Notes for speakers: Venezuela

Submitted by Janine on 12 December, 2005 - 8:48

By Paul Hampton

1) The AWL

Socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class

Our conception of socialism is a thoroughgoing democracy – at work, in communities, self-rule by organisations

The key issue = solidarity with workers fighting back against local, national and global capital

- Help workers to help themselves

- Solidarity not charity

Concretely we support workers who take industrial action, such as strikes, sit-ins, factory occupations etc

We support workers setting up their own factory committees, trade unions, political organisations – independent of the employers and independent of the state

We try to develop a socialist world outlook, opposed to bourgeois ideas and their echoes in the labour movement

Guiding principle of what we do:

• Work in the unions in Britain

• Fight in the Labour Party

• Solidarity with Iraq trade unions and socialists

• No Sweat

Relationship to the working class, especially the organised labour movement = Basis on which we judge who are our allies, who are our enemies

2) Venezuela

i) Support the UNT, the new union federation in Venezuela

+ socialists like the PRS

ii) Opposed to the business association FEDACAMARAS and old CTV union federation – coup plotters

iii) Opposed to US intervention, right of nations to self determination

Key difference with most other socialists + campaigns like “Hands Off Venezuela” – we are also opposed to Chávez

- no ally of the GJM

- no ally of Venezuelan workers

- not an ally of the UNT

How to judge Chávez

i) Character of his government – role of army and democracy

ii) Economic policy

iii) Relationship to the working class and the labour movement

3) Class character of Chávez government

Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998:

“Time bomb ticking and I’m here to diffuse it”.

Same point to business leaders in July this year.

i) Not a workers’ candidate

In fact Chávez was backed by sections of Venezuelan business

According to Daniel Hellinger, sympathetic academic, Chávez was backed by insurance companies, PR firms, developers, bankers etc. E.g.

• Reinaldo Cervini (agro-industry, iron and steel)

• Luis Vallenilla (banker and financier, Fundapatria)

• Henry Lord Boulton (Avensa – airline)

• Francisco Natera (former Federcamaras president – Min)

“Some notable big business interests did support his campaign, such as the newspaper El Nacional and media mogul Gustavo Cisneros. Key architect of Chávez's campaign, Luis Miquilena, raised large sums of money, mostly from big business. Most of these business supporters joined the opposition.”

Gregory Wilpert, Venezuela: Participatory Democracy or Government as Usual?

ii) Not a workers’ revolution

Although Chávez calls his movement the “Bolivarian revolution” he has not led a revolution.

• He has not smashed the state

• Nor changed the social relations in the country.

• No workers’ councils, no factory committees e.g. Russia, Chile

iii) Capitalist government

Venezuela today is still a capitalist economy, with a state that supports capitalism, a place where workers are still exploited by capital.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel who said 30 October that “the Chávez government would not attack private property.”

Government actually pro-business – especially small business

Still meeting with Federcamaras, despite two coups

[After Argentina summit] Chávez said he recognised the initiatives taken by Fedeindustria (small business org) in “on the role of businessmen in a country on the road to socialism”.

 Look more concretely at his administration

Key to Chávez = the army

Chávez is a career soldier, over 20 years in the military and this conditions his politics.

He tried to seize power in 1992 through a military coup.

His organisation, the MBR-200, formed in the early 1980s, was made up largely of middle level officers.

Not just about origins: Chávez has militarised politics in Venezuela.

Gott’s book - secret of Chávez’s rule: civilian-military alliance

Large number of military personnel in civilian positions.

• One estimate has 800 senior government jobs and nine state governors (out of 23) held by officers.

• Retired and active duty officers have held up to a third of cabinet positions.

The new constitution substantially increased the role of the army in politics and society.

• maintaining “internal order”

• “an active participant in national development”

• centralised command structure

President has sole power over promotions of senior officers.

Plan Bolívar 2000, involved massive funds for public works channelled through the army to repair schools and hospitals, set up medical clinics and distribute low cost food.

• Substituting for local and regional elected bodies

• Took away jobs for construction workers

• Corruption

Chávez has dismantled democratic mechanisms for civilians to control the army – he is the sole elected politician with power over the armed forces

Why is this important?

The job of the army is repression. It is the central core of the state. It is there to maintain the existing order. It can do so by threats or by actual violence.

Countless examples of soldiers in power turning on the people, suppressing uprisings, radical movements, strikes.

Can you think of an example of army that wasn’t used for repression?

Chávez hasn’t done that yet. Should be wary:

• In 1999 the DISIP security service committed human rights abuses following the floods. Two low ranking officers were tried.

• In 2000 indigenous people and environmentalists in Pemón fought plans to construct power lines into Brazil. The army occupied the area. Several beatings. In 2002 protesters were shot at with tear gas a rubber bullets. One killed.

• In February 2004, workers on strike at the Orinoco steelworks, members of the steelworkers' union SUTISS were attacked by state police using tear gas and pellets, injuring two workers in the process.

This is the same army that put down the uprising in 1989.

The same army that was used against striking tube workers in 1996.

Democracy – or the lack of it

Chávez talks about the “sovereignty” of the people as the “protagonists” and about “participatory democracy”.

Much is made of the eight elections he’s won.

But he’s concentrated power in his own hands.

• Extended the presidential term from five to six years and

• Allows for immediate re-election, previously barred.

Appoints his own vice-president and has no prime minister.

Sole power over military promotions and a big say in the appointment of judges.

Can dissolve the National Assembly and declare a state of emergency

Article 147 of the new penal code states: "Anyone who offends with his words or in writing or in any other way disrespects the President of the Republic or whomever is fulfilling his duties will be punished with prison of 6 to 30 months if the offence is serious and half of that if it is light."

So we shouldn’t dress up Chávez as a great democrat or pretend that Venezuela is now some great revolutionary paradise.

The same is true of his own party, the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR). It’s hardly a model of democracy.

MVR members have complained that sections of the old elite that have been elected on the MVR slate, and that the party has little internal democracy or internal life.

Digression on democracy – Heroes and friends

You can tell a lot about someone from the people they admire – their past heroes and current friends.


i) Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) “liberator” fought the Spanish

What sort of regime did he want instead?

• In his Jamaica Letter of 1815 he made himself president for life with a hereditary Senate: Model – England

• 1826 Bolivian constitution – life president with right to name successor, only literates could vote
Not surprising Karl Marx called Bolivar a dictator.

ii) General Velasco in Peru (1968-76)

This is the same General Velasco who seized power by military coup in 1968. Kept peasant leader Hugo Blanco in prison for a year, tried to buy him off. When Blanco was released and supported a big teachers’ strike – he and the teachers’ leaders were expelled from Peru and their strike repressed.

iii) Mao

Chávez has 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.”

This is the same Mao responsible for millions of deaths during the so-called Great Leap Forward, repressed workers strikes


i) Zimbabwean dictator Mugabe

Interested to know how Chávez’s embrace of Mugabe went down in Zimbabwe. Took place on 17 October at the UN conference in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

ii) China, Cuba and Iran

“I’ve been speaking to Lula and Zapatero and we’ve started a discussion about 21st century socialism. We’ve been discussing with India, Russia, China, where they have market socialism, or as they say, one country, two systems. These are ideas we must respect. The Iranians don’t speak of socialism but it was a revolution that occurred in Iran.”

Recently called Iran a “sister republic”.

That’s China where 200 million industrial workers are being super-exploited, without even the right to form a trade union.

That’s the same Iran where trade unions are also banned, where women get stoned

Same speech, went on to mention Cuba

iii) Cuba

Previously said that Venezuelans were swimming in the same “sea of happiness” as Cuba.

That’s the same Cuba where independent trade unions are banned, where it would be impossible to hold a debate like this.

4) Economy

Chávez rules in favour of capital — mainly Venezuelan national capital without being completely hostile to multinational capital.

The government’s policy “Made in Venezuela” = nationalism. Chávez promotes “endogenous development” to support industrial expansion and to diversify the economy.

Chavez has pursued conservative economic policies – kept on finance minister from the previous govt + reinstituted VAT

The state already plays a big role in the economy. It is the biggest employer 15% in formal sector.

The key to his rule has been the re-establishment of control over the state-owned oil company PDVSA. PDVSA says it will make $70 billion this year, providing $10 billion to the treasury – or over one-third (35%) of the federal budget.

Chávez has honoured contracts with US and other international oil companies. Venezuela is the United States’ leading foreign supplier of crude oil. According to Fortune magazine, in the first half of 2005, it supplied one-seventh of the US’s imported oil.

And Chávez has continued to encourage foreign investment. He told Fortune that; “foreign corporations should rest assured and have faith in our laws and in our government. We’re doing very good business with them. Almost all the oil companies in the world are in Venezuela — Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Conoco-Phillips, Petrobras, Statoil, Shell.” (3-10-2005)

The windfall from higher oil prices has given Chávez the funds to spend the oil money on social programmes. These reforms have benefited some of the poorest sections of Venezuelan society – but also helped cement his rule.

5) The unions

CTV discredited itself by passivity 1990s + involvement in coups.

The UNT is an independent union federation, not Chávez’s creation.


The UNT was founded in 2003. Founding congress attended by 1,300 delegates from 120 unions.

Contains many tendencies:

• Old bureaucrats from the CTV

• Chavistas

• Independent trade unionists + militants

The UNT does have some differences with the government.

Don’t take my word for it. Orlando Chirino, the UNT leader who spoke at TUC Congress in September, put it very clearly last month.

“We have a public sector that pretends its workers are happy when they aren’t. We need conditions that suit the needs of the workers.”

i) Internal elections

Chirino criticised the National Electoral Commission (CNE) for failing to set a date for elections in the UNT.

The UNT was set to hold a congress this year but no preparations have been made.

ii) Minimum wage

Chirino also said that Chávez “has to cease making unilateral declarations on the minimum wage. We have demanded this for two years and accomplished it, but there is a problem… workers are not receiving the minimum wage countrywide”.

e.g. sugar cane cutters, pharmacy RACE

[[Chávez decreed a 26% increase in the minimum wage from 1 May 2005. 405,000 bolivars ($188) Inflation around 20%. ]]

iii) Anti-union laws

Chirino also criticised some of the employment laws that the government passed at the beginning of Chávez’s presidency, saying that they left too much power in the hands of bosses. He said: “The employers can unilaterally dismiss their workers when they like”.

• number of workers required to establish independent trade unions 40 (reduced from 100).

• foreign workers have to wait 5 years to stand for leadership of a trade union (reduced from 10).

The laws that were used to attack the CTV could be used against the UNT. Recently the national assembly discussed reforms of the penal code that would have limited the right to strike in the public sector. Although the proposals were knocked back, they are a warning.

iv) Workers’ control

The UNT is critical of token “co-management” proposed by the government. At the UNT’s founding congress, workers chanted “¡empresa cerrada es empresa tomada!” (A closed company is a company taken over!). It wants real workers’ control.

Other issues

Constituent Assembly did not cut in the working week (44).

The relationship between the UNT and the government is not fixed. At present the confederation is independent, combative and has some internal life.


There is a real danger that the UNT could be co-opted into Chávez’s political machine, could become a prop of the regime.

E.g. Last month meetings of co-managed factories, addressed by Chávez and Minister of Labour
[UNT Coordinator Stalin Perez Borges] Many elements of the old union bureaucracy have coalesced around the UNT. Chavista trade unionists are obviously close to the government.


Other danger, if the government can’t get its way, it will turn on workers and their organisations. Outright repression cannot be ruled out – the army and police are firmly under the control of the government and have already been used against workers, indigenous and environmental protesters.

When employers don’t make a profit, or want to introduce new technology, or to change working practices, there will be conflict between bosses and workers, whether firms are state or privately owned.

This must be the starting point for developing our attitude towards Chávez and his government.

6) Conclusion

We should be critical of Chávez – don’t believe the hype.

See through his rhetoric

Chávez has not led a workers’ party to power.

He is not a great revolutionary. At best a social democrat.

He has not overturned private property.

The old state in Venezuela remains intact.

Employers still call the shots.

Sum up –

Understandable – these are not great days for socialists, activists, radicals – natural to want to hang on to anything remotely progressive.

No saviours, no saints

Not all negative –

There are important developments in Venezuela that we should be very excited about and support – especially the new labour movement, the UNT.

No Sweat should continue to look to workers, not governments, bureaucrats or demagogues for social change.

Knock about

1) Bolivarian circles

State-sponsored social organisations

Civil society inc political parties, the military Chávez “all”

2) Chávez did not start “the revolution”

Late 1991-early 1992 there were 900 major political protests

3) Land reform

Wilpert = effectively privatisation

Most land in state-owned – being handed over to peasants and urban slum dwellers

4) State capitalism

Only one Venezuelan owned company in top 200 in Latin America [Polar]. Much of the private sector wiped out 1994 crisis. Only 13% employed in the formal private sector.

Summing up

1) Chavez’s heroes and friends

2) HoV

3) Reforms

4) UNT potential

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