ON A recent Miami television programme, a group of Venezuelan ex-military officers openly called for a US invasion to overthrow the twice-elected radical, nationalist government of President Hugo Chavez.

This reflects the increasing desperation of sections of the anti-Chavez opposition who have given up on constitutional change and are courting American military intervention.

Currently, the National Electoral Council is checking the signatures from the opposition petition drive for a referendum against Chavez. The opposition coalition, Democratic Co-ordinator, claimed they collected up to 3.8 million signatures in December (they need 2.4 million to force a recall referendum).

But a taped phone conversation between opposition figures has revealed that the US funded opposition organisation SUMATE, which provided logistical support during the petition drive, had counted only 1.9 million signatures.

Chavez has described it as a "mega-fraud" citing examples of petitions containing the names of people who were not registered, of people who voted two or more times, or were deceased!

Even before the referendum petition drive, other opposition leaders were calling for "civil rebellion" to oust Chavez. In another taped phone conversation, the fugitive ex-leader of the pro-bosses Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), Carlos Ortega, (and a leading figure in the April 2002 right-wing coup attempt), was heard saying: "They are fucked... the government is going to fall... We are going to need about 10, 12 or 15 years of dictatorship to rescue the country, I have no problem with that."

Sabotage

THESE REVELATIONS expose the ’democratic’ credentials of the Venezuelan elite who claim they want to remove Chavez because he is authoritarian and wants a "Castro-type" dictatorship. The truth is that the ruling oligarchy (the rich capitalist class) who have pillaged the country’s oil wealth and monopolised political life for decades, despite their domination of the private media organisations, have not been able to undermine Chavez’s support amongst the workers and poor.

Indeed, following the failure of the April 2002 right-wing coup and the ten-week bosses’ strike and work lock-out from December 2002 to February 2003, support for Chavez has begun to increase again (now around 40% in the polls which is probably an underestimate).

The economy, which suffered a catastrophic collapse in 2002-03 due to the capitalists’ sabotage, has begun to recover, albeit from a dire situation. GDP (annual productive wealth) is expected to rebound by 6.7% in 2004 and unemployment has fallen to 15% from 20% last January.

This mild economic recovery has come about as a result of the restoration of production at the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and Chavez’s programme of publicly funded reforms.

These include government spending on construction projects, aggressive support for small and medium sized businesses and social programmes for the poor, land distribution to peasants, deeds to urban slum-dwellers, degree sponsorship for several thousand high-school drop-outs, a literacy programme that has helped 1 million people to read and write in just 6 months, and the "Barrio Within" plan in which Cuban doctors have set up shop in slum areas to provide free basic healthcare attending 10 million cases.

All these have reinforced Chavez’s support amongst large sections of workers (especially in the informal sector which accounts for 50%) and the poor in the barrios.

Zigzags

HOWEVER, CHAVEZ, by his own admission, is not a socialist. He was initially elected with 80% support, including the middle-class, promising a Bolivarian revolution, a mix of nationalism and reforms. Without overthrowing capitalism, he has zigzagged between attacking the ’oligarchy’ and compromise. This has driven the capitalists mad but also lost support amongst the middle-class and some more privileged workers, whilst the economic dislocation has hit the poor the hardest.

At the recent Summit of the Americas, he attacked the neo-liberal economic model, but upheld US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his 1930s New Deal as his alternative. He is also trying to promote with other ’radical’ Latin American governments, a regional trading bloc as a counter-balance to the US inspired Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).

Whilst Chavez may, especially if the recall referendum fails, be able to go much further in his reforms, ultimately these half-way house measures cannot solve the huge social problems of capitalist crisis-ridden Venezuela. The oligarchy may have to bide their time longer, but perhaps after US Presidential elections, they might try to oust Chavez again along the lines of Chile’s president Allende’s overthrow in 1973.

On two occasions, the workers and poor have come out in their millions to defeat the right. To an extent they are organised in ’Bolivarian Circles’(pro-Chavez semi-militias) and neighbourhood committees but these are not linked together to provide an alternative base of class power to that of the capitalist state.

What is needed is an independent workers’ party to not only defeat reaction but also develop a class programme capable of leading the struggle for socialist change.

The first steps in that direction may have been taken as a result of the split away from the corrupt CTV. The UNT ("Unete") was founded last April bringing together 120 trade unions and 25 regional federations.

Although pro-Chavez, at their first national congress in August they adopted a more radical action programme, calling for nationalisation of the banks and cancellation of the external debt, nationalisation of failing enterprises, a shorter working week and elements of workers’ control.

However, some important unions, especially the steelworkers from the south, have not yet joined with UNT, which so far represents only 12% of the workers in the formal sector of the economy. Links will also have to be made with the unorganised workers in the informal sector, as well as the urban poor and peasants.

The masses have shown repeatedly that they are the real power in the land. That needs to be consciously organised in democratic action committees at every level, laying the basis for a government of workers and the poor that can complete the reform process, creating a socialist Venezuela as a beacon to the rest of Latin America.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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