Review of "The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century"

The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century by Iain Bruce is a predominantly first-hand, journalistic account of the former BBC’s authors time in Venezuela as witness to the changes going on in Venezuela at the time. The author visit a number of the social economy collectives, workplace councils and some of the sights of the co-operative networks. By giving a first hand account of them, he seemingly seeks to show how it is why Venezuela and Chavez is an inspiration to many on the Socialist left. It is in this area, the framing of Marxist debates over the policies of the Chavez government that Bruce does his best. In so doing he will advance quotes by Gramsci, Trotsky, Luxemburg, et al., but stays away from substantive analysis following such the theoretical pronouncements that applies to a specific situation. Unfortunately this sympathy seems to inoculate Bruce from the circumstances as he presents them as his depiction of a sufficiently “revolutionary” Venezuela shows an economy insufficiently productive if truly wishing to shake itself from some amount of the import dependency that so distorts their country.

Besides an initial and compelling account of the normalization and legalization of much of the barrio dwellers occupied housing, the author’s major investigations on the functioning of Nucleus for Endogenous Developments (NUDEs). In so doing he presents three failures and a limited success. The author first goes to Fabricio Ojeda nuclei, the first constructed of these NUDEs which combines space for health, education, leisure and economic activity. The obvious problem with citing the first, “model” construction of such a facility is that, like the “model” regions displayed by the USSR to foreigners, is that it provides a non-typical experience. While people there did do work for PDVSA, it is clear that were the high oil price to be gone so would they. Recognizing this the author travels to other similar developments and is not met with as compelling a location or circumstance.

In Cabimas, the NUDE there is not centered on clothing production but assisting local fisherman. The idea is that through the production of a space similarly described above and with attendant financial assistance from the government the capacity for the local fishermen to compete with larger, pre-existing, better capitalized local fisherman will reduce the cost of fish to the community. The project, however, is then described as being dropped due to the amount of time it takes to organize. Several other attempts at NUDE formation are described which also flounder amidst lack of interest, financial irregularities or charges of corruption.

The one successful example, besides that of Fabricio Ojeda, is in the service industry and is a combined restaurant and taxi-company that provides patrons with a ride to and from the waterside dining establishment. Hardly a model for nationwide development. While all of the above described experiments are indeed novel, as a whole the study of the “real” Venezuela shows many of the failings of the Chavez government policies to diversify the economic base. The author clearly shows how it is that the NUDEs are dependent on PDVSA, haven’t organized production to a very high standard nor sufficiently train their “employees” enough so as to be able to do export quality work.The economic foundation of their production stems from relationships that can be called at best social welfare at worst corruption.

In the case of ALCASA, Bruce shows how the attempts at co-mangement have failed given an individualistic culture and lack of state support in relations with management, how the state is unwilling to reinvest in new equipment to increase production and thus protect workers safety, not to mention how now workers fear talking about these issues in public lest they be sacked for criticism against the government. Additionally, as the traders an transporters of the goods they were producing were not in a similar situation, they were able to increase their profits through speculation and wage negotiation on the open market. In effect, the workers had their wages cut and their protections diminished – hardly the stuff of a socialist paradise. Towards this effect is perhaps also worth mentioning that the Cuban advisors vote against such an undertaking, as “they are at the factory to work and not to make votes” and that a second attempt to co-manage the factory has since occurred, and also failed. Whether this is due to the inefficiency of such an organization or is due to something else cannot easily be determined, however the brief depiction of the situation which Bruce supports the claim by capitalists that they should have the prerogative of how to organize labor lest production devolve into the situation illustrated in the old soviet joke “You pretend to pay me, I’ll pretend to work”.

These criticisms on the part of the author or those put into the words of other’s mouths are often de-emphasized in the face of enthusiasm over an alternative to capitalism and the unmistakeable growth of a leftist political culture. The author clearly seeks to raise more questions about our Anglo conceptions of political correctness in the face of such inequality, but seemingly doesn’t think it’s worth functionally analyzing the results yet. To this reader this presents a rather unusual situation, wherein we can see that the NUDEs and CLPP’s create big problems, but these are explained away as just steps in el processo.