The campaign for Venezuela’s presidential election on December 3rd is already well under way. But this is far from a normal election. On December 3rd what is really at stake is the future of the Bolivarian Revolution.
The election of Hugo Chávez as president in December 1998 marked the beginning of the Venezuelan revolution. That was not a normal election campaign either. Conducted under conditions of extreme polarisation and with the full power of the mass media unleashed against Chávez, he nevertheless managed to win a clear victory. This was a sign that what we were witnessing was not just the election of a progressive government, but the opening shots of a revolutionary movement in which millions of ordinary working people wanted to take their future into their own hands.
At the beginning, the Venezuelan ruling class was ambivalent in their attitude towards Chavez. He was clearly not their candidate, but since he had been elected into office, some thought that he could be pressurised, arm twisted, into moderating his programme, and basically that he could be used to give the discredited Venezuelan bourgeois democracy a new clean face, but without endangering their power, wealth and privileges.
But these hopes vanished when in December 2001 president Chavez passed 49 enabling laws which would implement the most important parts of his programme: to maintain the nationalised character of the oil industry and to implement land reform. On the face of it, these were quite moderate progressive reforms. The oil industry had already been nationalised in 1976 and the land reform which was being proposed dealt mainly with distributing state-owned land and expropriating with compensation idle estates. But the rotten parasitic Venezuelan oligarchy, the 100 families which had controlled the country’s wealth for two hundred years and run the state and the nationalised oil company as a private fiefdom, could not tolerate any of this. It was not just a simple matter of opposition to the 49 Enabling Laws, it was their fear of the revolutionary movement that was being unleashed from below, of the process of the raising of the consciousness of the masses that Chavez had started, of the organisation of millions of workers, peasants and urban poor into rank and file revolutionary organisations of all sorts.
Those who had always been excluded from political decisions now thought that they could rule the country, and this was something that could not be allowed. This explains the fundamental and irreconcilable opposition of the oligarchy (the small clique of capitalist owners of the banks, the land and industry, in alliance with multinational capital) to the Bolivarian Revolution. It does not matter how many times Chavez has tried to appeal to them, has opened negotiations and tried to conciliate. As long as Chavez is a factor in encouraging the revolutionary movement of the masses, they will not cease in their efforts to overthrow him and put an end to the Bolivarian revolution, by any means necessary.
This was clearly shown in the military coup in April 2002, the lock out and sabotage of the economy in December 2002-February 2003 (which was accompanied by a new attempted military coup) and the “guarimba” riots of February 2004 (in which the opposition brought 130 Colombian paramilitaries into the country). But all these attempts at a violent overthrow of the government failed because they were met by a mass movement of the people which defeated them. In the case of the oil sabotage in 2002, this included the oil workers (with the support of the local communities and sections of the armed forces) taking over the installations and running them under workers’ control, in what is the most advanced example of workers’ control anywhere in the world in recent times.
The oligarchy and the elections
Counter-revolution is governed by some of the same rules that govern revolution. Having been soundly defeated on a number of occasions, the opposition (i.e. the oligarchy) became demoralised, divided, and lost the capacity it had had to mobilise hundreds of thousands amongst the middle classes of the East of Caracas. The defeats of the attempted coups also meant that the most reactionary sections of the Armed Forces purged themselves out of the Army. At the same time these events strengthened the confidence of the masses in their own forces and their resolve to defend the revolution. This left the oligarchy, in the short term, unable to carry out a new coup attempt.
But it would be a dangerous mistake to think that they have reconciled themselves to the idea of acting only within the limits of parliamentary democracy. Their aim is to get rid of Chavez and to smash the revolutionary movement and spirit of the masses. And they know very well that, for now, they cannot achieve this in a clean election contest. In this field they have been also soundly beaten, in the recall referendum in August 2004, in the state governor elections in October 2004 (where they only won in 2 of the country’s 23 states) and then in the council elections in 2005 (where they only won about 25% of local councils).
Even thought they might be forced to participate in electoral contests, for lack of a better plan, this is just a tactical move. At the time of the recall referendum in August 2004, they knew they could not win and their plan was to announce their victory, with the backing of the media and international observers and create a situation of chaos which would “justify” international intervention (maybe under the fig leaf of the OAS). At the last minute, faced with the enormity of Chavez’s victory and fearing the revolutionary implications of a mass movement against any attempts to rig the referendum result, the most intelligent sections of imperialism pulled out from this plan, leaving the Venezuelan opposition screaming “fraud” for a few months.
In the National Assembly elections of 2005, the tactic used was different. The opposition participated in the election while organising a systematic campaign to undermine its credibility (attacking the voting system, the electoral register, the National Electoral Council, etc), in order to justify pulling out at the last minute (even though most of their demands regarding the voting methods, counting and so on, had been met). The idea was to de-legitimise the national assembly. This was a clear signal that the Venezuelan capitalist class is not interested in parliamentary democracy, since it does not produce the results they want.
This time round, the opposition seems to be using a combination of both tactics. First of all they managed to rally behind a united candidate (quite an achievement), Manuel Rosales, the current opposition governor of the oil rich state of Zulia on the border with Colombia. Rosales represents a more shrewd type of opposition politician. Rather than opposing frontally the extremely popular social programmes of the Chavez government (the Misiones), he has introduced copycat versions of those in Zulia under a different name (and without the revolutionary element of self-organisation of the masses that many of the misiones contain). In his election campaign he has declared that he will keep the misiones if he is elected. In fact, he has made some many promises of social assistance that he is the genuine populist candidate in this election!
The opposition is still making a lot of noise about irregularities in the electoral register, about the unsafe nature of electronic voting machines, etc. But Rosales has promised to stay in the race until the end and not to withdraw.Their strategy this time seems to be more similar to the one they used during the presidential recallreferendum. Through their control of private mass media they are moulding public opinion to the idea that Chavez’s lead is being reduced and that the gap between him and Rosales is closing. As we get close to election day, they can very easily produce opinions polls “showing” that this is a very close race, that both candidates have more or less the same voting intentions, … and then when the results show Chavez winning by a comfortable margin to organise a campaign saying there has been fraud, appealing to the armed forces and the “international community” to intervene, etc.
While the opposition is relatively weak, one of the main dangers for the Bolivarian revolution comes from within. There is a whole layer of officials in the state apparatus and in the structures of the Bolivarian movement who are preventing the revolution from going forward and being completed. Chavez himself is very much aware of this, and in a recent interview he warned that this is now the main threat facing the revolution:
The Threat from Within
“The main threat is within. There is a constant bureaucratic counter-revolution. I am an enemy on a daily basis. I have to walk around with a whip, because I am being attacked from all sides by this enemy, the old bureaucracy and a new one which resists change. So much so that I have to be constantly on guard when I give an instruction, and follow it up so that it is not stopped, or diverted, or minimised by this bureaucratic counter-revolution which exists within the state. This would be one of the elements of the new phase that we are entering: the transformation of the State.”
“The State was transformed at the macro level, but the micro levels remain intact. We need to think from now about a new package of laws, to transform the macro political and juridical level down to the lowest levels of the state in order to defeat this resistance.
“A sister threat to that of bureaucratic counter-revolution is the counter-revolution of bureaucracy. This is another terrible threat, beacause it strikes where you least expect it” (Panorama Digital, reproduced in http://www.aporrea.org/actualidad/n83403.html)
This raises two different problems which are linked. On the one hand the Venezuelan state apparatus is still the same capitalist state apparatus of the IV Republic. A whole number of activists who come from the revolutionary movement now occupy positions in Ministries and institutions, but the basic structures and most of the personnel are still the same. This means that there is constant sabotage of decisions taken by the government or the different ministers. When rank and file organisations have to deal with state institutions they find themselves blocked at all levels by functionaries who have been in those positions for 10, 15, 20 years, who are there clearly to serve the interests of the ruling class.
One of the main lessons Marx and Engels drew from the experience of the Paris Commune, is that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” (The Civil War in France). The experience of the Bolivarian revolution over the last few years is a damning confirmation of this idea, and there is a growing discontent within the revolutionary movement with this state of affairs.
The way Chavez has dealt with this so far has been by trying to by-pass to a certain extent existing institutions while creating others. For instance the social plans in the fields of education, health and others (misiones) were actually not implemented through the Ministries of Health and Education, but rather directly into the communities. The problem is that, lacking a proper structure of control and accountability on the part of the workers and the communities themselves, bureaucracy has also reproduced in many of these new institutions. The problem is therefore not only the old bureaucracy of the IV Republic, but also this new bureaucracy of which Chavez talks, which disguises itself as “Bolivarian” but in reality is playing a counter-revolutionary role.
The latest attempt to deal with this problem is the creation of Communal Councils. These bodies are based on mass assemblies of 200 to 400 families in urban areas and they have the power to elect and recall community spokespersons. Communal Councils (of which there are now thousands across the country) are also supposed to get direct funding from the state in order to deal with issues in the areas where they operate. This, potentially, could be the basis for a new form of state, one which is firmly under the control of working people. The problem arises when these councils co-exist with the present state apparatus, are not part of a nation-wide centralised structure (and therefore their real power is limited) and with the fact that Venezuela still has a capitalist economy (so these councils cannot really plan or manage the economy in their areas). Unless the current state apparatus is destroyed and replaced by a new form of state, one based on elected and recallable delegates from factories, workplaces, communities, etc. the problem of bureaucracy will reproduce itself once and again.
Reformists and bureaucrats
The other side of the problem is that of the reformist and bureaucratic sections of the Bolivarian movement. Those who reluctantly accept Chavez’s attacks on capitalism and his appeals for socialism, but who in reality are basically social democrats, who think that the revolution has already gone far enough, and above all, that one must respect private property of the means of production.
The division between left and right at all levels of the Bolivarian movement is sharpening. A whole number of recent incidents are an indication of this. At the end of August we saw the polemic between Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto and Vice-president Jose V Rangel over the expropriation of two golf courses in the East of Caracas (http://www.marxist.com/venezuela-expropriations-reformism-elections.htm). This was significant because it was the first time that there was an open split in the Bolivarian leadership on political issues. And the demarcation lines were clear: Rangel argued that “in no way do we accept violating the right of property, as it is described in the constitution”, while Barreto answered that if “we keep silent”, in order not to “scare off a part of the middle class” this will “demoralise our people”.
The Bolivarian masses are clearly becoming impatient when they see that after more than 7 years of the revolutionary process, still the majority of the people live in poverty and the progress of the revolution is being constantly stalled by bureaucrats, reformists and the fifth column. One of the places where the anger of the rank and file of the revolution has acquired an organised expression is the Andean state of Mérida, with the formation of the Front of Socialist Forces. On October 8, this coalition of rank and file revolutionary organisations, participants of the education misiones, left wing political organisations, trade unions, land reform committees, etc, called a demonstration under the banners of “Chavismo with Chavez”, “With Chavez towards socialism” and “With Chavez without bureaucrats”. Without the support of any of the official chavista parties or state institutions, the march gathered a red tide of more than 12,000 people, (http://venezuela.elmilitante.org/index.asp?id=muestra&id_art=2734). The “Bolivarian” bureaucracy responded as usual with accusations that the organisers were opposition supporters, that they were against Chavez, etc. But representatives of the Front of Socialist Forces clearly pointed out that this was a pack of lies and that in fact, Arnaldo Marquez, the representative of the Comando Miranda making these allegations was himself a former member of opposition party Acción Democrática.
Briceño, a spokesperson for the Front, explained “our unwavering support for our president Hugo Chávez,” but added that “we are sick and tired of false leaders who take their positions and forget about their responsibility towards the people, while they have lucrative appointments which allow them to buy expensive cars”.
Mérida is one of the very few places where the rank and file revolutionary opposition to the bureaucracy in the Bolivarian movement has reached such an organised expression, but the attitude of the masses is similar everywhere.
The problem of bureaucracy and lack of democracy does not only exist within the state apparatus but also, and probably more dangerously, within the structures of the revolutionary movement itself. The main government parties (MVR, PPT, PODEMOS) are thoroughly discredited as instruments through which the rank and file can express themselves. This is made worse by the way in which candidates from the Bolivarian movement have been selected for the different elections in the last few years. Basically they have been appointed from above without any consultation to the rank and file and its organisations. The Bolivarian masses have still voted for them, but only because they were “Chavez’s candidates”.
In order to address this problem Chavez has now started to talk about the need for a united party of the revolution. This idea has met with a lot of support by the rank and file, which see it as a way of getting rid of the bureaucratic structures of the parties that do exist now. But the main problem remains, what will be the structure of such a party? If it is a repetition of the different organisational forms that have been used up until now (mostly top down, without any accountability), this will be a new failure. Only an organisation based on genuine democratic principles (election and right of recall of all representatives by the rank and file) can serve the needs of the Venezuelan revolutionary movement.
The struggle for workers’ control and a socialist economy
The bureaucracy has also been busy trying to water down and sabotage the experiences of workers’ control that have developed in Venezuela since the expropriation of Venepal in January 2005.
A whole range of forces have gathered to prevent these experiences from going any further. On the one hand there are those who have argued, publicly and in private, that there should be no workers control or participation of the workers in the management of state owned companies in strategic sectors (particularly oil and energy). Workers in both industries have responded by saying that they are very aware that these are strategic interests involved but that this is a precisely one of the main reasons why they should be under the direct control of the workers and the communities (that is, under the direct control of the Venezuelan people), and that the sabotage of PDVSA in December 2002 shows that un-elected, unaccountable managers and directors cannot be trusted to defend the interests of the country, never mind the interests of the revolution. This deliberate blocking of workers control (or as it is known in Venezuela cogestión) has already killed the experience of workers participation in the electrical company Cadafe, leaving behind a legacy of demoralisation and cynicism amongst trade union leaders there.
There are those who argue, incredibly, that the workers of Venezuela have neither the political level of consciousness, nor the cultural level, to implement workers control, and therefore that this is a discussion for the long distant future. This idea was put forward for instance by Jacobo Torres, from the Bolivarian Workers’ Front (one of the tendencies within the UNT), at a meeting organised by the British TUC in Brighton. He added that “regardless of what some have been saying” there is “no workers control in Venezuela” and “least of all in the basic industries in (http://www.handsoffvenezuela.org/british_tuc_solidarity_latin_america_2.htm) Guayana”. This flies in the face of reality. In the state owned steel mill Alcasa, in Guayana, the workers elect the different managers of the company, these are subject to the right of recall by the workers and do not receive a higher wage than what they had before (see for instance this report: http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1407). If this is not workers’ control, whatever the name it takes in Venezuela, what is it? Not only this, but both in the case of Alcasa, and in the case of the oil workers during the lock out, Venezuelan workers have given enough proof that they have the necessary political and cultural level to exercise workers control.
The political position put forward by Torres and others in the Bolivarian and trade union movement, is just a rehash of the old Stalinist two-stage theory, which argued that revolution should be clearly divided into two stages: first the struggle for national liberation and democracy, and second, in the long and distant future, the struggle for socialism. The problem proponents of this theory have is that Chavez has clearly stated that the aim is socialism and the debate is open in the revolutionary movement. The capitalist class of Venezuela, as we explained at the beginning, when faced with the first measures of a genuine national and democratic revolution (not a socialist one), decided to organise an armed uprising! What clearer example do you want of the fact that one cannot separate one from the other. As soon as you start carrying out, in a serious fashion, the tasks of the national democratic revolution, you are faced with the simple fact that the enemy you are facing is not only imperialism, but also the local owners of banks, land and industry, that is, the capitalist class.
But the development of workers’ control has not only been stopped by the sabotage of the bureaucracy and the reformists. Unfortunately, the main factor has been the inaction of the trade union leaders. On a number of occasions Chavez has made an open appeal for workers to take over factories where the employers have sabotaged production. He event went as far as drawing up a list of 700 companies that were paralysed and another 500 that were semi-paralysed and made an appeal for workers to occupy them.
What did the UNT leadership do? Instead of taking up the call and organising the workers in different regions to actually occupy these factories and demand the state to expropriate them under workers control, they basically did not do anything. Even former Minister of Labour, M. Cristina Iglesias, publicly criticised UNT leaders for their inaction on this front! Some will argue that, after all, Chavez was only calling on workers to occupy factories that had already been abandoned by their owners, and that this is not a socialist measure at all. Strictly speaking this is true. But just imagine the impact of workers occupying 700, or even 100 factories and demanding expropriation under workers control, and then these factories being expropriated by the government. This would have seriously put the debate about workers control in private and state owned industry, and the need for democratic planning of the economy, at the top of the agenda for the workers’ movement. In fact, already now, many conflicts over wages and conditions, end up with the workers discussing the issue of occupation and of expropriation (as in the case of Sanitarios Maracay). In a revolutionary situation like in Venezuela there would be no Chinese wall separating bankrupt companies from active ones which are attacking workers rights and conditions, nor any division between private and state owned enterprises.
The Trade Unions
Some in the UNT leadership (as we have seen in the case of Jacobo Torres) are actually opposed to workers’ control (or at least they are opposed to workers’ control being posed now, as opposed to in the long and distant future). But what is more worrying is the attitude of some of those in the left wing of the UNT leadership who have not taken this issue seriously. For instance, leading members of the CCURA left wing of the UNT, who are promoting the new Party of Revolution and Socialism, argued against participation in the Latin American Gathering of Worker RecoveredFactories (http://www.marxist.com/gathering-worker-factories021105.htm ), because, they said, this was a “gobiernero” meeting (a pro-government meeting). Surely, it is a good thing if the Ministry of Labour promotes such a meeting (as long as it does not try to interfere with the conclusions that the workers should draw). But even if one was in political opposition to the organisers of the meeting, the worst thing one can do is … abstain from it! To his credit Orlando Chirino did participate in the meeting, but most others in CCURA followed the sectarian advice of PRS leaders.
The PRS leaders have also abstained in general from participating in the movement of occupied factories, Freteco, which was only set up on February this year, and which now organises the overwhelming majority of factories under cogestión in Venezuela. The only tendency in the labour movement which proposed the setting up of such a front and has worked consistently to develop it, has been the Revolutionary Marxist Current (CMR http://venezuela.elmilitante.org/).
The recent National Gathering of Freteco (http://www.marxist.com/occupied-factories-venezuela171006-2.htm) was in this respect an indication of what is possible. The worker activists behind Freteco, starting with those leading the experience of workers’ control at Inveval in Los Teques, have had to resist enormous pressure on the part of the state bureaucracy to water down the content of their struggle, and more recently to put an end to workers’ control altogether.
This is still a young movement, learning from its own mistakes. This was the case for instance at Invepal, the paper mill in Morón. Here the workers decided to disband the union after the expropriation. They felt that since they were in control now and elected the directors, they did not need one. This was a serious mistake, and the newly elected directors moved away from the original aims of the struggle. But the most important point is that finally, in October 2005, a mass workers’ meeting decided to remove them and elect a new team. This was not negative, but on the contrary, as the workers explain, it shows how workers’ democracy, accountability and the right of recall are the only genuine weapons against bureaucracy.
Because of the existence of a body like Freteco, the workers involved in this struggle, apart from giving each other elementary solidarity, have also been able to discuss their experiences and to generalise their conclusions. If an organisation like this (based on elected delegates at each factory) existed for the whole of the revolutionary movement, that would be a major step forward.
The workers at Inveval and Invepal, and other occupied factories, despite all difficulties, show that workers are perfectly capable of running industry in a democratic way. But they are also very conscious that they cannot remain small islands of socialism within a sea of capitalism, and that their struggle is only a part of the general struggle for the expropriation of the capitalist class as a whole and the running of the Venezuelan economy under a democratic plan of production.
The Venezuelan economy remains a capitalist economy. Key sectors remain in private hands and some of them in the hands of multinational companies. This is the case with the banking sector for instance (in the hands of two Spanish based multinationals), telecommunications, the distribution of food, the mass media, etc. These capitalists have shown once again their irreconcilable opposition to the Bolivarian revolution, even though this has not so far threatened the private ownership of the means of production directly.
The issue of who controls the economy must be resolved in the next stage of the revolution. These levers of economic power cannot be left in the hands of the counter-revolution, which will not hesitate in using them to smash the revolution, when it feels the time is right.
Turning Point for Revolution
Thus, summarising, we can say that the December 3rd elections are a crucial turning point for the Venezuelan revolution. The masses will mobilise to achieve a resounding victory on December 3rd, but after that they will expect, and demand, solutions to these crucial problems: the state and the bureaucracy, the democratic organisation of the revolutionary movement and above all the question of the economy.
In these conditions, the ideas of Marxism which are already being widely discussed in the movement, will find an even keener audience.
The Venezuelan revolution can only solve these contradictions by decisively moving in the direction of socialism, that is, a nationalised and democratically planned economy and a genuine workers’ state based on elected recallable delegates at all levels.
This would have a massive impact in the already fertile ground of revolutionary Latin America and open the doors for continent-wide revolution.