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(en) Venezuela, El Libertario, Of Chavistas and Anarquistas: Brief Sketch

Date Sat, 24 Sep 2005 15:35:14 +0300

(November-December, 2004) By Michael Staudenmaier, with Anne Carlson
For almost a month, from mid-November until mid-December,
2004, we traveled in Venezuela, meeting an array of politically
engaged activists from a variety of perspectives. Without a doubt, the
foremost lesson we learned during our brief time there concerned the
complexity of the social and political situation in the country, which
has been consistently over-simplified in the United States. Where
the mainstream media in this country portrays President Hugo
Chavez as the next Fidel Castro, busily turning Venezuela into a
Communist (or at least anti-US) dictatorship, the US left in general
has welcomed Chavez uncritically as the new face of progressive
struggle in Latin America. North American anarchists, meanwhile,
struggle to understand the situation, and are too often torn between
these two opposing but comparably one-sided perspectives.

Time spent on the ground in Venezuela, if nothing else,
demonstrated to us the inadequacy of both these approaches. This
essay is a brief attempt to convey some of our experience, with the
goal of broadening the anarchist and left discussion of the situation
on the ground. We spent time with both anarchists and Chavistas,
and in both contexts met people who represented a range of
positions from more orthodox and dogmatic to more hybrid and
flexible. This was a second visit to Venezuela for one of us, and a
first visit for the other, but both of us have significant experience
living and traveling in Latin America. Our travels took us through
three large cities and a similar number of small towns, and while we
would never identify ourselves as experts of any sort on Venezuela,
we feel reasonably qualified to draw some tentative conclusions
based on the range of our experiences.

The Chavista Project in Practice: Rural Development

About half of our visit was spent with Chavistas, partly in Caracas
but largely in the east and southeast of the country. We traveled with
an acquaintance who works for the national government on rural
development issues, accompanying him on a visit to a small town on
the banks of the Orinoco River, twenty hours’ drive from
Caracas. Here we encountered a small group of Chavista
activists-turned-government-officials working on land tenure reform,
attempting to start farming cooperatives and similar projects. This
group wanted help dealing with a collection of families, living an
hour’s drive outside the small town, who were interested in
starting some sort of agricultural production collective. The families
were attempting to deal with the harsh economic side effects of the
failed general strike of 2003, which had threatened their already
precarious economic position as marginal producers of grains and

We were invited to sit in on a general meeting between the families
(most of whom were in full attendance, from great-grandparents to
great-grandchildren) and the government functionaries. The meeting
was hosted by one of the families at a homestead constructed
entirely of adobe; they provided everyone present with the standard
afternoon shot of coffee, though the shortage of cups meant that
people had to wait their turn. The dynamic at the meeting seemed to
us a classic example of ships passing in the night: the Chavistas
attempted to explain the value of incorporating as a cooperative
under the provisions of the new “Bolivarian” constitution,
while the families were more interested in simply making sure they
had enough to eat. Our acquaintance expressed shock that no one
among the families had a copy of the constitution (devout Chavistas
carry copies in their pockets at all times), but failed to acknowledge
the fact that a majority of the people in the community were
illiterate, which became clear when the heads of each household
were asked to sign a document that authorized a census of the
community: almost everyone “signed” the document by
giving a thumbprint.

The Chavistas outlined the bureaucratic process of establishing a
cooperative, beginning with the full census of the community –
how many men, women and children, as well as how many cows,
chickens, and acres of tilled land. The community was willing to
comply, but seemed skeptical of the government offer of assistance
in obtaining title to their land: no one appeared to be sure that it
would really happen, and one spokesman for the families pointed out
that no government had ever done anything for them in a hundred
years living on land that didn’t legally belong to them. For their
part, it was clear that the government officials were sincerely
interested in helping the community, but their political agenda kept
them from seeing either the complexity or the patronizing aspects of
this task.

From our perspective, the census was one example of the
modernizing project undertaken by the Chavez government in an
attempt to legitimate a higher level of government intervention in
everyday life than Venezuela has previously known. A much larger
example is the media reform law enacted just before Christmas,
which was designed to weaken the power of the right-wing media
conglomerates that dominate mass media in Venezuela; the
methods, however, include the establishment of a regulatory
apparatus that the Chavistas themselves say is largely modeled on
the FCC in the US.

In the case of the community of families we met, the practical
implications of this project may well be positive: the law allows them
to take possession of their land, and obtain government grants and
low-interest loans that should improve their livelihoods. The flipside
of this process, however, is a large scale expansion of both state
power and market-based economic relations; the families we met
were far from fully integrated into the market economy, as their food
production was in significant part subsistence-focused. Whatever the
benefits of incorporating as a cooperative, it seemed certain that the
process would draw them further into exchange relations, as a
higher percentage of their agricultural product will be sold in order to
pay off their new loans.

The Chavista Project in Practice: Community Organizing

After the discussion with the families was finished, we headed along
with our acquaintance to the nearest large city, Ciudad Guayana,
where a conference of community organizations was taking place.
The conference was one of several regional gatherings in advance of
a national convention of community organizations held near Caracas
in December; the participants were delegates from dozens or
possibly hundreds of grassroots urban and rural neighborhood
groups in the eastern part of the country. We attended one afternoon
of the conference, sitting in on a plenary session featuring
report-backs from small groups.

The materials prepared for the conference described the process as
the result of a provision in the new constitution that demanded the
participation of autonomous community groups in the development
of national domestic policy. In theory any community organization in
the country could participate in this process, regardless of political
affiliation. In practice, it was clear that the majority of participants
were more or less Chavistas, while the opposition seemed to have
either largely refused, or been excluded from, participating.
Nonetheless, there was no single party line, and the report-back
included a fair bit of debate on political and strategic questions. At
the very least, during our short encounter, the delegates appeared to
be mostly everyday people, rather than ideologues or functionaries,
and they displayed a level of enthusiasm that indicated they felt
empowered to make decisions for themselves.

From our perspective, the entire process encapsulated the grand
contradiction of the Chavista project: on the one hand, it was
designed from the top down, the result of a constitutional directive
rather than a grassroots demand, while at the same time the process
was being used by a variety of working class communities to further
a range of demands and build a network of solidarity that in principle
at least could develop well outside the control of the Chavez
government. Much of Venezuela’s future depends upon whether
experiments like this one become safety valves that limit social
unrest or breeding grounds that expand demands for community

The Chavista Project in Practice: Bolivarian Schools and the

The Venezuelan government has gained widespread attention
through the implementation of social reforms in the areas of
education and healthcare. Many of these programs have been able to
run successfully with the help of personnel, donated materials, and
other resources from Cuba. These literacy and medical programs,
called “Misiones” (Missions), provide services to poor and
working class neighborhoods and communities in all parts of

Mision Barrio Adentro works in collaboration with the Cuban
government to bring Cuban doctors to the poorest sectors of
Venezuelan society. These volunteer doctors, who intentionally live
within the barrios, provide door-to-door medical visits and operate
free clinics in these communities. We were able to interview a few of
these doctors in Caracas and they emphasized the harsh reality that
these low-income neighborhoods have been ignored for years
without access to a nearby clinic. This was one of the few
government programs that seemed to have near-total grassroots
support, even among those who were otherwise highly critical of the
so-called Bolivarian revolution. Many anarchists were quick to point
out the band-aid nature of this sort of low-level health care, but this
was the harshest criticism we heard.

Mision Plan Robinson, named after one of Simon Bolivar’s
teachers, is a program that combats illiteracy by providing a primary
school education to adults. Mision Ribas takes this one step further
by allowing graduates of the Plan Robinson program, or high school
dropouts, to continue and obtain a secondary education degree.
Again, Cuba has been instrumental in the success of this program
providing literacy advisors, television sets for the classes, and other
literacy materials. We had the opportunity to observe one of the
classes; one striking aspect of the class was the limited importance
of the instructor, limited because the entire class was taught by a
video presentation that walked the students through the workbooks.
The Cuban produced workbooks also betrayed a level of simplified
patriotism that verged on indoctrination. This suspicion was
confirmed when we watched part of a televised commencement
ceremony for Plan Ribas graduates: Chavez himself was the keynote
speaker, and his remarks floated back and forth between platitudes
about the importance of education and self-congratulation over the
government’s recent purchase of military helicopters from
Russia. This pep rally for militarism dovetailed nicely with the new
requirements for ROTC-style military instruction in all high schools.

A final component of Chavez’ education reform is the
establishment of Bolivarian Schools. These schools are newly
repaired and upgraded buildings that provide full-day instruction,
including three meals, to students living in poor communities
(whether rural or urban) throughout the country. The traditional
school model only provides half-day sessions with one meal. The
Bolivarian Schools also provide many cultural and sports activities
for the students to participate in. While the schools are often touted
as being very progressive, we were far from convinced after a
half-day visit to one of them. The setting of the school, situated in
the mountains with beautiful views, was very conducive to learning,
but the pedagogy was much less impressive. The emphasis appeared
to be on memorization and recitation, rather than on open-ended
exploration, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. The
strong patriotic component was present here as well, with flags
posted in all strategic locations.

As in other areas, the educational aspects of the Bolivarian
revolution seem to hint at the possibility of real social change, but
the reality of the Venezuelan educational system remains
pedagogically backwards and dangerously tied to a nationalistic
militarism. This places sharp limits on the potential for dramatic
social change emerging from within the education system, although
it may have the unintended consequence of radicalizing traditional
forms of youth rebellion.

Anarchist Perspectives on Chavismo

When we were not observing various Chavista projects, we spent
much of our time with a variety of anarchists in several parts of the
country. Without exception, the anarchists we met were
outrageously generous and friendly, and also exceptionally talkative.
As a result, we quickly learned a lot about the perspectives of
Venezuelan anarchists on Chavismo and its related manifestations.
These perspectives were as varied as you might expect, given the old
joke that ten anarchists will produce eleven opinions on any topic of
political importance. However, we were able to distill three fairly
distinct sorts of anarchist responses to Chavismo, which could be
labeled the lesser evil approach, the makes no difference attitude,
and the grand distraction analysis.

A number of anarchists we encountered, in both small towns and
larger cities, held the view that Chavez was better for Venezuela than
the opposition would have been. These people were clearly still
anarchists – they opposed Chavez and his policies, but they
believed that an opening had been created that held the possibility of
fundamentally radicalizing the population as a whole. Their strategy
was to push the populist and socialist tendencies of Chavismo to
their furthest extremes, where the Chavista leadership would be
likely to repudiate the logical conclusions of their own rhetoric. The
intended result seems to be a popular uprising in support of the best
aspects of Chavismo, but against Chavez and his core leadership.

The most sophisticated version of this approach was the broadly
revolutionary group ONDA, based in the university city of Merida.
ONDA (whose mysterious acronym of a name means
“wave” in Spanish) included a range of old and new leftists,
including at least a couple anarchists (one of whom was our host
during several days spent in the city). The group had made
something of a splash during the previous local elections in
November, when they sponsored a line on the mayoral ballot that
constituted a vote for the Chavista mayoral candidate but against his
policies. This option gained a few thousand votes in a city of
250,000, and accurately sums up the intriguing if confused
perspective of its membership. At the general meeting we attended,
the assembled members (approximately 40 people) decided that their
next project would be to push for the creation of neighborhood
assemblies; these assemblies are allowed under the new
constitution, but ONDA wanted them to have full decision-making
power, rather than merely being advisory to the city council.
Whether this project, or the potentially anarchist approach it
represents, will draw the group closer to or further away from
mainstream electoral Chavismo remains to be seen.

The second anarchist analysis we encountered was best represented
by two comrades who were our hosts in Caracas at the beginning
and end of our stay. They argued that Chavez was on the whole
neither better nor worse than the opposition would be were it in
power. In essence, they said, the masses of Venezuelans were
wasting their time debating for or against Chavez, when in fact the
true class interests of the majority cut across these divisions. From
their perspective, a sizeable majority of the Chavista rank and file
was potentially open to anarchist analysis and action, while a
substantial portion of the anti-Chavista popular base was similarly
accessible, despite the apparently stark divisions between the two

In their work around a local anarchist community space (not unlike
the infoshop model made popular in the US in the 1990’s), our
hosts befriended both rank and file Chavistas and anti-Chavistas,
and attempted to build organizing ties with both groups. If
successful, such efforts could have the effect of strengthening the
popular base of each movement and drawing the two groups closer
together, while undermining the relationship between each
movement and its own self-designated “leadership.” This
approach could have truly radical long-term implications, although it
necessitates an uphill battle against the popular understanding that
Chavismo and anti-Chavismo have nothing in common.

Our Caracas hosts were active members of the Comision de
Relaciones Anarquistas (CRA, or the Anarchist Relations
Commission), which publishes a popular bi-monthly newspaper
entitled “El Libertario” (“The Libertarian,” in the
anarchist sense). It appeared that their view was popular within the
CRA, but there did not seem to be any organization-wide
“line” on the Chavez question.

The third major anarchist perspective on Chavez was also
represented by members of the CRA, although this analysis seemed
to be less popular in the group overall. According to this view,
Chavez is actually worse for Venezuela than the opposition would
have been at this historical juncture. The argument here is two-fold,
both economic and political. First, due to his popular persona as a
radical reformer and anti-imperialist, only Chavez could have forced
through the range of petroleum and other resource concessions to
multi-national corporations that have been approved in the past few
years, because these same maneuvers would have faced massive
opposition had they been proposed by the traditional parties that
make up the opposition. Second, Chavez has been able to use his
social reforms (literacy programs and the like) to cover for a massive
centralization of political power in the hands of the presidency,
where the opposition would have been confronted as authoritarian
extremists had they attempted the same power grab.

The advocates of this approach seemed to believe that the main task
facing anarchists in Venezuela was to confront and oppose
Chavismo as a fraudulent ruse aimed at distracting the country from
a pro-capitalist and authoritarian shift in ruling class politics. Since
we spent the least amount of time with advocates of this analysis, we
don’t feel qualified to speculate about the strategic implications
drawn by its proponents.

It is important to note here that these three perspectives did not
appear to be mutually exclusive: the most vehement anti-Chavez
anarchists would acknowledge good aspects to the literacy and
medical care programs instituted by the government, while those
anarchists most optimistic about the prospects of Chavismo harshly
criticized the government for successfully selling off huge chunks of
the country’s resources to foreign corporations. The divisions
between the perspectives seemed to have much more to do with the
strategic approach that each encouraged. At this early date, and
given our extremely brief time in the country, we feel unable to
assess the relative merits of each strategy beyond our own gut

Anarchist Practice in Venezuela: Two Examples

Beyond simple analysis, most of the anarchists we met were
involved in a range of practical work. In Caracas, in particular, the
CRA not only publishes “El Libertario” (several thousand
copies of each issue are apparently sold or otherwise distributed), it
also maintains the newly opened community center mentioned
previously, known as the Centro de Estudios Sociales Libertarios
(Center for Libertarian Social Studies). This space, which opened in
early November 2004, serves as both library and event space, as well
as being a meeting location and a study space for participants in the
various Chavista-sponsored literacy programs. The goal of the
Centro seems to be similar to that of many infoshops in the US
during the 1990’s: to provide an infrastructure for anarchist
organizing, while creating ties between anarchists and other
residents of the community.

While it is too soon to say, the Centro may well face the wide range
of problems experienced by US infoshops: confusion about
long-term goals, tension between the anarchist-focused and
community-focused aspects of the project, and frustration due to the
painful dynamic between burnout and laziness, among many others.
For the present, however, the Centro benefits from the enthusiasm
and dedication of a wide range of participants, from teenage punks to
elderly veterans of the Spanish Civil War.

A different model for practical work is being developed more or less
single-handedly by an anarchist we met in a small town in the
western mountains of Venezuela. This highly dedicated organizer
(known universally as “El Frances,” or the Frenchman, after
the country in which he was raised by Venezuelan parents before
returning a few years ago) was perhaps the most friendly and
outgoing anarchist we met, and regularly sells a dozen or more
copies of “El Libertario” in a town of only a few thousand
people. As a result, anarchism has a higher profile (at least
per-capita) in this town than in anywhere else in Venezuela. El
Frances operates a small booth in the public market from which he
sells anarchist literature, punk music, and other items. During our
visit he was attempting to organize the other vendors to take over the
management of the market, which had until then been operated on a
landlord-tenant basis that aggravated many of the vendor tenants. El
Frances had also started a small anarchist collective, made up largely
of younger people new to anarchism but interested in social change,
and was attempting to develop a community space on the model of
the Centro in Caracas.

The dangers of the one man show approach taken by El Frances are
obvious: for now, at least, anarchism in this small town lives or dies
with his effort alone, and the sort of anarchism developed in the
community will tend heavily toward whatever idiosyncrasies his own
politics contain. However, the optimism he brings to his organizing
efforts will almost certainly lead to positive outcomes, at least in the
short run.


Perhaps the most amazing thing about Venezuela was the
enthusiasm shown by nearly everyone we met, regardless of their
political outlook (or lack thereof, in some cases). Wherever we
turned, people not only wanted to show us their favorite parts of
town, they also wanted to share their analysis of the political
situation. Whether they thought of themselves as pro-Chavez or
anti-Chavez (or somewhere in between), people displayed no
trepidation about sharing their opinions with us. This openness
stood in stark contrast to our experiences in other Latin American
countries, where much of the population is reserved, especially in
discussing political matters. It was unclear to us how much of this
enthusiasm was a result of the changes wrought by Chavismo, and
to what extent it pre-dated his rise to power; many people claimed
the openness was a new phenomenon, while others argued that it
has long been part of the “national character.”

Regardless, it seemed to us that these unique circumstances
presented an amazing opportunity for anarchists in Venezuela. In the
US, it often seems that the biggest impediment to anarchist
organizing is the sort of cynicism and irony that characterized the
presidential election of 2004: how can people be convinced of the
possibility of revolution if a majority think that everything revolves
around picking the lesser of two evils? The situation in Venezuela is
refreshingly different, because a massive section of the population is
not only open to the possibility of radical change, but seems actively
interested in comparing alternative visions and strategies. It remains
to be seen whether the anarchists in Venezuela have the numbers,
the resources, the skill and the fortitude necessary to have a
noticeable impact on the ground. Nonetheless, through both
propaganda efforts like “El Libertario” and grassroots
projects like the Centro, anarchists have a real chance to change the
political trajectory of Venezuela, and possibly even the continent.

Chicago, USA // March/June 2005

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