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Confronting empire

June 22, 2007 | Pages 8 to 12

John Pilger | Martín Sanchez | Dahlia Wasfi | Camilo Mejía | Jeremy Scahill | Rob Will | Joel Geier

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Martín Sanchez

Counsel general of Venezuela in Chicago, member of the National Association of Alternative Media and editor of the Web site.

I THINK this organization has definitely reached new lows. Not only did you support Ralph Nader in 2000, but now you're actually inviting an official of the Chavez government to speak--or regime, as Bill O'Reilly calls it. And on top of that, you choose "Socialism for the 21st century" as the slogan of the conference!

I'm an official of the Chavez government because it's very hard to go Venezuela and talk to social activists who don't have a government job. It's a reflection of what's going on in the country.

What else to read

Haymarket Books is distributing audio CDs of all of the nearly 100 meetings at Socialism 2007. For a full list of meeting topics, see the schedule at the Socialism 2007 Web site. To order CDs of any of the talks, or for more information, call Haymarket at 773-583-7884 or e-mail [email protected].

You can also watch several presentations from Socialism 2007 by:

John Pilger

Jeremy Scahill


If historical or political processes were like formulas, it would make life easier for politicians to analyze what's going on. But what's going on in Venezuela is extremely complex. We analyze Venezuela by continuously taking pictures, and then, when we go to develop the picture, we come back and reality has already changed.

So it's very hard to keep up with the changes in Venezuela. If you stop reading what's going on for a week, you're totally lost, because things change so fast. President Chávez says something, and then he says something else that contradicts what he said last week.

In Venezuela, we have an individual who got to the presidency riding on a wave of social activism and promising to implement some sort of progressive capitalism. He was inspired by Tony Blair's Third Way. He even went to Wall Street and closed one of the sessions with the little hammer. I wish we could find a picture of that.

But a lot has happened since then. There was a very progressive constitution approved, but it respects property rights. So you have to ask why the upper classes in Venezuela are so mad at this guy. It's not just that he's actually enforcing taxes. It has to be something else.

It's because of the way that Chávez got to the presidency--with a big wave of activism that started back in 1989. I would recommend you read the article by Lee Sustar in the current issue of the ISR.

Unfortunately, the media outside of Venezuela portrays what's going on as Chávez, Chávez, Chávez. But a lot of things have been going on in the country that have radicalized the masses.

Three years ago, nobody in Venezuela would dare to talk about socialism. I've been a Marxist for 15 years, and I didn't support Chavez when he became president. I think he knows that. If he doesn't, he knows it now. But the pressure from below has kept the government turning to the left all the time.

A lot of the analysts and experts have been making predictions that sooner or later, Chávez will reach a plateau, and he's going to make pacts with the bourgeoisie and with international capital and imperialism to just let him govern. But that hasn't happened. We see a continuous shift to the left--though it's not as far left as we want it to be--because of the pressure from below.

We've seen mass mobilizations of people. We've seen social programs implemented that have reduced poverty from 55 percent to 34 percent today. We've seen access to university education being democratized. We've seen doctors being available 24 hours a day in poor neighborhoods all over Venezuela.

Illiteracy was eradicated in the country. Unemployment went from 20 percent in 2003 to 9 percent today. And there are other things that very few people know about--like the phenomenon of factories being occupied by workers, who force the government to expropriate the company and turn it into a kind of co-management scheme.

We've had the occupation of unused land, owned by wealthy landowners, thanks to land reform. There was the creation of the National Workers Union, the UNT, as a left-wing alternative to the bureaucratic trade union federation of the past.

We have the emergence of the gay revolutionary movement that forced the mayor of Caracas last year for the first time in history to organize a gay pride parade; the emergence of a movement for abortion rights in a very conservative country; and the emergence of the Afro-Venezuelan Network, which I'm also part of.

All of these things we would never have imagined being created in Venezuela.

There was also Chávez winning the recall election referendum in the only country in the Americas where you can recall elected officials if you don't like them. He also won the election last December against an opposition that was not only financed by local capital in Venezuela, but also by international allies and the U.S. government, through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which keeps pouring millions and millions of dollars to political groups that oppose the government.

What happened two years ago at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, explains why the NED is pouring even more millions of dollars every year into opposition groups in Venezuela. That's where Chávez came up with this proposal of building a socialism of the 21st century.

Not even he knows right now what that means, I think. And that's good--because we don't want socialism by decree.

Since then, we have seen some things that we hadn't before. A lot of people once said that Chávez claims to be progressive, but there are no nationalizations in Venezuela--at least social democrats in the past nationalized some industries.

But fortunately--again, because of the pressure from below--nationalizations started happening this year. They nationalized the telecommunications company in Venezuela, taking the monopoly away from the right. They also nationalized the electricity company from another U.S. company called AES.

There's also been the emergence of the communal councils, which I think holds the best hope for those who want to see change result from this confrontation that's going on right now.

There's a state with a leader who makes decisions from above that people sometimes don't agree with, and a big bureaucracy that a lot of people hate. There will be a recall election this year, and a lot of pro-Chávez governors and mayors are going to be recalled. There's discontent among the people because of inefficiency in the state.

But we also see the emergence of these communal councils, which are bodies to represent up to 400 families in each neighborhood that have autonomy to execute projects. One hundred percent of the projects are handled by these communities--the mayor's office doesn't handle a single penny of the money. Whenever they want to build a school or a hospital, they have to sit down with communal councils. And the councils are the ones that decide where the hospital should be built.

Right now, we're experiencing what we call a soft coup. It's not a coup d'etat. It would be very difficult for the U.S. to invade a country right now and create unrest in Latin America, so they've chosen the path of a soft coup--destabilize the government, create an artificial sense of concern and panic.

You might have heard recently about a TV station whose broadcasting license was not renewed--a very right-wing station that's even worse than Fox News. At least Fox News has the decency of pretending they're neutral, but in Venezuela, this TV station doesn't even allow pro-Chávez people on the air--and not just pro-Chávez people, but even dark-skinned people.

This station's license expired, and it wasn't renewed, and now the right has launched this international campaign claiming that Chávez violated freedom of speech. And sadly, the campaign has been so bad that you have progressives who claim to support Chávez saying this is where I draw the line--Chávez closed a TV station, and I'm for free speech.

But the campaign was based on false claims. The station wasn't shut down. They're going to broadcast on cable or direct TV. But somehow, in the international media, all you hear about is the shutting down of the TV station.

So this is where solidarity comes in. I asked John Pilger today what you have to do in order to counteract this kind of campaign. I've created some alternative media channels that reach 30,000 people every day. But it's not enough. We're confronting the international media and international capital.

This is where solidarity comes in. If you want to organize forums around worker-occupied factories in Venezuela or around the women's movement and the fight for abortion rights, we have the documentaries for you to show at those forums--you can write to my office, and I'll send them to you for free.

But there's something more important. The second-largest manufacturer of ceramic bathroom products--bathtubs and so on--has been occupied by its workers for eight months. The workers are demanding that the government expropriate the company and give it to them, so they can run it.

They're making heroic efforts to keep production going, but this requires international solidarity, in a similar way as was done with the occupied factories in Argentina after the Argentinazo.

I encourage people to not wait until Blackwater is hired to participate in an invasion of Venezuela, because it will be too late. That's not the time to go on the street and protest to avoid an invasion.

Venezuelan workers are continuing the struggle. We don't know where it's going to end. There's an attempt from above to try to impose some ways of doing things. But from below, there's a movement being developed that demands your solidarity, whatever your opinion of the Venezuelan government is.


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