For a Socialist Federation of Latin America!
Venezuela: State & Revolution
Latin America has the worlds widest income gap, with well over a hundred million people forced to eke out an existence on less than two dollars a day, according to the World Banks 2005 "World Development Indicators." IMF-dictated austerity and privatization programs have ravaged the region for decades. "No other developing region [has] moved faster to sell off state companies," wrote Newsweek (5 July 2005), noting that: "By the end of the 1990s, Latin America accounted for fully 55 percent of total privatization revenues across the developing world ."
The imperialist financiers campaign to shrink the "state sector" and privatize water, electricity and gas utilities is rationalized with cynical claims that the regions desperate poverty requires increased foreign capital penetration. In fact, the IMFs austerity prescriptions, designed to create lucrative investment opportunities for imperialist corporations, have driven down living standards wherever they have been imposed.
"Neo-liberalism" has sparked massive popular resistance throughout South America. In June 2005, Bolivia teetered on the brink of civil war as mass protests demanded the reversal of the 1996 privatization of the countrys oil and gas deposits. But the highest-profile opponent of the "Washington Consensus" is Venezuelas charismatic president, Hugo Chávez, whose administration has sought to mobilize millions of workers and poor peasants under the banner of a "Bolivarian Revolution." The Bolivarians, named after Simón Bolivar, the leader of the 19th century revolt against Spanish colonialism, are the target of a sustained, but thus far spectacularly unsuccessful, campaign of intimidation and subversion by the Venezuelan ruling class in collaboration with the various agencies of its American overlord.
Many leftists are excited by the Venezuelan leaders talk of "transcending capitalism" and building the "socialism of the 21st century." They fervently hope that Chávez will be able to use his position at the pinnacle of the Venezuelan state to deal a crushing blow to the forces of reaction, and propel Venezuela in a new, revolutionary direction. But this is a dangerous illusion, for, as Karl Marx observed after the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made [capitalist] state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes."
Some "Marxists" active in the Venezuelan workers movement have abandoned this fundamental axiom. Followers of Ted Grant and Alan Woods in the Committee for a Marxist International (CMI, a.k.a. the International Marxist Tendency) have denounced "sectarians" and "formalists" who "constantly refer to definitions and ready-made quotations from the Marxist classics (we must smash the old state etc.), which in their hands become transformed from scientific statements into empty clichés or religious incantations" (Marxist.com, 4 May 2004). The CMI certainly cannot be accused of adheringreligiously or otherwiseto the fundamental principles of Marxism. But this does not change the fact that socialist revolution in Venezuela, as everywhere else, requires smashing the bourgeois state and replacing it with institutions committed to defending workers power.
Class & State in Venezuela
Venezuelan society has been decisively shaped by its relationship with the imperialist colossus to the north. The discovery of huge oil reserves during the First World War, at the dawn of the automobile age, vastly increased Venezuelas strategic importance, and today it is the worlds fifth-largest oil exporter. Petroleum accounts for approximately one third of the countrys gross domestic product (GDP) and more than 80 percent of its total export earnings. As a result of the oil boom of the 1970s, Venezuela today is a highly urbanized society, with 87 percent of its population living in towns and cities. Half the workforce is employed in the "unofficial" economy concentrated in the sprawling slums, while agriculture contributes a mere six percent of GDP. Two-thirds of the countrys food has to be imported.
On 1 January 1976, the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez nationalized Venezuelas oil industry and created the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela Sociedad Anónima (PDVSA). This increased the governments share of oil revenues, but the management of these newly nationalized oil installations did not change, and, as a result, the international oil majors continued to obtain Venezuelan crude at a substantial discount. In the 1980s, PDVSA began to acquire overseas refining, distribution and marketing assets, including the Citgo gas station chain in the U.S. In the 1990s, Venezuelas oil industry was reopened to outside investors. Today, roughly a quarter of production is controlled by foreign firms (Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era, Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger, eds., 2003).
Another lever of imperialist control is the countrys external debt, which, according to the World Banks 2005 "World Development Report," was over $32.5 billion in 2002 (roughly a third of gross national income). Much of this was accumulated in the 1970s:
"The foreign debt grew from $1.2 billion in 1973 to $11 billion in 1978. Astronomical sums were gobbled up by Pharaonic projects. Multimillion dollar deals were made in violation of the law and the constitution. A lot of money was used to fuel networks of clientalism and essentially benefited financial capital, eminent representatives of which occupied important positions within the state apparatus."
Venezuelas "oligarchs," whose social and political power is rooted in their ownership of industry, transportation, banking and the media, are linked by a thousand threads to the centers of imperial finance capital. Their rural cousins, the big landowners, dominate the countryside. Seth DeLong, a Senior Research Fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, estimates that, despite a 1960 land reform, today "roughly 75 to 80% of the countrys private land is owned by 5% of all landowners" (Venezuelanalysis.com, 25 February 2005). The parasitism of Venezuelas tiny light-skinned ruling class has traditionally been rationalized by racismthe supposed superiority of "Europeans" over the black, Indian and mestizo massesand sanctified by the obscurantist reactionaries of the Catholic Church.
From Caracazo to Bolivarian Revolution
A combination of falling oil prices and soaring debt produced a serious fiscal crisis in the 1980s, prompting the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez to respond with IMF-dictated austerity and "structural adjustments." The first step was to deregulate fuel prices. On the morning of 27 February 1989, when people on their way to work discovered that bus fares had doubled over night, they exploded in anger:
"Buses were overturned and burnt, but this was just the initial stage of the revolt. Within hours the rebellion had become more generalized, with widespread looting and the destruction of shops and supermarkets. Gangs of young people from the suburbs, both poor and angry, invaded the commercial centre of Caracas and moved on to the privileged residential areas of the wealthy under the slopes of Mount Avila, close to the heart of the city. Rioting and looting continued unchecked throughout the night and the following day. It developed into a prolonged and mighty rebellionthe Caracazo as it was calledbut it was soon to be followed by days of brutal military repression."
The army gunned down as many as 3,000 people, but was unable to quell the unrest. From that moment the traditional mechanisms of social control began to break down. Suddenly left-nationalist formations, like the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and La Causa Radical (both offshoots of the Venezuelan Communist Party) began to grow rapidly. Popular dissidence even found expression in Venezuelas officer corps when, in February 1992, a group of officers around Colonel Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias made an unsuccessful bid to overthrow Pérez and overturn his "neo-liberal" agenda. Nine months later they tried, and failed, again. Chávez went to prison promising his supporters that their project was on hold only "for the moment."
In 1994, when Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, who had earlier held power from 1969 to 1974, was reelected president, he immediately reversed some of Pérezs less popular measures, nationalized a few insolvent banks and pardoned Chávez. Calderas populist credentials were further enhanced when a representative of the MAS was given a cabinet post. Yet the new government was unable to turn the economy around, and in April 1996, Caldera agreed to yet another IMF structural adjustment program. Between 1993 and 1999 real wages plummeted, the rate of unionization fell by half (to just 13.5 percent), unemployment doubled (from 6.3 to 14.9 percent) and the "informal" economy expanded. According to the World Bank:
"[T]he percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty (household income of less than $2 a day) has increased from 32.2 percent in 1991 to 48.5 percent in 2000. Likewise, the proportion of those living in extreme povertybelow $1 a dayrose from 11.8 percent to 23.5 percent."
As the poor were growing poorer, the rich grew steadily richer: "The income share of the poorest 40 percent of the population fell from 19.1 percent in 1981 to 14.7 percent in 1997, while that of the wealthiest decile increased from 21.8 to 32.8 percent" (Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era, Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger, eds., 2003).
In March 1994, as soon as he got out of prison, Chávez began organizing a "military-civilian" alliance, the Movimiento Quinta República (MVR) which participated in the "Polo Patriótica," a bloc of parties pledged to liberate Venezuela from corruption and neo-colonial servitude. As the Polo Patriótica presidential candidate in the December 1998 elections, Chávez received 56 percent of the vote:
"Chavez got elected in late 1998 on three basic promises: first, to break Venezuelas old political system, known as puntofijismo, named after the location, Punto Fijo, at which Christian Democrats (Copei) and Social Democrats (Acción Democrática) signed an accord to limit Venezuelas political system to a competition between these two parties. Second, Chavez promised to end corruption. And third, Chavez promised to alleviate poverty in Venezuela."
A few months after being elected, Chávezs proposal to convoke a constituent assembly won an overwhelming mandate. His supporters swept the July 1999 elections to the assembly, where they proceeded to draft a new constitution declaring Venezuela to be a "democratic and social state of law and justice." When this document was ratified by 70 percent of voters in a December 1999 referendum, the new "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" was born. Seven months later, in July 2000, Chávez was elected its first president.
Relations were tense between puntofijists and Bolivarians within the state apparatus. Those who had served the old regime did not trust Chávez, who seemed largely uninterested in using his position for personal advantage (a characteristic that many in his circle do not share). Many old-timers worried that Bolivarian denunciations of poverty and "globalization" might stir up the impoverished masses. They were alarmed when Chávez assigned loyal military cadres to monitor the civil service:
"The military are everywhere, one senior economic adviser explained to me. It sometimes seems as though there is a secret project that you dont quite know about. There really is a military party. In some of the ministries, its a case of dual power."
Washington was equally suspicious of Bolivarian intentions. To reassure the imperialists, the government pledged not to touch any foreign investments, although, according to Gott, Chávez sought to avoid personal responsibility for this measure by arranging to be out of the country when it was announced.
Despite vehement denunciations of "neo-liberalism," the Bolivarian government proposed to privatize state-owned electrical and aluminum companies, while retaining control of PDVSA. In his inaugural address, Chávez spelled out his governments economic plan:
"Our project is neither statist nor neo-liberal; we are exploring the middle ground, where the invisible hand of the market joins up with the visible hand of the state: as much state as necessary, and as much market as possible."
While proclaiming its commitment to social justice, the Venezuelan government continued to make scheduled payments on its foreign debt and, in an obvious bid to reassure the reactionaries, Chávez reappointed Maritza Izaguirre as finance ministernotwithstanding the fact that, under the Caldera administration, she had introduced many of the unpopular measures denounced by the Bolivarians.
But despite the governments conservative economic policies, its popular base was emboldened by the belief that the president was on their side. In November 2001, tension between the Bolivarians and the puntofijists came to a head when Chávez, in an attempt to shore up his slipping popularity, pushed through 49 decrees fulfilling some of his earlier promises. One of these limited foreign control of the oil industry and doubled the royalties due to the government. The right-wing opposition responded by accelerating its plans to overturn the regime.
While a few Venezuelan capitalists sought to reach a modus vivendi with Chávez, most of the bourgeoisie, and much of the petty bourgeoisie, were virulently hostile. The venal trade-union bureaucracy of the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), demagogically exploiting some legitimate grievances of their base, sided with the bosses against Chávez. A few of the more corrupt and cynical elements of the left, notably the degenerate Stalinists of the formerly pro-Albanian Bandera Roja (Red Flag) group, also threw their support to the "democratic" pro-imperialist opposition. On 10 December 2001, the CTV, supported by Fedecámaras (the employers association) and PDVSA management, carried out a one-day strike to protest the decrees issued by Chávez the month before. Chávez responded in February 2002 by sacking the top PDVSA managers, an act that triggered a U.S.-backed coup two months later.
The U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which channeled CIA funds to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s, had long been funding the CTV bureaucracy via the AFL-CIOs perversely titled "American Center for International Labor Solidarity" (ACILS, a.k.a. "Solidarity Center") the contemporary embodiment of the infamous American Institute for Free Labor Development. Between 1997 and 2002, the NED officially provided ACILS with $700,000 for subversion in Venezuela (Monthly Review, May 2005). It was no coincidence that NEDs budget in Venezuela quadrupled in the period immediately before the April 2002 coup. Among other things, it sponsored a March 2002 conference of CTV bureaucrats, Fedecámaras officials and members of the Catholic hierarchy to discuss perspectives and priorities for the countrys future.
April 2002 Coup: Made in the U.S.A.
On 11 April 2002, elements of the Venezuelan military arrested Chávez, and Fedecámaras chief Pedro Carmona proclaimed himself head of state. Carmona immediately rescinded the constitution, dissolved the legislature, suspended the Supreme Court, revoked all of Chávezs decrees and began rounding up leading Bolivarians. With consummate cynicism he announced: "Everyone will feel that there exists plenty of freedom, pluralism and respect for the state of law" (Associated Press, 12 April 2002). Carmona was supported by the corporate media, much of the intelligentsia and the officer corps, the Catholic Church and, of course, the big capitalists and landowners. His regime was immediately recognized by Washington, Madrid, and the IMF, although no Latin American government was eager to endorse the U.S.-orchestrated overthrow of an elected government in the region. There was never any serious question about American involvement:
Former U.S. navy intelligence officer Wayne Madsen reported:
Although Carmona held power for less than 48 hours, he found time to meet both the Spanish and U.S. ambassadors. The coup collapsed when hundreds of thousands of Chávezs plebeian supporters massed outside the Miraflores presidential palace to demand his restoration, while several hundred loyal soldiers, who had hidden in the basement after being tipped off about the coup, emerged to arrest Carmona.
Some senior officers who had initially gone along with the coup were reportedly so appalled by the Fedecámaras chiefs dictatorial actions during his first day in office that they withdrew their support. This may explain why, as soon as he returned, Chávez immediately sought to open a "dialogue" with his rightist enemies, backtracked on some proposed reforms and announced that PDVSA management would remain in place. Instead of being mollified, the rightists saw these overtures as a sign of weakness and launched a national strike/lockout to bring down the Chávez government in December 2002. The lockout was supported by all the big capitalists and a minority of workers. It inflicted serious economic damage, but collapsed after a couple of months. This time Chávez was less conciliatory, and promptly fired 18,000 of the participants (including the PDVSA bosses).
The majority of the working class and several important unions had actively opposed the bosses lockout:
After the failure of the lockout, the rightist opposition, which according to the National Catholic Reporter (2 April 2004) was receiving a million dollars a year from the U.S. to fight Chávez, began to gather signatures for a presidential recall referendum. The vote, eventually held on 15 August 2004, delivered a devastating blow to the opposition. One prominent imperialist hireling, Maria Corina Machado (leader of Súmate, the group that spearheaded the recall campaign) now faces criminal charges for illegally using foreign funds to attempt to influence the outcome. In a signal to Caracas, Machado was invited to the White House in May 2005 by George W. Bush.
Chávezs decisive victory in the referendum dramatically weakened the opposition. The subsequent victory of pro-Chávez candidates in the 2004 regional elections led to the appointment of a chavista majority in the Supreme Court. With the right in retreat, Chávez swung left, at least rhetorically, and in January 2005 at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre declared that henceforth his government would be pursuing a "socialist" agenda.
Many leftists backed Chávez in the recall referendum on the grounds that his opponents were reactionary. But voting "no" to new presidential elections amounted to giving political support to the existing bourgeois government, something Marxists can never do. Under these circumstances, with no way to express a clear, proletarian alternative, the best that class-conscious Venezuelan workers could do was spoil their ballots, while making clear their readiness to defend Chávez, arms in hand, against any extra-legal attacks by the right or their imperialist godfathers.
Social Reform & The Movement
The Chávez government has initiated a series of significant new social programs (known as "missions") that are providing important assistance to millions of Venezuelas poor. Mission Mercal established a chain of supermarkets to sell goods at subsidized prices. Mission Robinson, a mass literacy program, has already taught more than a million poor people to read and write. Mission Ribas helps those who never graduated from high school to resume their studies, while Mission Sucre provides scholarships for impoverished students to attend college. Mission Vuelvan Caras is a training program through which Mission Ribas graduates and others can learn the skills necessary for decent, productive jobs.
The goal of Mission Barrio Adentro is to create a free and universal health care system. Already 20,000 Cuban medical professionals have set up clinics to provide free health and dental care for the urban and rural poor. In exchange, Venezuela is selling oil to Cuba at prices well below those of the international market. Mission Barrio Adentro II, launched in June 2005, is constructing hospitals, as well as diagnostic and rehabilitation facilities. Chávez has announced plans for Mission Barrio Adentro III, to organize the acquisition of modern medical equipment. Under Mission Miracle, Venezuela is sending thousands of patients to Cuba to receive surgery they otherwise could not afford.
The Bolivarian missions, which are hugely popular, have helped draw millions of poor Venezuelans into political activity through their emphasis on "grassroots" participation. Much of this has taken place through the "Bolivarian Circles"local groupings of between seven and ten individuals who help enroll people in the "missions" and then support them and monitor their progress. The Bolivarian Circles, which have a quasi-independent relationship with the state and at their height claimed an active membership of two million, are waning and being replaced by other organizational networks.
In February 2002 the government announced that it would issue titles for land in shantytowns to inhabitants organized into land committees of between 100 and 200 families. These urban land committees have since become a central pillar of the "Bolivarian Revolution":
"The urban land reform is functioning as a catalyst for the mobilization of Venezuelas barrios, following the fizzling out of the Bolivarian Circles....It has led to the mobilization of over 5,000 land committees, representing a total population of more than 5 million Venezuelans, or 20% of the population. This makes the urban land committees Venezuelas largest organized social movement.
The government has also created small-scale financial institutions (e.g., the Womens Bank and Peoples Bank) to provide cheap credit for small businesses and cooperatives. The National Housewives Union, launched in 2003, is another key participant in the plans for "endogenous development":
"We also have people who teach the women how to develop cooperatives in small businesses and community work, [Lizarde Prada, a leader of the Housewives Union] explained. For example, if you live in a certain neighborhood and you have the raw materials, such as bananas, use it for a sweets shop and use local transportation for your business. All of this will generate more local work. There are different cooperatives affiliated with the Housewives' Union, some involve cooking and food distribution, others have to do with textiles and sewing."
While improving life for many of the most impoverished, these sorts of initiatives do not begin to address the roots of social inequality in the imperialist world order. Chávez has recently begun to talk about "21st century socialism," but the measures proposed so far do not seem to go much beyond the 1999-2000 "Transitional Economic Program," which projected the development of "a humanistic, self-managed and competitive economy" for which:
"The backdrop is the social organization of production in which the market, as a fundamental mechanism for assigning resources and factors, incorporates complementary organizational forms of private property which, like cooperatives and strategic consumer and producer associations, foster a dynamic diversification of production and add value."
There is a profound and fundamental contradiction between the interests of those who own and control the essential economic leversthe Venezuelan bourgeoisie and their imperialist patronsand the mass of the population. In some circumstances the capitalists can be compelled to make concessions, but, so long as the bourgeois state remains intact, gains for working people can easily be reversed when the relation of forces changes.
Limits of Bolivarian Agrarian Policy
The supposed "war against the latifundia" illustrates the limits of the Bolivarian experiment. Among the 49 decrees Chávez promulgated in November 2001, one that particularly enraged the oligarchs was the creation of the Instituto Nacional de Tierras (National Lands InstituteINTI) which was charged with implementing a modest land reform. The law imposed a supplementary tax on landholdings where more than 80 percent is unworked, and allowed for the expropriationwith full compensationof "high-quality idle land of over 100 hectares or lower quality land of over 5,000 hectares" (New Left Review, May-June 2003). Expropriated land was supposed to be turned over to farmers cooperatives. The reform was intended to address the land hunger of poor peasants, modernize the countryside and boost agricultural production, thus enhancing Venezuelas "food sovereignty." Ricaurte Leonete, the head of INTI, pointed out that this was not an anti-capitalist measure: "Our terratenientes [landlords] arent even capitalists. Capitalists make use of their land.... In Europe capitalism got rid of this kind of parasitic behaviour a long time ago" (cited in Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2003).
Yet, despite occasional rhetorical attacks on landed parasites, the regime did not touch any private holdings for over three years. Meanwhile, more than 100 peasant leaders have been killed by armed gangs working on behalf of the big landowners. In some cases, the local Bolivarian authorities sided with the rural elites:
"Its one thing when the enemy is an opposition governor as in the states of Yaracuy, Apure and Carabobo or a politician from the ancien régime. But in January 2002, in El Robal (Cojedes State), it was Jhonny Yanez Rangel who let the dogs out. He had been elected as a member of the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR, the presidents party). He kicked out the campesinos and destroyed their ranchos and their equipment. Everything was lost, says Vásquez [a landless peasant], still enraged at what happened. How could a revolutionary governor act against the revolution?"
In January 2005, with the government less anxious to conciliate the reactionaries, Rangel dispatched 200 National Guard soldiers to the 32,000 acre El Charcote estate (owned by British multimillionaire Lord Vestey) where several hundred landless peasants had been squatting for years. The Washington Post (14 January 2005) immediately seized on this as an "assault on private property" that proved Chávez "is undermining the foundations of democracy and free enterprise." The European media treated it less hysterically. The BBC described Chávezs announcement that land reform was to be accelerated as "more modest than many expected," and Radio Netherlands noted:
"Although President Hugo Chavez once spoke of a war against the landed estates, the government now carefully avoids using the word confiscation. It is simply retaking land which, while it has always been public property, was dubiously occupied by private landowners and businesses."
The discrepancy between the tough talk of "war on the latifundia" and the timid measures actually undertaken is highlighted by the regimes recent attempts at "coordination" with landowners to reach negotiated agreements and by its continuing reluctance to support peasant occupations. For all the radical rhetoric, Chávez is well aware that a true agrarian revolution that uprooted the big estate owners would inevitably threaten capitalist property in the cities as well. In the past few years, in order to placate the rural poor without offending the rich landowners, the regime has been parceling out state-owned land, turning over more than two million hectares to 130,000 families and farming cooperatives. In doing so, the government acted to expand the influence of the capitalist market and maintain the influence of the big landholders.
Chávez & Organized Labor
Chávezs government has raised the minimum wage several timesincluding a 26 percent hike in May 2005 (roughly equal to the annual rate of inflation) while also making it more difficult for employers to lay off workers. These measures, which only apply to the half of the workforce employed in the "formal" economy, have made it easier for workers to unionize.
When Chávez came to power, the main trade-union federation was the highly bureaucratized CTV, which was traditionally closely integrated with Acción Democrática, self-described "social democrats" who propped up the puntofijist regime. In March 2000, Chávez declared a strike of PDVSA workers for better wages and working conditions to be illegal, and demanded that a new union leadership be elected before negotiations could continue. Rather than comply, the union tops promptly called off the action. But seven months later, in October, 30,000 oil workers struck again, and after four days wrested a 60 percent pay hike from the PDVSA management. This time the government did not seek to intervene, as unions representing over a million public-sector employees declared their intent to strike in solidarity (BBC News Online, 15 October 2000).
In 2001, in an attempt to break the grip of the CTV bureaucracy, the government decreed that all unions had to immediately hold elections. Although Chávezs intervention in the trade-union movement was popular with many workers frustrated by the CTV misleaders, Marxists, as a matter of principle, oppose any meddling by the capitalist government in the unions. Those who rely on the bourgeois state to fight union corruption only weaken the workers movement. When the CTV bureaucrats managed to win the vote, Chávez supporters split away and founded the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT) in April 2003. Since then, the UNT has grown rapidly, and now represents the vast majority of public-sector workers and half of those in the private sector.
Those leftists who want to see Chávez as a revolutionary socialist have been encouraged by the recent nationalization of several companies. Alan Woods, a leader of the Committee for a Marxist International, declared:
"The fact that President Chavez has come down publicly in favour of socialism is a further clear indication as to where the Bolivarian Revolution is moving. The nationalization of Venepal, and now also of CNV, confirms this direction. Those people who criticized us for pointing out that the Bolivarian Revolution would have to take the socialist road or fail, have been shown to be completely wrong."
The January 2005 nationalization of the Venepal paper mill (which had been bankrupted as a result of its owners participation in the 2002-2003 bosses "general strike") only occurred after several hundred workers, responding to its September 2004 closure, occupied the mill and resumed production. Chávez did not pretend that this represented a step toward socialism: "The expropriation of Venepal is an exception, not a political measure, nor a government one. We wont take the land, if its yours its yours. But the company that is closed and abandoned, well go for them. For all of them" (Venezuelanalysis.com, 20 January 2005). Only in December 2004, after the company had officially declared bankruptcy, did the government nationalize itand then only after paying the owners its full market value. In April 2005 the government also took over the Constructora Nacional de Válvulas (CNV), which had also been shut down by its owner (former PDVSA president Andrés Sosa Pietri). In this case as well, the Bolivarian authorities acted only after some 60 former CNV employees occupied the factory.
The government has announced plans for converting other bankrupt enterprises, as well as some privately-owned companies "co-managed" by employees, into Empresas de Producción Social (EPSs, Social Production Enterprises):
Despite the wishful thinking of some leftists, the reality of workers "co-managing" with employers has nothing to do with socialism:
"Workers at Cadafe, the state electric company that provides 60 percent of the electricity in Venezuela, began a push for co-management soon after Chávez was elected in 1998. In 2002, shortly after the April coup, Cadafe officially began the transition to co-management. But three years later, workers role in the decision-making process is still limited to two positions on a five-member coordinating committeea group that can make recommendations to the president of the company, but he has no obligation to heed. After giving the state management a chance to implement real co-management, Cadafe workers, led by the union federation Fetraelec, have staged a series of protests articulating their impatience. Its a tricky strategy, because the majority of these workers are staunch supporters of President Chávez, but their protests are necessarily directed against the Ministry of Energythe state entity in charge of Cadafe."
The biggest co-management "success" story is Alcasa, a state-owned aluminum concern located in the industrial city of Puerto Ordaz, where departmental works councils are allowed to discuss the companys "participatory budget." In April 2005, the plants 2,700 employees got to elect two of the firms five corporate directors. The president of Alcasa, Carlos Lanz, a former guerrilla leader, suggested: "This is about workers controlling the factory and that is why it is a step towards socialism of the twenty-first century" (BBC News Online, 17 August 2005). In reality, this is simply a way to increase productivity through speed-up, something that managers always favor:
"The managers and the workers are running this business together, [Alcasa worker Pedro] Gomez said above the din of rumbling forklifts and humming industrial fans, sweat dripping down his face from the heat of the casting house. It gives us new motivation to work hard."
The Bolivarian union leadership is happy to redefine "socialism" to correspond to the regimes co-management policy. The UNTs two main slogans for May Day 2005 were: "Co-management is revolution" and "Venezuelan workers are building Bolivarian socialism" (Green Left Weekly, 11 May 2005). A vision of "socialism" as a decentralized market economy in which workers get to consult with management on decisions and in which the state provides extensive social programs may be inspiring for many Venezuelans, but the whole idea of creating socially-conscious, humane, worker-run capitalism is an unrealizable, petty-bourgeois fantasy.
The road to Bolivarian pseudo-socialism begins with a publicly funded bail-out for capitalists who have run their companies into the ground, and proceeds, if all goes well, to convert the employees into petty owner-operators:
"Alexix Ornevo, former member of the executive of Venepals now defunct union and current member of the directorate of Invepal [the new name for the nationalized Venepal], noted that since they no longer had any bosses, they no longer needed a union, as workers were now grouped into a cooperative (Covimpa) to run the company. And as a cooperative, Ornevo was quick to point out, they got several benefits including constitutional relief from paying taxes. Also, thanks to the 1999 Bolívarian Constitution, Covimpawhich now owns a 49 percent share in Invepalis legally entitled to increase that share up to 95 percent."
Cooperatives that survive and flourish will eventually gain enough market share to push their competitors out of business. At that point, they will want the chance to expand their operations by absorbing and reorganizing the less profitable co-ops, and will doubtless expect to receive a share of any future earnings as a reward for their expertise. Members of the more successful cooperatives might well find that managing their various businesses leaves little time for work. As time goes on, a larger and larger share of their income is likely to derive from dividends (profit shares). This is not socialism, of course, but capitalism, even if disguised for a time by the illusion that it is a uniquely Venezuelan harmonious and compassionate sort of capitalism. Genuine socialism begins with the expropriation of the capitalist class as a whole, the destruction of its repressive state apparatus and the creation of new economic institutions based on the principle of planning and cooperation, not profit-driven competition.
While Chávez has decisively defeated the opposition in every political confrontation to date (and currently enjoys support from a clear majority of the population), the capitalists retain possession of the major means of production, communication and transportation; their state apparatus remains essentially intact, and they are well aware that in any major confrontation they can count on the support of other bourgeois regimes in the region backed by the imperialist superpower to the north. The ambivalence displayed by the Venezuelan military to date is at least partially attributable to the fact that much of the officer corps is recruited from more plebeian social layers than in most of the rest of Latin America.
Even Chávezs supporters are skeptical about his muddled, left-nationalist talk of "less capitalism and more socialism" (ZNet, 10 April 2005) as though they were two points on a continuum, determined by the percentage of the economy that is publicly owned. In reality they are two mutually antagonistic social orders separated by a revolution or counterrevolution, i.e., civil war. In a 2005 opinion poll conducted by a firm not considered sympathetic to Chávez, more than 70 percent of Venezuelans expressed broad approval of the president and 35 percent said that they wanted the government to establish socialism, while another ten percent were undecided. Yet fewer than 20 percent of Chávez supporters believed that he will be able to build a socialist society (Venezuelanalysis.com, 3 May 2005).
Chávez has gone out of his way to praise "Jesus Christ, one of the greatest revolutionaries...the true Christ, the Redemptor of the Poor" (ZNet, 10 April 2005). In July 2005, the Bolivarian leader asserted: "In the history of Venezuela there has never been a government that has been closer to the principles of Christianity than this one" (Vheadline.com, 14 July 2005). In fact the main "principle" of Chávezs rule is bonapartisma term denoting a "strong" government that appears to float above the conflicts of competing social classes, but in fact balances precariously between them.
In order to maintain his room for maneuver, Chávez has, on occasion, found it expedient to dispense with the "participatory democracy" that is supposed to characterize the Bolivarian revolution:
"In response to increasing mobilization demanding primaries for regional candidates [within the chavista coalition], Chávez position has been a surprise to many. Last month, he declared We have already announced the candidates, and these are the candidates. Those who dont want unity can join the escualidos (opposition). Yet since these candidates were all appointed by a national committee dominated by the governing party, the 5th Republic Movement (MVR), the result has been fierce opposition in many communities who are demanding that the government act in accordance with its participatory rhetoric."
Candidates of the pro-Chávez "Group for Change" coalition for the December 2005 National Assembly elections were also chosen by the "National Tactical Commando" rather than the grassroots.
Chávezs bonapartist behavior seems to derive from a desire to better the conditions of the poor and downtrodden without infringing on capitalist property. Yet the fundamental interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are irreconcilably counterposed, and for all his socialist rhetoric, Chávez is well aware that his power comes from his position as the head of the capitalist state. He may wish that he did not have to behave so autocratically, but he cannot trust the Bolivarian rank and file to make significant decisions because they are likely to upset the delicate balancing act he is attempting to pull off.
The European imperialists, who tend to be more sophisticated about things like the "Bolivarian Revolution" than the "born agains" in and around the White House, are not particularly alarmed by developments in Caracas. During a visit to Europe in October 2005, Chávez met with Italys right-wing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who later told the Italian paper La Reppublica that the Bolivarian leader is a "pragmatic guy" with whom it is possible to do business. "It is true that there are ideological distances [with the U.S.], but in the end, commercial relations are good. I know [Chávez] for a while now. I also have good relations with him," remarked Berlusconi (Venezuelanalysis.com, 18 October 2005). The current Fedecámaras chief, José Luis Betancourt, has also opted for turning the other cheek, at least in public, declaring: "joint public and private investment is the only way to develop this country in a harmonious manner" (Venezuelanalysis.com, 26 October 2005). The bosses representative apparently "responded well to Chavezs statement that property rights would be respected during the development of Venezuela" (Ibid.).
The overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan ruling class still hates Chávez with a passion. They are accustomed to enjoying close personal and financial ties with the countrys political rulers, and are uncomfortable with having a left-talking bonapartist in charge of their state. Yet Chávezs relative independence from the bourgeoisie enables him to better serve the interests of Venezuelan capital, a paradox he explained to a "Macro Business Round Table" in Caracas last July that brought government officials together with Venezuelan and American businesspeople:
"Venezuela, and I said this before becoming president of Venezuela, is a kind of we would say in 95, 97,Venezuela is a kind of a bomb (tick tock! tick tock!). We are going to begin to deactivate the mechanism of that bomb. And today, its not that it is totally deactivated, but I am sure that it is much less likely that this bomb explode today than it was in the face of what we had since 1985, 88, 89then it already exploded. The 90s until 98, poverty, inequality."
While contrasting sharply with the socialist rhetoric about capitalism as "savagery," Chávezs talk about "deactivating" social contradictions lies at the core of the entire Bolivarian project. With his unrealizable promises of simultaneously advancing the interests of the poor and the imperialist financial piranhas via a more inclusive and socially responsible form of "endogenous" development, Chávez, no doubt unwittingly, is helping lay the groundwork for the forces of a resurgent right to exact a bloody revenge in the future.
Washingtons implacable hostility to the Bolivarian government is a living refutation of the Bush administrations claims to champion "democracy" and "freedom" for the benighted peoples of the earth. While grudgingly describing the chavistas repeated electoral triumphs as "technically legal," U.S. officials warn that Chávez represents "a new breed of authoritarianism" and complain that he does not govern "democratically," i.e., refuses to take orders from Washington.
Chávez has condemned the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; lambasted the IMF and the Free Trade Area of the Americas and befriended Fidel Castro. The Venezuelan Central Bank has recently begun to convert most of its foreign currency reserves from dollars into Euros (Venezuelanalysis.com, 5 October), and Chávez has hinted that he may one day decide to start pricing oil exports in Euros as well. All of this has made him the current bête noire of the American imperialist propaganda machine, and thus the natural recipient of an assassination fatwa from theocratic bigot and hard-core Bush backer Pat Robertson. When mass protests in Bolivia reached pre-revolutionary dimensions in June 2005, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, knew who to blame: "Chávezs profile in Bolivia has been very apparent from the beginning" (Miami Herald, 8 June 2005). Fidel Castro, the traditional Latin American bogeyman for delusional anti-communist fanatics, jokingly complained to Chávez: "Im realizing that your friendship is hurting my image" (Reuters, 30 April 2005).
The ill-fated American adventure in Iraq has made an immediate military assault on Venezuela less likely, but planning is certainly underway. Massive U.S. aid has tripled the size of Colombias armed forces in the past several years, thus providing Washington with a reliable proxy in the region. When Chávez announced plans to modestly expand the popular militias, purchase 100,000 AK-47 rifles and 40 helicopters from Russia, the Bush administration squawked that he was threatening the peace of the region. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cynically inquired: "What in the world [is the threat] that Venezuela sees that makes them want to have all those weapons?" (BBC News Online, 1 July 2005).
Despite attempts to diversify its markets, Venezuela remains dependent on sales to the U.S. for roughly two-thirds of its oil export earnings which, as the Bolivarians have suggested, is reason enough to reach an accommodation with the U.S. In the aftermath of the April 2002 coup, an exasperated Chávez reportedly declared: "With me in power the oil supply to the U.S. is assured. If you support efforts to push me out of power there will be a civil war and oil will be interrupted" (ZNet, 10 September 2002). At the July 2005 Round Table, Chávez spoke of having "friends in both parties" of the American ruling class. The anti-imperialist tub-thumping that had so excited his leftist admirers in Porto Alegre was set aside in favor of a pitch to his "dear North American business friends" for "peace," "understanding," "transparency" and "true integration." Far from calling for "transcending capitalism" via Bolivarian socialism, the Venezuelan lider maximo spun fantasies of the peaceful self-reform of imperialism through a sort of Tobin tax that could "create a fund that would allow governments and society to forge an historic alliance for the survival of the human species" (Venezuelanalysis.com, 6 July 2005).
The expansion of social programs under the "Bolivarian Revolution" has been paid for by the astronomical rise of international oil prices. When Chávez took office in 1998, oil was selling for roughly $12 a barrelin 2005 it was going for $60. Under Chávez, royalties paid by foreign oil companies have increased from a token 1 percent to 16.6 percent (New York Times, 5 July 2005). Yet while government revenues have soared, Venezuelas public debt has also increased, largely as a result of a deliberate policy of lavishly subsidizing Venezuelas banks:
"But what makes this really crazy, says [Banco Venezolano de Creditos president, Oscar] Garcia [Mendoza], is that the government is depositing all its oil revenue in the same banks at about 5 percent, then borrowing it back at 14 percent. Its a very easy way for bankers to make money. Thats why I say this is a government for the rich."
The chavistas apparently imagine that Latin American subordination to the U.S. will be reduced if regional trade and economic cooperation is expanded. To date, Cuba is the only country to have shown any enthusiasm for Chávezs proposed "Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas" to compete with the U.S.-dominated Free Trade Area of the Americas. But the logic of attempting to enlist other capitalist regimes in a Bolivarian solidarity project was clearly displayed in August 2005, when Chávez offered to support Equadors government against workers who, demanding increased investment and more jobs, brought that countrys petroleum exports to a halt. Undercutting the leverage of the workers, the Chávez government announced: "Venezuela will cover the [oil export] commitments that the Ecuadorean [sic] government has not been able to fulfill these days. They will not have to pay a cent" (Reuters, 21 August 2005).
Marxism & the State in Venezuela
This shameful strikebreaking was passed over without comment by many of Chávezs international admirers, including those in the Committee for a Marxist International, who on paper champion the political independence of the working class from the bourgeoisie and, at least in theory, advocate the creation of a Leninist vanguard party to carry out Trotskys program of permanent revolution. But, for the CMI, none of this seems to apply in Venezuela.
Marxists do not disparage those measures implemented by the Chávez government that improve the lives of the poor and dispossessedbut neither do we conclude that the fundamental principles of socialism no longer apply. Capitalists and workers have counterposed material interests in Venezuela, just as they do everywhere else. No Bolivarian alchemy can transform an instrument constructed to defend and promote capitalist exploitationthe bourgeois stateinto an agency of social liberation.
The CMI claims that Chávez has "carried out a partial purge of the state" (Marxist.com, 20 May 2004). Alan Woods has even asserted that Chávezs bonapartist attempts to mediate between workers and bosses means that "the state in Venezuela is no longer controlled by the bourgeoisie" (Marxist.com, 4 May 2004). While allowing that Chávez heads a bourgeois one, and even warning that the state represents a threat to the as yet unconsolidated "revolution," Woods solution is to propose that it is "necessary to remove all the conservatives" still hiding in the apparatus (Marxist.com, 20 May 2004). In an "Eyewitness report from the heart of the revolution," a CMI supporter breathlessly described the titanic revolutionary struggle supposedly underway within Venezuelas capitalist state machine:
"Although the structures of the Venezuelan state remain capitalist, this does not mean that within it there is not a ferocious struggle taking place between revolutionaries and sectors that think that the revolution has gone too far. There is a huge division between the reformists and revolutionaries within the Miraflores palace, the ministries and all kinds of public offices. In some ministries, the left is strong like for instance in the Ministry of Labour. Cristina Iglesias is actually working shoulder to shoulder with the UNT in order to tackle the anti-worker practices of the bosses, trying to boost the participation of workers in trade unions and trying to take further the co-management measures."
Here in all its nakedness, is Eduard Bernsteins debilitating reformist prescription that working people can peacefully take over the capitalist state and gradually transform it from an apparatus of oppression into a tool of liberation.
According to the CMI, "Chavez in general has made a shift to the left, one that revolutionary Marxists must support and push forward" (Marxist.com, 19 May 2004). Those who criticize Chávez, or his touts in the CMI, are dismissed as "sectarians" who fail to grasp "the dialectical relation between Chavez and the masses":
"Our attitude to Chavez has all along been one of critical support. That is to say, we will support Chavez to the degree that he strikes blows against imperialism and the oligarchy, but we will criticise him when he vacillates or makes concessions to imperialism and the oligarchy."
This is precisely the formula employed by Stalin, Kamenev and the rest of the right-wing Bolsheviks toward Russias bourgeois Provisional Government after the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917. In his historic "April Theses," Lenin emphatically rejected this approach and insisted on a policy of hard opposition to any capitalist government, however "progressive." This position, which was the political basis for the victorious workers revolution in October 1917, was regarded as sectarian lunacy by representatives of every shade of opportunism within the Russian socialist movement, all of whom had a strategy, like that of the CMI today, that amounted to pressuring the "left" capitalist government and waiting for the "revolutionary dynamic" to unfold.
The CMI views Chávez as an initiator of revolutionary change whose bold actions have thrown the working class into motion. According to Woods, as soon as "the working class enters the arena of struggle, it acquires a dynamic and a movement of its own" (Marxist.com, 21 January 2005). In pinning their hopes on Chávez as the embodiment of an inevitable historical process, the CMI renounces any responsibility for combating the petty-bourgeois illusions spread by the chavistas within the working class:
"Chavez and his supporters are leaning on the support of the masses to strike blows against the oligarchy and imperialism. They did not originally have a socialist perspective, but only the notion of clearing out corruption and modernising Venezuela. They wanted a fairer, more just and equal society, but imagined that this was possible without breaking the bounds of capitalism. But this immediately brought them into conflict with the bourgeoisie and imperialism. The masses took to the streets and imparted an entirely different dynamic to the process. The mass movement has provided a stimulus to Chavez and in turn he has encouraged the movement in a revolutionary direction."
The Venezuelan president has taken note of his CMI courtiers, and even invited a couple of them to appear on "Aló Presidente," his weekly television program. The CMI proudly reported that Woods and another CMI comrade "were placed in the front row, in a prominent position immediately opposite the President" and that "In the course of the programme, Hugo Chavez mentioned Alan at least three times" (Marxist.com, 19 April 2004).
Of course it is nice to get airtime, but V.I. Lenin took a dim view of the pseudo-sophisticates in the Second International who spent their time hobnobbing with cabinet ministers and other bourgeois notables while teaching the workers to patiently wait for the inexorable workings of a quasi-automatic historical process to deliver socialism. Woods assurances to his followers that, "sooner or later the masses will become conscious of the real meaning of their actions" (Marxist.com, 21 January 2005) are not worth a great deal. What purpose does a socialist organization serve if not to make the masses politically conscious? The job of revolutionaries is to assist the workers to understand social reality and to act in their own interestsas a "class for itself"rather than remain a "class in itself" befuddled by bourgeois ideology.
Revolution or Counterrevolution?
The poor and working people of Venezuela have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to do whatever is necessary to lift themselves out of the poverty and desperation to which capitalism has consigned them. The task of Marxists is to win the more politically advanced elements to understand the necessity of expropriating the capitalists as a class and beginning the reconstruction of society on a socialist basis. A necessary first step on this road is the repudiation of any notion of reconciliation or strategic compromise with the exploiters.
Things are not going to stand still in Venezuela. There will be no slow and steady drift to socialism. The imperialist colossus has burned its fingers badly in Iraq and is loathe to undertake any new large-scale military adventures in Latin America. Its Colombian proxies seem, for the moment, to have their hands full. And the Venezuelan right wing, having lost three consecutive rounds to the Bolivarians, are regrouping and licking their wounds. But the bourgeoisie retains control of all the essential levers of the economy, as well as the media, and it is only a matter of time before it once again goes on the offensive.
To counter the threat of a Pinochet- or Franco-style rightist coup, Venezuelan workers need to organize themselves through a network of elected representatives from every factory, refinery, mine and other workplace. A nationally coordinated system of workers councils would provide a mechanism for exerting control over the production and distribution of the necessities of life, for mobilizing the most oppressed layers of society, and for effectively countering any attempts by the capitalists and their thugs to reassert their prerogatives through brutal repression.
What is necessary in Venezuela today is a political leadership within the workers movement that is committed to the struggle for powera Leninist vanguard party rooted in the proletariat, capable of polarizing the Bolivarian movement into its class components and thus preparing the working class for the inevitable showdown with the bourgeoisie. Some leftists hope that the Chávez government will follow the path of Fidel Castros July 26th Movement, which began as a radical liberal formation but, after leading a struggle which smashed the existing capitalist state, ended up expropriating the bourgeoisie and creating a centralized command economy. The creation of a deformed workers state 90 miles off the coast of Florida, was a product of the unrelenting and inflexible hostility of both the Cuban capitalists and their imperial patron, but it was only possible because of the existence of the degenerated Soviet workers state as a global counterweight to imperialism.
The situation in Caracas in 2006 is entirely different than that in Havana in 1960the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the Venezuelan state remains intact. Chávez has purged some elements that are particularly hostile to his regime, but he has not, and will not, touch the essential core of the bourgeois state. The "Bolivarian" experiment can only be a temporary interlude. There are but two roads in Venezuela todayeither the working class will go forward to expropriate the bourgeoisie (thus liquidating it as a class) or the capitalists will crush the proletariat. There is no middle option, no "third way." There will be no relief to the pain and suffering of the masses of Latin America so long as the means of production remain in the hands of a tiny minority, as Leon Trotsky, the great Russian revolutionary observed, more than 70 years ago:
"South and Central America will be able to tear themselves out of backwardness and enslavement only by uniting all their states into one powerful federation. But it is not the belated South American bourgeoisie, a thoroughly venal agency of foreign imperialism, who will be called upon to solve this task, but the young South American proletariat, the chosen leader of the oppressed masses. The slogan in the struggle against violence and intrigues of world imperialism and against the bloody work of native comprador cliques is therefore: the Soviet United States of South and Central America."
Published: 1917 No.28 (December 2005)