Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Na’guará! in the Indian languages of the state of Lara means – Wow! That’s Great!

Guess what amigos? Ari’s futbol team won the championship of the State of Lara on Sunday, 3-2 on penalty kicks. The town of 20-25,000 beat the big city of Barquisimeto, population 1,000,000. No one seems to be sure if Sanare ever won the under-18 boys championship before, but if they did it was long time ago.

The Big Vote: What the Constitutional Reforms are Really About

About a thousand people turned out in Sanare to march in favor of the Reforms last Friday afternnoon.

The opposition in Venezuela is desperate once again. The country is moving toward a new kind of socialism in an entirely democratic way, and they are screaming, “Democratic Dictator! Constitutional Coup d’etat!”

Why are those in the opposition so desperate? Why are they making these absurd claims that sound like they were manufactured by boneheads in the U.S. State Department? Because they lost the last election in December of 2006 by a huge margin (63% to 37%), and this December they are likely to lose another election that will give a popular seal of approval to sweeping constitutional reforms.

What’s their real problem? The huge majority of the population still likes their President: nearly three quarters of the Venezuelan people think that President Chavez is doing a fairly good to excellent job.

Who are the opposition? Many of the spokespeople and financial backers are members of the “oligarchy,” a small upper class that controls most big business and all private media in Venezuela. They think they are supposed to be “the ruling class,” but they only have the support of between one quarter and one third of the population. They are losing the class war. No wonder the rich have always feared direct democracy.

I have attempted to construct a rough estimate of the way that the rich and poor are divided when it comes to voting. This is a totally unscientific estimate, for I know of no poll by political scientists (who are pracititioners of a very murky “science” to begin with) that tries to estimate voting behavior by income groups in Venezuela. Still, I think the following numbers can illuminate the political and social struggle that is taking place right now, and should be useful for debate and discussion.

Among the upper and middle classes
According to a study commisisioned by the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, the upper class and upper-middle classes (income groups A, B, C+) make up 2.4% of the population. The lower-middle class (income group C-, made up mostly of technical professionals, small business owners, and bureaucrats) comprise 18% of the population. Together these four groups at the top of the income scale represent 20% of the Venezuelan people. About 4 out of 5 of these people, or 16% of the total population, are likely to oppose Chavez; this would leave one out of five in these groups (4% of the total population) that support him.

Among the lower classes
The poor (34%) and the nearly poor (46%) make up the remaining 80% of the Venezuelan population. About 4 out of 5 people in these groups, or 64% of the total population, support Chavez. This would leave one out of five in the lower classes (16% of the total population) that oppose him.

This adds up to overwhelming support of Chavez[1]

Chavez supporters: 4% + 64% = 68%
Chavez opponents: 16% + 16% = 32%

These total numbers correspond fairly well with the mood of the country about a month before the vote on the constitutional reforms: “According to a recent opinion poll reported by Venezuela's largest circulation paper Últimas Noticias …72% of Venezuelans evaluate Chavez's job performance as being good to excellent, versus 25% who evaluate it as being bad to terrible.”[2]

Women have gained a lot from the Bolivarian Revolution, and so have these medical students in Sanare.

The election for the constitutional reform may be closer than these numbers suggest since the turnout will probably not be as high as the presidential vote in 2006, when a record 75% of eligible voters turned out at the polls. Generally, in countries like the United States (where the best turnouts are only slightly more than half of the eligible voters), rich and middle-class voters vote in much greater percentages than the poor and working classes. This is not so true today in Venezuela, but there may a slight edge for the well-to-do since it often easier for them to get to the polls and register their vote quickly. On the other hand, many opposition voters were talking about abstention two months ago, before ex-General Baduel joined their forces and gave some impetus to the “no” vote for a short time.[3]

There’s another factor that could make the vote close. The same opinion poll by Últimas Noticias that showed high popularity for Chavez also demonstrated that the support for the constitutional reform was a bit weaker, “46.6% of Venezuelans believe that the reform is necessary, while 35.0% oppose it.”
It should be noted that nearly 20% of the people polled above did not express an opinion. This may have changed by now, since there has been a tremendous amount of publicity and information circulating about the reforms. In the last month, the public meetings and marches by the pro-reform forces and students who support the government have dwarfed the earlier efforts at public demonstrations by the opposition.

The Media and the Reforms
Opposition media, which still dominate the dissemination of news, continue purveying fears – “the communists are coming to take everything away from you” – that have little to do with the realities of daily life in Venezuela. Every large city in Venezuela has at least one right-wing opposition newspaper, and in Barquisimeto, the city of one million that is the capital of the state of Lara, it’s El Impulso. This paper devoted the entire first page of Section C on October 28, 2007 to an interview with Guillerno Zuloaga, the president of Globovision. Globovision is the all-news cable TV station that collaborated with the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002, and has continued with all-out attacks against him and his government ever since.

Guillermo Zuloaga is a the grandson of the founder of El Universal, the most influential opposition newspaper in Venezuela, and he’s also the owner of businesses and corporations outside of Venezuela. In El Impulso, Zuloaga claimed that “The reform is the greatest threat that Venezuela has had in its history” and that Chavez has a “marxist-communist vision” of the future. According to him, Chavez’s “socialism of the 21st century” is a step backward because “we’re returning to the communism of the 20th century.”

On other pages of Section C in El Impulso, other Venezuelan opposition figures expressed their displeasure with the government. On behalf of the ultra-conservative Chruch hierarchy, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino warned that if the reforms were approved and Venezuela is organized as a socialist country, “this would be going against political liberty, pluralism, and the freedom of thought.”
Since at the present moment there is more “freedom of thought” in Venezuela than in almost any other country on earth, this argument is not likely to shake the faith that most people have in Chavez. If most Venezuelans are concerned about government control, it may be because they want more of it. Their two biggest worries, expressed over and over again in public opinion polls, are crime on the streets and corruption in local bureaucracies. These are the result of many decades of neglect by previous governments that had little desire to curb these kinds of public disorder. In the future, if the Chavez government loses favor with the common people, it will be because it has failed to deal with these problems.

On the other hand, most citizens are not likely to be concerned about protecting the financial and business oligarchy, and would favor the constitutional reforms that attack the latifundios (large rural estates) and monopoly ownership of production. This is one reason that the opposition usually avoids detailed analysis of the reforms the government has proposed: the rewritten articles are, for the most part, very democratic, for they expand the powers of the people.

Yes, It’s true, now you have the proof that this is not an unbiased website. My son Ari was recently seen helping the cause of the “Si!” in Sanare by putting the message on cars and motorcycles.

A quick review of some important Articles
First, there is Article 230, the one that’s emphasized the most, but it’s probably not so important: there are no term limits for the President. This was a measure that used to be found in the U.S. Constitution and allowed Franklin Roosevelt to be elected to four consecutive terms. In 1951, conservatives in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures were successful in passing an amendment that limits U.S. presidents to two four-year terms, but this has certainly did not lead to an increase in democracy in the United States. In recent years, countries that have democratic parliaments and no term limits, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, have decided to give multiple terms to their elected prime ministers Thatcher, Blair, and Howard. We must note, however, that they were greatly assisted in their rush toward neo-liberal, neo-conservative policies by the very undemocratic assistance of Rupert Murdoch’s media monopolies.
It could be argued that the term limits gave more power to elite financial interests in the U.S. which wanted to make sure that a president who was opposed to their interests, and very popular with the electorate, could not be in office for too long. In this sense, the people of Venezuela may be gaining more freedom if they can choose to elect Chavez, who is not supported by any oligarchic/monopolistic forces, to as many terms as they want. Furthermore, Venezuela continues to have the unique, and very democratic “recall” provision in its constitution that allows the people to “unelect” a president, or any other elected official, half way through his or her term of office.

When opponents of Chavez argue that the Constitution will make Hugo Chavez a dictator, what they are really saying is that they think he wants to become a dictator. If this should happen, whether under the rule of Chavez or any other president in the future, it would be because the president does what dictators always do: suspend the laws, abrogate the constitution, and impose personal authoritarian control.

Most other proposed changes to the Articles of the Constitution are remarkably democratic and would be a healthy addition to the United States Constitution. Some like Article 21, guarantee freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, health, age, ethnicity, religious and political persuasion, and social condition. Article 100 recognizes and protects the cultural contributions of the indigenous people of Venezuela, the Afro-Venezuelans, and those descended from Europeans, then states specifically that the nation will actively promote indigenous and afro-Venezuelan cultural initiatives.
Another, Article 67, declares freedom of political association and includes a provision that must stick in the craw of the U.S. Department of State since we have been so active in supporting the political opposition in Venezuela; it prohibits funding of the political process by foreign governments and by organizations and private entities outside of Venezuela.

Then there are the Articles that many privileged members of the opposition are worried about, especially those who hope to re-establish rule by a political and financial oligarchy in the future. The reformulated Article 328 states that the Armed Forces will always be “at the service of the sacred interests of the Venezuelan people” and never at the service of “some oligarchy or foreign imperial power.” To put some teeth in this sentiment, and to restrict the economic power that makes oligarchic rule possible, Article 113 has been beefed up to say that “Monopolies are prohibited,” while Article 305 follows suit by declaring that “Latifundios are prohibited because they are contrary to the interests of society.” Article 115 continues to guarantee the rights of private property holders, but in its new version also guarantees other kinds of social and communal property.

For Venezuelans who are not trying to protect economic and social privilege, the future looks much brighter. There are millions of people who currently are not covered by labor laws and social security who will now be provided with protection and old-age pensions under Article 87. Their number includes independent workers, small farmers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and even housewives, whose work has been judged to be just as valuable as everyone else’s. Furthermore, in Article 90 the mandatory work week, that which large employers can impose on their employees, is shortened to thirty-six hours for a six-day work week (the previous number was 44 hours.) The rationale is that many people, especially poorer people, must travel for considerable amounts of time to get to work and should have some additional hours free to pursue cultural and educational pursuits as well as take care of family responsibilities.

Article 109 is too democratic for some people, at least for the university students who support the opposition. It guarantees democratic governance at the universities, one person/one vote, to all people associated with a university, including professors, clerical and service workers, technicians, part-time teachers, and students. This is something some of us old-timers campaigned for in the 1960s and 1970s on U.S. campuses.

Finally, there are the goals that sound utopian, at least compared with the rest of the world, that are now enshrined in the Venezuelan Constitution. In Article 305, the State vows to promote agricultural ecology as the overarching principle for caring for the land and natural environment, with the goal of making Venezuela independent, self-sustaining, and ecologically sound in all its food production.
Article 184 is perhaps the most ambitious of all, for it delineates a system of direct democracy that is based on small communities meeting in community councils (the consejos comunales.) These in turn will form larger organizations called communes (comunas.) When the communes form larger entities called “ciudades” (literally ‘cities,’ or places controlled by “ciudadanos” or ‘citizens,’ which will also be formed in rural areas), they will replace the top-down political control that has historically been wielded by state and municipal governments.

This quick sketch of the reform package is not comprehensive, but it should allow the reader to recognize two things. One, the proposed reforms are intensifying the revolutionary commitments of the 1999 Constitution, and two, they are doing so in a way that generally reinforces and deepens democracy. Whether they will work remains to be seen. Certainly the major powers in the world thought the U.S. Constitution was a ridiculous travesty in 1789. The fact that the major capitalist powers and the major capitalist media are dismissing the Venezuelan Constitution today should be taken as a compliment, and as an acknowledgment that it really does have revolutionary potential.

[1] Since this is a rough estimate, and since a considerable number of middle-class people support the Bolivarian process, and since many lower class people may be confused about the reforms, we can also look at the effect of a much more conservative 30-70% split that may be a more accurate reflection of the coming vote: 21%vs. 9% in the upper classes, and 21% vs. 49% in the lower classes, or 42% anti-Chavez vs. 58% pro-Chavez.
[2] Venezuelanalysis.com, November 5, 2007.
[3] Kiraz Janicke, “Former Venezuelan Defense Minister Baduel Denounces Constitutional Reform,”November 6th 2007

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Constitutional Reforms and Local People

There has been animated discussion of the Constitutional Reforms in our area for months. In the past month there have been numerous seminars and discussion panels at schools, cooperatives, and the Casa de Cultura (Cultural Center) in Sanare. Luz Marina and Sandino, two young activists from Monte Carmelo, were out with their friends a couple of weeks ago, encouraging motorists in Sanare to put “Si!” stickers on their cars, trucks, and motorcycles.

Last week, twelve of my neighbors and I were riding up the mountain in the back of a pick-up truck/taxi, and they were all discussing the constitutional reforms that will be voted on next week on December 2. At least half of them seemed to have questions about some of the proposed changes to the Constitution, and one woman seemed to believe the opposition contention that the government could confiscate her house if the reforms are passed.

There are several versions of the “house is not your home” rumor that are being spread by the political opposition; another one is: “the government is going to move at least one Cuban into every household.” Then, so the story goes: “the government is going to take your children away.” These rumors are not only false, but so unbelievable that the opposition is probably hurting its own cause by spreading them.

The owner of a bar and restaurant in Sanare, who I suspect never voted for Chavez and has never read any of the proposed changes to the constitution, recently told me the government would have the right to march in and take over his place. “Then they’ll give everything to the Cubans,” he said.

The most intelligent anti-reform comments came from the pessimistic fruit seller who sold me tomatoes and pineapples on Wednesday in Sanare, then gave me a twenty minute history lesson. “The reforms may sound nice, but Venezuelan governments are incapable of making them work. This has been a corrupt and ungovernable society for a long time, even when Bolivar was alive. He appreciated liberty and he was a political genius, but it took him a long time to recognize our limitations, when he was sick and ready to die in . ‘Colombia,” he said, “is a nunnery. And Venezuela is a cuartel’ (military barracks.)”

Most people here in Monte Carmelo are more optimistic about the future and seem ready to vote “Si!” Some, however, acknowledge that it would have been smarter if the government had limited the number of rewritten Articles to thirty-three (about 10% of the 1999 constitution), the ones originally proposed by Chavez months ago. It’s been a bit overwhelming, they say, to read through the thirty-six additional Articles that were added by the National Assembly, some of which probably could have been passed as regular laws rather than constitutional amendments.

On the other hand, most people have read the amendments and many have an impressive command of constitutional knowledge and can list the numbers and content of various articles. One farmer coming out of the bodega here in Monte Carmelo emphasized, “Article 87, because it’s really necessary for the independent farmer, taxi driver, housewife, or shopkeeper to be guaranteed the Social Security that other workers get.”

A week earlier, a middle-aged taxi driver in Caracas had told me the same thing, and then offered an impressive review of all of the Reforms, all of them necessary as far as he was concerned. He also wanted me to know that the most reliable political pollster in Venezuela, the one whose predictions are always within a point or two of the actual results, predicted that the reforms would pass by nearly a two to one margin (unfortunately I forgot to write down the name of his favorite pollster.) “We need these reforms if we’re going to keep moving toward socialism,” he said, “because the oligarchy still has way too much power.”

Javier, who runs the bodega, or grocery shop, in Monte Carmelo, is a small businessman who knows how to get a good bargain on onions at the giant regional market in Barquisimeto. Because of his facility with numbers, his neighbors chose him to count votes in last presidential election in December of 2006 when Chavez gathered 63% of the vote nationwide. He reports that in nearby Sanare about 70% voted for the President, in Monte Carmelo 80%, and in the nearest neighboring village, Bojo – about 300 voted for the President and exactly 4 people voted against him.

Javier follows politics closely and has always been a Chavez supporter, but a few weeks ago he wasn’t sure he was going to vote. “There are an awful lot of articles, too many, and I haven’t had a chance to study them all,” he said, “there’s a couple I’m suspicious of, so I think I’m going to have to abstain.”

Two days ago we talked again, and he’s changed his mind. “President Chavez has been addressing the issues I had trouble with, and I’ve taken time to read various pamphlets and newspaper articles describing all the articles in detail. Now I’m ready to vote Si.”

One of the major issues for him was private property and the ability of small business people to maintain their autonomy. Now he’s convinced that small and medium business owners are respected and protected by the constitution, and he thinks it’s just fine to clamp down on monopoly ownership.

Carla and Isidrio were waiting with me for a truck ride to town. Carla had no opinion on the Constitutional reforms. Isidro knew he would vote for the “Si!”

On Monday, I asked Isidrio, a campesino who’s retired and living with his son, his opinion concerning the reforms. He, like Javier, mentioned the need to eliminate monopolies. Article 113 was originally meant to discourage monopoly ownership in the 1999 Constitution. The new, improved version uses stronger language and says that monopolies will be “prohibited.”

For Isidrio, the issue of “latifundios” and land ownership is even more important than monopolies. “There are too many people all over the country who don’t have any land and that’s not right. A farmer ought to be able to own his own land, or share land in a cooperative. There are sneaky people on the other side of Sanare who have accumulated 300 hectares (660 acres) after starting with five acres. They had money and credit at the banks and started buying up everybody around them.” (300 hectares generally would not qualify as a latifundio, which in other parts of the country might spread over thousands of hectares; but here, in this mountainous region, 300 hectares is a very big piece of land, and 5 or 10 hectares can support a family.)

“You know how I’m going to vote?” asked Isidrio rhetorically. “I’ll vote for all 69 articles so the government can keep going forward and accomplish what we want it to accomplish.”

The pro-reform student marches

We joined some of our Monte Carmelo and Sanare friends on a march by Mission Sucre students a week ago Saturday. This event in Barquisimeto, the big city in the state of Lara (population, one million) was merely a warm-up march for a gigantic student march that took place on Wednesday, November 22 in Caracas, where hundreds of thousands of students packed the streets to demonstrate on behalf of the Constitutional Reforms.

Luis, on the left, went back to school after he retired to finish a college degree with Mission Sucre. He thinks the constitutional reforms are essential to keep the Bolivarian Revolution going.

Pablo Mendoza, on the right, administrator of schools in the municipality of Sanare, joined the university students of Mission Sucre on their march.

Leonardo, otherwise known as “Cheo” here in Monte Carmelo, gave a rousing speech in favor of “Si” vote at the Barquisimeto march. Cheo is a studying finance at Mission Sucre on weekends so that he can help local “consejo comunales” (the new community councils that are practicing direct democracy) with their budgeting and development projects. On Tuesday night, Cheo joined Sandino, Luz Marina, and others on the overnight bus to Caracas so they could join other students for the mega-march.

La Feria de Libros -- at the Book Fair

Caracas from the top of Monte Avila

At “La Feria de Libros,” or Book Fair, there were giant white tents with a million books and thousands of people inside. The tents were scattered over several acres in the Parque del Este in downtown Caracas. Publishers from all over Venezuela and Latin America showed their wares, and the public was invited to attend at least six venues, each in a separate tent, for cultural events and lectures.

For once leftists from the U.S.A. put aside their differences (mostly) and were willing to gather under ‘a big tent,’ the Salon Joe Marti.

Ari and I hopped on a few buses and ten hours later we were in Caracas, only a day and a half late. At the last moment, I had been invited to take part in presentations and panel discussions at the Fair. The organizers not only put us in a nice hotel, but they were willing to feed my son, who can decimate any buffet in the world.

There were other writers and activists from the United States, including some who have lived in Venezuela for many years, like Charlie Hardy and Eva Golinger, and others who were making brief cultural visits, like Luis Rodriguez and Tufara LaShelle Waller. We were asked to speak at different times over a five-day period on the topic: “Will there be a revolution in the United States?”

I was tempted to say, “When Hell freezes over,” since it’s difficult to imagine that the U.S., with or without a Bush at the helm, is going to stop acting on behalf of transnational capital and join the wave of change sweeping over the Americas. But on the second day of presentations by my fellow North Americans, I was struck by the optimism of three Latinos, Antonio Gonzalez, Diogenes Abreu, and Luis Rodriguez, who tended to take a long-term perspective. They see the revolutionary potential slowly growing, born of the harsh working-class experience of most Latinos and Afro-Americans and an increasing number of poor whites. For Latinos in particular, there is also the influence of new ideas seeping into the United States via the progressive Hispanic political movements in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.

We got to hang out with Luis Rodriguez (on the left), Mexican-American activist and author of La Vida Loca. Ari loved his stories about gang life in LA.

Antonio Gonzales emphasized the fact that small changes, even ones that seem like slow reforms, can have a cumulative revolutionary effect for working class people. He thinks that the changing racial configuration of the United States, most dramatically in his home state of California, is producing a more progressive political culture. Graphs in his slide show referred to Census data that predict that 50% or more of the U.S. population will be non-white by the year 2050.

As Diogenes Abreu, a Dominican activist from NYC, talked, he also displayed one of our favorite T-shirts. We have the same Homeland Security t-shirt at home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where it’s protecting a piece of beautiful land that once belonged to an Apache named Dick Kaseeta, who at 4 years old was the youngest “student” (prisoner of war) ever to attend the Carlisle Indian School.

On the final day of these sessions, I found myself leading off the presentations in a more optimistic mood. “History teaches us that we should always be ready for dramatic change. Look at the 1920s,” I said, “a backward decade by anyone’s standards, when the rich multiplied their fortunes at the expense of everyone else and controlled the political arena; when membership in the KuKluxKlan surged not just in the South, but in the North, in tandem with increased racist attacks against African Americans and poor European immigrants; when harsh repressive tactics dramatically reduced union membership and strike activity; when rampant gambling on Wall Street drove the stock market to absurd heights and endangered the economy.

“The 1920s were as reactionary as our present era, which began with Reagan and Bush I in the 1980s. Under Bush II, we have reached degrees of economic inequality and crazy financial speculation that are actually as bad as the 1920s. Perhaps times are ripe for a sudden lurch to the left.

“Remember what happened after the 1920s? The next decade, the 1930s, was one of the most progressive in our history. It was not exactly a revolutionary decade, but was characterized by extraordinary labor organizing and major political and economic reforms: there were the sit-down strikes in major industries and changes in labor law that let union membership boom; there were major relief and cultural programs sponsored by the federal government to counteract the effects of the Great Depression; there was the passage of the Social Security laws; and there was a huge increase in the rate of taxation on the very rich. These changes helped initiate a dramatic shift toward economic equality in the U.S. which, over the next four decades, allowed a very large section of the working class (particularly white people, since racism was not wiped out so easily) to enjoy a more or less ‘middle class’ existence.”

I’m afraid that when I tried to explain our current economic mess and the new kinds of destructive financial speculation, I stepped beyond the limits of coherent translation. For who is going to be able to understand the meaning of “hedge funds” and “negative derivatives” in Spanish when these terms are meant to confuse people in English. Luckily, my three fellow speakers came to my rescue with presentations that were more lucid than mine.

Dada Maheshvarananda, a member of the Ananda Marga association, was dressed in orange robes as he presented a sophisticated slide show that described the philosophy and activities of his organization. Dada is the author of After Capitalism: Prout’s Vision for a New World, which he and his associates are trying to implement by working in the Afro-Venezuelan region of Barlovento. With government encouragement they have held numerous workshops and training sessions with groups of farmers and cacao growers who already work in cooperatives or are interested in forming them.

Finally, to end the session on a strong note of artistic performance, we heard from Amina and Amiri Baraka, the revolutionary activists and poets from Newark, New Jersey. Both emphasized that revolution is possible in the United States, and is particularly necessary for Afro-Americans so that they can complete the process begun by Black Revolutionaries in the 1950s and 60s. Amiri reminded the audience that the United States had the first successful revolution, so it was ridiculous to say that we are incapable of launching another one. Then he gave a powerful reading of “Somebody Blew Up America,” the poem that said so much about centuries of home-grown terrorism that it cost him his job as the Poet Laureate of New Jersey.

Amina Baraka read her poem while being accompanied by Pablo, a Venezuelan jazz saxophonist. The poem, Black and Brown Americans, begins like this:

We are
Chained to a trail of tears
We are
Tied to the Rope Around Nat Turner’s Neck
Our tongues are Twisted
Unable to Speak Our Language
Our Culture Ravaged
We stepped in Time with Dance
To Free Our Spirit
We Hear Birds
Of All feathers Fly –
The wind Sings …

Monday, November 19, 2007

It’s hard to shut up “The Mouth of the South” – El Rey versus El Presidente

In case you didn’t notice, last week Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, told Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, to “Shut up!” They were both in Santiago, Chile where they were attending a conference of democratically elected Ibero-American leaders, including the Presidents of many Latin American countries and the Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. (Which makes one wonder: why was the King even invited?)

Most of the international corporate media, which have made a habit of criticizing President Chavez and reporting all kinds of unsubstantiated, ridiculous, and negative stories about Venezuela, immediately sided with the king. In fact, they made it appear that Chavez had been the one who had insulted the King.

But Chavez had merely pointed out that the former Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, was a “fascist.” Based on the evidence, this seems like a reasonable conclusion. For one thing, when he was the head of the Spanish government, Aznar helped sponsor the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002. Secondly, from the time he was defeated and left office in Spain until the present time, Aznar has been waging an international ultra-rightwing campaign to remove Chavez from office by any means necessary. He has even been employed by the ultra-right media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, as a means of expediting his mission.

Aznar’s political and family roots are firmly grounded in the Spanish Falange, the fascist political party of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain as a dictatorship for nearly forty years. When he was Prime Minister, Aznar surrounded himself with many Franco sympathizers and members of Opus Dei, the secretive, rightwing Catholic organization that was founded by a Spanish priest in 1928, but only rose to prominence under Franco. It seems to be no coincidence that Aznar’s first names, Jose Maria, are the same as the founder of Opus Dei, Josemaria Escrivá.

At a meeting of unity, confrontation

One of the major tasks of this Ibero-American Summit was to discuss methods for overcoming the poverty, misery, and social marginalization that have plagued Latin America for centuries. This is a topic whose time has come, since the Latin American countries feel they have a historical opportunity to break with the past and provide a politically democratic, more egalitarian future for their citizens. However, the assembled leaders see themselves pursuing this transformation in two distinctly different ways.

The boldest moves are being made by Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, which are talking about breaking free of capitalist exploitation and First-World dominance by openly adopting socialist and anti-imperialist policies. Many other countries, such as Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, are talking about gradual shifts within a capitalist structure that will provide more public welfare while remaining very friendly to multinational capital and corporations.

In to overcome these differences, President Chavez has worked very hard in recent years to forge stronger diplomatic links between all these countries. He believes their combined economic and diplomatic strength can allow them to pursue their own “Southern” objectives. But at the conference in Chile, he was reaching out to his fellow leaders and explaining that the capitalist powers in the North do not like this process and are actively trying to subvert it. On the last day of the summit, Chavez was very specific about one of the perpetrators of this subversion, "You all know that Jose Maria Aznar, I said it yesterday and I'll repeat it today, that man is a fascist."

The Socialist Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, responded defensively, “You can be against a certain ideological position, and I am not very close to the ideas of Aznar, but he was elected by the Spanish people, and I demand respect.”

Chavez immediately countered that Aznar was the one who needed to demonstrate “respect” for the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people and stop interfering in Venezuelan politics.

This was too much for the King Juan Carlos, who leaned over the table, gestured toward President Chavez, and said, “Por qué no te callas? -- “Why don’t you shut up!?”


Chavez was not without supporters, since Bolivian President Evo Morales and Cuban Vice-President Carlos Lage quickly came to his defense. And when Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua denounced Spain and the United States for continuing to act like imperialist powers in Latin America, the King stood up and walked out of the session.

Chavez also had supporters at home, and thousands of them cheered him at the airport when he returned to Venezuela. One of them, Josefina Carbaño, put it succinctly, "A king imposed by the dictatorship of General Franco has no moral or political authority to silence the President of Venezuela.”

True, Juan Carlos was declared a “Prince of Spain” by Franco in 1969, then spent several years appearing at public functions with the dictator, and became King when Franco died in 1975. But fortunately, he was willing to step aside as Spain became a constitutional monarchy ruled by a democratically elected parliament. Over the next thirty years he was mostly stayed out of politics and spent most of his time looking very regal for the society photographers of the global celebrity magazines.

While most of the major corporate media in Spain jumped to the defense of the King, there were other dissenting voices. Gaspar Llamazares, speaking for the United Left coalition in Spain, said there were "documents and information that show that the former government - led by Jose Maria Aznar - not only did not condemn the coup, but also collaborated in changing the democratic regime for a dictatorship."

As for Chavez, he was at all not apologetic about what had transpired in Chile. “We've been here for 500 years,” he said, “and we'll never shut up, much less at the demands of a monarch. If I shut up, the people of Latin America would scream. They are ready to be free of all colonialism after 500 years."

The underlying tension

Now you may be wondering, why did President Chavez want to put so much emphasis on ex-Prime Minister Aznar and his ultra-right sympathies?
Why didn’t he avoid this confrontation, particularly in Chile, where the residual power of the right-wing Armed Forces has Socialist President Bachelet walking on eggshells?

The reason is that this confrontation is much bigger than the question of Aznar’s political sympathies and Chile’s slow road back to democracy. Currently, as Venezuela is about to vote on a very ambitious and progressive package of constitutional reforms, Aznar is just one small weapon in the arsenal of the United States government, its political allies, the global media, the transnational corporations, and their friends in the Venezuelan opposition. They are combining forces in a propaganda campaign that seeks to destabilize Venezuela and they are leaving no stone unturned as they look for low and dirty things to throw at Chavez.

And how could I forget, after mentioning Jose Maria Aznar’s ties to Opus Dei and Josemaria Escrivá, to mention the Church? Some of the dirtiest tricks are being generated by the Catholic bishops, who are using the ecclesiastical hierarchy in an overtly political way to claim that Chavez wants to create a Communist/Leninist/Stalinist state that will restrict all forms of religious devotion and private property.

At lower levels, some of the good fathers are using their priestly networks to spread outright lies about the constitutional reforms. One conservative North American priest working in Venezuelan recently started circulating e-mails to his contacts in the United States outlining the dreadful things that would happen if the reforms are passed. Supposedly, people would be forced to give up rooms in their homes in order to house families they didn’t even know. And money, according to him would simply be confiscated: people with over $2,000 in the bank would be forced to turn their extra money over to the government. The list went on and on, and had no relation to any of the proposed changes in the Constitution.

These particular priests ignore the fact that a great many Christians, both Catholics and evangelicals, support Chavez, because when he talks about “21st century socialism” he explicitly preaches about “Christian” socialism. The priest and religious workers that I know are supportive of both Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution. But I suspect, in a country with only two thousand priests, many of them teaching in elite private schools and colleges, that my acquaintances are in the minority.

Chavez was trying to rally support

Who knows if Chavez’s willingness to use the “f” word (fascist), will win him support from most of the other Latin American countries? Countries with mildly social democratic or liberal tendencies do not have a history of standing up and defending their more revolutionary brethren, and they shy away from the “f” word, not to mention the “i” word. When Salvador Allende appeared at the United Nations in 1973, just a few weeks before General Pinochet overthrew his democratic government, he gave a stirring speech that declared that the forces of imperialism were stalking Chile and were about to strike. And no one came to his aid.

The situation in Venezuela is not so grave, for Chavez and the majority of the people have a strong economy and a loyal military behind them. The constitutional reforms appear to be headed for passage by the democratic vote of the people. (We should recall that U.S. voters have never been able to vote directly for the articles of their constitution, including the one that prohibits U.S. presidents from running for three or four terms like Franklin Roosevelt did.)

Still, the pressure brought to bear on Venezuela by the capitalist world and the capitalist media will be onerous and continuous. In spite of that pressure, the reforms to the constitution (which I’ll try to review for you briefly in the very near future) should enable the people to make strides toward democratic socialism while still maintaining plenty of room for individual freedom and small and medium businesses.

Many of the quotations in this article came from “Venezuelan President Clashes with the King of Spain at Latin American Summit,”November 12th 2007, by Chris Carlson at Venezuelanalysis.com, and “Spanish-Venezuelan Spat Continues As Both Try to Calm Issue,” November 13th 2007, by Kiraz Janicke - Venezuelanalysis.com

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Changing Income Distribution in Venezuela: sorting out the data and the bias

This article of mine just appeared on Venezuela Analysis on November 1, 2007, and it´s easier to read there because the tables of numbers are displayed properly, something I can´t seem to manage yet with the blogger format. Venezuela Analysis also has a number of current, well-informed articles on the Constitutional Reforms that will be voted on in December, and others concerning the political demonstrations for and against.
(Also note: the comments section just opened with the Dia de la Semilla Campesina article. Oliver Woods of New Zealand was the first to send a comment. Feel free to join him.)

The rich have become richer, and nearly everyone else has become poorer in the USA during the Bush years.

Is it possible to go in the other direction?

Venezuela, a country where income disparities have been immense for many decades, has been trying to redistribute income more fairly.

Is the Chavez government succeeding?

(Illustration for Robbing US Blind by Matt Wuerker)

All statistics, including economic statistics, can be manipulated, or only partially revealed, so that they demonstrate a foregone ideological conclusion rather than reality. For instance, from 2004 until the beginning of 2006, the United States State Department and the Venezuelan political opposition claimed that the Venezuelan economy was being destroyed by President Chavez and his policies. As evidence, they kept showing the disastrous results for 2003, a year when economic production plunged and the number of people in poverty climbed.

The enemies of Chavez chose not to reveal that the Venezuelan economy was growing by leaps and bounds in 2004 and 2005, and that more people were employed and enjoying significantly higher incomes. And, of course, they did not mention their part in causing the economic disaster of 2003, which was not a result of government policies, but of the opposition’s effort to sabotage and shut down the oil industry and other business enterprises while the U.S. government cheered from the sidelines.

By 2006 and 2007, it was impossible to hide the evidence that the Venezuelan economy had been growing at a tremendous rate for four years running, and that income was being redistributed to the poorer classes in an unprecedented fashion. Some of the relevant economic numbers appeared in a 2007 report generated by two private consulting firms, AC Nielson and Datos, for VenAmCham (The Venezuelan American Chamber of Commerce and Industry). They showed that the poorest economic class, Level E, had more than doubled its income in three years, but their interpretation was still tinged with an anti-government bias.

For example, the title over the table of figures provided in the AC Nielsen/Datos report sounded discouraging, “In the last three years, only the income of Level E has grown in real terms.” Since there are 6 household income levels customarily used in Venezuela -- A,B,C+, C-, D, and E -- this doesn’t sound like much of an achievement. That is, until the reader learns that level E consisted of a solid majority, or 58% of the population in 2003. Level E’s income grew by a whopping 130%, after being corrected for inflation. This in itself should have been reported as extraordinarily good economic news. [1]

But was there bad news?
The same report from AC Nielsen/Datos showed that the next two income classes, Level D and Level C-minus, which comprised 23% and 15% of the population respectively, were doing poorly by comparison. Level D average incomes declined by 6% and Level C-minus declined by 16% between 2003 and 2006. Since these two groups made up nearly 40% of the population, it certainly appeared as if sizable numbers of Venezuelans were being left out of the economic boom.

But not really. Those who prepared the report made a poor decision, or perhaps, a biased decision. They began their calculations in a really poor economic year, 2003, when the shutdown of the state oil company, instigated by its former management and the economic elite, threw the nation into a mini-depression. It would have been better analytical practice if the report had begun with a relatively stable year such as, when solid economic growth was putting Venezuela on a more even footing. If we look at the numbers for 2004-2006 that were cited by AC Nielsen/Datos (see below), they don’t show a huge single-year jump in the incomes of the poorest citizens, but they do reflect a very impressive picture of movement toward a more egalitarian society where the vast majority is improving its economic status.

From 2004 to 2006, there was growth (after adjusting for inflation) in average incomes for all three income groups, E, D. and C-minu (97.6% of the population).

Level C-minus grew 2.2% from 1,888,000B to 1,930,000B

Level D grew 14.3% from 1,025,000B to 1,172,000B

Level E grew 42.1% from 584,000B to 830,000B
(*income adjusted for inflation in 2006 bolívares; the official exchange rate is 2,150 bolívares to the dollar, so, roughly speaking, 1000 bolívares equal about 50 cents, and 1,000,000 bolívares equal about 500 dollars.)

Add another bit of information, things look even better
But there was more to cheer about that was not included in that particular report. Another study, prepared for the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce in 2007, showed that people at Level E were doing so well that many of them had moved into higher income classes. When 2004 was compared to 2007, the percentage of the population at Level E had shrunk dramatically, from 58% to 45.7%, while the level above, D, had grown 23% to 33.6%. And at Level C-minus, which roughly consists of the lower-middle and middle classes, the percentage also grew, from 15% to 18.3%.[2]

In the table above, level D showed a healthy increase in its average household income of 14.3%, but this doesn’t appear very significant compared to the average household increase at the lower level E of 42.3%. This perception changes, however, if we note that a great many people, more than 10% of the total population, moved up to level D from level E between 2004 and 2007.

This suggests that there’s another way to look at the social impact of incomes earned by those at level D. Instead of looking solely at the increase in average income, one should also consider the aggregate increase in household income at this level. That is, if the total income earned by everyone at level D in 2006 is compared with the total income in 2004, the change is outstanding. The income growth for level D as a whole jumps to 67%.

Increases in aggregate income at the lower income levels in Venezuela, 2004-2006

Level C-minus aggregate income increased 24.8% as its percentage of the population increased from 15% to 18.3%.

Level D aggregate income increased 67% as its percentage of the population increased from 23% to 33.6%.

Level E aggregate income increased 12.2% as its percentage of the population decreased from 58% to 45.7%.

Discouraging news for a few
A truly discouraging number, at least for the political opposition and the big business class, was the one that demonstrated that the small, high-income classes -- Levels A,B, and C-plus -- were shrinking. Together they comprised 4% of the population in 2004, but only 2.4% by 2007. While it is difficult to assess exactly why this happened, we can speculate that at least two factors were probably at work. First, a considerable number of well-off Venezuelans have been moving to the U.S., Colombia, and Europe in recent years, where they either reinvested their capital or pursued high-salaried professions. Secondly, the high rate of inflation in Venezuela has taken a toll on some higher-income people who have fixed earnings derived from interest, rents and domestic investments.

For this reason, the status of the citizens at income level C-minus might not be as rosy as it appears in the table above. Since the number of households at this level increased from 15% to18.3% of the population in just two years, the aggregate income earned by all the households at level C-minus (that is, all of their incomes added together) grew by 22%.

However, there’s a catch here – obviously some people that moved to Level C-minus are not doing as well as they once did. As the percentage people inhabiting the three high-income levels shrank from 4% to 2.4% of the population, many of the missing 1.6% (those who did not fly off to Miami) ended up living a Level C-minus existence. Because of this factor, it would probably be a mistake to overemphasize the aggregate income growth at this level.

The overall picture looks rosy
Obviously, some people who belong to, or used to belong to, the tiny high-income groups are feeling some discomfort. Perhaps their future looks grim. But otherwise, there are three more ways of measuring economic progress in Venezuela that make things look rosy for the huge majority.

First of all, by combining all of the people in all three bottom income groups, which comprised 96% of the households in Venezuela in 2004, and 97.6% at the beginning of 2007, it’s possible to show their overall average income gain from 2004 to 2006.

Growth of the average income for 96% to 97.6% of households*
For the three bottom levels, C-minus, D, and E combined, monthly income in bolívares

From 2004 to 2006 average houshold income increased from 893,000B to 1,154,000B, an increase of 29.2%

(*these levels constituted 96% of the population in 2004, and 97.6% of the population by early 2007. Income adjusted for inflation in 2006 bolívares)

Second, there is a significant way to measure the egalitarian effects of recent income changes in Venezuela. The rapid growth in the incomes of poor and working class incomes is having a rapid leveling effect. In two years, not only did many from level E and level D move up to higher levels, but those who remained within those two classifications, nearly 80% of the Venezuelan population, made gains in relation to level C above them.

The leveling effect of changes in average monthly incomes in Venezuela

Average income at Level D was 54% of Level C-minus in 2004, and 61% in 2006

Average income at Level E was 31% of Level C-minus in 2004, and 43% in 2006

Third, an October 2007 article in one of the dominant opposition newspapers, El Universal, provides some long-term evidence that confirms the rosy picture above. In an article titled “Consumption grows 16% for the fourth consecutive year,” reporter Mariela Leon quoted experts who work for the business establishment. José Antonio Gil Yepes, director of the consulting firm Datanálisis and featured speaker at the annual convention of the National Association of Advertisers, said that “Level D has increased its real income by 60 percentage points in eight years, and Level E by 100 percentage points.”[3]

There is no particular reason to be alarmed by this increased consumption, since the whole country is simply consuming at roughly the same rate that lower class incomes are increasing. The 16% percent annual increases in consumption, compounded over four years, are equal to 81%, about halfway between the long-term gains in income for Levels D and E (60% and 100%.)

Not all business representatives are upset by the consumption boom. The remarks of Eduardo Hernandez, the president of the National Association of Advertisers, indicated that those in the publicity business are simply adapting to the new economic realities. He said that companies have begun to tailor their messages and their products to a different and larger clientele: “There is an orientation of products and services directed much more toward the families with fewer resources.”

Information needed for future analysis
It would be helpful to have more information about what’s happening at the top of the income scale, at Levels A, B, and C+, which together comprise 2.4% of the population. It is quite possible that their high incomes have gone up at least as fast as everyone else’s, especially since they represent a smaller percentage of the whole population than they did previously, and because many of them are business owners. There has been significant growth in banking and the local stock market, and a big boom in the construction of housing, roads, rail lines, hospitals, schools and other public facilities, and almost all of it is contracted out to private businesses.

An even more interesting number would be an estimate of the value of all the government benefits that are now reaching a majority of the population through the social missions: for example, the 40% discounts on food at Mercal stores, free medical care at Barrio Adentro, free community sports and cultural programs, and free education classes for people studying at all levels. All of these things amount to significant “extra income” that is not included in the calculations above. Perhaps more important than their monetary value is something incalculable. These programs give a sense of full citizenship to a great many people who were previously marginalized in Venezuelan society.

In Conclusion
Under the Chavez government, most Venezuelans, particularly the lower classes, are receiving a much larger piece of the economic pie. No wonder this rattles Bush and the ultra-conservatives in the United States, whose political project is causing exactly the opposite effect: the economic status and social well-being of most U.S. citizens have been deteriorating for decades.

(For more on that score, see Steve Brouwer, Sharing the Pie: A Citizen’s Guide to Wealth and Power in the United States (Henry Holt, 1998) and Robbing Us Blind: the Return of the Bush Gang (Common Courage Press, 2004.)

(A word of thanks to Oil Wars, the valuable website that posted many of the economic numbers that I have used in this article.)

[1] “Rebuilding the middle class, bit by bit,” Oil Wars , August 2, 2007
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mariela Leon, “Consumption grows 16% for the fourth consecutive year,” El Universal, October 17, 2007.