A decade since Hugo Chávez proclaimed the “Bolivarian revolution” in Venezuela, his project is mired in stagnation. For all the rhetoric about “21st century socialism”, the Bonapartist regime continues to preside over Venezuelan capitalism and to stifle the emergence of a genuine independent labour movement.
The hostility of the US government may have made Chávez an “anti-imperialist” icon, but it is fantasy to believe his forces are part of the revival of working class politics.
Recently Chávez added three days to Venezuela’s Easter holiday to bolster government efforts to reduce electricity consumption, as the country struggles with a severe energy crisis. He blamed the shortages on a drought causing the water level of the country’s main hydro-electric dam to drop. But for a state with a massive revenue stream from oil, it is ironic that it should have to introduce rolling blackouts in parts of the country and to limit office hours in state bodies.
In truth, the entire state-capitalist development model has run into problems. Already facing high inflation (27% last year), in January the government devalued the currency. This brought in more oil revenue and cut the budget deficit, but at the expense of exacerbating other economic problems.
The crisis is well-illustrated by the strategic international alliances pursued by Chávez. He has again lauded the president Lukashenko of Belarus, along with other so-called “strategic partners” in Moscow and Kiev. Chávez also continues to bloc with China and Iran, a phalanx of states where workers’ rights are either curtailed or non-existent.
Chávez faces national assembly elections in September and an opposition with sizable minority support. The opposition has been bolstered by the hostility of the Obama administration towards Venezuela. US officials have explicitly equated Chávez with the Colombian FARC.
Socialists can have no truck with the right-wing “opposition” to Chávez. A US-backed coup or even a cold electoral victory for the anti-Chávez bourgeois opposition would be far less democratic and much more reactionary than anything Chávez has done to date. The 2002 coup in Venezuela was a very graphic warning of what they would do.
However the left internationally should not close its eyes to the anti-working class character of the Chávez regime. For all the social programmes that have been implemented, nowhere in Venezuela today is the working class in power. No factories are genuinely under workers’ control, even where they have been nationalised — or even where some participation schemes have been trialled.
Nor is there a powerful trade union movement. The UNT union federation exists mainly as a name, having had no authoritative congress, nor an elected leadership. The rank and file trade union militant grouping, CCURA, represent the healthiest forces, but they are fiercely opposed by Bolivarian trade unionists tied to the state. The Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) is a tentacle of the bourgeois state, a top-down bureaucratic control mechanism for Chávez to reproduce his regime. The revolutionary socialist forces are weak and divided.
In recent years there has been significant repression of independent socialists and trade unionists. On 12 March, police in Aragua, capital of Maracay state — run by chavista Rafael Isea — attacked a workers’ demonstration and arrested militants. The march, called by the UNT-Aragua union, was backed by CCURA and socialist groups such as the Liga de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (LTS) and Unidad Socialista de Izquierda (USI). The protest was called against the economic measures of the national government, for the trial and punishment of the murderers of socialist militants Richard Gallardo, Luis Hernández and Carlos Requena, and for the release of the trade union leader of the Ferrominera del Orinoco, Rubén González, of Guayana, and of the Yupka Chief Sabino Romero.
Such repression indicates the snare represented by Chávez’s call for a “Fifth International”, which he made last November. Amongst those invited to join were the communist parties and social democrats of Asia and Europe, forces of national liberation of Africa and the Middle East, new left-wing parties like Die Linke, the Left Bloc (Portugal), the Sandinistas, the MAS in Bolivia and, of course, the PSUV. Bourgeois parties like the Liberals in Colombia, the PRI of Mexico and the Argentinean Justicialists (Peronists) were also included. The Mandelite current seemed very keen to have one more populist bandwagon to jump on.
As the LTS in Venezuela has argued, this “Fifth International” would be the opposite of the first four workers’ internationals. It would be “a broad grouping of old and new political apparatuses — many emptied of all real rank and file activism — which would include even governments at the head of semi-colonial states… sectors of old bourgeois nationalist movements who seek to cover themselves after decades of prostration before imperialism, and diverse populist and reformist currents and subordinated to these, the social movements, the anti-capitalist youth and even some ‘Trotskyists’ … [grouped] around a nationalist discourse decorated with socialist and anti-capitalist phrases to better serve a strategy of pressure and bargaining for concessions with imperialism and the bourgeoisies.”
Such a lash up, while apparently more numerically imposing, would not be grounded in working-class politics — as the real workers’ internationals were until their demise. As the AWL has said from the beginning, what is needed is a class analysis of chavismo. By such a metric, Chávez is no ally or friend of ours.