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|California State Government||November 7, 2006 Election|
What does Venezuela have to do with the state controller's office?
By Laura WellsCandidate for Controller; State of California
This information is provided by the candidate
Venezuela is the world's best kept secret of democracy. There are lessons to be learned that can help California "refuel with hope".Introduction
For those who have heard about Venezuela primarily from television and newspapers, this paper may serve as a bridge toward understanding the real story. (You will find references at the end for more information.)
What does Venezuela have to do with the state controller's office? First, I believe the power of a good example is needed to empower us to keep going toward solutions, and not lose heart. From Venezuela, we can "refuel with hope", not just with oil. Also, in an example very specific to the controller's office, Venezuela demonstrates a participative democracy (which complements the representative democracy), and how local controllers ensure that money received and spent in their locality is well managed.
An advisor to my campaign for State Controller suggested that I should not refer to Venezuela when speaking to the general public. She said that since there is such a difference between the reality of Venezuela and the portrait painted by the U.S. government and the media, my mention of it may cause people to misunderstand my values. This piece was inspired by her advice, and recognizes the need to create a bridge to Venezuela, the "world's best kept secret of democracy" (a phrase I picked up from a Wyoming-born man who is a long-time resident of Caracas, Venezuela.)
Having visited Venezuela, I can now say that I have been to a country where education, health care, and citizen involvement in their government are all improving. I also need to state at the outset of this piece that Venezuela is not perfect; it has poverty, crime, unemployment, corruption, trash, and potholes. And the people of Venezuela now have "esperanza" -- hope.
My Travels to Venezuela
"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" documentary about the April 2002 coup in Venezuela inspired me to travel there. I highly recommend the documentary, especially for its portrayal of the media, and how some media can report events upside down from what is actually going on. In October 2005, I joined a Global Exchange trip for eight days. On the $200 voucher I received for volunteering to get off a flight on the way home, I imagined I saw the words, "Come back!" and I did. In January I went on a two-week trip with Marin Interfaith Task Force on the America, to visit Venezuela again and to attend the sixth annual World Social Forum.
History Comes Alive
A question that has been foremost in my mind for years, and which motivates my work in civil society (a term that encompasses much more than the narrower field of politics), is this: How can we move from a focus on destructive efforts like war, disease, imprisonment, excessive security measures, and excessive emphasis on car and truck transportation, to a focus on constructive efforts like diplomacy, healthcare, schools, parks, and well-maintained infrastructure such as water, mass transportation and renewable energy?
After going to Venezuela to do some political research, I realized again that there is no formula. I gained an increased respect for history, however, and saw the interplay between people organizing for long-term change and responding to unexpected current events.
I've been calling what is now happening in Venezuela the "backfire effect." Now, because the people and their leadership are so focused on the goal of creating a better life, whatever the destructive forces plan -- a coup, economic lockout/strike, or a recall referendum -- backfires. As the citizens organize to take back the legitimate government after the coup, protect themselves and their economy from the lockout, and vote to revalidate their elected president in the recall referendum, their local self-organizing becomes stronger and they move closer to their goals.
One of the most serious misconceptions people might have from the media is that Venezuela lacks democracy. President Hugo Chavez (pronounced with "ch" as in "change" and emphasis on the first syllable, CHAvez) was first elected in 1998, signaling the end of a seemingly invincible two-party system. In 1999, three national votes were taken to create and then ratify a new constitution, which motivated another presidential election in 2000. Chavez was re-elected. In 2004 there was a recall referendum and Hugo Chavez' presidency was ratified. All three presidential elections were won by Chavez with 59% to 62% of the vote.
Lessons in Leadership
I took notes on what people in the street said about their president, and I noticed leadership qualities exhibited in the ordinary citizens. Lessons I've taken home with me include these three:
(1) Backfire effect, as I described above. LESSON: Take whatever happens and use it to empower ourselves in terms of our resolve and the strength of our organizing.
(2) "El processo" is the way Venezuelans describe what they are doing. Rather than thinking in terms of top-down five-year plans, there is a recognition that nobody knows the perfect formula for "how to get there from here". In many areas, the Venezuelan government and people have apparently learned from other countries' experiences, lessons about what worked and what could work better. This has been beneficial with literacy, land reform, cooperatives, and housing. LESSON: Continue to advance in the direction of our goals; learn from others; and learn as we go along.
(3) Distribute power. Hugo Chavez sees to it that power, to take effective action, is distributed, to ordinary citizens and to heads of state. Very few other leaders that I have witnessed are so consistent in their sharing of power. The new constitution points the way to a participatory democracy, to complement representative democracy, and more and more neighborhoods, cities, and states are practicing it. Also, Chavez realizes that in order to shift benefits and responsibilities to all the people rather than just a few, the heads of state and the citizens of other countries, including the people of the U.S., need to be empowered. He demonstrated. LESSON: Look for opportunities to empower and support both those without power now, and those with power who are heading in the direction of a better world.
References and Recommendations
Film: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
Book: The Venezuelan Revolution, 100 Questions and 100 Answers, by Chesa Boudin, 2006.
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