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Venezuela: a new phase in the struggle

FOLLOWING BUSH’S re-election, US imperialism has again adopted a more aggressive posture towards the government of Hugo Chávez. In January, the new US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, used her appearance before the US Senate committee to attack Chávez. His government poses a "major threat to the whole region" she warned, and the US "cannot remain indifferent to what Venezuela is doing beyond its borders".

To emphasise the point, a former US ambassador to Venezuela (currently in the State Department), wrote an article justifying US donations, since 2001, of more than $20 million to opposition organisations and parties through the National Endowment for Democracy and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The leaders of the failed coup in April 2002 and instigators of the December 2002 ‘lock-out’ were referred to as "Venezuelans seeking to protect their democratic rights". (El Nuevo Herald, Miami, 12 January)

US imperialism regards the Chávez government as an obstacle to its interests in Latin America and wants to remove it from power. Crucially, Washington does not see Venezuela, which accounts for about 15% of US oil imports, as a safe supplier. This renewed fear about the stability of Venezuela’s oil supply has arisen as Chávez has opened negotiations with China, Russia and Iran with a view to lessening Venezuela’s dependency on the US market. Consequently, 33 operating agreements signed during the 1990s, mainly with US companies, are being re-evaluated. One US company, Harvest Natural Resources of Houston, which receives all its oil from Venezuela, has been told to suspend its oil exploration there. The worsening crisis in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, has increased the importance of Venezuelan oil for the US. Bush wants a ‘safe pair of hands’ on the pumps.

It is also no accident that the renewed threats of reaction come as the Chávez government is taking some steps in a more radical direction: the seizure of a 13,000 hectare cattle ranch owned by the British meat-packing tycoon, Lord Vestey; and the nationalisation of Venepal, a paper producing company – the first nationalisation carried out by Chávez after six years in power.

The seizure of Vestey’s land was significant. Venezuela, like other Latin American countries, is highly urbanised – only 12% of the 25 million population live in rural areas. However, most working-class and poor families in the cities retain important family links to the countryside, and the plight of the rural poor is strongly present in their political awareness. Sixty percent of agricultural land is held by a mere 1% of the population, and the existence of vast private estates (‘latifundios’) owned by multi-national dynasties, such as the Vestey family, symbolises the wealth and power of the ruling class and imperialism. So when the state governor of Cojedes, Johnny Yánez, arrived with 200 National Guard troops at Vestey’s El Charcote ranch and seized it (‘intervened’ as it is known in Venezuela), this enjoyed overwhelming mass support. Prior to this seizure, the agricultural reform programme had only distributed land to peasants from farms already in state ownership.

This ‘intervention’ has provoked opposition amongst other big landowners who fear that they could be next. And it remains unclear if this step will be reversed, should the commission appointed to determine the ownership of the land decide that it had been ‘legally’ purchased by Vestey.

The Chávez government subsequently announced the nationalisation of Venepal. The workers at this plant, which originally employed nearly 2,000 people, have been in conflict with its owners for years. Directors of the company were present at the swearing in ceremony of the reactionary government of Pedro Carmona, which overthrew Chávez for a few hours in a coup in April 2002. They joined the employers’ ‘lock-out’ later that year and then declared the company bankrupt in 2003. The workers responded by occupying the plant. Eventually, a short-lived agreement was reached but, in 2004, the employers closed the plant yet again. Again, the workers occupied and organised a series of protests. They marched to the capital, Caracas, demanding government intervention. This resulted in the recent nationalisation decree.

The seizure of Vestey’s latifundio and the expropriation of Venepal arose out of mass struggle. They may indicate that Chávez is being driven to adopt more radical measures, following his attempts to appease the ruling class after his victory in the 2004 recall referendum victory.

When nationalising Venepal, Chávez declared that capitalism is based on slavery and "that is why in Washington they are angry, because we want to liberate ourselves from capitalism. In the same way, they were angry many years ago with the ideas of liberator Simón Bolivar". Significantly, at the recent World Social Forum in Brazil, Chávez, for the first time, spoke of the need for socialism. Every day he becomes more convinced, he said, "that it is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism can’t be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice. But I’m also convinced that it is possible to do it under democracy, but not in the type of democracy being imposed from Washington".

It is welcome that Chávez now mentions socialism as an alternative to capitalism. It is not enough, however, just to support the idea of socialism. A programme to achieve it is also necessary. Unfortunately, Chávez is not advocating a clear programme that will allow the working class to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist planned economy. This is what is now urgently needed in Venezuela and the whole of Latin America.

When announcing the nationalisation of Venepal, Chávez declared that "the expropriation is an exception, not a political measure, nor a government one. We won’t take land, if it is yours. But the company that is closed and abandoned, we’ll go for them. For all of them". Socialists welcome the expropriation of all companies abandoned by the capitalist class. But why stop there? Why only take the bankrupt companies leaving those still functioning and making a profit in the hands of the ruling class? Such partial measures will not allow the economy to be planned by the working class to end the suffering and misery facing the masses and poor. Yet such palliative steps will enrage and terrify the ruling class and imperialism and strengthen their resolve to overthrow the regime.

In Chile between 1970-73 the Unidad Popular (UP) government of Salvador Allende supported the idea of socialism. It nationalised approximately 40% of the economy, including multi-national companies, but the leaders of the UP argued that the revolution should not go too far too fast because it would provoke reaction. This allowed reactionary forces time to prepare the ground for the coup on 11 September 1973, resulting in a bloodbath for the working class.

In an echo of these arguments, Chávez stated at Porte Alegre that "at the beginning of my presidency, many of my supporters criticised me and asked me to go at a faster pace and be more radical, but I considered that it was not the right moment because each process has several phases and different rhythms that not only have to do with internal situations in each country, but with the international situation at the time".

Each country does have particular rhythms and phases. Yet understanding the specific conditions in each country does not mean putting a brake on the revolutionary process. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Chávez has done at each critical stage in the Venezuelan revolution. The counter-revolution has been given time to regroup, and prepare its forces to strike. Chávez has been saved on each occasion by the intervention of the masses and the divisions and weakness of the Venezuelan ruling class. But this situation cannot continue indefinitely. Revolution or counter-revolution – through a military coup or a drawn out creeping back to power in a ‘democratic’ guise – must eventually triumph.

For the victory of the revolution the working class needs its own independent organisations and to embrace a clear revolutionary socialist programme, including a programme to take full control of the economy. What Chávez seems to be advocating, however, is the construction of a parallel economy of partially state-owned companies, co-operatives and ‘good private companies’ which will compete with the major capitalist conglomerates.

Even the nationalisation of Venepal may only be temporary. The government decree included a $6.7 million credit to restart production, with speculation that it will be returned to the workers as a co-operative. Chávez has spoken of the need to "advance towards co-management", a vague formulation which can mean many things, including co-management with the former owners, perhaps, or a scheme of workers’ participation within a state company.

Rather than a system of ‘participation’ by the working class, the establishment of democratic workers’ control and management of the economy is necessary if the revolution is to be victorious. This would need the election of workers’ committees in all factories and workplaces, with delegates elected and subject to immediate recall by mass meetings. In the currently privatised sectors of industry such committees would introduce workers’ control to undertake the day-to-day running of each workplace. This would also serve as a school to prepare the working class for the tasks necessary to plan and manage industry and the whole economy as part of a socialist planned economy.

In the already nationalised sections of the economy, including the crucial state oil company, PVDSA, it is necessary to go further and establish not only workers’ control but also a democratic system of workers’ management. The boards of directors of such companies need to be made up of elected representatives of the workers in the industry, representatives of other workers, the wider community and the government.

These workplace and local community committees would need to link up on a district, city, regional and national basis to form the basis of a new government of workers and peasants. They would need also to establish a workers’ defence force, together with elected committees of rank-and-file soldiers and sailors, with a system of electing all officers and purging the state machine of reactionary pro-coup conspirators.

This type of initiative needs to be taken by the working class itself. Unfortunately, such attempts at independent action by the masses have been resisted by much of the officialdom at the head of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’. This was reflected during the referendum campaign in 2004. Frequently, local assemblies clashed with government representatives who attempted to bureaucratically ‘impose’ organisers from above. Bureaucratic ‘leaders’ fear the independent organisation and initiative of the masses. Yet for the revolution to advance, break with capitalism and defeat reaction, the organisation of initiatives from below by the working class and all those exploited by capitalism is critical.

US imperialism and the Venezuelan ruling class seem poised to step up their attacks on Chávez. Reaction has thus far been defeated. However, the masses of Venezuela do not have unlimited time. It is now urgent that a mass revolutionary socialist party is built that, together with the working class, will be able to take the revolution forward.

Tony Saunois

A longer version of this article is available on the CWI website at


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