The social and political turmoil that has rocked Venezuela since the election of the radical left-populist former army officer, Hugo Chávez, as President, in 1999, has now entered a new and critical phase. Chávez has now called for the arming of the population and the setting up of a "people’s militia". He has also directly attacked capitalism for the first time and declared that the "Bolivarian revolution has entered a new anti-imperialist phase".
At the same time, 7,000 workers at Siderúrgica del Orinoco (Sidor) – Latin America’s largest steel company – have been on strike for over a month, demanding nationalisation of the plant.
This move to the left by Chávez comes in the wake of the arrest of up to 130 Colombian paramilitaries in Venezuela following the discovery of another plot to overthrow him or possibly assassinate him. The threat of counter revolution, and the massive pressure from the working class for more radical and militant measures to be taken by the government, has pushed Chávez to the left. This is likely to open up a critical conjuncture for the Venezuelan revolution.
The need for the working class to embrace the ideas of socialism and to overthrow capitalism, by carrying out a socialist revolution, is now posed as a matter of urgency. The creation of a mass revolutionary socialist party that will fight for this is essential to carry through the socialist revolution and decisively defeat the threat of reaction.
US imperialism, and the Venezuelan ruling class, has so far tried to overthrow the Chávez government on two occasions. They were defeated on both occasions by the mass movement and intervention of the working class and the rank and file of the army.
Firstly, a spontaneous mass movement of workers, the urban poor, and rank and file soldiers defeated an attempted coup in April 2002. After being arrested and removed from power the mass movement of workers released Chávez from his prison cell and re-instated him as President.
Secondly, the bosses ‘lock-out’, which ran between December 2002 and January 2003, was eventually broken by the determined resistance of the working class.
Throughout Chávez’s government the ruling class has conducted a policy of economic and political sabotage. A flight of capital has taken place and the rich elite took their wealth out of the country. The ‘lock out’ alone cost an estimated US$40 billion in lost oil revenue.
The ‘lock out’ was followed by an attempt by the right-wing opposition to collect the 2.4 million signatures needed to force the recall of Chávez and a new Presidential election. This campaign – which is still being fought out in the judiciary - was reduced to almost farcical proportions. Initially the right-wing claimed they had collected 3.8 million names. One of their spokespeople then corrected this and said in fact it was only 2.8 million. They then delayed handing them in to be verified for a period of 20 days.
At that stage, they claimed they had 3.4 million but accepted that a margin of error of at least 10% was possible. The names submitted included people who had were dead, some more than a decade ago! The campaign’s credibility was then struck a further blow when a journalist revealed a taped phone conversation between an opposition leader and his father in Paris. During the conversation, it was said the campaign had collected only 1.9 million signatures. The veracity of the tape was accepted by them the signature campaign, but they took the journalist to court for divulging it in a paper and on the television!
Far right death squads
It is against this background that the latest attempt at counter revolution involving Colombian paramilitaries has been exposed. Although the details remain unclear it has been established that up to 130 Colombians entered Venezuela and were undertaking arms training at a ranch just outside Caracas. The ranch belongs to Robert Alonso, an anti-Castro Cuban, and a leading member of the Venezuelan opposition.
Amongst those arrested are known longstanding members of the Autonomous Self-Defence Forces (AUC), a far right Colombian paramilitary death squad. Implicated in the plot is the former Venezuelan President, Carlos Andrés Pérez. In a recent radio interview in Colombia Pérez stated that Chávez should be got rid of by force because it must now be recognised that it could not be done peacefully.
It appears that the plotters’ plan was to attack a military base and obtain arms for a larger force that was to arrive later from Colombia. Some reports also point to a plan to secure military aircraft and then to bomb the Miraflores Presidential Palace. Other reports indicate that a campaign of bombings and shootings was to be organised as a means of provoking greater instability and as a means of justifying an attempt to overthrow Chávez.
This also comes against the back ground of increased tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. The Colombian government has recently purchased over 40 AMX30 tanks from the Spanish government. Colombia is also the largest recipient of military aid from the US after Israel following the implementation of ‘Plan Colombia’ which was initiated by Clinton placing Colombia centre stage of US imperialism’s threatre of operations in Latin America. Inevitably both the Colombian and US governments have denied any involvement in the recent paramilitary operation.
Although it cannot be excluded this attempt was a ‘freelance operation’, by a right wing grouping operating on it own, US imperialism, the Venezuelan ruling class, and the right wing Colombian government of Uribe want Chávez out. Only one week before the uncovering of this operation the Colombia Senate had passed a resolution attacking Chávez. Bush’s regime supported both the attempted coup in April 2002 and the ‘lock out’ in 2003/2004. The Democratic Party Presidential candidate, John Kerry, has attacked Chávez for being ‘undemocratic’. It is possible that both US imperialism and the ruling class in Colombia and Venezuela are now hoping to remove Chávez by operating through proxy forces from Colombia which work in collusion with the right-wing opposition in Venezuela.
Venezuela is the fifth largest producer of oil internationally and one of the largest suppliers of imported oil to the US. The crisis in the Middle East emphasised the need for US imperialism to have what it regards as a ‘safe’ or ‘friendly’ regime in Venezuela. US imperialism fears that the working class and mass movement that has developed in Venezuela could push Chávez to attack their interests more directly than he has been prepared do until now. Recent events are indicating that the fears of US imperialism are more than justified.
Chávez has been a thorn in the side of US imperialism. He has supported higher oil prices and attacked US foreign policy, especially in relation to Iraq. Domestically he has introduced some important reforms in favour of the working class and poorest sections of society and attacked the corrupt political elite and removed some of their privileges.
Three million acres of land have been distributed to peasant co-operatives. The education reform has put 3 million additional people through primary and secondary education. Universities for the first time have opened up to the working class - 3,200 new schools have been opened. One million people have been lifted out of illiteracy, with a target of 1.5 million being reached by this summer. Millions are receiving primary health care for the first time – one million in Caracas, alone – through the Plan Barrios Adentro (‘Into the Neighbourhoods’) programme. This has included the deployment of 3,500 doctors from Cuba who have been sent into the poorest areas – including rural areas which have never previously had access to doctors.
These reforms have been opposed by the right-wing opposition. Chávez and his government have the overwhelming and enthusiastic support of the mass of the working class and the most downtrodden. He is seen by millions of the poorest sections of society as representing their interests. As a result he is hated by the ruling class.
However, Chávez has not yet moved to overthrow capitalism. The government has not yet nationalised any sector of the economy. Chávez, and the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ which he has advocated, have so far only posed the question of a ‘more humane form of capitalism’ and taken steps to ‘clean up’ the corruption and patronage with which the ruling elite have run Venezuela.
But even this has aroused the hatred and the wrath of the ruling class. The failure to go further and decisively break with capitalism has resulted in a certain stalemate in the class struggle in the recent period. Reaction has failed to triumph and has not been strong enough to overthrow the government.
Yet, at the same time, the revolution has not taken the necessary measures to overthrow capitalism and to begin the task of building socialism.
This has resulted in an impasse that may continue for some time. However, it cannot continue indefinitely. Either the revolution must make a decisive blow against capitalism or reaction will triumph. Unfortunately Chávez has not posed the question of the working class taking over the running of society and beginning to build socialism.
The failure of Chávez to adopt such a programme is posing the greatest threat to the revolution. When reinstated by the masses as President, following the failed right wing coup in 2002, Chávez made the mistake of trying to placate the ruling class and to reach an agreement with them, rather than striking a decisive blow against them. In doing so, Chávez gave them time to prepare again to overthrow his regime and inflict a bloody defeat on the working class.
The current impasse has undoubtedly lost Chávez some support amongst the middle class. He was originally elected with over 60% of the popular vote. The economic crisis has meant that although some reforms have been implemented there is still massive unemployment. Inflation soared to 30% and began to eat into the saving of the middle class. 70% of the population now live below the poverty line. In the first three years of Chávez’s government, GDP fell by an incredible 47%. Much of this was due to the boss’s ‘lock out’, the flight of capital out of the country, and other acts of economic sabotage. However, the social consequences of this crisis partly eroded support for Chávez’s government. Initially Chávez won the support of a significant section of the middle class. By remaining within the framework of capitalism, not acting decisively to break from it and thereby being unable to resolve their problems Chávez has now lost the support of significant sections of the middle class which originally supported him.
The recent rise in the price of oil, coupled with the ending of the lock out, has increased government revenue and given it some more room to manoeuvre. The May report by the Venezuelan Central bank points to a growth in the economy of 29.8% in the first quarter of 2004 when compared to the same period in 2003. In other words, the collapse caused by the lock out has now been made up. Oil related economic activity is up 72.5%. The minimum wage was increased by 30% on May Day.
However, this does not reduce the threat of reaction, as recent events have illustrated. The crisis in the Middle East, and especially Iraq, is increasing the need for US imperialism to have a ‘safe pair of hands’ running things in Caracas.
Faced with this new attempt by reaction to overthrow his regime, and increasing pressure by the masses, Chávez seems to have moved in a more radical left direction. He has been driven by the threat of counter revolution – which this time would probably not only imprison him if it were able to strike another blow and secure a victory.
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets on 17 May in opposition to the Colombian intervention. Chávez called for the arming of the people and the establishment of a "people’s militia". On 14 May, Chávez called for ‘expropriation of any building, property or installation where there is proof that these paramilitary groups have been training’. He also criticised the fact that "...after the Cold War many on the left stopped talking about capitalism, replacing it with the neo-liberalism. Both terms refer to the same assassin, perverse and stinky empire." Unfortunately, Chávez still has not raised the need for socialism as an alternative to capitalism, and he has looked to the UN as providing a ‘solution’ to the conflict in the Middle East. Without warning of the new ‘socialist’ Spanish government’s support for capitalism Chávez also simply welcomed Zapatero’s recent election in Spain.
On 17 May, following the announcement that the National Defence Council is now sitting in permanent session, Chávez declared that in the next few weeks: "I will start to give out directives and lines, I appeal for the support of the local councils, the social movements, the popular currents. Adult men and women, who are not in the reserve, but who are ready, in a different way, to become soldiers without having to go through the barracks, to receive military training and organise militarily for the defence of the country".
This general appeal must be turned into a reality by the working class and mass movement. The Venezuela revolution does not need friends who simply applaud radical steps and speeches. What it needs is genuine international workers’ solidarity and a revolutionary socialist programme that draws on the collective international experience of the working class. A revolutionary socialist programme and exchange of the international experiences of the working class will strengthen the Venezuelan masses in the struggle to defeat capitalism and imperialism.
Chávez’s call for the arming of the people must now be made concrete by the independent action of the working class and rank and file of the army. In Chile, before the 1973 bloody coup that overthrew the left wing government of Allende, the working class demanded arms to defend the revolution. 500,000 marched before the Presidential Palace demanding arms. Some workers even had some light arms and defence squads were formed in some factories. The leaders responded that arms would be distributed ‘when the time was right’.
Tragically, however, even this was not enough. When the coup came there were no arms. The workers went to the factories as the Allende government asked that they "turn them into fortresses of the revolution" rather then go onto the offensive and confront the counter revolution by marching to the Presidential Palace. Defenceless, the workers were slaughtered by the pro-coup sections of the army.
This tradgic defeat is in contrast to events during the revolution in Spain in July 1936 in Barcelona where the working class went onto the offensive, took arms from the barracks, sieze control of the city and defeated the counter revolution at that stage. The revolution was eventually lost during the civil war because of the wrong polices of the leadership of the workers’ movement.
The working class of Venezuela, and the rank and file of the army, need to take the concrete steps necessary to establish an armed workers’ militia. Soldiers need to elect rank and file committees and to begin the task of distributing arms to workers’ defence squads, which need to be formed. These soldiers’ committees should also establish a system of electing officers and removing those who sympathize with the right wing pro-coup forces. Some pro-coup officers have already been removed but this must now be extended, and each officer subject to election and the right of recall by elected committees of rank and file soldiers.
Every factory, work place, and shanty town needs to organise a defence squad. These must be linked up and organised by the Bolivarian Committees. The Bolivarian Committees must be expanded to included elected delegates from all workplaces, community organisations, UNT and others. Elected delegates must be subject to recall by workplace assemblies. The Bolivarian Committees need to link up on a district, citywide, regional and national level, and to establish a revolutionary government of workers and poor peasants.
The establishment of a workers’ militia, under the democratic control of the working class, would represent a tremendous step forward. However, on its own even this step will not ensure that reaction is defeated and that the working class is victorious. The lessons of the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, are vital. The Spanish working class was armed and fought heroically. However, due to the wrong policies of the Socialist and Communist leaders, capitalism was not overthrown and a workers’ government was not established. As a result Franco’s fascist forces emerged victorious.
The established of a workers’ militia in Venezuela must also be linked to the establishment of a government of workers’ and peasants’ with a revolutionary socialist programme. The major companies, banks, and financial institutions, both national and multi-national, must be nationalised under democratic workers’ control and management. An emergency economic plan needs to be drawn up.
An element of workers’ control has been established in some workplaces and in the crucial state owned PVDSA oil company. Workers in each work place need to take over the day-to-day running of each factory and workplace. This needs to be linked to a system of democratic workers’ management over the whole economy. The boards of nationalised companies need to be made up of elected representatives of the workers in the industry, the workers’ government’ and the UNT (Bolivarian trade union federation). All such delegates should be subject to immediate recall and should receive no more than the average wage of a skilled worker. All government officials should be subject to the same scrutiny and democratic control by the working class.
The workers’ organisations are being strengthened. The UNT claims 2 million members that are grouped into 500 unions. These include the two largest oil workers’ unions, Fedepetrol and Sinutrapetrol, the public sector union Fentrasep, and private sector unions at Firestone, Pirelli, Ford, Polar, and Bigott. The old corrupt bosses’ union federation, the CTV, has lost more and more support. However, only 20% of the workforce is unionised. The UNT has launched a campaign to organise 80% of the work force.
The occupation of some workplaces and the mass mobilisations all point towards a more militant shift to the left by the masses, who are demanding that the revolution goes further. Significantly, on the May Day demonstration this year, some unions, such as the Graphic Arts Union, carried banners proclaiming: "Let’s defend our homeland. No to US invasion. Venezuela towards socialism."
The turn to the left by Chávez and the mass movement may also push his regime to strike more direct blows against capitalism and imperialism, including nationalisations of some industry. If this does happen, and the idea of socialism emerges more strongly within the revolution, the struggle in Venezuela will undoubtedly have more far reaching international repercussions than it has had so far.
To ensure victory capitalism must be overthrown through the implementation of a revolutionary socialist programme. This must also include an appeal to the working class of Latin America and the US for solidarity and support, and for solidarity struggle against any attempt by imperialism to defeat such a revolution. Such an appeal in the context of the massive anti-imperialist consciousness which has developed as a consequence of the Iraq war would receive massive support internationally – including amongst the workers and youth of the USA. An appeal for international solidarity would need to be linked to the idea of establishing a democratic socialist federation of Latin America and the US. Only such a programme can defeat imperialism and the ruling class in Venezuela.