The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 70 (Spring 2004).
Venezuela is under the imperialist gun. A domestic opposition, supported by the U.S., is battling to get rid of Hugo Chávez, the popular president who claims to oppose imperialism and its neo-liberal programs. Any victory for the bourgeois opposition would mean a decisive defeat for the workers and oppressed. A victory for the masses at home requires revolutionary class struggle against the imperialist capitalist system as a whole. Chávez, however, straddles between the capitalists on the one hand and the toiling and oppressed population on the other.
The masses have had high expectations from the Chávez government since he was first elected in 1998. They have shown they want a decisive fight against reaction, while Chávez has equivocated and conciliated. As for needed improvements in the lives of the vast majority, Chávez has produced very little. But he is under increasing pressure to deliver.
When Chávez came to power, substantial sections of the comprador bourgeoisie took a wait-and-see attitude. The energy minister at the time, Ali Rodríguez, commented that “Hugo Chávez has been the most effective bulwark against the country’s social explosion.” In 2002 Chávez appointed Rodríguez head of the state oil company, PdVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, South America).
The oil industry is the engine of the Venezuelan economy. As this article will explain, contention over oil policy has galvanized the opposition. But behind this quarrel is the fact that Chávez has stirred up the mass struggle in Venezuela to dangerous proportions in the past few years, according to most capitalists. And it is exactly this struggle that the domestic opposition and the imperialist overlords must halt if they are to defend profit-making and social stability.
Mass struggles beat back a U.S.-backed coup attempt in April 2002, an embarrassing defeat for Yankee imperialism. Nine months later, mass resistance played a large role in defeating an extensive boss-led oil industry lockout (a so-called “strike”) and getting things running again.
Race and class correspond quite highly in Venezuela, as elsewhere. The contrast between the middle-and upper-class neighborhoods, where mostly lighter colored people live, and the barrios, mainly home to darker-skinned Venezuelans, tends to match the contrast in complexion between the opposition and pro-government rallies. No doubt the opposition has stirred up a racist as well as a class-based reaction, given that Chávez identifies himself with pride as a mixture of Indian, Black and European.
The popular displays of hostility and the measures taken by Chávez so far have not been enough to disempower the anti-Chávez forces. There are still important oppositionists in the army high command as well as in high-level positions in government and industry. They have the support of much of the middle class and white-collar labor aristocrats.
On the surface of events, the polarizing issue at the moment is whether or not there will be a referendum to recall Chávez. According to law, a referendum can be held to recall any elected official after half his term, if it is petitioned for by 20 percent of the eligible voters. After much equivocation, Chávez allowed the Organization of American States (OAS) and the “neutral and non-partisan” Carter Center (founded by the former U.S. president) to oversee the counting of legal signatures. A final decision, already delayed, should be released within a few weeks.
However, opposition elements have already been vocal about the need for “rebellion” if the referendum doesn’t go forward. They have not agreed to abide by the results, while Chávez has. All of this foreshadows the inevitable opposition cry of foul if the petition is rejected. In one way or another, they can expect to get the backing of U.S. imperialism. In short, the proposed “referendum” is a reactionary organizing tool to build momentum for another coup.
Revolutionary internationalists defend the right of self-determination for Venezuela, which in the current context must include unconditional military defense of the Chávez regime against the looming attack. This position, which Trotskyists refer to as military-technical support, is used when it is necessary to defend a non-proletarian government under attack by imperialism. It means favoring the right of the besieged government to get arms and other tactical aid from any source it can. It is a recognition that the attack by imperialism means that workers should be aiming their guns not at the victimized bourgeois government but, for the moment, solely at the common enemy.
Military support is important for revolutionaries in Venezuela today. But it also means that internationalists have to campaign for military aid to Venezuela and opposition to the coming imperialist attack within the working classes of other countries, including the U.S. Military support also means that we openly state that we have no political agreement with our temporary military allies. It is clear that the Chávez government is politically incapable of providing the full defense against imperialist attack that will be needed.
Fighting for a revolutionary political policy within the mass struggle to defend the current regime is absolutely vital if the Venezuelan working class is to achieve its interests in the coming period of bloody confrontation. Therefore we fight for massive working-class adherence to the struggle against the impending coup, but advocate an independently class-organized force. We strive above all to aid the development of a revolutionary working class party in Venezuela, part of a re-created Fourth International. It must warn the workers not to politically trust Chávez and the minority coterie of pro-bourgeois and military reformers that he represents.
Workers’ revolution is not a goal which can be indefinitely postponed. It is the only way to crush what will inevitably be repeated coup attempts if imperialism doesn’t get its pound of flesh. It is the only answer for the Venezuelan working class. In this regard, our most important work in the coming days is to convince other revolutionary-minded workers of the need to build the party of proletarian revolution and engage in every struggle designed to raise workers’ consciousness of what is to be done. Such a party would build support internationally, with an economic and political program geared to leading an international fight against imperialism. In explosive Latin America today, a united struggle of the workers and oppressed is just waiting for the right leadership to emerge.
Our political opposition to Chávez is based on the fact that he is already a barrier to the revolutionary unity of the masses. He is a petty-bourgeois nationalist who wishes to complete a capitalist nation-building project; this brings him into tactical but not fundamental conflict with imperialism. He has not attacked imperialist-capitalist property rights in Venezuela. As his Foreign Minister, Jesus Arnoldo Perez, has said in reference to the United States, “I don’t think that there can be a divorce ... we’re condemned to get on with each other.” Chávez has not taken the necessary measures to undermine the comprador opposition, despite their coup attempts. Because he defends capitalism and private property, he will eventually openly betray the masses or cripple their struggle decisively.
Chávez’s project is not new to Venezuelan bourgeois nationalism. The idea has always been that increased oil profits should eventually result in the building up and diversifying of the entire Venezuelan economy. But the history and nature of imperialism proves that it will never allow a national capitalist vision to be fulfilled in Venezuela. The goal of economic sovereignty has long been a pipedream for Venezuela in the imperialist world – as it is for all of Latin America, a continent rich in natural resources.
Like his friend “Lula” of Brazil used to do, Chávez advocates a “third way,” supposedly neither capitalist nor communist. He talks of a free market with “socialist” distribution. In reality the fantasy “revolution” he promises could really only amount to a benevolent capitalist welfare state – that is the most that improvements only in the sphere of distribution could mean. Yet even that limited vision is no longer possible under the U.S. empire. It is a cruel joke to tell Venezuelan workers and unemployed that they can qualitatively change their lives without taking state power for themselves. And whatever capitalist utopia Chávez promises for the future, his practical deeds today show his commitment is to actual capitalism, which can only mean a life of misery for the masses.
Chávez operates on a continuum with other bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist politicians, including most prominently Lula and Cuba’s Castro. Far less moderate than Lula at the moment, Chávez nevertheless is trying to cut a better deal with imperialism, not overthrow it. His relation with the supposedly communist Castro is a key component of Chávez’s image as a “revolutionary,” which is necessary to capture the massive anti-imperialist sentiment at home. It is also a way of thumbing his nose at U.S. imperialism to gain concessions. But he has absolutely no plans or ability to implement a Castroist type of political revolution which included radical measures to nationalize industry. And Castro himself – from Chile in 1973 to Nicaragua in 1989 – argued against such measures and for a more accommodating approach to U.S. imperialism. (See “Cuba Faces U.S. Threat; ‘Socialism in One Country’ No Answer” for more of our analysis of Cuban statified capitalism in PR 31.)
Chávez wishes to change the way imperialism operates without undermining the imperialist capitalist system itself. In his attempts to pressure Washington, he has so far pursued a relatively independent foreign policy, including vocal opposition to the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas), his revivified leadership of OPEC and the alliance with Castro. But the main precondition for a bigger cut of profits for Venezuela is to assert state rights over the nominally nationalized but completely pro-imperialist-run oil company. Clearly Venezuela’s oil resources are its main bargaining chip with the U.S. In order to make any headway in improving the dire economic and social conditions of the country, real nationalization is a necessity.
The core of the opposition has been in the managerial layers of the oil company, along with other major businesses grouped in the Fedecameras association and the Chamber of Commerce. The bulk of the middle class also associates its well-being with privatization and a “free market.” These forces lean heavily on Washington for support. The comprador capitalists and monied managerial class identify their profits and fat salaries as directly tied to foreign, primarily U.S., interests; they are hostile to the nation-building project, especially since that would mean more state control over their operations and higher taxes.
When PdVSA was first nationalized, the same Venezuelan managers who had been running the industry for the transnational corporations Shell, Chevron and Gulf were kept on. PdVSA management was given a huge degree of autonomy and huge funding from the state. From the onset, ties to the former owners of the newly “nationalized” companies were maintained through technical and commercial contracts, granting them heavily discounted prices. Before Chávez, the Board of Directors was drawn only from the layer of PdVSA managers and was chosen by them. It set policies that benefited them, not the state – and certainly not the Venezuelan masses. Over time, further loopholes and complex financial schemes were utilized to prevent profits from going to the government.
From the mid 1990’s on, this policy expanded dramatically, into what became known as “the opening” (“la abertura”). This meant piecemeal privatization of the industry, as different sections were sold off and outsourcing became more prominent. One costly example was a joint venture with U.S. capitalists for all data processing. This new company, INTESA, joined the oil lockout before its contract was to be ended; through its control of data, it ended up as a serious contributor to the sabotage of PdVSA and a hindrance to getting it functioning again.
Prior to the “strike,” the share going to imperialist pockets got bigger as PdVSA internationalized its operations. (For example, PdVSA operates in the U.S. under the name of Citgo.) European and American refineries were purchased, but the costs of purchase were absorbed by the Venezuelan branch of PdVSA, lowering the government’s share still further. PdVSA management systematically bought refineries, signed long-term supply contracts and granted substantial discounts to its new affiliates abroad. In order to ensure that the profits were beyond the government’s reach, the contracts were used as collateral to secure foreign loans. Thus Chávez inherited monstrous PdVSA debts of over 9 billion U.S. dollars. At least $500 million annually moves from its domestic accounts to foreign affiliates, which never paid dividends to the holding company in Caracas.
Chávez instituted changes to increase the profits flowing back to the government. But he has honored the debt payments to the imperialists (outlays which represent at least 30 percent of the budget) and has done nothing to invalidate a huge number of long-term deals that are costly to Venezuela and which prevent the country from determining the usage of its oil reserves. And Chávez himself has sold off parts of the industry, in a process he refers to as “streamlining.”
The sectors of the national bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie that are not directly tied to imperialism – the layers that would favor a return to a more government controlled oil policy and a more protectionist stance against foreign competition in general – are very weak. Any serious bourgeois nationalist force must therefore seek support from the masses to pressure the big capitalists and managers to act for the “welfare of the nation.” Either give up something or risk losing it all, Chávez says to them when the masses take to the street in his defense.
Thus Chávez needs the masses as a battering ram to get his reforms through. All political commentators recognize that his predominant tactic to gain support is “populism.” The right disdains him exactly for his association with the masses in the streets, while the “left” hails him for the same thing. But populism means much more than just a popular movement. Even when it is the leading ideology of a mass anti-imperialist movement which we support, we oppose the imposition of the ideology. It is a method of utilizing mass sentiments to blur the class struggle in order to divert it from attacking capitalism as a system. Given the rebelliousness of the Latin American masses today, this nationalist ideology must style itself as “revolutionary” anti-imperialist to get a following.
And so Chávez, like other populists, makes a rhetorical claim to represent the “people” against the “elites,” in order to preempt the development of class consciousness and its inevitable challenge to capitalism itself. He constantly talks of the rich versus the poor, while hailing the “productive” business sectors in Venezuela and Latin American capitalist politicians like Nestor Kirchner of Argentina and Lula – even though these leaders are actively propagating neo-liberal attacks on their own working classes today. (See PR 68 for background on Kirchner and page 29 of PR70 on Lula.)
Like many populists, Chávez is also an aspiring Bonapartist. While he was democratically elected, he has tended to rule by decree. He has concentrated power in the executive branch of government and has enhanced the role of the military. This represents a great danger to the working class.
Chávez came to fame with an attempted army coup in 1992 and openly calls his government a “civic-military regime.” The army is his means of ensuring control over the masses – and to a degree maintaining some degree of power over recalcitrant capitalists and managers. He attempts to bridge the divide between the masses and the capitalists and their lackeys by placing the military above them. He has the military involved in many social projects, in order to win over more of the officer corps while getting the public to trust them. But his support in the military is problematic at best. There are already known hostilities, which will inevitably develop as he pushes ahead. During the April coup parts of the military joined the opposition and only swung back to Chávez in response to the mass outrage. Since support for “Chavismo” within the military is far from solid, he has been forced to rely increasingly on mass support.
The Venezuelan masses turned toward Chávez after suffering two decades of economic misery and betrayal by the dominant capitalist party, Acción Democrática (AD) and the CTV union federation (Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela) closely tied to it. Since 1958, when stable bourgeois democratic rule was implemented, AD generally commanded the votes of labor, loosely analogous to the situation of the Democratic Party in the U.S. During the oil boom of the mid-70’s when Carlos Andres Pérez of the AD was president, oil and iron ore were nationalized, import substitution industries were subsidized and social programs were expanded. By 1989, when he was again elected, he turned sharply toward neo-liberalism. After mass food riots in 1989, the organized working class pressed for general strike action and the CTV reluctantly called short strikes for show.
A turbulent decade followed. But while AD no longer held the political allegiance of large sectors of the working class moving toward the left, and workers were already splitting from the CTV toward more radical alternatives, the working class had not yet been able to demonstrate and build its own alternative before Chávez came on the scene. His failed coup against Pérez was popular because he openly identified with the riots. There was no mistaking his timing. Chávez’s popularity was due to the vacuum of leadership for the working class and the oppressed. He won great support among the urban and rural poor, particularly among the downward-spiraling petty bourgeoisie and the informal sector.
This sector works in a large underground economy that avoids government regulation. So-called informales drive taxis, offer door-to-door mechanical services, clean homes, sell clothing on downtown streets and work as day laborers. Youth, women and Colombian indocumentados (undocumented immigrants) make up a large share. It grew as a result of the contraction of jobs in the formal sector from the late 1970’s on. A majority of informal sector participants are underemployed. Today this sector represents over half the working class and is ridden with massive poverty.
However, the informal sector – and therefore what is understood in Venezuela as “the poor” – includes not only workers but also small-scale entrepreneurs and the self-employed as well as traditionally lumpen elements. We have noted that the ideology of populism obscures the class line dividing capitalist society. Chávez pushes the idea of “a movement of the poor,” rather than a movement of the working class leading all the poor and oppressed as communist revolutionaries do. The question of which class should lead the struggle is left unsaid, and class consciousness is deliberately avoided. It allows sectors of the capitalist class to lead the masses.
Moreover, the poor-versus-rich view easily leads to a distinction within the working class between “the poor” and the more stably employed; thus one sector fights the other instead of the class uniting to fight for greater equalization of wages and jobs for all. Steadily employed workers can be deemed to be part of the “rich” by poor workers; they can come to see themselves in that false light as well. In this way the unity and power of the working class are divided and inevitably conquered.
Populism is not a path to class consciousness but a barrier and a trap. Not by accident, Chávez’s relationship with the formally organized working class has been far more ambiguous than his advocacy for the poor. Concrete information on the political viewpoints within the working class is not readily available to us. Nevertheless, it is evident that, so far, the employed working class has moved in the direction of defending the Chávez regime rather than the opposition, which clearly represents the greatest immediate threat. The bulk of the middle class, managerial employees and the most highly skilled workers mainly back the opposition.
Since the failure of the opposition’s lockout attempt, activist support for it in these sectors seems to have waned. Nevertheless, the problem for Chávez is that he will have to try to discipline and control the entire working class – not just the upper layers that he can denounce as reactionary – in order to pursue his nationalist capitalist project.
Despite his radical rhetoric, Chávez has held back in opposing imperialism. We have already cited his continued debt payments. Another striking example of the shallowness of his “anti-imperialism” was his pledge to not stop supplying oil to the U.S. in the case of the war against Iraq. His energy minister, Rafael Ramírez, vowed that the government would never use oil for political purposes. Recently, Ramírez reversed his stance of opposing Iraq’s readmission into OPEC while it is under U.S. occupation.
But such compliant behavior by Chávez & Co. has not subdued the reactionaries. Everyone knows that it was the huge outpouring of the masses that decisively ended the first coup attempt in April. Upon his return to power, Chávez would not even punish the coup leaders, despite the popular demand. Rather he called for class peace, as if such a thing were possible. This conciliatory attitude emboldened the reactionaries and led to the subsequent economic sabotage in the form of the bosses’ oil “strike” as well as the escalation of attacks on other workers.
The lockout did show in its own way how a production shutdown could strangle the economy. It also demonstrated how important are the blue-collar workers in production in getting the industry working again.
Given the forces arrayed against him, Chávez has had to do more than in the past to rest on the poor and the working class. Since the oil strike, he has not only extended public programs in health, education and other services but has also decreed or negotiated wage raises affecting millions of workers. Most of these measures were financed by increasing the debt burden. But these reforms are only a drop in the bucket, given the desperate situation of the masses, the majority of whom still live well below official poverty levels.
Underneath the overt mass support enjoyed by Chávez, class tensions are inevitably rising. Recent developments in the workers’ movement are a beginning indication of this. While Chávez has placed his own people into the executive ranks of the state oil enterprise, he has now had to put two workers on the managing board for show. More significantly, the industry, which previously had a high proportion of managerial and non-union white-collar employees, has now been dramatically streamlined so that the proportion of blue-collar workers is higher. There are reports that workers now expect more of a real say in the industry and that arguments with the new managers are breaking out.
The two-month oil lockout affected not only oil workers but also workers elsewhere in the economy, as other businesses took the opportunity to force lockouts, announce dismissals, withhold pay and so forth. Workers used the occasion to take over some of the shut facilities and start running them on their own. (A notable example is the Sheraton Airport Hotel in Caracas.) Chávez had already been forced to back peasants who on their own initiative have been taking over unused land. But after the oil lockout he had to accelerate a policy of defending workers’ takeovers of failed and shut-down factories and plants. Currently his strategy is to push the notion of workers’ cooperatives, some of which the government is currently subsidizing. In this way he wants to turn the workers into petty-bourgeois business operators who compete against each other within the capitalist economy rather than challenge it. But some workers are already demanding nationalization of the failed companies.
The political ferment in the working class means that there are real opportunities for revolutionary intervention. The developing union situation is complex, and not enough information is available publicly yet. The most potentially important development has been the formation of a new labor federation, the UNT (Unión Nacional de Trabajadores or National Workers Union) in the spring of 2003, an event which seems to reflect a real rise in class confidence and activity.
Chávez came into government with no explicit plan for dealing with the working class. He clearly wanted to get rid of the old CTV union leadership (and even the CTV altogether, which was not possible). Early on, a takeover of the leadership of the CTV failed; eventually the idea was spawned to create a specifically Chavista union movement. The purpose was to bind the working class to his national capitalist program. But the new federation is far from being entirely under his control. It includes explicitly pro-Chávez unions but also contains long-standing independent unions and unions that broke away recently from the CTV, like the oil workers’ union.
Neither Chávez nor a representative showed up at the founding conference of the UNT last spring, although both were expected. Nor did the regime provide state TV coverage of the discussions. And the final political decisions of the conference are not yet published; nor have there been reports on a projected follow-up conference. But there were more than 1200 delegates present, and political discussion at workshops tended toward the left of Chávez’s program. Points in the plan of action included demands for a shorter work week, the creation of a fourth shift to reduce unemployment and ending the bosses’ right to fire workers. As well, delegates called for fights for a general raise in pay and to achieve equality for subcontracted and temporary workers.
A question of great importance is to what degree the UNT has won over, or will be able to win over, the masses of workers. Because it has not called any mass actions in its own name yet, its real influence is difficult to gauge, although it claims to be larger than the CTV. The collaborationist CTV has clearly lost the much support since it supported the reactionary oil “strike.” Yet while a number of unions have broken from the CTV since then, it still officially claims one million members. The CTV leadership is now under considerable pressure to deliver something, given the “strike” flop and the desertion of locals to the UNT. For this reason the leadership claims that it will concentrate more on the economic struggle, as opposed to political combat.
What this will mean in practice remains to be seen. It is not clear how many in the ranks of the CTV actually supported the policies of their leadership in the lockout, and whether they do now. It would not be the first time in history that reactionary pro-imperialist policies of union bureaucrats did not reflect all the layers of the membership. Most often the bureaucracy serves the interests of the labor aristocrats and frequently caters to the most reactionary sentiments to be found within that strata.
As a general principle, while revolutionaries find their deepest roots within the lower reaches of the working class, we also know that the aristocratic status of better-paid workers is fleeting and it is vital to win them from their capitulatory mis-leaders to class unity. The struggle for revolutionary proletarian leadership in Venezuela cannot simply abandon the workers who are now so treacherously mislead in the CTV.
A fight for leadership of the working class by revolutionaries must be made, including the fight to overturn misleadership in all workers’ institutions. Workers should be appealed to based on their class interests, in the CTV where possible as well as in the UNT and other unions which remained independent (like the important steel workers’ union, SUTISS, Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores Siderúrgicos y Similares).
The best elements can be won over time if authentic Trotskyists insist on workers’ basic right to strike and on immediate demands for wage raises, an end to layoffs and improvement in conditions. Even though Chávez has responded to pressure before, especially from public-sector workers, workers can hardly depend on the beneficence of any capitalist government – especially a regime caught in such a profound economic bind. Workers in private industry have been under siege; the strike weapon, not dependence on the government, is their only means for achieving even their elementary needs. It is probably no accident that the UNT Congress, while very radical-sounding on a grand scale, did not take up the question of strikes. This reflected pressure from the Chávez regime desperately trying to achieve stability and a “pro-investment” atmosphere – inevitably at the expense of the workers.
It is clear that the experience of the oil “strike” has radicalized layers of the working class and moved them in the direction of running industry themselves and fighting for their overall demands. This opens the way for greater working-class acceptance of the proletarian revolutionary program. Key demands should be the nationalization of the entire oil industry under workers’ management, including the invalidation of all illicit deals made during “la abertura.” Nationalization of other failing industries and enterprises under workers’ management, without compensation and with guaranteed job protection, is a necessary demand to counterpose to the prolifer ation of decentralized cooperatives dominated by the market. Also critical to the economy is the fight for nationalization of the banks without compensation and repudiation of the imperialist debts. Debt repudiation alone would ignite all of the Latin American working class, now slaving to pay imperialism for the debts incurred by their rulers.
Given the impending threat of a pro-imperialist coup, it is vital for revolutionary workers to start demanding that all progressive unions form union defense guards to train and arm the working class against the reactionary killing squads. Such a mobilization would be a counterweight to the dangerous reliance on the army fostered by Chávez. It would be a decisive step in the development of independent working class protection, self-activity and leadership. With Venezuela moving toward a civil war scenario, and given all the revelations about U.S. involvement, the question of internationalist strategy must move from rhetoric to reality. The Venezuelan masses can only defend their sovereignty with a vigorous campaign for international solidarity. This requires that Venezuela itself stand for both the repudiation of all imperialist debts as well as for the unconditional self-defense of all nations under imperialist attack.
Unlike the Chávez regime, workers will give practical support to the mass struggles in Iraq and elsewhere, most notably by holding their government accountable for its continued delivery of vital oil supplies to the U.S. while it occupies Iraq and threatens Venezuela itself! If the bosses can stop oil production to help imperialism, then the workers must be ready to use their power to boycott the transfer of oil and other supplies to imperialist warmongers. Above all, Venezuelan revolutionary party advocates must frankly proclaim the necessity for their class to take power and establish their own state as part of a Socialist United States of Latin America.
February 28, 2004