Venezuela: the popular movement and the government

Issue: 110

Roland Denis

Roland Denis is active in the Venezuelan Movement of 13 April. Chris Harman and Maina van der Zwan interviewed him in Caracas at the end of January 2006.1 We began by asking him about the development of the movement at the base of society.

The popular movement was made of small resistance groups without great significance when Chavez became president. It had gone through a great crisis in the 1980s—only the student movement had managed to maintain a movement in struggle, while the peasants’ movement and the workers’ movement, the popular movements in the barrios, weakened greatly. From then on the movement had little countrywide resonance.

This is a very fragmented country because all income comes from the extraction of oil. Capitalist investment has otherwise been low. This has created an immense popular milieu, very explosive but unorganised—a whole milieu which is not workers, not peasants, but which lives from day to day selling flowers, bottles of water, books or whatnot on street markets, or working for a couple of months at some manual job. It is totally fragmented. Civil society in the European sense does not exist. The old political parties organised people through the parties themselves, with people looking to a party in order to get a job. This was pervasive, even affecting the unions. But all this exploded because the state was unable to respond to the demands of the people, because it did not have the money to do so with the massive flight of capital abroad in the 1980s. The result was a political radicalisation and what was very much a popular insurrection in 1989. But we did not have an armed population at that time. And so the attempted military coup by Chavez in 1992 was very important. The military rebels had arms. So Chavez was able to hegemonise people through the electoral route.

We lost out in this—we lost influence within the alliance that came to support him. We were in the alliance, but with many problems, with many doubts over his proposals for a wider political change in the country. However, there was no alternative. There was no alternative with the strength to go further than Chavez. The situation was very complex, and remains so today. The government has lots of money from oil. There is lots of money in the state. It can buy many leaders and incorporate them in the institutional sphere. This includes some very good popular leaders—I also worked for the government as a deputy minister. But now it is better to stand apart from the government, and there are now sufficient forces to act apart from the institutions. But these forces are still weak.

After the coup of 2002 took place and the popular movement brought Chavez back to power, and during the three-year period of the fascist conspiracy, the popular groups began to unite to defend the government. That meant that a section of the movement was annexed by the government elite which in reality had very little to do with the popular movement.

After the referendum of 2004, with the victory of Chavez, the right declined greatly and lost its capacity for mobilising against Chavez. There developed a great debate within the Bolivarian movement between the most institutionalised sections of the movement and those most implanted in the popular movements. This was even the case with movements formed by that government. They stood at some distance from the institutional logic, developing more critical and combative positions. Class-based approaches developed within the workers’ movement and the indigenous movement, which began to gather strength. They spread at a regional and local level but did not have a national presence. In a certain sense the movements at the base are still weak, but they are very numerous. There are a great many popular movements.

The government’s reforms

There are real reforms, but they only exist in some places, not everywhere. There is a whole picture of marginalisation, of unemployment, of exclusion, and reforms have not reached many of these. And all this creates immense problems. For the social reform—it is not a revolution, it’s radical reform—only affects a minority, perhaps 25 percent. There are a million people organised around the reforms. That is a lot of struggle. But there are not enough organised autonomously.

There is apparently a great deal of money coming from oil, but very little finding its way down to the great mass of people. Much of it gets lost in the social movements that have a direct relationship with the governmental institutions. The masses in general get hardly any of it. There is a great industry for many of the people who support Chavez.

There are not many ‘recuperated’ (taken over) factories, but there are some big ones, five big enterprises, which the government is helping with credits. The government, however, has made a mistake. It has permitted the workers to take 50 percent of the ownership. This is not self-management but co-management. So a section of workers have private property through a co-operative of workers. The administration of the factory should be with the workers, but not the ownership, for workers who own half the factory convert themselves into capitalists. This creates a division between them and other workers.

Where the process is going

The upper classes are compromising with Chavez since the defeat of their attempts to overthrow him. But they are also conspiring against him. The bourgeoisie at the moment is making lots and lots of money. There is an enormous movement of wealth out of the country towards Asia. The bourgeoisie are well organised, and there is an immense flight of capital abroad. They are making enormous amounts of money and they are still conspiring against Chavez. And they can still mobilise many people. Yesterday’s opposition demonstration (22 January) was big—100,000.

In terms of future development there are two alternatives. The first is that the right recovers enough strength for a politics, violent or nonviolent, able to defeat the whole Bolivarian movement, and the second is a much more profound institutionalisation of the movement than at present. But this is something which is still dependent on a profound struggle taking place between the movement and the institutional power of the state. The debate that is taking place is very hard, even finding expression in the national assembly.

The institutional problem is not only one of bureaucracy. It is also one of corruption. This is turning into a great machine of destruction of the revolutionary process. It is damaging everything—social, political, economic. The programme and policies of the government are being terribly weakened by this corruption.

I am not clear myself whether Hugo Chavez will maintain a politics of the left. It could all change. I have just been having discussions with Eric Toussaint, and we are making a balance sheet of the behaviour of Cuba and Venezuela at the Hong Kong meeting of the WTO. Venezuela took a principled position of opposition to all privatisation of the public services, health, education, etc. But in the end Cuba and Venezuela signed the agreement.

There was a big dispute between the right and left of the government—and in the end the right, the foreign minister, won. The foreign ministry, the financial ministry, the economic ministry, the ministry of security, and the ministry of defence are all on the right. The health minister is on the right. The ministers of aviation and labour are in the centre. There are two or three ministers on the left—the ministers of popular economy, of industry. But the majority of the government are in the centre or on the right—not the neo-liberal right but the nationalist right, but still on the right. They want to strengthen the national bourgeoisie and to arrive at an arrangement with imperialist sectors, and are very much led by sections of the army. Chavez leans sometimes towards the left and sometimes towards the right wing military sectors.

This creates for the government something in some ways similar to the Bonapartism of Marx, a balancing between different forces.

Chavez spoke more against the rich, against people like Cisneros (the media tycoon) in the past. He does so less now. He speaks more of socialism as a society to be built, and less against the enemies of this society. The enemy he talks of is always imperialism, but he does not generally attack the national bourgeoisie. He is making alliances with the agricultural and financial bourgeoisie, with the most important capitalists of the country, Cisneros, etc. He is looking to institutionalise the process through a definitive pact with them which has not been finalised yet.

Chavez puts across a discourse, a programme for the popular movement that focuses on nationalism instead of class. The discourse of the president and the official Chavistas is very similar to the discourse of the social movement. But their practice has nothing to do with the practice of the movement. They are trying to incorporate sections of the movement into the government, so tying it to themselves.

It is a problem with the strategy of Chavez. He is trying to incorporate those with a much more radical, left wing, popular, classist language, and insofar as he is advancing this goal he becomes more radical—but in talk, not in politics. As a politics it is reformist, democratic, something we support from that standpoint—but it is not a revolutionary government. It is a progressive and democratic government, which allows us a lot of freedom to act. Before there was a lot of repression, and it was difficult to engage in revolutionary activity in Venezuela. Now it is much easier, and that is very important for us. There are even some tendencies in the government who are friendly to us. This is a process. There are contradictions, there is a struggle between forces in the government. Others do not believe it is possible to act within the institutions. But for us there is still a space within the institutions we have to exploit because we lack a coming together of the class, a high level of organisation. There is much to be done.

The official Chavistas and the movements

The official Chavistas are conscious of the enormous crisis developing within Chavism, between the movements and the institutional apparatus—a big clash. The institutional apparatus are trying to recover ground by using radical language, speaking a great deal about ‘popular power’, the ‘parliamentarians in the street’ (where deputies go to the barrios to listen to people’s complaints). This does not impress us. There are some tendencies in the government that are healthier, firmer, more to the left, whose work creates spaces for activity at the base. However, in general we do not have much interest in such talk, but in initiatives in the real movement.

There are movements developing at the base that are beginning to unify, not party organisations but revolutionary organisations, that if they could get the workers into a common revolutionary action would have a great impact. We have had two national assemblies of activists from the local organisations. It is a difficult process because the culture of organisation in our country is very weak. The culture of working together in any activity is very weak. And Chavez is a figure of great weight.

Chavez’s talk may be in advance of the consciousness of the masses, but this means nothing while the masses do not have an autonomous organisation of their own. Consciousness which does not find a material expression in an organised way means nothing. Chavez has no direct experience of social movements. He never participated in any social movement. He is a sort of Bonaparte. He speaks and speaks and speaks very much, but he does not dialogue; he monologues permanently. That is no longer sufficient. People don’t want more monologue. A minority of people listen to Chavez—20 percent. Twenty percent of people listen to Hello Presidente (Chavez’s long broadcasts every Sunday).

In Venezuela we have living experiences of unifying the movements. In Caracas we had an assembly of the barrios. Many leaders of the communities met in a single assembly for all Caracas. But it was not able to continue, for the movements in the barrios are very heterogeneous. There are cultural movements, movements for health, for the land, a variety of movements. Each section of movements has developed some unity, but there is no unity overall. It is a very complex process.

The grouping I am with is the 13 April Movement—not a party—with 1,000-2,000 people. We are working in the workplaces, discussing a great deal over labour relations, work relations. In some places we are making rapid advances, in others less so. Our idea is to create a movement of workers. Intellectuals are helping with the formation, but the movement is autonomous. As well as the recuperated factories there are other projects. In the big state-owned enterprises—above all aluminium with 1,500 workers—comrades in the movement are developing experiences of direct workers’ control. It is very difficult because it is a very complex enterprise, and the government representative responsible is very much against the workers. In Zulia state we are working with trade unionists and the UNT.

The alliance with Chavez is tactical, not strategic. The defence of Chavez is a symbol for us. The difficulty for us is not to confuse the symbol with the politics. At present we have to construct an autonomous politics, independent of the symbol. We have to make sure there is a difference between the more official and the more autonomous movements. But both rely on the symbol of Chavez. Chavez has moved many things forward, but he is still president of a terrible state—it is a capitalist state.

At present many of the gold miners in the south of Venezuela are in struggle against the multinationals. Fourteen miners have been killed. Few people know about this because neither the media of the right nor that of the government has carried news of it. The killings in November were by sicarios (armed thugs), paramilitaries armed by the multinationals. There was also a very hard confrontation with the armed forces. All the miners are Chavistas. And the armed forces are also supposed to be Chavista. The miners carried a photo of Chavez on their mobilisation, but the army attacked them. This is a capitalist state—that is the truth, and that is the problem.

There is a class struggle in Venezuela, but not a revolution that has triumphed. A revolution is possible in Venezuela, but it is only a possibility. For us it is about Latin America in general. So far things have only advanced a little way. This is the question in Ecuador, in Bolivia, in Brazil, etc. In Venezuela it is a little better, while things in Colombia are terrible. But neither has there been a great revolution in Venezuela.