From the beginning of 2012, the RCG grasped the tremendous significance of Venezuela’s October presidential elections – not just for the people of Venezuela, but for the whole of Latin America and, indeed the international working class. We began organising and raised money to send a delegation to Caracas and to make a film about the election period. Our aim was to understand better the process of the Bolivarian Revolution and to directly challenge the hostile propaganda and lies of the imperialist media. Over a period of two weeks, we saw how hundreds of thousands of working class Venezuelans thronged the streets of the city, braving torrential rain or baking sun, to express their support for President Chavez.
We spoke to veterans of the struggles of the 1980s and 1990s, community organisers, workers, students, politicians, trade unionists, economists – and everywhere, from the poorest barrios to the offices of the National Assembly, we heard reference to the ideas of Marx, Lenin and Che Guevara. We visited thriving schools, universities, hospitals and a gleaming Cuban-run Barrio Adentro clinic, and saw new units of social housing springing up all over Caracas, bedecked with red flags. Out of that extraordinary experience have come not only our new Viva Venezuela film, but a deeper understanding of the achievements of the country’s Bolivarian Revolution – and the challenges that lie ahead. SAM MCGILL and CAT ALLISON report.
October’s presidential elections in Venezuela marked a historic moment: the Venezuelan people, offered a stark choice between a return to neoliberal capitalism or the continuation of the socialist process of the Bolivarian Revolution, opted in their millions for socialism. As President Hugo Chavez stated from the balcony at the Miraflores Palace on the night of 7 October as his victory, with over 55% of the vote, was announced:
‘It was a perfect battle all the way down the line. I congratulate from my heart the more than eight million Venezuelans who voted for Chavez – more than eight million compatriots who voted for the revolution, who voted for socialism.’
The massive turnout of just under 81% reflected a clear consciousness of what was at stake. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski was the darling of the bourgeoisie, a right-wing extremist who during the 2002 coup led a lynch mob to hunt down Chavistas taking refuge at the Cuban Embassy. Behind his vague social democratic election promises lay a brutal neoliberal agenda of privatisation, cuts and the dismantling of what he called ‘the socialised and collectivised state model created by the so-called revolution’ (See ‘Venezuela: the state and the Bolivarian Revolution’, FRFI 229, October/November 2012). This was the candidate supported not just by the rabid anti-Chavez private press in Venezuela, but by the imperialist media worldwide.
Throughout the country, millions of ordinary Venezuelans turned out to support Chavez because they were absolutely clear that a vote for Chavez was a vote for national independence, for housing, for education, for food security, for health care – for socialism. ‘Because of Chavez, we eat meat, not dog food’, said one woman. ‘Because of Chavez our children go to school.’ ‘Because of Chavez we have dignity again.’ The people voted for Chavez because he has consistently embodied their aspirations for a better future and transformed them into reality.
Venezuela – the reality
Over the last 14 years, the Chavez government has reduced extreme poverty by half; life expectancy has increased by two years and infant mortality has been reduced by 35%. In the last 12 years, Venezuela has achieved the lowest indices of inequality in Latin America. Free health care – in particular through the Cuban-run Barrio Adentro programme – is provided through medical clinics in every community; there are 8,380 public health centres and 16 new hospitals were inaugurated in the last year.
Through Mision Robinson, Venezuela is recognised by UNESCO as having eradicated illiteracy; access to primary education has risen from 43% to 70% and continues to rise as new Bolivarian schools are built. Where university education was once the prerogative of a privileged elite, Venezuela is now second in Latin America and fifth in the world for university graduation.
The Great Housing Mission has been set up to provide three million new housing units by 2019, with nearly 250,000 already built since the project was launched in April 2011. The Bolivarian Revolution has also provided food security, nationalised about a quarter of the country’s banks and begun the process of redistributing idle private land to producers’ co-ops and collective farms.
At the same time, in alliance with socialist Cuba, Venezuela has built regional alliances such as ALBA and CELAC, building political, social and economic cooperation that challenges US imperialist influence in Latin America. Venezuela was the first country to send aid to Cuba and Haiti after they were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
These are the achievements of the struggle for socialism. This is why the re-election of Hugo Chavez represents a vital victory for the Bolivarian Revolution and for the future of Latin America. Even the imperialists have been forced to concede, grudgingly, the significance of Chavez’s election victory, with a Bloomberg business report concluding gloomily: ‘We see a risk of further radicalisation…Chavez will begin his new mandate in a very strong political position.’
However, in many ways the real battles start now. The challenges facing the Chavez government as it seeks to implement its six-year plan, the Programa Patria, with its stated aim of entrenching socialism in Venezuela ‘beyond the point of no return’, should not be underestimated.
How do you build socialism in a country that has not had a socialist revolution, that has not overthrown the old order? Despite a massive empowerment of the working class, a system of dual power exists in Venezuela, whereby the structures of the old state are still in place. The Venezuelan bourgeoisie remains firmly entrenched, with 5% of the population still owning 70% of the land; controlling two thirds of the country’s media and over 60% of the banks. Private hospitals and universities run alongside the free health care and education systems. 70% of production remains in private hands.
The 44% of the vote received by Capriles represents a very real polarisation of Venezuelan society, and the forces of reaction will have been strengthened by that result, using it as a platform to build for regional elections in December. Some sections of the petit-bourgeoisie that supported elements of the Bolivarian Revolution, such as national independence, free schools and universities, and an economy that has grown 5% in 2012, have jumped ship as the Chavez government has taken an explicitly socialist stance, and found refuge with the opposition. 9.77 million people out of Venezuela’s workforce of just over 12 million are employed in the private sector; the informal sector still makes up 40% of the economy. Venezuela remains a capitalist and strongly consumerist society.
Meanwhile, Chavez’s party, the PSUV, while providing an electoral force to be reckoned with, is not in practice a party of the working class but rather a loose alliance of different class interests, ranging from the revolutionary to the reformist. How then to guarantee the revolutionary character of the Bolivarian process? There remains, too, a fundamental contradiction between the formal electoral structures of Venezuela’s old representative democracy – the presidential, regional and governor elections that allow space for the bourgeoisie and reformist elements to compete for power and control – and the creation of new systems of participatory democracy based on grassroots communal councils.
Key to any discussion of political and economic development in Venezuela is the fact that the country’s economy is dominated by oil. As Pablo Gimenez, a professor of political economy at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela in Caracas explained, whilst only around 100,000 workers are employed in the oil industry, it accounts for around 90% of export earnings, about 40% of federal budget revenues, and around 12% of GDP. Programa Patria characterises Venezuela as an oil-rentier state.
The ‘rent’ from selling this primary resource is determined by the political control that Venezuela has in selling its product on the international market and the relation between this and global politics, the international market, the price of gold, the strength of OPEC and the dependence of the US on Venezuelan oil. Whilst oil exports to the US have dropped from an average of 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd) to 952,000 bpd in 2011, they still account for about a third of all Venezuela’s oil export. Dependence on oil has resulted in chronic under-development, with the Venezuelan economy existing essentially as a parasitic economy which lives off the rent from selling oil and the purchasing power it has to import commodities to meet the needs of its population.
The main political battle in Venezuela up until this point has been who benefits from that rent? In the past, it was the national bourgeoisie, imperialist oil companies and investors. Since 2002/2003, when the Bolivarian Revolution took over the state oil company PDVSA, this rent has been used to provide social benefits for the working class. However, it has remained a question of redistributing the oil rent rather than socialising the means of production.
The dependence on oil has distorted the Venezuelan economy and destroyed the country’s agricultural base. Between 1941 and 2001 Venezuela’s rural population fell from 68.6% to 12.3%, leaving agriculture accounting for only 5% of GDP. Venezuela continues to import 70% of its food.
Venezuela urgently needs to unravel this contradiction, and diversify its economy while moving towards a socialist model of production and creating a conscious, developed productive working class.
Programa Patria: building people’s power
Programa Patria charts a socialist path to tackle those challenges head on, first and foremost through the consolidation of working class power. In 2007, Chavez called for ‘a new geometry of power’ to drive forward the Bolivarian process through the formation, in the first instance, of communal councils, the consejas comunal, as the key to the political and practical self-organisation of the working class. Programa Patria now calls for the creation of an additional 21,000 communal councils, organised into 3,000 socialist comunas and representing 68% of the Venezuelan population by 2019.
The development of units of social controllers to audit communal finances would allow each community to govern itself whilst still being accountable to the state. Chavez proposes creating assemblies of popular power with 420,000 spokespersons. This will be coupled with the creation of 30,000 socially-owned companies, aiming to transform raw materials into goods, contributing to national production and meeting the needs of the people, funded by 3,000 communal banks and directed by communal economy councils.
Such a transformation of society would mean creating the fact of conscious, socialist, working class organisation on the ground. We saw a glimpse of this when visiting the Alexis Vive collective in Caracas, where activist Ana Marin from El Panel 2021 Comuna told us, as she showed us the commune’s bakery,
‘In a capitalist bakery they produce exploitation – we produce consciousness … This is our insurrection, to show there is another way of life, another system. Currently our form of insurrection depends on developing the consciousness of the Venezuelan people, creating popular power. If you ask me “How do we overthrow the old state?”, my answer is “Through the comunas”.’
The collective receives financial support from the government, but works independently and sees itself as part of diversifying the economy and building a parallel power structure. ‘We don’t depend on the mayors, the governors. Given the means, the people can solve their own problems – this strategy is what we are fighting for.’
We saw a similar process in the socialist city Caribia on the coastal outskirts of Caracas, built as part of the Great Housing Mission to replace shacks destroyed in the floods of 2010. It is a state-funded planned town under construction, which currently houses 1,008 families, and will eventually be home to 20,000 families. Ana Julia Cedeno Maiz, from one of the three communal councils which co-ordinate the needs of the town’s population, explained how they are involved in developing the plans for expansion and the construction of new houses, a university site, orchards, a metro cable that will link to the Caracas metro system and more. Full employment for all residents will be guaranteed via an industrial zone with factories producing textiles, plastics and construction materials as part of a plan to develop secondary industries on a national scale.
As Ana put it, ‘We are working to develop national independence, as Chavez has set out in his Programa Patria, we are working to become self sufficient, developing social production that benefits the whole of the community whilst transforming ourselves, instilling the collective, community values required to build socialism’.
While the Bolivarian Revolution needs to win enough political space in the forthcoming governor and mayoral elections to ensure communal power continues to develop, such structures of participatory democracy would also effectively undermine the old structures of regional government and begin to root out what have been endemic problems of corruption, inefficiency and bureaucracy.
Throughout November there has been a nationwide consultation on Programa Patria, with permanent assemblies in ‘cities of debate’ holding daily discussions in each region. It is the communal councils, alongside local battalions of PSUV activists, who are the backbone of this process, establishing 13,600 ‘red points’ around the country to promote participation at every level. The outcome of these discussions will be compiled in December, and Chavez will then present the completed Socialist Plan to the National Assembly for approval on 10 January 2013.
Such collaboration between the communal councils and local PSUV activists in this process can only strengthen the structures of popular power and enable the PSUV to begin to transcend the limits of electoral campaigning. It is this conscious, popular force that is the heart of the revolutionary process in Venezuela, the guarantor of its progressive momentum.
While oil will remain central to the economy, with plans to increase production from four million bpd to six million bpd by 2019, Programa Patria sets out plans to diversify exports, with Asia replacing the US as the primary export partner. With potential gas and coltan reserves identified, Chavez proposes the consolidation of a state company for exploitation of non-oil minerals. A chain of industries related to these resources is envisaged, complete with a developed technological and scientific research focus, to develop secondary industries. The Programa also plans to increase nationalisation, with a special focus on developing construction material industries for the housing mission.
Programa Patria calls for the creation and consolidation of workers’ councils, developing worker participation and worker education in all companies as part of creating a politically-conscious workforce. At the Ambrosia Plaza PDVSA gas cylinder plant in Las Guarenas, which uses raw materials from Venezuelan companies and produces vast gas tanks for the Housing Mission, plant manager Maria Gabriela Irazabal told us: ‘We are not only producing goods here, but we are transforming consciousness and organising politically – we hold forums, film showings, organise study brigades to Cuba. We are creating the new man and the new woman that Che spoke of.’
In terms of agriculture, the plan is for Venezuela to produce 90% of the population’s daily nutritional requirements by 2019, with a number of socialist agrarian development projects planned, alongside the setting up of secondary agricultural industry such as canning factories and milk processing plants and expanding the existing state food distribution networks PDVAL and MERCAL. Rural councils, local bodies of popular power and cadre schools specifically for agricultural development will be set up. There is also a thriving programme of urban organoponicos with 19,000 urban communal and family based food gardens in the country on track to yield 18,000 tonnes of garden produce this year.
The struggle for food sovereignty and the expropriation of private land requires a strong organised campesino movement. The Agro-Venezuela mission, which offers credits to producers, supports the development of campesino militias and draws up laws encouraging land occupations, is largely about creating a movement capable of wresting land out of the hands of the owners of latifundios (large private estates) and is being strengthened. So far 2.7 million acres have been redistributed, including state land, and Chavez has identified a further 14 million acres of private land ripe for redistribution.
Regional governor elections – the next battle
The immediate test facing the Bolivarian process is elections for state governors on 16 December 2012. Some of the tensions raised by the electoral process have become apparent. While the opposition MUD movement has seen cracks in its unity, with four of the coalition’s partners walking out on the eve of the start of their campaign, the PSUV has also faced criticism from its working class supporters over the imposition of some of the 23 candidates it is standing for state governorships across the country. In Trujillo state, the PSUV candidate was persuaded to stand down ‘to preserve the revolution’, and there may also be changes in Merida and Bolivar where PSUV candidate Rangel Gomez is accused of sabotaging attempts at workers’ control in the industrial region of Guyana. Political strategist William Izarra believes ‘other rectifications like Trujillo are coming. Now the voice of the [grassroots] collectives carries stronger weight’ (Venezuela Analysis, November 2012). The Communist Party of Venezuela, which supported Chavez in the presidential election, is standing its own candidates in four states.
These tensions between not only the old bourgeois ruling class and the Bolivarian Revolution but between reform and revolution, between the traditional electoral structures and the new vibrant working class organisations being built at the grassroots – and putting pressure on the government to maintain its socialist momentum – represent a microcosm of where Venezuela finds itself at this moment in history. The Bolivarian Revolution has to be understood as a process, driven forward by the power of the Venezuelan working class against attempts at reformism, against opportunists who seek to divert the movement from its goal and against the might of imperialism and a bourgeoisie that will not willingly allow itself to be dispossessed. The regional elections are the next battle, but the struggle to build socialism continues within, alongside and beyond that immediate challenge. Venezuela today represents the frontline of the international class struggle. Every victory of the Bolivarian Revolution is a victory for us all.
‘As Lenin defined it, a revolutionary situation is created when the oppressed refuse to live in the old way any more and the ruling class are unable to govern in the old way … what we see in Venezuela following the victory of 7 October is a great polarisation between neoliberalism and capitalism on the one hand, and socialism on the other. Now the task, as Chavez’s programme sets out with its hundreds of concrete proposals, is to begin these specific tasks, to achieve them step by step … As Marx and Engels argued, humanity can take on the historic task of transcending capitalism; this is the point we find ourselves at in Venezuela today’.
Fernando Soto Rojas, former president of the National Assembly and deputy for Falcon state
‘We’ve not seen a revolutionary war like in the Cuban or Russian revolution. Of course we study the teachings of Mao and Lenin on the necessity of insurrection and the destruction of the capitalist state. However, at this point, in order to destroy capitalism we have to compare the approaches. Capitalism produces death, we produce life … this is our insurrection, to show that there is another way of life, another system. Currently our form of insurrection depends on developing the consciousness of the Venezuelan people, creating popular power. If you ask me “how do we overthrow the old state?” my answer is through the comunas’
Ana Marin, Alexis Vive collective, El Panel 2021 Comuna, Caracas
Our thanks go out to all those organisations and individuals who welcomed us and helped our delegation understand better the Bolivarian process underway in Venezuela.
• The Venezuelan Embassy in London, for putting us in touch with the Ministry for Foreign Relations, which organised our visit to the socialist city of Caribia, where activists showed us a new model of a socialist community under construction, and our visit to the Latin American Children's Cardiological Hospital, which strengthened our resolve to fight against the privatisation of health care in Britain. The Ministry also enabled us to meet the team at the community-run television station Catia TV, and join the group on a caravan through Caracas, mobilising support for Chavez.
• Rogelio Polanco, Cuban ambassador to Venezuela, whose astute political analysis provided a bedrock for our understanding.
• The activists of the 23 de Enero barrio of Caracas, such as Ana Marin, Jesus Gonzalez and Carolina Conao who provided us with examples of revolutionary theory in practice, and the committed organisers of the community council in Antimano, one of the most deprived barrios of Caracas, who took the time to meet with us formally, as well as arranging an interview on their community television station, high on the hills above Caracas.
• Richard Velez, Xoan Noya and Rafael Ramos of the youth wing of the PSUV and the students organising in the Marxist group Desde Abajo.
• Community organisers Rafa Angulo and Ivonne Delgado and their comrades developing popular education and revolutionary consciousness in La Salina, Vargas state.
• Pablo Gimenez, professor of political economy at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, who advanced our understanding of Venezuela's economy.
• Francisco Rodriguez at the National Assembly, working to develop political solidarity between people and social movements outside the traditional institutions.
• Deputy Fernando Soto Rojas for the continuing internationalist spirit he embodies.
• The workers and managers at the PDVSA Gas Communal 'Ambrosio Plaza' plant, who showed us how workers can organise in a politically conscious way.
• All those in Britain whose donations made the delegation – and the filming of the reality and vibrancy of the Venezuelan revolutionary process – possible. Our first short documentary Viva Venezuela can be viewed on our blog www.vivavenezuela.co.uk, alongside the daily articles we posted during the electoral period. We are now working on a full-length documentary. We still need support financially and politically, so get involved and spread the truth about the Bolivarian Revolution.