Venezuela: After the death of Hugo Chávez

Radical, populist policies and anti-imperialism helped transform the political situation

After a long battle with cancer, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez died on 5 March 2013. TONY SAUNOIS assesses the role of Chávez and the situation following his death.

Most capitalist journals and commentators could barely contain their glee at the death of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez Frias. The Financial Times perhaps most accurately summed up the cold, calculated response of capitalism. Its editorial concluded bluntly: “He [Chávez] held the poor close to his heart, and showed that love with the panache of a televangelist. Touching – yet his passing can only be helpful for the region.” (7 March)

This article was first published in Socialism Today

Others have denounced the ‘dictatorial’ and ‘undemocratic’ Chávez regime. They have lambasted him for the relations established between Venezuela and regimes such as that of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Financial Times posed the question: “But will his presence be missed for long? Perhaps only by Russian arms sellers and Chinese state banks.” It hopes that, with the death of Chávez and later of Fidel Castro in Cuba, the idea of socialism will be buried once again.

Such statements in the capitalist media demonstrate that their hypocrisy knows no bounds. Chávez has won 16 out of 17 elections or referendums since coming to power in 1998. Never did his own electoral support fall below 55%. Even capitalist election monitors, like the former US president, Jimmy Carter, have described the election process as “democratic” and “fair”. Capitalist politicians in Europe and the US can only dream of winning such victories.

None of those who have penned obituaries decrying Chávez have lingered on the collusion of US imperialism in the failed military coup in 2002. Or the oil industry bosses’ lock-out of 2002/03. None have mentioned the statement of former New Labour minister, Denis MacShane (currently under investigation for corruption), who at the time of the coup dismissed Chávez as a ‘Mussolini’, thereby effectively backing the failed coup. (He had to retract this statement rapidly.)

Much has been made of Chávez’s relations with dictatorial and corrupt regimes. Yet which capitalist leader has not established trade, commercial and political links with the likes of Gaddafi or other regimes with blood on their hands? Did Tony Blair and George W Bush not befriend Gaddafi, eventually welcoming him into the arms of the west? What of Blair’s £13 million annual earnings from Kazakh oligarchs and dictators?

No, on these matters the commentators who are so eager to bury Chávez remain silent. Yet, what really provoked such gloating outbursts over the death of a Venezuelan president? The answer is fear. Fear of two things. Firstly, the fear of capitalism and imperialism at being challenged or stood up to. Since the collapse of the Berlin wall and the former Stalinist regimes of Russia and eastern Europe in the early 1990s, pro-capitalist neoliberal regimes have become accustomed to ruling without challenge or opposition. The upheavals in Venezuela since Chávez’s election in 1998 threatened to disrupt the general acceptance of these policies and programmes.

Secondly, Chávez, particularly following the defeat of the coup and lock-out in 2002/03, opened the door for the masses in Venezuela to enter into history. Despite the failure to break with capitalism and establish a genuine system of democratic socialism, even if in a distorted way, Chávez and the social explosions in Venezuela put the issue of ‘socialism’ back on the agenda for discussion. The capitalists have been terrified that, during the revolutionary upheavals, the masses could push the Chávez government to take even harder steps to encroach on capitalism. The fear of this development and of the idea of socialism re-emerging during the current economic crisis are two of the reasons so much ink and airtime has been spent by the capitalist media denigrating Chávez.

Military revolt

Yet this was not the original intention of Chávez. Throughout the stormy revolutionary upheavals which have rocked Venezuela since 1998, he has not advocated a rounded-out socialist programme and ideas. In fact, he was empirically tossed along by events. At each crucial turn in the situation, the intervention of the masses from below was decisive and saved Chávez. He had been swept to power in elections in 1998. At that stage he did not speak of socialism. His election followed his bursting onto the political scene in 1992 when he led a failed radical, populist military revolt against the then president, Carlos Andrès Pèrez. (See: Venezuela – Down With Neoliberalism, Socialism Today No.141, September 1999)

Pèrez had been elected in 1989 on a programme of resisting free-market policies which the International Monetary Fund was imposing on Venezuela. "The IMF was a neutron bomb which killed people but left buildings standing", he thundered during the election campaign. Once in power, however, he capitulated to the demands of the IMF and began a neoliberal policy of savage cuts in living standards and privatisations. Living standards were cut to the bone. The urban poor took to the streets in an explosion of social anger. Pèrez deployed the army and, in what became known as the Caracazco, up to 3,000 people were slaughtered in a bloodbath. This was Venezuela prior to Chávez’s election triumph, an era which few obituaries of Chávez, much less the Venezuelan right, have mentioned when they have denounced his ‘dictatorship’.

These events radicalised a layer of the junior army officers. The Venezuelan armed forces were somewhat different from many of those in the rest of Latin America. Many of the junior officers were drawn from poor and peasant backgrounds. This, together with the experience under a corrupt and rotten state machine and political system had left a legacy of radical, nationalist, populist ideas among the ranks of the military. Many developed more sympathy with the guerrilla groups they were sent to fight in the 1960s and 1970s than with the ruling elite. Chávez was part of this layer.

His failed revolt against the Pèrez regime in 1992 left an indelible mark on the Venezuelan masses. As he surrendered, on television he declared the aims of the rebellion to have failed, "por ahora", for now!

Rightwing coup attempt

Released from prison two years later he took up the political struggle and was eventually swept to power in 1998, taking 56.2%, the highest percentage in a presidential election since 1983. Drawing the sword of Simón Bolívar from its scabbard he took to the streets and mobilised mass enthusiasm and support. At this stage, however, Chávez only promised reform, a ’Bolivarian revolution’, “a change in the economic and political structure of the country”. Drawing on the historical figure of Simón Bolívar, a leader of the struggle for Latin American independence from Spain in the 19th century, Chávez’s programme amounted to a radical, reformist, populist and nationalist ideology which did not break decisively with capitalism.

Yet even this was enough to terrify the ruling elite which had ruled Venezuela in a bipartisan rotation of power since 1958. He found himself at the head of a mass rejection of neoliberal, free-market policies which were being enacted globally by capitalism and imperialism following the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and eastern Europe.

The reforms he introduced rapidly brought his government into collision with the Venezuelan ruling class and US imperialism. It became an irritant for them and their plans. Using enabling legislation, Chávez introduced greater governmental control over the state-owned oil company, PVDSA. The Venezuelan elite, with the connivance of US imperialism, hit back in April 2002 and attempted a military overthrow. It had all of the hallmarks of the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, although neither Chávez nor the movement in Venezuela had gone as far in encroaching upon capitalism as the revolutionary upheavals in Chile 1970-73.

With no preparations to combat such a strike by the forces of reaction, Chávez was removed from the capital, Caracas, to the military base at La Orchila island, off the Venezuelan coast. He later admitted that he thought his fate was about to be sealed. The coup attempt was led by a vicious reactionary, Pedro Carmona, chief of the Federation of the Chambers of Commerce (Fedecameras). Carmona dissolved the national assembly and supreme court, and attacked the Cuban embassy to capture those seeking asylum. A putsch à la Chile 1973 was being prepared. They even threatened to bomb the presidential palace, Mira Flores. The right-wing forces thought they had succeeded and began ostentatious celebrations.

The masses, however, had not yet spoken. A soldier on the island sent a communication saying that Chávez had not resigned as the right claimed. The presidential guard were repelled by what they witnessed in Mira Flores. Most decisively the masses poured onto the streets and marched on the palace demanding Chávez be returned. The presidential guard, urged on by the masses, rebelled and the coup collapsed under the pressure of the mass movement from below. Chávez was returned to power. While the masses were searching for a means to finish off the conspirators, Chávez returned calling for national unity and no reprisals.

Yet again the right attempted to defeat him in 2002/03 with a year-long oil industry lock-out. Again, this was defeated by the working class and poor. Hundreds of workplaces were occupied during this period as workers instinctively moved to take action to defeat the attempt to bring the economy to a grinding halt. Workers demanded nationalisation and, in some workplaces, elements of workers’ control began to be introduced.

The radicalisation of Chávez

It was this mass pressure which was crucial in pushing Chávez to take even more radical measures, including nationalisations and partial nationalisations. By 2005, the process had become radicalised to the point where Chávez began to speak of ’socialism’ and building ’socialism in the 21st century’. In the presidential elections following this turn to the left, Chávez won one of his highest election victories, taking 62.87% of the vote – more than during his first victory in 1998. This was the first such development following the collapse of the Stalinist bloc. It represented an extremely positive development. It is one of the reasons the ruling classes internationally have been so vitriolic in their denunciations of Chávez.

Chávez spoke of ‘socialism’, quoted Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky, launched the ‘revolutionary socialist’ PSUV (Partido Socialista Unida de Venezuela), and called for the formation of a ‘5th International’. Unfortunately, the policies he enacted did not transform such sentiments into reality and a programme to break with capitalism. The ‘socialism’ he practised consisted of significant reforms. Using the $1 trillion oil revenues, important and progressive projects in health, education and housing were enacted. These were immensely popular. Inequality was reduced, as all capitalist commentators were forced to admit. The CWI supported the positive elements of such reforms.

Yet capitalism was left intact and not replaced. Partial nationalisation and lucrative contracts with the state resulted in a bonanza of profits for sections of the ruling class. State intervention increased but capitalism continued to rule. In this process, a new social force emerged, the ‘boli-bourgeoisie’, who grew rich on the backs of the revolutionary processes which had taken place. It has been a similar development to South Africa where a section of the ruling African National Congress and trade union leaders has enriched itself and joined the ruling class.

Despite the reforms, the failure to overthrow capitalism resulted in massive social problems remaining and even worsening. Unemployment, inflation, a massive housing deficit, and one of the highest crime and social violence problems in the world, still blight Venezuela. To this must be added the growth of bureaucracy, corruption and inefficiency. The state bureaucracy expanded massively. Yet there was no democratic check and control by the masses. Even the progressive reforms in health and education were blighted by top-down, administrative measures which became the source of resentment and anger for the workers and poor who had to fight it every day in every aspect of their lives.

Top-down, for the masses

This reflects two fundamental weaknesses of the revolutionary process in Venezuela. Chávez and other leaders of the movement adopted an administrative, top-down approach which flowed from the lack of a rounded-out revolutionary socialist programme. A central element of this is the need for the democratic check, control and management by the working class and masses over the economy and the state. Yet, from the beginning, the perception of Chávez and the other leaders was that they would act with the ‘support’ of the masses, and for the masses. The working class and poor were not seen as the leaders of the revolutionary process to transform society.

Chávez put it bluntly in one encounter during the early 1990s, when a rebellion was being discussed in a meeting of left-wing military officers, civilians and guerrilla organisations. A general strike was being debated to coincide with the military rebellion. This provoked a heated argument in which Chávez declaimed: "Civilians only get in the way." (In the Shadow of the Liberator, Richard Gott, Verso, 2000)

This method has given the rightwing nationally and internationally a handle with which to beat the Chávez regime. This was graphically illustrated by Chavez’s announcement in 2007 that he would not re-new the broadcasting licence of the right-wing pro-opposition TV channel, RCTV. This provoked widespread discussion in Venezuela and internationally. RCTV had played a pernicious role in actively supporting the coup in 2002 and the ’lock out’ in 2002/3. It also broadcast some of the most popular ’soaps’ – ’telenovelas’ and quiz programmes.

The CWI made clear at the time we stand against the pro-capitalist media which is not under democratic control but run by a tiny handful of media barons which defend capitalism. Nor do we support any bureaucratic, undemocratic attempt to control the media by any state machine. We support the taking over democratically of the broadcasting and production of press and media and for this to be run on a democratic basis with TV and media time democratically allocated to all on the basis of the support enjoyed within society.

However, this was not what Chavez did. He revoked the license to broadcast of the RCTV five years after the coup and/or lock out. It still left 95% of all Venezuelan media outlets – TV, radio, and newspapers) in private hands. Yet it was an own goal which allowed the ruling class nationally and internationally the opportunity to attack the Chavez government for “removing freedom of the press”. There are important lessons from the Portuguese revolution in the 1970’s when the Armed Forces Movement arbritarily siezed the offices of the ’Republica’ newspaper. This, as the CWI explained became a catalyst for the organisation of the counter-revolution with important lessons for Venezuela. The question of press and media freedom is an especially sensitive issue in the modern era. Of course the hypocrisy of the ruling class on this issue has been recently demonstrated in Britain in the light of the Leveson Enquiry into the press and media. This followed the scandals revealed in the conduct of the Murdoch empire press and media outlets and others. The ruling class attacked Chavez for withdrawing the licence of RCTV. However, in Britain, they themselves, have now introduced legislation for the introduction of a Royal Charter on press freedom underpinned by statutory legal control which opens the door to press regulation by the capitalist state. Something the CWI is opposed to. They are silent of their hypocritical attacks on Chavez when a single licence of one station was revoked.

A further important factor in Venezuela is the crucial role of the particular traditions of the workers’ movement in each country. The complications and weaknesses during the Chavez era have been compounded by the weak, consciousness and independent political tradition of the working class in Venezuela. For instance, the first trade union federation was only founded in 1936. Even the Communist Party was only formed in 1931, in clandestine conditions and as a Stalinist party from its inception. This has enabled Chávez and his supporters to step into the vacuum with such commanding support.

In a stark exposure of their hypocrisy, as explained above, the ruling class has denounced Chavez for the links he established with regimes like Gaddafi and Putin. Some on the left have argued that the isolation of Venezuela and the attacks on it by imperialism left Chavez with little choice. The CWI has commented throughout the period of the Chavez government that a genuine democratic socialist government maybe isolated for a period. It may, like the Bolsheviks in Russia after the 1917 revolution, be compelled to approach regimes for temporary loans or trade agreements. At the same time it would take all the necessary steps to assist workers in other countries advance in their struggle and raise the idea of spreading a democratic socialist revolution to other countries in order to establish a democratic, voluntary, federation of socialist states to develop and plan the economies together. However, such temporary agreements, are not the same as heaping praise on Gaddafi, Putin and others as great “revolutionary” or “democratic” leaders. Yet this is what Chavez did and again it has been used as a stick to beat his regime with and to discredit the idea of “socialism”. A democratic workers’ government may well be compelled to establish temporary formal governmental links and trade agreements with regimes like Gadaffi or Putin. At the same time through the agency of a democratic revolutionary socialist party and independent trade unions it would forge links and solidarity with the workers and poor in those countries and assist them in their struggles to defeat such regimes.

These important weaknesses have acted as a brake on the movement. The revolution failed to advance after its most radical phase so far in 2005/06. The onset of the global crisis in 2007/08, which affected Venezuela, coincided with the movement becoming bogged down and not advancing. Chávez and the government began to move towards the right. The ruling class, or large parts of it, concluded that, unable to remove Chávez, they could coexist with him. As did US imperialism, especially after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. Trade between Venezuela and the US increased. Strikes increased, too, in protest against the government’s increasingly repressive measures used against the workers.

At the same time, the masses became increasingly critical and dissatisfied with the Chávez regime. A warning was struck in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The PSUV and its allies took less than 50% of the vote (49%) for the first time. They were saved in the national assembly by changes to the boundaries and the election system. It was a warning, as the CWI commented at the time.

In the period that followed, the Chávez government continued to swing further to the right. Talk of socialism was reduced to a minimum. This was reflected in the 2012 elections which revealed how far the process had gone. Yet Chávez still managed to win 55% of the vote. Despite all of the deficiencies and failure of the movement to advance, the masses were not fooled by the rightwing’s false promises. While discontent had grown, the masses wanted no return to the old regime. It was impossible for the right to advocate its real neoliberal agenda. Despite the stagnation in the revolutionary process, support for the broad idea of ‘revolutionary change’, for the poor and oppressed, and even for the general idea of ‘socialism’, are heavily engrained into the consciousness of the Venezuelan masses.

This was reflected at Chávez’s funeral, with demands from the masses for the revolution to continue. Slogans such as "Bourgeois: don’t think the revolution will not continue" were heard on the massive funeral cortège.

A new chapter

Following the elections in 2012, divisions were beginning to open up within the Bolivarian movement as increasing layers of workers were coming into conflict with the regime. National security laws made strikes in the public sector almost illegal. The day before Chávez died, protests over housing conditions were met by police repression. His death has checked these developments, temporarily, as the masses have unified again to defeat the rightwing in presidential elections due on 14 April.

The elections are likely to result in a victory for Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s named successor. At this stage, the various groupings in the PSUV/Bolivarian movement have rallied together to ensure they win. Maduro, a former bus driver coming from the trade union bureaucracy, is clearly sensitive to the pressure and demands from the working class. Maduro and the Bolivarian leaders are fighting the election with an almost religious fervour, bestowing near sainthood on Chávez whose line they will continue. Maduro has even described himself as an “apsotle of Chávez”, recognising the demands of the workers but appealing to them and all groups to be calm for “the sake of the fatherland”.

On the other side, the class prejudice of the capitalists is demonstrated in their hysterical outbursts of horror at the idea of a former bus driver becoming president. Yet Maduro is also trying to appease the ruling class. His declarations have been aimed at trying to moderate the working class, speaking about the "patriotic revolution continuing". Even before Chávez died, meetings had been arranged with representatives of US imperialism.

The attempts at arriving at a consensus with capitalism are certain to come into conflict with the aspirations of the working class and masses after the elections. The worsening economic scenario globally and in Venezuela is certain to result in new conflicts and struggles. Moreover, Maduro does not have the same authority or loyalty in the eyes of the masses as Chávez did. It is not excluded that, under mass pressure, Maduro could also be compelled to adopt more radical policies which encroach on capitalist interests, but this is not certain. Divisions within the Bolivarian movement will re-emerge with even greater intensity reflecting different class interests. A new chapter in Venezuela will open following the election. Now more than ever it is urgent to transform and build independent workers’ organisations to take the revolution forward with a democratic socialist programme to change society.

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