How to advance the Venezuelan revolution

Less than fifteen years ago leading philosophers, capitalist commentators and politicians hurried themselves to the burial ground of the bureaucratic Stalinist states of Russia and Eastern Europe. They stood over the Stalinist corpse and, in unison with the bureaucrats of only yesterday, declared socialism forever dead. Capitalism and the free market were to build an empire to last a thousand years, an empire of peace and prosperity, and a new world order, in which even those in the underdeveloped countries would be swept up in a hurricane of economic development. Never again would the poor masses of the world, never mind the working class, look towards an alternative to the market and genuine socialist ideas as a means to improve their living standards and gain control over the fruits of their labour.

But were socialism a person, he or she might paraphrase Mark Twain: "It has been reported that I was seriously ill -- it was another man; dying -- it was another man; dead -- the other man again." As events in Latin America demonstrate, rumours of socialism’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

In Latin America has seen big upheavals, mass struggles and, in countries like Bolivia, open revolts against the experience of neo-liberalism. The continent has seen the emergence of a mass anti-capitalist consciousness. In Venezuela this has gone even further with big layers looking towards socialism to defend and deepen the revolution. On the basis of events and the experience of the working class, socialist ideas are re-emerging as a powerful force amongst working class people. This is the anticipation of a process that will find its further development in the other nations of Latin America and across the world. What is happening today in Venezuela is of importance for every trade unionist, socialist and revolutionary in the countries of the so-called developing world but also, and not in the least, for those in Europe and North America.

The masses in Venezuela, as a result of their experiences and participation in seven years of Chavez government, are discussing how to advance the Venezuelan revolutionary process and solve the basic problems of food, water, housing and education whilst defending the gains made by the ‘Bolivarian’ government from the threat of reaction and imperialism. In one opinion poll, the results of which were collected between May and June this year, 48% of those questioned said that given the choice they would prefer to live under a socialist government. Only 29% of the people declared their preference to be a capitalist government.

The Chavez reforms

The radical populist regime of Hugo Chavez - elected, defended and re-elected by the masses - has implemented many important social reforms. Chavez concluded his speech at the 60th UN general assembly by mentioning the achievements of his government in nearly seven years. According to Chavez, 1.4 million Venezuelans who were previously excluded from education due to poverty have been included in the education system. 70% of Venezuela’s population now enjoy access to free health care and over 1.7 million tonnes of food is being provided to 12 million Venezuelans at reduced prices.

This, in complete contrast to the devastating neo-liberal policies implemented in the rest of Latin America over the same period, is a testimony to what is possible - even on the basis of reforms within the limits of capitalism - when a government is prepared to stand up to the interests of imperialism and the corrupt national elites in their service. While these important reforms, on the basis of oil-wealth and the movements of the masses, are to be defended it is our duty to warn the working class and poor that the reforms are unsustainable on the basis of capitalism.

Venezuela is now described by representatives of the US government as the single most important threat to US hegemony in the region.Time after time the Chavez government has come under attack from the forces of imperialism and their quislings in Venezuela. The whole world knows about the US-sponsored coup, the employers’ lock-out and the recall referendum. In all these confrontations the president and his government have been saved by the mobilisation of the working class and the urban and peasant poor. As a rule, after receiving victory from the hands of the masses, Chavez has sought to accommodate his opponents with calls for national unity. At each turn the masses have demonstrated their tremendous determination and audacity.

Socialism in the 21st century

The defeat of the attempted coup at the hands of the masses gave a great impulse to the revolutionary process. It was the starting point for what characterises every real revolutionary movement. The masses entered the arena of history and came out on the streets to do ‘politics’, i.e. the struggle over which class controls society.

The mobilisations, and specifically the groundswell of support for Chavez in the recall referendum of August last year, have pushed the president, and part of the government, to the left, resulting in, for example, the nationalisation of companies like Venepal - now renamed Invepal, one of the most important paper producing factories in Venezuela. Chavez declared that his once held belief of looking for ‘a third way’, not having to choose between socialism and capitalism, is a farce and that the only alternative to capitalism is socialism. This debate on the development of socialism as a necessary alternative to capitalism has become crucial for the further development of the Venezuelan revolution.

In his speech for the 1 May parade this year Chavez declared that his Venezuelan government was in fact a workers’ government. At the opening rally of the World Festival for Youth and Students in Caracas this year the delegates were greeted by a banner reading "Welcome to the Socialist Bolivarian republic of Venezuela".

Although the radicalisation of the Bolivarian revolution is embraced by the activists, trade unionists and representatives of the barrios, with support for Chavez personally at an all-time high, many are worried for the future and eager for Chavez to take more drastic measures as indeed a true workers’ government would. A workers’ government would take the necessary steps to break with capitalism and landlordism, including the nationalisation of the oil and gas industry, the banks and financial institutions and the leading private companies under workers’ control and management. The announcement by Chavez in early September that the government will no longer grant private, national or foreign mining concessions but would create a national state-owned mining company that will take charge of all mining activities in the country is a step in the right direction. At present it is not clear if this means that the Chavez government is about to cancel concessions granted to American multinationals by the previous government. This is but one example of Chavez’s policy to create national companies, state owned or partly state owned, in competition with the private sector.

This policy, funded with oil dollars, is no recipe to break with capitalism. In the last few weeks Chavez has announced that the Bolivarian government will send commissioners to take seats on the boards of private banks to oversee their dealings. This policy, whilst infuriating the bourgeoisie and imperialism and possibly making it harder for the financial institutions to dodge taxes and finance crime, does not guarantee any real influence or control over finance capital. Chavez might end up having the worst of both worlds, an infuriated national and international bourgeoisie on the one hand and workers frustrated with the lack of progress made by the revolution on the other. This is the typical mistake of conventional ‘radical’ reformism of just wounding capitalism, trying to pull the proverbial tiger’s teeth one by one, whilst allowing its control over productive forces and large swaths of its apparatus to remain intact

Economic growth.

The Venezuelan economy has known rapid growth in 2004 and prospects for 2005 look equally rosy. According to the central bank of Venezuela the economy grew by 17.3% in 2004, although part of this can be explained as a recovery from the bosses’ lock out at the end of 2002-beginning of 2003. For 2005 economic growth is expected to reach 7.9%. Oil and oil exports play a very important part in this. The oil economy accounts for 80% of the country’s exports and Venezuela has benefited enormously from the rise in prices. The price of a barrel of Venezuelan crude rose from $ 20.21 in 2001 to $ 42.25 in 2005 (figures are annual averages for the years quoted). This has meant a huge extra capital inflow. In the first quarter of this year the national oil company received $ 7,600 million in direct sales; on the basis of these figures they would cash $ 30,400 million for the whole of 2005.

The reorganisation of the national oil company PDVSA under the control of the Chavez government, following the company’s management central role in organising the bosses’ lock-out and attempted coup, means that for the first time in Venezuelan history a significant part of the oil profits are invested back into the economy. According to information released by PDVSA management $2,840 million were invested in Fondespa, a fund to regulate oil money towards different development projects. At the same time the company’s directors paid themselves a nice Christmas bonus of 231 million Bolivares or $122,500 for each of the 12 persons on the management board for 2004.

The oil economy itself experienced an 8.7% growth rate, the highest level reached since the Central Bank of Venezuela began keeping records of GDP growth. This has allowed the government to increase spending and invest in the non-oil economy. Non-oil sectors like construction (+ 32.1%), financial institutions and insurance (26.6%), transportation and warehousing (26.4%), commerce and repair services (25.5%), and manufacturing and industry (25.4%) raced ahead in 2004. On average the private sector achieved 18.6% and the public sector 11.0% growth

These growth rates illustrate why part of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie has, for the time being, concluded a separate peace with Chavez. There is a lot of money to be made from Venezuela’s $14.6 billion surplus, an increase of over 3 billion dollars from 2003, when the government is prepared to invest in major construction works, transport and education. Private sector contractors can make a killing if they are awarded government sponsored contracts. There is evidence to suggest that the working class and poor have not done so well over the last two years. Inflation, in 2004, was as high as 25%, increasing the price of food, transport and housing. The working class also suffered most of the effects of the two-month oil strike between December 2002 and February 2003 which took 7.7% off economic growth. Furthermore, with 53% of the active population employed in the informal sectors of the economy it is safe to say that the majority of Venezuelans do not directly benefit from the economic growth.

Oil money has allowed President Chavez to buy the most priceless of commodities in politics - time. The increased spending is one of the reasons that have allowed Chavez to stay in power for seven years whilst improving the day-to-day lives of the masses and extend his base in society. As José Cerritelli, an Andean economist with Bear Stearns in New York says, "There is a positive momentum, not only in oil, that has trickled down to other areas of the economy…This would not have happened if oil prices were not so high, allowing the government to increase spending." Not if, but when oil prices come down as a possible result of a world economic crisis of capitalism this will have the reverse effect on the Venezuelan economy with an almost immediate worsening of employment, revenue and living standards for the Venezuelan working class.

The way the Chavez government has been able to invest in public services, infrastructure and education is a pointer to what would be possible on the basis of a democratically planned economy instead of his policy at present, which is to try and direct chaotic market forces with limited state regulation and intervention. On the basis of workers’ control and management of the leading heights of the economy it would be possible to plan economic and social progress. The vast majority of the oil wealth would go towards rebuilding the lives of ordinary Venezuelans instead of lining the pockets of private contractors. A democratically planned economy could start to radically alter Venezuelan society and the lives of millions of working class and poor people. This train of social progress would have an electrifying effect on the masses in Latin America and spread a new language of socialism, a fluent language of social and economic progress, expressed in the amount of houses built, tonnes of food distributed, jobs created and democracy ensured. This is the best guarantor to secure the national and international defence of the Venezuelan revolution.

Nationalisations and co-management.

This summer Chavez announced the nationalisation of about 700 companies and disclosed a list of another 1400 companies currently under investigation for future expropriation. Unfortunately these new measures follow the Bolivarian template. These are companies already closed down by the employers and the list for future nationalisations is made up of companies currently working at less than 50% of their capacity. The Venezuelan bourgeoisie is guilty of enormous negligence and economic sabotage. According to a survey by employers’ organisation Conindustria most companies, for the second quarter of 2005, were operating at 56.7% of their capacity. Still Chavez declared that expropriation will only be used as a measure of last resort and he asked for the collaboration of local authorities and governors. The message to the owners of the companies under review was that, on the condition that they allowed a form of co-management to workers, they could reclaim their property and apply for state subsidies.

A layer of workers is now coming to the conclusion that, in baseball terms, the government is not playing ball and has not covered all bases. One activist tell us how they frequently have to cajole officials into action, in one instance the government only intervened to nationalise their workplace after the workers had occupied the factory  over a period of two years. Furthermore, co-management as the Bolivarian government sees it is a far cry from workers’ control and management. In some cases, like in the Aluminium producer Alcasa, the workers under the leadership of the UNT trade union have introduced important elements of workers’ control. In Alcasa it is the workforce that elects the managers and managers are subject to recall and people who are elected to the position of manager can only accept on the basis of their previous wages. Carlos Lanz, the recently appointed president of Alcasa, says the results are already visible. In an interview published on the BBC news website (17/08/2005) he is quoted as saying: "Democratic planning is such a powerful lever that even with rather outdated technology we have managed to increase production by 11%."

Alcasa is the exception. In general there are many complaints about the co-management system. Workers get squashed between the Chavista bureaucracy on the one hand, the previous managers on the other, and in some cases their own trade union bureaucracy. In Invepal, the paper mill, the trade union leaders decided to dismantle their union and are hoping to buy off the state’s stake in the company so that they can become the sole owners. In the state-owned electricity company CADAFE, for example, the company’s managers wanted to limit the ‘co-management’ of workers to secondary aspects of production. The managers declared that "there can be no workers’ participation in strategic industries".

These are only a few examples to illustrate the limits of co-management. The Bolivarian government, together with that part of the state apparatus who have wedded their futures to the Chavez government, are promoting co-management as the central core of a new kind of socialism, making the Venezuelan economy part private, part state-owned industry and part social economy i.e. workers and farmers’ cooperatives. At present, and not withstanding Chavez’s radical rhetoric, this is what the Bolivarian government means when using the phrase ‘socialism in the 21st century’. For the masses, however, the idea that 21st century Venezuela needs to be socialist flows from their practical experience and the pressing task of solving the day-to-day problems and taking control over the resources of the country. From the point of view of the working class, the coming into existence of state-owned industry, co-management and cooperatives is the starting point for a discussion on the need for socialism. The conviction is that we need socialism because these measures are positive but not sufficient. In contrast, for the Chavez government and those connected with the state apparatus these measures represent a new breed of socialism.

In reality the Venezuelan economy is still capitalist. This does not mean that the few experiments with workers’ control are unimportant. The trade unions, and indeed all other fighting organisations of the working class, should fight for workers’ control in individual workplaces as a start to its extension to all branches of industry. Workers’ control should allow the workers to be in command of the day-to-day production in the factory and give them control over hiring and firing. Workers, through their general assemblies and councils in the workplace, should have full access to the books and all other ‘so-called’ secrets of the factory, of entire industries and of the national economy as a whole. Thus the workers can begin to discover the actual share of the national economy appropriated by individual capitalists, trusts and by the exploiters as a whole. The working out of the most elementary plan of national production from the point of view of the exploited is impossible without workers’ control, that is, without revealing all the open and hidden methods of the capitalist economy. In that sense workers’ control, even under the general conditions of capitalism, can be a school for workers’ management and the democratically planned economy. It is the basis on which workers can take over the management of the nationalised industry.

The working class needs its own independent organisations

The need for the working class, together with the poor of the cities and the countryside and all those exploited by capitalism, to develop its own independent organisations is becoming ever more pressing. The most urgent task of the day is the need to build an independent revolutionary mass organisation of the working class, armed with a program of socialist revolution.

The task of the revolutionary party is to arm the masses with clear ideas and programme, to draw out the collective lessons of the class struggle and revolutions of the past such as the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the degeneration into Stalinism but also the more recent Latin American experiences of revolutionary struggles such as Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua. Implementing its program, a revolutionary party would lift the consciousness of the working class about its own role and weight in society and in the revolutionary process. A revolutionary party would channel the energy of the working class towards the conscious act of overthrowing capitalism and the construction of a socialist society.

A revolution cannot be dropped on the masses from above. It requires the conscious organisation and activity of the working class, implementing and testing its own program to break with capitalism. Already some trade unionists are drawing the conclusion that the main political party of the Chavez coalition, the MVR or movement for the fifth republic, is not a workers’ party but, on the contrary, is a careerist vehicle in which the officials, in government or part of the state apparatus, who are out to make peace with capitalism are gaining influence. Activists of in the "barrio 23 de enero", one of the poorest and most densely populated areas of Caracas, complained that the MVR was involved in bureaucratic manoeuvres to prevent them standing in local elections.

The local elections of 7 August were marked by a high abstention rate and the beginning of a process of political differentiation. 70 percent of the population chose to stay at home; in many cases, this can be explained as a protest against the pro-Chavez political parties. Farmers in a village outside Caracas explained they would not vote for the government because although their farmers’ cooperative had been recognised by the government a year and a half ago, they were still waiting on the first grant to start production. A layer of the population, convinced that the bourgeois opposition is not a threat for the moment, decided to teach the government a lesson by staying at home.

At the same time, parties who are seen to be on the left wing of the Chavez coalition and who openly complain about bureaucracy and corruption, like the Tupamaro and Venezuelan Communist Party, gained in votes and influence. In the weeks after the elections, bourgeois newspapers reported confrontations between members of the MVR and local activists of Tupamaro and the Communist Party. Tupamaro organised a march at the headquarters of the institution overseeing the elections to protest against electoral fraud by the MVR and other mainstream Chavista parties. The accusation of electoral fraud and vote rigging has been used many times in the past by the bourgeois opposition. This mudslinging by the bourgeois opposition had but one goal, to convince world public opinion that Chavez is a dictator and preparing the ground for a coup. The bourgeois opposition and US imperialism have never succeeded in producing a shred of evidence to back up their allegations.

The fact that they called this demonstration was a reflection of an entirely different phenomenon. It illustrated the anger that workers and activists in the poor barrios feel about the heavy handedness of MVR officials and candidates. Members of the Bolivarian circle in Coche, another barrio of Caracas, told about ill-feeling existing amongst the local activists about the elections. Maybe these criticisms were on minor issues (like the taking away of ballot boxes by overeager officials, before everyone had had the chance to vote), maybe these things are a normal part of the process, but nevertheless they coincide with a widening division between the activists at the base and the officials from the government and the government parties, a widening division caused by the weight of the bureaucracy. Most members of this emerging bureaucracy and the officialdom are recent converts to Chavez. One woman protesting at the actions of a leader in the state of Anzoategui summed up the feelings of a layer of activists when she said: "President, open your eyes…many of those at your side are deceiving you. Listen to the voice of the people."

A revolutionary workers’ party would take up the questions of democracy and representation and the need to develop and link locally elected councils representing the workers and poor. State officials are no substitute for the mass movement. Special measures need to be taken to guarantee that every worker or group of workers who want to run in elections on their own platform get the means to do so; financial support should be available in relation to the strength of their following and, apart from taking up arms against a workers’ government, all political actions and activities should be permitted. It is only in encouraging the mass of the workers to fully participate in the revolutionary process, with all democratic rights, that the revolution can move forward.

Many people complained about the so-called Morachas or electoral agreements. These are pre-electoral pacts made, in these elections, predominantly between the parties of government to guarantee a majority agreement and divide ‘the spoils’ between them. This is at the expense of local activists, who get pushed out, because ‘so and so’ from a party or a party tendency who may not be particularly active in the neighbourhood has been promised a safe place on the electoral list. The workers in general are against these Morachas because they serve the interests of the political elite of ‘professional’ politicians and prevent the participation of the rank and file activists.

The realisation of genuine workers’ democracy can only be achieved on the basis of the mass participation of the working class in the political process and this is where this voyage should begin, the building of instruments to control, manage and plan the economy and the resources available. Committees would need to be established in every workplace, university and borough. On these bodies representatives would be elected, subject to recall and, if paid, would not receive more than the average wage of a skilled worker. The representatives would then organise to meet on the basis of district, city and national levels.

Unfortunately, bodies like the Bolivarian Circles and the Electoral Battle Units (UBEs) that, where called into being by Chavez and which could have developed in such a fashion, have largely disappeared. The Bolivarian Circles were first formed as local community groups at the height of the struggle with the pro-imperialist opposition and played a formidable role in defeating the attempted coup. The Electoral Battle Units were mobilising groups in support of Chavez in the run up to and during the recall referendum.

In neighbouring Bolivia for example the Bolivian workers federation COB (Confederation Obrera de Bolivia) launched an appeal to create a Popular Revolutionary Assembly to unite all the trade unions, the popular movements and student organisations with the goal of working out a strategy for taking power by the working class, the countryside poor and the impoverished middle classes. Of course these appeals need to be translated into action and concrete initiatives. The dynamic Venezuelan trade union federation, the UNT, which has grown massively over the last period, should repeat the example of their comrades in Bolivia and set up their own workers and poor committees in the factories and barrios.

Trade Unionism

The UNT, the National Union of Venezuelan workers, is a very young organisation. Since its inception in May 2003 workers have embraced the UNT as an alternative to the old and corrupt trade union confederation CTV. The CTV leadership cooperated with the reform and privatisation program of the Caldera government in the mid-90s and was, quite rightly, seen as being hand in glove with the bourgeoisie and imperialism. It is hard to find conclusive proof that the UNT has already overtaken the CTV as the main trade union federation. According to the Ministry of Labour, 76.5 percent of collective agreements signed in 2003-04 were with unions affiliated with the UNT, and only 20.2 percent with the CTV. This is due in large part to the UNT’s hegemony in the public sector, for which official preference is certainly a factor. However, even in the private sector the UNT represented 50.3 percent of all collective agreements signed in 2003-04, compared to the CTV’s 45.2 percent.

The UNT is a very young trade union organisation and it is at the forefront of the working class involvement in the Bolivarian revolution. The process in the factories and communities is very dynamic. Workers take initiatives to built UNT branches in their workplaces, young workers’ leaders emerge and the experience of the struggle - but also of the limitations of the Bolivarian process - lead them to far-reaching conclusions. Leaders of a 2.000 members’ strong regional construction workers’ trade union in Carabobo, for example, presented the CWI leaflet to their Executive Committee and approved it in a vote. They were struck by our political program, our appeal to have no confidence whatsoever in the representatives of capitalism and our insistence on the need for independent organisations of the working class. A shop steward for the construction workers union declared in our discussion with him that "The MVR is no organisation of the working class".

Generally speaking, the UNT militants are not only activists in the working places. They take part in all the aspects of the Bolivarian revolution including in the communities and the cooperatives. A member of the Executive Committee of the construction workers trade union explained to us how, in their own barrio, more than 50 cooperatives are active, covering all aspects of everyday live. They have a thousands stories about the magnificent and self-sacrificing work that is being done by the inhabitants and activists. They have hundreds of examples to illustrate the limits of this process, the slowness of the government and officials, and the sabotage of the state bureaucracy and the bourgeois opposition.

Those who care to notice can see many examples of working class struggle against parts of the state and government bureaucracy on a weekly basis. In the first week of September, for example, a group of workers of the PDVSA-Anaco plant surprised public opinion by staging a protest in front of Mira Flores, the Presidential palace, for three days. When they were kicked out by the National Guard early one morning they decided to go to the parliament building and a group of them staged a ‘bleeding protest’ cutting themselves on the arms and chest with pieces of broken glass. These 500 workers, protesting against their unfair dismissal, were heroes less than two years ago. Then, they got a special mention in the PDVSA magazine for their heroic resistance in defeating the bosses’ lock-out.

Other protests are taking place against unfair dismissals, the withholding of pay or other irregularities. Mostly these conflicts are part of an exchange of blows between workers starting to unionise and change the conditions in the factories and the ferocious response by the private sector employers. Some of these employers have very good relations with part of the state machine or local mayors, governors, etc.

The task for the UNT, and its leadership, is to defend the interests of the working class in the class struggle and promote its class independence. The UNT’s policies should not be tied to those of the government or see itself as an auxiliary force in the revolutionary process. Surely if it has a duty to support in words and deeds the positive sides of government policy, it has the same duty towards the workers and the exploited peoples of Venezuela to criticise and struggle against what goes counter to the interests of the workers and the people in general. The task for the UNT is to become the living expression of the struggle waged by the exploited masses. If it succeeds the UNT can fulfil its historical role and become the organisational centre of the revolutionary masses in the struggle for revolutionary socialism.

Land reform

In an article written by a North American researcher for COHA (Council on Hemispheric Affairs), Seth DeLong described the huge rural and urban inequality existing in Venezuela with an analogy. "Imagine if in this country [the United States] a handful of families owned the entire state of California. There is no California Coastal Commission, no limits on the amount of land that may be purchased, no zoning laws, no government oversight, nothing of the sort. But none of this really matters to the average citizen because California, as a conglomeration of large, privately owned estates, will never be seen by most US residents (except itinerant labourers). In other words, try to think of one of the most beautiful states in the union as one giant gated community. Meanwhile, the country’s landed oligarchy owns the vast majority of the land, most of which lies fallow because they prefer to sit on it for the purpose of land speculation rather than use it for agricultural production."

In Venezuela roughly 75 to 80% of the country’s private land is owned by 5% of the landowners. The division of farmland is even more disproportionate. A mere 2% of the population own, through agricultural holdings or latifundos, 60% of the farmland. Because landlords prefer to sit on their land and leave it idle to "engordar el toreno" (fatten the cow), Venezuela is the only net importer of agricultural products in Latin America. In fact the country is forced to purchase more than two thirds of its foodstuffs abroad. That Venezuela’s agricultural sector only accounts for 6% of the country’s GDP is a withering condemnation of the unproductive nature of the latifundo system.

In 2001 the Chavez government set out its plans for land reform with the Law on Land and Agricultural Development. The goals of the legislation were to: set limits to the size of landholdings, tax unused property, redistribute unused mainly state-owned lands to peasants and cooperatives and, lastly, to expropriate uncultivated and fallow land from large privately-owned estates, compensating land owners for their land at market value. At the moment the Chavez government has redistributed about 2.2 million hectares of state-owned land to more then 130’000 peasant families and cooperatives. Until a few months ago none of this land was distributed as a result of the expropriation of private property.

Now tensions are beginning to mount, primarily because in some areas peasants, sometimes with the aid of the government or the army, have begun to occupy privately-owned lands. As a result, the Chavez government has intervened to speed up the process of expropriation and redistribution not only of lands but also of companies. In Britain, the example of the Vestey ranches, owned by Lord Vestey, has been highlighted in the media. It is estimated that the combined ranches of Lord Vestey produce 5% of Venezuelan beef.

The land reform law of President Chavez and the Bolivarian government is trying to avoid the mistakes of previous attempts at land reform. In the 1960s land was distributed to 150,000 peasant families but, because of the lack of a market for the foods produced by these family farms and the lack of agricultural education and training most of the peasants ended up moving away from the land or selling it back to the landowners. Furthermore, the reform of the 1960s was never aimed at breaking up the estates of the large landowners, let alone breaking their financial and political power. Chavez is trying to create a market for the small farmholdings with the help of the cooperatives and links with the government subsidised food programmes. As a second measure, most of the land will remain property of the state to avoid it ending up in the hands of the big landowners.

It is far from sure however that this strategy will work without taking decisive control and expropriating the big landed estates, especially since the rural oligarchy is preparing war on the peasant leaders and sowing the seeds of a counter-revolutionary civil war. In almost all Latin American countries the counter-revolution has begun to organise around the landowning bourgeoisie. They have time and time again combined their forces to impose their rule through ruthless campaigns of torture and murder.

A 6,000 strong demonstration of peasants took to the streets of Caracas at the beginning of July to highlight the plight of the peasant leaders and demand an end to impunity for those responsible for over 130 assassinations. Since the land reform law passed through parliament in 2001 conflicts between land reform activists and landowners have resulted in at least 150 assassinations of campesinos. Since the new impetus given by President Chavez in 2005 violence has escalated even further. Claudia Jardim, a journalist who follows developments in the countryside closely, declared that the political murder rate in the countryside has jumped to an estimated one peasant leader a week since January.

A socialist government would expropriate the big estates and, based on a combination of land distribution and cooperatives, invite the peasants and countryside poor to bring together the small landowners with a view to integrate them into an agricultural plan. A workers’ government would not only implement a drastic program of agrarian reform but would encourage the initiatives of the peasant to take the land and organise rural defence organisations based in the peasant communities to defend themselves against the death squads organised by the landlords.

International impact

The Bush administration, and with it the American elite, is increasingly worried about the effects of Venezuelan foreign policy and its impact in the region. US Administration officials have repeatedly suggested that Venezuela is seeking to destabilise or influence governments in the region, in particular Ecuador and Bolivia. US Imperialism, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, is faced with a government that uses socialist rhetoric and is popular amongst the masses of Latin America. Chavez, emulating Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar, is determined to follow a strategy of building an anti-imperialist Bolivarian alliance of Latin American countries. The US Ambassador to Spain, Eduardo Aguirre, declared in a recent interview in the Spanish newspaper La Vanguard, that President Chávez’s policy "is worrisome, as he expressed interest in exporting his revolution to other Latin American nations".

Worried though US commentators may be, the strategy followed by Chavez is more suitable for the export of oil than it is for the export of revolution. Until 2002, 57 percent of Venezuelan total sales of oil and by-products ended up in North America. The USA depends on Venezuela for 15% of its imports and while officials on both sides have declared that there is no immediate need to change this figures show a different picture. In the last two years average oil exports from Venezuela to North America fell by 24.5% while in 2004 Venezuelan oil sales to Latin America went up from 25 percent to 41 percent. The agreements signed by the Venezuelan government in 2005 with countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, Jamaica, Spain, India and China point to an even greater change this current year. Venezuela is offering Latin American countries looser payment conditions than they could get anywhere else on the market. The signatories of the Petrocaribe, a deal between Venezuela and the countries of the Caribbean, are enjoying an accord in which Venezuela will finance up to 50% of the oil sales and the rest is payable over up to 25 years.

The alliances with the Latin American bourgeois regimes, such as Lula’s Brazil - the new darling of the IMF on the continent - have the effect of obscuring the class issues for the masses in all countries involved. Many of the Latin American governments are only too happy to wear the cloak of radicalism for a few days by allying themselves temporarily with Venezuela. However, once the deals are done nothing stops these governments from once again pursuing their anti-workers and anti-poor agenda. Unfortunately, when Chavez went to Brazil in the midst of the corruption scandal he dismissed any hint that the PT or some of the PT ministers were guilty of corruption. Not only did he ignore an avalanche of documents and evidence that led to the resignation of different government and PT leaders, Chavez went on to declare that the corruption scandal "was an invention of the right-wing parties to smear Lula’s government". Chavez has not made any declarations supporting P-SOL, the Party of Socialism and Liberty, formed in Brazil as a reaction to the neo-liberal policies of the Lula government.

In the last week of August, the Ecuadorian government announced a state of emergency in two of its Amazonian oil producing provinces, Sucumbíos and Orellana. The reason for this crackdown was a very important strike of local oil workers and community activists demanding the expulsion of one North American oil company. This strike developed into a general strike in the two provinces with local communities demanding that the oil companies should be forced to invest in the region’s infrastructure and take measures to reduce unemployment. The strike completely paralysed the Ecuadorian oil-industry. When the government ordered the detention of the leaders of the strike a partial insurgency broke out with the local communities attacking the oil installations, military barracks and the houses of military families in the region. The government appointed a new defence minister, retired General Oswaldo Jarrin, who immediately called on the military "to use maximum force if necessary" to regain control over the two rebellious provinces. The Ecuadorian government, who had supplied oil to Venezuela during the bosses’ lockout, called on Chavez to supply oil to the country to make up for the total paralysis of its own industry. Incredibly, Chavez agreed to supply Ecuador with a cost-free loan of oil. Chavez declared in his program Aló Presidente, "Venezuela will cover the commitments that the Ecuadorian government has not been able to fulfil these days. They will not have to pay a cent." Ecuador is the second largest South American oil supplier to the U.S after Venezuela.

Unfortunately, Chavez has no perspective of spreading a socialist revolution to other countries of Latin America In the instance of Ecuador the Bolivarian strategy of seeking to built alliances with other bourgeois states in Latin America contributed to the derailing the movement of the masses. Considering the turmoil and economic storms ahead of us, the strategy followed by the Bolivarian government of Venezuela will certainly lead to a repeat of incidents like this. Of course, a workers’ government, especially if it is isolated, might conclude temporary alliances with bourgeois governments. It could be forced to do this to save the revolution but it would do so whilst spreading the revolution to other countries and telling the truth to the working class and poor of its own country and the working class and poor of other nations. It would try to avoid at all costs its actions cutting across the development of the class struggle in another nation or that it would play the objective role of an ally of the ruling class of another country against the latter’s own working class.

Unfortunately some in the leadership of the workers’ organisations have illusions in the idea of building Bolivarian alliances. Orlando Chirino, member of the National Co-ordinating Committee of the UNT trade union confederation declared in a recent interview: "It is important for Venezuela to strengthen political alliances throughout Latin America. There is massive support from the peoples of Latin America for the Bolivarian Revolution…Of deep concern however are the threats to the Lula government in Brazil. We need to defend Lula and continue to work to strengthen the Chavez-Kirchner-Lula-Tabare alliance in South America."

The links the Chavez regime has built with Cuba are generally much appreciated by the Venezuelan working class and poor. About 20,000 Cuban doctors work in the poor barrios offering free health care to the Venezuelan people. And indeed these relations can be to the mutual advantage of the workers and poor of the two countries. At the same time, however, there is no need to disguise criticisms of Cuba. While it is every revolutionary’s duty to defend the advances of the Cuban revolution, and a union between Cuba and Venezuela could be the first step to give a fresh impetus to the Cuban revolution and advance the case for socialism in the whole of Latin America, this should be accompanied by a programme for the establishment of genuine workers’ democracy, promoting freedom of organisation and press for the working class and measures against the bureaucracy. There is a genuine feeling of admiration and respect for the Cuban revolution amongst the Venezuelan working class and poor but also recognition that Cuba is ruled by a bureaucratic caste. Amongst some layers, a consciousness exists that while Cuba is an ally in the struggle against imperialism it is not seen as a model to follow for the development of socialism in Venezuela.

Revolutionary socialist program is needed.

The developments in Venezuela are of world importance. The Chavez regime serves as an example for the masses of Latin America, an alternative to the ruthless neo-liberal regimes that reign in the rest of the continent. The re-emergence of a socialist consciousness is a precursor of developments in other countries in the years to come. On the basis of events and experiences in the struggle, the masses will draw far-reaching conclusions on the need for an independent mass working class party armed with a revolutionary socialist programme. Although the Chavez government seems like a very radical force, and Chavez himself has launched a nationwide debate about socialism, the measures taken up until now by his government do not compare with the length to which similar developments went in the 1970s in Chile or Portugal. Neither does the level of self-organisation of the working class or the development of its general consciousness, which was at a higher level in that period. Nevertheless, what we are witnessing today stands as proof that socialist ideas are back on the agenda.

The CWI is building its forces in Venezuela. We are convinced that on the basis of a fighting programme for revolutionary socialism and the independence of the working class we will be able to play an important role in furthering the interests of the working class and socialism on the Latin American continent.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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