Terror in Apure: Workers must lead the Defence of Venezuela!

Coming just weeks after Chavez’ victory in the recall referendum with 58% of the vote a new massacre of soldiers and oil workers by anti-Chavez forces has occurred in Apure. Despite the apparent stability of Venezuela after the referendum it is clear that the anti-Chavez forces will use whatever means to destablise the country. We argue that Chavez cannot defend the workers and peasants of Venezuela, only the formation of workers, peasants and soldiers militias that are independent of Chavez can do that.

On September 17th five Venezuelan soldiers and one oil worker were killed near the town of Guasdualito, in a remote corner of Venezuela’s Apure province. The soldiers and workers had been searching for oil under the jungles and swamps of Apure. Two days later, the bodies of three oil workers were discovered near the scene of the first attack. The workers’ hands had been tied behind their backs. Three more bodies have since been discovered, strewn on a road near Guasdualito. They are thought to belong to the force that carried out the September 17th attack

The same Western media which lavishes attention on the execution of hostages in Iraq has almost completely ignored the Guasdualito killings. The politicians who shed crocodile tears over the fate of Western oil workers in Iraq have studiously ignored the murder of Venezuelan oil workers. Yet the Guasdualito killings are only the latest in a series of terror attacks against the people of Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez flew to Guasdualito and told locals that the killings were part of ‘Washington’s war agenda’ to divide his country and Colombia and ‘sell lots of arms’.

The Colombian government has denied any involvement in the killings, claiming that they could have been carried out by a ‘pro-Chavez armed group’ called the ‘Bolivarian Liberation Front’. But the ‘Bolivarian Liberation Front’ exists only in the propaganda of the Colombian government, Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, and the Bush administration. The spectre of the Front has been invoked again and again to justify the creation of opposition paramilitaries inside Venezuela, and to excuse aggressive Colombian ‘border policing’.

It is no surprise that Colombia has been a launching pad for renewed attacks on Venezuela. Alvaro Uribe, the most pro-US leader in South America, is fighting his own war against two left-wing Colombian guerrilla groups. US ‘military advisers’ fight alongside Uribe’s army and US aircraft criss-cross Colombian skies. Uribe has accused Chavez of aiding Colombia’s leftists; Bush’s government has gone one step further and claimed that Al Qaeda terrorists are using Venezuela’s Margarita Island as well as its border with Colombia as training grounds.

In reality, of course, it has been Colombian terrorists who have been crossing the border into Venezuela, where they try to destabilise the Chavez government with actions like the Guasdualito massacre. Most of the terrorists seem to belong to right-wing paramilitary groups aligned with the Uribe government and Venezuela’s opposition, but the possibility of the direct involvement of Colombian and US soldiers cannot be discounted. Colombian paramilitaries have not only appeared in isolated rural regions: in May of this year one hundred and thirty of them were discovered on the outskirts of Caracas, where they had apparently gathered to prepare an attack on Chavez.

Background to the current situation

One or two commentators have suggested that the Guasdualito attacks represent the beginning of a Contra-style terror campaign against the Chavez government and its supporters. In reality, terrorist attacks by the Venezuelan opposition and Colombian paramilitaries have been occurring for years in the Venezuelan countryside. Dozens members of pro-Chavez peasants’ associations have already been assassinated.

But the ongoing terror campaign Venezuela’s countryside has been overshadowed by the coup attempts of 2002 and the employers’ lockout of 2002-2003 which posed much greater threats to Chavez regime.

Chavez was rescued from the coup attempt and the lockout by the mobilisation of workers who took to the streets and the oil fields on their own initiative. After each attempt to remove Chavez failed, the opposition were quick to arrive at a deal with him to prevent the workers from taking power while they regrouped their forces. Chavez ‘pardoned’ the opposition, guaranteed the US oil supply and told the workers to go home. After the lockout failed, the US backed the agreement between Chavez and its representative, Jimmy Carter, the Venezuela opposition, and members of the Organisation of American States.

In the aftermath of its heavy defeat in the recent Presidential recall referendum, Venezuela’s opposition and its Colombian allies may choose to intensify the campaign of terror. A faction of the opposition denounced the referendum result as fraudulent, and used Venezuela’s private media to appeal unsuccessfully for a military coup and a popular uprising. They shot nine anti-Chavez protesters on the outskirts of Caracas, in an apparent attempt to repeat the faked ‘Chavez massacre’ used to justify the April 2002 coup.

The US ruling class quickly recognised the reality of the opposition’s latest election defeat. Re-assured by Chavez’ call for ‘national unity’ and the uninterrupted supply of Venezuela oil, at a time when the US is bogged down in Iraq, Jimmy Carter and the New York Times urged respect for the referendum result, criticised opposition calls for violence, and demanded a US dialogue with Chavez’s government, while Wall St responded with a healthy movement in stock values.

Nonetheless, the Bush administration has continued to keep the pressure on Chavez. At the beginning of September it used trumped-up human trafficking charges to slap 250 million dollars’ worth of sanctions on Venezuela. Fifteen US black hawk helicopters recently flew from Colombia deep into Venezuela, in a show of naked aggression. Chavez was forced to abandon plans to address the UN’s recent annual leaders’ meeting, after the US government refused to provide him with security or guarantee his safety.

Chavez army ‘reforms’

Chavez has responded to the Guasdualito massacre by announcing a major reform of his armed forces. The new ‘National Defence Plan’ will be ‘humanitarian-based’, and will aim to increase the morale of soldiers by educating them politically and giving them greater contact with the civilian population. Quoting Mao Zedong, Chavez told the people of Guasdualito that ‘In the end it will not be the side with the most arms that wins the war, but the side with the most morale’.

It is likely that Chavez is intending to purge the army of pro-opposition elements by sacking or demoting them and replacing them with loyal members of left-wing and workers’ organisations. Chavez may attempt to set up some sort of popular militia, under the control of the army, as part of the effort to dilute the power of hostile officers. After the discovery of the paramilitary force in May he announced that he wanted to find ways for the civilian population to ‘massively participate in the defence of the nation’. The army will probably also be forced to work more closely with the ‘Missions’ already set up to bypass the old opposition-controlled state bureaucracy and implement Chavez’s social policies.

Chavez has faced major opposition within the armed forces since 2000, when two hundred military men resigned en masse from his Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement. Soldiers who had fought beside Chavez during his 1992 coup were unable to tolerate the leftward trajectory of his administration. Since the April 2002 coup that briefly overthrew him Chavez has sought to purge the armed forces of these opponents, and to promote younger, loyal officers.

Chavez’s ‘National Defence Plan’ symbolises the general political programme of his government. Chavez talks of anti-imperialist war and a people’s army, but proposes no fundamental reform of the armed forces. His radical rhetoric hides a determination to work within the limits of capitalism and the capitalist state.

Chavez ‘Bonapartist’ role

Chavez was thrust into power by the mass mobilisations of workers and peasants against the neo-liberal economic attacks of the 1980s and 1990s. He came to power determined to be a ‘Bonapartist’ strongman balancing the interests of workers and capitalists against US imperialism and its local lackeys. Chavez wanted to develop a ‘national capitalism’ in opposition to US imperialism and globalisation. But the hostility of the vast majority of the Venezuelan capitalist class, who are little more than the lackeys of US business, forced Chavez to rely more and more heavily on his loyal army officers, and his mass support, among the poor workers of the barrios and the peasantry.

Chavez has enacted a number of progressive reforms, and replaced enemies in the state apparatus with representatives of workers’, peasants’ and indigenous organisations. But he has resisted calls to change Venezuelan society fundamentally by nationalising the economy under workers’ and peasants’ control.

As the self-styled successor to Simon Bolivar who fought for Venezuela’s independence from Spain, Chavez has illusions in finishing the revolution started by Boliva and creating an independent capitalist Venezuela in which workers, peasants, capitalists and state officials can all participate and share equitably in the national wealth.

But what Chavez doesn’t see is that national independence cannot succeed in a semi-colony dominated by imperialism unless it is won by the revolutionary workers leading the peasants in the overthrow of the state itself. As the defender of ‘state capitalism’ Chavez finds himself inevitably the defender of the private property of US imperialism against the threat of a socialist revolution.

Breaking the Sidor strike

The class character of Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’ was shown up very clearly during the bitter strike that took place at the Sidor steelworks in Bolivar state in April and May of this year. The biggest steel mill in South America, Sidor was privatised in 1997, and since then the steady casualisation of the workforce has caused a stream of industrial accidents.

When Sidor’s 11,000 workers went on strike demanding renationalisation Chavez's response was to side with their bosses and send in the National Guard, which opened fire on picketers on April the 29th. After 19 days the strike was broken, though none of the Sidor workers crossed the picket line.
The conflict at Sidor offers lessons for the Venezuelans menaced by cross-border raids and opposition assassination squads. An army which fires even rubber bullets and gas pellets on workers on behalf of a multinational company is not capable of protecting workers and peasants from imperialism.

Chavez cannot free the peasantry

Chavez’s own response to the Guasdualito massacre shows the gap between his Bolivarian politics and the interests of the Latin American people threatened by terrorism.

In his speech to the people of Guasdualito, Chavez claimed that Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries were not normally ‘enemies of our country, but if they are in our territory, from that moment on they become our enemies, because they violate the sovereignty of Venezuela’.

Yet right-wing paramilitaries and the government that backs them together kill thousands of Colombians every year. Colombia has the worst safety record for trade unionists in the world, with scores dying every year from bullets and bombs. How can Colombia’s paramilitaries cease to be the deadly enemies of workers and peasants, just because they cross an invisible border?

If Chavez were a real revolutionary, he would denounce the Colombian paramilitaries wherever they operate, and give assistance to the Colombians who fight the paramilitaries and the Uribe government. But Chavez’s fear of offending the Colombian and US governments trumps any commitment he might feel to the Colombian opponents of imperialism and terrorism.

Most of the victims of violence in the countryside have been peasants struggling for the redistribution of land held by Venezuela’s capitalist class and by foreign landlords. In November 2001 the Chavez government responded to peasant pressure by passing the Land Reform Law, which provided for the nationalisation of seventy-five million acres of idle land. Opposition governors and National Assembly members reacted furiously, and managed to tie the land reform process up in red tape. Militant peasants responded by seizing land promised to them by Chavez. In some places they divided the land into individual titles; in other places they have established huge collective farms. Between the end of 2001 and the end of last year over five million acres of land was redistributed.

Not surprisingly, leaders of peasant co-operative associations continue to be prime targets for Venezuela’s terrorists. Chavez has repeatedly urged peasants not to defend themselves with arms. He wants them to rely on the protection of the army that opened fire on the workers of Sidor.

For Workers and peasants councils and militias!

In the cities of Venezuela, the workers of the barrios are also threatened by terrorism. Urban paramilitary groups set up barricades to ‘defend’ wealthy neighbourhoods, and snipe at left-wing demonstrators from rooftops. During the National Lockout of 2002-2003, right-wing forces firebombed buses carrying workers to oil installations, and assassinated pro-government union leaders. Chavez allied himself with workers during the lockout when it was his own survival that was at stake, but at Sidor he showed that he will use Venezuela’s ‘official’ army on behalf of the class that funds Venezuela’s terrorists.

The workplace-based National Organisation of Workers (UNT) and the barrio-based Bolivarian Circles have been amongst the biggest supporters of Chavez. The UNT formed only in August 2003 is organisationally independent of Chavez’s state and his party, the Fifth Republic Movement. Chavez refused to attend the founding conference of the UNT, in protest at its call for the nationalisation of the economy under workers’ control and the establishment of a workers’ government.

In the aftermath of the Sidor strike, sections of the UNT are reconsidering their political support for Chavez. Ramon Machuca, a leader of the Sidor strike, is running for the governorship of Bolivar state independently of the Fifth Republic Movement. Machuca is positioning himself as the champion of workers dissatisfied with the limitations of Chavez’s political programme, but political independence counts for little if it does not become armed independence. A Machuca governorship will not protect the workers of Sidor. Workers’ militia need to be established to defend the factories and barrios of Venezuela’s cities. The UNT and the Bolivarian Circles must arm their members. They must go to the barracks and win over the rank and file of Chavez army and split them from the officer corps.

Workers’ and peasants’ militia will give teeth to a movement to turn the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ from being a trap to contain and defeat the workers, into a program for socialist revolution.

· Only the nationalisation without compensation under workers control of the media under workers’ and peasants’ control can stop the stream of lies and provocations which the Venezuelan opposition uses to foment a coup or a US invasion.

· Only the nationalisation without compensation under workers control of private businesses, banks and of cultivated as well as idle land can kill the power of the Venezuelan capitalists who send death squads after peasants.

· Only the nationalisation without compensation under workers control of the property of multinational companies can break US power in Venezuela and make a proletarian internationalist foreign policy possible.

· Only the splitting of the army of the bourgeois state replacement of the old army with workers’ and peasants’ militia can prevent a repeat of the tragedy of Sidor.

For a Revolutionary Party

The international socialist and workers’ movement must oppose all attempts by US imperialism and its auxiliaries to terrorise and destabilise Venezuela, without sowing any illusions in the Chavez government. Many leftists have opposed US interference in Venezuela, protesting the coup of 2002 and the lockout of 2002-2003, but very few have even noticed Chavez’s repression of the workers of Sidor.

Many of the socialist currents influenced by the Stalinist or Castroist views that the national bourgeoisie are ‘progressive’ support Chavez politically, and sow illusions in the masses that the Bolivarian ‘Revolution’ can defeat imperialism. For example, the ‘Hands Off Venezuela’ campaign initiated by the International Marxist Committee has attracted support from political parties and trade unions around the world, and helped to raise awareness of US aggression in Venezuela, but it has been marred by the very uncritical attitude its leading figures show to Chavez’s government.

The current campaign of its tendency in Venezuela, the Revolutionary Marxist Current, to occupy the giant paper mill VENEPAL in Moron, Carabodo state, under threat of closure by its US owner Smurfit, makes the basic mistake of calling on Chavez as a bourgeois President to arm the workers and occupy the plant, instead of calling on them to arm themselves, occupy the plant and break from Chavez.

To the left of reformist groups like the RMC, a number of self-proclaimed Trotskyist groups understand that Chavez cannot help but turn his guns on the workers. They are prepared to defend Chavez against the US, but say they will never support him politically.

Yet when it came to the test, they gave a critical vote of confidence to Chavez against the opposition in the recall referendum. CWG too called for a critical vote for Chavez as a military bloc against the opposition. A minority in CWG still holds this position. But a majority of CWG now accepts that the effect of critical support was a vote of confidence in Chavez helping him to contain the masses from organising and arming independently.

This thrust all of the currents that voted confidence in Chavez into the role of left-wing cheerleaders of the World Social Forum (WSF). The WSF supports the governments of Chavez, Lula, Kirchner and Castro as being capable of making a two-stage transition from capitalism to ‘market socialism’ without the masses playing an independent and leading role.

In Aotearoa, the Alliance Party is in the same camp. It advertised a recent reception for the Venezuelan ambassador to Australia under the headline ‘The Bolivarian Revolution Comes to Wellington’. The equation of the revolutionary potential of Venezuela’s workers and peasants with Chavez and his state is both wrong and dangerous.

In Aotearoa and across the world, socialists and the workers’ movement should turn opposition to US aggression in Venezuelan into support for the armed independence of the workers and peasants who can alone defeat imperialism.

In practice this requires the urgent creation of a revolutionary party able to lead the worker and peasant masses to socialism. The CWG is for the creation of a revolutionary Trotskyist party in the ranks of the UNT, the Bolivarian circles and the peasant organisations.

That party must have as its program the central demand that these organisations call for a national congress that raises the call to break with Chavez’ ‘national unity’, with the Bolivarian state machine, and to form organs of workers’ power as the basis for a workers’ revolution and a socialist republic of Venezuela as part of a United Socialist States of Latin America!

For a Socialist Republic of Venezuela! 

From Class Struggle 58 October-November 2004

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