Article from the Sept 2004 edition, Socialist Voice

Venezuela Right-wing referendum defeat

FIFTY-EIGHT percent of Venezuelans have voted against the recall of President Chavez in a referendum that was demanded by the right-wing parties and their supporters. Despite the opposition claims of electoral fraud, this result is a clear victory for the reforming government led by Hugo Chavez.

By Paul Murphy

The claims of the opposition about the lack of democracy were truly answered with a record voter turnout as 10 million people, 75% of registered voters waited an average of eight hours to cast their ballots. The reforms implemented by Chavez, and the "Vote No" campaign served to mobilize voters all across the country, culminating the week before polling day with a massive pro-Chavez rally in Caracas. This is now Chavez's and the Bolivarian Movement's eighth electoral victory in the last six years.

Struggle against neo-liberalism

This referendum victory is only the latest stage in a battle of the working class, poor peasantry and urban poor against big business and imperialism. Latin America has been raped and exploited by imperialism and its own weak parasitic ruling class for centuries. However, because of its oil wealth, Venezuela was one of the richest countries on the continent until the 1980s. But when the oil prices fell in the mid-1980s, the living standards of the masses in Venezuela plummeted. Rather than accept any cut in their profits, the powerful economic oligarchy and US imperialism intensified their attacks on ordinary people. Living standards dropped dramatically - in 1975, 33% of the population lived on less than two US dollars a day, by 1997 this had risen to 67%. The middle classes saw their savings destroyed as inflation soared above 100% in 1996. Today, around 80% of people live below the poverty line.

Successive right wing governments, at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank have implemented these neo-liberal attacks. The working class and peasantry wanted to struggle to oppose the attacks on their living conditions. However, their traditional routes of struggle were blocked. The trade unions were led by a hardened bureaucracy completely opposed to any kind of struggle, and the supposed "left" parties had shifted to the right and were responsible for implementing some of the worst "austerity measures".

In this context, Chavez, a middle-ranking army officer, who was one of four leaders of a popular but unsuccessful coup in 1992, came to reflect the aspirations of the masses. He gave popular expression to the anger they felt against the rich elite and neo-liberalism and their desire for change. He was then swept to power in 1998 with over 56% of the vote.

Reforms affect millions

The reforms that Chavez attempted to implement when he came to power were relatively minor. His three key reforming laws, the Hydrocarbon Law, the Coastal Zone Law and the Land Law, simply asserted state control over the already nationalised oil industry, over the coastal zone surrounding Venezuela and opened up the possibility of under-utilised land being re-allocated. However, because of the bankruptcy of capitalism today, whereby it cannot afford even the most minor reforms, in implementing these reforms Chavez incurred the wrath of the weak Venezuelan capitalist class and more importantly US Imperialism. The masses, emboldened by Chavez's victory, have fought for more reforms and improvements in living standards, and in doing so have created a revolutionary process.

The pressure of the mass movement has forced Chavez to implement even more reforms that have enraged the ruling class. Three million acres of land have been distributed to peasant co-operatives. 1.2 million people have been lifted out of illiteracy and an additional three million people were put through primary and secondary education. 10,000 Cuban doctors, have been sent to the country, and have helped establish 11,000 neighbourhood clinics in the poor districts, the health budget has been tripled and millions are receiving primary health care for the first time.

Tariq Ali writing in the Independent (London) 18 August 2004 describes a lengthy discussion he had with Chavez and made the following comment: "It became clear to me that what Chavez is attempting is nothing more or less than the creation of a radical, social-democracy in Venezuela that seeks to empower the lowest strata of society. In these times of deregulation, privatisation and the Anglo-Saxon model of wealth subsuming politics, Chavez's aims are regarded as revolutionary..."

Chavez hasn't attempted to take on the economic might of the capitalists by nationalising industry and challenging the rule of capital. He has been aided in his attempts to implement social reforms directed at the most exploited layers in society by the rising price of oil, but such favourable conditions will not last in the long-term.

Chavez's failure to move in the direction of socialism is because Chavez is not a socialist. Tariq Ali asked Chavez to explain his philosophy: "I don't believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don't accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don't think so."

Chavez has and will continue to have a dramatic impact on the lives of the working class and the poor masses in Venezuela. However, his belief that there is no alternative to capitalism means that ultimately he will not be able to fundamentally transform the lives of the majority. His failure to understand that capitalism in Venezuela must be overthrown is the Achilles Heel of his Bolivarian revolution. And like Allende before him in Chile his inaction, and refusal to challenge the rule of capitalism may prepare the basis for a bloody coup that will not only oust him but result in a rein of terror against the Venezuelan working class and poor.

Opposition defends capitalism

The opposition has stopped at nothing in seeking to oust Chavez from power. The Venezuelan capitalist class and US Imperialism fear a successful socialist revolution would not only cut off a key oil supply to the US but more importantly would be the spark for a continental wide movement by the people's of Latin America against capitalism and imperialism.

Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporting country in the world, with the largest reserves of conventional oil (light and heavy crude) in the Western Hemisphere and the largest reserves of non-conventional oil (extra-heavy crude) in the world. With the current instability in the Middle East, US Imperialism wants a reliable pro-US puppet regime in power in Venezuela.

US Imperialism also fears that the current events in Venezuela will destabilise the whole Latin American continent. Across Latin America a fightback of ordinary people is beginning to take place. The capitalists across Latin America and the US ruling class are scared that a successful revolution that raises the standards of living of ordinary people would prove so attractive that they would find themselves faced with the prospect of socialist revolution spreading from country to country.

While the latest tactic of the opposition was on the political, electoral arena with the recall referendum, it has not hesitated to use "extra-legal" tactics. They have continually tried to sabotage the economy, with intermittent lockouts and deliberate inefficiencies in the oil industry. In April 2001, in a coup the opposition managed to briefly force Chavez out, their first act undoing all of the progressive reforms Chavez had implemented. Chavez was saved by the actions of the mass of ordinary people who demonstrated spontaneously outside the soldiers' barracks, and gave them the courage to defeat the coup and re-instate Chavez.

The bourgeoisie has also considered outside military intervention. Colombia, a stooge for the US in the region, recently bought a shipment of tanks from Spain, supposedly for use against Colombian guerillas, but in reality totally unsuited to anything other than a direct military assault on another country. A few months before the referendum, over 100 right-wing Colombian paramilitaries were discovered in Venezuela.

Struggle for socialism

The defeat of the coup in 2001 clearly demonstrated that it is the working class, together with its allies amongst the peasantry and poor, not Chavez, which is the driving force of the revolutionary process in Venezuela. They are the force that has defeated this referendum and can take the revolution forward. While Chavez has roused many people to action, he also serves as a brake on the movement, conciliating with the opposition after the failed coup in 2001 and now after the referendum calling for "dialogue" with the opposition, rather than deepening the revolution.

Despite the fact that the opposition has now suffered another defeat, it remains a potentially powerful force. It controls the media, the vast majority of the economy, retains a significant hold on the state-owned oil company as well as retaining support amongst the upper ranks in the army. Most significantly, it is backed by the power of US imperialism. They are still plotting to use these forces to destroy the gains made by ordinary Venezuelans and to ensure the rule of capitalism. Two of the opposition leaders were taped saying that a dictatorship of at least 10 years would be needed to return Venezuela to normality, in other words to the state of compliance with the interests of US imperialism!

The best way to stop the Venezuelan ruling class from achieving its aims is to directly challenge and remove its levers of power.

The private media should be taken under democratic control of the people and all political tendencies should be given access in proportion to their support in the population. In this way, the opposition's stranglehold on the distribution of information can be broken. Industry must be nationalised under democratic workers' control. The standing army should be disbanded and replaced by a democratic workers' and peasants' militia accountable to the mass of people.

It is only by taking the wealth out of the hands of the ruling class and running society in the interests of the working class and peasantry that the gains made by the masses will be consolidated.

If this doesn't happen, at a certain stage the resolve of the masses can be worn down. Disillusionment in Chavez can set in and an opportunity can open for the right wing to brutally crush the movement of the working class.

The revolutionary process has raised millions of people to their feet. They will not easily give up the gains they have achieved. The democratic institutions of the revolutionary process have already become breeding grounds for socialist ideas, with opposition growing to those on the right of Chavez's Bolivarian Movement, who are seen as acting as a brake on the revolution moving forward.

In Venezuela the revolution must move forward or it will be driven back. An urgent task facing Marxists is the building of a mass revolutionary party. Such a party is essential in order to "arm" the working class with the ideas and programme capable of mobilising millions behind the struggle for the completion of the Venezulean revolution. For the establishment of a democractic socialist state, that would be the starting gun for socialist revolution all across Latin America.

Earlier articles on Venezuela are listed here.

More articles from this issue of Socialist Voice are listed here.

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