Venezuela Speaks! provides a means of overcoming misinformation about Hugo Chávez that is preventing a fair assessment of his Bolivarian Revolution
Venezuela Speaks! Voices from
Edited by Carlos Martinez, Michael Fox and JoJo Farrell
2010, PM Press
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
IT IS ALL too easy for the powerful opponents at home and abroad of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, to dismiss him as another personalist leader in a long genealogy of authoritarian populists.
After all, Latin America has had more than its fair share of autocrats pronouncing “revolutionary” solutions that conceal the politics of corruption and terror, and a characteristic of the Chávez state has been the personality cult that he has promoted.
But as this excellent collection works so hard to reveal, beneath the “Bolivarian Revolution” upon which the Venezuelan leader aspires to build a “socialism of the 21st century” is something much more substantial than his smile on the posters: social movements.
It has been said that the only defining feature of “21st-century socialism” – what, indeed, makes it even slightly distinctive from its predecessors – is its popular and participatory nature, which alludes to institutional changes that challenge the centralism that has enabled authoritarian solutions to persist.
While it must be said that Chávez and his supporters have at times employed this participatory logic in order to co-opt movements and reproduce corporatist relationships on behalf of the central state, what is without doubt is that the spread of grassroots oganisations in contemporary Venezuela is such that it is hard for that state to constrain them.
Venezuela Speaks! explores a key unacknowledged dimension of the country’s transformation: how the Chávez phenomenon must be situated within the much broader context of the development of social movements. Indeed Chávez, say the authors, would be unthinkable without the movements that support and animate the Bolivarian Revolution.
The book is a refreshingly simple collection that brings together interviews with a range of activists and grassroots organisers from Venezuelan social movements within thematic sections based on key areas of change – from land reform to female empowerment.
In doing so it reveals the diversity, activism and optimism upon which this revolution is being built – and provides a platform for the most important voices behind this phenomenon: those of ordinary people engaged in extraordinary struggle. The interviewees provide fascinating and candid insights into how their work has developed and what they have achieved. They neither pull their punches about the limitations they face and setbacks to their work nor dismiss their own responsibility when it comes to shaping their destiny.
Feminist Alba Carosio, for examples, tells us: “There is now a philosophy that comes from the feminist movement that has permeated through the government and its public policies, and has resulted in a greater consciousness … While many out-dated mentalities still exist within the government, we have certainly advanced profoundly.” [p. 75]
Trade unionist Félix Martínez says: “The people’s ideas are there, but where is the leadership that listens to them and brings those ideas into fruition? The only leadership we see is from Chávez. But for God’s sake! One man for the whole country? We believe that the President needs other revolutionary leaders and we are here to struggle so that this process has that leadership…” [p. 124]
Broadcaster Wilfredo Vásquez comments: “Thanks to the people’s participation and to the Bolivarian process, the communities know that the airwaves belong to the communities and to the people of Venezuela. The media was traditionally controlled by three families in this country. They made so much money that they have become transnational enterprises. Exploiting the people is not a problem for them.”
These interviews provide a means for outsiders to overcome the extensive misinformation campaign about Chávez in the US and Europe that is preventing a nuanced and fair assessment of his achievements. They also offer us evidence that the Bolivarian Revolution is, above all else, a democratic phenomenon in which ordinary people gain the chance – in many cases for the very first time – to determine policy as it affects them and to speak out about their leaders’ shortcomings.
If Chávez and his colleagues are at times the victims of these criticisms, they are also the beneficiaries – for what comes across most clearly in Venezuela Speaks! is the genuine sense of shared purpose that the pioneer of the Bolivarian Revolution has fostered among his people.