The Battle of Venezuela

Submitted by on 12 August, 2004 - 12:00

The Battle of Venezuela, Michael McCaughan, Latin America Bureau, 166 pages, £7.99 (2004).

Since Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998, Venezuela has experienced enormous upheaval, including a military coup and two-month long bosses' lockout and insurgency.

In August Chávez faces a referendum on his presidency, after the opposition collected enough signatures to force the vote. This was a provision Chávez introduced in his new constitution five years ago and if successful, it may mean another presidential election and possibly his departure from power.

This book by journalist Michael McCaughan is a comprehensive account of Chávez, his rule and the state of the labour movement in Venezuela. Although the book has been criticised for some inaccuracies and for its weak conclusion, it is a useful introduction to the recent history of Venezuela.

Venezuelan politics over the last century has been dominated by oil, after huge deposits were found in the 1920s. It has the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East, is the world's fourth largest oil exporter and is the largest supplier of oil to the US. As McCaughan puts it: "Oil revenues made the state independent of society, thus strengthening authoritarian rule" .

In effect, oil revenues provided the basis for what Marxists call a Bonapartist regime, where the state, although it remains bourgeois, has a high degree of autonomy from the capitalist class. It means that while the capitalist class remain the ruling class because they continue to rule economically (through their ownership and control of the means of production, and hence the surplus product), they do not necessarily rule politically. Such regimes include military rule, fascism, one-party states (e.g. the PRI in Mexico) or "popular" and sometimes elected caudillos (e.g. Peron in Argentina).

The Bonapartist nature of the Venezuelan state is clear from the founding programme of the Accion Democratica (AD), established in 1941 and the main political party until 1998. McCaughan describes AD's manifesto as the "vision of a 'national democratic revolution'. The plan stressed the virtue of reform over revolution, as 'oil nationalism' would deliver wealth downwards to the poor without altering existing economic structures" .

The Bonapartist nature of the state also helps explain the fragility of democratic structures. For example, AD was removed from power in 1948 by the military dictatorship. However in 1958 the AD and Christian Democrats (COPEI) signed the Punto Fijo pact that gave Venezuela a degree of stability by sharing the spoils between themselves.

McCaughan also describes the co-option of the working class into the state, where Venezuelan workers earned the highest wages in Latin America and subsidies in food, health, education and transport.

The Venezuelan Workers' Confederation (CTV) was founded in 1936, launching a successful oil strike in 1936-37 against the foreign companies who controlled the industry. In 1950 the CTV organised another popular strike against the military government. As late as 1989 it called a general strike against the government's IMF-inspired neo-liberal policies.

But in the 1990s it accepted privatisation - for example in health care - and failed to resist cuts in redundancy payments. As the informal economy grew, union membership fell to one million and density to 12%. The CTV also suffered from its links with the declining AD.

McCaughan describes the state of the CTV by the 1990s: "Union leaders enjoyed wealthy lifestyles and were unaccountable to their members. The CTV leadership rejected industrial action in support of wage demands or improvements in labour conditions. The legal framework allowed CTV executives to 'discipline' dissident unions and expel members from the confederation, while elections in federated union bodies could be annulled on demand. As an option of last resort the CTV maintained groups of armed thugs who imposed their will on recalcitrant workers."

This reflected the collapse of the old social contract under the blows of neo-liberalism. The collapse was illuminated by the Caracazo in 1989, when petrol price rises prompted students and workers to set up barricades and engage in social protest. The army put down the revolt - but the legitimacy of the political system continued to ebb away. These were the conditions that allowed Chávez to rise to power.

Who is Hugo Chávez?

Chávez was born into a middle class in 1954, joining the army in 1971. McCaughan says Chávez visited Peru in 1974, "where he was impressed by the progressive ruling military junta" (p.28). In the 1980s as a tutor at the military academy in Caracas he formed a secret cell within the army, known as the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement.

In February 1992 Chávez organised a military coup to overthrow the government, but the attempt failed and he was imprisoned. Having previously called for electoral abstention, in 1996 Chávez organised his supporters into the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) and decided to contest the 1998 elections.

Another influence on Chávez after his release from prison in 1994 was Argentine right-wing nationalist Norberto Ceresole. Ceresole was a sociologist and adviser to a movement that tried to topple the Argentine government when it attempted to bring army leaders to account for their atrocities between 1976 and 1982.

Ceresole viewed the seizing of state power as the uniting of the caudillo with the army and the people. As McCaughan explains it: "The caudillo would transform the military into the armed wing of a nationalist revolutionary project and enlist the poor as its popular support base.".

There is an additional element to Bonapartism that informs this analysis of Chávez - namely the eclipse of the left. During the 1990s the Venezuelan left seemingly made great strides, but failed to capitalise on its electoral successes - and much of it eventually collapsed into Chávez's movement.

McCaughan describes that much of the Venezuelan left originated in splits from the Communist Party (PCV) in the early 1970s. One group led by Teodoro Petkoff became the Movement to Socialism (MAS), which is described as "oscillating between euro-communism and social democracy". Another group led by Alfredo Maneiro eventually became La Causa Radical (Causa R or the LCR).

In the late 1980s both parties increased their vote and won some congressional and governors seats. LCR leader Andres Velasquez was elected governor of Bolivar state and in 1992 got 22% in the presidential election. However the LCR moderated in power and split in 1997, with a faction led by Pablo Medina forming the Patria Para Todos (Homeland for All, PPT). Yet sections of the MAS, LCR, PPT and the PCV all effectively collapsed into support for Chávez by the late 1990s.

Chávez in power

Chávez won the presidential election in December 1998 with 56% of the vote. He organised a vote for the constitutional assembly in July 1999, with his slate winning 90% of the vote, introducing a new "Bolivarian" constitution. In elections in July 2000 he won 59%, and his supporters won 15 out of 23 gubernatorial races. In November 2001 he gained the power to pass a package of 49 laws to implement the promises made in the constitution.

Chávez made a series of grandiose populist promises, such as turning Venezuela into "a first world nation within ten years" . Oil was central to his plans and he played a key role in the rival of the OPEC oil cartel. When he came to power, oil sold at $9 a barrel - within 18 months the price had gone up to $33 a barrel.

One distinctive feature of Chávez's rule is his weekly TV programme, Alo Presidente - which has sometimes gone on for over six hours!

Another is the "Bolivarian Circles" - the neighbourhood organisations that McCaughan says "were set up to strengthen government links to popular barrios". Launched in December 2001 and claiming 1.5 million members (10% of the adult population) the Circles also co-ordinate community projects from health and education to culture and sport. The only requirement is that the local Circle registers at a government building and that its members swear loyalty to the Bolivarian constitution.

Yet McCaughan argues the Circles have waned. He says: "Chávez's political project, subordinate at all times to his leadership, has yet to find an effective vehicle to convert its support into a party machine." By 2003 the neighbourhood organisations had been largely overshadowed by the Patriotic Circles, based on a card-carrying membership.

After Chávez came to power he also sought to break the hold of AD on the CTV, forcing unions to hold elections. However the long-established bureaucracy led by Carlos Ortega managed to hold onto power.

Chávez's reforms have included dispatching the army to repair roads, build health clinics and distribute cheap food. In agriculture the SARAO project has established a network of co-operatives and 1.5 million hectares of land has been distributed to peasants.

In education, apparently a million have been through the literacy programme and millions more children have enrolled in schools. And in healthcare, Chávez has controversially invited Cuban doctors to practice in shanty towns, where he claims millions have been treated.

These reforms have brought some real improvements to the lives of many ordinary Venezuelans - people largely ignored by previous governments. However they are largely top-down welfare measures that scarcely scratch the surface of political and economic power in the country. And Chávez has imposed VAT and signed oil deals with the US.

But even these limited reforms have brought a violent reaction from Venezuela's ruling class and its hangers-on. The opposition, known as Coordinadora Democratica (CD) is based on the old ruling elites - crucially the employers' organisation Fedecamaras and the leaders of the CTV.

McCaughan is unambiguous about the opposition's April 2002 coup, when Chávez was arrested and a new government under Pedro Carmona installed for a few hours. He describes how key Venezuelan business leaders, the Spanish government and the US State Department were all involved in the coup. Carmona even went to Spain and had a presidential sash made for him in advance of the coup and two high-ranking US soldiers were advising the plotters in their military command centre.

The book also lays the blame for the violence surrounding the coup at the door of the opposition, anxious to create "chaos" in the hope the army would "restore order". In fact, most of the army stayed loyal to Chávez, ushering him back into power. The privately owned media didn't just support the coup, "they played a key role in the planning and execution of events". The US government, through the National Endowment for Democracy (set up in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan) provided over $1m to the opposition, including to the CTV.

Similarly, McCaughan is clear that the 63-day "general strike" from December 2002 to January 2003 was nothing of the sort. Rather it was an employers' lockout, enforced by sections of the CTV and aimed at crippling the oil industry and thus the economic basis of Chávez's rule.

McCaughan is scathing about the opposition, insisting that it would impose neo-liberalism on the country. He is sympathetic to Chávez, without being starry-eyed. He depicts Chávez as a "charismatic, rabble-rousing populist" and the Bolivarian revolution as "still largely a one-man phenomenon observed by a large, cheering crowd in the background" are entirely to the point.

He rightly says that Chávez's reform project represents only "minor alterations in the power structure" and that he basically seeks to insert "Venezuela into the globalised economic arena on more favourable terms than might have occurred under a neo-liberal administration". Sadly he spoils his critique somewhat by adopting the stance of John Holloway, who following the Zapatistas in Mexico rejects taking power altogether.

But McCaughan's most telling contribution is to point out that some Venezuelans - known as the "ninis" - identify neither with Chávez nor with CD. He describes indigenous peoples, church leaders and most notably workers who have no truck with the old elites but are critical and independent of Chávez.

In particular he describes the creation of the National Union of Workers (UNT), a new union confederation that may give Venezuelan workers more opportunity to fight for their own interests. The UNT was founded in April 2003 by trade unionists who left the CTV after it helped the employers organise the coup and lock out. The first UNT congress in August 2003 involved 1,300 participants representing 120 unions and 25 regional federations. According to McCaughan, "the delegates declared support for the Chávez but criticised specific government ministries".

Some delegates also criticised the statutes of the new organisation as too much like the old CTV, and the CP-influenced confederation, the CUTV didn't join until recently. Another absentee from the founding congress was Ramon Machuca of the steelworkers union, and surprisingly neither Chávez nor any of his ministers spoke at the event.

McCaughan concludes that: "The new union will have a tough task ahead if it hopes to enjoy official favour and steer an independent line on behalf of its members." This is true, and while there is a danger of the UNT being co-opted and neutered by Chávez there is some scope within it for independent working class politics to develop.

A good source of information is Venezuelanalysis

Karl Marx on Simon Bolivar

Hugo Chávez idolises Simon Bolivar, going so far as to rename the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in his honour. Bolivar is known as the "Liberator", the man who led the fight to free northern South America from the Spanish Empire in the early nineteenth century.

In 1858 Karl Marx wrote the entry on Simon Bolivar for the New American Cyclopaedia for Charles Dana, the editor of the New York Daily Tribune. It is printed in the Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol 18. Though Marx managed to get Bolivar's name wrong, there is nothing equivocal about his judgement on the "Liberator".

Marx was very clear that the fight for national independence in South America against the Spanish was progressive. In an earlier entry on Ayacucho, he made it plain that the expulsion of the Spanish was a progressive measure.

But of Bolivar's victory against the Spanish in 1813 Marx wrote: "Having proclaimed himself 'dictator and liberator of the western provinces of Venezuela'… he created 'the order of the liberator', established a choice corps of troops under the name of his bodyguard, and surrounded himself with the show of a court."

Marx went on: "But… his dictatorship soon proved a military anarchy, leaving the most important affairs in the hands of favourites, who squandered the finances of the country, and them resorted to odious means in order to restore them. The new enthusiasm of the people was thus turned to dissatisfaction, and the scattered forces of the enemy were allowed to recover."

In five other places Marx referred to Bolivar as a "dictator", arguing: "Bolivar gave full scope to his propensities for arbitrary power by introducing the 'Bolivarian Code', an imitation of the Code Napoleon."

Marx summed up his verdict tersely: "What he [Bolivar] really aimed at was the erection of the whole of South America into one federative republic, with himself as its dictator."

In a letter to Engels on February 14 1858, shortly after writing this piece, Marx made his view even plainer. He wrote: "With regard to a rather long article on 'Bolivar', Dana furthermore expresses misgivings because it is written in a partisan style, and asks for my authorities. Of course I can give them to him, though it is a peculiar demand. As for the partisan style, I did somewhat drop the encyclopaedic tone, to be sure. To see the most cowardly, mean and wretched scoundrel decried as Napoleon I was somewhat too absurd. Bolivar is a true Soulouque."

Soulouque was of course the Haitian emperor - but it was also used at the time as a name for Napoleon III. In fact it sums up Marx's verdict that Bolivar was a type of Bonapartist dictator.

Some argue that Marx's view of Bolivar is one-sided, based on biased sources written during his day that were hostile to Bolivar. Yet this is nonsense. As Hal Draper pointed out as far back as 1968, in his article Karl Marx and Simon Bolivar (New Politics 7, No.1) the prevailing wisdom at the time presented Bolivar as a great leader who really was the liberator of South America. Instead, it was Marx's harsh judgement that was out of keeping with conventional wisdom - hence the reason why Dana asked for his sources.
Score: 8/10
Reviewer: Paul Hampton

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