For a Workers’ Revolution in Venezuela

In April 2002 the Venezuela workers won a victory which echoed around the world. Pouring in their hundreds of thousands into the streets of Caracas, they defeated a US-backed coup against the elected government of Hugo Chavez. Today Chavez survives only with the backing of armed workers. The time has come for to organise workers’ councils and militias’ to defeat imperialism and make a socialist revolution.

Before April 2002, no CIA-organised coup has ever been defeated, and the US has not given up on the task of ousting Chavez’s government. The CIA has continued to fund right-wing opposition to Chavez, including a national lockout which nearly paralysed the economy at the end of 2002 and beginning of 2003, and the Pentagon has used counter-insurgency operations in neighbouring Colombia as an excuse to cross Venezuela’s border and attack Venezuelan troops. Just last May, a plot of Colombian death squads to assassinate Chavez and send his head to Castro was discovered.

Today, soaring oil prices caused by the debacle in Iraq make Venezuela an even more tempting target for US ‘intervention’. It’s more important than ever that the victory of April 2002 be remembered and analysed, by Venezuelan workers and workers around the world.

A lot of leftists, in the West especially, believe that Chavez is a socialist committed to using his state power to overturn capitalism and establish a planned economy. For example, the film The Revolution will not be Televised which is making the rounds, like much of the left-wing media coverage of Venezuela takes a quite uncritical attitude towards the government of Chavez, treating him as the guiding light of a ‘Bolivarian revolution’ which is moving Venezuela away from servitude to US imperialism which has blighted so many countries in South America and around the world.

Chavez is a national capitalist

The reality is that Chavez is a national capitalist. Venezuela is a semi-colony of US imperialism. Chavez wants to reduce this dependence on imperialism by strengthening Venezuelan capitalism. Traditionally it has been dependent on the export of raw materials – agricultural products and oil – to the West. At the mercy of the ups and downs of world prices for these exports no real industrial base has been built. What industry does exist is in many cases owned by multinational companies, which are able to make big profits because they pay very low wages for labour and very low prices for raw materials and refuse to pay high taxes to enable the government to fund social services. Despite being one of the biggest exporters of oil in the world, Venezuela sees 80% of its population living below the poverty line.

Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez has tried to deal with Venezuela’s problems by encouraging the growth of a strong capitalist class. Chavez showed his capitalist credentials early on. In his first year in office he cut public spending by 20% to please the International Monetary Fund. Chavez actually kept on the Finance Minister of the previous right-wing Caldera government. Instead of nationalising assets or increasing funding for health and education, Chavez used a new Banco Popular to put money into credit schemes for small and medium-sized businesses. A ‘Buy Venezuela” policy was begun to boost the profits of local manufacturers.

Chavez’ policies were actually applauded by advocates of the ‘Third Way’ in the West. Blairite academic Julia Bruxton, for instance, wrote that: “In addressing his country’s development crisis and vulnerability in the globalised economy, Chavez took the middle road…a middle ground can be chartered between state-led development and [neo-liberal] orthodoxy”. The new constitution Chavez gave Venezuela is often praised by Western leftists but it only institutionalised the national capitalist politics the Chavez regime had been following since 1999.

Reforms not anti-capitalist

Most of the reforms Chavez has introduced can be understood not as attempts at socialist transformation, but as efforts to strengthen local capitalism, in opposition to US imperialism. Chavez’ land reform and reform of urban property ownership have created much interest in the West. Chavez has legislated to give urban slum dwellers title to their houses, and has provided for the distribution of rural blocks to farming families. But Chavez has shown little willingness to set up collectivised agriculture or to nationalise housing – rather he is distributing land and house titles to individual families. This is consistent with wanting to create a stonger national capitalist sector.

Chavez has introduced laws banning capital flight, and halted the privatisation of many industries, including the oil industry. But the ban on capital flight is designed to prevent ‘unpatriotic’ Venezuelan capitalists taking their money offshore, rather than investing in business inside the country. Likewise, the halt to privatisation is designed to stop the US buy-up of Venezuelan assets, and the consequent draining of the profits they make from the country. Chavez has no objections to Venezuelan capitalists taking over public assets.

Chavez’ vision of a strong national Venezuelan capitalism is matched by his vision of a South American bloc of capitalist economies challenging the power of US imperialism in the continent. Chavez is close to Presidents Lula of Brazil and Kirchner of Argentina, who share this vision. All three leaders are part of a new breed of social democratic leaders who are trying to ride a new wave of class struggle and anti-imperialism to power in South America and around the world. The World Social Forum founded by Lula’s Brazilian Workers’ Party is an organising tool for these ‘new’ social movements.

Chavez failed vision

Chavez and his friend have no chance of success. The history of social democracy shows that when a government comes into power and under pressure from workers tries to enact left-wing reforms, it quickly creates a crisis. If it wants to get enough money to pay for the reforms, it has to challenge the foreign companies that have a stranglehold over the economy. These companies don’t want to see their profits threatened, and they are backed by the governments of the imperialist countries in which they are based. They resist attempts to make them pay more taxes or to nationalise their assets by getting imperialist governments to destabilise and if necessary overthrow the regimes that threaten their profits and property.

The story is no different when left-wing governments like Chavez’ increase democratic rights by, for instance, making it easier for free trade unions to operate. Workers tend to use their new liberties to organise strike action to win higher wages and better conditions from their employers, who are usually directly or indirectly multinational companies. Since higher wages and better conditions cut into profits, the companies and their imperialist backers start to destablise the government which gave workers greater freedoms, in the hope that these freedoms can be rolled back.

Time and time again, left-wing reforming governments have run into the brick wall of the domination of poor semi-colonies by imperialist money. In Guatemala in 1954, in Chile in 1973, and in Fiji in 1987, reforming governments have been ousted when the companies they have alienated have turned to the imperialist powers for support. In Chile in 1973, the Allende government angered the US-based multinationals which its plans to nationalise key areas of the economy like the mining sector. Nationalisation meant the end to super-profits, so the multinationals conspired with the CIA and the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to organise the military coup that put General Pinochet in power, killed thousands of leftists and unionists, and made sure that the economy staying in US hands.

Role of the army

Chavez has struggled to convince the Venezuelan capitalists to buy into his project. This is because they are mainly comprador bourgeoisie, used to administering and living off US imperialism. They are alarmed by the decline in relations with the US that and Chavez’ policies have provoked, and they continue to conspire with the CIA to bring down the Chavez regime.

Because most Venezuelan capitalists have sold out to imperialism, and there is no existing class of ‘patriotic’ national capitalists to take control of the economy, Chavez has to rely upon the state to run the economy. He has turned to the army as a sort of substitute bourgeoisie. They army is used as a sort of stop-gap measure in a huge variety of contexts – it helps bring in harvests, repair infrastructure, and so on. The army has also been integrated into the grassroots working class organisations of Venezuela, the Bolivarian Committees. Chavez recently called for the arming of these Committees under the supervision of the army.

But for all its populist claims, Chavez’ army is still a bourgeois army. It exists to defend capitalist property and will always side with capitalism against working class revolution. April 2002 showed this fact clearly: while the coup leaders took control and Chavez was transported to an island prison, even the pro-Chavez sections of the army sat on their hands. Only the mass mobilisations on the streets and the spectre of civil war succeeded in splitting the army and defeating the coup. It was the independence of the Venezuelan working class from Chavez’ state, and in particular his army, that defeated the coup.

The victory of 2002 showed that there is no social base for the Bolivarian revolution other than the working masses, and that only they have the ability to break with imperialism and Venezuelan capitalism. When the workers set up grassroots ‘Bolivarian circles’ to defend Chavez against the coup, he responded by trying to close down these circles from challenging the power of ‘his’ army and police. When he called recently for the arming of the neighbourhoods this was under the control of the army.

Even worse, Chavez has used the ‘peoples’ army’ to crush the factory occupations which have broken out spontaneously in parts of Venezuela in opposition to the bosses’ complicity in the coup attempts. After the 2002, for instance, Chavez sent the army to break up a workers’ occupation of the Pepsi Cola factory in Caracas. In an action which perfectly symbolises his politics, Chavez ordered the army to ‘confiscate’ thousands of cans of Pepsi and distribute them to the poor of Caracas as spoils of his ‘anti-imperialist’ struggle. The next day Pepsi was back under the control of the imperialists.

Chavez should be defended from the CIA counter-revolution, but workers should organised themselves into militias independently of him. Rather than having illusions in him or his army, or being part of a political alliance with him, workers should make a ‘military bloc’ with him against imperialist coups and subversion only. For example, now that Chavez has agreed to the rigged recall referendum, workers should turn out to defeat the opposition vote, but be prepared to defend themselves arms in hand from the coup that will inevitably follow.

Workers need to be independent of Chavez so they can get rid of him when he becomes an obstacle to the socialist revolution, which alone can actually achieve the improved living standards and democratic rights Chavez promises. What is needed right now is a revolutionary Marxist party and program that can arm the workers ideologically and organisationally to break with the Bolivarian movement and create workers councils, or soviets, everywhere!

Defend Chavez from an imperialist coup!

For workers councils and militias!

Build a Revolutionary Marxist Workers Party!

For a Workers and Peasants government!

For a union of Socialist Republics of Latin America! 

From Class Struggle 56 June-July 2004

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