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Venezuela: The hard battle for socialism

Interview with Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela’s minister of energy and petroleum from Punto Final. Translated by Federico Fuentes for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

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Up until now, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s socialist project has counted on broad popular support. But it is encountering – as was foreseen – numerous difficulties and an opposition that is not disgusted by coup plots nor assassination attempts. On November 23, the revolutionary project will have to submit itself to a new test, this time in the form of elections for governors and mayors.

The Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV), in the process of construction, will have to demonstrate that it is the leading force of the country. Although reliable polls give Chavez himself more than 55% support, the same cannot be said for his party. In the PSUV ripples are appearing. There exists appetites and ambitions of electoral caciques (chiefs) that never fail to appear, above all in a party with more than 5.5 million members. But the heart of the issue is the ideological struggle that is beginning to be waged around a socialist project which still continues to lack many definitions.

One of the vice-presidents of the PSUV is minister of energy and petroleum and president of Petróleros de Venezuela (PDVSA), Rafael Ramírez Carreño. Known – and respected – militant of the revolutionary left in Venezuela, Rafael Ramírez talks about the issue of socialism in this interview with [Manuel Cabieses Donoso for] Punto Final. He does so from a realistic standpoint, conscious of the obstacles that such a project faces in a country like Venezuela, but loyal to the socialist project for which many revolutionaries gave their lives during the era of armed struggle, and which today – via a peaceful road and with strict respect for the constitution and laws – millions of Venezuelans share, above all in the poorest sectors of the population.

Ramírez comes from the Partido de la Revolución Venezolana (Party of the Venezuelan Revolution, PRV), which prolonged the armed struggle initiated in the early sixties by the Communist Party and the MIR (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionario, Movement of the Revolutionary Left), through the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation, FALN). With the defeat and fracture of the PRV, Ramírez and other militants formed Esperanza Patriótica (Patriotic Hope), who’s first leader was Diego Salazar – now dead – and who was replaced by Rafael Ramírez himself, who held that responsibility until Esperanza Patriótica – described as “something more than a movement; a sentiment, a human relation based on the profound affection between its members and the immense love for the revolutionary cause” – attended to the call of President Chavez to dissolve and become part of the PSUV.

The first part of this interview – regarding the price of petroleum and the world energy crisis – was published in the May 30, 2008, issue of Punto Final (, when the price of oil reached the “historic record” of US$135 ... and has now broken the US$145 per barrel barrier.

Responding to Punto Final’s questions, Ramírez answered by reflecting upon what kind of socialist project for Venezuela, of which we publish a synthesis here in this edition.

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In our country the issue of socialism is very complex. It has been discussed in the past and, of course, today it is discussed much more, because it is now a real possibility. We have always been clear that there are no manuals or pamphlets that can resolve the numerous theoretical and practical problems that the socialist project puts in front of us. Similarly, there are no models, no revolution is identical to another, each one is an original process, appropriate to each people that undertakes the construction of socialism.

Moreover, it is probable that in Venezuela the situation is even more complex, because petroleum activity has introduced tremendous deformations in the economic, social and cultural sphere. Here, more than the issue of how the bourgeoisie appropriates surplus value produced by the labour of [people], the problem is how the bourgeoisie and imperialism appropriates petroleum rent. The issue is that petroleum rent is a huge problem because it sweeps away the formation of social classes. In Venezuela there is no national bourgeois of any type. What we have is a peripheral sector that takes advantage of the petroleum rent in order to accumulate lots of money and power. They have captured the petroleum rent via the banking sector and financial speculation, but they do not produce a single nail. As a consequence, we also do not have a working class that we could assess as the hegemonic class that will make the revolution.

A conservative working class

The ideas put forward by Che [Guevara], in regards to how other classes appropriate the ideology of the proletariat, are the ones we need to apply to our reality, because we do not count on a critical working class. Much to the contrary, the working class that exists in Venezuela many times behaves in a profoundly conservative manner, because it enjoys a whole set of privileges and struggles to maintain them. In such a way that the predominant mode of production, which is the gigantic rent that petroleum produces, is not the product of labour and manufacturing, rather of a natural resource which at the same time captures a global rent. If the price of petroleum shoots above US$130 a barrel [it is now over $140], some $11billion will enter Venezuela.

Summarising: there are no workers, there is no national bourgeoisie, there is nothing. What exists is a group of people who live off petroleum rent. This has its response in millions of men and women who make up the sectors marginalised not only from economic activity, but also marginalised in the cultural sphere and from everything. In this country we have a serious problem of exclusion. Excluded from what? Well, excluded from the petroleum rent! Therefore, to talk seriously about socialism, this has to necessarily pass through the strengthening of the state. The state is the only entity capable of guaranteeing that the control of the immense petroleum rent can have a useful social destiny.

Another destiny for petroleum rent

In the recent past, the Venezuelan state was a capitalist state that orientated the use of the rent from petroleum towards strengthening the national oligarchy and transnational [corporate] interests. Today, we have a revolutionary state, and our job is to make sure that this petroleum rent, firstly, tends to the social sphere – because we have a gigantic debt with our people -- but it must also help to create an economic and productive structure capable of providing a firm foundation for the construction of socialism.

That is why we are focused on moving in the direction of the state assuming control of important areas of production. We already have control of petroleum, which was the most important. We also control the petroleum rent: 96% of the income from petroleum stays in the country. We have made huge social investments: the people did not know how to read or write and died from poverty. We still have a lot of things to do in the social sphere but we are advancing firmly.

Now we are focussed on broadening out our productive capacities: we believe that activities fundamental for the economic development of Venezuela, such as basic industries, industrial complexes, petrochemicals, industries capable of creating and reproducing economic activity etc. have to be in the hands of the state in order to have a real possibility to begin to construct socialism. Until now we did not even have this possibility, because the means of production were under private control. But does this mean we want to control the entire economic chain? No! There is peripheral activity and services that we are not interested in. Our objective is to make the presence of the state hegemonic in the country’s large basic industries in order to be able to plan the economy. Having this control we could decide that certain products and certain goods be destined to a specific objective, that is, to guarantee that the elementary needs of our population are attended to.

`There are no oligarchs with big hearts’

At the moment, for example, if the government wants to build houses it has to deal with transnational [corporations] that control the production of cement. They have their own strategy that is contrary to our, which is national, and export all their production. If we want to build socialism – and that passes through providing our population with housing – we have to have control over cement factories, that is why they have been nationalised. If Venezuela, which is an important country in regards to steel production, does not have steel frames to build houses, or tubes for aqueducts, or pipes for the petroleum industry, because the transnationals export steel, then we are obliged to establish control to guarantee that the basic necessities regarding steel are being attended to in our country. If we want to guarantee food to our population, how are we going to impede artificial shortages if the distribution chain is in the hands of the Venezuelan oligarchy? There is no way to do this, because there are no oligarchs with big hearts. Capitalists are capitalists, if they see that there is global speculation over food, they are capable of taking away milk from a Venezuelan child in order to speculate with that milk, or taking away corn in order to sell to produce biofuels.

Venezuela imports 90% of its food

At this stage, we are trying to have influence over the control of the largest and most important elements of production in order to plan our economic development and attend to our necessities, so that it is not conducted with the globalised logic of capitalism or to serve particular interests. As I said, in many segments of the economy, the presence of a national bourgeois does not even exist. For example, we import 90% of our food. Latifundios occupy a good part of our lands. Not long ago we said to the business owners in the agricultural sector that it was not even possible to construct capitalism there – and much less socialism – because feudal forms still existed.

No one was interested in working the countryside because everyone lived off petroleum. Given that there was sufficient money to import food, why were we going to attack the latifundio and cultivate land. The latifundistas that lived off the rent from petroleum possess hundreds of thousands of hectares of land that they use for holidaying, fishing or hunting. Rockefeller, or the father of Bush, would come here to fish in our rivers, to enjoy the scenery in a country whose economy was profoundly distorted and backwards in its development.

Socialism, an issue of sovereignty

As you can appreciate, the issue of socialism in Venezuela passes through a national issue, the sovereignty of the country. There needs to be a basic plan that allows us to create the conditions to construct socialism. If we do not control the petroleum industry, if we do not control natural resources or the rent produced, even with all the good intentions in the world, we could not even attempt to build socialism. But we have that now.

Of course, with a people who are in destitute conditions in the social sphere, in education, in health, we cannot even think of constructing socialism. This passes through a set of fundamental questions that will allow us to articulate a productive and distributive system of a socialist nature. And there is also the question of political definitions. This is a very important issue because here there was a lot of confusion – over the question of socialism – not only in Venezuela, this is true across the world. Many people on the left had even renounced the possibility of constructing socialism. To propose it as a banner, as a political objective, as we have done in Venezuela, is a grand programmatic advance; with all the lack of definitions that still exist, progressive thought has once again begun to think about a socialism of the 21st century.

A new socialist thought

Political thought cannot be constructed out of nothing, it has to be erected on the basis of the contributions made by other experiences, the successful ones as much as the less successful ones. It is on this basis that we have to construct a new socialist thought.

In Venezuela we are in a basic and crucial battle: rescue our sovereignty and return to the nation the use of its resources. This battle passes through the defence of the right of the Venezuelan people to decide their destiny with the aim of moving towards socialism. Of course, it is not about waiting until everything is resolves in order to begin to construct socialism, because this could potentially lead us in any direction. We are already taking steps forward in the economic sphere. It is fundamental that we create the economic bases to sustain the support that the people are giving to President Chavez’s socialist proposals. If we are not careful, we could end up trying to construct a socialism immersed in capitalism. The structures that existed when chavismo came to power are still there, many of them intact. Our principal problem has been how to impact on these structures, reform them, and in some cases, get rid off them, creating new structures.

To struggle for socialism, in capitalism, is very difficult, because capitalist values and relations are still present, they influence and pressure us. If we make a mistake, they reproduce themselves. That is why the discussion over socialism in Venezuela has to consider that this is a process that is just beginning, and which has to be accompanied by an intense practice.

We have had important achievements, we have also committed more than a few errors. Our revolution has to be very critical with itself, discuss with a lot of loyalty the question of unity in action, to see and analysis how to better and more rapidly advance, accompanying President Chavez, who is the leader of this process.


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