[Book] The Venezuelan Revolution - a Marxist perspective

Revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela

Dramatic events are unfolding in Venezuela. On Saturday April 13, less than 36 hours after a group of right-wing businessmen and army generals had assumed control, the coup collapsed in a welter of confusion. Shortly after 10 pm, interim President Pedro Carmona Estanga resigned and was reportedly under arrest. Vice President Diosdado Cabello, who was sworn in as president by National Assembly President William Lara after Carmona was forced to reinstate the assembly's elected members and other public officials he fired on April 12.

Finally, amidst scenes of wild rejoicing, Hugo Chávez, having been flown by military helicopter to the Miraflores Presidential palace, was reinstated as President of Venezuela.

Counter-revolutionary provocation

The counter-revolution in Venezuela was spearheaded by the recent anti-Chávez strikes in the Venezuelan oil industry. These were counter-revolutionary strikes - the equivalent of the lorry-owners' strike that was organised by the CIA against the Allende government in Chile. These strikes were organised by the management of the Venezuelan oil industry (the PDVSA) in alliance with the right-wing trade union bureaucrats of the CTV. That the movement towards reaction was headed by oil interests was no accident. The PDVSA managers wanted to end the restrictions on oil production and return to their previous position as the single largest oil supplier to the United States.

The coup itself flowed from the events of April 11, when a demonstration said to be 350,000-strong was organised against the Chávez government. Since the media in Venezuela are virulently anti-Chávez, this figure is almost certainly exaggerated. Press agency reports put the real number as no more than 50,000. Government security forces and pro-Chávez militia were alleged to have fired into a crowd of unarmed anti-Chávez protesters, killing 15 and wounding 157 people. The right wing used this as an excuse to demand the resignation of President Hugo Chávez. But in fact, later reports have indicated that most of those killed were pro-Chávez demonstrators who were apparently shot by snipers on rooftops. The whole thing was a manifest provocation.

The class interests behind the coup were obvious. The head of the counter-revolutionary government was a wealthy businessman, Pedro Carmona - the chief of the bosses' association. His first action was to rescind Chávez's so-called anti-investment laws - that is, all those laws intended to defend Venezuela's interests and raise the living standards of the masses. The corrupt and rotten Venezuelan bourgeoisie is incapable of playing a progressive role. Its plans would signify putting the country and its considerable oil wealth firmly in the grasp of US imperialism. The PDVSA managers had already drawn up a plan for restoring and expanding production that could bring Venezuela 300,000 barrels per day above its OPEC quota.

Role of US imperialism

The coup was headed by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and their cronies in the armed forces (FAN). But the hand that pulled the strings was clearly in Washington. This plan was born and bred in the United States. The Bush administration, delighted at the thought of Chávez in handcuffs, was preparing to take over the Venezuelan oil industry through the back door, allowing "aid" to go to the new Caracas government - in the form of oil investment. This is part of the broader strategy of US imperialism after September 11 to intervene aggressively everywhere.

The US's interest in Venezuela is partly economic. There is talk in America of an economic recovery. But this is still weak and unstable. Demand in North America is picking up, but in Europe this is happening to a far lesser degree and Japan remains in deep trouble. In such a situation, the oil markets are necessarily volatile. And any serious disruption in oil production at this stage would have the most serious consequences for the world economy. What is required for a serious recovery is not only an increase in demand (which can have an episodic character) but an increase in profitability. Profit margins still remain depressed. An increase in the price of any one of the factors of production would depress profit margins still further, sending the world economy into an even steeper fall than before. In this sense, the convulsions in the Middle East hang like a threatening storm cloud over the economic scenario.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is stirring up the whole region in a most alarming manner (Hezbollah, Syria, Jordan and Egypt are all getting involved). Things are getting complicated! And then there is the price of oil... This has fluctuated violently, reacting to OPEC's supply curtailments, threats of war, increasing violence in the Middle East and political instability in Venezuela itself. The chaos in the Middle East seems to have forced Washington to postpone its plans for an attack on Iraq. It appears that last weekend's summit between the US President and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Crawford, Texas, did not yield very positive results. Even such a great enthusiast for wars as Tony Blair was compelled to warn Bush in private that it is sometimes better to look before one leaps. But postponement does not mean abandonment. Sooner or later the American boot will descend on Iraq.

Bush is determined to press ahead with his plans for military aggression against Iraq, but is uncomfortably aware that the general chaos in the Middle East (underlined by the failure of the Powell mission to force an Israeli withdrawal from Palestine) can lead to a catastrophic drop in oil production that would lead to spiralling prices and destroy any prospect of an economic recovery. The USA is in urgent need of a guaranteed oil supplier that is conveniently several thousand miles away from the Middle East.

The imperialists are attempting to keep oil prices low. There are rumours that Russian producers, following Putin's line of collaborating with US imperialism, are scheming to steal Iraq's market share before the end of Baghdad's 30-day oil export embargo, called earlier this week to protest Israel's recent occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank. In this worldwide drama, Venezuela is a key actor. The policies of Hugo Chávez were threatening the interests of the big oil companies and causing increased concern in Washington.

With growing instability in the Middle East - where Iraq has just cut its oil production - it was in the interest of the USA to undermine OPEC cohesion. Before the inauguration of Chávez in February 1999, Venezuela was OPEC's biggest oil-production quota-evader. As recently as December 1999, Venezuela was exceeding its production quota by a million barrels. But the new government, in its attempt to stand up to US imperialism, transformed Venezuela into OPEC's most enthusiastic quota-enforcer. During his presidency Chávez led the charge for numerous production cuts and toured the world last year to press for cuts in oil production, which met with a certain success. This inevitably brought Venezuela into conflict with the big oil companies and US imperialism.

But there is a wider dimension to the activities of US imperialism in Venezuela, which far transcends the question of economics. The US military is actively involved in a dirty war against the FARC and ELN guerrillas in neighbouring Colombia. It is well known that Chávez maintained friendly relations with the Colombian guerrillas. That alone would be sufficient reason for the CIA to want to depose him.

But the main reason was none of these. The main thing was that the radicalisation of the masses in Venezuela threatened to spread to other countries in Latin America, which is now in the throes of a deep economic and social crisis. By removing Chávez from power, US imperialism hoped to tighten its grip on Latin America. It would be a lesson to the masses in other countries. And in addition, the installation of a more friendly and pliable government in Caracas would lead to an increase in Venezuelan oil production, thus bringing more stability to oil prices. In short, a very sound business proposition! All that was required was a little coup...

How the counter-revolution defended "democracy"

Predictably, the right-wing coup was greeted by scarcely-concealed satisfaction by the bourgeoisie internationally. These hypocrites described the events of April 11 as a "return to democracy" in Venezuela! This was the line taken by the Madrid daily paper El País. However, the same paper was compelled subsequently to print eyewitness reports stating that there were many cases of brutality and violence by the counter-revolutionary forces. Chávez supporters were forced to go into hiding as the armed forces moved to arrest all government supporters. Prisoners were taken to army barracks where they were beaten and tortured. Such are the methods of the bourgeois "democrats" in Venezuela!

Venezuelan Army commander General Efrain Vasquez Velasco - the principal leader of the military rebellion - attempted to prevent any movement against the new government by implementing an aggressive "disarmament plan". The new regime immediately launched searches of private property and vehicles in an attempt to seize all unregistered weapons and arrest Chávez supporters. He ordered the army to "identify, disarm and dismantle" the civilian militias organised as Bolivarian Circles.

A witch-hunt was initiated against all supporters, pro-Chávez members of parliament and officials of the legally elected government. Vasquez Velasco confirmed that military and civilian police were conducting a national search for former vice president Cabello and Libertador Municipality Mayor Freddy Bernal, on the grounds that Cabello was the chief organiser and financier of the armed Bolivarian Circles, and that Bernal was supposed to have commanded sharpshooters who shot at the anti-Chávez protesters from rooftops in downtown Caracas on April 11.

The victorious reactionaries set about systematically demolishing all the progressive decrees of the deposed government, which had been elected by an overwhelming majority. They sought absolute powers for themselves - an unelected gang of conspirators - while cancelling 49 decrees of the democratically elected government, suspending and arresting elected members of the National Assembly, plus 20 judges (so much for the independence of the judiciary!), 12 governors and all pro-Chávez mayors. All these activities earned them the applause of the western "democracies" as "steps towards the restoration of democracy" in Venezuela! George Orwell could have written a very good novel about this.

From all the reports, the counter-revolutionaries were over-confident. They were convinced that there was little or no danger that the supporters of Chávez could launch a successful counter-strike to regain control of the government. At worst, they anticipated isolated outbreaks of violence in Caracas and other urban areas, which they could easily control. They also feared that pro-Chávez elements in rural regions could try to link up with Colombian guerrillas operating inside Venezuelan territory.

But these gentlemen reckoned without the Venezuelan masses. Despite the fact that Chávez had not carried the revolution out to the end, and the crisis in Venezuela had begun to have adverse effects, the masses instinctively realised the threat posed by the counter-revolution. Having recovered from their initial shock, they poured onto the streets of Caracas and other cities, sweeping all before them.

The collapse of the coup

The role of the masses was decisive in defeating the counter-revolution. Faced with the spontaneous uprising of the masses, the attempts to impose a dictatorship immediately ran into the sands. Without the support of the armed forces, the bourgeoisie could not establish a dictatorship. But the reaction of the masses rapidly aggravated the splits within the army. This was not supposed to happen! It seems that Carmona's short-lived interim presidency unravelled because the bourgeois counter-revolutionaries - doubtless under the pressure of the CIA - tried to go too far too fast, opening up a rift between them and a section of the generals who, quite correctly, feared civil war.

The leaders of the coup began to split and argue among themselves. From this moment, the coup was doomed. Stratfor reports on the events that led to its collapse:

"The economic and political measures Carmona announced at his April 12 inauguration - including the National Assembly's dissolution and the dismissal of the Supreme Court judges and other key government officials - were not what had been agreed upon by the political, civic and military factions that built a center-right coalition to back Carmona and were reaching out to the moderate center-left.

"The right-wing coup-within-a-coup was engineered by a group of military officials who are proteges of retired Gen. Ruben Rojas, in partnership with ultra-conservative businessmen and politicians - some of whom belong to the extremely conservative Catholic Opus Dei organization. The Carmona government's defense minister, Rear Adm. Hector Ramirez Perez, is a longtime protege of Rojas, while Carmona's choice for foreign minister, Jose Rodriguez Iturbe, belongs to Opus Dei."

In other words, the reactionaries overreached themselves. When Carmona announced the National Assembly's dissolution, the civilian-military coalition supporting Carmona's interim government collapsed immediately, while the balance of forces swung back in Chávez's favour. With the growth of protests on the streets, Carmona's civilian and labour support evaporated, and the FAN also split into at least three distinct groups now struggling for power inside the military.

Realising that the situation was escaping from his hands, Vasquez Velasco - in a nationally televised address - conditioned his continued support for Carmona to the immediate reinstatement of the National Assembly. Carmona immediately complied. However, reinstated National Assembly President Lara hastily deposed Carmona and swore in Vice President Cabello as acting president, pending Chávez's return to the presidential palace. The rebellion collapsed like a house of cards. And the army was split wide open.

Splits at the top

It is clear that Chávez still has considerable support, not only among the masses, but also in the army. General Baduel declared himself in rebellion against the Carmona government even before it was sworn in April 12. Having command of 2,000 elite paratroopers and a large arsenal of weapons and munitions, this was no small threat! Division Gen. Julio Garcia Montoya, permanent secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, also declared himself in rebellion and made his opposition to the interim government known through a telephone interview with Cuban television that was then broadcast back to Venezuela.

Stratfor continues: "One group is led by Army commander Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco, who emerged April 11-12 as the leader of a center-right faction of career officers who oppose Chavez's attempts to politicize the FAN and shift the country away from capitalist democracy. Vasquez Velasco's group negotiated the agreement with civic and political opposition leaders that installed Carmona as a consensus interim president.

"A second group consists of ultra-conservative officers in all four branches of the FAN. Some of these officers are longtime proteges of Rojas, and others - including some Opus Dei members - hail from the Christian Democrat Copei party, which long has been dominated by former President Rafael Caldera (who also is Rojas's father-in-law). STRATFOR's sources report this group planned to launch a coup against Chavez on Feb. 27, but aborted the scheme under strong pressure from centrist colleagues inside the FAN and from the Bush administration in Washington.

"The third group consists of pro-Chavez officers - including Gen. Raul Baduel, who commands the 42nd Parachutists Brigade based at Maracay in Aragua state. This is Chavez's former unit, and Baduel is one of his closest friends and political allies in the army, sources say."

Alexis de Toqueville pointed out long ago that revolution begins on the top. The latest reports show clearly that the ruling class in Venezuela is split. And this split extends to the tops of the state and the armed forces. This, as Lenin explained, is the first condition for a revolution. The failed attempt at counter-revolution will have exacerbated these contradictions and splits in the ruling class, and created the most favourable conditions for a complete social overturn. The reactionaries have been forced onto the defensive, and for a time will be paralysed and unable to act. A courageous word from the top would be sufficient to deprive the reaction of its social base and permit even a peaceful transfer of power to the working people.

There are moments in history that ere decisive. It is a question of "either... or". The counter-revolution has thrown down the gauntlet. Their first attempt has failed. But it will not be the last! The bourgeoisie and its supporters in the military is determined to get rid of Chávez by one means or another. Their resolve will be stiffened by Washington, which has many reasons for wanting to overthrow the Chávez regime.

Marx pointed out that the revolution needs the whip of counter-revolution. The present situation is reminiscent of the tancazo in Chile - the abortive first attempt to overthrow the Allende government - which was defeated by the movement of the masses. There is no doubt whatsoever that if Salvador Allende had taken advantage of that moment to appeal to the masses to act, the revolution would have easily succeeded. But when the opportunity was thrown away, the counter-revolutionaries in the armed forces (let us recall that Pinochet was supposed to be a loyal "democrat") regrouped and prepared a bloody coup a few months later. This is a very serious warning to the workers of Venezuela!

The role of Chávez

After the events of April 11-13, the situation is completely unstable. Nothing has been resolved. The situation resembles in many respects that which existed in Cuba in 1960. It is not generally realised that when Castro first came to power, he did not intend to nationalise the means of production. His programme was a programme of democratic reforms that did not go beyond the limits of the capitalist system. In fact, his publicly declared model was... the USA.

However, on a capitalist basis there is no way forward for countries like Cuba and Venezuela. Castro's attempt to carry through reforms to improve the conditions of the Cuban people immediately brought him into conflict with US imperialism and the big US monopolies that controlled the Cuban economies. In order to defend the gains of the revolution, Castro was compelled to nationalise the property of US imperialism and eliminate capitalism in Cuba.

Although the Cuban revolution did not follow the classical model of the October revolution, and the workers never held power through the rule of democratically-elected soviets, nevertheless Castro had the support of the masses and the expropriation of landlordism and capitalism in Cuba represented a blow to imperialism and a big step forward. The US imperialists burned their fingers badly in Cuba. Their attempt to destroy the revolution by relying on counter-revolutionary forces armed and financed by the CIA ended in a humiliating defeat at the Bay of Pigs.

There is no doubt that Washington feared that Chávez might go down the same road as Castro, whom he is known to admire. However, the drama is not yet played out. Venezuela is still in deep economic crisis, the gulf between the classes is profound. There is a growing polarisation between left and right. The immediate crisis has resulted in a setback for the counter-revolution. However, the conflict is far from over. The balance of forces that shifted so decisively back toward Chávez on April 13 can swing the other way equally rapidly. He will be under the remorseless pressure of US imperialism. The bourgeoisie, with the active support and encouragement of the CIA, will intensify its campaign of sabotage and disruption.

It is not even certain that Chávez has sufficient support in the National Assembly to retain the presidency. According to an informal count in the assembly and the FAN, roughly 75 percent of the assembly's members oppose allowing Chávez to continue as president. The former Interior and Justice Minister Luis Miquilena, who commands a sizeable block of moderate votes inside the dominant pro-Chávez Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), will be a key powerbroker in any effort to end Chávez's presidency by legal and constitutional means. The position of Chávez is therefore extremely precarious. If he does not do what the capitalists and imperialists demand, he can be deposed by the National Assembly itself.

The real Bolivarian revolution

Chávez is no doubt an honest man who wants act in the interests of his country and his people. His intentions are good. But in politics as in life, intentions are never enough. The problem is that Chávez is not a Marxist, and is inclined to be inconsistent. That can be fatal in a situation where the balance of forces is so unstable. If Chávez were a Marxist, he would appeal to the masses over the heads of the National Assembly. The establishment of action committees in every factory, oil refinery, and army barracks is the only way to defend the revolution and disarm the counter-revolutionary forces. The working class must be armed to defend itself against the danger of another coup. Only decisive action can prevent a new crisis in which the counter-revolution will assume an even more violent and murderous character.

The position of the army is a crucial factor. The reactionaries in the barracks have suffered a serious set-back. But they will already be regrouping, with the active assistance of the US embassy. The next 24 to 48 hours could be decisive. If firm action is not taken to defeat and disarm the counter-revolution, civil war could erupt, with fighting between military units that support or oppose Chávez. If the working class acts with sufficient energy, the rank and file of the army can quickly be won over to the side of the revolution. The best of the officers will follow them, isolating the reactionary elements in the general staff. The revolution can still succeed with minimum violence and loss of life. But if the revolution hesitates, it is lost. The way will be prepared for terrible bloodshed, ending in a brutal military dictatorship later on.

Above all, it is necessary to smash the resistance of the bosses and their cronies. For the immediate expropriation of the property of the imperialists and the Venezuelan bourgeois! The only way to remove the danger of counter-revolution is to eliminate its basis of support - by expropriating the capitalist class. An emergency decree to this effect must be put to the National Assembly. If the counter-revolutionaries in the National Assembly attempt to block it, then the only way forward is to dissolve the Assembly and rule through the elected popular committees.

Workers of Venezuela! Everything depends on you now. By your actions, you have defeated the counter-revolution. But your victory is not secure. A terrible danger hangs over your heads and that of your families and loved ones. Remember what happened in Chile! Do not trust those who tell you that all is resolved, that the situation must calm down, that democracy is now safe in the hands of the National Assembly! Unless and until the power of the capitalists - those local office boys of US imperialism - is overthrown, the conquests you have made will never be safe.

Rely only on your own strength and unity! Build action committees to defend the revolution and defeat the reaction! Extend them and link them up, on a local, regional and national basis. Once the power of the working people is organised, no power on earth can resist it. The stage will be prepared for the final, inevitable showdown between the working people and the forces of reaction.

You face a powerful enemy in US imperialism. But in reality, this enemy is a colossus with feet of clay. You have powerful allies in the millions of exploited and oppressed people of Latin America. These people are finding their feet and their voice - in Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia - in one country after another, the workers, peasants and unemployed are beginning to fight back. These are the mass reserves of the Venezuelan revolution!

Long ago, Leon Trotsky spoke of the permanent revolution. This is the only way forward for countries like Venezuela. The facts must be faced. The bourgeoisie cannot play a progressive role in Venezuela. Only under the rule of the working class can you even begin to solve the problems. On the basis of a socialist planned economy, under the democratic control and administration of the workers themselves, immense progress can be made. But the revolution in isolation could not last for long. Either it spreads to other countries, or it would be destroyed sooner or later. Internationalism is therefore a matter of life and death for the Venezuelan revolution.

Hugo Chávez has spoken of the Bolivarian revolution. When Simon Bolivar raised the banner of revolt against Spanish imperialism, he had in mind a war of national liberation that would unite all the peoples of Latin America. But this dream was betrayed by the so-called national bourgeoisie that organised the Balkanisation of Latin America. This is the true cause of the enslavement and oppression of a mighty continent.

The only way to defeat US imperialism is by uniting the revolution in Venezuela with the struggles that are taking place in all Latin America. Everywhere, the capitalist system is in crisis. It offers the people nothing but poverty, misery and unemployment. It subjugates whole nations to the control of US imperialism and the dictatorship of Capital, turning the words "democracy" and "sovereignty" into meaningless phrases. All that is required is one victory and the rotten and bankrupt capitalist regimes would collapse everywhere. The road would be open for the realisation of Bolivar's dream in the only form possible - as the Socialist United States of Latin America.

Last December the Argentinean working class showed the way. The Venezuelan working class is now in the front line of the Latin American revolution. All eyes are now fixed on Venezuela. The stakes are very high. A decisive victory in Venezuela would transform the whole situation. But victory is by no means guaranteed.

It is necessary to draw serious conclusions from the events of the last three days. It is not possible to make half a revolution. It is not possible to improve the conditions of the masses and leave the rotten and reactionary bourgeoisie in control of the means of production. The land, the banks and industries must be taken out of their hands. The economic power must be in the hands of the people. That is the first condition for victory. Without that, no progress is possible.

What is required is a conscious and audacious Marxist tendency, which would participate in the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) and give it the necessary revolutionary perspective, programme and strategy. The elements for such a tendency already exist. Everything now depends upon the speed with which they can organise, mobilise the working class, and lead it on the path to victory. The victory of the Venezuelan revolution would light a fire that would set all Latin America ablaze.

London, April 14th, 2002