Implementing the Bolivarian Revolution: Julio Chavez in Toronto

On October 10/09 Venezuelan former mayor, now state legislator Julio Chavez spoke at the University of Toronto sponsored by Hands off Venezuela and the Louis Riel Bolivarian Circle. He came in sporting the unassuming Bolivarian fashion: red T-shirt, red baseball cap (with a Canada logo on it), jeans, and sneakers, and fired up a powerpoint presentation.

On October 10/09 Venezuelan former mayor, now state legislator Julio Chavez spoke at the University of Toronto sponsored by Hands off Venezuela and the Louis Riel Bolivarian Circle. He came in sporting the unassuming Bolivarian fashion: red T-shirt, red baseball cap (with a Canada logo on it), jeans, and sneakers, and fired up a powerpoint presentation.

The city he’d been mayor of was Carora, in the state of Lara, in northwestern Venezuela, next to the state of Maracaibo and the Colombia border. Carora municipality had been the plaything of a small elite. All municipal ordinances were for the elite, so that when he was elected in 2004, there was a huge gap between municipal laws and the chavista constitution.

His analysis was as follows: a capitalist crisis in Latin America has led to a crisis of representation so neoliberal parties fell and new forms of leadership emerged. Representation is based on concepts of liberty, fraternity, equality. Participatory leadership is based on popular power, revocable mandates, citizen assemblies, breaking down the social division of labour, and power from below.

“We neither order nor obey,” he said, but build popular power structured by free and democratic consensus.

The basic mechanism for participation was the assembly, in which organized communities were invited to collective discussion on ordinances in accordance with the constitution. Budgetary priorities were decided in these assemblies, and not a small fraction of the budget like the Porto Alegre experiment, but 100% of the budget. Whereas in the old days investment decisions were made by the mayor or a small group, with the people not even knowing the sizes of the funds or who would carry out the work, participatory processes were based on transparency.

The process worked as follows: the neighbourhoods listed problems of the neighbourhood. Assemblies decided on priorities. The budget was distributed proportionally by size of territory and population density to parochial councils, who have the priority list, the diagnostic, and available funds. The mayor didn’t participate in any of this. The people assigned resources to finance decided-upon projects, with access to technical experts from the mayor’s office.

“Here’s an example I lived. I went to the assembly in Carora as the mayor. According to local opposition media the roads were in a disastrous state. As mayor I thought it should be addressed, I wanted to respond to the media pressure to allocate funds to roads. The assembly told me it wasn’t a priority: public services first, they said, roads second. After 4 hours of debate they gave me $32 M bolivars, and a list of streets to fix.

“How many of you know your city’s budget? How many of you participated in it?” Greeted with awkward silence, Julio Chavez continued: “So how is Venezuela a dictatorship? We are transferring power to communities.”

Some of the executive power was devolved as well, with 200-400 families organized in commissions or committees of work (Housing, culture, Land). They can’t give their money to corporations or use it for lobbying, although they can hire companies for contracts. In that system, the council buys machines and materials for the project, and the municipal staff provide tech support and accounting. In 2008 there were 104 such contracts for $4.8 M bolivars (fuertes).

The neighbourhood assembly has to approve the accounts by the communal council. They have found that under their control they are able to accomplish more with the same budget than private contractors did. “We did a sports field, and where for similar projects the contractors came back for more money, we had money left over for a block party.”

Housing projects in this scheme were made by the community at a lower cost and with a sense of ownership. Other projects include rural schools and paved roads. With communal bank resources to finance social and productive projects, the councils create jobs and improve housing. Where predatory private banks charge 20-25% interest, communal banks charge 6%. Another mechanism allows the communal council to execute projects of the municipality or with neighbouring municipalities seeking funds from national government directly, not via the governor or mayor.

In the long-term vision, communal self-government in councils, balanced development with time and a pilot proposal, the mayor’s offices will disappear and communal government will be set in the territory, with concrete development plans. Communal banks will help in the financial system to develop the whole territory. Missions, companies could work in the territories but the local government works with them. Universities in the territory will be relevant to the territories.

There are already industries controlled by communal councils, like agri-machine companies.

Chavez concluded his presentation with a list of accomplishments of 10 years of revolution. In spite of sabotage, aggression, and coups, we’ve managed:

* 46 000 Cuban doctors in Venezuela Barrio Adentro, who have treated 24 million patients and extended primary care to many people, 24 hours all year round, free of charge.
* Mision Milagro (eye clinics)
* Jose Gregorio Hernandez – Disability
* Sonrisa – Dental
* Revolucion Energetica – Renewable energy
* Mercal – Food
* Arbol – Planting trees
* Indigenous people/languages. All missons apply to the indigenous but in their culture: literacy programs are for indigenous to read and write in their own languages
* Identidad – Permanent resident cards, especially for Colombians, fast and free.
* Madres del barrio – support for single moothers

A large part of Venezuela’s oil revenues are now going towards financing the project of inclusion. Some figures:

* In 2004, unemployment was 13.9%. In 2007 it is 6.2%.
* Growth is sustained. The sabotage of 2002 cost $12B (USD).
* Fourth highest GDP in Latin America, below Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina.
* Inflation under Carlos Andres Peres was 44%. Under Caldera, 60%. Under Chavez, 20%.
* Minimum wage went up by 6x in 10 yr. 800 Bs. F.
* UNESCO’s Human Development Index going up steadily.
* Barrio Adentro reaches 80% of the population.
* Infant mortality in Canada is 5 per 1000. In Cuba it is 5 per 1000. Venezuela has 13.4 per 1000, down from 21.
* Illiteracy is 0.4%.
* The percentage of Venezuelans with some high school was 35.9% in 2008 (was 21% in 1999).
* The Gini coefficient is decreasing (0.49 to 0.42).

Gini is a measure of the inequality of a society. “When it reaches zero”, Chavez said, “we’ll have started socialism.”

“We have won all electoral contests and when we lost we recognized the loss. We are trying to do this in peace and democracy.”

“Meanwhile the US is installing military bases in Colombia and reactivated the 4th fleet. Obama got the Nobel prize for reactivating the 4th fleet and installing military bases.”

“Chavez said Obama had 2 faces. Canada should pay attention and not be part of the problem.”

Afterwards, Julio Chavez sat with a couple of independent journalists for brief interviews. Capitalists would ask if socialist enterprises have the problems of incentives seen in previous socialist experiments.

“We’ve read, studied historical processes and other countries. Cuba, Vietnam, USSR, China. We aren’t copying anyone else’s model. Our ideology is endogenous. It’s Bolivar, Rodriguez, Zamora, indigenous, Latin American.”

Isn’t the whole process dependent on oil?

“We are trying to become independent, to make an educational and cultural revolution in our own values. Solve food sovereignty. Cuba won the educational revolution, they have resolved it. Their problem is production. Ours is a different equation and a different set of problems to solve.”

The US is trying to drive Venezuela into an arms race with Colombia, which is a lose-lose proposition.

“That explains our alliances – to defend the revolution and the territory. We need to defend it for our project of inclusion.”

When Chavez has lost, it’s been to low turnouts. How do you deal with apathy?

“Participation in assemblies are not 100%. Neither is participation in elections. But it used to be way below 50%, and today we’re worried when it goes below 50%. Our party has to impel participatory processes, and we’re constantly trying to find ways to incorporate more people.”

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.