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Venezuela’s democratic alternative


This is a telling quote about the expansion of REAL democracy in today’s Venezuela. In fact, region-wide polling by Latinobarometro shows Venezuelans nearly tied with Uruguay for first place in considering their country to be democratic, and second only to Uruguay in their satisfaction with their democracy, as well as being the most politically active of any Latin American country.

A group of nineteen with a diverse range of ages and bachgrounds (3 social workers, 2 teachers, a lawyer, myself as the sole representative  from Great Britain, a minister, and others) attended two to four meetings a day with the human rights commission, the major opposition party, the state-owned oil company – PDVSA, the women’s bank, three co-operatives, an adult education class, a health clinic, political scientists, a former Maryknoll missionary, the Afro-Venezuelan network, a community TV station, and more, in an attempt to see for ourselves how Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” is transforming Venezuela.

The opening  quote was a spontaneous response by a shoe co-operative worker at the Fabricio Ojeda community enterprise complex and is an example of participatory democracy in action.  And it’s not only happening in the work place but in civil society at large.  Thus the new “Consejos Communales” (Community Councils) are the latest embodiment of the spontaneous exercise of people power that mushroomed in 2002-03 in response to the orchestrated attempt by the oligarchy – oil executives, media magnates and opposition  politicians to overthrow the Chavez government.   Then workers took over key roles in the oil industry 64-day bosses’ oil strike to help defeat the total economic strangulation of the country. 

The confidence was later transferred to grassroots involvement in the implementation of the “misiones” social projects to improve the education, health, nutrition  and prospects  of the mass of the population in the face of the obstructive bureaucracy stemming from the clientelism of the fourth republic. As Charlie Hardy, a former US priest and resident activist for the last 20 years in Caracas told us “Venezuela will never be the same again – Chavez or no Chavez”.

As a lifelong co-operator I was very pleased to see from a classroom visit that “co-operativismo” is a key theme being taught in schools.  The Schools provide free food and drink to pupils throughout the school day, which lasts, in the case of High Schools from 7.30am – 6pm. The government have made  education a true priority with Misiones Robinson, Ribas  (established by the Energy ministry and the New PDVSA) and Sucre being respectively responsible for the abolition of illiteracy, the introduction of the right to complete high school education for those unable to complete in the past because of economic pressures, and the universal right to free education up to and including first degree level.

From the school we went to Catia TV – an inspiring initiative in community media production, which has existed legally for five years, and illegally for 16 years before that.  It grew out of discussions on socialism and communism in a community centre, and then progressed to showing films.  Hugo Chavez had knowledge of the Catia area from his baseball playing days, and the needs and experiences of the new project influenced him and the government in favour of legislation in favour of community media projects, including government funding for people to create audio-visual materials.

The following day we were at Fabricio Ojeda, a collection of co-operatives and public services.  It is named after a political activist, who in the early sixties was forced to go “underground” before being captured by the police, imprisoned and his eventual “suicide”.  The complex is home to a host of new co-operative enterprises, as well as one of the 24 hour polyclinics – complete with dental surgery and post trauma facilities.  The enterprises include Co-operative Nuenfao, which makes footwear, a co-operative restaurant where we enjoyed an excellent lunch, using vegetables from the organic garden, a co-operative pharmacy and one of the ubiquitous Mercal stores where key items  are sold at a discount of 40% compared with normal shop prices.  Nuenfao, the textile co-operative also on site, together with the sewing co-operative which we visited in Barlovento are fairly large concerns, all employing upwards of 100 people.  At Co-operativo Mudebar in Barlovento, current income from contracts was enough to enable the workers to earn double the minimum wage of £130 per month.
Banmujer, the Women’s Development Bank is unique in the world, as a provider of micro-credits to women’s co-operatives, and similar associative enterprises, together with associated advisory services. They have reached out to some of  the hitherto most marginalised members of Venezuelan society, including Amerindians.  Interest rates are 1% per month or less – i.e they are negative in a country with an inflation rate of about 15% per annum.

They have produced a guide to forming co-operatives, and run workshops on small business operation, sexual health and self-empowerment, benefiting a total of 1.4 million people in the last five years.  Internationally, Banmujer works with UN agencies, pressure groups and Nora Castenada, its inspirational President has undertaken international speaking tours and written a book “Creating a Caring Economy” which reflects a people-centred approach to economic organisation.

Next morning we were guests at PDVSA – the state oil corporation responsible for about a quarter of national income and half of tax revenue.  The presentation was very interesting, detailed and, because of its length, interspersed with a short lunch break.

The “new” PDVSA is orientated to fulfilling a social plan to directly improve the lives of the vast majority of Venezuelans, as opposed to the old priorities of empire building which were the hallmark of PDVSA in the pre-Chavez era.  Although a nationalised organisation from 1976, the organisation had been managed in the style of a transnational corporation, acquiring refineries and establishing subsidiary operations largely as a means of retaining foreign currency revenues outside Venezuela and hence  of tax evasion.  CITGO, which has thousands of filling stations in the US is a wholly owned subsidiary.  Likewise, the company has an interest in refineries in Great Britain in Dundee and Eastham on the Wirral as a result of a partnership with a Finnish energy company.

In the ambitious plan for the years  until 2012, it is planned to increase daily production from 3.3 to 5.8 million barrels per  day.  Oil reserve levels rank Venezuela as second only to Middle Eastern countries, but when the reserves at the Orinoco belt are quantified, it is highly likely that the country will have the largest reserves in the world

In addition the plan is to increase social investment from 2 billion bolivares to 21 billion bolivares per year to help in reducing those living in poverty from 65 to 30 per cent of the population. Think about the contrast with BP – it may be able to pay Chief Executive Lord Browne about £4.5 million per year, but social investment plan, forget it! 17 Social oil and Gas Districts have been launched, where the company  directs investments to move forward social development. Nowhere else in the world is there such an organised plan, certainly not in Iraq, which is moving to oil privatisation and not even in Norway.

Venezuela is now playing a lead role in OPEC, the organisation oil exporting countries.  In addition PDVSA is diversifying its markets, with an accent on three initiatives aimed at supplying different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.


There are ambitious plans for a pipeline for increased oil exports to the Chinese market via Colombia and Panama. All this after organised sabotage by the enemy within during the “bosses’ strike”, which in monetary terms is estimated at $14,430 million. Venezuela is also spearheading plans for natural gas pipelines – it has one of the largest accumulations of gas in Latin America – through to Colombia and also a 10,000 kilometre line through  to  Argentina.

The Venezuelan people are on the move and so increasingly are the people of Latin America.  Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua,  Bolivia and hopefully, soon,  Ecuador will be marching forward under the banner of ALBA – the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas – a defiant rebuttal of the US-sponsored Free Trade for the Americas.

We also learned that in Hugo Chavez’s  Venezuela an attempt has been made to set an example at the top to stop the upward spiral of executive incomes.  Thus President  Chavez himself only accepts 4 million (bolivares that is) per month –about £1,000.   Executive salaries in government service are now capped at a maximum of 6 million per month.
One minus is the omnipresent fuel fumes, but the government  is acting here too with plans to move to LPG fuels based on propane and butane.   The government is demonstrating its green credentials by distributing 52 million low energy light bulbs to its citizens. It was interesting to see an audio-visual  representation at PDVSA of world energy consumption by night – contrasting the developed Northern hemisphere and Global South consumption.

There is certainly no lack of political action in Caracas, particularly as my visit covered the passing of the Enabling Law.  There is a lively ongoing debate about the future of the Bolivarian Revolution, plans for a unified socialist party and the concept of 21st century socialism, ex-presidential Chief of Staff Haiman El-Troudi being a key thinker on the latter.   I have never been anywhere else where people come and talk enthusiastically, constitution in hand, about their new rights.  It certainly does not tally with hysterical talk of “dictatorship” and “threats to democracy” from the US and the oligarchy.   

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