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Refusing to “lose the game by forfeit” (“Venezuela, the Present as Struggle” reviewed by Counterfire)

Detail of an image by Hanna Barczyk

Detail of an image by Hanna Barczyk

Venezuela, the Present as Struggle: Voices from the Bolivarian Revolution
376 pp, $29 pbk, ISBN 978-1-58367-864-0
By Cira Pascual Marquina and Chris Gilbert

Reviewed by Orlando Hill

When most people think of a revolution, they imagine a moment like the storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace, workers in the streets fraternising with soldiers. Revolution is seen as a party, a one-time moment. When it is over, it is time for the adults to take over and get on with the business of transforming society. The people who were the initial motor of transformation give way to the leaders, and the revolution becomes a symbol or a slogan.

Marquina and Gilbert offer a different view in their book. Revolution is seen as ‘a process in which the masses are active subjects’ (p.14). Its success depends on the engagement of those who initiated the process. In this sense a revolution can take years or even decades, which seems to be the case of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. By interviewing those directly engaged at grassroots level, the authors try to find answers to what remains of the Bolivarian Revolution, what stage it is at, and how it can be pushed forward.

According to the authors, the main obstacle that the Bolivarian Revolution faces is that the reformists and opportunists who dominate the government and state institutions tacitly agree with the neoliberal slogan that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to capitalism. Consequently, the solution to the crisis Venezuela is going through ‘consists of securing (capitalist) allies, private investment, increased production, and even privatisation and negotiating with imperialism’ (p.15).

The present period of the Bolivarian Revolution is defined by the breech between the Chavista government and the Chavista bases, and the failure of the former to connect and communicate with the latter. The result of this breech is a widespread ignorance of the Venezuelan grassroots reality by international supporters and observers, and even the Chavistas in government.

The book attempts to correct this lack of knowledge by interviewing numerous people who one way or another are associated with the social movement. The book covers a wide range of topics: popular power and the reorganisation of society, the ongoing class struggle, internationalism, the economy, and feminism, gender and race. The reader can pick one interview at a time depending on where their interest lies.

Social movements and progressive government

A dilemma that all progressive forces face is what do you do once you are in government, especially when it has a multi-class composition with different views of what defines socialism, and how it is built. Is it merely a fairer distribution of the rent derived from oil (as viewed by those at the top), or is it the restructuring of production ‘to satisfy social needs, a focus on the people, and popular self-management in an effort to construct something new’ (p.82)?

What is emphasised in the interviews with community leaders is the importance of popular power maintaining its independence from the state. However, that does not mean social movements should cut off all relations with the state for fear of losing autonomy. After all, under a progressive government the state should be seen as ‘a disputed terrain that the popular movement must not ignore’ (p.57), even though it should not be considered the main objective.

The relationship between the social movements and the Bolivarian government is a contradictory one. If the government is serious about building socialism it must strengthen the bases of popular power which should gradually replace the government itself. This creates resistance within the state as it seeks to preserve itself. However, as Martha Lía Grajales, a lawyer and founding member of the Unidos San Agustín Convive cooperative, argues: ‘we can only advance towards socialism if this transfer of power takes place’ (p.58).

The lack of a clear understanding of the state is a common weakness throughout the interviews. The state is either avoided by those who are disappointed with the recent experience of the ‘pink’ tide in Latin America, or it is seen as a house in which you can walk into and slowly reform, room by room, into a workers’ state on the path towards socialism. As it has been said before you cannot tear a house down brick by brick while you are inside. John Rees argues that socialists should reject the ‘idea that it is possible to transform society through incremental parliamentary legislation.’ As the historian R. H. Tawney pointed out: ‘you can peel an onion layer by layer, but you can’t skin a live tiger claw by claw.’

The Bolivarian Revolution has been a reality for over twenty years, but the state retains its capitalist nature. This can be observed in how it operates, especially in the countryside. Although 90% of the population lives in urban centres, the struggle for the revolution is being played out in the rural areas. In the northwest state of Barinas, campesinos have been evicted from their land not by gunmen hired by large landowners, but by the state apparatus. The campesino bloc has been criminalised as a justification for jailing activists.

The agrarian reforms have even created a new landowning class composed of self-identified Chavistas who wear red shirts. Kevin Rangel, national coordinator of the Bolívar and Zamora Revolutionary Current (the largest campesino organisation), defends the expulsion of this new landowning class from the Chavista bloc: ‘We cannot let them continue in the party and at the top of state institutions!’ (p.211).

The oil economy

The multi-class composition of the government is reflected in the discussion of how to transform Venezuela’s oil-rentier economy. On the one hand there are those in government who defend substituting ‘rentier capitalism’ for industrial capitalism with a national bourgeoisie. Measures would include a stabilisation plan with a reduction of the fiscal deficit (i.e. cuts in public spending), privatisation and reliance on foreign capital. According to economist Luis Salas, the consolidation of this view has led to the loss of importance of communal projects. The main problem is that the private sector in Latin America no longer has the inclination to carry out a process of industrialisation. Even in Brazil, there has been a process of deindustrialisation and a greater dependence on commodity exports. The bourgeoisie in Venezuela has never had a vocation for industrialisation. Their strongest segment is the import sector which does not have an interest in the development of production. They lobby from inside the revolution creating obstacles to any true independent development.

Under these circumstances, the state is forced to play the role of the main agent in the process which favours large development projects, such as the Orinoco Mining Arc and the Orinoco Oil Belt, over communal projects. The mining projects invade the forest where communities, made up of both indigenous and settlers, have developed a sustainable economy.

The disappointment with the recent progressive governments in Latin America has led some intellectuals on the left to reach the conclusion that it is not worth it. The continent has become more dependent, less democratic and more extractivist than before. This analysis leads to the conclusion that what needs to be done is to turn away from the state and commit to projects that arise from the social movement.

However, Antonio González Plessman, a human-rights activist, thinks that would be a mistake:

‘The right wing has never renounced state power, because the state continues to be the locus of a dense network of power relations that criss-cross society. To turn away from the state is to lose the game by forfeit. Processes of societal change must be carried out both “from above” and “from below”, without turning our backs on these contested spaces’ (p.175).

As socialists and internationalists, our solidarity with Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution must be unconditional. We stand with Venezuela in their struggle against imperialism. As the organiser and intellectual Edgar Pérez (aka Gordo Edgar) explains, the government might be dominated by a top-down vision led by a right-wing Chavismo, however, ‘we will defend that government whenever faced by an imperialist aggression’ (p.167).

But we are not uncritical….

Read the full review at Counterfire

Venezuela, the Present as Struggle: Voices from the Bolivarian Revolution

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