Venezuela: Correspondence on Chavez and his government's policies

This is the reply to a letter we received from an Irish supporter of the Hands Off Venezuela international solidarity campaign who points to a number of criticisms of Chavez and his policies that he found on a socialist web site. Jorge Martin replies to these points in order to clarify what is really happening in Venezuela.

Dear Alan Woods,

I have recently discovered the campaign Hands Off Venezuela which I fully support and I intend to circulate your appeal among my family, friends and workmates. I have read some of your articles which I agree with. However I came across an article on another socialist web site that is very critical of President Chavez. I have numbered the criticisms (extracted from the article) 1 to 4 and I would be very grateful if you could answer these criticisms.

Yours Sincerely

J. H.

Galway City


Dear J. H.,

We thank you for your comments on the Hands Off Venezuela Campaign and your offer to help. The Venezuelan revolution is in grave danger and one of the main tools of the oligarchy and imperialism is in fact the wall of silence and lies built by the international capitalist media about what is really happening in the country. Any efforts large or small to break this wall will be greatly appreciated by the revolutionary masses in Venezuela.

You point out a number of criticisms of Chavez and his policies that you have found on a socialist web site. These are very interesting points and we think they should be clarified in detail. We will try to take them one by one:

"1.His administration was initially tolerated by ruling circles both in Venezuela and internationally. It offered reassurances that it would continue the programs begun by the previous governments aimed at subordinating Venezuela's economy to the world markets.

Remaining true to his word, among his first measures was to consolidate the presence of American, British, Norwegian and French petroleum interests in Venezuela, establishing lucrative joint-venture operations in the Orinoco river belt and the Deltana Platform, where some of the world's largest extra-heavy crude oil and gas deposits are located.

Foreign oil giants increased both oil production and exports, and now account for more than a third of the oil produced in Venezuela-"about a million barrels daily, up from 400,000 before Chavez became president," reported the New York Times on December 20, 2003."

Chavez won the 1998 elections with the overwhelming support of the workers, the rural and urban poor and also a large section of the middle class. By 1998 the political set up through which the Venezuelan oligarchy had ruled the country since 1961, known as puntofijismo (after the 1961 Punto Fijo agreement), had become widely discredited in the eyes of the masses. Crucial in this discrediting was the repression used by the Carlos Andres Perez government in 1989. Barely days after coming to power as the head of the Accion Democratica party, he introduced a package of neo-liberal measures, including the lifting of subsidies on fuel and basic foodstuffs. This obviously translated into a massive rise in the prices of transport. This was the spark that ignited the enormous amount of combustible material that had accumulated for years. On February 27th, 1989, popular demonstrations started in Guarenas, near the capital Caracas and then spread nationwide. This was a spontaneous rising of the masses, with no leadership and no clear aims, expressing the rage at Carlos Andres Perez's government measures. It became known as the Caracazo, though this is really a misnomer, since the uprising was a nationwide affair. The government replied by applying a curfew and using the army against the unarmed demonstrators. To this day it is still not known how many people died, but some unofficial estimates put the death toll at 2 to 3,000 in the 15 days that the repression lasted. It was a massive massacre against the people. Puntofijismo had lost any legitimacy it might have had in the eyes of the masses. This was quite dangerous for the ruling class since it meant that the legitimacy of the whole system of bourgeois democracy had been undermined. This expressed itself in a number of ways: the attempted military coups of February and November 1992 (the first led by Chavez), the massive vote for the Causa R candidate Andres Velasquez in 1993 (whose victory was prevented by vote rigging) and finally the movement around Hugo Chavez in the 1998 presidential elections.

The key sections of the political establishment, that is the political representatives of the ruling class, opposed Chavez in that election. In fact, all traditional political parties united against him, though they were so discredited that instead of having their own candidate they ended up supporting an "independent". However, it is true to say that a section of the ruling class thought they could use Chavez and his movement in order to re-legitimise the system of bourgeois democracy. After all his programme was not a socialist programme but one which stayed within the limits of capitalism. At the same time, many politicians, coming from the old establishment, saw support for Chavez as a way of leaving the sinking ship and keeping their jobs. Recently Chavez explained in a press interview how he was looking at an old picture from 1998 and he realised that most people surrounding him in the picture are now amongst his most staunch opponents (including media magnate Cisneros and Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña who was elected on a Bolivarian ticket). Once he had won the election by a big majority the ruling class tried to gently push him away from any radical reforms and buy him off. The problem was that Chavez was not prepared to make concessions on the fundamental points of his program and also that his election had unleashed a movement of organisation and politicisation of the masses, who started to take matters into their own hands. It is not exact to say that "ruling circles in Venezuela and internationally" tolerated them. They only did so very reluctantly, because they had no other option.

It is also not true to say that he continued the programs of previous governments aimed at maintaining the subordination of Venezuela's economy to the world markets. Amongst the first moves of the Chavez government was a tour of OPEC countries which helped strengthen the unity of the organisation with the aim of increasing oil prices, something imperialism, and particularly US imperialism - of which Venezuela is the third largest oil supplier, did not like at all. Also on other fronts, his government rejected the privatisation of the social security system, and put on hold a number of other privatisation plans of the country’s basic industries.

Things came to a crunch at the end of 2001 when a package of 49 enabling laws were passed. Amongst those were the Land Reform Law and the Hydrocarbons Law. These again were not socialist laws in the sense that they did not go beyond the limits of capitalist private property, but in the context of the backward and parasitical capitalism of Venezuela, they became a major threat to the interests of the ruling class. From that moment on, the Venezuelan ruling class as a whole and US imperialism started to seriously plot a coup to overthrow his government and put an end to the Bolivarian revolution. The coup took place in April 2002.

It is true that Chavez's government established joint-ventures for the exploitation of the Orinoco Belt reserves and the Deltana Platform gas. This is something which has created a lot of controversy within the revolutionary movement. The government argues that it received good conditions and concessions from the multinational companies (royalty payments are double what they use to be in previous contracts and state-owned oil company PDVSA keeps 51% ownership in all joint-ventures ), and that PDVSA did not have the necessary know-how to exploit these reserves on its own. This might well be the case, but the main criticism from within the revolutionary movement is that this was never discussed with the workers and the peoples' movement and the decision was taken without the workers' participation.

"2.To the approval of major rating agencies, which laud Venezuela's "ongoing commitment to its international financial obligations," Chavez has also kept up regular payments to service the country's foreign debt.

These actions have been taken in the face of a record economic contraction of 18 percent caused by net outflows of foreign investment, billions lost in capital flight, currency devaluation due to speculation, sharp fluctuations in oil prices, business and union-led industrial sabotage, and a two-month management strike in the state-owned oil industry

The burden of the economic crisis has been placed squarely on Venezuela's working class and middle class through cutting public spending, increasing consumer prices and raising regressive taxes such as the VAT."

It is true that the government has kept payments of the foreign debt, and this is something which goes against the stated aims of the Bolivarian Agenda, Chavez's 1998 electoral programme. Once again this is something which has generated a lot of debate within the revolutionary movement. The government argues that on the one hand the country has the necessary money to pay the foreign debt through the sale of oil, the prices of which have increased a lot in the last few years, and more importantly that one country alone cannot risk declaring unilateral non-payment as this would provoke a concerted onslaught on the part of international financial institutions. There are discussions taking place to try to get other countries involved in a common front of debtor nations that could take this measure in common. We think this is a mistaken strategy, since the one single thing that could push other governments to default on the debt would be precisely a bold decision on the part of Venezuela. This would put other governments in the region under tremendous political pressure from the workers' and peasants' movement to follow the lead.

However it is not true to say that the government has put the burden of the crisis "squarely on Venezuela's working class and middle class through cutting public spending and increasing consumer prices". This is in fact a straight lie. Social expenditure, particularly in the fields of education and health has gone up exponentially since Chavez came to power, and particularly after the defeat of the December 2002 - January 2003 opposition organised oil sabotage and bosses' lockout. One million people have been lifted out of illiteracy, three million people have been enrolled in the education plans at different levels and millions of people have benefited from access to primary health care. As for consumer prices, these have gone up, largely because of conscious economic sabotage on the part of private monopoly companies which control the chain of food distribution in Venezuela. But the government has fought against this with a series of measures: raiding food and beverage warehouses to release products into the markets that were being withheld by these monopolies; freezing the prices for basic foodstuffs and encouraging people to organise themselves into consumers' associations to control the application of the price freezes; freezing the prices of rents; establishing a network of peoples' markets (Mercales) in working class neighbourhoods all over the country, which are supplied with cheap basic foodstuffs; and establishing state control of currency exchange. These measures are an important step forward in fighting against economic sabotage, but are not enough. As long as key sections of the economy (particularly the banks, the media and the food distribution chain) remain in private hands, economic sabotage will continue. However it is wrong to say that the government has placed the burden of the crisis on the working class.

Incidentally, it is also incorrect to talk of "union-led industrial sabotage" as one of the reasons for the economic crisis. No important section of the working class has participated in the opposition led "strikes" which in reality are nothing more than bosses’ lockouts. Socialists should be careful what they write and not fall for any of the lies spread by the ruling class in Venezuela and abroad.

"3.The ex-colonel has enlarged the role of the armed forces to such a degree that they are now incorporated into every sector of the state. He has mobilised troops and the National Guard with added frequency.

More significantly, not one member of the military brass, who with the backing of Washington and its operatives in the US Embassy attempted to overthrow his government in 2002, has been placed on trial, let alone imprisoned."

It is true that Chavez has relied heavily on army personnel to fill positions in public administration. This is not surprising since Chavez's movement originated within the army, particularly in the group of officers who rose with him in 1992 against the government of Carlos Andres Perez which had used the army to massacre the unarmed protesters in February 1989. Furthermore, amongst the leading ranks of the parties that supported his election in 1998 (particularly of the newly created Movement for a Fifth Republic - MVR), there was a large layer of careerists, quite a lot of whom went on to join the opposition and betrayed the revolutionary movement at different times. This had the effect of increasing the specific weight of army officers within the people appointed by the Bolivarian government to different levels of the state apparatus. However there are many more leading cadres in the administration and the leadership of the movement who come from the traditional left, the trade union and peoples' movements.

It is true that no military officers who participated in the April 2002 coup have been put on trial (with very few exceptions). The reason for this is two-fold. One is that immediately after the coup Chavez adopted a line of trying to conciliate and open a dialogue with the opposition. Having seen what had happened in the 47 hours of the coup he probably wanted to avoid a major confrontation that could lead to more bloodshed. We pointed out at that time that this was a mistaken strategy, since the aims of the oligarchy and imperialism were clear: to overthrow Chavez's government and put a bloody end to the revolutionary process. For them there was nothing to negotiate. They were not prepared to abide by the rules of democracy. Thus they immediately started preparing a new coup, in the form of the bosses lockout and oil sabotage in December of that same year.

On the other hand, a ruling of the Supreme Court (stuffed with reactionary judges) in August 2002, declared that there had been no coup in the country (just a "vacuum of power"), thus preventing court cases from being brought up for that reason. We argued at the time that the principle of democratic election of judges should be introduced and all those responsible for the coup brought to trial.

4.Having removed a fraction of the rebellious armed forces, Chavez placed his own handpicked cronies in the chiefs of staff, the cabinet, governorships and every other political arena in Venezuela.

Chavez's dependence on the military is the ultimate guarantee that his "Bolivarian Revolution" will defend capitalist private property relations against any threat from the Venezuelan working class.

The first paragraph could have been written by any right wing reactionary magazine. Are you sure you got it from a socialist web site? Look at the use of language. Chavez is the democratically elected president of the country and he has the legal right to chose his own cabinet and appoint the chiefs of staff. Why then talk about placing "handpicked cronies"? Should they be "picked" by a lottery? Why does the writer assume these people are cronies? The implication is that the people Chavez has chosen for these positions are there simply because they are his personal friends, rather than being picked because of their political ideas or capabilities.

The second paragraph is wrong on two counts. First of all Chavez does not depend on the military. Twice he has been defended from attempts by the oligarchy and imperialism to overthrow him by the mass movement of the workers and the people in the streets who were joined by an important section of the army, mainly ordinary soldiers but also a significant section of the officers. To give the impression that Chavez relies on the military to stay in power is to fall for the same lies of the capitalist media that try to present Chavez’s government as authoritarian, and reflects a lack of understanding of the role of the masses of workers and the urban and rural poor in the revolutionary process taking place in Venezuela.

Secondly, it is wrong to assume that the military will always defend private property relations. History is full of examples to the contrary. It is true that the army in the last analysis is, as Engels put it "armed bodies of men in defence of private property". However, the ranks of the army are also composed of ordinary people from the working class and the poor layers of society and therefore it can be affected by revolutionary moods in society. The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 managed to win over the whole of the Petrograd garrison to the side of the Soviets and therefore the actual transfer of power was largely peaceful. One could argue that at that time it was the soldiers who were won over (though some officers also joined the Bolsheviks). Let’s look at the example of the Portuguese revolution in 1974. There it was actually the movement of the left wing military officers (organised in the MFA) which gave the opening shot to the revolution. These military officers became extremely radicalised by the pressure of the working class and the three attempts of the reaction to smash the revolutionary movement. After the March 11, 1975 attempted coup, the MFA declared that the aim of the revolution was socialism, and the government (composed to a large extent of military officers) was forced by the movement of the workers to nationalise large sections of the economy with strong elements of workers’ control. The Times in London run a headline announcing, "Capitalism is dead in Portugal". The fate of the Portuguese Revolution has been discussed elsewhere, the important point here is that, under very extreme circumstances (the obvious crisis of capitalism, the pressure of reaction and the pressure of the revolutionary movement of the working class), a layer of military officers (some of them high ranking officers) moved very far to the left and in fact had no problem in breaking with capitalist private property and declaring socialism as their aim.

In Venezuela the army as a tool of the ruling class to defend capitalism has been extremely weakened. The most reactionary army officers have placed themselves outside of the army by having participated in the two military rebellions. There have also been strong instances of the army fraternising with the people in the struggle against the coup in April 2002 and in the struggle against oil sabotage in December 2003. At that time, important sections of the army collaborated with the oil workers to retake control of the oil company’s installations and run them under workers’ control and management. In August 2003, when workers at the Venepal paper mill decided to occupy the factory and try to run it under workers’ control and management, they received protection from the local garrison commander Brigade General Acosta Carles. All this has had a deep impact on the psychology of both soldiers and officers. Political discussions and organisation are taking place at all levels of the army, amongst soldiers as well as amongst officers. The latest provocations by US imperialism have galvanised a strong anti-imperialist mood within the army. It is therefore not ruled out that a section of the army, including high-ranking military officers might participate in a revolutionary movement that breaks with capitalist private property.

If the criticism of Chavez by this socialist website amounts to the fact that Chavez is not a socialist and that he does not have a socialist programme, then they are not telling us much. Chavez himself has said on more than one occasion that he is not a socialist (though he has also said that he is not opposed to socialist ideas). However if what the criticism tries to say is that Chavez is somehow a tool of the multinational companies who places the burden of the crisis on the working class and surrounds himself with cronies from the military, then this is untrue and sounds very much like the kind of criticism Chavez and the Bolivarian movement are getting from the reactionary opposition. Furthermore if this were all true, why would the local capitalist class and imperialism be so keen to overthrow his government?

The main contradiction of the Bolivarian revolution is this: though its programme is one of national democratic and progressive reforms (land reform, national sovereignty, using oil resources in social programmes), because of the crisis of capitalism internationally and the extreme parasitical and reactionary nature of the capitalist class in Venezuela, even this moderate programme goes against their fundamental interests and cannot be fully carried out within the limits of capitalism. It is this that can push the revolution into an anti-capitalist direction. For this, the independent organisation of the working class with a clear socialist perspective is necessary

Comradely yours,

Jorge Martin