Venezuela: `This what democracy looks like'; Alan Woods: The people in arms

Venezuelan students organised in the Bolivarian militia.

Introduction to Alan Woods' article (below) by Stuart Munckton, photos by Kiraz Janicke 

April 22, 2010 -- The Future on Fire -- A common chant around the world when people take to the streets against the crimes of the global capitalist system is: "This is what democracy looks like!"

It is a statement that real democracy is on the streets, in the united action of ordinary people. It is a statement that democracy is more than passive voting once every few years, it is popular power and direct participation.

April 13, 2002 in Caracas, Venezuela, was the scene of a powerful expression of popular power. The poor majority and much of the armed forces rose up and overthrew a coup-installed dictatorship that had attempted to remove the country's elected president Hugo Chavez. This mass mobilisation restored to Chavez to power.

In Caracas on April 13, 2010, a large demonstration occurred that gives further meaning to the slogan. What occurred on the streets of Caracas that day was indeed what democracy looks like -- a march by tens of thousands of Venezuelan people organised in the Bolivarian militias.

There were battalions of workers, peasants, students, the urban poor organised in social missions -- all organised from the grassroots. This was a dramatic demonstration of the "people in arms". This is a crucial part of democratising a society -- arming the masses and breaking the privileged castes' hold over the potential for armed violence with their small, highly organised professional bodies, governed with tight discipline from the top down, in the interests of the powerful.

The monopoly over violence by the powerful gives them the permanent potential to terrorise the powerless. A “people in arms” is a people you think twice before fucking with. A people in arms cannot be easily subdued.

You only need to look at the brutal response by large landowners in Venezuela to the government's land reform policy to see the significance of this question. Since 2001, more than 200 peasant activists have been murdered, without the existing institutions stopping the bloodshed. No one has been brought to justice for these crimes.

Now, the peasants are being organised into armed detachments -- as peasant organisations themselves have been demanding.

Peasant battalion in the Bolivarian militia, April 13, 2010.

Organising the oppressed in such a way is a defensive measure to prevent the sort of coup that occurred in 2002, in which more than 60 unarmed protesters were murdered on the streets and supporters of Chavez were hunted down. It is also a preventative measure against a US invasion or a US-sponsored invasion by, for instance, neighbouring Colombia.

When the US imperialists and Chilean capitalists organised a military coup against the elected left-wing Chilean government of Salvador Allende in 1973, a reign of terror was carried out with thousands slaughtered. On the back of the mass slaughter of militant workers, vicious neoliberalism was imposed. This bloody example showed the need to do just what is happening in Venezuela -- the arming of the people.

In Venezuela, there is a popular revolution that is still very much developing and seeking to advance. Capital still holds much power. It still controls significant sectors of the economy and has much power within the state.

The pro-poor policies of the Chavez government have helped raise the poor majority up and have begun to create alternative power structures. But much of capital’s economic power remains intact. There are important steps forward in regaining sections of industry. There are important experiments in popular power and ongoing attempts to strengthen these and create new institutions based directly on the organised people.

The most important are the communal councils and the communes (based on elected representatives from the communal councils, which are also experimenting with creating a "communal economy" in which the communes take control of production and distribution in their areas).

The struggle to implement workers' control, or other forms of workers' participation in management, in important state industries is resulting in important steps forward. This is a struggle to weaken and defeat the corrupt counter-revolutionary bureaucracy that still controls much of the state and sabotages the revolution's plans.

But it is all partial and still in the realm of experiments to find a way forward. There are important sectors of the broad-based Bolivarian movement that are hostile to serious attacks on capital and frustrate attempts to develop genuine popular power. It is not possible to advance decisively without ongoing struggle within the Bolivarian movement.

An important battlefield of this internal class struggle is the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) – the mass party led by Chavez that was formed in 2007. Will it be a revolutionary vehicle that organises the most conscious and militant sectors in the communities and workplaces to push the revolution forward (as Chavez insists it must be)?

Or will it be dominated by more moderate, bureaucratic sectors as a vehicle for their interests, for advancement of individuals and competing power blocs fighting over the spoils of power (as Chavez’s old party, the MVR, was)?

This fight is occurring now. The right-wing has a lot of organisational power within the PSUV, but the political initiative lies with Chavez, who pushes leftwards, towards strengthening the revolutionary pole.

At the founding PSUV congress in 2008, right-wing sectors largely had organisational control. These forces argued that the provisional PSUV program should limit itself to “anti-imperialism” rather than be explicitly anti-capitalist. Delegates rejected this and adopted a draft program and declaration of principles that calls for a thorough-going socialist revolution – in Venezuela and the world.

The problem facing the Venezuelan revolution do not only come from above, but also from below -- in a related way. In particular, a major block is the fact that the organised workers' movement is too weak in Venezuela. It is divided, organises too few of the working class and the level of political consciousness is too low.

This cannot be overcome by a government decree or a speech by Chavez. It can only be overcome through the many struggles breaking out to advance the interests of the working class. This weakness in the revolutionary movement makes it harder to push forward decisively. Also, it leaves a vacuum within the Chavista movement that is filled by more right-wing and bureaucratic sectors.

But it is a live question, an ongoing struggle. How can you develop the working class except through the direct involvement of the working class in all aspects of the struggle to transform society? This is the significance of the struggle for workers' control -- and why it is resisted so fiercely by privileged bureaucrats. It creates a school for workers to develop, learn and transform themselves from a passive and narrowly interested sector into active, organised, revolutionary actors.

The ongoing power of capital and bureaucratic sectors creates deep-going problems, with the government often unable to get its policies implemented. There is economic sabotage by corrupt state managers and private capitalists. This poses big struggles in the near future.

The Bolivarian militia is partial itself -- it is uneven. Some communities and sectors are organised and others aren't. It is still relatively new. But the demonstration of April 13 is a very powerful one. It shows the revolution is strengthening itself from the ground up. It shows the growing power of the oppressed.

It sends a powerful message: You don't fuck with the Venezuelan people.

This is what democracy looks like.

Below is a powerful eyewitness account by British socialist Alan Woods of this dramatic demonstration. Woods is a leader of the International Marxist Tendency, which distributed the article. The photos are by Kiraz Janicke, a member of the Green Left Weekly Caracas bureau and a member of the Australian Socialist Alliance.

[Stuart Munckton is co-editor of Green Left Weekly and a member of the Australian Socialist Alliance. This introduction to Alan Woods' article first appeared at Munckton's blog, The Future on Fire.]

Venezuela: The people in arms

By Alan Woods, Caracas

April 13, 2010 -- Eight years ago something occurred that has no precedent in the history of Latin America. The reactionary coup of 11 April, in which the Venezuelan oligarchy, in collaboration with the US Embassy and the CIA, overthrew the democratically elected government, was defeated by a spontaneous uprising of the masses.

On that day history was made. Ordinary men and women came onto the streets, risking their lives to defend the Bolivarian Revolution. With no party, no leadership and no clear perspectives other than to defeat the coup, the workers, peasants, and revolutionary youth, women and men, young and old, marched in their thousands to the gates of the Miraflores Palace to demand the release of President Chávez. The soldiers went over to the side of the people, and the coup collapsed.

These heroic events can only be compared to Barcelona in July 1936, when the workers, armed with old hunting rifles, clubs and anything they could lay their hands on, stormed the barracks and smashed the fascist reactionaries. If anybody doubts that this was a genuine revolution, they have only to study the events of April 2002.

In past years these events have been turned into a celebration of the Revolution. The Bolivar Avenue in downtown Caracas was a sea of red shirts and waving banners. But this year the scene was quite different to what I remember. Instead of a sea of red, Bolivar Avenue was filled to overflowing with a sea of camouflage green. This was the Day of the People’s Militia – a demonstration of the power of a people in arms.

The militias marching, April 13.

As you walked along the Avenue the files of militiamen and militiawomen (there were many women also in uniform) seemed to have no end. Here once again one could sense the unconquerable power of the masses. But now there was a different element. Here were thousands upon thousands of workers from the factories, peasants from the villages, and young kids from the schools and colleges, expressing their willingness to fight, arms in hand, to defend the Revolution against enemies – both external and internal.

Under a blazing sun, the people massed – the usual red shirts of the chavistas alongside the green-clad militia. Along the Avenue the loudspeakers blared out revolutionary slogans: against imperialism, against the bourgeoisie, for the Revolution, for socialism, and for Chávez: “The Right is still preparing another 11 April, but now the People have arms! Long live the Bolivarian Revolution! Long live the Armed People! Long live President Chávez!”

People climbed trees and lampposts to get a better view and to display placards with militant slogans, while some made a quick profit selling hats, tee-shirts and cold drinks (which were much in demand). There was a deafening roar of music – Latin American rhythms with revolutionary words, interrupted by chants and slogans. The militia was organized by groups that showed their origins: young teenagers from the schools and peasants with straw hats and tractors with Belarus written on the side.

To the rear, the militia was unarmed, but as one approached the head of the demonstration, everyone was holding a Russian-made AK-47, that most versatile and effective weapon, light and easy to use.

Students from the national armed forces university march with AK-47s.

In recent years Chávez has bought large quantities of these weapons from Russia. Washington and its hired media have made a tremendous fuss, alleging that these guns are destined for the FARC guerrillas in Colombia. Now everyone can see what they are really intended for.

As they wait for the arrival of the President, the militias stand listlessly, or sit on the ground to eat a sandwich. Some rest on their rifles, and one or two even had the muzzle of their AK-47s resting on their boot – a somewhat risky practice, one would have thought. In fact a professional drill sergeant would doubtless have a heart attack, looking at these half-trained civilians with guns.

Militia members relax with their guns.

But this impression would be entirely false. These militias are the lineal descendants of the Cuban guerrillas, of the militias that fought Franco in the Spanish Civil War, of the workers´ militias that overthrew the Tsar in Russia in 1917, and if we go even further back in history, of the armies of the French Revolution and the militias of the American Revolution in the 18th century.

None of these were professional forces and they did not conform to the standards of a professional bourgeois standing army. But they did not fight any the less well for that, and in more than one case (Spain comes to mind) the attempt to force them into the format of a professional army had the most negative effects on their fighting spirit.

Late in the afternoon, a mood of expectancy can be noticed. The militia begins to form ranks. The crowd on the pavements pushes forward to catch a glimpse of their hero. Chávez appears, dressed in army uniform, riding on the back of an open vehicle – an ordinary army truck – saluting and waving to the militia and the crowd. The militia marches forward towards the tribune where Chávez is to deliver his speech.

His speech was shorter than in the past, but went straight to the point. Recalling the dramatic events of April 2002, he pulls out a magnificent sword and shows it to the multitude. It is the sword of Simon Bolivar – El Libertador (The Liberator). He tells the people that the liberation of Latin America has not been achieved for 200 years and can only be achieved through socialist revolution.

In the kind of dramatic gesture that is characteristic of him, he makes the people swear a sacred oath: that they will never rest until this task is accomplished. The militias repeat the words loudly, holding their rifles in the air. “The militia is the People, and the People is the militia,” he proclaims.

Then Chávez recounts the events of April 2002, from the fascist coup of 11 April to the popular-military uprising of 13 April. “I have been thinking a lot about this,” he says. “Ever since the 1970s, some people have been dreaming of a popular-military rebellion. But it never occurred. The 1980s was a black period that ended in the Caracazo of 1989, with a massacre of unarmed civilians.”

Chávez then recalled how he and a group of progressive army officers tried to stage a rebellion in 1992: “We failed because this was a military uprising without the People,” he concluded. After a spell in prison, he recalled the formation of a mass movement: the Bolivarian Movement, which swept to power in the 1998 elections. But the oligarchy lost no time in preparing the coup of 2002.

Chávez recalled the men and women who died in the coup, and the many more who were wounded. Contrary to the myth so assiduously spread by the media in the West about the allegedly repressive and dictatorial regime in Venezuela, nobody is in prison for these crimes, and eight years later the judicial investigations are still dragging on: “Let there be no impunity for this massacre, as there has been impunity for so many other massacres in our history!” he said.

He then went on to say that the blood of these martyrs of the Revolution acted as a spur to the Revolution. “Immediately after the 11 April there began the arrests and manhunts, the threats on television and the other media. But this aroused all the latent pent-up power of the masses that had been suppressed for so long,” he said. “This gave rise to the greatest rebellion in our history – the popular uprising we had waited so long to see.”

“This was an uprising against the bourgeoisie and imperialism. But the latter had calculated that such an uprising would be put down in blood by the army, as happened in the Caracazo. But our soldiers not only refused to fire on the People, but went over to the side of the People. The bourgeoisie and the imperialists had the surprise of their lives.”

Chávez pointed out that US imperialism was actively involved in the coup. US helicopters and spy planes were flying over Venezuelan air space, a US submarine and an aircraft carrier were in Venezuelan waters waiting to intervene. But the movement of the masses forced them to withdraw.

Ever since then the bourgeois media have tried to wipe that date out of the calendar, but the masses have kept it alive. “They cannot wipe April from the calendar, any more than they can wipe out January, February or any other month.”

Chávez observed that, if they had succeeded in crushing the Venezuelan Revolution, it would have dealt a heavy blow against the revolutionary movement throughout Latin America. “On our shoulders a heavy responsibility lies,” he said. “The peoples of Latin America are looking to us for their salvation.” Admitting that the Revolution was far from completed and that there was a colossal amount still to be done, he appealed for patience. “After its first decade, the Revolution has hardly begun,” he said.

Chávez then warned that the threat of counterrevolution had not gone away, and that there were conspiracies to assassinate him. He said that if this occurred: “Do not lose your heads, keep calm. You know what you have to do: take the power into your own hands – ALL the power! Expropriate the banks, the industries, the monopolies that remain in the hands of the bourgeoisie.”

Turning to the September elections he warned: “We cannot allow the bourgeoisie to take control of the National Assembly. If they do, they will use it to destabilize the country and create the conditions for another 11 April. We must win two thirds of the seats in order to press on with our programme.”

He warned the bourgeoisie that it was not possible to repeat what happened in April 2002, because the people were now armed and would crush any counterrevolutionary attempt. He finished with the words: Long live the National Militia!” Long live the People in Arms! Long Live the Socialist Revolution! Patria, socialism o muerte!

Education workers' combat corp.
Mission Ribas (education social program) combat corp.
Metro workers' combat corp.
A student battallion.
All ages have mobilised to defend the revolution.