Telling the Truth About Chavez

Journalist Richard Gott and academics Julia Buxton and Steve Ellner spoke recently at an event on Venezuela in London, for the opening of the Venezuela Information Center, highlighting the importance of countering the disinformation spread about Venezuela.

May 28

Tony Blair and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have at least two things in common: they were both democratically elected and have been in power for around the same length of time.

Journalist and Latin America expert Richard Gott drew the comparison in front of a packed crowd at the launch of the Venezuela Information Centre on Wednesday night. He might have added: “The similarity stops there.”

Despite ongoing US attempts to discredit and oust Chavez, the former military teacher¹s legacy in Venezuela is sure to last longer than Blair’s devout implementation of the failed neoliberal religion on these shores.

In fact, Chavez and his supporters are ahead of the game. As Gott said, “The results of neoliberalism in South America are much the same as here: the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.”

Gott argued that the Venezuelan government isn¹t doing much more than correcting injustice by implementing traditional social democrat policies, but this is still far too radical for the United States.

To applause, the meeting¹s chairman Rodney Bickerstaffe said that it is now “vital that Venezuela rises higher up the international agenda. We don’t want to see Venezuela being the next target for the US.”

Washington fears political independence in Latin America and the development of an alternative to neoliberalism that could threaten its dominance.

Chavez gives the lie to Thatcher¹s myth that “there is no other way,” explained Venezuelan-based academic Steve Ellner, another of the high-quality speakers assembled on the night. “Anti-neoliberalism is possible and Chavez is proving it.”
In a no-nonsense 20-minute presentation, Julia Buxton of Bradford University’s Department of Peace Studies set out a watertight case for the establishment of the information centre, whose mission statement is to present accurate information on the situation in the country.

“There needs to be broad-based objective analysis,” she said. “Disinformation is a central tactic of the opposition.” She explained that, while popular support for the corrupt former political status quo is limited, it had been given higher profile because of US funding through the National Endowment for Democracy, an NGO set up by Ronald Reagan to spread the US concept of “democracy” in strategic regions.

“The big concern now, as we approach the 2006 presidential election, is that the US will attempt to destabilise the situation through non-traditional tactics,” she added.

TUC deputy general secretary Frances O’Grady and UNISON deputy leader Keith Sonnet expressed the movement’s determination to support Venezuelan sovereignty.

Ms. O’Grady pledged not only “to listen and to provide practical support” but to strengthen links with the UNT, a new independent trade union centre in the country, and oppose attempts to block its representation at the International Labour Organisation.

“We will resist any attempt to turn the ILO into a political football,” she said. “We may be simple trade unionists, but we are not naive.”

Mr Sonnet pointed to past US-backed bloodshed against progressive governments in Latin America and British double standards in supporting brutality in the region. “We can¹t sit back and allow what happened to Allende and others to happen in Venezuela,” he said.

The Venezuelan Information Centre plans regular meetings and bulletins to give an objective picture of the situation in the country. Go to www.vicuk.org for more details.


‘This is going to be an ongoing struggle’
(Morning Star, May 28 – www.morningstaronline.co.uk)

INTERVIEW: Venezuelan-based academic STEVE ELLNER gives an insight into the trends and changes taking place under Hugo Chavez.

STEVE ELLNER is a man who knows an awful lot about what¹s going on in Venezuela. Originally from the US, the history professor has lived and worked in the south American country for 30 years. From his office at the Universidad del Oriente in Puerto La Cruz and beyond, Ellner has watched events unfolding in the country with fascination.

Both an outsider and insider, Ellner is able to survey events in Venezuela from a unique perspective. His book Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class Polarisation and Conflict has just been published in paperback. In London to speak at the launch meeting of the broad-based Venezuela Information Centre, the academic rejects the use of President Hugo Chavez’s rhetoric as the lens through which the social changes sweeping the country are interpreted.

“I’d like to get away from analyses based on the individual leader,” he says. “You’ve got to recognise that Chavez is extremely important to Venezuela, but the opposition and others are analysing everything based on what Chavez is saying.” “Chavez talks so much that you can get anything you want; he’s very eclectic. What’s really important is what¹s happening. “What¹s happening is very interesting and very progressive. Chavez is an anti-neoliberal. He has not privatised anything. He¹s reversed privatisation of oil and social security. That’s progressive and that’s concrete.”

Ellner says that it is this and the use of the country’s oil wealth to fund social programmes that terrifies Washington so much. “They¹re trying to overthrow Chavez not because he¹s anti-democratic. It’s not even about his anti-US rhetoric. It’s about what he’s doing,” he argues. If the changes are successful, says Ellner, it “has worldwide implications. It’s not socialism as we¹d traditionally describe it, but it’s got a real social content. “He’s not displacing the guys at the upper level. But he is talking about fomenting co-operatives and small and medium-sized businesses that will compete. That is a state objective. It’s creating structures that will threaten monopolies. Whether it’s going to work or not, I don’t know.”
Ellner argues that Chavez is no Nasser; that events in Venezuela are about a lot more than a cult of personality surrounding the president. “But it hasn’t been institutionalised. You have a mass that is getting mobilised and feels empowered,” he says. “There’s no question that they see themselves as more than followers of Chavez.” He cites a study by a US-based academic – not a leftwinger – who interviewed grass-roots activists on the issue. A large proportion said that they were “a revolutionary first.”

However, Ellner believes that there is a potential weakness in the way events are currently developing. Due to decades of corruption in a country awash with oil money, there is great suspicion among many Venezuelans towards political parties. This has led to a situation, he says, where Chavez’s party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), doesn¹t want to control social movements directly. He cites as an example a series of political meetings that he attended which saw a broad range of activists discuss ongoing events in the country. There was no MVR representative.
Ellner is concerned that the party may become bureaucratic because it doesn¹t have links with the masses. When Chavez first won presidential elections in 1998, he was backed by a broad spectrum of interests in the country, including neoliberals. They saw the former army officer as an alternative to the discredited party political status quo. Ellner says that Chavez was seen as the candidate furthest away from the establishment, which worked in his favour. The progressive direction that events later took meant that many of these backers have since jumped ship. His election was followed by sweeping constitutional reforms which included land reform measures that were opposed by powerful sections of the former ruling classes.

During a 10-week bosses’ lockout in 2002 – in which the national trade union confederation CTV collaborated – opponents of reforms under Chavez’s administration attempted to bring down the government. “It looked like they were going to get rid of Chavez,” recalls Ellner. “I thought that his days were numbered.” However, he adds that confrontations such as the lockout and last year’s recall referendum on Chavez’s presidency have actually helped to politicise many more Venezuelans.
Ellner reports that there is a train of thought that “each time there is a confrontation, the process gets radicalised and that Chavez is aware of this. “Chavez prides himself on being a strategist,” he says, citing a quote that Chavez once used. “A televised war doesn’t kill soldiers. In other words, you can¹t tell the enemy what you plan to do.”

The role of the CTV in opposing Chavez has provoked outrage among many ordinary Venezuelans. Ellner points out that Chavez¹s movement is not as union-based as Salvador Allende’s movement in Chile –  which was brutally crushed by a US-sponsored right-wing revolt. “The Chavistas did not succeed in recruiting the very top leaders from left-wing and organised labour,” he says. However, many trade unionists did back the actions of Chavez and his supporters.

From the outset, more radical sections within the social revolution in the country argued that the CTV was corrupt and “beyond repair,” says Ellner. They argued that a new trade union federation needed to be created. However, Ellner says that the moderate position was that a struggle should be waged within the CTV. This was based, he says, on the feeling that “it had been around or a long time and workers related to it, despite always being very critical of the CTV.” “The left committed the error in the 1960s of letting themselves get chucked out of the CTV and shunted aside, forming a new federation that was quickly isolated.”
Ellner recalls that he at first agreed the best strategy was to fight for change within the established trade union federation, with the assistance of a left-wing government, congress and national sentiment. Even after CTV collaboration with Fedecamaras, the Venezuelan equivalent to the Confederation of British Industry, during the lockout, many people hoped that an investigation into glaring irregularities in 2001 trade union elections would allow an opportunity to force change.

However, says Ellner, as time went on, the negative feelings among ordinary people towards the CTV meant that it became inevitable that a new confederation would be established. “They worked hand in glove to overthrow Chavez in April 2002. They worked hand in glove during the general strike. Every day, they would be on TV – the head of Fedecamaras would speak and the head of CTV would speak.” “CTV established a relationship with Fedecamaras over a long period of time. It is the only confederation in the history of the world going back to Rome or maybe even Egypt which tried to overthrow a government because of its commitment to agrarian reform!” he exclaims.
He reports that people on the street who weren¹t necessarily pro-Chavez were saying: “I can’t understand how CTV can ally itself to Fedecameras –  they are enemies.” Ellner says that, during the 2002 lockout, which began in December, “what people went through was terrible. December 21 was the day to say: Christmas is coming up – ‘we’re going to call off the strike.’ They knew it had been defeated by then. For the first couple of weeks, it looked like they would win, but, by the third week, it was petering out. It went on for 10 weeks.”

The UNT is the trade union federation that was born from alienation with the CTV, but Ellner is at pains to point out that it is not a Chavez vehicle. He believes that any suspicion among trade union federations abroad would be misplaced. “The UNT cannot be considered an official government body.” he says. “Half of the leadership might consist of members of Chavez’s party, but half don’t come from its ranks.”

Ellner points out that CTV is directly linked to the centre-left Democratic Action party and co-operated wholesale in the introduction of neoliberal cuts to social security in the early 1990s. It even sat on a tripartite commission with bosses and the government to draw up the cuts. “That point has to be made to trade union movements throughout the world,” argues the academic.

The need for international understanding of the situation within the country among trade unionists and progressives across the political spectrum has certainly never been greater. Specialists in CIA techniques have already spotted evidence that they are being used to try to discredit the current democratically elected government as the US tries to crush dissent in its back yard.

“The 21st century is the US century,” says Ellner. “It cannot tolerate somebody who is talking about a multipolar world, who is not only talking about it but actually carrying out policies along those lines. “There’s no way that the US is going to modify its position on Venezuela. This is going to be an ongoing battle.”

The paperback version of his book Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class Polarisation and Conflict is available online at www.amazon.co.uk, priced £15.95.

Source: Morning Star