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Venezuela: The Times They Are A-Changin’
Written by Gabriel Ash
Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Venezuela is changing. Fast. No other word captures the speed and magnitude of change as well as that weighty word–‘revolution.’ This is indeed the word used by many of the Venezuelans I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing during ten days in March. Venezuela is undergoing a ‘Bolivarian’ revolution. But what does ‘Bolivarianism’ entail?

Contrary to the image often portrayed in the foreign media, Chavez has gone overboard in seeking to include as many as possible in the Bolivarian state. He has time and again extended an olive branch to his enemies.

To be honest, Zhou Enlai’s quip about the results of the French Revolution—that it is ‘too early to tell’—is doubly applicable to Venezuela. Radically different constituencies, political visions and potential futures are today co-existing more or less harmoniously within the dramatic process of change. This is perhaps inevitable. But some of the wide ranging ambiguity about the future direction of Bolivarianism has to do with Chavez’s crucial strategic choice in favour of peaceful social change. Contrary to the image often portrayed in the foreign media, Chavez has gone overboard in seeking to include as many as possible in the Bolivarian state. He has time and again extended an olive branch to his enemies.

For example, immediately after the failed coup against him, his first act was to guarantee the constitutional rights of the coup leaders, none of whom have been harmed. Likewise, he has consistently avoided using military and police forces under his command to repress the opposition, and had been exceedingly cautious towards foreign companies and investors. Some of his strongest supporters therefore consider Chavez excessively soft. The ideological message of Bolivarianism is straddling this society — deeply divided by class — with a strong Venezuelan and pan-latinoamerican nationalism. The ambiguity is patently visible in the street iconography of Caracas, which combines the faces of the aristocratic liberal Simon Bolivar and the radical communist Che Guevara, both sharing the landscape with huge billboards of fashionable young women advertising beer.

Yet if the future is foggy, the present is dramatically clear. Under pressure from Venezuela’s poor, on whose support Chavez’s political survival depends, the government moved decidedly leftwards over the course of the last few years. This leftward move consists in two processes: democratization and redistribution.

First, redistribution. Having wrestled control of the national oil company from the old oligarchy, Chavez redirected a portion of Venezuela’s significant oil revenues to new social projects, called missions, each targeting a specific social privation. The bulk of the resources were earmarked for non-cash benefits such as education and health. But government policies have also helped more people to move out of the informal economy and take formal jobs, affecting a significant rise in cash wages for the poorest workers. An international chorus of snickers erupts whenever these social spending programs are mentioned. Most completely miss the point. Is there corruption? Inefficiency? Probably. But by relying on the army, the national oil company, and ad hoc communal organizing rather than on the traditional state bureaucracy, the social missions manage a level of efficiency that is quite stunning.

As a small example, take the latest mission, ‘energy revolution,’ announced in November 2006. Its first project was to change all the light bulbs in Venezuela (52 million of them) to energy efficient ones by the end of 2007. The goal is to reduce the consumption of oil in electricity generation by about 25 million barrels a year, and cut a typical family’s monthly expenses by $4.6 (a non-trivial sum in the poor neighborhoods). The distribution of free bulbs is carried out by different means: youth organizations, community councils, and reserve units. By mid February 2007, over 30 million bulbs have been distributed, 10% faster than planned. The white glow that rises at night from both the poor neighborhoods and the houses of the better-off confirms the statistics.

Read the rest here.

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