Apologies that we haven't been sending more frequent ZNet Updates. 

The problem has been the upgrade of the site, which is, at this point, driving 
us crazy. The delays - it has taken four times as long as contracted - have 
been and remain incredibly disruptive -  both financially and organizationally. 
Yet, we are finally in sight of completion. 

We believe that the innovations will prove themselves, and more, once 
available. Indeed, they better. You see, we are going to need great support 
from you, ZNet's users, inspired by the innovations, in signing up and using 
the new options and otherwise lending your support,, once they go online. 

But for right now, before that day comes, this update is to bring to your 
attention a new book by our close friend Greg Wilpert who maintains the 
excellent web site, Venezuela Watch. Here is a book interview with him, and the 
introduction to his book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power..

ZNet Book Interview with Gregory Wilpert

-> Can you tell ZNet, please, what Changing Venezuela by Taking Power is about? 
What is it trying to communicate?

Changing Venezuela by Taking Power is an explanation and analysis of the 
policies of the Chavez government of Venezuela. It first explains why Chavez 
came into office and why his political program increasingly radicalized over 
the course of the first six extremely contentious years of his presidency. The 
main part of the book takes a look at the Chavez government's policies, its 
achievements and its shortcomings. These policies are divided into four main 
chapters, dealing with, first, what I call "governance" policies (involving 
constitutional reform, the military, and participatory democracy), then, 
economic policies, social policies, and foreign policies. Each of these four 
chapters presents a brief analysis of the ways in which the government's 
policies succeed or fail to reach their stated goals of increasing social 
justice and democracy in Venezuela. The concluding chapter then takes a closer 
look at the main opportunities, obstacles, and prospects of the Chavez 
government for the near future. Since the book only covers the Chavez's first 
term in office and since he introduced substantial new policy directions for 
his second term, the book also includes an epilogue that discusses these latest 
developments and brings the discussion up to May 2007. Finally, since so much 
of what is discussed in Venezuela has to do with the concept of 21st century 
socialism, the appendix presents my interpretation of what 21st century 
socialism might look like. 

As the book's title suggests, the book is also an indirect polemic with John 
Holloway's notion of "Change the World without Taking Power." In effect, I try 
to show that it is possible to change the world for the better by taking 
(state) power and that the Venezuelan experience even shows that such state 
power might be necessary if we want to achieve social justice now, rather than 
in a century or so.

-> Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content 
come from? What went into making the book what it is?

Writing this book was a particularly long and arduous process for me. Not only 
is this my first book, but (presumably just as many authors who aren't paid to 
write books) I had to balance regular work commitments and family life while 
working on it. I first started working on it shortly after launching the 
website Venezuelanalysis.com in September 2003. I originally thought I could 
simply use the articles I wrote for that site and compile them into a book. 
However, after a little while I realized that this was not all that feasible 
and began writing the book in parallel to the work I did for the site. As a 
result, only very little of what appears in the book is also on 
Venezuelanalysis.com. The book's content thus comes from my own research and 
writing while working on the site or from things I learnt from others who wrote 
articles for the site. Also, over the years I had the opportunity to interview 
many high-level government officials, to gain insights into their policies and 
their thinking. The one interview I was not able to get for the book, though, 
was with President Chavez himself, which is quite disappointing because I 
really wanted to talk to him about his belief system. Obviously, Chavez plays a 
very crucial role for the policies of his government and too many interviews 
with him simply cover old ground, about his upbringing and his experiences as 
president. What is really needed is an in-depth discussion with him about his 
political belief system.

-> What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute or 
achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, 
what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole 
undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and 

My hope is that the book will have an impact, first, among progressives, to 
show to them that something very important is happening in Venezuela today, 
something that holds extremely important lessons for the left and for our 
conceptions of how we might want to organize a better society. Also, I hope 
that progressives would learn to see Venezuela not in the purely black and 
white terms that it is usually seen in, as either "the" revolution of our times 
that is doing everything right or as the result of a typical Latin American 
populist and demagogue who is imposing authoritarian rule in the name of 
socialism. Clearly, my perspective on Venezuela is closer to the former, but I 
also try to introduce some elements of realism by showing that not everything 
is working that fantastically in Chavez's Venezuela and that there are some 
real dangers ahead that could lead this amazing experience astray. I would thus 
be happy if more progressives embraced what is happening in Venezuela, but that 
they did not embrace it uncritically. 

This is a very tricky subject, of course, because often people believe 
solidarity should not be critical or should be without reservations because 
anything else would be an imposition of our own imperial views on another 
people. This is true, in a sense, if we are clear about who we are in 
solidarity with - the government or the people. Of course, if the answer is, 
"with the people," then critical support for the Chavez government is, in my 
opinion, the only kind of support one should give. This is the perspective I 
try to take in my book and my analysis takes me to precisely this kind of 
critical support. I thus hope my book will both draw more people into 
supporting the Chavez government, but that they do so with their eyes wide 
open, unlike what all too often happened with earlier socialist movements, such 
as with the Russian Revolution.

My second hope is that this book might have an impact in the broader culture 
(beyond progressives), in moving it away from the mostly negative conception of 
current events in Venezuela and to appreciate that there is a sincere effort to 
create a society that is neither capitalist, nor social democratic, nor state 
socialist, but wants to create a new kind of socialism, a more participatory 
socialism for the 21st century.

The real test of success of this book's efforts (and that of others like it) 
would be if it were able to avert further U.S. intervention in Venezuela. A 
failure would be continued or intensified U.S. intervention and the eventual 
defeat of the Chavez government as a result of such intervention.

Also, I am aiming this book at Venezuelan readers (it has been translated and 
will soon be published in Venezuela), in the hope that Venezuelans too might 
gain something from this analysis - that die hard "Chavistas" might stop 
confusing Chavez with the people and that die-hard opposition people might see 
that most of what the government has done has benefited the country's poor 
majority. Also, I hope that the book will contribute to the discussion within 
Venezuela and around the world as to what might constitute "21st century 
socialism" and whether the government's policies are really heading in that 


Changing Venezuela By Taking Power
The Policies of the Chavez Presidency 1999-2006


La verdad de Venezuela
no se ve en el Country club
la verdad se ve en los cerros
con su gente y su inquietud1

-Alí Primera, 
Yo Vengo de Donde Usted no ha Ido

With the general disorientation that today dominates left parties and theorists 
around the world, following the successive failures of state socialism and of 
social democracy, one would hardly have expected a small, relatively wealthy, 
and inconspicuous country in Latin America to boldly announce it will create 
21st century socialism. Why and how was this possible in Venezuela? What does 
it mean? What are its prospects for success? These are the three main questions 
this book seeks to answer. 

The International Context

The election of a leftist president in Venezuela in 1998 foreshadowed what 
would, in the following seven years, become a wave of successes for 
left-leaning presidential candidates in Latin America. Leftists who followed 
Hugo Chavez into the presidency of their respective countries were, first, Luiz 
Ignacio "Lula" da Silva in Brazil in October 2002, then Lucio Gutierrez in 
Ecuador in January 2003, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina in May 2003, Tabaré 
Vázquez in Uruguay in October 2004, Evo Morales in Bolivia in December 2005, 
Rafael Correa in Ecuador in November 2006, and then Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua 
also in November 2006. While some of these moderated significantly shortly 
after taking office, such as Gutierrez and da Silva, they represent a wave of 
left of center leaders whose election came as a bit of a surprise given the 
aforementioned disorientation within the left around the world.

For practically the entire 1990's "the left," ranging from moderate social 
democrats to leftwing socialists, appeared to be somewhat perplexed as to what 
their concrete political program should be. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 
and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union and of other state socialist 
regimes signaled the complete discrediting of state socialism and central 
planning as an institutional solution for achieving the ideals of socialism. At 
first, this collapse appeared to vindicate social democrats, who had always 
argued in favor of mixing state and market, in lieu of a complete abolition of 
the market. 

However, it soon became obvious that social democracy was in a crisis too. In 
the U.S., in Britain, and in Germany, left of center leaders entered office 
again in the 1990's, after a long absence, but found that that their old 
Keynesian recipes of state intervention in the market's dysfunctions did not 
work as well as they used to. Globalization of financial markets and massive 
indebtedness and deficits made old-style social democratic programs unviable. 
Capital had become too mobile and the welfare state too expensive for social 
democratic policies. As a result, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard 
Schröder tried to devise a new more moderate program for the left, which 
essentially accepted the market imperatives that neo-liberals had created in 
the 1980's and tried to balance budgets and dismantle social programs. At the 
same time, they tried to keep their left credentials by being slightly to the 
left of their more conservative opponents. Meanwhile, in Latin America, 
similarly centrist presidents governed, partly as a result of the left having 
been purged from politics during the dictatorships of the 1970's and 1980's and 
partly because of the constraints that massive state indebtedness and financial 
deregulation placed on governance in Latin America too. 

In short, social democracy had become unviable in an age of unrestricted 
capital flows and lack of financial resources. Instead, neo-liberalism emerged 
as the dominant political ideology. This economic program had been applied with 
a vengeance in Latin America throughout the 1980's and 1990's. The results of 
neo-liberalism, which meant privatization of state assets, free trade, state 
fiscal austerity, and deregulation of the labor market, were far from as good 
as neo-liberalism's apostles had claimed they would be. Between 1980 and 1999, 
during the height of neo-liberalism in Latin America, per capita economic 
growth of the continent was a paltry 11%, compared to an 80% per capita GDP 
growth in the previous 20 years (a mostly Keynesian period), of 1960-1979.2 
Also, these meager economic results and the material hardship many of the 
policies implied led to wide-spread resistance movements and often to their 
violent repression. As we will see, Venezuela came to be prime example of the 
failures of neo-liberalism, resistance, and repression.

A New New Left?

What remained, then, as an economic program for the countries of Latin America 
and for the left in general? State socialism, social democracy, and 
neo-liberalism all seemed to have run their unsuccessful course. By the early 
21st century no clear answers had emerged, but voters were willing to give the 
left another opportunity in Latin America, despite the vagueness of their 
programs. However, of the leftist presidents that were elected in this first 
decade, only one, President Hugo Chavez Frías of Venezuela, eventually declared 
that he is following an explicitly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist agenda. At 
first, despite his somewhat inflammatory (some would say populist) rhetoric, 
Chavez's policies were equally moderate as those of his fellow Latin American 

Two things stood out, though, when comparing Chavez with these other 
presidents. First, Chavez faced far more vehement and even violent opposition 
to his presidency than the others, even though initially his concrete policies 
were not much different from those of Brazil's Lula da Silva or Chile's Michele 
Bachelet. Second, Chavez's confrontation with the opposition led him to 
eventually become a far more radical left politician than he started out as. It 
was not until after a coup attempt in 2002, a two-month shutdown of the 
country's all-important oil industry in 2002-2003, and a presidential recall 
referendum in August 2004 that Chavez declared his political program to be 
socialist, in January 2005-a full six years into his presidency.

Of course, just because Chavez announced the pursuit of socialism does not mean 
that his policies are socialist. Too often have politicians claimed to be in 
favor of socialism, only to pursue policies that ended either in a centrally 
planned dictatorship or in capitalism as usual. Thus, to find out whether 
Chavez's policies match his rhetoric and to see if these policies constitute a 
real alternative to state socialism, social democracy, and neo-liberalism, it 
makes sense to examine them carefully. Also, even if they constitute a real 
alternative, do they actually lead towards a better society?

The Path Towards 21st Century Socialism in Venezuela

Before examining the question of whether Venezuela is actually heading towards 
something that might be called 21st century socialism, the present study first 
tries to explain how and why 21st century socialism came to be on the agenda in 
Venezuela. That is, Chavez and his Bolivarian movement appeared in Venezuela at 
a very specific time in the country's history, in a context in which social 
democracy and neo-liberalism were probably more discredited than in most other 
countries in the world. 

Chapter 1, "The Dialectic of Counter-Revolution and Radicalization," reviews 
recent Venezuelan history and how this history made a radical project such as 
that of Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution possible.3 It shows how, ever since the 
1920's, Venezuela had grown accustomed to constantly increasing oil revenues, 
which fueled the development of a strong and economically interventionist 
state. However, when oil revenues started a long 20-year decline in the early 
1980's and it could no longer support its large state sector and a political 
system that bought political loyalty with oil revenue. Poverty and inequality 
sky-rocketed to the highest levels in Latin America in this period. The old 
political system, which had grown increasingly corrupt and repressive and which 
was held together with an exclusionary two-party pact, began falling apart, 
eventually giving a complete political outsider such as Hugo Chavez, who 
promised revolutionary change, the chance to win the presidency in 1998. 
Another important factor in Chavez's rise to power was that his movement was 
based on a coalition between progressive sectors of Venezuela's military and 
Venezuela's traditionally excluded more radical left movements and parties.

As stated earlier, once elected, Chavez gave very radical speeches, promising 
to eliminate poverty and corruption and to completely overturn the country's 
ossified political system with a new constitution. It is tempting to believe 
that Chavez's anti-poverty and anti-corruption program is what incensed the 
country's old elite to launch an all-out campaign to oust him. However, it was 
actually his success in completely displacing the old elite from positions of 
power that provoked their ire. During his first three years in office, Chavez's 
anti-poverty, anti-corruption, and redistribution measures were actually quite 
modest. Rather, it was the new constitution, which required the re-legitimation 
of all branches of government and the resulting complete removal of the old 
elite from state power that incensed them so much.

As a result, Venezuela's old elite refused to accept Chavez as the legitimately 
elected president and engaged in a no-holds-barred effort to get rid of him. 
Chavez, though, proved to be a particularly intransigent foe, who refused to 
concede to the opposition any of its demands. The heightened conflict led to 
both a polarization of Venezuelan society and to the splitting off of 
significant chunks of Chavez's coalition and their joining the opposition. The 
conflict came to its first major confrontation with the April 2002 coup 
attempt, which demonstrated the extent of the opposition's hubris. Not only did 
it not recognize Chavez as the legitimate president, but it had also completely 
ignored his growing constituency among the country's poor and excluded. The 
opposition's miscalculations about Chavez's popularity among the poor and among 
the military spelled the coup's failure. 

This miscalculation of the opposition, which was rooted in its firm belief that 
it represented the "reasonable" majority of the country and that Chavez was not 
a legitimate president, led to several other failed adventures. The next such 
adventure was the two-month shutdown of the country's all-important oil 
industry, from early December 2002 to early February 2003, where the opposition 
lost its power base in the oil industry. Next, it tried to oust Chavez via the 
legal means of a presidential recall referendum. This too failed spectacularly. 
Finally, Chavez was reelected in a landslide victory of 63%, to the 36% of his 
main opponent.

By then, however, the combination of the opposition's implosion as a result of 
its repeated failures, and the start of a new oil boom in 2004, had liberated 
the Chavez government from the restraints that most leftists face once in 
office. Economically, the pressure to please international capital in the name 
of foreign investment and development was practically eliminated thanks to the 
boom in oil prices. Politically, the opposition had lost crucial bases of power 
in the polity, the military, the oil industry, and in society in general, 
thereby freeing Chavez from the need to take opposition reactions to his 
policies into consideration. Chavez thus discarded his earlier moderation and 
in early 2005 publicly declared his conversion to a new form of socialism, of 
"21st century socialism," which he would work on instituting in Venezuela. The 
parties and sectors that supported Chavez enthusiastically went along with the 
announcement because they too appeared to have been radicalized by the 
preceding confrontations with the U.S. supported opposition.

Identifying 21st Century Socialism in Venezuela

The heart of the book, Chapters 2 to 5, provide detailed descriptions and 
analyses of the governance policy, economic policy, social policy, and foreign 
policy of the Chavez government and the extent to which the Chavez government 
manages to approximate institutions that fulfill the ideals Chavez talks about. 
In all four policy areas there are clear indications that indeed the government 
is pursuing innovative policies that transcend the institutions of capitalism 
as usual. However, these policies are often contradicted or undermined by 
contravening policy tendencies. For example, while the Chavez government has 
embarked on an important project of increasing citizen participation in a wide 
variety of state institutions, it has also increased the importance and 
strength of the presidency, which tends to undermine the participatory 
policies. In the area of economic policy, the government has gone a long way 
towards establishing economic democracy, but the high oil revenues upon which 
many of these policies depend, threaten the long-term viability of self-managed 
enterprises in Venezuela. These types of contradictions exist in all of the 
main policy areas examined here.

Despite the frequent contradictoriness of the policies, many of them do lay the 
groundwork for institutions that would fulfill the ideals of 21st century 
socialism. This is a crucial achievement, not only for Venezuelans, because it 
raises the hope for a Venezuela with more social justice, but it also serves a 
broader example of what left or socialist politics of the future could look 
like. An analysis of the Venezuelan institutions that work towards fulfilling 
society's ideals can help provide orientation and hope to a disorganized, 
fragmented, and often demoralized left throughout the world.

However, in addition to the frequent problem of contradictory policies, there 
are even deeper obstacles lurking within the Bolivarian socialist project, 
which have to do with the Bolivarian movement itself. The last chapter, 
"Opportunities, Obstacles, Prospects," discusses these obstacles and finds that 
the three most important obstacles for the Chavez government's project are the 
persistence of a patronage culture, the nascent personality cult around Chavez, 
and Chavez's own autocratic instincts, which undermine the creation of a 
participatory society. If Venezuelan society and the Chavez government manage 
to resolve these three key issues that are internal to the Bolivarian movement, 
if the policies themselves are made more consistent, and if there is no 
significant outside interference, then Venezuela might well be the greatest 
hope for establishing freedom, equality, and social justice in over a 

Those who are interested in developing a basis for evaluating what 21st century 
socialism might mean in Venezuela and whether the Chavez government's policies 
actually lead towards the fulfillment of the ideals of 21st century socialism, 
should read Appendix A, "What is 21st Century Socialism?" This appendix first 
presents some general ideas about this conception of socialism. Unfortunately, 
Chavez has not clearly defined 21st century socialism, other than to say that 
it is about establishing liberty, equality, social justice, and solidarity. He 
has also indicated that it is distinctly different from state socialism. 
However, such ideals, by themselves, make 21st century socialism 
indistinguishable from most other social projects of the 20th and 21st century. 
Surely, what distinguishes 21st century socialism would have to be the 
institutions it aims to create, not the ideals it is pursuing. At heart, such 
institutions would be characterized by their democratic and participatory 
nature. Also, if one establishes that the economic institutions of 
capitalism-of private ownership of the means of production, the market system, 
and pro-capitalist state-are incapable of fulfilling society's ideals, then the 
new institutions must clearly distinguish themselves from these institutions. 
This chapter goes on to outline what non-capitalist, perhaps 21st century 
socialist, political and economic institutions could look like.

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