Ewan Robertson, who currently lives in Venezuela, updates his contribution from one year ago in the light of an eventful year. He highlights the relevance of a Venezuela’s social republican approach in the current debate over Scottish self-determination.
With under a year to go until Scotland’s independence referendum, radical independence activists are looking at examples of other left-leaning independence movements internationally for inspiration and as possible models to learn from.
One independence experience which offers lessons for any attempt to construct a genuinely independent Scotland is that of Venezuela. This may seem strange to some, because the image of Venezuela in recent years has been shaped by a campaign of misleading international media coverage which has tried to portray Venezuela under the administrations of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro as an economic basket case suffering from ever greater political authoritarianism. However in reality the election to power of the Bolivarian government in 1998 has come to represent a “second independence” in which the country has for the first time wrested sovereign control over its affairs from the influence of a decadent economic oligarchy and the interests of the United States. Despite challenging developmental circumstances, an intransigent conservative opposition, and several U.S.-backed destabilisation attempts, Bolivarian Venezuela has succeeded in developing a model which has reduced poverty and inequality, increased the consumption power of the poorest, greatly expanded the welfare state, and drawn millions into political participation for the first time. That this has been achieved in such difficult circumstances should act as a reminder to radical independence activists that even facing a web of contrary interests held by the Scottish elite, the British state, and certain international bodies, in the right circumstances developing Scotland along the lines of the RIC platform is perfectly possible.
As such, several elements of Venezuela’s “second independence” should be highlighted as examples of what can be achieved when the necessary political will exists.
Full political independence
When the Bolivarian government assumed power in 1999 a progressive written constitution was drawn up by a constituent assembly and passed in a national referendum, establishing the Fifth Republic. Constitutionally power resides in the people, who elect the president, a single chamber parliament, and all regional state and municipal government representatives. Citizens also participate in running local government themselves through a system of 40,000 grassroots community councils, and have the power to convoke referendums to revoke the mandate of any elected official (including the president) during their term. No monarchy, no House of Lords, and no interference in sovereign decision-making from external powers like the U.S.
This political independence has also allowed greater independence in international affairs, with Venezuela pursuing alliances with left-leaning governments in Latin America and playing a key role in new organisations seeking regional integration such as the Union of South American Nations.
Sovereign control over strategic economic sectors
The Bolivarian government has successfully recovered control over the country’s crude oil reserves, calculated as the largest in the world. With the state oil company PDVSA playing a greater role in extraction and international oil companies paying higher taxes, the government has been able to use oil income to greatly increase social and infrastructure spending. The state has also assumed control of what are regarded as “strategic” economic sectors, such as oil and gas, heavy industry, cement, electricity, telecommunications, areas of food production and distribution, around a third of the banking sector, and certain transport projects. Control over these sectors is proving vital to the success of the government’s mass housing construction program, which seeks to build three million homes by 2019 to meet the country’s housing deficit. Also, a significant, if incomplete and at times problematic, land redistribution policy has been carried out, with over 4 million hectares of land being “recovered” from unproductive large scale estates either for distribution to smaller scale farmers and communities or for state agricultural projects.
The expansion of the welfare state
Using higher revenue intake and focusing a greater percentage of the national budget on social spending, the Bolivarian government has overseen a significant expansion of Venezuela’s welfare state. This includes a huge expansion of the free public healthcare system with assistance from Cuba, including the construction of around 7,000 community clinics from 2003 and a plan launched to train 60,000 new community doctors by 2019. The impact of these policies has been seen in the improvement of health indicators such as infant mortality, and the number of doctors per 1000 citizens has more than tripled since 1998. Further, new educational programs have been established from literacy drives to the new Bolivarian University of Venezuela, making a reality the constitutional requirement to provide free education up to university level. Welfare benefits have also been greatly expanded to combat poverty and inequality, with single parents and pensioners particularly benefitting. The results of these and other policies have been notable. Poverty has fallen by half and extreme poverty by two thirds since 2003, malnutrition has been sharply reduced, and the UN Gini coefficient now measures Venezuela as the least unequal country in Latin America.
Development of participatory democratic mechanisms
Contrary to mainstream media reports, Venezuelan society has become more democratised in the last fifteen years as previously excluded social classes such as the urban poor have begun to participate in political life. This has included a huge increase in voter registration, election turnout (at around 80% for the last two presidential elections), and the number of elections, with citizens deciding on important national issues as well as elections for representative bodies. Meanwhile a parallel set of participatory democratic institutions have developed such as local community councils, communes, community media outlets, and to a lesser extent, worker-run factories. Many activists hope that these structures can one day replace representative institutions altogether, and that the population will govern their affairs through a new “communal state”.
While all of these are positive developments that have largely been hidden or explained away in the dominant discourse on Venezuela, this is not to paint the country as a utopia. Due to various factors violent crime has been increasing for several years, while inflation (a historical problem in the Venezuelan economy) is currently running at an unusually high annual rate of 45%. Further, structural economic factors and de-stabilisation efforts by pro-opposition sectors have made price and currency regulations difficult to implement, and a confluence of factors on this issue has provoked sporadic shortages in certain basic foodstuffs this year. This acts as a reminder of the need for any alternative development model to have extremely well designed economic policy and arguments, and to be prepared for any attempt at economic destabilisation. Also, the presence of corruption and bureaucratic practices within state institutions and the Bolivarian movement are causing discontent and blocking the realisation of the movement’s full program. All of the above helps explain why despite the great advances made, the Bolivarian presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro only narrowly won this year’s presidential election, which was still a feat for a movement which suffered the death of its leader Hugo Chavez in March and has been in power for fifteen years.
Therefore the point here is not that an independent Scotland should try to copy the Venezuelan model, which has emerged in a different geographical and developmental context and which has faced its own set of obstacles and challenges. Rather, it is to say that like several examples around the world, the Venezuelan experience with radical independence holds lessons to be drawn, both from its successes and shortfalls. The question one should ask is this: If a “developing country” which had its politics and resources monopolised by an economic elite and external interests was able to recover its sovereignty and use its resources to develop a more equal and democratic society, then why can’t Scotland too?
Edinburgh-born Ewan is a staff writer for Venezuelanalysis.com and investigative journalist based in Mérida, Venezuela. His work has appeared in media and research organisations internationally including the Latin America Bureau (UK), the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (US), the Indypendent Magazine (US), New Zealand National Radio (NZ), and Green Left Weekly (Aus).