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Friday, April 21, 2006,10:28 AM
Book Review: The Venezuelan Revolution 100 Questions-100 Answers
Book Reviewed by Amin Sharif

Ever since Harry Belafonte returned from Venezuela declaring President Bush a terrorist and announcing his support for President Hugo Chavez, there has been much interest within the radical community and among people in general about what is really going on in Venezuela . The Venezuelan Revolution answers 100 of the most fundamental questions about the revolution. It is an excellent, concise, and unvarnished account of how the Bolivarian Republic—as it is known among the masses in Venezuela—came to power and to the lofty social, economic, and political goals to which it is dedicated. Almost every question that could be anticipated by the reader about Venezuela—from the nature of its constitution, the status of the indigenous peoples, Venezuela’s conflict with the United States, why Chavez was briefly overthrown, and what the future of the revolution maybe—is addressed in this small book.

But more than anything else, Boudin, Gonzalez, and Rumbos have exposed as baseless slander the prevailing idea that the Venezuelan revolution is a dictatorship set against the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people. Indeed with its revolutionary ideology of “participatory” rather than “representative” democracy, Venezuela may be even more democratic than many of the states in the West, including the United States of America.

Let us begin our review by examining the Bolivarian Republic and confronting the most pervasive question about any revolutionary change that emanates from Latin America or the Caribbean. Is it communist? The authors of the Venezuelan Revolution quickly dismiss this notion and show conclusively that, "Although the Venezuelan Communist Party (PVC) supports the Chavez government and was the first party (besides his MRV party) to endorse his presidential candidacy in 1998, its members do not currently have any significant positions in the central government. None of the ministers, members of the National Assembly, state governors, or any other high-ranking public officials are communists."

Indeed, the authors of the Venezuelan Revolution attest that the “Marxist-Leninist party, Bandera Roja, and the labor party, La Causa Radical, stand in opposition” to the Chavez government.

What makes this book so valuable is that each question raised and answered not only sheds light on an individual aspect of the revolution. But, all 100 questions and answers form an organic composite of the revolution. One sees and understands clearly the strength and weakness inherent in the revolutionary process undertaken by Chavez and the Venezuelan masses.

But before we proceed any further, it may be instructive for the reader to have some sense of the, albeit abbreviated, history of Venezuela, a country which provides the United States with 12 percent of its daily oil imports. As the authors inform us, "Beginning with the Spanish colonization in the1550’s, a series of dictatorial regimes ruled Venezuela until 1958, when a power-sharing agreement between the leading political parties led to the creation of what became essentially a two party democracy."

Politicians from the Accion Democratica (AD) and Comite de Organizacion Politica Electoral Independiente (COPEI) would share power for the next forty years, even as their policies led the country into a protracted national crisis.

The protracted national crisis began in 1980 when oil prices dropped. The result was that many oil producing countries throughout the world, including Venezuela, found they were unable to make payments on their foreign debt. Then, ". . . in 1983, a massive bank failure combined with widespread embezzlement and capital flight wiped out the savings of much of the middle class. In the midst of this recession, marked by spiraling national debt, international financial institutions promoted neo-liberal economic policies that became a central part of the Venezuelan government program for over a decade."

It was under these neo-liberal policies administered by both the AD and COPEI that the standard of living for all but the wealthiest Venezuelans continued to erode. In February 1989, in the wake of the imposition of yet another round of neo-liberal policies, people took to the streets by the hundred of thousands to protest what became known as the “Caracazo.” The military was called in, and the protests were put down in a hail of bullets. Some 5,000 protests followed over the next three years.

By 1997, a staggering 85 percent of the Venezuelan people were living in poverty and an astounding “67 percent were living in extreme poverty, earning less than $2 a day.” Under these stark conditions, it is no wonder that the “majority gave up on institutional reform, demanding revolutionary change instead.” The man who led the Venezuelan masses in initiating this revolutionary change was Hugo Chavez.

But who is Hugo Chavez? We are given the following biographic sketch of the controversial President of Venezuela by our authors. "Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born in 1954 in a rural town called Sabaneta in Barinas State. Both his mother and father were schoolteachers . . . Chavez turned seventeen with the dream of becoming a professional baseball player, and he enrolled in the military academy hoping it would launch his career as a big-league pitcher. The baseball career never worked out, but Chavez did graduate as an officer in the Venezuelan military."

It was as a military officer that Chavez witnessed how ruthlessly President Perez put down the Caracazo demonstrations. Some three years later in February of 1992, Lieutenant Colonel Chavez led an unsuccessful military coup which made him a national hero but also sent him to jail. A second unsuccessful coup was attempted against Perez in November of 1992. But it would not be until 1993 that Perez would be successfully impeached and removed from office. Hugo Chavez was pardoned one year later and eventually elected President of Venezuela in 1998 with an amazing 62 percent of the vote.

Chavez is often portrayed in the Western media as a communist dictator principally because of his friendship with Fidel Castro. But Chavez characterized himself as a Christian, a socialist, a nationalist, and an internationalist. And unlike Castro, Chavez has run for and won nine electoral contests. Yet what is even more telling about how Chavez feels about the democratic process is that, "In August 2004, in the wake of a massive opposition signature drive and under international pressure, Chavez submitted himself to a presidential recall referendum and was ratified by 59 percent of the vote."

Clearly, this is not the kind of political act one expects from your garden variety Latin American dictator. In addition to submitting himself to the democratic will of his people, Chavez has held referendums on many of his major policies. Even in constructing a new constitution for his country, we can see how he sought to avoid political elitism, "The process of writing the text of the new constitution, based on the template that President Chavez presented to the assembly, was not limited to the elected members of the assembly, but was rather open to public participation."

Public participation took many forms, including forums, Internet pages, popular assemblies, study groups, and public debates. The privately owned media, universities, political parties, and NGO’s all brought their suggestions to the attention of the members of the assembly elected from their regions, who were then charged with delivering the ideas to the relevant subcommittee.

The authors of Venezuelan Revolution do a superb job in fleshing out not only the process of how the new constitution was drafted but its actually impact (or lack of impact) on the Venezuelan masses.

Still, a constitution no matter how well written amounts to very little unless it empowers the masses to solve their most fundamental problems. What lies behind the constitution and the Venezuelan revolution is the notion unique of participatory and protagonistic democracy. Unlike American representative democracy which stresses voting for candidates, participatory and protagonistic democracy, "is a model that attempts to stimulate and guarantee the people’s active participation in the process of governing the country."

Participatory democracy demands that citizens play a role in developing government policy, prioritizing budgets so as to benefit the entire government. It is a form of government that facilitates monitoring the government’s progress and its level of corruption and inefficiency, and that call for change where necessary. It is participatory because people have a role that goes beyond simply casting ballots; it is protagonistic because the people play a role in managing the government.

The case is made in the Venezuelan Revolution that it is precisely because Chavez has vested the poor and working masses with the power to shape governmental policies that he has drawn so much criticism at home and abroad. In December of 2002, opposition forces mounted a national strike against Chavez that lasted nearly 62 days “causing billions of dollars of damage to the oil wells and refineries.” It was only when oil workers loyal to Chavez took back the wells and refineries that the strike was stopped.

Some two years later, Chavez was briefly ousted from power in a failed coup attempt. But whether the opposition arises from reactionary domestic conspirators or the machinations of outside forces such as the United States, the Venezuelan masses have always rallied to defend Chavez and their revolution against any and all enemies.

Still, even with the evident support of the Venezuelan masses, the Bolivarian Republic faces some serious roadblocks to its development. Poverty and corruption, in all its manifest forms, may eventually evaporate the support of the masses for the revolution if not addressed quickly.

Our authors have informed us that the spirit of the Venezuelan revolution is contained in its drive to make participatory democracy a reality. The muscle of the Venezuelan revolution to attack its myriad social ills is embodied in Chavez’s concept of social missions. What are the missions? They are described by the authors in the following passage: "The missions are extraordinary social campaigns through which the Venezuelan government is attempting to address its citizens most pressing needs. The government developed the missions in an attempt to enact participatory democracy on the ground in order to accomplish campaign promises in areas such as health, education, food, housing, and employment."

On its face, the missions sound like just another socialist program. One would be right in assessing them as such if it not for the unique form of the socialism which gives them structure. For, as we are informed, "The idea of the missions, as the name implies, derives loosely from Christian theology, President Chavez is a practicing Christian and invites government leaders, members of the church, health care workers, business leaders, and people from around the country to participate in helping Venezuela’ most downtrodden in the tradition of Christian missionaries-following the example of Christ . . . Chavez views Jesus Christ as the first socialist."

It is this nexus of participatory democracy, Christian inspired socialism, and unique governmental organization that makes the Venezuelan revolution unlike any revolutionary effort that has been attempted before in history. Yet, even with all its strength, there are problems that seem to be beyond the reach of the spirit and muscle of the revolution. Racism and sexism are admittedly two of the most pressing social problems that have yet to be solved by the Venezuelan revolution.

Some eight percent of Venezuela’s population is of African descent. Yet our authors’ honestly state that this population “has not benefited as a group” from the fruits of the revolution. When one contrasts the monumental efforts undertaken by the government to address the historical inequities suffered by the indigenous people of Venezuela, the lack of attention to the problem of racism is indeed troubling.

Venezuelan women constitute 49.6 percent of the population. The women’s movement has, according to our authors, “been one of the strongest progressive movements in Venezuelan history.” It is clear from the information provided to us in the Venezuelan Revolution that there has been progress in providing women and their children with much needed legal and social protection. The Venezuelan Ministry of Education has even been obliged “to incorporate new teaching methods from preschool onward, oriented to modify sociocultural norms of the behavior of boys and girls.” Undoubtedly, this progressive and far reaching policy will address the inequities between Venezuelan men and women in the future.

Yet, "Despite these legal gains, only 18 of 165 National Assembly deputies (11 percent) are women. Only 2 out of 22 governors are women (9 percent) and only 20 out of total of 335 mayors are women (6 percent)."

It is clear that if the Venezuelan revolution is to survive it must seek a way to address not only the inequities of poverty but also of race and gender.

One would conclude from all the information provided by our authors in the Venezuelan Revolution that the United States would seek to support a democratically elected and committed Christian leader such as Chavez. But this is far from the case. In the Venezuelan Revolution, we are given the reason why there is so much enmity between the United States and the Bolivarian Republic. The main reason why the United States has problems with Chavez is centered on the question of regional hegemony. That is, who should play the leading role in developing Latin America?

Since the advent of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has used a series of dubious pretexts to keep Latin America and Caribbean countries under its thumb. In regard to Venezuela, our authors assert that, historically, "Venezuela governments have put a lot of energy into maintaining a strong relationship with the United States without paying much attention to other bilateral relationships . . . The Chavez government actively seeks to break this historic dependency."

The principle way in which Chavez has sought to break with the United States is by pursuing an entirely independent foreign policy. Not only has Chavez befriended Castro but he has also hosted President Khatami of Iran, visited Saddam Hussein in Iraq (before the war) and Mu’ammar Gadhafi in Libya. Chavez has also worked to strengthen OPEC which resulted in “driving up oil prices.” But what is not more generally known is how much aid Chavez has given to other Third World countries and even to poor communities within the United States.

More recently Chavez has worked to oppose the United States Free Trade Zone of America (FTAA). Like NAFTA which established a free trade zone between Mexico, Canada, and the United States, FTAA would, “make all of the Western Hemisphere (thirty-four countries) with the exception of Cuba, a free trade zone.” In essence, FTAA would give the entire Southwestern Hemisphere over to exploitation of multinational corporations at the expense of the national sovereignty of individual Latin American countries. It is because Chavez has followed an independent foreign policy and acted to thwart the plans to economically integrate all the Latin America countries under the flag of multinational corporate interests that he has become the enemy of the United States.

The principle question for radical and progressive forces concerning Venezuela is whether both its domestic and foreign policies constitutes real revolutionary change in the region? There has been much written by especially the socialist forces on this matter. But this is what our author tell us, "The Bolivarian Revolution began by overhauling the political-judicial structures that served to maintain the previous system of the government and the rampant inequalities that it produced. The revolution is now focusing on economic and social changes in the interest of the majority of Venezuelans living in poverty . . . These changes do not yet fundamentally impact capitalist development, the rule of law, or private property. Still, in the context of this country’s recent history, most, Venezuelans, whether they support them or oppose them, recognize that the profound changes that are currently in progress are indeed revolutionary. "

Recently, The International Socialist Review (Issue 46 March-April 2006) dedicated its spring issue to the examining the political developments in Venezuela and Bolivia. The venerable socialist theorist, Noam Chomsky, in an essay called, "Latin America at the Tipping point, states that, "From Venezuela to Argentina, the hemisphere is getting completely out of control, with left-central governments all the way through. Even in Central America, still suffering the aftereffects of President Reagan’s 'war on terror', the lid is barely on."

Chomsky seems to see Venezuela as at least as part and parcel of a general progressive tide that is sweeping Latin America. Chomsky’s view seems to arise from the role that Chavez has in placing Venezuela within Mercosur (a South American trading zone) which he rightly states “represents an alterative to the so-called Free Trade Area of America.”

In "An Unconscious Socialist Revolution" (The International Socialist Review (Issue 46 March-April 2006), Américo Tabata, Venezuelan member of the national committee of the Party of Revolution and Socialism (PRS), believes that "an unconscious socialist revolution . . . is unfolding" in Venezuela. For example, Tabata admits that Chavez’s missions are, “democratic achievements wrested from the bourgeoisie and imperialism by popular struggle.” But still, he wonders about whether such democratic achievements will necessarily lead to a socialist state. Both articles by Chomsky and Tabata make great companion pieces for The Venezuelan Revolution and should be read by all those who have interest in the revolution.

But despite criticism raised about the revolution, there can be little doubt that Venezuela is indeed a progressive country and that its anti-imperialist stand should be enough for it to enjoy the support of radical and progressive forces everywhere in the world. Whether Venezuela veers further left, remains the same, or recaptured by the right it is in the final analysis a matter to be decided by the poor and working masses. What Boudin, Gonzalez and Rumbos reveal in their book is how complex, even fluid, the revolutionary situation is in Venezuela.

It is not simply the answers given by our authors to the larger issues such as whether the achievements of the Bolivarian Republic is revolutionary that make this book so compelling. The answers to questions about urban crime, the prison system, the media, state run corporations, the changing role of the military and the transformation of political parties, all enhance our understanding of what the Venezuelan people are trying to accomplish. The Venezuelan Revolution 100 Questions-100 Answers is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the essential thrust of revolutionary activity in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. I commend Boudin, Gonzalez, and Rumbos on compiling a highly effective work and highly recommend that it be included in the library of all progressive and radical forces.
posted by R J Noriega
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