Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out

Written and directed by Clifton Ross
PM Press 2008
Bilingual with subtitles in Spanish and English
85 minutes

Reviewed by Nick Everett

Between December 2004 and November 2007, film director Clifton Ross travelled all over Venezuela, interviewing farm workers, academics and activists in the barrios of Caracas. The result is an excellent DVD documentary that tells the story of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution as witnessed by those striving to build a socialist Venezuela.

Ross, a freelance writer and “videographer”, has reported on revolutionary movements in Latin America for over 25 years. He has edited many anthologies including: A Dream Made of Stars: A Bilingual Anthology of Nicaraguan Poetry and Voice of Fire: Communiques and Interviews of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Ross currently teaches English at California’s Berkeley City College.

Part I of the documentary, “Origins of the Struggle”, examines how a rebellion against neoliberalism in Venezuela set the context for Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998 as the country’s president. Christine De Jong, from the Centre for Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, discusses how the 1989 “Caracazo” rebellion against the austerity measures imposed by then-president Carlos Perez radicalised junior officers within the armed forces, including Chavez. De Jong describes the Caracazo as “a wake up call” for Chavez and others seeking to build a revolutionary current within the army. Three years after the Caracazo, Chavez’s MBR-200 launched a military rebellion, which, while unsuccessful, thrust him into the national spotlight.

Luis Paz, a cooperative coordinator in Merida, describes how the Chavistas have drawn on the utopian socialist ideas of those who fought for Venezuela’s liberation from Spain, such as Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez and Ezequiel Zamora.

De Jong, and Venezuela-based US academic Stephen Ellner, explain how the US-backed opposition’s campaign to remove Chavez from office has failed at each attempt. De Jong describes these attempts as a “military coup” (which lasted for two days in April 2002 before being defeated by a mass soldier-civilian revolutionary uprising), an “economic coup” (a bosses’ lockout of the oil industry between December 2002 and February 2003) and a “political coup” (a recall referendum in August 2003).

Ellner describes how the bosses’ lockout in particular “boosted Chavez’s appeal” as it exposed to ordinary people the economic sabotage the capitalist oligarchy was prepared to inflict, in an effort to oust Chavez.

Part II, “Bolivarian Mosaid: Learning community”, explores how the Missions, funded with oil revenue, and the communal councils, have begun to give power to the people.
Ross visits Barrio 23 de Enero, a poor neighbourhood in inner-city Caracas, to observe a communal council in action. The neighbourhood is alerted by megaphone about a popular assembly meeting to be held that night to decide how to spend funds provided by PDVSA, the state oil company, on repairing and improving the neighbourhood’s plumbing infrastructure. Cesar Rivas, a community organiser within the barrio explains: “The water council is a tool with which the people are able to resolve a problem. [The councils] raise consciousness and generate participation”.
According to Rivas, the water council also “makes it possible for individuals to change the way they use, preserve and conserve” water. “The water council is an appetiser for what communal councils should be”, says Rivas. “When the government gives people the tools to solve the water problems of their infrastructure that’s giving power to the people.”

Part III, “Building Socialism one Cooperative at a Time”, explores how cooperatives are being used to extend popular democracy into the economic sphere and their relationship with the struggle to construct “21st century socialism”.

Ross visits the Montanas Azales cooperative, which operates a restaurant. One of the cooperative members, Zenayra, expresses her frustration that “all the decisions are being made by the [cooperative’s] president and the secretary... They will never listen to the group”, she says. “We no longer communicate.”

Eighteen months later, Ross returned to this cooperative where he was told, “the first coordinator deceived us”. Ross finds out most members have quit and that the cooperative now has only eight members. The cooperative has decided to hire casual workers because they can legally be dismissed after three months. In this way the cooperative can avoid joining more members with whom it would have to share any profits.

Ramon Virigay, coordinator of the Ezequiel Zamora National Rural Workers Front (FNCEZ), a rural workers’ union in Barinas, explains how many cooperatives have succumbed to the pressures to function like capitalist enterprises. “One of the criticisms we have made”, says Virigay, “is that you can’t give money to the people. What you have to give is social benefits. You have to start with conscientisation [you have to] organise the rural workers with sweat, tears and with sacrifices because if you give money to the people without conscientisation, formation, preparation or education, then that money will be wasted.”

Political analyst George Cicarello-Maher describes cooperatives as “perfectly capable of being capitalist — existing as a niche economy within capitalism”, adding: “Once we have shed utopianism, we see that there is nothing necessarily revolutionary about cooperatives. But we also see, despite the fact that most cooperatives are not functioning well, there is an important precedent being set. There are a number of cooperatives that have developed revolutionary socialist structures of accountability structures which attack the social division between manual and intellectual labour.”

According to Cicarello-Maher, “research has shown that participation in successful cooperatives has created a new culture within them, has transformed the people.”

Ross visits one such example, the Zamora Vive cooperative, which is organised by the combined efforts of the Venezuelan government’s Zamora Fund and the FNCEZ. Javier Bolanos, president of the Zamora Vive Cooperative, tells Ross, “What we are seeking — as a national farmworkers’ organisation — is to deepen the agrarian revolution into the social transformation of the countryside with a vision of socialism from below. A socialism of the people, the base, by building consciousness among farmers with instruction in theory and practice in working the earth to support the revolution and to guarantee the food security of our country.”

Bolanos says the FNCEZ is seeking to “find a way that such a fertile country as Venezuela won’t have to import food. We should grow what we have and even export. Chavez has declared a war to the death against the landowners, but the state hasn’t done enough to put pressure on them”. Bolanos tells Ross: “We don’t just talk of a war... we act by occupying the land.”

“But what is fundamental”, says Bolanos, “is the consciousness of the people. If we don’t create awareness we’ll never be able to develop a social project. When there is consciousness, people can all work collectively. And the collective is what is important.”
Jose Vildez, a member of the Zamora Vive cooperative, tells Ross: “We are all in the front, we are all FNCEZ. We were all in the darkness [but] now the darkness is disappearing and even the children can see clearly. In the past we’d been made to believe the world was pretty small. Now I’m discovering just how big it is.”