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Venezuela: New mission, laws to extend popular power; trade union movement rebuilds

By Federico Fuentes

Caracas, September 6, 2008 -- The August 24 announcment by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to officially launch the social mission April 13, and the decreeing of 26 new and reformed laws on July 29, represent a further push to empower the poor communities.

Moreover, these moves represent a new offensive as part of Chavez’s stated aim of building “socialism of the 21st century” and eradicating poverty by giving power to the people.

Among other things, the new mission and laws build upon the communal councils that have been established across the country with the goal of organising the Venezuelan people, in order to transfer responsibilities until now in the hands of the state bureaucracy inherited by the Bolivarian revolution.

Mission April 13 is named in honour of the successful struggle of the poor majority, who along with the majority of the armed forces, defeated the coup organised by Venezuela’s business federation, Fedecamaras, on April 11, 2002. The coup briefly removed Chavez from the power, but an uprising resorted him two days later.

Eradicating poverty

The mission’s objective is “eradicating poverty in all its manifestations”, according to minister for participation and social protection, Erika Farias.

With the aim of expanding throughout the country, the mission has begun with pilot projects in 47 sectors across eight of the country’s 24 states, with more than US$186 million already approved as initial funding. The money will go directly to communal councils — grassroots bodies based on communities of 200-400 families in urban areas and 20-50 families in rural areas — where 80% of the projects will be directly carried out by the community and 20% by the corresponding ministries.

Farias stated that mission would have three fundamental components: political, social and economic. It will promote new forms of social organisations “in the path towards the construction of socialism”, such as the “socialist commune”.

Evoking the Paris Commune of 1871, the world’s first example of workers exercising political power, the communes will involve the participation of already existing communal councils, along with various social movements.

First elected in 1998 on the back of popular discontent with neoliberialism, Chavez moved quickly to promote the organisation of his social base among the poor people into a to advance his radical project of national liberation. Both before, and more so after, his election, an explosion of numerous forms of local community organisation occurred in the form of neighbourhood associations, health committees, housing organisations and others.

Communal councils

The creation of communal councils, legally recognised in April 2006, served to bring together these different sectoral organisations around discussing and acting upon a local development plan. The idea behind the councils is that it be the communities themselves that diagnose the local problems, democratically decide on the tasks to be solved and, with funding from the national, regional and municipal budgets, begin to tackle these basic problems.

According to Farias, there are currently 36,000 communal councils. Farias explained that Mission April 13 would aim to integrate all the other social missions in order to “be able to opportunely respond to the necessities of the communities”, such as water, electricity, roads, housing, schools and health.

Since 2003, the Venezuelan government has established more than 30 social missions. Confronted with the urgency of meeting the most pressing needs of the poor, and the inefficiency of the existing capitalist state institutions, the government established social missions in the area of health, education, food distribution and housing among others.

The missions have relied on bringing together existing local community organisations and promoting them in unorganised areas. Cuba has also played a crucial role in the missions, providing doctors and teachers working as volunteers in poor areas.

The Venezuelan government has promoted further social missions in areas such as culture, tree-planting, energy saving, indigenous rights and tackling the problem of street kids and homelessness.

Farias explained that in the economic area, “the community and government will promote organisational forms that facilitate the transformation from the capitalist model towards the socialist model … which is in the framework of the new [popular] economy law based on the promotion of socialist units of production”.

The new popular economy law was one of the 26 decrees issued by Chavez on July 29, the last day of the enabling law granted to him by the National Assembly that allowed the president to decree laws in relating to defined areas.

While the right-wing opposition have strongly attacked the newly decreed laws, in essence the new laws form part of the project that aims to open the way to the construction of socialism that Chavez presented to the Venezuelan people in 2006, when he won with more than 63% of the vote, and fall within the framework of the constitution voted upon by the Venezuelan people in 1999.

Many of these laws are directly related to the expansion of community control over community affairs. As a package, the laws aim to strengthen popular power. For example, the law on public administration, along with enshrining the social missions in law, outlines a commitment for joint management of state institutions between public authorities and communal councils.

The law integrates communal councils into the public administration, facilitating the transfer of control over activities previous carried out by public administrative bodies to communities.

The housing law directly involves communal councils in national housing projects. The councils will also play an important role in agriculture and food distribution, through the new law of food security and sovereignty.

The new law for the development of the popular economy, which states that “the productive model needs to respond to the necessities of the community and be less subordinated to the reproduction of capital”, points towards production controlled by communities through “companies of social production”, “companies of social distribution” and family-based production.

Four days before the decrees were announced Chavez had stressed the importance of building “communes”, arguing that without communes “how do we transfer property?”

The day of the launch of Mission April 13, Chavez said, “a factory installed in a neighbourhood will belong [to the community], because it is collective property”.

“In this way we are sowing the seed of Bolivarian socialism, which is not a copy of [previous models] but rather something we are creating. This is real democracy.”

Venezuela: Union movement rebuilds, industrial disputes grow

By Federico Fuentes

Caracas, September 7, 2008 -- Addressing an assembly of petroleum workers in Zulia on September 5, 2008, Venezuelan labour minister Roberto Hernandez explained that the “only way to guarantee the advance of the revolution is with the unity of the working class”.

Hernandez emphasised that “to defeat imperialism and the internal counter-revolution, we need to have a united working class at the national level”.  This same message was delivered by Hernandez, former union activist, labour lawyer, and long-term Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) leader who has since left to join the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), during his swearing in as minister in April — only weeks after the nationalisation of the Sidor steel works.

Sidor

The move to nationalise one of the largest steel factories in Latin America was the culmination of the most important industrial struggle in Venezuela since the December 2002-February 2003 bosses’ lock-out. During the conflict, Sidor workers, as well as important sections of the union movement, accused the then-labour minister Jose Ramon Rivero of siding with Sidor’s transnational owners against the workers.

Rivero was also accused of using his position to to help build his own union current, the Bolivarian Socialist Force of Workers (FSBT), while undermining other struggles.

Only days before being sacked as labour minister, Jose Ramon Rivero and other FSBT leaders announced their intentions of creating a new union federation, making official their split with the National Union of Workers (UNT) — the biggest national union federation created to unite pro-revolution union forces.

Together with the small Alfredo Maniero current, they officially launched the new workers central in July.

With the momentum gained by the victory of the Sidor workers — whose demands were largely met following nationalisation — and changes in the labour ministry, signs of a potential reinvigoration of the union movement have begun to appear.

Given the near-absence, due to its weakness, of the organised working class in the revolutionary process, such signs are of great importance. Increasing labour conflicts, scheduled union elections and moves towards greater unity between currents at the national level could all help to begin to turn this around.

After four years of delays, and with the collaboration of the labour ministry, Venezuela’s public sector union federation, which unites over one million workers, will hold elections on October 1. Competition will be fierce between the slate aligned with the Alfredo Maneiro current and various forces aligned to the National Union of Workers (UNT), the largest national federation that was formed to unite pro-revolution unions.

In the newly created federation of petroleum worker unions, tickets aligned to the FSBT, anti-Chavez forces and the Classist, Unitary, Revolutionary and Autonomous Current (part of the UNT) will go head to head in elections on November 5.

However, the most immediate elections are in the United Steel Industry Workers’ Union (SUTISS). The current SUTISS president, who has taken an ambiguous position towards the government and has been heavily criticised by sections of workers for attempting to sell out the struggle, in not standing in the September 9-11 elections. His supporters, however, make up one of the strongest of the seven slates in the election.

The two other main contenders are the Union Alliance ticket, which involved militants from the Marea Socialista current within the UNT, and an anti-Chavez ticket. While a victory for the latter would represent a grave headache for the government — forced to contend with a union run by forces linked to the counter-revolutionary opposition in a phase of transition towards a new state-owned Sidor — a victory for Union Alliance, whose campaign is focused on the issue of workers’ control of Sidor, would have ramifications well beyond the factory gates.

If one of the largest unions in the country — historically, and even more so given recent events, a reference point for union militancy — fell into the hands of the Chavista forces in Union Alliance, it would not only shake up the union movement in the country’s most important industrial belt, it would put winds in the sails of the UNT, which is currently relaunching itself.

Relaunching the UNT

The results of these elections will have an important impact on the fragmented national pro-revolution union movement, which only recently suffered an important split. The five remaining currents in the UNT, together with the PCV-aligned union confederation, are seeking to relaunch the UNT following years divisions and infighting since it was first launched in 2003.

Despite organisational hurdles, these currents are aiming to organise a national congress and hold the first internal elections for UNT leadership positions. Forced to postpone the congress, originally planned for September, it is now set for October 17-19.

Union currents aligned with the PSUV — the mass party headed by Chavez that unites much of the mass base that support the revolution — have been meeting with party leaders to discuss issues, such as labour conflicts, unity and the role of the working class.

While most of the UNT currents within the PSUV, along with the Alfredo Maneiro current, have been regularly participating, the FSBT has kept its distance.

As a result of these meetings, the PSUV-aligned union currents are planning a national event with 400 union leaders on September 19-21 to kick off the discussion on a PSUV program for the working class in the transition to socialism.

All the currents have also been regularly attending meetings with the labour ministry, whose open-door policy towards the various currents has enabled the establishment of a permanent labour conflict resolution working group to deal with the increasing labour disputes.

Disputes are being fuelled by rising inflation eating into workers’ salaries and by employers conspiring to cause economic chaos to undermine the continued emergence of new militant unions backed by pro-worker laws.

The clearest example of this complex landscape is in the automotive industry, currently a key focal point for labour disputes. While a number of the factory-based unions, who after two years have almost completed the formation of an industry-wide federation, are engaged in fierce struggles over collective contracts, employers are shutting down factories and locking out workers in order to pressure the government to receive more benefits.

[These articles first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #766, September 10, 2008]

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