Developments in Venezuela attract a huge amount of attention, both right and left. For the right wing, the presicency of Hugo Chavez, his increasingly radical reforms and the challenge that they form for neoliberalism worldwide and for American hegemony – it all is a cause for big concern, hostility and sometimes open threats. ‘Another Cuba’ obviously cannot be tolerated, the ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ that Chavez is imposing on Venezuela obviously has to be opposed, removed, by conspiratorial and/ or openly military means.
This attidude was only to be expected. It is a repeat performance of the strategy of intervention by whcih American imperialism defeated the left wing government of Allende in Chile between 1970 and 1973, and by which it strangled the Nicaraguan revolution between 1979 and 1990. No one should be surprised that the Empire tries to do it again or that it’s supporters call for such endeavours. Jamie Stern-Weiner has a long, very informative article on the accusations, distortions and slurs that right wing journalists and politicians pour down on Chavez and the reform process in Venezuela – and on the Nicaraguan precedent for all this: “Deterring Democracy in Venezuela”, on UK watch.
Attitudes at the left vary, but the enthousiasm for Chavez’ radical reform programme – his ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ – seems to be on the increase. In essence, this enhousiasm is just, proper and well deserved. The reforms that the Chavez presidency brough thus far, are quite impressive.The new constitution that he instigated, and which was adopted by majority vote, brought a much more democratic system, with extended possibilites for referenda and midterm recall of even the president himself. The Constitution, and the process leading up to it, has been described by Gregory Wilpert, in “Venezuela’s New Constitution”, on Venezuelanalys.com”.
The so-called misiones bring education to many who didn’t get it before, both to children and adults, they bring elementary health care and houdingto many poor people. High oil prices provided resources for these kind of reforms – but without the political will to actually bring benefits to the poor majority, even the biggest resources are to little avail. One only has to compare Venezuela with, say, oil states like Saudi-Arabia, Indonesia or Russia, to see that the same price kan lead to very different social results.
During the first years of the Chavez presidency, the reforms mainly were instigated by the leadership itself, through the existing state. But that has changed, in radical and sometimes surprising ways. One turning point was the US-promoted, right wing coup in April, 2002. Thousands upon thousands of poor supporters of Chavez streamed on to the streets to demand, insistently and courageously, the return of Chavez. Riot police attacked them; they used not only tear gas, but bullets as well. But the people in revolt did not back down; the repression only showed what a post-Chavez regime would be: a violent dictatorship.
The enormous popular resistance drew soldiers to its side. A revolt of the military broke the back of the coup leaders. Within two days, a giant expression of popular initiative and defiance had defeated a dangerous right wing attack. The masses saved the reforms by making, as it were, a partial revolution. The story is told in vivid detail in “The Failed Anti-Chavez- coup, Five Years On”, by George Ciccarielo Maher.
These events shifted the balance and emboldened the mass movement on which Chavez increasingly relied. A similar experience strengthened this trend: the so-called oil strike, in the winter of 2002-2003. This was, in reality, a sabotage action of the management of the state oil company, PDVA, supported by the right wing business opposition, private media bosses, against efforts of the government to bring that under real government control. Up to then, it was very corruptly run by the manegers, as if it were their private property.
The ‘strike’ – actually, almost a coup effort in slow motion – failed, or, to put it more precisely, it was defeated by oil workers themselves. They tried insistently to re-start production, to stop management’s sabotage, and in the end they succeeded. Jorge Martin wrote a partisan, buit not therefore unserious, analysis of the event while it happened: “Venezuela: Opposition ‘strike’or bosses’lockout? -An eyewitness account”, on In Defence of Marxism. This, combined with the rise in oil prices, made it possible to pay for the reforms in health, houding and education. It also gave a push to the left within the workers’movement. A new trade union federation, UNT, was formed, as an alternative for the discredited CTV, which was pary of the right wing opposition and very anti-Chavez.
A third opposition offensive, the effort in 2004 to have Chavez recalled by referendum, also failed. Well-organised groups of Chavez supporters campaigned tirelessly, and they beat back the opposition’s campaign. And last your, Chavez was convincingly re-elected as president. Even the opposition candidate didn’t go all the way for the traditional claims of foul play and recognised Chavez’ victory.
And the policies continued to shift to the left. Especialy the initiative to build ‘communal councils’ showed that te Bolivarian process is beginning toe extend to the grass roots, in an increasingly organised form. All the same, the president initiates, backs and pushes these kind of initiatives. Chavez even called these councils a form in which the existing state can be pushed aside and replaced by a new kind of state. That is, whether Chavez realises it or not, a revolutionary conclusion: the need to replace the existing, bourgeois state with a state built from below is the what Lenin, for instance, analysed in “The State and Revolution”. Whether he is willing, or even able, to back up his words with consistent deeds is another matter, and one to which I will return.
In the meantime, the language in which Chavez described his policy and his goals had also shifted to the left. From the beginning of 2005, he started to talk of socialism as the goal of the Bolivarian Revolution. Socialism of a new type, socialism of the 21st century, a socialism in which the bureaucratic mistakes of the former Soviet Union should be avoided. In recent months, he even started to describe himself – albeit tongue in cheek, more or less – as a Trotskyist and even praised Leon Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” . See ‘”What is the problem? I am also a Trotskyist” Chavez is sworn is as president of Venezuela” and “Chavez recommends the study of Trotsky, praises the Transitional Programme”, both on In Defence of Marxism.
No wonder the international left, especially all kinds of Trotskyist groups, are enthousiastic. An elected president, supported by a dynamic grassroots movement, and using openly revolutionary, even Trotskyite language – it looks good, it sounds good, and in an important sense it is good. But is it as good as it is made out to be?