Venezuela: Class struggle intensifies over battle for workers’ control

By Federico Fuentes

Caracas -- July 25, 2009 -- On July 22, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez again declared his complete support for the proposal by industrial workers for a new model of production based on workers’ control.

This push from Chavez, part of the socialist revolution, aims at transforming Venezuela’s basic industry. However, it faces resistance from within the state bureaucracy and the revolutionary movement. Presenting his government’s “Plan Socialist Guayana 2009-2019”, Chavez said the state-owned companies in basic industry have to be transformed into “socialist companies”.

The plan was the result of several weeks of intense discussion among revolutionary workers from the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana (CVG). The CVG includes 15 state-owned companies in the industrial Guayana region involved in steel, iron ore, mineral and aluminium production.

The workers’ roundtables were established after a May 21 workshop, where industrial workers raised radical proposals for the socialist transformation of basic industry. Chavez addressed the workshop in support of many of the proposals.

Events between the May 21 workshop and Chavez’s July 22 announcement reveal much of the nature of the class struggle inside revolutionary Venezuela.

Chavez’s announcement is part of an offensive launched after the revolutionary forces won the February 15 referendum on the back of a big organisational push that involved hundreds of thousands of people in the campaign. The vote was to amend the constitution to allow elected officials to stand for re-election — allowing Chavez, the undisputed leader of the Venezuelan revolution, to stand for president in 2012.

With oil revenue dropping due to the global economic crisis, the government is using this new position of strength to tackle corruption and bureaucracy, while increasing state control over strategic economic sectors. This aims to ensure the poor are not made to pay for the crisis.

Workers’ control

On May 21, Chavez publicly threw his lot in with the Guayana workers, announcing his government’s granting of demands for better conditions in state-owned companies and the nationalisation of a number of private companies whose workers were involved in industrial disputes.

“When the working class roars, the capitalists tremble”, Chavez told theworkers. To chants of “this is how you govern!”, Chavez announced his agreement with a series of measures proposed by workers.

However, like an old train that begins to rattle loudly as it speeds up, more right-wing sectors within the revolutionary movement also began to tremble.

With each new attack against the political and economic power that the capitalist class still holds in Venezuela — and uses to destabilise the country — the revolution is also forced to confront internal enemies.

The radical measures announced at the May 21 workshop were the result of the workers discussion over the previous two days. Chavez called on workers to wage an all-out struggle against the “mafias” rife in the management of state companies. Chavez then designated planning minister Jorge Giordani and labour minister Maria Cristina Iglesias, who both played a key role in the workshop, to follow up these decisions by establishing a series of workers’ roundtables in the CVG industries.

The CVG complex is on the verge of collapse in large part due to the privatisation push by pre-Chavez governments in the 1990s. State companies were run down in preparation to be sold off cheaply. In the Sidor steel plant, for example, the number of workers dropped from more than 30,000 to less than 15,000 before it was privatised in 1998.

Chavez’s 1998 election stopped further privatisation. But the government has had to confront large-scale corruption within the CVG, continued deterioration of machinery and, more recently, the sharp drop in prices of aluminium and steel.

The plan drafted by workers and given to Chavez on June 9 raised the possibility of “converting the current structural crisis of capitalism” into “an opportunity” for workers to move forward in “the construction of socialism, by assuming in a direct manner, control over production of the basic companies in the region”.

The report set out nine strategic lines — including workers’ control of production; improvement of environmental and work conditions; and public auditing of companies and projects. Measures proposed include the election of managers and management restructuring; collective decision-making by workers and local communities; the creation of workers’ councils; and opening companies’ books. The measures aim to achieve “direct control of production without mediations by a bureaucratic structure”.

The report said such an experience of workers’ control would undoubtedly act as an example for workers in “companies in the public sector nationally, such as those linked to hydrocarbons or energy companies”.

Bureaucracy bites back

Sensing the danger such an example represents to its interests, bureaucratic sections within the revolutionary movement, as well as the US-backed counter-revolutionary opposition, moved quickly to try and stop this process.

A wave of strikes and protests were organised in the aluminium sector during June and July, taking advantage of workers’ disgruntlement with corrupt managers and payments owed. The protests were organised by union leaders from both the Socialist Bolivarian Force of Workers (FSBT), a union current within the mass party led by Chavez, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and those aligned with opposition parties such as Radical Cause.

Revolutionary workers from Guayana condemned the unholy alliance of bureaucratic union leaders and opposition political forces, which aimed to stifling the process initiated on May 21. This alliance was supported by Bolivar provincial governor, retired General Francisco Rangel Gomez, who called on the national government to negotiate directly with local unions.

Opinion pieces began to appear in the local press, calling on the government to once again make Rangel president of the CVG in order to bring “stability”.

The alliance between Rangel and union bureaucrats in Guayana is long running. Officially part of the Chavista camp, Rangel has long been accused of being corrupt and anti-worker. During his term as CVG president before becoming governor in 2004, Rangel built up a corrupt clientalist network with local union and business figures. He stacked CVG management with business partners and friends.

While on the negotiation commission to resolve the 15-month long dispute at Sidor, Rangel ordered the National Guard to fire on protesting Sidor workers.

Also on the commission was then-labour minister and former FSBT union leader from Guayana, Jose Ramon Rivero, who was similarly accused by Sidor workers of siding with management. He was also criticised for using his position as labour minister to build the FSBT’s bureaucratic powerbase by promoting “parallel unions” along factional lines and splitting the revolutionary union confederation, National Union of Workers (UNT).

In April last year, Chavez disbanded the Sidor negotiation commission and sent his vice-president, Ramon Carrizales, to resolve the dispute by re-nationalising the steel plant.

Rivero was then sacked. Today, he works as the general secretary in Rangel’s governorship.

The forces behind Rivero and Rangel hoped not only to stifle the radical proposals from the May 21 workshop, but also remove basic industry minister Rodolfo Sanz. Sanz has moved to replace Rangel’s people with his own in the CVG management.

In the recent dispute, Sanz accused aluminium workers of being responsible for the crisis in that sector. He worked to undermine the proposals of the roundtable discussions.

After several days of negotiations union leaders — essentially sidelining the workers roundtables — Sanz agreed on July 20 not only to pay the workers what they were owed, but also to restructure the board of directors in the aluminium sector. Through this process, the radical proposals for restructuring the CVG appeared to have been push aside — which suited both Sanz and Rangel.

Revolutionary leadership

However, Chavez intervened with his July 22 announcement, which came after a meeting with key ministers and advisors involved in the May 21 socialist transformation workshop. Chavez said his government was committed to implement the recommendations of the “Plan Socialist Guayana”, placing himself clearly on the side of the workers.

He said the workers’ proposals, embodied in the plan, would “guide all the new policies and concrete and specific measures that we are beginning to decide in order to consolidate a socialist platform in Guayana”.

When a journalist directed her first question to Sanz regarding the plan, Chavez stepped in to respond, by-passing Sanz and handing the microphone over to Giordani, who many revolutionary workers identify as strongly committed to the process of socialist transformation.

Rangel, who had been at the May 21 workshop, was not at the July 22 meeting.

Socialism more than state ownership

Chavez also appeared to differentiate himself from other sectors within the revolutionary movement, such as those behind the “A Grain of Maize” daily column, whose authors are linked to a political current involving oil minister Rafael Ramirez. This current has recently been vocal in arguing that socialism simply entails state ownership and central planning from above — with minimum participation from workers.

For Chavez, state-owned companies “that continue to remain within the framework of state capitalism” have to be managed by their workers in order to become “socialist”. The Plan Socialist Guayana is Venezuela’s first example of real “democratic planning from below”, Chavez added.

The battle in Guayana is not over. Workers from the Alcasa aluminium plant told Green Left Weekly that management at aluminium plants met on July 25 to continue the process of restructuring agreed to by Sanz and union leaders — in direct opposition to Chavez’s statements.

Other fronts of intense class conflict have opened up. Various struggles have emerged involving different forces and interests in the electricity sector, as well as the still-emerging communes, which unite the grassroots communal councils, to name a few.

A central arena of struggle is the PSUV, which is in a process of restructuring ahead of its second congress in October.

But the battle in Guayana may be one of the most decisive as it involves the largest working-class population. This is in the context of a revolution whose weakest link has been the lack of a strong, organised revolutionary workers’ movement.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #804, July 29, 2009.]


"Factory take-over of Fama de America, La Yaguara, Caracas (Arturo Alejandro Sánchez /

Caracas August 4, 2009 ( - The Venezuelan government temporarily occupied, for a period of three months, the processing plants of two of the largest coffee producers in Venezuela, Fama de America and Café Madrid, on Monday. The companies are suspected of hoarding, speculation and smuggling contraband coffee into neighbouring Colombia-where coffee farmers face record shortfalls-in order to avoid Venezuelan government price controls.

The two coffee processing plants, one located in the industrial area of La Yaguara, in Caracas, and the other in the industrial zone of Guaraca in Carabobo state, each process some 350,000 quintals of coffee per year, around 70% of Venezuela's total coffee production.

During the occupations, which were headed by Venezuelan Agriculture Minister Elias Jaua, Trade Minister Eduardo Samán, and Food Minister Félix Osoria, Jaua stated that the measure was necessary in order to ensure supply for Venezuelans.

Speaking from the Fama de America plant in Yaguara, Caracas, Jaua said "The Bolivarian government has occupied all the plants in the country belonging to Fama de América and Café Madrid to guarantee supply of this item to the Venezuelan people."

Jaua explained that the action was taken in response to recent announcements by the companies that the supply of raw coffee was guaranteed for only five days "despite the fact they have purchased in the market a quantity of raw materials in excess of what is normal annually."

Days earlier the vice president of the National Confederation of Associations of Agricultural Producers, Vicente Perez, warned that Venezuela would have to import coffee claiming there was a shortfall in coffee production.

However, Jaua responded, "It's the usual game...every year the coffee companies claim there is a shortage two months before the new crop is ready to force a price increase."

The companies have "sufficient raw material" to continue production as sixteen thousand quintals of coffee arrived at the Fama de America plant in Yaguara yesterday, enough to supply the internal market for two months, he assured.

The minister explained that the government would take control of the coffee plants for three months to investigate allegations of smuggling, hoarding and speculation.

"If at the end of the audit, we can show there has been smuggling, hoarding, disloyal and monopolistic practices, we will consider expropriating the companies," he said.

"The Venezuelan state will combat any action that is directed at messing with the right to food of the people; we will not allow this to happen, and if necessary, and if it is shown that irregularities exist, they will be expropriated," he reiterated.

Marcelo Rivero, company owner and producer of the brands Café Madrid, El Penon, and Aroma, denied the charges of smuggling yesterday, "The raw material is processed in our plant is wholly and exclusively acquired from hundreds of small and medium producers in the country. Once processed, it is placed exclusively in the Venezuelan domestic market," he said.

The president of the Venezuelan Coffee Industry, Nelson Moreno said Monday that the shortage of coffee on supermarket shelves in recent weeks was because "consumption is greater than the production of coffee in the countryside."

Moreno admitted that there was a problem with smuggling coffee over the border to Colombia but argued that "middlemen" were responsible, not coffee manufacturers.

However, José Montilla, a coffee farmer from Trujillo supported the government measure against Café Madrid saying "we know it has been part of smuggling and hoarding."

The National Superintendent of Silos, Storage and Agricultural Warehousing (SADA), Carlos Osorio, also accused Fama de America and Café Madrid, the two biggest purchasers of raw coffee, of engaging in monopolistic practises, using their purchasing power to buy and hoard raw materials and force small and medium coffee manufacturers out of the market.

The vice-minister of Agricultural Economics, Richard Canaan, said Monday from the Café Madrid processing plant located in Guacara, Carabobo state, ensured that the plants temporarily by the government would continue operating.

The Café Madrid plant in the region has a capacity has a processing capacity of between 30 and 50 thousand quintals per month. However, its storage facilities are completely empty according to a press release from the Agriculture Ministry.

Canaan said the biggest concern is speculation, "We believe it is a private war, it is not possible that the stores of this plant are completely empty at this time when we should have enough coffee to ensure we reach the next harvest in October," he said.

The government will restart the plant with an initial cargo of 400 quintals, equivalent to 18 tons of green coffee, from the Corporación Venezolana Agraria (CVA) and Café Venezuela, he said.

Caanan indicated that meetings would be held for workers to meet officials from the Institute for the Defense of the People in the Access to Goods and Services (INDEPABIS), SADA and Café Venezuela authorized to work in these plants, to ensure that raw coffee arrives to be processed and is not siphoned off into informal channels.

Jaua also affirmed that the Venezuelan government representatives had met with the employees of Fama de America.

"We met with the union at the company where we have found a great reception, and told them that this measure is intended to ensure the operation of this plant and their workplace rights," he said.
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