Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Interview - Julio Chavez 3OCT09

The Transformation Symposium for “Latin America on the Move” was held here in Halifax over the October 2 weekend, 2009It was an interesting and unusual event in that it is not every day you get a public forum in this city with access to some of the front line people on the move, or moving Latin America today.

The symposium covered a range of events, with an opening evening on Friday:  “Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s Internationalism” with panellists Panelists: Edgar Torres (Bolivian Ambassador to Canada), Juan Carlos Coronado (Charges D'affaires, Venezuelan Embassy in Canada), Marta Lilian Coto (FMLN Deputy for El Salvador to the Central American Parliament), Norman Girvan (University of the West Indies), Teresita Vicente (Cuban Ambassador to Canada)The opening comments included an emotional dedication in support and in solidarity with the people of Honduras as they struggle with their efforts to throw off the chains of dictatorship that resulted from the ouster of President Zelaya, and was to be a recurring theme throughout the weekend symposium.

On Saturday there were five panels : “The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas – ALBA: The Peoples Trade Agreement” with Norman Girvan (University of the West Indies, Jamaica), and ‘The Myth of Cuba’s Isolation’ with John Kirk (Dalhousie University) and Nchamah Miller (Universidad de Habana, Latin@s Canada), and Participatory Democracy and Popular Power: The Communal Councils in Venezuela” with Julio Chavez (member of Lara state assembly, Venezuela and Head of Presidential Commission on Participatory Democracy and Popular Power), and Reorganizing the Pluri-National State In Bolivia” with Alex Borda-Rodriguez and Edgar Torres, and El Salvador – Un Nuevo Amanecer” with Marta Lilian Coto (FMLN Deputy, PARLACEN, Head of FMLN's National Women's Commission, El Salvador).

Throughout the symposium was a call to the media to spread the word and to give voice to the transformations being effected throughout Latin America, with particular focus on ALBA and a new, more spiritual type of socialism, if you will.

ALBA was presented to the audience as an alternative to traditional model of economics – as a more people oriented alliance among the Latin American economic block out of the traditional grouping of NAFTA or WTO. ALBA was identified as a political block that proposes to be a series of intergovernmental arrangement of trade agreements, with fair and sustainable development components that integrates social and not singularly economic goals for the region.

As further differentiation, it was presented to the audience that another important component of ALBA was the concept of non-reciprocity, i.e. – the elimination of tariffs and the introduction of agreements that recognize the needs, situation and capacity of the member countries to contribute either in kind or in the future. In other words, asymmetries are recognized and accommodated within ALBA. The ALBA Bank has been established and within the current regulations, of the 18 participating countries, there is flexibility for members to pay only partly in cash, with the balance of loans payable over 25 years at 1%.

Additionally, Petrocaribe, the largest aid donor in the Caribbean offers assistance for programs that currently exceeds U.S. Aid assistance in the area. It was noted that the U.S. Aid programs are tied to the procurement of goods and services procurement from Washington and the United States and that the Petrocaribe does not have that requirement. Following on from this statement was an acknowledgement that the program was originally set up to deliver programs for poverty relief, but the money was at times being used for budgetary purposed by the recipients, which was not the purpose of Petrocaribe, so changes were made to address this problem. 

It was stated at the conference that Canada did not pull its weight in terms of its International Aid Commitments, and that the Canadian DART programme is embarrassing compared to the Cuban response the international disasters. Additionally, it is believed that the Medical Association in Canada obstructs the development and implementation of better medical services – let alone moving these services ‘out’ through rural and international training exchanges, in the same was that Cuba has done over the years. I noted that it was acknowledged that export of medical services brings in dollars – and has been a major source of income in Cuba.

An audience member asked if ALBA could survive the fall of the Chavez government, and would a succeeding government be obliged to support ALBA, and it was indicated that the “Sense is that that funding (ideological vs opportunistic) would be preserved among the governments and recipient countries – possibly at a lower or smaller volume”.

There was a discussion on the need to recognize alternate and new ways of living – that there are other worlds with different options to consider rather than the established western model for economic and social development, particularly with regard to  consumerism and treatment/inclusion of minorities in Latin America. There was a call to action for people in Nova Scotia and in Canada to acknowledge new mentality that comes out of Latin America including a reference to several events that “reveal the tips of this new orientation”, and they are the events of FTAA 2003, establishment of ALBA 2004UNASUR 20081st LAC Summit 2008Events at 5th summit of the Americas 2009-10-03OAS Cuba resolution 2009-10-03 response to the Honduras Coup.

Next, the Cuban Ambassador, Teresita Vicenteacknowledged solidarity and support from Canada over many difficult years that helped give Cuba strength to continue. She indicated that the media is treating ‘our countries’ badly and distorting events and hoped for fairer representation in the media for the programs that Cuba has delivered and for the efforts of the other ALBA members to move forward with new ideas and programs for the area.

Norman Girvan stated that the debt owed to Cuba by Latin and Caribbean people is un-repayable.  By this, he explained that the medical and educational support received from Cuba over the years has had far reaching and fundamental affect in the recipient countries, and that the positive results are many and wide and cannot ever really be enumerated or repaid. He was clear that the motivation on behalf of Cuba was altruistic, and that it has facilitated the philosophical shift to the more sensitive and human approach to development where human interest is prioritized within the development approach and he indicated that it is this same model that Venezuela is following.  Philosophically it is presented as the abolition of separation between financial and social rights.

At this point, there was a request for information on militarization in the area. The ambassador stated that Venezuela believes belligerence has increased in Latin America and that the United States is going to try to enforce control militarily. He indicated that there is a plan of defence drawn up for area, that they want to avoid what happened in Iraq and other areas. He said that Venezuela has invested in military equipment to defend itself. They feel that because the United States sees that Latin American integration is taking place, they proceeded to create a blockade to stop access to military supplies to Venezuela.

Julio Chavez commented that they were not doing these presentations to bring revolution to Canada, but he wanted to note that Columbia is receiving money from the United States for the purpose of arming and setting up military bases and that this action is felt to be a threat. He indicated that the oil reserves in the area have good supply for the next 200 years, that there is an abundance of natural gas, fresh water and other untapped natural resources that are of interest to the Americans. He stated that the pretext of policing drug traffic to intervene in countries in the area was not accurate or true, and that he did regret that the U.S. was placing Columbia into the same role Israel is playing in the Middle East. He made mention of Pacific revolution and armed revolution in Venezuela, and that they are watching developing events very closely and that they have the example of Cuba who has a 50 year history of resistance.

At this point, Sr. Chavez went on to say that President Obama has two faces, and that this was evident by “what he says and what he doesHe went on to say that he believed “There is a super government above Obama” … and that he is in a difficult predicament because if he acts against the super government, he will be in trouble, and that essentially his hands are tied. He stated that Venezuela is not trying to cause any problems, but that they, like their allies, LibyaIran, etc., they are fighting against imperialism, and that they will seek support with other countries fighting the same fight.

This brings me to my main interest in attending the symposium, which was to interview Julio Chavez, and to try to discover if there was some relevance and common understanding between an established, democratic, somewhat socialist grass roots electorate here in Nova Scotia and a revolutionary, and decidedly socialist grass roots electorate in Venezuela.

The interview took place after his afternoon presentation, which was interesting though very broadly covered the structure, funding and mechanism of the Communal Councils, and talked about the municipal constitutions, council functionality, funding and establishment of municipal banks. It also highlighted some tangible and positive changes in the communities.

Sr. Chavez stated that the reason for travelling and doing these presentations was to present his model of municipal governance in the hope of developing this concept in western part of the country to offer a model to construct a new path, in other words, an opportunity to educated audiences about the program changes in Venezuela. He stated that he was only here to talk about his experiences in municipal reform, and to develop support and understanding for the Communal Council model currently being deployed in Venezuela.

I did some research, as I was not able to get a copy of the power point presentation from the event. I discovered that the Councils are established jurisdictions with a maximum of 400 families who have complete control of their governance activities. Establishment of the Communal Council has several components and goals, the basis of which is a municipal constitution that is based on the fundamental principles of the National Constitution, “life, liberty justice, equality, solidarity, democracy, social responsibility and the pre-eminence of human rights, ethics and political pluralism.”   The aim of the initiative is to dissolve the former oligarchic structure and to dismantle the corrupt and inefficient government structure of the past to deliver democratic decision-making to the Communal Councils, who are made up of members from the community.  

By way of background, it is worth noting that Sr. Chavez is not related to President Hugo Chavez, but because of the success of the Communal Council model, he was appointed to two presidential commissions – one for popular participation and the communal councils, and one to assist other municipalities with the realignment of their by-laws. The goal is to go out to the various municipalities to organize the election of constituent assemblies who will then be responsible for the re-writing of the state and municipal constitutions for their areas. The new state and municipal principles must reflect the laws and values of the National Constitution, which was introduced by the elected assembly and approved by popular vote in 1999. He was elected and currently works, at what would correspond to the MLA level for us, to consolidate the delivery of the Communal Council model and operations throughout his district. 

Sr. Chavez had previously won election as mayor, in the constituency of Pedro Leon Torres  in 2004as a supporter of the national revolutionary government of Hugo Chavez. He has had a polarizing effect in the process of implementing change, with corresponding threats and negative press in his home country.

As we sat down for the interview, I wanted to be sure that the interpreter explained that I was not interested in detailing the functionality of the Communal Councils for this particular interview, or the revolutionary movement, but more about discovering what he thought about some events here and how they relate to his experience or expectations within the new Communal Council model ‘back home’.

I mentioned the recent effort in HRM to effect municipal tax reform, and how the talks did not progress and eventually died with the epitaph, It wasn’t really tax reform, it was taxation overhaul’.

In reply he told me that when he took up the mantle for change, he discovered that the process for collecting taxes had been contracted out to a private company, that businesses and many individual families had never paid taxes, and that the tax revenues were spent without public consultation, without transparency.

They informed the company that the contract was no longer going to be honoured, nor renewed, and they requested a copy of the tax rolls. The response was that they would not hand over the books or tax roll, unless they paid a fee for breech of contract.

So, they started from scratch to create a new tax roll and to set up the Communal Council.

At this time there is no privatization of services and the governors and mayors have been asked to create mixed state enterprises together with the national government to provide public services to their jurisdictions. Additionally there is financial transparency within the Communal Council, and community vote on expenditures in the area. Each municipality has its own bank branch where transactions are recorded and anyone can look at the books.

I asked what and who they were taxing and whether there was a flat tax or something based on income/assessment. He told me that the revenues they were collecting from taxes were from licensing and registrations, and other typical taxation revenue streams. My research indicated that there are also two federal funding mechanisms similar to our equalization payments that supplement the Councils, called FIDES and another called LAEE.

From this point, I went on to ask about voter participation and turnout. I told Sr. Chavez that I had run for municipal council (and lost), but that I know from my own campaign experience that it is hard to get people out to vote. Sr. Chavez indicated that the current turnout for elections has gone from 30% to 70% , with the new governance model, and credits that to the capacity for direct action in municipal affairs.

At this point I asked about ‘party politics’, as we all know that theoretically at least, municipal politics is and should be non partisan. I wanted to know who people were voting for, was it along party lines, was it individuals, what does it look like?

From my research, I discovered that each Community Council represents 200–400 families with representatives elected by secret ballot. The highest authority within the community council is the Citizens’ Assembly in which any member of the community above 15 years of age can participate. The reform proposals will give the community councils constitutional status with a federal contribution of five per cent of the annual national budget. They vote on what to include in the municipal plan, and on expenditures for the municipalities. They are heavily invested to participate in voting committees on, for example, Roadwork, Waterworks, Education, so that they can control the development of the districts.

This is what voting looks like at the Community Council level. Additional voting takes place at other levels but Sr. Chavez credits the large voter turnout to the Communal Council and the fact that the citizenry is enjoying the tangible benefits of this new form of government, and he says that there is no going back.

I asked Sr. Chavez if he thought that Canada was a ‘socialist’ country, and I gave as an example our Medi-Care, and noted that many people in the United States think that we are socialist or even communist country. His reply was that “You are not socialist just because you have free medical services”.  I enjoy this response for many reasons, all of them particularly Canadian.

At this point I brought up Honduras, as the conference was dedicated to the nation, and here, for this article, I reference President Hugo Chavez,

“The issue is a new constitutional doctrine and we are in the vanguard in the region,” said President Chavez. He pointed out that since Venezuela re-wrote its constitution ten years ago, Ecuador and Bolivia have also ratified new constitutions based on similar principles, and ……Honduran President Manuel Zelaya proposed a referendum to consult Hondurans about whether to convoke a constitutional assembly….”

Sr. Chavez was clear that this is an area that is out of his area of expertise. The universal rhetoric from the members of the panel was equal and scathing of the military coup, and I am afraid ventured to insist that it was not a military coup if they acted to defend the constitution and constitutional process.

Sr. Chavez felt that it was a case of “The Empire striking back”, but that what was unanticipated was the degree of condemnation for the actions of the Micheletti government. He said that it is seen that President Zelaya was trying to take Honduras into the future through membership in ALBA, with his efforts to re-write the constitution as did Venezuela, Bolivia and EquatorHe believes this is what triggered coup and he is sure that the United States is supporting the coup government of Micheletti and he believes that it has coalesced into an international resistance front.

Through my Canadian eyes, I see that Zelaya wanted to push through constitutional changes due to time constraints (as his second and final term was coming to an end) and was not prepared to follow the established procedures to effect constitutional changes in a legal fashion. We in Canada cannot even conceptualize a frontal attack on our democratic process. We have, historically, maybe four “recent”, relevant, significant, events that could remotely, conceivably, compare: The FLQ crises, The Quiet Revolution, Meech Lake, The Proroguing of Parliament 2009 – all have been examined, flayed and reassembled for further examination and explanation. Steps have been, or will be, taken to ensure that we don’t have any repeat performances where liberties have been taken in the bending of constitution law. But we have never had to contend with direct and flagrant disregard or abuse of our constitutional or in the quest for constitutional reform.

I believe that Zelaya tried to make an end run around the constitution, and that he underestimated the vigour of defence he would encounter. I think the old days of being able to gerrymander your way to an arrangement are over in Honduras. Honduras is a Democracy, how annoying.

I asked if Sr. Chavez believed the ouster of Zelaya avoided a revolution in that country, and he said yes, a peaceful one. When I asked him if Zelaya’s return could lead to armed revolution, he seemed to think it was possible so long as the Americans continued to support the coup.

The only convergence I could get on this topic was that Sr. Chavez agreed it seemed likely that Zelaya wasted him time in office, and came late in his term to realizing he wanted to bring Honduras into ALBA and participate in the developing of the new Latin America. And that Zelaya reverted to the old way of doing things – which is, historically, to disregard the legal processes, and tried to circumnavigate constitutional procedure to extend the periods of Presidential term so he could continue his work.

My next question was with respect to the “Atheist Bus Campaign, that has been stirring up hearts and souls and Supreme Courts across Canada and beyond. I explained that the signs said “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”.  Sr. Chavez seemed to enjoy this scenario, and felt that there would not really be a problem if they decided to try this campaign in Venezuela. He indicated that in the old way of doing things, the Roman Catholic Church in particular, had been singled out for favour, but that is not the case now and that the new constitution guarantees freedom of speech.

I asked about the municipal constitutions, where they could vote on anything that is relevant and affects the municipality, and he assured me that they might vote against placing the signs, but that the national constitution was the point of reference and ultimate guide in this matter, and that the campaign would be allowed to proceed. But it sounds like a trip to the Capitol to me.

I got the feeling that Sr. Chavez did not think that he would encounter people in this country who would be struggling with concepts and looking for a means to a new order, at the municipal level. I immediately think of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) and their struggle to manage the region with a limited budget and limited prospects in terms of industry and sustainability for the area.

They have talked repeatedly about separating from Nova Scotia, and about the possibility of having some kind of a ‘sovereignty association’ with another country or province. They have gone to court to try to force fairer financial distribution from the province, and are struggling with a lack of financial support to maintain the municipality, out migration, increased drug trade in the area, so this demonstrates that Sr. Chavez would be wrong.

I do not believe that the Communal Council model has the same relevance for us here in Canada that it would have in other areas that do not enjoy a democratic foundation to begin with. This is not to say that we don’t have similar problems. I would most decidedly welcome further dialogue and other opportunities for exchange of information. This is the foundation on which to build future relations and is the basis in which “…. this movement can describe and deliver new and different options of coexistence based on a different paradigm than the Western model. “

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