Venezuela: A new phase in the struggle – nationalisations and a renewed threat of counter revolution

The threat of counter revolution has once again raised its head in Venezuela as the struggle between revolution and reaction seems to be entering a new phase.

Following Bush’s re-election US imperialism has again adopted a more aggressive attitude, mainly verbal, towards the government of Hugo Chávez.

As we have consistently warned the forces of counter revolution will attempt new adventures until they succeed in removing Chávez from power and defeat the mass movement unless the working class is able to take the necessary steps to overthrow capitalism and establish a workers’ democracy.

Usually a dead lock between the classes, such as exists in Venezuela, is decisively resolved in favour of revolution or counter revolution. In Venezuela this process could be drawn out over a longer period of time. This is because of the cushion that Hugo Chávez has available in the form of oil revenue and also the splits, divisions and weaknesses that exist amongst the ruling class.

However, as recent events have shown right-wing reactionary forces will continue to attempt to undermine and destabilise Chávez. The renewed intervention in Venezuela by reactionary forces began in December 2004. For the second time Colombia’s President Uribe, Bush’s anointed representative in the region, orchestrated a direct intervention into Venezuela. This involved the kidnapping, in Caracas, of Rodrigo Granda, a leader of Colombia’s largest armed guerrilla army, the FARC. Granda is one of the FARC’s senior officials and known as its ‘Minister of Foreign Affairs’. This incident escalated into a major diplomatic conflict between Venezuela and Colombia. The US fully backed Colombia in this conflict.

Then, in January 2005, the new US Secretary of State., Condoleezza Rice, used her appearance before the US Senate Committee hearing to attack Chávez. She warned that his government poses a "major threat to the whole region" and that Chávez remains a "negative force", proclaiming that the US "cannot remain indifferent to what Venezuela is doing beyond its borders".

These attacks by Rice followed an article by the London Financial Times (13/1/05) which warned that Chávez presents a growing "authoritarian" threat to the region.

And just to emphasise the point the former US Ambassador to Venezuela (Currently Adjunct vice Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs with the Department of State), wrote in the Spanish Miami paper, El Nuevo Herald, an article justifying US commitment to continue supporting the Venezuelan opposition. Since 2001 more than US$20 million has been given to opposition organisations and parties through the National Endowment for Democracy and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The leaders of the failed coup and instigators of the ‘lock out’ were referred to as "Venezuelans’ seeking to protect their democratic rights". (El Nuevo Herald 12/1/05).

Bush wants Chávez out

US imperialism clearly still regards the Chávez government as an obstacle to its interests in Latin America and wants to remove it from power. While Bush hypocritically proclaims his regime is a ‘force for democracy’ throughout the world the fact that Chávez has overwhelmingly won at least 6 electoral contests is conveniently omitted from US considerations. US imperialism fears that the Chávez regime could become an even greater irritant and that they could even loose their supply of oil from Venezuela. They also fear the mass movement in Venezuela which could push the Chávez regime into taking even more radical policies that further conflict with the interests of imperialism and capitalism.

It is no accident that the renewed threats of reaction come in the light of the seizure of 13,000 hectares of land by the government. This was a cattle ranch owned by the British meat packing tycoon, Lord Vestey. The seizure of this estate was subsequently followed by the nationalisation of Venepal, a paper producing company – the first nationalisation to be carried out by Chávez.

However, a crucial factor is that Washington does not regard Venezuela as a safe supplier of oil. Senator Richard Lugar, head of the international relations committee of the U.S. Senate made public in January a letter he had sent to the U.S. Government Accountability Office in November 2004. This expressed the opinion that the State Department no longer considers Venezuela a reliable supplier of oil due to "political instability".

This renewed fear about the stability of Venezuela’s oil supply, which accounts for about 15% of US oil imports, has arisen as Chávez opened negotiations with China, Russia and Iran with a view to lessening Venezuela’s dependency on the US market. Consequently 33 operating agreements, mainly with US companies, signed during the 1990’s are currently being re-evaluated. One US company, Harvest Natural Resources of Houston, which receives all of its oil from Venezuela has been told to suspend all of it oil exploration there. As a result it lost a quarter of all its stock. The worsening crisis in the Middle East, especially in Iraq has increased the importance of Venezuelan oil for the US. Clearly Bush wants a "safe pair of hands" on the pumps.

The decision by Chávez to try and open agreements with some of US imperialism rivals – Russia and China and also Iran come on top of a strengthening in economic ties with Cuba. These have all increased the antagonism of US imperialism towards Venezuela.

Despite the attempts of Chávez to reach a compromise with the Venezuelan ruling class following his referendum victory in 2004 the underlying antagonisms have remained. These are bound to explode again and again until a decisive victory for either the revolution or the counter revolution is scored. It is possible that this can be a more protracted process in Venezuela than is usually the case. The access to the oil reserves and the splits and weakness of the ruling class can give Chávez more room to manoeuvre. During 2005 the revenue from oil allowed the government to spend US$4 billion on social investment in health, education and housing. However, even these factors will not allow the situation to continue indefinitely.

It is possible that reaction will eventually strike a decisive blow in the form of coup. Alternatively, the masses can be worn down over a period of time by the failure of the revolution to be completed and a worsening social crisis. At a certain stage this could allow the right-wing sneaking back to power and for reaction to triumph in a ‘democratic’ guise as a result of the exhaustion and wearing down of the masses. This process took place in Nicaragua during the 1980’s following the seizure of power by the Sandinista FSLN in 1979. Daniel Ortega won the Presidential elections in 1984 with 67% of the vote. However, despite nationalising all of the property of the former dictator, Somoza, which put more of the economy in state hands than in Venezuela today, capitalism was not overthrown. A workers’ democracy with a socialist planned economy was not established. Right-wing reaction, backed by US imperialism, prepared its forces and as the masses became ground down by the protracted crisis, it was eventually able to reassert control. In 1990 the US backed National Opposition Union to won the elections.

Colombia – kidnapping in Caracas

Today US imperialism has a dual strategy to try and overthrow Chávez. One involves supporting the right-wing Venezuelan opposition and the other using its regional client state, Colombia, to try and destabilise Chávez. The US extended military aid programme to Colombia amounts to US$3 billion – only surpassed by its military aid to Israel by the USA. As a result of this package the Colombian armed forces have tripled in size over the last few years to 267,000 troops.

130 Colombian paramilitaries were sent to Venezuela in 2004 in what appeared to be an attempt to destabilise Chávez in a planned series of terrorist actions, possibly including a plan to assassinate him. Although this plan was thwarted it was followed by the latest provocation in December 2004.

The kidnapping of Rodrigo Grana, from a café in Caracas, was reminiscent of a scene from the ‘Godfather’. No extradition request was made and at the time of his kidnapping Granda was not even on Interpol’s list of wanted terrorists. The Uribe government originally claimed he was ‘arrested’ in Colombia – but has since accepted that Granda was seized in Caracas by members of Venezuelan security services. It has now been revealed that these were ‘dissident’ security officers who had been bribed by Uribe. According to some reports Uribe was personally involved and authorised a payment of over US$1 million to the Venezuelan security forces involved!

All of this was done with the involvement and knowledge of the Bush regime in Washington. US Ambassador to Colombia, William Wood, declared in January that: "We support 100% the declarations from the Presidential Palace (Colombian)". Adam Ereli, US Presidential spokesperson when questioned about the degree of US involved let the cat out of the bag: "To the extent that we help provide information and share information, yes".

These incursions into Venezuela form part of a wider theatre of operations by US imperialism in the region through the development of ‘Plan Colombia’. A full scale military intervention by US forces is not a viable option. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the ‘overstretch’ of US forces in the Iraqi debacle and the Middle East. Secondly, any attempt at a direct military intervention in Venezuela would meet with the armed resistance of the masses of Venezuela and the whole of Latin America on an even more serious basis than the US currently faces in Iraq. It would also provoke mass protests in the USA, especially amongst the millions of Latinos who live in the ‘belly of the beast’.

US imperialism therefore prefers to fight a war by proxy using Colombian paramilitary forces and the right-wing Colombian government of Uribe. This is justified as part of the ‘war on terror’ in which Chávez is accused of being soft on terrorism and not being supportive of Uribe’s struggle against the FARC. Yet it is not only the FARC who are classified as terrorists. It seems anybody who is opposed to Bush’s neo-liberal programme is lumped in the same category. In Bolivia, even the social democratic leader, Evo Morales, (whose role has been to act as a break on the revolutionary movement and acted as a ‘fireman’ who attempted to extinguish the mass movement), who recently spoke of becoming a "Bolivian Chávez", was denounced in 2001 by US Ambassador, Manuel Rocha, as a Bolivian "Bin Laden" and the coca peasants "cocaleros" as the "Andean Taliban".

The unilateral interventions by the Uribe regime are an echo of Bush’s ‘pre-emptive strike’ policy but on a much smaller scale. The incursions into Venezuela have been repeated in some other countries.

In the recent period kidnappings have been organised by Colombian forces and the CIA in Ecuador in 2004 which included the seizing of the peace negotiator representing the FARC. In another incident six Venezuelan soldiers were killed in an "unexplained" event.

These developments in Venezuela indicate a likely resurgence in the struggle between the forces of revolution and counter revolution. They once again show the urgent need for the working class of Venezuela to go onto to the offensive and take the necessary steps to overthrow capitalism as the first step towards building a Democratic Socialist Federation of the Americas as the only way to defeat imperialism and capitalism and the threat of reaction.

More radical policies in Venezuela

The Chávez government has now taken some steps in a more radical direction reflected in the seizure of Vestey’s estate and the nationalisation of Venepal. Socialists and Marxists welcome the nationalisations which have now taken place as an important step forward. Yet far more is needed if capitalism and the threat of reaction are to be defeated.

The seizure of Vestey’s land was a significant development. The question of land reform is an important part of the struggle for the masses. Venezuela, like other Latin American countries is a highly urbanised society where only 12% of the 25 million strong population live in rural areas. However, this issue still assumes great importance in the consciousness of the masses. Most working class and poor families in the cities still have important family links to the countryside. The plight of the rural poor is strongly present in the political awareness of the urban masses. The massive gulf which exists between rich and poor is often most clearly expressed amongst the rural population.

In Venezuela where 60% of agricultural land is held by a mere 1% of the population the question of land reform has formed an important part of the struggle since Chávez came to power in 1998. The vast private estates or ‘latifundios’ owned by multinational dynasties, such as the Vestey family, symbolises the wealth and power of the ruling class and imperialism.

When the state governor of Cojedes, Johnny Yánez, arrived with 200 members of the National Guard, at the 13,600 hectares El Charcote cattle ranch, owned by British tycoon, Lord Vestey, and seized it (or "intervened" as it is known in Venezuela), it undoubtedly enjoyed overwhelming support amongst the masses. A commission has now been established to determine the ownership of the land. This was the first time that the land reform programme of the Chávez government has involved taking over privately owned land despite the fact that the new constitution declares that any ‘latifundios’ of more than 5,000 hectares are "contrary to the social interest". Prior to the seizure of Vestey’s land the agricultural reform programme had only involved distributing land to peasants from farms already in state ownership.

This ‘intervention’ has provoked opposition amongst the big landowners, ‘latifundios’ who fear that they could be next to loose their property. However, although the government has seized this ranch it remains unclear if this will be a temporary step or one that will be reversed should the commission decide that it was legally purchased.

The local farmers who have occupied this ranch fear the government may now turn a part of the land into a co-operative and return a part to the alleged ‘legal owners’. The local farmers have been fighting for 30 years to prove that it was acquired illegally and point out that it was originally "bought" by the Venezuelan dictator Juan Vicente Gomez in 1936. All of Gomez’s land was eventually turned over to the state.

The Chávez government subsequently announced the nationalisation of Venepal. The workers at this plant, which originally employed nearly 2,000, have been in conflict with its owners for years. Members of the board of directors at the company were present at the swearing in ceremony of the short lived reactionary government led by Pedro Carmona, which overthrew Chávez in a coup in April 2002 for a few hours. The owners of this plant joined the employers ‘lock-out’ later that year. Partly as a result of their own ’lock-out’ the employers declared the company bankrupt in 2003. The workers responded by occupying the plant. Eventually a short lived agreement was reached but in 2004 the employers closed the plant yet again. Again the workers occupied the plant and organised a series of protests. They eventually marched to Caracas demanding the government intervene which resulted in the recent nationalisation decree.

Marxists have often argued that reform is a by-product of the mass struggle in a revolution. Both the seizure of Vestey’s ‘latifundia’ and the expropriation of Venepal arose as a result of the struggles of the masses. The mass struggle pressured the Chávez government into nationalising the first company after over 6 years in power. These developments may indicate that Chávez is now being driven to adopt more radical measures. This follows attempts to appease the ruling class in Venezuela following his referendum victory in 2004.

When nationalising Venepal Chávez he declared that capitalism is based on slavery and "that is why in Washington they are angry, because we want to liberate ourselves from capitalism, in the same way they were angry many years ago with the ideas of Libertador Simon Bolivar".

Significantly, at the recent World Social Forum in Brazil, Chávez, for the first time, spoke of the need for socialism. He said that every day he becomes more convinced "That it is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism can’t be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice. But I’m also convinced that it is possible to do it under democracy, but not in the type of democracy being imposed from Washington".

Revolutionary socialist programme needed

It is welcomed that he has now mentioned socialism as an alternative to capitalism. However, it is not enough to support the idea of socialism – a programme to achieve it is also necessary. Unfortunately, Chávez is not advocating a clear programme that will allow the working class to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist planned economy. This is what is now urgently needed in Venezuela and the whole of Latin America.

When announcing the nationalisation of Venepal Chávez also referred to future plans to "recover" a corn processing plant" and the creation of "several food-processing plants in an attempt at breaking the monopoly of the private sector" and all of the basic industries in private hands in the industrial region of Guyana.

While workers and socialists will welcome these measures they amount to some partial steps towards nationalising some bankrupt sectors of the economy. They are not part of a plan to break with capitalism and establish a socialist plan of production based on the nationalisation of the decisive monopolies, large companies, banks and finance sector (both national and international) under a system of democratic workers control and management.

Chávez indicated this when he also declared "The expropriation of Venepal is an exception, not a political measure, nor a government one. We won’t take land, if it is yours. But the company that is closed and abandoned, we’ll go for them. For all of them."

All socialists would welcome the expropriation of all the companies abandoned by the capitalist class. But why stop there? Why only take the bankrupt companies leave those still functioning and making a profit in the hands of the ruling class. Such partial measures will not allow the economy to be planned by the working class to end the suffering and misery facing the masses and poor of Venezuela.

Yet such palliative steps will enrage and terrify the ruling class and imperialism and strengthen their resolve to overthrow the regime. Such half way measures will leave the government trapped between the hatred and hostility of the ruling classes while at the same time not having taken the measures necessary to defeat them and control the economy.

In Chile between 1970-73 the Unidad Popular (UP) government of Salvador Allende supported the idea of socialism. It nationalised approximately 40% of the economy, including multi-national companies. Allende even claimed to adhere to Marxism. However, even this was not enough to break with capitalism. US imperialism and the Chilean ruling class prepared their counter revolutionary forces. The leaders of the UP argued that the revolution should not go too far too fast because it would provoke reaction. This policy allowed the reactionary right-wing time to prepare the ground for the bloody coup on September 11 1973 which resulted in a blood bath for the working class.

In an echo of these arguments Chávez argued at Porte Allegre: "At the beginning of my Presidency, many of my supporters criticised me and asked me to go at a faster pace (to implement changes), and be more radical, but I considered that it was not the right moment because each process has several phases and different rhythms that not only have to do with internal situations in each country, but with the international situation at the time"

Each country does have particular rhythms and phases. Yet understanding the specific conditions which exist in each country does not mean putting a break on the revolutionary process. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Hugo Chávez has done at each critical stage in the Venezuelan revolution. The counter revolution has been given time to re-group, and prepare their forces to strike again. Chávez has so far been saved on each occasion by the intervention of the masses and the splits, divisions and weakness of Venezuelan the ruling class.

However, this situation cannot continue indefinitely. Revolution or counter revolution – in the form of a military coup or a drawn out creeping back to power in a ‘democratic’guise- at a certain stage must eventually triumph.

For the victory of the revolution the working class needs its own independent organisations and to have embraced a clear revolutionary socialist programme. While it is to be welcomed that Chávez has now mentioned socialism as a clear programme to achieve it is also essential to avoid an eventual victory of the counter revolution.

Yet what Chávez seems to be advocating is not the overthrow of capitalism but the construction of a parallel economy of partially state owned companies, co-operatives and "good private companies" which will compete with the major capitalist conglomerates. This is clearly shown by the launching of a new satellite TV network, TeleSur. This will be "at the disposal of the people not of the governments of Latin America". The launching of such a network is welcomed, although it is unclear who will control this network.

At the same time the press and media are all concentrated in the hands of the right-wing opposition and have conducted a vicious campaign against Chávez and the revolution. Chávez has correctly referred to it as the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’. The working class is denied access to the press and media. Socialists would support the right of all opinions and parties, including the capitalist class, to have its own press and media to defend their point of view. Within the context of the nationalisation of the press and media facilities it would be possible to democratically allocate resources to all parties and grouping on the basis of the support they have in society.

Even the nationalisation of Venepal may only be a temporary measure. The government decree included a US$6.7 million credit to restart production. It has also speculated that it will then be returned to the workers to form a co-operative. The experience of the working class internationally has shown many times that "co-operatives" within a capitalist economy can offer no solution to the working class. At best they may offer a temporary minimal solution to small groups of workers but they cannot offer a solution to resolve the problems facing the working class as a whole. As isolated ‘islands’ surrounded by a sea of capitalist monopolies they inevitably end up being swamped by capitalism.

Chávez himself has also spoken of the need to "advance towards co-management" – a vague formulation which can mean many things bit is a form of class collaboration. It could include co-management with the former owners perhaps or a scheme of workers participation within a state company.

Democratic workers control and management

However, rather than a system of "participation" by the working class, the establishment of a system of democratic workers control and management is necessary if the revolution is to be victorious

This would need the election of workers committees in all factories and workplaces. Delegates to these committees should be elected and subject to immediate recall by mass meetings of the workers. In the currently privatised sectors of industry such committees could introduce workers control in order to undertake the day to day running of each work place. This would also serve as a school to prepare the working class for the tasks necessary to plan and manage the industry and whole economy as part of a socialist planned economy.

In the already nationalised sections of the economy, including the crucial state oil company, PVDSA, it is necessary to go further and establish not only a system of democratic workers control but also a democratic system of workers management. The boards of directors of such companies need to be made up of elected representatives of the workers in the industry, elected representatives of other workers and the wider community and the government.

These workplace committees, together with elected committees from the local communities, would also need to link up on a district, city, regional and national basis and form the basis of a new government of workers’ and peasants. The work place and community committees need also to establish a workers defence force together with elected committees of rank and file soldiers and sailors. These need also to impose a system of electing all officers and purging the state machine of reactionary pro-coup conspirators.

These type of initiatives need to be taken by the working class itself. Yet unfortunately such attempts at independent action by the masses are resisted by much of the officialdom at the head of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. This was reflected during the referendum campaign in 2004. Frequently local assemblies clashed with representatives of the government who attempted to bureaucratically ‘impose’ organisers for the campaign from above. The bureaucratic ‘leaders’ of the movement fear the independent organisation and initiative of the masses. Yet for the revolution to advance, break with capitalism and defeat reaction the conscious, organisation of initiatives from below by the working class and all those exploited by capitalism is necessary.

The economic power of the ruling class must be decisively broken and a democratic socialist planned economy needs to be introduced. All bankrupt companies should immediately be taken into state ownership with any compensation only paid on the basis of proven need. The nationalisation measures need to be extended to all the decisive and profitable sections of the economy both national and multi-national to break with capitalism and establish a genuine workers’ democracy and a socialist planned economy.Through these measures a national plan could be drawn up as part of a wider emergency plan to rebuild the economy.

International socialist programme

A workers’ and peasants socialist government based on a system of workers’ democracy in Venezuela would undoubtedly face further attempts to isolate and overthrow it by imperialism and capitalism. A workers’ and peasants government could not build socialism in one country and would face attempts to overthrow it by capitalism and imperialism.

It would only possible to overcome these difficulties through a conscious attempt to appeal to the working class of Latin America and all the Americas, including US workers, for solidarity and support. This would include the perspective of spreading the revolution to these countries and supporting the working class in them in its efforts to break with capitalism and imperialism. Such a perspective would open the prospect of workers in these countries taking similar measures to overthrow capitalism in their own countries and lay the basis for building a Democratic Socialist Federation of the Americas. On this basis the threat of reaction from capitalism and imperialism could be defeated.

In his speech in Porte Allegre Chávez expressed his admiration for Che Guevara who courageously fought to defeat capitalism and imperialism. He correctly went on to say that Che’s methods are not applicable. "The thesis of one, two, or three Vietnams, did not work, especially in Venezuela".

However, unfortunately, Che Guevara was not alone in receiving compliments from Hugo Chávez. While saying nothing about the policies applied by them he went on to praise Lula as a "good man with, a great heart. He is a brother, a comrade" and lent support to Kirchner in Argentina and Vasquez in Uruguay.

In relation to Russia and China, (Venezuela happens to be trying to establish contracts to supply oil to them both!) he referred to: "A good President, Mr. Putin being at the wheel" and praised China for its "economic growth".

He appealed to the capitalist politicians of these countries who are in conflict with US imperialism, for their own interests, rather than appealing to the working class of these and other countries.

It seems that the struggle in Venezuela is now entering a new phase. If Chávez now takes further steps in a more radical direction as recent events indicate he may do then the struggle between the classes, the forces of revolution and counter revolution, will be posed even more sharply than it has been since he came to power in 1998.

US imperialism and the ruling class of Venezuela and Colombia seem poised to step up their attacks on Chávez again. It is now urgent that a mass revolutionary socialist party is built in Venezuela that together with the working class will be able to take the revolution forward and decisively defeat the threat of reaction. A mass revolutionary socialist party is essential to harness and give direction to the revolutionary aspirations of the Venezuelan masses and assist them in embracing the idea of socialism and the programme needed to achieve it. It is necessary to draw upon the experience of the international working class. The lessons of the defeat of the Chilean revolution between 1970-73 and the victory of the Russian revolution in October 1917, and others, need to be extensively discussed, absorbed and applied to the concrete situation which exists in Venezuela today. Reaction has thus far been defeated. However, the masses of Venezuela do not have unlimited time. A socialist programme to take the working class to power is more urgently needed than ever.

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February 2005