Impressions from the class struggle in Venezuela

Author: 

Wladek Flakin

This material was produced last year by Wladek Flakin, a member of the socialist youth organisation Revolution in Germany. Wladek was previously a member of the Workers Power group, but expelled; he is now an independent. The articles were originally printed in the Permanent Revolution journal.

Despite our many sharp and fundamental disagreements with the politics of the whole Workers Power/Revolution/PR spectrum, we reprint this material, with Wladek's permission, as a contribution to helping the left understand what is happening in Venezuela.

For the AWL's extensive coverage on Venezuela, see here.

Introduction

'The end of one phase and the beginning of a new one . . .'

Every five years or so young leftists from the west, bored by the slow pace of the class struggle in the imperialist heartlands, pack their bags and head off to some distant corner of the globe. In this particular corner, Venezuela, social revolution is rumoured to hang in the air like pollen. The struggle for fundamental change in the midst of capitalist decadence can seem daunting, depressing, senseless; the endless fight to reach a working class dominated by social democracy and passivity, the dry ideological struggles at the university amongst students worried about their careers. It’s just too tempting to take a break from all this and go somewhere where the revolution is, y’know, in full gear.

In the 1980s the Mecca of the young leftists was Nicaragua, in the 1990s it became Chiapas in Mexico and after 2000 it was Argentina. Now, the left wing Hajj can’t lead anywhere but Venezuela.

The key words change with the geography “Sandinista”, “Zapatista”, “Piquetero”, “Bolivariano” – but the idea is basically the same everywhere; the mass anti-imperialist struggles create opportunities for political organisation, alternative education and creative projects that are hard to find elsewhere. In the case of Venezuela, most activists head out to the slums above Caracas and get involved in the activities of the urban poor. They offer English courses, paint murals, work at community radio stations and do similar projects. They are generally infatuated with the “Bolivarian Revolution”.

As a Berlin-based leftist, it wasn’t unusual to be sitting in a café and run into some well known activist’s face: “Oh, you’re here too?”

The contradictions

But a number of activists learn that the “Bolivarian revolution” does not live up to the hype. Some even notice that there’s not much of a revolution at all. What shocks a left wing visitor to Venezuela most is the wealth – the almost unimaginable wealth of an oil state, proudly on display in Caracas in the form of gargantuan shopping malls and polished SUVs as far as the eye can see. Of course, this wealth is in the middle of equally unimaginable poverty – the slums on the hills around Carcas are juxtaposed with the steel-and-glass high rises.

Chávez won the presidential elections in 1998 with 56% of the votes. Since then he has won at least eight more national elections by ample majorities, and maintains the support of Venezuela’s poor masses. But, after nearly ten years in power, discontent is growing within Chávez’s social base – despite the record-breaking oil price (which has actually quintupled in the last decade!) and all the talk of “21st century socialism”, terrible poverty continues to exist alongside tremendous wealth. The inflation rate of almost 30% means that workers’ wages must be stretched just to buy basic foodstuffs, which are in any case in short supply. It’s not that the pro-Chavista masses are angry at Chávez, but there is growing anger directed at Chavista mayors, governors, ministers etc, who are accused of bureaucratism and corruption. (One thinks involuntarily of the peasants in the Soviet Union enraged by some local bureaucrat: “If only Stalin new about this!”)

In short, the social base of the Chávez government is becoming wobbly. In the elections at the end of the year, the, opposition has a realistic chance of taking over a number of city and state governments. The opposition politicians have turned up their social demagogy a notch, feigning concern about the lack of rice and beans on the shelves in the slums. In this situation, El Presidente has again needed to radicalise the content of his speeches in order to keep his supporters on his side. (The half-Chavista, half-Trotskyist International Marxist Tendency recently certified that Chávez speech on 1 May 2008 was his “most radical speech ever”!)

Proletarian awakening

The working class has so far only played a marginal role in the “Bolivarian process”. Only in times of crisis, such as the bosses’ “strike” in late 2002 and early 2003, when the workers’ of the oil industry organised themselves and managed to keep the oil production running despite a lock-out by management, has the power of the working class been easily visible. But even in this case, as soon as the workers had shown that they were capable of running industry themselves – and that workers’ control was central to the struggle against the counter-revolution – the government moved in and ended all workers’ control “experiments” in the oil industry, putting all of its faith in a new class of loyal Chavista bureaucrats.

A common misconception about the process in Venezuela is that the working class makes up an insignificant minority of society. Venezuela solidarity activists tend to claim that either the poor masses in the slums or the peasants in the countryside are the majority of the population, and therefore the true revolutionary subject. But, as Chávez himself admits, Venezuela has very low agricultural production and peasants make up a small part of the population.1 The slum dwellers, far from being some kind of new social class who are outside the production process, work to a large extent below the slums, down in the cities. A worker at the Ministry of Labour claimed that of Venezuela’s 24-27 million inhabitants, around 12 million sell their labour in order to survive (the most classical definition of proletarians), and of these, seven million have a regular, salaried job (but not necessarily a contract).

The working class will be decisive for the further development in Venezuela. When the alliance between the “patriotic” sectors of the bourgeoisie and the masses grouped around the left-bonapartist government of Chávez begins to splinter in the coming months or years, the working class can intervene and resolve the crisis by imposing their own rule in the form of a workers’ government. But for this to happen all efforts need to be directed towards building up an independent political force of the working class, a point which I have made in an earlier article in Permanent Revolution.2

Wladek Flakin, REVOLUTION,
Independent Youth Organisation

A lunch with Venezuela’s “socialist businessmen”

Caracas, 13 April 2008

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, who refers to himself a “Bolivarian socialist”, has called for alliances with the national bourgeoisie. He has even called on nationalist businessmen to participate in the “Venezuelan revolution”. But have these businessmen answered the call?

The majority of Venezuela’s capitalists are fiercely opposed to the Chávez government, as they’ve shown in two attempted coups. But there is also an important sector of the bourgeoisie that supports the government, expecting high profits from its policies of reducing dependence on imperialism by developing national industries. Who are these capitalists? What do they think about the situation in Venezuela?

To answer these questions, I visited a “technical round table” hosted by the “Association of Businessmen for Venezuela”, better known by the informal name “Association of Socialist Businessmen”. At the meeting, which took place in a chic bar in Caracas’s most expensive shopping mall, businessmen and the press could exchange their experiences doing business under the “socialist government”. No expense had been spared to woo visitors: there was fresh-pressed melon juice, filet mignon on toothpicks, little cakes brought around by waiters – and at night, as one of the young assistants told me, this bar was the best disco in the city.

This businessmen’s association was founded during the bosses’ lock-out (sometimes referred to as a “strike”) in December 2002. This adventurist attempt to topple the Chávez government failed, but not without doing great damage to the national economy. A group of middle-sized businessmen, including a few directors of large corporations, made the call – “No to the strike! Yes to work!” – and the association was born. At the beginning it had 3,000 members; today more than 300,000 mostly small and middle-sized businesses have signed up.

I spoke for a while with Dr Uzcátegui, president of the association, and my first question was of course: “Socialist businessmen? Isn’t that a bit contradictory?” but he was used to the question: “We need to be more precise. The government is talking about socialism of the 21st century, which is neither dogmatic nor reformist. It’s a nationalist socialism, a Venezuelan socialism, which is being built with all social sectors, including businessmen.”

I mentioned that Chávez is often attacked in the international press for restricting the free market, and Uzcátegui replied: “The state needs to regulate, to control the economy. The traditional businessmen have a mentality which is neoliberal and speculative, not productive. This mentality can’t run free, it needs to be controlled. We support the economic model of the government, which has been successful. Traditional businessmen are losing influence, which is why they want to destabilise the government. But we aim for an integration of the private sector with the Bolivarian government.”

Our talk was interrupted by a round of presentations. A representative of a chemical manufacturer explained how he was going to a business conference in Shanghai with the help of the Venezuelan labour ministry. Then I had to present myself from the stage as well: “We have a friend, a journalist from Germany, here.” I’m not much of a public speaker: “Yes, uh, thanks, uh, for the food . . .”

When we continued, I asked about the strategic vision of the “patriotic capitalists”, and Uzcátegui presented a vision very similar to that of Chávez himself: transforming the economic model of the country, towards more distribution of wealth, less exploitation, more production and less monopolies. He referred to this goal repeatedly as “socialist production”. “Economic power is still very important in Venezuela, and it’s the old oligarchy that has this power and is running a media campaign to mis-interpret the policies of the government.” Breaking the oligarchy’s economic power was his goal, even if it was “the most difficult sector of the revolution”.

About the government’s policies of nationalisations, Uzcátegui said they were supported by the businessmen’s association, for example the recent announcement of the nationalisation of the steel works SIDOR. “These businesses have all been strategic, and the nationalisations have benefited thousands of other businesses.” At the same time, he said the word “nationalisation” wasn’t quite right, since the businesses have been bought at a market price by the government. “The government and the multinational corporation sit down at a table and work out a deal that’s acceptable to both sides. In the case of [the Caracas phone company] CANTV, for example, there wasn’t one complaint by the shareholders. The government was excessively fair, paying 480 million for the company.”

Finally, I asked if the “socialist businessmen” were concerned about a radicalisation of the Chavista movement – after all, there are some sectors behind the president who call for the complete nationalisation of the economy. But Uzcátegui isn’t worried at all: the country has a “common leader who’s strong” in the person of Chávez (who meets with the “socialist businessmen” at least once a month) who will ensure that the government’s policies don’t hurt business interests. Chávez’ main accomplishment was, in the words of the business leader, “reforming nationalism”, with policies which have strengthened the “productive business sector” (i.e. the small and middle-sized bourgeoisie).

The “Association of Businessmen for Venezuela” (in Spanish, EMPREVEN) is growing rapidly, at the expense of the traditional and virulently anti-Chávez association, FEDECAMERAS. The name means simply the “Federation of Local Chambers of Commerce”, and more and more of these chambers which make up FEDECAMERAS are switching over to EMPREVEN.

The Chávez government’s policies of national development, reversing earlier privatisations with profits from the oil industry and giving credits to small and not-so-small businesses, are creating a new bourgeoisie which is loyal to the regime. The Chávez project – and here I, as a Marxist, agree with a representative of the capitalists – is a project of developing a strong, independent economy in Venezuela which is based on private property.

Dr. Uzcátegui summarised our talk: “It’s a great time to do business in Venezuela. Fantastic, even.” The motto on the fliers of the association says it all: “To transform Venezuela into a world power.”

SIDOR’s steel workers fight owners and Chavez police

31 March 2008

On 14 March Venezuelan police brutally attacked a demonstration by thousands of striking steel workers from the SIDOR factory. The “Bolivarian National Guard” arrested 53 workers, injured more than a dozen with rubber bullets and even smashed up 51 cars with batons. This repression was directed against a three day strike by the SIDOR workers, part of an ongoing struggle over the last 15 months.

SIDOR, Latin America’s biggest steel works, is located in the city Ciudad Guyana in the state of Bolívar. More than 13,000 workers are demanding a new collective contract with wage increases and improvements in working conditions.

SIDOR was privatised in 1998 by the government of Rafael Caldera. Currently it is controlled by the Argentinean multinational Ternium-Sidor, which is part of the consortium Techint. Ternium owns 60% of the factory, 20% belongs to the state of Bolívar and 20% belongs to the 15,000 workers who were employed at the factory at the time of privatisation.

In the nine years since privatisation working conditions have become worse and worse – 19 workers have died on the job! On 25 March, a 52 year old worker died of a heart attack. His station, which used to be run by three workers, is now maintained by a single worker thanks to “rationalisation”. This death provoked a further 72-hour strike by the SIDOR workers.

The strike was decided at an emergency workers’ assembly on the evening of the death, without any leaders of the trade union present; they had also missed the spontaneous assemblies before the three day strike on 13 March and the one day strike on 24 March. The latest strike included a 5,000 strong demonstration through Ciudad Guyana.

The workers and their trade union SUTISS (United Trade Union of Steel Workers and Similar Industries) are demanding not only a collective contract but also the re-nationalisation of the steel works, since in the last few years the Venezuelan government has talked a lot about reversing privatisations.

Less than one-third of the workers at SIDOR have a secure job. The other two-thirds are employed on temporary contracts and have significantly fewer rights (vacation, housing benefits, job security etc). A further demand of the current struggle is to win permanent contracts for all workers.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has been largely silent about the SIDOR conflict: even now, two weeks after the brutal repression, he has not distanced himself from the actions of the National Guard or responded to the demands for nationalisation. The Chávez government doesn’t want to jeopardise its good relations with Argentinean government of Cristina Kirchner, which stands behind the Techint corporation.

“If this were a Yankee company, the government would have re-nationalised it long ago,” the workers’ representatives complain. José Melendez, from the executive committee of SUTISS, argued that “what’s good for the rooster is good for the hen”, referring to the need to nationalise all multinational corporations. “In Venezuela we talk about socialism, but our leaders should tell us what socialism they mean, since the capitalists continue to do as they wish at the expense of the workers.”

The strikers’ most well known banner made the same point: “Chávez, rampant capitalism is present in SIDOR”. The “Trade Union Alliance”, a left wing list within SUTISS (of which Melendez is a representative), pointed out in a flyer that a presidential decree gave the temporary workers at the state-owned oil company PDVSA permanent contracts. Their flyer continued: “We demand the President treats us the same as the workers of PDVSA.”

But the government has so far been largely on the side of the bosses. Labor Minister José Ramón Rivero first tried to install an “arbitration council”, a body hand-picked by himself which would decide on a solution to the conflict that the workers would have to accept. The workers rejected this proposal entirely.

Then the minister tried to impose a “referendum”, a vote of all the SIDOR workers about the owners’ latest offer, organised by the National Electoral Council. Again, this proposal was rejected as state interference in the sovereign decision-making processes of the trade unions.

Labor Minister Rivero has earned the hatred of the SIDORistas. Melendez commented: “They shouldn’t call him the Minister of Labor but rather the Minister of the Owners!” But President Chávez, who is very popular amongst Venezuelan workers, is also subject to mounting criticism.

At a national meeting to build a solidarity campaign for SIDOR, in Ciudad Guyana on 29 March, the mood amongst the 200 or so trade union leaders and workers from all over Venezuela was quite hostile to the “socialist government”.

“I’ve been at SIDOR for 30 years and I’ve never seen this kind of repression, not even in the Fourth Republic [the Venezuelan Republic until 1998]” said José Rodriguez from the SUTISS executive committee. Cruz Bello, also from the executive committee, talked about the need for a political party of the working class to fight for workers’ interests in conflicts like the current one. Many SIDORistas felt that the government’s backing for the owners in this conflict will significantly reduce its support in the industrial region around Ciudad Guyana, which up till now has been a bastion of “Chavismo”.

The lawyer representing SUTISS took this thought even further: “On 14 March – precisely on the anniversary of the death of Karl Marx – when President Chávez was talking about Marx and the proletarians, the National Guard, which is under the command of the president, was attacking protests by the proletariat. Even in the strike of 1971, which I supported back then as a law student, I haven’t seen such repression . . . Even if it does write ‘socialist’ on its forehead, the bourgeoisie still needs to repress the working class.”

At the solidarity meeting the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) sought to reconcile support for the SIDOR workers with sympathy for the government. The PCV’s first representative who spoke declared that the struggle at SIDOR should be “the spark that sets Venezuela ablaze” and explained that the repression by the police was because the “state in Venezuela is essentially a state at the service of the bourgeoisie. We must destroy it and construct popular power!”

But at the same time, he said the fight for the victory of the SIDORistas and the destruction of the state would be “side by side with the Bolivarian government”, i.e. with the leadership of the state that’s repressing the workers!

The PCV’s Secretary General Oscar Figuera arrived at the very end of the assembly and spoke for 45 minutes in an attempt to cool the discontent with Chávez. He explained that “the main enemy isn’t the national government, it’s the multinational corporation” and “we need to define the main enemy so we can win allies, we can’t drive the government away with too much criticism”. But as this point he was interrupted by angry workers who interjected, “But they’re defending capitalism!”

The assembly in support of the SIDOR struggle was just one expression of the growing alienation between the Chávez government and the Venezuelan workers. After nine years in power, Chávez’ “Bolivarian revolution” hasn’t brought about fundamental changes to the economy, and the daily life of Venezuela’s workers still consists of “rampant capitalism”. Many activists see the struggle at SIDOR as a possible turning point, when the working class will take up an independent role in Venezuelan politics.

Orlando Chirino, a national co-ordinator of the National Workers’ Union (UNT), expressed this clearly at the assembly: “If the SIDOR workers win, this anti-worker Labor Minister will fall in a few minutes. If the SIDOR workers win, the workers in the public sector will win their struggle. If the SIDOR workers win, the fight for trade union autonomy will win.”

In this spirit, the assembly passed a resolution agreeing to form a solidarity committee for SIDOR and demanding the president speak up about the repression of 14 March.
The night before the national meeting, there had been a big solidarity festival in a park on the Orinoco river. Up to 1,000 workers and their families came to listen to music and speeches to draw strength for the struggle ahead. Messages of solidarity arrived from all over Venezuela and Latin America, including a declaration by Argentinian train workers describing their struggles against Techint and the need for a united struggle of the workers against multinational corporations.

April statement: Solidarity with the workers of SIDOR!

For the last 15 months the workers of the Venezuelan steel works SIDOR have been fighting for a new collective contract and the re-nationalisation of the factory. There have been at least eight strikes, multiple demonstrations and a national assembly of solidarity. On 14 March a demonstration by SIDOR workers was brutally attacked by the national police, leaving more than 50 workers under arrest and more than a dozen injured.

We denounce this repression, an act by Venezuela’s capitalist state (even though the government calls itself “socialist”) to silence the legitimate demands of the workers. The solution to the workers’ problems lies in the expropriation of the multinational corporation Ternium-Sidor, not under the control of the state bureauucracy but under the control of the workers themselves. A victory of the SIDOR workers will inspire workers across Venezuela and Latin America to fight for their interests. Therefore, we say:

* Solidarity with the workers of the SIDOR steel works!
* For the nationalisation of SIDOR under workers’ control!
* For socialist revolution in Venezuela and across the world!

The nationalisation of the Venezuelan SIDOR steelworks is a victory for the workers

Caracas, 20 April 2008

In the early hours of Wednesday 9 April, Venezuela’s Vice-President Ramon Carrizalez announced that the SIDOR steelworks in the city, Ciudad Guyana, would be nationalised by the government. At this moment, negotiations are going on between the Venezuelan government and Techint about the sale price of the shares, and Techint is expected to keep a 20% share of the company.

This announcement is in the first place a victory for the 15,000 SIDORistas, who for the last fifteen months have been fighting for higher wages, better working conditions and permanent contracts for the 9,000 temporary workers in the plant. They have also been demanding the re-nationalisation of SIDOR, which was privatised in 1998.

The conflict escalated this year, with nine strikes in the first four months of 2008, as well as national solidarity meetings and demonstrations in Ciudad Guyana. More than once the workers’ suffered brutal repression at the hands of the Bolivarian National Guard.

The SIDOR workers greeted the government’s announcement last Wednesday with a massive celebration that very morning, and the local trade union leaders outdid each other in praising Chávez and his government. They conveniently forgot their own harsh criticism of just a few weeks earlier and, more importantly, they ignored the fact that the surprising decision in favour of nationalisation was not some gift from the Commandante en Jefe, but rather a reaction to a particularly determined struggle by the workers.

At the same time, the announcement was a blow for Venezuela’s Labour Minister José Ramón Rivero (who was a Trotskyist militant until the late 1990s and still sometimes refers to himself with that term) who, from the beginning of the conflict, had intervened on the side of the bosses. On April 15, a week after the nationalisation was announced, Chávez removed him from his post. This was a genuine “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”, since even in the final negotiations between the government, the SIDOR management and the workers, the government was no longer represented by the Labour Minister but rather by the Vice-President Rivero.

Rivero is hated by more or less the entire workers’ movement in Venezuela, including the members of his own trade union tendency, the Bolivarian Socialist Workers’ Force (FSBT). His pro-business position was most clear during the conflict at the ceramics factory Sanitarios de Maracay, where he steadfastly refused the workers’ demands for the nationalisation of their plant.

The conflict at SIDOR and the pro-business attitude of government was leading to fissures in the social base of Chavismo. A national meeting of trade union leaders in Ciudad Guyana on March 25 was filled with criticism of the government, sharper than any time in the last nine years. Many working class activists felt that the struggle at SIDOR could lead to a break between the Chávez government and the working class vanguard. It’s clear that the government saw things exactly the same way, and made a surprising 180-degree turn in its policies towards SIDOR. At the same time, this decision can also be seen as part of a long term shift towards a stronger focus on developing national industry in Venezuela, which requires a reliable supply of raw materials like steel.

Several things are clear from the SIDOR struggle: the Chávez government still has plenty of room to manoeuvre – with oil at over $100 a barrel, it still has plenty of money to finance its development projects and buy the support of the workers’ movement.
A break between Chávez and a significant sector of the workers has been averted – for now. But the fundamental problems of the SIDOR workers have not been solved: the 9,000 temporary workers still need permanent jobs and the 4,000 permanent workers still need a large raise just to match an inflation of almost 30% per year.

The government isn’t questioning the “right” of a multinational corporation to own at least 20% of the steel plant, and in no nationalised factory in Venezuela has the “socialist” government allowed full-scale workers’ control, as demanded by the SIDOR workers.

So the struggle at SIDOR is not over. The course of the struggle up till now shows that the workers cannot rely on Chávez government to defend their interests. They must force its hand by organising, demonstrating and striking – and defending themselves against the “Bolivarian” police and the “socialist” state bureaucracy. The government’s policies of developing a national industry in Venezuela (a task which big bourgeoisie has ignored for the last century) are a long way from “socialism” and are not in the long term interest of the workers.

The workers in Venezuela need to build up their own revolutionary party, independent of capitalists and state bureaucrats, in order to consistently defend both their immediate class interests and also the strategic goal of abolishing capitalism.

The struggle at Sanitarios Maracay continues

Sanitarios Maracay is a factory that produces ceramic bathroom products, located in the Venezuelan state of Aragua. The factory’s name has become synonymous with a heroic workers’ struggle and the massive contradictions that exist between the workers’ movement and the “socialist” government in Venezuela.

Sanitarios Maracay is a huge factory, which employed as many as 1,000 workers and controlled around 70% of the Venezuelan market for bathroom fixtures, producing up to 2,500 complete bathrooms per week. But the business went into a downward spiral in 2003 and eventually the owner filed for bankruptcy.

When he announced that all workers were to be fired and re-hired under significantly worse conditions in November 2006, they occupied the factory and began producing under workers’ control.

From the outset the position of the Venezuelan government towards the occupation was hostile. The government had previously nationalised a number of businesses which had been abandoned by their owners, for example the factories Inveval and Invepal. But the Labor Minister José Ramón Rivero consistently rejected demands for nationalisation of Sanitarios Maracay, arguing that the business simply wasn’t “strategic” for Venezuelan industry. The workers point out that the government runs a huge housing project, Petrocasa, which needs 18,000 bathrooms this year alone. But the government gave the contract to the other big ceramics factory in Maracay, which is a normal capitalist business.

Over nine months the struggle at Sanitarios Maracay slowly ran out of steam and money. The hard line of the Bolivarian government demoralised a large number of workers who had counted on support from their government.

“We’ve had visitors from the US, Germany, France, Korea and all over the world. The only person who hasn’t visited is Chávez, even though he lived only 90 kilometers away” comments José Villegas, one of the strike leaders.

By 10 August 2007 it was possible for a co-ordinated action of the Labour Ministry, the trade union bureaucracy and the administrative personnel of the factory to depose the strike committee and convince a majority of the workers to accept a settlement. They got at least 3,000 Strong Bolivars each (about US$1,400) and ended the occupation.

Only a small minority of workers decided to continue the struggle – about 60 in total (down from the 600 who began the occupation nine months earlier).

In December, they occupied a small production installation just across the street from the main complex, where plastic parts for the bathroom products were produced. In the last six months they have been producing toilet seats, plungers and similar products and selling them on the street.

In the last year there has been little information about Sanitarios Maracay in the English-speaking left. This is principally because most reports had been published by the “International Marxist Tendency” of Alan Woods, whose strategic goal was a negotiated settlement between the workers and the government.

As the government refused to negotiate and the confrontations intensified – the state forces brutally attacked workers going to Caracas for a demonstration in April 2007, and the workers of Maracay responded with a regional general strike – the IMT group decided to withdraw. “The people from FRETECO [the IMT’s trade union front] don’t come around anymore” said Marco Pacheco, one of the leaders of the occupiers. “They’ve got a very friendly position with the government.” The IMT’s Chavismo goes so far that they blame the workers for the fact that the government didn’t nationalise the plant – they argue that the regional general strike scared off the well-meaning “revolutionary” government!

The workers of Sanitarios Maracay desperately need solidarity in order to maintain production. Spread information and collect funds in support of the occupation!

Background links
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanitarios_Maracay
www.marxist.com/sanitarios-maracay-balance-sheet.htm

Impressions of a socialist battalion meeting of the PSUV

On Sunday 5 April the members of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) voted for the 24 regional co-ordinations of their party. The “Socialist Battalions”, the base units of the PSUV, met up all over the country. I attended the assembly of the “Socialist Battalion Number 13” near the Plaza La Concordia in Caracas. The meeting took place in a long, narrow loft where the fans swinging back and forth on the walls couldn’t do much against the exhausting heat. “The temperature in this hall helps to keep meetings short” was the comment of one PSUV member.

I had been expecting a large, city-wide assembly of delegates to elect the local leadership, but instead there were only meetings of the neighbourhood groups. The members in attendance were instructed to each write three names on a slip of paper. The lack of an assembly meant it was impossible for candidates to present themselves, so most of the time was spent discussing questions of eligibility: “Is he a member of the PSUV in Caracas? Does he already have a party function somewhere else?”

The election process was just as ridiculously undemocratic as the election of the PSUV’s national leadership at the founding congress one month ago. The 60 members who received the most votes would form a list of possible candidates. Then the national leadership would select from these 60 the 15 members and 15 alternates of the regional co-ordination. “I don’t like it either, but that’s the way it is” was all the battalion’s spokesman could say about the process.

This electoral farce shows the truth behind the repeated claims by the Chavez government that the PSUV is being built “from the bottom up”. It also shows how little power the members of the PSUV have to oppose these bureaucratic structures; at the PSUV founding congress, hundreds of delegates signed a letter of protest against the process of selection (not election) of the national leadership. But this protest has obviously had no effect, as a similar process was used at the regional level.

The most notable thing about the battalion’s meeting was its composition. Chavez announced the formation of the “Socialist Battalions” as bodies of roughly 200 PSUV members each. The election meeting of Battalion No 13 was attended by just 23 – and this is no exception.
The only people under 30 were two young children of PSUV members and one “Chavotrotskyist” from the tendency “El Militante” (linked to the IMT). The only worker who was active in a trade union explained that he had been attending these meetings “since way back when this used to be called the MVR.” Many analysts from the international left want to see a qualitative shift between Chavez’ old, bourgeois nationalist party, the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR), and his new party, the PSUV, but many members of these parties recognise the continuity.

To put this in numbers – when the PSUV was formed, it claimed six million members. Only about 15% of these six million, or 900,000 people, ever attended a PSUV meeting. And six months later, only about 10-15% of these 900,000 – 100,000 or so – are still active.

The PSUV, with 100,000 active members, is of course a mass party. But it’s not the totally-super-gigantic-mass party that many expected the PSUV to be – in fact it’s not larger, relative to the size of the population, than most social democratic parties in Europe. This might explain the lack of success of the left wing groups that dissolved in order to enter the PSUV and work inside it. Of the more than 1,600 delegates at the founding congress, the tendency “El Militante” had just seven; the group “Marea Socialista”, which includes a number of well known trade union leaders, had one single delegate.

In a conversation after the meeting, the member of the tendency “El Militante” who was present explained: “I think the PSUV is a bureaucratic instrument for the government to control the masses. I can say that to you, but I can’t say that to the masses in the PSUV, because they wouldn’t understand it. They see the PSUV as a democratic instrument to transform the country.”

Well, I agree with the first part of what this “El Militante” activist said, but in contrast to him I think the masses can and must understand that the PSUV is not an instrument to fight for socialism. But for them to understand it, Marxists inside and outside the PSUV will need to present their views openly. If the PSUV members want socialism they’ll need to create their own revolutionary, socialist party, independent of “socialist” businessmen and the “Bolivarian” state bureaucracy.

Socialist Unity of the Left

While all eyes in Venezuela and internationally are focused on the government’s new party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), steps are being taken to form a new party based exclusively on the working class.

In late April, the National Electoral Council (CEN) legalised a regional party in the state of Aragua. As Richard Gallardo, a national co-ordinator of the trade union federation UNT, explained, this new party, the Socialist Unity of the Left (USI), aims to construct “an authentic party of the Venezuelan workers who are committed to the revolutionary process, in struggle against imperialism, multinational corporations, businessmen and big landowners, in defence of national sovereignty and for the construction of a revolutionary socialist society free of exploiters and oppressors.”

The initiative for the new party is supported by well-known activists like Orlando Chirino, national coordinator of the UNT, José Bodas, general secretary of the oil workers’ union in Anzoátegui, Miguel Angel Hernández, professor at the Central University of Venezuela, Richard Gallardo, president of the UNT in Aragua, José Villegas, the principal leader of the strike at Sanitarios de Maracay and many other workers’ leaders.1 Last year, these activists created the “Movement for the Construction of a Workers’ Party” and began developing common political work – among other things, they called for a blank vote in the referendum for the government’s constitutional reform, which got a lot of attention on the international left.2

Now they are taking steps to build up the USI as a political party and participate in the state elections at the end of the year. These elections could be decisive for the whole Chavista project. Chávez remains very popular throughout Venezuela, but there is a growing discontent with the day-to-day realities of “21st century socialism”, which is expressed as increasing frustration with local functionaries.

Concretely this means the government camp could lose the governorships in up to a third of Venezuela’s 24 states to the opposition. In this situation the leaders of the USI want to present a political alternative to the left of Chávez so that disillusioned workers don’t abstain – as happened in the referendum on the constitutional reform – or support the opposition. This is why they are working to have the party legalised in a number of states as a step towards becoming a national party. The founding congress of the USI is scheduled for this summer.

The name of the new party is “certainly not ideal”, as Miguel Angel Hernández admits. However, Venezuela’s electoral laws prohibit parties from mentioning “social sectors” in their names, so for instance the word “workers” cannot be used in its title. The original name proposed for the new party was the “Party of the Socialist Left” but the Electoral Council instead gave them the name Socialist Unity of the Left.

There has been some preparatory work for the formation of a workers’ party – for example, the regional congress of the UNT in Aragua last year voted for the creation of a political instrument of the working class. But there has so far been no big campaign of workers’ assemblies to discuss the new party. Indeed the activists initiating the USI don’t believe it’s the moment for a mass workers’ party in Venezuela. Only a tiny vanguard has broken from Chavismo, and while larger breaks are inevitable, this will not necessarily happen in the coming weeks and months. The USI is conceived as an instrument to intervene when significant sectors of the working class move to the left of the Chávez government.

The discussions about the formation of a new party have gone on around the Venezuelan supporters of the “International Workers’ Unity” (UIT), an international Trotskyist current centred in Latin America. The USI is conceived as the Venezuelan section of the UIT, as a Trotskyist cadre party with no more than 100-200 active militants at the beginning. “It will be a small party but it will include important workers’ leaders, and via them it will have a mass influence” explains Miguel Sorans, an Argentinean who is one of the principal leaders of the UIT. At the moment in Venezuela he believes it isn’t possible to create a mass party based on the trade unions containing many political tendencies, similar to the “Workers’ Party” in Brazil in the 1980s. “The difference is that the PT was centred around Lula, a Christian trade union bureaucrat, whereas a workers’ party in Venezuela would be centered around Chirino, a revolutionary and a Trotskyist”.

It has been almost ten years since the last significant Trotskyist organization in Venezuela, the Socialist Workers’ Party (PST) dissolved. Many local Trotskyist groups continued to exist – each one grouped around a trade union leader who came from the PST – and produce small publications. The first attempt to bring these groups together was in 2005 with the foundation of the Party of Revolution and Socialism (PRS), which fell apart in 2007 over the question of how to relate to the PSUV.

The formation of the USI now represents the next serious attempt to form a revolutionary socialist organisation at a national level, based on the principle of independence from the government. The UIT activists have a problematic tradition in relation to Chavismo – for example in the PRS they were against a workers’ candidacy in the presidential elections. The Morenoite tradition of Trotskyism includes countless adaptions to bourgeois nationalism and populism, and includes many stitch-ups with reformist bureaucrats carried on alongside revolutionary phraseology.3

But it is clear that the UIT in Venezuela is playing a central role in the struggle for workers’ political independence from Chavismo, and deserves the support of revolutionaries internationally (without abandoning criticism of their inconsistencies). The formation of the USI could be a step towards the creation of an independent, revolutionary workers’ party with a mass base in Venezuela. But in order to win the masses for this project, it will be necessary to not only rely on the prestige of different C-CURA leaders, but to involve the broadest sectors of the working class in a campaign to discuss the programme and perspectives of the new party. Only by counter-posing radical workers’ democracy to the bureaucratic control in the PSUV will it be possible to win an important number of activists for the USI and an independent, revolutionary socialist party.

The workers who have struggled most under Chavismo are the most conscious of the necessity for a workers’ party. As José Villegas, one of the principal leaders of the struggle at Sanitarios Maracay and also a supporter of the USI project, explained: “Just as we workers demonstrated that we can control and direct the production in businesses during the bosses’ strike-sabotage of 2002, or in the experience of workers’ control in Sanitarios de Maracay, we also want to propose that we can direct the country via a workers’ government, and for this we need our own political party without bourgeois, without big landowners, without bureaucrats and corrupt people.”

End notes
1. a longer list: http://www.uit-ci.org/modules/news/article.php?storyid=112
2. English translation of this call: www.permanentrevolution.net/?view=entry&entry=1811
3. A number of articles on Morenoism and its history can be found on the Permanent Revolution website – just use the search tool for “Morenoism”.

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An interview with Orlando Chirino

Orlando Chirino has become a very contentious figure in the workers’ movement in Venezuela both for refusing to join the government’s new party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and for calling for a blank vote in the constitutional reform referendum initiated by Hugo Chávez last year. Largely because of these positions, he was recently fired from his job at the state oil company PDVSA, and there has been an international solidarity campaign against his dismissal.

I spoke to Orlando Chirino on 24 March in Ciudad Guyana, in the midst of the workers’ struggle at the steel works SIDOR. We don’t agree with all his positions or his entire political trajectory, but we believe he has made an important and courageous stand in resisting the pressure by the Chávez government to place the workers’ movement under state control. We would like to make his views known to an international audience, in order to clear up some misconceptions which have been spread by Chávez supporters within Venezuela and internationally.

Comrade Chirino is currently a member of the “International Workers’ Unity” (UIT) a Trotskyist international current centred in Latin America based on the political heritage of Nahuel Moreno. As is the case with most Venezuelan trade union leaders, Chirino speaks extremely quickly and for long stretches. We have done our best to provide an accurate and readable English translation of the interview, but to judge Chirino’s political positions fully it is best to read statements of his in Spanish.

Wladek Flakin

Comrade Chirino, as a leader of the workers’ movement in Venezuela, how do you analyze the situation after the referendum for a constitutional reform on 2 December of last year?
In the first place, the result of the referendum was a defeat for the government, for its new party the PSUV and for its trade union bureaucracy. This marked the end of one period and the beginning of another, in which President Chávez, not only in his speeches but also in his concrete policies, has shifted further and further to the right, making greater concessions to the bourgeoisie at the national and international level.

Can you give some examples of this shift?
If you think about his policies in regards to the summit of Río [with Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa], it’s evident that this was a capitulation to Uribe and US imperialism. Also the decision to lift or make more flexible the price controls on most basic foodstuffs was a capitulation to the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. Chávez even made a decree which suspended, for six months, the regulations stipulating that import companies, in order to maintain their licences, have to respect certain labour standards such as allowing collective contracts, discussing with workers’ representatives, paying workers who are victims of labour accidents etc. The regulations said if a company didn’t comply with this, their license was to be removed so they couldn’t import. But these have been suspended for six months. This is the clearest expression of the shift to the right.

So the government’s latest policies mean taking back workers’ rights that had been won in the past?
Exactly. At the moment, the government is negotiating with multinational corporations – for example with auto manufacturers – and these negotiations are taking place without any participation by the workers’ movement and the trade unions.
That’s why I said the shift to the right is also visible at an international level. The most serious example is that the government (which we’ve called anti-trade union in the past) has put the Labour Ministry at the service of the PSUV and the trade union bureaucracy, in order to attack and try to defeat the trade union movement. By that I mean they attack the class-based trade union movement which fights for autonomy and independence. More concretely I’m referring to the C-CURA1 and also myself. As you know, I’ve been fired from my position at PDVSA for political reasons.

What do these attacks mean concretely?
Look at the struggle that’s underway at SIDOR. First the government tried to impose an arbitration council on the workers. As this was openly rejected by the workers and their trade union, the government tried to set up a parallel union. Now, the third attempt by the government to serve the Argentinian multinational Ternium-SIDOR in this conflict is that the government and the owners are trying to impose a referendum on the workers. But this kind of democratic consultation is a question exclusively for the workers and their trade union, not the National Electoral Council [CEN] and the owners.
The workers and their trade union will carry out a consultation when they believe there is any possibility of reaching an agreement with the company. These are three pieces of evidence which show that the government wants to destroy the workers’ struggle. They know if the SIDOR workers win, that will force a qualitative change in the government’s policies, because it will mean a defeat of the unilateralism with which they try to control the workers’ movement.

How have they tried to do this?
Last year on May Day, the government, with the reserves of the Venezuelan state, organised the May Day rally, decided on the speakers, published the manifesto, etc, going over the heads of the UNT completely. The year before, it had been the UNT that organised the May Day rally. But under this Labour Minister the government is trying, in general terms, to destroy the autonomy and independence of the trade union movement.

And Chávez has spoken out against trade union autonomy, hasn’t he?
That was on 24 March of last year at the meeting to launch the PSUV. In the speech (which was crucial for us of C-CURA in our decision not to join the PSUV) he said that trade union autonomy was just “poison from the Fourth Republic”. This was right at the beginning of the formation of the PSUV when the first proposals for the new party were being made.
Losing the 2 December referendum was a defeat because more than three million people who had voted for Chávez in the last elections stayed at home; a part of the Venezuelan workers voted “No”, a part voted blank, but the largest part abstained. It’s a clear rejection of the government’s policies. What are all these policies aiming at? In SIDOR, today is an important day – the top leadership of the PSUV is here, as well as a commission selected by the President of the Republic, for a secret meeting to try to negotiate a solution between Ternium-SIDOR and the workers (and to weaken tomorrow’s national meeting of trade union leaders for solidarity with SIDOR), to try to impose a referendum and avoid an indefinite strike.

Is it normal in Venezuela for the National Electoral Commission (CEN) to organize referendums within workplaces?
No, no, no. This kind of referendum is a normally question for the trade union. The CEN is committing a serious abuse of power. All bourgeois democratic governments in Venezuela tried to control the trade union movement, but they did it via their trade union bureaucracy, via their leaders in the workers’ organisations. Today it’s the state, going over the heads of the trade unions, that is trying to control the workers directly. The bureaucrats of the Bolivarian Socialist Workers’ Force (FSBT)2 don’t have any representative in the leadership of SIDOR’s trade union, SUTISS.
It’s evident that in this period, the concrete facts about collective contracts – not only in SIDOR but in all sectors of the working class – show the government refusing to negotiate with workers. They want to impose the referendum not because they think they’re going to win, but as a means to dismantle the trade union movement altogether.
The organised workers in SIDOR oppose the company’s proposals, but there are also 1,800 workers from the -management level, who are mostly technical personnel, and the company uses them as a contingent. That’s 1,800 votes the government and the bosses are counting on, as well as many new workers just entering the plant who might also vote for the company’s proposal. But these people, who would vote in the CEN referendum, have nothing to do with the contract at SIDOR.

Is this case alone enough to talk about the government’s “anti-worker policies”?
To give another example, since 2004 they have refused to discuss with public sector workers about their collective contract at a national level. The contract ran out in 2004. If you combine this contract from 2004 with an inflation of 22.5% last year, with a projection heading towards 30% for this year and the food shortages, much of which has been provoked by sectors of the right, it’s a salary that has been pushed down massively. At a time when they won’t discuss the collective contract and there’s high inflation, it’s obvious that there’s a lot of pressure to struggle, and lots of people are struggling, for example blocking streets.
I’ll give you an example – yesterday the employees of the Labour Ministry occupied a ministry office in Caracas. What were their demands? It’s been 17 years since their collective contract was last discussed – that’s eight years under the Fourth Republic and nine years under the Fifth Republic!

Weren’t you occupying the Labour Ministry last year?
That’s a different story, but I’m happy to tell it: 17 trade union leaders who had been delegated by almost 100 trade unions of the base went to present a proposal for a collective contract to the Labour Minister. But he refused to accept it, even though article 51 of the constitution specifies that every functionary is obliged to receive complaints and proposals. The 17 of us occupied the office and they brought armed thugs [pistoleros] to drive us out. The next day the minister went on TV to say that the workers themselves had driven us out of his office. And we had no right to present a response – the state TV gave us no possibility. We’re still waiting for him to call us up to discuss the contract.

How does the workers’ movement reflect this?
At the UNT congress of 25-27 August 2006 – and this is recorded, since we distributed the records around the world – of the 1,750 delegates at least 1,100 supported the positions of C-CURA. After that congress the government and its trade union bureaucracy, the FSBT, sabotaged the UNT. They left the congress and they never came back. Since then there hasn’t been a meeting of the UNT executive – not one meeting since May 2006.

So two years without a trade union centre?
Almost two years. I said I’m a national coordinator of the UNT, but I can’t speak for the coordination since it doesn’t meet or make decisions. After that, the nomination of the current Labour Minister José Ramón Rivero, who is one of the leaders of the FSBT, was intended to develop its anti-worker and anti-trade union policies. -Rivero, who was a member of our party at one time33, and his trade union tendency have consistently opposed elections within the UNT.
The UNT was born on April 5, 2003, so it will be five years old soon. The original coordination was named for a transitional period of one year and then there were to be elections by the base – universal, secret, direct elections. But the government and its trade union bureaucracy couldn’t permit elections because yesterday, today and I suspect also tomorrow, the C-CURA would win them easily. So what do they do? They split the UNT, build up parallel trade unions and they’re talking about setting up a pro-government trade union centre.
At the congress, a big question was that of autonomy. In the first congress, in the discussions about the declaration of principles, they wanted to remove the part about autonomy because they said under a socialist government it wasn’t necessary for trade unions to be independent.

That’s what Trotsky said around 1920/21, but it’s difficult to compare the Soviet workers’ state with the Venezuelan state.
Clearly. And even in the 1920s, under a workers’ state, Trotsky was mistaken!

You received a lot of attention because you called for a blank vote in the referendum for a constitutional reform. A number of activists from the workers’ movement, some even calling themselves Trotskyists, accused you of helping the opposition, calling for counter-revolution etc. Why did you call for a blank vote?
First off, we need to go back to 3 December 2006, when the president won the election with 63.7% of the votes. It was a fact that the workers, peasants and popular masses of this country gave their support to Chávez, and we supported him as well. As a workers’ leader I was also in favor of defeating the right, which we did. It was a smashing victory. It was the first time after the attempted coup that the right, behind their candidate Rosales, acknowledged Chávez’s victory. The hope of the millions of us who voted for Chávez was that he would begin with the dismantling of the bourgeois state, which is capitalist, which is the most powerful obstacle against the advance towards equality, socialism, justice, full social security, an end to exploitation, etc.
We had a clear position that this was the right time to organise a constituent assembly – sovereign, popular and independent, you understand. Chávez won, and 15 days later he said he was going to make a new party, the PSUV, and present a constitutional reform to the country. Now what did we question about the reform? The method for working out and presenting the reform was anti-democratic and openly caudillo-like.4 Chávez picked a commission which worked from 15 December, when he named it, until the first days of August. Only he knew what they were doing and which articles they were planning to reform. So that lasted . . . January, February, March, April, May, June, July . . . more than seven months.
The commission proposed to reform 33 articles of the constitution. Chávez threatened that if even one single comma were removed, he would withdraw the whole project (the constitution gives him the power to make proposals but also to withdraw them if they’re changed). So there were only three months to review these proposals, from August to 2 December, before the referendum took place.

But what were the contents of the reform you objected to?
Of the proposals that jumped out at me, at our international current and at our team here, one example involved the question of property: the constitutional reform didn’t just defend private property, it added amongst the new concepts of property, the concept of “mixed property”. In our opinion, this is a step back from the current constitution, because in the current constitution the country’s natural resources – in the sea, beneath the earth, all of that – are the property of the state. But the constitutional reform would have opened the door for multinational corporations, via mixed property, to own up to 40% of these resources.
In fact, before the proposed reform there was an event that we criticised enormously, which was the problem of the concessions in the Orinoco delta. The multinational corporations there had worked on a contractual basis. But all the multinational corporations (with the exception of Exxon Mobil) now form part of joint ventures with PDVSA. This means they went from being contractors to owning 40% of the project.

But wasn’t it the case that they used to control 60% of the projects in the Orinco delta and now can only control 40%?
Well no, they used to get 60% of the profits but in terms of property, they didn’t have anything. The rules had to be changed because in reality they weren’t paying the state anything – certainly their contributions were raised significantly. But our fundamental criticism was about these joint ventures. The constitutional reform spoke about socialism in order to give 40% of our natural resources to multinational corporations!

Were there other proposed reforms you opposed?
And the social vision had a strong Bonapartist5 element. In regards to what was called “the geometry of power” – indefinite re-election was introduced only for the president; there was to be only limited re-election of governors, mayors, etc. New municipalities and communities could be created by the president and he would have the power to name vice-presidents to rule over the new territories.
In practice this means if we won the governorship of the state of Carabobo (let’s assume I became the governor of Carabobo because that’s where I live) and implemented socialist policies from below, the president could name a vice-president and take over all the resources in that state. The president might say, “Well, I wouldn’t do that to Orlando Chirino in Carabobo, only to Miguel Rosales in the state of Zulia” but the power would still be there
There was also a horrible thing about the workers in public administration. Article 141 of the current constitution says they are at the service of the citizens. The reform would have changed that to say they are at the service of public power. So if you’re a governor and I work for your administration, I’m at your service and not at the service of the citizens directly. If I form a union, you have a powerful weapon to fight against that. Finally, we looked at the question of councils: communal councils, workers’ council, farmers’ councils, students’ councils, etc.

On the international left many people see these councils as organs of self-government for the masses or even soviet-type bodies which will replace the bourgeois state in Venezuela.
From that point of view, we would defend the councils – we aren’t against them. On the contrary, if the workers, farmers, women, students etc. decide to use these councils to develop their democracy, to intensify their struggles, to broaden their organisations – if they use them as organs of management, consultation, debate, representation – then it’s important to work with them.
But what the constitutional reform proposed was a type of council like in Cuba, i.e. councils controlled by “the Party” and its people who are sent to the factories, councils that are unequivocally opposed to the trade unions (and are thus in favor of the bosses). We defended and we still defend the trade unions as the most important instruments of workers’ struggle.
I can give 15 or 20 more examples, but that’s just three things from the 33 articles proposed by the president. Afterwards, in the debate in the National Assembly, 36 more articles were added, and they were even worse.

Do these councils have the resources to act independently of the state?
When we talk about dividing the budget in this country, 25% goes to the governors and mayors, and 5% was to be destined to the communal councils (that was the original proposal, they later raised it to 10%) – the other 70% is controlled by Chávez. That’s how the budget was distributed.
The constitutional reform contained a strong element of increasing the president’s power, without any doubt, and strikes against the autonomy of the trade union movement. Establishing the workers’ councils in the constitution – who was that directed against? Against the trade union movement. Because the government was looking for a form it could use to get the trade unions to submit to its control, but it wasn’t able to.
That should explain my position, from the point of view of the trade union movement in Venezuela. What else do you want to know. We presented this position to the working class vanguard, not only here but internationally. We maintained that it was important to discuss the content of the reform, whether it would establish socialism or not. I know my position provoked strong reactions – there are sectors that love me and others that hate me because I pointed out there was not one single social improvement contained in the reform, not one step towards socialism

The reform was presented as a vote on socialism.
You can’t tell me it’s socialism just because a hospital works. In the developed capitalist countries hospitals work too. Therefore, from an ideological perspective, from the point of view of consistent Marxists, of Trotskyists, we had to oppose the reform. I thought we had to vote “No”, but openly I submitted to the decision of my organisation [the “International Workers’ Unity” or UIT]. An International Executive Committee came to Venezuela to discuss the question and we ended up deciding to call for a blank vote.
My position was that we were capable of explaining to the working class and the vanguard that the reform didn’t have anything to do with socialism – that a blank vote wasn’t a rejection of socialism, and this position didn’t have anything to do with the right.

So how do you respond to accusations that by opposing Chávez in the referendum you were supporting the counter-revolution?
You won’t find an honest worker or workers’ leader who has any doubts about my supposed sympathies for imperialism. In the epoch when I was linked to the guerrilla [of the MIR], Chávez was just entering the military academy.
The root of the problem is what kind of government is this? What is its programme? This is an anti-worker government. When there are meetings in Miraflores palace [the government headquarters] with the president and the representatives of businessmen and workers, we ask: who are these representatives, how are they selected? With the government there’s no doubt – it was elected by popular vote. But who are these businessmen? And above all: isn’t the government itself picking who will represent the working class? We oppose this kind of “tripartism”, and all forms of “social dialogue” designed to co-opt the workers’ representatives and strangle any kind of mobilisation based on class independence.
It’s a fact that the president has unilaterally determined the minimum wage in Venezuela. Since the fall of the dictatorship in 1958 until now, there were always -workers’ struggles to raise the minimum wage, to force the president and the legislative branch to make laws. Well, these struggles have been eradicated. There are no more discussions with the workers. The minimum wage is now whatever Chávez says it is. There are no discussions for collective contracts – or when there are, like right now in the oil sector, the minister hand picks the negotiating committee which is supposed to represent the workers. This is combined with attacks against our tendency.

Don’t the workers benefit from the minimum wage?
The organic law of labour obliges the president to revise the minimum wage, to sit down with the different sectors and work it out. He has revised it, but he doesn’t consult anyone. He sent us a letter last year to inform us of his decision, but we didn’t respond.
What do we think? Our current wants to discuss and debate, but he imposes measures like that. If you receive the minimum wage, you get an increase, but people who are slightly above the minimum don’t get anything. There have hardly been any raises beyond the minimum wage for the last five years, which means 71% of the public sector workers in this country are now earning the minimum wage. Of the economically active population, more than half live off the minimum wage.

And how much is that wage currently?
614 Strong Bolivars, which is US$280 at the official exchange rate.

And that in a very expensive country.
Yes, super-mega-expensive [“supercarisísimo”].)

There have been rumours that you are planning to leave the UNT and join the CTV6. What is the background to this?
We consider one of the best conquests of this revolutionary process was its trade union central, the UNT. Why? Because it was the fruit of a tremendous victory, the fruit of a defeat of imperialism in the lock-out/sabotage of late 2002, early 2003. If they had won the CTV would have been strengthened. But they lost, and the UNT was born. The UNT was the opposite of the CTV, which was born of political parties, especially the PCV [Peruvian Communist Party] and the AD [Acción Democrática]. In 1958 with their deals, they helped established the bourgeois democratic regime. These deals included an agreement to lower the salaries of workers in public administration and block strikes, which is the best example of their class collaboration.
What did I say in this situation? When the debate in the UNT began, the most bureaucratic and corrupt sectors – who today are in the PSUV, who today are deputies or ministers – said that workers who aren’t with Chávez can’t be part of the UNT, that trade unions who are against the process can’t be in the UNT. In the UNT executive committee, which included other comrades, I was the only one to oppose this position of exclusion.
I believe the trade unions are the organs of all workers regardless of their politics or ideology. From there, the big difference emerges, because if the trade union is truly democratic, if it truly wants autonomy, then we need to win all the workers who are still confused for the fight against capitalism. If we can’t convince them, they have the right to present their opinions at every point in the class struggle, as we will present ours. The trade unions aren’t political parties, they’re organisations of all workers. Now the party we want to build up, that’s different. Someone who believes in capitalism won’t join us.
In one year we turned the UNT into a reference point in this country. I used to visit Miraflores as if it was my house. The old Labour Minister elaborated many policies based on debates he had with me. In the moment of the confrontation, i.e. of the coup and the sabotage and all that, I was building up the Bolivarian trade union movement, because a part of my organisation [the PST, Socialist Workers Party] didn’t understand the dynamics of the movement and was super-sectarian in regards to Chávez. I left that organisation and I wasn’t active for two years. I dedicated myself to building up the reference point. I discussed with Chávez. I was one of the first trade union leaders Chávez listened to, along with others of course. We told him about the history of the workers’ movement.
But what happens? The UNT is born and for the first year it functions, but then it breaks down. Many trade union leaders coming from COPEI and AD sign up and set up a bureaucracy close to the government

What is the status of the CTV now?
The CTV still exists, of course as a minority trade union central, much weakened. But I want to explain this little rumour from aporrea.org.net [a Venezuelan left website] and other sources. I don’t have any illusions in the leadership of the CTV. At the point when it supported the 2002/3 strike-sabotage, this leadership ceased to be a workers’ organisation and became a political party executing pro-imperialist policies.
But the CTV still exists – why? It organises more than a few workers in the education, health care and technology sectors. We say that the Venezuelan trade union movement is in a deep crisis: a crisis of identity, of unity, of autonomy, of everything. It’s necessary to refound the trade union movement, to give it a programme that’s revolutionary, socialist, based on class independence and self-determination, with a clear position on the foreign debt (because this country under the Chávez government pays the debt better than under previous ones).
This is the debate we want. If you’re from the CTV and want to participate in this debate, we accept you. You have 20 minutes to explain your position. Those of the FSTB continue their policy of excluding the CTV. Now that we’re the majority trade union, we can win debates like this.
I never asked to have meetings with the CTV leadership, never. But the other currents of the UNT have been incapable of winning the trade unions of health care and education workers from the CTV. We work on this, and I go to these debates because I want to win the base. That’s the clear policy. Our position is that there should be elections in the UNT because, as I said, it’s a great conquest of the workers.

So you do favor a common central with unions currently organised in the CTV?
If we win the UNT elections, our policy would be to call a big congress of workers, with base delegates of all workers to unify the trade union movement in a single central, with a leadership legitimised by the workers themselves, elected directly via a universal and secret ballot. That would be the first time in Venezuela that we’d have a single central like that. Through discussions by the workers as a class, we could spread consciousness about what kind of government this is and what kind of country we want.
At bottom, bureaucratic sectors of the UNT want to wash their faces: they say the whole CTV is putschist etc. to distract from the fact that their own policies are the same or worse. They’re not connected to the ruling class via AD, rather now it’s through the PSUV.
When I came here two weeks ago, they attacked me, saying I was trying to destabilise the country by organising a strike at SIDOR and things like that. I believe that the workers of SIDOR have a right to strike and that all revolutionaries should support them, organising a national solidarity committee to build up an indefinite strike and stop anyone from entering the factory.
To repeat, I am very far from having any illusions about building up a new trade union leadership in this country together with the CTV leaders, who were putschists and seized control of the workers’ movement during the confrontation. In the trade unions, they don’t even hold elections. Our policies are completely different from theirs.

Moving on to the question of Chávez’s new party, in your opinion, what is the character of the PSUV and how do you view the possibilities for revolutionaries working inside it?
After 24 March, 2007, when the president attacked trade union autonomy and the organisers of the PSUV attempted to carry out that policy, from that moment I said openly and firmly that I’m opposed, that I’m totally against the PSUV. Even back then, before it was founded – now it has a programme and statutes – I said that it wasn’t a revolutionary party. From the point of view of internal democracy it wasn’t even clear how it was going to function; its structures had absolutely nothing to do with a Leninist party. It was profoundly anti-democratic. The process of foundation drowned any possibility of independent and revolutionary sectors participating.

That was your estimate a year ago. How do you balance the experience of the PSUV after the founding congress?
The delegates were completely knocked over by the top leaders of the government. Even though the delegates voted, the election of the national leadership was totally un-democratic. Why? The congress gave a list of 300 names to Chávez, and Chávez filtered these very well and picked 69 who could be elected. This way, even if the ones he most favoured weren’t elected, there would still be people close to him.
For example, it was a progressive development that Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the right wing of the Chavistas, was not amongst the 15 principal members of the leadership, even though he was a principal cadre of Chávez (he ended up as one of the 15 alternate members of the leadership).

The general, Müller Rojas, didn’t have such a good showing either, did he?
Müller Rojas was up for election, but even before the election he had already been named the first Vice-President of the party. Chávez has the power to name the Vice-Presidents – he didn’t just choose the 69 candidates for the leadership, from which the congress could choose 30, he has also been given the power to name as many Vice-Presidents as he considers necessary. He divided the country in four regions and named a Vice-President for each one.
Another progressive development was that none of the military candidates ended up among the 15 principal leaders of the national leadership. But the principal leaders, who are civilians, are profoundly dependent on Chávez. One extreme example is the PSUV leader Aristóbulo Istúriz – the day after election he went on television for an interview and he said: “The people say I do what Chávez tells me to do. He is the maximum leader. What do you want me to do, what Mickey Mouse tells me to do?”
That’s the main problem. But another problem is to create illusions that there’s some possibility of changing the nature of this party – it’s not a revolutionary party, it’s a centrist party. Even the comrades of Marea Socialista7, people like Gonzalo Gómez who won a place as a delegate, don’t have a chance to intervene in the debates.

Marea Socialista was present at the PSUV founding congress?
Marea had one single delegate, Gonzalo Gómez. That was out of a total of 1,677 delegates. As I said, the congress elected the national leadership in an anti-democratic way, and the upcoming election of regional leaderships will use the same method – the battalions elect 60 candidates which they send to the national leadership, and the national leadership picks the 15 principal and 15 alternate -members of the regional leaderships. That’s the methodology. There is no debate, no possibility to present documents. Right now there’s a battle going on about selecting the candidates for the elections at the end of the year, and Chávez has said that anyone who presents themselves as candidates too early will be expelled.
There is no possibility there to set up a revolutionary current, a tendency, a fraction to participate in these debates. Further, a party that is openly connected to the government can’t be an instrument of the working class. We are in the phase of raising the banner for the construction of a revolutionary workers’ party in Venezuela, which we will build up in the class struggle
For example, we are participating in the struggle of SIDOR, we are arguing for a workers’ party. There are workers’ leaders here in this state who in the past were Chavistas. Today they talk to you and say that what is happening here, day by day, makes it clear that the workers need our own party.

What are the next steps for setting up a workers’ party?
Next month we have a meeting to strengthen C-CURA and we have decided to legalise our party in four states. That way, by next year we can have a national party. The four states are Aragua, Carabobo, Cojedes and Anzoátegui.

What exactly happened to C-CURA? Is the tendency divided, are there two C-CURAs or two tendencies in the same C-CURA?
To start at the beginning, C-CURA is a tendency we found ourselves forced to constitute on 18 February, 2006. The C-CURA was formed by people who were members of the PRS6 but also comrades of different organisations, it was a political and trade union organisation with different tendencies, including members of the MVR [Movement for the Fifth Republic] and the Tupamaros. But the fundamental cadre were broadly Trotskyist.
By 18 May, we had managed to win a majority at the UNT congress. That was a great triumph for C-CURA and it became the unquestionable majority tendency in the country, with lots of political respect. This led the government to develop a policy of destroying C-CURA.
When does the crisis in C-CURA begin? When the president introduces his project of reform, because sectors of C-CURA without a long tradition of political militancy, who were more Chavistas than Trotskyist, aligned behind Stálin Perez Borges and the Argentinean MST and the position of supporting the Chávez constitutional reform proposals. The people who came together in this way didn’t have a clear programmatic identity. Their principal identification was the constitutional reform – whoever was against the reform was against Chávez, that’s how they saw it.
There was no decision of C-CURA to join the PSUV. There was a meeting at which we agreed there were two political tactics. We told the minority, “if you want to go to the PSUV, then go, we believe it’s necessary to build up a workers’ party, and we’ll work on that”. If we agree on political questions then we can support a battle in the PSUV. But that’s not what happened. The comrades openly assimilated with a policy of open capitulation to Chavism.
We recognised that we had to let these people have their own experience. But this relationship broke down, and the comrades started a policy of spreading rumors in aporrea etc, saying C-CURA had decided to join the PSUV, that I wanted to join the CTV etc. These comrades did their part in the referendum campaign, expecting the “yes” vote to win easily, but the result was the exact opposite. After that, many leaders who had left us returned to C-CURA. There was a national meeting to make a balance sheet of the results and to discuss the policies for defending a great conquest of the workers which the government wants to destroy.
Well, certain leaders called on us to organise a national meeting. They came to my house with a letter, and I asked Stálin Perez Borges to sign up to a meeting. We owe it to the members to explain to them our positions about the constitutional reform and to examine them in light of the results. The results were that the right and imperialism was strengthened. The truth is that they refused to participate in this meeting – they just published a declaration about a “so-called meeting”. After that, they voted to organise their current separately from C-CURA, and since then they haven’t returned. You’ve seen they no longer use the name C-CURA. They don’t use it anymore. They used to be “Marea Clasista y Socialista”, now they’re just the “Marea Socialista” current. Now we have many differences and I honestly believe they’ve given up the struggle for a revolutionary party in this country

To me it seems impossible that a trade union leader join a party with bosses and state ministers.
Of course. I said “I’m not going to join a party with exploiters, military officers and fascists.” There are businessmen who violate the rights of the workers and there are corrupt state bureaucrats in the PSUV. Also there is no possibility for working at a grassroots level because there’s no democracy.
The question of how to relate to Chavism – that’s where the crisis in C-CURA came from. We never had a policy of entryism in Chavism. In certain moments we gave critical support to the president, for example in the last presidential elections. This was part of a tactic to maintain a dialogue with Chavista workers. But we always fought for workers’ political independence.
There were two big mobilisations, on 15 July 2006 and 8 February 2007, right in front of the Miraflores palace. These mobilisations were against joint ventures. There were up to 10,000 workers protesting and their demands included an emergency increase in salaries and workers’ control – which meant an objective opposition to Chavism. But unfortunately, some comrades couldn’t resist the pressure of Chavism and gave up independent class politics.

At this moment in Venezuela, when the overwhelming majority of the working class still has strong illusions in the Chávez government, do you think the call for a workers’ party will have a serious resonance?
Yes, and the problem is as follows. We are not talking about the presidential elections. Today’s Chavismo isn’t even half of yesterday’s Chavismo. He still has 45% support, but it used to be over 70%. The most important thing I’m going to tell you is this – there is a strong resistance from below, and there are strong sympathies for leaders who fight. I’m not saying that Chávez isn’t a popular figure – he enjoys the support of 45% while all other political figures are around 8%, 10%, 12% . . . But the problem today is that the polls are predicting Chavismo will lose something like eight governorships

So it’s important that workers who are becoming disillusioned have a left alternative, so they don’t have to switch to the right?
Exactly. It’s important to build our party. The people who are disillusioned with Chávez aren’t running to the opposition. This has opened a big political space which, in our opinion, can be filled with a great sympathy for revolutionary positions. For example, I’m from the state of Carabobo, and Chavismo is in a terrible crisis – the governor is constantly losing support. That’s why we believe it’s very important to create our party and offer an alternative for the workers.

What would you say about the class character of the Venezuelan government?
Internationally there have been many debates, some Marxists calling it a bourgeois government – as I would – other a workers’ and peasants’ government, a “hybrid” government or one of indefinite class character.
Obviously it’s a bourgeois government, totally capitalist. We characterise the government as a form of bonapartism sui generis [of a special kind], in which the government has to mobilise the masses, but in order to defend the class interests of the bourgeoisie. It is ridiculous to think of this government as revolutionary. Workers’ control of industry doesn’t exist, and even cogestión [co-management] is under-developed. You can see the capitalist nature of the government here in the SIDOR conflict, where the national guard – directly under the control of the -President – repressed the workers and destroyed 53 of their private cars. Of course it’s a bourgeois government.

So how do you respond to the talk about the “Venezuelan revolution”?
From a classic point of view, there’s no revolution. There have been important conquests by the people, won via their mobilisations – missions like “Barrio Adentro”, literacy campaigns, etc. But these conquests don’t necessarily lead to abolishing capitalism. Just fixing the bathrooms in a school doesn’t mean we’re living in socialism. If you don’t advance, expropriating industry, then corruption and bureaucracy will grow and the capitalist system will be strengthened.
So is there a possibility of changing things by struggle from below? The problem is that the communal councils are managed by the state bureaucracy and the PSUV. They are organs of control, not self-organisation. If you work for a state institution, for example, and raise some problems in your communal council, you can face repression from your employer and the council’s funds can be cut. That’s how these communal councils work. But if you’re referring to projects of workers’ councils, I can repeat what I said before – if these projects emerge from the workers and peasants themselves, if it’s an autonomous instrument they created, obviously we should participate – a revolutionary party should try to win such councils for its perspective.

What kinds of developments do you expect in the coming year? Will there be increasing conflicts between the Chávez government and its social base?
If the strike of SIDOR wins, there will be a political crisis in the country. It’s not that I expect conflicts – we are in the midst of conflicts right now. It’s everywhere – in the streets, in the hospitals that don’t work. Just yesterday there was a strike in an office of the Labour Ministry. The workers shut it down spontaneously. Workers in the oil sector are watching what happens at SIDOR, because if you remember the government imposed a collective contract on them with very few improvements, a very bad contract. They got a raise of 30 Strong Bolivars for the next two years, but they had been demanding 45. The electricity plants are involved in a huge strike right now. The government had to make some retreats because the trade unions made lots of protests – well they’re Chavistas but they are also class-based. They fight. The workers in the aluminum sector are also beginning a struggle.

So you see this as a new stage in the class struggle which is beginning?
Trade union leaders who are close to the government keep losing support. Just look at the hatred for the Labour Minister.

So the struggle for a revolutionary workers’ party is a question of the coming months?
I agree, but remember, we want to build the party by being the best fighters for the workers in this country. But we can’t limit ourselves to the trade union struggle. Two years ago, when Chavismo was much stronger, it was much more difficult to explain to the workers the need for a political instrument, not just for trade union struggles, but also for political struggles. But the experiences of SIDOR, the conditions of slavery and the repression by the government are elevating the workers’ political consciousness.
Why are we doing this now? One reason is that the state elections are approaching, and in the course of the electoral struggle there are people who want to become active. You can be the best fighter amongst the workers, but it’s important to present them with a political party they can support.

Thanks for all this information.
You’re welcome. I hope I could clear up, in English, those rumours regarding me and the CTV.

End notes
1. C-CURA, “Class Unity Revolutionary and Autonomous Current”, was a far left current within the UNT which at one time formed a majority of the UNT leadership.
2. The Bolivarian Socialist Workers Force (FSBT) is a tendency within the UNT. It played a major role in fragmenting the UNT at its second congress in May 2006, opposing leadership elections in the UNT leadership as a “distraction” from campaigning to re-elect Chavez. José Ramón Rivero, a leader of the FSBT, became Labour Minister using his position to further his trade union faction’s position and becoming increasingly unpopular as he tried to undermine the workers on strike at SIDOR. In the middle of April he and the FSBT announced at a press conference that they were forming a new trade union federation and that workers should leave the UNT. Within days Chavez sacked Rivero and replaced him with Roberto Manuel Hernández, a former member of the Venezuelan Communist Party.
3. Chirino is referring to the PST (Socialist Workers Party) the Venezuelan section of the LIT-CI, a Morenoite grouping that was dissolved in 1999.
4. Caudillo is the Latin American term for a cult-like leader – often but not always military.
5. Bonapartist - where a strong leader rules the country appearing to be independent of the interests of the main social classes whilst, in fact, ruling on behalf of the bourgeoisie.
6. The Confederation of Workers of Venezuela (CTV) was the old bureaucratic and corrupt trade union movement, which was in the pocket of the old governmental parties swept away by the electoral landslide that brought Chavez to power. The CTV actively supported first the April 2002 coup against Chavez and then the lockout launched by the bosses at the end of 2002 to try and oust him from power. While the CTV still exists amongst sectors of workers it has never recovered its former influence.
7. Marea Socialista (“Socialist Tide”) is a tendency inside the PSUV which is also part of C-CURA. Led by, amongst others, Stalin Pérez Borges, it disagreed with the majority of C-CURA which was against joining the Chavez party.
8. The Party of Revolution and Socialism (PRS) was a still-born attempt to form a revolutionary organisation. It was initiated in the second half of 2005 by many of the leaders and members of C-CURA, including Chirino and Stalin Perez Borges, but it never cohered as a properly founded organisation.

Coverage from a socialist based in Germany who visited Venezuela last year, including an interview with socialist trade union leader Orlando Chirino.

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