By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
Conversations about Venezuela and obscure cult classics often have depressingly similar outcomes. Whether we’re talking about this South American state of 28.9 million, Peeping Tom, Detour or Pink Flamingos, the discussion is always the same. The few people who know what you’re talking about are either excited beyond belief or utterly disgusted.
Given the media coverage of Venezuela abroad, this isn’t particularly surprising. The Western media often depicts the country as a train wreck, presided over by its brutal, dictatorial president, Hugo Chavez. The Economist has described the country’s president as an autocrat. The Washington Post reported way back in 2003 that the government is trying to “eliminate” independent media. Last year, in an article published by Fox News, former OAS Ambassador Roger Noriega went as far as describing Venezuela as a “narco-state” run by “narco-generals” and other “corrupt cronies”. Oh, plus they apparently support terrorism and banned The Simpsons.
When I first visited Venezuela last September, I certainly kept an eye out for signs of the dictatorship I’d heard so much about.
I’ve seen glimpses of totalitarianism. In China, the police read my emails, and complained to my employer when I wrote things that upset “national harmony”. In occupied Western Sahara, local activists made me cover every inch of my pale hide, as to not draw the attention of the military. In Morocco, I met a member of the pro-democracy February 20 movement who had all her limbs broken during police interrogations.
Oppression shapes people. Most keep their heads down and refuse to engage in politics. When popular protests occur under repressive conditions, they are often an outpouring of anger, frustration and sadness.
This is not the case in Venezuela. Rather than being told to look away from politics, Venezuelans are actively encouraged to engage in what has been termed ‘participatory democracy’. This project is multi-faceted, including the promotion of citizen run Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs), Communal Councils, Citizens Assemblies, worker control of industries and mass engagement with conventional representative democratic processes.
CLPPs are similar to the community-run planning boards that appear in Brazil and some Western countries, but enshrined in the Venezuelan constitution. They are designed to allow local communities to directly engage in planning local education, health care, transportation and other issues that directly affect their lives. Communal councils operate on a smaller level to CLPPs, and take on tasks like managing community media and promoting health, recreation and other local developmental programs.
Worker control developed rapidly in Venezuela following mass lockouts of employees in the oil industry. In late 2002-2003, a number of petroleum companies protested against the Chavez government by halting oil production. In a country as heavily dependent on oil exports as Venezuela, the entire economy could predictably come to a grinding halt if the flow of oil stopped. In response, workers broke into sites and resumed production. Since then worker controlled industries have developed in numerous sectors of the economy.
Despite how they sound, none of these processes are overly afflicted with starry eyed idealism. They have all developed through the struggle of ordinary Venezuelans, rather than the diktat of government or ivory tower philosophers. However, these are still emerging processes riddled with weaknesses. Most positions are voluntary, yet require significant investments in time from community-minded individuals. In my first visit to a communal council in Merida, only five people turned up. There were plenty of generic excuses from absentees, while whose who did show up were forced to take on extra responsibilities. By the end of the meeting, there were tired eyes all round and plenty of undelegated tasks. Turns out democracy is exhausting.
There are far too many pros and cons to discuss here, but it would be sufficient to say that these parallel political systems have plenty of room for improvement, despite their impressive development over the last decade. There is clientelism and other forms of corruption, and conflict with the conventional representative apparatus. However, the key point is that Venezuelans are increasingly becoming engaged in political decision making, despite the difficulties.
It’s not just these new forms of democratic expression that are engaging Venezuelans; politics in general is an impassioned, divisive affair. Within an hour of leaving the airport, I found myself watching a full blooded, stand up argument between strangers on the street about foreign policy. Two weeks later, I attended the closing rally in the incumbent president’s re-election campaign, when 3 million Chavistas turned downtown Caracas into a giant mosh pit. With music, dancing and a questionable amount of rum, it was like no other political rally I’ve ever seen.
So, is Venezuela a dictatorship? Well, according to Venezuelans no. In the 2010 Latinobarometro poll, Venezuelans were found to be far happier with their democracy than most of Latin America. Moreover, according to the poll, Venezuelans are more satisfied with the distribution of wealth in their country than anywhere else in the region, and are second only to Costa Rica in terms of general satisfaction with their lives.
On top of this, all of Venezuela’s elections since 1998 (when the current government came to power) have been declared free and fair by all notable observers, including the OAS and EU.
According to Jimmy Carter, who’s work monitoring elections at the Carter Center has won him a Nobel Prize, ‘of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world’.
Carter’s comments are hardly surprising. Venezuelans are tuned into politics like Australians follow AFL. Rather than being a mundane chore than rears its tediously ugly head every four years, politics here is something people participate in on a daily basis. Many Venezuelan communities and workplaces are increasingly becoming self organised, and I can’t turn on the TV without seeing that supposedly muzzled independent press offering up government criticism that makes Alan Jones sound polite. This is a country where everyone has an opinion, and is allowed to express it.