The reports from the Venezuelan comrades and the discussion on the revolutionary process in Venezuela, with the participation of members of the Venezuelan CWI section, Socialismo Revolucionario (Revolutionary Socialism), focused on various contradictions within this process but also the task that revolutionaries face today in the country.
For the first time in 9 years, the Chavez government had to face a setback with the defeat of last year’s referendum on the change o the Venezuelan constitution. A critical phase is now opening up in Venezuela. The government proposed to change the constitution recognizing the social movements as part of Venezuelan political system, as well as shorter working hours and reforms at the work places. At the same time, proposals included strengthening the powers of the presidency. All in all, it did not represent a further step to socialism, as Chavez put it, as it did not touch the power of the capitalist monopolies but prioritizes the state economy. However, the reforms had generally progressive features. Unfortunately, the changes to the constitution where proposed from the top. Chavez stated from the beginning, that a discussion was possible, but that no proposal would be changed. Proposed changes from workers and community organization were not considered and only amendments added in the National Assembly were added to the final draft constitution.
The right wing opposition campaigned against the proposed constitution and claimed that Chavez aimed to abolish private ownership although the government simply proposed to recognise four different kinds of ownership in the constitution, including private property. Socialismo Revolucionario campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote because a defeat would only serve to strengthen and embolden the opposition. At the at the same time, comrades argued for a real abolishment of private ownership and for building of a genuine democratic workers’ and peasants ‘ government and the building of an independent movement and organizations of the working class. The referendum was lost because of the higher abstention from a layer of Venezuelans who supported the government in the past. This happened because of the failure of the government to solve the social and economic problems in Venezuelan society.
The referendum defeat has given a new lease of life to the pro-imperialist opposition and made it even more powerful and more aggressive. Possibly, the pro-capitalist camp will win some seats in regional departments in the upcoming regional elections, later this year. The opposition used the university student movement that took to the streets to protest against the closure of the TV station, RCTV, and demanded freedom of the press. They also benefited from increased frustration from the masses, with increasing bureaucratization and the corruption within the state apparatus. Along with this, has been an increasing militarization of the state machine.
During the recent CWI School discussions, the Venezuelan comrades recounted how one of them attended a university course. When the question of the election of a student representative was raised in one class, the teacher asked if there was a soldier present and, if so, they would be the student representative.
Inflation of 22.5 % in 2007 now means that cost of living has almost reached European levels. A can of coca-cola now costs 1 US dollar. A meal in a cheap café can cost up to 8 dollars. Although workers have the highest minimum wage in Latin America – the equivalent of 350 Euros - they need three times this amount to be able to survive, as Venezuela is now the most expensive country in Latin America. Another consequence of capitalist power putting pressure on the government is the food shortages. There is a lack of basic foods, such as rice and milk. Comrades compared the queues for food with those that existed in the former Soviet Union before the restoration of capitalism.
The Venezuelean government established price controls which provoked the capitalists to create shortages. But instead of solving the sabotage of the producers by expropriating them, Chavez went into negotiations with the bosses about price levels. Last year, the Chavez government spent more than 85 million $ of oil money to import food instead of developing the internal production forces. The figure for 2008 is expected to be double this amount.
At the same time, even within the reform programme of the Missiones, which Chavez established, there are increasing problems. While the infrastructure of these projects has been developed there is often a shortage of resources which mean they do not function effectively. Many of the infrastructure projects in transport have not been completed.
The masses in Venezuela today are confronted with a situation where the capitalist class is keeping their wealth and becoming richer, while the poverty rate has not fallen, despite social reforms. Even the fall of the unemployment rate is also due to an increase of part-time and unstable contracts. Without nationalization of the key industries, the reforms still depend mainly on oil money. A worldwide recession will have serious repercussion for the Venezuelan economy and, especially, a fall of the oil price would cause severe problems to the achievements that have been made, so far.
Some CWI comrades compared this policy to that of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, in the 1970s, that went on to negotiate concessions with the pro-capitalits Contras, instead of destroying capitalist power, once and for all. This incorrect policy by the Sandinista leadership led to their slow defeat and a tragic setback for the masses.
United Socialist Party
An important part of the discussion at the School on Venezuela dealt with the foundation of the United Socialist Party (PSUV) that mainly contains the pro-Chavez parties that used to be in the government. The CWI in Venezuela, Socialismo Revolucionario, also takes part in this new force; to put forward and to defend Marxist ideas, including The Theory of the Permanent Revolution, and win new supporters to our ideas. This will be a hard struggle, as it is becoming more and more clearly the new party will be constructed in a top-down-way and the struggle for internal democracy will be one of the tasks revolutionary activists will have to carry out. Two comrades from the CWI have been told by the party bureaucracy not to come back to meetings, as they are no longer considered members. Many of the PSUV branches (‘battalions’) are bureaucratically controlled by former officials of the old MVR, the Chavez party.
Another aspect of the struggle in the PSUV is over the question of the programme of the party. Chavez presents the historical figure of Bolivar as the main thinker behind the ideas of the PSUV, and Chavez said that the idea that the working class should lead the revolutionary movement, and the construction of socialism, were old fashioned and obsolete. The question of Marxism has been pushed to the sidelines by the PSUV bureaucracy.
During the School discussion, SR members also raised the questions on the CWI’s concrete demands concerning the building of popular councils as an alternative to the official state structures, workers control of the misiones and in the workplaces fighting for workers control and management.
Socialismo Revolucionario (SR) is not only involved in the work inside the PSUV but is also made up of trade union activists, for example, in the health sector. The trade union movement faces a severe fragmentation. Nine years after it emerged out of the revolutionary process, the UNT faces deepening bureaucratization and loss of members. The internal factional struggles and bureaucracy has meant that the UNT is, in reality, paralysed. Only 12% of the Venezuelan workforce is organized in the trade union movement.
A layer of workers have lost any trust in the trade union movement, as a result of the lack of democracy and the rise of mafia practices amongst some trade union representatives in some sectors. In construction, for example, it is not uncommon that workers are asked to pay their first two months of wages to the trade union bureaucrats who control recruitment of workers before they are given a job. Comrades told the School about the despicable practice that some women workers are asked for sexual favours before they are allowed a job. Amongst a layer of workers the idea of a trade union has become so discredited that it is necessary to raise the need for workers to become organized through committees of struggle. In most sectors there have not been any elections to the trade union leadership. The situation facing oil and contruction workers is such that the UNT has been hi-jacked by the trade union current closely linked to the government and the Ministry of Labour. Abuse of power is rife, as was shown when Orlando Chirino was sacked from his job at PDVSA. In this situation, the need to raise democratic demands is important, as it is necessary to work with alternative ways to organize workers, for example, through rank and file networks, committees of struggle and trade unions of the base, linking up to fight for workers’ rights and against the bureaucracy. Unfortunately, Chirino had left himself open for this attack by adopting a mistaken position in the referendum campaign and supporting a blank vote.
Chavez tries to get a grip on the UNT and to transform it into an extension of the government instead of a militant political force. This goes along with repression of working class activists, including the Socialismo Revolucionario comrades, but also more prominent figures such as Chirino, a trade union leader who played a very decisive role in organizing a successful struggle against the bosses’ lockout in 20002. Today it is vital to defend the autonomy of the trade unions - which have no clear line on how to lead struggles of the working class - to defend and build democratic structures and the unification of the trade unions in the workplaces.
Fight imperialism and domestic right wing
Therefore, it is crucial for revolutionary Marxists not only to fight imperialism and the oligarchy but also the right wing inside the revolutionary movement. The growth of working class action expresses itself in strikes, in different sectors, such as steelworkers, Coca Cola workers or public sector workers. This reflects a growing demand for action amongst a layer of the working class and the prospects for a growing class polarization in the pro-Chavez Bolivarian movement. This may raise the prospect of a section of the ruling class resting on Chavez government to attack the working class. They will then come back again and try to remove his regime and establish a more stable reliable government to defend their class interests. This could be attempted through the establishment of a repressive authoritarian government with a democratic mask, like the Urribe government in Colombia.
Throughout the discussion, CWI comrades stressed the threat of counter-revolution in different forms and the urgent need to strengthen the independent struggles of workers and to build democratic independent organizations of struggle and workers’ control, to take the movement forward and to avoid a serious defeat for the working class.
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