Jeremy Dear on the TUC delegation to Venezuela

National Union of Journalists general secretary Jeremy Dear gave a debriefing to solidarity activists, on Wednesday June 14 2006 at the union's headquarters in London, of the first official TUC delegation to Venezuela. This is the full text of his speech, which was followed by a question and answer session.

National Union of Journalists general secretary Jeremy Dear gave a debriefing to solidarity activists, on Wednesday June 14 2006 at the union's headquarters in London, of the first official TUC delegation to Venezuela. This is the full text of his speech, which was followed by a question and answer session. See also a video of the event.

Jeremy Dear: Thank you for the opportunity to report back. There is no official report from the delegation as of yet, it has to go to the TUC general council and the executive. So these are, in effect, my observations of the delegation.

The original purpose of the delegation was as a fact-finding mission when it was set up. Then, in between time, the TUC became the first union federation in Europe to pass a resolution of solidarity and therefore it became both fact-finding and a solidarity mission. I think that was quite important in terms of the actual meetings that we did.

For those of us who hadn't been to Venezuela before, I think there was some sense of trepidation as to what we might find. Clearly, we know the statistics. We have UNESCO declaring Venezuela free of illiteracy, we have the huge advances that have been made in terms of addressing infant mortality, about huge rises in life expectancy, about the people who have been brought into education, the people who have been brought in with coverage of health, the 1.2 million people originally denied care now being treated in health centres and so on and so forth.

Behind those statistics, what we didn't know was what the situation on the ground was and how those statistics bore out in reality. Behind every one of those statistics there are human stories. I think what is most powerful about when you visit countries in a revolutionary process, like this, or in a situation where there is a revolutionary process is that it is the human stories that confirm to you the statistics and the evidence that you get from books and magazines and so on. I think that is what is particularly inspiring about the situation in Venezuela is the participation of people in this revolutionary process.

It is not just a process driven from the top. It is not just a process driven by a small number of people, it is a process in which millions of people are engaged, right across the board and in many different ways. Within that there are people who would describe themselves as liberals, people who would describe themselves primarily as Catholics, people who describe themselves primarily as socialists, as Marxists and so on. But it is a genuinely revolutionary process that is happening there. It is not, as i say, purely driven by people at the top.

I think that we saw that by being able to visit a whole number of the different kinds of projects, a number of different factories that have been occupied, the oil refinery that was at the centre of the oil strike and so on. We see it none more so than in the UNT congress, which was quite a remarkable event, but which i'll come back to.

Just to give some idea of some of the places we visited and some of what we saw, one day, driving through the centre of Caracas, we saw this queue of people lined up and it went on for more than a kilometre. We couldn't work out what they might be queueing for. So we followed this snaking line through all the streets to where the front of the queue was. It was one of the new adult education centres, effectively. It was a registration day for people to sign up for education.

We talked to people in the queue about, for them, the first opportunity they'd ever had to learn a whole range of different skills and different subjects that were on offer there. There were people in their 70s and their 80s and 90s who were talking about, for the first time in their life, they had opportunities that they never had before. That sent a very powerful message about the role of education in that revolutionary process as well.

I think that the same is true of health. We went to one of the new health centres in Caracas. Again, queues of people coming, queueing before it opened. There's a thousand people being seen each week in this one health centre, with specialist equipment, which would put parts of our NHS to shame. And the cleanliness and the openness and the facilities that were available there.

We had someone on the delegation who was a health specialist here and who represents NHS workers and who was quite jealous of what they were seeing in terms of up-to-date equipment. So we're not just talking here about doctors going in to poor neighbourhoods and kind of dispensing a few aspirins. We are talking about high-tech - in some cases - health centres that are bringing millions of people into, or making available to millions of people, health-care that was previously denied to them.

We also were able to visit some of the workers' co-operatives that have been set up. Not the factories that have been taken over, the workers' co-operatives set up specifically for the purpose of creating jobs in some of the poor neighbourhoods and trying to give people from those neighbourhoods opportunities to learn skills as well as be in employment that pays much better than the kind of employment that they'd been in previously.

Within those there was again some real advances that we were able to see. There was one other initiative that was quite remarkable. It was a supermarket in between these different factories, a clothing factory and a co-operative making shoes. They were actually making steel toes-capped boots for workers in some of the heavy industries, who up until now had had to simply go in with their ordinary shoes and this was part of a drive to improve health and safety in a number of the factories as well.

We went to this supermarket and all these prices in the supermarket were between half and two-thirds of what they were in other supermarkets and the reason for this was that they had effectively cut out the middle man. There was nobody taking profits from it, there was no companies taking profits from it. It was simply being reinvested back in buying produce. They also had what was, effectively, their own brand stuff.

Printed on the front of every one of the packets there was one of the clauses from the new constitution. So not only were you buying cheap pasta or cheap rice or cheap essentials to enable you to have a better standard of living and a better health, but actually on the front of every one of the packets was a clause from the constitution telling you your rights. Including one of them - we went hunting round the supermarket looking for the ones with the clauses of the constitution we really wanted, including the one about the right of recall of the president and the referendum.

So here they are, these great "dictators," Chávez and his "dictatorial" government, sponsoring these workers' co-operatives and supermarkets providing produce that actually have on it reminders to people that they have the right to have a referendum to recall the president!

We also had the opportunity to see some, although not enough, of the new media. We were given a pamphlet by people of the National Assembly detailing more that 200 new "alternative" media outlets that had been created in the past few years, from TV stations to magazines to newspapers to online services. Really destroying this idea that there is this huge wave of media repression, which again we've seen repeated in the British media around the release of the Secuestro Express, the film, talking about how they're trying to clamp down on everything, close everything down in Venezuela.

Well, far from it. What we had seen was, not only is 95% of the media still in private hands there but some 200 odd community projects, alternative media projects, have been established to try to counter some of the anti-Chávez propaganda that comes from other parts of the media. So, again destroying some of those myths.

As I was saying, I think one of the most inspiring parts was seeing the development within the trade union movement. Because it was a fact-finding mission and because the CTV are the official union affiliated to the ILO, we agreed that we would meet with them. We would be obviously with the UNT and I think that just meeting them was so instrumental in showing the difference between these organisations.

We went to the CTV headquarters, most of which is now empty, pretty much in darkness, yellowed posters on the wall. We went into this room and met a group of men sat round a black reflective table. It was like a scene out of Reservoir Dogs. We all kind of stepped back, looked behind us. We met with Manuel Cova, who, as people will know, was heavily involved in the coup against Chávez, he's pictured in the palace sitting in one of the chairs with all the other gangsters involved in the coup. So we said to him: "Why were the CTV involved in the coup?"

He looked affronted that we could say anything and he denied that they were involved in the coup and he denied that he personally was involved in the coup. So we produced photos of him sat in the palace and said: "That's you, isn't it? And this was the coup."

He went: "Ah, now I see the confusion. This wasn't a coup, it was a popular uprising against President Chávez."

That is the way that they justify their participation in the coup, by saying that it was a popular uprising. To be honest, while we were there, the phone never rang, nobody ever came into the building. We left there and we went across town to the UNT headquarters.

Brightly painted. We met with all the different factions of the executive round the table, people coming in all the time, most of them were on two mobile phones at once. There was activity everywhere happening. I know that they were in the build up to the UNT congress, but just that one kind of very visual perception of the differences showed that the opposition, certainly the opposition in the trade union movement, have no forces. Those forces that they have are not from the workers in the factories, are not from the working people, but from the elite.

When we then went to the UNT congress on the Friday, we spent about the first three hours of the congress reading out socialist and Bolivarian and solidarity greetings from virtually every workplace in the whole of Venezuela. It was a slightly laborious but inspiring process. You can't quite imagine the TUC conference saying: "And the people who work at Tesco in Hither Green would like to send socialist and Bolivarian greetings to the TUC."

Every time there was one of these, everyone stood up on the chairs and cheered. The cheering went on for about five minutes after every one, until everyone calmed them down. Then the next one was read out. Then they invited the various international solidarity delegates to speak. We didn't know this was going to happen. At this point we got about 60 seconds notice. They went: "And the first one will be Jeremy Dear on behalf of the TUC," so I went up there and Jordi was there and came with me to translate. To be honest, such was the mood there that you could've said: "I just went to Tescos" and they would've been on their chairs cheering.

It was that kind of fervour, a sense that they were creating something new. People talked all the time about putting that slogan that we all use, "Another world is possible," about putting it into practice. And there were all kinds of ideas. There were good and bad ideas, there were all kinds of different factions involved, all kinds of differences about the way forward, about whether there should be elections now or they should get Chávez elected first and then have their own elections.

What was clear from everybody was their absolute support for the revolutionary process that is happening. The UNT is growing at a huge rate. One of the reasons that the conference was delayed was because there were so many new union branches that have been formed in the run up to the congress, people who have moved from the CTV to the UNT, that they actually had a huge struggle with the registration process of delegates. Something like 2,500 delegates were registered for it. Again, we got a very clear perception of the difference between the old trade unionism and the old regime and what is happening there now.

I think also that what is important, though, is that it's absolutely vital that we build solidarity with the trade unions, that we build solidarity with the revolutionary process, that we offer support to those who are seeking to build this socialism of the 21st century. But that we also recognise, as they do, that there are issues to be addressed. Not everything in Venezuela is a paradise.

Crime is certainly a huge issue that needs to be addressed. When we met with Chávez we talked to him about this and he admitted that it is something that they still need to be able to tackle, because it is something that can undermine the positive aspects of the revolution, if crime is allowed to get out of control, or if it is perceived even to be out of control.

Transport is another issue, particularly in Caracas, in which it can take a long time to get anywhere across the city. We saw one of the greatest pieces of graffiti that we've seen anywhere. We were stuck in the middle of a traffic jam in searing heat, with everyone hooting their horns, and someone had graffitied on the side of a building: "The people who control the roads are employed by the CIA." It was kind of a flippant comment, but actually it showed the potential to undermine the process by some of what might be considered to be the most basic issues that also have to be addressed.

The other huge issue that all the ministers we spoke to, the trade unions and Chávez himself admits, is the question of housing. There are millions of people who still live in incredibly poor conditions. They know that there is a race against time to use the money to build new houses and there are signs all over the country of new houses being built and so on. But that is a process that obviously needs to continue and needs to be developed.

We asked them what it is that they need from us, in terms of solidarity, because I think that it was important that they could tell us. They said that the first thing is help with winning the election. Without winning the election then of course the whole process goes potentially into reverse. There are some very important issues about the election. When we met with the CTV, we said to them, did they believe in democracy and they said yes they did. And we said, did they believe in voting and elections and so on. And they said yes, they did. We asked them whether or not they would be encouraging their members to vote in the election in December and they said no they wouldn't. But they weren't boycotting the elections, they were just not going to encourage anybody to vote in the elections. We asked them what the difference was and frankly they couldn't answer.

But we already know what the scenario will be. In the run-up to the election the opposition will scream "foul" that some rules have been changed, or the electoral commission will fail to register so and so, and they will use that as an excuse not to take part in the elections. Then, when Chávez is re-elected, they will say, well it was a fraudulent election and they will use that as the excuse in order to take further action, or try renewed action against Chávez. Because they know that they cannot win the popular vote they will resort to the tactics that they have tried in the past. People there are very aware of this as a danger, which is why, around the time of the election, they want as much international solidarity and as many people in Venezuela to help out as they can possibly get.

I think one of the things that came up time and time again with people from the UNT that also needs to happen is that they really have to address the question of workers' control. There are inspiring stories of the factories that have been taken over, but they are small in number and there are many others who want the same to be happening in their companies. There are many trade union branches which would like to see this process extended, speeded up and links made between the various factories which are under co-management or workers' control and so on. That came across as a potential running sore between the most progressive of the trade unionists and the Labour Ministry and people we spoke to in those area.

Now, hopefully, that will not develop as a dispute between them, but I think, clearly there is a certain period of time that they will give the Chávez government to be able to deliver on this. If they don't, it's quite clear - certainly in some areas - that the trade unions themselves will take action to take over the factories or the workplaces in which they are. There is a clear desire to extend and deepen that workers' control and genuine workers' co-management.

The other thing that they really wanted us to talk about was how we address the perception in the outside world that Chávez is a dictator who's centralising power and represses the media and so on. That's where we had the discussion with President Chávez himself and with some other people there about what we can do to try to establish some kind of pan-European campaign that helps to tackle those perceptions and helps to make available real information about what is going on in Venezuela, particularly from the position of my own union. That's a very important thing that we can do. We've certainly put down some plans about helping journalistic exchanges, about building contacts.

I understand that last weekend there was a meeting of Bolivarian journalists to establish a new Bolivarian journalist organisation and that that would give us links to a new group of journalists who we've not been able to contact before, who we can put in touch with journalists here. We have to be much more upfront about taking on the kind of media coverage that we saw during President Chávez's visit to London, the kind of Daily Mail line about how he's the Taliban-loving, drug-running dictator of Latin America. I know that Rob, on behalf of Hands Off Venezuela, made a complaint about some of the press coverage that there was.

It is very important that we try to tackle some of those issues in a much more active way. I'm talking within the NUJ about how we might be able to help build alongside Hands Off Venezuela, how to begin to tackle some of those issues in a much more concerted way than we have done up to now.

What they said was that the best thing that we could do was to build the socialism of the 21st century in Britain. I told them that we'd be delighted to take that on as a major project for the coming years, but actually what they want in many cases is an exchange of what they mean by socialism of the 21st century, because it is a slogan which is used, but which is also actually a living debate, on the streets, in the workplaces, in the schools, about what is meant by it.

One of the concrete proposals that came out is that they talked about having a kind of week-long event in London and a week-long event in Caracas, in the course of the next 12 months, around the subject of the socialism of the 21st century." Bring people from Latin America and also from other parts of Europe. They talked about engaging with us in helping to set up something like that, as a real point of taking on the political arguments about, when we say "another world is possible," when we say "the Socialism of the 21st Century," what do we mean by that and how can we achieve it.

Because I think that they recognise that they cannot do it as an isolated country, hence the Bolivarian dream. But they also recognise that even just within Latin America, it needs to be a wider socialism that they build. A lot of people there talked about some of the ideas coming out of the international movements that they've been involved in. They want to reengage with those international movements.

So I think that it would be very important for us to engage with that and to try to help host in London part of it. They're talking about a substantial kind of event happening which opens up the political debate, not just the kind of statistics about health and education, but where do we go, why are we doing this, how do we achieve that socialism?

Just finally in terms of what happens from now with the TUC, because it was a TUC delegation. A report is compiled and I have to say, there was four of us on the delegation and our politics kind of were not the same. Whilst broadly we were all supportive of the Bolivarian Revolution, you kind of went from me on the left to other people on the right, so much so that one person even kind of proposed that we should still keep links with both the CTV and the UNT.

That won't be the position. What's going there did very much firm up in the minds of those people, who maybe were not as involved as I and one or two others have been up to then, that there was a genuine revolutionary process, there was the participation of millions of people, there were very real and concrete social advances in health and education and other areas that were there to see, not just in statistics, but actually you could go and physically look at them. That some of the new organisations, social movements and the UNT trade union federation were actually genuine expressions of the debate and discussion that is going on right across Venezuela. And that there is a genuine attempt to build a form of socialism and that that deserves the support of the British trade union movement.

And I think that is what the TUC report effectively will say. That gives us very big opportunities to be able to engage a wider layer of people in the UK, a wider range of trade unions and activists and social movements, with the resources of the TUC behind some of those campaigns, to be able to get more people involved in the solidarity work. Because nobody in Venezuela underestimates the difficulties that they have in building that socialism of the 21st century, surrounded as they are by opposition. From the US, but also Colombia is being used against them. They still have their own internal opposition, who are waiting for the first opportunity to be able to strike against them. They still have the power of the opposition media there, which is continually, daily, churning out anti-Chávez propaganda.

Rather bizarrely, when we said to President Chávez, at the end of the dinner we had with him: "If you could get us to do one thing, in terms of solidarity, what would it be?" he said: "Forget about Venezuela, go to Bolivia, they need your help more than we do!"

Whilst maybe he was being a little flippant, what he recognised was that the success of Bolivia ties in with the success of Venezuela, ties in with the power to deliver that on a wider international basis. They were very keen that we talk about solidarity for the principles of socialism and not just for the Venezuela government or the Venezuelan project, but actually that it is a wider battle of ideas between the socialism that he and others envisage and the neo-liberal agenda that has brought so much misery to parts of Latin America over a long period of time.

Probably as you can tell from me, and I think certainly from the other people who were on the delegation, we've kinda come back inspired and ever more ready to do more and more to build the kind of solidarity that's needed.

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