Socialist Worker

The stakes in Venezuela get ever higher for Chavez

Steve Henshall recently returned to Britain after a year in Venezuela. He spoke to Socialist Worker about radical president Hugo Chavez and the growing debate over the way forward for his 'Bolivarian Revolution'

Issue No. 2116

One of the striking things about life in Venezuela is the level of passionate political debate. Squares on Sunday mornings fill with people talking about current issues and the way forward for society.

But the huge gap between the rich and the poor still exists. Many houses lack basic amenities like running water or electricity.

Gated communities and air-conditioned malls are a way of life for the minority, while the majority struggle to get by on low wages with rising prices.

In general Chavez is very popular with the masses. That's not to say they are continually happy with what he does, but often discontent is pushed more onto the government in general or the influence of foreign capital.

Over the ten years since Chavez was elected president, numerous progressive schemes have been set up to improve the lives of the poor.

A major part of the Bolivarian Revolution, a popular nationalist movement fighting for social reforms, are the projects, las misiones, which range from volunteers teaching adults to read and write, to efforts to get proper healthcare to everyone.

It is now far easier for the left to organise and have a presence. There is a clear break from previous governments, but in such an oil-rich country the lives of the poor could be considerably better.

The government imposed price controls on staple foods to try and control living costs. But, as the workers still have no real control over food production, the capitalists often export it abroad at higher prices leading to food shortages in Venezuelan marketplaces.

And the government has now backtracked on the price controls with Chavez announcing a slowing down of the 'Bolivarian Revolution'.

In June, he met with hundreds of Venezuela's top business leaders and bankers in a call for 'national unity', declaring various measures to boost productivity.

'One day we're being told they're our enemies, the next that we should be best friends,' a militant from the barrio of La Vega told me. Such bonding with the national capitalists is contradicting his rhetoric of popular power.

Currently the right wing opposition parties remain unorganised and split, unable to provide a force to bring down Chavez and return the country to the policies of decades gone by.

But there are a great variety of left wing grassroots organisations. One clear example are the communal councils, consejo communales, where local residents collectively discuss matters varying from the smaller issues in the neighbourhood such as improving the local facilities to the broader frustrations against the state.

At the same time there are bodies both within and outside of Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (the PSUV) that are pushing to provide an independent and fighting left.

The party is huge with nearly six million members, but some argue that it is undemocratic and is a tool of the government to hold on to power and control the movement from below.

More promising is the coming together of the forces within the national trade union, the UNT, which has arranged a national congress later in the year.

A notable strike recently took place at the steel plant SIDOR, which was nationalised in April after three months of struggle. Workers struck after the consortium Techint, which owned the plant, refused to improve their wages.

They ended up occupying the plant, while the then minister of labour, José Ramón Rivero, tried to make a deal with the bosses behind their backs.

Those inside stood strong as food deliveries were stopped and eventually the National Guard and gangs were sent in to try to end the occupation.

Solidarity from other factories quickly spread and Chavez had to intervene, promising to nationalise the plant while quickly firing Rivero.

In terms of the way forward, some people think the Bolivarian Revolution has gone far enough and needs to be toned down.

But many continue to support the movement from below, calling for greater independence for the unions and for grassroots organisations to be given greater respect by the state.

The biggest worry for those I spoke to was how to collectively address and resolve the issues of rising prices, food shortages and corruption.

The municipal elections coming up this November will show the scale on which discontent will be taken out on Chavez and his government.

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Tue 26 Aug 2008, 20:58 BST
Issue No. 2116
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