Venezuela: Thousands debate socialist congress proposals

An activist with the Baruta Battle Unit Bolivar-Chavez (UBCh).

By Arlene Eisen, Caracas

June 19, 2014 -- – On June 7, President Nicolas Maduro issued a call to each grassroots unit of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to submit 10 concrete proposals for ways to improve how the Bolivarian government functions. In response, throughout Venezuela, local units of PSUV militants, known as Battle Units Bolivar-Chavez (UBCh), devoted their weekly meetings to lively debates analysing political problems and attempting to reach consensus on solutions. There are some 13,500 UBChs.

Other Venezuelans joined the discussions through forums, meetings, editorial pages and social media.

A well-attended forum in Catia, a working-class district of western Caracas, set the tone for many other UBCh meetings. Catia is known and respected for being a centre of Chavista militancy. and other pro-revolution media repeatedly ran written and videotaped reports of the proposals made there by a Gonzalo Gomez, spokesperson from Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide), a leftist grouping within the PSUV, and by Manuel Sutherland, a Marxist economist who coordinates the Center of Worker Investigations and Education and teaches at the Bolivarian University of Caracas (UBC).

Sutherland demonstrated with charts and detailed narrative how government negotiations with the owning class have not stopped the bourgeoisie from amassing huge fortunes and from driving the economy into a deep ditch. He challenged the fantasy, held by some PSUV reformists, that business owners in Venezuela are patriotic and renounce super profits gained from fraudulent imports and currency speculation. Rather he showed how Venezuela’s 400,000 capitalists appropriate 60% of Venezuela’s gross domestic product (PIB) to the detriment of 13 million workers who receive the remaining 40%.

In other words, the bourgeoisie still controls the bulk of the economy, and by implication, political power in Venezuela. With this power, the owning class has squandered Venezuela’s dollar reserve in order to make astronomical profits. They import goods paid for in petrodollars and then sell them for as much as 1500% profit at home. The result is devaluation, inflation and scarcity. Some call this “economic warfare” waged by the oligarchs. But, Sutherland insisted, the warfare metaphor implies that there can be peace and therefore underestimates the depth of the structural problem.

He proposed a major structural change for the governing PSUV: to nationalise all of Venezuela’s international trade. Sutherland pointed out that three years ago Hugo Chavez had made the same proposal. He quoted the revered PSUV founder: “Create a state corporation for imports and exports to end the bourgeoisie’s hegemony over imports. We look like pendejos (idiots, wimps) giving dollars to the bourgeoisie. They import, overcharge, buy whatever is desired for one dollar and charge five dollars here.”

Inside another UBCh meeting

Several days later, across town in the upscale neighbourhood of Baruta, UBCh militants took up Sutherland’s proposal in the context of a wide-ranging discussion of their own 10 proposals to send to President Maduro. They sat in a circle in the modern, airy cafeteria on the 11th floor of a PSUV office building. It was a small group: mostly women, many of them professionals, many retired. Through the surrounding windows, the US flag could be seen flying from a pole in front of the US Embassy, now closed to the public.

They began by talking about the problem of bureaucracy. A woman who dressed more humbly than the rest of the group suggested that the PSUV set up a storefront in every municipality to help people navigate the system. Another woman, a retired nurse, remarked that the Missions [government-funded social programs] had been set up to circumvent the problem of bureaucracy, but that in many cases, they too had become bureaucratised. A sociologist and film maker remarked how the state is still controlled by the capitalists and implied that only socialism would solve the problem of bureaucracy. Then she frowned and added, “with the threats from the coup-plotters (golpistas), the state has its back against the wall and has to make deals with the bourgeoisie.” The woman who began the conversation sighed, more from impatience than resignation and said, “How long are they going to be giving in to the opposition and not to us?”

Then, for a moment, people aired related complaints. “The private monopolies are thieves.” “The justice system is corrupt. They killed 400 campesinos and no one has ever been tried.”

A few debated about which famous official was corrupt and which was simply misguided. A retired physician began to speak about Sutherland’s proposal to nationalise the import/ export function, but got bogged down in economic details.

A blonde woman who had a laptop with her to keep a record of the meeting but hadn’t touched a key, brought order to the meeting. “The Venezuelan state, in every stage of history, has been corrupt and bureaucratic. Ours is a tremendous improvement. But if we’re ever going to get rid of corruption and bureaucracy we need to organise the base, so that everyone is prepared to press forward with their complaints. Now, when a grassroots person makes a grievance it doesn’t go anywhere. We have to organise to make government accountable. Accountability should be a theme of the 3rd Congress.” Everyone nodded.

They brainstormed other problems: the lack of food sovereignty; scarcity of dollars, bourgeois legalisms; too much individualism; and lack of pride in Venezuelan culture. They reached a consensus on the need for more political education, but did not formulate a specific proposal for implementation.

The spokesperson (vocero) for the Baruta UBCh, a computer expert and one of the only two men in the circle, launched into a history of the Bolivarian revolution because, “we need to understand the context before we finalise our proposals”. His narrative concluded with an analysis of the current tasks of PSUV: to struggle against US imperialism and its allies in the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and to define the Bolivarian process to build 21st century socialism.

However, he continued, three different currents inside the PSUV are vying for control to define strategies for carrying out those tasks. (1) The reformists who use petro dollars to placate the masses to accept perpetuation of the current structures. He called them social democrats and included the “Bolibourgeoisie”, the opposition’s 5th column in this group. (2) The Stalinists who think the state can solve every problem. They are bureaucrats, often members of the bourgeoisie who have been replaced. They protect their own power. (3) The proletarian Chavistas, the heart of the revolution. They must build their power from below, independent of the state. According to his assessment, they are currently the weakest of the forces within the PSUV.

Then he made a number of specific proposals to address Venezuela’s economic problems. First, he said, the banking system should be consolidated. “We’re not ready to nationalise banking, but we don’t need 50 banks either.” Second, “it would be political suicide to raise the price of gasoline, but for the sake of economy and the environment, the price of fuel cannot stay so artificially low. We should strengthen the public transit system and convert vehicles from using gasoline to gas.” Third, the Agriculture Ministry and the Food Ministry should be combined to streamline programs for food sovereignty. Fourth, the only way to get rid of inflation is to institute massive production. “We don’t need to be totally dependent on petrodollars. We should develop our gold and coltan resources to earn new sources of currency. Also we must shut down the foreign sectors of the economy like car assembly. We can and must produce 100% of our cars here.” The retired physician raised Sutherland’s proposal to control imports, but by then, the time for adjournment had passed.

Before the meeting broke up, two of the women agreed to write up the vocero’s proposals, plus the ones about holding corrupt officials accountable to grassroots complaints and the need for more political education. Then they would email them to the address Maduro had tweeted. When asked if the group wasn’t going to review them again, she shook her head, “No, it’s not possible. In this revolution everything happens very fast. The proposals are due today.”

An open PSUV congress promised

In the most recent issue of Vanguardia, the periodic publication of the PSUV, Carolys Perez, the secretary of the Third Party Congress explained some of the measures they had taken to ensure a successful congress. The aim is for breadth: to receive suggestions, opinions, and contributions not only from PSUV membership but also from political organisations that are part of the Gran Polo Patriotico (GPP), an alliance of left-wing organisations of which PSUV is the largest. “We want to open the door to deepen the revolution and design policies to help construct socialism.” contacted a spokesperson for the Afrodescendant Front of the GPP and a number of other Afrodescendant organisations about their plans to submit proposals to the congress. So far there has been no response.

The Vanguardia article on the next page quoted Chavez’s 2011 self-criticism about the need to challenge “bureaucratism, opportunism, sectarianism, nepotism and gradual distancing from the base”. These problems, Chavez had explained, come from the persistence of capitalist culture—including capitalist culture within the PSUV. The Vanguardia author concluded that Chavez’s prescription for self-criticism/criticism was more relevant than ever.

Venezuela: Activists form communard council

Communards raised their hands to approve the creation of the National Communard Council and other proposals. Photo by Ewan Robertson/VenezuelAnalysis.

By Ewan Robertson, Merida

June 23, 2014 -- Green Left Weekly -- Activists from across Venezuela met this month to form the National Communard Council, which aims to coordinate the country’s commune movement and present its demands to the national government.

The council was formed in the western state of Lara during a three-day meeting of about 2000 communards (commune members) from around the country. Most represented a particular commune.

The meeting was the fifth national gathering of the independent National Communard Network since the organisation was founded in 2009.

The move is another step forward for Venezuela’s communards. They are seeking to replace the state’s representative political structures, particularly local and regional governing bodies, with direct participatory bodies such as communal councils and communes.

In Venezuela, communal councils are small neighbourhood groups where local residents organise to develop their local community and run community affairs. They can also receive public funds to undertake a variety of projects in their area.

Communes, meanwhile, are made up of groups of community councils. They are created when local residents hold an election to select spokespeople from each community council in a given area to form a communal parliament. This group then assigns different sub committees to cover community affairs over a larger territorial zone.

The commune can take on larger tasks and responsibilities than individual community councils. They can also register with the Ministry of Communes, which makes them eligible to apply for public funds to create productive, educational, cultural, infrastructure or other development projects.

During the meeting, communard Abraham Simenez explained some of the aims of the commune movement to

“The commune movement is a launching pad to consolidate this process of change toward socialism, to put people first,” he said.

“It’s a way for us to end the state as it is currently constituted, with regional state governments and mayors, and for us to arrive at a communal state with constituent power [direct participatory bodies], the base of which are the communes.

“It’s through the communes and organised communities that we can propose projects [to the national government] to acquire public funds and carry them out ourselves for the good of the community.”

The driving force behind the creation of the National Communard Council was the National Communard Network, which groups together many of the country’s communes.

The council aims to present the commune movement’s demands directly to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro via the Presidential Council of Communal Governance.

It will also work to strengthen grassroots and regional communal organising. It seeks to take on certain state powers itself, such as some functions now performed by the Ministry of Communes.

The National Communard Council is composed of communal spokespeople from each regional state. It has sub-councils on communal economy, political organisation, communication, education, security and defence, and youth.

The specific characteristics and functions of each council were decided after communards met for a day of discussion. The conclusions reached were presented at a final plenary session.

The demands to be put to the national government include taking over management of the national commune registry from the Ministry of Communes, and taking control of public TV channel Tves.

Other proposals agreed to were to strengthen the communal economy, found new institutions of higher education, create a communal newspaper and form a communal intelligence agency and strengthen the communal militia.

Commune minister Reinaldo Iturriza told “The National Communard Council is a very valuable initiative because it aims to coordinate the diverse efforts of communes in the country.

“There are parallel (complementary) experiences in this regard, with the formation of territorial groupings of communes and communal cities. There are about 60 experiences of this under way in the country.

“I understand this initiative as a unified political platform, about which the Bolivarian government doesn’t have to say if it’s good or bad.

“The government observes how the people’s movement, in this case the commune movement, decides how to organise itself. Our job is to accompany this experience.”
Many communards described their experiences of communal organising. A coffee grower, Jorge Franco, said farmers in his area were organising to develop their own coffee processing capacity and cut out the private sector from the processing, distribution and sales chain.

He said to do this, the farmers had organised themselves into communes and were receiving public funds to aid them in this task.

Many communards said during the meeting that although they were able to work with “allied” governmental figures and state institutions to further their aims, there was also institutional opposition to their project.

The coordinator of one discussion group said: “We must be clear that this National Communard Council is the start of a new struggle. There are those who are going to come and try to take this down, and we need to overcome that situation.”

Jasmy Quintana, a communard activist from the eastern Anzoategui state, said that, in particular, mayors and governors would lose autonomy and responsibilities if the commune movement were to grow. This means many were opposed to the move towards what activists call a “communal state”.

She said: “We still have people who say they are revolutionaries and belong to the Bolivarian process, but they don’t support people’s power. That’s why we, independently of whether they speak to us nicely, have to be vigilant that these nice words are translated into practice.

“We don’t want sugar coated words, we want action. We are just beginning. We have to consolidate our base from below, to go for a constitutional reform … to take autonomy away from the mayoralties and state governments.”

The communard said growing people’s consciousness and the desire to self-manage the country’s resources was the reason the United States government was “afraid” of Venezuela’s political process.

Communards discussed differences in strategy at the meeting. One point of debate was whether the commune movement should seek a gradual “transition” of powers from representative to communal structures, or whether these powers should be “taken” more quickly.

In a national register of community groups undertaken last September, it was found that there were 40,000 communal councils and that 1400 communes had been formed or were developing.

[Abridged from]