The Voices of Participatory Democracy in Venezuela
--A review of Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots
By Hans Bennett
There are many different ways that the corporate media continues to misrepresent the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Many critics of this biased media coverage have directly challenged the demonization of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but very few critics, if any, have exposed the media's virtual erasure of the vibrant and growing participatory democracy in Venezuela. Alas, the new book entitled Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots (PM Press, 2010) offers a powerful correction to this misrepresentation by spotlighting a wide range of people and movements that are actively governing themselves with official governmental structures created since the 1998 election of President Chavez, and the growing non-governmental social movements that have existed for several decades.
Venezuela Speaks embodies this non-hierarchical philosophy by presenting the voices of the people themselves in interviews from practically every sector of society, including community organizers, educators, journalists, cultural workers, farmers, women, students, and Indigenous & Afro-Venezuelans. Co-authors CarlosMartinez, MichaelFox, and JoJoFarrell argue persuasively that this untold story of democracy from the bottom-up is key to understanding the complexity of the present-day political situation in Venezuela. They write that "by failing to see beyond Chavez and the government's anti-neoliberal policies, one of the most significant political dynamics in Venezuela has gone ignored and underappreciated--the dynamic between a government that has committed itself to a discourse of grassroots political participation, and the response of ordinary Venezuelans to this call, often in ways that go beyond the expectations of the government, occasionally even challenging it."
Authors Martinez, Fox, and Farrell explain that "the idea of participatory democracy, as opposed to representative democracy has been a pillar of Chavez's political movement since his successful run for office in 1998." The most well-known example of participatory democracy in Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution is the system of communal councils, which have "provided Venezuelans with a legal mechanism to locally organize themselves into democratic structures of between 200-400 families, with the greater goal of determining the way that government funds get used for development and infrastructure projects in their communities."
However, the authors argue that the community councils are just the "tip of the iceberg of the construction of popular power in Venezuela. Over the course of the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuelans have created cooperatives; taken over factories; occupied urban and rural lands; launched community radio and television stations; built centers for culture and popular education; participated in creating national legislation and found numerous other ways of bringing the government's discourse of popular power into reality. Many of these actions have been motivated by the words of President Chavez or have been facilitated by government initiatives. Meanwhile, many people behind these actions continue to pressure the government in order to survive or succeed."
While the revolution has opened up new possibilities for popular participation, many of the participants interviewed explain how they are actively pressuring the governmental bureaucracy to follow through on the revolution's goals. Looking at this tension between social movements and the state, the authors write that "while much of the blame has been attributed to corrupt or right-wing elements still functioning within the government's bureaucracy, many social movements also argue that an overly "institutionalized" approach to revolutionary change has not taken their independent initiatives sufficiently into account." Indeed, "many social movements recognize the reality that although government leadership may have changed, radical transformation will often still demand confrontation with those in political power."
The authors recognize the interviewees "conflict and frustration" with the government, but they argue that "rather than let their criticisms of Venezuela's political process fill us with disillusionment, these testimonies should provide us with inspiration in knowing that so many people are actively engaged in constructing their new society, regardless of setbacks." This point is clearly the dominant theme throughout the book, with the authors boldly asserting that "beyond the social programs, economic projects, and anti-neoliberal policies promoted by the national government, truly profound change will only come from the active debate and dialogue between organized peoples and the government. It is this debate and dialogue that has set Venezuela apart from many national liberation struggles of the past, and if Venezuela is to succeed where others have failed, then it must continue to strengthen this relationship."
Yanahir Reyes Joins Book Tour
Marking the release of Venezuela Speaks, co-authors MichaelFox and CarlosMartinez are joining photographer SylviaLeindecker on a book tour around the US. The tour began in San Francisco's Mission District on January 14 and on the East Coast on January 20, inArlington, Virginia.
For the East Coast segment, they will also be joined by YanahirReyes, who works with Women's First Steps Civil Association and is the founder of Millennium Women's Word, a feminist radio program broadcasted on a community radio station in her neighborhood of Caricuao. The 28-year old Reyes is featured in Venezuela Speaks, as part of the chapter focusing on women and sexual diversity movements. Her powerful account is just one of the many interviews featured, but it shows the complexity of how the Bolivarian Revolution has impacted women's liberation.
Reyes explains that her earliest feminist consciousness came from home, as she saw that her father, a former member of a leftist guerrilla movement, "could go out and do whatever he wanted. He was freer, while my mother stayed at home, taking care of us--the girls--ironing, washing, scrubbing, and cleaning the house." After discovering that he was having an extra-marital affair, she saw her father as "a coward, a chauvinist," who "had the power to dominate the situation." According to Reyes, this type of sexual inequality is compounded by the poverty because "housing is very hard to come by in Caracas and sadly some women are forced to remain in demeaning situations because of it. "I want to have my own apartment, alone. I want to travel, to do a lot of things without depending on a man."
Reyes talks about her involvement in the local ludoteca, which serves as an educational, family, and community center that is flexible and "responds to the needs of the people "the ludotecas are different from traditional schools, because they can take place anywhere in a community"under a mango tree, a room in a barrio, on a closed-off street. The ludoteca isn't managed by the teacher or an institution, it's managed by the people. Mothers and fathers participate in the space," and it "has the objective of strengthening the emotional bonds within the family and using play as a means of education--but an education for transformation."
Along with working towards a healthy family, the ludoteca has been an important tool for women's education. As mothers brought their children in, they would gradually become more involved with their children's education by volunteering at the ludoteca. Reyes explains that "the women were not trained in workshops or anything like that. They began by observing what [co-worker] Milda and I did. But when the women began to participate as volunteers, they started learning children's songs, how to play the children's games, how to work with pregnant women. It wasn't about us teaching the mothers. They learned through practice." Even further, "the school pushes the community to organize, to solve serious human rights issues, like the right to water, education, security, recreation, nutrition, and other necessities. The ludoteca functions as a safe space, preventing the violence generated by the nature of survival and the vicious cycle of patriarchy and capitalism."