Venezuela: Danger signs for the revolution
By Kiraz Janicke & Federico Fuentes, Caracas
February 22, 2008 -- In recent weeks, external and internal pressure against Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution, as the process of change led by socialist President Hugo Chavez is known — has intensified dramatically. It is clear that US imperialism and the US-backed Venezuelan opposition see the defeat of Chavez’s proposed constitutional reforms on December 2 as a green light to push forward their plans to destablise the government.
In addition, growing internal problems, with a strengthening of the right-wing of the Chavista movement — known as the “endogenous right", who support implementing some reforms without breaking with capitalism — pose a serious threat to the survival of the revolution.
Chavez’s proposed constitutional reforms were aimed at institutionalising greater popular power and increasing restrictions on capitalists to the benefit of working people. In response, the capitalist-owned private media launched a campaign based on lies and disinformation aimed at confusing the Venezuelan people.
Combined with low intensity economic sabotage — contributing to shortages of basic goods such as milk — the opposition was able to stoke the discontent that exists among the poor over problems such as corruption and bureaucratism.
Nearly 3 million people who voted for Chavez in the December 2006 presidential election abstained in the referendum, handing the opposition its first electoral victory since Chavez came to power in 1998.
Attempting to build on this, a renewed US offensive has been unleashed aimed at isolating Chavez internationally, and undermining the process of Latin American integration spearheaded by Venezuela.
A key part of the strategy has involved fanning the flames of conflict between Venezuela and neighbouring Colombia. A dispute broke out after right-wing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe initially invited Chavez to help negotiate with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)— Colombia’s largest left-wing guerrilla group — over a potential prisoner swap with the Colombian state, only to abruptly terminate Chavez’s role in November.
Chavez nonetheless negotiated the unilateral release on January 10 of two prisoners held by the FARC. He also called for an end to the inclusion of the FARC on lists of banned terrorist organisations as a step towards finding a political solution to Colombia’s decades-long civil war.
The US responded by having a number of high-profile US officials visit Colombia and verbally attack Venezuela. Although “not aware of any specific support Mr Chavez has provided the FARC”, the Pentagon’s joint chief of staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, in January still levelled false allegations that Chavez was granting the FARC “strategic support”.
John Walters, the director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, accused Chavez on January 29 of being a “major facilitator of the international drug trade”, despite an increase in interdiction of drug trafficking by the Venezuelan state.
The most serious imperialist attack came via a series of court orders obtained by US oil giant ExxonMobil, backed by the US State Department, to freeze US$12 billion worth of assets of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, in both British and Dutch courts — a move described by Chavez as part of an “economic war”.
The move is in retaliation to the nationalisation of ExxonMobil investments in Venezuela’s Orinoco oil belt last year. PDVSA provides up to $13 billion a year for government-initiated social programs that provide free education and healthcare to Venezuela’s poor.
ExxonMobil’s actions are intended to also send a message to other Latin American countries considering resource nationalisation — imperialism will fight back.
The Venezuelan opposition is also intensifying its destablisation campaign. The previously hopelessly divided opposition, boosted in confidence by the referendum results, is working towards a strong, unified campaign for the November elections for state governors and mayors.
This is combined with increasing extra-parliamentary destablisation, including a stepping up of economic sabotage by capitalists — reminiscent of the sabotage against the left-wing Chilean government that preceded the US-backed military coup by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973.
The campaign involves the hoarding, speculation and smuggling of food, contributing to shortages. This is combined with a virulent media campaign aimed at fuelling discontent.
The opposition is increasing its focus on the poor majority that make up Chavez’s support base. It is seeking to take advantage of discontent to infiltrate the barrios through what it calls “popular networks”, which work to spread rumours, promote discontent and divisions among Chavistas — and mobilise people against the government.
According to Eva Golinger, who has exposed the extent of US intervention into Venezuela, these networks receive funding and training from the US government-funded USAID. There are also reports of growing links between right-wing Colombian paramilitaries, organised crime and sections of the Venezuelan opposition, especially in the states bordering Colombia. Large landowners have contracted paramilitaries to murder at least 190 campesinos (peasants) in recent years in an attempt to sabotage the land reform process promoted by the government.
Paramilitaries have also developed a presence in Caracas barrios. Funded by local businesses and dressed as civilians, they engage in drug dealing and act as hired assassins. This has helped impede community organising.
In response to such pressure, Chavez has called for greater unity within the revolution.
However, serious divisions exist within the Bolivarian movement, which includes powerful pro-capitalist economic and political blocs — some with important influence in the military. This sector controls a number of ministries and a large part of the National Assembly, as well as mayor and governor offices, and is linked to a state bureaucracy unwilling to cede power.
There is also a more radical left, strong among the grassroots as well as elements within the state, which wants to deepen the process and overcome the corruption and bureaucratism holding back the revolution’s advance.
Since the peak of the period of intensive mobilisation by the poor and working people against the US-backed attempts to bring down the government — with the failed coup in 2002, the oil industry shutdown in 2002-03 and the recall referendum in 2004 — the level of ongoing popular mobilisation has decreased significantly.
Under the whip of the counter-revolution, the oppressed demonstrated their willingness to fight — and ability to defeat — attempts by the old elite to reclaim power and eradicate the gains associated with the Bolivarian revolution.
However, with the weakening of the opposition after each defeat, combined with increased living standards for the poor, frustration with the state bureaucracy sabotaging those gains has become a bigger concern for many.
These problems have been exacerbated by a growing gap between government rhetoric and reality. Also badly undermining the revolution has been the severe weakness of the bitterly divided workers’ movement.
These factors have impeded the creation of a unified force based on the grassroots militants that would be capable of leading the deepening of the revolution in the direction of socialism — as repeatedly called for by Chavez.
In this context the endogenous right-wing has grown in strength. Many of these forces, which give lip service to the goal of socialism, publicly called for a “Yes” vote in the referendum but worked behind the scenes to discourage voting for the radical reforms that threatened their interests.
By promoting a “personality cult” around Chavez, the right has sought to silence criticism of its own actions, presenting such attacks as being against Chavez and assisting US imperialism.
The conflict between left and right within the Bolivarian movement is most clearly expressed in the struggle over the formation of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
Called for by Chavez to create a political instrument to unite militants on the ground and help lead the struggle for socialism, it has become a battleground between bureaucratic sectors determined to keep control and activists from the popular movements fighting to build a mass, democratic and genuinely revolutionary party.
Such a party, if it succeeded in uniting the base with the leadership of Chavez over the heads of the bureaucrats, would be a severe blow against the right-wing forces that have maintained positions through factional power blocs.
The popular sectors have had a strong influence in the direction and discourse of the founding congress that began in January and ends in March. However, the outcome is far from decided, with the right-wing fighting hard.
A controversy has broken out over false claims by former vice-president Jorge Rodriguez (now national coordinator of the PSUV) and Diosdado Cabello (governor of Miranda, a major capitalist with strong influence in the military and identified as a key leader of the endogenous right) that National Assembly deputy Luis Tascon had been expelled from the PSUV by a unanimous vote of delegates.
No such vote occurred, and the question of Tascon’s expulsion is still being fought over. However Rodriguez and Cabello have been forced to back down, declaring Tascon has been “suspended” and will be given a right to reply after the congress has decided on the statutes and principles of the new party — a decision also never debated or voted on by delegates.
Tascon has made corruption allegations against Cabello’s brother, now head of Venezuela’s tax agency. Chavez had called for people to expose corruption.
Rodriguez and Cabello have also argued for the new party to be subordinated to the government and stated it is not necessary to include anti-capitalism as one of its principles, which have become key points of debate.
Other organisational disputes have resulted from manoeuvring by the hand-picked congress organising committee, specifically on the question of how documents to be voted on will be drafted and whether they will be presented to the PSUV ranks with enough time for discussion.
Attempts to silence dissent and bureaucratically take over the PSUV are part of the plans of the endogenous right, which aspires to “Chavismo without Chavez” — and without socialism. Such actions aim to further demoralise the popular sectors.
These divisions reflect the class struggle within the revolutionary process.
In an interview with Green Left Weekly in 2006 (“Oil, revolution and socialism”, GLW #681) Tascon argued: “there will undoubtedly be a confrontation between different Chavistas. I am sure there will be a conflict of particular interests between the left and the right. But it will not be the traditional right [who are in the opposition], but a Chavista right-wing.”
As a process that aims to overcome the subordination of the Venezuelan economy — and state — to the needs of US imperialism, broad forces have been attracted to the Bolivarian movement.
It has included those who hoped that breaking from US domination would assist economic development within a capitalist framework, right through to revolutionary socialists for whom nothing short of a thorough-going social revolution will solve the needs of the oppressed majority.
Under attack from imperialism and the local capitalist class, the revolution has increasingly radicalised, with Chavez repeatedly insisting the goal was socialism.
However, at the same time the revolution swung further left, the strength of right-wing forces has increased within much of both the pro-Chavez political parties and the notoriously corrupt state.
This contradiction is being fought out over the question of whose interests the PSUV will serve — the oppressed majority or the pro-capitalist bureaucrats? The organisation and unity of the left forces will be crucial to determining the future of the PSUV — and the revolution.
The internal and external battles are clearly linked, as revealed by the fact that discontent over problems either caused or exacerbated by the Chavista right helped cause the defeat of the constitutional reform — a victory for the US-backed opposition that has given it badly needed momentum.
Without a real “revision, rectification and relaunch” of the revolution — the “three Rs” Chavez has called for — the Bolivarian forces could face significant defeats in the elections at the end of the year. This could pave the way for an escalated opposition offensive to drive Chavez from government, via constitutional or other means.
[This article first appeared in the February 27, 2008 edition of Green Left Weekly. Kiraz Janicke and Federico Fuentes are part of the Green Left Weekly Caracas bureau, and are members of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist group in Australia that is part of the Socialist Alliance.]