Socialist Worker

Chavez and the Venezuelan revolution

Two award winning writers Hugh O’Shaughnessy and Michael Lebowitz look at Hugo Chavez and the revolt in Latin America

Issue No. 1976

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has become a focus across Latin America for resistance to George Bush, writes Hugh O’Shaughnessy

Not a bad result last weekend. Latin Lynxes 3–White House Wanderers 0, as Des Lynam might have put it.

The fourth Summit of the Americas, held in the Argentine seaside resort of Mar del Plata, drew together 34 heads of government and vice presidents from the western hemisphere.

It showed how much the centre of gravity in Latin America — in the conference room as much as on the streets — has shifted to the left, and how isolated the US has become in the New World over recent years.

It showed, too, how Hugo Chavez is taking on the mantle of popularity from the now aging Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The Venezuelan president arrived in Argentina fortified by stupendous oil revenues, to which Cuba was never able to aspire.

He could also claim a legitimacy built on a succession of victories in irreproachably clean popular votes in referendums and multi-party elections.

Not least the former parachute colonel has benefited from the ill-disguised hostility of George Bush, who has attempted unsuccessfully to whip up animosity towards Chavez from US electors and foreign governments.

What is more Chavez came to Mar del Plata with a double aura for the Latin Americans. The first aura was generated in 2002 when he outsmarted a group of coup plotters who, with quiet US backing, wanted to replace him with a bumbling businessman who established his credentials as a potential dictator by closing Congress, dismissing judges and sacking elected local authorities.

The second aura was added a few weeks ago when far right US politician and businessman Marion “Pat” Robertson called on the US government to assassinate him and was then forced into a public apology.

No wonder Chavez, accompanied by Evo Morales, the indigenous leader likely to become Bolivia’s next president, got a tumultuous welcome from the tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators who packed the football stadium in the Argentine resort for a pre-summit rally.

But the meeting in Mar del Plata was a great deal more significant than merely being the site of a duel between a Venezuelan leader who, as the voting figures show, is on the way up and a US politician who, as every public opinion poll demonstrates, is on the way down.

The summit illustrated the fact that throughout the continent there is resentment of neo-liberal strategies that have done nothing to ameliorate Latin America’s chronic economic complaint — the most scandalous concentration of wealth on the planet in the hands of a tiny minority.

Bush, backed by the former Coca-Cola salesman president Vicente Fox of Mexico and others, wanted to press ahead with the creation of a free trade area.

This plan, which would allow the US to peddle its exports throughout the hemisphere, while retaining its panoply of export subsidies and non-tariff barriers to imports from Latin America, was rejected.

The meeting broke up without a communique or press conference — a big diplomatic reverse for US.

The pattern of exploitation in Latin America was set at the beginning of the 16th century, with the conquest of the continent by Spain and Portugal—in search of gold, diamonds and silver.

Indigenous peoples and Africans were seized to work the mines and the plant­ations in slavery, thus establishing a baleful paradigm that the white and near-white masters were unable and unwilling to abolish or even effectively reform. The ghosts of European slave masters haunt Latin America today as they have done for hundreds of years.

The relatively recent rise of US power in the region has brought a new institutionalisation of the social injustices first established by those slave masters.

The proclamation in 1823 of a doctrine of US supremacy in the western hemisphere by president James Monroe was a signal of the US’s ambitions.

Later US leaders invented a “manifest destiny” of their country to dominate the hemisphere. Both developments owed much to the hopes of slave-owners from the Southern states of the US to perpetuate abroad the servitude that Abraham Lincoln and his supporters abolished — in theory — at home.

The US slave owners, for instance were vociferous in demanding the purchase or seizure of Cuba from Spain. Their legacy has moulded the anti-Cuban rhetoric and actions of all subsequent US presidencies. After the Second World War the US seized the opportunity offered by the Cold War to advance their dominance in the hemisphere.

The US supported dictatorships such as Trujillo’s in the Dominican Republic, the revolting Rios Montt’s in Guatemala, Stroessner’s in Paraguay, the generals’ in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and Pinochet’s in Chile among many others.

The days of the Monroe Doctrine and the Cold War are over.

People in Latin America are conscious of sitting on resources of energy and minerals that the rest of the world is desperate for.

Brazil, with 183 million inhabitants, has global ambitions and wants a seat on the UN security council.

The Mercosur group of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, quietly supported by Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia, are making the most of their strong trade links with the European Union and turning a deaf ear to the US’s economic strategies.

Meanwhile the US is attempting to re-establish a military hegemony in the hemisphere that was badly damaged when its zone in Panama was abolished in 1999.

The ill-starred Plan Colombia, supposedly aimed at the impossible task of destroying all the coca bushes in that country, in reality finances the establishment of US military bases in Ecuador, El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles islands.

A few weeks ago US forces started arriving in Paraguay, despite fierce opposition from many Paraguayans.

Even in Colombia itself the signs are that there is widespread rejection of the US-sponsored war on drugs, launched decades ago by president Richard Nixon. This war may have succeeded in its primary aim of imprisoning hundreds of thousands of young black males in the US.

But there is little indication that it is doing better in suppressing the use of narcotics than the hare-brained scheme for prohibition of alcoholic drinks had in the US of the 1920s and 1930s.

In 21st century Latin America, the US’s 19th and 20th century ambitions are withering much more quickly than the leaves on the coca bushes it is vainly seeking to destroy.

Hugh O’Shaughnessy is an award winning journalist who has been reporting on Latin America for four decades. His latest book, written with Sue Branford, is Chemical Warfare in Colombia: the Costs of Coca Fumigation (£8.99).

Michael Lebowitz is based in the Venezuelan capital Caracas. He spoke to Joseph Choonara about the unfolding revolutionary process

At a recent talk you said the new Venezuelan constitution, introduced by president Hugo Chavez in 1999, contained elements of both socialism and capitalism. How has this tension developed since then?

The real qualitative shift occurred following the lockout organised by Venezuelan bosses in December 2002. The coup attempt, in April 2002, lasted just three days, but the lockout lasted three months. During that time people were transformed.

They realised that this enemy had to be fought and this strengthened the confrontation with capital.

After this Chavez stopped talking about a “third way”. It wasn’t clear what his alternative was, but he began to attack the logic of capitalism. And in November last year, he began to talk about socialism.

How would you describe Venezuelan society today?

Venezuela is not a socialist society. I think Chavez accurately characterises it as a revolutionary democracy, which for me is something that can exist under capitalism. The state is being used to take over capital step by step — to take over the means of production.

Venezuela is one of the most urbanised societies in Latin America. What does its working class actually look like?

The starting point is to recognise that 53 percent of the working class is in the informal sector — basically involved in selling things. Many them should really be counted as wage labourers. They are precarious workers who are part of system of generating profits, selling goods produced using capitalist methods.

Venezuela doesn’t produce an enormous quantity of commodities itself. It exports oil and imports everything else. Chavez argues that the first thing the country has to do is move away from this.

Is there a tension between the drive to meet needs and the drive to accumulate wealth to build up industry?

Venezuela’s oil is a huge source of revenue, so it’s not a question of choosing one or the other. And, in conditions of high unemployment, investing in industry is about giving people a job, giving them some income.

The revolution faces the challenge of demonstrating to people that it can change their lives. It has already improved the situation for the poor.

But Venezuela is still a society with 80 percent poverty, and aspirations are growing. It has to solve the problem of poverty and develop industry if the process is to advance. Whether this can happen is not preordained — it’s a question of struggle.

You’ve written about co-management, where workers are involved in running companies. How important is this?

It is really important, but it isn’t important quantitatively. If you look at the level of co-management it’s really tiny.

There is the Invepal paper mill, the Inveval valve company and the Invetex textile producer. A workers’ cooperative and the state each own a part of these three companies.

This is one possible model for other factories that are closed and that workers are talking about re-opening.

Then there are two interesting cases in the state sector, which may point in a different direction. One is the well known Alcasa aluminium factory. Here the initiative didn’t come from the workers at all, but from a new minister for basic industry.

Then is a significant feeling among the workers that the control they have over Alcasa is wonderful. But there are real problems—the factory is unsafe and there is a tradition of corruption. Whether the culture of the workers can be changed is unclear.

Next to Alcasa is another aluminium firm, not run by co-management, which is much more efficient.

The other interesting example in the state sector is the electrical distribution service. This industry was being run down and workers became advocates of the idea that they could run the industry better.

The branch of the industry in Cadela, in the Andean region, came out most strongly with this perspective and is functioning extremely well. But at the major Cadafe site it isn’t functioning as well.

There was a battle between workers and bosses over the running of the company there, and whether workers should have power in strategic industries.

Altogether you can count the examples of co-management on one hand. But they are very inspiring experiments and the UNT, the new union federation, is pushing for more takeovers.

One of the key slogans is, “Without co-management there is no revolution.” However there are different views of what co-management is even within UNT.

In the cooperative form at companies such as Invepal the state owns 51 percent and the workers cooperative gets 49 percent. At a meeting I attended in April, one of the workers’ representatives on the board of Invepal said, “We have 49 percent control, the aim is to get 100 percent.”

Oil is the key to the Venezuelan economy. Is there co-management in this industry?

There was an enormous sense of workers’ empowerment during the bosses' lockout when workers kept the oil industry functioning. The workers formed committees, which attempted to organise from below.

At the same time two union leaders were placed on the company’s board. So there were two alternative visions of workers' involvement — from above or from below, and the movement from below eventually disappeared.

Karl Marx talked about revolution as being necessary both to allow workers to take control of capital, and for them to clear out the “muck of ages” — the old ideas. Does Venezuela need to go through such a revolution?

I think that what is happening now is the process of clearing away “the muck of ages”. It is a process of people transforming themselves, that’s the most important thing happening in Venezuela today.

There are tensions. Sometimes those at the top of society want to hold back the initiative from those at the bottom, which sounds to me very much like the situation in the Soviet Union in the early days after the 1917 October Revolution.

But the question of takeovers and expropriation — you don’t need that to mobilise the masses.

In the present situation, Venezuela can advance enormously without encroaching on capital. That’s because it has the money and resources to create new means of production. So they can take control away from capital without direct confrontation.

So the Venezuelan state can just claw away at capitalism and eventually you’ll have socialism?

It can create a very significant state sector that can compete with and drive out private capital, but state capitalism is a threshold, it’s not socialism.

Co-management provides an alternative to capitalism. Its point is to put an end to capitalist exploitation and create the potential for the building of a truly human society. Democracy in production is an essential element of socialism in the 21st century.

Michael Lebowitz’s book Beyond Capital won the 2004 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher prize.

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Sat 12 Nov 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1976
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