The radical reforms of Hugo Chavez are gains to be defended and a platform for further advance towards a revolutionary transformation of society argues Neil Faulkner
By late afternoon on 11 April 2002, the organisers of a right-wing coup, having occupied the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, capital of Venezuela, were congratulating themselves on their success. Some 200,000 people had marched on the palace earlier that day. Opposition leaders had then entered the palace and demanded the president’s resignation. He had since been arrested and taken to a military prison.
The plotters now toasting victory with champagne included the head of the country’s main business organisation, the owner of a TV station, the leader of a collaborationist union federation, and several oil executives.
Venezuela was a major oil producer, the fifth largest in the world. Though Venezuelan oil had been nationalised in 1976, the state oil company, the PDVSA, worked in close co-operation with foreign multinationals. The oil interest was a tight nexus binding together Venezuelan state bureaucrats, foreign business executives, and a privileged layer of union bosses and skilled workers.
The people in the oil nexus, especially those at the top, grew fantastically rich. Caracas was a more expensive city than Chicago. It had more Cadillacs per head of population. But only 2% of Venezuelans were in the nexus, and the gap between rich and poor was getting wider.
The Venezuelan government of Carlos Andres Perez had adopted neoliberalism at the height of the fashion in 1989. It had had the same effect as everywhere else. The share of national income going to the richest tenth of the population had jumped from 22% to 33% by the late 1990s. Meantime, the number living below the poverty line had soared from 36% to 66%.
To keep it so was the reason the Venezuelan bourgeoisie had organised a coup in April 2002. But the champagne was premature. Something was happening in the streets outside. It was slow but unmistakable: the approaches to the palace were filling with people again, only this time not the smart middle-class demonstrators of the afternoon, but shabby people in baseball caps and T-shirts.
They were taking time to arrive. They had a way to come. They were from the shanty-towns perched on crumbling hill-sides overlooking the posh business and residential districts of central Caracas.
Soon the streets were solid with people. They refused to move. And the presidential guard, loyal to the ousted president, refused to try and make them.
Within 48 hours a military helicopter had brought President Hugo Chavez back to the Miraflores. The coup was over. It had been crushed by a mass movement of the Venezuelan urban poor.
The people of Venezuela had been in open conflict with their rulers since 1989. Protests against price increases had swept the country in February that year. The Perez government had put troops on the streets and up to 2,000 had been killed. The protests had been suppressed, but not the mood of resistance in the slums.
Three years later, a radical army officer, Hugo Chavez, led an attempted coup against the Perez government. The coup failed and Chavez was imprisoned.
Chavez had made a successful career for himself in the military, but he had never identified with the cronyism and corruption of most Venezuelan army officers. He had not been born into the Venezuelan elite; he was of lower middle-class origin, and his features implied native American descent.
In the 1970s Chavez joined with a small group of likeminded officers in setting up the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MRB2000). They took as their model the nationalism and idealism of Simon Bolivar.
Venezuela’s crisis deepened while Chavez was in jail. Perez was impeached for fraud and corruption. The PDVSA signed away Venezuelan oil revenues to foreign corporations. The banks collapsed and required a massive state bailout. An IMF loan was negotiated, with the usual austerity conditions. Poverty and unemployment kept rising.
Bourgeois politics were bankrupt. But so were those of the official Left. Hollowed out by collaborationism, it was unable to offer a credible alternative. One faction ended up supporting the presidential candidature of a right-wing beauty queen.
So Chavez, at the head of a newly formed ‘Fifth Republic Movement’ (MVR), stood for president and secured 56% of the vote in the election of 1998.
The Venezuelan bourgeoisie, centred on the oil nexus, was stunned. It thereafter made a series of attempts to recover political power, using its control over wealth and the mass media to poison public opinion against the Chavez government, and, when this failed, organising strikes and mass demonstrations in an effort to overthrow it by direct action.
The government survived virtually all challenges. It won 71% in a constitutional referendum in 1999, and 59% in a second presidential election in 2000. It then pressed ahead with radical reforms to the economy and the political system, prompting two right-wing general strikes, that of April 2002, culminating in the failed coup attempt, and another from December 2002 to February 2003, which was frustrated by mass working-class activity to keep the economy moving.
The Right then secured a referendum on the presidency in 2004, which Chavez won with 59% of the vote. He was re-elected in 2006 with 63%, and again in 2013, shortly before his death, with 54%. His only major electoral setback was narrow defeat in 2007 in a constitutional referendum over increased presidential powers.
The bourgeoisie’s hostility to the Chavez presidency, and its enduring popularity among Venezuela’s working people, are easy to understand. Chavez preached what he called ‘socialism of the 21st century’. He was the most prominent of a group of Latin American leaders seeking to make a breach in the neoliberal global order. He seemed to express the aspirations of mass movements of resistance across the continent. He embodied the idea of a radical alternative in which the needs of the many would take precedence over the greed of a few.
The social gains of Chavismo were real. Oil wealth was recycled to fund schools, hospitals, food networks, community groups, and agrarian reform. Mass grassroots activity flourished in the slums. Around one in 20 of the entire population was enrolled in some form of popular, pro-government organisation.
But the Chavista movement was top-down, not bottom-up. It was a stage army to be wheeled out when necessary to support the government and its initiatives, not a popular movement taking control of society from below, formulating and advancing its own demands, and, increasingly, challenging the bourgeoisie’s control over the main levers of power.
After the coup of April 2002, most of the conspirators were not prosecuted. In the two days that Chavez spent in prison, the Venezuelan masses had become an independent revolutionary force. But instead of fostering the development of an alternative ‘popular power’ (poder popular), Chavez demobilised his supporters and returned to the ‘command’ methods of measured top-down reform combined with compromise and reconciliation with the bourgeoisie.
Chavez did not suffer the fate of Allende in Chile: a military coup by an unbroken state machine. Nor that of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua: slow strangulation under siege by world imperialism. But nor did Chavez inflict a decisive and irreversible defeat on the Venezuela bourgeoisie and the foreign-backed oil nexus.
Because of this, 50% of Venezuelans continue to live in poverty, and 20% or more are without work. And such gains as have been made might in the future be reversed. For, as Rosa Luxemburg explained a century ago, the struggle for reforms is a Labour of Sisyphus, in which that which has been won by a strong movement in one generation can as easily be lost in the next.
The radical reforms of Hugo Chavez should be seen as what they are: gains to be defended against a hostile class enemy, and a platform for further advance towards a revolutionary transformation of society.
This article is one of several new chapters covering revolutionary movements in the Americas prepared for the Spanish edition of Neil Faulkner's Marxist History of the World - due for publication in February 2014.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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