Rebuilding the hegemony of Chavismo: A conversation with Gerardo Rojas

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By Cira Pascual Marquina

August 18,2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Venezuela Analysis — Gerardo Rojas is a Barquisimeto‐based Chavista intellectual and blogger. His work as an organizer began in the early 1990s, when he was in middle school. Later in that decade, Rojas participated in the occupation of a building in the barrio where he was born, which became a community center and later, in 1998, the first community radio in Venezuela. Rojas was one of the founders of Voces Urgentes in 2002, a communication collective, and participated in the organization of one of the first urban communes, Ataroa Socialist Commune, in 2007. More recently, he was vice minister at the Ministry of Communes.

In recent years, you have focused on the issue of communal and popular organization, examining the correlations of forces and bringing to the forefront a debate about the pending tasks for the popular movement. One of the tasks you identify is to resurrect Chavez's core proposal, in the face of hegemonic currents in the government. The government currently proposes that the way out of the crisis will be achieved with more capitalism instead of more communes and more socialism.

For me, Chavismo is the synthesis of Comandante Chavez’s thinking, which was itself rooted in the interests and experiences of the popular movement and of the working people but also grew out of the revolutions of the world, and the thinking, theory and imaginary of the Left.

Three elements synthesize his thinking. The first is The Blue Book [short book written in 1991 by Hugo Chavez, in which he presents his views on history and democracy]; the second is Alo Presidente Teorico N° 1 [2009 speech]; and the third is the Strike at the Helm speech [2012]. In those three milestones, we find no more and no less than a clarion call for self‐government, direct democracy, social control of the public sphere, and development at a territorial or local level. Yet we also find the outline of a national system that would bring all this together.

With those elements at hand, it is not hard to see what line we should pursue in our struggle, a path for popular action that goes hand in hand with a governance model committed to participatory and protagonist democracy, which for us is nothing other than Bolivarian socialism. That is a synthesis of Chavez’s legacy.

When one reads The Blue Book, which precedes Chavez’s electoral victory [1998], one is surprised to find direct, participatory democracy and self-government at its core. We are talking about the 1990s – that is when Chavez wrote it. Direct democracy and self-government, were always at the core of the Bolivarian Revolution. However, with time, experience, the practice of governing, the emergence of internal contradictions, together with advances and setbacks, the proposal gained precision and became a fully outlined integral project.

Later, in the Alo Presidente Teorico N° 1 speech, we can see Chavez consolidating the mature proposal. The discourse touches upon various experiences of popular power, beginning with the Mesas Tecnicas de Agua[barrio-level organizations for getting access to running water] and Comites de Tierra Urbana [Urban Land Committees, formed in the early days of the Bolivarian Process to struggle for urban land titles]. However, in that speech, we find an important leap forward in the proposal regarding territorial organization and popular self‐government. The new proposal comes out of historical experiences, and also from a tangible, immediate experience: the pueblo had already demonstrated its capacity to organize in communal councils, opening up the real possibility of efficient and transparent self‐governance and collective control. The potential to go further, now crystallizes in the proposal of the commune.

In addition to the Alo Presidente Teorico N° 1 landmark speech, we also have the last political address of Chavez, the testament which he leaves us before he goes to Cuba to address serious medical problems. That is the speech known as Strike at the Helm, which he delivered in the first cabinet meeting shortly after the 2012 elections and was publically broadcast nationwide. There Chavez severely criticized his ministerial team and their administrative methods. But he didn’t just question the ministers, he also made some concrete proposals, based on the collective experience so far and also based on his own analysis, and taking into account the correlation of forces at that moment.

Many who talk about Strike at the Helm limit its scope to the “Commune or nothing” slogan, and that of course is key – it is one of the sentences that best synthesizes Chavez’s thinking – but “Commune or nothing” was essentially already there in Alo Presidente Teorico N° 1, where the communes were conceived as the base for the territorial development of socialism. However, the commune as expressed in Strike at the Helmtranscends the earlier, merely local proposal, and its scale now becomes national. Thus, Chavez now introduces mechanisms of political, administrative, and institutional coordination regarding the key issue of planning that range from the communal territory (the “commune” as expressed in the popular power Laws) to the national scale.

In this speech, Chavez talks about the diverse modules, territorial units, and stages of popular development. He talks about weaving socialism into the fabric of the whole country, with the commune as the base, and the emergence of an economy based on social property. So there, in Strike at the Helm, Chavez acknowledges problems and makes contributions which, as I just said, take for granted the commune as a project on a national scale... He also envisions the project growing from the communal council to the commune, then to the communal cities, and even later to the developmental districts and developmental axes all the way up to the communal state. In other words, Chavez imagines a process that goes from the local to the regional and then to the national, recognizing that planning is very important.

The coming together of the local projects of popular power (the communes) with the regional and national governments must go through a democratic debate in which there is planning process and people agree on the objectives. That is why the Homeland Plan [2012] is also a key to understanding the communal proposal. It is a guide for a collective process of planning and action, where revolutionary imagination and the political project feed into a plan.

Would you say that within the government, there is an excessively pragmatic and superficial use of Chavez’s thinking?

Yes. Today Chavez’s thinking is presented in a fragmented way by the hegemonic sectors in the government. His ideas are not presented in a timeline that is rich, that advances, but that is also contradictory at moments. Instead, Chavez’s thinking is deployed with particular interests in mind and in specific conjunctures. Above all, Strike at the Helm is cast aside because, as I was saying earlier, it is Chavez’s political testament. Additionally, the Homeland Plan is being made invisible. In fact, a new Homeland Plan was developed without evaluating the original proposal. There was absolutely no public evaluation of the first Homeland Plan, but the government moves onto the next plan without reflection and input!

Obviously, the country’s situation is radically different from the one that existed when Chavez was alive and the Homeland Plan came out. We are now facing a multifaceted crisis, but that is not an argument not to evaluate the first plan. On the contrary! The problem is that contextualizing and reevaluating that effort would lead back to some key ideas, from self‐governance and participatory democracy to social control and political and territorial reorganization. In all that, we have a basis from which to build and we have the tangible experiences... that, in the context of this wretched crisis, recognizing that we have very few resources and many weaknesses, is tremendously important! I think this kind of reflection (and the action that would ensue) is one of our outstanding tasks. Postponing that task or sidelining it is one of the most evident shortcomings of the Bolivarian Revolution today.

We should talk about the subject of the revolution. As you mentioned, Chavez went through a theoretical‐political evolution, but there was always a focus on poor people’s participation in the questions that impact their daily lives. That is evident very early on, in the proposal for substantive democracy (direct or participatory democracy) that is envisioned in The Blue Book. Toward the end of Chavez’s life, the same concern reemerges in the idea of a new communal society. However, today we find that the government's discourse is based on the idea that the people will be saved by private investment or the "revolutionary bourgeoisie” that Agriculture Minister Wilmar Castro Soteldo’s champions. This amounts to aStrike at the Helm to the right!

From The Blue Book forward, the pueblo and direct democracy became central to Chavez’s thinking. With the project of a profound, substantive democracy we have in effect a guiding principle to rebuild the hegemony of Chavismo. In this way, it would be possible to bring together more and more people, to build a collective subject with our main ideas clearly defined: the fight against corruption and the exercise of direct democracy together with the defense of the Venezuelan people as subjects that are part and parcel of a historical emancipatory struggle. Currently, the recovery of our historical memory as a fundamental base for revolutionary thinking is important, as Chavez’s early writings show.

So here are three keys. First comes the reconstruction of ourselves as a collective subject, a pueblo with a history and a defined popular identity: Venezuelans but also Latin Americans. That was, is, and will always be fundamental to constructing hegemony, because from there we can project an identity. Second is the fight against the corrupt political system, against the Fourth Republic [the 1958 to 1999 period], which also comes early on in Chavez, and brings us to the present and a necessary critical reflection about the old mechanisms that are quite evidently [coming back] now.

Third is democracy, and when we talk about democracy, we are talking about integral democracy, democracy in the economic, social, and political spheres. Obviously, there can be no real democracy if there is no economic democracy. Without that, we encounter again the farce of representative democracy, against which emerged one of the early struggles and debates in which the revolution naturally favored the constituent pueblo.

Those are the main teachings from the early days of the revolution. There, the subject was the pueblo. Early on, the key was to add not subtract, and one of the sentences that Chavez repeated most in his discourses was his call for the “defense of the pueblo,” the pueblo that has a history and a present of struggle, the pueblo that has an identity and gets together to transform its own reality, and that questions the historical interests of the dominant class. That class included the landowning oligarchy, which in some cases is the same that we are struggling against still today, as well as the bourgeoisie, with its corporate and media interests.

Overall, it was a question of the pueblo combatting the powers-that-be both inside and outside the state. This is tremendously urgent to think about today, because recovering it goes hand in hand with the issue of corruption. At least in his public discourse, Chavez was adamantly against corruption and self‐critical. He called for a fight against the corruption in the bureaucracy and called for the government and the people to put the breaks on this.

For us, as I was saying, the pueblo’s identity and the construction of hegemony are key. Initially, part of that construction was the very recognition of the pueblo (for the first time) in the political discursive sphere. The pueblo as a subject brings together campesinos, women (paraphrasing Chavez, “the Bolivarian Revolution will be feminist or it won’t be”), and barrio dwellers.

But, of course, in the process of building hegemony, the Bolivarian Revolution added sectors of society to the project with rather diverse interests. Today, an important part of the government is occupied by those other sectors, and they seek the restitution of the logic of capital. Here we should acknowledge the obvious: capitalism was never totally displaced, but we did advance towards the constitution of a social state of justice with rule of law, and they want to revert it.

Certain sectors of our government, the hegemonic ones, aim to minimize or eliminate all the social, economic and political advances made previously. For instance, they reject the objective of social inclusion from an economic point of view. Mind you, inclusion should be understood not in a superficial sense; we are talking about inclusion as the construction of power, of popular power, with transfer of the means of production to the people, which was clearly established by Chavez in Strike at the Helm.

Today, I would say that the main contradiction, more so than the contradiction with the opposition, is actually within [Chavismo]: this is where people have to assume positions. It is in this area where there is a dispute regarding how to proceed and how to build a social base to continue with the revolution.

In 2015, or perhaps before, the hegemonic bloc that involved the people was left behind. That was when the government began to close in more and more on itself, leaving the pueblo out. Today we can say that the space of power is reduced to a handful of people, and their tendency goes against the original Chavista proposal.

What can we say about those people? They have de facto power, and the people that surround them manage a lot of money which was captured through privileged access to subsidized dollars or contracting services with the state... So we are talking about the making of a new “national” bourgeoisie that comes out of the profits produced by oil production. We must be critical about the ambiguous class character of the government, but we should also be self‐critical to the degree that we weren’t able to take charge of the spaces of power. That is true to the degree that we didn’t call for another way of doing politics at the highest levels.

I agree with your assessment. However, you have also talked about the survival of the Chavista way of doing politics. Where do you think that it is still present in Venezuelan society today?

That is important. We should recognize that there is a Chavista way of politics that is alive and well, and it expresses itself in communal work, in local organization, and in direct popular participation to solve daily problems. These are ways of doing politics that are not supported by the government, that are invisibilized or made visible in the worst way possible. The latter is done to reduce the revolutionary potential of Chavez’s way of doing politics.

Let me give you an example: recently state media did some coverage of the Altos de Lidice Commune, and they reported that a pharmacy opened there. But when you go to the commune, you discover that there is no pharmacy there. Instead there is something much larger and more important: an integral communal health system, an initiative that brings together popular canteens [solidarious lunch canteens, known as “comedores populares”], primary attention to the most vulnerable at home, the coordination of at least four or five Barrio Adentro [public health] ambulatories, etc. We could say that this initiative amounts to popular power recovering Chavez’s Barrio Adentro initiative. What is there, in Altos de Lidice, is not a mere pharmacy, it’s a system. If you go to the so-called pharmacy, you won’t be able to buy anything. On the other hand, you will be given free medication (which is received through fraternal donations mostly from Chile and Italy), if a request is made by the doctors, who are integrated into the communal system.

So the state media reports that a pharmacy opened in Altos de Lidice, implying that it is the outcome of governmental policies, when what we are witnessing is really the outcome of popular, autonomous organization, which produced a lot more than a pharmacy. It is a grassroots initiative to build a communal healthcare system.

Chavismo is alive in a subject that is present everywhere, in every corner of the country. But we can say also that this subject is dispersed and facing political blackmail. In this very harsh reality, we may ask ourselves everyday how to raise our voices, we may ponder if our criticisms could amount to treason or if we could be accused of treason. But Chavismo, this popular subject, is alive and well. Now the issue is how to make it visible, how to bring it together, and how to develop a collective line of action.

We talked about the “strike at the helm” to the right that is going on: a shift in governmental policy that favors the private over the popular. Also, the government increasingly criminalizes those who struggle for their rights and it economically suffocates communal initiatives while continuing to subsidize capitalist production with the state’s limited resources. However, it is also evident that a combative, popular Chavismo is reemerging and becoming more visible. 

First, we should make something clear: the Bolivarian Revolution never proposed ending private enterprise. Nevertheless, since the early days of the revolution – and even more so in Chavez’s last years – he wagered on a democratic transformation of the pueblo’s economic rights. So there was development of the private sector, a development of state property, but also, and most importantly, there was support for social or communal property. 

This becomes clear in Chavez’s Strike at the Helm speech [2012] and in other speeches, where he said that we should move towards a society with a hegemony of social property. However, in the past few years, things have been reoriented towards private property, private entrepreneurship, and foreign investment, and the social project has been sidelined. 

Interestingly, there is now a confluence of interests between powerful sectors of the government (that place their bets on the private) and the traditional Right. The discourse goes as follows: state and social property are inefficient, they are essentially corrupt, and they have caused the current economic disaster. 

Of course, the managing of certain state enterprises has been flawed, but when you look closely, you can see that the problem was that the management model was undefined. It was blurry and didn’t coincide with the initial proposal of participatory democracy. In our experience, state property is not necessarily inefficient whereas social property is generally efficient. It is unacceptable that the government repeats banalities about state property’s inefficiency, making the Right’s arguments its own, to go against what is commonly owned. 

Talking about this with some compañeros recently, we were saying that the government mirrors the opposition. The discourses are close, the proposals are similar, and they both go against popular power and integral democracy, placing their bets on the private. The project of social property has passed into the background, if not eliminated outright from the government’s worldview.

This situation provokes a response: the potent subject that was born with the revolution rises up. The Chavista subject is a powerful one, with clear ideas and practices that are coherent with its ideas (of course, with many limitations too, such as the inability to build projects that go beyond their immediate territories). However, the Chavista subject has a common project and objectives that can bring it together for mobilization and action on a national level. 

Despite our weaknesses and limitations, there is a shared political culture. It is a historical legacy that is very important. Furthermore, this Chavista grassroots subject can claim real achievements that are expressed in the Homeland Plan [2012] and in the proposals at the core of the revolution. It is a subject that defends the few means of production that we have, but also, more importantly, as some sectors of the government (including the so-called “revolutionary bourgeoisie”) turn against the revolution, it defends the project. 

Now we need to defend pure and simple Chavismo: the Chavismo that holds dear Chavez’s ideas, from The Blue Book [short book written in 1992 by Hugo Chavez, in which he presents his views on history and democracy] to Strike at the Helm. In that whole legacy, we can find the collectively‐built Chavista project.

The hegemonic sectors of the government don’t hesitate to criminalize campesino protests. In the meantime, they meet with the representatives of Juan Guaido, who is truly a criminal, in Oslo and Barbados. What do you think about that?

There is an evident process of criminalization of popular struggles, at a time when there are beginning to be contradictions between grassroots Chavismo and the government. Just a few days ago, the son of President Nicolas Maduro, who is a public figure, made a clear attempt to criminalize the campesino struggle. He spoke in defense of the sectors of the bureaucracy that promote the thesis of the “revolutionary bourgeoisie.” He criminalized campesinos, calling them “mafiosos.” Go figure!

In this difficult conjuncture and with the negotiations that are underway with the opposition, we hope that peace will prevail and war will be avoided. An all-out war would not only be catastrophic, it would also interrupt the possibility of Chavismo coming together to defend our project from within. 

This process [of defense from within] is taking shape right now, although we cannot be sure that it will come together in the end. It is happening even as we speak, driven by those of us who have real projects at a territorial level. We are all going to defend what we have. We will defend it in any way possible – one hopes without a war. 

The task is enormous. It means bringing together all those who are defending the Bolivarian Revolution from the bases and with the communes. It means bringing together campesinos, factory workers, and women – all joining forces with organizational ambitions that go beyond territorial self‐government. The coming together will demonstrate concretely that there is a way of doing politics that is different, that is a defense of the Bolivarian Revolution and that maintains the pueblo at the center of its efforts. 

It is not a question of choosing between one or another sector of the bourgeoisie, the new or old. They, as a class, are our historical enemies, with the new sectors of the bourgeoisie clearly carrying out accumulation by dispossession through privatizations of the public (which are more or less direct thefts). It is being done with opacity regarding how the transfer of assets is carried out. 

We are talking about the silent transfer of means of production that cost the Bolivarian Revolution billions of dollars to the private sphere. Much of this is now being transferred to the private sector using the justification that we are facing a difficult crisis. The hegemonic sector of the government believes this alteration of the project will make them the “saviors” of the country, although they have been at it for years and there is no evidence that we might be coming out of the crisis in the near future. 

All this brings us to a complex issue: the role of international solidarity with the Bolivarian Process at the time when, on the one hand, imperialist aggression is more intense than ever before, but on the other hand Chavismo's internal contradictions are growing. How should people around the world undertake the double task of opposing imperialist interference, but also making popular power visible and defending Chavez's legacy?

We often say “solidarity is the kindness of the pueblos,” and one of the things that characterizes the Bolivarian Revolution is people’s diplomacy. Beyond the powerful and important state diplomacy which has been exercised during the revolution – particularly during Chavez’s life, who had a clear plan to defend global multipolarity and continental integration – we should remember that this revolution provides a space for the world’s peoples to meet, debate, and build true links of solidarity. 

People have come here to Venezuela, and other people traveled abroad to learn from experiences abroad. That is the basis for a true, people‐to‐people solidarity, a solidarity that should visibilize the Chavista subject (contradictions with the government notwithstanding). After all, this is a project that has had its limitations, advances and setbacks, but the ideas of transformation that it is based on are not particular to Venezuela but belong to the entire world.

This is a project that proposes an alternative at a time when political processes are in serious crisis compounded by the ecological and social crisis. The global context is marked by an obvious struggle to lead a new industrial revolution, the fourth according to some. In the face of all this, we say that there are other ways to do things. 

To get people mobilized internationally, we must share our experiences with them: the communal initiatives, the popular organization to resist attacks and blockades, the internal incoherences, and the political violence coming from certain sectors of the opposition. On top of that there is the criminal interventionism of the United States, the European Union, their puppets, and the international institutions. 

Here we have tangible experiences that connect us with the struggles of all the world’s peoples. The crisis that we are living through here is linked with the global crisis. Just as we, as Chavistas, must get together, organize, systematize what we have learned, and project our tangible grassroots experiences at a national level, so we also need to have policies that apply at an international level.

It is now more than ever that the pueblo needs active solidarity and mobilization in favor of the idea and practice of self‐government, affirming  that in the face of the crisis, the only plausible goal for the people is socialism. We need solidarity to push forward the core of the Chavista project. With this in mind, we have to organize, build, and unite. 

The peoples of the South, the peoples of Latin America, are experiencing enormous political setbacks, with some governments that are almost fascist and others that are neoliberal. We have to organize internationally so that these governments are not able to construct a rightwing hegemony at a continental level. 

We are in a process struggling over what people take for granted, what passes for common sense. There is no doubt that we have been weakened and are in a phase of resistance, but we need to begin to advance. We have to work together to build cultural hegemony, bringing forth the key ideas and concepts that will allow the pueblo to rise up and go forward. That we cannot do just from Venezuela. Two-way solidarity is necessary. 

Finally, we can say that solidarity expresses itself in different ways, from the medicines that get here from Chile or from Italy in the communal health system in Altos de Lidice Commune, to the Basque Country campaign which is collecting seeds for El Maizal Commune as we speak. There are diverse kinds of solidarity on different scales.

All this is about solidarity with the Chavista pueblo and its project, but also about the solidarity with a project that works to guarantee human life. As Chavez said, what is at risk today is no more and no less than human life on earth, and that implies the need for much theoretical reflexion, but also an active practice that will bring together the people of all nations in defense of life itself.