By Steve Mather
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‘Workers’ control in Venezuela cannot be implemented by decree. It has to be built and it advances as a process.’

This article is over 15 years, 8 months old
Steve Mather talks to Venezuelan workers and activists who are attempting to shape the unfolding revolutionary process and looks at those who are determined to stop them.
Issue 312

It is only a matter of days until the presidential elections, and Venezuelan society is in a state of suspended animation with all other political battles on hold. The ruptures within President Hugo Chavez’s camp have been bandaged up for now. The energies of those who are against Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” have been channelled into the campaign of Chavez’s opponent, Manuel Rosales. Rosales, who supported the defeated coup against Chavez in 2002, is the only opposition candidate with significant popular support. However, beyond the 3 December election, the political climate is bound to change.

If, as is expected, Chavez wins, his governing party is going to be fighting on several fronts. While he may have some problems from the parliamentary opposition, it will be the unresolved contradictions inside the revolutionary process that are likely to be the biggest challenges to the Bolivarian movement in 2007.

The first thing you notice about the election is that it seems to bear little or no relation to the revolutionary movement that has gripped Venezuelan society in recent years.

By European standards the pre-election rallies are huge, but they are purely mobilisation exercises, with Chavez on one side promising 21st century socialism and resistance to the forces of imperialism, and Rosales on the other, talking about social justice and the need to govern for all of Venezuela’s 26 million people, while “normalising” relations with the US. However, they both preach to the converted – Rosales supporters tend to watch privately owned television stations which are harshly critical of the government, while Chavistas watch state owned channels which are pro-government.

There was an enormous rally recently in support of Chavez in Petare, a huge slum, or barrio, in the far east of the capital Caracas. Chavez’s supporters were dressed from head to toe in Bolivarian red. They marched, rallied, and there were convoys of trucks and cars pumping out political tunes – the lyrics promising “Ooh Aah, Chavez no se va” (“Chavez isn’t leaving”).

The opposition held its own lively march through the centre of Caracas on 4 November. “Chavez is a dictator,” screamed 51 year old internet cafe owner Marta Rioseco. “He is giving our oil away to his friends like Fidel Castro and Evo Morales. The government is corrupt. With Manuel Rosales we will restore democracy.”

In some ways the two candidate’s mobilisations look similar. It is true that there are more whites at Rosales’s marches than at Chavez’s – race and class are deeply intertwined in Venezuela – but Rosales’s supporters certainly aren’t uniformly white. The main visual difference between the two is the colour of their hats and T-shirts.

However, the presidential election is of critical importance for the Bolivarian Revolution. The combination of the major reforms and experiments in democracy that have attempted to give power to some of the poorest in Venezuelan society rest on the success of Chavez in this contest.

Participatory democracy

The Venezuelan process can broadly be split into two. There are the social programmes, or missions, and experiments in participatory democracy in the barrios – both given their momentum by the popular movements at the base of society. Meanwhile in industry there are the experiments in co-management, where workers elect their own representatives to the management of firms.

It was hoped that the struggle to develop and extend co-management would be led by the new union federation, the UNT. Unfortunately, the UNT has been fixated on internal conflicts. This has meant that since the economy was given a brief dose of co-management in 2005, the process has come to a complete standstill. What both strands of the struggle have in common is that they involve a battle against the state bureaucracy and sectors of the Bolivarian movement itself.

In the barrios things are going relatively smoothly. Newly established communal councils have started to function and they provide a new institutional framework that could potentially begin to pose an alternative to the old state bureaucracy. They are composed of three institutional parts.

There is a legislative body where elected spokespersons from the missions and other grassroots institutional bodies are represented. Then there is a communal bank, which is also controlled by elected members of the community and applies for funds direct from the government, bypassing ministries that oppose the scheme. Finally there is the social control, another elected body that oversees the operation of the first two. Each elected person can be recalled at any time.

However, there have been problems in overcoming apathy in the community. Maria Cristina Machuca is an activist in the northern town of Catia and a member of one of the many communal councils there. She admitted that the councils has been slow to get people involved, but brushed off a common criticism that this slowness proves participatory democracy is doomed to fail.

“Neoliberalism has affected us here in Venezuela as anywhere else,” she said. “People have become disconnected from each other. Most people are involved in the informal economy where an individualised survival mentality is generated. It will take time through daily practice to create a collective consciousness within the community.”

Workers’ struggle

In industry the problems are much deeper. The UNT was supposed to be a new union organisation that left behind the corrupt practices of the old CTV union. However, its second congress, held at the end of April this year, was paralysed over whether to have elections for a new leadership before or after the country’s presidential elections.

However, there are still important struggles in workplaces – against privatisation and for nationalisation, for co-management and against top-down management. The ultimate aim for those on the left of the UNT is complete workers’ control. The extreme end of this struggle is visible in Puerto Ordaz in the eastern state of Bolivar, the industrial heartland of Venezuela. It is a region rich in minerals, and as a result an abundance of factories have been built over the years to process the raw materials into more useful forms.

The Alcasa plant processes aluminium, while one mile away the Sidor plant processes steel. Until 1997 both had followed similar paths. During the 1970s they grew very quickly as a result of the oil boom. The 1974-79 government spent significant revenues developing them and very quickly they became the largest of their kind on the continent. However, when the oil price fell the inevitable squeeze was put on the workforce. Workers did resist and were radicalised in the process. Puerto Ordaz had the most radical and independent of union movements in Venezuela. However, the neoliberalism of the 1980s and 1990s eventually took its toll and, like everywhere else, workers’ movements were weakened.

The paths of the two factories eventually diverged in 1997 when Sidor was privatised by the government of Rafael Caldera. He also had plans to privatise the Alcasa aluminium processing plant but, before he could, Chavez came to power in the presidential elections of 1998. The Chavez government had other plans. Alcasa became one of the main laboratories of worker co-management, while workers at Sidor were left far behind.

In terms of co-management, Alcasa is considered to be the most advanced workplace in Venezuela. Workers elect their management who sit alongside elected shopfloor spokespeople on committees that coordinate production and financial activities. Alcasa workers are well paid compared to other sectors of the economy, and jobs are secure.

I was met at Alcasa by Osvaldo Leon, a longstanding socialist who has been involved in the trade union movement all his adult life. His internationalist credentials are also impressive. In 1973, at the age of 19, he travelled to Chile with a group of Venezuelan Marxists to defend Salvador Allende’s socialist government against the coup led by Augusto Pinochet.

Osvaldo talked through the limitations of the co-management model at Alcasa and the hurdles it will have to overcome if it is to succeed. “Workers’ control can’t be implemented by decree,” he said. “It has to be built and it advances as a process.” By getting involved in the co-management process and through education, the workers develop a class consciousness, he said. In that way they will become organically part of the process, rather than just voting for a manager every time elections come round and then trundling off back to work.

Despite Alcasa’s reputation for being in an advanced stage of co-management, Osvaldo surprisingly said that its workers are much less class conscious than those of the Sidor factory and other privatised firms. There the workers have had to learn through fierce struggles with their employers, whereas in Alcasa the high salaries and state subsidies have meant workers have had it a little easier.

Osvaldo adds, “If, for example, you call a meeting of workers in the state of Aragua they arrive on bicycle or on foot. When a meeting is called by our workers, they all arrive in new cars. Our economic situation is completely different from the workers in smaller enterprises and from Venezuelan workers generally.”

That does not mean that workers at Alcasa have it easy. Although there is a job rotation system, it is a tough place to work, with high temperatures, a polluted environment and seemingly very little safe working practice. In the furnaces the temperature is so fierce that those working there can only manage three hours a day. Other jobs are dirty and monotonous.

One union organiser at the plant said that she thought the process of co-management had been “frozen”, but other workers there weren’t so negative. Santiago Martinez, 27, said that while the management often dream up new practices to improve productivity they are usually rejected by the workers: “We work here every day and know the process better than them. Since the worker-management committees have existed, let’s say about 80 percent of decisions regarding the process are effectively made by the workers.”

One of the most impressive aspects of Alcasa is housed in a small unit in one corner of the site. The Centre of Socio-Political Education is open to workers from both Alcasa and the local community. There are classes on major political economists from David Ricardo to Karl Marx. Participants are also encouraged to critically analyse the Bolivarian Revolution.

Cruz Barreto is a teacher at the centre. He said he thought a radical political education for workers could contribute to changing their understanding of what co-management should mean and encourage them to be the pressure driving it forward: “The negative side of co-management here in Alcasa is that it was handed down from above. For that reason many of the workers don’t feel they own it. If they can develop a class identity they will see the relationships in the plant from a new perspective.”

Down the road at Sidor, management-worker relations are another matter altogether. When the company was privatised, the workforce was reduced from 18,000 full-time workers to just 15,000, with about 10,000 of those working on temporary contracts. Although the Argentinian based multinational Trinium operates the plant, most workers are employed by one of the 232 private subcontracting firms.

There have been many strikes over the past nine years as workers attempted to get a better deal – but the ultimate goal of renationalisation remains the strategic objective. In September of this year, five workers were imprisoned for allegedly stealing equipment. In response the whole plant went on strike and brought the entire city of Puerto Ordaz to a standstill. The workers were released the following day.

While I didn’t manage to gain access to the Sidor plant, I did manage to attend a meeting with two of the factory’s main union leaders, Jose Melendez and Cruz Bello. We talked about the differences between the Alcasa and Sidor factories. “While the workers in Alcasa learn through education and through the organisational structure that has been created for them by the state, we learn through struggle,” they said. “We have been fighting the private companies for many years and we will continue until we achieve our end. That end is the renationalisation of Sidor.”

Cruz Bello spoke of his support for Chavez: “We have struggled for many years and throughout the 1980s we were alone. There was oppression and lots of our activity had to be clandestine. Even though there are difficulties between our union and the government, due to the latter’s lack of enthusiasm for our demand of nationalisation. We are now free to organise. We can go on strike and the national guard largely leaves us alone.”

When asked why the government has thus far ignored the workers’ calls for nationalisation, Melendez didn’t hesitate. Alluding to the national home of his employers at Sidor, he said, “Chavez doesn’t want to upset his friend Kirchner [the Argentinian president] by throwing out an Argentinian company. He has a bigger Latin American project that he is trying to build.”

That is a big worry for the workers’ movement and one of the most contradictory parts of government policy. As part of a plan to expand the oil and gas industry over the coming six years, there are proposals to increase foreign capital’s share of the economy year on year. Ostensibly, most of the capital is to come from outside of the US, so the government sells it as an anti-imperialist strategy, but it is difficult to see how workers will see much difference. The opportunities for workers’ control in factories paid for by foreign capital are bleak.

Blockages in the system

A few years ago rank and file activist Roland Denis complained that the government wasn’t really sure about how to go about achieving its radical goals. Today he believes that the government has a plan. “There is a direction traced by Chavez and that is a direction we support,” he said. The problem is that this direction gets blocked from different sectors within Chavez’s political party, the MVR: “They are trying to create a large mafia in order to capture the mechanisms of government in our country. This occurs at both the local and national level.”

Roland is optimistic that all this will come out in the open after the election. There are, he says, radical tendencies within the MVR – especially outside of Caracas – and that these are pushing for a split. However, he thinks that it will be difficult to split the MVR along left-right lines given the nature of the party as a coalition of interests whose main function is as an electoral machine. “It is composed of parties and tendencies whose loyalties are to themselves rather than to some well defined ideology,” he adds.

Osvaldo from the Alcasa factory echoed Roland’s concerns. “For many sectors of the Bolivarian movement there is no such thing as class struggle. This is a big problem,” he said. “We must make sure the process advances as a class struggle, but at the moment, for example, there are no workers at the forefront of the process. If you go into the national assembly [the legislative parliament] there are no workers. There are representatives of the working class but they are simply functionaries of parties.”

But Roland says it will be the base of society that will be the most significant factor in defeating the reactionary elements within the Bolivarian Movement. He explained that the bulk of the population and the popular movements support Chavez, but not the government. Their slogan is: “Up with Chavez and down with the government.”

Threats from outside

If Rosales is defeated, he is likely to return to the north western state of Zulia, in his old job as governor. But there are other figures from the right who will likely want to take his place as the candidate of the opposition. Julio Borges, the leader of the Primero Justicia party who is much more media friendly than Rosales, is likely to be the top contender.

The hierarchies of the old, established right wing parties, Accion Democratica and Copei, together with the media barons, will of course do what they can to sabotage and discredit the government. But they represent a small, albeit powerful, proportion of the opposition. Rosales’s campaign has a social base that extends well beyond them, mixing people of all classes. Chavez’s support is still far from universal, even at the base of society. Julio Prieto is a garage mechanic. While he doesn’t live in a barrio, he is a relatively low paid worker. It would be natural to assume that he would see himself benefiting from the social programmes introduced by the government. Instead he is scathing about Chavez.

“For me Chavez is a populist. He is always causing problems internationally for the country. We are a peaceful people yet he is always provoking the US,” Julio said. “I work hard every day to provide for my family, seven days a week. My child goes to a private school and we have private health insurance. We don’t need or want services from the government.”

Roland Denis is unsurprised by my examples of those who are not well off but who nevertheless oppose Chavez. He says Venezuela is no different from other countries: “People are influenced by the media and the values emitted from TV and newspapers. Conservative attitudes are formed in that way.”

When asked what he thought were the biggest dangers for the revolutionary process he said that there was danger everywhere: “Sabotage from the right is a major worry. There could be strikes [organised by the right] in the coming year.” Asked how he saw the next year developing, Roland laughed and said it was impossible to predict what is going to happen in the next week in Venezuela.

During the election and post-election periods all those who support the revolutionary process in Venezuela will need to be vigilant. The outcome of the presidential election will not quieten those on the right who want to see Chavez removed and the Bolivarian Revolution smashed. Within the government itself there are many forces who are desperate to ditch radical reform in favour of a return to the mainstream. Those who want to defend the gains made so far, while deepening the social and economic democracy that must constitute “socialism in the 21st century”, will have to continue to fight to put their demands centre stage.

Steve Mather is a contributor to

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