Following the defeat of the coup in April the CWI warned: "…it is now essential that the working class and oppressed in Venezuela seize the initiative and take the necessary steps to overthrow capitalism and establish a democratic workers’ government with a revolutionary socialist programme. If this is not done then the wounded beast of US imperialism, and the vengeful ruling class of Venezuela, will prepare to strike again." (CWI Statement May 2002).

The moment of decision now appears to have arisen for the Venezuelan working class with the calling of an "indefinite general strike" by the right-wing and capitalist class, with the objective of overthrowing Hugo Chávez and his radical populist government. An all, out offensive to overthrow the government has been launched. Chávez now faces the most serious crisis since the attempted coup in April 2002. The coup was not defeated by Chávez but by a spontaneous mass movement from below of the poor from the shantytowns with the support of sections of the rank and file of the army.

The CWI explained after the masses had inflicted this defeat on the counter-revolutionary forces that it was necessary for the masses to go onto the offensive; build independent committees of workers, the urban poor and rank and file soldiers which should be linked together nationally and locally. This is only possible through a revolutionary socialist programme to be adopted to abolish capitalism. Unfortunately this has not happened and the forces of reaction again threaten to unseat Chávez. A massive polarisation along class lines has now opened up in Venezuela.

The ‘strike’ has been called under the umbrella of the ‘Co-ordinadora Democratica’ which is made up of, older capitalist politicians, the employers’ organisation, Fedecamaras, the tops of the Roman Catholic Church and the corrupt trade union leadership in the CTV which organises about 18% of the workforce. The character of the ‘strike’, which is more of a ‘voluntary lock-out’, is revealed by the fact that the employers have continued to pay the wages of those who join the ‘strike’. It has been joined by big sections of the middle class, some skilled workers and, according to some reports, by other sections including some dockers in Caracas.

Tragically the lessons of the attempted coup were not learnt and, rather than go onto the offensive, Chávez attempted to placate the ruling class. He reinstated the sacked right-wing director to the board of the state oil company PVVSA and removed some of his own supporters.

This was similar to the mistakes made by Salvador Allende in Chile following the collapse of a premature coup in June 1973. In an attempt to appease the military Allende invited them to join the government – in particular Augusto Pinochet, who then proceeded to plan the successful blood bath which was executed in September 1973.

Chávez did not go so far as to do this. He did replace some of coup the conspirators at the head of the army. However, the ‘nest’ of counter revolutionary forces in the army, as recent events have shown, was not destroyed. To do this the appointment of even ‘loyal’ officers is not sufficient. It is necessary to form committees of rank and file soldiers to act as a check on the officers who are linked to capitalism with powers to elect new ones if necessary.

In PVDSA key administrative posts were given back to the right-wing, who have predictably used them to plan this strike in a further attempt to overthrow the government. In Venezuela the control of the PVDSA is of crucial importance and has become a central battleground between government and opposition.

In the post April situation even the appointment of government supporters to the board of PVDSA and the replacement of some of the coup conspirators in the military insufficient. In the PVDSA, the introduction of democratic workers’ control and management is necessary. The board should be comprised of one third elected representatives of the workers and management of PVDSA and a majority elected from representatives of the rest of the working class, a workers’ government could plan and use the whole of the oil industry in the interests of the whole of the population.

In the army, as the CWI explained following the coup, rank and file soldiers committees should be elected. These bodies should elect the officers and bring to trial those implicated in the attempted coup and acting against the democratic interests of the masses.

Unfortunately, the failure to take these and other steps has given the forces of reaction time to prepare a new offensive. The class polarisation which has developed and the renewed threat of reaction show that the half-way house which Chávez has tried to build cannot continue indefinitely. Incremental changes, small reforms, neither fully satisfy the working class or the middle class but irritate the ruling class and provide them with the pretext to overthrow radical governments that they think threaten their interests.

Since April the social and economic crisis has deepened. The renewed, determined attempt to overthrow Chávez could well succeed during the course of the current crisis and lead to the government being swept aside by the right wing opposition movement which the ruling class is currently leading. This is probably the preferred option of the Venezuelan ruling class and the Bush administration.

Because they are haunted by the fear that another failed coup attempt could deepen the polarisation and mobilisations of the masses, and propel Chávez in an even more radical and left direction. A successful coup in Venezuela, with the support of the US, would also complicate the position of imperialism in the rest of Latin America especially following the election of Lula in Brazil and Guitiérrez in Ecuador.

But, events could propel them into attempting a second coup which, if successful, would need to be conducted under the cover of calling new elections, which they would attempt to rig to ensure a victory for the right wing. The threat of a victory for the pro-capitalist right wing is very strong in the short term.

Two questions now face the masses of Venezuela: how to avert this threat, and why has the right been able to increase their support since Chávez came to power.

Venezuelan society is currently totally polarised and is split down the middle. According to the recently published polls Chávez can count on the support of 30%. The accuracy of these polls is questionable to say the least as every polling organisation – like every national daily paper – is controlled by the capitalist opposition and actively involved in the campaign to bring down his government. However, while retaining overwhelming support in the shanty towns and poor areas of Caracas he has undoubtedly lost the support he initially enjoyed amongst significant sections of the middle class and maybe of some workers as well.

He was swept to power with over 70% of the vote in December 1998 and in 1999 the parties which supported him won 91% of the seats in elections to the newly established Constituent Assembly. His support amongst the middle class since then has been steadily eroded.

Chávez has placed himself at the centre of a pincer movement which is increasingly closing in on him. On the one side Chávez has struck some blows against the interests and privileges of sections of the ruling class and their supporters – especially those employed by the state. He has take some steps to curb corruption. Some reforms have also been introduced, including distribution of unoccupied land to the peasants, the building of thousands of new schools and the introduction of free places at universities.

However, he has not been prepared to break from capitalism and adopt a revolutionary socialist alternative based upon a nationalised and democratically planned and controlled economy. The adoption of such a programme would of course meet with the implacable opposition of US imperialism and the capitalist class of Venezuela and the rest of Latin America.

But Latin America is in ferment as the election of Lula in Brazil and Guitiérrez in Ecuador illustrate, together with the mass movements against neo-liberal policies which have rocked Bolivia and Peru. The adoption of revolutionary socialist policies would win mass support across the continent and provide a basis from which capitalism and landlordism throughout the continent could be overthrown and a democratic socialist federation of Latin American established.

Unfortunately Chávez has attempted to do the impossible and preside over a "market economy" with a human face. He has viewed the masses, especially the working class, as an auxillary rather than the decisive class that will transform society.

The radical populist policies he has introduced, together with his opposition to US foreign policy denouncing the attack on Afghanistan as "responding to barbarism with barbarism", has been a constant and increasing source of irritation to US imperialism and the ruling class in Venezuela. US imperialism needs to have "a safe pair of hands" in government because of the importance of the oil industry which accounts for 80% of national income in Venezuela. It is also important to the US economy. Venezuela is now the second largest exporter of oil to the US, following Saudi Arabia. The current ‘strike’ has already cut US oil imports by 14%.

At the same time the failure to introduce socialist policies has meant that the government has been unable to satisfy the needs and demands of the middle class, which has been devastated by the worsening economic crisis. Inflation has soared to 30%, which has eroded the savings of the middle class and unemployment has rocketed. 70% of the population now live below the poverty line.

The social and economic crisis which exists is due to the continuation of rotten capitalism in Venezuela. At the same time this has been compounded by a conscious campaign of economic sabotage by the ruling class designed to undermine the government. During the first three months of the year an estimated 10% of GDP was taken out of the country. In three days during February US$700 million was taken in what has become a steady flight of capital out of Venezuela.

In the face of such economic sabotage Chávez has been left without an answer because of his failure to break with capitalism and introduce socialist policies or even radical measures such as the nationalisation of the banks, national and international, or the establishment of a state monopoly of foreign trade to stop capital being taken out of the country.

The ruling class has capitalised on the discontent which exists and proclaimed a "general strike" against the government. This mobilisation illustrates the highly polarised situation which currently exists in Venezuela.

The driving force of this ‘stoppage’ has been undoubtedly the employers. In the ‘strike’ the employers have continued to pay the wages of those on ‘strike’. The rich elite has been able to exploit the fears and demands of the middle class because of the failure of Chávez to offer an alternative to them.

Much of the ‘strike’ has been a shutdown by management but with the support of big sections of a relatively privileged section of workers including white- collar workers, technicians and the middle class.

According to some reports some other sections of workers have also been seduced into joining the ‘strike’ because of the absence of a programme by the government that will resolve the economic and social crisis.

The strike amongst the oil workers is particularly important. This layer have has enjoyed a relatively privileged position. As Chávez rightly pointed out the managers at the state oil PVDSA received of US$50,000 per year in a country where 70% live below the poverty line. The union leaders of the oil workers received salaries of US$24,000 per month before Chávez came to power and introduced legislation against them.

Moreover this section was due to gain from plans to privatise the state oil company PVDSA, which was prevented by changes to the constitution introduced by Chávez.

The class polarisation is shown by the ‘Tale of two plazas’ which have been reported by some capitalist commentators. In Plaza Francia in the wealthy suburb of Altamira, "Demonstrators take breaks in the creperie on one side of the square, negotiating through lines of Harley-Davidson motorcycles." (Daily Telegraph, London 14/12/02).

At the other end of town in Plaza Sucre: "There, the skin is darker, the music a cacophony of competing sound systems, the air filled with the smell of bus fumes and barbecues. Among the stalls squatting illegally on pedestrian shopping promenades, posters of a uniformed Chávez with a red beret and drawn sword are for sale along with bootlegged video tapes and CD’s. ‘The is another country inside the one we live, one of privilege for the military and the oil workers. Chávez is the only man who gives a damn about the poor.’ said Edith Mezzich a bespectacled former nurse…" (International Herald Tribune 27/11/02).

The strike is now into its third week and the situation is unclear at the time of writing. The viciously anti-Chávez character of all of the daily papers in Venezuela gives a totally distorted picture of events. They are actively campaigning to bring down the government. As Gregory Wilpert commentated in Le Monde: "Of course, the private media in Venezuela does not reflect this (mass pro-Chávez protests) and covers only opposition demonstrations, leaving the impression to non-participating observers that only the opposition has popular support."

Some reports indicate that it is becoming more determined as the situation is becoming undoubtedly more and more polarised. Others, such as the British Daily Telegraph, indicate that it shows some signs of crumbling: "The approach of Christmas has weakened the resolve of many striking shop owners who could not afford to miss out on the seasonal spending bonanza and the shutters have opened across the capital." (14/12/02).

As the Spanish daily El País pointed out, the poor who support Chávez are far more accustomed to surviving hardship than the middle class who may be ground down by its effects and drift back to work.

Wilpert also reported that the first days of the strike only enjoyed limited support confined to McDonald’s, a few other fast food chains, supermarkets and the private schools of the rich. However, it was given an impetus when the managers of PVDSA joined it and in particular when the tanker drivers and some dockers joined in.

Wilpert also reported that the strike was given a major propaganda boost when a gunman killed three and injured thirty on an anti-Chávez demonstration. The press and media blamed a Portuguese national working in Venezuela and held the government responsible. The video footage used to ‘prove’ the shooting however may have been taken before the killings and the figure in the film is so blurred as to prevent definite identification and may well have been a set up by the opposition.

The outcome of the current ‘strike’ is not certain. It could collapse but before this happens the situation may become far more polarised. Already there are elements of a civil war developing. The army is also reportedly split and is polarised between pro- and anti-Chávez forces.

The Financial Times reported that the military may be preparing to intervene. "Many officers may now be starting to understand that maintaining loyalty to Mr. Chávez will come at big personal cost if he is forced to resign, Col Nuñez said." (FT 18/12/02). This is a possibility but it is not certain that the army tops will be able to strike a decisive blow at this stage.

It also seems that the army is split. Chávez was partly saved by the intervention of sections of the rank and file of the army in April. Since then debates have reportedly been taking place amongst the 70,000 armed forces, amongst which many of the rank and file and junior officers support Chávez. Officers supporting Chávez have been promoted to leading positions.

Many of Chávez’s supporters amongst the poor are determined to fight the attempts of reaction to remove him from power. The Financial Times quoted one Chávez support as saying: "We are not going to cede power to the ‘counter-revolution’, we will defend it with force. It’s death or glory for us." …"The people will defend Chávez with what they have – sticks, stones, bottles. But if this conflict deepens to the point that we need to be armed, we will be armed." (19/11/02).

However, this determination must be given concrete expression if the rightwing to be defeated. If it is not organised and does not find a clear revolutionary socialist expression such determination could evaporate amongst the mass of the poor when faced with a decisive blow from the right wing.

It should be remembered that only one week before Pinochet’s coup in Santiago on September 11 1973, 500,000 marched demanding arms. One week later when the decisive moment arrived the workers movement was left paralysed because of the failure of the leadership to prepare and carry through the necessary action to defeat the coup.

Today in Venezuela the urgent necessity is the need for independent action and organisation by the working class.

The Bolivarian Circles must be expanded and strengthened to include elected representatives from all of the workplaces, shantytown dwellers and the rank and file of the army. Armed defence detachments must be created in each local area. The Bolivarian Circles must also be linked up on a local, city-wide and national basis. A national congress of these circles needs to be convened with the aim of forming a democratic government of working people with a socialist programme that will break with capitalism.

An emergency programme for the economy needs to be established based upon the nationalisation of the major companies, banks and finance companies to be controlled and managed democratically by the working class. Such a programme should appeal to the skilled and middle class to join a struggle to rebuild the economy and plan it to meet the needs of the mass of the population and not just the rich elite who are currently exploiting the middle class to serve their own ends.

The establishment of a democratic socialist Venezuela, if linked to an appeal to the masses of the whole of Latin America for support and to overthrow capitalism and landlordism, would win massive support. Such a movement could challenge the might of US imperialism. It could win support of the ‘latinos’ in the USA and through them the North American working class and open the prospect of defeating US imperialism. Ultimately it is the only way to defeat imperialism and capitalist reaction in Venezuela.

Even if Chávez succeeds in riding out the current crisis, which is far from certain, the same social and political issues will remain. Further attempts to overthrow him will be attempted including the possibility of a military coup. Such a development would provoke massive turmoil through out Latin America. The situation is not the same as the 1970s. There is a profound hatred of the consequences of military dictatorship amongst the masses throughout the continent following the experience of the black years of living under the ‘iron heel’ of the likes of Pinochet. As Argentina has shown, where in many respects conditions are ripe for a military intervention, even the military has opposed taking this road at this stage.

This does not mean that it is excluded but it will be more complicated than in the past. If a coup is carried through in Venezuela it will not be a ‘Pinochet’ dictatorship. It will be done under the guise of calling elections. Even then it is not certain that Chávez would be defeated without massive rigging. The right-wing is likely to split. Moreover, despite the fact that his radical regime has not resulted in significant economic gains for the poor he retains enormous support. He is seen as the ‘only one who speaks for us and cares about us’. The poor in the shantytowns are aware of what a return of the old dynasty would mean for them and they remain bitterly opposed to it.

The stormy events in Venezuela are currently at the heart of the crisis which is now unfolding throughout Latin America. They above all illustrate the need to build new independent mass parties of the working class with revolutionary socialist policies as the only way out of the impasse which exists under capitalism.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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