Brother A opened tonight's branch meeting on Venezuela. He began by setting out the global importance of the revolutionary process unfolding there, not least because under Chavez, Venezuela has become the storm centre of radical change in Latin America. In many ways for imperialism, it is a question of the return of the repressed. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its client regimes, the ongoing restoration of capitalism in China, the capitulation of social democratic and labour parties before the free market, and the global triumph of neo-liberalism has allowed capital to become complacent. In its orgy of self-enriching hubris, the bourgeoisie has forgotten about its nemesis. And so one of our chief enemies, US imperialism, is finding itself confronted by a mobilisation openly evoking socialist and Marxist ideas, just when it thought they had finally been buried. The problem for imperialism is if it can happen in Venezuela, if revolutionary ideas can seize hold of the minds of millions in a backlash against neo-liberalism, then there is no reason why the same cannot be the case in the metropolitan centres of imperialism. In this sense, despite being underdeveloped compared to Western Europe, Venezuela can show the working class in the advanced countries its future. For these reasons the CWI's meagre forces will do their utmost to defend the revolutionary process against its internal and external enemies. Its Venezuelan section will discuss and debate with fellow revolutionaries and do whatever it can to push the process forward.
A noted the significant reforms introduced since Chavez came to power in 1998. The investment in healthcare, food provision, education, anti-poverty schemes represent a 170% increase in social spending on the previous government. As a result, poverty rates have tumbled by some 30%. Small wonder Chavez has won more elections and referenda than any other leader of the "free" world, a fact conveniently forgotten by ignorant bourgeois hacks trying to portray him as some sort of dictator. However, losing the constitutional referendum does represent a setback and has re-energised the counter-revolutionary bloc. The results clearly demonstrate how the bedrock of Chavez support is not a constant guaranteed by the historical process. The right's support has more or less reached a plateau, their 'no vote' gaining some 211,000 voters on previous showings. The yes campaign however managed to lose approximately three million votes to abstention. Why?
On the face of it, the constitution did contain some progressive reforms. It would have reduced the working week, lowered the voting age to 16, given securities to that half of the Venezuelan working class locked into informal employment arrangements, the right to adequate housing, and free education. But what reaction skilfully seized upon were the proposals to allow Chavez an indefinite number of runs at the presidency, the power to impose a state of emergency, appoint a theoretically infinite number of vice-presidents to oversee a variety of departments, and a military presence in workers' councils to insinuate a dictatorship is in the process of formation. For a number of workers who'd never contemplate going over to the right, this nevertheless reinforced their suspicions about some of Chavez's top-down actions. For example, when the National Union of Workers (UNT) was formed as a pro-Chavez alternative to the reactionary Confederation of Workers of Venezuela (CTV), it was set up by government appointees. To this day no leadership election has been held, even though it has successfully wrested away the majority of CTV affiliates. The same is true of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Chavez appointed two committees charged with selecting the organisers who travelled around Venezuela setting up mass meetings, and giving them appropriate political direction. This is on top of the power of decree granted Chavez over certain areas by the National Assembly early this year.
But these taken together are only part of the story. Socialismo Revolucionario (Venezuelan CWI) spoke to a number of abstentionist workers about why they boycotted the referendum. One thought they were merely paper reforms that did very little to address his low income. Another said "how can there be socialism when we still have bureaucrats driving around in fancy cars?" A suggested the real reason for the missing three million votes was a widely perceived lack of progress, that the revolution had only gone so far and must deepen itself to become permanent. The problem with the nationalisations so far undertaken have enraged the right without making serious inroads into its power, and, unfortunately it seems the government is more or less content to leave the commanding heights in private hands. For A, this is a serious mistake. In Nicaragua and Chile progressive governments nationalised chunks of their economies, but did not go far enough. After a campaign of US destabilisation in both, the half-revolutions ended in 'democratic' counterrevolution in the former, and bloody reaction in the latter. To cohere the masses behind the revolutionary process, stronger blows have to be landed against the bourgeoisie and private property.
A argued the tasks for revolutionaries in Venezuela is to use very opportunity to deepen the revolution. They need to intervene in the workers' and PSUV councils and put forward the perspective of building organisations independent of the Chavista bureaucracy, armed with a socialist programme concretising the experience of the working class. A pro-party perspective must also necessarily be internationalist, linking up with the rest of the class in Latin America, and beyond. But the forces of reaction still form a considerable bloc in Venezuelan society. Ultimately it will be the strength and organisation of our class that determines if the right calls time on the revolution, or whether the revolution will sweep them aside.
Opening up to discussion, D noted how the nationalisation programme is following the line of least resistance. 80% of the electricity supply was already in state hands, and other utilities were only privatised a few years prior to their being taken back. These hardly constitute the bedrock of capital's power. Furthermore this programme is in keeping with Chavismo's preference for top-down organisation: the utilities are state capitalist enterprises and not the school for democratic workers' control they could be. H linked this to the leader problem: how do we prevent them from going rogue? N suggested that the deepening of democracy goes hand in hand with the revolutionary process, but also cuts against the top down logic of Chavez's reforms. While criticising their character, we must also not lose sight of the fact that the struggle has unfolded in this particular way because Venezuela's workers are not yet ready to assume the initiative for themselves. Our job is to make sure our class gets itself into this position. D came back in to highlight the dangers of Chavez's reformist strategy; the drip, drip of reforms is giving capital time to regroup. But also, the government's cautiousness must partly be linked to the important role the USA plays in the Venezuelan economy. Not only does it constitute the biggest export market, Venezuela is dependent upon it to refine the oil. So Chavez may be afraid of rocking the boat too much.
Summing up, A felt that he had bent the stick too far in painting a gloomy picture, but nevertheless felt it necessary so we could accurately and soberly see where we are at. Nothing is achieved by pretending all is hunky dory, or by giving Chavez an uncritical gloss. He said our comrades in SR had decided to work inside the PSUV to raise the need for independent working class organisation and win over as many to that view as possible.
Given how combustible the situation is, events have a nasty habit of trampling on projections and perspectives, so none will be made here. But the political volatility, the awakening of the masses remain the reasons to be cheerful, and hopeful that our class can organise itself before the counter-revolution decisively strikes. There is everything to play for and the stakes are extremely high. Failure to advance will lead to capital reasserting control in some form or another. But success could touch off a wildfire that could tear through the consciousness of the global working class, and advance its understanding and confidence in a very short space of time. This is why wherever we are, the struggle in Venezuela belongs to us all. Its fate will help decide whether we do get to see socialism in the 21st century.