The commemorations on 5 March to mark one year since the death of Chavez take place in the midst of a critical conjuncture in his self-titled ’Bolivarian Revolution’. The violent protests, in which 18 have been killed from 12 February to date, instigated by the far right demanding the overthrow of the Government have gained momentum, even spreading to a few barrios in Caracas where demands are made for the Government to end food scarcity, act on inflation and crime. The situation is a real threat to the Government as well as the revolutionary left, the working class and the poor (for more analysis of the current situation please see previously published articles here).
This is not, however, the first time the ’Bolivarian Revolution’ has been under threat and although there are many subjective and objectives differences between now and Chavez’s period as president, one important difference is Chavez himself. His role as the ’glue’ in the political process that held almost everything and everyone together is undeniable.
Chavez’s image continues to be seen in most poor and working class areas in every city and town. On government demonstrations and marches there are more images of Chavez than anyone else and the slogan that began after his death is still heard loud and clear ’Chavez vive, the revolution sigue’ (Chavez lives, the revolution continues). In countries as far away as the Philippines, Chavez’s image can be seen on protests and demonstrations as a symbol of struggle. He is seen as the key figure in the ’repolarisation’ of Latin America.
A Reflection of Struggle
Chavez, in himself, was a reflection and product of the struggle of working class and poor Venezuelans that started many years before he was first elected. Undoubtedly, the key event that made most of an impression on him and forced him into action and to play a leading role in the failed 1992 military coup was the 1989 uprising.
This event known as the Caracazo or Sacudón saw the slaughter of an estimated 3,000 people at the hands of the military and the "Social Democratic" Government, of Carlos Andres Perez. The number of deaths is estimated because it still has not been confirmed exactly how many died during 3 days of protest and rioting following the implementation of the first IMF package of savage cuts, privatisation and price rises in Latin America. Some even estimate the number as high as 5,000.
The impact of the massive loss of life and the role of the military set a small group of soldiers on a course of change, culminating in the 1992 coup. Although the coup failed, Chavez, who was in charge of the Caracas operations, became a legend. His famous speech telling supporters on national television that they had failed ’for now’ before he was sent to prison, told the masses that it was not over.
Seven years later Chavez stood and was elected as president. Chavez’s election in December 1998 represented a complete break with the past for Venezuelans. After 40 years of so-called ’democracy’ 80% of the population found themselves living in poverty. The massive wealth generated by the exportation of seemingly never-ending petroleum resources stayed in the hands of the elite.
Chavez’s first election campaign, while still radically different to anything presented by the out of touch Christian Democrats (COPEI) or the Social Democrats (AD), focused on basic reforms, an as yet undescribed ’Bolivarian Revolution’ and most importantly constitutional changes. His election triumph heralded the first of many (he won 16 of the 17 elections over the course of 14 years).
Once elected, Chavez rapidly found himself losing support from those sections of the ruling class who had initially supported or tolerated his election. Popular reforms began to threaten their interests and led to the 2002 coup, which saw him deposed and flown to a military island, but for just two days.
Saved by the Masses
Chavez, not for the last time, was saved by the masses. The huge outpouring of anger on the streets, particularly in Caracas, showed the power of the working class and poor and forced the right wing to first tremble and then flee the Presidential Palace. Although until that time his reforms had been relatively modest and the Government had not adopted the word ‘socialism’, consciousness was such that the working class and poor knew they had more chance with Chavez than the old right wing guard.
Chavez’s triumphant return to the Presidential Palace, as hundreds and thousands met him represented not just a return of the President, but also the demands of the masses for the ’Bolivarian Revolution’ to go further. It was the first major turning point in the struggle. Unfortunately, despite the masses wanting to go further, Chavez did not take radical action following the coup. Rather, he told supporters to go home and called for national unity as a way forward for the country. Something, that he wrongly repeated, at various stages of the crisis which followed. Despite later speaking of socialism, he then sought to appease sections of the ruling class with appeals for national unity.
He was though pushed again by events during the bosses’ lockout, which saw a massive radicalization of the working class and the poor. This event, where millions faced food scarcities, lack of water and gas for months on end, led to radical organization within the organizations that previously existed in the barrios and among revolutionaries. Once again the resilience of the masses led to the right wing’s defeat.
The result of these events and sustained attacks of sabotage by the right wing backed by US imperialism, caused a massive radicalisation. Clearly, Chavez was also radicalised by events and the mass pressure which developed. In 2005, for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a world leader spoke of socialism and declared what was happening in Venezuela was Socialism of the 21st Century. He spoke of Marx and even Trotsky on occasions.
Chavez talked about capitalism and its impact on the poor, when many continues didn’t even bother to say they were capitalist anymore as capitalism had ’won’ in their words, and therefore leaving only one system in place. Chavez was one of the only world leaders to stand up to Bush and to oppose the imperialist interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He supported Cuba and trade with Venezuela became the lifeline for Cuba, which was facing disaster after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Redistribution of the wealth was a key aspect of "Socialism in the 21st Century". Part of the enormous wealth generated from petroleum was used nationally as well as internationally to implement social reforms and fund programmes to help the poor. Food subsidisation programs began. In 1999, almost 1 in 4 Venezuelans lived in extreme poverty. This dropped to 10.7% by 2007. Illiteracy rates dropped and school attendance increased. These reforms had a significant impact in Venezuela where many for the first time could visit a doctor or learn to read through many of the ’missions’ that commenced.
The reforms combined with a rapid program of nationalisation of some key industries in the country, albeit with compensation paid to the transnational companies that previously owned them, was an enormous step forward.
Chavez understood that his base of support was the masses and wrongly believed that through implementing reforms under capitalism, changes could be made to the system so that it was more ’human’ and eventually lead to socialism. We supported and support any progressive and positive reforms that are made under capitalism however, we argue now as we did at the time that this strategy, if not combined with the overthrow of capitalism would fail as it has on many occasions.
Furthermore, we said that while capitalism remained, Venezuela would be highly vulnerable to the boom and bust cycle of capitalism. Funding from the reforms came and continues to come directly from the exportation of petroleum.
As in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, we said that while reforms were important and vital and should be fought for they would never be permanent while capitalism remained. Furthermore, the capitalist class, both nationally and internationally, would continue to attack any reforms or actions that threatened their interests. Rather than languish in this situation, it was necessary as it is now to decisively overthrow capitalism.
In 2005, the conditions to do so existed. The ruling class was in disarray and defeated after the failed coup and lockout, the middle classes were wavering, the working class without doubt was consciously involved in the struggle. The key factor absent during this period was a revolutionary party armed with a program of revolutionary change to channel the masses and defeat capitalism.
In 2007, he announced the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Unfortunately this party, top down from the start, did not adopt either a democratic form of elections of officials, or democratic party structures that would hold the leading committees responsible to the rank and file of the organisation. It did not adopt a system of automatic recall or limits on what elected officials would take home as pay. The leadership did not understand the role of the working class in achieving the socialist revolution and applied a top down method.
As a result, the PSUV was from the start, as it is today, a bureaucratic structure that essentially acts as a hand brake on real grassroots and working class movements. The lack of democratic control by the working class resulted in the emergence of a strong bureaucracy riddled with corruption. The positive development of the Consejo Comunales and more recently the elections that took place for spokespeople in the long awaited Communes have been ground down to a halt. Not by the PSUV exclusively, but also by the bureaucracy that has formed through the stagnation of the revolutionary process.
Despite stagnation, Chavez remained untouchable
Despite Chavez’s radical discourse and his denial that Venezuela would be affected by the global financial crisis in 2007- 2008, it was. The extreme fall in the price of oil saw the budget for many reforms halved and reparation works to hospitals and a schools ground to a halt.
The mounting bureaucracy and corruption in the government and PSUV saw many activists worn out by the process. Chavez often publicly recognised these problems, but failed to find a way to change the situation. The various attempts to form an alliance with other left groups and social movements outside the PSUV has led today to the Gran Polo Patriotico (GPP), which like its predecessors remains completely dominated by the PSUV.
But despite all of this, the majority of Venezuelans continued and continue to support Chavez and what he represented. Chavez was frequently seen as ’above’ the bureaucracy and corruption by the masses. Despite food scarcities, souring inflation, plummeting quality in public health and education and increasing crime, Chavez remained a figure set apart. Many Venezuelans speak of the emotional and even spiritual connection they felt with him as a leader.
When he died, millions poured into the street around the country to mourn him. Over days, hundreds and thousands queued at times for over 24 hours in the hot March sun to view his body, before burial.
The government, well aware of the enormous support Chavez had, used his legacy, image and name more than that of Maduro in the 2013 Presidential elections. However the absence of the man himself bought the simmering discontent felt as a result of the stagnation in the process to the surface. The right wing adopting a new so-called ’democratic’ and ’inclusive’ agenda were also able to tap in at least partially to this.
Maduro won the election by a whisker (just over 200,000 votes), compared to Chavez’s win in his last election in October 2012 where he won by over 2 million votes. Unfortunately this has not led to a reflection or a radicalization in the actions of Chavism, but rather, large steps backwards. We support the positive gains and reforms made under Chavez, but the best way of defending them is taking them further through revolutionary organisation. The current crisis in Venezuela should force many, both nationally and internationally, to look at what has been gained and what is necessary right now.
At this critical time, it is not enough to ’remember’ Chavez or to recount all the positive aspects of the ’Bolivarian Revolution’. The best way to commemorate his memory is to learn from the process. Support remains for the Bolivarian Revolution and Chavez among the majority and a radical change of course and reforms would undoubtedly be supported by them. Reconciliation, as championed by Chavez after the 2002 coup and now under Maduro through his ’peace’ discourse and negotiation with the wealthy businessman and women, is not a revolutionary way forward.
A right wing come back, under the leadership of Capriles or Lopez, is more real than ever. We know that although the right wing speak of social inclusion, supporting the poor and so on, the reality if they do come into power will be neo-liberal reforms, attacks on the working class and poor and dismantling of the hard won gains. The right wing, under a capitalist ideology, will act like any other government in the world in the face of the crisis.
The revolutionary organisation of the working class and the poor with a revolutionary programme for change is the only way to the defeat the right wing and capitalism, win over sections of the middle class and implement true socialism.