Venezuela: many steps to come

Issue: 104

Mike Gonzalez

At 4am on Monday the Electoral Commission announced the results; 4,991,483 (58.25percent) voted no and 3,576,517 (41.74percent) voted yes. It was obvious where the votes had come from, even before the results were announced. You could measure it by skin colour, what people wore and where they lived. The majority of well-dressed white people from the wealthier suburbs angrily voted yes, claiming that Chávez has divided Venezuela. The dark-skinned poor of the hillside shanties reply that Venezuela was always divided. The difference now is that the people without a voice can now make themselves heard.1

The referendum was certainly not the terrain that Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, would have chosen as the testing ground to measure the progress of the Bolivarian revolution. The Venezuelan right, bitterly hostile to the government of Hugo Chávez, had exploited an important clause in the new constitution of 1999 which allowed elected politicians, and especially the national president, to be recalled after serving half of the six-year presidential term. This required the collection of some 2.3 million signatures—a process that had taken months of collection, checking, challenge and proof. Once the numbers were found, the total voting for the recall (a yes vote) would need to be greater than the majority who supported Chávez in the presidential elections of 2000.

There were many in the Chávez camp who argued that the referendum was a ploy—a stratagem particularly unfavourable to the Venezuelan poor, a majority of whom would not possess the necessary registration documents to allow them to vote in the peculiarly bureaucratic Venezuelan system. On 15 August each elector would present a credential, have a fingerprint taken both manually and electronically, wait for confirmation and then vote. The enormous queues that formed at every polling centre from 4am on the morning of that day were just one more gauntlet thrown down to the supporters of Chávez.

In the event, the arguments for abstention did not convince. Instead Chávez called the referendum the Battle of Santa Inés—a reference to a battle fought in 1859 by Ezequiel Zamora, at the head of a largely peasant army, during a period of civil war. Zamora pretended to retreat and then surrounded and destroyed the armies of the ruling class on a terrain more favourable to his soldiers. Chávez presented the referendum of 15 August 2004 in similar terms. While it appeared to be a political retreat, it would in fact, he said, be the prelude to an advance in Venezuela’s developing Bolivarian revolution.

From the United States and all those who had steadfastly supported the opposition to Chávez, the demands and denunciations rained down relentlessly on the national palace in Caracas. The opposition accused the government of a failure to observe democratic procedures, describing Chávez’s rule as a dictatorship, despite the fact that he had been elected in untainted presidential elections. This was deeply ironic, of course, given the events of the previous three and a half years. But Chávez’s answer was to accept the challenge.

Those who saw the referendum as a backward step were right. The advance of a revolutionary process could and should be measured by the pace with which power passes directly into the hands of working people and the degree to which it is the interests of the majority that increasingly shape the distribution of resources. In that sense, a referendum drags politics back onto the terrain of formal democracy, to the matter of institutional arrangements within the system and away from the deepening control from below whose progress, or otherwise, is the key issue for revolution.

In that sense too, the referendum was a small victory for the right. In the event, a high degree of mass mobilisation in the heartlands of Chávez’s support produced a result which confounded the opposition and cleared the way for a deepening radicalisation. The consequences and impact of that result have resonated well beyond Venezuela, and have important implications for the revolutionary left internationally—matters to which we will return in the final section of this account.

The ferocity of the Venezuelan ruling class assault on the Chávez government—of which the referendum is simply the latest chapter—is not some peculiar feature of Latin American politics. It is worth remembering that the Chilean coup of 1973 was sustained and supported by a bourgeoisie which had always proclaimed its devotion to parliamentary democracy. That same class stood by and applauded levels of repression which have made the very word Chile a watchword for state violence. In Venezuela too the procedures of parliamentary order were obeyed in the letter but not in the spirit. Instead Venezuelan political life was shaped by manipulation and a corruption fuelled by the single most important source of Venezuelan wealth—oil.

Black gold

Perhaps the most important thing to know about Venezuela is that it is an oil exporting country, the fifth largest in the world, with the largest reserves of conventional oil (light and heavy crude) in the western hemisphere and the largest reserves of non-conventional oil (extra-heavy crude) in the world.2

Oil production in Venezuela began in the early 1920s, during the brutal dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez.3 Gómez was much given to spectacular and ostentatious public works projects—a luxury he could allow himself because oil revenues were constantly rising, though by the late 1930s that revenue largely flowed into the coffers of Shell and Standard Oil. In that period oil had come to represent over 90 percent of the country’s income (from 1.9 percent in 1920!). Production levels rose again in the 1950s—between 1958 and 1998 Venezuela’s total income from oil was over $300 billion.

The global figures conceal peaks and troughs which produced both economic and political crises, yet throughout the country’s dependence on oil revenues became more and more pronounced. In 1960, for example, Venezuela promoted the formation of OPEC as the expansion of Middle Eastern oil threatened the high prices of the early 1950s. At the same time, the Venezuelan Oil Corporation was created in an attempt to force the foreign corporations who extracted the oil to pay more to the state. But the first great oil boom had passed and the military ruler who had overseen it, Pérez Jiménez, had fled to Miami with several hundred million dollars safely ensconced in US banks. Caracas itself was the clearest testimony to the massive speculation and graft of those years. Its modern centre of modernist concrete buildings was aesthetically exciting, but represented the squandering of oil revenues. The shanties clinging to the hills around the city said all that needed to be said about who had been the beneficiaries of the boom. While production rose steadily between 1960 and 1964, it was significant that only 8 million cubic metres were consumed within Venezuela (in 1964) and nearly 187 million exported. Those who gained from the boom bought their imported goods and services at a high price—and the cost of living rose to the point where it was said that Caracas was a more expensive city than Chicago—and had more Cadillacs per head of population.4

The expansion took place under the government of Rómulo Betancourt, whose brief flirtation with Fidel Castro before and immediately after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 had contributed to his reputation as a reformer. His promises to raise the levels of income of all poor Venezuelans, however, very quickly dissolved; under pressure from a US government anxious to isolate Cuba and protect its economic interests in Venezuela and the rest of the continent, Betancourt’s government countered street demonstrations and the subsequent occupation of the Central University with repression. At the same time, the new Venezuelan system was forming on the basis of an alliance of the parties of the right, the Punto Fijo Pact, which effectively ensured a system of power sharing between the two major bourgeois parties—Betancourt’s Acción Democrática (AD) and the Christian Democrats of COPEI.

The pact, signed in October 1958, created a consensus system to ensure democratic stability. There would be a common economic programme and a ‘spoils’ system that provided for party control of appointments to state bodies… The central role of private enterprise was written in to the government’s plans.5

The pact held for the next 30 years, until the Caracazo of 1989. And the key to that economic ‘stability’ was the judicious use of oil revenues. The 2 percent of Venezuelans involved in oil production were given highly privileged working conditions and protected status. The oil bureaucrats and all those involved in the trade lived extraordinarily well (they were the Cadillac owners!). The system maintained itself after the repression of the early protest movement through a combination of patronage, repression and occasional investments in social programmes like education and health—particularly during the boom years of the 1970s, when oil prices rose again with the deepening crisis in the Middle East. Venezuelan oil revenues quadrupled between 1972 and 1974. Like Betancourt a decade earlier, Carlos Andrés Pérez, the newly elected Christian Democratic president, promised protective economic policies, diversification and an end to poverty. Part of this ‘Great Venezuela’ programme was the nationalisation of oil in 1976.

The fact that Venezuela’s oil is run by a nationalised corporation has created much confusion—a confusion cynically and deliberately manipulated for foreign consumption after 2000.The new Venezuelan State Oil Corporation, PDVSA, inherited an industry dominated by a series of foreign oil companies. Nationalisation created 14 Venezuelan companies—but they were not only the mirror of the former companies. The new managers were recruited from the old private industry, maintained a private enterprise attitude to production and continued their ties and allegiances to their former masters. PDVSA was, as one observer put it, a ‘Trojan horse’.6 The oil workers were locked into the same structures and remained, as they had before, a highly privileged layer of workers, earning their salaries in dollars and enjoying all sorts of privileges. Their union was part of the Venezuelan Workers Congress (CTV) which was an integral component of the Punto Fijo constitutional arrangements.

PDVSA maintained a kind of autonomy which led analysts to describe it as ‘a state within a state’ through the period of high oil prices from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. The proportion of its revenues consumed by expenses grew dramatically, and, despite its size and economic weight, it paid less to the government per barrel than did Pemex, the nationalised Mexican oil corporation notorious for its corruption. In fact, the PDVSA management continued to operate in conjunction with multinational corporations and the international oil market, creating its own offshore companies which absorbed the corporate profits in a series of dubious reselling deals and service contracts. For example, it purchased a number of foreign refineries—but for the most part they were unprofitable and PDVSA often found itself providing oil at below market prices to keep them running. ‘Currently it costs PDVSA about three times as much to extract one barrel of oil as it costs other major oil corporations, such as ExxonMobil, Shell or Chevron Texaco’.7

The 1980s were a time, then, when a small elite made millions from oil, when capital fled the country to seek profits abroad and when, despite oil wealth, the Venezuelan GDP fell consistently. This concentration of wealth and deepening social divide were veiled by the complicity of politicians, bureaucrats and business who passed the spoils from hand to hand and controlled a political system which was little more than a network of patronage and corruption. In the latter part of the decade falling oil prices produced new crises. The Venezuelan government turned to the IMF and the institutions of global capital. This was the era of Thatcher and Reagan, of ‘free market’ economics and the euphemistic ‘structural adjustments’ that withdrew the pitiful subsidies on basic goods, transport and social provision and demanded a return on investment disguised as aid.

The Venezuelan social pact was based on control by a capitalist minority of the Venezuelan state in order to protect a virtually autonomous oil industry which, while ostensibly nationalised, was becoming more and more integrated into the structures of global oil production. Within the country the concentration of wealth proceeded at spectacular pace. Four mass media conglomerates controlled the bulk of communication. They were popularly known as ‘the horsemen of the apocalypse’, with the most prominent, Gustavo Cisnero of Venevisión, involved in a dozen other industries and subsidiaries across South America. At the same time, the pact depended for its ideological impact on an appearance of redistribution, the expenditure of some of the crumbs from the financial banquet on social projects and programmes.

Caracazo: the poor come down from the hills

In 1989 Carlos Andrés Pérez’s government adopted the full neo-liberal agenda. By then the slow development of the Venezuelan economy had already gone into reverse:

The proportion of the population living below the poverty line soared from 36 percent in 1984 to 66 percent in 1995, and the number of those living in extreme poverty trebled, rising from 11 to 35 percent. Over the same period, urban unemployment more than doubled, topping the league for the continent. Yet while the share in national income of the poorest two-fifths of the population fell from 19.1 percent to 14.7 percent between 1981 and 1997, that of the richest tenth jumped from 21.8 percent to 32.8 percent.8

Thus oil-rich Venezuela was also the country of the desperately poor shanty towns clinging to the muddy cliffs around the capital. For them, Pérez’s attempt to impose the politics of economic shock in 1989 was the last straw. They poured down into the streets in what became known as the Caracazo. Pérez had hinted in his recently successful presidential campaign that he would not accept the instructions of the IMF. Once in office he changed his position—and his political reforms, including direct election of many mayors and state governors, did nothing to persuade the mass of Venezuelans of his good intentions. And their scepticism was well founded.

In late February a rise in the price of petrol, followed by increased fares on public transport, produced protests and occupations. It began with a student bus boycott. It spread like a forest fire throughout the country—but it was most powerful in Caracas. Pérez’s response was swift. His so-called Plan Avila prepared an overwhelming military response. Troops returned from the provinces. Next day the shooting began. The official figures for the dead were around 100. Although the true number of victims remains uncertain, it is unlikely that fewer than 2,000 were killed in the government’s violent response. More significant still, however, was where the dead were discovered—Petare, 23 de enero, the ramshackle settlements of the urban poor. They, after all, were the most vulnerable of the intended victims of the new economics.

The Caracazo, in some ways, should not be seen as a single event, but rather as the beginning of continuous process of popular resistance.9 From then on, as López-Maya argues, demonstrations, protests and street actions became a regular feature of Venezuelan public life. 1989 also marked a crossroads in the history of Venezuela’s ruling class—for the crisis that began then continued and deepened through the 1990s. The old ruling class, in some senses, went to war in those late February days against the working class and the poor of Venezuela. As the crisis developed, the wealthy elite grew richer, the executives of PDVSA feathered their offshore nests with a greater and greater sense of urgency—and the situation of the poor grew more and more desperate.

In many ways, the failed military coup led by Hugo Chávez in 1992 and the process that it initiated should also be seen as a slow unfolding of the political implications of the Caracazo. Municipal elections late in 1989 had given a new prominence to the MAS (Movement towards Socialism), a split from the Venezuelan Communist Party. MAS, while radical in its rhetoric, was always an electoral organisation and its leader, Teodoro Petkoff, was careful to distance himself from the insurrectionary implications of the mass mobilisations that began in 1989. The defeat of the guerrilla movements in the mid-1960s had largely removed the armed alternative from the political scenario, although Venezuela’s best known guerrilla leader, Douglas Bravo, continued (and continues) to have a significant role. But MAS and organisations like it were the beneficiaries of a deep and enduring rejection of the traditional adherents to the pact of Punto Fijo, and enjoyed much support among some of those who had participated in the Caracazo. MAS’s political rival, Causa R, also an earlier split from the Communist Party, identified more clearly with the street. And it was to those demonstrators that Hugo Chávez was to make his most direct appeal.

Enter Hugo Chávez10

Hugo Chávez erupted onto the international political scene on 4 February 1992 when he led an attempted coup which was very rapidly suppressed. Yet it had enjoyed the vocal support of most of Venezuela’s urban poor. They, after all, were still living through the neo-liberal economic strategies imposed by Pérez, and observing with mounting rage the trading in lucrative jobs and the overt corruption of a bankrupt political arrangement.

Chávez was born in 1954 into a lower middle class family—his parents were both teachers. There were some notables in his family line—his great great grandfather had fought with Zamora, the strategist of Santa Inés! The next generation produced the legendary Maisanta, who had famously resisted the dictatorship of Gómez. Enlisting in 1971, Chávez rose rapidly in the ranks of the military. By the early 1980s he was a popular and charismatic lecturer at the Caracas Military Academy. But he saw himself very differently from the officer class that had benefited from and replicated the cronyism and graft that characterised the state as a whole. Chávez’s conception of the role of the military had its reference point in the military reformists like Presidents Torrijos in Panama and Velasco in Peru (which he visited in 1974), both of whom had initiated social reforms after taking power by military coup. They were nationalists who saw the creation of a strong national state as a prerequisite for economic and social development. But they also saw themselves as very separate from political traditions based on mass action. The idea of reform from above merged with the command model of the structures of the military. In both these cases the conquest of the state followed a failed process of political reform, often betrayed by politicians who, at the level of rhetoric at least, proclaimed a commitment to social justice and democracy.

In the mid-1970s Chávez was sent to help the suppression of a guerrilla group. In his own words, he felt growing sympathy for the guerrillas and gathered around him a small group of officers who wanted to discuss the possibility of radical transformations, an end to graft and a programme of national development. The group of dissidents called themselves the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MRB 2000), to commemorate the leader of the 19th century Latin American liberation movement, Simón Bolívar. It was at that time that Chávez made contact with Douglas Bravo and with the dissenting communists of Causa R.

Chávez summed up the ideology of the Bolivarian movement in a lengthy interview he gave in 1996:

The Bolivarian movement was born in the barracks 15 years ago when a group of soldiers came to the conclusion that the enemy was not communism, but imperialism. For many years we worked carefully and gradually to develop a nationalist, patriotic movement with one hand in the barracks and the other in the street… The current political model is mortally wounded and no viable alternative can exist without breaking the bourgeois, neo-liberal system that has operated in Venezuela since 1945. In our model of democracy…there has to be direct democracy, people’s government with popular assemblies and congresses where the people retain the right to remove, nominate, sanction and recall their elected delegates.11

Even in this short extract there are signs that seem to point in several different directions. For socialists there is a promise of direct democracy. For nationalists, there is the assertion of a patriotic anti-imperialism. But the heart of the matter is in the specific reference to the collapse of the Venezuelan political system.

The Bolivarian circle drew together a number of currents which shared Chávez’s disgust with corruption and the abuse of national resources. Yet it seems clear that the Caracazo caught Chávez by surprise—at least in the astonishingly rapid spread of popular protest and the ferocity of the state’s response. More tellingly, the traditional political organisations benefited from the growing political dissidence, yet—at least in the case of MAS—seemed willing to compromise with elements of the very system they denounced.

Late in 1991 Chávez informed his political allies of the imminent coup and called for support. When the coup attempt was launched in February 1992, thousands of troops joined the call issued by Chávez, his close friend and later political opponent Francisco Arias, and the Bolivarian movement. The organised civilian support did not materialise, although the ranchos (as the poor marginal communities were called) were vocally behind him. After fierce fighting and a number of deaths, the coup was defeated. Curiously, Pérez allowed Chávez a minute to call on his supporters to surrender. Instead Chávez used his minute to present his case, and to make an indelible mark on Venezuelan society. The carnival processions that year boasted lots of youngsters wearing Chávez’s characteristic red beret.12

Chávez spent the next two years in jail—but outside the prison the crisis in Venezuela was intensifying. In 1993 an over-confident Pérez was finally impeached for fraud and corruption. The Venezuelan Oil Corporation, meanwhile, signed a new contract for the Christopher Columbus Natural Gas Project with a consortium of multinational corporations—and conceded two thirds of the ownership of the project to them. The administrative costs were escalating at a dramatic rate, so that little over a third of Venezuelan oil revenues found their way into the national economy. Those administrative costs, of course, concealed the export of capital and an effective transference of funds and assets to interests outside Venezuela, many of them run in part or in whole by PDVSA executives. Poverty was increasing and unemployment rising inexorably.

The 1993 presidential elections brought to power Rafael Caldera, an elderly politician with a relatively unsullied reputation. His government, however, ‘lurched from one crisis to the next; a banking collapse led to a state takeover of the banking system at a cost of $8.5 billion or 75 percent of the national budget for 1994’.13 He turned to the IMF in both 1994 and 1996—its loans carried the usual conditions. Petkoff, as economics minister, imposed the conditions.

In the 1993 election Causa R made considerable gains. But within months it was seeking alliances and coalitions with the very parties that had run the old system. Chávez’s call from jail for an active abstention had convinced some 40 percent of the electorate. Subsequent events must have convinced many more. By 1995 Causa R’s support had collapsed—it split into two warring factions, one of which approached the 1998 presidential elections in support of the reactionary ex beauty queen Irene Sáez. Her candidacy was in many ways evidence of the bankruptcy of Venezuelan politics. The other faction formed Patria Para Todos and entered a long period of debate over who to support in the coming elections. In the end a narrow majority opted to support the candidacy of Hugo Chávez and his Fifth Republic Movement (MVR). The forces that eventually gathered around Chávez were testimony to the breadth and to the ambiguity of his patriotic programme.

On 8 December 1998 Chávez emerged as the elected president of Venezuela with some 56 percent of the vote. The right was stunned, Washington deeply disturbed. His election victory reflected a series of different factors. The Venezuelan bourgeoisie had been unable to come up with a credible presidential candidate other than the beauty queen and the right wing economist Henrique Salas, neither of whom could make any credible claim to represent the interests of the majority of Venezuelans. They were the inheritors and representatives of a political system that was bankrupt and exposed—a system whose public face was the arrogant fraudster Carlos Andrés Pérez. Much of the left, for its part, had colluded with that very same system as the crisis of the 1990s deepened, and had experienced popular rejection as a result. Douglas Bravo, who knew Chávez well and was certainly influential in his political development, was now largely involved with direct action movements on the land.

There was both a power vacuum, and the continuing crisis among the organisations of the left—the ongoing echo of the post-1989 crisis of Stalinism—made them incapable of connecting with, let alone organising or leading, the mass protest movement. Chávez filled that vacuum with a political ideology which was nationalist and anti-imperialist, and identified with the excluded and marginalised sectors of Venezuelan society. His rejection of neo-liberal economic strategies and his relentless attacks on the corruption of the old system resonated with the deeply impoverished majority. And his scepticism about political parties, of the left as much as of the right, seemed to fit with the experience, and the disillusionment, of that same majority.

His persona was a subtle expression of his politics. He clearly did not belong to the white-skinned, soft-featured elite of Venezuela. Irene Sáez, the blonde Miss Venezuela, expressed that bourgeoisie’s ideals perfectly—and it was ironic that when she allowed her hair to return to its normal brown colour in the course of the election campaign she began to lose favour. Chávez’s dark skin, chiselled features and street-wise way of speaking were powerful signs in a country where class and ethnicity had always been so closely interwoven. And his scepticism about traditional political organisation—and not only the discredited bourgeois parties—also found an echo with his base of support among the poor and the marginalised. Bolivarismo was, by its nature, a studiedly ambiguous idea, a mix of nationalism, populism, the language of radical democracy and popular wisdom. And while the historical reference to Bolívar connects directly with an anti-imperialist perspective, it is also an ideology of authoritarian leadership.14

The essential question to be asked is not to interrogate the leader’s face for signs of sincerity or his words for internal contradictions, but rather to ask who, in this vision of political change, is the protagonist of the process, the engine of transformation and the central actor in the building of a new society. For Marxists, the revolution is the act of a whole class, in all its diversity and difference—the working class acting to achieve its own liberation. In the ideology of Bolivarismo/Chavismo , who occupies that role?

It is my view that the question is not easily answered—precisely because there are unresolved contradictions at the heart of Chavismo . In the 1996 interview quoted earlier, for example, Chávez commits himself to advanced forms of rank and file democracy. Yet, as will become clear, the organisational expressions of the Bolivarian revolution in power were very far from the ‘popular assemblies and congresses’ he alluded to there.

In the end, of course, it would be paradoxical to argue that the emergence of organs of workers’ democracy should depend on a decision by Chávez—they should, by their very nature, arise in the context of class struggle. Yet the influence and authority of Chávez are beyond question—and therefore the exercise of that influence is a material factor, especially in the context of an absence of left alternatives rooted in the movement and capable of challenging and questioning the president. His weekly intimate conversations with the Venezuelan people—his ‘Aló Presidente’ programmes—are brilliant exercises in political communication, but they are monologues.

These are not abstract questions. In the concrete circumstances of escalating class confrontation, they are strategic questions that shape and direct the interventions and actions of the mass movement.

The Bolivarian revolution

In the year of Chávez’s election 67 percent of the population of the country earned less than $2 a day, and 36 percent less than $1.50. Within two months he had proposed a referendum for a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution.15 Of the 131 delegates to the assembly 125 were Chávez supporters—among the losing candidates was the ever-present Carlos Andrés Pérez. The new document was approved in December 1999. Its main provisions were directed at rebuilding the discredited political system and making elected officials accountable and open to recall (the clause that was used against Chávez in 2004). It set out the obligation of the mass media to be ‘truthful’, which evoked howls of protest before such ‘unjustified intervention in the democratic press’ from the monopoly owner of the Venevisión Corporation and his ilk. The church turned its large guns against the promise to raise subsidies to state schools at the church’s expense and the threat to introduce abortion rights. But it was the plans for the reorganisation of the oil industry that provoked the most vehement hostility. The new constitution introduced a right to health and an entitlement to land for landless peasants, as well as basic trade union rights. Unsurprisingly it was ratified by 71 percent of those who voted in the referendum of December.

The numbers voting might certainly have been higher (56 percent of electors did not vote) had the skies not opened and visited upon Venezuela days of torrential rain. The precarious and fragile houses around Caracas began to fall into the gigantic mudslides the rain produced. Some on the right were cynical enough to claim this as the wrath of god as the second flood claimed somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 lives. It certainly set back Chávez’s economic and social programmes, as unemployment and poverty figures continued to rise through the first year of his presidency.

The level of popular support for Chávez’s project was beyond question—as was the growing hostility of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and its allies in Washington. Yet there was some unease even among Chávez’s allies about the character of his organisation:

The MRB2000 itself, founded by Chávez in the 1980s, had a very small group of members; and the MVR, founded just to participate in the 1998 presidential elections, is an electoral party that grew like an avalanche bringing with it many opportunists who knew that they would be elected only if associated with Chávez. Nor does the country have any strong social movement: neither the neighbourhood popular movement nor the trade union movement have been able to become autonomous…16

There was no sense that the MVR or the Bolivarian movement existed in any real sense as a grassroots organisation. The lists of candidates for the 1998 elections, and indeed for subsequent elections in 2000, included a wide range of individuals from a spectrum of organisations, not all of whom had a proven record of support for mass struggles. The core of Chávez’s organisation was clearly the military group he had formed in the academy who now occupied most of the key posts in and around government. As McCaughan puts it, ‘It appeared that individual loyalty rather than individual merit was the key factor in distributing posts’.17 Chávez’s partners in the electoral coalition of 1998—including MAS and the Communist Party—now grew impatient with his unwillingness to distribute power. The distrust of political organisation ran deeper, perhaps, than any of his erstwhile partners realised. Certainly Chávez was happy to deploy the mass support he enjoyed—but at this stage there was no evidence of any commitment to converting that support into the forms of popular democracy he repeatedly referred to in his speeches and articles.

The bourgeois opposition had by now renounced its attempts to court the new president and had begun to form an organised opposition. It campaigned against the scheduled presidential elections of May 2000, on the grounds of flaws in the electoral machinery, and succeeded in postponing them until July. Nonetheless, Chávez won again—with 59 percent and a clear congressional majority.

He now moved to pass the laws which would allow him to set in motion his planned changes to the economy and the political system—legislation which was finally passed in November 2001. This was the Rubicon that the bourgeoisie could not allow the new government to cross—and it began to put into effect its plan to undermine the Bolivarian project.

Echoes beyond the frontier

As events unfolded in Venezuela they resonated well beyond the national frontiers. The strategies of global capital within Latin America were producing resistance on many fronts. In 2000 the little known but hugely significant resistance of indigenous organisations and trade unions overthrew the deeply unpopular government of Mahuad in Ecuador when he attempted to impose the neo-liberal agenda by dollarising the national economy. The Zapatista resistance in Mexico had emerged in 1994, coinciding with the creation of the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) and signalling the emergence of a continent-wide resistance to neo-liberalism which would find expression in the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In Brazil the aggressive neo-liberal strategies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso were countered by a combative Landless Workers Movement (MST), and the PT (Workers Party) of Lula, while not yet occupying the presidency, had created a network of local and regional structures which attempted to oppose or at least to moderate the impact of those strategies. The so called Argentinazo uprising in December 200118 came just a month after the passing of Chávez’s enabling laws. Mass struggles were beginning to occupy the political terrain—and no electoral alternative that sought mass support could afford to ignore the depredations that global capital was inflicting on the mass of workers. Venezuela was not, as Harnecker would have it, ‘sui generis’. Its experience was typical of a Latin America facing the impact of globalisation everywhere.

The Venezuelan bourgeoisie’s response to the November laws was predictable from the point of view of its own class interests. There were two particular elements which provoked its fury and struck at the very heart of its class interests. The first was a new oil law which set limits on the involvement of foreign companies and doubled the royalties to be paid to the state; the increased oil income since 1999 had gone to raise spending on education (from 3.3 percent to 5.2 percent of GDP) and health (from 1.1 percent to 1.4 percent). The second spark was Chávez’s Ley de Tierras, which limited the size of landholdings and permitted the redistribution of certain lands, particularly underused areas, to landless peasants. Bearing in mind that around 13 percent of Venezuela’s people live in rural areas and that agriculture’s share of GDP stood in 1999 at around 6 percent, the purpose of this reform was fundamentally to raise agricultural production and productivity.

Whatever the limitations of these reforms, the Venezuelan ruling class responded with its first general strike against the government. The strike was led by the management of PDVSA, the employers’ federation Fedecámaras and—confusingly—the Venezuelan Workers Congress (CTV). The employers, especially in their communications with the outside world, consciously exploited this paradox. The reality, of course, is that CTV was a notoriously corrupt organisation whose leadership was integrated into the system of graft and cronyism that characterised the old regime. Its reason for resisting the land redistribution, for example, was that ‘it would impinge on employers ability to do business’.19

The one-day strike of the opposition, in December, was a muscle-flexing exercise, but it pointed to the shape of things to come. Chávez responded on 17 December with a call for the formation of the Círculos Bolivarianos, the Bolivarian Circles—some one and a half million people signed up for them in the months that followed. The right wing opposition, now embarking on a permanent campaign of threats and mobilisations, argued that the circles were preparing for armed insurrection. Chávez, by contrast, saw them as community organisations and instruments of consciousness. Put differently, they were organs whose primary purpose was to mobilise support for his government. What was very clear, however, was that they would remain tightly controlled from above in a regime that remained highly centralised in Chávez himself. There was no question that they might represent the development of a power from below preparing to take on the ruling class offensive directly.

In January 2002 a massive right wing demonstration confronted Chavista counter-demonstrations and tensions rose. In February a senior military officer called on Chávez to resign, a timely reminder that the army was as divided along class lines as was the society as a whole. In March the CTV union federation signed an agreement with the employers’ organisation, a clear response to Chávez’s decision to remove a number of PDVSA executives. MAS and a number of deputies belonging to Chávez’s MVR party went over to the opposition. The mass media, meanwhile, were deliberately and daily raising the level of tension. The cacerolazos, banging empty pots as an act of protest, rang out almost daily in the middle class districts. Chávez responded by new appeals to the population to look out for speculation and to lengthy TV celebrations of his defence of the right of free speech—which had benefited the bourgeoisie above all.

The opposition launched a general strike on 9 and 10 April.

The coup that failed—a victory for the masses

The bourgeoisie had drawn up its battle lines. The question was, how would the Venezuelan working class, the poor and the peasantry organise their mass response to this assault by the ruling class? What organs of struggle and direct action would emerge in the course of struggle?

The masses were clearly on the alert—but there was no alternative political impulse to drive or shape their response to events other than the instructions coming from the Miraflores presidential palace. And its incumbent saw himself, and the small circle of trusted military men around him as the actors in the situation with the masses in the role of support. On 11 April the strike was declared indefinite. The calls came for Chávez’s resignation, and were backed by a number of senior military men. Some 200,000 marched on the presidential palace but were met at the Puente Llaguna bridge over the road by a pro-Chávez demonstration. The shots that rang out at 2.30 that afternoon echoed around the world, as the opposition accused Chávez supporters of opening fire. Subsequent film footage leaves little doubt that opposition snipers were responsible—equally it shows that the city police under the control of Caracas’s mayor, a public opponent of Chávez, stood back. In the palace, Chávez waited—until it became clear that the army was split. When opposition members entered the palace and demanded his resignation he agreed to leave under arrest—though he insisted that he never resigned.20

Chávez was taken to the island military base of La Orchila and detained there, accused of responsibility for the deaths of civilians on the Caracas demonstration. In the National Palace the opposition leaders celebrated the easy removal of Chávez with champagne. Pedro Carmona, head of the business organisation Fedecámaras, took out the presidential sash that he had had made for himself some weeks previously. Carlos Ortega, head of the Venezuelan Trade Union Federation (CTV), was there together with several of the oil company executives. Cisneros, the owner of Venevisión, was certainly celebrating the victory of his sustained campaign of vilification. The European Union and Washington rushed to celebrate the restoration of the previous order! Carlos Andrés Pérez, the eminence grise of the old Venezuela, must have looked on with satisfaction from his home in Miami—he had met Carmona just a couple of weeks earlier, no doubt to organise his own triumphant return.

But how quickly a tide can turn!

The Irish television team accidentally holed up in the Miraflores palace pointed their lenses through the windows onto the avenue outside. Like the excessively cheerful new occupants of the palace, the journalists registered a curious phenomenon. The city centre was slowly filling up with people. But these were not the usual users of these streets. The baseball caps and T-shirts, but above all the faces of these people, were revealing. These were the residents of the poor districts, of the precarious shanties at the city’s edge. Slowly, with no apparent urgency, they were occupying the avenues around the palace. Inside the elation was turning into a mounting concern.

The presidential guard remained loyal to Chávez and refused to acknowledge the new occupants of the presidential palace. As the crowd swelled, grew more and more vocal, and refused to move, Chávez was preparing his return. Military officers who supported him arranged for the helicopter to bring him back. He had been out of Caracas for a little under 48 hours.

The Irish television documentary shows this moment of return. What had happened in those days was extraordinary. The sheer weight and determination of the mass movement had tipped the political balance against the bourgeois plotters—who had fled. More than that, the initiative had passed, for those two days at least, from Chávez to the mass movement in the street. There was a new power in Venezuela now—the very mass democracy that Chávez had seen in embryo in the Caracazo, that he had promised to rebuild and develop in his 1996 interview and in countless speeches since. That power was no longer an abstraction, but a material reality. The collective protagonist of revolution was waiting in Caracas’s grand avenues.

Hugo Chávez thanked them—and asked them to return to their homes. Of course they were probably weary and quite ready to take a rest; but that is not the point. What Chávez did at that moment was demobilise his supporters and take back into his own hands the leadership of the movement. In the days that followed an investigation into the involvement of the military in the coup began—yet the courts absolved all those who were involved. Despite the active leadership given by the private mass media in the events of 11 and 12 April, there was no attempt to control or contain their activities. On the contrary, they become more vocal and more active in opposing Chávez in the months after the coup. Those responsible for the murders at Puente Llaguno were not brought to justice—and while Carmona fled the country, others implicated in the events were left virtually untouched. Worst of all, the executives of the PDVSA were restored to their posts.

The events identified the opposition and showed how far they were willing to go:

The coup was defeated but Chávez chose not to move against all but the most visible leaders of the conspiracy. The absence of sanctions against the opposition was interpreted as a sign of government weakness. The Venezuelan Supreme Court subsequently overruled a magistrate’s order to try four senior army officers implicated in the coup, ruling that the events of 11-A did not constitute a coup d’etat but a ‘power vacuum’. Chávez disagreed with the ruling but made no attempt to interfere with the verdict.21

By August the opposition was regrouping, its confidence restored by Chávez’s obvious decision not to press home his advantage. Demonstrations that months were accompanied by cocksure declarations from coup leaders that Chávez would soon fall.

It is hard not to be reminded of another, earlier sequence of events with so many parallels with the current situation in Venezuela. In Chile in 1973 the bourgeoisie was quite openly discussing the ways it might find to overthrow the government of Salvador Allende, elected president of the Popular Unity coalition. The debate then was between crippling the economy and assaulting power directly. In Venezuela exactly the same debate was taking place. In October dissident military officers set up a ‘rebel camp’ in one of the wealthiest parts of central Caracas—so called civil organisations were advocating a refusal to pay income tax. Chile’s lessons for the future were painfully clear—and would become painfully relevant as the Venezuelan situation evolved. Faced with a challenge to its hegemonic power, faced with the prospect of working masses seizing the initiative, as they had done in April, the ruling class would mobilise all its power to defeat such a fundamental challenge. Naturally, it would accept the gifts of democratic observance which Chávez offered—the defence of its right to ‘free speech’, the acceptance of the independence of courts dominated by figures sympathetic to it, the processing of change through parliamentary legislation. But equally it would be willing, like every ruling class under threat, to go beyond the institutional arrangements in defence of its class interests.

Chávez had had a choice in April—to seek to compromise with the coup-makers, or to radicalise the process by placing power increasingly in the hands of the popular organisations. He chose the first. But this only encouraged the right. The media spoke daily of imminent chaos. Washington fuelled the rumours of disaster. Foreign capital fled the Venezuelan economy. Yet land was being distributed and legislation to enable shanty dwellers to earn title to their plots was being implemented. Attendance at secondary schools in particular expanded as a new generation of young teachers were joined by Cuban teachers. Medical services in the poor areas were also dramatically approved by the arrival of Cuban doctors.

While these measures maintained Chávez’s social base, they served to fuel the hysteria of the middle classes—what better to feed ruling class paranoia than Chávez’s evident friendship with Fidel Castro, for example. Yet Chávez still did not acknowledge the option of deepening and accelerating the process of social change by a devolution of power from the presidential palace to the mass organisations at the base.

As the time for the implementation of the new legislation on oil (January 2003) approached, the opposition sharpened its economic weapons and prepared its second frontal assault on the Chávez government. In December 2002 it launched another general strike. McGaughan describes its day to day progress.22 Oil production ground rapidly to a halt, businesses closed their doors, schools locked their doors, and the cooking gas so essential to the poor districts began to run out. The mass media, under the direction of Cisneros and the other three horsemen of the apocalypse, suspended normal programming and instead broadcast virtually continuous ‘news bulletins’ describing the success of the strike and painting a picture of chaos and violence. It was cynical and deliberate in the extreme. The oppositional officers in the armed forces were more cautious this time than they had been in April—the dissident encampment was maintained but most of its sympathisers kept their counsel.

By February the strike was over—defeated above all by the mobilisation of the people who kept supplies going, particularly of gas, and countered the propaganda of the rich with their own ‘Radio Bemba’, the powerful weapon of street communication. Yet there was no doubt of the tremendous damage the strike had done—Wilpert estimates the cost at $6 billion.23 Yet the Venezuelan bourgeoisie had once again been defeated by the action of the masses. The parallels with Chile are potent. In October 1972 and August 1973 the bosses’ strikes in that country were defeated by the mass mobilisations of the working class, who kept the transport running, the factories producing and the food circulating.24 The aftermath of that experience, of course, was the terrible repression that followed the overthrow and murder of Allende and the ascent to power of Augusto Pinochet.25

I am not suggesting any obvious or direct parallels, but the echoes are unmistakable. In the wake of the defeated bosses’ strikes in Chile, the bourgeoisie began to speak openly of overthrowing Allende. On the left, meanwhile, the debate turned on the question of what was meant by ‘poder popular’—popular power. Could Allende maintain the middle ground he coveted and act to balance the interests of the opposing classes? Could socialism, the transfer of power from one class to another, actually be achieved within the framework of a bourgeois democracy, even if the left were in government? We now know the answers to those questions about Chile.

Having survived a second time

Other important events had taken place in Latin America while the Venezuelan bourgeoisie was attempting to bring Chávez down. In December 2002 Lula had finally been elected to the presidency of Brazil. And in Ecuador, Lucio Gutiérrez, closely associated with the mass risings against the government in the previous two years, was also elected to the presidency with a promise to oppose neo-liberal economic strategies. In early 2003 the talk at the Porto Alegre World Social Forum was an optimistic appraisal of the new anti-imperialist bloc represented by these three newly elected presidents. Chávez spoke to the state parliament in Porto Alegre and was rapturously received.

Many on the left felt at that juncture that the revival of a project for national self-determination and economic independence was now firmly on the historical agenda. It involved the goal of national development and modernisation within a framework of a ‘controlled capitalism’—as if the nation-state had suddenly discovered a new and unexpected capacity to defy the dictates of global capital. Chávez encouraged such ideas when he praised Lula’s example at the inauguration of Kirchner as the president of Argentina in the spring of 2003. At this stage of the struggle such an approach was an alternative to the elaboration of coordinated international strategies of mass resistance.

The euphoria was short-lived. Lula’s pre-election pledges to the IMF, and the political compromises enshrined in key appointments in his government were the signal that should have given warning. Within weeks Lula was giving assurances to the global financial institutions while simultaneously refusing to allow long-delayed wage rises to civil servants and the protection of their pensions. The disillusionment was rapid and profound.26 The same was true of Gutiérrez, who yielded even more rapidly to the pressures of the IMF.

The Venezuelan opposition did not move to armed opposition—though there were, and remain, all sorts of vague threats in the air. Instead it moved to collect signatures for a recall referendum, as allowed by the constitution of 2000. In a sense it was a defeat for the right. Yet it also represented a pressure to move back from the terrain of class confrontation into an institutional setting where its international allies could also be mobilised against Chávez. In the event, many of the signatures proved fraudulent and it would take another year before the requisite numbers of legitimate names were gathered.

In the interim the economy began to recover as oil production began again and a number of the social programmes long promised by Chávez began to be implemented—the distribution of land, the regularisation of urban settlement, the education plan and the establishment of a health system for the excluded and the marginal. Oil revenues are now used for social programmes, much to the disgust of the old bourgeoisie. Organisationally the implementation of many of these programmes has been carried out through the Bolivarian Circles, or their equivalent, in the communities. At first sight, these may be seen as the expression of that vision of popular power Chávez himself articulated two years before his election to the presidency. And yet they served not to decentralise power but to concentrate it ever more firmly in Chávez and his immediate circle:

There is no doubt that the urban land titles, agrarian reform, literacy programme, state-run basic food distribution networks, Saraos, urban gardens and other projects all contribute towards empowering the dispossessed majority. But the vast majority of Venezuelan citizens remain bystanders to the political process, waiting for results to be delivered…27

It may be argued, of course, that change and development are being delivered, and that increased oil revenues will only accelerate the process. The problem, of course, is that none of this takes place in a vacuum. The Venezuelan bourgeoisie has demonstrated amply its hostility to redistribution or to state control of the economy, let alone any move towards a genuine democracy from below. History provides compelling evidence of the readiness of even the most ostensibly democratic ruling classes to employ any means to safeguard their power.

There is a profound difference between community organisations whose purpose is the implementation of policy from above, and those which both decide and enact decisions rising from below. That alternative form of organisation will be based on the collective power of the working class exercised and discovered in the course of the struggle. While the language of Chávez and those around him has placed notions of ‘the people’ at its heart, what has evolved in the last four years in Venezuela is not a battle between the nation and those outside it, nor yet between just and unjust or democrats and others. In 2002, whether in April or December, it was clear to everyone involved that this was class struggle. Democracy and justice were important issues, of course, but they were driving forces within the camp of the working class—and mere options for the bourgeoisie.

When the organisations that lead the struggle identify their own purposes in class terms, then revolution—the transfer of power from one class to another—is on the historical agenda. And within the ‘Bolivarian’ process, such a second process of struggle and change has intensified as events have accumulated the challenges facing workers in Venezuela. It is not a debate between abstract arguments, of course, but a battle to build that capacity among workers to act independently which is the revolutionary impulse. In the concrete, it has been a question of how workers organise themselves, and how those organisations connect with the organs of mass struggle which had developed and expanded so quickly in the face of the initiatives of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie.

If the visible manifestation of the popular defence of Chávez was the crowds that gathered around Miraflores Palace, the activity of some workers in oil and manufacturing, in transport and the public sector was crucial. This was even more the case in the December 2002-February 2003 lockout. Yet no organisation was available to co-ordinate and connect their struggles, given the alliance of the discredited CTV with the bourgeoisie. While the Bolivarian Circles and popular organisations developed on the ground (Harnecker claims a combined membership of 1.3 million by September 2003), they were still organs of government, administered and co-ordinated from above.

In this respect the referendum yields up a paradox. While many on the left warned that the referendum was a stratagem to reimpose the limits of bourgeois democracy, the consequence of the vote has been unexpected and surprising. It is not simply a question of the numerical success, the achievement of a majority—it was the manner of its achievement. The opposition had the mass media at its disposal as well as the vigorous support of the US and dark warnings of a possible direct intervention from Colombia. Yet the mass movement developed organs of local activity and mobilisation in all the parts that the bourgeois-owned mass media did not reach. The referendum was not won by Chávez’s lengthy speeches, despite a tendency of many on the left to hero-worship and attribute every advance to the superhuman qualities and political leadership of Hugo Chávez.

The true history of Venezuela’s last six years tells a very different story. Hugo Chávez’s government owes its existence, indeed its very survival, to the repeated and determined action of the mass of the Venezuelan lower classes. Time and again they have shown their potential to provide an alternative power to that of the bourgeoisie. Yet this has not produced new forms of organisation based on democracy from below. Each initiative from below has been expressed as a new impulse or expression of the Bolivarian revolution. And it is true that most of those forms of resistance and struggle have identified themselves with the ideology of Bolivarismo. Yet it is also true—and critical—that Chávez’s explanation of that ideology lends itself to different interpretations and contains different and sometimes contradictory positions. So it is that the ideology has been very differently interpreted in the debates that have developed within the mass movement in the last two years.

The UNT (Unión Nacional de Trabajadores), for example, was formally founded in August 2003 at a congress which claimed to represent over half a million Venezuelan workers and their organisations. It was seen as a new national formation in opposition to the long-established CTV (Congreso de Trabajadores Venezolanos) whose leadership had played such an overtly counter-revolutionary role. UNT was clearly closely aligned to Chávez and some leading elements intended it to function as an instrument of working class mobilisation from above. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that within UNT and around it are a series of groups and currents which are critical of excessively close links to government. The unease with UNT’s lack of independence was expressed, for example, in an interview given to Marta Harnecker by Ramón Machuca, leader of the Sutiss union28 in early 2003. Machuca, who had led an important big strike against the privatised steel company SIDOR in 2001 in the face of opposition from some Chavistas, expressed his concern that many of the UNT leaders were in fact bureaucrats or political appointees who would not maintain an independent class position before government.

This concern has been manifested again and again and with increasing intensity as the class struggle itself has deepened. Many of the most combative communities, for example—like Antímano and El Valle—insisted that the local leaderships should be directly elected from below, and rejected nominations from the centre. Whereas the Bolivarian movement represents a coalition of political organisations supporting Chávez, many of them lack credence with the masses and are seen as opportunistic Chavistas who are merely taking advantage of a new political arrangement to advance their personal ambitions. In the state of Vargas, it was reported, Bolivarian organisations set up their own ‘Maisanta Comando’ (the name given to the national mobilisation around the referendum) rejecting the imposition of the official organisation whose leader was a very recent convert to Chávez. And there were many more similar examples.

In 2005 there will be regional and local elections for governors and mayors. The lists of candidates for these elections have already been issued from the centre. Yet a declaration issued by a new co-ordinator of mass organisations echoes a frequently heard demand for new lists of candidates elected from below—and for a postponement of the elections to allow this to happen:

While it is true that the actions of central government, and of some local and regional governments, has brought qualitative advances in the living standards of the people…it is also true that the failure to give the people access to forms of participation in government in a systematic way and in the spirit of the constitution has allowed practices and modes of work from the past to persist and continue…29

The call for the creation of ‘poder popular’ or people’s power—a direct echo of the Chilean process between 1972 and 1973—is a clear demand to deepen and extend the process. Indeed the declaration calls for a Congress of People’s Power to be organised for April 2005. The discussion echoes in its turn a series of articles and interventions by the ex minister of planning Ronaldo Denis, who left government in 2001, which are critical of the compromises and ambiguities in Chávez’s positions.

There is of course a general agreement that the referendum victory will not mark an end to class struggle in Venezuela. While the bourgeoisie may pause to regroup and the United States establish a cautious pragmatic relationship with Chávez for the moment, the class struggle will continue and intensify in the near future. And while the call for Venezuela to be left alone may be a legitimate slogan for an international anti-imperialist movement, it makes no contribution to the development and growth of the left in Venezuela itself. Chávez himself will continue to seek spaces for negotiation with sections of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and a renegotiated position in the wider international market. Rising oil revenues have provided and will continue to provide resources to finance welfare provision and the growth of infrastructure as well as some diversification of production. But a recently announced agreement with Texaco and ExxonMobil to develop oil and gas production in the Orinoco is on terms highly favourable to the corporations.

The Chávez government has been successfully defended against attempts to undermine it. But 50 percent of Venezuela’s population continue to live in poverty and 20 percent and more are still without work. Transferring control over oil production from the PDVSA to a new government ministry is certainly an attack on the old ‘state within a state’—but it is still a significant step away from ‘workers’ control’ of this key industry. The media, the banks and many key areas of service industries (telephones, for example) remain in the hands of the traditional bourgeoisie. There is still a considerable distance to go before we can speak of a transfer of power into the hands of the working class—which alone gives meaning to the concept of revolution. Yet fundamental to a definition of a revolutionary process is that is marked by a growing control from below, by a cumulative act of self-emancipation by the working classes.

The critical question now—and it is not a theoretical issue—is how the different struggles are co-ordinated and linked to the working class and its organisations. It is a living debate.

Chávez has shown many times that he is bound to a concept of reconciliation between the warring classes. Hence his decision after both attempts to overthrow him in 2002 to open the door to negotiation and ‘social peace’. Equally, he made speeches in rapid succession in the wake of the referendum ranging from a call to arm the proletariat to a clear overture to the United States, promising to maintain the flow of Venezuelan oil to its most important customer (the US itself). Chávez has argued throughout the last four years, furthermore, for a Latin American economic area embracing Brazil, Ecuador and others in a revamped Mercosur. The neat switch from ALCA (the Spanish acronym for the free Trade Area of the Americas) to ALBA (the Bolivarian Free Trade Area) suggests a new dawn (alba) for Latin America through an alliance of nation-states. But even under new conditions, these states—separately or together—would find themselves under an obligation to accept the conditions of trade in the world market, and inescapably those rules would bring them into confrontation with their own workers.

If the ‘new dawn’ is to begin a process of revolutionary change, it is the working class—acting independently in its own interest, and leading the collective struggles of the poor, the oppressed and the exploited—who will carry it forward beyond the moment of compromise and reconciliation. Chile 1972-1973 yields up a dramatic example of how that authentic power from below can look—the cordones industriales which brought together delegates from workers in different factories. And if we need examples of other possible outcomes, then the ultimate failure of Portugal’s 1974 revolution may have much to tell us about a political process that relies on a progressive wing of the military acting on behalf of but outside the control of the mass movement.

The referendum victory was won from below. Its consolidation—and its transformation into a new kind of society—will depend once again on the capacity of the working class to use it as a milestone on the way to a real transfer of power. For that to happen demands new forms of organisation, democratic, grass roots and genuinely powerful:

Within the social movements and the political vanguard there is developing a rebellion against bureaucracy which can longer be held back. It is the vital masses of Bolivarism without whom the jargon of the bureaucrats who have claimed to represent them would fall to pieces in minutes. That rebellion during the referendum period allowed the ‘Battle of Santa Inés’ to be waged on two fronts at once—against the class enemy and against the hierarchy. The referendum has turned into a great opportunity not only to unleash new forms of organisation but also to draw them together into a body of proposals that develop along a single line from resistance to electoral fraud to the creation of new political and institutional spaces.30

It is those new spaces alone that give meaning to the word ‘revolution’. Tariq Ali, writing after the referendum,31 sees the Bolivarian revolution as no more than an opportunity to develop social democracy in Venezuela. But this is the era of a new imperialism marching hand in hand with a global capital that acknowledges no national frontiers and admits no exception to the merciless operation of the market. The nation-state may seek to renegotiate its relationship with that global system through joint initiatives like Mercosur. But it is only the action of the workers, the very people who have sustained Hugo Chávez’s revolution thus far, that can challenge the system itself.

Appendix: Some view from the left:

What Chávez is attempting is nothing more or less than the creation of a radical social-democracy in Venezuela that seeks to empower the lowest strata of society. In these times of deregulation, privatisation and the Anglo-Saxon model of wealth subsuming politics, Chávez’s aims are regarded as revolutionary, even though the measures proposed are no different to those of the post-war Attlee government in Britain.

Tariq Ali, Counterpunch, 16 August 2004

I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don’t think so. But if I’m told that because of that reality you can’t do anything to help the poor, the people who have made this country rich through their labour—and never forget that some of it was slave labour, then I say, ‘We part company’. I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don’t even like paying taxes. That’s one reason they hate me. It’s better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing…

Hugo Chávez in an interview with Tariq Ali

The people are patient, but they are actively waiting. They are calm but aware, conscious of the need to consolidate the defeat of the right wing and those dedicated to the overthrow of Chávez.. At the same time people are conscious of the need for change in the regime itself—taking on the bureaucratic sectors linked to the Bolivarian revolution who are more interested in defending their own privileges than in advancing the interests of the people. That struggle requires increasing democracy in the country, building the influence of the mass organisations, and increasing the people’s control over the country’s oil wealth. All this points to a key demand, which the government has never seriously addressed—the expropriation of the big capitalist groups. On the hills above the capital, Caracas, we could hear activists posing this question: “Is this the moment for the revolution within the revolution?

Luciana Genro and Roberto Robaina, of the new P-sol party in Brazil

The defeat of the referendum was a major tactical defeat of US imperialism and its local vassals. But a defeat of imperialism does not necessarily mean or lead to a revolutionary transformation, as post-Chávez post-election appeals to Washington and big business demonstrate. The euphoria of the left prevents them from observing the pendulum shifts in Chávez discourse and the heterodox social welfare neo-liberal economic politics he has consistently practiced… He is closer to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal than Castro’s socialist revolution.

James Petras, Counterpunch, 2 September 2004


  1. Luciana Genro and Roberto Robaina reporting in Socialist Worker, 30 August 2004.

  2. G Wilpert, ‘The Economics, Culture and Politics of Oil in Venezuela’, on dated 30 August 2003.

  3. A regime satirised in the Spanish novelist Ramon del Valle-Inclan’s famous novel Tirano Banderas (1926).

  4. M Niedergan, The Twenty Latin Americas:2 (Harmondsworth, 1971), p207.

  5. M McCaughan, The Battle of Venezuela (London, 2004), p24.

  6. Quoted by G Wilpert, ‘The Economics, Culture and Politics of Oil…’, as above, p5. See also T Lynn Karl, The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro States (Berkeley, 1997).

  7. G Wilpert, ‘Collision in Venezuela’, in New Left Review 21 (May/June 2003), p106.

  8. As above, p105.

  9. See M López-Maya, ‘Venezuela After the Caracazo: Forms of Protest in a Deinstitutionalised Context’, in Bulletin of Latin American Research, vol 21, no 2 (April 2002), pp199-218.

  10. The definitive history of Chávez and his movement thus far is Richard Gott’s In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chávez and the Transformation of Venezuela (London, 2000).

  11. Quoted in J Raimondo, ‘The New Bolivar’, 5 January 2001, on

  12. M McCaughan, as above, p35.

  13. As above, p44.

  14. Bolívar, after all, was the man whose ‘Jamaica Letter’ of 1816 despaired of democratic change and elaborated a concept of ‘enlightened despotism’!

  15. See NACLA Report on the Americas (2003).

  16. M Harnecker, ‘Venezuela: A Sui Generis Revolution’, 16 September 2003 on Harnecker, a Chilean based in Cuba, offers in this lengthy article a very impassioned apologia for Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution. As the article’s title suggests, the defence is based on the legitimation of Chávez’s distance from the traditions of socialist politics.

  17. M McCaughan, as above, p53.

  18. See C Harman, ‘Argentina in Revolt’, International Socialism 94 (spring 2002).

  19. G Wilpert in New Left Review, as above, p110. Much of the information in the preceding paragraphs is provided by Wilpert.

  20. The events of these extraordinary days are captured in a marvellous documentary, The Revolution will not be Televised, made by two reporters from RTE, the Irish Broadcasting Service, who found themselves by chance trapped inside the Miraflores palace throughout these events.

  21. M McCaughan, as above, p115.

  22. As above, pp123-127.

  23. G Wilpert in New Left Review, as above, p103.

  24. See P O’Brien, J Roddick and I Roxborough, Chile: The State and Revolution (London, 1975); also M Gonzalez ‘Chile’, in C Barker et al, Revolutionary Rehearsals (London, 1989).

  25. Edgardo Lander’s ‘Comentarios Informales Sobre la Situación Política Venezolana’, dated Caracas, 3 January 2003, are an early and thoughtful approach to these issues.

  26. This is not the place to develop these points. But the speed of compromise led to protests by four key PT parliamentary deputies, led by Luciana Genro, and their subsequent explusion from PT. See M Gonzalez, ‘Brazil in the Eye of the Storm’, International Socialism 98 (Spring 2003), pp57-77.

  27. M McCaughan, as above, p154.

  28. Correo de Prensa de la IV Internacional, Boletín Electrónico no 761, 12 June 2003. The interview also appeared on the website ‘aporrea’. For an interesting account of the arguments over the new union and their outcome, see S Ellner, ‘Polarisation and Class Identification in Venezuela during the Chávez Years’,

  29. See ‘Declaración de Organizaciones Populares en “Conexión Social” Sobre Candidatures y Poder Popular’, 3 September 2004, published on

  30. Roland Denis, of the 13th of April Movement, writing on 16 July 2004.

  31. T Ali, ‘Why he Crushed the Oligarchs: The Importance of Hugo Chávez’, in Counterpunch, 16 August 2004