National Sections of the L5I:

Hugo Chávez

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At the January 2003 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Lula’s attendance as Brazil’s new President was a hurried affair, a stop-over on his way to Davos to attend the bosses World Economic Forum. The real star was the man Lula invited to Brazil.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez arrived at the WSF as, “the uncrowned king of the growing popular movement against corporate globalisation” as one account recalls.

Elected in 1998 to massive popular enthusiasm he had spent most of the following two years drawing up a new constitution, getting it passed in a referendum and then forcing all elected office holders including himself to stand for re-election on the basis of it in 2000.

Towards the end of 2001 Congress adopted 49 laws which embraced radical reforms to land ownership, labour laws and education. These laws prompted the Venezuela’s rich and its business class to declare open war on Chávez’s government.

So Chávez arrived at the WSF having faced down a coup attempt in 2002 after being briefly ousted for 24 hours, and in the midst of an oil industry strike engineered by the management to try once more to oust him from power.

Chávez was greeted enthusiastically in Porto Alegre. People lined up for hours to hear him speak. The vast hall was too small and many more spilled onto the surrounding streets to listen to him.

He had something to boast about other than his survival in office. By 2002 unemployment was down, school fees had been abolished, allowing 600,000 more children to enter into education. Child nutrition and infant mortality rates had improved,. Money had been disbursed to thousands of local projects in cities and the countryside.

At the WSF he denounced Washington’s attempt to subjugate the world’s poor through free trade agreements and military aggression. He renounced the Cancun WTO trade talks of the previous September, promoted the idea of regional economic pacts with Brazil and Andean states.

Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution” has attracted hundreds of prominent anti-globalisation leaders such as Jose Bové and Tariq Ali to pay homage or offer solidarity.

And Chávez’s government certainly deserves the international solidarity of the global anticapitalist movement. The hatred, hypocrisy, lies and coup attempts that pour forth from the privately owned media and the major capitalists all indicate that the social and political reform programme of the Chávez has chipped away at their wealth and privileges. Above all, he has frightened them with the vision of the mass of propertyless and jobless poor in the barrios above wealthy areas of Caracas becoming empowered, demanding change and becoming political actors.

Chavez has followed the path of many progressive military officers before him. Sincerely appalled at the desperate poverty of most of his people while watching its super rich rulers milk the country of its oil wealth, Chavez first sought to change all this through the traditional means of a military coup in 1992. When the coup failed Chavez turned to “the people”, i.e. to populism. And he found a population eager for change, angry at the corruption of the elite, desperate for education, health care and the other social services which the fabulous oil wealth of this country patently made possible.

After he won the presidency in 1998 what did he want to do? Certainly he wanted a degree of redistribution of wealth to the poor. However at that time Chavez was not very radical – initially he talked about following the ‘Third Way’ of Blair and Clinton.

It was the response of the selfish and pampered Venezuelan ruling class and US imperialism that really radicalised Chavez. His modest measures of redistribution were stigmatised as communist. A series of attempted and actual coups and several bosses ‘general strikes’ attempted to drive him from office. Once more Chavez was forced to recognise that he needed the active support of the poor and the dispossessed to stay in power. The army could not be relied upon.

So Chavez has tried to build an organic relationship to his supporters – above all the 50 per cent or more of the 12 million workforce that struggle in the informal economy and live in the poorest barrios and whom the established corrupt and aristocratic trade unions have refused to organise.

In June 2001 Chavez called for the organisation of a support network to defend the revolution. On 17 December 2001, half a million attended a rally where he launched the Bolivarian Circles, neighbourhood organisations aimed “at raising the consciousness of citizens, developing all forms of participatory organisation”

About 1.5 million signed up (10 per cent of the adults) during the next six months. People register with local government, swear loyalty to the constitution; in return they get money for self-help projects.

But this loose network proved insufficient to organise effectively against the more established party apparata and local power bases of the right-wing opposition. So by 2003 the Circles were largely overshadowed by the Patriotic Circles, more of a proto party organisation and machine, loyal to Chávez.

The Patriotic Circles are organised on national and local level; they elect 60 delegates to a National Directorate who elect 30 delegates to an executive (National Tactical Command). Some 800,000 people from these circles participated in June 2003 elections to the ND.

Once more many poor Venezuelans joined to access important source of funds for local projects. But for Chavez the Circles were mainly useful in providing his government – still overwhelmingly stuffed with army or ex-army cronies of Chavez – with a base to organise his support in the 2004 referendum.

And this is the well-established strategy of a left bonaparte. Venezuela has seen an increasingly bitter conflict between the demands of imperialism and the popular classes. In this situation a strong government (and most often a strong ruler) is needed to create a new stability. Chavez is such a strong leader. He has endowed the presidency with extraordinary powers, courtesy of a constitution developed by himself and installed via a referendum.

It is a government that appears to rule independently of all the sections of society in conflict, ruling for the nation and against the selfish interests of this or that section. It continues to defend capitalism, as Chavez certainly does, but has to rest on the mobilised masses – on their actions and organisation – to defend itself against imperialism and its agents within the country. This means the government must sometimes meet the demands of the masses.

But Chavez also relies on his supporters in the army of course – for without them he could not keep the expectation and the actions of the masses under control and when push comes to shove Chavez will drop the demands of his Bolivarian circles rather than lose the support of his loyal officers.

The last thing that revolutionaries and anti-capitalists should be doing at the moment is sowing the illusion that Chavez is some kind of revolutionary out to smash the Venezuelan ruling class and hand power to the working masses. His reforms which benefit the poor, in education, health and in food subsidies, are very important but remain modest in the context of the enormous wealth of Venezuela And even these reforms are dependent on the economic conjuncture – the current high price of oil. Any reversion to more normal price levels would see the finance for these reforms wiped out.

But it is also how the Venezuelan revolution will be led to defeat despite winning this or that battle. Without overthrowing the semi-colonial capitalism that condemns the workers and peasants of Venezuela to exploitation and poverty, without ending the countries subordination to the international system of imperialist exploitation, any gains for the masses can and will be clawed back. The Venezuelan capitalists, and their masters on Wall Street, are not going to stand back while “their” wealth is redistributed.

The Chavez government must be defended against military coups, bosses’ strikes and sabotage. But this defence cannot be an expression of political confidence or general support for Chavez. We can support specific action by Chavez against the elite or the imperialists but revolutionary socialists must never paint up Chavez in revolutionary or socialist colours or fail to explain the nature of his regime before the masses. The armed power of the state is still in the hands of the representatives of the Venezuelan capitalists. The workers, peasants and “Bolivarian circles” are largely disarmed. Thus the state machinery and above all the army can still be used against the masses if they threaten to go beyond the bounds set by Chavez.

Chavez is neither an anticapitalist nor a consistent democrat. And for this reason his achievements and his own rule remain precarious. By refusing to expropriate the business wealth and property of his main enemies in Venezuela he allows them to use their money and power- and connections with the US administration- to organise conspiracies and plots against reforms.

By refusing to break up the apparata of repression in the myriad local police forces – still loyal to anti-Chavez mayors and business leaders – they are used to frustrate and countermand many progressive reforms.

Chávez limited vision of democracy can be seen in his desire to control and manipulate popular movements than promote their genuine independence. Rather than fixating on the president anticapitalists should be doing all they can to nurture all those elements of genuine participatory democracy of the working class and not simply dependent on the clientelism of the regime.

In April 2003 after the reactionary oil industry strike more than 120 unions that were part of the CTV federation split from it for the role it played in blocking with the bosses’ federation Fedecameras in trying to oust Chávez. In August 2003 they held their first Congress to discuss rules for new federation and called for the transformation of “capitalist society into a self-managing society” and for a new model of anticapitalist and autonomous development that emancipates human beings from class exploitation, oppression, discrimination and exclusion”.

While it backed the Chávez administration it was critical of several policies. Chavez and his ministers stayed away, preferring to rely upon his mass base in the informal sector, organised from above in the circles. It is with the flowering of these elements of workers’ democracy that the country’s best hopes lie.

There is an irony in the fact that many ‘horizontals” in the anticapitalist movement are flocking to Venezuela to participate in the Bolivarian revolution. The horizontals owe much to the inspiration of the Zapatistas in Mexico whose main strategic conception is that it is not necessary (or indeed is harmful) to progressive change to seek and take power.

Indeed Zapatistas have criticised Chávez for his regime’s bureaucratic and polarising tendencies. Yet Chavez at least shows that genuine reforms cannot come by pleading, which have brought the precious few results for the Mexican peasants, but rather come from seeking to take hold of power. Chávez’s faults lie in his unwillingness to destroy all those elements of the Venezuelan state – the judiciary, and police above all – which hamper and frustrate progress.

Revolutionary Marxists have to give correct answers that can strengthen the workers and weaken their opponents. To suggest that Chavez will be an ally throughout this process, to cede to him the role of director of the revolution, is truly fatal. Certainly demands can and must be put on Chavez and his government – such as placing the media, banks and industry under the control of the workers, arming the defence committees, disarming the police and setting up rank and file soldiers groups but the movement must be warned to rely on their own revolutionary strength and not the goodwill of Chavez.

If this is combined with intransigent opposition to the imperialists’ attempts to remove the government, such arguments can strike a chord with the masses, help break them from Chávez’s populism and build a party of socialist revolution in Venezuela.