[Book] The Venezuelan Revolution - a Marxist perspective

Venezuela: The revolution at the point of no return

The revolution in Venezuela has reached the point of no return. In two stormy days in April, the bourgeoisie attempted a coup d'etat against the reformist government of Hugo Chavez. Although it was backed by big business, right-wing trade union leaders and the US embassy, the coup failed. In just 36 hours the whole thing was over.

The first attempt at counter-revolution was defeated by a spontaneous uprising of the masses. This was a real inspiration to the workers and youth of the whole world. With no party, no leadership, no programme and no clear idea of where they were going, ordinary men and women from the poorest districts of Caracas simply rose up and began to take their destinies into their own hands.

The quality of leadership is a key element in revolution as in war. Moreover, it is just as important to the counter-revolutionary forces as it is to the working class. Having taken power into their hands, the coalition of businessmen, political adventurers and disaffected army officers immediately began to quarrel and split over what to do. When faced with a serious challenge by the masses, they collapsed like a pack of cards.

The collapse of the coup created extraordinarily favourable conditions for dealing a decisive blow against the counter-revolution and going onto the offensive. There can be absolutely no doubt that if Chavez had wanted to, capitalism in Venezuela could have been overthrown last April. Moreover, at that time, this could have been achieved relatively painlessly, without a civil war.

Shift in balance of forces

Unfortunately, Chavez let the opportunity slip. Instead of calling on the masses to take decisive action, he temporised and attempted to conciliate the counterrevolutionaries. This was a fatal mistake. As a result, the balance of forces is now less favourable than it was. The reactionaries are moving more cautiously, but they are once again going onto the offensive, making use of the judicial apparatus.

On August 11, Venezuela's Supreme Court voted to acquit four senior military officers of charges that they led a coup against President Hugo Chavez in April. The acquittal vote was the third time in three weeks that a majority of the high court refused to indict the officers; two previous writs of indictment also were rejected. This indicates a new and dangerous stage in the conflict.

The Supreme Court's decision was a blow to Chavez. It is clear from this that the reaction is regrouping and organizing its support at the tops of the state apparatus. The move by the Supreme Court prepares the ground for the future indictment and impeachment of Chavez charges, which would in turn prepare the ground for a "legal" coup.

Everybody knows that Chavez was the victim of a civil-military coup in which he could have been assassinated. But by voting to acquit the officers, the Supreme Court has rejected this cast doubt on the legitimacy of the government. This indicates that Chavez has lost control of the highest level of Venezuela's judicial system. The legal establishment, reflecting the pressure of the bourgeoisie and imperialism, has in practice taken the side of the golpistas against the democratically elected government.

The vote has opened a legal door for Chavez's political opponents to step up their strategy of seeking his impeachment and removal from the presidency on corruption or other criminal charges. This would then prepare the ground for a coup d'etat. This deadlock can only be solved by an open struggle between the classes. No amount of manoeuvring at the top or constitutional ballet dancing can resolve the contradiction. It can only be solved on the streets and in the factories and army barracks. The revolution is in danger! A bold lead is needed.

What now?

The manoeuvres of the Supreme Court are clearly only the tip of the iceberg. The question of power would be posed point-blank. The question is a very simple one: Who is master of the house? Who rules? What are the options? Chavez could invoke his constitutional powers to convene a new constitutional assembly. This would in practice abolish the National Assembly, Supreme Court and other government institutions. Such an action would immediately bring matters to a climax. This he is seeking to avoid. But sooner or later an open clash is unavoidable. The only question is whether it will take place under conditions more favourable to the revolutionary forces or those of the counter-revolution.

Chavez's MVR party still has a small majority in the National Assembly, but cracks are opening up in the government itself. In any case, the final solution will not be determined by parliamentary arithmetic but by the struggle of living forces. If he attempts to circumvent this situation by convening a new constitutional assembly, this will bring him into headlong confrontation with the forces of reaction nationally and internationally. What forces can Chavez count upon in this struggle? Only the workers, the peasants and the rank and file of the armed forces. The president claims he has the full support of the people and the military in confronting the Supreme Court and other enemies of his Bolivarian Revolution. These claims will now be put to the test.

Counter-revolution prepares

Ever since the events of last April the forces of counter-revolution have been regrouping and organizing for a new offensive. A former political ally of Chavez's, the ex-Interior and Justice Minister Luis Miquilena, recently launched a new political organization called the Solidarity Party as a rallying point for the forces of reaction. Miquilena is calling for a constitutional amendment to shorten the president's term in office and urged Venezuelans to "take and hold the streets" in order to compel the Supreme Court and National Assembly to get rid of Chavez "legally and constitutionally". Miquilena's new organization is conspiring with the opposition Democratic Action party to launch a series of street protests, government work slowdowns and strikes in September to force Chavez's resignation.

The attempts by Chavez to avoid a showdown are misguided. Social tensions in Venezuela are rapidly approaching breaking point, a fact reflected in constant demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. Alarmed at the escalation of violence, Chavez has been appealing to the workers to disarm, while reports from the middle-class suburbs reveal that the enemies of the government are arming to the teeth. However, Chavez's speeches have evidently not prevented the workers from beginning to arm themselves. Hundreds of FAL 7.62mm assault rifles disappeared from military and National Guard arsenals after two failed military coups in February and November 1992, and most have never been recovered.

Unfortunately, in the absence of a firm revolutionary leadership with a coherent strategy and plan of action, the energies of the masses can be dissipated in a series of isolated and uncoordinated clashes, and even acts of individual terrorism. According to Union Radio on August 2 armed civilians loyal to the President opened fire against Metropolitan Police (PM) officials on Sucre Avenue in western Caracas. The snipers were also said to have fired at a PM helicopter from rooftops of a poor neighbourhood during a second day of violent street disturbances by hundreds of Chavez supporters after the Supreme Court's decisions.

The snipers were later said to be members of a group called the Tupamaros based in the urban poor. But the Tupamaro leaders have denied the accusation and said they would only act as part of a larger national popular movement to defend the revolution. So this may be a provocation. Let us hope that this is true. The methods of "urban guerrillaism" have proved disastrous in Argentina and Uruguay in the past. The way to defeat the reaction was shown in April, when the coup was smashed by the movement of the masses.

It would be tragic if the colossal revolutionary potential of the working class and the youth were to be sidetracked down the path of so-called urban guerrillaism. What is required is not sniping and isolated shoot-outs with the army and police - the kind of incidents that can be used by the counter-revolutionaries to discredit the mass movement and justify repression, but serious preparations for an armed insurrection. What is required is not "urban guerrillaism" (that is, individual terrorism) but an uprising of the masses, led by the working class, on a national scale.

Mood can change

The balance of forces is still favourable to the revolution. But that will not last forever. In such a situation, the mood of different classes can change very quickly. Time is not on the side of the revolution but of its enemies. Already precious time has been lost. After the collapse of the coup, the forces of reaction were demoralised and disoriented. They have probably still not recovered from the blow. Recently violent anti-Chavez protests erupted in the wealthy areas of Caracas near the Miraflores presidential palace and the Supreme Court building. But they were backed by just a few hundred supporters. This suggests that the middle class has not got much of a stomach for a serious fight at the present time.

However, this situation will not last. Even now the picture is uneven and shows contradictory processes. In the past few days National Guardsmen used tear gas on pro-Chavez protesters. In the past they have gassed anti-Chavez protesters on many occasions. But this seems to have been the first time they have turned against supporters of the government. This small but significant detail suggests that the work of the counter-revolutionaries in the army and police is continuing and getting results. Taken together with the Supreme Court ruling, it is a serious warning.

However, Chavez must have understood that the risk of being impeached and forced from power is increasing with every day that passes. The next coup will not be as peaceful as the last one. He may therefore decide that he has no alternative but to convene a new constitutional assembly. However, such a move can only succeed if he mobilizes the only forces that can be relied upon to fight and defeat the counter-revolution. His only hope is to appeal to the masses of workers, peasants and soldiers over the heads of the bureaucrats and reactionary officers.

The economic crisis is now the most serious threat to Chavez, who promised to improve living standards. Failure to deliver is undermining his base of support. The masses cannot survive on a diet of revolutionary speeches alone. If nothing is done to solve their most urgent problems, disillusionment and apathy will set in. The forces of reaction will seize the advantage and pass over to the offensive once more. The danger is very real. Recent polls show that Chavez still retains the support of between 25 percent and 30 percent of Venezuela's adult population. However, this is well down in comparison with the popularity that Chavez enjoyed after the defeat of the coup. Two-thirds of the population now see unemployment, inflation and personal insecurity as the three most important problems.

The world recession means that it is not likely that oil prices will recover sufficiently to give the Chavez government the fiscal resources to boost the economy. The only way open to it on a capitalist basis would be to increase the money supply by devaluing its currency or printing more bolivars. Either of these policies would cause an explosion of inflation that would erode the living standards of the masses and deepen the economic crisis, preparing the way for an even steeper fall in production and higher unemployment later on.

The economic crisis is deepening. The fiscal deficit is now estimated at more than 8 percent of GDP. To cover this, Finance Minister Tobias Nobrega recently announced that the government would increase oil output by about 400,000 barrels per day. Some sources predict that the economy will contract between 5 percent and 6 percent this year. Inflation is set to rise by anything between 25 and 40 percent in 2002, eating into already low living standards. The currency has depreciated rapidly, and more than 15 percent of the workforce is unemployed, according to some estimates.

There has been a flight of capital, with over $80 billion deposited outside the country. At the same time, according to the latest UN Human Development Index, 23 percent of Venezuelans is living on less than one dollar a day, and 20 percent are chronically malnourished. Venezuelan economist Gustavo Garcia has warned that real income per capita might drop by 7 percent this year. This would mean that the average Venezuelan's annual income, measured in constant terms, will have fallen to 1961 levels by the end of this year. (See Stratfor, 25 July 2002)

The point of no return

The Venezuelan revolution has reached the point of no return. Only a general mobilization of the working class and the peasantry can save it. Organized in democratically elected revolutionary committees, they must be prepared to take the power into their own hands. The masses must be armed and prepared to smash the reaction wherever it raises its head. This is the only real guarantee of success.

In a way, this way process has already started. The masses of the revolution's supporters are getting organised in the neighbourhoods, the factories and even in the barracks. We have seen the emergence of committee organizations up and down the country and these are getting coordinated at local, regional and national level. There are the Bolivarian Committees, the Popular Revolutionary Assembly in Zulia, the Popular Coordination in Caracas, and amongst the workers the Class Struggle Democratic Trade Union Block. The latter demands trial and punishment for the coup organisers, the nationalisation of the media under workers' control, a sliding scale of wages and prices and a thorough nationalisation of the oil industry amongst other measures. It was originally set up in the industrial state of Carabobo and has the support of the union organisations at the Ford, Mavesa, Firestone, Goodyear, General Motors plants amongst others and the regional textile, electricity and other unions. The Block is now spreading to other regions. A similar organisation is present in the state of Aregua amongst textile, metal, beer, food and paper workers and at Iberia and Pepsi-Cola factories.

In all these organisations there is a critical attitude towards the official organisation of the Bolivarian movement - the Fifth Republic Movement, MVR - many of whose leaders are accused of playing a disorganising and sabotaging role. The committees want the movement to go further. They even asked for a meeting with Chavez to discuss with him the criticisms they have of the official organizations of the movement and to push him to the left. A national meeting of popular organizations is scheduled to take place this month.

The tops of the army are coming under the pressure from the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and imperialism. The events of last April already showed that Chavez's control over the armed forces is tenuous. But it also showed that a section of the armed forces - probably the majority - are not yet willing to go down the road of counter-revolution. This is true even of a section of the officers, but much more so among the non-commissioned officers and the rank and file. Decisive action is needed to unite the revolutionary elements in the armed forces and isolate the reactionaries. Committees of soldiers and revolutionary officers must be formed in every barracks to disarm and arrest the counter-revolutionary elements.

The focal point of the counter-revolution is to be found in the boards of directors of the banks and big companies. Unless the power of the bourgeoisie is broken once and for all, Venezuela will never be free from the threat of counterrevolution. Expropriate the capitalists, bankers and landowners! Nationalize the banks and big companies under democratic workers' control and management! That is the only way to safeguard the Venezuelan revolution and carry it forward.

However, the victory of the revolution in Venezuela would not be the end of the matter. Revolutionary Venezuela would confront international opposition from the first day. Using its stooges in the Organization of American States, Washington would attempt to organize a campaign of sabotage, blockades and even direct military intervention against the revolution. We saw this in Cuba in the past, but we also saw that the counter-revolution can be defeated.

The only way to safeguard the Venezuelan revolution is by adopting a resolute policy of proletarian internationalism. The revolution must not be confined to Venezuela, but must spread to other countries of Latin America, and ultimately to the USA itself. Faced with revolutions throughout Latin America, the USA would not be able to intervene. On the contrary, it would be faced with revolutionary movements at home.

The Venezuelan revolution cannot stop half way. Hugo Chavez started the process, but only the workers and peasants can finish it by taking power into their own hands. The Bolivarian revolution, if it is not to be reduced to an empty phrase, must mean the socialist revolution in Venezuela. And the working people of Venezuela must inscribe on their banner the aim of the Socialist United States of Latin America. That is the only perspective that can guarantee the final victory.

London, September 4th, 2002