In recent years Venezuela has been the centre of attention for much of the international left, since mass mobilisations defeated a military coup and oil industry lockout, and left wing President Hugo Chávez famously launched his plan to create "socialism in the 21st century." However, previous analyses in this journal have shown the revolution is at a key junction, with increased disenchantment in the population due to corruption, bureaucratisation and the slow pace of change which has reopened the door to victory for the right wing opposition in referendums and regional elections.
These reverses have led to a far-ranging and important debate among those who identify with the leftward process in Venezuela. While recently living and working in Venezuela, I interviewed some respected revolutionaries to discover their visions of the achievements and contradictions of the Bolivarian revolution and the tasks ahead for revolutionaries.
Gonzalo Gómez is a co-founder of the website Aporrea, created in the heat of the attempts to overthrow Chávez in 2002, and whose information and debates on the revolution have attracted 250 million hits. Stalin Pérez Borges is a national coordinator of the National Union of Workers (UNT). Both are leading members of the radical left grouping Marea Socialista, a current actively participating in Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). In a separate interview, I talked to Roland Denis, a longstanding activist, libertarian and ex-vice minister for planning and development.
Aporrea is one of the most popular Spanish-language sites of the radical left. Why is it so popular?
GG: A third of our visits have been from abroad because the Bolivarian revolution is a reference point for the international left and social movements. In Venezuela, Aporrea became a phenomenon during the fight against the coup conspiracy and oil sabotage. Before then there were official sites but not of the working class and popular movements.
What have been the most important achievements of the process?
GG: From a social point of view, we have won achievements in education: the practical eradication of illiteracy through the Robinson missions and allowing adults who had dropped out of school to complete their primary, secondary and later university education — including through the Bolivarian Universities. Previously universities had become very elitist. In the health area, the Misión Barrio Adentro introduced healthcare in the poorer neighbourhoods, and free and accessible hospitals were set up-however, there are still problems in the health sector.
Politically, the constituent assembly resulted in greater democratic rights such as people’s participation in running their local affairs. We have also managed to gain political independence vis-à-vis imperialism and free ourselves from military subordination. Many nationalisations have taken place and we have begun a process to develop forms of workers’ control.
SPB: Automatic increases to the minimum wage are applied every year which previous governments had not done. It is now one of the highest. Before Chávez, getting your pension or incapacity benefits was a drama, but now these are paid regularly and sometimes a month in advance.
Also the unions have grown massively: from 2,000 union organisations before his arrival in 1999 to nearly 7,000 today. And laws have been passed to oversee that workers’ rights are being respected by employers. The biggest accomplishment by workers has been the creation of the National Union of Workers (UNT). This was created after the corrupt CTV union federation supported the bosses’ lockout in 2002-3 which workers organised to defeat.
The UNT has become a source of national pride. Workers come to our headquarters from all over the country. When I arrive at six in the morning, there are people sleeping in the doorway because they want to start up a union. They see the UNT as part of the revolutionary process. It has become the biggest federation not because of the efforts of its national coordinators, who have been absorbed by big internal battles and even stopped meeting, but because workers came and asked to participate. Now the UNT exists in all of the regions and most sectors but having its own political direction in each case.
Roland, an outspoken radical critic of the government, offered a bleaker and more nuanced account of developments:
RD: A big majority of workers live a working life like in a typical bourgeois state. The government has not even been able to bring in a new labour law in a decade. This was a fundamental demand of the workers’ movement, not a revolutionary one. The mass of workers are still in a totally neoliberal job market of three-month contracts, where they throw you onto the street afterwards, or are selling things on the street, etc. It is as chaotic a market as in the other capitalist countries of this region.
There have been advances but not in terms of the unions. Instead the union movement has suffered many reverses. It is now totally fragmented, and although its revolutionary wing, such as CCURA, has advanced somewhat this still represents a small fringe. And as soon as there is the possibility of the working class radicalising against transnational corporations in Venezuela some regional governments have behaved murderously. These have very clearly been involved in the murder of shop stewards such as Argenis Vásquez in Sucre state. Hundreds of popular grassroots leaders have been assassinated in this way.
If the governor of Sucre were a member of a relatively serious left wing party he would have been expelled, but in the PSUV no central command exists because the structures of the state are totally in crisis. One thing Chávez certainly is not is an authoritarian dictator who can give orders across the country.
Venezuela has left wing political prisoners such as an ex-mayor in Bolívar state who supported a miners’ rebellion against a transnational mining company.
Has there been a rise in class struggle? Since I arrived in Venezuela seven months ago, the media reported significant local unrest almost daily.
SPB: In the last few years there have been a lot of disputes. And most of these have been against state institutions and ministries due to non-compliance with collective agreements. Civil servants and state TV employees have not had their contract renegotiated for many years, and Ministry of Labour staff for 18 years! In the industrial region of Guayana, delayed benefits have forced workers in the factories with the biggest concentrations of workers in the country to mobilise. There have been struggles in the private sector in Mitsubishi, Toyota, General Motors and in car-part manufacturers, as well as in construction. There has been an upturn since 2007. As Venezuela has become a different country we also have a different working class.
Can this upturn be seen as a failure by the government?
SPB: In the case of the state enterprises the government has failed to deliver because many ministers and managers are anti-union. They say we are reactionaries when we make demands.
In the cases of Venezolana de Televisión and the Ministry of Labour the struggle became derailed because the workers there did not wish to be understood to be against the process. In the private sector struggles have been against companies that sabotage government decisions, do not wish to comply with agreements or want to continue managing in the way that they used to when the authorities allowed them to do what they wanted: imposing their own unions or refusing to abide by the law.
GG: It is rare for any workers’ mobilisation to be led by sectors of the bourgeoisie or the opposition. Rather, in general the conflicts are about deepening the revolutionary process, even when they enter into contradictions with the state authorities and police. For example, the Sidor steel workers initially clashed with the government but this led Chávez to agree to nationalise the iron and steel industry and open up a debate about socialist production and workers’ control in this sector.
Stalin, you stated in a previous interview on workers’ self-management that experiences involving joint management of firms by workers and the state had failed. Why is that?
SPB: In most cases these experiences have not worked because the government imposed a board from above which ended up fighting with the workers. This happened in several emblematic cases that had been given a lot of government publicity. For example, in INVEPAL, a large nationalised company, the unions were disbanded after their leaders became president or board members. The conditions of production were terrible and the company under-produced. This was repeated in several places. In Alcasa, an aluminium company, the board encouraged direct control by workers, but there were vested interests linked to the sale of the aluminium and the bureaucracy conspired against the experience. The problem is that the bureaucracy does not believe in the workers.
There was a positive experience for a time in an electrical firm called CADAFE. In this workers took control, improved revenues and the service and liaised with the local community. But what we call the "techno-bureaucracy" managed to convince the relevant minister and Chávez that workers’ control was dangerous because it was a "strategic company" and might come under the control of workers from the opposition, and they started taking away their power. In fact the techno-bureaucrats were upset because jobs were to be awarded to workers employed directly by the company instead of subcontracted out — for which the techno-bureaucrats earned "commissions." Electricity workers are still in this battle and workers in six companies have come together and signed a collective agreement calling for workers’ control.
Also last year the workers in all of the state iron, aluminium and electrical companies in Guayana came together to discuss and create the "Socialist Guayana Plan 2009-2019" about how to advance towards socialism.
Roland showed similar enthusiasm and concerns regarding these experiences, describing these workers (and those involved in expropriating companies) as "one of the most interesting parties in the revolution."
RD: While this is still a small layer of the working class, and most workers are still thinking about no more than satisfying their basic demands, you do come across workers’ movements aiming at controlling the means of production which are not just ideological groups of a handful of people — as was the case ten or 20 years ago. It should be acknowledged that Chávez has helped this development through his speeches.
Stalin, why does the UNT still suffer from internal conflict?
SPB: There were internal divisions from the beginning. We wanted to do a demonstration the month after creating the UNT federation but sections of the leadership opposed it, saying it would be interpreted as anti-government. A political and strategic difference that persists is that of the federation’s autonomy. For Marea Socialista as a matter of principle union organisations must be autonomous from the state, parties and employers, but in the UNT this autonomy is interpreted to different degrees. There are comrades who believe that President Chávez should never be criticised. We think he is the indisputable leader of the process, but like any human being he gets things wrong as did great leaders like Marx, Lenin or Trotsky. There have also been arguments about whether all workers should be allowed to vote in union elections, regardless of whether they are members of the union; whether we should expropriate; and whether we want socialism or a mixed economy. Some have used the UNT as a launch pad to become MPs.
Roland described what such tensions said about Chávez’s strategy for socialism in the 21st century.
RD: The national government claims to be attempting to take this country to an open, democratic and participatory socialism. But the situation in this regard is very complex. Socialist propaganda and discourse are constantly in the media, and on the lips of Chávez and the most intelligent state representatives.
However, the practical behaviour of the state, its concrete policies and its relations with the transnationals and private sector leave a lot to be desired. Bureaucratisation and corruption have become total in the armed forces, the criminal justice system and the police. Being declared innocent as opposed to guilty in this country requires paying a fee. Nevertheless, at least we have won the freedom to organise, unlike in certain other Latin American countries.
There are also differences with neoliberal capitalism because the government is seeking a degree of state capitalism, as well as to create regionally-integrated markets such as ALBA that might break somewhat with the purely neoliberal logic. But these differences are fundamentally due to the contradictions of capitalism itself. Overcoming capitalism does not depend on the will of a president; it is an international action by the people, where there may be leaders and the state may even play a supporting role. In Venezuela there is simply an official socialist discourse. This feeds the mind and inspires a determination for emancipation, but Venezuela is no island free from neoliberalism. We live in a capitalist country linked to an international market with a totally neoliberal logic.
Chávez has a progressive sensibility and a character far removed from that of a tyrant or demagogue. But he has around him a military and bureaucratic presence which sees itself as the vanguard of the revolutionary process. Because economic, political and bureaucratic interests are so prevalent in the government the project becomes strictly the opposite: corporative, bureaucratic and militarised. The worrying thing about Chávez is whether he is aware of this, and also how he fails to react when everybody is saying, "Throw out all these satraps in the government." This all does a lot of damage to the process. These realities mean there is an important tension regarding the struggle for liberation. After Chávez took power in 1999 there was a geometrical multiplication of clusters of self-organisation such as the land committees, Bolivarian circles and later the communal councils, health committees and alternative communication networks. But, particularly after the government won the recall referendum in 2004, there has been a constant offensive by the state directly and bureaucratically to administer all of those processes, and a response by the grassroots to free themselves from its tutelage.
The state has a lot of revenues entering every day through its constant oil sales, meaning it is quickly able to subject the people’s libertarian dynamic to its will. Funding is given to self-management and agricultural investment, communal service or social work, and if you do not adopt a certain posture faced with the huge number of contradictions that arise you are simply not given resources. That is the simple blackmail performed by the state, although not all of the state or all of its functionaries adopt this logic.
Roland went on to explain that the reality of the state’s role alongside that of the private sector meant Venezuelan society is divided into three camps.
RD: In Venezuela there are effectively three large "republics." There is a traditional liberal-oligarchic republic that dominates most of Venezuelan society — in the countryside, industry, cities and trade. The state has done little to assert its authority on this republic — which, for example, continues to appropriate urban space.
Then there is a militarised corporative bureaucratic republic that tries to impose the leadership of the state on the different social classes: not just the popular classes but also a layer of the bourgeoisie and oligarchy that they have sought to tie to the accumulative logic and revenues of the state, as has traditionally happened in Venezuela, but subject to the direct command of the state. That is a state corporative project.
And we have a self-governing and socialist project being formed. It is the weakest and most fragmented and has a great deal less mechanisms of coordination and integration than the other republics which have all of the resources at hand. This republic is also extremely weak due to its dependence on the symbolic figure of Chávez and the absence of its own political programme that goes beyond any individual figure.
Since living in Venezuela I have observed different threats against the revolution: the introduction of military bases in neighbouring Colombia, the military coup against an allied president in Honduras, angry and sometimes violent protests by right wing students and supporters. Furthermore, support for the government has been tested further due to regular blackouts and water shortages, the failures of the health system and growing corruption and insecurity. What is the biggest threat to the revolution?
GG: We still have the national and international oligarchy conspiring, sabotaging and trying to bring down the government by any means — and they do not rule out a military coup or any other destabilising option. They are using existing democratic freedoms to wear down the government and attempt to take back political power and control of the state. And the imperialist threat is a very serious one because the empire has financed and supported the opposition and has installed military bases in the surrounding area. As well as Colombia, the US has taken over Haiti and now has another platform to directly attack from if necessary.
However, my impression is that their main hope is gradually to erode the government and the gateway to this is the state bureaucracy which has not broken with the capitalist state model. If the hopes of the masses are not satisfied, if the system and relations of production do not change and people get upset by the behaviour of bureaucratic sectors that prevent them from really exercising popular power, then there will be disenchantment and discontent with the revolutionary process which will create an opening for the right.
What is the way forward for the revolution?
RD: Every day meetings and debates are taking place at different levels, involving varying degrees of criticism towards the government and the participation of the most pro-Chavistas as well as the least. Unfortunately the emergence of Chávez’s PSUV interrupted a very important earlier process of accumulation of forces and organisation, dispersing us and drawing people into a structure that totally exhausts the movement. But now there are many people, including PSUV members, who are trying to restore what we call a "collective vanguard." In April we are going to hold an important mobilisation to this end. However, this process is not immediate: it requires mobilisation, meetings and processes to integrate alternative media and organisations. My fear is that the timescale needed to develop this collective vanguard and force the state to retreat to the rearguard will be too long to compensate for the levels of deterioration that the official process has reached.
GG: Today the possibility of workers’ control is talked about and debated. If the working class continues to push on this issue, it can also resolve the problems of corruption, wastage, poor investment and conciliation with the bourgeoisie.
We also need to develop democratic ways to control the rest of society. To fight burocratismo we must develop popular power, continue to build the communal councils and advance further in building the Communes. We must also create another democratic space beyond limited local formulas: there should be a kind of general council of social organisations: of workers, peasants, residents, indigenous peoples and the other social sectors involved in the process.
Finally I asked all three if they were optimistic or pessimistic about Venezuela’s future. Despite sharing serious concerns about the deterioration of the revolution (although with differing appraisals of its degree and causes), they all expressed a contagious optimism about the desire for change among a large and active layer of the population.
GG: The big question is whether we continue with this system or create socialism. And the revolution needs constantly to advance and to speed up. If not achievements are rolled back, undermined by the vices of capitalism and the bourgeois state. A people’s government can only be created by us; not by a single man.
If the PSUV and Chávez continue to put forward the same faces for elections and pace of change and procedures, instead of presenting candidates linked to the workers’ and other movements and people’s power in the communities, the bourgeoisie could take advantage and gain a significant percentage of MPs in the National Assembly elections this year. That might create difficulties for the government and they may even try to put Chávez on trial — attempting the Honduras formula. Such a formula would be difficult to apply in Venezuela but it could create cracks in the army’s support for Chávez.
We are faced with a delicate conjuncture but we remain optimistic. There has been no strategic defeat thus far, the right has a lot of political difficulties and the Venezuelan people will continue pushing for change.
1. The Bolivarian revolution takes its name from Simon Bolívar, the anti-imperialist reforming general who led South America’s struggle for independence from Spain two centuries ago this year.
3. The different missions were Cuban-inspired projects funded by the PDVSA state oil company.
4. The assembly that rewrote the Venezuelan constitution along more progressive lines.
5. CCURA is the Trotskyist union current led by Orlando Chirinos. It has a strong presence in the oil industry.
6. Venezolana de Televisión is the main state TV channel. "The process" is a description commonly used to describe the political process of change in Venezuela.
7. "Techno-bureaucracy" refers to state managers, administrators and technicians.
8. ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, is an international organisation for economic cooperation initiated by Chávez that now has ten member states in Latin America and the Caribbean.
9. The land committees help regularise land titles for the many people who live in self-constructed unofficial settlements and encourage self-government. The Bolivarian circles were loose social and political groupings acting as local councils that were later replaced by communal councils. The latter are neighbourhood-based elected councils whose decisions are binding on local authorities. Health committees work with the communal councils and health missions to provide healthcare in poorer areas. For the best account of these and other grassroots initiatives and the contradictions they face, see Bruce, 2008.
10. The 2004 referendum was the third big failed attempt by the opposition to remove Chávez. Taking advantage of a mechanism that Chávez himself had introduced in the 1999 constitution, the opposition collected the signatures required to hold a referendum to recall his presidency. After a serious mobilisation by Chávez supporters, Chávez won easily with 59 percent of the vote.
11. A revised version of the communal councils, the Communes (las Comunas) are built on a smaller and more "natural" division of territory.
12. In Honduras, President Zelaya was forcibly exiled in a military coup after the right wing dominated Congress voted to strip him of his post. This led to a massive social movement for his reinstatement: see Gonzalez, 2010.
Bruce, Iain, 2008, The Real Venezuela. Making Socialism in the 21st Century (Pluto Press).
Gonzalez, Mike, 2010, "Honduras is Not Just Another Banana Republic," International Socialism 125 (winter 2010).