Venezuela: the first socialist revolution of the 21st century?

– Tim Bowron

from The Spark June 2007

The emergence and growth of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is one of the most important developments for the global anti-capitalist movement in the past two decades. How, such a short time after the Berlin Wall came down and Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the complete triumph of neo-liberal capitalism and the “end of history”, is it possible that a man like Hugo Chávez, who openly admits to being a follower of Marx and Lenin, as well as Trotsky, could achieve a mass worldwide following and be repeatedly elected to presidential office?

The question has mystified the neo-liberal pundits who write for such esteemed journals as the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Equally though the “Chávez phenomenon” has been a source of much controversy and debate among the radical left. Is Chávez really a revolutionary democrat, some of the more sceptical ask, or is he just another populist demagogue cut from the same cloth as the Argentine strongman Juan Perón or Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico?

For most of the far left the rise of Hugo Chávez was a completely unheralded phenomenon, only attracting widespread attention after his dramatic victory in the Venezuelan presidential elections in 1998. Knowing little about him apart from the fact that in his previous career as an army officer in 1992 he had led an unsuccessful uprising against the right-wing government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, many wrote him off as just another in a long line of caudillos or bonapartist figures who had placed themselves at the forefront of a mass movement only in order to contain it and at the end of the day safeguard the capitalist system.

In Marxist political thought – particularly as developed and expounded by Leon Trotsky – a bonapartist figure was a leader who would typically emerge in a semi-colonial nation to arbitrate between the conflicting interests of bourgeoisie and working class as well as between the nation state and imperialism. While bonapartist leaders do not in themselves represent any particular class, they can depending on the pressure of the contending classes be pushed towards either the left or the right.

To Marxists of the more dogmatic persuasion, who are more in love with maintaining their own neat and tidy schemas than dealing with reality, Hugo Chávez falls into this same classification. People who follow this line of thought often point to the (superficial) similarities between Hugo Chávez other former military officers who went on to take power and implement leftist economic measures such as nationalisation of foreign-owned oil and gas companies, such as the Peruvian Juan Velasco who took power in a coup d’état in 1968.

I would argue though that these comparisons do simply do not stack up.

To begin with, Hugo Chávez did not simply take power in a vacuum. Even his first unsuccessful bid for power in 1992, though in violation of the norms of liberal bourgeois democracy, was not some cold-blooded coup to which the masses were mere passive bystanders – instead his attempt to topple a president who was widely regarded as venal and corrupt saw workers come out onto the streets in support of Chávez across almost all of the major urban centres. Although the uprising failed and Chávez was jailed for his role in leading it, polls published at the time showed that at least half the Venezuelan public supported him. This was born out six years later when following his release from prison Chávez cruised to a landslide win in the presidential elections.

This was not the first time that the barrios in Caracas and in other Venezuelan cities and towns had risen up against the government either – in 1989 a massive wave of strikes and protests known as “el Caracazo” followed the announcement by then newly-elected President Carlos Pérez (who had believe it or not campaigned on an anti-IMF platform) of sweeping neo-liberal reforms including the slashing of state subsidies on essential items such as fuel and the severe reduction of salaries for public sector workers. In the ensuing civil unrest hundreds, possibly even thousands of protesting workers and members of the unemployed were killed by government forces. It was this event that led directly to Hugo Chávez together with other leftist members of the armed forces in the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement 200 – founded by Chávez in 1983 on the 200th anniversary of the death of the great national independence hero – launching preparations for the forcible removal of Pérez.

The 1990s brought greater misery to the workers of Venezuela in the form of soaring unemployment and inflation, with the vast sums of money earned from exploiting the country’s petrochemical wealth going to support corrupt officials such as those in charge of the state-run oil firm PDVSA. For the parasitical managers and bureaucrats sitting in their mansions in eastern Caracas these were good times, but not so fortunate were the inhabitants of the working class barrios on the hills overlooking the city.

When Chávez became president at the end of the decade, one of his first priorities was to weed out the corrupt officials in the PDVSA which included the leaders of the oil workers union (then also the most powerful section of the Venezuelan trade union movement). In 2002 the employers’ federation and the leaders of the oil workers union formed an unholy alliance to try to oust Chávez through a shutdown of businesses and economic sabotage. However the vast majority of the workers supported Chávez and even occupied various companies (including the oil monopoly PDVSA) to keep them running in defiance of the bosses and corrupt union leaders. When certain sections of the military, acting in concert with both the right-wing opposition and the American CIA, launched a coup d’état on April 11 2002 and took Chávez prisoner after surrounding the presidential palace, the working class responded with a mass mobilisation that saw Chavez freed and returned to power within 48 hours.

The hatred that the more affluent citizens of Venezuela felt and still feel towards Chávez is based on more than just economic interests however. The hysterical accusations hurled at Chávez that he is “authoritarian” would-be dictator (despite being re-elected three times) reveals the visceral contempt felt by white, bourgeois urban elites throughout Latin America towards the predominantly indigenous or mestizo population in the poor barrios and in the countryside.

This division in Latin American society was first recognised by the conservative Argentine writer and politician Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in the nineteenth century, who (revealing his reactionary prejudices) referred to the division as a clash between “civilisation and barbarism”. To the latter-day heirs of Sarmiento, Chávez – who is from a poor background and of both Black African and indigenous descent – would seem then the literal embodiment of “barbarism”.

But what of the political and economic substance of Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”?

Shortly after his election to the presidency in 1998 Hugo Chávez began launching a series of “Bolivarian Missions” to drastically improve the living conditions of the vast majority of Venezuelans who are desperately poor. These have included programs of radical land reform, under which large estates or latifundios are expropriated by the state and inalienable freehold title given to farmers already working on the land.

In the cities mass programs aimed at improving health, education and housing for those living in the barrios have also been undertaken. Probably the most well known of these is the Mission Barrio Adentro, which has seen the construction of hundreds of clinics providing free health services in the poorest neighbourhoods staffed mainly by Cuban-trained doctors. So successful has this program been that even decidedly non-revolutionary bodies such as the World Health Organisation and the Saudi Arabian government are currently studying how to replicate its success elsewhere.

While it is certainly true that other Bolivarian missions such as the one to construct 100 000 new houses for the poor have struggled to reach their targeted rates of completion, the overall trajectory in social policy is a genuinely positive one.

Unemployment has dropped by 6.5% since Chávez came to power, despite many capitalists closing down their businesses and skipping the country along with their wealth.

Moreover, even though it is true that Chávez can only afford to fund such a huge array of social programs due to the billions of dollars of export oil revenue coming into Venezuela, it is interesting that none of his political predecessors saw fit to do the same.

However dramatic increase in social initiatives to help the poor, while laudable, is not what marks Hugo Chávez out as a revolutionary. If we analyse the situation in Venezuela dialectically it is possible to see that the main contradiction between Chávez and the forces of the opposition (as well as many conservative elements in the government) is not over social policy but rather the question of radical democracy and popular power.

Recognising that he cannot depend on the existing state apparatus to support the aims and policies of the Bolivarian Revolution, Chávez has promoted the setting up of independent organisations of the working class initially in the form of the Bolivarian Circles and now increasingly through the consejos communales or communal/neighbourhood councils. These organisations have been compared in their form and function to the soviets in Russia in 1917-1918, in that they represent potentially at least a form of dual power.

These bodies, while generally pro-Chávez, are by no means incapable of expressing an independent viewpoint on the direction of the revolutionary process in Venezuela. Often they have come out against the government for proceeding far too slowly with the pressing issues of land reform and the nationalisation of industry.

In this cause the consejos communales have been joined by FRETECO – the Revolutionary Front of Businesses under Workers Control and Co-Management – which groups together workers from around Venezuela who are occupying and running industries on a collective basis after their capitalist owners either closed them down or fled abroad. Since its formation in February 2006, FRETECO has pressed the Chávez government to formally nationalise those occupied factories still formally in private ownership and to allow those state owned enterprises where co-management exists to operate on a non-market, community needs basis.

Most recently FRETECO has been in the spotlight in its demands for the nationalisation of Sanitarios Maracay, a ceramics manufacturer under workers control in Aragua province. However when the workers from that factory tried to march on Caracas to present their demands they were brutally attacked by armed police acting on the orders of the local governor, who belongs to the PODEMOS party which is on the conservative wing of the governing coalition and has been described by Chávez as being “practically with the opposition”.

Tensions between the revolutionaries and conservative or pro-capitalist elements within the Venezuelan government is one of the major reasons for Hugo Chávez’s decision, at the beginning of this year, for the creation of a united revolutionary socialist party grouping together all of the best elements from the existing parties which claim to support the Bolivarian revolution as well as the communal and workers councils. By insisting that the other parties who might wish to participate first dissolve themselves and compete for selection as delegates to the founding conference with thousands of ordinary working class activists in primary elections later this year. By this means Chávez and his allies hope to weed out the pro-capitalist politicians among the leadership of parties such as PODEMOS and Patria Para Todos, which while claiming to stand in solidarity with the revolution in fact to everything that they can to undermine it.

In launching this new party, Chávez is supported by the overwhelming majority of the Marxist left in Venezuela, although there is still a healthy debate being conducted as to whether the main pro-Chavez union federation the UNT should remain autonomous or integrate itself into the party building process.

Unlike Perón or Cárdenas however who sought to contain workers organisations within the structure of a corporatist state, Chávez’s move towards the creation of a single party of the revolutionary left is fundamentally about empowering the grassroots and striking a blow against the bureaucrats and pro-capitalist politicians who threaten to strangle the revolution. Moreover, the creation of such a party with a strong Marxist current within it would seem to offer the best hope of the revolution broadening its social base and becoming less reliant on the personal charisma of Chávez himself, who despite all of his revolutionary instincts and fighting qualities nevertheless like all human individuals is also fallible.

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