The Bolivarian Revolution at the Crossroads

The defeat of President Hugo Chavez in the referendum last December marks an important turning point in the Bolivarian process, which began more than ten years ago. Following this defeat a crucial choice arises: to accelerate the process towards a socialist society or on the contrary to prefer the status quo by centring the revolution solely around the image of the president.

The defeat of President Hugo Chavez in the referendum last
December marks an important turning point in the Bolivarian process,
which began more than ten years ago. Following this defeat a crucial
choice arises: to accelerate the process towards a socialist society or
on the contrary to prefer the status quo by centring the revolution
solely around the image of the president. After thirteen electoral
victories in a row, the defeat in December was a body blow for the
whole of the Bolivarian Left. For the first time in ten years, the
Venezuelan people had expressed its disapproval, in spite of the
widely-recognised gains of the revolution.

The gains of the revolution

In a country which is the fourth world
exporter of oil and which has the greatest oil reserves in the world,
oil is a very powerful financial weapon. The profits generated by PDVSA
(the state oil company) make it possible to finance the “missions” of
the revolution. Among the most important are those concerning
- The Robinson mission aims at teaching illiterates how to read and write.

- The Ribas mission trains graduates.

- The
Sucre mission gives access to the university to students that the
former republic had excluded. To this end, a Bolivarian University has
been established and located all over the country. It functions
parallel to the traditional Venezuelan universities, of which the best
known are the Central University of Venezuela (in Caracas) and the
Andean University (in Merida).

These educational missions are
extremely successful. The students, of all ages, are very numerous, so
much so that the centres where they operate are being multiplied. This
enthusiasm can be explained partly by the methods of teaching that are
used. The courses are given on video cassette and a teacher is there to
help the group, which is always quite small. There is no place here for
the system of evaluation and sanction. Everything is done to encourage
the student’s progress. And the results speak for themselves: in
October 2005, UNESCO officially proclaimed Venezuela “a territory freed
from illiteracy”.

Another of the best known missions is
“Barrio adentro”, which is a medical mission. In the framework of an
agreement with Cuba, nearly 15.000 Cuban doctors are today employed by
the Venezuelan government. Access to health has thus become completely
free. Installed in doctors’ surgeries, all built on the same model,
these doctors treat the population, but at the same time they inform
and make people aware of the rules of hygiene and contraception. They
also keep many statistics up to date, in order to observe the evolution
of the medical situation of the population. It is clear that progress
is being made, and the whole of the population, in particular in the
barrios, has seen its living conditions improving, largely thanks to
these doctors.

We could also speak about the Mercal
mission, which markets food products at low prices. Created for all
Venezuelans, it addresses itself more specifically to the poorest
sectors of the population.

We could futhermore mention the Piar
mission which aims at improving the living conditions of children, or
“Vuelvan Caras”, the purpose of which is to develop co-operatives of
production, or Guaicai which works to restore the rights of the
indigenous peoples and communities of the country. Chavez often repeats
that “to fight against poverty, it is necessary to give power to the
poor”. The missions are there for that… to help the needy populations
of the barrios, those who took to the streets at the time of the coup
d’etat in 2002 to put Chavez back in power.

Lastly, how can we speak about the
gains of the Bolivarian revolution without evoking one of the essential
reforms of the process: the law on land and fishing. Just eight
families in the country own between them more than 150,000 hectares of
land. That represents roughly the equivalent of eighteen times the
surface of the capital of Venezuela, where more than 4 million people
live. Furthermore, these immense landholdings remain most of the time
uncultivated, whereas they are located in the most fertile areas of the
country. It should be stressed that some big landholdings, such as for
example the liquor-producing Santa Teresa company, established in the
valleys of Aragua, do not have any documented title to the land that
they occupy. The law has made it possible to launch a process of more
equitable distribution of land resources, by regularizing the division
of the land among peasants through the National Land Institute. It has
encouraged the construction of rural population centres equipped with
basic services, giving their inhabitants access to health and
education, in order for them to have a better and more dignified life.
The law protects the poor peasants and encourages the formation of
co-operatives and other associative forms of production, by supporting
them financially and technically and by creating at the same time the
conditions of their economic viability, through establishing the
necessary means of transport and marketing of their produce.

Again on the lost referendum

So we might be astonished that in spite
of these well-known gains, Hugo Chavez lost the referendum last
December. All the more so in that in the president’s proposal we could
find in particular:

- recognition
of popular participation through the Councils of Popular Power (such
as, for example, the Student, Peasant Councils, etc.), and through
workers’ associations, co-operatives, community enterprises;
- strengthening
of the right to work, including the creation of a fund of social
stability for workers, allowing them, with the help of the state, to
take advantage of wide-ranging rights concerning retirement, pensions
and paid holidays;
- the reduction of the working day from 8 to 6 hours, and from 40 to 36 hours a week;

- recognition
of the specificities of the indigenous groups and the groups descended
from forced African immigration, guaranteeing the exercise of their
rights and special attention from the law;
- the
creation of a state productive economic model, based on the values of
humanism, co-operation and the preponderance of social interests over
private interests. The state promotes and develops specific forms of
companies and economic units based on social, communal or state
property, social production and distribution, mixed enterprises between
the state and the private sector, creating the best conditions for the
realization of the socialist economy.

All these social gains would make you
think that the popular classes would mobilize to once again vote
massively in favour of the proposals of Chavez. However that was not
what happened, quite the contrary. The referendum was more a defeat of
the Venezuelan president than a victory of the opposition. If we
compare the results with those of the last presidential election, won
by Chavez with 61,35% of the votes, the opposition stagnated, with 4
million votes, whereas Chavez lost 3 million votes. The abstention was
45 per cent. In the final analysis, it was by only 200,000 votes that
the constitutional proposal was rejected.

Most of the Western media were quick to
salute the wisdom of the Venezuelan people. For them, the explanation
of this failure was simple, linear, and came down to two points: the
refusal of a “Cuban-style” socialist model and the refusal to allow
Chavez the right to stand for the presidency indefinitely. Admittedly,
article 230 of the new Constitution proposed a lengthening of the
presidential term to 7 years, with the possibility of standing again
immediately and indefinitely. Such a proposal is obviously not
satisfactory. But to conclude from it that Chavez wants to make
Venezuela a dictatorship, as the media said, is to forget a little too
quickly that this same system is in force in France and in other
European democracies without it posing the least problem for these
right-thinking media people. Besides, they even quickly forgot to point
out that Venezuela really is a democracy, since Chavez recognized his
defeat and congratulated his opponents on the evening of the results.

The reasons for the defeat are undoubtedly to be looked for elsewhere.

Reasons for the defeat

First of all, by aiming to broadly
satisfy the population, the proposal did not in the end satisfy anyone.
The renewal of the presidential mandate was clearly there to satisfy
the moderate wing of the Bolivarian process, the wing that wants a
Chavism without socialism. It could not however satisfy the most
radical wing of the process. So we saw personalities like Orlando
Chirino, a member of the leadership of the country’s main trade-union
confederation, the UNT, officially come out against the proposal. On
the other hand, the entire social aspect of the reform, which we
outlined above, was unacceptable to a new Bolivarian bourgeoisie which
does not want socialism. From this point of view, it was highly
symbolic that General Baduel, an old associate of Chavez, came out
strongly against the reform.

Furthermore, there was very clearly a
problem with the method chosen by Chavez. The Venezuelan president
worked on a constitutional reform, consulting only a group of friends
selected by him and gathered around his own person. Over and above the
reform proposals, Chavez thus made disappear by decree the original
formula of this revolution: that of a popular, revolutionary,
democratic process of a constituent nature. The maximum that was
obtained was the kind of open discussion that there was around the
constituent assembly of 1999. At a moment when the context made it
possible to go much further, to undertake a reform by establishing
spaces of dialogue and power all over the country, Chavez threw down a
challenge to the entire Bolivarian and revolutionary movement, forcing
it to be with him or against him. There was a possible way out of this,
making the model of reform proposed by Chavez a working draft for a
great many constituent spaces organized all over the country, seeking
perhaps their approval but gaining a model of legitimacy and a
concretization of constituent and revolutionary democracy. In fact, the
reform almost faded into the background because in the campaign Chavez
personified the referendum to the point of transforming it into a
plebiscite. The line was: “To vote No is to vote for Bush, to vote Yes
is to vote for Chavez”.

In the face of that the opposition
developed a highly effective campaign. Through advertising spots on
television, but also by going into the popular quarters, it ceaselessly
explained that with the reform and “the arrival of socialism”, the
state would be the owner of all private goods and could seize in an
absolutely legal way anyone’s house or car. Exploiting people’s fears
by explaining that socialism would take from those who had little or
nothing, this line of argument was extremely successful .

Lastly, the primary reason for this
failure was undoubtedly the rise of a certain contestation within the
Bolivarian camp. The desire to identify the Bolivarian revolution with
the sole figure of Chavez, the way in which the United Socialist Party
of Venezuela (PSUV) is being constituted, without much consultation,
and then the way in which they tried to impose the reform, explain this
disaffection. Abstention was high because the proposal of Chavez, both
in its form as and in its essential contents, did not offer practical
democratic and counter-hegemonic perspectives. As Sebastien Ville and
François Sabado wrote in Rouge n° 2230, “this defeat is a response to
the degradation of the relations between the government and the most
combative sectors of the Bolivarian revolution”.

It is utopian to think that in the
Latin America of today, it is possible to impose socialism from on
high. The challenge is to build a radical democracy, opposed to the
present status quo but pluralist in terms of actors and popular
ideologies. Faced with this first setback, there are strong temptations
for the moderate wing of Chavism to impose a new reform that would
reduce the socializing or socialist aspects, explaining that they were
the cause of the defeat on December 2. So what is at stake for the
social movement is to keep the process moving forward. And from this
point of view, there are fortunately some positive points.

The nationalization of SIDOR

First of all, there is of course the
very recent nationalization of SIDOR. After three months of a
determined strike and of struggle, on Wednesday April 8, Hugo Chavez
finally intervened and agreed to renationalise the most important iron
and steel plant in the country, which had been privatized in 1997 by
President Caldera.

At the heart of the debate was the
denunciation by the workers and the UNT trade union of the violation by
SIDOR of Venezuelan labour legislation. Completely ignoring the
collective bargaining agreement, the management of Ternium-SIDOR, a
company owned 20 per cent by the state, 20 per cent by the workers and
60 per cent by the Italo-Argentinian consortium Techint, had maintained
for 15 months a situation of absolute wage insecurity for the 15.000
workers, including 9.000 who had no contracts. Not only did the
management refuse until now to implement the wage increases voted
legally in a general assembly by the workers, but on the contrary it
sought to impose a reduction of the workforce, wage cuts, modifications
of work contracts in the direction of greater insecurity, as well as a
downward revision of the pensions paid to former employees.

Worse still, whereas the fact of having
20 per cent of the capital enabled the workers to appoint one of the
co-presidents, the management categorically refused to recognize the
validity of this vote. Hitherto protected by Jose Ramon Rivero, the
Minister of Labour, the management of the firm thought it could count
on the fact that it benefited from foreign capital to continue flouting
Venezuelan law. Whereas Rivero never sought to negotiate and on the
contrary preferred to impose a trial of strength on the workers, as he
had previously done last August with the comrades of the UNT in the
public sector, he has just been repudiated in a scathing fashion by

On April 4, the UNT trade union
organized a referendum where two questions were put to the workers of
the factory: first of all, did they or did they not agree with the
proposal that the employers had made at the negotiating table; then,
whether they wished to continue the strike and the negotiations. In
spite of three months of struggle, the workers answered No to the first
question by 3,338 votes to 65, and Yes to the second by 3,195 to 97. On
Monday April 7, weary of the workers’ resistance, the government
decided, in the person of Vice-president Ramón Carrizales, to convene
new negotiations. Negotiations to which the minister Jose Ramon was
this time not invited. Under the constant pressure of 600 workers
guarding the factory permanently, it took less than 48 hours to resolve
the crisis.

The fall of Rivero

This struggle led in addition to the
fall of Jose Ramon Rivero. It was not the first time that the comrades
of the UNT had clashed with him. On August 15 last year, the
trade-union representatives of the UNT, workers in the Venezuelan
Ministry of Labour, had an appointment with the director of his
cabinet, Lennina Galindo, in order to present their draft of a national
collective agreement for the whole of the workers of the public sector.
On their arrival, they were told that she was in a meeting with the
minister Jose Ramón Rivero. So the trade-union representatives decided
to wait. At the end of the day, someone came back to see them to tell
them that by order of the minister, Lennina Galindo was not authorized
to receive them.

The trade unionists, furious, then
decided to occupy the Ministry until they were received. Forty-five
people, men and women, thus continued to wait. Initially, the director
of his cabinet and the vice-minister were sent to convince the
recalcitrant workers to leave the Ministry. Then, understanding that he
could not avoid a confrontation, the minister ordered the doors to be
closed, but also for water and electricity to be cut off. Six days
passed thus, without any change in the situation. Fire-fighters were
prevented from entering, all contact was prohibited with the employees
of the ministry who, out of solidarity, vainly tried to forward get
food to them.

Deprived of water, food and medicine,
faced with this serious lack of respect for the elementary rights of
the human person, the courageous trade unionists nevertheless remained
in place. The minister then called on the army to evacuate them.
Soldiers came to the scene, noted the occupation, but decided not to
intervene. Furious, the minister then decided to use purely and simply
gangster methods, by calling in roughnecks from the neighbourhood.
Promising each of them 50,000 bolivars (approximately 15 euros), he
asked them to forcibly make these trade unionists leave, presenting
them as anti-Chavist oppositionists. A violent evacuation of the
ministry ensued, with the trade unionists being driven out by thugs
armed with revolvers.

But the funniest part of the story was not in the evacuation itself.

In fact, these trade-union comrades
were all members of the C-CURA and Marea Socialista currents of the
UNT, and many of them were Trotskyists. And at the time as the
evacuation was taking place, this same minister was making an inaugural
speech on the occasion of the first official homage paid by the
Bolivarian Republic to… Leon Trotsky! Such are the methods of Rivero.

Finally, at the time when he was
ousted, Rivero was trying to set up a new trade-union confederation,
directly in competition with the UNT, and which would have followed his
orders. Although this project seems to have been frozen with the
departure of Rivero, nothing indicates that it will not be taken out of
the closet one day by the right wing of Chavism.

The internal manoeuvres in the PSUV

The right wing seems for the moment
more preoccupied by the PSUV, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela,
the new party bringing together the old MVR (Movement for Fifth
Republic) of Chavez, and part of the Venezuelan Communist Party, of PPT
and of Podemos. During March, the election of the leadership took place.

The first stage consisted of
designating the members who had the right to vote. Out of 5 million
members, only 80.000 could vote, without anyone knowing on what
criteria this choice was based. In a second stage, Chavez announced on
live television a list of 70 names from which it was necessary to
choose the 35 people who were going to make up the national leadership.
Lastly, in the third stage, once the 35 members of the national
leadership had been elected, Chavez designated on live TV the members
of the political bureau. There you can only find members of the
government, and there are no representatives of the social or
trade-union movement. The vote of the delegates in each battalion (base
organisation) proceeded without there being any control of the results.

In spite of the way the bureaucracy
arranged this election, there remain political spaces within the PSUV.
Thus for example, when there was the election of the 35 people who were
to make up the national leadership, a list drawn up by the government
was circulated, indicating the names for which it was necessary to
vote. Unfortunately for those thus designated, the 80,000 grand
electors did not follow instructions and voted freely. Which
undoubtedly partly explains Chavez taking matters in hand directly by
nominating the political bureau. In the same way, comrade Gonzalo
Gomez, a member of Marea Socialista, succeeded in being elected a
delegate, in spite of the opposition of the bureaucracy.

Admittedly, learning how to work within
the big machine that the PSUV is, is extremely complicated.
Nevertheless the assiduity and the sharpness in the political struggle
that the comrades of Marea Socialista, above all Stalin Perez, have
shown, is making it possible for them to win a hearing. These small
day-to-day political victories validate a posteriori the choice of
going into the PSUV and calling for a Yes vote at the time of the last
referendum. Inversely, the positions of the comrades of C-CURA and
Orlando Chirino on these two principal points, tend to put them off the
political field.

The next electoral deadlines

In this context, the municipal
elections in November look like being very complicated. There is a
strong chance that the Chavist camp will lose quite a few towns and
cities, which would weaken the process a little bit more. At the time
when the revolution seems to be looking for its second wind, the
problems of daily existence are coming to the fore again. Galloping
inflation (20 per cent per annum), insecurity, the problem of refuse
disposal, unemployment, corruption are elements which contribute to
weighing on the process and which will play a preponderant role at the
moment of putting a voting paper in the ballot box. Admittedly, these
problems did not start with the Bolivarian revolution and are inherited
from the former republic. However, the Chavists must be able to respond
to questions relating to living conditions at the same time as
proposing a project for another society.

For ten years, the revolution has
continued to be unceasingly attacked by the capitalist bureaucracy,
which forces it to solve the strategic problems of industrialization
and nationalization, of the development of agro-industry in the
countryside, and especially of private banking which still controls
public finances and the rates of interest and borrowing (which is about
32 per cent). If the Bolivarian camp does not grapple with these
problems, the towns of Ciudad Guyana (the most important iron and steel
basin of Venezuela), of Puerto Cruz (an oil town), of Valencia (the
main industrial city in the country) and even Caracas, the capital, can
be lost, which would lead to a halt in the revolutionary process.

So it is more than ever important to
defend the Bolivarian process. Of course it makes mistakes, even takes
condemnable decisions such those that we have described above, and we
will not cease to condemn them. Nevertheless, it is worth repeating
with force that the Bolivarian revolution remains by far, and in spite
of its errors, the most interesting phenomenon existing on the planet
today. On it depends the equilibrium of the entire Andean and Caribbean
region. If a fatal blow was dealt to it, the Bolivian and Ecuadorian
processes would crumble. The Cuban experience would end. In spite of
undeniable gains which have benefited the most underprivileged layers,
the bureaucratic heaviness of the state apparatus as well as the
continental context weigh enormously. That is why it is important to
follow and support the Venezuelan social movement. Admittedly, it
remains weakened and divided. But it is its capacity to unite which
will make it possible to give a second wind to the revolution and will
radicalize a process which is still and always too dependent on the
sole figure of Hugo Chavez.

-Fernando estevan is a member of the Fourth International working in Venezuela.