Venezuela's presidential recall referendum: Mass wave of enthusiasm must be used to complete the revolution!

All attention is now centred on the forthcoming August 15th recall referendum. The "opposition" has all kinds of tricks it can play, but one thing is sure: the masses are gearing up to defend the revolution. Unfortunately there are elements within the leadership of the movement who are trying to hold back the masses. Jorge Martin and William Sanabria, in Caracas, report on what is happening and look at the possible developments.

On June 6th a massive demonstration of about 2 million people took place in Bolivar Avenue in Caracas. This was, probably, the largest demonstration in the history of the country, and many say that it was surely the largest since the Venezuelan revolution began. The impressive march was the bold reply of the revolutionary masses to the fraud organised by the opposition in the process of collecting the signatures to force a presidential recall referendum against Hugo Chávez, which will take place on August 15th.

Chavez has named this campaign the "Battle of Santa Ines", after the December 1859 battle in which peasant war leaders decisively defeated the forces of the oligarchy during the Federal War. At the June 6th demo, Chavez made an appeal to the masses to organise in 10-strong Electoral Platoons, coordinated by Electoral Battle Units in every polling station and led by Maisanta Comandos in every parish, council, region and nationally. These Comandos are named after Chavez´s great grandfather who was a peasant guerrilla leader.

This appeal was enthusiastically taken upon by the masses and all over the country hundreds of thousands of people started to organise their own Platoons in every street, block, rural community and workplace. The aim is to get 120,000 registered Platoons, which would mean an impressive force of 1.2 million organised people fighting this battle. So far the enthusiasm of the people has far surpassed the bureaucratic structures of all political parties which are part of the leadership of the Bolivarian movement, and in many cases it has clashed head on with their bureaucratic decisions and appointments. The mood amongst the revolutionary rank and file is extremely critical of those "leaders" who have already shown in practice their inability to lead, and of many of the council and regional level officials of the Bolivarian movement who have proven to replicate the same crony, corrupt practices of the old IV Republic politicians.

The revolutionary masses have learnt through bitter experience that bureaucratic top down appointments in the revolutionary structures are the surest way to defeat. The Ayacucho Comando, composed of the leading figures of all Bolivarian parties which "organised" the fight over the question of the recall referendum, is widely despised. The idea, pushed by some of those leading figures that now "is not the time to discuss the mistakes of the Ayacucho Comando", but rather that we "must all unite and leave differences and criticisms to one side" is not accepted by the revolutionary masses, since they understand that not discussing those mistakes could prepare a new defeat. Unfortunately the methods to select the new Maisanta Comandos have been the same as the ones used with the Ayacucho Comando, nomination from above without any consultation with the revolutionary rank and file. At the level of the National Maisanta Comando, led directly by Chavez, a number of figures with good standing in the Bolivarian movement, and seen as representing its left wing have been nominated, but at regional and local level in general the same people who made up the Ayacucho Comandos have been selected. This has led to many clashes.

In Caracas, the official swearing in ceremony for the parish level Maisanta Comandos had to be cancelled because of the pressure of rank and file revolutionary organisations from parishes as Antímano, 23 de Enero, El Valle, La Vega and others, that rejected the people chosen. In Antímano, a democratic assembly elected its own parish level Maisanta Comando, which was never recognised by the official Caracas Comando. In El Valle a mass meeting with more than 500 people (representatives of each street and sector) elected delegates from their own ranks to join the officially appointed Comando. In the revolutionary parish of 23 de Enero a mass meeting of more than 1000 people negotiated until the early hours of the morning with Caracas Libertador Council Mayor Freddy Bernal and Education Minister Aristobulo Isturiz (both leaders of the Caracas Maisanta Comando) until they got an acceptable composition for the 23 de Enero parish Comando. In the Caracas Council of Sucre more than 1000 people attending the official swearing in of the local Maisanta Comando, booed and heckled when they realised that no rank and file revolutionary leaders had been appointed, but only those close to the local Council bureaucrats (the same ones who made up the local Ayacucho Comando). In the state of Vargas, Bolivarian organisations set up their own People's Maisanta Comando, rejecting the imposition of an official Comando led by Vargas governor (a "Bolivarian" who sided with coup leader Carmona on April 11th, 2002). A Peoples' Maisanta Comando was also set up in Barquisimeto. These examples could be replicated up and down the country. In many cases, pressure from below has led to recognised rank and file Bolivarian leaders being included in the Comandos, in others alternative Comandos have been set up working in a more or less uneasy relationship with the official structures.

The authority of Chavez as the main leader of the revolution is still overwhelmingly recognised, but many of the leaders of the Bolivarian parties at all levels are rejected by the revolutionary masses. While quite a lot of the members of the National Maisanta Comando, are figures regarded by the rank and file as belonging to the left of the Bolivarian movement, the problem is that at regional and local level the Maisanta Comandos are staffed with the same people who led to the failure of the Ayacucho Comando. At bottom these conflicts reflect the instinctive mistrust of the masses for the reformist wing of the Bolivarian movement and their desire to directly participate in the democratic running of the revolutionary movement.

The main point to stress is the extraordinary energy and revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses which have rallied to the battle call in their tens and hundreds of thousands. This enthusiasm is combined with a healthy rejection of self-appointed leaders and the desire for leading figures to be subject to the scrutiny of the masses through revolutionary assemblies. The process which led to the organisation of hundreds of thousands in the Bolivarian Circles, which had its peak after the April 2002 attempted reactionary coup, is now being repeated at a higher level.

This important qualitative step forward in the consciousness of the masses has taken place mainly in the working class and poor neighbourhoods, but it is slowly starting to filter to the labour movement. A number of class struggle unions have set up their own workplace Maisanta Comandos and meetings are taking place in workplaces and in regional organisations of the newly formed UNT trade union confederation, to discuss the participation of workers in the Santa Ines Battle. This despite the fact that this is being presented mainly as an electoral battle, and thus to be fought on a territorial basis, rather than through workplace organisations. More than 400 people met in Valencia in a meeting called by the Carabobo region of the UNT, but even here only a few of the unions organised by the UNT attended, and most of those present came from community and neighbourhood based organisations. Also significant was a meeting of more than 300 people called by unions at the electricity company CADAFE on Saturday June 3rd, to discuss the formation of Revolutionary Workers' Comandos, though even here neighbourhood based activists outnumbered CADAFE workers.

Two weeks ago there was another very important meeting which reflects the critical mood which is also filtering through to the ranks of the unions. More than 300 branch leaders of about 120 branches of the public sector workers' federation FETRASEP met and decided to remove the old leadership and replace it by another firmly committed to the principles of "class struggle, revolutionary, internationalist unionism" and adhering to the Bolivarian revolution. FETRASEP was already part of the new UNT confederation, but this decision had been partly taken as a result of the old union bureaucratic union leaders deciding to jump the sinking ship of the old CTV confederation. Now the workers have decided to get rid of the old leaders, accused of replicating the same crony, bureaucratic and corrupt practices of the CTV unions. If the trade union movement has not gone further ahead to a large extent this is the responsibility of the UNT leadership which in many cases has failed to provide any real leadership and has been surpassed by the rank and file. Just to give one example, at a meeting of the Caracas-Miranda region of the UNT to discuss the Santa Ines Battle, the leadership were expecting some 90 local branch leaders to turn up and were surprised when some 140 attended.

The recall referendum

It is clear that the electoral front is not the most favourable field for the revolution to advance. Here the vote of the most active elements, who participate directly in marches, assemblies, meetings and trade unions, counts as much as the vote of the politically inactive layers more subject to the propaganda of the bourgeois media. However all seems to indicate that Chavez would win a clean election process. The opposition needs to gather more than the 3,75 million votes that Chavez got in the 2000 presidential elections and more than those who oppose his recall with a comfortable majority. During the signature collection process (which in the end lasted for about 7 days) they could only gather about 2,4 million votes despite all the fraud that took place. This is the hard core of support that they have and though they can probably increase this during the campaign, it is difficult to see how they can get 3,8 million votes. On the other hand, support for the Bolivarian revolution has probably increased since 2000, particularly because millions have directly benefited from the social programmes launched by the government, particularly in the fields of land reform, primary health care and education and literacy campaigns (known as Misiones).

Obviously the bourgeois reactionary opposition will resort to all sorts of dirty tricks and lies and will launch a massive campaign trying to discredit the Bolivarian movement and to threaten voters into voting for Chavez's recall. Such a campaign has already started. Opposition TV spots feature crime, corruption and unemployment, trying to blame the government for these, and also make all sorts of promises which they have no intention of keeping, particularly the fact that they will maintain the social programmes of the government. But here we are not facing a situation like that of Nicaragua when the Sandinistas lost the election, after 10 years of economic sabotage and military intervention, when an important section of the masses had become demoralised and demobilised. So far criticism against leaders of the reformist wing of the Bolivarian movement has not expressed itself in scepticism and lack of participation, but on the contrary in more participation.

But at the same time is clear that a clear victory for Chavez in the referendum would be a massive blow for the oligarchy and imperialism, because of the implications that this would have. The campaign is being fought on the Bolivarian side on clear issues like opposition to privatisation of utilities and the oil company, opposition to the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (ALCA), opposition to imperialism, defence of the social programmes (Misiones) and above all a refusal to go back to the past. A victory on the 15th would probably push the revolution forward and it would be a confirmation of the role of the Bolivarian revolution as an example for the workers and peasants of the rest of Latin American countries. The example of a revolutionary process which has defeated reaction and imperialism in a number of decisive occasions is something Washington cannot allow in the present climate of a shift to the left of the pendulum in the whole of the continent. Furthermore, as we have explained before, Venezuela is a key country from the point of view of US imperialism, since it is its third largest provider of oil, at a time where Washington is facing enormous difficulties to stabilise the situation in the Middle East.

Finally, from the narrow point of view of the Venezuelan capitalists, a defeat in the referendum would have a knock on effect in the regional and council elections in September, where they risk losing key points of support that they still have, including the states of Miranda, Carabobo, Anzoategui, and the Caracas Council.

What can they do? They have four main options, and probably will use a combination of all of them.

First of all they can attempt to use fraud to "win" the referendum. There have been rumours and accusations that the company in charge of the automatic, computerised voting, Smartmatic, is infiltrated by the CIA, or that the computerised programme could be used to alter the results. Venezuela is awash with all sorts of rumours and conspiracy theories, and one should always maintain a healthy dose of scepticism. And there are other mechanisms they can use to force the recognition by world bourgeois public opinion of a fraudulent result. The staff of the National Electoral Commission (CNE) is overwhelmingly supportive of the opposition and could be used for this purpose. Already they have been dragging their feet on the question of the purging of the electoral register of deceased people (some 50,000 of those are still included). Then there is the issue of "international observers", the pawns of imperialism within the electoral machinery in the form of the Carter Centre and the Organisation of American States observers. They have been insisting on their "right" to do a "parallel count" and announce their results even before official results are announced. This would clearly open the ground for a situation where they announce a "result", this is recognised by "international institutions" and governments and so on. Finally, though the members of the leading body of the CNE are considered to be 3 to 2 supportive of the government, any number of them could be bought or cajoled into accepting a fraudulent decision. Already in June we saw how they voted 4 to 1 to rule that the opposition had collected enough signatures to trigger the presidential recall, when it was clear that widespread irregularities had taken place.

In the case of fraud the response of the Bolivarian supporters would be immediate and massive. They would not accept fraud a second time. Not even if Chavez accepted such "results", and this would be unlikely since it would be tantamount to political suicide. According to investigative journalist Miguel Salazar, there are sections of the reformist wing of the Bolivarian movement who are playing the card of what is known as "chavism without Chavez". They would be interested in participating in such a manoeuvre. The opposition is probably already dealing with some of these sectors promising them a government of "national reconciliation", the maintenance of some of the social programmes of the government, lots of money and privileges, anything as long as they get rid of Chavez.

This scenario, one in which a fraudulent result is validated by international observers (or even better by the CNE itself), would be the best option for imperialism. They could then step up the pressure, through diplomatic blockades, street demonstrations, terrorist actions, military officers coming out against the government, and finally prepare for international intervention.

If they do not manage to fabricate a fraudulent result, then they could try to not recognise the referendum results and claim there has been fraud on the part of the government. In fact they are already preparing their arguments. The day after Chavez had announced he accepted the CNE decision on the referendum, US Undersecretary of State Peter DeShazo announced that the US would only recognise the referendum results if this took place in an atmosphere "free of intimidation and violence". It is clear what this means: if the results do not suit them, they will not recognise them and make up a suitable excuse. Since the campaign started, opposition spokespersons have been complaining about all sorts of things. First they argued about the question of the referendum, saying that "officialist" supporters of the CNE were meeting apart from opposition supporters; they complained about the alleged fact that the government had shares in one of the Smartmatic companies running the poll count, then they said that the automatic voting machines were not trustworthy; they have not participated in the process of nomination of new judges to the Supreme Court complaining that this is an attempt to manipulate the judicial system, etc., etc.

In this scenario they could also try to destabilise the country through protests, international pressure, etc and even get some of the opposition controlled regional governments not to recognise the results. If they did not get enough support from the armed forces for a plan like this, then they would have to fall back to a position of a more protracted campaign of sabotage in order to wear down the masses and rebuild their own strength.

However, the whole of the international and national situation leaves the oligarchy with very little time. For them putting an end to this revolution is a matter of urgency. This might push a section of the opposition into an armed adventure even against the best advice of US imperialism, or even to attempt to kill Chavez in the hope of disorganising the whole movement. Finally, if they expect a crushing defeat in the referendum they could even try to prevent this from happening and launch a decisive blow before August 15th arguing that "Chavez is a dictator", "he cannot be trusted", "the referendum is rigged".

In any of these scenarios, any move by the counter-revolution could easily push the masses and the whole process sharply forward and to the left and even push Chavez to take decisive measures against capitalist private property. The current mood amongst the Bolivarian masses is already one of "we are going to beat them on the 15th and then go on the offensive". Even some within the National Maisanta Comando are arguing for this idea. The masses feel that many times after they have defeated reaction on the streets (April 13th 2002, December 2002 – January 2003), their victory has been negotiated away or the opportunity has not been used to strike decisive blows against the power of the oligarchy. The revolutionary Bolivarian movement is deep rooted amongst the masses and its level of anti-imperialist and anti-oligarchic consciousness is now very high.

Which way forward for the revolution?

From the point of view of the masses, their consciousness, revolutionaryélan, readiness to struggle, all the conditions are present to decisively defeat the oligarchy and imperialism. The key question is where to go? The reformists in the leadership of the movement (and their positions are less popular, the further down in the movement you go), argue that in order to win the election, the language must be moderated, so that we can "win the middle ground". They further argue that after August 15th, the "democratic section" of the opposition will come to its senses and accept the "democratic rules of the game". This is foolish. The only way to appease the opposition (which represents the interests of big business and imperialism) would be to undo all the social reforms introduced by the government and to demobilise the revolutionary masses. That is, the only way to get the oligarchy to accept bourgeois democracy is not to threaten them with reform. And this is something the Bolivarian masses cannot and will not accept.

Chavez has adopted this kind of strategy and for the first time has spent some energy in rejecting the idea that this revolution is about communism. He has explained that, though he respects communists, the Bolivarian revolution is not communist since, unlike communism, it respects private property. He has also had meetings with employers in Zulia and other states, and has insisted that the employers also have a role to play in this revolution. At the same time Caracas Libertador Council Mayor, Freddy Bernal has tried to appear as the staunchest defender of private property by evicting homeless people who had been squatting in a number of empty buildings in the centre of Caracas. They were quite well organised and had declared their support for the Bolivarian revolution. It is clear that in a movement like that, involving the most oppressed sections of society, there is always room for criminal elements to take advantage to advance their own interests. But the main question remains that of dozens of empty buildings in Caracas and thousands of homeless families. The problem with these kind of gestures aimed at the "progressive" section of the bourgeoisie, is that from the point in which the Chavez government started to take measures in favour of the poor (however limited) it was going against the general trend of capitalist governments in the present epoch. Furthermore Chavez has opened the way for the mass mobilisation and organisation of the workers and the poor, and this is something the Venezuelan capitalists cannot be reconciled with. There is no room for the development of a national productive and progressive capitalist class in Venezuela, particularly in the face of a revolutionary movement of the masses. No significant section of the Venezuelan capitalists supports the government

The left wing within the Bolivarian movement, a large section of its activists at rank and file level and a few prominent leaders, feel that the revolution must go forward. This is expressed in a number of phrases, like "deepening the revolution", the much talked about need for a "revolution within the revolution", the need for "peoples' power", etc. Chavez himself has talked about the need for a "revolution within the revolution" and the fact that we are in a "transitional phase" in which we can see how the "old refuses to die, while the new is not yet born". The question that must be posed clearly is what are the next steps that ought to be taken and how should the revolutionary movement organise in order to take them.

It is clear that while the Venezuelan capitalists, bankers and monopoly owners keep control of the banks, food distribution chains, private industry and the media, they will use these levers of power in order to sabotage the gains of the revolution. The conclusion is clear. These levers of power must be wrested from them and put under democratic workers' control and run in the benefit of the majority of society. This is the way forward.

At the same time, the oligarchy still controls sections of the state apparatus which they also use to sabotage the process. The ministries, local police forces, the judiciary, etc are infiltrated by reactionaries that do their best to prevent the democratic will of the majority from being carried out. It is becoming increasingly clear to a large section of the Bolivarian activists, that the question of state power is crucial. The structures of the old, IV Republic, capitalist state are largely intact, though the ruling class has lost control of many of them.

The process of mass organisation of the revolutionary people which we are witnessing in preparation for the August 15th battle should be used to create democratic revolutionary structures of elected and recallable delegates at all levels, that starting as committees of struggle can then take over the running of the state and the economy and smash the remains of the old bourgeois state.

All experience shows that one cannot make half a revolution. This would be the surest way to defeat. The revolution must be completed and this means taking over the means of production and putting them under democratic workers' control. Chavez has used the analogy of the Santa Ines Battle, led by peasant war leader Ezequiel Zamora. Zamora, in the course of the Federal War against the landed oligarchy, 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".

In Venezuela we are witnessing a war, a war between contending class interests. On the one side the oligarchy, that is, the monopoly capitalists and the bank owners linked by a thousand threads to the interests of US imperialism. They have not hesitated to use all means at their disposal to put an end to the revolution: a military coup, sabotage of the economy, armed paramilitaries, fascist provocations, etc. And on the other hand we have the mass of the workers, the peasants, the urban poor, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie and sections of the army officers. The revolution has so far not taken any serious measures against the counter-revolution. But this is a war and no serious general would think of waging a war while leaving the supply lines of the enemy intact and furthermore allowing the enemy to control ones' supply lines! The expropriation of the capitalists and the imperialists would be just a measure of self-defence for the revolution and one which would be enthusiastically endorsed and defended by the revolutionary Bolivarian masses, who have had enough of provocations and sabotage.

At the time of Ezequiel Zamora, his struggle was sabotaged by his own allies in the reformist wing of the leadership of the Federal movement. These reformist elements, led by Guzman Blanco and Falcón, where more afraid of the revolutionary content of the movement of the peasant masses, than they were committed to ending the domination of the landed oligarchy. In the end, they organised the assassination of Zamora and offered a deal to the oligarchs. Ironically, the oligarchs correctly interpreted this as a sign of weakness and went on to the offensive. They had to strike a decisive blow against the peasant movement so that it would not dare raise its head again.

There are many parallels between the social revolution of the 1850s and the current situation in Venezuela, since there are common laws that rule revolution and counter-revolution. However, there is one major difference. Now there is in Venezuela one social class that can lead the whole movement to victory, the working class. The workers occupy a unique position in society, since they are the ones who make the capitalist economy in a country like Venezuela run. Therefore they are uniquely placed to strike decisive blows against the interests of the capitalists. The power and strength of the Venezuelan working class was clearly demonstrated during the oil sabotage and bosses' lock out in December 2002. At that time, the oil workers took over the oil refineries and installations and ran them under their own control and management. They had the support of the local communities and of a section of the army officers supportive of the revolution which came out in support and defended the installations. But it was the knowledge of the oil workers, as a result of the place they occupy in production, that allowed them to run the industry without managers or directors. If the oil workers can run the first industry of the country and one which is highly developed from a technological point of view, then the workers in general putting themselves at the head of all oppressed classes and layers, can run society.

The only thing missing in Venezuela is a revolutionary Marxist leadership with deep roots in the movement of the workers, the urban poor and the peasants, and gathering the best revolutionary activists. Such a leadership could point out clearly the way forward and lead the movement to victory. Building a revolutionary Marxist leadership is therefore the most urgent task facing the revolutionary movement in Venezuela. The building blocks of this leadership are already present in the hundreds of revolutionary activists in class struggle unions, revolutionary organisations in the neighbourhoods, land reform committees, Bolivarian Circles, Electoral Platoons, and the hundreds of thousands of different organisations that have emerged. They need to be gathered around the programme of socialist transformation of society, towards which they are already groping, and united in a national revolutionary Marxist current.