Reflections on political power
In July this year, CPA President Dr Hannah Middleton and CC Executive member Bob Briton attended the Communist Party of Venezuela Congress and then visited Cuba. The following article is an edited version of the report back given by Comrade Middleton to the CPA Central Committee.
Comrades, in this report I want to use the experience of Venezuela and Cuba to reflect on various factors that may be needed to win and/or to keep political power.
Venezuela in the midst of its “Bolivarian revolution” is an exciting place, full of change and a ferment of debate.
Before Chávez’s election, 80% of the people lived in poverty and the gap between rich and poor was one of the widest in the world.
All that began to change when Chávez became President in 1998. Millions of poor and working class people have since benefited from the Chavez Government’s public works projects, social programs, and efforts to involve ordinary people in building a new society.
In June 2006, the poorest housewives began receiving payments of 80% of the minimum wage for their work in the home, funds that come from oil revenues.
About 1.5 million children now receive three free meals a day, 1.5 million people have been provided with safe drinking water, and there are food subsidies and vouchers for pregnant women and new mothers.
The Missions, social programs funded by oil revenues, address hunger, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, health and illiteracy.
The Missions have made special efforts to incorporate women, especially in educational projects, including university study, where 70% of new students are now women.
However, the central focus of the discussions I had with Venezuelan comrades was not the many achievements. We talked about the problems and challenges that the Venezuelan people face and how they may be dealt with.
There is a massive struggle going on in Venezuela for political power as well as an intense debate on how to win political power.
The Communist Party of Venezuela (CPV) describes this as a time of transition with the enemy controlling most of the state. The balance of forces is not on the side of the people at this time.
The comrades say there are great dangers and problems in the struggle for power and that the time to resolve them is limited.
One serious problem is the development of new groups of great economic power, many of which are linked to paramilitary groups. These groups are deeply hostile to Chávez. They speak of “Chávism without Chávez" because the only serious threat to their economic power is the efforts Chávez is making to fight corruption.
The CPV believes that Chávez opposes the growth of these groups but is unable to eliminate them at this time.
Corruption itself is another factor holding back efforts by the people to win power. Those who benefit from corruption are not interested in things going smoothly, for that removes the opportunities to demand payment for results.
Corruption is said to be deep in Venezuelan culture and very difficult to fight.
The CPV campaigns to expose cases of corruption in government, no matter where it occurs, and to confront it directly. The party is working to get people to protest and organise against corruption.
A further difficulty is the traditional culture of strong leaders (caudillo). The CPV believes that the culture of caudillo may take generations to eradicate.
Many political, union and local leaders today are self-appointed. To maintain their positions they generally do not try to organise the people but to control them.
In Venezuela the state is traditionally strong. The tradition of a strong president means that intermediate structures and sources of power are weak and often not recognised.
A major stumbling block in the struggle for political power is the current difficulties in the trade union movement.
The organised working class in Venezuela is a microcosm of the whole society with an on-going struggle in the unions between revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries (right and ultra-left) and reformists.
The CPV believes it is necessary to unify the working class. The party estimated that the 2001 union elections were an opportune time to move further in this direction, as the social democrats were weak. The party therefore closed down their trade union.
The election was the time to declare union support for revolution. However, the union leaders went it alone and, faced with multiple lists, workers voted by state, personality or other similar criteria.
To this day, individuals continue to claim leadership but the situation is getting worse. At first it was a subjective matter, the egos of the individuals concerned. Now differing ideological and political positions have become explicit and harder, although everyone still claims to be “Chávist”.
This includes penetration by Trotskyist groups. Traditionally weak, they are now mobilising well, using outside help.
One result is that disunity and division within the organised working class is becoming entrenched. It is possible to negotiate with individuals but far more difficult with ideological positions.
Following the election disaster, the UNT (National Union of Workers) and the Bolivarian Workers Front arose. Communists were excluded from the discussions, which led to these developments. This forced the CPV to reopen CUTV (United Centre of Venezuelan Workers), its own union, so they could participate in union discussions from this position.
Other problems the CPV and other anti-imperialist forces face include the murder of their cadres, especially in the countryside, a savage media barrage against Chávez and all progressive groups and individuals, and religious tirades against any progressive moves.
Militarily, the Venezuelan people face the threat of imperialist intervention, efforts to create instability as a pretext for intervention, border incursions, and the formation of paramilitary groups within the country.
Other problems are the attacks on Chávez. These include personal and political attacks in the Venezuelan media, efforts to isolate him internationally, and the threat of assassination.
Despite all the problems and contradictions in the political process, the struggle to move the anti-imperialist, anti-monopoly process forwards does have a number of advantages.
A major advantage is the mobilised people.
The majority of the people have decided they will fight to defend the revolution and change society, but there is neither clarity nor unity on how this is to be done or what the changes should lead to. The influence of a strong revolutionary organisation is missing here.
The CPV believes that the only way the political process can advance is to give power to people. As part of this sharp ideological struggle the CPV and other groups are debating what is meant by participatory democracy and just how the people can participate.
The CPV stresses that without organisation and consciousness, people cannot win and hold power. This is a great danger at present.
The people want power but they are not clear they must fight capitalism to achieve this. And clarity is made more difficult because many progressives do not agree with the CPV on this point. They oppose the TNCs but support the local Venezuelan bourgeoisie.
A further complication is that many progressives who support Chávez have a reformist position. They pay lip service to people power but in reality they do not really trust the people. Their thinking was described by a CPV comrade this way: “They say to the people ‘You have the power’ but they say to themselves ‘I will make the decisions’.”
The CPV says that the people emotionally want to control their destiny and can learn very fast, but the reproduction of capitalist consciousness is holding back the process.
One positive aspect is the role of women. They now have rights in the Constitution but they were not given to them, they had to fight for them. As a result, they have decided they will not give up their new rights and that they will defend the revolution.
Women were in the forefront of the movement which defeated the 2002 fascist coup. The CPV says that women are in the avant-garde of the political process.
A second advantage is Chávez himself.
The process of change began with the election of Chávez and he remains pivotal to the process.
The CPV supports Chávez and insists that at this time of transition it will not break with him because they are critical of some of his methods, particularly his voluntarism.
Chávez tries to force things through urgently. He wants to eradicate poverty and to provide food, houses, health and so on for the people now. However, too often there is no one to carry out the instructions he hands down.
Chávez gives orders and expects things to happen, probably as a result of his military background. But he does not discuss and plan.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the people usually ask why Chávez is doing nothing but never ask who is really ruling Venezuela.
A third major advantage is the Communist Party of Venezuela.
The CPV is growing rapidly (from 200 to 700 branches in 10 years) but at the moment, they say, their quantitative growth is not matched by ideological, political and organisational growth.
For them it is crucial to upgrade their organisational and ideological capacity in order to meet the demands to defend the gains won and to deepen the political process by winning understanding of the need for socialism.
The party has a drive to give every party member and young communist member basic training. This is having an effect but still has a long way to go. The drive is now being co-ordinated by the new Central Committee National Cadre School, which has developed a new syllabus and has begun training trainers.
The party leadership at all levels lacks full-time cadres and has poor working conditions: no office space, computers, phones, no internet connections and so forth.
The communist youth organisation is growing amongst students and workers, as well as in high schools and more recently with the Simon Bolivar pioneers.
In the agrarian and peasant movement, the CPV is self-critical about its work, saying it does not have enough cadres for this work. It also made a mistake by sending some comrades to work in state institutions dealing with the agrarian sector. These cadres were isolated from the people which further weakened the party’s work.
Among women the CPV is making significant progress, with many women joining the party and with growing party influence in the broad women’s movement which is in the first line of the political struggle. This progress has been achieved since the establishment of a National Committee for Communist Women and the Clara Zetkin national women’s movement.
A major success for the CPV is what they call their “street parliamentarism”. It is public knowledge that the pay of CPV members, who are deputies in various parliaments, is the property of the party. The policy has won respect and the conviction that the communist MPs are in the parliaments to speak for the people and not for the money.
A few years ago, the CPV changed its political line radically at the time of local elections. Previously they had campaigned in alliance with Chávez. They decided that instead they had to run with the social movements in the elections while not breaking with the Chávez alliance. It was also important to maintain the distinct personality of the CPV.
This was a risk. Other political groups who had stood in elections without Chávez had disappeared. But the result was a political earthquake with the alliance of social movements increasing their vote tenfold.
The CPV remains with social movements while also working with Chávez, but not unconditionally. As a result Chávez now treats the CPV as a current and future reality, not just something of the past.
There are other advantages.
There is a changed regional situation with more Latin American countries moving in a progressive direction. Some say that Venezuela is contagious. At the same time, it is an advantage that Cuba is now integrated into Latin America
Internally, the enemy is demoralised which assists the process of progressive change.
The Venezuelan military is divided, which the CPV says is an advantage, but also a negative factor.
It is also an advantage that the United States thinks as an imperial power and does not have the capacity to understand Latin America. A temporary advantage is that the US is distracted by Middle East issues.
An important question confronting the CPV and other left and progressive forces in Venezuela is what forms or structures are appropriate for people to exercise power?
CPV deputies in Parliament were given responsibility by Chávez for the Popular Participation Commission.
The debate has hardly begun, but Chávez and people will not wait. The CPV therefore has to work on the development of forms for popular participation. This requires quick analysis of the results of various projects and the speedy introduction of changes when necessary. The CPV comments that the dynamic for quick changes is missing at the moment.
The various missions have been developed to meet the specific needs (health, education etc) of the poor. They are also creating new organisational forms which may have the potential to take people power to a new stage.
The CPV also thought that the co-operatives might have provided an important form of organisation for deepening the struggle for people power. However, problems developed.
Typically the co-operatives are established with state funding. They expand and then need more labour. They then employ and exploit new workers, not bringing them into the co-operatives as members. The poor aim to get richer and consume through the co-operatives but without education they will continue to develop them along capitalist lines. People control production but they are reproducing the capitalist system.
The CPV is giving priority currently to the system of people’s councils, believing they could be developed as a source people power and defence of the revolution. They are concerned that development of local people’s councils may be complicated by conflict with the powers of local mayors, traditionally the strong local power.
The CPV needs more members and supporters but even with this, the party cannot achieve its aims on its own. It therefore works with national, regional and local organisations in both tactical and strategic alliances.
The CPV is involved in a tactical alliance with Chávez’s 5th Republic Movement (which has between two and three million members). They see this alliance as important for organising the people to secure the first steps on the long journey. This alliance leads to the “missions” and to reforms.
The party also works in strategic alliances with many small popular organisations with revolutionary demands (defined as the demand “to change capitalist society to something like socialism”). This alliance can lead to real change.
The CPV is giving priority to the development of strategic coalitions in all areas to stop imperialism and to gather the forces for building socialism. The party stresses that these coalitions or alliances must have a revolutionary core if they are to be effective.
The election of Chávez began the revolutionary process in Venezuela.
Progressive electoral gains since then have been won by strategic people’s unity, not by the CPV alone.
The CPV says that the election to be held on December 3 this year will be a nodal point in the political process.
On one side, it is widely expected that there will be an increase in counter-revolutionary activity and instability and that there is a risk of external intervention.
The election must have a profound anti-imperialist content and massive popular support for Chavez must be mobilised. The target is 10 million votes. The CPV was the first political party to publicly declare support for Chavez.
A great decision must be made on power in Venezuela very soon because everything will be lost if the present situation goes on any longer.
If the present situation continues, reaction will regroup and strengthen, dissatisfaction that poverty is not being eradicated, that change is coming too slowly will grow, the danger of internal dissension and instability and external interference will increase. These and other factors could well undermine the gains that have been won so far in Venezuela’s revolution.
As the Communist Party of Venezuela puts it: “The people must take power or we lose this and all battles.”
I will have much less to say on Cuba in this report. This is partly because the focus here is on the maintenance of power by the people. It therefore has less immediate relevance than Venezuela for our struggle here in Australia.
In addition, many comrades have visited and read about Cuba and know more about it than I do. I will therefore only make a few comments.
The survival of the Cuban revolution is based on constant renewal and renovation, on revolution within the revolution which relies on the active involvement of the people.
One example is the “Battle of Ideas”, a battle against ignorance. The aim is to create a new value in the country so that Cuba’s resources expand from things like nickel, sugar and tourism to include human resources. The aim is as the Cubans say “an economy based on intelligence”.
This places great demands on the people — to study, to learn, to constantly develop and grow in knowledge, skills and understanding. It also places the people firmly in the central role in economic and political life.
The responsibility for co-ordinating the many projects involved in the Battle of Ideas has been given to the youth.
I suspect that in the former German Democratic Republic (where I worked for six years), such a strategy would have been seen as risky and as placing unrealistic demands on young people at a time when they should be studying and starting out on their working lives.
This kind of “socialist paternalism” is understandable. Every Communist is fighting for a better life for working people, to expand and enrich their lives economically, politically, intellectually, socially, and culturally.
However, providing as much as possible for the people in the GDR was resulting, in the 1970s, in concerns that the young generation had little idea of how amoral, ruthless and brutal imperialism is, also had little experience of struggle, and a tendency to take the achievements of socialism for granted.
This contrasts with what the young people in Cuba will experience through co-ordinating the Battle of Ideas.
They will have the opportunity to become involved, to make the revolution their own as participants and creators, not just receivers. They will have opportunities to use their energy and initiative while they learn how to plan and to organise. In effect, the next generation of leaders is being trained on the job.
And most importantly, I think, to do the job they have been given effectively, they will have to become really close to people, to learn to listen to them, to learn to understand and respect their ideas, needs and aspirations, and to find ways within the Battle of Ideas to meet them.
The Soviet Union and the other European socialist countries gave generous solidarity to many countries and causes while they existed. This vital solidarity was seen and promoted as an internationalist duty. While there was support for it there was also criticism and opposition from some people in the donor countries.
It was therefore interesting to hear from the Cuban comrades why there is such wide support for their international solidarity efforts, especially the teaching and medical teams they have in countries around the world.
For Cubans, international solidarity is an internationalist duty and a moral value, but it also brings real benefits for the country.
In some cases, Cuba is paid for its doctors or teachers. Venezuelan oil underpins much of Cuba’s more recent industrial development.
Cuba’s health system is world-renowned and many diseases, including TB and cholera, have been eliminated from the country. Serving in medical teams overseas gives Cuban doctors the chance to learn at first hand about these diseases and how to treat them.
Through its medical teams, markets may be opened up for the sale of Cuban vaccines and other medical products. These are now one of the country’s major exports and are more valuable to the Cuban economy than tourism.
Additionally, Cuban teaching and medical teams earn recognition for their country. There is great pride among people in their solidarity and in the awards they win for this work, such as the UNESCO award for Cuba’s literacy program.
Our delegation asked the question that so many ask nowadays: what will happen when Fidel is no longer in the leadership? We were told:
Fidel’s successor is the Communist Party of Cuba.
Imperialism’s post-Fidel plan is for a forced transition to capitalism. President Bush promised to exterminate the revolution and his term is coming close to the end. His administration is undertaking increasingly hostile acts and has an openly stated aim of destroying the Cuban revolution.
The US had a US$80 million budget for counter-revolutionary groups last year. In the same period the US blockade cost the Cuban economy an estimated US$2.5 billion.
However, Cuba is working to make its economy, military, ideology and political system as invulnerable as possible.
And Cuba is preparing future generations not for transition to capitalism, but transition from socialism to more socialism!