[The following talk was presented to the Malaysian Socialist Party’s Socialism 2005 Conference in Kuala Lumpur on September 9-11, 2005, by John Percy, National Secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, Australia.]
1. Exciting developments are occurring today throughout Latin America, in fact there’s been turmoil on that continent for decades. But a revolutionary process is underway in Venezuela.
There’ve been mass mobilisations in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay – strikes, demonstrations, governments toppled, and sometimes left governments elected. But in Venezuela, a revolution is happening, the masses are taking that road.
Two points should be noted:
(1). The revolution is in process. It’s going forward, and must be welcomed, and fully supported, given our full solidarity. (2). There are no “recipes“ for revolutions. There’s no cookbook for revolutionaries, setting out just the one right way that the revolution can be cooked.
- Venezuela is not like Russia in 1917;
- It’s not like China, or Vietnam, or Cuba (although there are many interesting similarities with the Cuban process);
- We wouldn’t expect the revolution to be led by a group of army officers;
- We wouldn’t expect the process to have gone so far, or to have made the correct decisions at each important stage.
2. I want to begin by briefly going over the key events in the Bolivarian Revolution. These should be well-known to comrades, but for the benefit of newer comrades here I’ll list the main turning points:
- In December 1998 Hugo Chavez won the presidential elections, with a majority of 56%. His base was in the army a grouping of nationalist, democratic officers, Chavez had been jailed in 1992 for his part in a failed coup attempt against the corrupt government.
- Once elected he immediately started instituting reforms that benefited the poor, the workers and peasants. These reforms and new rights and the process were enshrined in the new constitution that was discussed and adopted.
- In April 2002 the old elite carried out a coup, which was smashed after a few days through mass mobilisations and the support of the majority of the army. Chavez was restored to the presidential palace in triumph.
- In December 2002-January 2003 the bosses and bureaucrats staged a lockout in the nominally state-owned oil company PDVSA. Oil of course is the core of the Venezuelan economy. The rank-and-file workers in the oil industry broke the lockout and restored production. 18,000 bosses and oil company bureaucrats were sacked. The oil company was restored to people’s control, and the revenues began to get redirected directly to the institutions set up to assist the poor – health clinics, neighbourhood schools etc.
- In August 2004 the bourgeois opposition pressed for a recall referendum, taking advantage of one of the democratic reforms brought in by the new Chavez constitution. Chavez had a resounding victory, winning 60% of the votes.
3. Chavez is now openly calling for Socialism. He has consciously pushed the process forward, and responded to the mass support to deepen the revolution.
- The process began as a national struggle, against the distorted economy, for real development, against imperialism. Pro-poor, pro-worker and peasant reforms were implemented, leading to increasing conflict with the capitalist class. Further measures were adopted, of a transitional nature, taking the consciousness and commitment of the people even further forward.
- On May Day this year, a million people marched through Caracas in a very red march, carrying slogans for socialism and workers’ control. (The alternative demonstration by the reactionary old trade union had only about a thousand at it.) Chavez spoke to the march with a strong call for socialism and workers’ control.
- At the World Youth Festival in Caracas last month, Chavez deepened his call for socialism. He’s now talking about Marxism and Leninism, and strongly stressed Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg’s warning – “Socialism or barbarism”.
4. From Australia, although Venezuela is hard to get to, we organised a Solidarity Brigade of 60 comrades to experience firsthand the revolutionary process. Comrades spent 10 days in four different units in different parts of Venezuela, and then finished with the World Youth Festival.
- They visited the [social] “missions”, that are organising and assisting the workers and poor:
- The missions providing education, at all levels: basic literacy, primary, secondary, university;
- The missions providing healthcare, with new clinics in the poor neighbourhoods, staffed by 25,000 Cuban doctors and health professionals; more doctors getting trained in Cuba and Venezuela; thousands of people travelling free to Cuba for operations that restore their sight.
- They checked out the neighbourhood kitchens, with free meals, provided by community cooks. (Comrades stressed they shouldn’t be compared to soup kitchens, these were the best meals they had while they were in Venezuela);
- They saw the new network of stores providing subsidised food and groceries. These are breaking the monopoly of the big profit-gouging supermarkets, and reportedly have won 70% of the market.
- They experienced the difference between the police and the army – the unreformed police being the main danger for mugging; the revolutionary army protecting the people and helping the revolution.
- They visited many of the mass organisations, talking to people on the ground, meeting with committees, gathering information and bringing solidarity.
5. Oil is the core of the economy, but the land question will be central to the revolutionary process.
- In the past Venezuela has imported 80% of its food, while there are enormous areas of rich, arable land, and millions of unemployed and landless peasants.
- 75% of the land is in the hands of 5% of the population, and much of this land is unused, idle estates of the rich not used for crops or grazing.
- Chavez initiated land reforms early on, encouraging peasants to seize idle farmland and put it to use growing food.
- The reaction of the landlords and their thugs was predictable, many peasants have been killed. But the peasants who are farming idle land are being defended by the army.
- A key theme of the revolutionary process is the expropriation of idle land, and the idle factories, in the interests of national development.
6. The role of workers in the revolutionary process is increasing, with Chavez promoting workers’ control.
- The initial base of Chavez was among the urban poor, the unemployed and partially employed, the petty traders in the barrios.
- The new Venezuelan constitution put great stress on people’s participation in government and society.
- The mass of the working class is now also solidly behind Chavez, increasingly involved in the Bolivarian revolution, and implementing a number of practical examples of workers’ control.
- CVG Alcasa is the largest aluminium plant in Venezuela and where management is effectively in the hands of the workers. No significant decision is taken without the active participation of the workers. The process is also being opened up to the local community.
- Also in the large paper plant Invepal, workers’ control has been instituted. This was the first nationalisation that has taken place.
- On May Day Chavez hammered harder on the need to implement workers’ control.
7. There’s been a proliferation of mass organisations, with growing participation and involvement at the workplace and in the communities.
- The old union federation, the CTV, is anti-Chavez, supported the coup, and supported the bosses’ lockout in the oil industry. They have been exposed, and are increasingly marginalised.
- A new union federation, the UNT, was set up two years ago, and has won majority support among workers.
- There are many neighbourhood, community organisations set up supporting the Bolivarian revolution. Electoral Battle Units, EBUs, were established to support Chavez in the recall referendum, and now continue, with a changed name, Endogenous Battle Units.
- A new youth organisation was established by Chavez two years ago, the Frente Francisco de Miranda. So far they’ve sent 35,000 young people to Cuba for training, lasting up to 50 days. When they return they function in the FFM, taking responsibility for a) running of the missions at all levels, and b) ideological formation of the people.
8. Who leads the Bolivarian revolution? Is there a revolutionary party leading the process, or one in formation?
- First you have to note the special role of Hugo Chavez, and his close supporters. The authority of Chavez is enormous amongst the Venezuelan poor and workers and peasants.
- The MVR, the Movement for the Fifth Republic, is the party Chavez set up in 1997 to fight the elections, and it now has 1-2 million members. But there are many different currents in it, some opportunist of course, some not willing to go as far as Chavez in the direction of socialism.
- There are a variety of other smaller parties supporting the Bolivarian revolution, coming from different left traditions.
- There’s also a huge developing vanguard of activists in the various mass organisations, the barrios, who aren’t in any political organisation.
- The FFM youth organisation, although not a party, is playing an important and leading role politically and organisationally.
- There’s likely to be a recomposition of the main forces supporting the revolutionary process, into a possible new party, as occurred in the early years of the Cuban Revolution.
9. What is the nature and role of the Venezuelan state at this stage of the process?
- You’d have to say there’s dual power of a sort operating today (though not following the “model” of dual power in 1917 Russia with the Soviets on one hand and the provisional government on the other.) In Venezuela on one side are the Chavez government, the army, the alternative people’s institutions and services that have been set up, the range of mass organisations, while on the other side the capitalist class still dominates the economy, and the old bureaucracy is still dominant in many of the ministries.
- To implement many of his reforms, Chavez has had to completely bypass many of the old ministries, setting up new institutions for health, education etc.
- The diplomatic service, for example would be staffed by quintessential supporters of the old regime, the elite. But a new diplomatic staff is being trained, their sending 200 selected revolutionaries to Cuba for two years’ training, so they won’t have to put up with any of the old guard.
- There’ll be future showdowns with the Venezuelan capitalist class, the old bureaucracy, and imperialism of course. But Chavez now has 80% support in the population, registered in the August municipal elections. There’s a small core of the elite and privileged who profited under the old regime, say 10%, who are unlikely to be won over, so his support among the masses is absolutely overwhelming.
- There’ll be many more obstacles in the path of the revolution, and likely to be many surprises. But Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution have responded excellently up to now.
10. What about the “bodies of armed men” in Venezuela, the army and the police?
- Given Chavez’s origins, as part of a group of radical officers in the army consciously organising for democracy and nationalism, the Venezuelan army today is different from most military forces in Latin America. The Venezuelan army was a bit different anyway, recruiting officers more widely and training them in Venezuela, from the lower classes in society, as with Chavez, and not exclusively from the elite.
- The failed coup then facilitated the further filtering out of most of the reactionary elements in the army. The role of the army has changed dramatically, with the army organising many of the missions.
- The police are a very different matter, not supportive of the Bolivarian revolution, your “normal” police force, and especially corrupt and vicious.
- Our comrades on the Brigade have their own experiences to verify this. A number of comrades got mugged and robbed in Caracas, and it was mostly done by the police.
- But steps are underway to change this. One neighbourhood in Caracas, the Barrio January 23, with a population of about 500,000, has taken over its own policing, and established its own people’s policing, with their own armed self-defence squad. They’ve taken over the old police stations (used as torture centres by the old police), and the old police are barred from the barrio. For all this they have the support of Chavez.
- The Chavez government is also setting up Popular Defence Units, UPD, comprised of 150,000 armed workers’ and community activists.
- They are also strengthening the army reserves, with a goal of getting 2 million members.
11. Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is a great cause for hope and inspiration. But even more encouraging, the alliance is growing between Venezuela and Cuba!
- This alliance helps break the 45-year blockade of Cuba by the USA.
- There’s increasing economic and political integration between Cuba and Venezuela. Venezuela’s oil wealth and Cuba’s medical, scientific and professional resources – doctors, nurses, teachers, other professionals – complement each other well.
- They have a new plan, to train 200,000 doctors in Venezuela and Cuba, and send them throughout Latin America. What a subversive, revolutionary brigade! How can imperialism counter these emissaries? It will be a concrete, practical addition to the spreading moral example of Cuba and Venezuela.
- As an economic counter to US imperialism’s economic stranglehold over Latin America, Cuba and Venezuela have initiated ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the alternative Latin American trading bloc. It’s been joined so far by Brazil and Argentina, destroying the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), which the United States has been attempting to force on the continent.
- The Venezuelan revolution is inspiring and spurring on struggles throughout Latin America.
- But it’s also having an impact on the rest of the world, including the USA. Following the New Orleans disaster, Venezuela and Cuba quickly offered aid. Chavez oil and doctors, which the US initially refused to accept, but in the end had to accept the oil. Cuba offered 1000 doctors, upped to 1500, who are acknowledged world experts in disaster relief. Two weeks after the disaster Bush refuses to even acknowledge the offer, let alone accept it, while his own government’s response has been exposed as hopelessly inadequate, belated, and racist.
12. US imperialism is extremely worried by Venezuela, and the growing collaboration between Cuba and Venezuela, and the spread of that example to the rest of Latin America, which Washington regards as its own “backyard”.
- The rulers in Washington are examining all possible options to counter this threat, though they’re hampered by both their quagmire in Iraq, and the crisis in New Orleans.
- Can they try another coup? Their first attempt failed, and the second will be much harder. And the difference with Chile, is that in Venezuela the army is now solidly in support of Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution.
- Can they try assassination? This is one of their options, but right-wing fundamentalist evangelist Pat Robertson clumsily blurted out on TV what the rest of them were planning behind closed doors. State Department spokespeople would only describe it as “inappropriate” comments from a “private citizen”. But no condemnation of a real terrorist threat.
- They’ve already made use of harassment by terror gangs based in Colombia, for border incursions, and a base for kidnapping. Attacks from this direction will undoubtedly increase. Money will continue to flow in for all efforts to undermine Chavez.
- Their final option will be invasion, and they’ll make use of any pretext to send a few aircraft carriers off the coast, and start some provocation.
13. So our international solidarity will be vitally important against any and all imperialist attempts at subverting, undermining, and overthrowing the Chavez government.
- Especially important will be our massive, worldwide protest against any direct attack on Venezuela, as they’ve invaded and occupied Iraq.
- The closer parallel is the worldwide campaign against the American, and Australian and other imperialist countries’ war against Vietnam. In Vietnam, the struggle was led by a political leadership in which we could have confidence, and from which the youth of the world drew inspiration.
- The same process will happen in Venezuela if they dare to invade, the Venezuela syndrome will be added to the “Vietnam syndrome”. The solidarity struggle will inspire and radicalise young people around the world, as happened with the heroic struggle in Vietnam 35-40 years ago.
- As Che Guevara said then, “Create two, three, many Vietnams”. Today the call will be, “Create two, three, many Venezuelas”, and the solidarity of Cuba, Venezuela, Vietnam and others will be an expanding front that challenges the rule of imperialism.