Venezuela: inside the Bolivarian revolution

Issue: 106

Roland Denis is a leading revolutionary in Venezuela. He was briefly a member of the Chávez government (in 2002-2003) as vice-minister of planning, but resigned after ten months, together with the minister, in protest at the lack of grass roots involvement in the planning process. An organiser and activist since the 1980s, he was a founder-member of the 13 April Movement, which expresses some of the contradictions and tensions at the heart of the Bolivarian Revolution. Mike Gonzalez interviewed Roland in the youth camp at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Coincidentally, the conversation took place while Hugo Chávez was still addressing a crowd of some 18,000 at a local sports stadium. His rapturous reception was very different from the more hostile and critical way in which Lula, Brazil’s president, had been received in the same stadium four days earlier. For some of those attending the forum, indeed, Chávez appeared to represent the more radical alternative to Lula’s compromises with the world market. With his long experience in the movement, Roland was in an unrivalled position to discuss the truth or otherwise of that view.

Tell us about yourself and your own experience of the process in Venezuela.

I first became involved in the student movement in Venezuela. It was a very important moment, when the student movement was really in the vanguard of the social movement. It marked a break with the traditional left and began to produce its own forms of organisation that were new and different—more democratic, more horizontal, and bringing in new ideas. Those ideas began to spread and influenced activists all over the country. These new methods and ideas produced a new kind of self-organisation of the class that distanced itself from the old political practices, particularly the reformist parties with their old electoral practices. And it was also very different from the revolutionary parties, which were were still marked by the guerrilla tradition of the 1960s and 1970s. They had no influence any more.

In those circumstances, the student movement played a key role. The 1987 student movement lasted the whole of that year and more than 60 students were killed, and yet it was a struggle for very elementary things. Students, for example, who were very poor, won cheap student fares; it seems such a small thing but I like to remind the young comrades that 60 people died for them to have free travel.

This 1987 rebellion was in many way the prelude to the popular rebellion of 1989, the Caracazo. 1 Later the student movement declined but the popular movement and its local organisations survived in some working class areas.

The general situation was one of industrial decline and a massive export of capital that began in the early 1980s. Between then and the mid1990s, 300 billion dollars left the country—it was virtually the whole national income that went, leaving behind dead industries and disinvestment, and of course the social desert of poverty and exclusion that that creates. The big capitalists took over financial institutions and the banks, but they didn’t invest the capital, just reproduced it through financial operations, currency devaluation and so on.

That reaction to all this was a kind of primitive popular rage. No one could understand why prices kept going up or why the retail prices (the PVP) that used to be marked on all goods suddenly disappeared. In the end there was a kind of spontaneous rebellion and looting. It was massive and thousands died in the repression that followed. I was part of this rebellion; I went to jail, and had some disagreeable experiences—torture and that sort of thing. But within the prisons we began discussions with a number of people, some of them old guerrilla fighters like Carlos Lanz. Lanz was in prison for eight years, and it became a kind of Marxist graduate school. In there people would often break with their previous groups and begin to think in new ways. The question we were addressing was how to become part of the popular movement again.

This new current was a synthesis of a range of different ideologies— critical Marxism, liberation theology, the black movement, the indigenous movement, revolutionary Bolivarianism, social currents and so on. And it produced very interesting new spaces—in education, mass media, community work—but above all it was preparing a more subversive and obviously underground political activity. So we had to work at two levels. It’s quite common in Latin America that activists have to work in that way and that is how we operated for ten years.

1: For more information on the Caracazo and the political process in Venezuela see M Gonzalez, ‘Venezuela: Many Steps to Come’, in International Socialism 104 (Winter 2004).

Did the Bolivarian tendency have real roots in popular movements too?

It was born out of Chávez’s military group and his failed 1992 coup. The coup failed but it had a huge impact. People couldn’t believe that the military had acted not as fascists but with a whole new nationalist rhetoric. It was a very Messianic movement, but it evoked that idea of a different kind of army embedded in the myth of Bolivar. As you know our nations are quite recent; it was Bolivar’s armies that created Venezuela, so in a sense the army predated the nation. That’s something deeply rooted in our collective consciousness and Chávez reawakens all those legends and myths.

As soon as Chávez came out of jail in 1994 he proposed that his group in the army should now transform itself into a revolutionary, anti- system but popular movement. A lot of people joined the structure that Chávez set up (MR 200) in a pretty spontaneous way. But it was vertical in structure and he was its undisputed leader. The tendency I was part of worked with Chávez, but we didn’t join his movement. I certainly felt that the military movement completely lacked any basis for developing a political programme—a revolutionary democratic programme. Its language and style were completely Messianic.

But at that time we were beginning to work with a different idea, of building for what we called, a People’s Constituent Assembly, which was radical but also democratic. We didn’t want to set up a formal constituent assembly though. We understood it as a way of constructing a different kind of power, a power that that could not be delegated to anyone. Chávez still sometimes talks about this ‘poder constituyente’—a process of creating a new kind of power, new organs and institutions and a new political culture that should be built from below.

So there were two ideas in contention—one from above and the other of building a movement from below?

That’s right. There was a major contradiction there and that’s why we couldn’t join the Chávez organisation—because we couldn’t accept his idea of political culture. We saw it as crucial that we change the political culture. That’s why we concentrated on all the other levels of work—popular education, alternative media. Obviously the military found this idea of the horizontal integration of these different areas of work very difficult to accept. But Chávez learned from it and began to use a language that was more concrete and offered some clear idea of what he might do when he came to power. But the reality was that Chávez had far more people than we did, and Venezuelan political culture was focused on an idea of the leader—the caudillo—it was centralised and personalised. That meant and it still means that our ideas were sidelined to an extent. Our weakness was really the political weakness of the whole society, because we insisted on the need for a new culture and for a new society that would be built in the course of the struggle itself.

That can develop through working units but it can’t always grow up on a mass scale. In countries like ours that happens through a monstruo politico (a ‘political giant’) like Chávez. This evening there are 15,000 people still listening to him in the stadium—and he’s been speaking for over three hours. Now that’s a real political giant. There’s nothing we can do about that; you can’t change that situation. And in any case we wouldn’t want to—we’re quite happy with what he does, because he has been in a position to socialise and generalise some ideas and communicate them to a mass audience in a way we could never have done. You’ve got to recognise that.

How did things change when Chávez was elected president in 2000?

When Chávez came into government we had to look again at what we would do. In 2000 we called a meeting in a working class district in Caracas of all the historic political currents in the country. People came from all over Venezuela, leaders of Christian organisations, black groups, indigenous movements. It was a defining moment. And Chávez was part of it too. We had worked with him, but we represented what you might call the dark side of the moon. If he hadn’t come to power then, there were political alternatives in place. But he was elected and it was electoral issues that dominated everything. We weren’t in agreement with that shift; for us the movement around Chávez had reached a point in 2000 where the alternative of a mass popular insurrection was a real possibility in our view. We felt that the electoral solution had forced Chávez to create the electoral machinery that was later transformed into the perverted, counter-revolutionary organisation that is the MBR (the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement).

Chávez became the reference point for all political life without ever having first had to define the kind of society we were fighting for beyond the general issues of sovereignty, nationalisation and so on. No one knew what he stood for apart from that.

There were members of the bourgeoisie, of the old oligarchy, who approached Chávez around this time; and there were also members of the old, opportunist and discredited left organisations—people like Luis Michelena—who managed to convince Chávez to take the electoral road. They gave him money for his campaign, all to ensure that he would present himself as a candidate for the elections within the traditional electoral framework of our country. And when Chávez moved in that direction it was a defeat for us. I wrote a book about all this because I felt that we had to understand what happened then if we were to make any sense of what came later.

Anyway, we held this meeting in October 2000 to determine our attitude to Chávez in power. There were people there like Douglas Bravo, the leading guerrilla commander, whose position was absolutely and completely hostile to Chávez—though there was obviously some element of rivalry and jealousy here. On the other hand there were people attending who were prepared to submit completely to Chávez and his movement. We argued that we should work with the new government and try to introduce political ideas and strategies that would enable us to push the process further and faster.

So we began to work, always from below, and we had an early success which was the Education Congress. It was organised through the ministry of education but its framework was that idea of a constituent power (poder constituyente) in education. More than 200,000 people took part in the process—teachers, students, communities. What came out of it, in the conclusions that emerged in 2001, was a whole new model of education which won official approval and began to be implemented.

It was a model of self-organised education, a pedagogy based on an exchange of knowledge; the schools would become the centre of community activity and the role of the teachers wouldn’t be the classical graduate of the Teachers Training College only, but the midwife, the carpenter, the community would bring their knowledge into the school as well and the students themselves would elaborate a syllabus based on their own experience and needs rather than following one worked out by so called education experts.

Unfortunately the project was frozen—not cancelled but frozen with the entry of a new minister, a minister from another discredited party, the PPT, who reimposed the old model of state education from above. At least it wasn’t a privatising policy he introduced, but from an educational point of view it created nothing new. So as you can see, we were accumulating very interesting experiences but also losing several battles.

For a while I worked as vice-minister of planning. There too we worked on the basis of seeking ways to change the institutional framework. This was in 2002, a very tough time when the oil executives were trying to sabotage things and the government was really just running on the spot. We were just beginning to have some influence but the pressure from the military and the bureaucrats drove me out. I was in government for just eight months.

By 2003 I had reached the conclusion that we couldn’t go on working in this fragmented way within the institutions of a supposedly revolutionary government. It was time for us to develop our own forces and create an organisation that could carry things forward. So we created the 13 April Movement. It’s just in process of formation—it doesn’t have its own printshop or its own paper or organisation yet, for example. It’s a completely autonomous organisation.

And would you describe the organisation as critical of the Bolivarian Revolution?

We are within the revolution; after all we were among the creators of the movement. We were outside and then joined in and have taken positions of leadership in the Bolivarian Revolution; in that sense we are inside it and part of it. But the government is a very different thing—that is not the Bolivarian Revolution. We are addressing those areas in which the government is failing to hold to the principles of the Bolivarian Revolution. We’re talking about concrete things, about bureaucracy, about its plans like the Coal Plan which will wreck indigenous communities. Chávez is saying here in Porto Alegre that if we continue with the dominant model of capitalism we are living under now there will be no life left on the planet a hundred years from now. So that means it is absolutely imperative that we win the struggle against imperialism. But that’s what Chávez says here in Porto Alegre—what he says in Venezuela is very different: there his government’s plans contradict what he’s saying.

But it’s important to say that we’re not going to get involved in elections. Today elections are the point at which a political decomposition is taking place that’s hard to describe. Movements that used to be healthy and growing and to have developed their own leadership seem to fall apart when they operate in the electoral field. We’re convinced that the Bolivarian Revolution is not going to be determined by what happens in elections. We wouldn’t regard it as a tragedy if the right won the election, because the Bolivarian Revolution has another much more advanced expression.

It’s an expression that emerged after the attempted coup of April 2002, and it reflects the self-organisation of the people and their capacity for independent organisation; it’s a movement that didn’t need a vanguard or parties but made an insurrection there and then. We have to think in terms of a long term resistance.

The reality is that Chávez’s response to the attempted coup was terrible. It’s almost as if he was embarrassed, ashamed at having surrendered. He didn’t seem to realise how democracy had been won back. On the contrary, he seemed at that point to accept the arguments of the media that he had been too aggressive to the rich and that he was creating a polarisation in society. The people had started calling the rich ‘los escuálidos’ (the disgusting ones)—but Chávez never used the term. He fell into their trap and began to pursue a deeply conservative policy of dialogue.

For a while we were all taken in. Even I was stupid enough to take part in one of these dialogue sessions in the presidential palace. There were media moguls and trade unions and social movements there, the representatives of almost every section of society. I was there representing a social movement; I’d brought a letter insulting practically everyone. But then one of the media owners at the meeting stood up and insulted Chávez in the most humiliating way. Chávez had set up commissions to try and create a consensus, so he proposed that community radio stations should take part as well as the media moguls. And this guy stood up and said, ‘If you think I’m going to sit at the same table as that rabble, you’re wrong. I’m out of here.’

The truth is the right felt strong at that moment—they were organised, they controlled the military—so they were still strong even though they’d lost the attempted coup. And in fact they were preparing another assault that came with the general strike in December that year. We felt we needed time to accumulate our own forces for a future confrontation, but the confrontation came very quickly. The reality was that all of us, the whole mass movement, was in defensive mode throughout that time—we were just preparing plans to defend the minimal gains we had made. That’s what we were doing for three years. That’s all that was possible at that stage. To build a different kind of movement demands a high level of class consciousness and organisation; and in any case at that stage no one dared to take to the streets or build mobilisations that could be interpreted as attacking the government. At the same time everyone knew that the process is being corrupted and turned back from its original purposes; people talked about it all the time.

So what you’re seeing is a combination of a determination to defend the government together with a growing disappointment?

I don’t think there was disappointment. People still were and are full of hope, and believe that the present situation is a transition to something else. So they’re saying there is a first priority which is to defeat the class enemy: after that we take the road you’re suggesting. People have this simple tactical view—first the main enemy, then the secondary. That blackmail still works today, and it has allowed corrupt bureaucratic sectors to grow as well as sections of the conservative right, both within the government.

My impression was that during the referendum campaign, which was defensive, something else was happening too—a kind of questioning of the process. Would you agree?

There began to be criticism, critical analyses of the way the popular movement was becoming institutionalised from 2002 onwards, the way it was being incorporated through the national plans and so on. But that was at the level of articles and written argument—and it hasn’t really moved on from there yet. Turning that critique into a political strategy is the point we are at now. The lid is off; for the moment the main enemy is in retreat. Now we can go for the conservative pro-capitalist wing of the government, which is very deeply embedded.

What are the new proposals you’re suggesting?

We’ve seized the opportunity to speak about Chávez, because he’s the great communicator and there’s no point in trying to create a parallel discourse— that would be a stupid and sectarian response. On the other hand the language that Chávez used was born out of the popular movement; he didn’t create it. Recently Chávez has launched four key ideas: first, that we are entering an anti-imperialist phase; secondly the development of people’s power, fulfilling the promise of a participatory democracy embedded in the 1999 Constitution; thirdly, he speaks about the people under arms, the replacement of the army by a people’s army; fourthly, he disusses the revolution within the revolution, deepening the revolution and not just going into the political institutions but breaking them, because they are of no use to us. And now Chávez has added a fifth element, in his closing speech to the World Social Forum—anti-capitalism.

It was we who launched the slogan of a ‘people under arms’ and he must have read it and taken it up. That’s his great skill, because he didn’t come out of the revolutionary movement—he just grabs what he sees as useful and makes it his own.

One of the good things about Venezuela today is that there is no single party—there are electoral parties, but there is no single party of the movement. What has emerged is a whole range of forms of organisation— health committees, co-operatives, local movements, Bolivarian circles and so on. Some are more linked to government than others, but the important thing is that there is no hierarchy among them. All these organisations are becoming part of a highly political movement and they all have to be the revolutionary vanguard. There is no internal division between the social and the political on the ground. It’s a different matter at the level of electoral organisations. The MBR has not put out a single leaflet criticising the war in Iraq, for example; it has had nothing to say about the genocide in Colombia, despite everything that Chávez has said, because the people around him are the worst kind of bureaucrats.

What we have to do now is take those five points and build a political strategy on them—not for the government, but for a popular revolutionary movement that can drive the movement forward until those five promises are realised. But we have to accumulate our forces for that to happen. And we need to build that movement together with the rank and file of the Chavista movement, who are using the same language as us. That is what we are doing now.

Further reading

M Gonzalez, Venezuela: Many Steps to Come