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Synthesis/Regeneration 40   (Summer 2006)

Venezuela and the Hackers’ Revolution

by David Sugar

The Third International Forum on Free Knowledge was recently held in Maracaibo, Venezuela, bringing together many people interested in the development of free software worldwide. One reason Venezuela chose to host this event is that, in January 2006, their new free software law came into effect, which mandates that all government agencies migrate to free software over a two-year period. I was invited to speak about the use of free software in telecommunications. Many of the events and presentations at the event were, much like mine, of a rather technical nature. From the many technical people present I was able to draw my own understanding of how Venezuela’s economic revolution was being implemented.

The People’s Ministry of Economics

Venezuela is blessed with not one but two economic ministries. First there is the old Ministry of Economics, which deals with the traditional capitalist economy. For the most part, existing industries and businesses are left alone—and left to the old Ministry of Economics. They have a different idea of how to transform society here, however, and this brings us to the second ministry.

The Ministerio Para La Economia Popular or, roughly, the People’s Economic Ministry (MINEP), is tasked with transforming Venezuela into a socialist society. Here we find all manner of bright and intelligent left-thinking people who have come from around the world to work for MINEP.[1] The People’s Ministry is in some ways like the socialist version of a Small Business Administration.

Rather than teaching people who wish to start small businesses to become indentured to a capitalist owner, MINEP trains and educates ordinary Venezuelans on how to run a worker co-operative. This is done, not by political indoctrination, but by providing co-ops the tools, financing, and practical training they will need in operating a socialist enterprise.

Many of these worker co-ops are composed of very small startups that typically have less than 10 people. MINEP also offers co-ops computing systems for their business needs. These systems use entirely free software, starting with the Debian GNU/Linux operating system, along with Open Office for general business use. Co-ops that go through the MINEP program are given the ability to host web sites, and these usually feature the products a co-op wishes to offer.

The MINEP co-op training program was piloted in 2004 with some 3,000 worker managed co-ops being formed. Even before the end of 2005, they had already formed over 45,000 such co-ops nationwide, and they expect to train over 700,000 Venezuelans in how to form and be part of a socialist economy by the end of 2005. This suggests that up to 40% of those that go through the MINEP program eventually do form a socialist enterprise.

Capitalism directly benefits, at most, 100,000 Venezuelans today. Many of the rest are reduced to wage slavery or otherwise indentured through it. There are already more people who directly benefit from the socialist economy than the capitalist one in Venezuela, and this number will grow over time. Capitalism may not disappear entirely in Venezuela, is certainly not being threatened or forced to change by the government, but it seems to me that it will be submerged in the rising tide of the new economy.

The Ministry of Intellectual Prosperity

The term “intellectual property” is a new-speak propaganda word. First, the topic it covers varies from copyright, patents, trade secrets and trademarks to a variety of other things, all of which are very different and unrelated. Second, it is based on the premise that you can give someone something intangible and yet control it as if it or they were your physical property, even the ideas they may have in their mind.

The consequences of treating ideas as if they are tangible property are the very destruction of science and education, and the elimination of individual rights and freedoms.

The consequences of treating ideas as if they are tangible property are the very destruction of science and education, and the elimination of individual rights and freedoms. Science is in part built upon the idea that new knowledge is created by incrementally improving ideas.

Education is based on the idea that one can learn from existing things and then use that knowledge to create new works. The idea behind “intellectual property” is barbarism, and could well lead to a new dark ages, where only a privileged few are allowed to learn, under the exclusive control of greedy intellectual monopolies.

SAPI, the Independent Service ministry of Propiedad Intellectual, was the ministry that used to define Venezuela’s so called “Intellectual Property” laws. The current Director General of SAPI has very different ideas for the purpose of SAPI. Rather than creating new intellectual restrictions, the Director General proposes that the mission of SAPI should instead become that of promoting “intellectual prosperity” by creating laws and services that promote the ability to share knowledge as the common heritage of all mankind, rather than hoard it to make a few people wealthier.

Assuming that private interests in the developed world today do succeed in the great capitalist program of owning what people are allowed to think, it is very possible that places like Venezuela will become the new leading nations in science and technology.

PDVSA and how oil fuels the Bolivarian Revolution

Maracaibo is also the heartland of the oil industry and the state run oil company, PDVSA. I had met a number of PDVSA oil workers, who seemed well represented among the ranks of PDVSA management. I also had the chance to talk with one of their directors, Socorro Hernendez, over lunch, as well as Jose Luis Rey, who is renowned both as a skilled hacker and financial genius, and was involved in helping rebuild the financial trading systems when those were sabotaged in 2003.

Today, the state-run oil company is a major backer of the free software movement in Venezuela and is a major sponsor of the Third International Forum on Free Knowledge. Every question related to the use of free software in Venezuela, and to how the Bolivarian revolution started, seems to come back to PDVSA and the worker lockout in 2002.

Before the worker lockout, the administration of the state oil company was strongly connected to the wealthy elite of Venezuela. Many of the wealthiest people in Venezuela had been getting much richer thanks to the oil company, in part through contracts and corruption, not unlike what has been happening in the US with politically connected companies like Halliburton.

President Hugo Chávez was originally elected with the expectation of using oil wealth to help pay for the poor of the country through education and health programs. Many of Venezuela’s wealthier citizens, used to having money from the state oil company, would not tolerate this, and some decided President Hugo Chávez had to go at any cost, even if it meant sabotaging their own nation to do it.

They tried to close the oil company in December of 2002 by locking out the workers, and they tried to hold the oil resources of the nation as a whole hostage by having the entire IT infrastructure under their control. If the data and systems present then had been destroyed, it would have been years before another drop of oil could have been produced.

Out of 4,800 managers, about 200 chose to stay behind and, with the help of many by-then retired former managers who were less corrupt than the ones who left, the workers tried to save the oil company. The biggest challenge was the computer infrastructure.

Management of IT was at the time contracted to SAIC (Science Applications International Corp.), which has well known political connections to the US Department of Defense and the CIA. At first, when the Venezuelan army was called out to secure the oil facilities during the lockout, the SAIC staff created videos of the troops securing the facilities to claim they were under attack and try and persuade the US Congress to give Bush war powers to seize the oil fields.

When this scheme failed, the SAIC workers fled the country—but first they changed all the passwords and kept remote control of all the computer servers of PDVSA. They chose not to destroy the data on them because they thought they would be back in a few months, when the government of President Chávez finally would capitulate.

Those same oil workers, working together with local computer hackers, were able to secure control of vital computer servers and save the oil infrastructure.

The IT managers did not expect a bunch of oil workers to be able to thwart their plans. Those same oil workers, working together with local computer hackers, were able to secure control of vital computer servers and save the oil infrastructure.

The Venezuelan revolution is perhaps the first revolution in history saved by computer hackers and is one of the reasons the government is so very strong on promoting the use of free software, particularly in public administration. The Venezuelan government wishes never again to have vital infrastructure held hostage or sabotaged by agents of foreign nations.

This cannot be accomplished by source-secret proprietary software, such as Microsoft Windows, with its poor security history and infamous backdoor NSA key. Much of the infrastructure of PDVSA was under Microsoft Windows-based servers and used proprietary database software such as Microsoft SQL. Even proprietary software from a trustworthy source has to be suspect for possible tampering and so must be rejected, not just by Venezuela, but by any nation that wishes to protect and maintain it’s sovereignty against sabotage.

Everyone I have met from PDVSA appears completely committed at all levels to the basic idea of converting Venezuela’s oil resources into long-term and self-sustaining wealth for the nation as a whole. This is done in part through the development of a new socialist economy, as planned for through MINEP.

Capturing this wealth is viewed as an urgent matter because, even though Venezuela posses one of the largest known reserves of oil, they expect world oil production to begin declining and see this wealth as very temporary. Socorro Hernendez said PDVSA believes that nobody will “burn” oil (as, for example, in automobiles) in as little as 20 years. He also said they believe that while oil will remain important in the many other industries it is used in, the price will settle to $5 a barrel, so now is not only the best—but also the last—chance to create something useful from this wealth.

Conatel and conclusions

There are also many ministries and government institutions that are not connected ideologically with the revolution, yet many of those in the civil service seem to support it. Usually, this is because of the kinds of programs these different agencies have been able to do with funding provided by the Chavez government.

One example is Conatel, Venezuela’s regulatory agency for telephone and broadcast services—something a bit like the FCC in the United States. One such project is the Conatel community telecenter. This program offers community computer resources, including VOIP telephones, web browsing, and community educational services, again using free software. A typical community telecenter comes with up to a dozen PC workstations and a server. Connectivity is offered through a telecom carrier for both Internet data and for voice. Each telecenter also includes a staff of two people.

One of the people is trained to manage and teach how to use the computers and resources of the telecenter and charged with maintaining the equipment. The second person is someone trained in the social needs of a given community. For example, for a telecenter that is deployed in an agricultural town, the second person would likely be someone who was educated in agriculture. In a mining town, it would likely be a miner.

I believe telecenters will be the public libraries of the new millennium. Unfortunately, far too often, existing public libraries, while often including computers, do not understand how they should be used. For example, while many libraries in the US have computers, they are only used for web browsing, and come “attached” with nutty politicians concerned that library patrons might read about sex, along with laws requiring library content be filtered for this reason.

Venezuelan socialism is not socialism by decree, not driven by the state or a single party’s ideology.

Venezuelan socialism is not socialism by decree, not driven by the state or a single party’s ideology. It is socialism by experimentation and education. Venezuelan socialists are deeply tied to the basic principles of social justice, solidarity, and equality, as inspired from Simón Bolívar’s vision of a Latin community living in peace, independence from colonial masters, and able to determine its own destiny. Many policies are open for thought and discussion, and there is a willingness to try new and original solutions. None of this would have even been possible, however, without the help of the wealthy of Venezuela.

Rather than bringing down the government of Hugo Chávez by working together with foreign interests to directly sabotage the country’s most vital industry, the wealthy elite of Venezuela instead radicalized the oil workers in a way no other action could. The workers of PDVSA are now fully committed to creating the new economy, and will remain so regardless of who is in power. When the rich of Venezuela ponder who it was that made Venezuela become a revolutionary nation, they should not look at President Hugo Chávez—who may not even have been thinking of this then—but rather, in the mirror.

David Sugar is an active maintainer for a number of packages that are part of the GNU project (http://www.gnu.org). He also travels worldwide speaking about issues related to free software, telephony, and ICT policy.


1. My impression is that MINEP includes people from a very broad mix of backgrounds, including traditional Marxists as well as those who practice other forms of socialism. There are Libertarian Socialists also represented among the ranks of MINEP, although I believe they are still considered the more radical group within it.

[29 apr 06]

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