Venezuela: Venezuela at a crossroads

Once more the opposition resorts to economic sabotage

President Hugo Chávez continues to rally workers and poor behind his Bolivarian revolution and ‘anti-imperialist alliance’. While enjoying massive popular support, however, there are signs that economic imbalances and rising corruption are beginning to threaten some of the reforms implemented so far. Karl Debbaut, a recent visitor to Venezuela, reports.

Venezuela at a crossroads

“The best president we have ever had”. This is how Rosa Soja, an employee of the Selfex factory in the south east of the capital, Caracas, described to me how she rated President Chávez. The employees, mostly women workers, have been occupying their workplace for the past eight weeks after the employer declared bankruptcy and disappeared. The 250-strong workforce without work or pay were left with only one option: occupy the factory, guard the machinery and buildings and hope that, in one way or another, production might be restored to give them back their livelihoods.

The situation the Selfex workers face is not exceptional. Small-scale conflicts are breaking out between the working class and the employers all over the country. Employers actively involved in sabotaging or stopping production altogether attempt to frustrate the demands and the confidence of the workers, which has been strengthened by the repeated victories of the Chávez movement over the opposition. The employers, the main component of the opposition forces around the old, Washington-dependent elite, are resorting to economic sabotage to frustrate the workers and poor. Their ultimate aim is to undermine the social basis of the Chávez government, fully restoring the rule of the tiny minority of Venezuelan society that used to have full access to the wealth in pre-Chávez times.

For now, the economic sabotage, government bureaucracy or corruption seem unable to dent the personal authority and prestige of ‘El Comandante’, as Hugo Chávez Frias is frequently called by his supporters. Yet, a warning is needed that a failure to solve the pressing problems of the working class and poor could lead to disillusionment amongst sections of the working class.

A massive demonstration organised to commemorate the failed, Chávez-led, coup of 4 February 1992 marked the start of the presidential election campaign due to take place in December. About a million-and-a-half people came out to celebrate what is generally regarded as the beginning of the political struggle that led to the election of Chávez as president in 1999 and the start of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’. The march was a show of strength, at one point stretching over twelve kilometres.

The majority of demonstrators attended of their own free will, consciouss of the political objectives at stake. This mass of working-class and poor Chávez supporters was accompanied by representatives of the government, public-sector employees and workers from different government agencies who were encouraged to be present.

Many felt, quite rightly, that a show of strength was needed to answer the verbal attacks earlier in the week by representatives of British and American imperialism. US foreign secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had compared Chávez to Hitler and Tony Blair called on Chávez to return to ‘democracy’, ie follow the economical diktats of the US, IMF and World Bank. The opposition organised its own demonstration in Caracas on the same day but only succeeded in getting a few thousand people together.

Corruption and bureaucracy

At the end of the demonstration an enormous crowd gathered to hear Chávez speak on the Avenida Bolivar in the centre of Caracas. Over a two-mile stretch, a red block stood across the six lanes of the avenue listening to the speech, unmistakably enjoying how Chávez ridiculed Bush, Rumsfeld and Blair. This was not the most significant, nor the most politically skilful, part of the speech, however. The biggest roar from the crowd came when Chávez spoke out against bureaucracy and corruption. In his own words: “There is only one political process that cannot survive unless it is an efficient process. This process is called revolution”.

He said that he would not hesitate to sack ministers if they are found to be inefficient, bureaucratic or corrupt in any way. Many of the demonstrators must have felt that progress after seven years of Chávez could have been greater if not for the inefficient state bureaucracy which is more often than not corrupt. Equally mistrusted are the majority of the politicians, even the ministers in the Chávez camp, with whom the population feels no affinity because they are usually the sons and daughters of the professional (middle) classes.

The Selfex workers, nurses who protested the week before in front of the Mira Flores palace or the workers at Mercal, a fast expanding network of shops and supermarkets selling staple foods at a 40% discount, all have the same stories to tell: “We support the president, he is an honest and caring man but he is all on his own”.

Chávez used the events around 4 February to announce a 15% rise in the minimum wage, as part of a package of social measures welcomed by workers. The new minimum wage will be around 465,750 bolívares or £125 a month. The problem the workers face in many workplaces is how to force the employers, state and private, to apply the laws on wages, job protection and workers’ rights. Some workers are beginning to draw the conclusion that the revolution cannot be something that is dropped from above but needs to be built up from below through the initiative of the masses and their organisations.

This is a major challenge for the Venezuelan working class. Its low level of auto-organisation is a historical legacy, partly influenced by the ideological counter-revolution of the 1990s. These are objective reasons not excuses. During the first year of the Russian revolution, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who were at the head of a working class possibly less culturally and economically developed than its Venezuelan counterparts, were very conscious of the need to develop the organisations of the working class. For the revolution to succeed it was central that the working class, in alliance with the poor peasantry, created its own instruments of state power. The Bolsheviks encouraged the initiative of the masses and, indeed, would not have succeeded in wrenching control from the hands of the bourgeoisie without it. The council of people’s commissars fought hard battles with a many-headed resistance of the propertied classes. With central state power hardly existing, the decrees issued by the commissars called upon the masses to use their own committees to control the production, accounting and financing of the firms they worked in.

Emergency measures needed to stop economic sabotage

The bosses’ lock-out in December 2002 and January 2003 was defeated by the independent activity of the most important layers of the industrial working class. Oil workers broke the lock-out in the oil industry by taking back some of the installations and restarting production. Workers in other industries followed their example and the establishment of a new trade union confederation, the UNT, broke the power of the old and corrupt CTV federation, hand in glove with the ruling elite.

Now that the Chávez government has enforced price controls on basic foodstuffs to combat inflation and keep cheap food available for the majority of the population, the producers are reacting with a partial strike of production. Through much of December, for example, coffee, cornflower and other basic products disappeared from supermarket shelves. Venezuela is one of the few Latin American countries which are dependent on imported food and milk to satisfy the basic needs of the population. This, in itself, is a damning condemnation of the national bourgeoisie and the exploitation by imperialism which destroyed domestic food production. According to reports in the Western press, Alimentaria Internacional, an importer of powdered milk, has cut back its imports to “practically zero”. Other milk producers have ‘refocused’ their production to goods that fall outside the regulations, leading to the absurd situation that there is yoghurt and cheese in abundance whilst milk is scarce. The strike by coffee producers in December was the most vocal. When the government raised the price of the green coffee that farmers sell to roasters by 100%, while leaving processed coffee prices unchanged, producers took action. They refused to roast the beans, leading to empty shelves in the supermarkets, until the government agreed to raise retail coffee prices by 60%.

These examples illustrate the helplessness of the Chávez regime in its fight with the employers. As long as the threats to expropriate factories that shut down operations are not put into action, or steps taken to nationalise the leading heights of the economy under workers’ control and management, there is little the Bolivarian government can do against this sabotage.

Only a few factories have been nationalised and, although the ensuing debate in these workplaces over workers’ control or co-management is hugely important for the future development of the class struggle and the revolutionary process, it would be an immense error to try and present this as the overall situation. The majority of the working class is not involved in this process and, on the contrary, has to fight for even the basic recognition of their rights as workers, such as securing the minimum wage for everyone, the correct payment of wages and overtime, and the right to organise in trade unions. Socialists need to build working-class organisations with a fighting programme which takes up the day-to-day demands of the working class and poor, linking them with the necessity of nationalising the leading heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management.

In those companies which have already been nationalised socialist need to fight to develop genuine workers’ control over the industry. This, as opposed to the co-management the government is promoting, means the democratic control of the workforce over hiring and firing and the election of managers and supervisors by the workers. Socialists would put forward that supervisors and managers should be elected and subject to recall by the assemblies that have elected them; that they receive the average wage of a skilled worker. The workers themselves, in alliance with the local communities, would draw up the production plan and train themselves in the running of production. Workers control, possible under the general circumstances of capitalist production, is a training ground for workers and their organisations to prepare themselves for the implementation of a system of democratic workers management of the production. These measures can lift the understanding and confidence of the working class and prepare them to run society for themselves. This will not be possible however without the nationalisation of the most important sectors of the Venezuelan economy. The socialist measures in the sphere of production need to be repeated in the sphere of distribution. Workers in the formal and informal sectors of the economy need to build their class based committees, in alliance with the poor peasantry, to fight for the socialist transformation of society. These committees, democratically elected in every workplace, every borough and every city, could be the embryo of a future workers state, replacing the institutions of the bourgeois state to start building a socialist society.

Is poverty declining?

Catholic Bishops last month claimed that poverty was “accelerating rapidly”. The Chávez government responded with statistics suggesting that poverty had “begun to decrease, slowly and progressively”. The fact of the matter is that the bosses’ lock-out in 2002 had an important effect and increased the suffering of the working class and poor. By 2003, a quarter of Venezuelans were living in ‘extreme poverty’ unable even to feed themselves adequately. There are enough reasons to doubt the figures of the Catholic bishops, not least that they are well known for their political interference on behalf of the oligarchy. At the same time, the government figures can be questioned. The bottom line is that the working class proved itself capable of defending its interests and remaining firm in the face of an onslaught by the employers, even if this has brought with it an increase in poverty in the short term.

This capacity to endure more suffering is limited, however. The working class can make sacrifices on condition that there is a perspective that the human capital spent, the increased suffering, will result in ending long-term poverty and changing society decisively. If that perspective is taken away, by a profound change in the character of Chávez’s policies or a collapse of the confidence the working class and poor have in their own capacity to act in their class interests, the counter-revolution has a real chance of victory.

The Venezuelan economy recovered after the bosses’ lock-out, and the increased state revenue from the high price of oil on the world market has given the government the means to invest in the missions, public infrastructure and the extension of the state sector. Venezuela’s annual revenue from oil exports has quadrupled since 1998. However, while it is true that the measures taken by the government have helped the poorest sections of Venezuelan society, to date two-thirds of the poorest families still live on $2 a day or less.

This gives an indication of the limits of what can be achieved under capitalism and also provides the basis for a vicious, populist campaign by the bourgeois press. By comparing the amount the Chávez government has spent on its policy of building ‘anti-imperialist’ alliances with other Latin American countries with the amount of money that would be needed domestically to eradicate poverty they are fuelling existing doubts, for the moment mainly amongst the middle classes, about whether Chávez’s international policy can transform the plight of Venezuelans and fellow Latin Americans living under the same horrendous conditions.

According to the bourgeois press, Chávez has spent $25 billion on economic solidarity with other governments in the region, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Caribbean islands, Cuba, Ecuador, Guyana, Indonesia, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay. In the US, the Chávez government also gave $2 billion to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina and supplied cheap winter fuel to thousands of poor inner-city families.

At the same time, the newspapers point out, investment of $48 billion could eradicate poverty in Venezuela in the next five years. However, they conclude, after seven years of ‘Bolivarian revolution’, the richest 10% of the population still receive half the national income while the poorest 10% have access to less than 2%.

It is undoubtedly true, as in every capitalist state, that the ‘redistribution’ of wealth through the state favours the propertied classes. This unequal distribution of state resources is repeated in an even more unequal fashion in the private sector. Unfortunately, the guiding idea of the Chávez government, up till now, is that this is an imbalance that can only be corrected by more state intervention and investment in favour of the poorest sections of the population without fundamentally interfering in the sphere of production. What is more, the Venezuelan government is attempting to follow this strategy whilst relying on the same state apparatus that only yesterday worked in the service of the oligarchy.

The tragedy of Chávez’s policy is that it will ultimately fail the working class and poor if it does not break decisively with capitalism at home and abroad. Only on the basis of a democratically planned economy will it be possible to put the productive forces to work in the interests of the working class and the poorest sections of society.

The Venezuelan capitalist class, dependent as it is on imperialism, will try everything in its power to turn back the present reforms. Although weak politically at present, its fundamental position in society, as private owners of the productive forces, has not been challenged decisively. It will use all possible means to tire and frustrate the masses, to split the more vacillating layers from the core of Chávez support and to prepare to strike decisively against the revolutionary process. We have mentioned it many times before, and will many times again: It would be foolish to forget the lessons of Chile and Nicaragua.

Workers need to act independently

The ongoing debate on ‘socialism in the 21st century’ is of extreme significance for Venezuela, as it is for the international working class. The steps taken by the Chávez government in refusing to be part of the worldwide neo-liberal conspiracy and its insistence that another world is possible if it is socialist are a pointer to the movements which will develop as the working class takes action to defend its interests against capitalist exploitation. We are now at a crossroads, in the run-up to the next presidential election in December. The most likely scenario is that Chávez will win. The election campaign in and of itself can provide a new impulse for the movement and push Chávez and the government further to the left.

In this process the workers need to build organisations – trade unions and political parties – that allow them to work out their own politics. To learn in practice which measures are necessary to defend their class interests, to gain experience in the art of class struggle and prepare the overthrow of capitalism. No Marxist would deny how certain outstanding personalities can have an above average influence on developments under the right conditions. The need for the working class as a whole to possess its own instruments of struggle is a question independent of the talents, strengths or weaknesses of one individual. In this sense, the challenge lying ahead for the Venezuelan working class and poor is the choice between revolution and counter-revolution. This is not the same as a personal loyalty test to the individual Chávez. The key question is programmatic. It is a question of the development of fighting organisations for the defence and deepening of the revolution connected with the working out of a correct programme for the establishment of socialism in Venezuela as a first step towards a socialist federation of Latin America and the world.

Rosa Soja is right. Hugo Chávez Frias is the best president the Venezuelan working class has ever had. The reforms he has initiated are important. The experience the working class has gained in defending the Chávez regime from reactionary forces will prove a priceless weapon in its armoury in the fight for genuine, democratic socialism.

A shorter version of this article will appear in the next issue of Socialism Today,

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February 2006