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Making the Impossible Possible

Possible Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chavez Talks to Marta Harnecker translated by Chesa Boudin; Daanish Books, New Delhi in association with Monthly Review Press, New York, 2005; pp 202, Rs 150 (paperback).

Making the Impossible


Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chavez Talks to Marta Harnecker

translated by Chesa Boudin; Daanish Books, New Delhi in association with Monthly Review Press, New York, 2005; pp 202, Rs 150 (paperback).


atin America, Venezuela and Hugo Chavez have been in the news in recent times, though usually tucked away in some corner of the mainstream newspapers, but not for the “usual” reasons like coups, structural adjustment, inflation, collapsing economies, and so on. Of late, the news from Latin America includes the anti-US statements of leaders like Chavez and Morales, the pan Latin American solidarity of its leaders, the nationalisation of industries, the victory of several left-leaning leaders in the elections, and so on. Yet, for most of the progressives and liberals in India, Latin America remains distant as well as puzzling. Whatever Chavez is made out to be in the press – a revolutionary, an anti-imperialist icon or a leader of the third world, he does not fit in with our regular image of a revolutionary and the Venezuelan popular upsurge does not fit in with our image of a revolution. After all Venezuela is an oil-rich economy with a per capita income almost seven times ours; contrary to the traditional notion the revolution seems to be based more on the ballot rather than the bullet. More importantly, Chavez belongs to the military and attempted a military coup against the then president Perez in 1992 and himself claims that Venezuela has undergone a “Bolivarian” revolution. There is therefore a yawning need for information and analysis about the present Venezuela and the happenings there. The present book is an inexpensive Indian edition, is useful and timely.

The book is basically a long interview of Chavez by the veteran activist and observer of Latin America, Marta Harnecker, who interviewed and travelled with Chavez immediately after the failed coup against him in 2002. Many of us would be familiar with Harnecker’s earlier work on Cuba; she specialises in long interviews and has done several with Latin American revolutionary leaders. This interview is different because, one, Harnecker has great familiarity with the happenings in Venezuela, and two, she has done her homework for this interview which runs to more than 150 pages. So, many of her questions also provide background to the reader about the happenings and also a point of view. It is also supplemented by an introduction and a chronology of events in Venezuela, mostly of the recent times right up to the time of publication in 2005.

Roots of Revolution

In the first chapter, Chavez and Harnecker trace the historical roots of the Bolivarian revolution. Chavez explains that he was inspired by the Maoist vision of militarycivilian symbiosis right from his early days in the army and his political ideas made him see the army as a social force and not merely as a conservative and oppressive actor against the masses. In 1982, four army officers including Chavez formed the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR 200) on the 200th birth anniversary of the Latin American revolutionary, Simon Bolivar. In 1989, when the armed forces were used for crushing the popular revolt against a structural adjustment programme, under which unemployment had reached 14 per cent, inflation a staggering 80 per cent, and four-fifths of the population stood below the poverty line, the MBR 200 and Chavez began considering a systemic change. As he says, “beyond the kind of democracy that only responded to the interests of the oligarchy”. In early 1992, Chavez and his supporters, who were in considerable numbers within the armed forces, engineered the coup, but they realised that they lacked popular support. He quotes Mao to explain their situation that they were like “fish without water” and hence decided to surrender. Chavez was incarcerated, but that event pushed him into the national limelight. Based on the lessons from the failed coup, the “Bolivarian committees” were established in various walks of Venezuelan life as part of the mass contact programme. Meanwhile, Perez was impeached by the Supreme Court for corruption, in response to the popular unrest. Though the MBR 200 refused to be involved in the next elections and gave a boycott call as they termed it an “elitist” election, a left leaning leader won in spite of 52 per cent people staying away from the polls. In the following year, the new government offered clemency to the leaders of the 1992 coup, including Chavez. By 1995, they evolved their position into a demand for a new constitution and constituent assembly.

Chavez stresses the significance of the process and compares the Venezuelan process with that of Colombia (or the lack of “process” in the latter) in demanding a new constituent assembly. In 1994 and 1995, the MBR representatives travelled across the length and breadth of the country, without skipping “a single city, town, encampment Indian village or neighbourhood”, campaigning for a constituent assembly and, in the process, transformed themselves from a clandestine military organisation into a popular movement. Through the mass contact programmes, the MBR also realised the limitations of an armed revolution and

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006 devoted its energy towards cultivating popular support and forming grassroot political organisations like the Bolivarian committees. In 1996, the MBR decided to conduct a sample survey of 1,00,000 people (in a population of around 25 million) across the country to decide about electoral participation in the next elections, including whether Chavez should be a candidate. Chavez shares his doubts about the electoral process at the time, the risks it involved, the criticism that they had to face as many groups within MBR thought that participating in elections was against the revolutionary process which could happen only through arms; many groups even walked out in protest.

Painful Transition

In the next chapter, Chavez and Harnecker talk about the process of “painful transition” that Venezuela has been going through since the revolution. Within a year of Chavez’s elections, the new constitution was in place. The process began with a referendum on whether to have a fresh constituent assembly. Subsequently the Congress was dissolved and a new constituent assembly elected. The new assembly wrote a new constitution, which, in turn, was put to vote and approved by 70 per cent of the electorate. The process has been criticised for being hasty and undemocratic, but here Chavez is at pains to explain that the balance had to be struck between ideals and pragmatism. According to Chavez, the significance of the constitutional changes cannot be overemphasised as they became the launching pad for bringing about a socio-economic transformation. Forty-nine new laws were inscribed spanning various socioeconomic aspects – land, fisheries, finance, hydrocarbons, and measures like right to recall a chosen elective with the idea of people’s participation in economic activity and equitable distribution of the fruits of such activity. In this context, Chavez also discusses the criticism that he faced from the left – for not being revolutionary “enough”, the continuing problem of “corruption”, and the fact that they have yet to transform the basic political structure in Venezuela. He emphasises the need for changing the political-legal structure based on Allende’s Chilean experience; perhaps, the need for speed and keeping the momentum of people’s participation and movement also follows from Allende, as is vindicated by the later failed coup of 2002.

Plan Bolivar

In Chapter 3, Chavez explains his understanding of the role of the military as an instrument of the Bolivarian revolution given the paradox of the ultimate objective being that of people’s power and widespread participation. Chavez discusses the role of the military in development activities and civilian-military partnership – the “plan Bolivar” – for grassroot activities like building roads, developing agriculture, constructing houses, and so on. There have been efforts towards creating cooperatives for fishing, agriculture, microfinance, etc, through the erstwhile military personnel as part of the plan Bolivar. In fact, he attributes the popular uprising against the failed 2002 coup (the coup was overturned within 48 hours!) to this kind of civilian-military partnership. Chavez also makes a distinction between military as the offensive arm of revolution versus only to safeguard the revolution, and clarifies that he visualises the military only as the latter – arms are not for “using” but “dissuading”. He underscores the role of military as guarantors of free elections and referendums. Chavez also answers to the charges of “benevolence” and “weakness”, as no action has been taken against the military officials involved in the 2002 coup. Chavez stresses the need to follow due process, to follow the rules of the constitution that they themselves have set up and asserts that such flexibility is a sign of strength and not weakness. This is a significant departure from the revolutionary practice that we are familiar with of the previous century and something worth learning more about. He emphasises the need for avoiding witch hunts and violence in general and talks of even applying “moral sanction” and verbal admonition instead. Here he also reflects on the super human effort that a revolution demands, and, hence, the need to treat, those who leave it at some point with compassion and respect for their past, and not declare them as traitors for their present disposition.

Chavez then talks about the efforts towards building up the economy. He lays emphasis on building a participatory democracy and puts a lot of store in the new constitution for bringing an economic transformation based on popular will. Here Chavez explains the reason why his government continues to repay the external debt, which many critiques describe as a mark of the “lack of revolutionary character of the Chavez government”. Without disagreeing with the critiques, he shares various creative but “tough” alternatives to “not paying” that some of the progressive governments of Latin America have been contemplating like making an international development fund from such repayments under the aegis of the UN, economic and political solidarity of the Latin America, etc. He also talks about the “decentralised” plans, which are premised on the devolution of economic, political and social power. He sums up the challenge of revolutionary process within the larger capitalist system as follows:

…(I)n the case of Venezuela, with a government like this one, with a Constitution like ours, with a people who have awakened like ours have, with a balance of power like the one we have, it is indeed possible to humanise capitalism… (W)e have cut infant malnutrition by 10 per cent, we have cut infant mortality dramatically by administering Cuba-made Hepatitis B vaccinations to all children. We have allocated much more money to education

– from less than 3 per cent to more than 6 per cent of the budget; access to potable water has dramatically increased… (W)e are trying to move slowly but surely toward an economic alternative to dehumanised capitalism.

In the next chapter, Harnecker and Chavez converse about international policies and its implications for the Venezuelan processes. Venezuela, which was heading both the G15 and G77, had agreed to supply cheap petroleum to 11 neighbouring countries in Americas and Caribbean as a gesture of goodwill and solidarity. It also had agreed to supply oil to Cuba in exchange of expertise in areas like medicine and agriculture as part of a special bipartite agreement. Chavez has proposed a “Bolivarian alliance” amongst the Latin American countries as a counterpoise to the US-led Free Trade Areas of the Americas (FTAA). Chavez also shared his plans to form a pan American petroleum company which may include Mexico as well, to fight the western monopoly. Here he also elucidates his views on various emerging issues like the “war on terror”, relationship with the US, his disagreement with random killings of civilians by militant groups and his proposal to direct the energies against war and social injustice instead.

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

Political Education

In Chapter VI, Chavez talks about the role of middle classes and the media in the revolutionary processes. He confesses a general lack of support amongst the middle classes and responds to the charge that he is surrounded by the “loyalists”. Harnecker and Chavez also discuss the implications of the lack of support of the international middle classes for the revolution, unlike in the cases of Chile and Nicaragua, and partly blame the “misinformation” campaign against them in the media. One of the most remarkable and perhaps markedly different features from the 20th century revolutions has been the freedom that the opposition media has enjoyed in Venezuela. It, in fact, goes to the other extreme – Harnecker terms it as the most extreme case of “such a libertarian approach to the press”. Chavez clarifies that the new constitution has built safeguards for “truthful information” and that the media is bound by it. Though the “big” media is still in the hands of private and anti-revolutionary interests, a lot of community-based media have sprung up in Venezuela in a short span of time. The media has been used creatively to reach out to the people both for communicating what the revolution has been doing and getting feedback as well –like through the weekly programme called “Alo Presidente”. Though there have been some criticisms of “Chavez centrism” of the show, it has virtually become a “school for political education of the masses”.

In the penultimate chapter Chavez talks about the political processes that have been unleashed in Venezuela – the role of party (actually the lack of it), the grassroot cooperatives, and the “Bolivarian circles”. The political party, MVR, was formed for the specific purpose of contesting elections in 1999. But later when MVR appeared to have become bureaucratic – centralised, the need was felt for popular participation. Thus MBR 200 was relaunched and formation of Bolivarian circles was encouraged. The idea behind MBR 200 was that instead of a “vanguard party”, it is the people from below who should lead the revolution. Bolivarian circles were supposed to be formed in every neighbourhood and workplace and could take up all kinds of collective issues in the social-political and economic domain and the whole society was conceptualised as a network of such circles; he gives examples of how Bolivarian circles picked up specific problems, organised themselves and solved them through selfhelp with little support from the state. To charges of being autocratic and/or populist, and of building a personality cult he asserts that the revolution is in a particularly intense phase where he has to work as a “social guerrilla”, but anticipates that it is just a matter of time before popular institutions would become entrenched and he would be able to slow down and move out of the centre stage.

The book should be of interest to all those looking for possibilities beyond the present order, all of us who seek to participate in processes to “make the impossible possible” to borrow the phrase from Harnecker. Something important is under way in Venezuela and Latin America and we need to critically examine it. Chavez comes out as an open and honest person, ready to assess his critiques fairly and also own up the weaknesses of the revolution. The book is largely Chavez-centric rather than of the revolution in general, because that is the stated focus of the present work. All the same, one gets to know the views of an extraordinary individual who has a significant part to play in the unfolding of revolutionary processes in our times. Even if Chavez has become the icon of the revolution, one hopes that the revolution will be able to go beyond Chavez and Venezuela in the coming decades.



Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

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