Tackling Institutions One By One: An Interview With Gregory Wilpert
Saturday, 03 August 2013 10:04
By Gregory Wilpert. This article was first published on Venezuela Analysis.
In an interview conducted in March, Venezuelanalysis.com founder Gregory Wilpert speaks of his experiences in Venezuela, activism in the US, and the processes behind the Bolivarian Revolution.
1. If I am not mistaken you are from Germany, originally. Is that correct? Can you tell us a little about the trajectory that brought you to involvement in Venezuela and helping create, I believe, Venezuela Analysis?
Yes, I grew up in Germany, but as a German-American, since my mom was from the U.S. and I was born in the U.S., but my dad was from Germany. After completing high school in Germany, I moved to the U.S. to study sociology, first at UC San Diego and then at Brandeis University, where I eventually earned a Ph.D. Throughout my time at the university I was always very interested in Latin America, partly because of the revolutionary movements there, partly to oppose U.S. foreign policy in that part of the world, and partly because I felt I had some roots there, since my mom is Mexican-American.
A few years after completing my doctorate I met my wife in New York City, who is from Venezuela. In 2000 we decided to move to Venezuela, mainly because she had to return because she was in the U.S. on a student visa. At that time Chávez had been president for only a year-and-a-half and I was paying only marginal attention to him, thinking that he said some good things, but I was a bit skeptical about him, mainly due to his military background. I was focused on teaching at the Central University of Venezuela at that time, with the help of a Fulbright Scholar grant.
All of that changed in late 2001, when the opposition in Venezuela began organizing strikes against the 49 laws that Chávez had passed that year, among which were a fairly radical land reform, an oil industry reform, and a fishing law reform. It was then that I began to realize that Chávez meant business in confronting the country's old elite and that this was going to be a major struggle for power within Venezuela. Sure enough, about six months later, in April 2002, the opposition launched its ill-fated coup attempt. This caused my second eye-opening, with regard to the extent to which the international media was actively trying to undermine the Chávez government, disseminating distorted and sometimes even completely false information. As you know, I saw the coup up close, being on the streets at the time, seeing where the demonstrations were taking place and witnessing some of the shooting that was going on. The evening of the first day of the coup, I saw the international media and was absolutely shocked how they merely parroted the opposition's lies about what happened, that Chávez had resigned, that he had ordered his followers to shoot at the opposition demonstration, etc. I immediately sprang into action and tried to counter these lies by writing articles and by giving dozens of media interviews. In the two weeks that followed I had given over 40 interviews with media outlets from around the world.
In the weeks and months following the coup, I decided that rather than teaching at a university, I ought to work on trying to rectify the disinformation about Venezuela. I thus began writing for alternative media outlets and about a year later decided that rather than just spreading my writing all over the place, there ought to be a single website with information and in-depth analysis about Venezuela. As it happened, I was put in touch with Martin Sanchez, the founder of the largest Venezuelan pro-Chávez website, aporrea.org, who had been planning to do the same thing. He worked on the technical side of setting up Venezuelanalysis.com and I worked on the editorial side of things. So the site was officially launched in September 2003.
2. What do you feel have been some of the successes of Venezuela Analysis - and, also, what are some ways in which you think it could perhaps do better in the future?
I think the main success of Venezuelanalysis.com has been that it provides a left social movement perspective on the Bolivarian Revolution in the English language. It's a fairly rare perspective, in that it is clearly pro-Bolivarian Revolution, but also critical of some aspects from a leftist perspective. However, the writers are always clear that progressives ought to be on the side of the government, even when there are clear criticisms or problems with the process. The reason for this clarity is simple: the Chávez government has done more and is in the process of doing more for ordinary Venezuelans than just about any realistic alternative to Chávez would ever do. Still, this does not mean that we shut off our capacity to think critically about things. Maintaining such a perspective in a situation that is as polarized as it is in Venezuela is not all that easy.
In the nearly ten years since its founding, Venezuela Analysis has developed a fairly loyal following and is read (according to Google Analytics) by about 60,000 unique visitors per month. Also, it is self-sustaining via donations from readers, which is a respectable achievement for a small online publication with three part-time correspondents in Venezuela.
However, we would love to expand our coverage, so that we could hire more writers and write more in-depth analysis articles. This goal, of course, depends on whether we can manage to raise more than $10,000 per year, which we have so far not been able to do.
Another area for improvement is to figure out how to balance journalism with solidarity work. We would love it if there were a stronger solidarity movement that we could coordinate with better. This, however, has been a big challenge for us, partly because we do not have enough time to focus on this and I guess that it's a similar situation for the solidarity groups.
3. You also live and work in NYC. Do you have any insights you would like to share about working and being an activist in a country that is not your original one, and about international solidarity more generally?
First, the most striking thing, I think, is how fragmented U.S. activism is. The country is so enormous and activism seems to take place in relatively small segments of the population where each movement seems to be fairly isolated from the concerns of the other movements. I don't see that so strongly in Germany or in Venezuela. Certainly, they have their single-issue organizations and movements too, but because of the smaller size (geographically in the case of Germany, population-wise in the case of Venezuela) and because elf their better access to mass media, there seems to be more communication and cross-fertilization of concerns in these other countries. I guess also the U.S. culture of individualism probably plays a role in this fragmentation of activism.
Second, on a more positive note, I am often impressed with how well organized and strategic U.S. activist organizations can be. That hasn't been my experience in Germany or in Venezuela, where a lot more activism seems to be ad-hoc or, when it is not, then it's much more influenced by political parties.
However, there are two fundamental flaws in both of these originally smart approaches, plus there is also a missed opportunity. First, with regard to making the mass media accountable, the mechanism for doing this is a bit flawed. I think there is too much discretion in government hands about deciding when media outlets violate the norms. Rather, I think it would be important to have truly independent bodies making such decisions, so that the public media might also be held accountable in a way that no one would perceive that accountability as being biased in favor of the government. Also, if the opposition were ever to re-gain control over the government (something that rarely seems to occur as a possibility to Chávez supporters), they would not have a powerful tool in their hands to silence progressive voices all of a sudden.
Second, with regard to the creation of new media outlets, I think this has been extremely positive in the case of the proliferation of community media. Here my only concern would be that perhaps the community media ought to have some sort of guaranteed funding, so that their independence is not threatened and so that they can become stronger. However, the real problem lies with the creation of the public media outlets, which are really government media outlets, in the sense that it is the government that runs them and not the public. I believe that in principle all media ought to be controlled by the public and not by private businesses nor by the government. Certainly, the government ought to have an outlet where it can present its views, but that should be just one option. The dominant option, ideally, should be for publicly controlled media outlets. Exactly how these ought to be organized I cannot go into here, but there are many suggestions out there for this.
Third, the missed opportunity, is that if, as leftists, we believe that the mass media ought to be controlled by the public, then a leftist government ought to be moving in the direction of democratizing all media outlets, including the private ones. Such a project would go far beyond regulation and would mean introducing governing boards run by the public that have an increasing control over private media outlets. None of that, however, has so far happened in Venezuela, mainly, I guess, it's because of a lack of imagination or because the government fears the backlash this could cause internationally.
I think most people largely understand this contrast between these two different types of socialism, even if the details of how the 21st Century variety is supposed to function is still somewhat vague.
The greatest danger--and your question implies this--is that Chávez holds together a fractious coalition that could fall apart if he leaves the political stage. Certainly, that is a danger, one that I used to warn about a lot, but it is one that I feel isn't as great as I originally thought it was. That is, I now believe that the governing coalition has a much better chance of holding together than the opposition. The reason is quite simple: as long as the Bolivarian coalition is in power and as long as it does a decent job of empowering people and of providing social justice, this coalition sees that it has more to gain when it sticks together than when it fragments. In other words, the pressure to stick together is probably a lot greater than the centrifugal tendencies that also exist.
First, with regard to the public administration, I see the main problem as being a lack of good management. All too often directors and ministers in the government place a higher premium on loyalty instead of on competency. It's a shame that this should be a trade-off, but that's the way it is. 14 years into the Bolivarian Revolution there still aren't enough highly capable managers who believe in the government's political project. I should add, though, I am not at all convinced that the opposition would do better on this count because Venezuela really wasn't better managed when they were in office. However, people forget this over time and slowly come to think that perhaps the opposition would be better on this issue. The most glaring example of poor management has to do with the country's judiciary and its law enforcement system. It seems to be shambles still, despite numerous reform efforts. The sad state of this system is also what explains a large part of Venezuela's crime problem, I believe.
I should mention that focusing on the lack of good management implies maintaining existing institutional top-down structures instead of creating more participatory ones. Indeed, in the public administration little to nothing has been done to transform these structures and these structures clash with the effort to create a participatory democracy, especially via the communal councils, which are bottom-up. This basic contradiction has not been resolved and is another key source of discontent.
This leads to my sec on point, that many people who would normally support the Bolivarian movement, because of their leftist politics, have become disappointed with the way things have been going recently. They don't go over to the opposition, but their disappointment is reflected in lower enthusiasm and participation. The reason they feel this way, I think, has to do with the way many party officials are managing the movement in a heavy-handed manner, running roughshod over inner-party democracy. Of course, opposition critics of the government like to point to such things as examples of the supposedly dictatorial or authoritarian nature of the Chávez government, but one should be clear that political parties in Venezuela have never been particularly democratic. Actually, an argument can be made that the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV - Chávez's party) is the most democratic party in Venezuelan history and that the real problem is that expectations for inner-party democracy are out-pacing its rather slow fulfillment.
Finally, I mentioned economic contradictions as a problem. Here the issue is a bit technical, but it has to do with the economic problems of trying to manage socialist goals within a capitalist context. More specifically, for example, the government tries to rein-in inflation via price controls, but, as pro-capitalist critics like to point out, this tends to create black markets and periodic shortages of certain goods. There is a similar situation with the exchange rate, which is currently being controlled, mainly to prevent capital flight, but this has other unintended consequences, such as providing a subsidy to people to have access to the official exchange rate, especially with regard to paying for education and travel abroad, since these are paid at the official exchange rate, which is a lot lower than the parallel rate, and the parallel rate reflects the actual value of the currency a lot better. As a result, someone who earns rather well and has access to the low official exchange rate can pay for travel and education rather cheaply.
On the media front, though, I think the reason this campaign does not work as well as the government hopes is that people are naturally just as suspicious of pro-government propaganda as they are of opposition propaganda in the private mass media. Actually, they are probably more suspicious of pro-government media because it is much more obvious to them that there is a link between the government and the governmental media outlets. However, in the opposition sector, even though everyone more or less knows that the private media is mostly opposition-oriented, there is more of a pretense of independence of the private media from the opposition.
Personally, as I mentioned earlier, I think the government has missed an opportunity in its approach to the mass media. Rather than fostering more and more state media outlets (TV, radio, and newspapers funded by the government have proliferated), the government should have created truly democratic and independent mass media. Such media would certainly not be anti-government or pro-opposition, but it would try to report in the interests of the country's working class majority. Maybe one could even create a variety of media outlets that report from the perspective of a variety of social classes or groups? In any case, nothing along these lines has really been tried. The closest to this model are the community media, but they remain very small and marginal, despite their proliferation in the Chávez years.
Just this past week, however, the new communications minister, Ernesto Villegas, who is very good, announced a new system of public media, where the community media would play a much larger role in the major media outlets. Depending on how this is implemented, this could mean a significant democratization of the state or public media. We'll have to see.
With regard to cracking down harder on opposition sabotage and obstruction, this is certainly something that the government ought to do, but I think it does that to a large extent already. Here the real problem is that if it does it, first of all, it cannot be perceived as a one-sided opposition witch-hunt, which means, it ought to hit just as hard against corruption within its own ranks. This, however, does not seem to be happening.
The lesson I think, in short, is that progressives in the U.S. ought to give up their fruitless debate, whether to get involved in electoral politics or not. The Venezuelan example proves, I believe, that government can make a positive difference in people's lives, but movements for change in the U.S. (just as in Venezuela) will only have an impact on the state if the state is democratized. Fighting for change within the existing state or ignoring the existing state will lead nowhere because that existing state will always present a major obstacle. Rather, the state has to be fundamentally reformed for progressive politics to be viable in the long run. This is something that earlier political movements in the U.S. knew, but which we have forgotten.
13. Second, what does it tell us about construction of alternative institutions operating in a context where other structures are from the past?
15. And finally, what does it tell us about overcoming opposition from sectors devoted to preserving the past, even as we try to avoid all out civil conflict?
I think one of the reasons that the Bolivarian Revolution has been able to survive as long as it has is because it has important international allies. In other words, here is an important lesson, which I guess mainly applies to countries similar to Venezuela, is that such alliances are absolutely crucial in the face of both domestic and international external opposition. Another lesson that comes to mind is that perhaps progressive governments should not be too timid once in government, that they can afford to be more radical and can overcome hard core opposition from within and from without, if they are bold and brave enough. Of course, this does not necessarily apply to all countries, since small ones (such as Haiti) are easily bulldozed by U.S. and large ones (such as the U.S. itself) have such powerful entrenched domestic interests that the state's power might pale in comparison. In other words, the Venezuelan situation is rather advantageous for a radical experiment because it has oil, which makes it economically relatively autonomous (but which of course heightens imperial interest in the country) and because it has a relatively weak private sector (compared to the U.S., at least). Still, Venezuela has blazed a trail for many other leftist governments in the region and Venezuela's boldness is certainly something that should be seen as a positive example beyond Latin America too.