Venezuela: Venezuelan Diary

Successful cwi intervention at the world youth festival

A group of CWI members from Chile, Austria, England and Wales has made a very successful intervention into the world youth festival which is taking place in Caracas, Venezuela.

Many young people understand themselves as socialist and are eager to discuss how and if the “Bolivarian revolution” can achieve socialism and thereby sustainably improve the living standards of the Venezuelan masses.

The following article contains extracts from the “Venezuelan Diary” written by Sonja Grusch. Sonja Grusch is the spokeswoman of the Socialist Left Party in Austria and a member of the International Executive Committee of the CWI. A fuller analysis will follow shortly.

Venezuelan Diary

High hopes, 04/08/05

Thousands of youth from all over the world will gather under this year’s theme “for peace and solidarity – we will fight against imperialism and war”.

But that is not the only reason why Venezuela is a place to be at the moment. Since Hugo Chavez was elected President in 1998, Venezuela has increasingly been in the limelight. The “Bolivarian Revolution” leaves no-one unaffected. Along with determined supporters are angry opponents. The country has seen first nationalisations of companies and land. Opponents of that process are in the main the ruling class in Venezuela, sections of the middle class as well as in the US.

Venezuela is one of the most important oil producing countries for the US and a radical populist model such as the one provided by the Chavez government, which receives widespread sympathy of the masses in the whole of Latin America is a clear thorn in the side for US imperialism.

On my way from the airport, I see one graffiti/ mural after another. Opponents warn of an allegedly Cuban invasion which is on the agenda. There are anti-Fidel and anti- communist graffiti as well. But the only Cuban “invasion” in sight are the more than 10,000 Cuban doctors who make sure that many many people get access to medical health care.

But in the main, the graffiti is supportive of Chavez and his policy. In the past years, schools and universities opened, literacy programmes were established and big improvements in the health sector have taken place. But despite all those improvements, I saw many homeless people in the city centre of Caracas. Slums and poverty still prevail. One of the examples that illustrate the level of poverty are the security measures taken by shopkeepers and others: Windows are grated up or have got bars and there are a number of shops and hotels which you can only enter once doors are opened and unlocked from inside.

There are high hopes in this country in which 80% of the population are officially counted as poor. In the coming days, I will try to find out what the hopes and expectations of the people are and how they view the changes that have taken place.

In the last months, a debate on “socialism” has begun in this country. More and more people pose the question whether it is at all possible to find a solution to the many problems that exist within the framework of capitalism.

Chavez spoke of a “socialism of the 21st century”. But it is not so clear what he means by it. This question – what sort of socialism and more so how to get there and how to achieve it – is going to be the key question of my visit.

In the signs of elections, 05/08/05

Venezuela will see local elections on Sunday. This is noticeable at every street corner. However, the way depends on where you are… whether you are in one of the poorer or richer districts of Caracas. The poor districts of Valle and Coche are almost entirely pro-Chavez. At first sight, these districts seem to be quite picturesque. There are small, sometimes painted little houses leaning onto the mountains. At second sight, that impression changes quickly. Most of the houses have been built illegally, are very small and almost built on top of one another. Most of them not plastered and are partly made of corrugated iron.

Poverty is omnipresent. A young man is waiting outside a fenced housing complex for somebody to ask him to take the shopping home. This is a means to at least make some Bolivares. An old, blind man wanders around from pub to pub with a rattling tin. Looking at buses and cars, you wonder how they can actually drive at all. The placards and posters of the opposition do not last long here.

It is different in the richer parts. You feel like you are in a European metropolis: big cars and well dressed people. Here you find the posters of the opposition.

What is striking is that in the main, the candidates of the opposition are in the main light-skinned compared to the majority of the population. Here, the class and social differences are very visible indeed.

Even though support for Chavez and his policy is high, it is questionable if there is going to be a high turn-out in the local elections. There are criticisms as to how candidates are selected. Often they are selected in a ‘top down’ manner; many are unknown in the constituencies they stand.

In the last analysis it won’t be possible to solve the social problems electorally.

The graffiti demanding “socialism” are omnipresent. But socialism needs democracy and needs the active participation of the population. The workers, farmers, the youth and the poor must not simply be observers but need to be the leading protagonists in the process. In Venezuela, a large part of the economy, the oil industry in particular, is nationalised.

On top of that, there have been further nationalisations in the past months. A discussion on “Cogestion” is taking place. Depending on who you discuss with, this can mean workers’ participation, Co-management or workers’ self-administration. The debate and its results are central for the coming developments.

Election Day and start of the festival, 07/08/05

14.4 million Venezuelans are asked to cast their vote today and to elect the governor of Amazonas, two mayors but first and foremost 5,596 local representatives.

It is almost impossible to make out the number of different parties that stand. Votes will be cast electronically which will probably be used by the opposition to accuse Chavez of fraud. (Weird though, they don’t consider the electronic elections in the US as undemocratic. And really there were a number of dubious “incidents”.)

There are long queues outside the polling stations. But it is hard to predict what the turn-out will be.

The receptionist at my hotel tells me that initially, in his area there was a 100% support for Chavez. But some are disappointed now because he hasn’t kept his promises and that obviously, some people fill their own pockets first. Corruption in general is a problem, he says.

It is difficult to judge those statements. In the media which is dominated by the opposition, there is a lot of negative talk about Chavez. Some of it may be true, a lot is wrong and reported in a distorted way.

A CWI comrade who visited around the time of the referendum in August 2004 and is here with us again reports about how the situation has changed since.

Then, debates were taking place everywhere; on the streets, in pubs and on the tube. This has almost gone. At the same time, “socialism” has become a widely used term and reference point.

A revolutionary process, as is taking place in Venezuela, is contradictory and does not develop in a straight line. But there is one crucial thing and that is: Time matters. Opportunities and possibilities open up but can also disappear again if they are not seized. The eagerness to discuss was certainly felt more urgently at the time of the referendum when the immediate threat by the opposition was more prominent. But then, a lot of the support for Chavez and another Venezuela was directed to the electoral plane.

Today also marks the opening of the youth festival. But yesterday and today made celebrating more difficult – “Ley Seca” does not allow the giving out of alcohol on pre- and Election Day itself.

Still, the atmosphere is good because the predominantly young people are looking forward to this international event and to spending time with like-minded people.

They are united in their will to do something against hunger and exploitation, against oppression and violence and against war and capitalism.

The discussions will be intense and also controversial. But they will be crucial for Venezuela at this stage. It will be about learning from the past in order to avoid mistakes for the future. The bloody events of September 11, 1973 in Chile have shown that attempts to find common grounds and unite with the capitalist class ends in defeat for the working class. There are also important lessons to be learnt from the Cuban revolution.

An enraged opposition and a long start of the festival, 09/08/05

Heavy debates are taking place around the outcome of the elections. On the one hand, the opposition complains that polling stations stayed open longer than legally allowed. And then there are also speculations about the turn-out. The opposition presents figures which speak of between 77-78% abstentions from the elections.

According to the election authorities, this figure stands at 69.1%. Readers need to bear in mind that these are normal figures when it comes to local elections. (In 2000, abstention was at 76.2%) Parts of the opposition even called for a boycott (which makes their raving about a low turn-out look quite ridiculous).

The fact is that Chavez’ party MVR (movement for a fifth Republic) scored 58% of all seats nationally. If you take all the pro-Chavez parties together, it is 80%. That seems to be the true reason behind the opposition’s outrage. A number of the oppositional parties have a long record of election fraud. Given their lack of support amongst the population, they don’t seem to have any other clue but to come up with accusations of fraud.

Yesterday also saw the opening of the youth festival. The contingents of the different countries marched into a big square. Youth and not so youth took part in it. The contingent of the CWI – even though it was small – marched together as an international group. There were comrades from at least five different countries.

Our political material lays emphasis on the question of “what is socialism?”, “How can a movement for socialism be built in Venezuela?”. These are questions of great interest for many Venezuelans. We cannot give away our political material for free. It costs quite a lot of money for Venezuelan standards- 500 Bolivar, which is the equivalent of a big baguette at the festival. But still, people were regularly queuing to get one.

There is a big thirst for political ideas; people are very open and eager to discuss but at the same time, there is still a lot of confusion around the question of what socialism actually is. There are a million and one different answers on what socialism is which are often contradictory. There is not an easy answer but nevertheless, the answer will be crucial to Venezuela’s future.

Oil: The source of wealth and poverty, 10/08/05

Venezuela is a rich country. It is the fifth biggest oil-producing country internationally. But the enormous wealth of this country is not distributed equally, to say the least. As a consequence of the hike in oil prices in the 1970’s, the state revenues increased four fold. Some of that was spent on improving the living standards of the working class and the poor masses. But not for very long. With the decline in oil prices came drastic neo-liberal austerity measures which had dramatic social consequences.

Real income went down: Purchasing power of those living on the minimum wage dropped by two-thirds between 1978 and 1994. Social cuts were implemented and led to a situation where money spent on social security was halved.

An enormous job slaughter took place and jobs and working conditions became more precarious. Unemployment rates exploded and people had to turn towards the informal sector to make a living. It is estimated that by 1999, 53% worked in the informal sector.

Poverty rates exploded: Between 1984 and 1995, the number of those living beneath the poverty line rose from 36% to 66%.

Due to their arrogance and increasing involvement in corruption scandals but even more because of the polarised social situation, the ruling parties faced crisis.

Chavez managed to offer an alternative, he stood for a more just economic and social policy. He spoke to “the peoples” and moved more and more into an anti-capitalist direction. A whole number of improvements have taken place which were brought about by the ministries and the “Misiones”. Particularly in the public sector, new jobs have been created.

During the time of the festival, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between those attending the festival and workers in the public sector, like the street cleaners and sweepers for example. They were all wearing red T-shirts with pro Chavez slogans on it. The literacy programmes enabled over a million people to learn how to read and write.

For the first time, universities were opened to working class children, 3.200 new schools were built as well. Millions have access to medical care for the first time in their lives. Again and again, people enthusiastically speak of those improvements and what difference it made to their lives. Casanova, a MVR official declares that “oil is now running for the people”.

Undoubtedly, there have been massive changes – even though huge poverty still remains. Next to the political will for change, the basis for those improvements lay in the high oil prices. 50% of the public expenditures are funded through oil revenues. This poses the question what will happen once the oil price comes down.

Part of the population hopes that the current process will go on indefinitely and that there is going to be a constant and continuous rise in living standards. One teacher explains that it is going to be a long process of maybe 20-30 years. But are people ready to wait that long? Can they afford to wait that long? And will the bourgeois opposition and imperialism simply remain silent and watch this process for another 20 years? All those questions need to be answered with a No.

The minimum wage which only exists in the smaller, formal sector stands at 405,000 Bolivar a month. The electricity company Cadafe pays a standard wage of 600,000 Bolivar a month.

A cheap meal will cost around 6,000 Bolivar, a small yoghurt 1,000. A tube ticket costs between 300 and 350 Bolivar, a beer around 1,000-1,500. There is no unemployment benefit and pensions are an exception. This is why the discussion on socialism is so important.

But as I said, it has got very many different meanings here. This is also true for what is called “Cogestion”. Some understand or want to understand it as workers’ control and management. But that is not necessarily what the government means by it. Government representatives say it means state property and the involvement of workers in managing it. It is also referred to as handing out shares and payment of dividends to the workers and the community.

But a socialist society entails more than workers having a voice or a say. Socialism needs genuine workers’ control and management over production and the means of production.

In order to achieve a socialist Venezuela, a clear programme is needed. At our stall at the Teatro Teresa Carreno all the discussion are focussed on socialism. We are not only discussing with those participating in the event but also with janitors, sweepers and cleaners of the place. They all want to discuss and are interested in finding answers to their questions of how to proceed. They are interested in hearing our point of view. Those discussions are truly exciting and yes, there are a lot who agree that the question of socialism is vital.

A (fun) fair for Chavez, 12/08/05

We are a few days into the youth festival. And more and more it turns into a massive fair for Chavez and Che Guevara fan items.

You can get Chavez posters in all sizes posing in front of Bolivar. There are Chavez T-Shirts as well as key rings and small pictures that fit into your purse. You can also purchase Chavez’s speeches on CD, hats, scarves and bikinis… in the colours of the Venezuelan flag.

Our stall is unique as it is the only one at the entrance of Teatro Teresa Carenno which carries political material.

The enthusiasm about the changes is understandable. However, the uncritical support and admiration for Chavez as a person is something different. Undoubtedly, Chavez is key and critical in this process but he is not the only one and he is not infallible.

Chavez cannot serve as a replacement for the organisation of the working class. In contrast to many Venezuelans (and I am not speaking of the opposition), criticising Chavez is almost like an act of blasphemy for many of the international visitors.

Many want to believe that Chavez is infallible. If he is doing something wrong than maybe that is down to bad advisers. Unfortunately, this uncritical approach does not help to advance the process of the revolution. A revolutionary process needs open discussions, needs to take into account different ideas and proposals, weigh them against one another, needs to develop perspectives and more so, needs to learn the lessons from the past.

The active participation of the working class, the youth and the poor masses in the process of decision making are elementary – without their participation, there will not be a genuine and democratic socialism.

At the CWI meeting on “What is socialism and how to achieve it?” a young Venezuelan said that the whole festival was more like an event to promote the government. Many are happy about the possibility to discuss with us at the stall.

All the talk of how non-political young people are has been proven wrong once again. Young people from all over the world are here to discuss politics.

It is also an expression of the solidarity and support for the Bolivarian revolution. Once again it becomes clear that people are not too bad/selfish for socialism but that capitalism is too bad for the people.

In favour of socialism, but what socialism? 15/08/05

Today is the last day of the festival. The last two days have seen the anti-imperialist tribunal which showed the crimes of imperialism – the war against Vietnam and Iraq, poverty and starvation, repression and a clamp down on democratic rights.

Thousands of people in the hall and many more outside follow the closing speech of Chavez.

Next to a number of historic references to Bolivar, Sandino, Miranda and others, suggestions on what books to read, he quoted Rosa Luxemburg’s famous words: Socialism or Barbarism. The enthusiasm with which socialism is seen as an alternative is a relatively new development. After the collapse of the Stalinist countries at the end of the 1980’s, socialism became very unpopular.

This changed again with the coming into existence of the anti-capitalist movement and found its expression in the slogan “another world is possible”. However, it was not so clear what “another” really meant.

A lot has changed since then. The working class came back onto the arena of struggle and we have seen strikes and general strikes in a number of countries. We have seen upheavals and insurrectionary movements which led to the downfall of Presidents and governments in Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

The discussion about another world is possible has become more advanced. This is one important message for me to take home from this festival.

In 1997, during the youth festival in Cuba, socialism as an alternative to capitalism was less present. In Caracas in 2005, there is almost a consensus for socialism as an alternative.

Chavez got most applause when he referred to socialism. Frederick Engels once wrote that socialism will only mark the beginnings of the history of mankind. So, we are only at the very beginning.

But what exactly is socialism? What does Chavez mean when he speaks about the socialism of the 21st century? What do the Venezuelans and the participants of the festival mean by it? It is clear that it is about a more just distribution of wealth and about an end to poverty. Many at this stage don’t have a clearer or more evolved idea about the ideas of socialism.

And Chavez is also not clear about it when he describes the socialism of the 21st century. He sees Fidel Castro (whose Cuba lacks workers’ democracy) as much as a partner as Lula (whose government and party is involved into a major corruption scandal at the present time and who is confronted with mass protest against his implementation of neo-liberal policies). He makes positive references to Putin (who clamps down on democratic rights and leads a vicious war against Chechnya) and the setting up of a Latin American Free Trading Zone- ALBA.

Chavez who shifted to the left has no clear socialist programme.

Socialism won’t come by itself. There needs to be a conscious revolutionary step towards socialism and the active overthrow of capitalism or there is a danger that Venezuela returns to neo-liberal policies.

To develop such a programme and to work towards the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a genuine and democratic socialist society is the task of revolutionary socialists today.

The article was translated by Tanja Niemeier

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August 2005