Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution

Darrall Cozens, a member of NATFHE West Midlands Region and of the Hands Off Venezuela Steering Committee spoke to a meeting of NATFHE Regional Council Members on Saturday 4th February. Here we publish his speech.

Darrall Cozens, a member of NATFHE West Midlands Region and of the Hands Off
Venezuela Steering Committee spoke to a meeting of NATFHE Regional Council
Members on Saturday 4th February. Here we publish his speech.

Since President Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Movement won the elections in December 1998 with 56.2% of the popular vote, they have embarked on a programme of social reforms called Misiones to alleviate the plight of the poor, unemployed and landless. This programme has earned the odium of the Venezuelan rich elite, the oligarchy, as well as the USA and the international capitalist media.

The anti-Chavez diatribe in the media has been subtle, blatant and relentless. Chavez is accused of taunting the US government and illegally taking over idle land. Pat Robertson, a US televangelist with close ties to the Republican Party, calls for Chavez’s assassination and the White House calls his remarks “inappropriate”. The Economist magazine in the UK calls for regime change i.e. the physical removal of Chavez. Condoleeza Rice calls Chavez “deeply troubling”, a “negative force in the region”. Despite winning 11 election victories, the Bush government has called the Chavez government an “elected dictatorship” and an “authoritarian democracy”!!

Why do the rich and powerful hate Chavez so much? Firstly, he has challenged the rights of private property and is seeking to utilise national wealth for his social programmes. Secondly, he and his movement have woken the Venezuelan masses to political life as he attempts to establish a revolutionary democracy. Thirdly, Chavez has become a beacon to the downtrodden masses of Latin America due to his social reforms and his calls for a new society, Socialism in the XXIst Century.

For decades, Venezuela has been a deeply divided society. Between 1989 and 1995 the real purchasing power of the poor fell by 35% with average incomes reaching the level of the mid 1950s. The bottom 10% of the population “enjoyed” 0.8% of consumption and the top10% had 36.5%. Some 40% of the population lived in critical poverty. 33% of the poor lived on less than $1 per day. 60% of agricultural land belonged to 1% of the population with 7 landed estates alone totalling 1.7m hectares. When peasants seized land to alleviate their plight, the hired thugs of the landlords attacked them. 180 peasant activists have been murdered in the last 7 years. Factory owners too were closing their plants, working them below capacity or indulging in economic sabotage.

The social and economic contradictions had already produced a spontaneous uprising, the Caracazo of February 1989. The Perez government declared war on its own people and used the military to crush the protests. 1000s were killed nation wide. The 40-year period of consensus politics was at an end. Chavez himself attempted a coup in February 1992 to end this divide. He failed and spent 2 years in prison. But the die had been cast. By December 1998 he was the elected president.

His government have embarked on a programme of social reform using oil wealth. Mision Robinson is Literacy for Everyone. After less than 3 years of this programme, UNESCO has declared Venezuela, along with Cuba, illiteracy free, while in the USA some 20% of the population is “functionally illiterate”. Mision Ribas is Back to High School with 1.5m students. Mision Sucre, Access to HE, has 275,000 students on university courses. Since 1999 some 5 new universities have been opened. Mision Barrio Adentro, Inside the Neighbourhood, provides free medical treatment and health education. Mision Mercal, Diet and Nutrition, means subsidised essential foodstuffs for more than 8 million people. Other Misiones deal with housing, medicine and employment opportunities.

The Venezuelan oligarchy have tried on three occasions, with the help of the US government, to overthrow Chavez. In April 2002 they staged a coup and installed the Chamber of Commerce President, Pedro Carmona, in power. Chavez was deposed, yet 47 hours and 90 dead later he was back as millions poured onto the streets to defend him, radicalising the lower ranks of the army. In December 2002/January 2003 the oligarchy organised the strike/lockout in the oil industry. Some 20% of GDP was lost totalling $10bn. Oil workers however took over the industry under workers control and revitalised production. In August 2004 another attempt was made to oust Chavez in the recall referendum. More than a million supporters were mobilised in Electoral Battle Units to ensure Chavez was victorious.

After 7 years and 11 electoral victories Chavez still has political power. He has travelled a long way from being a champion of national independence. He has now rejected capitalism and calls for the building of a socialist society. He embodies the aspirations of the poor and as such remains a threat to the interests of the Venezuelan capitalist class and the USA.

Reaction is biding its time, waiting for the right moment to strike. The USA is arming its client state Colombia for a possible invasion as well as organising assassination squads. Inside Venezuela the power of the oligarchy remains unbroken. Food stuffs are being hoarded by distribution monopolies to create false shortages and thus destabilise the Chavez government. Reactionary and careerist forces in the state apparatus are delaying the pace of social reforms. The beneficiaries of these reforms, the poor, are feeling increasingly exasperated. At the moment, the revolutionary process is in the ascendancy, but it must be carried out to the end. You cannot make half an omelette or half a revolution.

What is the role of NATFHE members in all of this? Firstly, we need to read, learn and discuss Venezuela to be able to counter the lies of the media. Secondly, we must defend the gains of the revolution as the struggle of working people the world over belongs to all working people. A victory in Venezuela changes the balance of class forces internationally. Yet this defence should not be blind. We have experiences that can assist the process and Chavez himself has issued an appeal for all sincere and committed people to join in the discussion of what Socialism in the XXIst century actually means. NATFHE members could also visit Venezuela to experience first hand the process underway. You would be more than welcome.

The Hands off Venezuela campaign has been running since April 2002, raising in the labour movement the issue of defending the Venezuelan revolution, a revolution which has so many questions for us. These include the definition of socialism, whether capitalism can solve the problems of the dispossessed, the role of nationalisation and workers control, how the working class relates to its traditional organisations, the role of the UNT trade union and whether society can be changed in the absence of a party to lead the struggle for change. These issues should be discussed at all levels of the movement.

Join / affiliate to the campaign!

Make a donation!

Hands Off Venezuela's financial resources are limited so we rely on our supporters around the world.  Please make a donation of any size towards building the campaign