Veneco Candanga: Episode 3 – Clifton Ross

By Juan Andrés Misle

You can watch “In the Shadow of the Revolution”  below


You’ve been researching Latin American social movements for some decades. Can you start by telling us what drew you to examine and study Latin American, and particularly Venezuelan social movements? What makes Venezuelan social movements distinct from those seen in other countries?

C.R.: Let me just clarify. I’ve been working mostly with revolutionary movements in Latin America since the Sandinista revolution in 1979. My involvement started in about 1981, I started studying what was going on in Latin America, mostly Nicaragua in those years, and then got involved in solidarity work in the 1980s into the 1990s when I worked on the first collection of writings of Zapatista political manifestos and interviews and so forth in a compilation called the Voice Voicefier.

So I really was more involved with revolutionary movements in Latin America up through the time of the Bolivarian Revolution when I got involved also as a solidarity activist in studying Venezuela  in 2004 I went to Venezuela so my interest in social movements came out of that because we’ve entered a post-revolutionary phase of Latin American history in the 90s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the socialist project, and the peace pacts that were made between the guerrilla organizations particularly in central America and the governments of the region.

So social movements became much more important and more dominant force for progressive change starting in the 1990s, and that was, for a lot of different reasons, which we could go into if you’d like, but that was when the social movements really began to come into their own. And then through this millenium, with everything that began happening in 2000, especially in Ecuador, when social movements were really a big part of Lucio Gutierrez’ presidency by bringing him to power, they’ve been organizing since the early 90s. So we saw a whole lot of social movement activity emerging in the 90s and this millenium.

So I started really getting more interested in social movements in 2008 after I did my first film about Venezuela which was a really positive film towards the Bolivarian revolution. It came out in 2008 with PM Press, “Venezuela Revolution From The Inside Out”. That was my first feature film.

Most of the pink-tide governments that emerged at the opening of the 21st century have started to show cracks with their natural base. We see this in Bolivia, Ecuador, and other countries that ultimately chose to pursue extractivist policies to fuel development. Do you think a petro-state like Venezuela is compatible with the kind of direct democracy that pink-tide governments promised social movements?

C.R.: The short answer is no. But I think the whole thing is very complicated. So there is the commodities boom at the beginning of this millenium, which led to high oil prices. You have beginnings of some shifts happening in Latin America, political shifts to the left around the late 90s actually even as early as 1991 if you take into consideration the Concertación in Chile, which was really the first big democratic process that took place in Latin America of great note in terms of shifting from a dictatorship to a democracy.

This really benefited the rise of social movements and the demise of a lot of the revolutionary movements because as democratic openings was underway, the revolutionary movements had less of a basis for gaining support among the population. We can look back in history and see always that social movements only emerge in liberal democratic contexts. That’s crucial.   

The progressive governments of this millennium, which we saw at one point over half of the governments in Latin America were center-left or farther to the left-of-center like Bolivia, Venezuela particularly, and Cuba, of course.

But the social movements emerged out of this liberal democratic opening which we saw with the democracy promotion policies of the United States, and the demise of this very extreme polarization that happened in the civil wars, particularly in Central America, and demise of dictatorships in Latin America, which had already begun in the 80s.

Were these extractivist governments compatible with democratic processes? Not if you mention direct democracy because that’s a whole other subject. But let’s talk about good democratic institutionality, representative liberal democratic institutions that would safeguard any kind of democratic process. Those are all things you really need. You have to have checks and balances, checks on power, separation of powers, independence of powers, and all these institutional realities that you have to have in order to have even a functional, representative democracy, which is essential for social movements to emerge and prosper. We’ve never seen social movements emerge, for instance, under communist regimes. That’s just not where they come up, they come up in liberal democracies.

With the movement of these governments to the left, a lot of these governments came into power precisely because there was a space opening for social movements to organize themselves and to promote some kind of democratic process that would be favorable to the masses of people in their countries. Social movements emerge, and then democratic-left governments emerge on the backs of those social movements, pushed forward and brought into power by social movements in large part. And then we began to see these left governments with the commodities boom seizing on this source of new wealth to benefit their supporters which is natural particularly people in the social movements and people that are less well off.

What we want to see in a liberal democracy, would be everyone benefiting; everyone in every class benefitting from whatever new wealth comes into a country.

In Latin America, the corporativist model was combined oftentimes with the idea of the rule by caudillo (strongman), the idea of a strongman at the top who is doling out money to his supporters in a model of the state as the head of a great body, and all the different sectors of society would benefit from the generosity of the state, but in turn they would support the state and the caudillo. Those who don’t support the state and the caudillo are excluded, of course, from the wealth.

That brings up back to the question of democracy and the extractivist industries, particularly if we look at Venezuela. Most of the people who look at Venezuela today, especially those people on the left who I’ve been around for many years of my life, they don’t take a lot of these things into consideration, and they still have this view of the world that is probably based on some Marxist-Leninist presuppositions or assumptions, especially as regards to Latin America. So when they look at Venezuela, they see this vanguard party that is leading a revolution that is in the process of transforming society as the masses rise up and support the vanguard party, and push to destroy capitalism and implement a whole new set of policies that we could call socialism. That’s what they see.

I see things quite differently. I think if we look at things from the perspective of social movements, and if we value social movements, rather than just instrumentalize them as Marxist-Leninist… Marxist-Leninist traditionally in Latin America we could think of the Sandinista, we could think of Fidel and the 26 of July Movement, or any of the other guerrilla movements we’ve seen, their approach to politics is to incorporate and bring into submission the social forces of society under a vanguard party. They are completely instrumentalized. Whatever aspirations that social movements have, or whatever interests, aims, or goals they may have, had to be submitted to the will of the vanguard party.

That’s one model, and that’s one that dominated the solidarity movements of the United States particularly all the way to the present time.

If you look at it from the point of view of social movements, then you would want to see in government not a vanguard party, but rather a liberal democracy where there is a constant contending for power and constant collision or conflict forces in society which would be seen as positive and productive, conflicting ideas, conflicting models for development, trying one out and  seeing if it works, trying what you would call an empirical pragmatic approach to government and social organization. In such a context where there is freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of diversity, pluralism where all these things are valued, where conflict is valued, then you see social movements arise, and these become very progressive forces.

What we’ve seen since the commodities boom is this real divergence in Latin America between these very authoritarian, old socialist models based on the idea of a vanguard party, which lent themselves very easily to the corporativist development model that was already existent, and had roots far back in colonial times, with the idea led by a caudillo, where society was viewed as one, with one general will dominating it sort of the Rousseauian idea of the general will and where conflict is viewed as a negative. Where anyone who disagrees with the caudillo is a traitor, and is viewed as apátrida (treasonous). That’s one side.

We see on the other side the social movement liberal democracies. We see things like the Frente Amplio in Uruguay, we’re seeing it in Chile very differently, moving increasingly in that direction it’s been going in that direction for quite some time. We’re seeing some shift in Argentina away from the corporativist model that Cristina Fernández was doing, with Macri, who is more of a right-winger but definitely wanting to pull the country back into more of a liberal democratic direction.

It’s probably better to talk about these things as liberal democratic processes that fortify and provide openings and opportunities for social movements to emerge, and the old left authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies on the part of other governments, rather thinking simply in terms of left and right. This divide is probably more descriptive of where Latin America is at this point.

Your documentary “In the shadow of the revolution” interviews an interesting set of personalities that were once sympathetic to the Bolivarian project. One of the most interesting figures is this woman, her name is Rodzaida Marcus Vera a leader of a collective called “La Guarura.” The international mainstream media often paints these colectivos as paramilitary units that do the dirty work of the Bolivarian government. But this woman paints a different image. Can you explain to our audience what are the colectivos and are they different from other kinds of social movements?

C.R.: I wouldn’t call the colectivos social movements. I think this is a really big misconception on Venezuela, especially on the left, the idea that all these government-sponsored organizations are somehow social movements.

The colectivos like the Tupamaros are really, for people who aren’t really familiar with colectivos, they are basically paramilitary groups of the Bolivarian government that do the bidding of the Bolivarian government. Compromised in large part by a lot of ultra-left types like the Tupamaros of Venezuela which are distinct from the Tupamaros of  Uruguay, but inspired by them the Tupamaros of Venezuela are armed revolutionary groups that go quite far back in history to the 70s and 80s. They’re a big part of the colectivos. So I wouldn’t put the colectivos in the category of social movements.

For the purposes of our discussion I would say that we probably would have to start off by defining what a social movement is. A social movement as I would define it would be a non-governmental organization of civil society with distinct aims and purposes that funds itself and I would distinguish it from an NGO (non-governmental organization) or a non-profit organization as we have in the United States in that it is not formally organized; it’s not formally constructed; and they are largely informal.

In the case of Rodzaida, she represents a social movement, La Guarura, an ecology, environmental, indigenous rights movement. It gets no funding from the government, unlike a lot of the other so-called social movements in Venezuela that the left loves to point to, like the Frente Campesino de Liberación Nacional Ezequiel Zamora, and so forth.

A lot of these organizations that are commonly called social movements that, for instance, George Ciccariello-Maher talks about in his book “We Created Chávez” are not social movements. They are governmental organizations. He’s arguing that all these government-sponsored organizations, including colectivos and the comunas and so forth and so on are social movement organizations. They are government organizations and they are operating as government organizations.

The so-called “community radios” are government radios. They are being paid and being sponsored by the government, and they basically are being sponsored to produce government propaganda. We wouldn’t call “Voice of America” a community radio station, and that’s essentially what these things are. They have a less formal status and they often supplant the real social movements. In fact, they have supplanted them.

In our book “Until the Rulers Obey” we have an interview with María Vicenta Dávila, who has organized with campesino women in the páramos of Venezuela for years and years as part of the autonomous neighborhood councils. Autonomous neighborhood councils were there, they come out of the popular education movements of the 1980s, and with Chávez’ imposition, he called for community councils in 2006. The idea behind this was to basically get rid of the autonomous neighborhood councils and replace them with government-sponsored “neighborhood councils.”

We did the interview with María Vicenta in 2011, and she was describing people coming in from Caracas with a lot of money for little neighborhood projects a lot of the oil money to all sorts of things. They were happy to give away to community councils, but you would have to organize as a community council, and submit your proposal to the state, and be approved as a community council by the state and this is a whole different process than with the autonomous neighborhood councils were  about, which came out of the grassroots. They weren’t called from above. They weren’t funded from above. They were funded by neighbors who were getting together.

So this is a difference between, on the one hand, the so-called “social movements” that are really not social movements but government-funded enterprises funded by clientelism, by the patronage of the government to its supporters. On the other hand the autonomous expressions of the peoples’ movements and social movements that were autonomous and independent of the government.

What Rodzaida represents are the autonomous social movements, which are an endangered species in Venezuela, because the government is being very effective over the past eighteen years or more in subverting all popular movements and grassroots democratic endeavours by funding alternatives that were created at the governmental level, and subverted the peoples’ organizations.

Your view of Chávez and Maduro governments have changed over time. But what about your views of the traditional MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable) opposition coalition? Many of those you interview in your documentary claim the opposition aren’t the caricature reactionaries that many on the international left esteem them to be. Has your view on them changed over the years?

C.R.: Yes. I think that Margarita López Maya, who is an extraordinary sociologist and historian in Venezuela she taught at the Central University of Venezuela, has written a number of books I had a chance to talk to her this spring, and she was talking about the same sort of process that occurred with Chavismo, of moving from a democratically-oriented project up until 2006-7.

There was a lot of talk by Chávez and a lot of chavistas about participatory, protagonistic democracy, direct democracy, and distribution of power down at the grassroots, and then it moved into a much more authoritarian project starting in 2007-8 and thereabouts.

The same kind of process of transformations happened in sync with that in the opposition. The opposition initially started off as a very much an elite-driven, oligarchical although you can’t really talk about oligarchies in Venezuela because they were killed off in the nineteenth century during the civil wars but nevertheless, an elite- driven, elitist process and group gathering that gradually came to a breaking point in 2004, with the third attempt to unseat Chávez. The first one was coup, the second was an oil strike, and the third one was a referendum in 2004.

They were unsuccessful in all these endeavours and eventually that opposition just completely broke apart, and there was virtually no opposition to Chávez in any organized sense from 2005 on to 2008-9, at which point a lot more people began to have problems with the way Chávez was organizing the country. .

This really began to disturb a lot of people in Venezuela: right wing, middle-of-the-road people, and democratic leftists, people from the old left parties like MAS (Movement towards socialism), La Causa R (the Radical Cause) which had its strength in Bolívar among the basic industries right there – the CVG (Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana), Bandera Roja (Red Flag) the far-left Maoist party, and began to reorganize itself. It had much more of a center on social democracy.

Chávez had actually radicalized the country to a great degree, in some positive ways too. It got the politicians thinking about poverty and the problems of the poor. It got people thinking about the problems of democracy where representative liberal democracy had really gotten out of touch with the needs and aspirations of the people. A lot of the parties who were organizing the opposition were taking into account, for instance, some of the missions (misiones), the idea that that government really needs to start doing something to address endemic poverty in the country.

One of the problems with looking at Venezuela is we have to constantly be keeping up with what’s happening there to understand the reality and the complexity of the situation.

At the moment when oil prices were at historic highs, Chávez was taking out massive loans on future sales of oil so he could fund his social programs.

Now with the price of oil tanking in 2014, the disaster has become exposed: It’s naked brutality, at least in the way the government is trying to resolve the problems. It’s decided it’s going to pay off the creditors of Wall Street and the bondholders rather than continuing to import food. This year imports have been cut by a third, last year they were cut by a half. So really essentially, people are living on about just a miniscule part of what they were living on in 2012. They’re living on about a quarter or less of the imports that they had in 2012.

Venezuela lives from imports because it’s the nature of a petro-state. I write about his in my memoir “Home from the Dark side of Utopia”, which I go quite a bit in depth on why Venezuela is in crisis today.

Some would argue that despite the government’s flaws, the opposition is ultimately at odds with the participatory ideals that many on your documentary have fought for years. Should democracy be restored in Venezuela, would you say that the inevitable alternative to Bolivarianism is none other than a return to liberal representative democracy at the expense of direct-participatory democracy?

C.R.: They’re not necessarily incompatible. But I think what’s really true, and I think Margarita López Maya talks about this, you can’t really have direct- democracy without a liberal democratic framework. She pointed out that the fact is, you have to have democratic institutions in order for direct-democracy and participatory democracy to have any function at all. And I think this is really clear, she brings up the point that if you have no liberal democratic framework within which direct-democracy can work, you essentially have what you have in Venezuela today.

You have community councils where you have direct-democracy. You have direct-democracy in a little neighborhood, for instance, in Mérida or Barquisimeto, or some little city where a group of maybe eight to twenty-five local neighbors get together and talk about fixing the hole in the street out in front of the community center where they are meeting. You can call that direct-democracy, and to the degree to which it functions, it’s fine. But it has very little impact on national policy. It has arguably no impact on city policy, and just a little impact on neighborhood policy, because you also have a city government, a state government, and a national government that you have to consent with in the case of Venezuela, and in most industrialized nations in the world.

People seem to think that they want more direct democracy, but what we’re seeing in the modern world is that people actually want very much less of it.

In fact, while they tend to idealize it, they tend to increasingly participate less on it. People would prefer to have the city take care of the hole in front of the community center, rather than have to organize the voting, organize the forms that need to be turned in to get funding, taking the bids, and deciding on who  to have do the work, doing the overseeing of the project itself… That all involves an incredible amount of time and expertise that most people don’t really want to be involved in. They would much rather spend time at home with their families when they are not working.

I think that’s one real problem with direct democracy. The idea of direct democracy is very appealing to people that don’t engage in it, but it’s not exactly anyone’s ideal who has had to deal with it.

People would like to see liberal democracy. They’d like to see a separation of powers, independence of powers, powers that are not politicized.  

With that return of liberal democratic institutionality in the country, then there might be a possibility of experimenting with some of the forms that Chávez proposed, but independent of state. And not politicized the way they have been under Chávez and Maduro, so that if you don’t vote for them, then you don’t get funding. This has become explicit under Maduro, that your funding is dependent upon your voting for the official party.

If there were a return to liberal democracy with institutionality and reliable, trustworthy institutions, then there would be the possibility of opening up new avenues for greater citizen input, then we could see the formation of really independent social movements that could pressure government to adopt and enact policies that are favorable to the people in general, and greater possibilities of citizen input through independent autonomous neighborhood councils like there once were, and other forms of democracy.

But that has to be the first step: a return to liberal democracy with institutionality and independence of powers.

What do you see as a viable solution out of the current political crisis in Venezuela? How can those who oppose the Maduro government, both the traditional opposition and dissident Chavistas groups overcome the government’s increasingly top-down vertical style that seeks to crack down on any kind of accountability mechanism in place?

C.R.: I don’t think there’s any possibility that the ruling PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) party is going to back off authoritarian policies. It’s in a defensive position where it’s really attempting to consolidate complete control over its constituents and over its members, and it has no interest in any kind of democratic process, whatsoever, any input from the grassroots.

It’s decided it’s going to punish any kind of democratic input. We see this over and over again. The social movement for democracy in Venezuela that we saw this year, which is really an inspiring movement battling government forces in the streets from the end of April until the beginning of August… incredible, powerful, brave, courageous movement that rose at that time, but failed. Maduro showed that he was just going to just ignore them. I don’t think there’s any hope that we’re going to see any kind of change, any budging on the part of Maduro and the elite of the PSUV.

But if the movement for democracy has not succeeded in very much, it has done one thing in particular really important: it’s begun to fracture the movement. It’s begun to fracture the PSUV and the Bolivarian elite, starting with peeling off people like Luisa Ortega, the nation’s attorney general who is now in exile and really doing a lot to defend the movement for change in Venezuela. We’re seeing now in the last couple of days with Rafael Ramírez, the representative in the U.N., who was the head of PDVSA (state-owned oil company), and has been accused of massive corruption, but he’s now under attack. There’s now a split with him on one side, and Maduro and others on the other.

I think what we’re going to see is further fracturing of Chavismo and further fracturing of the PSUV. The really important force in Venezuela is the military, and Maduro has been ensuring that he stay in power by throwing chunks of the economy and businesses to the military. The military is engaged in massive drug trafficking, gold, oil, and trafficking a lot of the mineral wealth out of the country. It’s been plundering all the basic and nationalized industries of Guayana… generals have been in charge of those. That’s probably what we’re going to see coming up. More military defending the terrain its been given by Maduro.

On the side of the forces for democracy, the MUD has now fractured between those who are wanting to dialogue with the government, those who have been willing to swear allegiance to the fraudulently-elected National Constituent Assembly, people from the old Acción Democrática (Democratic Action) party in particular, and those who don’t feel there’s a basis for dialogue.

So politically, the MUD is in disarray now. The National Assembly is just being ignored by the government, and increasingly by the people who voted it into being because it’s been so marginalized by this government.

The repression this year really was quite effective. They disarticulated the social movement for democracy. The government threw repression and the fraudulent election of the National Constituent Assembly essentially destroyed the movement for democracy. So we don’t really see any actors over there opposing the government that have any possibility at this point of really being heard.

The most significant factor for change now is going to be the economy, because Venezuela is now going to be reaching 2,000% inflation. This year it’s going into hyperinflation. Foreign currency is lower than it’s ever been. They’ve been printing massive numbers of Bolívares (their currency) to pay off their internal debts, but now they can’t even afford to print their own money, and even if the money were to be printed it would lose money on the printing because it would lose its value because of the inflation by the time it even got into the hands of the people.

I think that probably at this point that is about the most hopeful light we can see if there is any light at the end of any tunnel — and there are a lot of these tunnels in Venezuela it might be international institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, all these people that on the left we’ve always hated to see come into any country, but Venezuela having been destroyed by this group of people, I think there are really no alternatives left to it.

Are you overall optimist about the pink-tide in Latin America? What do you see as some lessons learned in these roughly two decades of progressive governments?

C.R.: I think that the pink-tide has ebbed. There really isn’t a pink-tide any longer. I think whatever we hoped might come about from the pink-tide which I had hopes back in 2005 didn’t pan out.

The scenario in Latin America is very complex. It’s problematic even talking about Latin America as Latin America because every country has its own particular dynamic that is unique and quite distinct, and the situation politically is also unique.

I think that Uruguay is looking up. Things are looking pretty good in Uruguay. Argentina under Macri, there are some real problems, but there also seem to be some possibilities of something positive coming out of that, and it’s certainly not a pink-tide government, he’s definitely to the right.

I don’t know that there’s really anything left of the pink-tide except maybe Bolivia, and that is increasingly looking like it’s going the way of Venezuela. Ecuador has chosen to kind of move in a very different direction under the new president Lenín Moreno. He’s taking a very different course and looking more like a traditional, classical economics, not very left-wing by anyone’s standards, but he’s really trying to get the economy together, and that seems to be a positive thing.

Central America is still very problematic because of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador, and everything that is going on in Honduras over the past few years and the turmoil there.

I don’t look to politics any longer for any kind of hope. Left governments come into power, right governments come into power. There’s a swing back and there’s a swing forward. Changes in politics tend to be very slow and very temporary.

I think I would want to see more democratic openings in Latin America that would allow for the emergence and strengthening of social movements because I think that’s really where I find hope in Latin America: the movements to defend land against transnationals that are poisoning their land with extracting gold and so forth and so on, deforestation; the mapuches in Chile, for instance.

The social movements I think are really the only hope we have on this continent because we can see that any kind of change that comes through a government if it’s not supported by social movements and by strong support of the citizens it’s not going to last. The pink-tide came and went, as tides come, rise and they ebb. But there are social movements, and those that weren’t too tied to the pink-tide governments will continue to grow stronger, and those who were bound up with the pink-tide governments will fall and collapse, and there will be something new coming out.

But I guess I have faith, like Rodzaida in our film, in the “creative powers of the people.” I think that’s where we have to put our hope. I think that’s where we have to put our faith. That’s where I think we really can trust there will come lasting change. And that’s the only place where you can really trust there will be lasting change.

Photo Credit: Melvyn Aguilar

Clifton Ross is an acclaimed writer, director, producer, poet, and co-author of “Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements”. He has been reporting on Latin American revolutionary and social movements since 1982. His new documentary film is “In the Shadow of the Revolution”. For more information on his writings and films visit

Credit: John Yates and PM Press

Juan Andrés Misle is a DC-based independent writer, researcher, and social & human rights advocate. He is Director of Latin American Affairs at Latino Giant.

Music by Simón Díaz & Tribolites