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GLW: Venezuela - An Unfolding Revolution

Venezuela - An Unfolding Revolution

Green Left Weekly
based on a report by Stuart Munckton

If there is one thing that US imperialism cannot stand, it is the threat of a good example. Venezuela's pro-worker government is in Washington's gun sights.

The following is based on a report by Stuart Munckton that was adopted by the national committee of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, an affiliate of the Socialist Alliance, on November 7.

The Venezuelan revolution is the first revolution of the 21st century. Its revolutionary character is not determined by any progressive stance taken by its government, but by the intervention in determining the country’s direction by the Venezuelan masses.

The revolution is not occurring in a vacuum. Neoliberalism stands discredited across Latin America and the popular revolt against it has spread throughout the continent. The Venezuelan revolution is both a product of this situation and the vanguard of the struggle.

At the World Social Forum in January 2003, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez described how, in the lead-up to his 1998 election, a political force was built out of the discontent rife in the 80% of Venezuelans who live in poverty. He explained that in 1989, while the Berlin Wall was falling, there was a rebellion in Caracas against an International Monetary Fund (IMF)-imposed economic package. This triggered an unsuccessful 1992 military uprising, which he led. He explained that, after his release from jail, he and his followers decided to contest elections.

Chavez commented that their ‘‘alternative proposition emerged from the political battle waged in thousands of people's assemblies’‘. In this way what Chavez described as ‘‘revolutionary Bolivarian ideology’‘ emerged. This ideology was based on the idea of genuine participatory democracy, economic independence and fairer redistribution of wealth. The centrepiece was the call for a constituent assembly.

Eight months before the 1998 presidential election, Chavez was given 8% by the ever-reliable Venezuelan opinion polls — he won with 55% of the vote.

When Chavez got elected in 1998, he was completely isolated. He controlled nothing but the presidency — congress and the state and local governments, the police and the courts, were universally hostile. Although there had been a revival in mass struggle, there was no counter-power outside these institutions. Congress handed him a neoliberal budget.

In his speech to the WSF, Chavez described how the oligarches attempted to use this isolation to tame him and buy him off.

Chavez turned to the armed forces, where he had a cadre base. He used the army to start the social programs, to work alongside the poor. And he embarked on a strategy to shift the political balance of forces. Via a series of referendums he was able to draw up a new, more democratic constitution and dissolve the old congress and get a new one elected with pro-Chavez forces in a tenuous majority.

In 2001, the class struggle dramatically escalated. Chavez used government to bring in 49 laws which set out a program of land reform, gave the government full control over oil revenue and encroached in other ways on capitalists' ‘‘rights''.

At this point, the capitalists realised Chavez was serious and stopped trying to buy him off. They decided to overthrow him.

This was also the time that the Bolivarian Circles began to form, at first spontaneously, involving masses of Venezuelans in political debate and activity. The government consciously launched and promoted the circles. The increased mobilisation of these two competing power bases culminated in a military coup in April 2002, which was defeated by a popular uprising of workers and peasants in alliance with the majority of the armed forces.

The swift and decisive defeat of the coup shifted the balance of forces much more in favour of working people.

One weakness at the time of the coup was the passivity of much of the industrial workers, which was substantially turned around in 2002, when the bosses locked workers out to try to defeat them, especially in the oil industry. The blue collar and temporary oil workers mobilised on a huge scale to recapture the industry.

As Chavez has repeatedly stated, only the organised Venezuelan masses directly participating in leading the nation could make a revolution. There was a decisive shift in the balance of power following the defeat of the military coup and the bosses’ lockout. These defeats, ensured by mass mobilisation and protest, changed the political balance of forces, enabling the government to dramatically deepen its radical policies.

The bosses’ economic sabotage left the economy in crisis. GDP had contracted 29%. The Venezuelan government applied austerity measures — but on the capitalists, not the workers and peasants. The government put a week-long freeze on access to foreign currency, followed by tight controls on foreign currency, with access denied to those who had shutout their workers.

The government put prize freezes on basic goods, and seized hoarded goods, reselling at cheap, government-run markets. Most decisively, bosses were not allowed sack anyone. This enabled the expansion of new, independent class struggle unions. This is partly why the new UNT union federation was able so quickly to move to organise more workers than the old discredited CTV.

At the same time, the government, having secured control of the oil was able to begin using oil revenue to start redistributing wealth in earnest.

There are now three broad views among the international left on what is happening in Venezuela.

The first view sees Hugo Chavez as a great liberal reformer, who is trying to improve the existing system. For example, Greg Palast, author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy has pegged Chavez as an ally of former US President Bill Clinton. What Palast made of Democratic leader John Kerry's strong attack on the Chavez government in a pre-election speech I am not sure.

The second perspective starts from the same basic view — that Chavez is a reformer who, whatever his rhetoric, has no intention of leading a revolutionary break with capitalism. But, rather than praising his moderation, it criticises it. Some exponents of this view argue that Chavez is merely a nationalist aiming only to take limited anti-imperialist steps to give local bosses some breathing room.

One of the more significant expressions of this approach has come from James Petras. In a September 2 article titled ‘‘Myths and realities: Venezuela's Chavez and the referendum’‘, Petras argued that, while Chavez’s victory in an August 15 recall referendum was a defeat for imperialism, this did not mean ‘‘a revolutionary transformation’‘. He added: ‘‘The euphoria of the left prevents them from observing the pendulum shifts in Chavez’s discourse and the heterodox social welfare — neoliberal economic politics he has consistently practised.

‘‘President Chavez's policy has always followed a careful balancing act between rejecting vassalage to the US and local oligarchic rentiers on the one hand and trying to harness a coalition of foreign and national investors, urban and rural poor to a program of welfare capitalism. He is closer to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal than Castro's socialist revolution.’‘

The third view, which I will argue, is that a real revolution is underway in Venezuela.

We should be clear that socialism — a socialised planned economy — is not an immediate prospect in Venezuela, unless the Chavez government is forced down that road by the actions of his opponents.

But this does not mean there is no revolution, or even that its leaders are supporters of capitalism. In a country oppressed by imperialism, which dominates and distorts the economy, imperialism is the oppressed’s most immediate enemy. This makes confronting imperialism the starting point of revolutions in such countries. It is through the battle to carry out an anti-imperialist revolution that the masses come into conflict with capitalism and develop the consciousness and organisation that will enable them to overturn capitalism.

Che Guevara articulated this clearly in his 1960 article “Cuba: Exceptional case or vanguard in the struggle against colonialism?” In it he sets out the impact of imperialism on the oppressed nations:

“We are countries whose economies have been twisted by imperialism, which has abnormally developed in us those branches of industry or agriculture needed to complement its complex economy. 'Underdevelopment,' or distorted development, brings dangerous specialisation in raw materials, inherent in which is the threat of hunger for all our peoples.”

Venezuela’s economy is twisted around its main role as a provider of oil for the imperialist nations, especially the United States. This leaves Venezuela at the mercy of the international oil market, a dangerous situation in a country that has to import 70-80% of its food.

Che explained the centrality of land reform in a revolution against imperialism, as the large landowners are the strongest base of support for imperialism. The local capitalist class, although held down by imperialism’s control of the economy, is an exploiting class afraid to “clash” with the interests of imperialism or the large landowners. The workers aren’t, and their support for land reform, he argues, is the basis for their alliance with the peasantry to carry the revolution out.

This general process is playing itself out now in Venezuela. At the heart of the current revolutionary battles is the land reform, which Chavez has signalled will be radically deepened, and the attempt to break the hold of imperialism over industry and break the dependency on oil.

The expropriation in practice of the oil industry in 2003 was an anti-imperialist measure that gives the Venezuelan government control over the most decisive of its resources — 30% of GDP, 80% of export earnings. The government has signalled that it plans to carry out a campaign to achieve self-sustainability in food.

Chavez explained his willingness to take sterner measures in an interview earlier this year with the opposition newspaper El Universal: “If the business owners once again close their companies, I have already prepared a decree to take them over. It would be even better because I would hand the companies in to the workers. They better don't do that or else I will snatch their companies.”

In the immediate future the Venezuelan government must deal with an international capitalist market.

The Venezuelans will sign agreements with multinationals, because there is no-one else to sign agreements with. They need capital investment in order to develop their economy and break their reliance on oil. The real question is agreements on whose terms and to whose benefit.

A July 24 article in the New York Times explained the extent of the changes:”‘Right now, [state-owned oil company] PDVSA is not a mercantile entity’, said Antonio Szabo, a former executive at PDVSA who left long before Mr. Chavez came to power and who is now chief executive of Stone Bond Technologies, a Houston software and energy consulting firm. ‘Right now, it's an instrument of the Venezuelan government.’

“Even at companies like Total that are moving toward a deal, executives describe tough negotiations that leave them wondering how committed PDVSA really is to expanding the role of private companies.

“‘We are proposing to invest in a US$4 billion project immediately, and we agree to work in terms of the new law,” said Jean-Marie Guillermou of Total's Venezuela operations. “Normally, a country would want to jump on this. They don't do it. Why?’

“The company that has emerged from the ashes of the strike that ended in February 2003 is nothing like the button-down, corporate-style company that in the 1990s was often the No. 1 provider of foreign oil to the United States.

“Much of the [PDVSA] earnings have been siphoned from exploration and production projects that some energy analysts say PDVSA needs to recover fully from the strike. Instead, the windfall is financing a social revolution long promised by President Hugo Chavez's 5-year-old government to extricate the country from its malaise and ease life for the poor...’”‘

A key question being pursued by the new trade union federation is workers’ control of industry. The oil industry was re-started thanks to the blue-collar workers taking it over and running it themselves, and in transforming the industry they are attempting to introduce workers’ control via steering committees. Also, workers are managing the state-run electricity company, according to an article on the labour movement by Venezuela Analysis commentator Jonah Gindin.

The explicit aim of the Venezuelan revolution is not to stop with anti-imperialist measures, but to break with capitalism. In a November 2 article for the Hands off Venezuela website, Jorge Martin reported that Chavez told a mass rally in Bolivar: “The capitalist economic system is a system of domination imposed on our people so that a wealthy minority dominates an impoverished minority. This is economic tyranny. And this economic tyranny is still intact. We are going to break it up once and for all through a revolutionary process of economic and social liberation.”

But the key question facing the revolution is who holds social and political power. Who governs Venezuela? The working people in the cities and the countryside, or the wealthy oligarches, the owners of industry and that 1% of the population who own 60% of the land?

This battle is being played out in practice through the struggle to implement measures to benefit the oppressed majority. Crucial to this is the question of which class controls the state, with all its institutions including the armed forces, the government, the police and the courts. This is clearly not resolved and in transition, but you could call it an embryonic workers and peasants’ state.

Embryonic because it is in its early stages and is still being created, and the gains could be reversed. But still, the changes in Venezuela have been qualitative.

There is a workers and peasants' government: the government attempts to rule in the interests of the workers and peasants over the interests of the capitalists and attempts to organise the working class to defend its interests against the resistance of the capitalists.

Is it reasonable to say the armed forces are a workers and peasants’ armed forces? This appears dangerous. The capitalist armed forces were not physically broken up and replaced with a new armed forces, with new uniforms and command structures. But every capitalist armed forces has a contradiction because, although controlled by an officer corp loyal to the capitalist class, the ranks are drawn from the oppressed classes.

Chavez was able to deepen this contradiction by using the armed forces to go out into the poor neighbourhoods to help, instead of using them as killing machines. He was able to control who made up the officer corp.

In April 2002, in the US-backed coup, the armed forces split along class lines. The majority of the ranks and the young officers sided with the people, and 400 officers were purged afterwards. This was a key turning point, possible only because of decades of hard work by conscious revolutionaries building up a cadre force in the army. While on the surface the armed forces looks the same, it is a new, revolutionised armed forces.

This became clear in the difference between the 2002 coup and the bosses’ lockout. When during

the latter, opposition media and figures called for a new coup — no officers responded. In fact, the armed forces became a weapon to defeat the lock-out.

However, the Caracas Police Force, under the control of an anti-Chavez mayor, was used to repress the Chavistas. The government used the armed forces to surround the police stations and disarm the police. The police were only allowed to patrol with a National Guard soldier alongside them. The courts, like the police, remain tools of the capitalist class.

This is not a settled question. As the revolution deepens, some officers and soldiers may break with Chavez. There may be consciously counter-revolutionary elements remaining, heads down, in the army waiting for better conditions.

It is clear that the workers and the peasants have access to weapons to defend themselves. Chavez has spoken of the need to create a people armed along the lines of Cuba. Most importantly, he continues to push for the greatest integration of the armed forces with the people through a “civic-military” alliance.

The struggle has also thrown up a new vanguard organising the masses in the communities, active in the blossoming popular organisation. But the struggle to build out of this new vanguard a common group, with a common program that can provide united leadership to the revolution across different sectors, is still being waged.

A national front has been formed to bring all pro-Chavez forces under one umbrella. Perhaps the most significant proto-party formation is the Command Maisanto and the Units of Electoral Battle groups that organised under it. The command is a front of pro-Chavez parties and popular organisations set up to organise the poor to defeat the August 15 recall referendum. On the base level it involves groups of 10-15 people organised on the ground to mobilise people.

The process in Venezuela is not perfect, and there are no doubt strengths and weaknesses that we are not aware of. For example, it is clearly not the case that all pro-Chavez officials are revolutionary or even explicitly pro-worker. Chavez has identified the need to bring officials more in line with the revolutionary mood of the masses, including tackling problems of corruption and lack of accountability.

But the tasks for socialists should be clear: This is a revolutionary process that demands our support and our solidarity. The Venezuelan people’s attempts to build a better society will benefit all of us. We must do everything we can to help them succeed.


* US backs Venezuelan terrorists
* VENEZUELA: Education for revolution

From Green Left Weekly, December 8, 2004.
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