Encounters with Hugo Chávez
Last week, as readers of Marxist.com will already know, I visited Caracas to attend the Second International Gathering in Solidarity with the Venezuelan Revolution. It was held on the second anniversary of the defeat of the attempted counterrevolution of April 2002. In the course of one hectic week I spoke at several meetings, putting the Marxist case, mainly to audiences of workers and poor people – activists of the Bolivarian Movement and the main protagonists of the Venezuelan Revolution. I attended the mass rally on 12th April and witnessed first-hand the revolutionary fervour that motivates the masses and enabled them to stop the counterrevolution in its tracks.
I also had the opportunity to meet and talk with the President of the Bolivarian Republic, Hugo Chavez. As a writer and Marxist historian I am used to writing about men and women who have made history. But it is not every day that one has the opportunity to observe a protagonist of the historical process at close quarters, to ask questions and to form an impression, not from newspaper reports but from personal experience.
I should like to make a few things clear before proceeding to my subject. I approach the Venezuelan Revolution as a revolutionary, not as an external observer, and certainly not as a sycophant and a flatterer. Flattery is the enemy of revolutions because it is the enemy of truth, and revolutions need above all to know the truth. The phenomenon of "revolutionary tourism" I find profoundly abhorrent. It is particularly out of place in the case of Venezuela, because here the Revolution finds itself in the greatest danger. Those who make stupid speeches that constantly assert the wonders of the Bolivarian Revolution, but conveniently ignore the dangers it still faces, are false friends of the Revolution in whom no reliance can be placed.
A successful Revolution always has many "friends". Those middle class elements who are attracted to power as flies to a honey pot, who are ready to sing the praises of the Revolution as long as it remains in power, who do nothing useful to save it from its enemies, who weep a few crocodile tears when it is overthrown, and the next day pass onto the next item on Life's agenda – such "friends" are worth two a penny. A real friend is not someone who always tells you that you are right. A real friend is someone who is not afraid to look you straight in the eye and tell you that you are mistaken.
The best friends of the Venezuelan Revolution – in fact its only real friends is the working class of the world and its most conscious representatives – are the revolutionary Marxists. They are the people who will move heaven and earth to defend the Venezuelan Revolution against its enemies. At the same time, the true friends of the Revolution – honest and loyal friends – will always speak their mind without fear. Where we consider that the right road is being taken, we will praise. Where we think mistakes are being made, we will give friendly but firm criticism. What other kind of behaviour should be expected of real revolutionaries and internationalists?
In speech after speech in Venezuela – including several televised interviews – I was asked my opinion about the Venezuelan Revolution, and answered in the following sense: "Your Revolution is an inspiration to the workers of the whole world: you have accomplished miracles; the driving force of the Revolution, however, is the working class and the masses, and that is the secret of its future success. However, the Revolution has not been finished and will not be finished unless and until you destroy the economic power of the bankers and capitalists. In order to do this, the masses must be armed and organised in action committees, organised at all levels. The workers must have their own independent organizations and we must build the Marxist Revolutionary Tendency."
Democracy and the ruling class
Everywhere I spoke, these ideas were accepted with great enthusiasm. At no time was any pressure put on me to modify or change my ideas in any way. At every level, there was considerable interest in the ideas of Marxism. Contrary to the disgraceful lies and calumnies that are being disseminated everywhere (with a little help from the CIA), revolutionary Venezuela enjoys complete democracy. The bourgeois opposition, which is constantly conspiring against democracy, is allowed to put forward its ideas as freely as I was – more freely, in fact, since it owns the main television channels, which constantly pour out counterrevolutionary propaganda and even open appeals for a coup.
The arguments of the enemies of the Revolution to the effect that Chavez is a dictator are ironic. Unlike the present occupant of the White House, who never won a majority and only enjoys the fruits of office because the election result was rigged, Hugo Chavez has won overwhelmingly in two elections and five other electoral processes have ratified his programme, all in the space of 6 years. Chavez introduced a new constitution which is characterized by its extremely democratic character. Ironically, it is this new constitution that gives the people the right to hold a referendum to dismiss an unpopular government that is being utilised by the opposition to try to get rid of the Chavez government – though without success. Thus, both sides are appealing to the same laws and the same constitution.
In the beginning, the oligarchy did not know what to make of the Chavez government. They thought it would be like any other government. And in Venezuela, as in any other country where formal bourgeois democracy pertains, elected governments are a commodity like any other: they can be bought and sold – only the exact price needs to be decided. Hugo Chavez was an unknown quantity, but as a former army officer, surely he would soon see sense? For the ruling class, the speeches that politicians make in election campaigns are only the small change of politics – they are not to be taken seriously.
A British Conservative politician once said to a Socialist: "You can never win, because we will always buy your leaders." Following the same principle, the oligarchy tried to reach an agreement with the new government. They even wrote favourably about Hugo Chavez. Following the age-old guiding principle of Venezuelan politics, they thought that an amicable agreement could be reached on the following basis: "Look, this is a country with rich pickings: there is plenty for all of us. So there is really no need for an argument. Let us reach a gentlemen's agreement: you take so much and we will take the rest."
Unfortunately for the ruling class, not everyone is for sale. Even when the government passed a new constitution, the oligarchy did not despair. The new government passed a constitution that is the most democratic in Latin America, perhaps in the whole world. It gives rights to everyone, irrespective of race, colour or sex. Naturally, the oligarchy did not treat this seriously. After all, what is a constitution but a mere scrap of paper? The reasoning of the oligarchy was impeccable, and reflected the reality of all laws and constitutions in a formal bourgeois democracy. They are not really to be taken seriously. They are an adornment that is designed to draw a veil over the real situation that is the continuing domination of a wealthy minority over the majority.
Democracy, parliament, elections, free speech and free trade unions are seen by the ruling class as a necessary evil, which may be tolerated as long as they present no threat to the dictatorship of the banks and monopolies. But as soon as the mechanism of democracy is used by the masses to introduce a fundamental change in society, the attitude of the ruling class changes. They begin to shout about "dictatorship" even when the government has, as in Venezuela, been elected by the overwhelming majority. They use their economic muscle, their control over the economic life of the nation, their control of the mass media and the judiciary to harass, sabotage and undermine the democratically elected government – that is to say, they resort to extra-parliamentary methods to overthrow the government.
To imagine that laws and constitutions will save the government under such conditions is the height of naivety. The extra-parliamentary actions of the ruling class cannot be defeated by speeches in parliament and appeals to the constitution. It can only be defeated by the extra-parliamentary action of the masses. The experience of the Venezuelan Revolution confirms this affirmation one hundred percent. For it is one thing to approve a constitution that gives rights to the majority, and another thing to turn these rights into reality. In order to act in the interests of the majority it is necessary to confront the vested interests of the oligarchy. This cannot be done without an all-out struggle.
The coup of 11th April
As soon as the oligarchy realised that they could not reach an agreement with Chavez, that he could not be bought, they began to attack him. The elite began to organize and mobilize its forces. They used their control of the mass media to whip up the middle classes into a frenzy. They used the CIA to bribe corrupt trade union leaders to organize reactionary strikes, following the pattern of the lorry drivers' strike against the government of Salvador Allende in Chile. They staged an investment strike, shipping billions to bank accounts in Miami. They were preparing the ground for the counterrevolutionary coup of April 11, 2002.
It goes without saying that all the threads in this conspiracy went back to Washington. Why does US imperialism hate Chavez? Why does it fear the Bolivarian Revolution? So far, Chavez has not expropriated the property of the big US companies in Venezuela. He has not halted the shipment of oil to the USA. He has not nationalized the property of the oligarchy.
In part, the hostility of Washington to Chavez is dictated by his fierce determination to resist the impositions of US imperialism. He was from the beginning one of the firmest advocates of maintaining a high price of oil – a policy that goes against the interests of US capitalism that is struggling to get out of recession and needs to keep oil prices low. In the past, Washington could rely on a pliable government in Caracas that would (for a suitable sum of money) adopt a policy more to its liking. The Venezuelan oil company PDVSA, though formally nationalised, was controlled by corrupt bureaucrats who ran PDVSA like any other capitalist enterprise and were more than friendly to the big US oil companies.
The real reason for the undying hatred of US imperialism to Chavez, however, must be sought elsewhere. At the present time there is not a single stable capitalist regime from Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Grande. A revolutionary wave is sweeping the entire Latin American continent. This fills the strategists of Capital in Washington with fear and foreboding. The eyes of the world are fixed on the Middle East, an area of vital economic and strategic importance to US imperialism. But Latin America is seen as the USA's backyard. Events in the South affect the USA in a very direct way.
Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution is a direct threat to US imperialism because of the example it gives to the oppressed masses in the rest of Latin America. It has roused the masses from their long winter sleep and impelled them to struggle. The Revolution's list of practical achievements is impressive. It has carried out some serious reforms in the interest of the workers and the poor. One and a half million people have been taught to read and write and a total of 3 million people have been enrolled in education plans at different levels. Twelve million people, many of whom had never seen a doctor, have received medical attention from Cuban doctors who have been sent to live in the villages and shanty towns. Nearly two million hectares of land have been distributed to the peasants.
These are real gains. But the real gain of the Revolution is more important and more intangible. It cannot be weighed, measured or counted, but it is decisive. The Revolution has given the masses a sense of their own dignity as human beings, it has imparted a keen sense of justice, it has given them a new sense of their own power, it has given them a new confidence. It has given them hope for the future. From the standpoint of the ruling class and imperialism, this represents a mortal peril.
At present the correlation of class forces remains favourable for the Revolution. Chavez's personal popularity is unchallenged. The polls give him 60 percent or more. In reality, his support is even greater if we consider which forces support him. Everything that is alive, creative and vibrant in Venezuela is with the Revolution. On the other side stand the forces of reaction and conservatism – all that is degenerate, corrupt and rotten.
For the first time in the almost 200 years history of Venezuela the masses feel that the government is in the hands of people who wish to defend their interests. In the past the government was always an alien power standing against them. They do not want to see the return of the old corrupt parties.
A revolution, as Trotsky explains in the History of the Russian Revolution, is a situation where the masses begin to take their destiny into their own hands. This is certainly the case in Venezuela now. The awakening of the masses and their active participation in politics is the most decisive feature of the Venezuelan Revolution and the secret of its success.
Two years ago the spontaneous uprising of the masses defeated the counterrevolution. This is what served to accelerate the whole process. But two years later a new mood is developing in the masses. There is frustration and discontent. The aspirations of the masses have not been satisfied. They wish to go further. They want to confront and defeat the forces of the counterrevolution and are pressing forward.
But on the top there are other pressures from those who feel the Revolution has gone too far, those who fear the masses on the one hand and imperialism on the other. They want to apply the brakes. The two contradictory tendencies cannot coexist forever. One or the other will have to win. Upon the result of this internal struggle the future of the Revolution will depend.
This central contradiction is reflected at all levels, in society, in the Movement, in the government, in the palace of Miraflores, and even in the President himself.
Chavez and the masses
For decades Venezuela was ruled by a corrupt and degenerate oligarchy. There was a two party system in which both parties represented the oligarchy. When Chavez founded the Bolivarian Movement, he sought to clean out the stinking Augean stables that were Venezuelan political life. This was a limited and very modest objective – but it met with the ferocious resistance of the ruling oligarchy and its servants.
Two years ago, on 11 April, the oligarchy, with the active support of Washington, attempted to overthrow Chavez through a coup d'etat. He was arrested and hijacked. The plotters installed themselves in the palace of Miraflores. But within 48 hours they were overthrown by a spontaneous uprising of the masses. Units of the army loyal to Chavez went over to the masses, and the coup collapsed ignominiously on April 13.
At the II International Gathering in Solidarity with the Venezuelan Revolution I estimate that there were about 150 foreign delegates, mostly from South and Central America. On the evening of April 13 we gathered on the tribune in central Caracas, just outside the palace of Miraflores to see the immense demonstration that commemorated the defeat of the coup.
It was an impressive sight. From the factories and poor areas of Caracas tens of thousands of Chavistas poured onto the streets in red shirts and baseball caps, waving flags and placards. These were the people who defeated the counterrevolution two years ago, and their enthusiasm for the Revolution remains undimmed.
The meetings began with music and a few warming-up speeches. Then Chavez spoke. It was interesting to observe the relations between Chavez and the masses. There can be no doubt about the intense loyalty felt by the poor and downtrodden masses to this man. Hugo Chavez for the first time gave the poor and downtrodden a voice and some hope. That is the secret of the extraordinary devotion and loyalty they have shown him. He aroused them to life and they see themselves in him. This has earned him the undying hatred of the wealthy and powerful, and the loyalty and love of the masses.
That explains the equally extraordinary hatred the ruling class shows towards Chavez. It is the hatred of the rich for the poor, of the exploiter for the exploited. Behind this hatred is fear – fear for the loss of their wealth, power and privileges. This is a gulf that cannot be bridged by fair words. It is the fundamental class division of society. And it has not been eliminated by the defeat of the coup and the subsequent bosses' lockout. If anything, it has grown in intensity.
As usual, Chavez spoke at great length, covering many issues, national and international. Significantly, he drew a clear distinction between the government and the people of the United States, appealing to the former for support against Bush and the imperialists. As he spoke, I was able to watch the reaction of the masses on the big screen behind the president. Old people and youngsters, men and women, the overwhelming majority working class, listened intently, straining on every word. They applauded, cheered, laughed and even wept as they stood there. This was the face of an aroused people, a people that has become aware of itself as an active participant in the historical process – the face of a revolution.
And Chavez? Chavez clearly draws his strength from the support of the masses, with whom he identifies fully. In his manner of speaking – spontaneous and completely lacking in the stiff formality one expects from a professional politician – he connects with them. If there is sometimes a lack of clarity, even this reflects the stage in which the mass movement finds itself. The identity is complete.
Immediately after the mass rally, the international delegates were invited to a reception inside the palace of Miraflores. It is not an easy place to get in and out of. Security is very tight because of the constant threat of assassination. Bags are searched and searched again. Passports are checked minutely. Guards with mirrors inspect the underside of all vehicles. It takes a long time, but these precautions are absolutely necessary.
Chavez again addressed the meeting, and one wonders where he gets his energy from. He speaks at length about the day of the coup when he was arrested and reveals certain details that nobody knew up to that point. Afterwards, he was surrounded by a lot of people wanting to shake his hand and exchange a few words. It was a bit like a rugby match, but eventually I managed to get close enough to introduce myself: "I am Alan Woods from London, the author of Reason in Revolt."
Grasping my outstretched hand firmly, he looked at me with curiosity: "What book did you say?"
"Reason in Revolt".
A broad smile lit up his face. "That is a fantastic book! I congratulate you."
Then looking around him he announced: "You must all read this book!"
Not wishing to take up any more of his time at the expense of other people who were waiting, I asked if we could meet.
"Of course we must meet. See my secretary." He pointed to a young man at his side, who promptly informed me that he "would be in touch".
I was going to leave, to allow others to meet the President, when he stopped me. He now seemed to be oblivious of all around him and spoke with obvious enthusiasm: "You know, I have got that book at my bedside and I am reading it every night. I have got as far as the chapter on 'The molecular process of revolution'. You know, where you write about Gibbs' energy." It appears that this section has made a considerable impact on him, because he quotes it continually in his speeches. Mr. Gibbs has probably never been so famous before!
This is no accident. The Venezuelan revolution has now reached a critical point where the outcome must be determined in one sense or another. The chapter he referred to deals with just such a critical point in chemistry, where a certain amount of energy, known as Gibbs' energy, is needed to bring about a qualitative transformation. Chavez has grasped the fact that the revolution needs to make this qualitative leap, and this is why that passage in the book attracted his attention.
The following day I was completely occupied. I spoke at a meeting of a hundred people in a debate about the fundamental problems of the Revolution, in which I advocated the expropriation of the property of the oligarchy, the arming of the people and workers' control and management. I quoted Lenin's famous four conditions for workers' power, and the bit about the limitation on the salaries of officials proved particularly popular.
I was answered by a Colombian member of parliament, who put a completely reformist position. He is a former guerrilla (they are always the most fervent reformists). I answered him quite firmly – to the obvious delight of the audience – quoting Tawney's celebrated dictum: "You can peel and onion layer by layer, but you can't skin a tiger claw by claw". In the end the poor chap looked quite dazed.
In the evening I was joined by Manzoor Ahmed, the Marxist member of parliament from Pakistan. Poor Manzoor had just come off a plane after an exhausting journey of 33 hours. Nevertheless, he seemed fresh as he addressed the main plenary session in an inspirational speech where he drew a parallel between the Venezuelan Revolution and the Pakistani revolution of 1968-9.
As Manzoor explained what had happened when Bhutto failed to carry through the revolution to the end, I was watching the faces of the people around me. Most of them were worker activists of the Bolivarian Circles. They were clearly enthralled by what Manzoor was saying, interrupting with cries of "That's right! That's what we want! About time this was said!" When Manzoor finally drew the conclusion "You cannot make half a revolution, the revolution must be finished", the audience broke into wild applause. Manzoor was given the only standing ovation of the evening.
The second encounter
The next day I phoned Chavez's secretary to ask about the appointment. The reply was not encouraging: "The President is very busy. A lot of people want to see him."
"Well, let's get this straight: is the meeting going to take place – yes or no?"
"I think it will be impossible."
I drew the obvious conclusion and went to discuss with two oil workers leaders from Puerto la Cruz over lunch.
In the middle of lunch, I was surprised when Fernando Bossi entered the restaurant and came up to our table. He is an Argentinean and the head of the Bolivarian Peoples' Congress, spreading all over Latin America.
"Alan, be ready by half past five. The President will see you at half past six."
The palace of Miraflores is an elegant neo classical building probably built in the 19th century and with an air reminiscent of the Spanish colonial era. In the centre there is a large patio surrounded by columns. Although the meeting was initially scheduled for half past six, it was past ten o'clock by the time I was called. As I stood waiting I was struck by the sound of the local crickets, so much louder and more strident than the ones I am used to in Spain.
I was told to expect an interview of between twenty and thirty minutes, which seemed perfectly adequate to me. The person before me was Heinz Dieterich, a German now living in Mexico, and an old friend of Chavez. He was with the President for 40 minutes, and profusely apologised for keeping me waiting. I told him I did not mind. However, there was a long gap before I was finally called. I supposed that Chavez was tired after a long day and wanted a rest, or maybe he was having something to eat.
These speculations were incorrect. I later discovered that Hugo Chavez is not a man who tires easily. He starts work every day before 8 o'clock and works until about three in the morning. Then he reads (he is a voracious reader). I don't know when he sleeps, yet he always seems to be bubbling with energy and talking endlessly about all sorts of things. This does not make him an easy man to work with, as his personal secretary told me: "I would do anything for him, but there is never a moment's peace. Sometimes I can't even go to the toilet. I start to walk in that direction and somebody shouts: 'the President wants you!'"
The reason I was kept waiting is that the President wanted to read all the material of the Hands off Venezuela campaign. As I walked into his office, he was sitting at his desk, with a huge portrait of Simon Bolivar behind him. On the desk I noticed a copy of Reason in Revolt and a letter I had sent him. The letter had been heavily underlined in blue.
Chavez greeted me very warmly. Here was no "protocol" but only openness and frankness. He began by asking me about Wales and my family background. I explained that I was from a working class family, and he replied that he was from a family of peasants. "Well, Alan, what have you got to say?" he asked. Actually, I was more interested in what he had to say – which was very interesting.
First I presented him with two books: my history of the Bolshevik Party (Bolshevism, the Road to Revolution) and Ted Grant's Russia – from Revolution to Counterrevolution. He looked extremely pleased. "I love books," he told me. "If they are good books, I love them even more. But even if they are bad books, I still love them."
Opening the Bolshevism book he read the dedication I had written, which reads: "To President Hugo Chavez with my best wishes. The Road to Revolution passes through the ideas, programme and traditions of Marxism. Forward to Victory!" He said "That is a wonderful dedication. Thank you, Alan." He began to turn the pages and stopped.
"I see you write about Plekhanov."
"I read a book by Plekhanov a long time ago, and it made a big impression on me. It was called The Role of the Individual in History. Do you know it?"
"The role of the individual in history", he mused. "Well, I know none of us is really indispensable," he said.
"That is not quite correct," I replied. "There are times in history when an individual can make a fundamental difference."
"Yes, I was pleased to see that in Reason in Revolt you say that Marxism cannot be reduced to economic factors."
"That is right. That is a vulgar caricature of Marxism."
"Do you know when I read Plekhanov's book The Role of the Individual in History?" he asked.
"I have no idea."
"I read it when I was a serving officer in an anti-guerrilla unit in the mountains. You know they gave us material to read so that we could understand subversion. I read that the subversives work among the people, defend their interests and win their hearts and minds. That seemed quite a good idea!"
"Then I began to read Plekhanov's book and it made a deep impression on me. I remember it was a beautiful starlit night in the mountains and I was in my tent reading with the light of a torch. The things I read made me think and I began to question what I was doing in the army. I became very unhappy.
"You know for us it was no problem. Moving about in the mountains with rifles in our hands. Also the guerrillas had no problems – they were doing the same as us. But the people who suffered were the ordinary peasants. They were helpless and they had a rough time. I remember one day we went into a village and I saw some soldiers torturing two peasants. I told them to stop that immediately, that there would be none of that as long as I was in command.
"Well, that really got me into trouble. They even wanted to put me on trial for military insubordination. [He put special emphasis on the last two words]. After that I decided that the army was no place for me. I wanted to quit, but I was stopped by an old Communist who said to me: 'You are more useful to the Revolution in the army than ten trade unionists.' So I stayed. I now think that was the right thing to do.
"Do you know that I set up an army in those mountains? It was an army of five men. But we had a very long name. We called ourselves the Simon Bolivar people's national liberation army." He laughed heartily.
"When was that?" I asked.
"In 1974. You see, I thought to myself: this is the land of Simon Bolivar. There must be something of his spirit still alive – something in our genes, I suppose. So we set about trying to revive it."
I had no idea that the present position in the Venezuelan army was the result of decades of patient revolutionary work. But it is the case. Chavez went on, as if thinking aloud:
"Two years ago, at the time of the coup, when I was arrested and being led away, I thought I was going to be shot. I asked myself: have the last 25 years of my life been wasted? Was it all for nothing? But it was not for nothing, as the uprising of the paratroop regiment showed."
Chavez remembers the coup
Chavez spoke at some length about the coup. He related how he was kept in complete isolation. The rebels wanted to pressurise him into signing a document, resigning from office. Then they would have let him go into exile in Cuba or somewhere. They wanted to do what they have done recently with Aristide in Haiti. He was not to be killed physically but morally, to be discredited in the eyes of his followers. But he refused to sign.
The plotters used all kinds of tricks to get him to resign. They even used the Church (about which Chavez speaks very caustically).
"Yes, they even sent the Cardinal to persuade me. He told me a pack of lies: that I had no support, that everyone had abandoned me, that the army was firmly behind the coup. I had no information, and was completely cut off from the outside world. But I still refused to sign.
"My captors were getting very nervous. They were getting lots of phone calls from Washington demanding to know where the signed resignation letter was. When they saw the letter not forthcoming, they became desperate. The Cardinal pressed me to sign in order to avoid civil war and bloodshed. But then I noticed a sudden change in his tone. He became polite and conciliatory. I thought to myself: if he is talking like this, something must have happened.
"Then the phone rang. One of my captors said: 'It's the minister of defence. He wants to speak to you. I told him I would not speak to any golpista. Then he said: 'But it is your minister of defence.' I tore the phone out of his hand and then I heard a voice that sounded like the sun. I don't know if you can say that, but anyway, that is just what it sounded like to me."
From this conversation I was able to form an impression about Chavez the man. The first thing that strikes one is that he is transparently honest. His sincerity is absolutely clear, as is his dedication to the cause of the Revolution and his hatred of injustice and oppression. Of course, these qualities in and of themselves are not sufficient to guarantee the victory of the revolution, but they certainly explain his tremendous popularity with the masses.
He asked me what I thought of the movement in Venezuela. I replied that it was very impressive, that the masses were clearly the main motive force and that all the ingredients were present to carry the revolution through to the end, but that there was something missing. He asked what that was. I replied that the weakness of the movement was the absence of a clearly defined ideology and cadres. He agreed.
"You know, I don't consider myself a Marxist because I have not read enough Marxist books," he said.
From this conversation I had the distinct impression that Hugo Chavez was looking for ideas, and that he was genuinely interested in the ideas of Marxism and anxious to learn. This is related to the stage that the Venezuelan Revolution has reached. Sooner than many people expect, it will be faced with a stark choice: either liquidate the economic power of the oligarchy or else go soon to defeat.
It is possible that events will convince Chavez of the need to make a sharp turn to the left. He recently made a speech in which he called for the arming of the people. He is clearly frustrated with the constant sabotage and provocations of the opposition inside and outside parliament. He has listed the methods of sabotage used by the judges, the opposition parliamentarians, the Metropolitan Police, the bureaucrats of PDVSA, etc. If the Revolution is going to advance, these obstacles must be removed. In order to remove them, the mass movement must be mobilised, organised and armed.
There is resistance to this at the tops of the movement. The reformist and social democratic elements are weak or non-existent in the rank and file but strong at the top. This is bitterly resented by the Chavista rank and file, which is becoming frustrated at the lack of decisive action against the counterrevolution.
Under these circumstances the ideas of Marxism, represented by the Revolutionary Marxist Current – El Militante-Topo Obrero – are getting a powerful echo.
The Hands off Venezuela Campaign
The conversation then turned to our international solidarity campaign Hands off Venezuela, about which President Chavez expressed the greatest enthusiasm. He asked me what I thought about the International Gathering. I told him that it was an excellent idea but that there were weaknesses. Almost all the delegates from Europe were just individuals, mostly academics and intellectuals representing nobody but themselves. Chavez's reaction indicated that he knew this was the case.
I said: "What can such people do? They will go home and organize a seminar about how marvellous the Bolivarian Revolution is. With such solidarity you will not get very far. What the Revolution needs is a serious campaign in the international labour movement."
"But the intellectuals can do something after all. They can get us some publicity."
"I agree, I do not propose to exclude them. But the main basis of support for the Venezuelan Revolution must be the working class and the international labour movement."
The President was in complete agreement on this point. He then began carefully to read the 16-page list of signatures of people supporting the Hands off Venezuela Campaign.
As he read out the names, his face showed that he was deeply moved.
"Look at this!" he said to his secretary. "I told you so. These are not just individuals. There are shop stewards, trade union secretaries, workers' leaders. This is what we need!" He then paused for a moment.
"Look, some have even written messages. Here's one. Alan, what does Rabochaya Demokratiya mean?" "It's Russian. It means Workers' Democracy."
Chavez then translated the text of the message into Spanish. It said:
To the working men and women of Venezuela
At this time, when the rapacious claws of US imperialism, in collaboration with the reactionary forces inside Venezuela, are stretching out towards the Bolivarian republic, attempting to privatize the oil wealth of the country and to plunge the workers and peasants of Venezuela into even greater misery, we Russian (Soviet) Marxists express our solidarity with the class struggle of the workers of Venezuela against the forces of reaction.
As is shown by the successful experience of the Russian revolution of 1917, it is possible to defeat the plans of the imperialists only trough the formation of workers councils (Soviets), a workers militia, and the nationalisation of industry under workers control.
A successful revolution in Venezuela and the foundation of a workers state will be a beacon for the workers and the poor people of Latin America and the whole world.
Workers of the world, unite!
"That is a really wonderful message," said Chavez, visibly moved. "I feel I must write to thank them. I must write to all of them. How can I do it?"
"You could write a message on our website" I suggested.
"That is what I'll do!" he exclaimed.
The President glanced at his watch. It was eleven o'clock.
"Do you mind if I put the television on for just a moment? We are starting a new news programme and I would like to see what they've done."
We watched the news for about five minutes. It was a programme about Iraq.
"Well, Alan, what did you think of it?"
"Not bad at all."
"We're planning to launch a television service that will be broadcast all over Latin America."
No wonder the US imperialists are having sleepless nights about Hugo Chavez.
About George W. Bush, Chavez expresses himself in terms of the deepest contempt. "Personally, he is a coward. He attacked Fidel Castro at a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) when Fidel was not present. If he had been there he would not have dared to do it. They say he is frightened to meet me and I believe it. He tries to avoid me. But one time we were together at an OAS summit and he was sitting quite near to me." Chavez chuckled to himself.
"I had one of those swivel chairs and I was sitting with my back to him. Then, after a while, I spun the chair round so I was facing him. "Hello, Mr. President!" I said. His face turned colour – from red to purple to blue. You can tell the man is just a bundle of complexes. That makes him dangerous – because of the power he has in his hands."
At the end of our meeting, Hugo Chavez expressed his firm support for the Hands off Venezuela campaign. He also gave his personal backing to the publication of a Venezuelan edition of Reason in Revolt, with the possibility of other books in the future. We parted company on the best of terms. It was about half past eleven. But as I was about to go, he asked me about Manzoor Ahmed, the Marxist MP from Pakistan:
"Is he here?" he asked.
"Yes, he arrived yesterday."
"But why hasn't he come to see me?"
"I suppose he hasn't been invited."
The President's face darkened for a moment.
"Well you tell Manzoor from me that he must not think about leaving Venezuela without coming to see me. Where's my appointments book?" Chavez began to flick impatiently through the pages. Every spare minute was filled with meetings. He frowned for a moment, then brightened up: "Well, we will have to meet tomorrow night after dinner. You will both be there? Good. So let's say ten o'clock at night."
An improvised speech
The following evening the foreign delegates were once again assembled in a hall inside the President's palace. Again there must have been about 200 people present, together with television cameras. I had arrived a little late and sat at the back of the crowded hall. After some minutes a man from the President's office came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder: "Mr. Woods, be ready to speak in five minutes."
I was not at all prepared for this, but I walked up to the microphone in front of the television cameras, next to the table where President was sitting. I spoke about the world crisis of capitalism and explained that all the wars, economic crises, terrorism etc. were only individual manifestations of this organic crisis of capitalism. I pointed out that the only way to solve the problems of humanity was through the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of world socialism. I explained that in the 200 years since the death of Bolivar, the bourgeoisie of Latin America had turned what ought to be an earthly paradise into a living hell for millions of people.
In conclusion I pointed to the colossal potential of the productive forces that was being wasted because of the two major barriers to human progress – private ownership of the means of production and "that relic of barbarism the nation state". I pointed to the enormous achievements of science and technology that were sufficient in themselves to transform the lives of the majority of the planet.
At this point I said: "It seems the Americans are now preparing to send a man to Mars. I believe we should support this proposal on one condition – that the man in question is George W. Bush and that he is on a one-way ticket."
At this the hall erupted into laughter, and Chavez shouted above the din: "And Aznar – don't forget Aznar."
To which I replied: "Mr. President, let us not speak ill of the dead!" My speech was the only political speech of the evening and was very well received.
As usual, Chavez spoke last and he spoke for a long time, during which he mentioned my speech on several occasions. At regular intervals someone would come in with a despairing note from the caterers whose food was being ruined by the delay. But Chavez was in full flight and nobody could stop him. He would glance at the unfortunate messenger and say: "What! You again!" And then continue as if nothing had happened.
Like all Venezuelans he has a huge sense of humour. At one point, after he had been speaking for quite some time, he called out:
"Are you still there, Alan?"
"Yes, I am still here."
"Are you asleep?"
"No, I am wide awake."
[Pause] "Who is this Gibbs?"
"Oh, a scientist."
And then he continued as before.
The reference to Gibbs (or Hibbs as he pronounces it) had most of the audience mystified and I had to spend a little time telling people how it was spelt.
It was nearly midnight when we finally sat down for dinner. I was with my friend and comrade Manzoor and was not pleased that they had put us on different tables, even though they were next to each other. I called to a young lady from the Protocol Department and explained that I wished to change my place and sit next to Manzoor, explaining that he did not speak Spanish and would feel lonely. "That's alright, we will send an interpreter." I indicated my disagreement and proceeded to sit down next to my friend.
In no time at all a rather formidable young lady appeared – apparently the head of the Dreaded Protocol. "Mr. Woods," she said, in a voice that seemed to accept no argument. "Please come with me." Like lamb to the slaughter I meekly accepted my destiny, though with a final appeal to her better nature. She did not appear to have one, so I sat looking round at my fellow guests. To my considerable surprise, there was President Chavez, together with his young daughter. We were entertained by a group of musicians playing Venezuelan music with guitars and harps and other traditional instruments, which he pointed out to me, obviously enjoying himself tremendously.
The dinner finished at about one-thirty or even later. But that is early for Chavez, and we still had to meet together with Manzoor. Just before two o'clock we were escorted to a large room, as always adorned with huge portraits of Bolivar. In addition to Chavez and his secretary was the Minister of Foreign Affairs – an indication of the importance given to this interview. For once I thought the President looked a bit tired, but anyway he proceeded to ask Manzoor detailed questions about Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Nothing seems to lessen his insatiable appetite to know more about the world we live in. On the other hand, his secretary and minister looked more than ready for bed.
Manzoor presented him with a traditional embroidered shawl from Sindh and some beautifully worked vases – a present from the Pakistani metal workers. He placed the vases in strategic places in the room and put on the shawl, in which he was photographed. For Chavez such things are not small details. He recounted his meeting with Manzoor in great detail the following day on the radio. For this man, every international gesture of support is enormously important and valuable.
A few last words
What more can I say? I do not usually write in such detail about individuals, and I am conscious of the fact that some people consider such things to be out of place in Marxist literature. But I think they are mistaken, or at least a bit one-sided. Marx explains that men and women make history and the study of those individuals who play a role in making history is a valid part of literature – including Marxist literature.
Personally, I have never been very interested in psychology, except in the very broadest sense of the word. All too often, second rate writers try to cover up their lack of real understanding of history by claiming to delve into the deepest recesses of the mind of certain individuals to discover, for example, that Stalin and Hitler had an unhappy childhood. This is then supposed to explain why they later became ruthless dictators who tyrannised over millions. But in reality such explanations explain nothing. There are many people who have unhappy childhoods but not many who become Hitlers or Stalins. To explain such phenomena one must understand the relations between classes and the objective socio-economic processes that shape them.
Nevertheless, up to a certain point, an individual's personality has an effect on the processes of history. For me, what is interesting is the dialectical relationship between subject and object, or, as Hegel would have expressed it, between the Particular and the Universal. It would be very instructive to write a book on the exact relationship between Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution. That such a relation exists is not open to doubt. Whether it is positive or negative will depend on what class standpoint one defends.
From the standpoint of the masses, the poor and downtrodden, Hugo Chavez is the man who brought them to their feet and who has inspired them, by his undoubted personal courage, to acts of unparalleled heroism. But the story of the Venezuelan Revolution is not yet finished. Various endings are possible – not all of them pleasant to contemplate. The masses are still learning, the Bolivarian Movement still developing. The tremendous polarisation between the classes will end in a showdown in which all parties, tendencies, programmes and individuals will be put to the test.
From my limited contacts with Hugo Chavez, I am firmly convinced of his personal honesty, courage and dedication to the cause of the masses, the oppressed and exploited. I already thought that this was the case even before we met, and everything I have seen and heard confirms me in this belief. But, as I have said many times, personal honesty and courage, in and of themselves, are not sufficient to guarantee the victory of a revolution.
What is necessary? Clear ideas, a scientific understanding, a consistently revolutionary programme, policies and perspectives.
The only guarantee of the future of the Bolivarian Revolution consists in the movement from below – the mass movement which, headed by the working class, must take power into its own hands. That demands the rapid construction of the Revolutionary Marxist Current, the most consistently revolutionary section of the movement.
I believe that a growing number in the Bolivarian Movement are looking for the ideas of Marxism. I am sure that this applies to many of its leaders. And Hugo Chavez? He told me that he was not a Marxist because he had not read enough Marxist books. But he is reading them now. And in a revolution people learn more in 24 hours than in 20 years of normal existence. In the end, Marxism will draw to itself all the best elements in Venezuelan society and fuse them together in one invincible fighting force. On that road lies the possibility of victory.
London, 29th April, 2004.