An intellectual committed to the communal project talks about the contradictions that the popular movement is facing in Venezuela today.
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 . 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 , 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 Helm transcends 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  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 a Strike 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.