After Chavez: Which way for socialism?

By MARC ROME

Hugo Chavez, the outspoken and charismatic anti-imperialist president of Venezuela for the past 14 years, passed away on March 5 after succumbing to heart failure and a two-year bout with cancer. About 2 million traveled from across Venezuela to pay their last respects, some demanding that they be armed to defend what they had gained under the Bolivarian government.

The crowds certainly included those who had mobilized more than a decade ago and brought Chavez’s regime back from the brink of defeat by the right-wing capitalist opposition and imperialism. Their struggle pushed Chavez further to the left, a turn that coincided with a 660% rise in the price of oil, the bedrock of the Venezuelan economy, allowing the construction of many state-run social programs. Chavez dubbed the process the “Bolivarian Revolution” and “21st century socialism.”

During Chavez’s time in office the Venezuelan masses gave U.S. imperialism and the native capitalists two black eyes through their mobilizations in 2002-2003.

The first blow was given in April 2002, when Chavez was saved from almost certain execution in a military coup that received the “blessing” of Washington, according to The New York Times. The Times later reported that Venezuelan journalist Eva Golinger “obtained reams of documents from the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit agency financed by the United States government, that show that $2.2 million was spent from 2000 to 2003 to train or finance anti-Chávez parties and organizations.” These same documents show that American officials knew of the planned coup before it was put in motion.

Later that year, in December, workers and sections of the military sympathetic to Chavez restarted and secured key industries crippled by a two-month sabotage of oil production. The reactionary oil strike was actively supported by the state trade union, CTV, and organized by native rentier-type capitalists, who were subordinate to more powerful imperialist interests like ExxonMobil and France’s Total corporation, shaken by Chavez’s 2001 Hydrocarbons Law.

The law increased royalty rates paid by multinational oil corporations to the state oil sector, PDVSA, from 16% to 30%—a rate still below those paid by oil companies in Canada, the Middle East, and Africa. However, for corporations used to the relatively tax-free oil rates during the 40 years of the neo-liberal bonanza before Chavez’s presidency, this relatively small cut into their profits was intolerable. Even a few extra cents for wages, as was proposed by Jean Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, was enough reason for U.S. imperialism to spirit him away in a military coup in 2004.

During the past 65 years, at least, Venezuela’s masses have used their own strength to demand land from the landlords and an end to rip-offs by imperialism. In 1958, the Venezuelan army crushed their cries for implementation of a land reform law, and in 1989 they mobilized in 21 cities, the Caracazo rebellion, to protest a rise in basic fuel and bus services, the result of IMF structural adjustment measures. The Caracazo in particular had a strong impact on Chavez.

In 1992 Chavez led a small group of army troops in a coup attempt against President Andres Perez, who during the Caracazo had sided with the pillagers of Latin America and called out the military to massacre 5000. Chavez’s adventure landed him in prison. But before he was put behind bars, he appeared on national television to say that the struggle against imperialism and its allies among the Venezuelan bourgeoisie was over only “por ahora” (for now).

Upon release from prison, he sought the presidency and challenged imperialism’s favored twin parties of the Coordinadora Democratica (CD)—Acción Democrática and COPEI—who ruled together uninterruptedly from 1958 until they were soundly defeated by Chavez in the 1998 elections. The most powerful among the global corporate elite were willing to give Chavez a chance to prove whether he would be a threat to their centuries-old extraction of trillions of dollars of wealth. Would Chavez side with Venezuela’s workers, peasants, and the poor or with its capitalist class? For 14 years Chavez sided with both.

U.S. and other foreign corporations were uneasy when Chavez became the head of a capitalist state, but stock markets rose after the newly elected president reassured them that their large private stakes in Venezuelan oil, land, and finance capital would remain untouched. In 1999, Chavez created a new constitution whose Article 115 guarantees private-property rights.

During Chavez’s first five years in power, UN quality of life indexes slightly declined. And unemployment rose during his first three years, from 14% to 20%. It was not until after Chavez’s narrow escapes from the brink of defeat at the hands of imperialism and bourgeois oppositionists that he accelerated reforms that made slight inroads into global and native capitalist property and profits.

The deep social polarization in Venezuela—combined with mass mobilizations of workers and peasants against their imperialist-aligned governments in Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia between 2001 and 2005—helped to create the conditions that pushed Chavez further to the left. His rhetoric became more radical; in 2007 he even claimed to be a Trotskyist, but so did his former labor minister, who presided over the post in 2008 when the National Guard was called out to attack workers demanding the nationalization of the SIDOR steel plant.

Billionaire benefits from “socialism”

A December 2012 article in Bloomberg News should give pause to anyone genuinely interested in discussing the strategy and tactics of fighting to create an economy and government based on the majority, workers and peasants. The writer quoted a Caracas financial-risk consultant, who sought to allay fears of giant investment banks that operate in Venezuela: “Chavez’s socialist project depends on capitalist banks. He needs institutions such as Escotet’s [a Venezuelan billionaire] to fund Venezuela’s ballooning public debt. That’s what feeds the social programs that have cut poverty and made the president popular.”

This echoes sentiments that Chavez broadcast on his television program, “Alo Presidente” (No. 151): “We need bankers that can be committed to our national project [in order to show] that we can make a revolution peacefully.” Currently, 80 percent of all bank holdings are controlled by international and national finance capital (the state bank holds roughly 20 percent of all deposits).

Social programs for the poor while allowing “socialism” to benefit billionaires characterize Chavez’s course of balancing between the two classes, a middle of the road course not unprecedented in Latin American politics during the past 80 years. Chavez summarized his orientation, as quoted in the on-line journal, Rebelión: “Only through a coordinated effort among the community’s actors, the State, the Government, the social actors, workers, industrialists, who at the same time are economic actors, only in a coordinated and powerful manner will we come out ahead.”

During the 1940s and ’50s in Argentina, in a similar manner to Chavez, Juan Peron carried out a populist program that combined anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist rhetoric, very limited industrial nationalizations, and agrarian reforms. Peron and Chavez alike developed programs that contained a hard kernel of the nationalism of the oppressed, who also benefited from real material progress and social reform.

Communal councils and unions

Under the Bolivarian regime, participation of the workers and the oppressed in political organizing has increased through communal councils and other popular organizations. But these groups are not governmental bodies and can do little more than present demands or recommendations to public officials. Thus, bureaucrats in the government and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) are allowed a relatively free hand to advance their own narrow interests.

Socialism is the most democratic participation of organized workers. But if Venezuela is building “21st-century socialism,” one important section was glaringly absent among the 900 delegates that met in May 2012 at the nationalized SIDOR steel plant in Puerto Ordaz for the first national conference of the Socialist Workers Councils. Aporrea reported that no representatives from any of the national unions were present.

This may be owed to the fact that there is no strong independent trade-union movement in Venezuela today, which has gone through a series of splits since the National Union of Workers (UNT) was created after the pro-government union (CTV) sided with the capitalists during their oil strike in 2002/2003. State repression, whereby the National Guard attacked workers attempting to organize workers’ control or state-worker co-management (a relationship where, by law, the state retains 51% control of the industry and the workers 49%) at SIDOR and Sanatarios Maracay, has further beleaguered the union movement.

Meanwhile, the CSBT (Central Socialista Bolivariana de los Trabajadores), is the only union recognized by the PSUV, giving the state party considerable influence in its affairs and diminishing the CSBT’s character as a genuine independent representative of the workers. Among the members of the CSBT are former leaders of the UNT, the union formed after the CTV had discredited itself in the 2003 oil strike. It too shattered in many pieces before the CSBT absorbed some of its remaining parts.

Lessons of Cuba, Guatemala

U.S. imperialism finally met its match in 1961 when it attacked revolutionary Cuba, which soundly defeated the invasion of the island by mobilizing a politically conscious and armed population. Cuban leaders understood that rallying the people for victory would largely depend on economic and political measures; the revolution had led to the total expropriation of the capitalists, while the rural poor gained land, jobs, and basic social services.

Moreover, the Cuban revolutionary leadership had absorbed the lessons of Guatemala, whose president, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown by a U.S.-backed invasion in 1954 after he had expropriated over 70% of United Fruit’s (a U.S. corporation) land and distributed it to the peasants. Arbenz rose to power with backing by the army and took for granted that he could rely on it to defend the land reform. Although the workers and peasants were prepared to defend the country, Arbenz failed to mobilize them against the U.S.-backed coup, while the military just stood by.

The military that overthrew Chavez was backed by U.S. imperialism; it remains largely intact. The military officers who led the coup were freed a few months later when the Supreme Court refused to indict them. Meanwhile, no popular militias of workers have been created to defend the country against imperialism and the armed bodies of the Venezuelan state, who have more than once fired upon radical mobilizations of workers at the point of capitalist production.

Even poor peasants, who have demanded that the state give them arms to stand up against the mercenaries of the landlords (at least 170 peasant leaders have been killed), remain largely defenseless. Meanwhile, 75% of the most fertile land is still in the hands of the rich landlords, while Venezuela imports up to 76% of all of its food. If Chavez had even hinted at a massive land-expropriation (some landowners did accept Chavez’s payments at the market rate for limited amounts of less valuable land), the military would have mobilized against him once again.

The emergency general election is scheduled for April 14. Meanwhile, Chavez’s vice president and current president, a former bus driver, is predicted to be the “new ‘driver’ of the Bolivarian revolution.” According to La Jornada,  Nicolas Maduro has a 14% advantage over the right-wing governor, Henrique Capriles.

Should Maduro defeat Capriles, he will inherit the rule over a capitalist state and capitalist economy, defended by a capitalist army. The allies of imperialism inside Venezuela will never content themselves with the relationship of forces created under Chavez’s rule. Until the capitalist institutions within Venezuela are smashed and a revolutionary process based entirely on the workers and dispossessed is widened throughout the region, imperialism will always remain a threat to radical regimes, and capitalism will remain a yoke on the masses.