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Hugo Chávez’s Future

Recently, I spoke with Greg Wilpert, editor of venezuelanalysis.com and a freelance journalist. Wilpert is the author of Changing Venezuela By Taking Power, forthcoming from Verso Books later this year. During the one hour interview the two discussed Venezuelan media, the role of the internet, U.S.-Venezuelan relations, socialist education, and obstacles for the Bolivarian process as it moves ahead.

NK: What is your personal background?

GW: I was born in the U.S. but moved to Germany because my father was German and my mother is American. When I finished high school I went to study in the U.S. I went to college in San Diego and did my PhD in sociology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

NK: How did you come to be in Venezuela?

GW: I spent six years living in New York and that´s where I met my wife who is Venezuelan. I taught sociology at the New School. My wife had to go back to Venezuela as she finished her studies and was on a temporary visa. I´ve been here ever since, seven years now. I came down on a Fulbright to do research and teach at the Central University of Venezuela. The grant ran out, but right about the time of the coup attempt I decided to focus more on journalism. I felt the international media wasn´t doing as good a job as it should. In 2003 I hooked up with one of the founders of Aporrea.


NK: What is Aporrea?

GW: It´s one of the main Chavista Web sites which was very important following the coup attempt because it provided a key source of information and continuous updates as to what was happening in Venezuela. It was very important for community movements here in Venezuela and also internationally, for people to get a steady stream of information that wasn´t controlled by the existing corporate media. So, we got together and talked about launching something similar but slightly different and geared towards an international audience in English.

NK: When you say ¨we,¨ who do you mean?

GW: Myself and Martin Sanchez, who was one of the founders of aporrea.

NK: So, where does the funding come from?

GW: Well, that´s always a tricky issue (laughs) because of course opposition supporters always say, ¨that´s 100% government.¨ We did receive some funding from the Ministry of Culture, but we also get some grassroots donations. Also, we have mutual support agreements with several different groups, such as Green Left Weekly, Alia2, and briefly with Telesur, among others. We don´t have much money now, at the high point we may have had 4 or 5 people but it keeps fluctuating as people come and go. It´s kind of hard to find people to work on the site because it´s in English but you need people who know the situation in Venezuela.

NK: Do you plan on getting funding from other sources?

GW: Yes, we´re working on getting some advertising, and we´re looking into applying for funding from foundations.


NK: Does the government ever call you up and complain that it´s unhappy about whatever story, is there any interference?

GW: None whatsoever. As far as the Web site, I´m not in touch with anyone as far as content.

NK: What´s it like working in Caracas and what is the journalistic environment here?

GW: It varies (laughs). I actually have quite a few contacts because my wife works in the government and she was a political activist before Chavez came into office. So, that has certainly helped me. But even for me it´s often quite difficult, because no matter where you come from, and even if you come recommended from someone else, you´re generally regarded with a lot of suspicion from the government and it can be quite difficult to get information.

NK: Have you noticed any growth in anti-American sentiment over the past few years?

GW: No, not at all. Whenever the media talks about Chavez being anti-American, no one here perceives it that way. They perceive him as being anti-Bush.


NK: What kind of impact has venezuelanalysis had, how many people log on to the site?

GW: I think about 1,000 people read the site every day. I have the impression that it does have an important impact; we´ve reached other journalists and academics for example. Journalists who view the site will in turn speak to other journalists who are based here and most of them are anti-government.

NK: And these 1,000 hits, do you know where they come from?

GW: I´m not sure, but I think they´re almost all from the U.S. and Britain.

NK: How effective do you think internet and other pro-Chavez media have been in countering mainstream media coverage?

GW: If you do an international comparison of media coverage on Venezuela, in the English speaking world one generally has the impression that Chavez gets trashed. However, the coverage is actually better in the English speaking media than it is in the German or French media, which I keep an eye on, let alone Brazil or other Latin American media outlets. I can´t say venezuelanalysis has moderated the harsh coverage of Chavez in the English language media, but I do think we´ve had an impact. Actually, there is no other equivalent of our site in other languages.


NK: To what extent are grassroots groups pressuring the government to radicalize, and what is the impact for the United States?

GW: The problem here in Venezuela is that civil society is relatively weak. There are very few strong or powerful organizations around. The strongest are perhaps the unions, and even they are very small, weak and disorganized. Other than that there´s very little. On the other hand there are demands coming from community groups around the country that are clamoring for attention and they are trying to get Chavez´s attention. And I think they do have some impact in that sense. However, the groups are totally unfocused and disorganized.

NK: What kinds of groups are we talking about?

NK: Mostly community groups that change their formation in various ways. They might have been organized as Bolivarian Circles at one point and as the electoral battle units, now in the consejos comunales and urban land committees, water committees, health committees, whatever. These groups are organized in a thousand different ways. And that´s part of the problem because it´s not coherent. You have Chavez´s party, but that´s seen as a very top down organization. So, there´s all these community groups but no umbrella organization which might channel their demands. So, I do think these groups are pushing the process forward, but in a fairly ineffective manner.


NK: There´s been some nationalizations recently, some of these have affected U.S. economic interests. Do you think there may be further nationalizations that might upset U.S.-Venezuelan relations? Are grassroots groups pressuring the government on that front?

GW: No, I don´t think nationalizations is a popular issue. But, I do think the government will continue them, for various reasons. The government has already announced three areas that would be nationalized, and it has proceeded to go ahead. So, it´s not really clear what´s left to do. That is, telecommunications, oil, and electricity. There´s not too much left of strategic importance. But I could imagine nationalization proceeding in various other sectors, which are smaller and less important. Nationalization is part of an overall socialist strategy, and if there was an effort to turn these companies over to worker management or co-management, then nationalization would be a prerequisite for that. I do see that happening down the line.

NK: What about the countryside, are there any U.S. interests in agriculture? Could land reform jeopardize U.S.-Venezuelan relations in any significant way?

GW: One thing you have to consider is that the proportion of agriculture in the gross national product is only about 6%, so it´s really a miniscule portion of the economy. The amount of U.S. interest in that 6% is probably not more than 1% at the most. I don´t think land reform will have any impact on U.S. relations. The most prominent case was this Lord Vestey ranch which belongs to the British, but that case was more or less settled. The government really wants to expand agricultural production and it would be very careful not to disrupt this production. The agreement then with Vestey has to be seen in that context.

NK: There are various U.S. oil companies operating in the Orinoco Oil Belt. Do you see any point of contention there which could damage relations?

GW: If the government proposes that the compensation for the Orinoco Oil Belt production is somehow below market value, then yes relations could be affected. According to Venezuelan law, it has to be at market value and so far it seems the government is interested in doing that. The problem in the Oil Belt, and the reason the government might not give such a good deal, is that we´re talking about much larger sums of money. The foreign oil companies are saying that they invested something like $17 billion in production. I think foreign participation there is about 60-70%, so to get a majority or 60% share the government would have to buy out about half of that. Still, that´s about $8 billion, hardly petty cash. I think the Orinoco Oil Belt is going to be a drawn out process and it´s going to be difficult for the government to come up with the money.

NK: Do you think if Venezuela purchases more foreign arms this might contribute to the inflammatory rhetoric and provide another point of friction?

GW: Yes, that is probably going to happen but actually to a lesser extent in future because I think the government has completed the first wave of updating its military arsenal. Up until now, the military hadn´t received new weapons for almost 20 years. I don´t expect much higher expenditures in the near future.

NK: It sounds from what you´re saying that ironically, despite all the rhetoric, there aren´t a lot of contentious issues in dispute?

GW: I think the situation in Colombia could be a possible contentious point. If Uribe were forced to resign, and his successor was less friendly towards Chavez, the U.S. could exploit the friction.

NK: Well, there is the possibility that we´ll have more ideological radicalization which, while it might not affect U.S. interests directly, could have an important psychological effect, through the formation of cooperatives for example. How do you see the revolutionary process deepening?

GW: I think the danger is that any effort to move away from so-called liberal, representative democracy will be interpreted as an effort to bring about dictatorship. I don´t think that´s a fair conclusion to draw, but I think the U.S. would say this as well as many people in the international community and within the international media. That could isolate Venezuela. And, I think the Chavez government is intent on moving away from capitalism and liberal representative democracy.

NK: How do you see that specifically?

GW: In the measures that he´s already announced. On the political level, for example, giving more power to communal councils, and giving priority to them over representative government or elected officials, also in terms of allocating budgets and making various decisions in the regions of the country. On the economic level, more nationalizations, more worker self-management at all levels. And so, these changes at the political and economic levels will be interpreted as anti-democratic, even if they´re not.

NK: But, with the opposition fractured and Bush distracted in Iraq, do you think that even if things were to radicalize that Washington would be in a position to do anything?

GW: If it´s a situation where the international community could be won over, Bush could do something. At this point however it´s pretty much hopeless for Bush to get other Latin American countries on board, I think that´s a lost cause. But perhaps Bush might try and succeed to get European countries on board.

NK: In the event that a Democrat is elected in 2008, how might this affect relations?

GW: I think it depends on what kind of Democrat. If it´s a moderate Democrat like Hillary Clinton, I could easily see a continuation in friction. Democrats like her and John Kerry have shown a great degree of eagerness to play to the Miami Cuba crowd. Whereas, if it were a more liberal democrat like Obama or Edwards then that could definitely be a big change.


NK: Given your academic background, it occurred to me to ask: Chavez has talked about launching a so-called "University of the South." If it did take off (and he has launched a Bolivarian University already), to what extent is that an ideological challenge to the U.S.? Have you seen their curriculum and has the Bolivarian University had a radicalizing impact on adult students?

GW: I´ve spent some time looking at the Bolivarian University, and I definitely think it represents an ideological challenge in many ways. The university is a conscious effort to train people for government service, who have a more Bolivarian outlook on the world. I think the University of the South is still a ways off, the last time I heard about it, which was a year ago, it was completely embryonic.

NK: What is the specific curriculum at the Bolivarian University?

GW: It´s very interesting. Students start out even in the first year getting involved in the community and working on community projects, at the same time that they´re in class. So, it´s very centered on helping the poor and developing means to overcome poverty.

NK: The other day I was walking around and I saw a sign reading "Center of Socialist Learning." Is this a move towards propagandistic teaching?

GW: I haven´t seen the center, but all of the new educational programs have some kind of socialist bent to them, for example the Vuelvan Caras program. And yes, it is definitely an attempt to convince a larger segment of the population to support the program. I personally think it´s a bad idea, not because I´m against that type of education but from what I can see there´s an over emphasis on this kind of moral dimension and being moralistic. To my mind that´s not what socialism is about. It´s an elaborate critique which I won´t go into now, but there´s a simplified idea about education that I feel is being propagated sometimes, that we just need to teach people how to think in more collective terms and the collective good instead of the individual good, more in terms of solidarity and everything will follow from there. I just don´t think that´s how education works and it could easily lead to a new form of dogmatism which is quite dangerous.


NK: Well, speaking of which, what do you see as the main obstacles towards a deepening of the Bolivarian process?

GW: The main obstacles I see are actually internal and not external. By and large, I think the external obstacles have been overcome. I think the dynamics of both domestic and international capital have been overcome. Domestic capital, mainly because it´s so weak, it´s completely dependent on the state sector and there´s not much it can do at this point. The old opposition, the old elite is another obstacle and that too has been overcome through all the electoral defeats and coup attempts. So, we are left with three main internal obstacles. One of these is a kind of in-group mentality related to clientelism. Because of the external threats, even though these threats have subsided, there´s still this idea that we need to protect ourselves and promote only those who are with us. That usually leads to a skewed notion of citizenship, where government services and jobs are given mainly to supporters, which has been widely discussed in the media. I think this is a problem which exists and could even get worse. This is a mild form of corruption but it could lead to more serious corruption.

NK: What is the logical conclusion from what you´re saying, could there be social unrest or even revolt?

GW: There´s a contradiction here in the ideology, which is supposed to be universalist, which is supposed to be inclusive of marginalized people, but in actual practice you see the exclusion of some people, of opposition supporters. So, it´s a contradiction that sort of hollows out the belief system, it makes people more cynical. The other thing is that it hardens the opposition. Even if the opposition is a minority, they become more and more willing to actively resist the government if they are completely cut out and cut off from any kind of participation in the social and political life in the country. That could lead to a situation like what we had in Nicaragua, where you had people taking up arms in a low intensity civil war. You could get this in Venezuela, or a terrorist campaign. I still think that´s a possibility if enough people in the opposition were convinced that this was the only way to be politically active. The other danger is this whole focus on Chavez the person. The whole Bolivarian movement is so dependent on Chavez that it causes problems on many different levels. It de-emphasizes what this movement stands for, and it ends up standing for Chavez as president and not much else. And it sets up a situation where you don´t have a real social movement that can channel the political debate, that can articulate societal interests. The whole movement becomes so dependent on this "dialogue," so to speak, which tends to be rather one way, between Chavez and the masses. And of course, the whole thing is rather unstable, because if Chavez were to disappear the whole movement would fall into a thousand pieces.

NK: Chavez has been claiming recently that he´s been targeted for assassination…

GW: I think assassination is a real possibility because people in the opposition who don´t like the government, if they´re smart, they realize that everything is so dependent on Chavez that if they get rid of him they have a very good chance of coming back to power. But, they might also conclude that such a development could provoke total chaos in the country. I think analysts in the U.S. government know that, and maybe I´m being too optimistic or thinking too highly of them, but I kind of doubt they would be interested in total social unrest in Venezuela because that would threaten the oil supply. So that´s why I doubt the U.S. government is behind an attempt to assassinate Chavez. But that doesn´t prevent people in the opposition from wanting it, especially since they probably don´t care very much whether oil goes to the U.S. or not, and their main concern is getting back into power. The third obstacle is Chavez´s governing style. Even though he wants to bring about participatory democracy, he still has a very top down management system and that creates contradictions. He´s not very participatory in his own environment, I have this feeling that he has a very militarist mentality of giving orders and expecting everyone to follow them. This works for a leader in that it´s good to be strong, but it´s lacking a certain amount of flexibility and willingness to accept criticism and input from various sectors. Also, the whole idea of the Enabling Law, of democratizing the country through a relatively undemocratic process, is also contradictory.

Greg Wilpert is editor of venezuelanalysis.com and a freelance journalist. He is the author of Changing Venezuela By Taking Power, forthcoming from Verso Books later this year.

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