Referendum and revolution in Venezuela

Referendum and revolution in Venezuela

Derrick O’Keefe

The following interview of Michael Lebowitz, a long-time friend of MR now residing in Venezuela where he has been a close observer and commentator on that country’s Bolivarian Revolution, originally appeared in shorter form on the Seven Oaks Web site, It was conducted prior to the August 15 referendum-election on the presidency of Hugo Chavez. Our printing schedule makes it impossible to provide in this issue any discussion of the outcome of the election, which has not yet taken place as we go to press. But we wanted to offer MR readers this interview, which provides the context in which to judge the election results. We will be providing a full assessment of the Venezuelan election in an upcoming issue.–THE EDITORS.

Derrick O’Keefe: August 15 has been set as the date for a referendum on the presidency of Hugo Chavez, who has won numerous elections and survived a failed coup d’etat in April 2002. Is this referendum a make-or-break vote?

Michael Lebowitz: I think it is make-or-break, in many respects. But you have to put it in context–the opposition is trying to get rid of Chavez every way they can. They tried the coup in April 2002 and that failed. Then, they attempted to shut down the oil industry, and other industries, in order to cut off the life-blood of the government. They were very confident that they were going to succeed. This was early December 2002 and they figured Chavez would be out by Christmas. But that one failed completely, too. Chavez has always responded that, if you don’t like me, we have a democratic mechanism in our constitution, the recall. To trigger a recall you need the signatures of only 20 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election. Chavez himself had recommended the right of recall to the Constituent Assembly which wrote the Bolivarian constitution. In fact, Chavez recommended a 10 percent trigger. He was not in anyway opposed to this concept; instead it’s central to his ideas.

So, finally, the opposition proceeded to collect signatures. The explicit goal on the part of many of the opposition leaders was to obtain 3.8 million signatures. They wanted that because Chavez had received 3.77 million in his election. The feeling was that if they could get 3.8 million, then they could declare that Chavez was out. They would have demonstrated that more people wanted him out than had supported him. But even with the most incredible fraud, they didn’t come close to that. I think the highest figure that anyone ever asserted was something like 3.6 million. There was enormous fraud. I was there during the process of getting the signatures and we could see cases where “itinerant” signature-collectors went off–supposedly to the hospitals for people who couldn’t come to the tables–and no one was watching them. So, in the end, the electoral council accepted only 1.9 million signatures and there were another 1 million that had to be repaired, people had to come forward and confirm their signatures. In the end, they got enough to trigger the referendum. They got about 2.5 million, and they needed 2.4 million. But they just barely got enough, which shows that there was–as Chavez had said from the beginning–a mega-fraud going on. They announced 3.6 and they barely got 2.4 certified, so you know that one-third of them had in fact been faulty.

DO: A recent article on Venezuela in the Washington Post essentially accused Chavez of bribing the poor in that country, by using oil revenue to fund social programs. Perhaps they were upset that Chavez doesn’t understand that bribes are supposed to go only to the upper classes. How are the new social programs, such as the literacy campaign, working to solidify Chavez’s support?

ML: Well, the first thing is to recognize what Chavez has done with the oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). The company was essentially a state within a state, with very little revenue going to the government, and much of it tapped by the oligarchy. Chavez ensured that resources generated by the oil company are directed to social programs, to the people. Now that’s not unusual, this is the people’s oil. People sometimes say this is bribery, but look at Alaska where the oil revenue goes to every citizen. It’s simply their right. In Venezuela, the oil revenue is going to the people, but in a different way. It’s going for programs that allow for better education and better health care, and it’s also going through the Bank for Economic and Social Development, through the Bank for Women, the microfinance fund, and it’s also going to establish cooperatives. People are getting loans to create their own cooperatives–an enormous amount of money is going for that purpose. I’ve heard that there are one hundred thousand cooperatives waiting to be registered at this very moment under the Law of the Cooperatives.

These programs are in fact being used to transform the country. It’s not simply social programs, for health, education, etc. The most significant program right now is called Vuelvan Caras, which is taking people graduating from the education programs and putting them into a new program focused on endogenous development. They will create new industries whose products, both agricultural and manufactured, will replace goods that must now be imported. Agriculture, especially, is critical. Venezuela has a warped economy; it has amazing agricultural land but imports 70 percent of its food. One of the focuses of the government is to reverse that situation, to create the infrastructure and conditions under which people will be attracted to work on the land, and will have the funds and equipment necessary to do so. They hope to achieve what Hugo Chavez has called “food sovereignty,” the ability to rely on Venezuela’s own resources.

DO: Early in his presidency, Chavez spoke of working to reverse traditional migration trends from the countryside to the city. What is the state of rural development, and of the process of land reform in Venezuela?

ML: They face a dilemma. They know what the long-term goal has to be–they have to bring development to the countryside, creating centers where people have amenities so they will want to stay in the countryside, rather than to be drawn to live in the hills around the cities. But they can’t simply take the money, which is all coming from oil, and pour it into the countryside, because the mass of the people are in the cities. They have to satisfy the needs of people, and so they are caught in a dilemma: Should they meet the short-run needs of people or follow a long-run plan? If they don’t meet people’s expectations now, they’re not going to be around for the long run.

The Minister of Planning has a vision of what can be done in the interior, but the social cabinet ministers are saying, no, we have to work on the cities. So, they’ve chosen the cities. The most significant social programs right now are in the cities, where people are, and that’s critical. That’s why they’ll get a positive response from people, because they are meeting their expectations. The opposition says, look, there’s still poverty, there’s still unemployment, and they’ve got to deal with that in the short run. But the long-term goal, and that’s what Vuelvan Caras is about, is to create the basis for internal development and endogenous growth.

Land reform continues, though I don’t have any figures. Some of the land that is being turned over is state land that was usurped by private owners through illegal means. In those cases part of the process is getting the land away from the private owners. Here everything revolves around the courts and legal mechanisms. It’s important to remember that everything the Chavez government does is always through the legal process.

DO: That’s the government, but have there been any cases of land occupations like those of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil?

ML: There are land occupations, especially with the indigenous people, though not on the scale of the MST. In many cases, one of the problems is that the legal process gets held up. I’m not sure they’ve passed all the laws that are necessary.

This is one of the many problems in the whole revolution. They don’t have a significant majority in the National Assembly–at this point I think it’s five–and they find it difficult to pass laws and everything is delayed. For example, the constitution calls for pensions for housewives, a very strong recognition of the economic contribution that people make working in the home. But the organic law, the law flowing out of the constitution, has not been passed yet.

DO: Getting back to the question of the national oil company, since this is the economic engine of the process, what are the dynamics within PDVSA, and what impact do any tensions have?

ML: I think, in general, the question of the opposition presence in the oil company was removed thanks to the fact that most of them left.

First of all, the cost of production plummeted after they were gone, even though production levels were maintained. Another thing is that they have these gigantic, wonderful, new buildings. Suddenly 18,000 people–the managers and high-level technicians–aren’t there so the buildings are empty. About a year ago I went to the opening of the first Bolivarian University; it was in the old PDVSA building, with wonderful offices, luxurious classrooms. They bused students from the barrios who wanted to be in a university but had been rejected. It’s all run, the Bolivarian University, on a democratic basis, which means students are making decisions on courses, and faculty who want to teach there have to pass a test, effectively.

But that’s a sidebar. In PDVSA, there are many charges that there are still some golpistas here, oppositionists there, and it’s hard to know whether it’s true or whether it’s gossip. The leadership of PDVSA is under Ali Rodriguez, he was a guerrilla fighter who went back and studied economics, and was the critic of the old PDVSA in the legislature for years. After Chavez was elected, Ali was head of OPEC at one point. He doesn’t go out to inflame the opposition, he’s very careful in his statements, but he’s committed to making the oil company a success.

There’s a new board of directors, which includes two representatives from the blue-collar unions, because the blue-collar workers kept working during the oil coup. One of the most significant things happening in PDVSA is that there’s a movement from below of workers who are organizing something called the “guide committees.” They are organizing from below for more workers’ control of PDVSA.

DO: Internationally, the left, generally, and especially early on, kept its distance from Chavez. Some accused him of leading a top-down process, while others rejected a process that wasn’t explicitly Marxist, or even ideologically socialist. Has the process in Venezuela changed from what it was a few years ago, and how would you define the process today? Where is the Bolivarian Revolution going?

ML: I think a lot of these criticisms don’t amount to much. You have to look concretely at what is happening in Venezuela; it doesn’t fit any models that we’ve seen before. I think the best way to get a sense of what Venezuela’s about is to look at the constitution. It’s an incredible constitution. The first thing I said when I read it was, who wrote this? It talks about the need to focus on human development, developing human potential. It focuses on a profound democracy and struggles and activity from below. Social movements were key in doing that, and I understand that the women’s movement and the indigenous movement were especially active in shaping the character of the constitution. You look at that constitution, and you say, that’s different from any model that I know. Of course, there have been beautiful constitutions elsewhere, the question is: Is it made real?

There are so many points where the revolution could have gone either way. Look, the opposition lived with the constitution until Chavez enacted 49 laws [urban land titles, cooperatives, hydrocarbon tax, etc.] by presidential decree–because he couldn’t get them through the National Assembly–and that started to put meat on the constitution. The question is: Will they follow through? I’d say the process changes every step of the way, and what drives this revolution, and has driven this revolution, has been the opposition. The opposition protests and actions against Chavez have deepened the revolution every step of the way. There were points where I think they could have made more accommodations with capital, but the actions of capital itself, and the actions of the United States in supporting the coup, etc., have created this wedge, have moved the revolution forward, just as I think this referendum has the potential of deepening the whole revolutionary process. I think that Venezuela is in a very unique situation, in that in many cases it can proceed toward creating an alternative to capitalism without directly confronting capital, because it has oil wealth.

DO: Would that then be some kind of a radical social democracy?

ML: I don’t like the term, describing it as social democracy. I think there’s a revolutionary process in which the outcome is unclear. I think that to be true to the constitution, and to Chavez’s own personal sentiments, the revolution has to continue to become a socialist revolution in fact. But that doesn’t drop from the sky; the most significant thing that’s occurring is the growth in people’s capacities through their struggles. For example, the constitution includes a very clear focus on local planning committees, a local planning process. But if you look at what’s happening in practice–it isn’t happening automatically. Even in Chavez controlled municipalities, the tendency is to want to appoint the local planning committee from the top, rather than from below. In community after community there are struggles from below against the traditional way of doing politics. There’s no formula to determine who will win. That’s always a question: who will win? That’s going to be determined by people’s struggles.

DO: The electoral process itself is always skewed against those who advocate for the poor, and for working people–we see the campaign of fear that happened earlier this year in El Salvador, for instance. How much longer can Chavez keep going to the electoral well?

ML: This revolution is different in a number of ways. Take the comparison to El Salvador, where you had this incredibly hostile media. Venezuela’s had that media too. They have a law to regulate the media prepared, for radio and television, on responsibility in the media. Unfortunately that’s one of many laws that haven’t gotten through the National Assembly. Now Chavez, under the constitution, could decree them, but for national and international reasons, he cannot do that. He has to let this process go through the democratic mechanisms.

One of the interesting things I read just yesterday, however, was an interview with the editor of one of the pro-Chavez newspapers. He said the readership of the prominent national newspapers of the opposition has plummeted. The circulation of el Universal and el Nacional–two key newspapers of the opposition–has fallen to 30 or 40 thousand. People aren’t buying those newspapers. Apparently people aren’t watching opposition television stations–except for the soap operas. There’s an alternate media emerging. It happens through local, community radio and television, which is being fostered by the government as well. So I think it’s a different situation from El Salvador, because people are less likely to be affected by what the opposition media says–they’ve heard it all. And, of course, Venezuela is not in as vulnerable a situation as El Salvador, where the threat of cutting off remittances from those outside Salvador was very significant. In the case of Venezuela, they’ve got oil. And the United States, which is heavily dependent on Venezuelan oil, doesn’t want to lose Venezuelan oil. The Chinese are knocking at the door.

DO: What’s your prediction for August 15?

ML: I wouldn’t make a prediction. At this moment, things look very good, in terms of the organization and preparation for the referendum. But there are many wildcards–many things we can’t know. Will the opposition come up with revelations of corruption? Are there going to be defections from the government side? Will there be wholesale acts of violence or a coup? There’s a lot of money available from the United States to stop Chavez from getting ratified. The government knows this, they understand this, and they’re preparing for every eventuality, but it’s a struggle. At this point, I’d say it looks favorable. I don’t know what it will look like on August 15.


Derrick O’Keefe is a founding editor of Seven Oaks, an online magazine of politics, culture, and resistance.

Michael Lebowitz is Professor Emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada and the author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working-Class (Palgrave, 2003).

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