Venezuelan Democracy: A Tension Between Centralized Power and Local Democracy
Manuel Larrabure: The Bolivarian Revolution succeeded in developing models of community power and reduced inequality but so far has failed to diversify the economy or extend workers democracy in the oil and mining sector
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
With the death of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the big questions are obviously: will his 21st-century socialism experiment continue? Well, then the other question, I guess, is: just what was that 21st-century socialism experiment?
Now joining us to talk about that is Manuel Larrabure. He’s a PhD candidate in the political science department at York University in Toronto, Canada. His research is on Latin America’s new cooperative movement and 21st-century socialism. He spent a lot of time studying it in Venezuela. He in fact originally was born in Venezuela, grew up in Peru. And now he joins us from Argentina.
Thanks for joining us, Manuel.
MANUEL LARRABURE, POLITICAL SCIENTIST: Great to be here, Paul.
JAY: So talk a little bit about what–I guess, what was the vision of 21st-century socialism of Hugo Chavez and what did you find was the reality of it.
LARRABURE: Yeah. I think when we talk about 21st-century socialism, we can begin by rejecting three different approaches that have been tried in the past. One approach was the vanguard style of social transformation, which was characterized by a small political elite leading the masses and then essentially telling them what to do. We must reject that. And I think that’s one of the things that the Bolivarian Revolution rejects.
The second was the social democratic style of social transformation, which was characterized by populating the state with a number of bureaucrats and technocrats that were left-leaning. And the idea there was that you simply vote for us, and then we slowly but surely will bring social transformation to you. That also, I think, has been rejected by the Bolivarian Revolution.
Lastly was the Stalinist model, which was characterized by a monolithic party in which all politics are centralized in.
In Venezuela what we’re seeing is something slightly different. In fact, what we’re seeing, at its best, is the development of what I call the new cooperative movement in Latin America, but it’s specific, I think, in Venezuela as being one of the most vibrant. And here we see a concept of social transformation from below, workers and communities taking politics right to their neighborhoods in the case of the communal councils or the workplaces in the case of worker-run cooperatives or co-managed enterprises.
JAY: So how was that working in practice? I mean, certainly the critique of Hugo Chavez was that power was very centralized and that, you know, everything was commanded out of the presidential palace and such. But what you’re describing is something different.
LARRABURE: Yeah. It’s one of the key tensions [incompr.] that I think is present in the Venezuelan context. On the one hand, we have a tendency for a certain degree of authoritarianism and centralization in the hands of the executive and the state in general, but on the other hand, a certain level of decentralization at the level of communal councils, cooperatives, and so on. And I think this is, to me, the central paradox, if you will, of the 21st-century ideals, and it’s one that needs to be resolved, in my view, by a continuous struggle by workers and communities, in spite of the fact that the state in many cases supports them. So I think that’s a tension that still needs to be resolved over time.
JAY: Yeah, because in fact one of the things Chavez did is he sort of–and he was criticized for this in the sense that some of the existing state and governmental institutions, people that supported them, you could say, were critical that some of the state money was going directly to some of the cooperatives and community councils to spend and sort of bypassing what had been the government and social structures, you could say.
LARRABURE: Yeah. That in fact was an innovation that came directly from Chavez himself, in fact. It’s part of what sometimes he refers to as bringing power to the people. Now, in itself, I think that’s also somewhat problematic, the idea of bringing power to the people rather than people struggling for power themselves. But nevertheless, it has opened up spaces for people to experiment with things such as, for example, participatory budgeting, which in the city of Carora, one city in the northwest region of Venezuela, implements what must be one of the most successful examples of participatory budgeting in the world. Almost 100 percent of the municipal budget is decided democratically.
JAY: So is this one of your case studies? And if it was, then break it down for us. How did it work?
LARRABURE: The participatory budgeting experience was not, in fact, one of my case studies, but it was happening in the same city in which I was studying co-managed socialist enterprises, as they’re called. But it was just one of the experiences that struck me as also very important.
JAY: Well, talk a bit about the budgeting, and then talk about your case study.
LARRABURE: Sure. The budgeting began a few years ago, and it was an initiative brought forth by both community people in the city as well as by the mayor at the time, who’s no longer there. And it began slowly but surely developing into a very successful project which is very much controlled by the communities.
In fact, I remember one of the stories the mayor told me. It was a debate around whether or not to repave some of the roads. And the roads were in such a condition that even the mayor himself, who was very supportive, fully supportive of the Bolivarian Revolution, suggested that in fact paving the roads was a necessity. However, the majority of people there did not agree with it. They rather wanted services such as better water treatment and so forth. And in other words, they overpowered the mayor through this process. So it’s a very nice example of how power from below is being created.
JAY: And how big a city was this? I mean, does something like this work in a larger city?
LARRABURE: It’s a small city, no doubt. But it’s a work in progress. And the issue of scale is one that would have to be worked out. But, I mean, there has been other examples in other cities in Latin America, most notably [incompr.] in Brazil. However, in my view, the experience in Carora has been much richer, at least so far.
JAY: And talk about your other case studies.
LARRABURE: Well, my other main interest was looking at what are known as socialist enterprises in Venezuela. And these are state-owned enterprises, productive enterprises, but that are managed democratically by the workers themselves, as well as the surrounding communities.
JAY: And how did it work? And how successful was it?
LARRABURE: I looked at three in particular, and I found a number of things. One was that through the process of democratic participation in these enterprises–and what I’m referring to here specifically is an assembly style of participation, where people make decisions about their everyday work schedules, production quotas, their rhythm of work, etc. And through these processes, people were [incompr.] able to learn new skills and new capacities, such as solidarity, democratic management, and so on. So that was a very positive aspect of them.
Another positive aspect of them is that most of the goods that are produced in these enterprises are sold at much below market prices in one of the many discount stores, government-run discount stores in the country, known as MERCAL or PDVAL, which sells everything from food to small appliances to furniture, etc., at much below the going rate. And this has helped, ’cause–one of the things that has helped many poor Venezuelans be lifted out of poverty, in fact, in the last ten years or so.
JAY: I mean, the critique that’s being made of the Venezuelan economy and political structure, system, is that President Chavez and now–I guess I’m not sure is he’s titled acting president until there’s an election, Maduro, that the oil revenues were used to alleviate poverty in the barrios and in some of the worst sections and has been somewhat successful in that, but that as a whole the Venezuelan economy hasn’t been diversified, and that oil production, in terms of the efficiency of oil production, has gone down, they claim. Did you get a sense of sort of the–you know, what does 21st-century socialism mean when you come to the sort of the most important sectors of the economy?
LARRABURE: Yes. First of all, you’re right. I think the goal to try to diversify the economy has not been met. In fact, today Venezuela is pretty much just as dependent on oil production as it was 12 years ago. So on that level there hasn’t been much progress, although part of the goal behind some of these socialist enterprises has been to diversify. But so far they’re just too small. There’s not enough of them. And there’s just not enough impetus to actually grow that sector of the economy in order to replace the oil industry.
In addition to that, the oil industry is considered sort of the jewel of the country and so far has sort of survived attempts at democratizing that sector. So, for example, we don’t see workers control [incompr.] democracy in the workplace at the level of the oil industry, which to me is one of the signs of weakness of the Bolivarian process so far, in addition, as far as economic development, such as mining and so forth. In fact, development of such a nature has been–is a priority according to the last strategic plans put together by Chavez during his election campaign, which Maduro has promised to take up as his main platform.
And in there you see, for example, the development of [incompr.] del Orinoco, which is basically the largest oil reserves–one of the largest oil reserves in the world. But there are also tar sands, for example, and developing tar sands, it’s obviously detrimental to the environment, as we’ve seen here in Canada, for example. And that comes into contradiction with, I think, a lot of the other goals of the Bolivarian Revolution, which include, for example, environmentalism. So I think that adds to some of the layers of complexity of the process.
JAY: Now, in Chavez’s last year as president, or maybe more than last year, but I think he picked up the pace in the last year or two, there was a movement towards nationalizing certain things, certain mines and some other enterprises. In those newly nationalized enterprises, is there any attempt to change management structure and democratize?
LARRABURE: For the most part, no. The extractive industry, it’s understood by the Venezuelan government to be its greatest source of revenue, and it treats it in such a way as to prevent any potential chaos. And, you know, as one can imagine, a workers takeover of a factory, at first it can be a little bit chaotic in a sense, but not chaos in necessarily a bad sense of the word that nothing works. But it’s a process of learning, of workers learning to run things, manage things, and it sometimes is a slow process. And I think the government is not willing at this point to make any changes in that direction because of the fear that the economy would collapse or there will be a detrimental effect to the economy.
JAY: And the development of these democratic centers of power, whether they’re worker-controlled factories or they’re community councils, what strength do they have in terms of the politics of the country, I mean, for example, both in terms of the relationship to the presidency, assuming it’s Maduro–or let’s say the opposition did win. What is the opposition dealing with in terms of these other forms of political power?
LARRABURE: It’s difficult to say what would happen if the opposition won. In my view, well, first of all, it’s unlikely that it will. Most polls are showing Maduro to have strong leads over the opposition candidate. So I would find it very surprising if Maduro is to lose the election.
Having said that, if they did win, the opposition, that is, a number of things could happen. I mean, the most scary of all possibilities is that an outright civil war might break out.
Also, what would happen to all the communal councils, all those cooperatives that are being funded? Would those continue to exist? My guess is that the opposition would slowly try to do away with those initiatives, perhaps not all in one go, but perhaps through a slow process.
How will people respond? How will communities and workers respond? Will they go to the streets again? So I think there’s a certain level of uncertainty, as far as that goes, as there is even if Maduro was to win, because after all he’s not Chavez, and people actually have a direct connection with Chavez in many ways that they don’t with Maduro.
JAY: And so what would that mean in terms of this process towards more socialization, if you will, of the economy?
LARRABURE: Well, it’s unclear. For example, Maduro was formerly a foreign policy minister, and in that position he in my view showed some unwelcome policies. For example, his support of many of the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East during the Arab Spring don’t really express, in my opinion, a view that would encourage more bottom-up development [crosstalk]
JAY: Yeah, but that certainly was policy established by Chavez. I don’t think it was anything Maduro came up with on his own, do you?
LARRABURE: No doubt. But nevertheless, he was the foreign policy minister, so some of the responsibility has to go to him as well. And given that that was his portfolio, it’s hard to imagine that he would have a radical change as far as foreign policy goes once he’s elected president. But it also expresses a certain level of mistrust, I think, for bottom-up movements as we have seen in the Middle East.
JAY: Alright. Well, we’ll pursue more of this, and we’ll come back to you as you get further into your studies on this. Thanks for joining us, Manuel.
LARRABURE: My pleasure. Thanks so much, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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