Reaction Suffers a Defeat in Venezuela

“Any premature military intervention runs the risk of provoking a backlash and could even trigger a civil war”
(‘Venezuela at the crossroads’, Socialism Today, April 2002, Issue 64)

The celebrations by the ruling elite in Venezuela and the White House on Saturday 14 April following the removal of Hugo Chávez from power by a military coup were premature. Within a matter of hours the newly installed President, Pedro Carmona Estanga, was himself arrested and the radical, populist Hugo Chávez Frias, returned to power by a mass movement of the poor who marched from the ‘barrios’ – slums and shantytowns – to the Presidential Palace. They were joined by key sections of the rank and file of the armed forces, most crucially the 42nd Paratroop Brigade – Chávez’s former regiment, and others who remained loyal to him.

These developments are a big setback for the ruling class in Venezuela and also for US imperialism, which has conspired to overthrow Chávez. Imperialism fears that Chávez represents the first of a new populist radical movement in Latin America that under pressure of a mass movement of the working class and others exploited by capitalism will threaten their interests. Bush and the White House also regard Chávez as uncontrollable and an obstacle to US interests in the region – especially in Colombia. The reformist domestic policies implemented by Chávez, his sympathy for the ‘Marxist’ FARC guerillas in Colombia, and links with Castro in Cuba, are all in conflict with the policies and interests of US imperialism. Moreover, Venezuela, as the fourth largest international oil producer and supplier to the USA, is crucial to US interests given the volatile situation which exists in the Middle East.

Limits of US Power

The defeat of the attempted coup by a mass movement of the masses and the poor, together with the uprising in Argentina in December 2001 January 2002, clearly demonstrates that the awesome power amassed by US imperialism has its limits. US imperialism and the ruling class can be stopped in its tracks when it confronts a mass mobilization of the working class and others exploited by capitalism and imperialism.

However, following this defeat of reaction 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.

Hugo Chávez declared in December 2001 that he “would not be toppled like Chilean president Salvador Allende” whose Socialist Party led government was overthrown by a bloody CIA backed coup in 1973. Although there are important differences with the situation that developed in Chile there are also important parallels and lessons that for the working class in Venezuela.

Unlike Allende, Chávez does not regard himself as a socialist and, although speaking out for the poor, he limits himself to fighting for the vague concept of a “Bolívarian revolution” in which he does not raise the question of socialism or overthrowing capitalism. Moreover, in Chile during the Popular Unity government years, the majority of the working class actively embraced the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism. The massive revolutionary pressure from the mass of workers and young people compelled Allende to go much further than Chávez has done so far and to nationalize up to 40% of the economy, including powerful multi-national companies owned by US imperialism.

Because of the changed international situation following the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and lack of a powerful socialist alternative, the mass of Venezuelan workers, although fighting poverty and the horrors of capitalism, have not yet embraced the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism.

Consequently, the mass opposition to the neo-liberal policies of the 1990’s and the explosion of anger against the corrupt political elite that governed Venezuela for forty years has been expressed in the radical populist movement led by Hugo Chávez.

Lessons From Chile 1973

However, despite these differences there are also important lessons that need to be drawn from the bloody defeat of the Chilean workers in 1973. Prior to the victory of the counter-revolution on September 11 1973, an abortive attempt to overthrow Allende was made by a section of the military in June. This plot – the ‘tancazo’ – was an anticipation of the bloodbath that was to follow three months later. The tancazo collapsed, as the majority of the military and conspirators involved in the coup were not yet in a position to take power.

The defeat of the tancazo gave workers’ leaders the opportunity to act to crush the counter-revolution. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in support of Allende and occupied the factories. Half a million later demonstrated and demanded arms to defend “their government” – “Allende, Allende el pueblo ti defiende” – ‘Allende, Allende the people will defend you’ – was chanted through the streets of Santiago. Tragically, the leaders of the Labor movement failed to respond to the demands of the masses and a successful right wing coup followed, headed by General Pinochet.

Although it may be more difficult for reaction to immediately initiate another coup against Chávez, the now divided forces of the opposition will undoubtedly attempt to regroup and undermine Chávez, and will try to strike again at a later stage. There is an important difference between the Chilean tancazo and recent events in Venzuela, which will probably force the right wing to delay another coup attempt.

The Chilean tancazo was attempted by a tiny section of the tank regiment, but they acted prematurely. The rest of the coup conspirators were left in place, to prepare and then execute their bloody attack three months later. The recent attempted coup in Venezuela involved the whole opposition, which has been defeated and has now split. However, this will mean a difference in timing and does not diminish the warning the recent attempted coup represents for the Venezuelan masses.

Campaign to Destabilize Chávez

The events leading up to the attempted coup in Caracas last weekend are strikingly reminiscent to the run up to September 11 1973 in Santiago. A massive campaign to destabilize the government had been organized. It included the ruling elite, the military high command, the Roman Catholic Church, the CIA and the US State Department.

US imperialism has been enraged by the Chávez administration. Venezuela is the fourth largest economy in Latin America and the fourth largest exporter of oil in the world. Furthermore, it borders Colombia. The country is therefore strategically important for US imperialism, which wants a compliant regime in power. Chávez provoked the wrath of the Bush administration following the September 11 2001 attacks on New York. Condemning the bombing of the World Trade Center he then proceeded to attack Bush for using “error against terror”. This prompted the US ambassador, Donna Hrink, representing the arrogance of the dominant imperialist power, to visit Chávez and tell him to “keep his mouth shut”.

It is now clear that by February this year a full plan to destabilize Chávez’s government was being made. On 5 February, the CIA issued a statement expressing its “deep concern about the situation developing in Venezuela”. Later on, Colin Powell was to express his doubt that Chávez would last his full term.

On 7 February, Colonel Pedro Soto became the first in a series of senior military officers, Admirals, and others to call on Chávez to resign.

By 12 March the right wing daily in Caracas, La Razon, could boast that, “Everything is now ready for the first phase of democratic and constitutional change from President Chávez – whose resignation has been repeatedly demanded by Venezuela civil society, the workers, the employers, political parties and most importantly the armed forces.”

Over the last few months a flight of capital has taken place from Venezuela. US$700 million was taken out of the country in three days during mid-February. This partly reflected sections of the capitalist class withdrawing their capital because of the unstable situation that existed and also the deliberate attempt to further destabilize the economic situation. A massive and vicious media campaign against Chávez demanded that he resign and branded him “insane”.

This campaign was brought to a head following attempts by Chávez to reform the corrupt state oil company (PVDSA), to remove some of the former managers and to replace them with his supporters. In response, the managers declared a “strike”. This was similar to the so-called “lorry drivers strike” initiated by the right wing against Allende in Chile in the early 1970s. Chávez attempted to change the running of the oil company, whose managers he rightly claimed acted as a “state within a state” and live in luxury at the expense of the mass of the population. He also increased taxation on oil revenue from 16 to 30%.

Economic Impasse

The rightwing opposition has been able strengthen its position and undermine support for Chávez because of the economic impasse. Despite introducing land reform, opening up places to one million additional school students, tripling the number of people on illiteracy courses, and recently increasing the minimum wage by 20%, the policies of Chávez have remained within the limits of capitalism.

The failure to overthrow capitalism has meant that his government has not been able to resolve the horrific social and economic problems facing the mass of the population – 80% of which still lives below the official poverty line. Average living standards remain the same as when Chávez came to power in 1998. This has given the right wing the opportunity to whip up opposition to the government, particularly amongst sections of the middle class and skilled workers.

Events culminated in a protest and the calling of the general strike last week with the backing of the CTV – the main trade union confederation. The CTV leadership justified backing the strike and opposing Chávez on the grounds that his economic reforms – including increasing taxes on oil companies’ profits and more state intervention – damaged business interests and therefore employment.

However, the leadership of the CTV is made up of corrupt gangsters who were linked to the capitalist parties, such as the Christian Democrats (Copei), and they have clashed with the Chávez regime. Moreover, they have a vested interest in opposing Chávez. The new reformist state constitution, adopted in 1999, included a clause to elect all trade union officials and stated that they should only be paid a salary equal to that received by the union membership. These same leaders refused to submit recent election returns (which they “won”) to the government.

The original plan of the capitalist opposition forces was based on building opposition to Chávez and eventually forcing him out by “constitutional means”. However, events developed rapidly, as the different social forces involved in this conflict clashed provoking an even more polarized situation.

Within the ruling class, and those conspiring to overthrow Chávez, there existed two wings – the ‘hawks’ and the ‘doves’. The hawks included far right wing generals and the Catholic Opus Dei organization, which are grouped around the retired general Ruben Rojas, the son-in-law of former President Rafael Caldera, founder of the Christian Democrats.

According to recent reports, the CIA was aware of and in contact with this grouping, which was planning a coup on 27 February. On 14 April STRATFOR (an online strategic research news organization, which claims contacts in the US security forces) reported the February coup plan was aborted because Bush and the State Department were more intent on developing widespread opposition to Chávez and pushing him out “constitutionally”, thereby supporting the ‘doves’.

Since the coup it has been revealed that representatives of the Bush administration had meetings with the “doves” in the Venezuelan opposition. However, events developed somewhat differently to those anticipated by the State Department. The armed clashes which broke out on the large anti-Chávez demonstration on 11April were used as a pretext for the Venezuelan military high command to step in and remove Chávez – blaming his supporters for firing on unarmed protesters.

Subsequent reports clearly point to the shootings as being part of a planned provocation by the right. Snipers seen on the rooftops have now been identified as members of the far-right Bandera Roja organization and some of the dead were supporters of Chávez’s Movement for the Fifth Republic MVR! This has all the hallmarks of a set up to allow General Efraín Velasco to step in and remove Chávez in a coup. The initiative was taken by the most right wing sections of the capitalist opposition, who gained the upper hand in the anti-Chávez putsch.

Coup Dominated by Far Right

A new government was rapidly sworn in headed by Carmona, leader of Fedecamaras, the employers’ organization. The government was entirely white and made up of far-right representatives of big business, members of the old corrupt capitalist parties, and Opus Dei – which Chávez swept from power. The Defense Minister of the new regime was Rear Admiral Hector Ramirez Perez, a long time protégé of Rojas. The Foreign Minister, Jose Rodriguez Iturbe, is a member of Opus Dei.

The CTV leadership, which had slavishly supported the reaction, was excluded as the ruling class prepared to take revenge. Sections of the anti-Chávez movement had got more than what they bargained for. This aspect of the coup also has similarities with Chile 1973. Amongst the coup conspirators in Santiago there existed two schools of thought, supporters of a “white coup” and supporters of a “black coup”. The “white coup” was supposed to overthrow Allende and then rapidly hand power over to the Christian Democrats. However, once the coup was under way and generals had got a taste for power and a bloody dictatorship ensued for fifteen years.

Carmona immediately announced a series of draconian repressive decrees, which negated all of the reforms implemented by Chávez. The single chamber Assembly was suspended along with the Supreme Court, and arrests of MNR deputies and activists began to take place, including former ministers of Chávez’s government. The Minister of the Interior, Ramon Chacin, was hauled off to jail and according to the Wall Street Journal was almost lynched by supporters of the coup. (WSJ, 15 April 2002).

Sections of the army began house-to-house searches, rounding up opponents and seeking arms, (Chávez had begun to distribute arms to some ‘Bolivarian Circles’ – government community support groups).

Carmona also immediately cancelled the oil supplies negotiated with Castro in Cuba – a step immediately rescinded when Chávez was returned to power.

US imperialism, despite apparently opposing an open coup, remained silent and was the only government in the Americas not to oppose it. The ruling classes of Brazil, Mexico and other countries condemned Carmona’s coup for fear that it would provoke massive protests throughout the country and give an impetus to the left, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist mood that is developing throughout Latin America.

Reaction Over-Reaches Itself

Revolution sometimes needs the whip of counter-revolution to provoke a forward leap. The new authority over-reached itself and underestimated support for the reforms that Chávez had carried through and the determination of the masses to defend democratic conquests from attack. Moreover, they underestimated the ingrained hatred of the ruling political elite, which had ruled Venezuela for forty years before Chávez was swept into power.

The draconian measures announced by Carmona provoked a massive social explosion against the new government and split the opposition. The most exploited and downtrodden entered the battle and crucially the state machine – the army, air force and police – split. Even sections of society, which opposed Chávez, were not prepared to support a return to the old order.

The new administration enraged sections of the army by its arrogance and contempt for the masses. The Presidential Guard supported Chávez. Nicolas Maduro, a leading Chávez legislator, quoted in the London Financial Times commented, “The Presidential Guard remained loyal to Chávez because they saw Carmona and the oligarchs come in here and begin pouring champagne and whisky. The guards hated that.” (15 April 2002). Furthermore, one 21 year old private who spent the weekend in a secret tunnel with others armed with a bazooka and full combat gear was quoted, “We were with Hugo Chávez all along, hiding while the generals took him away. Now he is back where he should be.”

The Spanish daily, El País, carried a report explaining how the military split when Chávez was arrested. While the deposed president was imprisoned in a military base, Turiamo, a rank and file soldier from the National Guard waited until the officers had left the room and then spoke to Chavez. “‘Look, my Commandante, clarify one thing for me. Is it true that you have resigned?” Chávez replied, “No, son, I have not resigned and I will not resign.’ The soldier then placed himself immediately under the command of the Chief of the Armed Forces. The soldier asked him if he would write something [a denial that he had resigned] and leave it in the rubbish bin and he would return and get it later…The soldier then took it and sent it by fax to Caracas where thousands of copies were distributed amongst the demonstrators,” (El País, 15 April 2002).

Chávez himself has since revealed how a junior officer gave him a mobile phone so he could call his daughter and get her to announce that he had not resigned.

‘Another Argentina’

At the same time, thousands had begun marching to the Presidential Palace from the shantytowns. Their hatred of the ruling elite was shown by the chants they made as they marched on the Miraflores Palace – “The same old ones are back again” and “The cream at the top – the thieves of the old regime have returned”.

The right wing and capitalist commentators tried to portray the anti-Chávez protest as “another Argentina”. In fact, it was part of a planned effort to overthrow Chávez by the US ruling class and the capitalists of Venezuela. The march of the masses from the shantytowns to support Chávez and to oppose the new government was the real ‘element of Argentina’ in this movement.

More sections of the army declared their support for Chávez as the revolt against the coup gathered momentum. General Baduel of the 42nd Paratrooper Regiment, with 2,000 elite troops under his command, declared himself against the coup. He took control of Maracay, Venezuela’s main garrison town, and refused to recognize the Carmona regime.

The Permanent Secretary of National Security and Defense Council, General García Montoya, declared himself against the coup, and made his opposition known by telephoning Cuban television, which then broadcast an interview with him back to Venezuela.

The intervention of the masses and the revolt of the rank of the army were decisive. It ensured the attempted coup was defeated. General Velasco, seeing support evaporate, ceased his backing for the new government unless it withdrew the decree suspending the Congress (which it did, but too late). The new regime fragmented, and as support for Chávez hardened, it was forced out.

The defeat by the masses of the coup attempt gives the working class and all those exploited by capitalism a breathing space. The revolution must now be taken forward and capitalism overthrown.

These events have revealed the hypocritical attitude of US imperialism and capitalism. They protest their defense of ‘democracy’ but are quite willing to dispense with it if a government does not serve their interests. The Wall Street Journal revealed the real face of US imperialism following these events:

“The things about a true democracy is that there are basic freedoms that not even overwhelming majorities can overwhelm. Mr.Chávez’s wanton expropriation of private property, his creation of Castro-style block committees to spy on and control families and his reshuffle of management at the state oil company PDVSA made him unpopular and demonstrators [took] to the street to demand his ouster. They were fired on and at least 16 were killed Thursday in a massive anti-Chávez demonstration. It was this butchery that precipitated the coup.” (Wall Street Journal 15 April 2002).

In other words, a coup is justified if a radical government touches private property! This is how the ‘democratic’ capitalists, politicians and media respond to increasing taxes on the major companies, land reform, and attempts to change the management at PVDSA. Imagine the reaction by the same Wall Street Journal commentator if a government was elected which was committed to overthrowing capitalism!

This further illustrates the threat now facing the masses in Venezuela. The crucial question is how to avoid a further attempted coup from the right and how to take the struggle of the Venezuelan masses forward. Massive pressure is being put on Chávez by imperialism and capitalism “to learn from this experience” and adopt a more ‘moderate acceptable’ approach.

Upon his return to power Chávez has appealed for ‘national unity’, ‘national reconciliation’ and for people to return home. He has also withdrawn his proposals to change the management at PVDSA. He also pledged there would be no witch-hunt against those involved in the coup attempt.

It is possible that these steps may herald an attempt by Chávez to try and placate both US imperialism and the ruling class in Venezuela. If Chávez does move in this direction, believing he will be able to placate the forces of reaction, it will be a big mistake.

On the one hand, a change in policy towards the right will inevitably come into greater and greater conflict with the oppressed and poor of Venezuela. Neither would such a change in policy placate the capitalist class who do not trust him and still want him removed from power.

The Wall Street Journal responded to these conciliatory gestures, “But many analysts read the olive branch toward PDVSA as being primarily inspired by Mr. Chávez’s pragmatic need to get the oil revenue flowing again. And they said that the failed coup was only likely to harden Mr. Chávez’s opinions against the groups that the former military paratrooper has made a career out of demonizing; business, the traditional Venezuelan political class and the U.S. ‘There is the possibility he would be chastened by this and see the possibility to change his style and bring the country together, but I doubt it,’ says Michael Shifter of the Inter-America Dialogue, a Washington think-tank. ‘My fear and concern is that you see a heightened polarization'”, (WSJ, 15 April 2002).

Social Contradictions Not Resolved

The defeat of the attempted coup will not resolve any of the underlying social contractions in Venezuela. Chávez will come under increasing pressure from those who rallied to his support to adopt even more radical policies. The Financial Times warned, “In the coming months, he is likely to come under pressure from more radical supporters to press ahead with a more confrontational agenda,” (Financial Times 15 April 2002).

The polarization was reflected in the reaction of Carlos Ortega, head of the CTV, in response to proposals by Chávez for national dialogue between the different forces involved in the recent crisis. He replied, “We will participate in nothing,” (El País 16 April 2002).

The recent conciliatory announcements by Chávez have also been linked to statements pointing in the other direction. This contradiction indicates the pressure that he is already under. Although pledging no witch-hunt of those involved in the coup, Chávez also spoke of a “clear judgment, which accord with the norms of international human rights.” (Folha de Sao Paulo, 15 April 2002).

Eighty officers involved in the coup are under arrest. According to the Vice President, Diosdado Cabello, military tribunals will try them. The military High Command is being restructured, with supporters of Chávez appointed to senior positions, including one of his most loyal supporters, General Julio García Montoya, who has been appointed Commander-in-Chief.

Folha de Sao Paulo also speculated that the decision to accept the resignation of PVDSA managers was so the “Venezuelan President would be able to begin the process of restructuring the entire management.”

Following these events, it is likely that Chávez will vacillate between a more conciliatory and a more radical direction, as he comes under the pressure of the different classes. It is possible that following this crisis Chávez will be forced to move in an even more radical direction and strike important blows against capitalism and imperialism.

This process could include similarities with what happened in Portugal during the revolution in 1975 (following an attempted coup from the right by Spinola in March 1975). As a result, the whip of counter-revolution drove the revolutionary process much further to the left. Bank workers occupied the banks, declaring them to be nationalized, which the government was then compelled to do. Up to 70% of the economy was nationalized and even the British right wing daily, The Times, concluded that the game was up: “Capitalism is Dead in Portugal”.

However, the failure to totally eliminate capitalism and to establish a democratic socialist plan of production and a workers’ government eventually allowed capitalism to recover its weakened position and to regain control of Portuguese society. In this, there is an important lesson for the working class of Venezuela.

Hugo Chávez has spoken of the plight of the poor and denounced the neo-liberal policies of capitalism. For this he has won the support of the mass of the most downtrodden in Venezuela. Unfortunately, his Bolivarian revolution and its populist program do not entail breaking with capitalism and having the objective of establishing workers’ democracy and socialism.

However, if Chávez remains within the confines of capitalism there are severe limitations on what reforms his government will be able to introduce to benefit the mass of the population. The continuation of capitalism in Venezuela will compel him to take back with the right hand what he has given with the left hand. The inability to solve the crucial economic problems facing the mass of the population will be used by the ruling class to renew a campaign to undermine his support.

The measures taken so far by Chávez are limited to reforming capitalism and have not even threatened it as much as the Popular Unity movement did in Chile between 1970-73. So long as Chávez remains within the straightjacket of capitalism it will not be possible to end poverty and exploitation, which he sincerely opposes.

In order to build socialism it is necessary that the working class consciously and democratically runs society. The working class is able to play this decisive role in the socialist revolution because of the collective consciousness and experience it develops working in the factories and workplaces under capitalism.

Unfortunately, Chávez, regards the masses as a lever to pressurize for reform and a basis of support for his program to be implemented from above. They are not seen as the driving force to take the revolution forward and to overthrow capitalism.

This was clearly illustrated in Richard Gott’s sympathetic biography on Hugo Chávez, ‘In the Shadow of the Liberator’, where he recounts a meeting by Chávez and others planning their 1992 attempted coup. Some supporters raised the question of calling a general strike and the “need for civil society to have an active role in the revolutionary movement.” Gott recounts one participant saying, “That is exactly what Chávez did not want. Absolutely not. Chávez did not want civilians to participate as a concrete force. He wanted civil society to applaud but not to participate, which is something quite different. Chávez stated bluntly: ‘civilians get in the way'”. (‘In the Shadow of the Liberator’, pp64-65).

Such a dismissive attitude towards the working class and those exploited by capitalism will not take the revolution forward to overthrow capitalism and towards establishing a genuine democratic workers’ and peasants’ government.

It is now more urgent than ever for the mass movement to go onto the offensive against capitalism and imperialism. The lessons of this crisis, and what now needs to be done next to allow the defeat of last week’s coup attempt to be consolidated, will be undoubtedly be debated by activists throughout Venezuela and Latin America.

Revolutionary Program Needed

The essential lesson is the urgent need for a revolutionary socialist program and concrete steps to be taken to overthrow capitalism and the ruling elite.

The most urgent task is to establish independent committees, elected by the workers, urban poor, peasants, youth and rank and file soldiers. The delegates to such committees should be elected by assemblies and subject to recall. These committees should link up on a city wide, regional and national basis. These committees should urgently establish armed defense units to thwart any further attempt at a coup.

The committees of workers, youth, peasants and soldiers should form the basis of a workers’ and peasants’ government with a program to nationalize the major monopolies, banks and financial companies, both national and foreign, and to introduce a system of democratic workers’ control and management of the economy.

Under such a government all officials should be elected and subject to recall, receiving only the average wage of a skilled worker.

It is clear that the senior officers cannot be trusted. Rank and file soldiers’ committees need to be elected. These bodies would investigate all officers to see where their loyalty lies. Officers should be elected by the rank and file soldiers and subject to immediate recall.

A full investigation into the planning and execution of the attempted coup should be organized by popular tribunals. All those implicated in it should be bought to trial.

These steps must be linked with an appeal to the working class of Argentina, Brazil, and all countries of Latin America, to rally to such a program and to establish a voluntary socialist federation of the continent. This needs to be linked with an appeal for support from the working class and youth in the USA, to oppose the hypocritical big business government of Bush.

The building of an independent mass party of the working class to fight for such a program is now an urgent necessity in Venezuela. Only such a program can allow the first steps towards building socialism to be taken and lead to the defeat of US imperialism. Otherwise, the threat of reaction and another coup will arise again. It is urgent that this opportunity is not lost.

Tony Saunois, April 17, 2002