Decisive Moments

The reactionary ‘strike’ is the most serious crisis Chávez has faced since the failed coup attempt in April 2002. That coup was defeated by a spontaneous mass movement of the poor from the shantytowns with the support of sections of the army rank and file. Following those events, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) warned that

“It is now essential that the working class and oppressed in Venezuela seize the initiative and take the necessary steps to overthrow capitalism and establish a democratic workers’ government with a revolutionary socialist program. If this is not done then the wounded beast of US imperialism, and the vengeful ruling class of Venezuela, will prepare to strike again.”

(“Reaction Suffers a Defeat in Venezuela,” 17 April 2002)

It was vital that the masses take the offensive by building independent committees of workers, the urban poor and rank-and-file soldiers, linking them locally and nationally. This would have required the adoption of a revolutionary socialist program to abolish capitalism. Unfortunately, this did not take place. Reaction again threatens to unseat Chávez and a massive class polarization has opened up in Venezuela.

The ‘strike’ has been called by the Co-ordinadora Democratica, made up of older capitalist politicians, the employers’ organization (Fedecamaras), the Catholic church hierarchy, and the corrupt CTV trade union leadership, which organizes about 18% of the workforce. The character of the ‘strike’ – more like a lock-out – is revealed by the fact that the employers continue to pay the wages of those taking action. Mark Weisbrot reported in the Washington Post: “Outside the oil industry, it is hard to find workers who are actually on strike. Some have been locked out from their jobs, as business owners – including big foreign corporations such as McDonald’s and FedEx – have closed their doors in support of the opposition”. (12 January)

The rich elite has been able to exploit the fears of the middle class because of the absence of a strategy to deal with the economic and social crisis. The government has been unable to satisfy the needs and demands of middle-class people devastated by the worsening economic situation. Inflation has soared to 30%, eroding their savings. Unemployment has rocketed to nearly 20%, and 70% of the population lives below the poverty line. And, although much of the ‘strike’ has been a shutdown by management, big sections of relatively privileged workers, including white-collar workers and technicians, have supported it. According to some reports, even dockers in Caracas have been seduced into joining.

Lessons have not been learnt from April’s attempted coup. Instead of seizing the initiative, Chávez attempted to placate the ruling class. This was similar to the mistakes made by Salvador Allende in Chile following a failed coup attempt against his socialist Popular Unity government in June 1973. Allende brought high-ranking officers into the government – including Augusto Pinochet – who then proceeded to plan and execute the blood bath on 11 September 1973.

Taking Half Measures

Chávez did replace some of the coup conspirators at the head of the army. The counter-revolutionary ‘nest’ was not destroyed, however, as recent events have shown. The appointment of ‘loyal’ officers is not enough. It is necessary to form committees of rank-and-file soldiers with the power to elect and replace officers if necessary. These bodies should bring to trial those involved in the attempted coup and those acting against the democratic interests of the masses.

In the state oil company, PDVSA, key administrative posts, including directorships, were given back to the rightwing, which used them predictably to plan this ‘strike’. The control of PDVSA, which is almost a state within a state, is of crucial importance, a central battleground between Chávez and the opposition. The appointment of some government supporters to the board of PDVSA is insufficient. The introduction of democratic workers’ control and management is essential. The board should be comprised of one third elected representatives of the workers and management in the oil industry, with two thirds representing the working class as a whole. A workers’ government could then plan production and use the oil wealth in the interests of the population.

The failure to take these and other steps has given the opposition time to prepare its attack. The massive class polarization and the renewed threat of reaction show that the half-way house which Chávez has tried to build cannot stand indefinitely. Incremental, limited reforms do not fully satisfy the working or middle classes. But they irritate the ruling class and provide it with the pretext to overthrow radical governments threatening its interests.

Since April the social and economic crisis has deepened. The latest offensive could yet succeed in sweeping the government aside. This was the preferred outcome for the Venezuelan ruling class and the US administration. They fear that another failed coup attempt would deepen the divisions in society and increase the mobilization of the masses, propelling Chávez in a more radical, left direction. A successful coup supported by the US, however, would complicate the position of imperialism throughout Latin America, especially following the left-wing election victories of Lula in Brazil and Lucio Guitiérrez in Ecuador.

They now appear to be attempting a negotiated settlement based on an idea raised by former US president Jimmy Carter. This would involve shortening the presidential term and calling early elections. There is, however, no guarantee that this plan would work. Given the strong base of support for Chávez, the hatred of the corrupt political establishment and the splits within the ruling class, it could still be possible for Chávez to win under these conditions. Two questions are raised: how to avert the threat from the right? And why has the right been able to increase its support?

Venezuelan society is polarized, split down the middle. According to recent polls, Chávez is supported by 30% of the population. The accuracy of these polls is questionable, however, as every polling organization – like every national daily newspaper – is controlled by the opposition and is actively involved in the campaign to bring down the government. Nonetheless, while retaining overwhelming support in the shantytowns and poor areas of Caracas, Chávez has lost the support he initially enjoyed amongst significant sections of the middle class and maybe of some workers as well.

Chávez was swept to power with over 70% of the vote in December 1998. In 1999 the parties which supported him won 91% of the seats in elections to the newly established Constituent Assembly.

Chávez has struck some blows against the interests of sections of the ruling class and their supporters – especially in the state sector. He has taken a number of steps to curb corruption. Unoccupied land has been distributed to the peasants, thousands of schools constructed and free university education introduced. New ‘Bolivarian schools’ have provided 1,400,000 young people with an education and three meals a day. One hundred thousand houses have been built for the poorest people.

Potential for Socialism

However, Chávez has not been prepared to break from capitalism and adopt a revolutionary socialist alternative based on a nationalized, democratically planned and controlled economy. Nor has he introduced radical measures such as the nationalization of the banks or establishing a state monopoly of foreign trade to stop capital being taken out of the country. Such a program would, of course, meet with implacable opposition from US imperialism and capitalists in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America.

Latin America is in ferment, however, as illustrated by the election of Lula and Guitiérrez and the mass movements against neo-liberal policies which have rocked Bolivia and Peru. Revolutionary socialist policies could win support across the continent, providing a basis from which capitalism and landlordism could be overthrown and a democratic socialist federation of Latin America established.

Chávez has attempted instead to do the impossible and preside over a capitalist market economy ‘with a human face’. At the same time, he has viewed the working class as an auxiliary whose role it is to support him and his government, rather than as the decisive class that could transform society.

Nonetheless, the measures he has introduced and his opposition to US foreign policy – for example, denouncing the attack on Afghanistan as ‘responding to barbarism with barbarism’ – have been a source of irritation to US imperialism and the Venezuelan ruling class. US imperialism desires a ‘safe pair of hands’ in government because of the importance of the oil industry, which accounts for 80% of Venezuela’s national income. Venezuela is now the second largest exporter of oil to the US, after Saudi Arabia. The current ‘strike’ has cut US oil imports by 14%.

The social and economic crisis has been compounded by a campaign of economic sabotage by the ruling class. During the first three months of 2002 an estimated 10% of GDP was taken out of the country – $700 million in three days in February – in what has become a steady flight of capital.

Chávez pointed out that the managers of PDVSA received $50,000 a year. The average annual salary of the 22 ‘strike leaders’, directors of PDVSA, is $426,000 – almost 100 times the per capita income of the average Venezuelan (at $4,760)! The oil workers’ union leaders received salaries of $24,000 a month before Chávez introduced legislation against them.

The directors and union leaders were also set to gain from plans to privatize the state oil company. This was halted when Chávez changed the constitution. The proportion of PDVSA’s income paid to the government has declined from 80% in 1974 to 50% in 1998, and is 20% today – 80% disappears in ‘operating costs’. The struggle for control of these massive resources is central to the current dispute: should they be used on public expenditure, or should the oil magnates be able to enrich themselves and their ruling-class cronies?

A Tale of Two Plazas

The class polarization in Venezuela is shown by the ‘tale of two plazas’. In Plaza Francia, in the wealthy suburb of Altamira, “demonstrators take breaks in the crêperie on one side of the square, negotiating through lines of Harley-Davidson motorcycles”. (Daily Telegraph, London, 14 December) In Plaza Sucre, on the other side of town, “there, the skin is darker, the music a cacophony of competing sound systems, the air filled with the smell of bus fumes and barbecues. Among the stalls squatting illegally on pedestrian shopping promenades, posters of a uniformed Chávez with a red beret and drawn sword are for sale along with bootlegged video tapes and CDs. ‘There is another country inside the one we live, one of privilege for the military and the oil workers. Chávez is the only man who gives a damn about the poor’, said Edith Mezzich a bespectacled former nurse…” (International Herald Tribune, 27 November)

As the ‘strike’ has dragged on the polarization has increased. Mark Weisbrot reported that, “in most of the city, where poor and working-class people live, there were few signs of the strike. Streets were crowded with holiday shoppers, metro trains and buses were running normally, and shops were open for business. Only in the eastern, wealthier neighborhoods of the capital were businesses mostly closed”. (Washington Post, 21 January)

Maintaining the ‘strike’ has become more and more difficult. The poor are far more accustomed to surviving hardship than the middle class, who may drift back to work. The influential Venezuelan magazine, VenEconomía, concluded: “To maintain it any longer, the strike will convert itself into an act of suicide, with incalculable consequences for the middle class as much as the government”. (El País, 15 January)

The first days of the ‘strike’ enjoyed limited support confined to McDonald’s, a few other fast food chains, supermarkets, and the private schools of the rich. It was bolstered when the managers of PDVSA joined it and, in particular, with the participation of tanker drivers and some dockers.

A propaganda boost was provided when a gunman killed three people and injured 30 others on an anti-Chávez demonstration. The media blamed a Portuguese national working in Venezuela and held the government responsible. The video footage used to ‘prove’ the shooting, however, may have been taken before the killings and the film is so blurred as to prevent definite identification. It may well be a set-up by the opposition.

And now the situation has begun to change. The opposition has been compelled to review its tactics as the ‘strike’ appears to be weakening. It seems increasingly likely that it will collapse as society becomes more polarized. There are elements of a civil war developing. The Financial Times reported on 18 December that the military may be preparing to intervene. This is a possibility, although it is not at all certain that the army tops will be able to strike a decisive blow at this stage.

The state machine is split. Chávez was partly saved by the intervention of sections of the army rank and file in April. Since then debates have reportedly taken place amongst the 70,000-strong armed forces, in which many rank-and-file soldiers and junior officers support Chávez. Officers supporting Chávez have been promoted to leading positions. The right-wing opposition is based mainly on the police in Caracas, under the command of the right-wing mayor.

Need for Organized Resistance

Many of Chávez’s supporters amongst the poor are determined to fight the attempts to remove him: “We are not going to cede power to the ‘counter-revolution’, we will defend it with force. It’s death or glory for us… The people will defend Chávez with what they have – sticks, stones, bottles. But if this conflict deepens to the point that we need to be armed, we will be armed”. (Financial Times, 19 November)

This determination must be given concrete expression if the rightwing is to be defeated. If it is not organized and does not find a clear revolutionary socialist expression, this mood of defiance could eventually evaporate when faced with a decisive blow from the rightwing. It should be remembered that only one week before Pinochet’s coup, 500,000 marched demanding arms. When the decisive moment arrived, however, the workers’ movement was left paralyzed because of the failure of its leaders to carry through the necessary preparation and action to defeat the coup.

The class polarization in Venezuela may yet force Chávez to take further radical steps in the short term. The army has been used to break open a Coca-Cola bottling plant closed by the management. Soldiers distributed bottles of water and drinks to the poor. Chávez has ordered military units to take similar action against companies guilty of ‘hording goods’: “Those who attempt to deprive the people of food and then complain that Chávez is arbitrary are traitors to the nation”, he declared. This has frightened capitalist commentators: “US corporations with interests in Venezuela are facing increasing risk of government intervention, or even expropriation, as President Hugo Chávez moves to confront a general strike and consolidate his position, business leaders warned yesterday”. (Financial Times, 20 January)

Today the urgent necessity is for independent action and organization by the working class. The Bolivarian Circles, set up by Chávez, must be expanded and strengthened to include elected representatives from all the workplaces, shantytown dwellers and rank-and-file soldiers. Armed defense detachments must be created in each local area. The Bolivarian Circles must also be linked up on a local, city-wide and national basis, and a national congress convened with the aim of forming a democratic government of working people with a socialist program that will break with capitalism.

An emergency program for the economy needs to be established. The basis of the program would be the nationalization of the major companies, banking and finance, controlled and managed democratically by the working class. The call should go out for skilled workers and the middle class to join the struggle to rebuild the economy, planning it to meet the needs of the mass of the population and not just the rich elite which exploits the middle class as well as the workers and oppressed.

The establishment of a democratic socialist Venezuela, if linked to an appeal to the masses of the whole of Latin America for solidarity action and to overthrow capitalism and landlordism, would win massive support. It would gain the backing of ‘latinos’ in the USA and through them the North American working class. Ultimately, it is the only way to defeat US imperialism and capitalist reaction in Venezuela.

If Chávez succeeds in riding out this crisis, the current social and political issues will remain. There will be other attempts to overthrow him, including the possibility of a military coup. This would provoke massive turmoil throughout Latin America. The situation is not the same as the 1970s however. There is a profound hatred of military dictatorship following the experience of living under the ‘iron heel’ of the likes of Pinochet. In Argentina, where in many respects conditions are ripe for military intervention, even the armed forces have opposed taking this road at this stage.

This does not mean that it is excluded, but that it will be more complicated than in the past. Despite the fact that Chávez’s radical regime has not implemented significant economic gains for the poor, he retains enormous support. Chávez is seen as the only one ‘who speaks for us and cares about us’. The poor in the shantytowns are aware of what a return to the old dynasty would mean for them and remain resolutely opposed to it.

The stormy events in Venezuela are at the heart of the social and economic crisis which is now unfolding throughout Latin America. They illustrate, above all, the need to build new independent mass parties of the working class with revolutionary socialist policies as the only way out of the impasse which exists under capitalism.

Tony Saunois, February, 2003