Ciudad Guyana and “The New Working Class of Venezuela”

Hernandez and Arevalo, and the people I encountered through them, revealed how Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution is indebted to social movements in which people made profound sacrifices for over 30 years. It is an aspect of Chavez's emergence that the American news media ignores, because it contradicts the conservative perspective that Chavez is an autocratic military leader.

This is a series of posts based upon my experiences during an August tour of Venezuela. Comments can be e-mailed to me at [email protected].

Part 1: Ciudad Guyana and “The New Working Class of Venezuela”

David Hernandez and Francisco Arevalo move freely through the aluminum production facilities and executive offices of CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum with a relaxed self-assurance, a self-assurance that I have only personally encountered among the most indispensable employees during my work in California state government. Arevalo is edgier, more impatient than Hernandez, but, given that this seems to be his natural persona, I would have to say that he is, paradoxically, displaying a relaxed self-assurance as well by consciously refusing to conceal his true temperment.

CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum are enterprises in which the state owns a majority interest, located in an enormous industrial zone adjacent to the fictional city of Ciudad Guyana in south central Venezuela, a city that exists primarily in the minds of cartographers and travel guide authors, approximately 450 miles from Caracas. In fact, Venezuelans know that Ciudad Guyana is actually two cities, divided by the Rio Caroni River, the newer, modern (or is it postmodern?) Puerto Ordaz to the west, and the older, colonial (or, in its own way, equally postmodern?) San Felix to the east. Flights to Ciudad Guyana don’t exist, as the airlines remain loyal to Puerto Ordaz. CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum produce Venezuela’s most valuable commodity other than oil, aluminum, and my curiosity about it attracted me to the region, persuading me to forego relaxing in the Andes before the start of my Global Exchange tour in Caracas.

Just as names of cities on maps can be deceiving, so can the outward demeanor of Hernandez and Arevalo. Neither of them are bureaucrats in the American mold. Instead, they are political radicals who have lived long enough to see their vision of society embraced by the populace, or, at least by enough of it, as expressed through support of President Hugo Chavez, to now work within the economic establishment of Bolivar state instead of outside of it.

Hernandez and Arevalo, and the people I encountered through them, revealed how Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution is indebted to social movements in which people made profound sacrifices for over 30 years. It is an aspect of Chavez’s emergence that the American news media ignores, because it contradicts the conservative perspective that Chavez is an autocratic military leader, despite his perpetual success in democratic elections, with no legitimate roots in the social history of his country.

Back in the 1960s, there was a Venezuelan guerrilla movement, inspired, like many others in the Americas, by Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. If I can ever find a copy of Richard Gott’s book, Guerrilla Movements of South America, I’ll read it, come back, and edit this post to include what I discover. For now, all we need to know is that the movement was Marxist, and that it was suppressed by the Venezuelan military.

I did not ask Hernandez or Arevalo if they were associated with either the armed or political branches of the insurgency. I’m not a journalist, and the question seemed, well, rather personal, especially as I had just stumbled off a plane and met them. I tended to ask general questions, and allow them, and anyone else I met, to determine the extent to which they wanted to reveal things about themselves.

After the defeat of the insurgency, the left required new strategies, one that recognized the need to organize people with an understanding that it was going to take longer to prevail than originally anticipated. Venezuela was developing a steel and aluminum industry to the west of the Rio Orinoco delta, because of the happy conjunction of the things required for the manufacture and shipping of them: alumina, bauxite, iron ore, hydroelectric power and river transport. Someone told me that the ultimate purpose of this huge, state sponsored enterprise was the creation of a Venezuelan automobile industry, a dream that was never fulfilled, although the desire to create industries that can transform aluminum and steel into processed, value added products endures. Harvard architects designed a new city to support it, Puerto Ordaz. Transformed downtown storefronts, large boulevards, and high rise apartment buildings, still evoke the midsized cities of 1960s America. Here, as Hernandez explained, leftists believed that “the new working class of Venezuela” would be created.

They were correct, but did they know that it would take decades? Hernandez, Arevalo and a generation of activists consciously educated themselves for factory work, so that they could go into the plants and organize the workers. Just like Cesar Chavez became a farm worker to organize farm workers here in California. Hence, Arevalo is a poet who worked in the plants, and listens to Barry White, while Hernandez worked in the plants, and developed a sociological understanding of the many types of people who migrated to this region to work, the fastest growing in Venezuela during this period. Hernandez often found what he accurately described as my “California English” incomprehensible, but we communicated much more easily when the conversation turned to the academic language of sociology.

With the population of the two cities growing from an estimated 40,000 in 1961 to probably over 1,000,000 today, through the arrival of people from from other states in Venezuela, including many indigenous people, as well as refugees from persecution in Colombia, Peru, Chile and Argentina, Hernandez observed that it was frequently necessary “to act without thinking”, because of the the urgency of events. No doubt there is a rich social history here with many compelling stories to tell for someone ambitious enough undertake the endeavor, if it hasn’t been done already.

As Gott relates in his most recent book, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, the unions in these plants were closely aligned with one of the two parties in the Venezuelan “duopoly”, Accion Democratica. In the Bolivarian cosmology, Accion Democratica and the other party, Copei, bankrupted the country throughout the 1980s and 1990s as a result of corrupt neoliberal policies. A political movement known as La Causa R (“Radical Cause”) and the privatization schemes of the 1990s would sever this bond, accelerating the destruction of the duopoly itself by Chavez. But it never would have happened without the efforts of many people like Hernandez and Arevalo, people who consciously decided to align themselves with the dramatic changes resulting from the anticipated industrialization of Bolivar state.

Part 2: Resistance to Privatization of Aluminum and Steel

Above, I described the social activism that resulted from the creation of state owned steel and aluminum companies in Bolivar state. Such activism, initiated by leftists who consciously entered the plants to organize the workers in these industries, played an essential role in facilitating the emergence of Hugo Chavez. As Richard Gott has described in his recent book, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Chavez’s failed 1992 coup attempt mortally wounded the neoliberal duopoly that governed Venezuela. If anything, it appears that the coup, and the subsequent outpouring of popular support for Chavez after his brief, successful televised exhortation to his supporters to cease opposition to the government, created a sense of urgency for people both inside and outside the country to accelerate plans for the privatization of state owned industries.


Steel privatization was already underway, moving forward despite a union reform movement that had commenced in the 1970s. During my time in Ciudad Guyana, I encountered two people involved in this endeavor, David Hernandez, described in Part 1, and Elio Sayago. Sayago emigrated from the Venezuelan city of Barinas in the llanos to Puerto Ordaz to work as an apprentice metallurgist for SIDOR, the steel company, in 1979. There were 18,000 workers in the plant. Hernandez had already started working there in 1977.

Both were involved in the La Causa R effort to create a truly independent union at SIDOR. As described by Gott, Alfredo Maneiros, a communist guerrilla who had split from the party when the insurgency ended, created La Causa R in 1970. Implementing a doctrine evocative of the approach taken by Rosa Luxemburg at the turn of the century, La Causa R sought to create a political framework for mass action without dictating political decisions and leadership. Activists thereafter struggled within SUTISS, the mainstream union that represented the workers in the plant. SUTISS, through its parent union, Fetrametal, was affiliated with CTV, the national union confederation politically aligned with one of the parties in the duopoly, Accion Democratica. Many workers believed that SUTISS was subordinating their interests to those of Accion Democratica, denying them a voice in the operation of their own union and issues of workplace safety. In 1979, La Causa R unionists took control of SUTISS, but the parent union, Fetrametal, removed the elected officers two years later.

Fetrametal’s action had significant consequences, possibly preventing the emergence of a reinvigorated union that could have successfully resisted the privatization of the plant in the 1990s. Hernandez and Sayago went “underground” within the plant, organizing departmental committees. Sayago, educating himself at the university as he worked at the plant, was promoted to a maintenance position. By the late 1980s, La Causa R was resurgent, but it was too late. The Venezuelan economy had collapsed, and the duopoly was either unwilling or incapable of resisting neoliberal policies being pressed upon it by international investors and transnational corporations.

Shortly thereafter, the “reconversion process” began. CTV, and by extension, SUTISS, accepted privatization as instructed by Accion Democratica. After 15 years in the plant, Hernandez was fired in 1992. Privatization was subsequently completed in 1997, with the ownership interests of the state and the workers reduced to approximately 44%, during a period in which Chavez had been released from prison but had not yet taken power. Out of a workforce of 14,500, 10,000 employees were converted into subcontractors, without benefits and pensions. Sayago, as a member of the SUTISS Executive Committee, opposed illegal buyouts for workers in 1998 and 2000, resulting in his removal from the factory as well. CTV supported the buyouts, as well as Sayago’s removal. In 2002, Sayago went to work in the nearby aluminum plant at CVG Alcasa as an environmental specialist. It is perhaps a telling indication of the Chavez regime’s sensitivity towards the need to attract foreign investment and technology that no effort has been made to renationalize SIDOR.


Aluminum was the bigger prize. Again, as with La Causa R and SUTISS, Estelito Garcia and Fernando Serrano, officers in the union SUPRALUM, a union that represents 2,200 workers at CVG Venalum, described a process by which rebellion against union acceptance of adverse working conditions inevitably resulted in resistance to privatization. In 1991, Garcia was originally a supervisor, but was appalled by the day to day injustices that he observed as workers were habitually mistreated. The union was subordinate to the company, directed by a group of people that went along with management.

Serrano worked in the reduction area, and faced pressure to increase production, motivating him to seek better treatment of workers, advocating for benefits such as better pay, housing and education. Privatization of aluminum moved forward in the mid-1990s, despite domestic opposition. There was a conscious decision to depreciate the value of the companies, as the law governing privatization prohibited new investment. CVG Alcasa, the predominately domestic aluminum producer, was deprived of any new investment from 1996-1998 as the company awaited privatization, with the facility bordering on being non-operational, according CVG Alcasa public affairs officer Antonio Guzman. At CVG Venalum, the international producer, more than 60 of the facilities 905 alumina pouring pots were out of service.

Ironically, it appears that the transformation of the unions in aluminum into more radical instruments of worker self-interest occurred after La Causa R emerged triumphant in the steel industry. Yet the aluminum unions stopped privatization, and the steel unions did not, for one obvious reason. Steel privatization was first. By 1998, Hugo Chavez was running for President, and it was not possible to complete the privatization of aluminum prior to the outcome of the election.

Chavez halted the privatization of aluminum after taking office, permitting both companies to invest in the upgrading and expansion of their facilities. CVG Alcasa is completing a new line that will increase production from 250,000 tons annually to 460,000 tons. CVG Venalum is considering installing a new line that would increase production annually from 480,000 tons to 600,000 tons, and employ 2,200 people during two and a half years of construction. Now, only 2 of the 905 alumina pots are out of service. Steel worker subcontractors no doubt wonder whether SUTISS might have been able to delay the completion of steel privatization until 1998, gaining enough time for Chavez to kill it as well, if not for Fetrametal’s removal of La Causa R leadership in 1981.