Venezuela: Interview with ex-Minister of Trade Eduardo Samán – “Build a radical tendency within the PSUV”

On February 10, 2010, Eduardo Samán was informed by state authorities that he had been removed from his position as Minister of Trade by the National Executive. Samán was known in Venezuela as a Minister very close to the revolutionary people, very much in touch with its problems and concerns. He was also very popular with the workers, because he had promoted workers’ control in factories such as La Gaviota in Sucre state.

However, his management of the ministry also created a lot of discontent among the employers, on whom Samán puts part of the responsibility for his sudden departure from the Ministry. Lucha de Clases, the Venezuelan supporters of the International Marxist Tendency interviewed Samán in order to hear his opinions about the past, present and future of the Bolivarian Revolution.

LC: In Venezuela you are very well known, but this interview will also have an international readership, as it will also be published on the website. Could you please start by speaking a bit about yourself, your political activity, the struggle you led against the economic sabotage, etc?

ES: Yes, of course, I will gladly do that. I was born as a child of Arab immigrants in 1964 in the working class neighbourhood of Catía, in the west of Caracas. At the age of 18 years, in 1982, I became politically conscious for the first time. I took part in a struggle of secondary school students who did not have access to university. We wanted to go to university, have a decent education, a decent future.

I wanted to study pharmacy, but the UCV (Venezuela’s Central University) was very elitist at that time. It was at that moment that I became aware of the profound inequalities which exist. The rich know it; they have their own class consciousness. But those of us who come from more humble families do not see it immediately; we think that everybody is equal in society.

In 1982 I was part of a hunger strike which lasted for four days. Finally they let me enter and I graduated in January 1989, just before the Caracazo rising. I was part of the Communist Youth for a time, but I quit a year before finishing university, as I saw how the leadership of the CP had degenerated politically, something that was confirmed in 1993 with its support for the presidential candidature of Rafael Caldera [a conservative politician, Editor].

LC: And what memories do you have of the Caracazo rising?

ES: That was a horrible bloodbath. On February 27 I was giving a lecture in a School of Medicine. I couldn’t get a job in the pharmaceutical industry, because when you had been marked as a “red”, they wouldn’t give you a job.

The Caracazo was a spontaneous event with no leadership. It was like an explosion of the frustration which had accumulated within the people for a long time. On that day I decided to walk all the way from the School of Medicine in Altamira, in the east of Caracas to my home in Catía. The plundering had begun in the streets, but the surprising thing was that many policemen took part in it.

I also saw the first acts of repression in the streets. But it was not until the second day that the capital was militarised and soldiers were sent to the shanty towns to “control” the situation. But the soldiers were gripped with fear. They didn’t want to shoot their class brothers and sisters.

Of course, we had to get rid of our political material, in order to avoid arrest or “disappearing” in the hands of the DISIP [the notorious Venezuelan secret service, Editor’s note]. So I lost my whole collection of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

The Caracazo was a factor that determined the political landscape in the twenty years that have passed since then.

LC: How did you become the leader of the struggle against food hoarding and speculation?

Well, I was designated as the director of INDECU by Adina Bastidas (Vice-president of Venezuela between 2000-2002), a very courageous woman who is from the extreme left of the government.

INDECU was the Institute for the Defence and Education of the Consumer, but in 2008 we changed the name to INDEPABIS – Institute for the Defence of the Access of the People to Goods and Services. Our criterion for changing both the name and the law was that the word “consumer” comes from capitalist terminology itself. The “consumer” is the person who has money to buy and thus consumes certain products.

We wanted to break with those schemas. We believed that it was impossible to build the Venezuela that we need with the old codes of capitalist trading and therefore we developed an analysis of how the monopolies are strengthened.

The fundamental problem is that you cannot industrialize Venezuela on a Capitalist basis. It has been tried many times, but the oligarchy is not interested. They condemned Venezuela to be a “rentier”-country, which only produces oil and imports all other products. We have petrochemical industries but there are no toys produced entirely in Venezuela.

LC: What was the focus of your management in the ministry? How did it serve the people?

ES: There are people who have said: “Samán wanted to ruin Polar! [The biggest food company in Venezuela]”. And what can I say to them? Of course I wanted to do that! One cannot justify the fact that any one company can have a monopoly on trade and it isn’t reasonable that it should use its property to decide when there is food scarcity and when there is not.

Price controls were our weapon in the class struggle. That’s how we used them in March 2009 when, under my leadership and with the approval of President Chavez, we decided to inspect the Polar rice plants and we discovered that they only produced luxury rice in order to avoid the price controls. It was in that struggle that the President decided to designate me as Minister of Trade.

From the first day in that position I tried to break the power of the Venezuelan oligarchy and the multinationals. We established the Arepera Socialista Restaurant in Caracas where people can have lunch with 40% discount or more.

We also investigated trade and production in various sectors, among them the Coffee industry. There we found out that Café Madrid and Café Fama de América controlled 80% of the market through some dirty tricks and unfair commercial advantages in the purchase of raw materials. The decision was taken to intervene in Café Fama de América and to nationalise Cafea, a plant occupied by the workers in Rubio, in the State of Táchira.

LC: You have worked intensely with groups of workers throughout the country. A particularly important experience was with the workers of La Gaviota, in the State of Sucre. Could you tell us about that?

ES: La Gaviota is a sardine canning factory and is located near Cumana. In January and February 2009 there was a strike on the part of the workers, as the boss was unwilling to comply with the most basic agreements and the Organic Law of Labour.

We decided to intervene there, in order to re-activate the plant. But of course the machinery was old and worn out, the workforce was older and the aim of the boss was to liquidate the factory. But that would have been a disaster for the nearby communities, as many families were dependent on the functioning of the factory. The plant had 300 workers, most of them from two local neighbourhoods.

The first thing that we did was to explain to the workers that we weren’t a new group of bosses. I sent political comrades to the factory to work side by side with the workers, to teach them but also to learn at the same time.

The decisive thing in the first period was to break down the division between manual labour and administration within the company. In every capitalist enterprise it is normal that the boss wants to separate the workers from the administrators and prevent fraternisation by every means. This is no coincidence, since the opening of the account books, budgets, etc., reveals all trade secrets and uncovers the real figures. The boss wants to keep all this hidden from the workers.

On May 19, 2009, just two weeks after the state intervention in the factory, the plant was producing at 50% of its capacity, that is to say between 25 and 30 tons per week. The profits were minimal but the factory did not lose money. We showed in practice that we were capable of paying the wages, cover maintenance and everything else with the sales from production.

The highest body throughout this period was the Workers’ Assembly. In the first four months we held 40 assemblies with the participation of the whole workforce. A workers’ council was also elected, but it was not something counter-posed to the trade union. On the contrary, the two organs complemented each other, the council ran the factory on the day-to-day basis and the trade-union struggled for workers’ demands. In fact, it is very significant that half of the members of the trade-union leadership, the most militant section, were also elected to the new workers’ council.

Furthermore, profound politico-cultural work was initiated with the workers. A workers’ theatre group was set up, a library was put in place to promote the reading of books among the workers and we also launched a chapter of the educational government programmes: Misión Ribas and Misión Robinson.

This was a marvellous experience, which unfortunately was put a stop to when I was ousted from the ministry. But the example of La Gaviota shows that Workers’ Control is not an “illusion” as Toby Valderrama and other analysts have maintained, but something concrete that shows that workers are perfectly capable of running society themselves.

LC: Why do you think that they removed you from the Ministry of Trade?

ES: It has happened before that the less popular decisions in Venezuela are taken just before a holiday period, in order to calm the people. That was also the case with me; they removed me just before the carnivals period.

They did not give me any reason and of course the president can change ministers as he wishes. But I suspect that the capitalists in the food sector were involved. I think they asked for my head as a guarantee and then in turn they promised not to generate food scarcity in this year of elections. They made a threat and I was the obstacle that they wanted to remove.

The first thing that the new Minister of Trade, Ricardo Canán did was to give the green light for price increases of such important products as tomatoes, margarine and mayonnaise. I would never have approved such a thing.

LC: After the electoral results of the September 26 elections…What are the perspectives for the Bolivarian Revolution?

ES: There are two plausible scenarios in the present situation. The first one is that there is a radicalisation of the revolution. To go that way, we need a profound change in the PSUV. That means an uncompromising struggle against bureaucracy and corruption.

The other scenario is a kind of reconciliation on the part of the revolution with the right wing or the status quo could even remain as it is, without any significant change. In that case we would have a death agony, that is to say the slow death of the revolution.

The counter-revolution will not confront the president immediately. They are not interested in a re-call referendum because they need the two years up until 2012 [the presidential elections, Editor’s note], in order to create the necessary apathy in the poor neighbourhoods, among the workers and peasants. Their main weapon is that discontent becomes abstention, which would be deadly for the revolution.

Although the opposition speak softly, pretending to really want to solve problems such as the crime rate, inflation and so on, they are in reality not interested in developing Venezuela as a nation. They don’t even control their own policies; they are controlled from the USA. Their real concern is to give the oil back to the North American imperialists.

Look, it is like as if there was a big apparatus against one man, President Chavez. Do you remember the first computer that played chess against a man? Something similar is going on now and in reality comrade Chavez is struggling alone against this machinery.

LC: We have talked a lot about the problems affecting the revolution. But what message do you want to send to our readers? What is the way forward in the present situation?

ES: The only way forward is to have a wide-ranging debate within our own party, the PSUV. We have to build a radical tendency within the PSUV, not to split or divide the party, but to contribute as a tendency to the living debate, to the discussion of ideas.

President Chavez has to recognise the existence within his movement of such a radical tendency. This tendency can save the revolution from a complete defeat, because it would be able to capitalise on the discontent and orient it towards the party. Instead of having valuable people disappointed with the bureaucracy and the slow advance of the revolution, going home and leaving politics, they could organise around a radical tendency, if they saw it as a viable alternative, as a hope.

With an organized tendency in the party, the bureaucracy can be challenged. It is not true that the “Fifth Column” is the Venezuelan Opposition. That is an attempt to confuse the expression. The real Fifth Column is the bureaucracy which exists within our own Bolivarian movement and we should organise to oust it from the leading positions that it has gotten hold of. Only on that road, that is in applying the thesis of the three R’s [Chavez’s call for “revision, rectification and re-advance”] to the revolution itself, can we find a way forward.