The revolutionary process in Venezuela: an embryonic workers and peasants state
By Coral Wynter
In February 27, 1989, in the poor hillside barrios that surround Caracas, Monday morning began like any other. As they made their way down the precipitous paths and stairways to the main roads, they found that bus fares had doubled and student discount fares were no longer valid. An elderly President Carlos Andrés Pérez had been elected three months previously to the presidency for the second time in twenty years. Obeying the dictates of the IMF and the World Bank, Pérez had increased the price of petrol overnight.
Arguments started at the bus stops, and the first violence erupted at the Nuevo Circo bus station in the city centre. Buses were overturned and burned. Within hours, Caracas was gripped by insurrection. The police happened to be on strike for a pay increase and were ill prepared for a riot. Some members of the armed forces, sympathetic to the misery of the poor, helped to organise an orderly looting of supermarkets. Grateful slum dwellers passed presents through the smashed shop windows to the soldiers.
Major Francisco Cardenas told his troops, "Hands up here those who are members of the Country Club [an exclusive club for the very rich]!" No one put their hand up. They all remained silent. Cardenas told them, "The people who live here are like us, they are the people, our brothers. No one must fire without authorization. No one must shoot unless we are attacked."1
When the television showed people pushing trolleys crammed with food, white goods and clothes and the police standing around, people in other cities saw it as an invitation to join in. Protests had spread to every major city by the afternoon, Maracay, Valencia, Barquisimeto, Cuidad Guyana and Merida.
After two days in which the government didn't know what to do, because the National Guard refused to enter the barrios, a massive military operation retook control of the streets on the orders of President Pérez. The armed forces arrested thousands as they swept through the barrios searching for stolen goods. People who appeared suddenly at windows in the poor shanties were shot dead by nervous troops. The government admitted to only 372 deaths, but the real number was closer to 3000 with at least 2000 dead in Caracas and thousands more wounded. None of this was reported in the West or it appeared as a paragraph in a column of world news on the back pages. It was the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and this was Venezuela, a small Latin American country where such things are expected to happen.
But the Caracazo, as it became known, was the beginning of the end of Venezuela as the playground of the corrupt bourgeoisdemocratic parties, Acción Democrática (AD) and COPEI [Social Christian Party]. The Caracazo was to have a dramatic effect on the political events of the next decade in Venezuela.
Venezuela, a country of 24 million people, is a huge melting pot, with a large population of Black Africans imported as slaves who worked on sugar plantations or who escaped from the West Indian islands of Trinidad and St. Lucia. Some seventy per cent of the population define themselves as mixed race.
The country is blessed with one of the world's largest oil deposits under Lake Maracaibo, and new deposits have been discovered in the Caribbean. However, none of the poor eighty per cent have benefited from this vast wealth since its discovery in 1917. Former caudillos and politicians live a fabulous life on this stolen wealth.
The armed forces of Venezuela have been the engine of the revolutionary process in the last ten years. Their conversion from a repressive apparatus of the state to a force allied to the working class and the peasantry illustrates the dialectical law of the transformation of something into its opposite.
Some seven years before the Caracazo, in 1982, Major Hugo Frías Chávez, an instructor at the National Military Academy in Caracas, began organising a political conspiracy with other military officers called the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 (MBR-200)—referring to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Simón Bolívar. Chávez and his fellow officers were to influence a new generation of young soldiers. For the poor and dispossessed peasantry, the only way out of a life of poverty was enlistment in the armed forces. One noted difference between the Venezuelan armed forces and the Chilean army is that the Venezuelan officer corps has always been recruited to a certain extent from the peasantry, with promotions depending on merit, not just family connections. After the transformation of military training in 1971, the army was no longer educated in the infamous US-directed School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, but in the National Military Academy in Caracas. Thus there is an organic link between the soldiers and the peasantry. The extravagant lifestyle of some generals was in sharp contrast with the soldiers' own early lives, subjected to poverty, arduous hours of hard work in the fields and abuses of the landowners.
The savage repression of the Caracazo forced on the army was another factor accelerating the organisation of MBR-200 and the conversion of more soldiers to the idea of a more equitable society. It also led indirectly to a premature uprising in 1992 by the 6000 officers and soldiers of MBR-200, which failed for the lack of a timely uprising of the people, promised by the left social movements, especially La Causa R.
Chávez has often spoken of the role of the army in civilian life. He argues, "We can't have the soldiers enclosed in their barracks, when there are battalions of engineers, thousands and thousands of men, engineers, scientists, teachers and sportsmen … No, they must unite with the people to leave this poverty behind, together with the governors, the mayors, the communities, our university graduates, the colleges and the agricultural cooperatives."2 This new role for the army was put into practice with Plan Bolívar 2000, announced on May 7, 1999. The plan aimed to mobilise 100,000 soldiers to carry out massive social works programs, constructing housing, health and education institutions, laying roads and footpaths, building drains and sewers, giving out medicines, providing dental treatment and removing parasites that affect children, building fishing fleets and organising cooperatives. This work is still ongoing.
During the April 13, 2002, coup against Chávez, the new consciousness of the army was evident. In many places in the streets of the city, the soldiers, waving flags, appeared as political activists in the struggle to maintain the new democracy and the constitution. It was the armed forces' loyalty to Chávez, including from approximately 80 out of 100 generals, that prevented the coup being successful. A parachute brigade inside the palace ousted the coup plotters together with a mass mobilisation of people from the barrios, who came in their thousands to surround Miraflores, the presidential palace.3 It will not be easy to erase this memory from the ranks of the armed forces.
The coup was a blessing in some ways because it exposed many of the generals and admirals who had mouthed support for Chávez but whose real sympathies lay with imperialism. After his return to power, Chávez was able to purge about 400 highranking officers in the army who were aligned with the opposition, further consolidating his support in the military. In addition to the sweeping powers precipitously announced by Pedro Carmona, the reactionary forces were exposed by the dissolution of the National Assembly, the loss of many democratic rights, the blatant disregard of the new constitution, the withdrawal of Venezuela from opec, the privatisation of PDVSA, the Venezuelan Petroleum Company, and the immediate suspension of oil exports to Cuba, the abolition of a wage increase and a new agreement with the IMF. This forced many of the undecided to take a stand. Hence many soldiers, officers and sections of the middle class who were previously equivocal now gave their support to Chávez.
Many candidates for political positions have come from the armed forces, partly because they are people Chávez can trust and partly because they developed a public face as they stepped forward at crucial moments to save the country from descending into chaos. In April I went to a rally in Valencia for Luís Felipe Acosta Carles, preparing for the September 2004 elections for governor of the important industrial state of Carabobo. He is the brother of Felipe Antonio Acosta Carles, who was possibly shot dead by military intelligence, during the Caracazo, on the orders of Andres Pérez. Luís Acosta Carles was persuaded by Chávez to resign from the army to be a candidate for the governorship, now held by the opposition. Acosta Carles became famous during the bosses' lockout of January 2003, when he liberated the Coca-Cola plant in Valencia, which had been hoarding drinks. On television he took a can of Coke and spat it out with gusto, implying that he himself could never drink the stuff. Many army officers with a public face are reviled if they venture out with their families to expensive places frequented by the middle class. Acosta Carles and his family were driven out of a resort hotel at Easter by the hotel's middle-class clientele throwing rubbish. Another general who was actively involved in saving Chávez during the coup was driven out of a fashionable restaurant by the banging of spoons on wine glasses. Virtually no well-known member of the Chávez government can go into a public restaurant where the middle class, the "escualidos", are in attendance.
Latin American governments regularly give their regimes a new sense of legitimacy by holding a constituent assembly that drafts a new constitution. Chávez brilliantly used this stratagem to reshape Venezuelan politics, to decentralise, to empower the grassroots, to reorganise the political superstructures and as a prerequisite to changing the direction of the economy. In his years in the wilderness after his prison sentence, he had determined that if the country was to have a new direction, that task couldn't be undertaken by the old Congress, and that a clean break with the past and the old 1961 constitution was essential. In addition, Chávez was anxious to prove he was no military strongman or dictator: his every move would be subject to the will of the majority of the people. In his first year as president in 1999, he held an unprecedented number of votes. In April, a referendum was held on the desirability of elections to a new constituent assembly; in July, there were elections for this assembly; in December, a second referendum ratified the new constitution. Massive changes to the constitution, with 396 articles, including removal of the upper house, were approved in the national referendum by seventyone per cent of the people. The new constitution also renamed the country the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela".
Venezuelans for the first time were informed of their rights to education and health, the rights of women, the rights of indigenous people and a host of civil liberties, now enshrined in the constitution. For example, Article 123 states, "The indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and promote their own economic practices, based on reciprocity, solidarity and exchange, their traditional productive activities and their participation in the national economy, and to define their priorities. The indigenous people have the right to professional training services and to participate in the drafting and execution of specific programs of training, technical and financial assistance services which strengthen their economic activities within the framework of local sustainable development." The little red book of the Venezuelan constitution became a best seller on the streets. It was a master stroke, a way of engaging in politics Venezuelans who had never before thought about their fundamental rights as citizens.
Chávez began the education and health campaigns in earnest after the failed coup. First, "Mision Robinson" was a program designed to carry out a thorough literacy program for adults and teenagers who had been excluded from schooling because of poverty. This program finished in June last year, after some 1,230,000 people had been taught to read. The government considered that for the first time in 102 years, it had eliminated illiteracy. "Mision Robinson II" is now in place and is educating 900,000 adults up to the end of sixth grade. At the same time, "Mision Ribas" had been inaugurated to give everyone a high school education, called a bachillerato. (The names Robinson and Ribas refer to Venezuelan national independence leaders from the nineteenth century.) Another 1,420,100 people were enrolled in this program with the help of 100,000 government scholarships, using the income from oil. The government had set up schools in all 336 municipalities of the country, using volunteers as well as teachers, paid about US$100 a month.
The government has taken control of all the offices of the old PDVSA and is using these facilities as schools and administrative centres to run the educational programs. These programs have a life of their own, organised through the offices of PDVSA in each town, and carried out with transport provided by the armed forces. In addition, Chávez has changed the public primary and high school timetables. For the previous thirty years under the old regime, there were two daily sessions of school, from 8 am to noon and from 1 to 5 pm. Working parents had the worry of leaving young children alone at home or knowing the kids were unsupervised, running around the streets, an easy target for drug dealers and attraction to petty crime. Now the public school timetable has only one session, from 8 am to 4 pm, totally supervised and with breakfast, a hot lunch and afternoon tea provided free to each child.
About twenty years ago, the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) stopped accepting all students who had obtained a high school certificate. In the 1970s, UCV was a radical hotbed of student activism. Entry is now by exam, meaning that students with a private education achieve better results, and the exam system itself is open to abuse and corruption. It was too difficult for the Chávez government to change the university system, especially at UCV, the country's oldest university, with its entrenched, elitist and often corrupt practices. To get around this problem, the government this year set up a new university, Simón Bolívar University, in the luxurious and well-appointed buildings in Caracas that were previously the home of PDVSA executives. All students who have a bachillerato can apply, but only those who live in the poor barrios gain entry. Students with an address in the middle-class suburbs and who attended private schools are automatically excluded. The Simón Bolívar students are also given a scholarship to study and a hot meal daily. Adults are taking advantage of this opportunity in their thousands. International obligations have not been forgotten. Since university education in Chile is now privatised and very expensive, the Venezuelan government gave scholarships to poor Chilean students to study in Venezuela. A group of Chilean parents marched in the May Day rallies in Santiago to praise this generosity.
Another offensive is on health . "Mision Barrio Adentro" was created to deal with the lack of health facilities in the poor barrios. A small health centre, called an ambulatorio, has been built by the armed forces in each barrio to serve 500 families or 1200 people. Initially, Venezuelantrained doctors were asked to provide services at a lower wage than that to which they were accustomed. Only a very small number agreed, so 15,000 doctors from Cuba were invited into the country to provide these services. Now there are 250 Venezuelan doctors working in the barrios and another 1500 in training. Medicines are paid for by the government. Any patient with a major health problem is sent to the armed forces hospital in Caracas, the second largest in the country. This program has brought a massive change in health practices. People used to wait until a problem was serious before seeking medical help.4 The government, again with the money from oil, hopes to have 5000 ambulatorios built as soon as possible, with two floors, one upstairs for living quarters and a consultation room downstairs. So far, more than 1.2 million people have been treated in these centres, with 26 million visits recorded.
"Mision Vuelvan Caras" was established to supply credit to small farmers and those who work the land. One such program will buy cattle from Argentina, with ten cows and one bull given to each farming cooperative as a loan. Within two years, the cooperative must pay back the loan, not with money, but with the same number of cows and a bull to give to another peasant cooperative. The government is also setting up a seed bank with $600 million in funding and has bought potato seeds to start supplying the country. "Mision Mercal" ensures that food is sold cheaply to people in financial difficulties.
"Mision Identidad" will provide 400,000 identity cards or cedulas per month to people who have lived 20-30 years in Venezuela but were born in another country. Previously they were ineligible for an identity card and therefore had no citizenship rights, including no right to vote. One man had spent eighty-nine years in Venezuela without a cedula because he was born in Colombia and brought to Venezuela as a child. This will change the voting patterns of Venezuela because so many poor people have been disenfranchised over decades by government neglect, a dysfunctional bureaucracy and legal obstacles. For instance in the state of Portuguesa, the government found during a recent census that 80,000 Venezuelan-born people in just three towns had no cedula and had never voted. So far, another 1.7 million voters will appear on the electoral register for the August 15 recall vote. Two new banks, the Women's Bank and the Economic and Social Development Bank, have been established by the government to provide microcredit and low interest loans to small enterprises.
The government is desperately trying to provide employment to the masses. Instead of importing every item in exchange for oil, the government is intent on manufacturing products in Venezuela, firstly because it will mean greater economic security in the long run, and secondly to provide work for as many people as possible. As an example, the government has given credit to a small cooperative to buy a truck to transport petrol in its area, instead of giving the contract to one large private company for the whole country. Another example is providing work in areas where the peasants live. A small pueblo, close to the location of giant electricity cables, has been given the job of cleaning the vegetation beneath the wires in the municipality instead of the contract going to a single company for the whole country. The government hopes to set up about 50,000 cooperatives that will generate work. The Bolivarian Circles, with 2 million members, were initially set up with the idea of forming a self-defence unit but now will start working for the social transformation of communities.
Another attempt at dislodging Chávez was the bosses' lockout and oil strike from December 2002 to February 2003. This tumultuous event stopped the entire Venezuelan petroleum industry and most production for two and a half months. Banks and supermarkets were closed, people were forced to stay at home and watch endless soap operas on television. Some 40,000 key employees of the oil industry walked out. It was another make-or-break point for Chávez. It was discovered that the refining of the oil pumped from 6000 metres below the surface of the lake was actually controlled in the United States through computers, with communication by satellite. Only a handful of top executives knew the computer passwords. Refineries were sabotaged, pipelines were blocked, water from the lake flooded the oil pipes.
In a massive effort, with help from university computer experts, soldiers, retired oil workers, the oil workers themselves and some private corporations, working day and night, petroleum refining was finally rescued. Again, Chávez used the attempted sabotage of the economy to deepen the revolutionary process because he could legally fire all those who had abandoned their jobs in the oil industry, some 18,000 oppositionists.
There were two more advantages from the takeover of the oil industry. One was the prevention of the imminent privatisation and sale to North American corporations organised by the former oil executives. The other was the availability of large amounts of cash to fund much-needed social changes. A handful of oil executives had paid themselves annual salaries of millions of dollars. Further, it was later discovered that the oil moguls paid for experimental drilling without previous investigations in order to avoid payments to the government. This explained why less than twenty per cent of oil income was reaching the public purse, and in some years none at all. In April 2004, an economist at the new PDVSA found $1 billion hidden in foreign accounts. This has meant that Chávez has funds to pay for the social programs, even more so now that oil has reached $40 a barrel, from a low of $10 in 1998. Perhaps the outcome of the Nicaraguan revolution would have been different if the poverty-stricken Sandinistas had had money to fend off the US-funded contra war.
The mass mobilisation of workers and the positive role of the army that led to the return of President Chávez on April 13, 2002, was a turning point in the evolution of the Chávez government. The spontaneous uprising of the barrios around Caracas5 radically changed the relationship of forces between the working class and the capitalists to the advantage of the former. This was a defining moment, which changed a bourgeois executive presidency into an embryonic workers and peasants state. Chávez has used these two events to advance the revolutionary process further, making enormous ideological gains and exposing the reactionary plans of the opposition. He has not weakened in his resolve to change fundamentally the distribution of wealth in the country, using the oil income, as well as to encourage the growth of selforganisation of the masses.
Chávez has had to operate in a framework in which he did not come to power through a revolutionary struggle that immediately gave him the core of a workers and farmers state, such as Fidel Castro achieved in Cuba in 1959, as head of the Rebel Army. In Venezuela, there has been no armed insurrection to overthrow the previous government as in Cuba and Nicaragua (1979), where both the existing governments and armies were destroyed. Chávez did attempt this, but the military coup of 1992 failed. Since then, he has relentlessly pushed a proworkingclass social reform program, as detailed above.
Further, this is not strictly a dual power situation such as existed in Russia from February to October 1917, with two competing centres of authority, representing different and antagonistic class forces, which ended in 1917 with the arrest of the provisional government by the workers' militia. In Venezuela, there is only one governmental authority, although the power of the bourgeois is still not broken. This situation could be described as a form of dual power. There is still a bourgeoisdominated judiciary and legislature, the National Assembly, municipal and provincial governments dominated by the opposition as well as local police forces controlled by the opposition. Proof of the judiciary's domination by the bourgeoisie is that more than 120 peasants have been murdered while attempting to carry out the legally constituted agarian reforms, but no landowner has been successfully prosecuted for these murders. In addition, no bourgeois leader or general has been charged for sedition over their activities during the April 2002 coup. (The courts decided that there was never a coup; Carmona called it a power vacuum, and the judges decided that Chávez had been taken into custody for his own safety!) Many of the coup plotters simply returned to their houses as if nothing had happened.
There is no national police force; each governor has control of his own police. Thus opposition Mayor Alfredo Pena of Caracas has control over the metropolitan police. Many allege they are corrupt and that theft from tourists and locals is deliberately tolerated in order to blame Chávez for the lack of order. This is another reason that Chávez has often turned to friends in the army for civilian posts, since many politicians who gained their positions with political support from the Movement for a Fifth Republic (mvr) have suddenly changed their political stripes once in power. Pena, previously a journalist, was elected mayor with the support of Chávez but is now a bitter opponent. Six of twentyfour provinces are governed by opposition, and another by a turncoat.
As a result of the changed class character of the state, since April 2002 the Chávez government no longer had to accept blackmail and sabotage from bourgeois civil servants but could increasingly rely on the organisations of the workers, peasants and soldiers in the form of the misions. The misions were a new concept needed for the new government to carry out its social programs.
The Chávez administration had been blocked and sabotaged by the bureaucrats appointed by previous regimes, especially in the ministries of Education and Health. As an example, free vaccinations provided by the state for all children were "accidentally" destroyed or lost in transit. Videos and televisions in trucks on their way to the provinces to teach illiteracy programs suddenly "disappeared". The Chávez government was forced to bypass the bureaucratic structures of the ministries, where many officials simply ignored the requests of the elected government. Sacking disruptive public servants would create more difficulties for the government, as their permanent jobs are protected by the old trade union system, the ctv (Confederation of Venezuelan Workers). A virtual parallel government has been set up, based on both paid and volunteer labour. As Karl Marx noted:
… the working class cannot simply lay hold of the readymade state machinery and wield it for its own purpose. The centralized state power with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy and the judicature—organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labour—originates from the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middleclass society as a mighty weapon in its struggles against feudalism.6
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Venezuelan middle class descended into an orgy of extravagant spending. A section of the middle class became so greedy and avaricious that many owned apartments in Miami and flew there for weekends to enjoy a shopping spree in expensive Florida shops. The big bourgeoisie have control of the mass media, the television stations, Globalvision, Venevision, cable tv, Direct tv, broad band internet, telecommunications, the food sector, the soft drink and brewing industries plus the mass daily bourgeois papers, in particular El National. They have control of the finance sector and the big banks.
Originally from Cuba, Gustavo Cisneros, the 57yearold billionaire media magnate, whose wealth is estimated at $5000 million and who is at position 64 on the Forbes 500 richest men in the world list, is a close friend of George H.W. Bush and was invited to the White House when Ronald Reagan was in residence. Cisneros is a major owner of Univision, the principal Spanishlanguage tv station in the us, ChileVision, Colombian Caracol television, the Caribbean Communications Network and the bottling company Panamco, and is a big player in the transnational CocaCola. The Cisneros family was also linked with laundering money from cocaine according to evidence found in 1985 in an airplane confiscated by us Customs. His brother Ricardo Cisneros was accused of fraud in a 1994 banking scandal.
Gustavo Cisneros was named by Newsweek as the boss and the brains behind the 1992 coup, after Carmona was seen scuttling out of his office on his way to Miraflores to be sworn in as provisional president. It has been rumoured that Cisneros will be Bush junior's choice to confront Hugo Chávez in any future presidential election. The reactionary forces are now organised in the Democratic Convergence with the extreme rightwing group, Primero Justicia. There appear to be two groupings, a political wing acting on the legal, electoral and propaganda fronts and another organising military operations such as the 150 Colombian paramilitaries found in an outer suburb of Caracas in May of this year.
A run on the bolívar started under Andres Pérez, but the middle class blame Chávez for the current state of the currency. In the 1970s the rate of exchange was four bolívars to the dollar. In 1989, it fell to 35 to the dollar, and in July 1994, some 170, with inflation at 100%. Despite the oil income, the foreign debt in 1994 was $38 billion. The official exchange rate in 2004 is approximately 2000 bolívars to the dollar, and the black market rate 3000. In January 2003, Chávez introduced controls over the purchase of foreign currencies. Buying dollars requires government approval; even the use of a credit card over the internet is now not allowed. This was a necessary control, which the government was forced to introduce to prevent the flight of capital and a further run on the currency.
These measures have further alienated a sector of the middle class. Neoliberalism took its toll on the middle class during the 1990s in Venezuela. However, the ruling class, unlike the Chilean bourgeoisie in 1973, does not have a unified political leadership with a clear program of how to win over a traumatised and fearful middle class. As an example, in the coming elections for governors, mayors and councillors, the opposition has put up several candidates for one position due to internal squabbling over the spoils.
In 2003, the Chávez government set up the Comando Ayacucho as an umbrella group to coordinate the work of the proChávez grassroots organisations. This was the third attempt to bring together such an organisation. The first, called the Polo Patriotico, had been created to support Chávez's presidential bid and was pulled together by a longtime political figure, Luís Miquilena, who has since deserted the government. A second organisation, the Political Command of the Revolution, led by longterm Communist Party member Guillermo García Ponce, fell apart because of differences with Patria Para Todos (Country for All—ppt). The ppt had been formed from a previous left split in La Causa R. The Comando Ayacucho was to play the role of coordinating the work for the presidential recall referendum and to coordinate the work of mvr deputies in the National Assembly. It included all the left political parties—mvr, ppt, Podemos, the People's Electoral Movement (mep), Socialist League and the Venezuelan Communist Party (pcv)—and the social groups such as the Bolivarian Circles, the National Union of Workers, Clasa Media en Positiva, the Civic, Professional and Technical Front and the Retired Group of Elderly Citizens. The Movement Towards Socialism (mas) had split into a left group, Podemos, and a right wing, which retained the name mas and joined the opposition.
The immediate aim of Comando Ayacucho was to prevent the presidential referendum taking place. Its longterm aim was to form one united party of all the Bolivarian groups, including all the left parties and the social groups, on a common platform. Through its deliberations and discussions, Comando Ayacucho achieved an agreement on local candidates, proposing only one candidate for all the governors, mayors and deputies for the provincial elections in September. Only the candidates for governor of three states remained to be resolved: Bolívar, Apure and Portuguesa. The pcv played an exemplary role, demanding few political positions for itself and concentrating on unifying the diverse groupings. When I interviewed Dario Rivas, the director of Comando Ayacucho, he saw four major threats facing the government:
There is a serious problem of: 1) The conspiracy against democracy. This prevents the government from tackling social problems. 2) The poverty and unemployment of the population. 3) The manipulation by the mass media, the tv, the lies and misinformation and the lack of proper information. 4) The massive deindustrialisation and the lack of investment from the private sector.
Disappointed at the failure of the Comando Ayacucho leadership to prevent the referendum, Chávez disbanded it in June 2004 and set up another structure called Comando Maisata. This organisation will mainly concentrate on the August 15 presidential recall referendum, giving a greater role to the grassroots organisations in the barrios, the misions, the Bolivarian Circles, the student and youth organisations and the middleclass groups that support Chávez, as well as encouraging newly formed groups in workplaces. Groups of ten will be set up in each locale to enrol people on the register and to visit house to house. Again this is a reflection of the tension between Chávez and the organised left parties and the weakness of the organisation of the grassroots across the country, depoliticised during the reign of Acción Democrática and COPEI over the last fifty years. Chávez is also a victim of the accepted cultural practice throughout Latin America of exaggerating the reality, being overoptimistic, taking on tasks that are difficult or impossible to fulfil and stating that something will be done but not doing it.
One advantage of the proChávez forces is that, despite the opposition slanders, they do not face a barrage of anticommunist propaganda. Chávez continually uses the examples of national independence heroes: Robinson, Zamora, Rivas, and of course Bolívar. There is not one reference to Marx, Engels or socialism in his often threehour discourses on the government television channel. It is extremely difficult for the opposition to criticise the statements of Simón Bolívar in 1829 when he warned, "The usa appears destined by fate to plague America with misery in the name of liberty".
The attacks on people's democracy by the opposition forces have been constant and fierce. Of course it is not argued in these terms, but quite the opposite, painting Chávez as a dictator with the aim of "Cubanising" Venezuela. Well aware of the endemic corruption of so many politicians in past regimes, Chávez personally insisted that a clause giving the right of recall be inserted in the new 1999 constitution. Venezuela became the only country in Latin America to grant citizens the right to recall elected officials, including the president. The opposition, having failed to oust Chávez by a coup and the lockout, is now attempting the "Nicaraguan solution", forcing an early election at an inopportune time.
The opposition first attempted to collect the 2.34 million signatures needed to force a referendum on the presidency, in November 2003. The opposition had agreed to the appointment of a number of officials by the Supreme Court to the National Electoral Council (cne). The first problem arose when the opposition delayed three weeks before submitting the signed petitions just before Christmas. More than 800,000 signatures were not filled out by the petitioners, and a massive fraud was perpetrated with the signatures of dead people, under-aged children and foreigners. Had the cne followed the letter of the law, these signatures could have been invalidated immediately, stopping the recall campaign in its tracks. However, the cne adopted a more conciliatory approach, agreed to by the government and the opposition, and allowed a "repair" process to take place, giving time for citizens to verify the signatures that were called into question. When the cne decided in March that signatures would have to be ratified, fewer than 1000 people in the whole country took to the streets in protest. Some burned tyres and rioted and fired at the National Guard. These actions and images went all around the world, creating the impression that there was political instability and no human rights in Venezuela.
Some 1.8 million valid signatures were ratified in April by the cne. This left another 505,000 to collect. The government had no experience in a centralised collection of signatures and the whole process was chaotic, with a lack of diffusion of proper information and errors in the forms for the collection of signatures. It was another example of the government not having the command of the bureaucratic and technical machinery of state. There was no time to put in place a proper infrastructure to organise and verify such a massive collections of signatures, cedula numbers and fingerprints. The final collection of the remaining signatures was ratified by the cne in June, and a referendum on the Chávez presidency will go ahead on August 15.
It is hoped that the new Comando Maisanta will be able to do its job and confirm Chávez in the presidency. It is a dangerous moment for the revolutionary forces, as the opposition has access to expensive technology to commit fraud and access to us funds to campaign as well as the television and newspapers to spread misinformation. In the last election, in July 2000, 2.53 million voted for the opposition and 3.73 million for Chávez, but 5.12 million abstained out of a total of 11.72 million voters on the register. Of course, since then, the coup and the oil strike will have convinced many to support Chávez.
The us government keeps a close watch on every development in Venezuela, through its embassy and its Latin American Affairs Department in Washington, and through the Organisation of American States. The us now operates though proxies, funding the Venezuelan opposition through the National Endowment for Democracy with a total of $1 million a year. A grant of $53,400 was given to the Venezuelan group Sumate to organise the recall referendum. The Carter Center falsely clamours about a lack of democratic rights. The opposition has visited many European countries to persuade the European Parliament of the "lack of human rights" in Venezuela.
The us program of $1.6 billion to destroy the guerrilla groups in Colombia, the farc and the eln, has not been able to achieve its objectives. According to a farc spokesperson, it has doubled the numbers of its fighting forces and supporters. The farc is fighting in the north, near the border with the state of Zulia in Venezuela. This fact has not been taken into account when mention is made of the possibility of a us invasion much like the Contra war on Nicaragua's border with Honduras. It would be extremely difficult for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to manage both the civil war and an invasion of Venezuela, even with us backing. For the near future, the us is so bogged down in the war in Iraq that the us public would not likely tolerate another foreign adventure. The relationship between the Vietnam War and the survival of the Cuban Revolution has many similarities with the present situation of the Iraqi war and any ussponsored armed attack on Venezuela. When Che Guevara used the slogan "Create two, three, many Vietnams", he was referring to other revolutions having the possibility of avoiding a us military attack. The us government is also well aware that Chávez would use any foreign invasion to deepen the revolutionary process.
Any preconceived schema of the revolutionary process in a Third World country has been shattered in the case of Venezuela. The Chávez government, after surviving the April 2002 coup through the mass mobilisations of workers and sections of the army, can be described as an embryonic workers and peasants state, backed by the armed forces. The bourgeoisie have not yet been defeated and still control important sectors of the economy, the mass media, telecommunications, the food and brewing industries, as well as the judiciary and the bureaucracy of state ministries. But the government has control of the oil industry, and sectors of the nickel and iron industry are stateowned. A direct us invasion or a ferocious economic blockade is unlikely, but financial destabilisation and a vicious campaign of misinformation on an international scale is certain to occur for the duration of the Chávez government. The referendum on his presidency on August 15 is another crucial test. This politically unstable situation cannot last indefinitely. Venezuela is at a critical point where it can continue the revolutionary process or be forced back by the coalition of opposition forces, backed by the us government and Latin American governments such as Colombia and Chile.
Venezuela needs all our solidarity and support to win the ideological battle. At present, there is a great vacuum of knowledge about Venezuela and a shameful lack of international solidarity work. It is something we can do to educate, to inform, to tell the story of a social revolution in progress. If it is successful, this will not only change the face of the entire Latin American continent but will inspire people everywhere to prove that another world is possible.
[The author is a longterm member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia. She lived in Venezuela for two years from 1975 and recently spent three months working there in early 2004]
2 N. Francia, Que piensa Chávez, Aproximacion a su discurso politico, Venezuela, 2003.
3 M. Harnecker, Hugo Chávez Frías, Un Hombre, Un Pueblo, 2003.
4 M. Ceaser, Lancet 363,(June 5), 2004, pp. 1874-75.
5 See Samuel Moncada. Debate Abierto VI: 5, 2004. Professor Moncada is Director of the School of History at the Central University of Venezuela.
6 K. Marx, "The Civil War in France", The Class Struggles in France from the February Revolution to the Paris Commune, 2003, Sydney, Resistance Books, p. 254.