Can you tell me something about UNT, the Venezuelan national trade union federation that you belong to?
For 40 years before Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela in 1998, the trade union movement was controlled by a trade union leadership that was part of the state.
The old CTV (Venezuelan Congress of Workers) was dominated by a corrupt bureaucracy that sold our collective rights to line their own pockets. That’s why many of its leaders were millionaires.
Change began in 1989 with the event we call the Caracazo. For two days in February that year, tens of thousands of working people took to the streets in protest against economic measures that hit them directly.
The repression was terrible and some 20,000 people were killed – the coffins were taken away in lorry loads.
But from that day on we began to organise and fight back, supporting Chavez’s risings in 1992 and backing his successful campaign to become president in 1998.
After that we began to organise the new trade unions, supported by the new Bolivarian constitution.
Trade union membership was low at that time – only about 8 percent of the workforce was unionised.
But the real push came in 2002, when the old trade union bureaucracy of the CTV supported the attempted coup against Chavez. That was the moment when the UNT was born.
On the day after the coup, right wing journalists read out lists of people who should be arrested – or worse. The list included the names of many rank and file trade union leaders, including mine.
This convinced us that we had to replace the CTV with an honest and representative trade union organisation.
And we were completely vindicated when the bosses’ strike began seven months later. Workers took over the factories and plants and kept production going.
It was clear by then that we urgently needed a new national organisation which would be driven by the ideas and methods of the Bolivarian revolution – the UNT.
We began to work hard to win more members and build trade union organisation. Today trade union membership is around 16 percent of the total workforce and is represented in industry, in local government and elsewhere.
We are in an early stage of building the movement. But we are clear that the leaders of this movement, today and tomorrow, must be class conscious and honest – unlike the old leaders who operated from nepotism and self-interest and sold out the workers over and over again.
How do you see the role of the trade unions in relation to the new party announced by Chavez, the PSUV (United Venezuelan Socialist Party)?
The new generation of trade unionists, the new rank and file leaders, are clear about it. The majority are agreed that we will join the PSUV.
But at the same time we are also clear that we will fight for the independence and autonomy of the trade union movement within the new party.
Chavez himself has criticised the idea of autonomy. He argued that there was no need for independent trade union organisation when we had the PSUV. We disagreed with him publicly and since then he hasn’t mentioned the subject again.
But it’s recognised internationally that trade unions must be independent of government, even while we are working actively to support Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution.
The discussion about the character of the PSUV, its organisation and so on, will begin next month in preparation for a founding congress in December. These issues will be widely debated throughout the mass movement.
But we believe it is crucial that the party sees itself as working towards a new culture – the “socialism of the 21st century” that our president has talked about.
What do you understand “socialism of the 21st century” to mean?
It is about equality and justice – the equality of workers, indigenous peoples, peasants, students. This is set out in the 1999 Bolivarian constitution. It is about guaranteeing everyone the opportunity to participate in making decisions about society.
This isn’t just a case of what the government can do for the people. Working people have their own projects and proposals – and the government should provide resources to carry them through.
After all, it’s the communities who know better than anyone else what their needs are.
This socialism of the 21st century has to be what we call “poder popular” – a power from below.
As a trade unionist and an activist in the social movement and the grassroots community organisations, I see myself as part of building this new power.
That means socialising production itself, so that it is placed at the service of the people with production run by the workers themselves.
A number of factories and workplaces in Venezuela have been taken over by their workers. What is the significance of these actions?
This is a new phenomenon and it’s also a product of the attempted coup and the bosses’ strike of 2002.
The employers’ organisations, together with some elements of the army and the old trade union leaders, tried to bring Chavez down in the April 2002 coup.
They failed, so their next move was to try to sabotage production, or to drain their accounts of millions of dollars and thereby bankrupt their firms.
This meant not paying the workers what they were due – so in many cases the workers took over the plants and continued production, selling their products at reasonable prices.
Some of these firms are run under a “cogestion” system – joint management of government and workers. In other cases they are under workers’ control as social property.
The Alcasa aluminium plant in Puerto Ordaz is one example. The Sanitarios Maracay plant, producing domestic ceramics, is another currently under workers’ occupation.
What about the Sidor iron and steel plant in Ciudad Guyana, where the workers are pressing for nationalisation?
Chavez is resisting the call for nationalisation, because he has a close political relationship with the Argentine president Nestor Kirchner and the firm is owned by an Argentine company. But we in the trade union movement think that it should be nationalised under workers’ control.
That’s what we are fighting for and we are sure it will happen.
How do you see the current agitation around the Radio Caracas TV (RCTV) channel?
RCTV has a history of 40 years of consistently ignoring the needs of workers.
Under the old regime they were happy to represent Venezuela as a society where the economy was doing well and everything was fine.
Perhaps at first they thought they could win Chavez round, as they had all previous presidents.
When it became obvious that they couldn’t, they began to campaign against him – claiming he was mad, that he was going to destroy the economy, steal property and so on.
They set out to destabilise the situation, to spread fear and to open the way to the 2002 coup.
Yet even after the coup failed Chavez did nothing to this station. He should and could have closed them down in 2002, but he left them and simply did not renew their licence in May this year.
When he did act, he had the support of the overwhelming majority of society and the first demonstrations were in support of his decision.
Then the opposition began to organise their demonstrations – but they got no response from the people, who are wide awake and know exactly what is going on.
What worries us is that the right are campaigning internationally, with the support of imperialism. That’s part of the reason I came to the Marxism event in London recently – to discuss what is really happening.
The right wing channels are still working in Venezuela. There is complete freedom of expression, despite what is being said abroad.
In my opinion there is almost too much freedom given to the right. Internally, the greatest danger to our movement is corruption and bureaucracy.
As trade unionists we are organising to take on both of these dangers – and we are saying the same thing in relation to the PSUV.
The people have to be part of building this new organisation – and our starting point is that it should be a party that has no place for corrupt bureaucrats.
Marco Antonio García is the national organiser for the Venezuelan public sector union Fentrasep, and a member of C-CURA, the class struggle current, within the UNT national trade union federation
A recording of Marco Antonio García’s Marxism 2007 meeting is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com