Venezuela and the Popular
Raul Zelik interviews Roland
translated by Gregory Wilpert
Z magazine, October 2003
Roland Denis was a grassroots organizer
during the 1980s in the leftist movement known as 'Popular Disobedience'.
He has always been connected with Venezuela's popular movements
and is the author of a book on the Caracazo, the rebellion and
riots of February 1989. From 2002 to 2003 he was vice-minister
of Planning and Development in the Chavez government.
Your boss, Felipe Perez, and you have recently left the ministry.
You promoted a policy that treated development as a problem of
social and organizational processes. In this sense, you strengthened
local power and self-government. Few ministers have stayed more
than ten months. In your case, one has to ask if your exit means
a change of direction for the government.
Rather than a change of direction, I would say that we see an
absence of direction. There are general principles of the Bolivarian
revolution: participative democracy, struggle for a multi-polar
world, resistance against economic empires, construction of a
solidaristic and alternative economy.
Felipe Perez and I tried to interpret
these principles in a radical way. "Radical" not in
the sense of "extremist," but in the sense of consequences,
of "going to the roots." We tried to deepen community
control, to give communities the power that is needed to develop
new relations with the state; relations of co-governance and co-management.
This practice caused resistance from existing institutions, from
the "old state" that continues to exist, in spite of
You also requested that Chavez assume more rigorous measures against
Not just against corruption. With respect to the World Bank, to
the IMF, to bank power in general, the fiscal problem In all these
aspects, where we moved from a general discourse to concrete policy,
there were clashes within the state apparatus. That, at least,
is my impression.
Are there political conflicts between the left and the right within
governmental parties or are different teams fighting for positions
The essence of states is that they are arenas for the fight for
hegemony. The real powers constantly try to make it worth their
interests. In this sense, this is not a fight between left and
right. The Venezuelan state has been obstructed ever since the
April 11, 2002 coup attempt. While the revolutionary movement
made an impressive leap in those days-we should not forget that
it was the popular movements that defeated the 47hour dictatorship
of Pedro Carmona-the state has assumed a more conservative position
since then. Chavez looked for-which for me was one of his larger
errors-a dialogue with the putschist opposition and yielded to
them on several points. During the oil shutdown in December 2002,
the government had to radicalize again, as a result of pressure
from the outside, because this coup attempt was also overcome
by the grassroots organizations.
This is what I call the "obstruction
of the state." There is no concrete policy in the face of
specific problems such as agriculture, international relations,
development, and industrialization. There are only general speeches-for
example, look at all of the talk about endogenous development
and the support for the solidaristic economy. But as soon as one
tries to convert this politics into practice, there is much fear
because one knows that an alternative economic policy would deeply
transform the society.
Many ask why is there a counterrevolution if there has been no
revolution? The U.S. and Spain openly supported the 2002 coup.
What would happen if the transformation were deepened ?
The intervention is already a fact. The U.S. wants us to impose
the FTAA by any means necessary, which would perpetuate the existing
relations between North America and the Latin American countries.
If Venezuela rejects this proposal, it automatically becomes an
enemy of the U. S.
I do not believe that the ambiguous attitude
of the Chavez government has to do with fear of intervention.
Rather, it is a consequence of a lack of clarity, debates, and
confidence in the capacity of the self-governance of the people.
The inhabitants of the barrios unconditionally supported the government
during the coups, risking their lives. But the state hardly reaches
out to the barrios. There is a closed, almost fort-like conception
Is this phenomenon due to the old bureaucracies that still occupy
98 percent of the state apparatus, to the concepts of the old
left that are in the government, or to the influence of the military
The things are mixed. It is the culture of the Venezuelan state
and their system of parties; it is the military; it is the old
left with their Leninist concepts of state power, of vanguard
and vertical control. Our constitution speaks of a participative
democracy-a democracy in which the communities have a protagonist
role. If anything has become clear in this year as vice-minister,
it is the experience that self-government is possible, a new state
is possible, different relations between government and communities
are possible. There have been impressive horizontal discussions
about the use of the budget and the development of concrete projects.
The only problem was that within the state apparatus there was
great fear of these changes.
For foreigners the political panorama
in Venezuela is quite confused. In Colombia, there are historical
reference points-the political and insurgent organizations have,
in one way or another, an influence on the social movements. Venezuela,
on the other hand, does not seem to have any organic structures
of the left. In this sense, one cannot compare Venezuela with
Colombia. Here all the traditional political organizations-as
much of the left as of the right-disappeared.
The guerrilla groups of the 1960s and
1970s were defeated. The parties of left and right-Democratic
Action [member of the Socialist International] and COPEI [member
of the International Christian-Democrats]-also crumbled.
In other Latin American countries, the
state is an instrument of the elites to guarantee the accumulation
of capital. Unlike this, the Venezuelan state became the site
of deprived capitalist accumulation. The only source of wealth
in this country is the oil rent. All of the structures that moved
within this state-unions, political parties of the right and of
the reformist left-sank. They had become part of the deteriorating
accumulation mechanism. That is why, in the early 1970s, we left
the concepts of armed vanguard parties behind. The only viable
exit seemed to be a massive insurrection supported by the parts
of the system that could change the correlation of forces substantially.
This was the military. We joined an alliance of actors who wanted
to destroy the state. This concept finally became a reality with
the popular rebellion of the Caracazo in February 1989 and the
two military insurrections in February and November 1992.
The consciousness that came during this
phase does not have anything in common with the political actors
that one knows from the developed Western societies: they are
not parties, organizations, or unions. You have to go all the
way to the communities or the towns, to find the new actors. We
called this dynamic the Popular Constituent Process. This is why
you cannot describe the Venezuelan process using the traditional
The parties of the Patriotic Pole-the Fifth Republic Movement
[Chavez' political party, MVR/ Fatherland for All [PPT: comparable
perhaps to a small Brazilian PT], and We Can [Podemos, Social-Democratic]-do
they play a larger role then ?
As mobilization apparatuses, perhaps. But this lack of a political
line is part of the dilemma. These groups do not represent clear
political projects. Chavez has tried to adopt the demands of popular
movements and to consider the real conditions within the state.
In this sense, it is necessary to applaud him, since he could
have played another card and moved away from his base. But it
is also necessary to indicate that the Venezuelan state continues
to be the old state. It is a space of private accumulation, where
the political parties do not fight for ideological hegemony, but
for positions. The parties of the Patriotic Pole continue to be
part of this game, which evidently is in contradiction to the
principles of the revolutionary process. Often the Venezuelan
reality is misinterpreted. Here there are three worlds. There
is a revolutionary process that is not just represented by the
government, but by the popular movements. Then there is the government,
which often does not assume clearly defined positions. Finally,
there is the opposition of the oligarchy and of the middle-classes
who are ideologically controlled by the former.
Is there a transformation process or not ?
Yes, of course. There is an organization process from below that
is unheard of. They are creating an alternative economy and cooperatives.
In many areas, a participative and active democracy is being developed.
All of this did not exist in other revolutions or reform projects.
Why is our reality different? Because it is a constituent process.
The government is not the vanguard of the project and, for this
reason, the process goes beyond the government of Chavez.
What would be necessary to radicalize the process? What steps
would the government have to take? Or can only the social movements
deepen the process ?
I do not demand much from the state; in principle only two things.
First, that it guarantees the efficiency of its management and
adopts measures against corruption. Second, that it continues
working on maintaining a wall against the fascist forces. The
rest we can do ourselves. A new society cannot be constructed
by decree. The role of a government is to enable the protagonism
of the masses, without imposing a direction on it.
We have defended the government and Chavez
and will continue defending them, because they represent a wall
of protection. But this does not mean that we are completely identified
with them. The government not only restrained the right, but on
many occasions also the popular movements and the social process.
For me "the revolution within the revolution" would
occur if the state began to govern with the masses-not by giving
ministries, but by changing the decision mechanisms. Until the
government has learned this, there will be many conflicts and
The political current out of which you come, Popular Disobedience,
had many discussions with the Colombian political organization
To Fight during the 1980s. There was an intense debate about new
relations between the population and organizations and the concept
of the Popular Power was considered. Would you say that Venezuela
shows that political vanguards are unnecessary ? That they can
be replaced by networks ?
I believe that collective vanguards are necessary; social vanguards
that are not defined on the basis of a position of power. There
are always vanguards in the sense that somebody always is first.
But just because you take a step first, does not mean that soon
everyone else will follow you. You are in the vanguard not because
you direct, but rather because others consider you as a reference.
If a group establishes a community assembly and if this model
is copied in other communities, the first group becomes a vanguard.
The example multiplies because it works and because it helps the
community to articulate itself. But here we are dealing with initiative
and not control.
Assembly structures cannot completely replace political organization.
In Venezuela such organizations do not exist. There are groups,
but there are no national projects.
This is true. But there is an element that manages to unite these
dispersed and diffuse movements: Chavez. He does not represent
a vanguard, but the character of the masses of these movements.
We, that is to say several political currents, began to say in
the early l990s that one should not construct political organizations,
but hegemonic fields. Many have worked with this proposal-without
organic structure, but with common criteria-in different areas:
in the farmer and worker movements, the educational and socio-cultural
networks, in the construction of solidaristic economy. In Venezuela,
entire fields have been formed that reflect these hegemonic positions:
the alternative media, for example. These are not centralized,
but they are extensive. Clearly there are aspects that we could
better administer centrally. We sometimes lack maturity in these
areas. But nevertheless, the hegemonic field continues to grow.
In Colombia, there were many important
publications about grassroots organizing, the barrios, and consciousness.
As far as the conception of Popular Power, we owe much to the
contribution of Colombians. But in Venezuela we managed to popularize
these concepts. They have become part of a political practice
and Hugo Chavez has become their spokesperson.
All this is a great civilizational and
cultural triumph. In Venezuela, it has been demonstrated that
a social process can begin without organic vanguards. It has been
demonstrated that networks and movements in concrete conditions
can replace parties and classic organizations.
It seems to me that another aspect is
very important. In some areas here it has been possible to reconcile
grassroots movements inspired by anarchism with a conception of
a different state. In this way an answer to the historical conflict
between local power and society is being designed. There are projects
in Venezuela that demonstrate that it is possible to transcend
the contradiction between self-governance and the state.
The popular constituent process must continue.
With this state, we are not going to obtain anything. It is not
just about replacing some civil servants. It is necessary to destroy
and to reconstruct this state. The reconstruction must generate
new forms of local and participative power. Nobody can say if
we are really going to achieve this. In our slightly imaginative
analyses, we speak of a process that will last 20 to 30 years.
Of course, we can be defeated and eliminated on the way. The decisive
question is whether we will manage to change the correlations
of power. We can observe processes in this direction. In the armed
forces, for example, new attitudes and practices are being formed,
which do not have anything to do with the traditional armed forces.
What is certain is that we are not going
to make it alone. If this struggle is not continentalized, we
can go home. The Bolivarian revolution is completely different
from the Cuban process. Here there is no state socialism that
can close in on itself. Our project filters through everywhere.
It can only survive if it is not isolated. We emit light for other
parts and we receive light from these other parts.
I would say that a constitution is always dead paper, a mixture
between the guarantee of private property and failed promises
of freedom. For you the Constitution is the center of the revolutionary
project. Why ?
There was no revolutionary organization that assumed the role
of driving force. There were only insurrectionary movements-first
of the masses [in 1989], then of the military [in 1992]. These
movements were heterogenous, dispersed, fragmented. What united
them was the project to develop a common foundation-the Constitution.
Nobody had been able to centralize this movement around a program,
not even Chavez. His leadership is unquestioned, but his ideas
were not sufficient to unite the movement. The Constitution filled
this emptiness. It is simultaneously a political program and a
framework for the future of the process. In this sense, the Constitution
is not a dead letter. It is a deeply libertarian and egalitarian
constitution. Perhaps not sufficiently so. Perhaps we will have
to reform it, perhaps it will no longer be necessary at some moment.
But at this moment it plays the role of [Mao's] red book. It reflects
the demands and the objectives of the popular movements.
But does it define the progressive content of new laws or is it
that the political movement defends the Constitution as a symbol
and decides on the new laws ?
Both. Sure, the Constitution can also be useful for the right
in some instances. But for me it is mainly didactic. Think about
the million people who had never before discussed politics and
that now read the Constitution. They are not most of the population,
but they are a large minority. These people study, along with
the Constitution, a form of political thought that is very influenced
by the ideas of social equality and social justice. In addition,
the Constitution is a tool for struggle. The state revolves, by
definition, around its Constitution. Thus, this one becomes a
framework within which we can act.
It is an instance of consciousness raising,
as a program, as a framework for action. Without the Constitution
we would not have done anything. Chavez is not the center of this
process. He is the communicator. The center consists of ideas
and this is, in our case, the Constitution.
Will there be new coups? Will the paramilitary organizations extend
Most probably the conflict will become more serious. If the imperial
forces suffer a decisive defeat in their world-wide reconfiguration-for
which lamentably there are not many indications-the Bolivarian
revolution in Venezuela will be able to survive for a while. But
in this sense I am very pessimistic. The new power of the Empire
is not eternal, but at least the next ten years will be terrible.
If the Bolivarian process does not wear down through its own degradation
by then and if the difficult, but productive relation between
popular movements and government is maintained, a strong confrontation
will occur. With the exception of Cuba and some other countries,
Venezuela is the great anomaly in today's world-an anomaly that
they want to erase from the map.
In the words of the opposition: "One
must exterminate the Chavista sickness." For them this does
not mean to exterminate ideas or to defeat a project at the ballot
boxes, but to physically eliminate its protagonists. Unfortunately,
the mass media have created a political subjectivity among the
middle class that not only would salute the elimination of the
Chavista movement, but that would also actively participate in
it. This campaign has already begun. Paramilitary groups have
assassinated over 70 peasant leaders in the past 3 years. Almost
all the political murders of the past four years have been directed
against those who support the government. Paradoxically, most
of the murders against the opposition have been committed by the
The question is if we will be able to
stop this policy of extermination. In the past 18 months the popular
movement defeated the right twice and in the armed forces at least
there is a considerable sector that would resist an extreme right-wing
Gregory Wilpert is a freelance journalist
and sociologist who lives in Caracas and is currently working
on a book about Venezuela (forthcoming from Zed).