Notes on the Bolivarian Revolution

Notes by the Green Left Weekly correspondent on revolutionary democracy, debates within the Chavez movement, on political consciousness, workers control, popular organizations, and other issues.

These comments are my observations of the revolutionary process in Venezuela during my time here as Green Left Weekly correspondent since late March. Much of my time has also involved traveling throughout Venezuela to help organize the first solidarity brigade from Australia. Some comments are general, some are responses to particular questions asked by activists in Australia.

Revolutionary Democracy

The Bolivarian revolution, as the Venezuelan process of change is known, has taken a dramatic turn over the last six months. The political discussion on a local and national level has moved clearly in a socialist direction. The solutions posed by Chavez and the masses are increasingly of a socialist nature. During his speech on May Day this year, Chavez made it clear that to implement the Bolivarian Constitution (adopted following Chavez’s election in 1998 after a wide process of consultation, and which establishes broad principles of social justice) the process had to break from capitalism. At the international solidarity conference held in Caracas in April, Chavez also said that he had given a lot of thought about what alternative there was to capitalism, such as a third way between capitalism and socialism, but had become convinced that socialism was the only alternative for those struggling against the barbarism of imperialism. In all public discussions, Chavez raises the issue of a new socialism for the 21st Century.

The two national pro-government TV stations run programs throughout the day that discuss the question of what Chavez has termed a process of building a “revolutionary democracy.” The National Electoral Council runs advertisements on television about the “evolving democracy” being developed. Numerous televised open table discussions are being held on what socialism means for Venezuela. Local Bolivarian Houses, Endogenous Battle Units (UBE), and cultural centers regularly discuss the construction of Venezuelan socialism – how to construct socialism according to local conditions.

This process is not just rhetorical. Chavez, whose role as the undisputed leader for the process is reminiscent of the role played by Fidel Castro during the early years of the Cuban Revolution, has not backed away from directly attacking the private sector. Over the last month, Chavez has condemned big business for not producing enough, calling on them to hand over management to the workers. There is increasing discussion about nationalization of industry that is not being used properly, that is being sabotaged or not producing enough. Chavez, if not always all government authorities, has supported peasants when they have used their constitutional right to take over unused productive land. Chavez has called on all foreign companies to pay their taxes or leave Venezuela. Businesses are increasingly forced to pay the minimum wage or face heavy fines. On a state level there is also a large campaign to combat government bureaucracy. Of particular importance has been the campaign within the state oil company, PDVSA. Over the last month there has been a campaign by the opposition, especially through the opposition-controlled private media, to discredit PDVSA, based on allegations that the oil industry is in crisis with low production and high levels of corruption and inefficiency. The government has responded by exposing those sections of PDVSA that have been responsible for sabotage and corruption. The government has launched campaign, Black Gold, to combat these issues within PDVSA. A large part of the campaign is to increasingly tie sections of the armed forces to PDVSA, so as to keep a better eye on this resource. A similar mechanism was used by the Cuban Revolution in the early years when they assigned sections of the rebel army to oversee sections of industry so as to avoid sabotage and corruption.

Debates within the Chavez forces

There is no doubt that the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) has become the mass party of the revolution with well over 1 million members and supporters. It is by far the most organized and visible group at all political demonstrations and has majority political representation at the local, state and national level. The MVR makes up about 80% of the pro-revolution alliance at all levels. All the other parties are fairly small in comparison. However, the political basis of the party has been undergoing a dramatic change. It has always been a party that has firmly supported Chavez and the political project that he has outlined, however that has also meant that it has attracted a wide range of political activists – considering that the Chavez project has been somewhat general since his elections in 1998. It has only been in the last 6 months to a year that he has raised the issue of socialism. And so the MVR has had to respond to this political development, and relate to the new direction.

As part of the process, Chavez has called for a consolidation of the pro-Chavez parties. It is a bit unclear what exactly this means. But there is no doubt that Chavez is looking at further consolidating and unifying the revolutionary forces. This might involve a formation under the MVR, or most likely some new formation that brings together all the different forces. Once again a similar process that developed in Cuba between 1959 and 1965 when the Communist Party was established.

But political representation and activity is not solely under the direction of the MVR, the “red party,” as it is called. Political organization extends much further and deeper than any political party. The Bolivarian Houses, UBEs, local cultural centers (which tend to take the form of local community organizing centers), the UNT and a large number of other political organizations all play a role in mobilizing the masses in defense of the revolution. Though a large section of the population does belong to, or identifies with, a particular political party, political organization and activity seems to be done much more through their trade unions, student unions, social missions, Bolivarian Houses, UBEs etc. It is for this reason that at May Day 2005, people marched behind their respective work place banner or student union banner or social mission banner etc rather than behind the banner of any particular political party. But this should not confuse people into thinking that there is no political organization or education happening in Venezuela. In fact political organization and discussion happens at a local level in all the organized communities in support of the revolutionary process.

The debate around socialism that was initiated by Chavez has sparked a lot of debate in the national media and amongst all political activists. Within the MVR, it is difficult to tell exactly what factions exist or, if they do, what they stand for. The factions seem to be mainly based upon support of particular Mayors. For example, there has been a lot of confrontation between different sections of the MVR – some public such as a dispute between the mayor of Caracas, Juan Barreto, and Freddy Bernal, the mayor of the municipality of Libertador (central Caracas). In this case there was a protest held in central Caracas by the pro-Barreto forces against Bernal. Rather than taking sides on the issue, Chavez condemned both during his May Day speech and called on them to listen to the people and govern for the people or resign. Since then there have been meetings between Chavez, Barreto, and Bernal which have smoothed things over but large divisions still exist amongst the different supporters of the two mayors.

The discussion around socialism will take a while to sort itself out, but it is developing very quickly. It is clear however that the majority of the MVR membership has firmly supported Chavez´s call for a socialism of the 21st century. So far the only ones that have condemned it have been the far right opposition through their media outlets on a daily level. Chavez himself has said that this year is the year of building revolutionary democracy while next year begins the move towards socialism.

Political consciousness

On the question of political consciousness amongst the masses of Venezuelans, the most striking thing has been how they have taken up the call for socialism. Within the pro-Chavez camp no one has come out against such a call, at least not publicly. There is no doubt that you would have to be very game to come out against Chavez, but it seems to reflect more that people are actually at that level. In all the discussions that I have had with activists on the ground they are very happy to talk about socialism and what it means for the process as well as the close relationship that has been built up with the Cubans.

The political level of the masses that has developed since 1998 is much more advanced than what is generally recognized in the international solidarity movement. This is no social democratic “revolution” or just a fight for national liberation but a conscious battle for socialism. But even more interesting is that they have learnt from the past and the problems that socialism has had and are developing their own formulas to develop it in Venezuela. They are learning very much from the Cubans and the problems that they had during the early years of the revolution. Chavez has increasingly quoted from Che Guevara on how to build a socialist economy. The debate about socialism is centered around the question of how to build a popular economy that can also trade in the international arena.

Local cultural centers that have sprung up around Caracas and the rest of Venezuela function as local political organizing centers where people meet not only to organize the Missions and cultural activities, but also to debate and discuss political issues and organize.

The May Day speech was a significant political turning point for the Bolivarian Revolution. It was along the same lines as the Havana declaration by Fidel Castro in 1961, which outlined the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution. It is significant that Castro and Chavez are meeting almost every month and are in constant phone contact. This not only reflects the numerous agreements that that they continue to sign but also the dramatic political similarities that are coming out of Havana and Caracas.

The recent 49 agreements that where signed are a further continuation of the agreements that where signed in December of last year and concretely brings into being the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA). Similar agreements have been signed with Brazil and Argentina which brings together the three largest economies in Latin America. Though these are economies that have been exploited by imperialism, their increased unity does mean a significant economic power that puts enormous political and to some extent economic pressure on the US. Though these agreements can not compete with the U.S., they do begin to shut out U.S imperialist interest in the region. It does this by increasing the pressure on other Latin American countries to join in the ALBA. This process has totally destroyed the U.S push for a Free trade Agreement with the region.

Industrial workers and the movement for workers control

The question of workers control of industry and what that means is a question that is increasingly being debated in public. At the moment there is a law before the National Assembly that looks at the question of co-management in factories. The law was drafted by the National Union of Workers (UNT), which will most likely be adopted in its entirety in the next few weeks. Though the question is posed as cogestion, which translated into English means co-management, it really means workers control of industry. This is the way that people pose it in the factories and I think how we should understand it.

During my visit to CVG Venalum, which is the largest aluminum plant in Venezuela and where the cogestion process has received national attention, it was clear that workers are, first of all, part of management, but also there is no longer so much of a separation between management and the workers. There are regular meetings to discuss what is being produced, how it is being produced and what quantity and quality is being produced. So management is effectively in the hands of the workers. No significant decision is taken without the active participation of the workers. The process is also being opened up to the local community. Increasing discussions are being held between factories and the local community about the role it plays in the local economy. In the case of CVG in Ciudad Guyana, they discuss what projects the company should be supporting in the local area.

A very similar situation is also taking place in INVEPAL, the other main experiment with cogestion. The other significant aspect of this experiment is that this was the first nationalization that has taken place. Up until now the Chavez government has been a bit reluctant to nationalize any property or industry, but at the May 1 demonstration Chavez specifically said that from now on the government would nationalize any factory or land that was not being utilized. The government will also increase pressure on private factories to produce to their full potential. The government would also provide the funding to help make this happen on the condition that workers played a role in the management of the factory. The workers seem very confident that Chavez will back up their demands, but also workers constantly talk of their rights that are enshrined in the constitution. In the face of any attack, they will automatically quote an article from the constitution that defends their rights. Even on a bus out of Merida state, where a state official was charging an exit tourism tax, a man refused to pay based on an article in the Constitution.

Popular Organizations

The UBEs that where initially set up to organise to win the referendum vote in August, and thus called the Electoral Battle Units, have now being transformed into local organizing centers. They are now called the Endogenous Battle Units. Endogenous is a term that is widely used in Venezuela to describe self-organizing and self sustaining communities. Though they are not armed, they play a role that is in some ways similar to that of the Committees to Defend the Revolution in Cuba. The people are being armed through the reserves, of which the overwhelming majority is also involved in the UBEs.

During Alo Presidente in early May, Chavez made a special call for the continued organization of the UBEs. Together with the MVR, the UNT, and the Bolivarian Houses, the UBEs seem to be the backbone of the political organization. Having said that, it is also important to note the role of the government apparatus and the pro-revolution TV stations VTV and VIVE, as well as revolutionary newspapers such as Diario Vea. All these means of communication heavily promote all pro-revolution events with ads, articles, interviews etc. This can not be stressed enough. VTV effectively runs 24-7 with news and information on what the government is doing and what role people can play in all the new initiatives. This also includes a TV soap opera called Amores de Barrio Adentro (Lovers of Barrio Adentro) that is sprinkled with drama and suspense about love and relationships but is also a commentary on the revolutionary process.

Another example is in the lead up to May Day, VTV screened ads and discussions about the rally almost continuously for over a week. This reflects that the drive for mass mobilization is not just from below, but being promoted and encouraged from the highest level of government. In all of Chavez’s TV appearances, which occurs daily and in many cases for hours, he is always stressing the need for people to actively involve themselves in the revolutionary process and make use of the constitution. During Alo Presidente, Chavez stresses the need to get involved in local UBEs, and that mayors need to support them and help them develop into a mass political organization. This is also part of a plan to begin to activate people for the August municipal and local elections and then the National Assembly elections in December and the presidential elections in December of next year.

But one point about the UBEs is that they are not necessarily a homogenous group. They vary quite a bit in their composition and political influence. Together with the Bolivarian Houses, which is what many Bolivarian Circles have become and whose membership overlaps considerably with that of the UBEs, they are central to the political, social, cultural organization of the people. The Bolivarian Circle in the barrio of Guaicaipuro next to where I am staying organizes everything from women’s bowls tournament, a soup kitchen, cultural events through to political discussions and organization.

On the other hand massive problems do exist. UBEs and Bolivarian Houses have had problems with local pro-revolution authorities. In some cases, such as in Petare, a Barrio on the outskirts of Caracas, local authorities have blocked some of the activities of the Bolivarian Houses and UBEs because they see them as less democratic and not the real representatives of the people. But those in the UBEs and the Bolivarian Houses see themselves as the true representation of the peoples will. So debates are constantly happening between these political forces. The other issue is that many of the UBEs and Bolivarian Houses are composed of people from all the different pro-revolution forces, so conflict can arise between them and the local MVR authorities. I would also say that in some cases there exists a certain anti-party sentiment within the UBEs and Bolivarian Houses which also creates debates.

There is no doubt there is a lot of frustration amongst the masses, but it does not seem wide-spread or very deep. The interesting thing is that Chavez relates to it very well. In fact, Chavez constantly criticizes local and national authorities for not acting fast enough. Chavez is the first to condemn bureaucratic problems. It seems the major governmental problem is with the middle level apparatus. This is due to a large layer of the public service that is not convinced of change and so plays an active role in slowing down the process.

There is also the issue that amongst some activists within the UBEs and the Bolivarian Houses there is a feeling that if you are not a member of the MVR then you are excluded from a certain level of political access. Though I would say this is the case, it is unclear how widespread this problem is.

The ideological discussions are happening in all different spheres, in the local communities via the Bolivarian Houses, UBEs, within the MVR and in the national TV stations, newspapers and radio stations. The ideological formation centers have been formed, but it is not clear what impact they are having in the broader political discussions. There is no doubt that socialism has become a major point of discussion. What is particularly interesting is that, outside the right-wing, the majority of people have taken it up very positively.

Anyone that has been supportive of the Bolivarian Revolution does not seem to have any problems with the move towards a specifically socialist road. It seems very much that the only people that are anti-Cuba or socialism are the ones that have always been anti-Chavez. It also reflects that some of the key changes under Chavez have involved Cuba, so for many people a move towards socialism seems natural. There is an increasing number of people that have had family members go to Cuba for operations or to study and more people are coming into contact with Cuban medical personnel and so the barriers have been broken down.

Attitudes and organization of the peasantry

There is definitely frustration within the peasant community. This was seen with the mobilization of peasants of the South West in Merida in early May to demand the land reform laws be implemented and that action be taken to ensure they are defended against landlord-organized repression. Though the peasant organizations are very much in support of Chavez, they do feel that things are progressing too slowly. But once again, Chavez backs up their frustration and calls on them to make their demands and use the constitution to take over land that has not been used productively. In every case where peasants have taken over land, Chavez has supported their actions. During May, a number of peasant activists were killed after a bitter struggle to take over a piece of land near Caracas. This was condemned by Chavez. There is a certain amount of self defense but overwhelmingly the peasants are calling on the national government to take action and use the army and reserves to defend them against repression.

Bureaucracy and corruption.

This is a major problem for the Chavez government. Similar to the first few years of the Cuban Revolution, the Bolivarian Revolution has had to deal with elements of the past. Many in the state apparatus are still within the framework of the Fourth Republic [as the period from the downfall of the dictatorship in 1958 until Chavez’s election in 1998 is known] and so either sabotage or at least slow down the process of change. It is for this reason that Chavez has used the army in most of the social missions and is calling on the Bolivarian Houses and UBEs to make sure that things are implemented. A massive campaign has been launched by the government, entitled “The Evolving Democracy”. This campaign is directly taking up this question of corruption, bureaucracy and people’s participation.

Political parties

The question of how the struggle to create a revolutionary party is going is one that is harder to answer. On the one hand, you have the further consolidation of the MVR as a mass party, but on the other hand it is a hard to define the MVR. Though it is pro-Chavez, exactly what sort of organization it is, is still an open question. But in the recent debate about socialism, it seems that there is more discussion within the MVR about its political line of march. Chavez is calling for the consolidation of the MVR and for it to take up the question of socialism. Though this is a slow process there seems a real possibility that the MVR will take up this call and begin to consolidate itself as a party that is more specifically in favor of socialism.

All the other political parties are really too small to take into consideration. However there are members of the Venezuelan Communist Party that do play an important role in government. And then other groups such as the Revolutionary Marxist Current, identified with the international group identified with Alan Woods, that seems to have some sections of the government that listen to it. Other major parties within the government alliance include Patria Para Todos (Homeland for Everyone), of which the current Foreign Minister, Ali Rodriguez, is a member. The Venezuelan government has also used the issues raised by many Latin American intellectuals and activists such as Marta Harnecker, who was one of the main organisers of the Third International Solidarity Conference and appears to have a lot of influence with Chavez, and writers such as Eva Golinger, author of The Chavez Code.

Role of the armed forces

The armed forces have been a central pillar of the revolution. They are firmly behind Chavez with all the pro coup generals and officers removed. Many of the heads of the armed forces are on TV regularly supporting the projects and missions. They are very much supported by the people. The armed forces are also the backbone of the missions. The campaign to recruit two million people for the reserves will also help consolidate the Armed Forces as a political force that will defend the revolution. The reserves are part of the move to arm the masses of Venezuelans to defend the revolution against any attacks. This process is also part of the process to democratize the armed forces so that it further integrates itself into society as a whole.