Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bolivarian Socialism, What Is It?

"Si saber no es un derecho, seguro será un izquierdo." ~Silvio Rodríguez

There is a definite trend in Latin America towards the left. Over the last decade governments have grown increasingly cold towards Washington D.C. One can simply look at a map of South America and find that only few country’s governments are still taking orders from Crawford, Texas: Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Peru (though changes towards the left are possible in the upcoming elections in Ecuador and Peru). The most obvious inspirations for this tack away from the “Washington Concensus” (a policy of neoliberal economics between the U.S. and Latin America) have been the Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez and Venezuela. Some have called what is happening in Venezuela “progressive,” “populist,” “socialist,” “democratic social reform,” or have even called it “revolutionary,” but the most commonly held belief is that this swing to the left in Venezuela—as well as the rest of Latin America—is inspired primarily by a sentiment of anti-U.S. imperialism. From this belief stems the hope that an end to U.S. intervention and meddling in the region will precede an end to suffering. This is an unfortunate perception because it only gives us half of the picture.
Credit must be given to Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution for reinventing socialism for the 21st century and showing the rest of the world a way towards a more socially just future. Chavez’s unorthodox and open-minded approach to revolution is unique and deserves a more critical analysis. It should also be noted that the positive results and advancements of social justice are a result of the right of unfettered self-determination from inside Venezuela’s democratic government. In this case, as it is in all other, it was not due to the “benign intent” of white men in Washington making empty declarations of “freedom and democracy.” While the impact of the U.S. imperialism in Latin America over the last couple of centuries has been decidedly devastating, and an end to U.S. intervention would logically do a lot to reverse perpetual poverty and war, it should be recognized that the unprecedented achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela in such a short time is rooted—more than anything else—in the radical departure from capitalist/neoliberal economics and its decisive path towards a new kind of socialism.
This shift to the political left is marked by several major events over the last seven years, but it is undoubtedly highlighted by the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. The ripple effect of the radical changes made by Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, is being felt throughout the Latin American region and has incited the wrath of the U.S. government who, according to Chavez, is planning his assassination and has even practiced war games (Operation Balboa) to invade Venezuela. There is little reason to doubt Chavez’s fears considering the U.S. government’s involvement in a failed coup attempt in April of 2002, as well as the recent fatwa issued by religio-politico Pat Robertson to “assassinate” the Venezuelan leader. What cannot be denied is that Venezuela’s revolutionary changes, radical social advances and its fierce anti-imperialist rhetoric has inspired popular social movements throughout Latin America and has bolstered other countries struggles to throw off their own chains of oppression.
Shortly after Chavez was elected, he advanced his social program by having 20,000 Cuban doctors brought into Venezuela to take care of people that had previously never seen a doctor in their lives. Chavez also brought in many more Cuban educators that began an unprecedented literacy program to empower the disaffected illiterate masses through education. He recognized, as did Castro, that if people are educated they can better defend themselves from the negative effects of anti-revolutionary propaganda. It is likely that Chavez received much of his inspiration from the Cuban Revolution and Castro himself. However, there is something that sets Chavez apart from previous revolutionary projects.
Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution continue to buck the traditional trends of popular socialist movements from the past. Primarily, Chavez has—as of yet—not followed in the dictatorial footsteps of Soviet Bolshevism, Chairman Mao or the Cuban Revolution. One can even observe the peculiar expressions of some doctrinaire socialists who express frustration that Chavez is not following “the prescriptions” of socialism. It is as though they learned nothing from the past, and are concerned only that Chavez is not confining himself to a strict socialist doctrine. As a result, they are unable to recognize that Chavez’s departure from their stagnate socialist doctrine may indeed be the reason the Bolivarian Revolution has been successful thus far.
Chavez has done several things that would unnerve the likes of Castro, Mao, or Stalin. For example, 1) Chavez has not limited free expression. Chavez still faces a vituperative media which consists of an ultra-conservative corporation that owns twelve channels that are fiercely anti-Chavez. Chavez has refused, up to this point, to put any restrictions on the media or any other form of peaceful demonstration. Additionally, 2) he has not stifled the electoral process, as many of his predecessors had. During a referendum vote to remove Chavez from office in August of 2004, international election observers called it a transparent and fair election of the highest standard—especially compared to the 2004 presidential elections of the U.S. (Chavez won that election with nearly 70% of the vote). 3) Another difference is that Chavez did not execute or even imprison the plotters of the coup from 2002. Finally, 4) Chavez has still not expropriated all of the land and natural resources of Venezuela (though the redistribution of land is an important aspect of the revolution), but he has seen to it that all of Venezuela’s wealth from its natural resources was immediately used to benefit Venezuelan people.
The most striking difference of Chavez and other revolutionary leaders has been his effort to “decentralize” the government. This completely breaks with tradition. Chavez has encouraged the growth of grassroots organizing in the form of local level cooperatives. He believes this will eliminate the “corrupt bureaucracy” by putting the decision and means of making local level changes in the hands of cooperatives. When Chavez was elected into office in 1999, there were 762 cooperatives in Venezuela. Today there are 83,769 cooperatives that are concerned with “local development.” The cooperative policies “are adjusted to their specific conditions and employing local resources, equity and human development are prioritized. The official interpretation of ‘endogenous development’ also emphasizes the importance of local, diversified and sustainable development, and the commitment to respect Venezuelans’ different cultures and identities.” By embracing this kind of grassroots organizing, Chavez is genuinely placing the “means of production” (the central tenet of socialism) in the hands of the masses. Chavez is truly decentralizing his government and preventing all kinds of potential corruption and the concentration of power that led to the atrocious oppression in the Soviet Union.
Chavez has also reached out to other, more radical movements in Latin America and within the Bolivarian Revolution, namely the Worker-Occupied Factory Movement. In October of this year, Venezuela hosted the first-ever WOFM conference in Caracas. Chavez spoke at this conference inviting these spontaneous anarchists to advance their movement. Chavez spoke of the "potential of the workers in our continent to break their chains and leave capitalism behind". Again, Chavez is showing himself to be unafraid of letting the social revolution spread its wings through his explicit endorsement of the WOFM. Critical observers, including radical economist Michael Albert (founder of South End Press and author of Parecon, Life After Capitalism), have commented that “the Bolivarian revolution is most ideologically clear […] regarding political democracy and political participation where it seems to be already committed to a well conceived, compelling and innovative institutional vision that outstrips what any other revolutionary project since the Spanish anarchists has held forth.” By including the most radical proponents of social revolution in the advancement of this most definite human trend (libertarian socialism), “Chavez appears to be a remarkable detonator of insights, himself moving leftward at a great pace.”
It may be giving Chavez too much credit, but he very well may recognize that every previous socialist project stalled as soon as clamps were put on the most radical elements of the social revolution that had demanded a further shift to the left. Typically this happens through the concentration of power, the limiting of debate and criticism within the left-wing itself, and finally, through the rooting out and persecution the avant-garde. Up until this point, Chavez has not reacted as such and this may indicate his appreciation that people cannot be asked to be patient forever and once they see the potential of radical socialism they will clamor. Chavez has, up to this point, encouraged an open-minded and limitless approach towards socialism and the result has been the historically unique and radical Bolivarian Revolution.