Venezuelan student leader kicks off speaking tour in Britain

Last night was the first of many events organised by Hands Off Venezuela featuring Ronny Pante, a Venezuelan student leader who is touring British universities to explain why students and activists in this country should care about what is happening in Venezuela. Venezuelan student leader Ronny PanteLast night was the first of many events organised by Hands Off Venezuela featuring Ronny Pante, general coordinator of the Integrated Students' Movement in Bolivar, Venezuela, who is touring British universities to explain why students and activists in this country should care about what is happening in Venezuela. More than 40 people turned up at SOAS University in London to hear the reflections of an experienced Venezuelan student leader on the Venezuelan Revolution.

After thanking the HoV campaign for organising the speaking tour and stressing the importance "of having a platform through which we can counter the media lies", Ronny started his speech with an anecdote. Back in April 2002, he said, nobody knew what was happening during the coup. The media in Venezuela were only showing cartoons and soap operas and were not telling the truth. Ronny and other students had to turn to the BBC London radio service to find out about the demonstrations that were springing up all over the country that were to prove decisive in reinstating president Chavez. The turbulent events of 2002 clearly posed the need for a strategy to counter the disinformation, which is where the Hands Off Venezuela campaign can help.

Ronny went on to describe the revolutionary process that is taking place in Venezuela and pointed out that this didn't actually start with the electoral victory of Chavez in 1998 but goes back to 1989. The Caracazo was the name given to the protests against the neo-liberal package introduced by Carlos Andres Peres, the then Venezuelan president. The strangling of the economy led to a social explosion in which thousands were killed by the army and the police. Against this background Hugo Chavez became a popular figure and managed to galvanise support amongst the masses. After going to jail for a few years Chavez was released and in 1998 he won the presidential elections. However, it would be wrong to see all of this as the work of one man; what is important is the role that ordinary men and women played over the last decade.

Venezuelan student leader Ronny PanteAfter briefly touching upon the role of the universities in the revolution, which have always been in the vanguard of the struggle, Ronny listed some clear achievements of the revolution. The Chavez government has implemented a whole range of social programs. With Mision Robinson 1.5 million Venezuelans have been lifted out of illiteracy and Mision Rivas has brought secondary education to hundreds of thousands of people. Cuban doctors work close to the people and free healthcare is available for everybody. One of the more recent misiones is a continuation of the mision Bario Adentro and is set to transform the hospitals. However, the most important mision is the transformation of the people themselves, who have gained a real sense of dignity after years of oppression.

Despite all the achievements, Ronny said, which have all come about through democratic decision-making, there are still a lot of contradictions in Venezuelan society. One of the main problems is the presence of a bureaucracy that blocks the process from going further ahead. The people want to see change, not bureaucratic procedures. One of the main battles ahead is precisely this one, as has been recognised by Chavez himself on many occasions. Ronny said he welcomed a debate on these questions, as it is clear some elements in the constitution help to maintain capitalism in Venezuela. Another big debate in the run-up to the election of December 3 - with the main slogan being "10 million votes for Chavez", a very ambitious target considering that only 14-15 million people are registered to vote - is the question of the "unified party". Chavez has opened the debate on the need to build such a party with the idea that there are so many different parties standing for the same thing, thus creating unnecessary divisions. This, as with so many questions, is a debate that is going on in Venezuela right now and in which the student movements are also fully participating.

At the end of his speech, Ronny turned back to the question of solidarity. He stressed that international solidarity has had an important effect on activists in Venezuela itself. They feel strengthened knowing they have support abroad and are not alone in their struggle. But this is also true for Chavez himself, who has looked for links abroad and has on several occasions expressed his appreciation for solidarity events like the one organised in Austria. "What will happen in the world will decide what happens in Venezuela. On the other hand, what will happen in Venezuela will also have a big effect on what is happening in the world." With these words Ronny finished his contribution and was received by a big applause from the audience.

After Espe Espigares, a member of the national HoV steering committee, advertised the coming Hands Off Venezuela national conference, where Ronny will also be present, the time had come for questions and contributions from the floor. There was a lively question and answer session and various contributions were made by members of the audience. The first question was about the coming elections and whether Chavez was going to allow international observers or not. Ronny pointed out that it was not in Chavez' powers to decide on this question. The CNE, the National Electoral Council, is the official body that is dealing with this. The Opposition claims Chavez holds power over the CNE, which is not true, and in any case there is a long list of international observers that will closely monitor the elections.

Venezuelan student leader Ronny PanteAnother question was about the role of the students in the revolution, which Ronny dealt with to some extent in his reply. Ronny said that the vast majority of students support the revolution and are not just active in their universities. In fact, university students have been a massive voluntary force who went into the communities for example to identify the amount of illiterate people. In this way they are a kind of brigades doing social research. Students participate in all mass movements. In their discussions with the communities they serve three roles:

  1.  to help organise people 
  2.  to stimulate political debate and raise awareness
  3.  to communicate the achievements (for example, in writing or in murals)

They do all of this without forgetting about their own rights like good public transport to the university, more facilities, etc. Ronny recalled how they had mobilised against an increase in public transport fares and stopped it after taking over the town hall.

Other questions were asked about the land reform. This, Ronny said, is indeed one of the key issues for the development of socialism in Venezuela. The "war against the latifundia" is one of the main tasks set by the revolution as so much land is left idle and has the potential to lift many landless peasants out of poverty. Here also there are many contradictions that have to be resolved. Some official functionaries with their own interests are against the expropriations of big landowners and refuse to redistribute idle land amongst the poor peasants. A real struggle is going on even though the debate has subsided now in order to maintain unity on the eve of the elections. Because there are so many different interests involved, this debate will undoubtedly continue after the elections and will have to be resolved one way or another. For his part, Ronny made it clear that the solution to the poverty in the countryside is to take over the land and to put it back in production.

Venezuelan student leader Ronny PanteSome speakers from the floor made contributions about "socialism of the 21st century" as proclaimed by President Chavez and asked for clarification about this concept. Ronny said that Chavez originally advocated a rather nationalist program of limited reforms and didn't raise the question of socialism. Because of the pressure from US imperialism and the concrete problems of the masses he was forced, however, to look towards socialism in a concrete way. Chavez has clearly been influenced by different people with different ideas. Right now the debate about "socialism of the 21st century" is still going on and the word "socialism" can be interpreted in various ways. Some intellectuals argue that this socialism has nothing to do with that of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Others argue that socialism means the expropriation of the main levers of the economy, putting them to good use, and also workers' control in the factories, as is already happening in several factories. Here too there are contradictions coming to the surface, not in the least in the government itself. Ronny maintained that once workers' control over the means of production is proven in practice, this could push Chavez to go further than is the case now. The whole debate about socialism of the 21st century is of course also a debate about the fundamentals of the Marxist theory of the state. Ronny holds the position that the misiones, however good in themselves, are not good enough and have to be complemented by the taking over of the main levers of the economy. This debate is also open and is a battle between reformists and revolutionaries.

Finally, the debate went beyond the borders of Venezuela with a brief discussion on what is happening in Mexico. Unfortunately, there has been very little information in the mainstream press about the electoral fraud in the recent Mexican presidential elections. These and many other questions were discussed in and after the meeting, which all pointed to the same conclusion: now more than ever international solidarity is needed in order to counter the disinformation about the revolutionary process developing in the whole of Latin America.