Cagua, Aragua, Venezuela – Three communist workers from the United States met with factory workers here November 16 during a two-day visit to the state of Aragua just west of the capital, Caracas. We were in Venezuela helping to staff Pathfinder Press’s stand at the Venezuela International Book Fair.
The exchange was organized by Carolina Alvarez, the local director of the Book and Reading Platform, a state institution that distributes books and promotes reading. Alvarez explained that she had gotten to know Pathfinder at book fairs over the years and wanted to bring some of the political perspective it promotes to Aragua.
In the small city of Cagua we met with more than two dozen workers at Agropatria, a company that produces fertilizers and insecticides. It formerly was called Agroisleña and was nationalized by the government in early October.
Róger Calero, a box factory worker on our team, opened the meeting. “Pathfinder’s commitment is to keep in print the lessons of the last 150 years of struggles of the workers movement. These books are tools to fight more effectively,” he said. “We use these books in our workplaces in the United States to advance building a revolutionary party and transforming our unions into instruments of struggle.”
Calero described the impact of the capitalist economic crisis on working people in the United States and explained that it is “a product of the normal workings of capitalism.”
John Hawkins, a glass factory worker and the Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of Chicago, described some of the activity communist workers carry out in the United States today.
Their brief presentations were followed by more than an hour of discussion. One worker commented, “From what I’m hearing the reality in the United States is not so different from our situation. The conditions and wages are precarious, and so is safety. Why does the United States allow the violation of laws in regard to workers’ safety?”
“Workers are the only ones who can ensure safety on the job, and we have to use union power to be effective,” Calero responded. “There are laws on the books, and the government sometimes passes even stricter safety laws, but capitalists in the United States like everywhere else their system holds sway, always put their profits first, ahead of workers’ safety and the environment.”
Workers Discuss Conditions
During the meeting and in discussions afterward, a number of Venezuelan workers described conditions on the job. One big issue is the company’s use of temporary workers. Marcos Olivares, a 31-year-old production worker, said that under current labor law, workers with 90 days on the job can’t be fired without cause. Often, however, bosses fire temporary workers before they complete the 90 days, and then “rehire” them for different temporary jobs.
“We want this to end,” agreed Oscar Andrade, 32, a production worker with four years at the company. The Venezuelan workers were a bit surprised to hear how familiar this sounded to workers from the United States.
Safety is a big concern. Workers said dangerous working conditions and environmental pollution at Agroisleña’s operations were widely known. José Leje, a batch maker who mixes pesticides, pointed to one toxic chemical that is “dangerous even when you wear all of the protective gear.” Workers are seeking to limit their exposure to this chemical to three hours a day.
Luis Cortes, 38, said he was on medical leave for a year after a product spilled on him. He and others seemed hopeful that the nationalization will lead to an improvement in these conditions.
The government declared in early October that it was taking over Agroisleña. Workers learned about the nationalization on the news or when they arrived at work the next day. Like other recent nationalizations, this one took the form of the government buying out the previous owners, with a 90-day transition period. The bought-out bosses promised to pay workers for 90 days and said they didn’t have to work, in effect trying to sabotage production. While some workers at the company opposed the government takeover, most who spoke in the meeting supported it.
Building a Working Class Leadership
Another theme of the discussion at Agropatria was the perspective of building a working-class leadership. Leje commented, “I agree capitalism is in crisis, but it is not going to die by itself.” The bosses “have the ability to regenerate their system.”
“Workers and farmers here have made some advances in recent years,” Hawkins said, “most important of all in becoming more confident and conscious of workers’ potential. You can bet the capitalists here and in North America do not like it one bit. When working people make gains, we have to prepare to defend them.”
Citing the example of the Cuban Revolution and encouraging everyone to read The First and Second Declarations of Havana, Calero described how the Cuban toilers took and held state power. “Workers need to not only take control of the factory,” Calero said. “Everywhere we need a mass revolutionary movement such as that in Cuba, which was able wrest power from the capitalists and replace their state with one run by workers and farmers; carry through an extensive expropriation of land, industry, and banking; and decisively take away their means to exploit us.”
The following day we met with students and teachers at two campuses of the Bolivarian University. One of these was a night class composed of workers taking university classes in buildings used as primary and secondary schools during the day.
Students at the Bolivarian University also were interested in politics in the United States. One student asked, “How is it possible that you’re speaking so much about racism in the United States when there’s a Black president. Isn’t he doing something about racism?”
Hawkins replied that the mass struggles by Black workers and farmers made gains that have permanently strengthened the possibilities to unify the working class, fight for power, and open the door to eradicating racism and all other forms of oppression. At the same time, a significant layer of Blacks has become part of the middle classes, and a number part of the capitalist ruling class. The parasitic social layer that Obama is part of is bourgeois in its class interests, values, and world outlook. His government cannot and will not do anything to improve the condition that the overwhelming majority of Black toilers face today.
At each meeting, participants took advantage of the opportunity to get Pathfinder books that were brought from the book fair. Overall sales totaled 60 books, including 15 copies of Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power.