In search of self-emancipation in Venezuela

As with his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, there has been a relentless effort by Venezuela's right wing, backed up by the U.S. and other powerful governments, to drive President Nicolás Maduro from power, using violence and political and economic sabotage. But Maduro and his government are also guilty of using increasingly anti-democratic and repressive measures against all dissent. The question now facing the left is how to build an independent alternative that can follow through on the hope for a socialist society which puts people before profit. Here, Eva María responds to questions from journalist Anna Freeman.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (Prensa Miraflores)Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (Prensa Miraflores)

WHAT ARE the cautionary lessons to learn from Chavismo?

I WOULD say that the key cautionary lesson to learn from Chavismo is that no matter how noble the aim of an emancipatory project, it has to involve the mass participation of people in achieving their own freedom and taking control over their own lives and their communities to be successful.

There is a great deal of hope coming out of a project like Chavismo because you have a Third World country with an immense amount of wealth and obscene inequality providing a voice and an organizational space for the impoverished majority to pursue a decent life.

But the Chavismo project continues to suffer because it diverges in crucial ways from the self-emancipation that socialism is supposed to offer. There needs to be real participatory democracy at the grassroots level as well as at the party level. And there has to be a means for the working class to direct the powers of the state and the economy to carry out measures that benefit workers and the downtrodden.

So long as Chavismo relies on the "hyper-leadership" of both well-meaning and corrupt individuals who hold most of the power and therefore have the capacity to lead the project wherever they want, the potential will always remain that the emancipatory elements of this project become something else entirely.

DID THE socialist project fail in Venezuela or has the term "socialism" been misrepresented?

I WOULD certainly argue that the term "socialism" has been misrepresented. Chávez coined the term "socialism for the 21st century" to describe an emancipatory movement from below that would work in coordination with a socialist-friendly state in order to deploy state resources in the service of grassroots democracy and the slow and gradual development of a socialist revolution.

In practice, this resulted in a few significant political and social changes. For example, communities were empowered to come together and petition the state for better conditions as well as to propose new ideas about how to run the country. Indigenous rights were included in the Constitution for the first time. Health care and free education reached millions who had never had access to such basic services.

This model, however, continued to rely on a clientelist relationship between the state and the people. We have yet to see a revolutionary battle between the rulers and the ruled that would give the majority of the Venezuelan population an actual infrastructure to challenge the state when it defies the will of the working-class majority.

This kind of socialism therefore ignores the need for actual grassroots power so that real decisions can be made from below and not just requests that the state can then accept or reject at will.

If we take the type of socialism that Marx and Engels envision, the one I subscribe to, then we need to think about what a revolution actually looks like. It's true that the oil industry is owned by the state, but this does not mean that workers have real control over the industry. And what about the food industry? What about the medical industry?

The country is currently run by two ruling classes. First, there's the "bolibourgeoisie" made up of state bureaucrats drawn from the Bolivarian movement that has developed since the consolidation of the Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in power. Then there are the good old capitalists who have always controlled the production and distribution of goods in Venezuela's economy.

With the exception of some degree of localized communal production, these two ruling classes dominate every aspect of Venezuelan society. There is no real self-emancipation happening, which is the cornerstone of socialism.

WHY DOES the "left" in the West, particularly socialists, champion the "21st century socialism" Chávez hoped to create?

WHEN CHÁVEZ announced in 2005, six years after he became president, that he planned to implement 21st century socialism in Venezuela and pursue this model across the larger Latin American region, it shook the left around the world.

Socialism? From a prominent leader with mass popular support? After decades during which the examples of the USSR, Cuba and China had tarnished the very idea of socialism? And after it seemed like every country and even the left had largely accepted the "end of history" celebrated by Western capitalism after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union?

When Chávez then explained that this model for socialism was different from what the world witnessed in the USSR and Cuba and insisted that it had to be a socialism based on a model of participatory democracy in place of an autocratic state, this prospect inspired socialists around the world who were trying to figure out some way to reinvigorate the socialist movement.

If the question is why does the left in the West still champion this project, I think it is because some socialists hope that this "new" type of socialism, which attempts to fuse popular support from below with socialist state bureaucrats from above, might work at a time when it appears that all other socialist models that have come before have failed.

Plus, many on the left believe that the only reason Chavismo isn't working is that the forces of capitalism worldwide as well as Venezuelan capitalists are sabotaging the project.

But I think the reason why it's not working is much more complex than that. There are real contradictions with this type of socialism that can't be overcome, even if the right wing's economic war on Chavismo was not a reality.

Genuine socialism from below--revolutionary socialism--that sees the working class and the popular classes as the real motors of social change needs to be at the forefront of our hopes and struggles for a socialist future.

HOW DID Chávez's rule make Venezuela a better country?

CHÁVEZ BROUGHT to light the sharp class inequality facing the country and shined a spotlight on the poor for the first time under the country's liberal democracy. He came from this very class, and he fought--in the ways that he knew how to--to compel the power structures to recognize that the poor were the majority, and that they were the ones who were getting absolutely nothing from the immense wealth in the country.

He first tried to reconcile all the classes into a unity government to do this, but this failed after the right wing drew its guns and tried to take him out of power in an attempted coup in 2002, then a bosses' strike at Venezuela's state-owned oil corporation (PDVSA) at the end of the same year, and a recall referendum in 2004.

All of these attempts at overthrowing him failed due to the mass popular mobilization to stop the old ruling elite from simply taking back control of the country.

Chávez then was able to regain control of the PDVSA's oil revenue and used it to fund a wide array of social programs to address urgent needs--improvement of health care for the poor, education, housing, and the expansion of democratic spaces for communities that had historically had been totally shut out of the political process.

WHAT DO you make of the rhetoric coming from the U.S. and Western Europe? Is it right to condemn the current government and threaten military intervention?

THERE IS no place for either the U.S. or Western Europe to criticize Venezuela's democracy, and even less so to threaten any type of military intervention.

Countries like the U.S. and Spain have loudly condemned Chavismo as a dictatorial maneuver by "power-hungry communists," but this only serves to obscure the incredible amount of popular participation that has been vital to this project. It also fails to grasp the complexity of what is happening in the country.

Nothing of what the U.S. and European powers are saying is useful in any way for the Venezuelan people. The U.S. talks about Maduro being a dictator while invading and bombing countries across the Middle East and actively supporting Western-friendly dictators in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Singapore and countless other countries.

In Spain, they use Venezuela as a boogeyman to scare people away from Podemos, a party that has gained a lot of traction since the Indignados movement took place. It is purely anti-left propaganda designed to keep people from imagining the potential for social change beyond the narrow limits permitted within mainstream Spanish politics.

HOW DO Latin American forms of socialism differ from Western socialist projects?

SOCIALISM IN the West is generally identified with social democratic systems in Scandinavia or social democratic parties in Britain, France and Germany--which are based on the idea that you can elect socialists to power in order to address the most glaring defects of capitalism, and then slowly, over time, by winning more and more electoral offices, eventually legislate socialism into existence.

In Latin America, the focus is on both electoral efforts and social movements--the peasantry in alliance with the working class in Bolivia; the so-called "popular classes" in Venezuela; the informal and formal sectors of Brazil, etc. There has never been sufficient stability in Latin America to allow for the normalization of social democracy as an alternative to the conservative pro-capitalist parties.

Capitalism in Latin America has not been able to be sufficiently regulated by any state to develop a welfare state robust enough to universally meet basic needs as well as provide decent health care, education and other social programs, as some European states during the postwar boom managed to do.

Today, during the era of neoliberalism, many of the reforms and welfare states in Northern and Western Europe are being privatized and dismantled.

But for the most part, I would say that both regions have been looked to models of socialism from above that have not sought to uproot the structures that could get rid of capitalism once and for all.

WITH THE popularity of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, do you think neoliberal ideals are being challenged and voters turning toward socialist models of governance?

NEOLIBERAL IDEAS are definitely being challenged, and a new generation of activists is less cowed by anti-communist propaganda that pervaded world politics for many decades. So yes, I believe people are very open to socialist ideas and much less sure that capitalism is the system that needs to be preserved.

As you mentioned, Sanders and Corbyn are both expressions of this. The broad parties of Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece have also rejuvenated interest in socialist ideas and are particularly popular among youth.

The challenge here is for the organized left to be able to channel this energy into a socialism that can truly transform society--not just place power in the hands of the state, but also give working people democratic control over the state and the economy.

HOW DO we create a new generation of socialists who can win equality, democracy and cooperation?

THE ROAD is long, but the task is urgent. What we have right now are small groups of organized socialists, and an audience that is becoming more and more massive and more and more receptive to what we have to say.

People are looking at the example of Venezuela, for instance, and they are not convinced by the propaganda against it. They don't have any passionate feelings against Cuba or Russia, but they know that whatever is happening right now in their countries is not fair and needs to change.

As socialists, we need to create organizations that can recover the real history of past struggles, failures and successes, and then project them outward to arm ourselves with the tools we need to win. Conditions are different than they were in Russia in 1917, but learning from what revolutionaries went through leading up to the Russian Revolution can be incredibly useful for our generation.

And then, of course, we need to be active in the struggles for reform in the here and now that are moving people toward fighting to transform the world.

We need to be present in every single space where people are moving left, so that we can cohere a strong core of socialists who can explain what's distinctive about the self-emancipatory project of socialism from below and build durable organizations committed to fighting for a society based on real democracy, equality and happiness for all.