ESF meeting on Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution

Yesterday, October 17, In Defence of Marxism and the Hands Off Venezuela campaign organised a meeting on Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution at the European Social Forum in London. The room was packed with young people and trade unionists from all over the world.

“We have to learn the lessons of past solidarity campaigns”

Yesterday, October 17, In Defence of Marxism and the Hands Off Venezuela campaign organised a meeting on Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution at the European Social Forum in London. Despite the fact that this important workshop had been relegated to an early Sunday morning, nearly 70 people turned up to hear Alan Woods, editor of, and Jorge Martin, on behalf of the Hands off Venezuela Campaign, speak on the events in Venezuela. The room was packed with young people and trade unionists from all over the world.

Before dealing with the actual subject, Jorge Martin started his speech with a reference to the organisation of this year’s European Social Forum. Not enough attention had been paid to the subject of Venezuela, which is now one of the most important developments in the whole world. It is a real pity that no seminar could be organised as this meant that no simultaneous translation was available.

Having said that, Jorge turned to the reason behind the setting up of the Hands off Venezuela Campaign. The campaign had been started mainly to counter the vicious media blockade on the subject of Venezuela. On really significant events like the Bolivarian Revolution there is a wall of silence on the part of the Western media. Even worse, when they do refer to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, he is nearly always portrayed as an authoritarian former army general, not as a democratically elected president who has won in seven different electoral processes. Jorge Martin recalled a striking anecdote on the media lies. He was on his way to Caracas in an Air France airplane. Reading the Spanish daily El Pais, he read about Caracas being paralysed by a massive strike involving all important sectors of the economy, including the cancellation of all international flights. However, Jorge was flying precisely to Caracas and everything was perfectly normal there!

Then he posed the question of the Bolivarian Revolution. Since there has been no fundamental economic transformation, why do we say that the events in Venezuela are of a revolutionary character? The main reason is the massive political awareness in the country. Contrary to most Western “democracies”, there is no apathy at all among the Venezuelan people. Everybody has an opinion on the political situation, either from the right or from the left. But above all, in the last years there has been massive participation of ordinary people and the poorer sections in society in politics. The recent recall referendum is proof of this. In other countries the participation level is always quite low, with only 40 or 50 percent of the people bothering to vote. Why would they vote if all politicians tell them the same things? In Venezuela, on the other hand, more than 90 percent of the people turn up to vote. This is because people can see that it does make a difference who is in power. After the election of Hugo Chavez huge literacy campaigns have been conducted. For the first time poor people have access to basic medical health care, and there has been significant land reform, etc. In short, after the 1998 election there has been a mass politicization. For the first time ordinary working people have a sense of dignity and now feel as real human beings. This is one of the most striking features when you travel to Venezuela and talk to people, Jorge said. They can see something has changed for the better and they want to maintain and extend these achievements. Precisely because of all the progressive reforms, Chavez has been able to maintain his support among a majority of the Venezuelan people. Not only one time, but in seven electoral contests! Compare that to the West, where one government after another is voted out of office.

That is, of course, not to the liking of the so-called “Democratic Opposition”. They could not even stand his initially moderate reforms, and obviously could stand even less the subsequent more radical reforms. Hence their various attempts at overthrowing Chavez’s government by terrorist means, lock-outs and a coup. One criticism you can make of Chavez, Jorge told the audience, is not that he is authoritarian, but rather too lenient with the coup organisers. Those who pulled down a statue of Colombus on Columbus Day (October 12) were put in jail, but most of the organisers of the coup are still free and have been able to flee the country. Some are on trial now, two years after the coup, but Pedro Carmona has only been put under house arrest. As a result, he fled to Miami and is now organising the opposition. Carlos Andres Pérez, now living in the Dominican Republic, said that the only way to remove Chavez is by violent means. These kinds of scoundrels are still free and have been able to organise the terrorist campaign of last year.

Jorge Martin then spoke on the trade union situation in Venezuela. The old CTV union has more than ever been discredited since its open support for the coup. Most of the workers have joined the new UNT, and what is more, they have done this on a radical program. The UNT is now the real trade union in Venezuela and its program includes workers’ control over the economy. This led Jorge to elaborate on this point. During last year’s lock-out there have been experiences of workers’ control. This was not in a small textile company, but in the oil industry, one of the biggest industries in the world! The oil company in Venezuela is indeed highly technological (with most processes being run by computer and satellite systems). The workers refused to take part in the lock-out of the bosses and were able to run the whole industry without the bosses. This proves that if workers can run such a complex industry then they can run anything. On that point, Jorge also mentioned the case of the Venepal workers and the need for solidarity.

There is also the issue of the struggle between Venezuela and the United States. The US was interfering directly in Venezuela during the 2002 coup. They cannot tolerate a government that is an example to workers all over the world, especially the masses in their backyard, Mexico and Latin America. But Venezuela has some good trump cards, one of which is oil. Chavez has already threatened to cut off the oil supplies to the US if they interfere in their internal affairs. That would be an enormous blow, since Venezuela is the third biggest oil supplier to the US.

“So what is the next step then?” Jorge asked. The oligarchy is demoralised and demobilised after they lost the referendum. The balance of forces is extremely favourable to the revolution. In the Bolivarian movements there have been numerous debates about the need for a revolution in the revolution, about the fight against bureaucracy. However, the state is still the same old state, with the same bureaucracy at the head of it. Jorge said you cannot take over a capitalist state and make it serve the interests of the people. Besides, some sections of the economy are still in private hands, most importantly the bank sector. Today two Spanish banks control the banking sector in Venezuela. The distribution of food and beverages is done privately, which enabled the opposition to paralyse the country during the lock-out by disrupting the supplies.

Jorge continued by saying that some important battles have been won, but that this is a war over control of the economy. There are opposing class interests involved, and these have not been solved yet. Jorge used the analogy used by 19th century peasant war leader Ezequiel Zamora. In the course of the Federal War against the landed oligarchy, Zamora correctly said that “we must confiscate the property of the rich, since with it they make war against the people, we must leave them just with their shirts”.

By way of conclusion, Jorge said we are living in very exciting times. To his knowledge there is no precedent of a successful military coup being defeated by the mass movement of working people once it has already been installed. This gives hope for the future – something can be done. Also, it is foolish to moderate your viewpoints for fear of provoking the enemy. The opposition and US imperialism have already been provoked, as the coup proves. The excuse often used by workers’ leaders that you can’t have a radical program that “scares away” the voters has been proved utterly wrong. In Venezuela there have been seven elections, and each of then have been won by the left-wing government.

Alan Woods speaks

After Jorge Martin’s speech, the floor was given to Alan Woods. He started with the same observation that we live in very exciting times. Fifteen years ago the capitalists were euphoric because, so they claimed, “Socialism has been proven not to work”. They were talking about the end of socialism and communism, and some even dared to talk about the end of history. No change was possible in the best of possible worlds. But they merely proved to be utopians. Now there is instability in the whole of Latin America, Africa is in a horrible state, etc.

But Venezuela shows that change is possible. Contrary to all the lies of the media, Hugo Chavez is not a dictator but an extremely popular president. The recall referendum once again proved that the majority of the Venezuelan people are standing behind their president. A recall referendum is in fact a very democratic mechanism, and Alan could think of several other leaders who would greatly benefit from the application of this mechanism! That is, George Bush, but also Tony Blair. The latter defied public opinion by lying over the motives for going to war in Iraq. The British people clearly said they didn’t want this war, and yet there is no way of removing Tony Blair from power.

Alan Woods then went on to explain why the Bolivarian Revolution is indeed a revolution, contrary to what some left groups claim. Paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, he said: “The essence of a revolution is the direct intervention of the masses in the political life of the nation.” Millions of ordinary Venezuelan people began to move and started to take matters into their own hands. The indignation of the masses, who had suffered under 40 years of oppression and misery, was expressed in a peculiar way after the left-wing 1992 coup in the figure of Hugo Chavez. In 1998 he won the elections with an absolute majority. Eight years later, Chavez received 60 percent of the votes. How many governments in the world can claim this?

After vividly describing the anger and mood of the masses, he firmly warned that the revolution has not been completed. The basic position of Marxists towards the Venezuelan revolution is to support it completely against foreign intervention. That is what Hands Off Venezuela is trying to do. But there is more to it. It is not possible to make half a revolution. What the referendum campaign has shown is that Venezuelan society is extremely polarised between right and left. The counterrevolutionaries are regrouping their forces and are preparing for a new offensive once the conditions are more favourable (most likely the 2006 elections). As long as the oligarchy continues to maintain its hold on important sections of the economy, it will continue to act as an agent of US imperialism, sabotaging and undermining the Bolivarian revolution. That is why the property of the counterrevolutionaries should be expropriated and the power of the landowners should be broken. Alan made an analogy with the American revolution, which took drastic measures against the landowners. Just as the American revolutionaries, the Venezuelan revolution should deal blows to the big landowners.

The speech ended with an appeal. Not everything is fine and the revolution has not finished. Battles have been won, but not the war. The important point to stress is that everybody is able to do something. Alan appealed to the public saying that they can make a difference. Trade unionists can discuss the situation in their branches and pass resolutions recognising the new UNT trade union, other people can counter the numerous media lies. Above all, it is important to coordinate the different initiatives and set up Hands off Venezuela committees.

Ramon Samblas then opened the meeting for questions and contributions from the audience. Somebody from the audience made the point that the solidarity campaign for Chile started after the 1973 coup and that it is better to start organising while the revolution is going on. “We have to learn the lessons of past solidarity campaigns. All of them have failed because they started too late.” He also said it was a real shame that Venezuela had not been discussed at a big session at the European Social Forum. Other contributions came among others from a young Norwegian trade unionist and Henry Suarez, professor of History at Caracas Central University.

The general conclusion of the meeting was that we must defend the Bolivarian Revolution unconditionally. However, it is also necessary to deepen the political analysis of the Venezuelan revolution and the way forward. Only by learning the lessons of past defeats can we guarantee victory this time.