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GLW: Bolivarian Revolution: A People’s Win

Bolivarian Revolution: A People’s Win

By Roberto Jorquera
Green Left Weekly

The Venezuelan government’s victory on August 15 is not only a victory for the people of Venezuela, but for working people worldwide. The Venezuelan voters decisive rejection of the right-wing bid to recall President Hugo Chavez has demonstrated what is possible when the interests of working people are put before those of big business.

That he has the support of most of Venezuela’s 24 million people is clear. Since his 1998 election, Chavez and his supporters have won eight electoral races.

Since 1998, the Bolivarian revolution unfolding in Venezuela has been highly scrutinised by the left and the right around the world. His critics are not few: many claim he has gone too far, and some claim he has not gone far enough.

The interest is explicable: under Chavez, Venezuelan society has been fundamentally transformed.

A rich country

While 75% of Venezuela’s population lives below the poverty line, the country has enormous economic potential: Between the 1920s and the 1970s, the economy grew by an average of 3.9% a year, twice the rate of any other Latin American economy. However, its economic inequality was one of the greatest in Latin America.

During the 1980s, like most Latin American countries, Venezuela was subjected to a rash of neoliberal policies that exacerbated the gap between rich and poor. A massive revolt followed, culminating in the El Caracazo rebellion of 1989. This spontaneous uprising against increased fuel and transport prices was violently suppressed by the military, leading to hundreds of deaths.

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This was the beginning of a dramatic loss of legitimacy from Venezuela’s traditional governing parties. In this atmosphere, Chavez led an unsuccessful military uprising in 1992. Although he was imprisoned for two years, he developed widespread support among the poor for his anti-corruption stance.

Chavez had been part of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 (MVR-200). This was an organisation that developed in the early 1980s among junior officers in the army, many of whom had come from working-class backgrounds. After the coup attempt, the MVR-200 held discussions with different communities that led to the formation of the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) in 1997.

At the time Chavez noted,”[MVR’s] process is a transition from a neoliberal model to a humanist self-government — and a more democratic model that would resolve the basic needs of the people”.

In 1998, Chavez ran for president and won. Eighteen months later, Chavez won another national election. It was the MVR’s victory in the presidential elections that began the Bolivarian revolutionary process that we see unfolding today.

Bolivarian constitution

At the heart of this process is the increasing role played by workers and the poor in governing society and defending Chavez. The Bolivarian constitution, adopted in 1999 after a widespread consultation process, was a major turning point in enabling this process. The final constitution included more than 50% of the 624 proposals brought to the table by individuals and civil society groups. This is noticeable in the document’s breadth.

An even more important change, however, is that the new constitution provided avenues for active political participation by the entire Venezuelan population.

Dawn Gable, writing for on February 9, explained: “Importantly, the document not only lays out the rights of the citizenry, but also the duties of the state and the public in attaining and maintaining the ideals of the nation. There are six articles elaborating the duties of all citizens. These articles formally establish the intent of the Fifth Republic administration to enlist the general public in the pursuit of national goals.

“Article 132 states that everyone has the duty to fulfill his or her social responsibilities through participation in the political, civic, and community life of the country with the goal of promoting and protecting human rights as the foundation of democratic coexistence and social peace. Article 133 repeals forcible recruitment into the armed forces, but recognizes everyone’s duty to perform civilian or military service as may be necessary for the defense, preservation, and development of the country.

“Article 135 says that the state’s obligation to the general welfare of society does not preclude the obligation of private individuals to participate according to their abilities. These duties describe participation much beyond the electoral process. They compel the public to see themselves as not so much the governed masses, but as active builders of their own society.”

But fundamentally, it has been the political mobilisation of the working class and the ranks of the armed forces that has radically transformed Venezuela.

In April 2002, the big employers and top military officers staged a coup, arresting Chavez and suspending the Bolivarian constitution. Within 48 hours, a massive uprising by Venezuela’s working-class poor, led by pro-Chavista military officers, defeated the capitalists’ coup.

This insurrectionary alliance between the working class and the revolutionary military officers and soldiers, and the subsequent sacking of the pro-capitalist officers, fundamentally changed the relationship of class forces in Venezuela to the advantage of the working class and peasantry. It has enabled the Chavez government to begin building up new organisations of popular power.

Bolivarian houses

Behind much of the protests that helped overturn the coup was a new form of grassroots organisation, the Bolivarian Circles (CBs). The CBs, which began to appear in 2000, had their origin in spontaneously formed community groups studying the constitution and Venezuelan history, which went on to work on local community improvement projects.

Gradually, these groups began to agitate around broader questions, such as health and education policy. They realised that they needed to participate directly in the decisions that impacted on their communities. Acknowledging this, the president called for the creation of the CBs as a mechanism for this participation and many of the aforementioned community groups became CBs.

There are now 2.2 million people formally registered as CB members. Each circle consists of 7-10 individuals whose members enjoy equal status. Their immediate function is community involvement, consistent with the needs of their specific location.

This participation may manifest in diverse forms such as repairing neighbourhood infrastructure, promoting cultural events, or participating in nationwide programs. But as Ulisis Castro, a member of the national coordination team, has pointed out, many of these 200,000 circles, due to a lack of guidance and assistance, have not been actively functioning in their communities.

Gable writes, “Recognizing this deficiency and as if in response to concerns that such small community groups with narrow, material demands may disappear when their particular needs are met and never grow into broad social movements, the Circles have taken their organizational structure to a more complex level in addition to their traditional, local character.

“The CBs are now organizing themselves into Bolivarian Houses (Casas Bolivarianas). This new structure seeks to unify the efforts of the Circles, along with various other civil society associations, in order to tackle complex issues that are regional, national or even international in character. The first House was opened in the Caracas township `23 de Enero’ (`23rd of January’): a long time activist, barrio community. In the next two years 1078 Casas will be opened: roughly one per parroquia”.

CB literature describes Bolivarian Houses as “community spaces for meetings, interchanges, articulation, unity and fortification of the organizations, movements, and institutions linked to the construction and consolidation of popular power and oriented in the defence, construction, and development of the proposed project of the country and the new society described by the Constitution.

“Participating civil associations will organize themselves among 10 areas of activity according to their interests and abilities: planning and development; education; social economy and productive work; culture and communications; food security; health and environment; safety and social services; infrastructure, urbanization and transport; tourism, recreation and sports; and Latin American integration, international solidarity, and sovereignty.”

Social transformation

The structural changes that have begun to develop in the economic, social and political sphere can be compared to some which the Cuban Revolution introduced in the early 1960s. In fact, Venezuela’s health care program (Bario Adentro-Inside the Bario) and literacy program (Mission Robinson) have been modelled and led by Cubans. Its agrarian reform has began to redistribute un-cultivated land to small farmers.

Another challenge for the revolution has been to establish new social organisations — from trade unions to basic community organisations — to challenge those which are currently dominated by Chavez’s determined political opponents.


[Roberto Jorquera is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, an affiliate of the Socialist Alliance.]

From Green Left Weekly, September 1, 2004.
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