Paul Hampton reviews Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution by Richard Gott (Verso, 2005)
Richard Gott the journalist is like a courtier who rides round in a stretch limo to visit the poor before returning as a “privileged visitor” to the presidential palace. And for Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, he has nothing but admiration.
There is nothing Gott’s book about workers’ factory occupations or about the “co-management” schemes in some workplaces. Despite dramatic changes in the Venezuelan labour movement over the last five years — including the involvement of the old union federation, the CTV in coup attempts against Chávez — Gott devotes just four pages of this 300-page book to the unions. He dismisses the emerging trade union movement in Venezuela, the UNT (founded in 2003), as a “radical talking-shop”. It is in fact a significant new institution.
Gott approves of the fact that, “Chávez did not put his shoulder behind moves made by others to create a new union movement… He mobilised his supporters by appealing to them as the poor and the disenfranchised, [rather than as workers] and as peasants and shantytown inhabitants… When Chavez sought to mobilise workers in the early years of his presidency, he turned first to the disorganised informal sector.”
In the first edition of this book published in 2000, we learned about the weaknesses of the Venezuelan left and how Chávez had gained hegemony over it. At the time, it was an informative book. This new edition brings the story up to the end of 2004.
Despite Gott’s denial that Chávez is a Bonaparte figure, the book contains a good deal of evidence that this is precisely the best way to understand his politics.
“Civilians get in the way. We shall summon them when we get into power.” Hugo Chávez to Douglas Bravo, October 1991, quoted by Gott.
“I understand the soul of the army and I am part of that soul.” Chávez to Gott.
Gott exposes the role of the military in Venezuelan politics. He quotes one senior economic adviser, who told him: “The military are everywhere. It sometimes seems as though there is a secret project that you don’t quite know about. There really is a military party.”
Gott highlights the central idea of chavismo — the alliance between soldiers and civilians. A clear indication of this was Plan Bolívar 2000, launched shortly after Chávez’s inauguration in February 1999. The first stage (Pro-País) involved the armed forces in providing social services, the second (Pro-Pátria) involved the military helping local people and stage three (Pro-Nacíon) would involve economic self-sufficiency and endogenous development.
Gott says Chávez has “sought to bring the military into civil society, ‘but not as gorilas’ [i.e. not as brutal repressors]”. And he registers the intention: “Chávez recognises that the military have been going further than mere social work. They have been ‘incorporating themselves, little by little, into the political leadership of the country, though not into party politics’.”
About the defeat of the coup attempt in April 2002, Gott says, “The coup had collapsed within two days, destroyed by just the alliance between soldiers and the people that Chávez had been so painstakingly constructing over the previous three years.”
In fact Chávez told Gott: “It was because of the contacts that had been made between the military and the poorest sectors of society that the people supported the army.”
And after the coup, Chávez forced 60 generals and admirals into retirement, strengthening his group on the armed forces. As Gott puts it: “The armed forces were now more solidly behind the president than before”.
The lockout employers’ strike by employers and the CTV in December 2002 — January 2003 was also comprehensively beaten back. Gott says: “At the start of January [Chávez] was given carte blanche by senior officers to crush the strike. The army was brought in to guard the installations, the ports and the pipelines.”
So Gott does reveal the secret of Chávez’s rule — the role of the praetorians. He also details the economic restructuring Chávez has brought in, in the interests of Venezuelan national capital, with the approval of the army.
The defeat of the lockout led to the sacking of 18,000 workers and managers, nearly half the workforce. As Gott explains, this worked to Chávez’s advantage. “Petroleos de Venezuela [PdVSA, the nationalised oil industry] had been seriously overmanned, but slimming down the business would have been politically impossible had the managers not gone on strike.”
This re-establishment of control over the oil industry was symbolised by the appointment of Rafael Ramirez as head of PdVSA, while he kept his position as minister of energy.
Gott quotes some economists, who say Chávez is “conservative in the economic sphere”. He quotes Chávez’s comment to German Chancellor Schröder in 1999 that he was “looking at the German and European model” and that the new constitution would give Venezuela “greater stability and security to national and foreign investment”.
So Gott is candid in his assessment of the economic reality behind Chávez’s rhetoric: “Chávez has always been interested in securing foreign investment. He has sought to [tell] his nationalist country what it what’s to hear, and making the right kind of reassuring noises that would not frighten the foreign investor.”
Chávez has a modernising agenda within the bounds of capitalism. His plans for Latin American integration, for a Latin American economic zone (ALBA), a Latin American currency represent a yearning for a wider home market for Venezuelan capital within a wider political framework.
The book also explains the nature and limitations of Chávez’s welfare reforms. Chávez is aware of a social time bomb ticking in Venezuela. He wants to diffuse it. As Gott puts it: “Much of his time has been spent, using Christian rhetoric, in urging the poor to be patient.”
But some palliatives are necessary. Fortuitous circumstances have allowed Chávez to offer some reforms. Gott highlights the five-fold increase in the oil price since 1999 that has given Chávez the funds to spend the oil money on “imaginative social programmes, known as ‘missions’, that were gradually established throughout the country”. These reforms, in health and education have benefited some of the poorest sections of Venezuelan society. But they not the first steps towards a different social system.
CHAVEZ has not led a workers’ party to power. He is not a revolutionary socialist. He has not overturned private property. The bourgeois state in Venezuela remains intact. Workers’ councils have not been established as the embryo of a new type of state.
Chávez himself is explicit about this — it’s a pity his apologists do not take him words seriously. For example he told Tariq Ali last year:
“I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don’t think so.” (Counterpunch, 16 August 2004)
Gott is similarly dismissive of any hint that Chávez is a working class socialist. In the book he says Chávez has “little more than a social democratic programme”. In an article in the Guardian 25 August 2005, Gott is even more explicit:
“Yet although [Chávez’s] rhetoric is revolutionary, his reforms have been moderate and social democratic. He criticises the policies of ‘savage neo-liberalism’ that have done so much harm to the poorer peoples of Venezuela and Latin America in the past 20 years, yet the private sector is still alive and well. His land reform is aimed chiefly at unproductive land and provides for compensation. His most obvious achievement, which should not have been controversial, has been to channel increased oil revenues into a fresh range of social projects that bring health and education into neglected shanty-towns.”
In his book Gott tells of Chávez’s “enthusiasm for [Blair’s] ‘third way’”, which waned after the Kosova war. Chávez has also expressed his admiration for Stalinist leader Mao on both visits to China. In December 2004, he said: “I think if Mao Tse-tung and Bolívar had known each other they would have been good friends because their thinking was similar. Their inspiration came from the same place. It came from humanitarianism… I think if Bolívar had come to China he would have become a socialist.”
Gott believes, accurately, that Chávez is in the tradition of the “military road to socialism” — in the tradition established by Velasco in Peru (1968-74) and Torrijos in Panama — of which Gott approves. It is an idea in keeping with his other great friend, Fidel Castro. This is what Gott takes Chávez to mean by “socialism” when he raised the idea at the World Social Forum earlier this year.
But there is no military, or bureaucratic or indeed any road from above to socialism. Gott laments the fact that many Latin Americans “find it difficult to come to terms with the idea of a progressive military man”. Gott is wrong, the scepticism towards the military in Latin America (and elsewhere) is absolutely justifiable and borne of bitter experience.
Socialists in Venezuela should remain independent of Chávez, his government, the state (especially the army) and the capitalists, national as well as foreign. And the left across the globe should support those aiming to develop unions as independent, democratic and fighting organisations.