Venezuela's social revolution
A survey of the dynamics involved in Venezuela's ongoing process of growing democracy while lifting millions out of poverty.
Venezuela is undergoing massive social change, to the delight of many and the alarm of some. The changes have important political and economic as well as social implications, because the intention of President Hugo Chavez is to move from a deeply unequal society based on a neo-liberal economic model to a socialist model which he hopes will transform the lives of the poor. The rejection of a neo-liberal model is due partly to the disastrous impoverishment of the Venezuelan people after the previous oil boom ended in the late 1980s, when the percentage of poor Venezuelans rose from 28 per cent to 68 per cent in 2003. In the developed world it is often hard to understand the huge social and economic shocks developing countries are vulnerable to, particularly when they are dependent on one or two main export products, income inequalities are acute and social institutions are weak.
Chavez has been in power since 1999, and has weathered a variety of crises. These include an unsuccessful coup (2002), a crippling oil strike (2003) which resulted in the firing of 20,000 oil workers and technicians and the nationalization of the oil industry, as well as constitutional election recall via a petition signed by 2 million citizens in 2004, the outcome of which was his re-election. However, some are worried by the fact that a government official distributed the petitioners’ names and identity card numbers to government departments and agencies leaving many of them feeling vulnerable and possibly excluded from government work and scholarships. These petitioners consisted mainly of educated middle class professionals, students and business people. Whether President Chavez can find ways of including them in his social revolution in a more positive way is still a matter for debate, and the absence of support of such educated and capable people is always a loss in a developing country still struggling with high indices of poverty.
The Referendum on the Constitution
More recently university students were at the forefront of demonstrations against a proposed new constitution which they perceived as anti-democratic. They worried that reforms would concentrate too much power in the hands of the President by enshrining indefinite re-elections, as well as giving him powers personally to promote people within the armed forces, and to create states of emergency where freedom of information would be suspended. Some still worry that the Milicia Popular, which is accountable directly to Chavez, has not yet been integrated into the armed forces, and consists of around a million men and women who receive training every weekend in the use of weapons. They also have powers of arrest. People in the world of finance and business also expressed concern that the Central Bank might lose its independence.
Despite attractive social reforms in the new constitutional proposals, including a 36-hour working week and the extension of state pensions to those in the informal economy, on 2 December 2007 Venezuelans rejected, albeit by a margin of only 2 per cent, the constitutional referendum that would have allowed the President to stand in future elections. Currently he has control of the Supreme Court as well as the National Assembly, where no opposition parties are at present represented, due to previous election boycotts by these parties. However, the situation is open to change. One conclusion is that the upper classes of the country do desire social reform, but are wary of seeing an authoritarian state develop in the process.
The majority of Venezuelans have struggled for decades with poor housing, limited medical care and access to education. These are the issues that preoccupy Mr Chavez and his myriad supporters, and in the name of much needed change in these areas, Venezuelans appear willing to undergo and participate in a multitude of social experiments which contribute to a feverish yet hopeful atmosphere, even as these changes worry those who have much to lose. What is most encouraging is that various recent studies indicate, unmistakeably, that between 2004 and 2006, the poorest sections of Venezuelan society, classed as ‘poor’ (23 per cent of Venezuelans) and extremely poor or indigent (15 per cent of the population) have improved their income by between 13 per cent and 21 per cent. The lower middle class has also become more prosperous. In addition, there has been a reduction in child mortality, from 33 per 1,000 in 1990 to 21 per 1,000 in 2005, although it is also the case that other Latin American countries with different development models have also improved.
Increased social spending is possible thanks to increased oil revenues, which now comprise over $60 billion a year. Significantly, the upper tier of Venezuelan society has shrunk from 4 per cent of the population to 2.5 per cent. This may be due partly to migration to other countries, as well as loss of income due to land expropriation, some expropriation of urban properties (about 163 buildings have been taken over by the government in Caracas itself, partly to provide housing for the poor), and around half the factories have shut down in the last few years, despite some being taken over and managed through workers’ co-operatives.
The co-operative movement
Currently a process of workers’ education in the creation and management of co-operatives is under way. Similarly, in rural areas agricultural co-operatives are being set up on land owned previously by wealthy landowners. Initially there was tension between government agencies and the traditional pre-Chavez co-operative movement, concerned at the promotion of new co-operatives which were offered grants despite the lack of preparation and technical education of their members. The links between them and government agencies is now improving.
Chavez was impatient to bypass bureaucracy and more than 40,000 co-operatives were created in 2004 and another 30,000 in 2005. From December 2004 to May 2005 over 250,000 students graduated from short-term historical, technical and managerial classes that also emphasized citizenship and co-operative values. Around 195,000 students subsequently formed about 7,500 new co-operatives. Given the inexperience of many, some will fail though doubtless others will succeed, but as a vast social experiment it further empowers people through a model which may suit many developing countries, not just Venezuela.
The creation of thousands of neighbourhood councils enables many people to engage in a political process involving not only local elections but also local problem-solving. This process is a method which empowers people by investing in their capacity to take responsibility, to learn to deal with local issues and to come up with local solutions. Naturally there will be many variations on the ground as these social and political processes take root, and they are still very much at the experimental stage, but through them the poor, the indigent, and sections of the lower middle class can develop a sense of involvement in the destiny of their country.
This represents the formation of a grassroots movement and a transformation of power structures. To form such a council, an assembly is set up through a small group of around 200 to 400 families coming together in a local community, and then all of the community, house by house, is invited to take part, asking everyone to choose 20 people to form the promotion team which then carries out a census of the local population and reports on local problems. At the subsequent communal council elections around 13 members take charge of technology, education, security, health and so on. Executive, monitoring and financial management committees are also elected. Many see these communal councils as the basic units of the new society.
Venezuela has a population of some 26 million, many concentrated in a few major towns, yet there are now more than 15,000 councils, both rural and urban – an effective way of reaching out to those who live in more vulnerable and isolated communities which were traditionally ignored by urban-based politicians.
One interesting story involves a village in the Andes, about a three-hour drive from the town of Merida, itself located high up in the Andes amidst spectacular scenery. One former employee of a Venezuelan government department reported that this relatively remote village had already received legal assistance in the election procedures from an independent NGO by the time government officials arrived there to help them set up their council. Initially the officials wanted to choose the promotion team, but the local population explained that they understood the new procedures and would be electing the team and the council members themselves. This is an interesting example both of old habits taking time to change (officials are used to telling the population what to do) and new structures taking root (the local inhabitants were becoming more confident).
In Venezuela there are many contradictions between older, inherited bureaucratic structures and newer, more dynamic structures, and these co-exist at present in a state of tension. Social revolutions are rarely tidy, and some concerns are justified, but Venezuela’s myriad political, economic and social experiments represent an alternative to previous policies which failed to address the basic needs of the majority of the people.
References: www.venezuelanalysis.com; www.eluniversal.com; latinobarometro.org; CEPAL; UNICEF; FAO; http://voanews.com; Radio Nacional de Venezuela, Informe Mundial Human Rights Watch para Venezuela; The New Co-operative Movement in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution by Camila Pineiro Harnecker.
From the March 2008 issue of Share International magazine.
Patricia Pitchon, previously a journalist with Colombian newspaper El Tempo, is a London-based freelance journalist and psychotherapist who also works with refugees.