Orlando Chirino on Chavez, trade unions and socialism in Venezuela

The following interview was conducted with Orlando Chirino, national organiser of the UNT union federation in Venezuela and leader of C-Cura—the United Autonomous Revolutionary Class current—within the federation. It came after Chavez proposed the formation of a new unified Venezuelan socialist party (PSUV).

Orlando, what is your assessment of the issues posed by President Chavez when he launched the proposal for forming the PSUV on 24 March?

The great virtue of the discussion that President Chavez has set in motion is that it gives us an opportunity to discuss the nature of the Venezuelan revolution, the project for creating the PSUV, the role played in the revolution by different social sectors, and in particular the working class; it’s a debate about how you build an organisation and it raises a whole series of questions which we should discuss openly, publicly, and with complete honesty.

What is most worrying is that president ended up by doing exactly what he criticised; he criticised the political cannibalism that characterises the organisations of the left, but then he went on to say that anyone who does not share his views is a counterrevolutionary. I think this is a serious mistake, because far from encouraging debate it closes it down and encourages the sectarianism that the president has said he is anxious to fight.

What do you think are the most important issues?

There are lots of issues to discuss, but let me address two in particular. The president says, for example, that the reformists are a danger—and I agree. And yet it is my view that the programme the president is putting forward rests on a reformist conception, and that there is no perspective for a break with the logic of capital. Let me explain.

After the great neoliberal offensive of the 1990s, we are seeing again multimillion dollar investments by international capital in strategic sectors of the economy such as oil, mining, coal, construction and infrastructural projects. International consortia from China, Russia and Iran are exploiting our workers more than ever. I don’t believe that some multinationals are better than others. They are all essentially concerned with monopolising production and trade, exploiting workers, pillaging the natural resources of nations and intervening politically in the economic decision-making processes of those countries.
This strikes at the heart of the kind of economic model we are building.

The president represents investment by the multinationals as a step forward. I see it as mortgaging the revolution. For me the first step towards socialism is the break with multinational companies and corporations. What this government is doing on the other hand is promoting concentration into larger and larger economic groups; the purchase of CANTV and the Electricity Company of Caracas are examples. There’s no question that the recuperation of these enterprises by the state is a step forward, but the business sector were so pleased with these developments that they made a public announcement of their support for the move.

Equally worrying is the President’s announcement that Sidor will not be nationalised because it is being run by “good capitalists”. In fact this company was privatised under the 4th Republic and is owned by a multinational consortium headed by Techint of Argentina. Our understanding is the President took this view because the company is based in a country governed by a “friendly” president, namely Kirchner. But we wonder when we began to speak of “good” and “bad” capitalists?

The president is currently making a lot of public reference to China. We would ask him not to do that, because capitalism was restored in China a number of years ago, and today it is the country where the working class is most exploited. They are modern-day slaves, led by a rotten party that calls itself Communist but is in fact completely subject to the multinationals. To cap it all, the Chinese have just introduced into the constitution the right to private property. China is hardly a good example.

Another important issue is the role of social classes in this revolution. You don’t have to refer to Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky to know that the only way to overturn capitalism, a system in which a minority imposes its will on the majority, is that the working class and the people, we who are the majority and the producers, take the lead in expropriating the enterprises and place them under our control. In that sense, what we mean by socialism is very simply stated.

Yet that is becoming more and more difficult in Venezuela. We workers are not in that position even in the key sectors of the economy to contemplate even joint management, let alone workers control. The government will not consider the possibility of co-management in strategic sectors.

Our comrades at the Constructora Nacional de Válvulas (today called Inveval) had to undergo real physical hardships and hunger, and fight like hell before the government finally listened to them and agreed to expropriate the company. The workers of Venepal (now Invepal) had to fight for ten months before they beat the capitalists—while the government looked the other way. And now we have the case of Sanitarios Maracay where the workers are in the fourth month of occupation for nationalisation—but the government still seems less than interested in nationalisations like this.

This suggests that the government’s programme does not include expropriation, and nor will the PSUV’s. But if this doesn’t happen we will not be moving towards socialism, but only towards some kind of state capitalism with a developmentalist perspective. This leaves private property untouched, and means that capitalist exploitation and the accumulation of profit by a very few will continue.

And what about Chavez’s view on the independence of the trade unions?

This is a really important issue. The president can’t change history and argue that those of us who are fighting for the independence of the trade union movement have somehow been “poisoned” by the experience of the 4th Republic. On the contrary, trade union autonomy is the key antidote to bureaucratisation; that’s why the revolution was saved in 2002 and 2003 and as long as it continues it will be the key safeguard of the revolution.

The CTV (the old national trade union federation) sold its soul to the old two-party system and the governments it produced. For 40 years the Venezuelan trade union movement lived through its worst period, because workers were puppets in the games played by the old parties (Copei and AD) and the bosses organisations. Venezuelan still remember how AD (Democratic Action) decided the fate of workers, bought and sold contracts and worked with the government to control the unions and the CTV. We should remember that the bosses strike of 2002-3 was led by CTV and Fedecamaras (the bosses’ organisation) working hand in hand. The raison d’etre of the new UNT union is exactly the opposite: to fight for trade union autonomy, and organise the workers to fight against any attempt to submit them to political control or give in to compromises.

The president needs to remember that during the trade union elections of 2001, when as we all know the CTV orchestrated an enormous electoral fraud, many workers did not support the alternative slate led by Aristobulo Isturiz precisely because he was seen as the government’s candidate. The president has to understand that because of what we call the class instinct, and the levels of class and revolutionary consciousness, as well as because of their relationship with the bosses, the behaviour of workers is different from that of peasants, communities or students.

The worst thing about the president’s comments, however, is the suggestion that by fighting for the independence of the working class movement we are playing a counter-revolutionary role. That is not true. With other comrades we have built a national trade union current which as well as fighting against bureaucracy and for socialism, is almost committed to a fierce defence of trade union autonomy. The 2nd Congress of the UNT was proof of what I am arguing. What happened there was not just about five different factions or currents fighting or some leaders squabbling with other because we have personal disagreements, and President Chavez is wrong to describe it that way. In fact for the last two years “the mother of all battles” has been under way between two conceptions—on the one hand those who want to tie the trade unions to the government, and on the other those of us who are fighting for the sovereignty and independence of the trade union movement.

We have 30 years of trade union work behind us and we have never compromised with the bosses or the government, let alone with imperialism. And we have no intention of giving way now because the president has described us as “the poisonous residue of the 4th Republic”! We have fought tirelessly within the trade union movement for class principles, democratic methods and an integrity born of proletarian morality. As PST-La Chispa we are proud to have been the first political organisation to support Hugo Chavez’s presidential candidacy. He will remember the first meetings we organised in the La Quizanda district of Valencia and with the textile workers of Aragua. So our history is unimpeachable.

We are the forefront of the struggle against the CTV, we supported the creation of the FBT and we are enthusiastically behind the UNT. We joined the best activists in resisting the coup of 11 April 2002 and we were centrally involved in the recovery of the oil industry during the bosses lockout of 2002-3. Our record is an extremely honourable one.

Yet Chavez quoted the great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in support of his case. How do you see that?

The president has tried to use Rosa Luxemburg’s writings to support his arguments against trade union independence—but we have to see her positions in the particular political and historical context in which she put them forward. When she discussed the question of trade union autonomy she was referring to the German Social Democratic Party and arguing against syndicalist and bureaucratic tendencies within the unions. But as a Trotskyist I have to recognise that Trotsky was wrong when he argued that the trade unions in Russia should not be autonomous shortly after the Bolshevik victory. Luckily Lenin participated in the debate and he argued for autonomy. Trotsky’s arguments had real force, given that this was the time of the war economy, when there was hunger, civil war, physical assaults against working class and trade union leaders and a confrontation with the holy alliance of the imperialist counter-revolution. Yet even so he was wrong while Lenin was right.

This should tell you that we are not dogmatists, that we study reality and engage critically with our own history. It was not a coincidence that years ago the Stalinists described us as counter-revolutionaries because we were fighting for a new revolution that would sweep away the bureacuracy that had seized power in Russia.

What effect has this discussion had on trade union independence?

It has had major effects. We haven’t yet been able to hold the UNT internal elections, for example. The argument last year was that we had to give priority to the presidential elections. We were not against calling for a vote for Chavez, but we argued that the best way to campaign for that call was that it should come from a legitimately elected leadership. Unfortunately it did not happen.

The other reality is the tragedy that public sector workers and oil workers are living through at the moment. If the trade union movement were not autonomous and we had to accept what the government were saying, we would have to accept the contract negotiated by Fedepetrol and the other federations which were not just illegitimate but in fact were part of the leadership of the bosses campaign of sabotage supported by imperialism. It is our independent struggle that has prevented that.

The same is true of public sector workers. The current minister is busy making deals with the trade union leaders which has no authority and is in a minority. Its power stems only from its control of the apparatus and the support it gets from government.

And there is another issue related to autonomy. The FBT and the Labour Ministry allege that the UNT is not fulfilling its historic role and should therefore disappear. At the same time they are talking about setting up parallel structures and put forward a series of proposals which will decimate the trade union movement. It is crucial that these proposals are seriously and carefully discussed by the working class.

It is because we are independent that we are able day in and day out to express without fear or favour our views on the errors, sometimes the appalling errrors, that the government is committing. Public sector workers cannot be left waiting for 27 months for their contract to be negotiated. And it seems that the oil workers will face a similar fate. The key question is whether it is right to struggle for the independence of the trade union, and whether our exposure of these issues makes us counter-revolutionaries.

Of course this is not just about trade union autonomy. It is also about the relationship between the PSUV and the government Will all PSUV members be obliged to support the decisions of the government and its bureaucrats? Will the new party be more than just an appendage of government?

I imagine an oil worker who risked his life risking the bosses sabotage participating in a meeting where the minister will order him to accept a collective contract negotiated with the people who organised the coup…! These are important issues that need to be discussed.

_Do you feel you were properly represented by Osvaldo Vera, who spoke at the launch meeting of the PSUV as a representative of the workers ?_

Not at all; he did not raise a single issue of concern to the working class. He just spoke in generalities. And I have to ask myself who decided, when and where that he should speak in the name of the Venezuelan working class ? For me this is the key question. How is the PSUV being built ? I want to express my solidarity with the thousands of my compatriots who went to Caracas to take part in the event and who were not only excluded but mistreated and beaten into the bargain. On television we saw governor, mayors and deputies who do not have mass support occupying the first rows. There were bosses and bureaucrats present who have defended the bosses, and a number of people who have been accused of corruption and the defence of policies that did not reflect the interests of the people. That is why there is so much discontent—because people know that this process has begun in a very questionable way.

We in C-Cura believe that we have to be clear in our class allegiance. We cannot give space to bosses, landowners, bureaucrats or those guilty of corruption. But it would be completely wrong to exclude the grass roots or those who disagree with the president. Everyone knows that Vera does not represent the working class. The FBT is a minority within the UNT, yet he stood and spoke in the name of all workers. That is why we are fighting for the PSUV to accept internal currents without conditions or disqualifications. Nobody should be forced to dissolve—that would be completely arbitrary and designed to stop discussion before it could begin. And we need to know what the position of the president and the organising committee is on these matters.

How do you see the future of the PSUV project?

We have to recognise that the people have placed great hopes in it; indeed it is seen by many as a real political victory over the leaderships of the old parties like the MVR,PPT, Podemos and all those other organisations that for years have fed a tiny group of fat bureaucrats while the majority grew thinner by the day.

However, I must say to you that the way it has been presented by President Chavez will not succeed in bringing in the real class fighters, the honest revolutionaries working within the trade union movement. And that is why we insist on taking part in this debate. We have a view of how to build a revolutionary party in Venezuela, which is imperative if the struggle for a revolutionary process is to continue and develop to the point where it can seize from the capitalists their economic, political and military power. Until now, we have seen nothing of that in the discussion about the PSUV.

What is important is that that the debate is open and that everyone says clearly what they think and what kind of party they want, what its programme should be and how it should be built. We are part of that debate and we will not allow anyone to discredit our contribution or accuse us of anything. We will speak honestly, openly and listen to others in the debate. Our views are different from those put forward by the president and the Organising Committee. We will make sure that they hear our view and visions for the Venezuelan revolution.