Interview: Venezuela—tensions within the process

Issue: 116
Posted: 28 September 07


Mike Gonzalez has written on Venezuela in this journal and elsewhere. Following his recent visit he answered questions from International Socialism about the latest developments


We hear a lot about a “mass movement” in Venezuela. What were your impressions of the movement?

I think the suggestion that there is a mass movement from below that is pushing President Chavez to the left is both premature and simplistic. At the moment there are a series of expressions of developing discontent and mobilisation at the grassroots, for instance through the trade unions. The UNT union federation has grown steadily in membership and there is quite a lot going on, especially around the occupation of some factories. There is quite a lot of basic activity, but in the context of Venezuela this is always going to be to some extent political.

The critical thing is to assess what is going on in what we can call the “social movements”. Here one has to be careful. There is a tendency to see the trade unions as completely separate from “the poor” who live in the barrios. The barrios are in the centre of the cities, as well as around the edges. People go to work from the barrios—they work in offices, in hospitals, on the buses and in factories. Many trade unionists are also active in local grassroots organisations.

The main organisations now are the Consejos Comunales (Communal Councils). Because these are geographical bodies, rather than being based in a workplace, they vary dramatically from one area to another. In some places they are very combative and very political. They are concerned with local issues—transport, housing, food prices—but these issues bring them face to face with big politics because they have to negotiate with state governors or city mayors, who are part of the state apparatus.

There is considerable discontent all over the place, directed at the government rather than Chavez. For instance, over the summer there were a number of small but significant demonstrations over local transport and food prices, and one in the state of Barinas over the distribution of land because people felt the big farmers were getting the lion’s share of the resources. There are a number of these local, limited agitations over particular issues, combined with constant debates about what is going on in the government.

When I visited a community education centre I found their general view was that they were in a period where it was important that local organisations begin to find ways to combine strategically. At present there is no overarching organisation that can draw people together. There are organisations that have this aspiration. C-Cura, the left current in the UNT, sees itself as a gathering point for a number of different trade unions. (Unions are separate bodies in each workplace, rather than branches of a national union.) It has started producing a newspaper and is very active, though still restricted by internal disputes within the UNT.

Was there much debate about the new party recently proposed by Chavez?

The talk on the ground is to the left. That’s not yet reflected in any coordination, though everyone is talking about it. The recent moves to form a united party have, in a sense, rather confused that.

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) was announced by Chavez last year, then everything went silent. It was announced again at the start of this year. For me, and for most of the people I spoke to, it is clear that this was an initiative from the state and the bureaucracy, not so much of Chavez as of those around Chavez. There is a picture emerging of a group of people at points of influence in the state apparatus who are beginning to combine actively and consciously. The mass movement is avoiding the question of coordination, but the “Chavista right”—the opportunists, the people who have jumped on the bandwagon, the elements of the old order who have moved into the Bolivarian state—are organising, and organising fast. They are coordinating both inside the national government and in the lower levels of the government at state and city level. They include people from the military, bureaucracy and business.

The PSUV initiative originally came from these layers. However, Chavez then characteristically went on television and told everybody to join. What was originally intended to be quite a small organisation controlled from above suddenly became a mass organisation. In a month the membership went over five million. At the moment there is no clarity about the nature of this party. There are no statutes; the conditions of membership are not clear; the procedures of the party are not clear; it is not even clear what the base units of the party are.

Two commissions have been appointed, mostly drawn from the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, and they have been given the task of shaping the new party, whose founding conference will be in December. Their first argument was that it should be based on geographical units, each of which should elect a delegate to the conference. But, of course, that means there are no workplace units and no student units. And given where the barrios are located in the cities, a geographical unit could quite easily embrace a poor district and a middle class area.

As the numbers going into the party grew, organisations of the left and the trade unions quickly began discussing what to do. Initially much of the left argued that the PSUV was an exercise in manipulation and that they should continue to build a current outside. As it became clearer that many working class people were attempting to join, this attitude changed. We are talking about a party of 5.5 million members compared with an economically active population of ten to 12 million—a mass organisation by any standards. Eventually most of those on the left decided to enter the PSUV to try to build an independent current within it.

Do they plan to enter as independent organisations?

At the moment it is not officially possible to organise as a current or tendency within the PSUV. But they argue that things are so volatile and fluid that they will effectively organise as a separate pole. Almost everyone I spoke to said they were going in critically.

The UNT, with its slogan for an independent trade union movement in support of the revolution, has been specifically denounced in public by Chavez, who said if you are in the PSUV you don’t need to be independent. This divided the UNT—the majority went in, but an important minority led by Orlando Chirino stayed out. The 13 April organisation of Roland Denis was also divided, with Denis, at the moment, staying out, but some important sectors joining because the masses are inside.

It could be that the discussion around the PSUV becomes the opportunity to pose demands for organisation and unity, for some kind of common organisation. Since the period of public discussion started in August clear tensions have emerged, but it remains unclear where things are going.

Have the old pro-Chavez parties all joined?

The Communist Party and Fatherland for All (PPT) have not joined. Rank and file trade unionists, who are generally inside, say that they are concerned because the first people who moved in included a new organisation called the Association of Patriotic Entrepreneurs and a lot of the old parties of the Fourth Republic, including Chavez’s old Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), which everyone acknowledges is full of corrupt officialdom.

There are also other tensions, within the state. It’s not just a battle between the right and the movement.

No, and part of the reason it’s more complex is Chavez himself. There are sectors of the army around Chavez, which represent, more or less, the original project. But the process has been going for eight years and things have moved quite a long way. Chavez sees himself more as a statesman and more as someone mediating between the different elements. But the questions are: what is the balance of forces? What are the strengths and weaknesses?

Chavez functions both in relation to his apparatus and in a strange relationship of direct communication with the masses. In his television programmes and speeches, always articulated in the language of the street, he will suddenly and unexpectedly launch an initiative. A few weeks ago he said, “I’ve always been interested in Trotsky, and I think he’s right about permanent revolution,” or, on another occasion, he said, “Rosa Luxemburg is someone everybody should read.” This tells you something about his political background. He was educated by a series of political groups, including the guerrilla movement around Douglas Bravo, the grassroots organisations around Roland Denis that lean towards autonomism and so on. You get remnants of all this in his discourse. But he is also running a government that has just announced a policy of mixed enterprises in the development of the oil industry, a government that is prepared to reject the demands of the iron and steel workers of Sidor for nationalisation because of Chavez’s relationship with the Argentinian president, Nestor Kirchner. Chavez’s relationship with the movement in Bolivia is largely conditioned by his big project for a continent-wide oil and gas enterprise.

There are lots of ambiguities in Chavez. If you wanted to make a selection from Chavez’s speeches you could present a man of impeccable revolutionary credentials. If you chose different speeches you could present a man pursuing a new developmentalist strategy for the strengthening of the state and the diversification of the economy. Chavez’s relationship with the mass movement is one of direct appeal, and he has tremendous authority, but it is an authority that has no organic form. When you get into the barrios there is a multiplicity of organisations, local ones, city-wide ones. You don’t know what they represent other than the activism of the grassroots, but that has no organic relationship to Chavez. It doesn’t yet have a connection with the trade unions, nor is it always expressed best in the Consejos Comunales.

What role do arguments about the “Cuban model” play?

There are a lot of Cubans embedded in different parts of the government. Their sympathies probably lie with that group of bureaucrats forging this new instrument. I don’t think the Cubans have any interest in a resurgent mass movement, partly because it might encourage one in Cuba and partly because they have a series of commercial arrangements with Venezuela which are very advantageous. I can only guess, but it seems to me that the Cubans are arguing for a strong, centralised state apparatus, controlling and directing the economy. Chavez is fascinated by Cuba and Castro. I think Cuban advice has a great deal of weight. But I don’t think this advice would strengthen the movement from below at all.

Curiously I don’t think the Cubans are that popular either. The people who go to Venezuela are earning well, especially as they are paid in dollars, and they go back and form part of the new elite in Cuba. Although the work they do in the health schemes is very important, and people in Venezuela admire that work, that’s not really where Cuban influence lies.

What is the situation in the factories? Are people talking about workers’ control?

There is talk of “cogestion”, which is characteristically vague—it’s a kind of Yugoslav style co-management model. Government representatives run the factory, sometimes in coordination with workers’ representatives. At the moment there are about 60 factories under some form of workers’ occupation pressing for nationalisation. Where that has occurred it has taken the form of co-management, which is a long way from workers’ control.

The Alcasa aluminium plant in Ciudad Guayana has become symbolic. Here management was given to a man who is a leading figure of the left, Carlos Lanz, with a view that this should be a model of workers’ control. I went to see it, and it’s a very exciting experience, but it’s an experience of a plant trying to move to workers’ control rather than having achieved it. Each department is run by a commission of workers and managers, but it only functions that way when the managers are willing to enter into that process. At the same time there is an education process in the factory, which has produced a highly politicised and class conscious workforce. A conversation with any worker there will easily move from discussions of life in the factory to the bigger political questions.

I also went to the workers’ centre where a very fine comrade runs a “workers’ university”, which was described to me as moving to overcome the gulf between doing and knowing, so that workers could be directly engaged in shaping production. In some departments of the factory workers and managers are actively cooperating on questions of production. In the “university” people are discussing the big questions. The objective is to move to a situation in which the factory is run by a workers’ committee, which will also debate the role of a factory like this. For example, why can’t a factory that manufactures aluminium also manufacture bicycles, which are currently imported from China at high cost? However, it’s still a long way from that, and it’s a unique example.

Now, if you talk to people in the unions, they argue that that’s what they want to move towards—establishing control over the labour process, improving union rights, but also raising the issue of social production.

So Alcasa is an interesting example of what might happen. But just down the road is the iron and steel plant, Sidor, which is emblematic in the development of the trade union movement. The Argentinian owners have imposed a very brutal regime: they’ve sacked large numbers of workers and are increasingly shifting towards contract labour, with none of the guarantees and rights afforded to those on permanent contracts. The demands of the workers are for nationalisation. At first Chavez said yes, then Kirchner, the president of Argentina, phoned him up and told him not to do this. Chavez then said to the company: if you charge us a fair price we won’t nationalise. That was not what the workers expected.

So you have co-management and aspirations for workers’ control on the one hand, and you have groups of workers fighting for nationalisation, whose demands are ignored, on the other. There are also factories like Sanitarios Maracay, which are politically important. Here the owners fled after the coup attempt and workers took over, but they’re not yet nationalised. In fact the government has just given a major contract to a rival company! The electricity company was recently nationalised, but we have to be very wary. It was nationalised, but only in the sense that the government bought the shares at current market prices.

The economic policies seem unclear and confused, but at the same time there is vast oil wealth, much of which is still passing into the hands of the wealthy.

I don’t have a sense of an economic strategy. Economic thinking is focused on how to conduct the oil industry. The oil industry has about 10 to 15 percent of its profits directed towards social programmes. These are basic, but they are very good. There are 500,000 people in Mision Sucre, the higher education programme, and so on. But they are not as far-reaching and well funded as one might imagine. And there is some disillusionment with the corruption that has developed within some of the misions. One of the key issues at the moment is controlling the prices of basic goods. The state-run supermarkets are facing shortages and prices are rising, so it’s no longer possible to buy a basket of basic goods for the minimum wage.

Is that due to inflation or people’s expectations rising?

It’s to do with inflation, hoarding and farmers (and not just big farmers) functioning as private enterprises in a market.

Everything still rests on oil. There is a great deal of talk about exploitation of the Orinoco Delta, which has perhaps the largest reserves of heavy oil in the world, plus large reserves of gas and minerals. But it will be developed by the Venezuelan state in conjunction with multinational corporations. A lot of reliance is placed on that. Diversification is not discussed much. Expansion of agriculture has not taken place at the rate expected.

The money goes on luxury goods. The rich live very well: there’s no visible decline in the standard of living of the old elite. And the statistics show there has been little major improvement in the plight of the poor.

From a distance people assume it$7_$_s some kind of egalitarian society, but the concentration of wealth in some areas of Caracas is phenomenal.

Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities I’ve been in—because crossing the road is so risky, especially since many of the people mowing you down are in brand new 4×4s. Some of them belong to a new layer who have prospered under Chavez. Chavez has been trying to force people to pay their taxes, but it’s well known that this burden will fall on the poor, and the rich will avoid paying taxes, as they always do.

To what extent are the people who are strongly anti-Chavez, as opposed to the Chavista right, organised and visible?

Take the case of Gustavo Cisneros, the head of Venevision, one of the richest media moguls in the world. He has clearly reached some kind of accommodation with the government, which is to stay out of the way and not be too directly confrontational, unlike RCTV, which was closed. The wealthiest people seem to be pragmatic and realistic. It’s the middle classes who are most enraged.

They say that there’s no freedom of expression, but I’ve never been to a country with such freedom of expression. While I was there Globovision’s news broadcast consisted of one hour of straightforward mobilisation for a protest the next day. There were people carrying signs saying when and where to meet, women in bikinis walking round saying, “You’ve got to come to the protest. I’ll be there.”

There’s a lot of talk about a “soft coup”, a phrase borrowed directly from Chile. In 1972-3 in Chile the bourgeoisie openly discussed the choice between a soft coup—systematic destabilisation through propaganda and hoarding of goods, an economic assault—and a hard (military) coup. Is this what’s going on? That’s what they would want to happen. My feeling is that the danger doesn’t come from there: not because the army is with Chavez; people who say that are naive. Among those who would defend the regime to the death are a very small number of members of the officer class. But to me the main danger is that section of government that has no interest in furthering the cause of the revolution.

But things could change. The active support Chavez has is from a third of the population, a third are fanatically against him and another third back him passively. If the price of oil falls on world markets, the whole balance can shift. Calling George Bush the devil is a provocation, one we admire, but one the US ruling class won’t easily forget.

You’re right, and I might be overstating the case. Everything rests on the high price of oil. Chavez has mass support, but it’s fragile because it’s not organised. Any future has to rest on shaping an organisation. That’s what the left has to address.

Tell us more about the organisation on the ground, the UNT for instance.

The UNT leads a number of major union organisations on the ground. Trade unionism in Venezuela used to be conducted by the CTV, a corrupt, nepotistic body, which ran unions from above. The CTV supported the two coup attempts against Chavez, and the UNT emerged out of that as an alternative.

According to one activist, around 1999-2000 the proportion of the workforce unionised was 8 percent; now it’s about 16 percent with the growth accounted for by the UNT. But the UNT has not been able to formalise its structures because its first conference was broken up in an argument between two factions over whether to hold elections for leading positions. Now the PSUV is trying hard to block the UNT in order to develop an alternative more closely linked to the PSUV and nearer to the state. The UNT has a base in a number of important industries—in oil, heavy industry, Alcasa, white collar sectors and textiles.

Are there any large, organised Trotskyist forces?

There was the Party of Revolution and Socialism, from which many of the leaders of C-Cura come, but that has collapsed. It’s all been thrown into disarray by the PSUV.

The left seem caught by the sheer popularity of Chavez, which makes it hard to organise anything that might be seen as opposing him. They can lead mass movements as long as they don$7_$_t criticise Chavez.

Outside Venezuela there seems to be one attitude—whatever you say, Chavez is the man, he’s leading the movement. But, as I’ve explained, there is an ambivalence in Chavez. Chavez can be all things to all people, and in a situation where the ruling class and imperialism are attacking Chavez he is seen as a champion of anti-imperialism. There is no feasible opposition, nor would it be correct to oppose Chavez. Nonetheless, the ambiguities can disarm the movement.

The best Chavistas are the ones who say that we have to build from below. Those outside Venezuela who think that the best way to show solidarity with the revolutionary process is to give uncritical support to Chavez, and to see him, as one writer recently put it, as the single, uncontested leader of the world revolution of the 21st century, are wrong. The position “with Chavez, but beyond Chavez” seems to be the right one.

What worries me is that the left in that situation faces immense problems. It can be isolated by the right wing people around Chavez and smashed. The PSUV, in its original conception, was designed to do that. I think the left is in a difficult position because it has a hearing on the ground, but Chavez’s voice drowns out all the others at the moment. However, people are engaged in all kinds of issues, which creates an environment in which the ideas of revolutionary socialism can flourish if the left doesn’t allow itself to be silenced.