Class Confrontation Sharpens in Venezuela

by Gerry Foley – February, 2005

 

Since the defeat of the third pro-imperialist campaign to oust the government of Hugo Chavez in the last two years, with the Chavista victory in the August 2004 recall referendum, the confrontation within Venezuela and between the Venezuelan government and U.S. imperialism has been sharpening.

 

On Dec. 5, Chavez addressed the International Conference of Intellectuals and Artists in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. The meeting issued a ringing denunciation of U.S. imperialism. “The city of Falluja, today in ruins,” said Chavez, “will remain as a symbol of heroic resistance in a tragic moment of

human history. It is our duty to denounce such atrocities.”

 

Chavez began his speech, the Mexico City daily La Jornada noted, by quoting Fidel Castro: “Tomorrow may be too late. We have to save humanity today.” The Venezuelan leader’s theme was “a different world is possible.”

 

On Dec. 15, Chavez signed a pact with Cuba that provided for expanding economic relations between the two countries, the stationing of 15,000 Cuban doctors in Venezuela, and forms of financial collaboration. It also offered 2000 scholarships for Venezuelans to study in Cuba.

 

The treaty granted Venezuela the right to hold 100 percent of the stock in Venezuelan state companies established in Cuba, in contradiction to the

established rule that the Cuban state must hold a majority of the stock in mixed companies. The agreement was a daring defiance of the U.S. embargo

against Cuba, even though it contained a reference to the “asymmetry” of the social systems in the two countries, which implicitly assured that Venezuela

would continue to be capitalist, despite its collaboration with socialist-oriented Cuba.

 

At his meeting with Fidel Castro, Chavez projected his answer to the U.S. project of a Latin American Free Trade Area, his Alternativa Boliviana para las

Americas (ALBA), basically a scheme for a Latin America trading block capable of achieving some economic integration of Latin America even under

capitalism: “real Latin American and Caribbean integration based on justice.”

Chavez has talked about a new axis in the region among the populist governments elected on the basis of rebellion against neoliberal economic policies (Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay).

 

Pursuant to this policy, the Dec. 20 Christian Science Monitor reported: 

 

“Another way Chavez has used his oil resources is by working to create a continent-wide petroleum corporation called PetroAmerica, in which

the region’s state-owned oil companies would participate. The idea has generated interest in Brazil and other energy-hungry neighbors.

 

“The Venezuelan government says PetroAmerica would enable Latin America to end exploitation by huge petroleum corporations, but some analysts see it as a mechanism to leverage Venezuela’s oil resources into

greater regional influence.”

 

The Venezuelan government, like the Cuban, has been making steps to increase economic collaboration with China in order to gain more maneuvering room vis-à-vis the United States. The growing Chinese economy is oil hungry and increasing the demand for oil worldwide.

 

Chavez has threatened to cut off oil supplies to the U.S., if it tries to oust his regime.  The British Financial Times reported in a Jan. 13 article reprinted Jan. 14 by The New York Times  that Washington has begun a study to estimate the effects of the loss of oil from Venezuela, which currently provides about 15 percent of U.S. demand.

 

The Dec. 20 Christian Science Monitor noted a provocative statement by a U.S. official regarding arms purchases by Chavez from Russia: “A third Chavez announcement, that Venezuela will purchase 100,000 Russian assault rifles and 33 military helicopters, suggested to some observers that Chavez is investing his oil wealth in a different kind of muscle. The announcement followed reports, denied by Venezuelan authorities, that Venezuela is negotiating the purchase of 50 Russian MiG-29 fighter jets.

 

“The arms purchases generated concerns in both Washington and Colombia. An unidentified Bush administration official accompanying the president in

Canada recently told reporters: ‘Millions of dollars are going to be spent on Russian weapons for ill-defined purposes,’ and added: ‘We shoot down

MiGs.’”

 

Chavez has said that the arms purchases are needed to enable Venezuela to reinforce its security on the Colombian border to prevent the civil war in that

country from spreading across the border. But the right-wing regime in Colombia accuses Chavez of collusion with the Colombian guerrilla movement, which the U.S. is heavily involved in trying to crush.

 

Chavez has good reason to fear that Colombia may be a staging ground for an attack against his regime.  Relations between the two Latin American countries have recently sharply deteriorated with the kidnapping of a political spokesperson of the Colombian guerrillas on Venezuelan territory. Chavez has accused the United States of being involved in the crime.  Chavez supporters have marched to protest the violation of Venezuelan sovereignty.

 

Following his victory in the Aug. 15 recall referendum, Chavez has moved to widen prosecutions against those involved in the April 2002 attempted military coup against him. In an apparent reprisal by the right, Danilo Andersen, a prosecutor, was assassinated by a car bomb in mid-November.

 

In the last weeks, the class confrontation in Venezuela has been sharp in the agricultural sector.  On Jan. 10 Chavez issued a decree accelerating the

agrarian reform. New action was needed, he said because the agrarian reform adopted in 2001, which called for the distribution of unused land to small farmers, had been frustrated by the sabotage of the big landowners. (About 5 percent of landowners own 80 percent of the land.)

 

A few days later, the authorities sent troops to support peasants who had occupied the El Charcote ranch, owned by British agrobusiness. In a Jan. 13

article, the British Economist, using the poison tongue with which this bard of British business specializes, excoriated the expropriation. But it did indicate the context.

 

The Chavez regime’s promise of agrarian reform, The Economist wrote, “has also prompted hundreds of land invasions and the killing of dozens of peasant

activists by opponents. But very little land has been awarded. ‘That’s a self-criticism the revolution has to make,” says Rafael Aleman, the official in charge

of the review at El Charcote. ‘We have not pushed this process forward.’”

 

In other words, the hopes aroused by the Chavez regime led to a confrontation on the land, which finally forced the government to intervene on the side of the

peasants, despite the very limited nature of the agrarian reform it actually adopted.

 

A similar process may have started to occur in the industrial sector. On Jan. 19, the Chavez government nationalized the Venepal paper company, a bankrupt enterprise that had been taken over by its workers.

 

The Venezuelan president was quoted in a Jan. 20 article on the Resist.Ca web page as saying: “The expropriation of Venepal is an exception, not a

political measure, nor a government one. We won’t take land; if it’s yours, it’s yours. But the company that is closed and abandoned, we’ll go for them. For all of them.”

 

This is a principle similar to the one that is supposed to preside over the agrarian reform—that is, only unused land can be taken over. But it unleashes a dynamic that tends to challenge the rules of capitalism.

 

The capitalists obviously do not trust Chavez. The result has been a slowdown of business since he came into office. By threatening to increase unemployment, the capitalist slowdown or strike endangers Chavez’s

reforms. But what if the workers respond to the slowdown by seizing their enterprises and then force the government to nationalize them?

 

It is clear that an escalation of the class struggle has been unleashed by Chavez’s defiance of imperialism and his populist reforms. He will have to take sides.

 

If he sides with the workers and small peasants, as he did in the cases of Venepal and the el Charcote ranch, he is not going to be able to continue to respect the rules of capitalism.

 

But there is so far no indication that Chavez is prepared to take the consequences of a full break from capitalism. A movement that leads to this kind of struggle can only come from the independent mobilization of the workers and small peasants.