On 2 February this year, the popular government in Venezuela emerged triumphant from yet another attempt by the united forces of domestic and international capital to bring it down.
Having surprised the coup-makers by their readiness to defend the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ by force, the people of Venezuela have, since the defeat of the US-backed coup last April, been facing a war of attrition on the economic and political fronts, which culminated in what the Western media, in their attempt to give the movement some kind of populist credibility, were quick to label a ‘general strike’ in December last year.
Redistribution of wealth
It is hardly surprising that the Chavez administration has faced such vicious attacks from its opponents. Since coming to power in 1998, it has overseen the implementation of a new constitution that sought to redress the balance of wealth and power in favour of Venezuela’s vast masses of poor and destitute.
Although the fifth-largest exporter of oil in the world, what was left to Venezuela of its huge wealth after the imperialist corporations had taken the lion’s share was systematically appropriated in personal incomes for the ruling elite, with a small share going in wages to the privileged oil and banking sector workers who make up the much-touted ‘middle class’. The country’s dependency on oil profits has meant that its economy was always firmly tied to imperialism, and no attempt was ever made by these leeches either to diversify or to invest any of the profits from oil into improving conditions for the vast majority of the population, most of whom are living in slums and shantytowns well below the poverty line.
Chavez’ election campaign rested on just one main demand: the calling of a Constituent Assembly that would draft a new constitution as a first step towards social justice and national independence from imperialist diktat. This promise was fulfilled and the new constitution was followed by reforms in all areas of life leading to land redistribution in favour of landless and homeless families; massive literacy and education programmes; a four-fold increase in healthcare spending; increases in minimum wages for public sector employees and a decrease in levels of unemployment.
Despite the fact that the new government and constitution have done nothing outside what is constantly preached by lovers of bourgeois democracy, the ruling elite and their middle-class hangers-on have sought to frustrate this process at every turn, resorting to ever-more desperate measures to protect their privileged, parasitic position. Using their connections with the state machinery and their virtual monopoly of the mass media, these fans of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ have obstructed through every means at their disposal – in the courts, in the streets, on the television, in the military and now in business.
Having regrouped their forces after the abortive coup last April, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie’s latest attack took the form of economic sabotage. By closing down the crucial oil industry, which accounts for about half of total government revenues and one third of GDP, they hoped to cripple the economy, reverse the government’s plans to take back a controlling stake in PDVSA, the national oil monopoly, and force fresh Presidential elections, not due to take place until 2007.
In the first week of December, having failed in their attempts to force early elections, anti-government forces staged a walkout in which around 30,000 technical and administrative staff stayed away from work. Most workers engaged in production and refining ignored the rebellion and several managers were arrested by the National Guard when they were discovered trying to weld shut the gates of refineries to keep workers out.
Within days, exports were effectively blocked as tankers were unable to load and fires were started at some oil wells. Banks added to the pressure by closing their doors, meaning that thousands of workers were unable to access their money. Anti-Chavez demonstrations were organised and shops in the middle-class areas closed down, but the huge mobilisation the opposition hoped for never materialised and before Christmas most of the strikers had returned to work and the shops, unable to take any more losses, were open again.
Contrary to the best expectations of imperialism, and despite a vicious campaign of lies and distortions in the privately-owned media, Chavez and his government refused to fall. On the contrary, the masses took to the streets in vast numbers to show their support for the government and to demand strong measures against the saboteurs. Withstanding bribes and pressure of all kinds, the majority of the military continued to support the government, turning out to guard petrol stations, ports, pipelines and refineries. Navy commandos boarded the tanker Pilin Leon and removed the captain, who had prevented the unloading of its cargo of 280,000 barrels of oil.
In late December the strike was declared illegal by the Supreme Court and the 10 percent of oil workers (mainly management) still on strike were informed that they would be sacked if they refused to return to work. When strikers tried to block the roads into Caracas they were met by angry workers and quickly relinquished their attempts after being defeated in clashes at several locations around the city.
At a press conference in Brazil, whose President Cardoso sent 520,000 barrels of oil to Venezuela in a practical gesture of solidarity, Chavez said: “What is going on in my country is not a strike. It is a coup attempt disguised as a strike,” organised by “terrorists who are blocking oil and food distribution and sabotaging refineries.” (Quoted in ‘Venezuela’s chief proposes global effort to end strike’, New York Times, 3 Jan 2003)
As if to prove his point, on 3 January Caracas police loyal to the anti-government mayor fired on pro-Chavez demonstrators, killing two young men. Two days later 20,000 people turned out to demand justice for the murdered youths and police again fired on a vigil for one of them later that night.
As the Chavez administration continued to withstand the combined might of the oil industry and the media moguls, Venezuela’s banking sector stepped up the pressure in a desperate attempt to carry the coup to success, closing their doors for a further two days in early January. By now, though, the middle classes whose support was so vital were reeling under the losses from lack of oil and trading revenues and the devaluation of their salaries. The strike petered out and the leaders were arrested or escaped into exile, while new managers and directors were installed into PDVSA and oil production recovered to around two thirds of its previous levels.
The role of the media
In tandem with economic sabotage, opponents of Chavez’ government continued to make full use of their power in the privately-owned media. They propagated lies and slanders against Chavez and ran constant adverts in support of the strikes. Naomi Klein, writing in the Guardian of 18 February 2003, reveals the truth behind the façade of the ‘free press’:
“In Venezuela, even sports commentators are enlisted in the commercial media’s open bid to oust the elected government of Hugo Chavez. Andres Izarra, a Venezuelan TV journalist, says that the campaign has done so much damage to true information that the four private TV stations have effectively forfeited their right to broadcast. ‘I think their licences should be revoked,’ he says.
“It’s the sort of pronouncement one has come to expect from Hugo Chavez, known for nicknaming the stations ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’. Izarra is harder to dismiss. A made-for-TV type he became news production manager for Venezuela’s highest rated news programme.
“On April 13 2002, the day after businessman Pedro Carmona briefly seized power, Izarra quit. Ever since, he has talked out against the threat posed to democracy when the media abandons journalism and pours itself into winning a war being waged over oil.
“Before the April coup, Venevision, RCTV, Globovision and Televen replaced regular programming with anti-Chavez speeches, interrupted by commercials calling on viewers to take to the streets. The ads were sponsored by the oil industry, but were carried as ‘public service announcements’.
“On the night of the coup, Cisneros’s station hosted meetings among the plotters, including Carmona. The president of Venezuela’s broadcasting chamber co-signed the decree dissolving the elected national assembly. And, while the stations rejoiced at news of Chavez’s “resignation”, when pro-Chavez forces mobilised for his return a news blackout was imposed.
“Izarra says he received clear instructions: ‘No information on Chavez, his followers, his ministers, and all others that could in any way be related to him.’ He watched with horror as his bosses suppressed breaking news. Izarra says that on the day of the coup, RCTV had a report from a US affiliate that Chavez had not resigned, but had been kidnapped and jailed. It didn’t make the news.
“When Chavez finally returned to the Miraflores palace, the stations gave up on news entirely. On one of the most important days in Venezuela’s history, they aired Pretty Woman … During the recent strike organised by the oil industry, the stations broadcast an average of 700 pro-strike advertisements every day. Chavez has decided to go after the TV stations in earnest, with an investigation into violations of broadcast standards and a new set of regulations. ‘Don’t be surprised if we start shutting down television stations,’ he said in January.”
As Ms Klein rightly concludes: “[Venezuela] isn’t the only country where a war is being waged over oil, where media owners have become inseparable from the forces clamouring for regime change and where the opposition finds itself erased by the nightly news. But in the US [or Britain for that matter], unlike in Venezuela, the media and the government are on the same side.”
US torn by conflicting priorities
Although US imperialism in particular has been trumpeting the calls for early elections in Venezuela far and wide, elections which they obviously hope to be able to subvert by their usual stratagem of massive injections of cash into the fighting funds of their favoured candidates, it has been forced to step back from the kind of direct military intervention that has been its common practice in Latin America for more than 100 years.
This is not simply down to the embarrassment of their earlier involvement with the defeated coup of 11 April 2002, but is attributable to worries over oil supplies as their predatory war on Iraq draws closer. Venezuela produces about three million barrels a day of crude oil and exports about 75 percent of that, primarily to the United States. 13 percent of the US’ daily oil imports come from Venezuela.
“The removal of any such significant oil producer from the supply chain is almost certain to squeeze prices higher.
“And the US, in particular, is left scrabbling around for alternative cargoes of not just crude oil, but also refined products such as petrol, jet fuel and diesel.
“Secure supply is especially important at present, given the ongoing uncertainty surrounding supply from the Middle East in the case of a US-led war against Iraq.” (‘Venezuela’s oil industry’, BBC Online, 6 December 2002)
However much they would have liked to see the Chavez government toppled quickly last December, it was clear that the US could ill afford to see the disruption in supplies continue indefinitely just as supplies from the Middle East are more uncertain than ever. Nor, given the massive deployment of forces in the Gulf, did it have soldiers to spare for any kind of military action.
These factors explain the inability of the US to decisively intervene during the crisis, and its consequent diplomatic overtures, which ranged from ‘peace’ plans put forward by former President Jimmy Carter to attempting to use the Organisation of American States and the Friends of Venezuela group to push the early election agenda.
The OAS, however, far from being the pushover the US would like it to be, voted 32-0 in December to “fully back the democratic and constitutional legitimacy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”. On the same day, Venezuela’s army chief, General Julio Garcia Montoya, said the army was “willing to use its full capability to prevent the success of this gamble for an economic and social collapse of the nation”. He described the strike as “an attack on the vital interests of the nation” that “overstepped the boundaries of democratic norms”.
In an item headed ‘Venezuela leader rules out early poll’, BBC News Online trivialised these events and deliberately distorted them, saying: “The Organisation of American States has called on Venezuelans to find a “peaceful democratic constitutional and electoral solution” to the standoff, but did not explicitly call for early elections.” (17 December 2002)
Mobilisation of the masses
As in the defeat of the April coup, the crucial factor in all these events has been the mobilisation of Venezuela’s poor. This has been primarily organised through the Bolivarian Circles, self-organised groups based along the lines of the Cuban CDRs (Committees to Defend the Revolution). Like Chavez’ ‘peaceful revolution’, these groups, set up in order to organise and give voice to the most disenfranchised sections of the population, are named after the 19th Century national hero and liberator Simon Bolivar. Funded directly by the government, some 70,000 circles are able to organise over a million workers and peasants outside the bourgeois state apparatus to defend by force of arms the gains won so far and push them further.
“Perhaps even more significant than the changing attitude of the military and of the US is the fact that the poor are more mobilised now, to such an extent that there is talk of a possible civil war. Until the April coup, the poor had voted for Chavez repeatedly, but his revolutionary programme was directed from above, without much popular participation. After the coup, which revealed that the opposition sought to impose a regime on Pinochet lines, the people realised that they had a government that they needed to defend. The opposition’s protest marches have now conjured up a phenomenon that most of the middle and upper classes might have preferred to have left sleeping – the spectre of a class and race war.” (‘Racist rage of the Caracas elite’ by Richard Gott, The Guardian, 10 December 2002)
Such self-organised, democratic organisations of peasants and workers are the germ of an alternative working class state power, and the fact that they have arms and are prepared to defend themselves means that the Bolivarian revolution will be no easy pushover – no wonder the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and their imperialist backers are terrified of what they have dubbed the “circles of terror”. (‘Venezuela’s key backers’, BBC Online, 26 February 2003)
Having failed by direct military means, the Venezuelan capitalists had hoped to cause enough economic chaos to erode Chavez’ social base among the poor. In fact, all they have done is to push the reformer further into the arms of the socialists. Like Castro before him, Chavez is finding that the more he tries to implement the ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ preached by bourgeois ideologues, the more openly the capitalists and imperialists fight to stop him, never shirking from using every corrupt, illegal and undemocratic means at their disposal. Thus they demonstrate the truth behind the hypocritical talk of ‘the will of the people’ – that bourgeois democracy is meant to be just that – democracy for the bourgeoisie.
As in Cuba, the logic of the popular reforms can only push an honestly-intentioned administration one way – towards socialism. The more they try to reform the system in favour of the poor and dispossessed of the country, the more capital, at home and abroad, will rise up against them.
As the class struggle intensifies day by day, it will be clearer than ever to Mr Chavez that capitalism cannot be reformed and only properly planned production and distribution under popular control can deliver a decent standard of life to the vast mass of the people of Venezuela. Moreover, the struggle is teaching the Venezuelan people that they must do more than overthrow the bourgeoisie – they must be ready to defend what they have gained, for as Lenin rightly pointed out, the class struggle does not diminish but grows stronger after the revolution, as the appropriated class fights tooth and nail to get back what it has lost – what it believes to be its eternal and god-given right to exploit.