Venezuela's revolution viewed from the 'grassroots'

Inside the revolution: a journey into the heart of Venezuela
Directed by Pablo Navarrete
65 minutes
Alborado Films 2009
Available at http://alborada.net

Inside the revolution: a journey into the heart of Venezuela is an inspiring documentary about the role of grassroots struggles in Venezuela’s socialist revolution. Filmed in Caracas in November 2008, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s election as Venezuela’s president, this documentary interviews people “on the ground” who are driving the revolution forward.

The film’s director, Pablo Navarrete, is the Latin America editor for the British Red Pepper magazine and a PhD student at Bradford University in West Yorkshire. Introducing Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” (named after 19th century independence leader Simon Bolivar), Navarrete observes that “Chavez’s policies and his outspoken criticisms of the US government have made him powerful enemies, both at home and abroad, especially in the media”, adding that “Chavez has also polarised opinion on the global left, with a divide becoming visible between those who characterise him as authoritarian and others who stress the democratic nature of his government.”

But Navarrete’s film is less about the role of Chavez within the revolution and more about the role of Venezuela’s poor majority in shaping the revolution. In the December-January issue of Red Pepper, Navarrete explained that “I wanted [the film] to go beyond the simplistic mainstream media reporting on Venezuela that focuses virtually all developments in the country on the figure of Chavez, and instead provide a platform for the voices of the government’s grassroots supporters who are driving the process forward.”

Using archive material and interviews with Venezuelan activists living in the barrios of Caracas, Inside the revolution traces the recent history of Venezuela — from the 1958 overthrow of General Marcos Jimenez’s military dictatorship to the present. The film also includes interviews with Venezuelan academics Edgardo Lander and Javier Biardeau, as well as the Canadian economist Michael Lebowitz, who currently lives in Venezuela.

For four decades until Chavez’s 1998 election, Venezuela’s two major pro-capitalist parties — Accion Democratica and COPEI (Christian Democrats) — shared power in an agreement known as the pact of Punto Fijo. They met any challenges to their rule with violent repression. The most serious challenge came in February 1989, when the “Caracazo” uprising — a popular revolt against International Monetary Fund-recommended removal of government fuel subsidies and a consequent doubling of petrol prices and a 30% rise in the cost of bus fares — was drowned in blood by the regime of then-president Andres Perez. Up to 3000 protesters were killed by the regime’s security forces. This event was a turning point in Venezuela, turning the country’s poor majority against the parties that had been implementing neoliberal economic policies.

Navarrete observes that in the first years of the “Bolivarian revolution”, proclaimed by Chavez after being inaugurated in February 1999, Chavez advocated a more humane capitalism as an alternative to “savage neoliberalism” — a Venezuelan “third way” as a solution to the severe socio-economic crisis that his government inherited. This proved to be a failure, with the Venezuelan capitalist class using its command of the military to oust Chavez on April 11, 2002. However, as a result of the political work that Chavez, a former soldier, and his supporters had carried out in the armed forces and the barrios, a mass insurrection of Venezuela’s poor majority — in and out of uniform — defeated the pro-capitalist military coup within 48 hours.

Through this revolutionary action the poor majority imposed its will by force of arms upon the capitalist oligarchy, breaking its control over the armed forces, the core institution of state power. This massive class confrontation, and the Chavez government’s subsequent successful battle in December 2002 and January 2003 with the capitalist oligarchy for control over the nominally state-owned PDVSA oil company, led to a political radicalisation of the “Bolivarian movement”. The illusory idea that the interests of Venezuela’s pro-imperialist capitalist oligarchy could be reconciled with those of the poor, working-class majority through some ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism died in the heat of these class confrontations.

Navarrete, however, says that in 2005, “Chavez surprised his supporters and opponents alike when he publicly rejected capitalism as a model for Venezuela and spoke of the need to instead create a ‘21st-century socialism’.” Chavez’s call for a “21st-century socialism” was resoundingly endorsed in 2006, when Chavez was re-elected president with over 63% of the vote, despite the vociferousness of the still-dominate capitalist-owned mass media.

Economist Michael Lebowitz, interviewed in the film, appears cautious in ascribing the revolutionary government that was born out of the mass insurrection that defeated the April 2002 coup as being consciously socialist. While acknowledging that “a revolutionary transition” is taking place in Venezuela, Lebowitz states, “It could go either way”. He adds that “I now question all of the histories of revolutionary processes I have ever read. There is no way it’s linear, there are a thousand things going on.” But at the centre of this revolutionary transformation are the communal councils, argues Lebowitz. Since 2006, some 30,000 communal councils have been created in Venezuela. Each communal council, representing between 200 and 400 families, decides what actions are to be carried out within that local community.

Joel Linares, a Christian grassroots community organiser in a barrio in the east of Caracas, explains: “The community council is an organisational expression of the community. It isn’t the only one, but it’s perhaps the most developed one.” Likening the councils to a roundtable of the community, Linares adds: “All of the social actors of the community get together … you have the land committee, the water committee the energy committee, the evangelical church, the local doctor. The community council has legitimacy because people of that locality know that its members are there by way of an election in a citizen’s assembly, which is the highest authority in the community. The highest authority isn’t the community council — it’s the citizen’s assembly, which is made up of all the people living in that community … It has the functions of a government.”

The communal councils are composed of various commissions, each composed of different spokespeople. These commissions include a “social controllership”, which monitors spending; and an ‘employment commission’, which registers community members for paid jobs and tries to ensure they receive preferential hiring.

Despite this explosion of grassroots democracy, Navarrete observes that “Chavez’s revolution has been unable to deal with some of Venezuela’s long standing problems, such as poor public services, corruption and crime, which has caused increasing frustration amongst his supporters and those sympathetic to his government.” An excerpt from the weekly TV show Alo Presidente, shows rappers “Master” and Gustavo Borges, coordinators of Hip Hop Revolucion from the Caracas barrio 23 de Enero, pumping out a song railing against the “bureaucrats and incompetents” standing in the way of the revolution. Social scientist Biardeu tells viewers that these bureaucratic forces are a political expression of “economic power groups that have grown up under the shadow of the revolution”. Biardeu argues that “the internal right” is seeking to prevent a real discussion on “21st-century socialism” and that it poses a “risk of authoritarianism” developing in the Chavez camp.

While the corporate domestic and international media have been unceasing in their attacks on the Chavez government, 11 years on from his first election, the Bolivarian revolution that he has led has achieved significant social gains. By November 2008, poverty had been reduced by 53% on the 2003 level and government social spending had more than tripled since 1998. However, community organiser Linares argues that the two most significant achievements of the Venezuelan revolution have been in the areas of inclusion and consciousness. “We are inventing our own system”, he says. “There is only one leader and that leader is the people.”

“The process of acquiring and developing consciousness is irreversible”, says Linares. “There is a moment of no return. Here in Venezuela we have already reached the point of no return. People will continue developing their consciousness, their ideology and their revolutionary thinking … Democracy is not just about voting for a mayor every four years. Democracy is also about people having a say in how the resources in their neighbourhood are spent.”