Venezuela: “Open Horizons”

An interview with Roland Denis

Roland Denis is a leading intellectual and revolutionary in Venezuela. He served as Vice Minister of Planning in the Hugo Chávez government in 2002-03, but resigned after ten months in protest of the lack of grassroots involvement in the planning process. He is the author of many books and articles. The most recent translation of his work in English is available in the Winter 2012 edition of The South Atlantic Quarterly. We caught up with Denis at the Terrar Park, a popular restaurant frequented by left militants in Caracas.

— Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber.

Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber (SS and JRW): Can you tell us about your political history?

Roland Denis (RD): My story starts in the mid-1970s. By chance I happened to be in Nicaragua at the end of the 1970s during the Sandinista Revolution. I learned a lot of different things there. From there I began to identify with the cause of the poor. When I returned to Venezuela at the beginning of the 1980s, I started to become active on the left; the situation was radicalizing quickly and there was a lot of violence [due to political persecution of the left]. I was a survivor, but many compañeros lost their lives in the struggle. That guy over there [pointing to one of his friends of about the same age], for example, is also a survivor; he was a leader in the student movement in Mérida.

Shifting Paradigms

Susan Spronk and Roland Denis.

The 1980s was a time of defeat and generalized crisis for the left. Old paradigms were exhausted. The Soviet Union fell, ‘really existing socialism’ collapsed. The emergence of new paradigms of struggle marked its defeat in Latin America. The concept of popular power emerged as the articulating force for various popular struggles, Christianity, Marxism, Bolivarianism, ethnic movements, and territorial movements started to converge around this concept. There were still a number of activists from the previous era who remained committed to armed struggle, but it was a small bastion of resistance which had abandoned the idea of involving the masses, meaning that their strategy was ultimately defeatist. A new left emerged in this context, a movement that struggled for popular survival (sobrevivencia popular); I was part of the development of this latter current.

Our struggle confronted the state but it also put forward a general politics that touched various aspects of life, such as the pedagogical movement and the cultural movement, which started to work with movements of miners, indigenous peoples, students and workers. The Assembly of Barrios [Asamblea de Barrios] in Caracas was a very beautiful experience; it was a movement that had a lot of force.

The Caracazo, on February 27, 1989, erupted in the midst of these new developments, an event which totally changed the political scenario. The Caracazo was a response to total disaster. The price hikes that accompanied the austerity policies represented a complete reversal of the old capitalist development model, which had channeled the oil rent for decades. As elsewhere in Latin America, traditional political parties that had formerly identified as ‘left’ implemented neoliberalism [including the Democratic Action Party, a social-democratic party, that shared office with COPEI for over three decades of “pacted democracy”]. The popular movement responded in an almost spontaneous fashion.

The Caracazo was a crisis of the state, a crisis of hegemony. In the subsequent elections in 1993, even radical left parties like the Radical Cause [La Causa Radical, a revolutionary syndicalist party founded in 1971 by a group that broke from the Communist Party] put forward reformist platforms. The political scene became much more complicated as the popular organizations were growing in strength. The military-civic uprisings of 1992 must also be thrown into this mix. These uprisings were not just popular rebellions but insurrections against the state. The relationship between the popular [civilian] movements and the military, however, was always very difficult and complicated.

For my part, I worked to support the popular movements in their struggle for liberation by working in publishing houses, such as Primera Línea (Frontline). The project Nuestra América (Our America) also started at this time, which was another convergence space that was very important. We kept up like this until the question of power emerged in middle of the 1990s with the emergence of the Bolivarian movement. This movement sought to capitalize on the crisis of the state. After the Caracazo, social questions remained unresolved, indeed, things [material conditions] continued to deteriorate. We faced a choice: insurrection or the electoral path. Chávez chose the electoral path and made an agreement with the military. A lot of people did not like this decision, but they finally had to accept it. They also had to accept the proposals for the Constitutional Assembly, the re-founding of the nation, etc. Eventually they took Presidential office – but not power. Chávez once in office followed through on these promises, and they pushed forward the Constitutional Assembly, which promoted the revolutionary process. These reforms were very timid at first, but important. They came into major conflicts with the entire apparatus of the state, but they managed to bury the Fourth Republic.1

For me this was a very complicated time, because while all of this was happening, we opposed the government, not necessarily working against the government but alongside it, and even in it. I, for example, served as Vice Minister of Planning. It was extremely difficult to work inside of government, inside a structure that was still extremely conservative. The military made it particularly difficult. I could not spend too much time inside the government; I chose to serve only until the most critical moments were behind us, particularly 2002-03 when we were on the verge of civil war. All of us who were working inside the government were giving as much as we could. At that time, however, there was still very little government in Venezuela [laughs]. During the bosses’ strike [in 2002-03], for example, the government did not even have any money. In reality, it was the people, the popular movements who supported the process and made sure that the situation did not deteriorate into civil war.

We triumphed against the right-wing oligarchs and the fascists in this moment, but this period also produced defects. To this day, popular power does not reach the highest levels of power; we have not achieved a sufficient transformation of the correlation of forces to impose a further radicalization of the process. So, one the one hand, we have a bureaucratic caste (una casta burocrática), which continues to impose its will through different political agreements and mechanisms, as can be seen in the way that the state manages the PDVSA [the state oil company] and the basic industries. And, on the other hand, we have the popular movement.

“The problem in Venezuela is not a lack of organization. Rather it is how we organize ourselves to struggle against the cooptation of power by the leadership, which is corrupt, bureaucratic, and useless.”

In this sense, there are two ‘revolutions’ in Venezuela. To be more precise, there is really only one revolution [laughs] and the other is a process led by certain privileged castes in power. The old political parties such as COPEI are more or less dead, but new ones are still being created, such as the Fifth Republic Movement [Movimiento V (Quinta) República, MVR] and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela [Partido Socialist Unido de Venezuela, PSUV]. Now we find ourselves trying to reorganize the popular struggle. The problem in Venezuela is not a lack of organization. Rather it is how we organize ourselves to struggle against the cooptation of power by the leadership, which is corrupt, bureaucratic, and useless.

SS and JWR: How would you describe the different phases of this process since Chávez’s election in 1998?

RD: The first step was the Constituent Assembly, which was a process of radicalization. It politicized issues such as land, primary, secondary and post-secondary education. Some municipal governments also managed to gain strength in the Constituent process. This phase passed very quickly, but it must be understood as the result of two processes: the popular processes and the Constituent Assembly.

By the end of 2001, Chávez made some important decisions but he had not even nationalized a corner store. There were a number of reformist laws, which were radical nonetheless, with respect to resources such as land and hydrocarbons. He started to attack the leadership of PDVSA [the state oil company], which was where the real power of the state was located. There is a myth of state power in Venezuela – we are talking about a petro-state here. The PDVSA is where power really lies.

All of this process of radical democratization was paralyzed by the opposition-led coup d’état of April 11-13, 2002 and shifted to a defensive struggle, guided by a defensive logic which aimed to protect what was gained and stop the advance of fascism, which took hold in Venezuela for two days. The state security forces killed many people. The coup was a totally criminal act. We managed to stop it, and to avoid a situation of civil war.

The 2004 referendum on Chávez’s presidency represents the last event in a conspiratorial attempt to oust Chávez that was ultimately defeated. The workers’ movement practically obliged Chávez to participate in the referendum. Chávez was reluctant for fear that he would lose, which is what his friends were trying to tell him (and those people still surround him, by the way). Chávez organized a marvelous campaign and he won a decisive victory. With this victory, the violent tactics of the right wing opposition were defeated and the right wing was decapitated. To this day, they have no direction. They have no decent candidates. The only thing that they have left is the media, which remains in their hands.

The period 2004 to 2008 is the next phase during which the PSUV was formed. This is a transition period during which there was a very powerful tendency to entrench the bureaucracy and its logic of power. The period ended with an argument about the necessity of creating a party. The founding of the party killed the organic process of articulation of the popular forces.

Take, for example, the peasant and worker movements, which are grassroots movements. They joined the PSUV and are now disarmed, headless. Why do I say this? The Bolivarian movement represented an accumulation of popular forces. Curiously, it was not a political movement [in a party sense], but it was unified, and in terms of its organization it grew stronger every year. For these reasons, it was absurd to create a political party. Why would we need more unity than we had already achieved? Why would we need more organization than we already had? In their day, the Bolivarian Circles managed to organize two or two and a half million people.

But, the leaders understood that the only way to make people shut up before they started to say something really dangerous was to form a party. And Chávez, being from the military, and – we have to say it – under the influence of the Cubans, formed the party that is always in conflict with the logic of the grassroots movements. And due to Chávez’s leadership, many people joined the PSUV. The party is a disaster. It cannot accomplish anything. It inspires no struggle. It is a party that pacifies and silences the masses. Inside the party, people struggle for positions of power. Indeed, it disorganizes the popular movement. We are still dealing with this enormous problem today.

By 2010, the PSUV started to collapse, even in the electoral scene. The right won the last two elections, including the last legislative elections. Indeed, they won a greater share of the popular vote than the Chavistas. The PSUV is panicking. Their only response is to fan the flames of the personality cult around Chávez. Since it is just a big bureaucracy, Chávez is all they have in their arsenal. They try to elevate his image until he becomes a god. Sometimes they try to substitute Bolívar, but they always end up going back to Chávez. It crushes the popular enthusiasm.

Antonio García Duarte, an anarchist leader from the Spanish civil war, responded to the accusation that the popular army was disorganized in the following manner: “We do not organize obedience, we organize enthusiasm.” This organization of enthusiasm has been lost with the bureaucratization that has accompanied Chavismo, which becomes more and more corrupt with every passing day. People are getting disillusioned. Of course, this government has delivered certain benefits, such as education, healthcare, etc… through public spending on the missions. But this has also meant that the expectations that the government will solve people’s problems has also grown worse, ending up in a policy of public spending that creates more expectations. The situation we are living in is very critical. I describe the problems related to these relationships and the crystallization of power in my book, The Three Republics.

SS and JWR: What role does the Great Patriotic Pole [Gran Polo Patriótico, GPP] play in this scenario?

RD: In the beginning the GPP created an important polemic, but I have not followed the situation closely since then. Chávez created the GPP because he realized that he needed to reactivate this enthusiasm, and this would be impossible if the only people involved in the campaign were the Ministers and the politicians. And, even more importantly, Chávez realized that these popular movements needed to debate the content of the electoral platform, to define the priorities for the next mandate. More or less, this kind of conversation was achieved at the first assembly of the GPP. But demands that the GPP have autonomy were refused. And even the popular movements themselves, accept that this is their mission because they are already bound up in the state. A lot of the activists involved in these popular movements depend on the resources of the state, political favours, having good relations with Ministers and between one region and another. They are not accustomed to marching with their own two feet.

A lot of the popular organizations that are involved in the GPP are just there for the election. They must have about 500 or 600 organizations involved at this point, only two months after it was formed, which is impressive. Many of the activists involved are experienced activists who were involved in militant struggles of the 1980s and 1990s.

SS and JWR: Which forms of popular organization are the most dynamic in the current conjuncture?

RD: I just returned from the plains of Apure, a state located in the far southwest of Venezuela. It is a very beautiful state with a long history of radical struggle. There is a conflict between seven different armed groups in the high part of the state (Alto Apure) near the border with Colombia: the U.S. army, the Colombian army, the Venezuelan army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC], the National Liberation Army [Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN (also from Colombia)], the paramilitaries, and a small guerrilla organization from Venezuela. The latter are a terrible organization, a guerrilla movement that supports the government. They extort poor peasants in the name of Bolívar.

It’s interesting to note that the peasants in this region have organized within the PSUV against the leadership of the PSUV. They do not accept a submissive form of participation. They organized an assembly recently that 1,500 people attended, even though a lot of them had to travel up to 7 or 8 hours to get there. It took me 25 hours to get there from Caracas. This is the spirit of the peasantry. They refuse to be bossed around. If someone comes and tells them what to do they threaten to cut off their head. All this is to say, the popular movements are not in decline, but there are a lot of movements which are really confused. The symbolism of Chávez is very powerful, but it creates a very confusing situation when the bureaucracy of the Chavista government takes a position against popular movements like this one. The Chávez government has betrayed these people who have invaded land. Some leaders have been thrown in jail. The urban movement that occupied land faced the same treatment [in the beginning]; they were attacked.

Of course, this is all part of the process. No one said that this was going to be a paradise. The question of revolution remains an open question.

SS and JWR: And what is going on with the workers’ movements?

RD: The workers’ movement is one of the most attacked, where the effect of the bureaucracy has been the most pernicious. The National Union of Workers [Union Nacional de los Trabajadores, UNT], which might have been something interesting, fell apart completely. All that is left in the UNT is basically one tendency, and a new workers’ confederation, a ridiculous new organization, has been formed, called the Socialist Confederation of Workers [Confederation Socialista de Trabajadores, CST]. It doesn’t really exist; it is completely lacking in substance. Who is the leader of this new organization? The direct advisor and principal aide of the Federation of Oil Workers [Federación de Trabajadores Petroleros, Fedepetrol] when Carlos Ortega was the president [from 2001-2003, during the bosses’ strike that Fedepetrol supported], one of the great union leaders affiliated with the syndicalism of the Acción Democrática (Democratic Action, AD).

There is no unified union movement that stands up to put an end to these antics. Nonetheless, there are many interesting workers movements, occupations of factories, concrete experiences. There are problems with workers everywhere – in public and private enterprises across the entire country. Again, the popular movements are not dead, but every time something interesting starts to happen they confront the same limit: the state appears, the movement confronts it, and then they are accused of being counter-revolutionary; the movements don’t have the necessary tools to continue their struggles beyond this.

A lot of people within the popular movement repeat the adages of the old left, that we have to wait for an accumulation of forces or that revolution is for our grandchildren, but these are all arguments of the antiquated political arsenal of the old Left. They see the world as following the pattern of a telluric cycle, that each time something comes around it will come back with more force, and one day in the far future we will be free. A lot of people remain silent; it is my role to name the enemy, not because I am some kind of narcissist. It is my job [as an intellectual] to say to someone, “you are a bureaucrat,” or, “you are a drug trafficker,” when the term applies. It is the job of politics to name the enemy. We should not speak of the “imperialist power” in the abstract, for example, when it is clearly the United States and Europe.

Here is where we have a two-fold, contradictory process. The process has allowed for a process of radicalization, so radical that it is a surprise to many people. It started with democracy, and moved to re-founding the nation, Constituent Assembly, anti-imperialism, socialism, and self-management. At the same time, the process is becoming more and more bureaucratic. On the one hand, the process advances in discursive terms, and on the other hand, the organic process suffers a setback. These are two processes that are in complete conflict with each other. One form of organization is vertical and authoritarian – the PSUV, for example, is a machine that says that “you are the candidate,” and that’s it, Chávez arrives and nominates whomever he feels like. The development of this political culture is an obvious retrogression from the point of view of the popular movements, and from a socialist or communist perspective.

So this double-sided combination of the process has made things difficult. But there are beautiful experiences as well. Many communal experiences, for example, particularly in rural areas, have an enormous value, however local, and simple in character. It has been more difficult in the cities, because of the components of violence and social decomposition, among other things. Narco-trafficking, for example, has been a tremendous vector through which violence has been introduced, and it has helped to decompose communal projects in our cities. We’ve seen what this can do elsewhere in Latin America. In Mexico it’s perhaps most evident, where it’s a strategy of truly breaking that nation, of destroying it. With these kinds of influences it is difficult to rebuild communities of resistance.

SS and JWR: What is the importance of the elections on October 7, 2012?

RD: In one sense, they’re of absolutely no relevance in terms of the revolution. In another basic sense, they would become tremendously important if Chávez lost. Can you fucking imagine [leaning back and throwing up his hands]? We’d have to start organizing marches all over again against the privatization of education, struggles against everything – violence, repression, human rights – against the privatization of health! Once again with the same shit we’ve been struggling against for the last 20 years, and that we’ve supposedly transcended, no!

If he loses, it would be a terrible set back. But if he wins, we have not really ‘won’ anything, but the horizons would remain open. What I do sincerely hope happens, is that after the election all of this discontent, this tension that is mounting between the popular forces and the bureaucracy will come to a head. I hope that people will begin to speak and name the problem for what it is. Right now everyone is silent because they are waging an electoral campaign.

Luckily, the right wing opposition candidate [Henrique Capriles Radonski] is a total ass (burro). He is extremely basic. It is painful that we have to put up with this little bourgeois idiot from Caracas as a candidate. It is incredible that this mediocre imbecile is going to win 45% of the vote and that he might even beat Chávez, who is a giant. It is not the case that 45% of the population of Venezuela is bourgeois. The loss of a lot of governorships will shake Chavismo. Chávez is going to win the presidency, but they are not going to win at the state level. This deterioration in popular support is the result of the bureaucratization. •


  1. The Fourth Republic refers to the period between 1958 and 1998 of pacted democracy, in which political office rotated between the traditional parties of Social Democratic Acción Democrática (Democratic Action, AD) and the Christian Democratic Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (Independent Political Electoral Committee, COPEI).

Susan Spronk teaches international development and global studies at the University of Ottawa.

Jeffery R. Webber teaches in the Department of Politics at York University, Toronto. Webber sits on the editorial board of Historical Materialism. His latest book is The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left. He is co-author, with Franck Gaudichaud and Massimo Modonesi, of Impasse of the Latin American Left, forthcoming, Duke University Press.