On 15 August 2004, a recall referendum aimed at ousting Venezuelan president Chávez was resoundingly defeated by a mobilisation of the masses – particularly in poor shantytowns, through electoral ‘battle units’ and other organisations of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’. This opened up a new phase in the revolutionary process. But, explains Christine Thomas, a recent visitor to Venezuela, although the opposition forces have been severely weakened, the threat of counter-revolution remains.
What dangers threaten the revolution now?
Hugo Chávez’s election as president in 1998 represented a massive rejection by Venezuelan workers and poor, and sections of the middle class, of the vicious neo-liberal policies unleashed by the corrupt political establishment of the ‘Fourth Republic’. His anti-imperialist, anti-neo-liberal populism radicalised the poorest layers of Venezuelan society. They saw in Chávez a political leader who at last represented and spoke for them rather than the rich oligarchs who had squandered Venezuela’s oil wealth, leaving them to sink ever deeper into poverty. His victory raised expectations that their desperate need for decent jobs, healthcare, education and homes would now be met.
The Venezuelan ruling class and US imperialism, on the other hand, fear that the masses, aroused and radicalised, could demand even more radical measures and move in a direction that threatens their interests. US imperialism, in particular, fears instability in a country that supplies 15% of its oil needs. Last year’s referendum was the third major attempt by the Venezuelan ruling-class opposition, backed by US imperialism, to overthrow Chávez and crush any potential threat the movement might pose in Venezuela and Latin America as a whole. But every counter-revolutionary move – the military coup of 11 April 2002, the two-month long bosses’ lock-out and attempt at economic sabotage at the end of the same year, and the recall referendum – has been blocked by mass action by the workers and poor, who have in turn become more radicalised and had their expectations further increased.
In the post-referendum period, the balance of forces has tipped temporarily in favour of the masses. The opposition forces – the rich elite, corrupt political parties and trade union leaders, the Catholic Church, etc – have emerged from these defeats fragmented and demoralised. Chávez himself initially sought an accommodation with the opposition, calling on them to work with him to rebuild the country. But under pressure from the workers and poor he has moved in a more radical direction, describing the Bolivarian revolution for the first time as ‘socialist’, stepping up land reform, and carrying out the regime’s first nationalisations. At the same time, he has ratcheted up his anti-imperialist, anti-US rhetoric and actions in the region.
This left turn has alarmed the Venezuelan capitalist class and US imperialism. They are concerned that the masses, having had their expectations raised, could push Chávez in an even more radical direction, seriously undermining their economic control which, while facing some encroachments, has so far been left largely intact. The US administration has recently launched vitriolic verbal attacks on Chávez, accusing him of backing terrorists in Colombia and fomenting unrest in Bolivia, Ecuador and throughout Latin America. US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, described Chávez as a "major threat to the whole region".
Chávez’s strengthening economic relations with Cuba, where Venezuela provides cheap oil in return for Cuban doctors, etc, have effectively broken the US embargo, throwing Fidel Castro’s regime a much-needed economic lifeline since the collapse of the Soviet Union removed its major economic backer. Chávez is also viewed as an impediment to the US strategy of building up Colombia as a regional power base to defend US interests in Latin America.
Most importantly, Chávez has been seeking alternative international markets for Venezuelan oil, signing agreements with China, Russia and Iran as well as other Latin American countries. He has threatened to retaliate against any US aggression by cutting oil supplies and, at the International Youth conference held in Caracas in August this year, declared that the North American market was not vital to Venezuela. Although much of this is anti-imperialist rhetoric, faced with an already unstable situation in Iraq and the Middle East, US imperialism wants to be sure that its supply of oil from Venezuela is not under threat.
But US imperialism’s room for manoeuvre is constrained at the present time. A combination of the weakness of the opposition and the massive oil income at Chávez’s disposal to finance social reforms which benefit the poor – his main social base – mean that a stalemate between the contending forces in society now exists and could continue for a period.
A direct invasion of Venezuela by US forces, as in Iraq, is ruled out at this stage. Iraq has exposed the limits of US global hegemony. Even if the US was not suffering from military overstretch, an invasion would be extremely risky, unleashing a wave of resistance that could engulf the whole of the Americas. US imperialism has therefore been compelled to pursue a more indirect approach, resting on and working through the Venezuelan opposition and right-wing reactionary forces in Colombia.
In December last year, Colombian forces, in conjunction with sections of the Venezuelan security forces, directly intervened in Venezuela to kidnap a leading member of the FARC guerrilla organisation, giving a glimpse of how they could be used to create fear and instability within the country. There is no doubt that sections of the US administration privately agreed with right-wing Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson, when he recently called for Chávez to be assassinated or kidnapped to bring about ‘regime change’. Such actions cannot be entirely ruled out. But every reactionary move has so far given a leftward impulse to the revolutionary process and any premature actions could push the masses even further in a radical direction.
Balance of forces
The more thinking and serious sections of the opposition have drawn the conclusion therefore that, having been defeated at every turn by mass support for Chávez amongst the radicalised poor, for the time being they have no choice other than to learn to coexist with him. With the existing balance of forces, any overt counter-revolutionary steps in the short-term, along the lines of those previously attempted, risk increasing the radicalisation of the movement and provoking measures which would further threaten their control of the economy and the state apparatus. "We have to bite the dust of defeat", said the governor of Zulia state a few days after the referendum. "The two Venezuelas must reconcile, Venezuela cannot continue in conflict", stated the head of Fedecamaras, the main bosses’ organisation.
Despite recently adopting a more strident anti-Chávez tone, the US administration appears to be pursuing a similar longer-term strategy of wearing down and exhausting the revolutionary process and preparing for a more favourable balance of forces before launching further major actions against Chávez.
Despite this, it remains the case that unless the working class and poor move decisively to break with capitalism and establish a democratic workers’ state, the counter-revolution will succeed in reasserting itself by one means or another. This could come in an extra-parliamentary form, a future successful coup, as happened in Chile in 1973, or a ‘democratic’, electoral counter-revolution, as in Nicaragua in 1990. A victory in either form would represent a disaster for the Venezuelan masses. The working class and poor are faced with the urgent task of using this breathing space to build a revolutionary party that can provide a programme for taking the movement forward and completing the socialist revolution.
Electorally, the opposition forces within Venezuela have been completely divided, with one section advocating abstention and another deciding to contest elections. Where they have stood they have suffered one defeat after another. Following elections in October 2004, they now control just two out of 23 states in the country and have lost control of the capital, Caracas. In the local and municipal elections, which were held on 7 August this year, they won less than 20% of the seats contested.
The main daily newspapers, owned by right-wing oppositionists who have wholeheartedly supported the forces of reaction at every stage, ran articles marking the anniversary of the recall referendum. These focused on what they considered to be the desperate need for the opposition, "demoralised, disorientated and lacking in leadership" (El Nacional), to unite in order to present a credible electoral alternative to the ‘Chavistas’. With parliamentary elections due at the end of the year and presidential elections in December 2006, the opposition is bracing itself for yet further electoral defeats.
Chávez has been achieving opinion poll approval ratings of up to 70%, some of the highest of his presidency. During the International Youth Festival he talked confidently of staying in politics until 2030! His confidence has been boosted by electoral victories over the opposition and the high price of oil on the world market. Oil represents 85% of Venezuelan exports, a quarter of GDP and over half of government revenue. In 2004, oil exports generated income of $29 billion, up from $22 billion in 2001, and the figure is likely to be much higher this year.
This massive oil bonanza has enabled Chávez to maintain and increase spending on the ‘Misiones’, the social welfare reform programmes which were begun in 2003 and have been orientated overwhelmingly towards the very poor. The benefits are clearly visible on the streets of the poorest areas of Caracas. A shiny new health clinic or Mercal state supermarket selling subsidised basic foodstuffs stand out from the crumbling buildings and infrastructure of the ‘barrios’ – the poverty-stricken shantytowns which lie cheek by jowl with the opulence of areas like Altamira, where the rich elite lives.
According to government figures, 300,000 Venezuelans have overcome illiteracy (9% of those aged over ten), two million have attended primary, secondary and higher education, and 17 million now have access to primary healthcare as a result of the Misiones.
Despite these obvious social gains, desperate poverty still blights the lives of millions of Venezuelans. Sixty percent of households were poor in 2004, up from 54% in 1999. Even though the state controls the prices of basic foodstuffs, inflation is running at 15-20% and one in two people do not have adequate housing. According to a recent opinion poll, unemployment is the main problem in society. There has been some increase in jobs through initiatives like ‘Vuelvan Caras’, the state job creation scheme, mainly in cooperatives and small enterprises. But 14% of the population are still without employment and millions face exploitation and insecurity in the informal sector as street traders, taxi drivers, etc.
If this is the situation for the majority of workers and poor when the price of oil is at such a high level, it is clear that the expectations of the masses can never be met within the framework of capitalism. The right-wing British magazine, The Economist, accurately summed up the situation: "If and when oil revenues fall, the economy would descend into an inferno of recession and inflation". (25 August, 2005)
This is what happened in Nicaragua. After the 1979 revolution which overthrew the hated dictator, Anastasio Somoza, the Sandinistas had control of the state apparatus. They nationalised up to 40% of the economy but the rest remained in the hands of the capitalist class who used this control to sabotage the economy. Combined with the Contra war, waged by proxy by US imperialism, the economy plunged into crisis, with inflation surging to an incredible 3,600% and living standards declining by 90%.
With the masses worn down and demoralised by economic crisis, the right wing defeated the Sandinistas in presidential elections in 1990 and have since pursued vicious neo-liberal policies against the workers and poor. Unless the working class in Venezuela moves to expropriate the monopolies still in the hands of the Venezuelan and foreign capitalist class, and implements a plan of production under democratic workers’ control and management, economic crisis and a failure to satisfy the needs of the masses will lead to demoralisation and a demobilisation of the movement, paving the way for a victory for reaction.
This would then be used to usher in a new era of brutal repression by the ruling class in order to recover total economic and state control, including destroying workers’ rights and the organisations of the working class and poor.
The high abstention rate (70%) in August’s local and municipal elections was a warning for the future. It is true that historically turnout has been low in local elections, which have not been seen as relevant to the main concerns of most Venezuelans. A section of the opposition was also calling for people not to vote. Nevertheless, the level of abstention in pro-Chávez areas was very high, despite the fact that Chávez himself had emphasised the importance of his supporters turning out to vote in large numbers.
Although the turnout is likely to be much higher in parliamentary and presidential elections, there are the beginnings of signs of discontent amongst the rank-and-file of the Bolivarian movement. Some activists were unhappy that grassroots candidates were bureaucratically replaced from above by candidates unknown by people in the local communities. In elections for state governors and mayors in October last year, breakaway candidates stood against official Chavista candidates. In the local elections, pro-Chávez parties perceived to be more ‘radical’, such as the Venezuelan Communist Party and Tupamaros movement, increased their votes in some areas.
Discontent, where it exists, is not aimed for the most part at Chávez, who still retains enormous authority and support amongst the masses, but at the ‘bureaucracy’ around him, which is perceived as being a brake on radical reform, whether through inefficiency, corruption or conscious sabotage. One woman protesting at the actions of a leader in the state of Anzoategui summed up the feeling of a layer of activists: "President, open your eyes… many of those at your side are deceiving you. Listen to the voice of the people". (El Nacional)
The leadership of the Bolivarian movement is extremely heterogeneous. Broadly speaking, one wing is more in touch with and reflects the mood of the masses, and is under pressure to move further down the path of radical reform. Another reformist and pro-capitalist wing, within which some have links with the opposition forces, is attempting at every stage to hold back the movement and prevent it from moving in a more radical direction. These divisions have become more acute since the defeat of the recall referendum. Chávez has balanced between the different forces in society. His more recent ‘left’ stance has been a response to the masses’ demand for more radical action. He signed a decree to take VENEPAL, the bankrupt paper company, into state hands, for example, after the workers launched a determined struggle in conjunction with the local community, occupying the factory and demanding nationalisation.
Since January, Chávez has characterised the Bolivarian revolution as ‘socialist’. This represents a significant development. The idea of socialism is beginning to seep into the consciousness of sections of students, workers and poor. In a recent opinion poll carried out by the Instituto Venezolano de Analisis de Datos, 47.8% of people said that they would prefer a socialist government, while only 22.7% opted for a capitalist one.
But Chávez does not have a clear idea of what he means by socialism, let alone how it could be achieved. He talks vaguely about ‘socialism in the 21st century’ being a ‘new type’ of socialism and has called on people to bury their old concepts of what socialism means. This could be interpreted as a rejection of Stalinism. At the same time, Chávez is strengthening his economic and diplomatic ties with Castro. He praises the marvellous Cuban health service, which many Venezuelans are now benefiting from through Cuban doctors working in Venezuela, Venezuelans training as doctors and patients being taken to Cuba for operations. The health service is undoubtedly a significant gain of the Cuban revolution and the planned economy. However, Chávez is completely uncritical of the bureaucratic nature of the Cuban regime and the absence of genuine workers’ democracy.
Could Chávez become a ‘second Castro’, moving to overthrow capitalism and landlordism, as sections of the Venezuelan ruling class and US imperialism fear? Theoretically, such a perspective cannot be completely ruled out. Castro, when he came to power in 1959, did not consciously set out to nationalise the economy but moved empirically in that direction in response to the US blockade and pressure from the Cuban masses. But because the working class was not consciously at the head of the revolution, the outcome was a deformed workers’ state, where capitalism and landlordism were eliminated but society was and still is controlled from the top down by a bureaucratic caste.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international context is very different from the time of the Cuban revolution when Cuba was supported with material aid by the Soviet bureaucracy for its own strategic reasons. Nevertheless, it is not inconceivable that in response to a provocation by the counter-revolution or a severe economic crisis, the Venezuelan masses could move spontaneously to seize factories and land, forcing Chávez to nationalise large sections, even the bulk, of the economy. Such a regime would be extremely unstable.
The revolution would undoubtedly be defeated at a certain stage by the forces of reaction, unless the working class was conscious of the role it had to play, not just in expropriating the capitalist class but in forming its own democratically elected committees. These would be necessary to run industry, implement a democratic plan of production, and lay the basis for a workers’ state with a programme for spreading the revolution throughout Latin America and internationally. That is why the struggle for a genuine working-class, internationalist ‘foreign policy’ is so important today. It would support economic links with Cuba, for example, but use the links to encourage real workers’ democracy within the country and extend the revolution internationally as the only real means of defending those gains which have already been made. A socialist, internationalist policy would also raise the idea of a federation of Venezuela and Cuba. On the basis of full participation by the working class, that would allow the different strengths of the two economies to be used to maximise improvements to the conditions of the working class. It would act as a bulwark against attempts by US imperialism to undermine the revolution, and as a beacon to others by showing what could be achieved through democratic, socialist planning.
Chávez’s reaction to future events will, of course, have a big impact on how developments unfold, particularly in a situation of economic breakdown. At the moment, he is responding in a limited way to the radicalisation of the masses and could move further in that direction. Unfortunately, there are many examples of honest leaders who, when confronted with the ‘logic’ of the capitalist market, have moved ‘reluctantly’ to clamp down on workers’ ‘excessive demands’, despite their best intentions.
With other options too risky at the present time, a section of the Venezuelan capitalist class are leaning on the movement’s pro-capitalist wing as a brake on radical reform and a potential vehicle for rolling back the gains of the working class and poor, paving the way for a defeat of the revolutionary process and a victory for the counter-revolution. It is true that the pro-capitalist Bolivarians do not have the same authority amongst the working class and poor that the Sandinistas had in Nicaragua after the 1979 revolution or the Socialist and Communist Parties had in Portugal in 1975, which was used to hold back the development of the revolution. Nevertheless, if the working class does not complete the revolution in Venezuela, and demoralisation and exhaustion set in, this wing could still play an important role in holding back the movement and laying the basis for capitalist reaction to triumph.
The pro-capitalist wing of the Bolivarian movement are quite clear about how they define ‘socialism’: a ‘mixed economy’ where some state-owned companies and cooperatives exist but the main economic levers remain in the hands of the Venezuelan and foreign capitalist class. Chávez spoke recently about investigating between 136 and 1,149 companies for possible expropriation. However, these are all companies which are either already bankrupt or close to becoming so. The industry minister made his position quite clear when he said that nationalisation would only take place in ‘extreme cases’, that there would not be a ‘wave of expropriations’, and that capitalist firms and ‘social production’ could coexist.
Similarly, the seizure of the 13,000-hectare cattle ranch belonging to Lord Vesty marked a stepping up of land reform. Previously, only state-owned land had been distributed to the rural poor. But at this stage, only ‘unproductive land’ is being considered by the government for expropriation. Nevertheless, 158 peasants have been killed since 2000 when the Land Law was passed, demonstrating how even limited reform will still be brutally resisted by the landlords, aided in some cases by right-wing Colombian paramilitaries.
Dressed up in the language of revolution, cooperatives are being promoted as the embryo of a socialist society. In the last six years, 79,000 cooperatives have been created overwhelmingly in the service sector and agriculture. They have had some effect in reducing unemployment but this can only be temporary. These cooperatives are still competing in the capitalist market with private companies and will be devastated by economic crisis. In reality, many cooperatives function like private companies, exploiting the workforce and denying workers’ rights. There are many examples of private employers ‘disguising’ their companies as cooperatives in order to receive state money.
In the same way, Chávez is encouraging ‘co-management’ of state-owned and now private industries. ‘This is the revolution. This is socialism’, he declared recently when offering low interest credit to employers of small private companies who are willing to bring workers’ representatives on to the board of their companies. But once again, the industry minister clearly articulated how co-management, or workers’ participation, will be used as a means of class collaboration to deceive the workers, increase exploitation and boost the profits of the capitalist class, as in countries like Germany. "There is a distorted interpretation of what co-management means", he said. "The idea is to incorporate workers in management and not ownership and help avoid unnecessary tensions and contradictions". (El Nacional)
Unwilling to confront the capitalists’ economic and state power head on, Chávez is implementing partial controls and attempting to circumvent the existing economic structures and state apparatus. So, in addition to the cooperatives, he has created a state airline, phone company and TV station, and state supermarkets selling basic products at up to 30% cheaper than in the private sector. These are all intended to rival existing private monopolies. However, these and other partial measures, such as price controls on basic foodstuffs and exchange controls, serve to infuriate the capitalist class and increase its determination to prevent further encroachments on its economic and state power.
At the same time, by leaving the large private monopoly companies, banks and financial institutions, newspapers, etc, in private hands, it is impossible to democratically plan the economy to meet the needs of the masses, and the capitalist class remains in a position to sabotage the economy and undermine the movement. There has been some reorganisation of personnel at the top of the army, judiciary, electoral college and other state institutions. But, without the election and right of recall of all state officials, and without the existence of a mass socialist party acting as a constant check on the state, new points of support for capitalist reaction can be generated, even from amongst today’s ‘pro-Chavista’ officials.
The capitalist class will clearly do everything it can to subvert those measures which are being introduced in response to the demands of the masses. It is utilising the media and pressurising the pro-capitalist wing of Chávez’s government to pursue more ‘realistic’ economic and social policies, to ‘win over’ the four million people who voted against Chávez in the recall referendum and in order not to ‘alienate’ foreign investment.
Chávez has himself encouraged joint ventures between foreign capital and the state-controlled oil industry, PDVSA. In fact, multinationals already account for almost 50% of Venezuela’s oil output, while PDVSA’s production has halved since 1998, when Chávez was first elected. It is true that even a healthy workers’ state could be compelled to sign economic and trade agreements with capitalist countries and foreign-owned companies, if the spread of revolution internationally was temporarily delayed. But this would be on the basis of a democratic plan of production, a state monopoly of foreign trade, and a policy of consciously aiming to extend the revolution by appealing to the working class internationally.
On the basis of a policy of preserving capitalism, however, foreign investment and trade agreements will be used to undermine and derail the revolution. It is a warning for the future that, when Chávez recently agreed an arms deal with the Spanish government, Spain’s foreign minister defended the deal against US criticisms by pointing out: "Spain’s role in Venezuela could be to Washington’s satisfaction, that of putting a brake on Chávez’s dreams of extending his Bolivarian revolution to other countries in the region". (El País, 9 May)
The working class, because of its role in the production process and its potential collective power, is key to carrying out the socialist revolution and defeating the forces of reaction. But, although the working class has been involved in the mass movement at every crucial stage, it has been as one ‘player’ amongst many. The working class has not been conscious of its own power or the responsibility it has of leading the masses to transform society. At different stages, Chávez has rested on and encouraged the participation of the masses, but this has been within strict limits. Without a clear programme to advance the revolutionary process, the movement risks stagnation and demobilisation. In particular, Chávez has not encouraged the independent action of the working class. During a recent strike of Metro workers in Caracas, for example, one Chávez adviser called for strikes to be banned in the public sector. Chávez threatened to send in the National Guard against the strikers.
The main task of a revolutionary party in Venezuela is not to advise Chávez on how to lead the revolution. It is to strengthen and extend the organisation of the working class and put forward demands which raise the confidence of workers in their own power to change society and increase their understanding of what needs to be done at every stage of the revolutionary process.
This would include exposing how the capitalists will use co-management to suit their own interests. It would mean building and strengthening workers’ committees which could implement genuine workers’ control and management in the workplaces, as a step towards democratically planning the whole of the economy.
Elements of workers’ control already exist in some workplaces. In ALCASA, the state-owned aluminium plant, for example, workers elect the managers, who only receive their previous wage and are subject to recall. A recent national meeting of workers called to discuss co-management and workers’ control agreed: "To include amongst the proposals for revolutionary co-management that the companies must be the property of the state, without distribution of shares to the workers, and that any profits will be distributed according to the needs of society through the councils of socialist planning. These councils of socialist planning must be understood as bodies which implement the decisions taken by citizens in assemblies".
A genuine revolutionary socialist programme would call for a democratisation of the organisations of the Bolivarian revolution, the formation and extension of democratic workplace committees, and linking these with elected committees in the communities and the rank and file of the armed forces, at local, state and national level.
In addition, workers’ defence forces need to be formed to defend the movement against reaction. Chávez has recognised the need to defend the revolution against imperialist aggression and is doubling the army reserves and setting up ‘popular defence units’ in the workplaces and on the land. But these will be under his own personal command and not under the democratic control of the organisations of the working class and poor.
The solidarity of workers in the rest of Latin America and internationally is also a vital means of defence. In his own way, Chávez is an internationalist. Emulating his hero, Simon Bolivar, he sees himself as the leader of an anti-imperialist alliance in Latin America and is using oil and the income from oil to promote his aims. Recent initiatives include the launching of Telesur, a continent-wide TV company, and Petrosur and Petrocaribe, agreements with various Latin American and Caribbean countries involving the export, exploitation and refining of oil. He has also used oil money to buy Argentinean and Ecuadorian debt, in ‘solidarity’ against the international money markets.
But Chávez’s main orientation has been towards neo-liberal leaders rather than appealing to the working class and poor. The Brazilian president, Lula, for example, has carried out anti-working class policies and his party is heavily embroiled in a serious corruption scandal. Yet, on a recent visit, Chávez praised Lula and dismissed the corruption allegations as a mere ‘right-wing conspiracy’. On the other hand, he has not made any statements in support of the new socialist formation in Brazil, P-SoL.
Chávez is accused by imperialism of exporting revolution to other Latin American countries. But when oil workers went on strike in two Amazonian states in Ecuador in August, demanding that more resources be invested in the local communities and that a US oil company be kicked out of the country, Chávez effectively played a strike-breaking role, lending oil to the Ecuadorian government to compensate for the ‘disruption’ that striking oil workers were creating to supplies.
In contrast, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina we had a glimpse of how a genuine policy of working-class, international solidarity could be pursued. Like Chávez, a democratic workers’ government would have immediately offered aid while exposing how capitalism places private profit before the lives of the poorest in society and how US imperialism is totally incapable of meeting the needs of US workers in times of crisis and in ‘normal’ times. At the same time, it would have made links with working-class and community organisations in the US to promote democratic control of the distribution of aid in the affected areas, raising the confidence and consciousness of the US working class.
Latin America is a continent in revolt. A successful democratic socialist revolution in Venezuela would have an electric impact on the working class and poor of the region, including in the United States. The Venezuelan working class is therefore now faced with the challenge of building and strengthening their organisations, including the creation of a mass revolutionary party with a programme to ensure that, in the struggle between revolution and counter-revolution, the forces of revolution prevail.
This article will be published in the next issue of Socialism Today – website www.socialismtoday.org