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Democratic socialism moves forward in Venezuela

December 6, 2008

by Peter Phillips

Venezuelans line up to pay for their books during the last day of the International Book Fair in Caracas Nov. 16. Books printed by government publishers sell for as little as $1.
Democracy from the bottom is evolving as a 10-year social revolution in Venezuela. Led by President Hugo Chavez, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) gained over 1.5 million voters in the most recent elections Nov. 23.

“It was a wonderful victory,” said Professor Carmen Carrero with the communications studies department of the Bolivarian University in Caracas. “We won 81 percent of the city mayor positions and 17 of 23 state governors,” Carrero reported.

The Bolivarian University is housed in the former oil ministry building and now serves 8,000 students throughout Venezuela. The university (Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela) is symbolic of the democratic socialist changes occurring throughout the country.

Before the election of Hugo Chavez as president in 1998, college attendance was primarily for the rich in Venezuela. Today over 1.8 million students attend college, three times the rate 10 years ago.

“Our university was established to resist domination and imperialism,” reported Principal (President) Marlene Yadira Cordova in an interview Nov. 10. “We are a university where we have a vision of life that the oppressed people have a place on this planet.”

The enthusiasm for learning and serious, thoughtful questions asked by students I saw that day was certainly representative of a belief in the potential of positive social change for human betterment. The university offers a fully-staffed free healthcare clinic, zero tuition and basic no-cost food for students in the cafeteria, all paid for by the oil revenues now being democratically shared by the people.

Bottom up democracy in Venezuela starts with the 25,000 community councils elected in every neighborhood in the country. “We establish the priority needs of our area,” reported community council spokesperson Carmon Aponte, with the neighborhood council in the barrio Bombilla area of western Caracas.

I interviewed Carmon while visiting the Patare community TV and radio station, one of 34 locally controlled community television stations and 400 radio stations now in the barrios throughout Venezuela. Community radio, TV and newspapers are the voice of the people, where they describe the viewers and listeners as the “users” of media instead of the passive audiences.

Democratic socialism means healthcare, jobs, food and security in neighborhoods where in many cases nothing but absolute poverty existed 10 years ago. With unemployment down to a U.S. level, sharing the wealth has taken real meaning in Venezuela.

Despite a 50 percent increase in the price of food last year, local Mercals offer government subsidized cooking oil, corn meal, meat and powered milk at 30-50 percent off market price. Additionally, there are now 3,500 local communal banks with a $1.6 billion dollar budget offering neighborhood-based micro-financing loans for home improvements, small businesses and personal emergencies.

“We have moved from a time of disdain [pre-revolution, when the upper classes saw working people as less than human] to a time of adjustment,” proclaimed Ecuador’s minister of culture, Gallo Mora Witt, at the opening ceremonies of the Fourth International Book Fair in Caracas Nov. 7. Venezuela’s minister of culture, Hector Soto, added, “We try not to leave anyone out … Before the revolution the elites published only 60-80 books a year; we will publish 1,200 Venezuelan authors this year … The book will never stop being the important tool for cultural feelings.”

In fact, some 25 million books – classics by Victor Hugo and Miguel de Cervantes along with Cindy Sheehan’s “Letter to George Bush” – were published in 2008 and are being distributed to the community councils nationwide. The theme of the International Book Fair was books as cultural support to the construction of the Bolivarian revolution and building socialism for the 21st century.

In Venezuela the corporate media are still owned by the elites. The five major TV networks and nine of 10 of the major newspapers maintain a continuing media effort to undermine Chavez and the socialist revolution.

But despite the corporate media and continuing U.S. taxpayer financial support to the anti-Chavez opposition institutions from USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy ($20 million annually), two thirds of the people in Venezuela continue to support President Hugo Chavez and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

The democracies of South America are realizing that the neo-liberal formulas for capitalism are not working for the people and that new forms of resource allocation are necessary for human betterment. It is a learning process for all involved and certainly a democratic effort from the bottom up.

Peter Phillips is a professor of sociology at Sonoma State University and director of Project Censored. The “Censored 2009″ yearbook was just released in Spanish at the 2008 International Book Fair in Caracas. He can be reached at

One thought on “Democratic socialism moves forward in Venezuela

  1. Gustavo Coronel

    The inexistent Venezuela of Peter Phillips.

    I have received a very curious article on Venezuela (“Democratic Socialism Moves Forward in Venezuela”), written by Mr. Peter Phillips, a member of the faculty at Sonoma State University, California. ( Probably influenced by his wine country surroundings Mr. Phillips writes about a Venezuela that does not exist. I will mention some specific examples of his inaccuracies and will end with a general comment about his enthusiastic endorsement of Venezuelan autocratic and president for life pretender Hugo Chavez.
    Mr. Phillips opening statement is that “Democracy from the bottom is evolving in Venezuela”. It could not be farther from the truth. Mr. Chavez himself has told us: “I am no longer Chavez. I am the people”. He has also said: “I am the only one who can govern Venezuela”. His pretensions of “being” the people remind observers of fascist rulers like Mussolini or Argentina’s Juan Peron. In six to seven hours long monologues in television, every Sunday, Chavez tells us, Venezuelans, what he has already decided to do. What he means by “participatory” democracy is simply: “I participate to you what I have decided”.
    Mr. Phillips’ second paragraph is also plainly wrong: “PSUV [Chavez’s party] gained over 1.5 million votes in the most recent elections November 23, 2008”. In fact, as compared to the seven million votes Chavez obtained when he won re-election for his second term, he now obtained slightly over 5 million votes. He has lost about two million votes in the last two years. You can look it up. Mr. Phillips quotes a Professor at the Bolivarian University to the effect that Chavez won “a wonderful victory”. He lost the three main Venezuelan cities: Caracas, Maracaibo and Valencia. Opposition governors are now installed in Miranda, Zulia, Nueva Esparta, Carabobo and Tachira, the most important states of the country and control almost 50% of Venezuelan voters. Chavez’s “victory” is a political mirage. He is deeply depressed, in fact, about his loss of these major urban, political and industrial centers, while reduced to controlling mostly the rural areas. The opposition lost in several states because they did not present a unified front.
    Mr. Phillips is wrong when he says: “The Bolivarian University is housed in the former oil ministry building”. This “university” has been located from the start in the old Lagoven building in Caracas, a no longer existing state-owned oil company, not in the ministry’s headquarters. He says this university is “symbolic” of the “socialist changes” taking place throughout the country since “the university was only for the rich before Chavez was elected”.
    Mr. Phillips is plainly ignorant about the Venezuelan education system and has been told a bunch of lies. Higher education in Venezuela has always been free of charge. There have always been private universities in the country but the bulk of Venezuelan students have always gone to state-run universities. In these universities they are also fed almost at no cost. Thousands of students, professors, staff and relatives have had for years a complete lunch for the equivalent of about fifty U.S. cents at the Universidad Central de Venezuela that has about 60,000 students. They put lies in Mr. Phillips’ mouth.
    He quotes the principal (President) of the Bolivarian University saying that the university was “established to resist domination and imperialism”. As a university professor, Mr. Phillips, wouldn’t you rather think that a university is established to find and teach the truth, to open the minds of the young to all ideas and to create citizens capable of living in a free, modern society? Shouldn’t you rather suspect the motives of a university created “to resist imperialism”, as defined by Chavez (U.S. imperialism, not Russian, or Chinese or his own)?
    Mr. Phillips interviewed a person called “Carmon Aponte, from Patare”. He probably meant Carmen Aponte from Petare. The person seems to be a member of a community center that exemplifies, according to Mr. Phillips, the “bottom up democracy”. He was told that “there are 25,000 centers of this type in the country” but he saw only one and managed to misspell both the name of the one single person he talked with and the name of the place where the center is located. Isn’t it possible that he has been told a lie? I can tell him that the 25,000 community centers are a political illusion and that the concept, as used by Chavez, rather than being democratic, is built along the lines of the Cuban dictatorship committees. They are centers of political espionage, to keep the neighbors from criticizing the regime. In addition, Mr. Phillips was not told that in Petare Chavez was soundly defeated last November 23! In explaining this humiliating defeat Chavez had the gall to tell international journalists (he does not receive Venezuelan journalists) “Petare was a rich neighborhood” when, in fact, everyone knows that is one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the world.
    Mr. Phillips writes on enthusiastically: “Democratic socialism means healthcare, jobs, food and security in neighborhoods where in may cases nothing but absolute poverty existed ten years ago…” Do you know, Mr. Phillips, that the level of social inequality under Chavez, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is higher than ten years ago? Do you know that Chavez has received over $700 billion in the last ten years and has pilfered this money in handouts to his ideological friends and to the Venezuelan poor, instead of creating programs to tackle the structural, not the day-to-day, problems of poverty and disease? There are no new hospitals or schools or roads being built under Chavez that are remotely proportionate to the immense income he has enjoyed. How can you justify the tragedy of a country with this huge income but having a rigid exchange control, importing $40 billion of food and other essential items per year, having the highest crime rate in the hemisphere, the highest rate of inflation in Latin America, where people have to get in line for two or more hours to get milk and beef and with about 50% of the population able to work engaged in the informal economy (street peddlers) because there are no jobs for them?
    Mr. Phillips, you mention MERCAL. This is a Chavez demagogic program designed to offer subsidized or even free food to the poor. The food bought by the government is mostly sold by companies such as the ProArepa group, owned by Chavez’ friends and/or relatives. I refer you to my paper on Corruption under Chavez (Development Policy Paper #2, Cato Institute, November 2006, if you desire to know more details about this scam. Both the paternalistic concept and the mechanism of food distribution of MERCAL are deeply corrupt. MERCAL gives the poor a fish a day but does not teach him/her how to fish.
    Mr. Phillips, you mention that the regime publishes 1,200 books per year in today’s Venezuela. Have you seen the list of such books, are you sure they exist? Did you know that, in some of the books published, the Chavez’s regime is reinventing Venezuelan history to show, for example, that Bolivar was a socialist zambo (like Chavez) and that Miranda and Paez, two of our national heroes, were traitors? This distortion of history is typical of fascist regimes. As a professor of sociology you should be concerned about this attempt by Chavez to change history and to indoctrinate our children. Today Venezuelan children go on Chavez’s TV to recite poems to Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and other criminals. Do you, as an educator, approve of this?
    I am at your service to go to Sonoma State College (if I can get the money to pay for my travel expenses) to debate with you, as long as you want, about the Venezuelan situation and to let your students and the academic community at Sonoma State College decide what the truth about Venezuela really is. Apparently you went to Venezuela for a few days and you are now repeating what you were told, without examining the other side of the coin and swallowing whole every piece of misinformation being given to you. This is not the manner, my dear sir, that a university professor should behave.


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