ON 15 August Venezuelans will vote in a referendum on the government of Hugo Chavez. But this is no ordinary vote. The atmosphere in the country is electric. And the divisions that separate supporters and opponents of Chavez run much deeper than a simple difference of political opinion.
The faces and background of each side tell the story. In the elegant suburbs of Caracas, the capital, the very mention of Chavez’s name produces rage and fists pummelling the air.
But in the poor working class shanties surrounding the city, support for the government is vocal and more or less universal.
The referendum is the latest chapter in a running confrontation between Chavez and the powerful classes of Venezuela.
It began at the moment of his re-election in 2000, continued through a series of challenges in 2001 and reached a peak with the attempt to overthrow Chavez in a coup in mid-2002.
Last year employers launched another attempt to bring the government down, but it failed. Since then, Chavez’s detractors have gathered the two and half million signatures necessary to call a referendum on his presidency.
If they lose, and Chavez emerges secure, it is beyond doubt that the attempts to bring down his government will continue—however deep and destructive the crisis that it produces. The stakes, after all, are very high.
Some 13 percent of the world’s oil is produced in Venezuela. By the 1930s most of the country’s oil was owned by two US corporations.
From the late 1950s production levels rose dramatically. Between 1958 and 1994, oil produced $300 billion in export earnings. Yet that wealth never reached the majority of Venezuela’s population.
In 1976 oil was nationalised and brought under the control of the Venezuelan National Oil Corporation (PDVSA). But the state that now owned Venezuela’s main resource was run in the interests of a small minority.
In the 1970s and 1980s Venezuela became the symbol of corruption and cronyism. Two parties (Democratic Action and the Christian Democrats) shared power and divided up the profits.
And it was not just the industrialists, bankers and media moguls who benefited. The middle classes and professionals were largely bought off with oil money, while workers in the oil industry enjoyed high wage levels and benefits. But they were a minority.
The hundreds of thousands who came to Caracas in search of work got no further than the shanties on the muddy hillsides around the capital.
From there they could look down on the city’s fine new skyscrapers and modern apartment blocks.
That was the nearest they got to the oil boom. In the mid-1980s some 36 percent of Venezuela’s population lived in extreme poverty.
In 1989 the then prime minister, Carlos Andres Perez, introduced what he called “The Great Turn”. It was a turn towards the market and a decision to introduce the neo-liberal policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
This amounted to an attack on the living standards of the majority of the country’s workers.
The days of protest and rioting that Perez’s decision produced came to be called the “Caracazo”—the Caracas revolt.
The poor and the unemployed poured down into the streets of the capital. Perez responded with military force and hundreds, perhaps over 1,000, were gunned down.
Three years later Hugo Chavez took centre stage in Venezuelan politics. In February 1992 he led a military coup against the government. Chavez represented a new kind of military officer, nationalist and concerned with the question of development.
What influenced Chavez most was the idea that economic and social reform could come from above through a group of progressive military men ready to force change through.
In the circumstances of Venezuela in 1992, that made a lot of sense. The government was corrupt (Perez was impeached a year later) and repressive. The masses had regularly taken to the streets demanding change.
But the organised left seemed incapable of leading the struggle the people were demanding. In 1992 they were unable to mobilise any significant support for Chavez.
Chavez was swiftly overthrown and put in prison. Venezuela proceeded to slide rapidly into crisis. The number of people living in dire poverty doubled—from 36 percent to 66 percent of the population.
The country’s wealth was controlled by the directors of a supposedly nationalised oil company who behaved like any other multinational executives.
They were enriching themselves, diverting oil profits into offshore companies, making deals with foreign corporations and selling off parts of the industry.
They acted independently of a state which was in any case complicit in their corruption. Even the leaders of the oil workers’ union were part of the same cabal—with foreign bank accounts and huge salaries.
Meanwhile the country’s communications media were in the hands of four massively wealthy individuals who were also in cahoots with the corrupt politicians.
There was popular resistance, of course. But it was never coordinated or organised. Each explosion of mass rage was followed by repression.
Hugo Chavez stepped into the vacuum and offered the movement what he called his “Bolivarian” philosophy.
Named after Simon Bolivar, the 19th century Latin American freedom fighter, this ideology was nationalist, popular, and ferociously critical of the wealthy elite who had grown fat as the majority slipped into poverty.
Chavez was released from prison in 1994. When he was finally elected to power in 1998, he was acclaimed from the rickety “ranchos” around the city.
He promised decent education, social reform, control of the oil industry and a distribution of land to the landless.
In 2000 Chavez was re-elected. The previous year had seen the passage of his new constitution, which the capitalist class hated because of the power it invested in Chavez and in the state.
As soon as Chavez was re-elected, the campaign to destroy his regime began in earnest. Major investors withdrew their investments. The media began to create an atmosphere of panic and crisis.
Directors of the state oil company prepared to sabotage Venezuela’s economy—with the collusion of the corrupt leaders of the oil workers’ union.
It was all a preparation for the “bosses’ strike” of December 2001. Supplies of vital cooking gas were blocked by employers and oil production was virtually halted.
As the weeks went by the tension mounted. Yet Chavez made no moves against the powerful elite. Then, on 11 April 2002, the right announced a coup and arrested Chavez, taking him away to an island prison.
What happened in the next two days was captured by an Irish television team filming from inside the presidential palace.
Pedro Carmona, leader of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, unpacked his newly tailored presidential sash and announced he was now president of the country.
The businessmen and politicians surrounding him toasted his victory and laughed. But as the hours passed the smile fell from their faces.
The camera watched through the windows of the presidential palace as hundreds, then thousands, of workers descended slowly, quietly on the palace.
They watched, waited, and demanded the return of Chavez. As the crowd grew through the first night, the military supporters of the coup panicked—and the ordinary soldiers began to grow in confidence.
Two days later Chavez returned in triumph. He thanked the masses—and asked them to go back to their homes.
In 2003, a second “bosses’ strike” was defeated by the resistance of the working class.
Yet while their support for Chavez remained absolutely solid, it seemed Chavez was placing his faith in an alliance with the new “reforming” governments in Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina.
In each of these countries it was fast becoming clear that the IMF and global capital were dictating the terms of survival. At the same time, in countries like Bolivia, mass resistance was successfully defeating neo-liberal policies.
After the defeat of the second bosses’ strike came the campaign for a referendum. According to the constitution, the referendum has to produce more votes to throw him out than the 59 percent that brought Chavez to power.
It is very unlikely to do that. But history leaves no doubt that a ruling class under threat will not obey its own democratic rules. After the referendum the campaign to use economic and political power to bring down Chavez will begin again.
The real question, as the struggle for power deepens after 15 August, will be how to carry through that shift in economic and political power that the Bolivarian Revolution seems to promise.
And that in turn will be determined by where power really lies. Chavez himself gives confusing answers to the question. On 16 May he called for the people to be armed. On 30 May he called for respect for the electoral process.
The better organised the masses are, the more the initiative moves from Chavez himself to the mass movement, the more realistic it is to imagine that the ruling class will not emerge victorious.
But Chile cries out the key lesson. In 1973 progressive leader Salvador Allende tried to stick to democratic rules. He was overthrown in a bloody coup that ushered in years of repression under General Pinochet.
If our side respects bourgeois democracy, the bourgeoisie will overturn it in defence of its own interests. The shape of the future will not be the result of this or any other referendum.
The capacity of the working class to act independently through their own organisations is what will determine the future of the Venezuelan Revolution.
Mike Gonzalez is head of Hispanic studies at the University of Glasgow. His latest book, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, has just been published by Bookmarks (£8).