Venezuela and the century of socialism
by Bob Briton
On November 7, 1917 the world witnessed its first successful socialist revolution. For the first time, the international capitalist ruling class had its control over a whole nation (and even a whole collection of nations in this truly momentous example) wrenched from its hands. The effect on the thinking of the workers and other exploited people of the planet was epoch-making. All over the world, parties were formed with the intention of doing what the workers of Russia had done — allied themselves with other sections of society being oppressed by the old regime, had a revolution to seize political power and set out to build a radically different society. They marched down this road in “seven league boots”, as Lenin said in reference to the pace of the changes undertaken.
Though the many communist parties affiliated to the Communist International always recognised that the revolutionary transformation of their own countries would be distinctive, the example of the armed uprising of the Russian workers, soldiers and peasants amidst a social and military crisis of the old order was a very powerful one. For a long time, it seemed to be the only successful model.
Revolutions in Europe, China and Indochina after WWII underscored the lessons. Even the case of Cuba in 1959 — although the participants were mostly unaware that their uprising against the Batista dictatorship would usher in a socialist revolution — reinforced this connection in the minds of many between the day of armed triumph and the beginning of socialist construction.
Examples of a peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism did not look promising. The capitalist ruling class had learnt many lessons from the history of the revolutions of the twentieth century and had become more adept at containing any challenge to its power. It had improved instruments at its disposal, such as the media, to prop up its ideological advantage and, of course, when all else failed the imperialist powers could be relied on to support the drowning in a sea of blood of any challenges to their power. The coup against the elected government of President Salvador Allende in 1973 was an example of this.
For a long time, although a number of national liberation struggles raged in different parts of the world and triumphed temporarily in countries such as Nicaragua, it seemed that the growth of socialism had been checked in the period of the Cold War. The demise of the USSR and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe was presented by the ideologues of capitalism as the beginning of an era in which all the gains of socialism would be rolled back. They loudly declared: “communism is dead”.
How revolutionary is the “Bolivarian Revolution”?
Then, on December 6, 1998 a charismatic former army colonel called Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela with 56.2 per cent of the popular vote, in what the Carter Centre declared to be free and fair elections. He was sworn in the following February and, in that same month, set the military to work on Plan Bolívar 2000 — a whole catalogue of projects aimed at getting some of the country’s creaking infrastructure working, to lead poor farmers, fishermen and others in forming co-operatives and many other undertakings. The results were brilliant; targets were exceeded by 280 per cent. For the first time the world started to hear the term “Bolivarian Revolution”.
Still, the world withheld its judgement. This would not have been the first time a charming, left-sounding military figure had crashed or won his way to the top in Latin America only to swap sides and turn against the people. And from the start it was hard to categorise just what was happening in Venezuela. Although the left (including the Communist Party) backed the process launched by Chávez’s election, it was unusual in many respects. Was this the first of a new wave of revolutions of a new type predicted by Fidel Castro in his conversations with Nicaragua’s Sandinista Interior Minister Tomás Borge over a decade before, or another false start?
Leaders of the new movement claimed to draw inspiration from “the tree of the three roots”, figures from Latin America’s struggle against former colonial master Spain: Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez and Ezequiel Zamora. They did not talk much about Marx, Engels, Lenin or even Ché Guevara though Chávez’s government did give support to workers taking over their abandoned factories and to the establishment of co-operatives throughout the economy. The government could not be described as a big nationaliser or socialiser of the productive forces. It did not move to re-nationalise SIDOR, the country’s steel producer.
The Bolivarian Revolution encouraged local production and consumption of goods from the state aluminium industry rather than an exclusive focus on export — Venezuela is well and truly open for foreign investment. Joint ventures aplenty are on offer. Over the last twelve months, foreign investment in Venezuela has increased 210 per cent with 60 per cent of this coming from the US.
Though Chávez is now proposing an alternative trade and economic development pact for Latin America known as ALBA, which is based on meeting social needs in the unevenly developed region, he was also keen to join the more conventional free trade agreement known as MERCOSUR. Venezuela was recently admitted to the group which also includes Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil.
Chávez was not associated with Venezuela’s larger left-wing groups. His movement did not get support from the established trade unions. In fact, the main union peak body CTV is affiliated with Acción Democrática, one of the traditional ruling parties associated with Venezuela’s disastrous period of neo-liberal economics in the 1980s and ’90s. These unions staged a crippling oil strike, backed the general lockout organised by Fedecamaras (the bosses’ federation) late in 2002 and even the short-lived coup against Chávez in April 2002. The situation has led to the creation of a National Union of Workers (UNT) to organise more progressive workers.
So how, without a program of extensive nationalisation, with a virtual open door to foreign investment and with few apparent links to the working class, does the government of Hugo Chávez attract so much interest and support from the socialist and communist movements in Latin America and increasingly from all over the world? How is it that Venezuela should be showing a way forward and reigniting hope that “another world is possible” in a manner reminiscent of the Russian Revolution all those decades before?
It would have been difficult for a Chávez to have led a similar movement from within the military in virtually any other Latin American country. The Venezuelan military is quite distinct from its counterparts on the continent. Perhaps the biggest distinction is that its officers were not systematically packed off to the notorious School of the Americas in the US for brainwashing and training in brutal anti-people methods. Venezuela’s own military academy is reportedly relatively progressive. It instructed recruits in the military ethos of Bolivar who opposed slavery and stressed loyalty to the people. The officers were not exclusively drawn from the wealthy strata of Venezuelan society. While some of the generals who supported the 2002 coup had grown rich off supply contract kickbacks, the majority of generals remain true to their underprivileged roots.
The rank and file of the military has not fought in any civil war or fought a leftist insurgency since the end of the 1960s. The present military leaders do not have the blood of masses of peasants and guerrilla fighters on their hands and hence have no need for a rightist government to preserve their immunity from prosecution. Chávez was not unusual among Venezuelan soldiers in contacting and organising leftist groups. By the late ‘80s he was not alone in thinking that the country had been betrayed by its neo-liberal government and that a coup was necessary to save Venezuela from oblivion.
On February 27, 1989 a social upheaval swept Venezuela that threatened to sweep away the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez and its neo-liberal program with it. The cause was a round of price hikes for public transport and petrol. The poor, who had for so long patiently waited for the rewards of their sacrifices to be delivered, flowed onto the streets and rioted. The “Caracazo” (so-called because it was mostly centred on the capital, Caracas) was put down by the military. The experience of being used for such purposes shocked young military officers such as Chávez who resolved to do something about it.
He led a group called Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 which, in turn, led an uprising within the army on February 4, 1992. It was also quickly put down. The captured Chávez used two minutes of TV exposure to call on the insurgents to surrender “for the time being” and to make a powerful impression on the long-suffering people of Venezuela. Another coup attempt failed while he was still in jail. He spent his two years in prison with 300 others devising a new way forward, which has since become a reality.
Now, more than ever, the poorer sections of the Venezuelan population respect the military as a force for positive change. The attitude is in stark contrast to the hostile one reserved for the police. Now, in more recent times, Chávez’s use of enthusiastic servicemen to provide labour power to rebuild projects has enhanced this military/civic relationship so that today, as Remy Herrera pointed out in a recent piece in US publication Political Affairs, “If the Venezuelan revolution is peaceful, however, it is not unarmed.”
Even the attempted coup of April 11, 2002 did not disrupt this unity. In the end, only 20 of the 100 army generals went over to the US-backed reactionary forces. A number of the defectors had been deceived, by cleverly edited TV reports, into believing that Chávez was encouraging supporters to fire on opponents marching to the Miraflores Presidential Palace. Neither reported “fact” was true. When Chavez was seized and imprisoned in 2002, over three hundred thousand people rallied for three days outside the Fort Tiuna military barracks calling on the soldiers to bring the President back from captivity. Eventually, a group of paratroopers did precisely that and the coup collapsed under the weight of its own unpopularity and illegitimacy.
Chávez has since conducted a shake-up of the judiciary and the upper echelons of the military but to the smallest extent possible. In fact, he appointed one of the misled coup-leading generals, General Rincón, his Minister of Defence. This is one of the well-judged (but surprising to some) moves for which the President is famous.
Chávez’s contribution to the revolutionary process is unique and so is the role of the military in Venezuelan society. So, while many socialist movements in the region and elsewhere look to Venezuela as a model and even declare themselves “Bolivarian”, they may not be able to count on the major advantages possessed by Venezuela, i.e. a military prepared to come over to the side of the people.
Where is the revolutionary change?
It would be a mistake to think, on the basis of the above, that not much has changed in Venezuela. Appearances and labels can be misleading. For example, the oil company PdVSA was state owned before the Bolivarian revolution and afterwards; but the entity and its role have changed beyond recognition. It was always a big enterprise and the cornerstone of the modern-day economy. Venezuela is the fifth biggest oil producer in the world and supplies 15 per cent of oil imports to the US.
From the 1970s onwards, the revenues from oil were squandered on corporate charity and the creation of ill-fated export industries. Like the people of much of Latin America, Venezuelans were poor citizens of a resource-rich country. PdVSA’s managers, like the managers of the aluminium industry and the formerly state-owned steel industry, were not driven by the interests of the people. The aluminium industry, for example, was being deliberately run down in preparation for its privatisation. Only Chávez’s election and reinvestment by the government saved it from the clutches of the transnationals.
Venezuela’s oil revenues now flow freely into a Special Development Fund. In 2004, 6 per cent of investments from this fund went to agriculture; 21 per cent to transportation; 33 per cent to roads; 25 per cent to electricity projects and so on. Oil is the currency for exchanges with energy-poor countries in the region; it has been swapped for medical services from Cuba, for example.
Funds also go to projects (or “missions”) to help the mass of Venezuela’s poor in the most direct way possible. For several years now, the central government has been training the poor how to administer these projects themselves through “Bolivarian Circles”. The process bypasses the wasteful, corrupt and often hostile bureaucracies left over from the previous system. This parallel system of self-administration is reminiscent in a number of ways of the soviets (councils) established by the Russian Revolution.
The success of the missions has cemented the revolutionary process and seems to ensure its survival even in the absence of the charismatic Chávez. In a speech to the UN in September, in which he protested against the ongoing hostility to the revolution from the US, he spelled out some of its gains:
“In just seven years of Bolivarian Revolution, the people of Venezuela can claim important social and economic advances. One million, four hundred and six thousand Venezuelans learned to read and write. We are 25 million in total [population]. And the country will — in a few days — be declared illiteracy-free territory.
“Three million Venezuelans, who had always been excluded because of poverty, are now part of primary, secondary and higher studies.
“Seventeen million Venezuelans — almost 70 per cent of the population — are receiving, and for the first time, universal health care, including medicine. In a few years, all Venezuelans will have free access to an excellent health-care service. More than a million tonnes of food are channelled to over 12 million people at subsidised prices, almost half the population. One million people get them completely free, as they are in a transition period.
“More than 700,000 new jobs have been created, thus reducing unemployment by nine [percentage] points.”
Oil is the lifeblood of a lot of this activity and so is the input of energy of those previously left behind by the economy. Venezuela, like much of Latin America, followed a disastrous pattern of development laid down by the US and the economic agencies it dominates, such as the IMF and the World Bank. National economies remained dependent, as did the small national capitalist classes of these countries. Millions of people left the land and moved into the extremely low-paid and unorganised informal sector of the economy. Between 50 and 56 per cent of Venezuelans are employed in this sector. These workers are the backbone of the Bolivarian Revolution, they are the ones being organised into the Bolivarian Circles to help themselves to a more prosperous future.
Winning the ideological struggle, but how?
The government of Hugo Chávez has now survived a Washington-backed coup attempt, a shutdown of the oil industry, a lock-out by business, a re-call referendum and other well-organised and financed sabotage. Invasion by US and allied forces remains a possibility if not an immediate prospect. The recent outburst of US evangelist Pat Robertson said aloud what many in the Bush Administration could be thinking: that Chávez should be assassinated.
Chávez was re-elected president in 2000. In December 2005, opposition parties boycotted the Congressional elections rather than expose their weakness. This further strengthened the governing Polo Patriotico (Patriotic Pole or PP) alliance, formed in 1998, which brings together Chávez’s own party, the MVR (Movement for the Fifth Republic), with two smaller left-wing groupings, Patria Para Todos (Fatherland for All or PPT) and Podemos.
All this has been achieved in spite of the open hostility of an estimated 80 per cent of the Venezuelan media, considered by many to be an invincible ideological arm of the bourgeoisie. Have Chávez’s supporters stopped watching the bosses’ channels on their TVs? Have they stopped buying their newspapers and consuming the various other publications carrying bourgeois ideology? Not at all, but the effectiveness of the revolution’s own more limited communications is reinforced daily by the most powerful persuaders of all — action and results. The revolution is clearly delivering the goods and community-building services that the people have been demanding for decades.
Nevertheless, the Bolivarian Revolution has not left the field for debate in the media tilted so drastically in favour of the supporters of the old society. It has established a satellite TV service called Telesur (TV South) that can be accessed throughout Latin America. It presents a different image of the world to the people of the region.
As time goes by, the language of this patient and peaceful revolution is becoming bolder, more confident. At the World Festival of Youth and Students held in Caracas in August, Chávez called on the participants to struggle to ensure that this will be the century of socialism for there is no other road. Last February, Chávez addressed the World Social Forum in Brazil, and said plainly that “the most negative force in the world today is the government of the United States.”
But, like Castro in Cuba and unlike the hotheads still to be found in the socialist movement, he is quick to point out the distinction between the working and other exploited people of the US and the Bush Administration. Cuban and Venezuelan assistance to American citizens following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was prevented by the Bush Administration. Chávez however, found a way to begin building bridges to the mostly ill-informed people of the US. He sent 45 million litres of fuel through the Venezuelan-owned Citgo distribution network to Massachusetts to be sold at heavily discounted prices to the state’s poor to help them through the winter. Again, the Bolivarian Revolution is employing a latter-day, peaceful “propaganda of the deed” to get its message across.
There is much to be learnt from Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution and its contribution to the building of the century of socialism. Evo Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism may be able to adapt a lot of the methods used in Venezuela to rebuild Bolivia if he should get the opportunity to lead his country and wrest the oil and gas wealth of the land away from its foreign owners. Venezuela has clearly mastered a range of peaceful methods to overcome the resistance of imperialism to the forward movement of the people. However, as with the Russian Revolution of 1917, it gives us another piece of general guidance and not a template to be dogmatically followed. A number of circumstances, like an existing military that can be coopted to help build a new society, may not exist in some other countries wanting to set off on the same Bolivarian road.
There is no doubt, however, that the Bolivarian Revolution is adding significantly to the strategy and tactics of revolutionary change. It will remain of great interest to communist parties and others also committed to finding the way to fulfil the belief that “another world is possible.