CWI Latin American school: Bolivia and Venezuela

Where are they going?

On the second day of the Latin American school of the CWI, the continent itself was the subject of discussions. Here we report on the sessions on Bolivia and Venezuela.

Adam Ziemkowski from Cochabamba gave a report about the dramatic events which developed in Bolivia in 2008. The struggle, which was sparked off by the armed takeover of state institutions and the massacre of 20 peasants, put the question of revolution and counter-revolution very clearly on the agenda. He argued that an overthrow of capitalism and a socialist revolution would have been possible if there had been a clear Marxist and revolutionary direction given to the mass movements which developed to defend the social movements from the attacks of right-wing forces in the country.

This means that Bolivia has reached a new stage and that the relationship between the government of Evo Morales’ MAS (Movement for Socialism) and the social movements and working class has developed further. The conclusion which Adam put to the more than 100 participants of the meeting was that the social movements and the working class have to be much more offensive and have to lead an independent struggle for socialist change, rather than relying on the government.

Adam recounted the events of last year, when the right-wing pro-capitalist forces tried to destroy the social movements and the MAS government and to prevent the new constitution from being implemented by organising a coup-like situation in those provinces of the country which they control, by occupying official buildings. This attack by the right-wing was answered by a mass mobilisation of indigenous people and workers, who marched to Santa Cruz in their tens of thousands, effectively putting the city under siege and forcing the right-wing to enter negotiations. However, negotiations would not have been necessary if they had not been proposed by Evo Morales who, in his typical reformist way, tried to reach a compromise with those forces who would try to behead him, rather than giving a revolutionary leadership to the fighting masses, in order to complete the revolutionary process with the overthrow of capitalism.

Adam argued that in this situation, the reactionary forces were paralysed and a revolution was possible. However, Morales entered negotiations which led to nothing but a demobilisation of the masses.

In this situation, the Alternativa Socialismo Revolucionaria (ASR – CWI in Bolivia) put forward a programme for the democratic organisation of the mass movement and an effective coordination of the struggle on local and national level, in order to bring the struggle under the control and leadership of the masses themselves. The ASR supported the land and factory occupations which were developing and proposed that they be expanded upon.

A few weeks later, when the senate did not want to approve a referendum on the new constitution, up to half a million peasants, workers and young people marched to the senate to demanded one. This again was a revolutionary mobilisation which ended with a big celebration, throughout the night, as Morales announced victory. As Adam said, “with the morning came the truth” – the revelation that around 100 articles had been changed in comparison to the original draft of the constitution and that Morales had, on some decisive issues, given in to the pressure of the right-wing forces representing landlordism and capitalism. The most important change was on the question of land ownership, where the land limitations were made non retroactive, to calm down the 100 families who together posses five times the land that two million poor peasants own.

Adam explained that there was no support for these changes amongst the masses and that many people initially opposed the changed constitution but then came to the conclusion that it was still a step in the right direction.

ASR in the constitutional referendum called for a critical ‘YES’ vote and used the slogan ‘vote YES but get ready to fight’, explaining what would have been possible with a clear leadership and strategy. But the comrades recognised that it was a progression that the new constitution guaranteed – at least in writing – basic rights, like water, food, health care, a decent wage, education and a home. At the same time, ARS explained that these rights will only be fulfilled in reality if the masses fight for them and if the socialist revolution is carried through to the end.

The question of the critical YES-vote caused some discussion, especially with members of the Collectivo Libertade e Socialismo (CLS), a Marxist organisation which is in a process of fusion with the Brazilian section of the CWI, who raised the question if such a policy would actually help or harm the movement of the masses. Ultra-left groups in Bolivia called for a “NO” vote, as Adam explained, because they see no difference between Morales and the previous pro-capitalist presidents. This view is not shared by the masses however, who understand that Morales had come into conflict with the capitalists and landlords because he tried to implement some reforms in the interest of the masses. The conciliatory attitude of Morales will lead to a weakening of the revolutionary process and will only invite the right-wing forces to try to bring down his government at a later stage.

While the MAS is still the main reference point for the mass of the activists, Adam concluded that marxists should be prepared to call for the building of a revolutionary and Marxist party and for the trade unions and social movements to be controlled by the masses, through democratic structures. He finished with the optimistic statement: that the forces of the CWI, small as they are, are well positioned to grow out of the new situation which is opening up.


In a second session, trade unionist Johan Rivas from Caracas led off on developments in Venezuela, ten years after Chavez was elected as president.

He painted a picture of a very contradictory situation and said that despite progress which was made, especially in the fields of unemployment, education and health care, a real danger exists that Chavez could be defeated by the recently strengthened right-wing opposition.

Still, the Chavez government is the most popular government for decades. The so-called Bolivarian revolution created big hopes and expectations amongst the masses, but as many basic problems have not been solved and there has been the development of a big bureaucracy, dissatisfaction has been growing recently. This was reflected in last years’ constitutional referendum, which was the first vote lost by the Chavez camp since 1999 and also by the recent local elections, which were generally a victory for the Chavista candidates, but some important positions were won by the opposition.

The main problem which Johan identified in the country is the lack of popular participation in the decision making in society. He said the revolution functions as follows: the population expresses something, the leadership listens, but the masses are not involved in any direct measures. This has led to a strong bureaucratisation and inefficiency in society.

While there has been progress on some fields, generally the social situation is still dire. Johan said that the social movements would generally have put forward similar demands ten years ago. Unemployment has gone down, but the number of insecure jobs has grown. Inflation in food prices is high and 80% of wages are spent on food. The food industry is controlled by five families. Crime and violence is another huge problem which affects the everyday life of the population.

He explained that for historical reasons Venezuela does not have a strong and independent workers movement. The trade unions are weak and also the newly formed Bolivarian trade union federation (UNT) is very bureaucratised. In his view, this is one reason why the right wing could regain support. Other factors are the ideological confusion in the social movements and the working class when it comes to the question what ‘socialism in the 21st century’ should look like, the bureaucratisation of the state and also the overwhelming emphasis on the figure of Chavez.

Johan gave a much more critical picture about the state of the new party PSUV than what you usually would find in the left discussions which try to present it as an active and democratic mass force. While a membership of over five million is claimed it has very little rank and file participation. For example in Johan s district from the 500,000 members who were invited to attend a general assembly, only one hundred turned up. He also reported bureaucratic manoeuvres to keep critical voices from the Venezuelan CWI group, which is part of the PSUV, away from a congress, despite the fact that they were elected as delegates. In that sense, despite its membership, the party has not sunk deep roots in the communities or the working class and bases its existence on the fact that it is Chavez’s party.

Johan also reported about repression of trade union activists. Recently, there were further killings of trade unionists.

Its position of critical support for the Bolivarian Revolution and the Chavez government leaves the CWI group, at this stage, in a relatively difficult situation. It is attacked by the trade union bureaucracy for its criticisms. Still, the group made progress and recruited new members through trade union campaigns in the health sector.

In the discussion, several points were raised. For example, the position of calling for a critical “YES” vote in the referendum which took place on Sunday was questioned by some participants. It was explained that a victory for the “NO” side would only mean a further strengthening of the right wing capitalist opposition.

Perspectives are open for Venezuela, as Johan and others explained. It can not be ruled out that the world capitalist crisis which already has an effect on the social programmes because the income from oil money has severely fallen, can push the Chavez government further to the left on the basis of mass pressure from below, or further attacks by imperialism and the pro-capitalist opposition. But it is also possible that the pro-capitalist forces can regain power on the basis of dissatisfaction with the bureaucratisation of society and a worsening social situation. But it was also stressed that even such a scenario would not mean an end of struggle or polarisation in society.

Socialismo Revolucionario, the CWI group in Venezuela, calls for the building of an independent socialist workers movement, the nationalisation of the banks and big companies under democratic workers control and management, to complete the revolutionary process, with the overthrow of capitalism and open the door to socialism.

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