Venezuela & Us: Reflections From the Outside Looking In
by Chris Spannos
July 04, 2007
[This is a slightly revised version of a panel talk given at the U.S. Social Forum June 27- July 1, Atlanta Georgia. The panel, “Lesson from Venezuela for the U.S.,” was organized by Venezuelanalysis.com. The other panelists included Olaf Ciliberto — student leader at the Central University of Venezuela, Carmen Morantes — lawyer with the National Technical Office for the Regularization of Urban Land, Greg Wilpert — Venezuelanalysis.com, and Luis Diaz — member of the Latin American Parliament. They spoke at various lengths and in detail about the changes occurring in Venezuela and surrounding region.]
As a U.S. based activist, organizer and alternative media maker, I want to pose three broad questions about lessons from Venezuela for the U.S.:
1) How should movements in the U.S. interpret the changes occurring in Venezuela?
2) How should those changes translate for our movements in the U.S. and the world?
3) What is our role and what are the forces shaping how we defend Venezuela from within the U.S.?
Beginning with the first question of interpreting those changes, which will illustrate how I want to approach this topic, imagine two people with an illness, in advanced stages, which is life threatening. They are neighbors from down the block. One of them shows the other that they have begun seeking treatment for the illness and are doing better and making improvements. The other simply listens, and is happy about the changes, sees that they are compelling, and is very supportive but in no way takes in ideas about how they could make things better for themselves. On the one hand, they support the other getting treatment and making progress, but on the other hand they let the example of seeking positive change pass over or bounce off them.
Venezuela is making strides toward national and societal structural transformation. The U.S. Left should not only listen, support and defend such changes, but should also try to draw lessons for how what is happening there can inform our movements here.
Here in the U.S. we are doing a lot of damage control with our organizing. We are facing unprecedented upward redistribution of wealth, power and privileged. We are fighting to save social services that have already been cut and continue to take a beating. We are fighting a rollback of women’s rights, attacks on immigrants, and widespread systemic racism. We are trying to stop our own government’s current war making while knowing that plans are in the works for future wars. In short we are trying to change our government’s foreign and domestic policy on a whole range of issues.
In contrast, Venezuela is struggling to free itself from an international political and economic order dominated by our government’s strategic considerations. While domestically, they are undergoing mass structural transformation on a national scale.
Our struggles are in very different stages. The contrast illustrates that the Venezuelan population is much further along than we are in its consciousness – in being aware of the structural roots of their nation’s historical and present condition.
Lesson #1 Our organizing and activism should seek to affect consciousness about the structural roots of the social and material crisis affecting the U.S. population as well as how U.S. global dominance adversely affects the well being of people in other countries.
Now it is true that the U.S. Left does do this to some extent. However, most of our activism and organizing fails to make the connection that our social and material ills – class division, racism and sexism, are deeply rooted in the underlying structures of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, etc. Where is this among our anti-war, anti-corporate globalization and other social movements? Is it prevalent in our day to day organizing, activism and events, or just occasionally? How often do we seek to raise our own consciousness, in this way, internally to our movements? How about in our outreach to others outside the Left? In my own experience there is usually very little of this done in our movement building. Beyond my own experience I suspect the same is true or worse. We are all at fault.
But there is more. Consequentially, the U.S. Left is unable to arouse desire and passion for a new world among its domestic population. Again, it is true that this desire for societal transformation exists in some sectors of the Left, among a minority, but for the most part it is absent. In Venezuela, passion and consciousness seemingly deepen and spread as empowerment and structural changes deepen and spread. The Venezuelans are much further along, and because of their consciousness, are much more deliberate about structural transformation — its human aims and aspirations. This structural transformation is in many cases empowering Venezuelans to have more decision making say over the institutions and policies that affect their lives. We don’t know where it will lead. It could all unravel next month. But it is this structural transformation, empowering the population, which is arousing hope and desire. The Venezuelans believe they can win. Our own efforts should seek reforms that empower our movements to also have more decision making say over the institutions and policies affecting their lives. We need a strategy where we gain more and more power, eventually seeking to displace elite power. Similar to the process unfolding in Venezuela, these reforms could range from winning redistributive taxes, changes in workplace relations; especially in the division of labor, more participation in budgeting and workplace decision making, more access to information, and collective control over the production, consumption and allocation of the material means of life. Advances should be sought in ways that expand desires rather than delimit them. This would mean setting a course for winning a series of reforms that would eventually lead to new institutions, new consciousness and a new society – to victory.
Lesson #2 We need to replicate the Venezuelans in this respect by proposing, debating, and sharing visions of what a new society and world might look like, and how to get there, so we can arouse hope, passion and desire within our movements in the U.S. We need to replicate the Venezuelan attitude that we can win.
In Venezuela, this discourse is around a “21st Century Socialism” that is rooted in its national history through the Bolivarian Revolution. The struggle for a post-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-sexist society, in the U.S., should also be rooted in its national history of struggle and emancipation, drawing lessons from our own classical and new left movements. However, if we are going to propose we make history at the magnitude of centuries, through a “21st Century Socialism,” our vision should aspire to transcend the failures of last century’s centrally planned economies, with corporate divisions of labor and a managerial elite called the coordinator class.
The model I and others advocate for the U.S. is classless and self-managing. Through federations of worker and consumer councils, decentralized participatory planning, balanced job complexes in the work place – where all share a balanced work load comparable in desirability and empowerment – and where all are remunerated for effort and sacrifice. This model is called participatory economics (Albert & Hahnel), and seeks to promote solidarity, equality, diversity, self-management and economic efficiency.
However the modern day lesson in structural transformation and hope offered by Venezuela go far beyond the U.S. For social change to be truly successful it will have to happen internationally. Using the Social Forum model to illustrate this possibility, under the banner of “Another World is Possible!”, the 2001 World Social Forum brought together 20,000 participants. The 2002 WSF had 60,000 participants. The WSF of 2003 brought in 100,000 participants. These kinds of exponential leaps in numbers are what we need to eventually win. But in order for people to stick to the movement we need to offer them hope that another world really is possible. Imagine a 2010 World Social Forum that decided to celebrate a decade of global movement building with a qualitative shift in its content and character. Instead of talking about what is wrong with the world in the many thousands of workshops that have taken place since 2001, we would instead seek to understand how our movements are interrelated; and develope, debate and discuss possibilities for widely shared visions of what another world might actually look like, in this century; along with strategic ways forward. Visions for a new society could be offered in all realms including economics, culture, kinship, politics, education, science, urban planning, sports, etc. These social forums could be, as has already happened, replicated on smaller city, regional, state, or national scales, such as a future U.S. social forum might offer. This is just a glimpse of what is possible if we begin to use our imagination to envision structural transformation such as Venezuela is actually carrying out while challenging global capitalism and U.S. global domination.
Thus the importants of Venezuela, the opportunities it opens and inspires, should not be understated. This leads me to the last portion of my presentation:
What is our role and what are the forces shaping how we defend Venezuela from here?
A June 27 report from Reuters, carried in major mainstream media outlets across the U.S. says, “Insecurity, ‘malignant narcissism’ and the need for adulation are driving Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s confrontation with the United States.”
“Eventually, these personality traits are likely to compel Chavez to declare himself Venezuela’s president for life.”
These comments come from a Dr. Jerrold Post who has just completed so called “psychological profile” for the U.S. Air Force. Post has a 21 year career history at the CIA.
Post told Reuters that Chavez “has been acting increasingly messianic and so he is likely to either get the constitution rewritten to allow for additional terms or eventually declare himself president-for-life.”
This extremist anti-Chavez propaganda is reminiscent of the cold war and offers one example of the work we need to counter in our own government’s misinformation and vilification of Chavez. U.S. elites want to instill the belief among the population that Chavez is a mad man, a dictator, and that he threatens free speech, human rights and all that is democratic. However it is not Chavez himself that bothers U.S. elites. From punishment of Palestinians for voting in Hamas, to attempts to vilify Chavez — it is their absolute contempt and hatred for democratic efforts, unfolding in Venezuela today, as in other countries in the past, and a country’s struggle for a development path independent from Washington, which really causes them to froth rabidly at the mouth. The most recent example of course being U.S. elite and mainstream media response to Chavez not renewing the broadcast license of the opposition’s RCTV. By simply imagining an analogous situation in the U.S., where a media network was found complicit in an attempt to over throw the U.S. president (lets stretch the imagination by assuming he was democratically elected), one could quite easily see how an entire network could be shut down, bureaucrats in charge being jailed, facing potential prison sentences for life, if not handed the death sentence outright. Chavez did not jail nor imprison, but rather, in comparison to the U.S. hypothetical above, used a seemingly judicious, albeit not perfect, approach in dealing with the opposition media and license renewal of RCTV.
On going solidarity work, putting pressure on our mainstream media institutions, and making it costly for them to propagandize; applying the same pressures to our own Government when interfering with the transformation taking place in Venezuela, as in the reversed April 2002 coup attempt, should guide our work to defend Venezuela from, and within, the U.S.; to ensure that Venezuela can move toward its vision in the 21st Century, without interference.