SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 134 - December/January 2009-10

Venezuela: new phase, new dangers

The coming to power of Hugo Chávez in 1998 represented an important positive change in the world situation. This was the first government which did not embrace the ruthless neo-liberalism pushed by every ruling elite in the 1980s and 1990s. It enacted popular reforms, enthusiastically supported by workers in Venezuela and internationally, and by the Committee for a Workers’ International. But there are ominous signs that creeping bureaucracy and repression are taking hold. ALEJANDRO ROJAS (CWI) reports

THE STRUGGLE IN Venezuela has entered a new and critical phase. Initially, Chávez spoke only of a ‘Bolivarian revolution’. A series of important reform programmes were initiated. The ‘misiones’ in health (Barrio Adentro) and education (Mision Robinson) were especially popular. One million were lifted out of illiteracy and millions were given access to a doctor for the first time. Three million received primary and secondary school education. Over two million hectares of land have been distributed to peasant co-operatives.

The radical populist policies rapidly aroused the wrath of US imperialism and the Venezuelan ruling class which tried to overthrow Chávez. The attempted coup in 2002 and the bosses’ lock-out (2002/03) were followed by acts of sabotage, provoking shortages of commodities and electoral challenges. The attempts at counter-revolution were defeated by a massive, independent and spontaneous movement from below. Spurred on by these events and the mass pressure from the workers and poor, in 2005 Chávez declared that the objective was to build ‘socialism in the 21st century’. For the first time since the fall of the Berlin wall, socialism was back on the political agenda.

However, it is one thing to speak of socialism. It is another to understand how to achieve it. Marxists have a responsibility to draw out and discuss the weaknesses and dangers present in any movement, to assist workers in carrying through the socialist revolution with the establishment of workers’ democracy, drawing on the international and historical experience of the working class. We also welcome comment and criticism from workers in Venezuela about the struggles in other countries.

The Boli-bourgeoisie

THE CWI HAS welcomed the positive steps taken in Venezuela. We have also warned of the dangers of counter-revolution and reaction due to deficiencies in the programme, method and organisation of the working class. Unlike some on the left we have avoided the trap of opportunism – acting merely as cheerleaders and advisers to Chávez – or of attacking Chávez in a purely personal and sectarian manner. The threat of counter-revolution remains because capitalism has not been replaced by a democratic socialist plan of production based on workers’ and peasants’ democracy.

The new phase poses new dangers. One of the most serious weaknesses is the lack of a politically conscious, independent organisation of the working class which puts itself at the head of the struggle for a socialist revolution. The failure to defeat capitalism is resulting in a series of attacks on the reform programmes and the working class. Using socialist rhetoric, the new rich elite, which has ridden on the back of the movement, and an ever expanding bureaucratic apparatus, riddled with corruption, are adopting increasingly repressive measures against the working class and those who come into conflict with or criticise the regime, including from the left. This development has been strengthened recently.

The revolutionary process, especially following the attempted coup and lock-out, has stalled. Support for Chávez is being seriously undermined. Even the idea of socialism is beginning to be discredited among a layer. There is a qualitative change underway which raises the spectre of counter-revolution – in part driven from within the Chavista movement itself.

This involves sections of the old elite which have gone over to Chávez. They are now making massive profits. To this must be added the new rich – the ‘Boli-burguesia’ (Boli-bourgeoisie). There is a strong element of what unfolded in South Africa where a section of the ANC enriched itself following the fall of apartheid, becoming a new upper-middle class and even a section of the capitalist class. This process is well advanced in Venezuela – in the name of socialism.

Ricardo Fernandez Barruesco, for instance, started in the food industry but now owns Banco Canarias, Bolivar Banco and others. A decade ago, Wilmer Ruperti was simply another businessman. Today, he is a shipping tycoon and billionaire, Venezuela’s richest man. He made his fortune during the lock-out, using his tankers to ship oil. Since then he has been richly rewarded with lucrative contracts with the state-owned oil company, PDVSA.

The growth of the Boli-burguesia is likely to continue in the coming period. Chávez is faced with a declining economy – industrial production set to fall 10.25% in the third quarter of 2009. Identifying 54 issues that need to be confronted, Chávez stepped up his appeal to the private banks – some of the richest in Latin America – to help stimulate the economy by increasing credit to the commercial sectors. (Ultimas Noticias, 22 September) Although some ‘nationalisations’ have received a lot of international attention most of them have ended up as joint ventures. The whole thrust of economic policy has been to increase state intervention but to run it as a mixed capitalist economy.

Clogging up the system

AT THE BEGINNING of the world economic crisis, Chávez denied that Venezuela would be affected. That was before the oscillating oil price began to hit the economy. Incredibly, PDVSA increased its debt level by 146% in 2008, owing an estimated $12 billion to contractors. As most of the social programmes are financed by PDVSA, its increased debt adversely impacts on them. Expenditure on them was cut by 58% in 2008 compared with 2007. Further cuts are planned. When inflation – at 30%, the highest in Latin America – is taken into account, economists estimate that the real value of the 2009 budget will be 30% lower than 2007. To these cuts must be added the devastating consequences of bureaucracy, corruption and inefficiency, which have seriously undermined even the most popular misiones, the state-run supermarket, Mercal, and price controls on basic goods.

Barrio Adentro health clinics, opened to widespread acclaim, are now frequently closed and fail to operate. Complaints by Cuban doctors prompted Fidel Castro to write to Chávez warning him that the health system was not functioning. Chávez proclaimed that something must be done. It is as though Chávez had nothing to do with the problem! Why was a letter from Castro necessary to alert the Venezuelan government of a crisis in its own health sector?

The popular reforms have become clogged up in a mesh of bureaucracy, corruption and lack of overall planning. The introduction of unified planning in the health sector alone, run through democratic workers’ control and management, could have been an example of what is needed in the rest of the economy. Unfortunately, the health sector is plunging deeper into crisis. The introduction of new clinics was accompanied by stagnation and cut-backs elsewhere in the sector. Outside Barrio Adentro clinics a visit to the doctor brings a bill for a consultation.

Basic facilities like the kitchens and laundries at El Agodonal, one of Caracas’s largest hospitals, have been closed or have not worked properly for years and are causing infections. A walk around this hospital, once visited by Che Guevara, reveals repair projects standing idle. Between 2007 and 2009 the government authorised more than two billion bolivars for hospital repairs and infrastructure but all the projects have stalled. El Agondonal operates at 30% capacity. Despite the number of Cuban doctors in the country there is a 30% deficit of doctors nationally.

The absence of genuine democratic workers’ control and management is allowing the cancer of corruption and bureaucracy to eat away at the effectiveness of the reform programmes. There has been an explosive growth in state bureaucracy. Chávez has six vice-presidents. The state employs two million of the twelve million-strong labour force. The number of administrators working for PDVSA has increased 266% since 2002.

In the centre of Caracas a new bus lane stands incomplete, overrun with cars and motor bikes. It is a victim of bureaucratic mismanagement and corruption, and the Russian contractor who took the money and ran. Cuts in power and water supplies are common. The nationalised electricity company employs 42,000 workers, split into over 200 separate management departments. Chávez claims that the cuts are due to changing weather patterns. In reality, they are a monument to the lack of serious investment and bureaucratic mismanagement. Chavez’s solution? Shower for three minutes: one to wash down, another to soap and a third to rinse off!

Even the limited agrarian reform has been affected. Since 1999, the state has taken over approximately 2.5 million hectares of land. In 1999, the quantity of meat produced was 17.4 kilos per person per month, enough to satisfy almost all of the domestic market. Production in 2009 is expected to fall to 7.8 kilos per month, compelling the state to import more than 50% of the meat consumed in Venezuela.

Price controls and shortages

THE WORKING CLASS would be prepared to accept hardship for a temporary period of time if it were necessary. To do so, however, it has to be convinced that it must defend the socialist revolution and feel that the leaders and activists are also prepared to make such sacrifices. When there is growing inequality and corruption, workers will not accept attacks and cuts in living standards.

The price controls which were introduced bear little relation to the price goods are sold for on the street due to shortages, speculation and corruption. Even Mercal has hiked prices on many basic food items. Rice was increased 29%, milk 68% and pasta 78%. While these state supermarkets still offer much cheaper prices these increases directly affect the poorest sections of the population. Ironically, 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, the shortages, empty shelves, and massive queues make a trip to Mercal reminiscent of the former Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It is not uncommon to have to search four or five shops to find milk.

During the Allende government in Chile (1970-73) shortages of some goods developed as a result of sabotage by the employers who were preparing for Pinochet’s military coup. The consequences of these shortages were partly overcome by democratic workers’ and popular organisations. The factory committees, cordones – and JAP in the shantytowns – organised food distribution on the basis of need and availability. Price speculation was controlled for a temporary period as they established basic food prices. Unfortunately, these types of organisations do not exist in Venezuela.

The Chávez regime is coming up against the irreconcilable contradiction that arises from attempting to maintain reforms without overthrowing capitalism and introducing a democratic socialist planned economy. Marxists welcome all reforms which benefit the working class and poor. The capitalist system, however, will not allow a permanently ongoing programme of reforms, and will attempt to roll them back. This was demonstrated during the massive revolutionary movements in Mexico (1910-20) and Bolivia (1952). The failure to defeat landlordism and capitalism in both cases meant that the massive gains won during both revolutions were eventually destroyed. That process is underway in Venezuela.

The active involvement of the working class

THE PROBLEMS HAVE been compounded by the methods used from the outset of this revolution. It has been ‘led’ from the top, using bureaucratic methods without the conscious, independent organisation of the working class and masses with checks and controls from below. This reflects Chávez’s military background and the weakness of an independent movement of the working class and poor. The best of the traditions of the working class need to be incorporated into a bold revolutionary movement with the programme and methods necessary to defeat capitalism. At the same time, weaknesses need to be overcome. A socialist revolution cannot be carried through by glossing over problems.

In Venezuela, unlike Chile, Bolivia or Brazil, historically the independent organisation of the working class has been very weak. The first real Venezuelan trade union federation, CTV, was not formed until 1936 and did not really start to function until the 1950s. The Communist Party was not formed until 1931 – under clandestine conditions and as a Stalinist party from its inception.

This weakness was one of the factors which allowed Chávez and his supporters to assume the leadership of the movement and shape its character. The British writer, Richard Gott (in his book, In the Shadow of the Liberator) describes a discussion on the question of a general strike and uprising between Chávez and the veteran Venezuelan left-wing guerrilla leader, Douglas Bravo: "That is exactly what Chávez did not want. Absolutely not. Chávez did not want civilians to participate as a concrete force". Bravo said that in a heated argument Chávez pronounced that "civilians only get in the way".

Chávez did everything possible to avoid the active involvement of the masses. In 1992, he launched a radical populist military rebellion which was defeated. According to Bravo, a meeting of student, civil and other organisations, including junior army officers like Chávez, agreed 8 February for a joint civil/military uprising. To avoid involving the civil population, Chávez jumped the gun and organised his defeated coup on 3 February. Unfortunately, Bravo’s guerrilla experiences and developments nationally and internationally have led him to renounce ‘Marxism-Leninism’, and embrace ‘left humanism’ as an alternative to the Chávez regime.

The top-down militaristic approach of the Bolivarian movement has been one of its characteristics. The CWI has warned many times about the consequences of this: "…without the democratic check of the working class, those sections of the military who find themselves playing a leading role can inevitably develop administrative or bureaucratic tendencies towards commandism. Without a clear understanding of the role of the working class in the revolution and being subjected to its democratic check and control, even the most well-intentioned officers develop such tendencies and attempt to impose their will over the working class from above". (Revolutionary Socialists and the Venezuelan Revolution, 2004)

Increased repression

THE CHÁVEZ-LED state machine has begun to use Stalinistic forms of repression against the working class and those who criticise the government. Under the pretext of defending the ‘socialist revolution’, critics are denounced as ‘counter-revolutionary’ or ‘agents of imperialism, the CIA and MI5’. In one instance, a CWI supporter was told by a PSUV official that it is only permissible to speak of "Chávez, Fidel, Che, Mao but not of the counter-revolutionary Trotsky". This is despite Chávez’s previous endorsement of Trotsky in one speech.

These methods are reminiscent of those used by CP leaders during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. In Spain, the working class rose against the fascist Franco rebellion, eventually controlling four-fifths of the country. The old capitalist state lay in tatters as the working class advanced. However, the working class did not establish its own state. The policy of the Stalinists was to hold back the socialist revolution and reach an agreement with a section of the ‘progressive’ capitalist class. As a consequence, the capitalist state was reconstituted and the revolution was defeated. Those opposing the CP were denounced and often executed as counter-revolutionaries. This is not the situation in Venezuela today. But the use of quasi-Stalinist methods is a shadow from Spain.

Repressive methods are also being used directly against workers who have moved into struggle to defend their rights. In 2009, there has been a significant increase in strikes over wages, conditions and rights. According to some estimates, there were more than 400 labour disputes in the year to August 2009, involving the steel, electricity, iron ore, aluminium, transport, health and other sectors.

When metro workers in Caracas were preparing for strike action to defend a collective contract, Chávez threatened to put them under military rule. Using laws related to ‘national security’, strategically important areas such as the metro and hospitals have been designated ‘zonas de emergencia’ where protests and strikes are outlawed. In Zulia state, when petrol workers took action to be incorporated into a collective contract, 40 members of the national guard attacked the workers, arresting and holding the union leader for 17 hours.

The world media gave much attention to Chávez’s launch of the ‘socialist’ cell-phone, Viagra, which went into production on 1 May 2008. Little coverage has been given to the appalling conditions of the workers at Vtelca, the company which produces it. Compelled to work extra shifts with no guarantee of extra pay, management has used every means at its disposal, including the national guard, against the workforce which attempted to form a workers’ council and elect health and security representatives. In breach of the labour laws, 60 workers were eventually dismissed for a ‘lack of commitment and dedication’ to the job.

Sections of the working class have been driven into desperate action. In PDVSA, 1,400 workers demanded that they be incorporated into a collective contract rather than be left in a ‘holding’ company with no fixed contract. These workers had no confidence in their union leaders. Twenty-seven went on hunger strike, sewing their lips together to prevent themselves from eating. During the dispute, sections of the rightwing-led university students were protesting against the new education law – some also went on hunger strike. Chávez and his regime attacked the workers for being manipulated by right-wing, counter-revolutionary students!

A section of the old right-wing trade unions has also tried to reconcile itself with Chávez. In crucial elections for the leadership of FUTPV, the national oil workers’ federation, the winning slate was headed by Wills Rangel with the backing of the government and PSUV (the ruling party set up by Chávez after the 2006 elections). Rangel was a former trade union bureau member of the social democratic party, Acion Democratica, one of the main parties of the pre-Chávez political establishment. Rangel only broke with AD in 2003.

At a subsidiary of the nationalised SIDOR company, hundreds of workers have been excluded from collective contracts. They took strike action, facing police repression and arrests. One union leader who is critical of the government, declared: "Socialism in the 21st century means workers in handcuffs". Sections of workers are being denounced as counter-revolutionary in the name of socialism while the forces of reactionary capitalism are allowed to present themselves as defenders of democratic rights and ‘friends’ of the working class.

International alliances or internationalism?

THESE DEVELOPMENTS HAVE undermined support for Chávez and his regime. Inevitably, different layers of workers and the poor are drawing different conclusions from this process. While a growing number is moving away from the regime, a layer of the most downtrodden and oppressed ardently support it. In some areas, sections of these have been drawn into new ‘socialist patrols’, established as local community branches of the PSUV. Sometimes these ‘vigilante’ groups have been sent into the metro and hospitals to prevent workers’ assemblies from being organised, whipped up by propaganda presenting these workers as privileged layers who support counter-revolution.

It would be a mistake to exaggerate this tendency. But it is emerging in some areas and is a warning of the danger of splitting the working class and the urban poor. And there has been a rapid acceleration of such methods. The PSUV has a claimed membership of five million. It is divided into three categories – full membership, sympathisers, and ‘the reserve’ (the largest category) – reflecting how far the militarisation of the process is developing. Some of these methods were initially borrowed from Cuba.

Now, it appears that much is being imported from the regime in China whose influence has increased alongside trade deals and joint infrastructure ventures. Chávez sent 100 top PSUV officials for ‘ideological training’ in China. His government placed official adverts in the press on the anniversary of the Chinese revolution praising the regime of Hu Jintao.

One of the Chávez regime’s international strategies has been to attempt to form a bloc with anyone in conflict with US imperialism. A genuine revolutionary socialist government in any country may find itself isolated for a time until the revolution develops elsewhere. Under such conditions there is nothing wrong with a workers’ state forming trade and commercial agreements, some of which may be forced on it. Exploiting splits and divisions between imperialist powers would be entirely legitimate under such conditions.

However, entering into trade agreements is not the same as lavishly heaping praise on brutal regimes which repress their own people. Commercial deals do not necessitate praising the likes of Ahmedinejad of Iran as a great revolutionary leader. According to Chávez, the mass movement against the Iranian regime was all part of an imperialist plot. Chávez has added Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to the list. Neither the Venezuelan nor Cuban regime was even prepared to condemn the vicious slaughter of Tamil people by the Sri Lankan government and vote against it in the UN! The endorsement of dictatorial regimes by a regime claiming to defend ‘revolutionary socialism’ is indefensible. It can only damage the idea of socialism around the world.

The future of the Chávez regime is in the balance. Parliamentary elections to the national assembly are due in 2010. Chávez is aiming for a two-thirds majority. This seems unlikely at the moment. Yet to try and reach his objective, the proportional representation system has been scrapped, re-enforcing the idea that Chávez is heading a repressive regime, and further undermining his support. This plays into the hands of the right-wing. The threat of creeping counter-revolution remains as growing sections of the population become more frustrated and disillusioned with the regime.

At the same time, the prospect of more class battles and even big social explosions in opposition to these attacks is present in the situation. Under such conditions, especially with a sharp economic recession, it cannot be excluded that Chávez could again take some further populist measures, including more nationalisation or expropriation, and take other measures against the Boli-burguesia and corruption.

Such steps would only resolve the underlying problems if they were based on a conscious independent movement of the working class with a programme to carry through the socialist revolution. Even if capitalism were fully snuffed out, the absence of workers’ democracy would prevent the movement developing towards genuine socialism. The struggle for a socialist programme is urgent, therefore, to breathe fresh life into the Venezuelan revolution and defeat the threat of counter-revolution.

* A programme for socialist change would demand:

* Workers’ control through committees of elected delegates controlling the day-to-day running of workplaces

* All officials to be elected, subject to immediate recall, and to receive no more than the average wage of a skilled worker

* The formation of an independent democratic trade union federation with an elected leadership under the control of the rank and file

* All company books (including from nationalised sectors) to be opened for inspection by workers’ committees

* Linking up the committees on a city, state and national level

* The expropriation of the banks, multi-national companies and top 100 families who control the economy

* The boards of state-run companies to be made up of elected representatives of the workers in the industry/sector, wider sections of the working class, and from the workers’ and peasants’ government

* The introduction of a democratic socialist plan of production

* An appeal to the workers and poor around the world for solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution

* For a federation of socialist states in South America


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