More than a decade has passed since Hugo Chávez called for the creation of Círculos Bolivarianos (Bolivarian Circles) in Venezuela. Described as the “principle organizing unit of popular power,” the círculos are designed to advance the objectives of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Most analyses of the círculos (both partisan and critical) focus on their domestic impact. While foreign policy experts in the United States have testified that Venezuela’s círculos are used to select militant youth for tactical training in Iran, little attention has been given to how Bolivarian Circles outside of Venezuela are used as public relations vehicles for the Venezuelan regime, facilitating the uptake of Bolivarian ideology in the exterior.
In Canada, Bolivarian Circles operate in at least three of the country’s largest cities: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. The Bolivarian Circle Louis Riel of Toronto, founded in 2002 and named after the Métis leader of two nineteenth century rebellions against the Canadian government, is arguably the most politically active. According to Aporrea — a Chavista blog — the Bolivarian Circle Louis Riel “is in contact with patrols from the PSUV [Socialist Unity Party of Venezuela], from which it regularly receives information, and it has representation in two [Canadian] universities.”
In addition to Bolivarian Circles, a number of Bolivarian solidarity groups have been established in Canada. These include: the Venezuela We Are with You Coalition (Coalición Venezuela Estamos Contigo), Barrio Nuevo (New Shantytown*), the Société Bolivarienne du Québec (Bolivarian Society of Quebec), the Hugo Chavez Peoples’ Defense Front (Frente de Defensa de los Pueblos Hugo Chávez), and the Avanzada Bolivariana (Bolivarian Vanguard). The Bolivarian Revolution also has an extensive network of support through the Canadian Network on Cuba, which has more than 20 member organizations, and the Latin American and Caribbean Solidarity Network.
The Bolivarian Circles and the broader solidarity movement in which they are embedded are actively engaged in media and political surveillance to defend a favorable image of the Bolivarian Revolution. To that end, Maria Páez Victor (a well-known member of the Bolivarian Circle Louis Riel in Toronto) and Antonio García Danglades (a frequent contributor to Aporrea) launched a formal complaint against the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper, in 2006. They alleged that a series of four articles published by the Star about Venezuela were “erroneous, unbalanced, biased, and degrading.”
According to Páez and García, the Star failed to meet journalistic standards because the articles did not include comment from government officials (the reporter interviewed both government supporters and opponents and had sought comment from the government by way of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington but received no response). In a perplexing decision, the Ontario Press Council — an industry association — found in favor of the complainants, saying “only comment from government officials could offset criticism of the Venezuelan regime.”
The decision by the Press Council served Páez well in 2010, when she testified before the Canadian Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights. Referring to the Council’s decision against the Star as evidence of an “intentionally biased campaign” to distort the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution, Páez said Canadians have an “insufficient and inaccurate picture of the state of human rights in Venezuela.”
The subcommittee heard or received testimony from four Chavista organizations: the Bolivarian Circle Louis Riel, which sent three witnesses, including Páez; the Bolivarian Society of Quebec, which sent two witnesses; the Venezuela We Are with You Coalition, which submitted written testimony from Dr. Paul Kellogg of Athabasca University; and Barrio Nuevo, which also submitted written testimony.
Although the Subcommittee received more moderate (and, in select cases, highly critical) input from other organizations and individuals, the representation of partisan views in defense of the Bolivarian Revolution was so exaggerated that one Member of Parliament confessed it was difficult to ask substantive questions given that so many witnesses were part of the “Chávez fan club.”
This is not to suggest that Canadian supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution should be excluded from parliamentary and public debates on Venezuela, much less that they should face persecution. On the contrary, freedom of speech demands respect for a plurality of voices — even if this means free speech is exercised by some as a means to support the restriction of free speech for others. (As I have argued previously here and here, there is no doubt that free speech is under attack in Venezuela.)
Rather, the point is to underscore that solidarity groups in the exterior are actively working to embed Bolivarian ideology at an institutional as well as popular level. Canada’s Bolivarian Circles have established a presence in the media, in universities, and in parliament; and domestic protest movements such as Idle No More have been encouraged to draw inspiration from the Bolivarian Revolution.
“A victory for Venezuela in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism,” writes Elizabeth Byce, federal treasurer of the socialist caucus for the New Democratic Party, “would be a victory for aboriginal peoples [in Canada]. It would be a victory for education workers, for Ontario public service workers, for postal workers, for Air Canada workers, for steel workers, for Quebecois, Acadians and Newfoundlanders, for all working people.” (Páez makes a similar argument here).
And this, in effect, is the objective.
When Chávez called for the creation of the círculos in 2001, the top-down nature of what is commonly referred to as “popular power” was laid bare: “The supreme leader of the Círculos Bolivarianos will be the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
This is why it is not surprising, but should arguably be concerning, that the círculos work closely with representatives of the Venezuelan government in the exterior. Avanzada Bolivariana, a solidarity coalition with representation from organizations in at least six Canadian cities as well as First Nations peoples, takes as one of its principle objectives to “support the diplomatic body of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in Canada.”
Tellingly, Canadian adherents of the Bolivarian Revolution who criticize the Canadian government for supporting “reactionary opposition groups” in Venezuela (specifically, Súmate), seem to have no problem with the fact that Bolivarian solidarity groups in Canada take their marching orders from the government of Venezuela.
The key difference may be that the Venezuelan government charged the leaders of Súmate with treason — the same charge laid against Louis Riel, the namesake of the Toronto círculo. He might well oppose being made a foot soldier for a regime that uses the same tactics as the one that hanged him.
* In Venezuela, “barrio” refers to a shantytown or slum. In most of the rest of Latin America, it translates as neighborhood.