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Venezuela:"Open Horizons" interview with Roland Denis

Bolivarian revolution
Venezuela Analysis] "Open Horizons" interview with Roland Denis

Aug 25th 2012, by Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber - The Bullet

*Roland Denis is a leading intellectual and revolutionary in Venezuela. He
served as Vice Minister of Planning in the Hugo Chávez government in
2002-03, but resigned after ten months in protest of the lack of grassroots
involvement in the planning process. He is the author of many books and
articles. The most recent translation of his work in English is available
in the Winter 2012 edition of The South Atlantic Quarterly. We caught up
with Denis at the Terrar Park, a popular restaurant frequented by left
militants in Caracas.*

*Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber (SS and JRW): Can you tell us about
your political history?*

Roland Denis (RD): My story starts in the mid-1970s. By chance I happened
to be in Nicaragua at the end of the 1970s during the Sandinista
Revolution. I learned a lot of different things there. From there I began
to identify with the cause of the poor. When I returned to Venezuela at the
beginning of the 1980s, I started to become active on the left; the
situation was radicalizing quickly and there was a lot of violence [due to
political persecution of the left]. I was a survivor, but many compañeros
lost their lives in the struggle. That guy over there [pointing to one of
his friends of about the same age], for example, is also a survivor; he was
a leader in the student movement in Mérida.

*Shifting Paradigms*

The 1980s was a time of defeat and generalized crisis for the left. Old
paradigms were exhausted. The Soviet Union fell, 'really existing
socialism' collapsed. The emergence of new paradigms of struggle marked its
defeat in Latin America. The concept of popular power emerged as the
articulating force for various popular struggles, Christianity, Marxism,
Bolivarianism, ethnic movements, and territorial movements started to
converge around this concept. There were still a number of activists from
the previous era who remained committed to armed struggle, but it was a
small bastion of resistance which had abandoned the idea of involving the
masses, meaning that their strategy was ultimately defeatist. A new left
emerged in this context, a movement that struggled for popular survival
(sobrevivencia popular); I was part of the development of this latter

Our struggle confronted the state but it also put forward a general
politics that touched various aspects of life, such as the pedagogical
movement and the cultural movement, which started to work with movements of
miners, indigenous peoples, students and workers. The Assembly of Barrios
[Asamblea de Barrios] in Caracas was a very beautiful experience; it was a
movement that had a lot of force.

The Caracazo, on February 27, 1989, erupted in the midst of these new
developments, an event which totally changed the political scenario. The
Caracazo was a response to total disaster. The price hikes that accompanied
the austerity policies represented a complete reversal of the old
capitalist development model, which had channeled the oil rent for decades.
As elsewhere in Latin America, traditional political parties that had
formerly identified as 'left' implemented neoliberalism [including the
Democratic Action Party, a social-democratic party, that shared office with
COPEI for over three decades of "pacted democracy"]. The popular movement
responded in an almost spontaneous fashion.

The Caracazo was a crisis of the state, a crisis of hegemony. In the
subsequent elections in 1993, even radical left parties like the Radical
Cause [La Causa Radical, a revolutionary syndicalist party founded in 1971
by a group that broke from the Communist Party] put forward reformist
platforms. The political scene became much more complicated as the popular
organizations were growing in strength. The military-civic uprisings of
1992 must also be thrown into this mix. These uprisings were not just
popular rebellions but insurrections against the state. The relationship
between the popular [civilian] movements and the military, however, was
always very difficult and complicated.

For my part, I worked to support the popular movements in their struggle
for liberation by working in publishing houses, such as Primera Línea
(Frontline). The project Nuestra América (Our America) also started at this
time, which was another convergence space that was very important. We kept
up like this until the question of power emerged in middle of the 1990s
with the emergence of the Bolivarian movement. This movement sought to
capitalize on the crisis of the state. After the Caracazo, social questions
remained unresolved, indeed, things [material conditions] continued to
deteriorate. We faced a choice: insurrection or the electoral path. Chávez
chose the electoral path and made an agreement with the military. A lot of
people did not like this decision, but they finally had to accept it. They
also had to accept the proposals for the Constitutional Assembly, the
re-founding of the nation, etc. Eventually they took Presidential office -
but not power. Chávez once in office followed through on these promises,
and they pushed forward the Constitutional Assembly, which promoted the
revolutionary process. These reforms were very timid at first, but
important. They came into major conflicts with the entire apparatus of the
state, but they managed to bury the Fourth Republic.[1]

For me this was a very complicated time, because while all of this was
happening, we opposed the government, not necessarily working against the
government but alongside it, and even in it. I, for example, served as Vice
Minister of Planning. It was extremely difficult to work inside of
government, inside a structure that was still extremely conservative. The
military made it particularly difficult. I could not spend too much time
inside the government; I chose to serve only until the most critical
moments were behind us, particularly 2002-03 when we were on the verge of
civil war. All of us who were working inside the government were giving as
much as we could. At that time, however, there was still very little
government in Venezuela [laughs]. During the bosses' strike [in 2002-03],
for example, the government did not even have any money. In reality, it was
the people, the popular movements who supported the process and made sure
that the situation did not deteriorate into civil war.

We triumphed against the right-wing oligarchs and the fascists in this
moment, but this period also produced defects. *To this day, popular power
does not reach the highest levels of power; we have not achieved a
sufficient transformation of the correlation of forces to impose a further
radicalization of the process. So, one the one hand, we have a bureaucratic
caste (una casta burocrática), which continues to impose its will through
different political agreements and mechanisms, as can be seen in the way
that the state manages the PDVSA [the state oil company] and the basic
industries. And, on the other hand, we have the popular movement.*

"The problem in Venezuela is not a lack of organization. Rather it is how
we organize ourselves to struggle against the cooptation of power by the
leadership, which is corrupt, bureaucratic, and useless. "

In this sense, there are two 'revolutions' in Venezuela. To be more
precise, there is really only one revolution [laughs] and *the other is a
process led by certain privileged castes in power.* The old political
parties such as COPEI are more or less dead, but new ones are still being
created, such as the Fifth Republic Movement [Movimiento V (Quinta)
República, MVR] and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela [Partido
Socialist Unido de Venezuela, PSUV]. Now we find ourselves trying to
reorganize the popular struggle. The problem in Venezuela is not a lack of
organization. Rather it is how we organize ourselves to struggle against
the cooptation of power by the leadership, which is corrupt, bureaucratic,
and useless.

*SS and JWR: How would you describe the different phases of this process
since Chávez's election in 1998?*

RD: The first step was the Constituent Assembly, which was a process of
radicalization. It politicized issues such as land, primary, secondary and
post-secondary education. Some municipal governments also managed to gain
strength in the Constituent process. This phase passed very quickly, but it
must be understood as the result of two processes: the popular processes
and the Constituent Assembly.

By the end of 2001, Chávez made some important decisions but he had not
even nationalized a corner store. There were a number of reformist laws,
which were radical nonetheless, with respect to resources such as land and
hydrocarbons. He started to attack the leadership of PDVSA [the state oil
company], which was where the real power of the state was located. There is
a myth of state power in Venezuela - we are talking about a petro-state
here. The PDVSA is where power really lies.

All of this process of radical democratization was paralyzed by the
opposition-led coup d'état of April 11-13, 2002 and shifted to a defensive
struggle, guided by a defensive logic which aimed to protect what was
gained and stop the advance of fascism, which took hold in Venezuela for
two days. The state security forces killed many people. The coup was a
totally criminal act. We managed to stop it, and to avoid a situation of
civil war.

The 2004 referendum on Chávez's presidency represents the last event in a
conspiratorial attempt to oust Chávez that was ultimately defeated. The
workers' movement practically obliged Chávez to participate in the
referendum. Chávez was reluctant for fear that he would lose, which is what
his friends were trying to tell him (and those people still surround him,
by the way). Chávez organized a marvelous campaign and he won a decisive
victory. With this victory, the violent tactics of the right wing
opposition were defeated and the right wing was decapitated. To this day,
they have no direction. They have no decent candidates. The only thing that
they have left is the media, which remains in their hands.

The period 2004 to 2008 is the next phase during which the PSUV was formed.
This is a transition period during which there was a very powerful tendency
to entrench the bureaucracy and its logic of power. The period ended with
an argument about the necessity of creating a party. The founding of the
party killed the organic process of articulation of the popular forces.

Take, for example, the peasant and worker movements, which are grassroots
movements. They joined the PSUV and are now disarmed, headless. Why do I
say this? The Bolivarian movement represented an accumulation of popular
forces. Curiously, it was not a political movement [in a party sense], but
it was unified, and in terms of its organization it grew stronger every
year. For these reasons, it was absurd to create a political party. Why
would we need more unity than we had already achieved? Why would we need
more organization than we already had? In their day, the Bolivarian Circles
managed to organize two or two and a half million people.

But, the leaders understood that the only way to make people shut up before
they started to say something really dangerous was to form a party. And
Chávez, being from the military, and - *we have to say it - under the
influence of the Cubans, formed the party that is always in conflict with
the logic of the grassroots movements*. And due to Chávez's leadership,
many people joined the PSUV. The party is a disaster. It cannot accomplish
anything. It inspires no struggle. It is a party that pacifies and silences
the masses. Inside the party, people struggle for positions of power.
Indeed, it disorganizes the popular movement. We are still dealing with
this enormous problem today.

By 2010, the PSUV started to collapse, even in the electoral scene. The
right won the last two elections, including the last legislative elections.
Indeed, they won a greater share of the popular vote than the Chavistas.
The PSUV is panicking. Their only response is to fan the flames of the
personality cult around Chávez. Since it is just a big bureaucracy, Chávez
is all they have in their arsenal. They try to elevate his image until he
becomes a god. Sometimes they try to substitute Bolívar, but they always
end up going back to Chávez. It crushes the popular enthusiasm.

Antonio García Duarte, an anarchist leader from the Spanish civil war,
responded to the accusation that the popular army was disorganized in the
following manner: "We do not organize obedience, we organize enthusiasm."
This organization of enthusiasm has been lost with the bureaucratization
that has accompanied Chavismo, which becomes more and more corrupt with
every passing day. People are getting disillusioned. Of course, this
government has delivered certain benefits, such as education, healthcare,
etc... through public spending on the missions. But this has also meant
that the expectations that the government will solve people's problems has
also grown worse, ending up in a policy of public spending that creates
more expectations. The situation we are living in is very critical. I
describe the problems related to these relationships and the
crystallization of power in my book, The Three Republics.

*SS and JWR: What role does the Great Patriotic Pole [Gran Polo Patriótico,
GPP] play in this scenario?*

RD: In the beginning the GPP created an important polemic, but I have not
followed the situation closely since then. Chávez created the GPP because
he realized that he needed to reactivate this enthusiasm, and this would be
impossible if the only people involved in the campaign were the Ministers
and the politicians. And, even more importantly, Chávez realized that these
popular movements needed to debate the content of the electoral platform,
to define the priorities for the next mandate. More or less, this kind of
conversation was achieved at the first assembly of the GPP. But demands
that the GPP have autonomy were refused. And even the popular movements
themselves, accept that this is their mission because they are already
bound up in the state. A lot of the activists involved in these popular
movements depend on the resources of the state, political favours, having
good relations with Ministers and between one region and another. They are
not accustomed to marching with their own two feet.

A lot of the popular organizations that are involved in the GPP are just
there for the election. They must have about 500 or 600 organizations
involved at this point, only two months after it was formed, which is
impressive. Many of the activists involved are experienced activists who
were involved in militant struggles of the 1980s and 1990s.

*SS and JWR: Which forms of popular organization are the most dynamic in
the current conjuncture?*

RD: I just returned from the plains of Apure, a state located in the far
southwest of Venezuela. It is a very beautiful state with a long history of
radical struggle. There is a conflict between seven different armed groups
in the high part of the state (Alto Apure) near the border with Colombia:
the U.S. army, the Colombian army, the Venezuelan army, the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia,
FARC], the National Liberation Army [Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN
(also from Colombia)], the paramilitaries, and a small guerrilla
organization from Venezuela. The latter are a terrible organization, a
guerrilla movement that supports the government. They extort poor peasants
in the name of Bolívar.

It's interesting to note that the peasants in this region have *organized
within the PSUV against the leadership of the PSUV*. They do not accept a
submissive form of participation. They organized an assembly recently that
1,500 people attended, even though a lot of them had to travel up to 7 or 8
hours to get there. It took me 25 hours to get there from Caracas. This is
the spirit of the peasantry. They refuse to be bossed around. If someone
comes and tells them what to do they threaten to cut off their head. All
this is to say, the popular movements are not in decline, but there are a
lot of movements which are really confused. The symbolism of Chávez is very
powerful, but it creates a very confusing situation when the bureaucracy of
the Chavista government takes a position against popular movements like
this one. The Chávez government has betrayed these people who have invaded
land. Some leaders have been thrown in jail. The urban movement that
occupied land faced the same treatment [in the beginning]; they were

Of course, this is all part of the process. No one said that this was going
to be a paradise.* The question of revolution remains an open question.*

*SS and JWR: And what is going on with the workers' movements?*

RD: The workers' movement is one of the most attacked, where the effect of
the bureaucracy has been the most pernicious. The National Union of Workers
[Union Nacional de los Trabajadores, UNT], which might have been something
interesting, fell apart completely. All that is left in the UNT is
basically one tendency, and a new workers' confederation, a ridiculous new
organization, has been formed, called the Socialist Confederation of
Workers [Confederation Socialista de Trabajadores, CST]. It doesn't really
exist; it is completely lacking in substance. Who is the leader of this new
organization? The direct advisor and principal aide of the Federation of
Oil Workers [Federación de Trabajadores Petroleros, Fedepetrol] when Carlos
Ortega was the president [from 2001-2003, during the bosses' strike that
Fedepetrol supported], one of the great union leaders affiliated with the
syndicalism of the Acción Democrática (Democratic Action, AD).

There is no unified union movement that stands up to put an end to these
antics. Nonetheless, there are many interesting workers movements,
occupations of factories, concrete experiences. There are problems with
workers everywhere - in public and private enterprises across the entire
country. Again, the popular movements are not dead, but every time
something interesting starts to happen they confront the same limit: the
state appears, the movement confronts it, and then they are accused of
being counter-revolutionary; the movements don't have the necessary tools
to continue their struggles beyond this.

A lot of people within the popular movement repeat the adages of the old
left, that we have to wait for an accumulation of forces or that revolution
is for our grandchildren, but these are all arguments of the antiquated
political arsenal of the old Left. They see the world as following the
pattern of a telluric cycle, that each time something comes around it will
come back with more force, and one day in the far future we will be free. A
lot of people remain silent; it is my role to name the enemy, not because I
am some kind of narcissist. It is my job [as an intellectual] to say to
someone, "you are a bureaucrat," or, "you are a drug trafficker," when the
term applies. It is the job of politics to name the enemy. We should not
speak of the "imperialist power" in the abstract, for example, when it is
clearly the United States and Europe.

Here is where we have a two-fold, contradictory process. The process has
allowed for a process of radicalization, so radical that it is a surprise
to many people. It started with democracy, and moved to re-founding the
nation, Constituent Assembly, anti-imperialism, socialism, and
self-management. At the same time, the process is becoming more and more
bureaucratic. On the one hand, the process advances in discursive terms,
and on the other hand, the organic process suffers a setback. These are two
processes that are in complete conflict with each other. One form of
organization is vertical and authoritarian - the PSUV, for example, is a
machine that says that "you are the candidate," and that's it, Chávez
arrives and nominates whomever he feels like. The development of this
political culture is an obvious retrogression from the point of view of the
popular movements, and from a socialist or communist perspective.

So this double-sided combination of the process has made things difficult.
But there are beautiful experiences as well. Many communal experiences, for
example, particularly in rural areas, have an enormous value, however
local, and simple in character. It has been more difficult in the cities,
because of the components of violence and social decomposition, among other
things. Narco-trafficking, for example, has been a tremendous vector
through which violence has been introduced, and it has helped to decompose
communal projects in our cities. We've seen what this can do elsewhere in
Latin America. In Mexico it's perhaps most evident, where it's a strategy
of truly breaking that nation, of destroying it. With these kinds of
influences it is difficult to rebuild communities of resistance.

*SS and JWR: What is the importance of the elections on October 7, 2012?*

RD: In one sense, they're of absolutely no relevance in terms of the
revolution. In another basic sense, they would become tremendously
important if Chávez lost. Can you fucking imagine [leaning back and
throwing up his hands]? We'd have to start organizing marches all over
again against the privatization of education, struggles against everything
- violence, repression, human rights - against the privatization of health!
Once again with the same shit we've been struggling against for the last 20
years, and that we've supposedly transcended, no!

If he loses, it would be a terrible set back. But if he wins, we have not
really 'won' anything, but the horizons would remain open. What I do
sincerely hope happens, is that after the election all of this discontent,
this tension that is mounting between the *popular forces and the
bureaucracy will come to a head*. I hope that people will begin to speak
and name the problem for what it is. Right now everyone is silent because
they are waging an electoral campaign.

Luckily, the right wing opposition candidate [Henrique Capriles Radonski]
is a total ass (burro). He is extremely basic. It is painful that we have
to put up with this little bourgeois idiot from Caracas as a candidate. It
is incredible that this mediocre imbecile is going to win 45% of the vote
and that he might even beat Chávez, who is a giant. It is not the case that
45% of the population of Venezuela is bourgeois. The loss of a lot of
governorships will shake Chavismo. Chávez is going to win the presidency,
but they are not going to win at the state level. *This deterioration in
popular support is the result of the bureaucratization.* •

*Susan Spronk teaches international development at the University of
Ottawa. She is a research associate with the Municipal Services Project and
has published various articles on working-class formation and water
politics in Latin America.*

*Jeffery R. Webber teaches politics and international relations at Queen
Mary, University of London. He is the author of Red October: Left
Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Haymarket, 2012).*
*Source URL (retrieved on 26/08/2012 - 5:12am):*