the resources of popular resistance now have a chance to develop during a period of relative peace, meaning that organs of workers' self-defense could already be in place by the time the revolution reaches another violent confrontation with the propertied classes or traditional army. What, then, is the nature of Venezuela's popular army? It has its roots in the "Bolivarian circles" established by Chavez in the areas where he draws the majority of his support - the poor and overcrowded barrios on the outskirts of the country's major urban centers. Long rumored to be arming themselves against the government's opponents, these ideologically-motivated neighborhood committees are generally credited with being responsible for the speed and magnitude of the movement that brought Chavez back to power after the April 2002 coup.
But such formations are not enough to ultimately defeat a violent bourgeoisie, and the military's partial involvement in the coup was widely seen as the biggest threat to the Bolivarian government, not to mention a possible indicator of trouble to come. With this in mind, Chavez called for and in April of this year began the practical training of a new branch of the armed forces, a Citizen's Reserve of up to two million volunteers who would answer directly to him. While this consolidation of military power is troubling, (though no more troubling than the absolute command usually enjoyed by any pro-US ruler) that such a country-wide force should be created from out of the general populace is certainly a bold step towards the securing of national sovereignty (the Reserve's training is to focus on unconventional warfare and is thus seen chiefly as a way to deter against US invasion, but in practice it may be more likely to play the role of a "red army" should national-capitalist opposition to Chavez turn into a full civil war). Although at this early stage the volunteers have yet to be issued rifles, and firearms training is still months away, it will be interesting to see if this new force is used purely as a reserve or if it will eventually be given a mandate to exist openly alongside and within the various councils and cooperatives that are in many ways testing the waters of self-organization across the country.
Cognizant as we are of the final challenges facing any anti-capitalist movement, we can therefore be certain that the logical outcome of these developments - given a chance to mature and defend themselves - should be the supersession of government itself. As with most questions of post-capitalism in South America, it could be that the true strength or weakness of the Bolivarian Revolution is not revealed until its own evolution forces a decisive confrontation over land reform, in particular against the latifundios of the region.
DO NOT IGNORE THE SITUATION ON THE GROUND
"On the side of so-called Chavismo we find a heterogeneous set of actors that must be separated in two dimensions: a sector allied with the populace unacknowledged by and not participating in the institutions, another of members of political and military institutions with diverse participation in the management of the Fourth Republic. The former are spokesmen for legitimate claims for change and social justice, the latter, placed at several stages of the pyramid of power, reissue past practices in order to obtain legitimacy as agents of the new bureaucracy established in the usual state apparatus." - Editorial, El Libertario #36
What we have to accept as anarchists is that the established governmental institutions of Venezuela are - at least for the time being - very much a part of the Revolution. In the same way as members of the entrenched bourgeoisie and even sections of Chavez' own MVR party are using the state mechanisms to hold back fully developed workers' control, so are others taking advantage of it to make material gains such as the recuperation of stolen oil funds, or the establishment of literacy and (potentially unsustainable) food distribution programs. We need to approach these facts with an open mind, conscious of the totality of social transformation and with a conviction that the only true victory of post-capitalism lays within a decentralized and stateless society.
It is not the slogans, claims of solidarity, or even the advances in educational and health care systems that indicate a possibility for Venezuela to become a focal point in world communist revolution. As always, we approach each situation from a pragmatic standpoint that takes into account trends in the development of resistance to neo-liberal capitalism not only in each nation, but throughout the entire region's historical experience. The role of Hugo Chavez is made all the more important in the context of a Latin America that has shown a consistent trend towards "left-leaning" governments in the past several years. In particular we can look at Brazil, where the election of Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva of the Workers' Party in 2002 was initially supported by massive sections of the working class, and his high-profile campaign and victory mainstreamed the anti-capitalist dialogue in a way unheard of for decades. Locked in its dependence on the State, international capitalists, and the Democratic system of legality, the Lula government has since floundered in the face of its constituents' increasingly radical demands, which are of course simply the most realistic assessments of where their nation must go in order to free itself from exploitation. And although the people are breaking from the Workers' Party and the sham of electoral participation, they nevertheless continue down the same conceptual path of anti-capitalism, armed with real experience in the impotence of reform and demanding a genuine social revolution. Similarly, in calling for socialism Chavez is preparing for his own downfall as the impetus of the Bolivarian Revolution advances towards final resolutions far outside the realm of decent, bloodless politics.
After all, in the final analysis of the (anti-state) communist evolution we tend to predict the proletariat's self-abolition as a defining step in the creation of a classless economy. Obviously this does not mean that prior to that moment the working class is acting as a reactionary force. As observers in the Venezuelan process and participants in the wider communist current, we need to recognize potential and engage ourselves in these developments even if the Revolution is for the moment still gestating beneath legal maneuvers and the "untouchable" right to private property. Although the government is clearly going out of its way to co-opt autonomous workers' movements, that it is doing so in a congratulatory way which encourages more militance is intriguing, and could ultimately mean the difference between another irresponsible populist bankruptcy, or real steps towards a reorganization of society from the bottom up.
As with all revolutions, the deciding factors in its credentials will lay in whether it truly represents a profound evolution in the consciousness of the masses. Although as North Americans we can only observe, every indication from available sources is that in the schools, factories, and everyday conversations of Venezuela there is a growing awareness of social justice, dignity, and the widespread corruption of the old political and economic system (thanks in large part to the government's rhetoric). The mass character of the pro-Chavez demonstrations, high turnout to defeat the attempt at deposing him through referendum, and the presence of up to a million people at May Day celebrations marked (obviously) by their anti-capitalist tone all serve as indicators that there is indeed a deep societal shift underway in Venezuela. This, rather than the nature of any government, is what will truly characterize any revolution as the working class seeks to resolve the exploitations pressed against it and, in so doing, inevitably carries its interests forward beyond anything the most "Bolivarian" of governments - or "libertarian" of anarchists - could have ever imagined.
Of course there are those who will take this to mean that we are adopting a pro-Chavez stance, if only for the time being. Nothing could be further from the truth, and as North-Americans it makes no tangible difference whether we support the existing government or not; it continues to exist. All we are advocating is that we begin to pay some more serious attention to the situation there, a situation in which, for better or worse, the state is currently playing a large role. As a community of anti-authoritarians, no one questions the validity of studying and exposing historic crimes such as the Bolshevik coup in Russia. Will we have to wait for the Venezuelan regime to imprison or execute millions before we begin to notice? Or will the opposite become true, with the Bolivarian project swept aside by a rising tide of reaction before we have even recognized it as a legitimate rumbling in the historic tendency towards human liberation? In either case, our only responsible course of action is to engage ourselves in the non-governmental expressions of the Revolution so that as a movement we are in a position to debunk it as necessary and defend it when needed.
As for the question of Chavez himself; while even an anarchist does not have to be familiar with the rhetoric of the "lesser of two evils" to realize that he could potentially be a progressive force in the country, we also have to look no further than his reception at recent World Social Forums to see the very real dangers of a dictatorial personality cult (growth in the popularity of the "Chavista" red beret certainly doesn't help). What interests us most is the extent to which Chavez will allow himself to become obsolete. That is, will his projects of self-management and self-reliance in specific communities and the country as a whole transcend the need for a figurehead? Will the Revolution be able to entrench itself so sufficiently in the nation's culture and politics that it could continue without - or beyond - him? Has it already? One of the most interesting things about the aforementioned Citizen's Reserve army is that is that in the event of another coup or Chavez' assassination, it could serve as a vehicle through which to push the Revolution beyond the bourgeois/democratic boundaries that it has so far respected.
LEARN WHAT WE CAN AND DEFEND WHAT WE MUST
Because of the individual character of the Venezuelan Revolution, the movement to stop further imperialist aggression there - or at least to effectively punish it in whatever underhanded, laundered forms it appears - will be an infinitely more important undertaking than the failed attempts to stop war in Afghanistan and Iraq, or even Iran in the future. As revolutionaries this issue goes far beyond the question of acceptable international politics and a generalized anti-war sentiment and cuts to the core of what our tendency is ultimately about: the organic construction of material alternatives to capitalist exploitation.
The Red & Anarchist Action Network is proposing a series of modest, if preliminary, steps towards raising the ability of the anti-statist movement to learn about, dialogue with, and of course openly criticize the processes under way in Venezuela. Our most immediate task is to educate ourselves on the situation and encourage our established journals and academics to begin discussing it on a more regular basis. This text can be seen as a tentative first step in that direction; the more anarchists get involved in talking about the Bolivarian movement, the more there will emerge an anarchist "position" on the matter. Whatever its ultimate outcome, the Revolution of Venezuela is sure to occupy a unique place in South American and world history, and it would be a disastrous ignorance to ignore it.
We should begin by familiarizing ourselves with all available sources of information on the country and Hugo Chavez in particular. The mass media is accessible enough; what we need to find are the alternative viewpoints, even those coming from groups we would usually never find common ground with. Jonah Gindin's essay "Beyond Populism: Venezuela and the International Left"5 serves as a good - albeit slightly outdated - primer on the Bolivarian process and the need for the (anti-)Left to involve itself in it. From a more familiar perspective, we recommend the 2003 interview with Alfredo Vallota that appeared in El Libertario6, one of our only sources for an explicitly anarchist viewpoint on the situation. The magazine has a website located at http://www.nodo50.org/ellibertario/, which houses an invaluable collection of anti-Chavez texts in the English language7, required reading for any communist or anarchist wishing to learn about the national situation there.
We can also learn much from analyzing the Hands Off Venezuela campaign8. Despite being a front group for European-based Trotskyism, it is in many ways leading the international fight to propagandize about the Revolution (again, from a Trotskyist, pro-Chavez standpoint) and has made some impressive gains as far as raising awareness within established trade unions. Other pro-Chavez sources can be found at http://www.vheadline.com and http://www.venezuelanalysis.com. An extensive Spanish-language source for news and efforts towards media reform in Venezuela exists at http://www.aporrea.org.
As the Bolivarian process unfolds, hopefully so will our knowledge and involvement in it. We are not interested in exporting our anarchism to Venezuela, but rather in supporting the existing libertarian trends and gaining crucial experience from a revolution unfolding in real time. It is up to us all individually as well as collectively to decide wherein lie the most productive means of achieving this. If global activists are capable of organizing trips into Palestine to stand in front of IDF bulldozers, or to Iraq as human shields, perhaps it is also within our ability to send our comrades into Venezuela's schools, cooperatives, and occupied factories, which may ultimately be the only way for us to truly understand what is happening there.
1. We must stress that this essay presents an analysis of the Venezuelan situation from an individual capacity only. Although the goal here is to provoke discussion on the matter from within the stated principles of RAAN, in no way does this appeal represent an "official policy" of the network. Redanarchist.org hosted several weeks of discussions, debates, and intense disagreements on this issue before the above text was ever published, and in the interest of expanding on this and building the kind of understanding and involvement that the essay calls for, we have continued that exchange through the RA.org online community.
2. For the sake of simplicity, we have continued to use the term "Revolution" throughout this text to describe the ongoing events in Venezuela. This does not mean that we are supporting the Chavez government or even that we identify his program with our traditional concept of revolution - we wish only for clarity in discussing events and specific policies as they have already come to be known.
3. For those wishing to learn more about the coup and its eventual reversal, we would recommend the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Briain (http://www.chavezthefilm.com)