Ciudad Guyana is not one city but two. Several hundred kilometres south east of the capital Caracas, it is split by a tributary of the Orinoco river. On one side of the bridge is San Felix, a crowded poor town of potholed roads and very basic houses.
In the early morning, San Felix empties, as most of its inhabitants travel across the bridge to Puerto Ordaz, a wealthy place full of flashy shopping malls and new apartments.
The source of this wealth is visible on the horizon where the chimneys and furnaces of the industrial plants and chemical works stand out against the sky.
Further east, four or five hours away by road, are the mining areas that produce gold and diamonds and a thriving contraband trade.
In the future the place will grow even faster, as the huge oil reserves of the Orinoco delta are developed through a series of mixed enterprises between the Venezuelan oil corporation and several multinational corporations.
Ciudad Guyana has always been the heartland of Venezuela’s working class traditions and the base of its most militant unions.
Today, two major factories in the area symbolise the possibilities and the problems faced by the working class in Venezuela today.
On the one hand, there is Alcasa, a huge state-owned plant producing aluminium at a rate of about 3,000 tonnes a week. It’s a hot and noisy place, with red hot coals everywhere you look and flying cranes moving across the enormous vats where the metal is produced.
But the most interesting thing about Alcasa is to be found in a white building behind the foundries. It is the education centre, where groups of workers were following courses defined by workers’ committees and the walls were covered with plans for past and future courses.
The topics were amazing – co-management and the working class, overcoming the divisions between workers and management, developing the creativity of workers.
Talking to the people there, the conversations ranged between improving productive efficiency, how workers could control production, the nature of the capitalist system and so on. Alcasa is an experiment in developing industries run by the producers, and a very exciting one.
Not far away, the Sidor plant is locked in a bitter and complicated struggle with its Argentine owners. Sidor produces iron and steel.
It was always emblematic of the most combative sectors of the Venezuelan working class. But the call for the plant to be nationalised has not found support in Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian government.
The firm was charging higher rates to the Venezuelan state than to foreign customers.
It had also reduced its workforce by almost half, re-employing most of those sacked on a contract basis under terrible working conditions as well as lower wages.
These contract workers, organised into cooperatives, and were treated as small businesses and lost all the rights that had been fought for over previous years.
Their appeal to presiadent Hugo Chavez, however, fell on deaf ears. Although he threatened nationalisation if the firm did not reduce its prices, a personal intervention from Argentine president Nestor Kirchner brought
an assurance that the firm would remain private.
The limits of nationalisation were set at Sidor, and left the workers fighting a brutal management at a real disadvantage.
The leadership of the trade union movement in the past, the Venezuelan Workers Congress, was notoriously corrupt and joined with the employers in the bosses’ strike of 2002-03.
A new trade union federation, the UNT, was founded as an independent union supporting the Bolivarian Revolution.
But its independence has caused a number of clashes with other trade unions more directly linked to Chavez. In a sense, the story of Ciudad Guyana’s two factories symbolises the alternatives that face the Venezuelan working class.
And it is very clear that if Alcasa is to be the future for the working class of Venezuela, it will mean a battle against an economic model which accepts mixed enterprises with foreign multinationals but resists increasing working class control of production.
The alternative, of course, is Sidor.
Mike Gonzalez will be speaking about Latin America – Rising of the People and Cuba After Castro at the Marxism 2007 festival of resistance which takes place in central London from 5-9 July. Go to » www.marxismfestival.org.uk.