This article was first published on 8 March, 2002
At a political crossroads
The forces of the domestic opposition - "fuelled by the wealthy" according to one newspaper - are an uneasy coalition of different social and political groups underpinned by the economic deterioration following the dramatic fall in the price of oil. Furthermore, the opposition has also become more confident by the US administration declaring that Chavez has to cave in, or "he’s not going to finish his term", as one US State Department Official declared 23 February.
Hugo Chavez came to power on a wave of popular support following landslide elections in December 1998 and won another six years in office in 2000.
His promises to end corruption modernise Venezuela and redistribute wealth, ensured support from the urban and rural poor.
According to Chavez, the new regime was following "the glorious examples of Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Miranda, [leaders of the Latin American struggle for independence in the 19th century] army generals who fought for the freedom and dignity of their people".
The social programmes - introduced at a time of falling unemployment and inflation - in combination with a degree of independence in foreign policy vis-a-vis US imperialism, made it possible for the new regime to maintain popular support after 1999.
The rise in the price of oil was an additional factor which worked in favour of the regime. Between 1998 and 2000, Venezuela’s oil exports nearly doubled, and the country is the world’s fourth biggest oil exporter. Oil represents 75% of the country’s export revenues and 50% of government income.
Venezuela is also one of the top three suppliers of oil to the US and the US administration has repeatedly accused Chavez of using oil exports as a means of spreading "his ideology" throughout Latin America or, allegedly, of supporting the guerrillas in neighbouring Colombia.
For a time it was possible for the regime to balance between Venezuela’s contending social classes and also avoid coming into direct conflict with the US.
However, faced with increasing social unrest throughout Latin America and following its victory in the war against Afghanistan, US imperialism has concluded that it has to strike against the Chavez regime before similar regimes could come to power in other countries.
It was the implementation of a new land reform, (which gives the government power to expropriate and redistribute land regarded as unproductive) and increased state control, that has rallied the opposition forces together.
In November 2001, the federation of the main employers’ body took the initiative to call for a one-day "strike" against the government. The employers were supported by the corrupt leaders of the CTV, the biggest trade union federation in Venezuela.
That call for a strike, held on 10 December 2001, marked the beginning of a counter-offensive by the ruling class, involving even the section of the capitalist class who initially supported Chavez.
Since then, the same opposition forces have taken to the streets on several occasions provoking big counter-demonstrations by supporters of the regime. The situation has become extremely polarised and volatile, while the US newspaper International Herald Tribune accuses Chavez of "splitting Venezuela along class lines". [27 February]
But Chavez is not just under increased diplomatic and political pressure. The economy is sinking, partly due to a fall in the price of oil and partly as a result of economic sabotage, ie the strike of capital called by the ruling class. Investments are down, the country experienced a flight of capital at the beginning of this year and banks are refusing loans to small farmers.
In mid-February the government was forced to float the bolivar, the national currency. The bolivar has since plunged 35%, a move that has led to increased prices on imported goods and food.
However, these actions against the government could have the opposite effect to that expected. It could compel Chavez to go much further than intended - for example nationalising the banks and taking a firmer stand against US imperialism - if the regime is going to survive.
The opposition and US imperialism is calculating that the economic crisis, dwindling support for Chavez, at least according to opinion polls, and a possible split of the armed forces, are going to be enough to force Chavez out. But at this stage only Air Force colonel Pedro Soto and National Guard captain Pedro Flores have demanded Chavez resigns.
The programme of Chavez has articulated many of the demands of the exploited masses. But the regime, despite its sometimes radical acts and rhetoric, has made no attempt to break from capitalism.
This means that the interests of the working class will clash with capitalist interests and, therefore, with Chavez.
This basic contradiction has now come to the fore. In order to defeat the forces representing the old corrupt order and imperialism, the masses have to take control of society.
The oppressed can only rely on their own strength and solidarity. It is necessary for the workers, peasants and the poor to establish their own independent and democratic movement and carry out mass actions to defend their interests.
Independent workers’ committees, together with those of peasants, indigenous peoples, rank and file soldiers, and the urban poor, need to be created. Such democratic committees, united on a local, regional and national level, could form the basis of a government of workers and peasants.
A government acting in the interests of working people would have to nationalise the industries and banks and confiscate the land owned by the big ranchers. A planned economy under democratic workers’ control would begin to lift the masses out of desperate poverty.
A workers’ government would appeal to the masses of Latin America to follow their path. Furthermore, given the dominance of imperialism, it would be vital to make an appeal for international solidarity and support from workers in the US and Europe - spreading the socialist revolution internationally.
"Argentina’s despair is simply an extreme version of a broader malaise. Across the region, Latin Americans are increasingly unhappy with the results of liberal reforms [ie neo-liberal counter-reforms - eds] and feel cheated by the politicians who promised they would benefit.
"Many are demanding more equitable economic and social policies and a tough line on growing crime and violence... Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has responded to popular protests by signalling the next stage of the Bolivarian revolution - a string of land reforms and other radical measures." (Financial Times, 21 February.)
In October 2001, Chavez displayed a photograph of dead Afghan children and called on the US Bush administration to stop "the slaughter of innocents".
In response, the US State Department recalled ambassador Donna Hrinak for "consultations". According to the Washington Post, 26 February: "When she returned, she had what one US official called ’a very difficult meeting’ with Chavez, in which she told him ’to keep his mouth shut on these important issues’."