Class struggle looms in Venezuela


February 13, 2002. – by CARACAS – Venezuela’s wealthy elite is using every resource at its disposal to force President Hugo Chavez Frias to retreat or resign. Their offensive reached its highest point yet on January 23, when their ‘March for Freedom and Democracy’ drew anything between 80,000 and 250,000 onto the streets of Caracas and was countered by a massive chavista counter-demonstration. The daily Ultimas Noticias summed up January 23 with the headline ‘Two Countries?’

How did the Venezuelan class struggle get so intense? The key lies in a package of 49 laws adopted by the Congress in November last year. Previously Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ had been most focused on elaborating the new 1999 constitution after his overwhelming victory in the 1998 presidential election. That victory had finally buried the corpse of the Fourth Republic dominated by the Social Christians (COPEI) and Democratic Action (AD), which had alternated in government since a popular uprising overthrew the military dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez on January 23, 1958.

The 49 laws were the first serious step towards actually implementing the values and principles enshrined in the constitution of the Fifth Republic. This defines Venezuela as a ‘Democratic Social State of Law and Justice’ – against the free market, against an economic oligarchy that lives and thinks like its US cousins and against the country’s corrupt past.

Not that the laws are in any way socialist. For example, the land law simply brings to Venezuela measures that were adopted in some advanced capitalist countries two centuries ago: the right of the state to redistribute idle and poorly worked land. As more objective ruling-class commentators point out, it is a much less radical project than the land reforms of the Mexican, Russian and Chinese revolutions.

The hysteria of the oligarchy (the ‘squalid ones’ in Chavez-speak) derives from the fact that the law explicitly subordinates the principle of private property to that of the common good.

The land law sets up a National Land Institute (INT) whose job is to classify all land in the country into one of three categories – idle, underproductive and productive. The INT will be empowered to expropriate and redistribute idle land and to tax those who are not working land productively. The land law puts an end to large landed estates which were formally outlawed by a 1961 agrarian reform, but many of which managed to survive under the corrupt 40-year-long corrupt bipartisan regime of COPEI and AD. The law allows anyone to notify idle and underutilised land to the INT and requires the INT to report and act in such cases. Disputes will be heard before a special land division of the justice system.

Two other laws have enraged the economic elite. The fishing law, which simply extends territorial waters from five to 10 kilometres and bans industrial fishing within this limit, is designed to protect the interests of small fisherfolk and the marine environment against the greed of the big fishing concerns. The hydrocarbons law puts limits on the degree to which private oil firms can exploit Venezuela’s immense oil reserves, reinforcing the constitutional ban on the privatisation of the state oil corporation, Petroleos de Venezuela.

Where will it all end? Everyone here knows that land reform was the motor force of the Cuban Revolution and that once the principle of private property is overridden in one case it can be extended to others. A likely next target is the country’s private banks, which pay as little as 2% on deposits (inflation is running at 13%), charge as much as 50% on commercial loans and simply don’t know the meaning of the word ‘tax’.

As Chavez said in December, after Fedecamaras, the Venezuelan Business Council, organised a one-day business strike: ‘We can nationalise any bank that doesn’t obey the law… any bank CEO, national or international, who doesn’t obey the law will be imprisoned.’

The oligarchy sees its worst nightmares coming true. The rich seem to be facing a government, a president and a good part of the population that actually takes the new constitution, the legal basis for the Bolivarian Revolution, at its face value as an overall project for social justice and national development.

Ruling class strategy

So, Chavez must be stopped. But how? The fundamental problem for the oligarchy is that: Chavez and his Movement for a Fifth Republic (MVR) were elected by an overwhelming majority, and have won all seven elections carried out under the new constitution over the last two years;

Chavez has simply been implementing the program on which he was elected; everything that has been done is legal; the traditional parties are completely discredited and have no credible alternative project; and former paratrooper Chavez still enjoys the support of Venezuela’sarmed forces.

In this situation the basic strategy of the rich is one familiar to all leftists – mass mobilisation. The only way the government can be forced to surrender is to arouse such a wave of protest and disruption that splits start to appear in the Chavez camp.

Ironically, a key element in the opposition strategy has been provided by the new constitution. It enshrines the right to referendum on any issue if petitioned by 10% of the voting population. Sections of the opposition think that, combined with a year or two of economic chaos (i.e., sabotage), a referendum requiring Chavez to resign will command majority support. In the meantime, the administration will be subject to legal guerrilla warfare as ‘private citizens’ bring case after case against the government on issues ranging from Venezuela’s oil agreement with Cuba to alleged violations of the constitution.

Of course, the difference from any left variant of mass mobilisation is that the Venezuelan oligarchy is immensely wealthy. It has the power to sabotage the economy (a Fedecamaras ‘report’ issued last week said that conditions for investment were better in war-torn Colombia than in Venezuela!) and it can create political movements at will (like Justice First!, its referendum campaign machine).

Two armies manoeuvre

The struggle in Venezuela is a battle for hearts and minds on a titanic scale. Increasingly two armies confront each other and are manoeuvring for advantage before the decisive confrontation. What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Chavez’s social base of support lies most of all among the poor peasantry and landless rural workers, the urban poor, and sections of the employed working class as well as small business. A section of national capitalists – mostly those who have gained from his policy of boosting internal demand and of modest increases in tariffs – also support Chavez at this stage.

The enemies of the Bolivarian Revolution include all the usual suspects – the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the landowning and commercial elites with their overseas backers and their ‘intelligentsia’ – but also sections of small traders, of professionals, as well as the trade union bureaucracy (still controlled by the social-democratic AD) and that part of the working class still under its influence.

How do the country’s political parties line up? Here it’s important to grasp that one of the most profound effects of Chavez’s 1998 victory was that all political parties, both COPEI and AD but also those which were products of the 1980s and 1990s, have either collapsed or suffered important splits. On both sides of the divide, political organisation is in a state of tremendous flux, with old elements looking to regroup and new forces trying to consolidate. Indeed, the struggle for and against the Bolivarian Revolution is most importantly a struggle to build political organisation adequate to the coming confrontation.

The original political instruments of chavismo, the MVR and the broad-based Movement of the Bolivarian Revolution 200 (MBR-200), were up to the job of mobilising popular support for elections and demonstrations, but have been falling increasingly short of what is needed as the class conflict hots up. To drive their counter-offensive Chavez has established two new organisations. The most important are the ‘Bolivarian circles’, 8000 of which were launched at a half-million strong rally in Caracas on December 17. The circles are the basic cell of organisation of the revolution and are being established in neighbourhoods, communities and workplaces across the country.

The ideology of the circles is based explicitly on the revolutionary heritage of Venezuela, beginning with Simon Bolivar’s triumph in the war of independence against Spain, and including ‘as ideological patrimony the practical and theoretical experience of the freedom struggles of all the fraternal peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean’.

Their tasks include ‘raising the consciousness of citizens’developing all forms of participatory organisation in the community … stimulating creativity and innovation in the life of the individual and the community… [and] realising projects of community concern in the areas of health, education, culture, sport, public services, housing, and preservation of the environment, natural resources and our historical heritage.’

The second new organisation is the Patriotic Command of the Revolution. Its director general is Guillermo Garcia Ponce, a former leader of the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) and a veteran of the movement that overthrew the Venezulan military dictatorship. According to Garcia Ponce: ‘The command will be the unifying centre for all the forces that support the constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the political project of reforms being carried out by Hugo Chavez. Its role will be to develop and strengthen the unity of the revolutionary forces; to construct support programs for its political and social reforms; to organise the people; and to raise the political education of the popular masses and create an ideological basis to guide the Bolivarian forces. It will also have the job of ridding public administration of those who are corrupt and of creating administrators and leaders who combine loyalty to the political project with the competence and ability needed to meet the demands of the country.’

The creation of these organisations represents a clear shift in the course of the struggle, setting off more alarm bells in the oligarchy and provoking headlines like ‘Taliban chavismo gets organised’. The recent replacement of interior minister Luis Miquelina, a veteran politician with many ties to the Fourth Republic (1958-1999), by Rodriguez Chacin, a naval captain whose previous job was to maintain contacts with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has done nothing to calm the nerves of the opposition.

Problems of chavismo

The latest shift is also due to the realisation that the Chavez government has made a number of errors which have handed weapons to the enemy and weakened its base of support. One doesn’t have to believe opinion polls – one of which shows Chavez’s popularity rating collapsing from 60% to 19% since his 1998 election victory – to grasp that some consolidation of support in the shantytowns and the countryside has gone hand in hand with a desertion of sections of the middle class and even parts of the working class from the Chavez camp.

Chavez admitted as much in a December interview with Le Monde Diplomatique correspondent Luis Bilbao. He stated that ‘now is the time to correct many mistakes committed during these three years and to launch a counter-offensive’. The mistakes include delays in the redistribution of income while the economy was growing in 2000 (3.2%) and 2001 (3.5%), hanging on to functionaries from the old regime too long, inaction in many cases of alleged corruption and the absence of practically any method of mass communication of the government’s program other than Chavez’s weekly TV show Hello, President.

Chavez’s most important mistake, according to many supporters, was a botched attempt to democratise the trade unions (Centre of Venezuelan Workers, CTV) which have been run by bureaucrats aligned with the AD in a style that makes the NSW Labor Council look gentle and caring by comparison (for example, any workers caught disagreeing with CTV are put on a black list that is sent out to all employers).

A national referendum requiring the unions to conduct democratic elections was carried by an overwhelming majority, but the pro-Chavez forces had insufficient time to organise themselves and the conduct of the new elections was left in the hands of the CTV bureaucracy. As a result, Chavez supporters won only 45% of the vote, with victory going to AD hack Carlos Ortega, whom the oil industry workers voted out as leader of their union. While the National Electoral Commission has ruled that the election must be held again, there is debate within the Chavez camp as to whether this wouldn’t provoke international condemnation and even bans.

Blackmail intensifies

However, irrespective of its own mistakes the greatest enemy confronting the chavistas is the economic and political power of the oligarchy and its friends in Washington. It certainly helps Chavez that the Venezuelan state dominates the country’s oil income but the days are long gone when that pot of gold could be tapped at will to achieve the political desires of the government.

Venezuela’s economy, for long regarded as an exception to the general Latin American economic malaise (high external debt, depreciating currency, high inflation, high unemployment, low investment) rejoined the rest of the continental decline in the 1980s.

In this context, the oligarchy’s control of commerce and the media is an important weapon, first brandished in anger in the December 10 business strike. That day was like Sunday in Caracas, with even the tens of thousands of street traders (buhoneros) that usually fill the capital notable for their absence.

The strike was the result of an unholy but powerful alliance between Fedecamaras, the CTV and the old political machines. It was able to force any reluctant small business and buhoneros to join the strike by threatening to cut off their supply of merchandise.

The success of their January 23 demonstration has put fresh wind in the sails of the oligarchy. The tone of their spokespeople and statements is that Chavez has now lost the support of the majority and that it’s not now a question of if but when he goes, a message repeated unrelentingly by the media and the commentators.

However, the opposition isn’t making the mistake of believing its own propaganda. It is stepping up the attack on three other important fronts – through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, through Washington and within the armed forces.

The intervention of the Catholic hierarchy has taken a particularly gross form. On January 23, the very day pro- and anti-chavista forces were occupying the streets of Caracas, the papal nuncio, who is also the dean of the diplomatic corps in Venezuela, gave a speech in which he warned the government about the excessive polarisation its policies were producing and calling on Chavez to respect human rights.

An enraged Chavez responded by calling the Catholic hierarchy a ‘tumour’ on Venezuelan society, a statement which provoked another wave of media hysteria.

Then there is Washington. A recent report in El Nacional, the ‘prestige’ daily in Venezuela, said that after Chavez had dubbed the US attack on Afghanistan ‘terrorist’, George Bush had proposed that the Chavez administration be put in complete diplomatic isolation.

According to the report, other members of the Bush cabinet, including vice-president Dick Cheney, persuaded Bush that US dependence on Venezuelan oil meant that at this stage outright confrontation with Chavez was to be avoided and that the right tactic was to withdraw the US ambassador (which was done). Venezuela could be dealt with after Plan Colombia had done its work of bringing the Colombian guerrilla movements under control.

Of course, Washington’s low profile on Venezuela doesn’t mean that it isn’t engaged in feverish background scheming. There are, for example, endless US statements of ‘concern’ about Chavez supposed ‘proximity’ to the Colombian guerrillas and about the state of media freedom in the country.

This last issue is playing an increasingly important role in opposition. In what is still a battle for legitimacy in the eyes of the Venezuelan masses there is nothing that it would like more than for the government to close down or censure some newspaper or TV show. A recent demonstration outside the headquarters of El Nacional by some members of the Bolivarian circles demanding that the paper stop its outright slanders of the government was portrayed as the beginning of a chavista campaign to bully the media into subservience.

Such an attack would be the perfect pretext for an all-out attack from all Chavez’s enemies, at home and abroad. The particular aim would be to produce a serious split in Chavez’s key base of support – the armed forces.

The Venezuelan media are already preparing the ground for such an outcome with endless stories about rising concern with Chavez within the armed forces.

The response of the chavistas is to do everything to avoid falling for this provocation. As a result, media licence in Venezuela is quite extraordinary. Poisonously slanderous pieces against the government, which would earn an immediate defamation writ in Australia, appear every day and are lucky to be allowed an answer in a letter buried away at the bottom of the letters page.

The government is preparing its counterattack on this front in the form of a media contents law, which it claims will set standards of objectivity in reporting and a press council to oversee these, but which the media is already denouncing as the beginning of the end of media freedom.

The road ahead

The road ahead for the Bolivarian Revolution is full of dangerous turns. The fundamental problem is that of maintaining and strengthening the loyalty, commitment and spirit of sacrifice of its mass base. This does not yet exist in the form of the insurrectionary guerrilla and mass movements of the classical Latin American revolutions, such as the Mexican and the Cuban. It most of all requires constructing a revolutionary organisation out of the most enthusiastic chavista ranks.

Up until now Chavez’s main political instrument has been the armed forces, over which he has kept control by a deft policy of retirements and sideways promotions, but how far these will go with him down the road of intensifying confrontation with the country’s economic elite and Washington is uncertain.

The other potential base of support is the Venezuelan left. However, the very rise of Chavez, beginning with his failed coup of February 4, 1992, is largely due to an accumulation of failures by the Venezuelan left which has missed its moment time and again over the past 40 years.

While the majority of the left – the PCV, the ranks of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), Homeland for All (PPT) and other smaller groups – stand with Chavez, small sections of the left, including the parliamentary leadership of MAS and sections of the mid-1990s one-year wonder Causa R, have made common cause with the oligarchy – basically because they didn’t acquire the slice of power they were looking for in the Chavez camp.

This means that while some figures from the old left occupy important posts under Chavez, the bulk of the cadres of the popular movement are being created in the stormy course of the struggle. Most of these are young workers and shanty-town dwellers, as well as a growing contingent of students from the non-traditional universities.

Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution swept away the putrid old regime and set in place a constitution which enshrines the aspirations of the vast mass of Venezuelans. A striking sign of this is that the constitution and the 49 laws are still best sellers on the street-stalls of Caracas. Whether those aspirations can become reality now depends on the Chavez movement’s capacity to change gears – from mass explosion of popular sentiment against the old regime and desire for change to organised fight for real political and economic power.

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