The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 83 (Fall 2010).
Hugo Chávez has been in power for over eleven years. The National Assembly elections on September 26 demonstrated dwindling support for his regime – which points to difficulties when he comes up for re-election in 2012. Growing dissatisfaction with the supposedly revolutionary government was exacerbated when the global economic crisis gripped the country in 2008.
Chávez’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the PSUV, won slightly more popular votes than the opposition. It won a higher proportion of Assembly seats due to rules that favor the rural areas and less populous states. But Chávez failed to get three-fifths of the seats for the PSUV – the requirement that would have allowed him to continue to enact measures by decree.
Much of the left advocated voting for the Chavista candidates, as usual. The League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP-U.S.) and the Internationalist Socialist League (ISL-Israel/Occupied Palestine), however, oppose giving any political support to bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians like Chávez.
We recognize that imperialism dominates oppressed “Third World” nations and have called for the defense of Chávez and Venezuela in every clash with imperialism. The LRP called for a united struggle against both the 2002 coup and the 2002-03 bosses’ lockout in the oil industry.
At the same time, we warn that bourgeois nationalists like Chávez will inevitably betray the struggle against imperialism because their hold on power presupposes keeping the workers and poor under control and exploited. We emphasize that the masses’ basic interests are incompatible with the capitalist system and that they can rely only on their own power to struggle to defend their interests. Culminating in their seizure of state power and overthrow of capitalism, the workers’ struggles offer the only road to victory over imperialism. Voting for populist bourgeois candidates like Chávez can only undermine workers’ awareness of their class’s independent interests.
As the LRP noted in 2004:
It is clear that the Chávez government is politically incapable of providing the full defense against imperialist attack that will be needed. ... 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. ... Because he defends capitalism and private property, he will eventually openly betray the masses or cripple their struggle decisively.
These recent elections leave no doubt that Chávez is losing support among the masses. A review of the class struggle in Venezuela in recent years will make clear why this is, as well as confirm the LRP and ISL’s perspective that socialist revolution is the only solution to the masses’ needs. The most urgent task is the construction of a vanguard revolutionary socialist party leadership in opposition to Chávez and his PSUV and dedicated to leading the working class’s struggles to victory over capitalism.
Today much of the working class in Venezuela still supports Chávez, but not as fervently as in the past. Revolutionaries on the ground have opportunities to address workers who are becoming aware that Chávez is betraying their aspirations. The number of factory occupations and protests has significantly increased in recent years.
In Sidor, the biggest steel enterprise, the workers fought for years, demanding re-nationalization of the privatized industry. The National Guard was viciously used against the workers on various occasions – as it has been against other workers under Chávez. Eventually, the government was forced to comply in April 2008. In 2009 Chávez proceeded to nationalize other key plants in the same Guayana region, including iron, aluminum, bauxite and ceramic tile factories. All these industries belong to a state corporation called CVG (Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana). Next to oil workers, these workers have the most notable militant history.
Nationalization in itself has failed to resolve the underlying problems, either in CVG or in PDVSA, the state oil company. The long list of horrors includes: extensive use of outsourced workers, deadly industrial accidents, and overt violations of contracts and labor law. Industries have been mismanaged and run into the ground. Different groups of workers have been making similar demands for improvements and have tried a similar range of protests, including limited strikes. But actions are kept so isolated from each other that there are few victories.
The struggles of the grossly exploited and abused subcontracted workers are especially crucial. All in all, it has become strikingly obvious that conflicts in nationalized industry are similar to the conflicts between workers and private bosses. Whether or not those bosses are friendly with Chávez or with the opposition is not decisive in terms of the basic relationship, which features increasing attacks on the workforce.
Among a militant minority of workers, resistance has become more aggressive. In turn Chávez has openly advocated many repressive policies. Actions which closed down streets or involved strikes in so called “strategic” companies were outlawed.
There are now about 2200 people that have been reportedly brought up on charges under these kinds of laws. Some have been jailed; many, like subcontracted workers who engaged in protests against Sidor years back when it was still private, are free but restricted – they are not allowed to participate in further protests while awaiting a final decision on their case, which is continually postponed. Because of this ominous trend, a campaign was established to stop the “criminalization of protest.”
There is also a long history of internal strife within the union movement; killings over jobs in the construction sector, where different unions vie for turf, is common. There are also many cases of hired thugs killing union activists; it is reported that 300 trade union leaders in Venezuela have been murdered since 2005, and scores more have suffered death threats or attempts, or serious injuries. The government likes to attribute such killings to internal battles within a divided union movement, but that is clearly only a part of the picture. A lot of the guns for hire can be logically traced to the bosses who benefit from the suppression of class struggle.
For example, in November 2008, three principal union leaders of the militant C-CURA union grouping in the state of Aragua were assassinated after mobilizing solidarity support for a workers’ occupation against a Colombian transnational. In Aragua at the time, workers had the highest level of independent struggle, notably at the Sanitarios Maracay bathroom fixtures factory. In fact one of the murdered union leaders, Richard Gallardo, had also led the state-wide general strike that took place as a protest after Sanitarios Macaray workers were attacked by the National Guard in April 2007. To date there have been at least eight assassinations of union leaders with the C-CURA tendency just in Aragua within a few years.
In many cases assassinations do appear as an overtly political matter, because workers in the front lines of struggles are getting struck down. Such a case occurred at the Mitsubishi factory in the state of Anzoátegui in January 2009. State police charged into the Mitsubishi plant, which workers had occupied in defense of fellow workers who had been laid off – and they killed two workers. PSUV governor Tarek William Saab had ordered the police to dislodge the takeover. While workers’ blood was still fresh on the ground, the Labor Minister, Maria Cristina Iglesias, a representative of the national government, demanded that the occupation cease – or she would call in the National Guard. Other government representatives jumped in to push through a deal. This was one case where President Chávez’s ultimate responsibility should be an unavoidable conclusion.
To this day, Mitsubishi workers continue to engage in heroic protest against maltreatment, and the bosses retaliate with numerous waves of layoffs and dismissals and other maneuvers – with the government institutions blatantly favoring the company all along.
It is no surprise that Chávez has never criticized Mitsubishi. PDVSA and the Venezuelan government were simultaneously involved in a campaign to secure a deal with the company, backed by the Japanese government, to establish a joint venture along with Chevron in the oil-rich Orinoco Belt region. Venezuela can not develop this key region without imperialist capital and technology. But the regime wanted to show prospective foreign investors, like the Japanese imperialists, that it could enforce labor peace in Venezuela.
The government has never made any assassination of a unionist into a campaign; in fact Chávez and the government don’t provide coverage of these matters from the point of view of rousing the public against injustice. The virtual silence at best sends the message that it is okay to kill trade unionists that won’t cooperate with the bosses.
Adding to the ominous picture, there is a drastic level of state intervention into the unions. The PSUV has put parallel unions into the oil industry and elsewhere in order to vie with the already established unions and leaders that had been chosen by the workers. The basic aim is to repress militancy, in order get the mass of workers to do the bidding of bosses, from accepting substandard contracts to unsafe work conditions.
In May 2010 a new board of directors of CVG, consisting of “worker presidents” introduced into a number of the basic industries in Guayana, were sworn into their posts by President Chávez with great fanfare — under the proclamation that this signifies workers’ control of industry! Workers and their union leaders are now getting into confrontations with these new worker presidents who, like the parallel unions sponsored by the PSUV, are there to basically favor an austerity program. Posts in state industry are generally prize appointments reserved by the government for loyal servants.
Bolivarian Militias were set up by a modification of the Armed Forces Law in October 2009. Such “Combatant Bodies” are now allowed to intervene in workplaces. The Bolivarian Militias are designated as an adjunct to the National Guard, a force that has been used against workers fighting for their rights in key battles in recent times.
As a report from the LTS (Workers’ Socialist League) underscored, “It is really the case that in various enterprises like the state oil company PDVSA that they had already begun to organize “Combatant Bodies,” in other words the law had already been put into practice through action. What really is noteworthy is the repudiation that the constitution of these “militias” in various state enterprises has generated, as in the recently nationalized Sidor, where an ample majority of the workers oppose the organization of these bodies.”
All in all, Chávez has increased repressive actions and maneuvers against the working class, and at least for now, the offensive has put major battalions of the class on the back foot – although there is ongoing struggle and much more on the horizon.
This whole scene can only be understood against the backdrop of a dependent capitalist economy in decline, where Chávez has to squeeze the workers even more than before to make them pay for the crisis and try to maintain good relations with imperialism. Because of the economic crisis, the opposition had already started making gains against the PSUV, notably in the regional elections in November 2008. By then crime rates in Caracas were already climbing – as well as unemployment, food shortages, lack of garbage collection, lack of decent housing and the like.
Chávez has always denied the need for workers’ socialist revolution. Instead, he has advanced a populist agenda based on the working class participating in an alliance with pro-Chávez sectors of the capitalist class in order to advance national goals. His main strategy was always “sowing the oil,” meaning that oil profits would be invested back into the country to carry out a more rounded industrial development of the society as a whole and lift the masses out of poverty. Even with socialist rhetoric used as window dressing, this bourgeois nationalist strategy based on class collaboration could not secure much progress.
Previously Chávez enjoyed years of record high popularity along with record high oil prices. But with the economic crisis, oil prices plummeted in 2008 and stayed low through 2009. The effects of the drop in oil prices reverberated through the whole economy.
Oil prices rose again in 2010. But it has become obvious that the country can not just bounce back into recovery: there are so many other shortcomings that just a higher level of oil income can not resolve. The nationalized electricity sector is one case in point. Lack of electricity and water due to a major drought had plagued urban and rural communities – and put basic state industries on the edge of survival, as forced cutbacks in industrial production became prevalent due to power shortages from 2008 to the present.
Important nationalized industries – PDVSA, Sidor and Alcasa (aluminum) – have suffered major production problems due to these power outages. And production at Sidor, for example, is still about 30 percent lower than in 2007. Not only are there still power reductions but the operation is also plagued by lack of reliable funding for basic operational needs. Massive losses are being projected for 2010. Loans totaling 400 million dollars have just been procured by Sidor from Gazprom in Russia and the Central Bank of Venezuela just to be able to pay back some suppliers. But the future is far from clear.
A key factor in the downward pressure on the economy is the massive amounts of debts incurred, including as a result of the several waves of nationalizations, where the regime always generously compensated the owners. A case in point was the 1.95 billion dollars paid to the Argentine-led consortium Ternium for the re-nationalization of Sidor in 2008, despite the fact that the private owners left the industrial complex in sad shape, while owing large amounts of money to workers.
Actual revolutionary measures such as full nationalization of vital industries and private banks without compensation, repudiation of past debts and the establishment of a monopoly of foreign trade could give Venezuela much more ability to control its own economic development for the first time, as well as ensuring that the profits reaped from its natural resources and labor go back into developing the country in the interests of the vast majority of its people. The goal of national sovereignty can only be carried out by a revolutionary workers’ state which has a strategy of actively fighting for the spread of workers’ socialist revolutions internationally. This is the message of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which has been actively turned upside down by the bulk of far leftists operating in Venezuela and their supporters internationally.
One grouping that Proletarian Revolution magazine has analyzed in the past, the C-CURA union opposition led by Orlando Chirino, broke with Chávez a few years back and developed a reputation for alignment with militant workplace struggles, especially but not only in the oil sector. The union leaders in C-CURA are also by and large affiliated to the Morenoite UIT-CI (Workers Unity International-Fourth International) centered in Argentina, with the Venezuelan section currently going by the name of USI (Socialist Left Unity).
In a situation of profound economic and social crisis, the USI supporters operate in one of the few countries where large numbers of workers are interested in socialism today. Overwhelmingly, they confine their role within the bounds of industrial trade unionism. This is tragic, since they have developed reputations in many cases as the only leaders that would fight the government on behalf of workers, and therefore they seem to have the attention of a key layer of politically advanced industrial workers, even though they are not numerically a big grouping.
As a purported revolutionary tendency, their failure to operate openly on the basis of the proletarian revolutionary interests is signaled by the absence of any notable campaign for a class fightback going beyond sectoral union militancy. C-CURA has not been known for raising the need of the unity of the entire working class and poor, employed and unemployed, union and non-union – and it has subordinated the fight for a revolutionary workers’ party – which should be the highest priority – to its platform of union militancy.
In the recent elections, the C-CURA/USI leaders went to a whole new level of betrayal when they agreed to run on the ticket of the PPT (Patria Para Todos), a small bourgeois party which had only recently broken from its long-term alliance with, and participation in, the Chávez government. By running on the PPT ticket, they failed to represent even the most basic idea of independent working class struggle. Giving the USI critical support in the recent contest was thereby ruled out.
As long as C-CURA leaders retain key positions in oil and other sectors, advanced workers will have to demand that they fight to build a resistance to the range of attacks being suffered by the working class. Demands must be also placed on other union leaders in Venezuela, such as Marea Socialista, even though they are tied to the PSUV and the Chávez regime. A united front defense of workers and the poor in Venezuela is a burning necessity, and any steps in that direction should be vigorously welcomed.
Concrete victories are possible that can demonstrate the objective power of the working class in Venezuela, making the class itself more aware of its own power. The workers’ own struggle can go a long way to destroying the myth that Chávez is a friend of the workers and poor.
Workers in Venezuela are hardly lining up to join the existing opposition with its open ties to U.S. imperialism. Dwindling enthusiasm for Chávez has not resulted in growing enthusiasm for the opposition to any large degree. Yet it is clear that the right opposition will continue to gain ground, if an authentic revolutionary alternative is not built in time. As internationalists, we recognize the vital need to support any actions that can advance the cause of building the revolutionary party in Venezuela. Its importance for the cause of world revolution, cannot be overstated. Efforts to expose the fakery of Chávez and his centrist supporters of different stripes are a critical task to aid in this development.
1. For the LRP’s programmatic statement, including its opposition to popular frontism and class collaboration, see the Political Resolution of the Communist Organization for the Fourth International.
The ISL has its origins in a political struggle in 2007 inside the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) in which the ISL’s founding comrades opposed the IMT’s notorious uncritical cheerleading for Chávez, as well as other political crimes. See “The ISL’s Break with the IMT” at www.the-isleague.com/the-isls-break-with-imt-english.php. For the ISL’s recent statement on the elections in Venezuela and the tasks of revolutionaries, see their “Elections in Venezuela – No Support for Any of the Parties!” at www.the-isleague.com/venezuela-elections-english.php.
2. See Self-Determination and Military Defense: The Marxist Method in Proletarian Revolution No. 59 for a discussion of our general approach.
3. See U.S.: Hands Off Venezuela! in Proletarian Revolution No. 70.
4. See “Venezuela: El Libertario warns of possible sentence to the 14 SIDOR workers,” April 29, 2009, www.indymediascotland.org/node/15444 on the Sidor case. See also www.protestarnoesundelito.blogspot.com for Spanish language reports on the criminalization of protest in Venezuela, focusing on the arrests of worker, peasant, and indigenous protesters and attacks on other social movements.
5. See www.phillyimc.org/en/campaign-against-assassination-workers-venezuela for English language translations of a number of reports on this issue.
6. See No to Chávez, Yes to Socialism! in Proletarian Revolution No. 81 for background on this struggle.
7. This struggle has been headed by the CMR (Revolutionary Marxist Current), a grouping until recently linked to the International Marxist Tendency. In general the CMR has continued in its past extreme loyalty to Chávez, and in that way has horribly misled the Mitsubishi workers. As to the root cause of the murders of their fellow workers, they provided the following cover-up: “This attack is part of the violent attacks of the right wing against the revolution. The purpose is ultimately to get rid of president Chávez and destroy the organizations of the working class who are fighting for socialism....” See www.handsoffvenezuela.org/new_fascist_assault_on_mitsubishi_workers.htm. It should be no surprise that they urged Mitsubishi workers and others to vote for all PSUV candidates in the recent elections.
8. See Kiraz Janicke, “Venezuela: Oil Minister Fuels Controversy in Union Elections,” July 19th, 2009, www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4637 and Kiraz Janicke, “Venezuelan Oil Workers Reach Collective Contract,” January 20, 2010, for the saga of how the PSUV-planted union current, VOS, defeated more militant union groups and pushed through inferior contracts.
9. See www.correodelcaroni.com for a series of Spanish language articles detailing the confrontations between aluminum workers at Alcasa, and the “worker president,” Elio Sayago, a supporter of the “Trotskyist” Marea Socialista tendency, known for its proven subservience to Chavez and the PSUV. On October 9, aluminum workers organized a march to demand that the government resolve Alcasa’s financial crisis and they had begged Sayago to take part. He didn’t show up. On this in particular see “La situacion de Alcasa de ganas de llorar” (“The situation in Alcasa makes one want to cry,” trans. LRP) at www.correodelcaroni.com/component/option,com_wrapper/Itemid,174/?id=163607 .
10. “Verdaderos cuerpos de control directo sobre el pueblo y los trabajadores,” October 29, 2009 at www.lts.org.ve/spip.php?article256.. Translation by the LRP.
11. See “Losses at Sidor estimated at USD 815,907,872 ending this year,” September 10, 2010 at www.eluniversal.com/2010/09/10/en_ing_esp_losses-at-sidor-esti_09A4448053.shtml and “Sidor negotiates financial support from the BCV and Gazprom,” June 30, 2010 at www.eluniversal.com/2010/06/30/en_eco_esp_sidor-negotiates-fin_30A4112371.shtml.