Notes on the Bolivarian revolution

by Roberto Jorquera

Since late March, Roberto Jorquera has been the Green Left Weekly correspondent in Venezuela, where he has also travelled extensively to help organise the first solidarity brigade from Australia. This article was completed on May 19.


Revolutionary democracy

Debates within the Chávez forces

Political consciousness

Industrial workers and the movement for workers' control

Popular organsations

Attitudes and organisation of the peasantry

Bureaucracy and corruption

Political parties

Role of the armed forces

Since the victory of Hugo Chávez in the 1998 presidential election, the world has been watching developments in Venezuela. The military coup in April 2002 that ousted Chávez for 48 hours brought back memories of the CIA-organised coup against the democratically elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, in September 1973. The difference in Venezuela was not only that the overwhelming majority of the people took to the streets but, even more importantly, that a section of the armed forces backed the people and was able to get access to Chávez and retake the presidential building, Miraflores.

In December of the same year, the US-sponsored Venezuelan Business Council (Fedecámaras), together with the anti-Chávez Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), organised an oil industry stoppage that crippled the economy. But the majority of workers did not support the stoppage and remained at their posts, in some cases taking over factories. From this process, the National Workers Union (UNT) was born. The UNT is being constructed as a federation that truly functions in the interest of the working class and supports the move towards revolutionary democracy.

At the May Day demonstration this year, the workers of Venezuela sent a clear message to the rest of the world about which union represents them. Well over 1 million people marched behind the flag of the UNT, while the CTV was able to mobilise no more than a thousand, according to many reports. At the UNT-led rally, which was addressed by Chávez, its leaders presented a document on workers' control of industry so that it could be discussed and adopted by the National Assembly. Chávez has endorsed the document.

Revolutionary democracy

The Bolivarian revolution has taken a dramatic turn over the last six months. Political discussion on local and national levels has moved clearly in a socialist direction. The solutions posed by Chávez and the masses are increasingly of a socialist nature. During his speech on May Day, Chávez made it clear that implementing the Bolivarian Constitution (adopted after a wide consultation, and which establishes broad principles of social justice) requires a break from capitalism.

At the international solidarity conference held in Caracas in April, Chávez said that he had given a lot of thought about alternatives to capitalism, such as a third way between capitalism and socialism, but had become convinced that socialism was the only alternative for those struggling against the barbarism of imperialism. In all public discussions, Chávez raises the issue of a new socialism for the twenty-first century.

The two national progovernment TV stations run programs throughout the day that discuss what Chávez has termed building a "revolutionary democracy". The National Electoral College runs advertisements on television about the country's "evolving democracy". Numerous televised round table discussions are being held on what socialism means for Venezuela. Local Bolivarian houses, endogenous battle units (UBEs) and cultural centres regularly discuss the construction of Venezuelan socialism—how to construct socialism according to local conditions.

This is not just rhetorical. Chávez, whose role as the undisputed leader is reminiscent of the role played by Fidel Castro during the early years of the Cuban Revolution, has not backed away from directly attacking the private sector. Over the last month, Chávez has condemned big business for not producing enough, calling on it to hand over management to the workers. There is increasing discussion about nationalisation of industry that is not being used properly, that is being sabotaged or not producing enough. Chávez, if not always all government authorities, has supported peasants when they have used their constitutional right to take over unused productive land. Chávez has called on all foreign companies to pay their taxes or leave Venezuela. Businesses are increasingly forced to pay the minimum wage or face heavy fines.

On a state level, there is also a large campaign to combat government bureaucracy. Of particular importance has been the campaign within the state oil company, PDVSA. Over the last month there has been a campaign by the opposition, especially through the private media, to discredit PDVSA with allegations that the oil industry is in crisis because of low production and high levels of corruption and inefficiency. The government has responded by exposing those sections of PDVSA that have been responsible for sabotage and corruption. The government has launched a campaign, Black Gold, to combat these problems within PDVSA. A large part of the campaign involves increasingly tying sections of the armed forces to PDVSA so as to keep a better eye on this resource. A similar mechanism was used in the early years of the Cuban Revolution, sections of the rebel army being assigned to oversee areas of industry to combat sabotage and corruption.

Debates within the Chávez forces

There is no doubt that the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) has become the mass party of the revolution, with well over 1 million members and supporters. It is by far the most organised and visible group at all political demonstrations and has majority political representation at the local, state and national level. The MVR makes up about eighty per cent of the pro-revolution alliance at all levels. All the other parties are fairly small in comparison.

However, the political basis of the party has been undergoing a dramatic change. It has always been a party that firmly supported Chávez and the political project he outlined. However, that has also meant that it attracted a wide range of political activists, given that the Chávez project initially was rather general. It is only in the last six months to a year that he has raised the issue of socialism. The MVR has had to respond to this development.

Chávez has called for a consolidation of the pro-Chávez parties. It is a bit unclear exactly what this means. But there is no doubt that Chávez is looking at further consolidating and unifying the revolutionary forces. This might involve a formation under the MVR, or most likely some new formation that brings together all the different forces. Once again, a similar process unfolded in Cuba between 1959 and 1965, when the Communist Party was established.

But political representation and activity are not solely under the direction of the MVR—the "red party", as it is called. Political organisation extends much further and deeper than any party. The Bolivarian houses, UBEs, local cultural centres (which tend to be community organising centres), the UNT and a large number of other political organisations all play a role in mobilising the masses in defence of the revolution. A large section of the population does belong to or identify with a particular political party; political organisation and activity seem to be carried out much more through their trade unions, student unions, social missions, Bolivarian houses and UBEs. For this reason, at May Day people marched behind their workplace or student union or social mission banner rather than behind the banner of a political party. But this should not mislead people into thinking that there is no political organisation or education occurring. Political organisation and discussion happen at a local level in all the organised communities supporting the revolutionary process.

The debate around socialism initiated by Chávez is resounding in the national media and among political activists. Within the MVR, it is difficult to tell exactly what factions exist and what they stand for. They seem to be based mainly upon support for particular mayors. For example, there has been a public dispute between the mayor of Caracas, Juan Barreto, and Freddy Bernal, the mayor of the municipality of Libertador (central Caracas). A protest against Bernal was held in central Caracas by the pro-Barreto forces. Rather than taking sides, Chávez criticised both during his May Day speech and called on them to listen to the people and govern for the people or to resign. Since then meetings between Chávez, Barreto and Bernal have smoothed things over, but large divisions still exist between the supporters of the two mayors.

The discussion around socialism will take a while to sort itself out, but it is developing very quickly. It is clear, however, that the majority of the MVR membership firmly supports Chávez's call for a socialism of the twenty-first century. So far the only condemnation of it has come from the far right opposition through their daily media outlets. Chávez has said that this is the year of building revolutionary democracy, while next year begins the move towards socialism.

Political consciousness

The most striking thing about political consciousness among the masses of Venezuelans has been how they have taken up the call for socialism. Within the pro-Chávez camp, noone has come out against it, at least not publicly. No doubt you would have to be very game to come out against Chávez, but the response seems to reflect where people really are. In all the discussions I have had with activists, they are very happy to talk about socialism and what it means as well as the close relationship that has been built up with the Cubans.

Since 1998, the political level of the masses has advanced more than is generally recognised in the international solidarity movement. This is not social democratic populism or only a fight for national liberation, but a conscious battle for socialism. Even more interesting is that people have learned from the past and the problems that socialism has had and are developing their own formulas to create socialism in Venezuela. They are learning very much from the Cubans and the problems that they had during the early years of the revolution. Chávez has increasingly quoted from Che Guevara on how to build a socialist economy. The debate about socialism is centred on the question of how to build a popular economy that can also trade in the international arena.

Local cultural centres that have sprung up around Caracas and the rest of Venezuela function as places where people meet not only to organise the social missions and cultural activities but also to discuss political issues and organise.

The May Day speech was a turning point for the Bolivarian revolution. It was along the same lines as the Havana Declaration by Fidel Castro in 1961, which outlined the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution. It is significant that Castro and Chávez are meeting almost every month and are in frequent telephone contact. This reflects not only the numerous agreements that they are signing but also the dramatic political similarities between Havana and Caracas.

The forty-nine agreements that were recently signed are a continuation of the agreements signed last December and concretise the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA). Similar agreements have been signed with Brazil and Argentina, bringing together the three largest economies in Latin America. Although these are economies exploited by imperialism, their increased unity creates a significant economic power that puts enormous political and even economic pressure on the US. Although this bloc can not compete with the US, it does begin to threaten US imperialist interests in the region and increase the pressure on other Latin American countries to join in the ALBA. This has already destroyed the US push for a free trade agreement with the region.

Industrial workers and the movement for workers' control

Workers' control of industry and what that means is increasingly being debated in public. There is a law before the National Assembly on "comanagement" in factories. The law was drafted by the UNT and will most likely be adopted in its entirety in the next few weeks. Although the question is posed as comanagement, it really means workers' control of industry. This is the way that people pose it in the factories and how we should understand it.

During my visit to CVG, which is the largest aluminium plant in Venezuela and where co-management has received national attention, it was clear not only that workers are part of management, but also that there is no longer so much of a separation between management and workers. There are regular meetings to discuss what is being produced, how it is produced and what quantity and quality are produced. No significant decision is taken without the active participation of the workers. The process is also being opened up to the local community. Increasingly discussions are being held between factories and the local community about the role they play in the local economy. In the case of CVG in Ciudad Guyana, they discuss what projects the company should be supporting in the local area.

A very similar situation exists in INVEPAL, the other main experiment with co-management. The other significant aspect of this experiment is that this is where the first nationalisation took place. Until now the Chávez government has been a bit reluctant to nationalise any property, but at the May Day demonstration Chávez said specifically that from now on the government will nationalise any factory or land that is not being used. The government will also increase pressure on private factories to produce to their full potential. The government will also provide the funding to help make this happen on condition that workers play a role in the management of the factory.

Workers seem very confident that Chávez will back their demands, and also talk constantly of their rights enshrined in the constitution. In the face of any attack, they automatically quote an article from the constitution that defends their rights. Even on a bus leaving Merida where a state official was charging an exit tax, a man refused to pay based on an article in the constitution.

Popular organsations

The UBEs, which were initially set up to organise to win the referendum vote in August, and thus called "electoral battle units", have been transformed into local organising centres called "endogenous battle units". "Endogenous" is a term widely used in Venezuela to describe self-organising and self-sustaining communities. Although they are not armed, they play a role in some ways similar to that of the Committees to Defend the Revolution in Cuba. The people are being armed through the reserves; the overwhelming majority are also involved in the UBEs.

During his weekly television broadcast, Aló Presidente, in early May, Chávez made a special call for the continued organisation of the UBEs. Together with the MVR, the UNT and the Bolivarian houses, the UBEs seem to be the backbone of political organisation. It is also important to note the role of the government apparatus and the pro-revolution TV stations VTV and VIVE, as well as revolutionary newspapers such as Diario Vea. All these means of communication heavily promote pro-revolution events with ads, articles, interviews etc. This can not be stressed enough. VTV runs 24-7 with news and information on what the government is doing and what role people can play in all the new initiatives. This includes a soap opera called Lovers of Barrio Adentro that is sprinkled with drama and suspense about love and relationships but is also a commentary on the revolutionary process.

In the period before May Day, VTV screened ads and discussions about the rally almost continuously for over a week. This reflects that the drive for mass mobilisation is not just from below, but being promoted and encouraged from the highest level of government. In all of Chávez's TV appearances, which occur daily and in many cases for hours, he stresses the need for people to involve themselves in the revolutionary process and make use of the constitution.

During Aló Presidente, Chávez stresses getting involved in UBEs, and that mayors should support them and help them develop into a mass political organisation. This is also part of beginning to activate people for the August municipal and local elections and then the National Assembly elections in December and the presidential elections in December 2006.

But the UBEs are not a homogeneous group. They vary quite a bit in their composition and political influence. Together with the Bolivarian houses, which is what many Bolivarian circles have become and whose membership overlaps considerably with that of the UBEs, they are central to the political, social and cultural organisation of the people. The Bolivarian circle in the barrio of Guaicaipuro next to where I am staying organises everything from a women's bowls tournament, a soup kitchen and cultural events through to political discussions and groups.

On the other hand, big problems do exist. UBEs and Bolivarian houses have had problems with local pro-revolution authorities. In some cases, such as in Petare a Barrio on the outskirts of Caracas, local authorities have blocked some activities of the Bolivarian houses and UBEs because they see them as less democratic and not real representatives of the people. But the UBEs and the Bolivarian houses see themselves as the true representatives of the people's will. So debates occur constantly. Another issue is that many of the UBEs and Bolivarian houses are composed of people from all the different pro-revolution forces, so conflict can arise between them and the local MVR authorities. In some cases, a certain anti-party sentiment exists within the UBEs and Bolivarian houses, which also causes debates.

There is frustration among the masses, but it does not seem widespread or very deep. Chávez relates to it very well. In fact, he constantly criticises local and national authorities for not acting fast enough. Chávez is the first to condemn bureaucratic problems. It seems the major governmental problem is with the middle-level apparatus. This is due to a large layer of the public service that is not convinced of change and so tries to slow the process.

As well, some activists within the UBEs and the Bolivarian houses feel that if you are not a member of the MVR you are excluded from some political access. Although I would say this is the case, it is unclear how widespread the problem is.

The ideological discussions are happening in all different spheres: in the local communities via the Bolivarian houses and UBEs, within the MVR and in the national TV stations, newspapers and radio stations. There is no doubt that socialism has become a major point of discussion. Outside the right wing, the majority of people have taken it up very positively.

No-one who has been supportive of the Bolivarian revolution seems to have any problem with the move towards a specifically socialist road. It seems very much that the only people who are anti-Cuba or anti-socialist have always been antiChávez. This also reflects that some of the key changes under Chávez have involved Cuba, so for many people a move towards socialism seems natural. An increasing number of people have had family members go to Cuba for operations or to study, and more people are coming into contact with Cuban medical personnel, so the barriers are being broken down.

Attitudes and organisation of the peasantry

There is definitely frustration within peasant communities. This was seen with the mobilisation of peasants of the southwest in Merida in early May to demand that the land reform laws be implemented and that action be taken to ensure they are defended against landlord-organised repression.

Although the peasant organisations are very much in support of Chávez, they feel that things are progressing too slowly. Again, Chávez backs their frustration and calls on them to make their demands and use the constitution to take over land that has not been used productively.

In every case where peasants have taken over land, Chávez has supported their actions. During May, a number of peasant activists were killed after a bitter struggle to take over a piece of land near Caracas. This was condemned by Chávez. There is a certain amount of self-defence, but overwhelmingly the peasants are calling on the national government to take action and use the army and reserves to defend them against repression.

Bureaucracy and corruption

This is a major problem for the Chávez government. Like the Cuban Revolution in its first few years, the Bolivarian revolution has had to deal with elements of the past.

Many in the state apparatus are still within the framework of the Fourth Republic (the period from the downfall of the dictatorship in 1958 until Chávez's election in 1998) and so sabotage or at least slow change. It is for this reason that Chávez has used the army in most of the social missions and is calling on the Bolivarian houses and UBEs to make sure that things are implemented. A massive campaign has been launched by the government entitled "Evolving Democracy". This campaign is directly taking up questions of corruption, bureaucracy and people's participation.

Political parties

The question of how the struggle to create a revolutionary party is going is harder to answer. On the one hand, there is the further consolidation of the MVR as a mass party, but on the other hand, it is hard to define the MVR. It is proChávez, but exactly what sort of organisation it is, is still an open question. But in the recent debate about socialism, it seems that there is more discussion within the MVR about its direction.

Chávez is calling for the consolidation of the MVR and for it to take up the question of socialism. Although this is a slow process, there seems a real possibility that the MVR will begin to consolidate itself as a party that is more specifically in favour of socialism.

All the other political parties are too small to have major influence. However there are members of the Venezuelan Communist Party who do play an important role in government. The Revolutionary Marxist Current, identified with the international group associated with Alan Woods, seems to have some sections of the government that listen to it. Other parties within the government alliance include Partido Para Todos (Party for Everyone), of which the current foreign minister, Ali Rodriguez, is a member.

The government has also taken up issues raised by Latin American intellectuals and activists such as Marta Harnecker, who was one of the main organisers of the Third International Solidarity Conference and appears to have considerable influence with Chávez, and writers such as Eva Gollinger, author of The Chávez Code.

Role of the armed forces

The armed forces have been a central pillar of the revolution. They are firmly behind Chávez, all the pro-coup generals and officers having been removed. Many of the heads of the armed forces are on TV regularly supporting the projects and missions. They are very much supported by the people.

The armed forces are also the backbone of the missions. The campaign to recruit 2 million people for the reserves will also help consolidate the armed forces as a political force that will defend the revolution. The reserves are part of the move to arm the masses to defend the revolution against any attacks. This process is also part of democratising the armed forces so that they are further integrated into society as a whole.