Friday, November 19, 2004

Defending Venezuela

I wrote the guts of this article, which comes from the latest issue of Class Struggle. Here's an excerpt from an e mail I sent the other day, describing some recent events in Venezuela:

In the indymedia discussion I mention Venezuela. The situation there is very interesting and very fluid, though I'm relying only on a few things I've read on the net and can't really grasp it in detail. In the last few weeks Chavez has moved very agressively against the landowners, touring the countryside and demanding that they give up big portions of their estates or have them expropriated.

This is, according to the Grantites (and it does seem logical) stoking up class struggle in the countryside. Huge tracts of land (some of them previously held by the state) have now been redistributed, and it seems that a reasonable portion of this land has been collectivised (the distinction between collectivisation and redistribution into private lots may not be absolutely cut and dried, because even when the land is in private lots the peasants in some cases appear to be socialising some of the labour throughtheir associations - in these cases it may be that that private holdings are only nominal).

Chavez seems less keen on class struggle in the cities. In a number of cities workers are following the lead of those at Sidor (the steel mill) and demanding nationalisation of their factories under workers' control. The most important struggle is in Venepal, in the city of Moron, where mill workers faced with redundancy are demanding that Chavez nationalise their factory and are also - and this is very interesting - proposing to adjust production to what they see as more socially useful ends:

The Venepal struggle has attracted the support of the people of Moron, of the UNT union confederation, of some of Chavez's allies in the National Assembly and of some senior figures in the army. If the factory is nationalised it will of course set an important precedent - it could conceivably trigger the sort of'wave' of occupations and collectivisations that we have seen in the countryside. There are reports that a number of state companies are already being 'co-run' (a dubious phrase) by workers, and US labour analyst Jonathan Gindin is currently in Venezuela studying the extent to which these claimsare justified. (Part one of his report can be read at

It's very interesting to see that the mechanism that the people of Moron are using to support the mill workers is their local UBE. The UBEs were United Fronts set up to help defeat the recent recall referendum, but Moron's UBE seems to have morphed into something which might resemble a soviet. The recent gubernatorial and mayoral elections - power was decentralised to a significant in Venezuela in the 80s, and these posts retain considerable weight - saw heavy defeats for those parts of the Venezuelan opposition which had not made a virtue out of necessity by refusing to stand for office. The Grantites make some interesting observations on the elections:

'Throughout the election campaign Chávez has used avery radical language...In a number of rallies he hasmade clear that the revolution must not only be social(that is the health, education and other social plansalready being implemented and benefiting millions) but also economic. “Within the framework of capitalism it is impossible to solve the challenges of fighting against poverty, misery, exploitation, inequality”

...In a number of electoral speeches president Chávez added to the call for agrarian revolution a call for expropriation of factories which are left idle by their owners and of buildings in the cities that areleft idle so that they can be used to the benefit ofthe majority of the people. He clearly stated that,“wherever there is a factory that is closed it must be handed over to the workers, wherever there is a plot of land that is idle it must be given to the peasants...we must break with the capitalist model”.

The near-total marginalisation of the opposition means that, barring drastic action from outside like a US intervention, Chavez is the key figure who can rollback the revolutionary process in Venezuela. How likely is this? On paper, Chavez has never been stronger. Certainly the short and medium-term danger of his overthrow from the right is gone (though the killings at Apure andrelated events raise the spectre of a drawn-out guerrilla war). But Chavez does not wield power so much as weld together a coalition - he is not a soloist but a conductor. Crucially, he exercises institutional control over neither labour movement northe peasantry.

In this respect, at least, he is no Peron. Looking closely at the recent elections we can seethat the 'Chavista' vote was in a number of places split, as the orthodox and left wings of the Bolivarian movement stood against one another. In other places the 'official' Chavista candidate was a left critic of Chavez. Ramon Manchuca, the leader of the Sidor steelworkers, won the governorship of the industrial heartland Bolivar state with 58% of the vote. Currently Chavez's strategy seems to be to really hammer home the victories he has won against the national bourgeoisie, or the parts of the national bourgeoisie that oppose him, while seeking rapproachment with the US and the maintenance of good relations with MNCs doing business in Venezuela, and the capitalists and capitalist governments of theSouth American countries Chavez wants to form into an anti-NAFTA bloc (he will be happy about the election result in Uruguay).

Hence the different strategies in country and city - in the countryside, the old decadent rentier bourgeoisie gets expropriated, but in the city Chavez is reluctant, to put it mildly, to move against MNCs' factories (Sidor is owned by an Argentinian-Brazilian company; Venepal's owner is also a MNC). Yet Chavez's aggressive response to the strike at Sidor can be contrasted to his willingness to allow at least a degree of worker self-management at a number of state-run companies. Clearly such different responses call for a nuanced understanding of Chavez's strategy.

I think Chavez wants to wipe out the old bourgeoisie, cut deals with imperialism and MNCs from the position of relative strength this would give him, and replace the old bourgeoisie with a mixture of state and army-run businesses, and worker and farmer cooperatives which produce for the export as well asthe domestic market (huge efforts have gone intopromoting the worker co-ops: for instance, Chavez has established an agency which markets and distributes any export products they produce).

Chavez's strategy is made much more viable, in the short-term at least, by the very high price Venezuela is getting for its oil. Chavez is prepared, then, to tolerate and indeed encourage the class struggle in the countryside, to side with militant workers employed by the state, which was a strong hold of the opposition, and to crack down on workers in revolt against the MNCs. It remains to be seen whether he will tolerate workers' control of idle factories like the one at Venepal, but I think it is very unlikely he will be enthusiastic about challenges to capitalist ownership of 'successful' factories like Sidor. In using the workers' and peasants' movements, though, Chavez creates a rod for his back, because he has not been able to subordinate either to his own rule in theway that (say) Peron did. The rows with the UNT union confederation, the splits in the Bolivarian movement, and the 'pre-emptive strikes' of peasants fed up with the pace of expropriation show this.

Any attempt to roll back the revolution will be fiercely resisted, and so, hopefully, will any attempt to stop its spread at Venepal. Solidarity between thegroups that Chavez is siding with - the UNT, the peasants' associations, the Bolivarian movement itself, the workers at the oil company PDVSA and other state companies - and the workers his strategy commits him to repressing will be crucial.


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