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Socialist Democracy Nov - Dec 2005

 

VENEZUELA AND THE BOLIVARIAN REVOLUTION

 

Kola Ibrahim

 

The series of popular revolts against neo-liberalism that have seen the ouster of a number of presidents from Argentina to Bolivia to Ecuador and the massive working people’s struggles that have sustained the radical populist government headed by Hugo Chavez in power Venezuela. The tumultuous events in the Latin America is an indication that history is only about to begin as the masses enter the arena of class struggle.

 

Of all the massive movements in the Latin America, where the richest one tenth of the population controls over 48% of the continent’s income while the poorest ten percent manage 1.6%, that of Venezuela stand out. Like Africa, Latin America’s resources are plundered by imperialism and like Nigeria, Venezuela is a major oil exporter, but unlike Nigeria the current Venezuelan regime is striving to improve the lot of the working masses.

 

The result is that Venezuela is attracting special attention as a radical populist government coming out of the mass struggle attacks the corrupt bourgeois ruling class. For the first time after the collapse of the Stalinist Russia, we are again witnessing a government describing itself as "socialist" as it challenges US imperialism.

 

Evolution of Chavez

 

The neo-liberal policies introduced following the collapse of the 1970’s petro-dollar funded welfare state in the 80’s and early 90’s and the endemic corruption among government officials, had meant infliction of excruciating hardship on Venezuelan masses. Government spending on social services was cut down by 50% within a decade, while purchasing power of workers dropped by two-thirds between 1978 and 1994. Thus, between 1984 and 1995, poverty level rose from 36% to about 70%.

 

These situations led to a great hatred for the corrupt ruling class by the working and toiling masses. The election of Hugo Chavez who offered a radical alternative in 1998 only manifested the potential revolutionary explosion building up in Venezuela.

 

The political support and push of the masses who have undertaken heroic movements have forced Chavez government to move a bit to the left. As the landless farmers occupy the farms and the workers call for nationalisation, Chavez has responded by moving further to the left, pronouncing anti-imperialist and sometimes, socialist slogans to express mass radicalisation taking place in Venezuela.

 

The imposition of tax on multinational and local companies; sanction of over-greedy companies and judicious use of the petro-dollar wealth which hitherto provided cheap wealth for the former ruling elite, has earned Chavez the wrath of the reactionary Venezuelan capitalist class and more importantly, US imperialism which gets 15% of its oil supply from Venezuela.

 

Accordingly, a military coup supported by the US imperialism was organised on April 11, 2002 and ousted Chavez’s government from power. He was however restored into office 47 hours after by a tumultuous mass movement of workers, the poor and the rank and file soldiers. By the end of the same year, a bosses’ lockout was organised by the corrupt capitalist class in the oil companies in reaction to the reorganization of the state oil company’s management. The working people resoluteness foiled this orchestrated sabotage.

 

In 2004, a fraudulent recall referendum was organised by the capitalist class and US imperialism through its agencies – NED, USAID, CIA, in order to oust Chavez in a " more civilized manner". This again was defeated by the mobilisation of the rank and file workers, peasants and the poor who voted overwhelmingly for Chavez, providing him with over 50% of the votes despite massive campaign against his government through the bourgeois controlled media.

 

In all these events, the mass anger against the capitalist class and the US imperialism has been increasing. Yet, Chavez has come out of every attack calling for reconciliation with capitalist class. This poses great dangers, Chavez regularly challenges US imperialism but holds back from a break with capitalism. In this scenario, there are two possibilities: a counter revolution or victory for the masses which could only be possible if commanding heights of economy is nationalised and placed under democratic control and management of the workers and the standing army is replaced by armed people. Half measures are dangerous. The lesson of Allende in Chile in 1973 is instructive. There is an urgent need for a radical transformation and arming people with the best strategies on how to move the revolutionary process forward by their independent actions.

 

Socialism of the 21st Century

 

Chavez has dubbed the current process as socialism of the 21st century, telling people to forget about the old conception of socialism. However, his responses to call for more revolutionary actions have not given a tangible meaning to his so-called socialism in the 21st century.

 

While of course his government has introduced some radical measures that have encroached on capitalist economic interest, those reforms have left capitalism still intact in Venezuela. While his government has nationalised some parts of oil industry and the state paper company - Venepal (now Invepal) - over 60% of the oil economy is still controlled by the capitalists and the multinationals, aside other parts of the economy largely controlled by the capitalist class, thus leaving intact the capitalist exploitation of the masses and the imperialist plunder of the economy with capacity to sabotage the economy.

 

Chavez’s recent state take-over of some 1,149 companies leaves is limited. These are companies whose owners have become bankrupt or nearly bankrupt. The Industry minister has said that nationalisation will only be in extreme cases and that capitalist firms and social production could co-exist. Could this be socialism of the 21st century? The little nationalisation carried out has been a product of workers actions, occupying the companies and calling for nationalisation.

 

Again, the increase in corporate tax, no matter how radical it may look, does not represent a radical break from the norm since the capitalist class will recoup its profit via other means of exploitation of the working class. Moreover, such tax will legalize further exploitation and also sanctify capitalist economic relations. There is a need for a comprehensive plan for complete nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under a democratic control and management of workers in each company, who will organise the economy at local, regional, sectoral and national levels. This should also be replicated on the political arena via a working people democratic participation in the running of the society through election of officers and be placed on average skilled workers salary and subject to recall by assemblies of working people at all levels.

 

Chavez’s government has redistributed some land to the poor farmers, but these are state owned farms. Big farmers who see this policy as encroachment on their private property have killed more than 158 poor farmers in land redistribution related issues. Also, about 13,000 hectares cattle ranch owned by Lord Vestry of UK has been seized by the government but the manner and argument of seizure leaves more holes in the agricultural policies. The reason for the seizure is because the land is unproductive, but there are thousands of big farms owned by pot-bellied farmers which are productive but do not produce what the society need or produce for profit market and not the masses thus making food availability elusive while killing small farmers’ economy and exploiting agricultural workers.

 

For a meaningful land redistribution in favour of the poor farmers, committees of poor farmers and agricultural workers is required to handle this task and formation of defence committee that will defend the policy at local, regional and national level. These committees will then be linked with workers’ defence committee in the factories, which will form the basis for the country’s defence force. A successful expropriation of big farms will lead to encouragement of farmers to form cooperative societies that will develop the agrarian sector. Though, Chavez has encouraged formation of cooperative societies which, in fact, have been the major employer of labour recently, the capitalist mode of running these cooperatives has led to terrible exploitation of the workers, majority of whom work without rights. As a result, many capitalists are masking their companies as cooperatives in order to get state incentive.

 

Chavez has called for the formation of defence councils at local levels that will be integrated to the national army to serve as counter-weight to imperialism. However as they are part of the armed forces and not under democratic mass control there is the danger that they will isolate the masses from direct defence of the revolution, thus giving false impression of a people’s army while laying basis for capitalist triumph at critical period like war or another coup.

 

Generally, the radical government of Chavez has implemented some populist programmes in favour of the masses. The Missione programme in which Cuban doctors are engaged in return for Venezuela’s oil to give free medical attention to Venezuelans has made health services accessible to over 14 million people, majority of whom have never had access to Medicare. Over 300,000 have been lifted from illiteracy while over 2 million more people now go to primary, secondary and tertiary schools. Universities are now open to working class children while 3200 new schools are being built. Also, some goods and foodstuffs are being sold at discount rate of up to 50% for the poor people at government owned supermarkets.

 

All these are laudable achievements if compared to the past corrupt regimes. However, over 60% of the population still lives in poverty, which is evident on the streets of Venezuela. This is because, despite the populist programmes, the major stake of the economy is still in the hands of the capitalist and the multinationals, who control over 50% of the economy. Through this, the normal capital flight and mega exploitation of the working masses are still omnipresent. Until the economy is nationalised and put under democratic control, where the huge wealth will be used for people, it may take eternity before substantial improvement is noticed in people’s lives. This can generate apathy among the masses and create a basis for capitalist triumph.

 

Yes, majority of the reforms are funded from the huge oil wealth generated from high crude oil price, but what happens if oil prices fall? Chavez may be forced to introduce policies to cut state spending which will definitely affect the masses and their consciousness and thus create mass rejection of his programmes and policies; which may move him either to the left or right, depending on the stimulus he responds to. Above all, the activities and the organization of the working masses to carry through a genuine socialist transformation will play major roles in the events unfolding.

 

Imperialism and Internationalism

 

Without doubt, Chavez anti-imperialist rhetoric and little reforms have generated a potent hatred from US imperialism. Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, has labelled Chavez government a major threat to US interests in the Latin America. Venezuela supplies 15% of US oil needs. Therefore, US intervention could not be ruled out. Though a US war is not likely at the moment as such could provoke the continental upheaval in the whole of the Americas. But, another coup or electoral coup, even economic blockade against Chavez could not be ruled out. In fact, US privately agreed with Pat Robertson, a right wing Christian fundamentalist, calling for Chavez’s assassination. The US has also been funding, to the tune of $15million, many pseudo-human right groups and right-wing media to effect Chavez removal by 2007.

 

Chavez has responded by opening economic relations with other Latin American countries and some anti-US regimes like Cuba, Iran etc. He has created a continent-wide television station, established a joint oil business with Caribbean and Latin American countries called Petrocaribe and Petrosur respectively. He has also used oil money to buy Argentinean and Ecuadorian debt in solidarity against imperialism. He has also supplied Cuba with oil and money, replacing to a certain extent the support that Stalinist Russia gave to its ally against US economic sanction.

 

However there is not a consistent foreign policy. For instance, Chavez does not comment on the lack of democratic rights in non-capitalist Cuba, which is monstrous to a genuine socialism. Chavez supported the Ecuadorian government’s clamp-down on workers in two oil producing states who were on strike to press home their demands for the development of the oil producing states and ban on oil multinationals that are implementing anti-labour and anti-environment policies. Chavez responded by giving oil support to the oppressive governments. Also, Chavez is supporting the corrupt Lula’s government in Brazil, which has been figured in huge financial corruption coupled with its neo-liberal and anti-poor policies that have eroded mass support for it. Chavez responded to it as pure opposition propaganda.

 

The implication of Chavez’s foreign policies is that despite his radical words he is not offering the working masses of these countries a way forward. Moreover, in time of economic downturn, Chavez may not be able to sustain his economic relations with theses countries. A genuine working class government will give support, strategic, moral and otherwise to the working class of other countries, calling for their struggle to end capitalist miseries in their countries, including US working class. Such government, while it may have economic relations with other countries, such relations must give priority to the interests of working people in those countries, linking its own working class organisation with others, thus, forming a confederation of workers in Latin America and in the whole of America. This is the best way of ensuring a successful revolutionary movement against imperialism. But, you can not give what you do not have. Chavez himself does not have comprehensive and genuine labour policies despite massive workers’ support for his government.

 

On the other hand, imperialism sees a radical government as a dangerous mole in the international capitalist structure, which if pressurised, could widen and finally collapse the fragile world economic and political "equilibrium". The working class can provoke a socialist revolution in a radicalized country and set the pace for workers of other countries to replicate. Imperialism will therefore not fold its hand on this development. It will employ all available resources in the bid to roll back the wheel of history.

 

It is a matter of time before imperialism suffocates to death a radical government that fails to move toward a socialist transformation that rests on the workers, the poor peasants, and appeal for solidarity of workers of other countries. Unlike US imperialism’s wish to directly oust Chavez, the European imperialist powers, like Spain, are working to contain Chavez and either "moderate" him or cool down the situation over a period of time. This is the policy they previously carried out in the 1980s in Nicaragua when the Sandinistas ruled. The task before the working class organization in Venezuela is to organise itself and assert its leadership on the growing movement and lead the working masses and other oppressed in bringing to being a workers and poor peasants’ government that will also seek solidarity and support from workers of other American countries to put imperialism to check and guide against counter-revolution.

 

Conclusion

 

Events in Venezuela pose a big challenge to the working class of all third world countries in particular and that of the world in general that capitalism can no longer move the society forward. It also shows the enormous strength of the workers when they decide to move to the political arena, given a focused leadership. The workers of Bolivia are now asking for formation of workers assembly at all levels to organise the economy and to lay the basis for their running of the society. Nigerian workers must also see this as a challenge to oppose neo-liberalism of IMF/Obasanjo government. Workers must fight against privatization, commercialization, retrenchment, etc and fight for the public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy placed under the democratic control and management of the working people. NLC and other labour organizations should initiate discussion around the formation of a political platform with alternative socialist programmes to wrestle power from the corrupt capitalist class and lay basis for the socialist Nigeria, Africa and the world.

 

 

 

 

Socialist Democracy Nov - Dec 2005