The defeat of the bosses lock out and the sabotage of the oil industry deepens the revolutionary process in Venezuela

On Thursday February 20 at midnight, the Venezuelan police arrested the president of the bosses’ organisation Fedecamaras Carlos Fernandez, accused of five different charges: betrayal to the fatherland, rebellion, instigation to crime, association to commit crime, and devastation. This action of the justice system reflects clearly the pressure of the revolutionary movement and the new balance of forces after the complete failure of the attempted coup.

On Thursday February 20 at midnight, the Venezuelan police arrested the president of the bosses’ organisation Fedecamaras Carlos Fernandez, accused of five different charges: betrayal to the fatherland, rebellion, instigation to crime, association to commit crime, and devastation. Carlos Fernandez, together with the leader of the trade union confederation CTV Carlos Ortega (against whom there is also an arrest warrant) had been the main public faces of the bosses’ lock out and sabotage of the oil industry in December and January through which the Venezuelan ruling class tried to overthrow the Chávez government.

This action of the justice system reflects clearly the pressure of the revolutionary movement and the new balance of forces after the complete failure of the attempted coup. From the beginning of this action on December 2, the forces of reaction went from defeat to defeat. This was basically due to the initiative of the masses who fought back decisively at every stage. Every one of the actions of the reactionary forces had the effect of increasing support for the revolutionary process and raised the level of consciousness and organisation of the people generally and the workers in particular.

The most important factor was the extraordinary reaction of the oil workers who fought back and overcame the sabotage conducted by managers, directors, and a large section of the technicians of PDVSA, the state-owned oil company. In refineries like Puerto la Cruz, El Palito, the Yagua distribution centre, and others, the oil workers went to work and in an organised way re-established the normal functioning of the oil industry under workers’ control. It can be said without fear of exaggeration that it was the oil workers who saved the Chavez government, since bringing to a halt the oil industry was a key element in the strategy of the oligarchy. This is a marvellous example of the capacity of the working class to struggle and to organise production by itself. In a few days the oil workers destroyed the myth that the managerial layer of PDVSA are the only ones who know how to organise production. Furthermore this experience of workers’ control took place not in a small bankrupt company which the workers were forced to reopen, but in the main industry in the country, and one of the 50 largest companies in the world. This is of enormous political significance and sets an important precedent. It can be said that the qualitative leap forward which took place in the struggle against the lock out is that the working class for the first time participated in the revolutionary process as a class, while previously it had only participated as a part of the population in general.

We should add that the oil workers had the support of the revolutionary masses who all over the country defended PDVSA buildings and refineries, and of the National Guard which in agreement with the workers and the people, organised and controlled the distribution of fuel during the 63 days of the lock out.

At the beginning of January, the so-called Democratic Coordination (popularly known as the anti-Democratic Conspiracy - CD) decided to up the stakes by declaring the non-resumption of school activities after the Christmas break. Once again this was a serious mistake, since their actions only provoked the reaction of masses and increased the level of popular organisation. All over the country, communities organised themselves to ensure the opening of the schools, and reactionary teachers who refused to teach were replaced by volunteers (unemployed teachers, university students, etc). Likewise in the universities there was a strong movement of the students demanding resumption of lectures, which finally managed to force the reopening of most universities. This has strengthened and organised a left wing student’s movement which was quite weak before.

The peak of this process was the massive march in support of the revolution on January 23, which was called “the taking over of Caracas”. The opposition had created a climate of panic and fear amongst the middle classes, spreading the idea that the march was going to mean an invasion of the “Chavista hordes” coming down from the “cerros” (the hills which surround Caracas where most poor people live) to loot the middle class neighborhoods. For weeks the opposition leaders had been organising “contingency plans” which included a census of all firearms available, accumulation of food and water, the organisation of the armed defence of streets, buildings and neighbourhoods, the blocking of streets with gates, barricades, etc. The aim was clearly to create a climate of fear, using the middle classes as the shock troops of the oligarchy in order to provoke a violent clash which would justify a foreign intervention under the mandate of the Organisation of American States, and with the support of a section of the armed forces in order to overthrow Chavez.

Counter-revolutionary provocations

One of the peaks of this strategy was the clash in Los Próceres, just outside Fuerte Tiuna (the main army barracks in Caracas) in the first days of January. The opposition had called for a rally outside Fuerte Tiuna demanding freedom for an army officer under arrest for participating in an earlier coup attempt. All the opposition media publicized the call for the rally presenting it as the “final battle” which would finally overthrow Chavez. This was a provocation prepared down to the last detail. The government did not do anything, and did not call for the masses to organize a serious counter-demonstration. However, thousands of Bolivarians gathered to defend the revolutionary process and against the reactionary provocation. After hours of verbal clashes the reactionaries opened fire and killed two Chavez supporters. To add insult to injury the opposition-controlled Metropolitan Police attacked the place where the revolutionaries were mourning their dead. The clashes on that day also reflected the feeling of powerlessness of the masses which were witnessing how the counter-revolution was carrying out its plans without a serious fight back on the part of the government or the organisations which support it.

It was in this framework that the massive mobilisation of January 23 took place. Some 2 million people took part in that impressive show of strength against reaction and to defend the government. That demonstration was the last nail in the coffin of the attempted reactionary coup of December-January. The anti-Democratic Coordination had no other option but to admit its defeat and publicly announced the “easing of the strike” and later on called it off altogether. That was a sorry spectacle in which all the contradictions within the DC exploded into the open. No-one wanted to take responsibility for having called the “indefinite civic strike”, and “it wasn’t me” once again became the slogan of the day.

Autonomía Sindical national meeting

In these conditions, Chávez has adopted a strategy which is very different from the one he used after the April 11 coup of last year. On that occasion he tried to conciliate, negotiate, he asked for forgiveness and reinstated the old directors of PDVSA. We already warned at that time that the attempt to appease reaction through negotiation would only have the effect of strengthening the resolve of the reactionary ruling class which would inevitably use the opportunity to prepare for a new coup.

Even during the attempted coup in December-January, the Chávez’s position was extremely legalistic, faithfully following all legal proceedings while the reaction used all sorts of illegal methods to paralyze the country and sabotaged the action of the justice system from within. The fight back of the workers and the people took place despite the lack of any nation-wide revolutionary leadership which could coordinate and organise their efforts. Despite the fact that there are tens and even hundreds of thousands of rank and file organizations all over the country, the revolutionary movement still lacks a nation-wide coordinating body.

Revolutionary offensive

Starting with his speech at the massive demonstration on January 23, Hugo Chávez made it clear that this is the time to go on the offensive and he has called for a deepening of the organisation of the people. The government has implemented a series of measures to fight against reaction, starting with the suspension of foreign exchange while control mechanisms are put in place (in order to fight against the flight of capital), price controls over basic products (to fight speculation), and a discussion in parliament for a new law of social responsibility of the media (which played a crucial role in the organisation of every single coup conspiracy). Even in his “Hi President” program on February 16 he said that the organisations created to defend the right to education should now became organisations of revolutionary vigilance over the price controls.

At the same time Chávez has been broadcast a number of TV programs from the different oil refineries in which he recognizes and thanks oil workers for their role in the defeat of the attempted coup. Also, mass rallies have been organized in different states which have opposition governors in which Chavez calls for these to be recalled (a mechanism which is part of the new constitution) before the end of the year.

The arrest of coup conspirator Carlos Fernandez is part of this offensive and is obviously welcomed by the majority of the people. The most widespread comment is that this was long overdue. In fact the popular organisations, the demonstrations and graffiti on the walls in the main cities had been demanding “strong action” to be taken for a long time. The leader of the telephone workers, José Mora, declared that he was happy that Carlos Ortega had gone into hiding because this meant that now the workers could go and find him themselves and settle accounts.

However, even this action shows the limits of government action since a few hours after being arrested, the judge in charge of the case was replaced by another one who immediately placed him merely under house arrest and withdrew some of the charges. This is a scandalous decision since there is already the precedent of the escape of Pedro Carmona, the main figure in the April 11 coup, who was also sentenced to house arrest. Meanwhile the Defenders of Puente Llaguno who defended the democratic government on April 11 rot in jail waiting for a trial despite the fact that one of them is dying of cancer. It is clear that the judiciary is still largely in the hands of reaction.

However it would be foolish to think that the reactionaries are dead and buried. It is true that they were dealt a heavy blow with the defeat of their attempt in December-January, but the Venezuelan ruling class is far from having been defeated once and for all and continues to agitate in the media waiting for a new opportunity.

Economic crisis

The main challenge that faces the revolutionary process right now is the collapse of the economy as a result of the oil sabotage and the conscious disorganization of the productive process on behalf of the capitalists, particularly in the food sector. The oligarchy is trying by all means to create chaos and shortages in order to undermine the social basis of support for the revolutionary process. In this respect the measures taken so far by the government are completely insufficient and limited.

Autonomía Sindical national meeting

First of all one must discuss the question of the reorganization of PDVSA. So far the government has appointed new directors which, following the people’s call for “cleaning out PDVSA,” has already sacked 12,000 employees, the overwhelming majority of them directors and technicians of the upper echelons of the company. However it is not enough to replace one set of directors for another which might be more or less loyal to the revolutionary process. On the contrary, the impressive experience of workers’ control over production during the sabotage must be used to spread it to the running of PDVSA as a whole. Oil workers have saved PDVSA and they are the ones who should be running it from now on. A national congress of oil workers must be called in order to unify all workers and establish the mechanisms of workers’ control. This is the only way to guarantee that “PDVSA belongs to the people” and that it is run for the benefit of all. Workers’ control of industry should also spread to all state-owned companies where many of the directors also declared themselves to be “in rebellion”.

Another front is that of the private companies in which the bosses are trying to make the workers pay for the cost of the bosses’ lock out. Workers must resist in an organised way any attempt to paralyse totally or partially their factories, any attempts to cut wages, to declare unpaid holidays, etc. In several factories around the country there have already been important examples of such struggles. The Convencaucho workers in Barquisimeto (Lara) had to force the change of their union leaders and occupy the factory to force the employer to pay their wages in full and keep the factory open. Also in the car industry in Carabobo the workers have so far defeated the attempts of the employers to make them pay the effects of the lock out. One of the main discussions amongst class struggle and democratic trade union activists right now is around the issue of factory occupations and their running under workers’ control. The experience of factory occupations in Argentina has undoubtedly had a serious impact.

At a recent meeting of 350 trade union leaders from all over the country called by the “Trade Union Autonomy” current there was a discussion on this issue on the basis of a document which called for “the occupation of all companies which are abandoned, declared bankrupt, closed down or semi-paralysed, creating workers’ committees to force their statisation under workers’ control of production”. The “Workers´ Mole” trade union current in Lara openly demands that “faced with the capitalist crisis the government must reactivate industry, applying the principle of ‘company closed, company opened under workers’ control’”. Even within the Ministry of Labour there are discussions on workers’ control and how to legalise any factory occupations which might take place.

Another important question is that of control over the finance sector. Together with the measures already taken regarding foreign exchange, there must be an offensive against the private banking sector. The banks adopted a clear line of support for the opposition sabotage and therefore should be deprived of the means of doing it again. It is true that the government has already withdrawn part of its assets in private banks, but this is not enough. The nationalisation of the banks (which in the main use resources which belong to the state) would allow the government access to a large amount of money which could be used to alleviate the economic crisis through a massive program of public works, and which would guarantee the payment of wages to public employees and the normal functioning of public services, like health and education which are currently under threat for lack of resources. The nationalisation of the banks would also allow the government to finance the statisation of occupied factories.

A new trade union confederation

As a part of the workers’ offensive there have been discussions about the setting up of a new trade union confederation to replace the reactionary leaders of the CTV. However this process has received strong criticism from trade union activists from the beginning because of the methods which have been used. The proposal has come from a number of trade union leaders who are close to the government, which have raised the idea from above without any real consultation of the rank and file and without organising a campaign within the existing unions. It would seem that for them, the most important thing is to set a date for the founding of the new trade union centre (March 15) and to decide who is going to be on the leadership.

These are clearly wrong methods. In order to move towards a real re-founding of the trade union movement in Venezuela, a serious campaign of explanation, discussion and struggle must be organised in order to win over the overwhelming majority of workers who still belong to unions which are affiliated to the CTV, and organise all those who are still un-organised. The practical experience of the last few months and weeks clearly shows that the CTV leaders (who appointed themselves at the end of a rigged election process) are completely discredited in the eyes of their own members. The political moment is favourable. Such a campaign culminating in a national-wide workers’ constituent assembly to set up a new trade union confederation based on the principles of class struggle, democratic and militant trade unionism, would have a massive impact.

One of the main weaknesses of the revolution is still the lack of a nation-wide coordination of all revolutionary committees and organisations which have been set up in the last few years. All Bolivarian circles (of which there are now 300,000), democratic unions, urban land committees, student organisations, committees to defend education rights, etc. should establish coordination bodies at the neighbourhood, local, state, and national level, through the democratic election of delegates with the right of recall at any time. This would enormously strengthen the movement and would give it a democratic leadership, which would help generalize experiences and advance in its political conclusions.

Socialism the only way forward

Finally, it is also time to make a balance sheet of the political perspectives of the revolution. Hugo Chávez’s project, which opened the doors for this process of mass mobilisation and popular organisation, was one based on the development of the country’s productive forces, defending national sovereignty and applying a number of measures in favour of the oppressed masses. But this project never raised the question of going further than the limits of the capitalist system. On occasion Chávez has spoken of a “humane capitalism”. From the very beginning we warned that in the epoch of imperialist domination there can be no independent national capitalist development in any country. The epoch of bourgeois revolution was more than 200 years ago. The last four years of the revolutionary process in Venezuela have shown quite clearly that the decisive sections of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie are completely linked to imperialism and are unable to play any progressive role at all.

The bourgeoisie will give the government no respite. The only way to reach agreements with the employers is on the basis of making the workers pay for the crisis, and this would provoke a decisive fight back from a labour movement which now feels confident. On the contrary, the defeat of the bosses’ lock out has shown the central role of the working class in any capitalist country. There is no other way to defend and deepen the revolution other than attacking the basis of the capitalist system itself; that is, by placing the means of production, distribution and exchange in the hands of the workers and the people to be run in the interests of the majority of the population. Only on the basis of a socialist system of democratic planning of the economy would it be possible to develop the country’s productive forces and use the enormous wealth of the country to improve the living conditions of the overwhelming majority of the people, and not to fill the Miami bank accounts of an idle minority.

A socialist revolution in Venezuela would be a powerful beacon of light which would orientate the struggle of the workers and peasants in the whole of Latin America, setting the basis for the fulfillment of Simon Bolivar’s dream of a united America, a Socialist Federation of Latin America.

Workers’ control of production in PDVSA and the nationalised companies!
Every factory closed is a factory opened under workers’ control!
Nationalisation of the banks!
Expropriation of coup-organising bosses!
Forward to socialism!

Caracas, February 26, 2003.