Chris Harman


The rich striking oil

(January 2003)

From Socialist Review, No.270, January 2003.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman introduces two accounts which shed light on the struggle to depose Hugo Chavez

The new year saw the second concerted attempt within a year by the Venezuelan upper classes to overthrow the government of Hugo Chavez. On both occasions the scenario was like that enacted against the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1972.

A group of businessmen got together with right wing union leaders and right of centre politicians to call a ‘paro civico’ (civic stoppage) – a closure of industry and commerce. On 9 April they managed to precipitate a military coup which briefly deposed Chavez. Two days later the country’s poor swarmed into the centre of the capital, Caracas, to force the army to reinstate him. Then in October a number of retired generals called for another movement to overthrow the government. This movement reached its peak with an attempted three week long national stoppage in December.

It has been very difficult to tell from a distance what has really been happening. The Venezuelan media’s visceral hatred of Chavez is such that hardly anything it says can be relied on, and most of the foreign media have reported its talk about ‘general strikes’ of workers against him. In reaction, much of the Latin American left is so enamoured by his verbal denunciations of neoliberalism that they do not see any problems with the way he has responded to the right. But there are a few sources from inside Venezuela that provide some insight as to what really has been happening.

Towards revolution?

The following account has been taken from the alternative news agency Visur on 10 November 2002:

The call for a coup by 14 top army officers on 22 October has thrown into relief the clear choice of two roads in this country, towards revolution or towards counter-revolution. Chavez was elected as the recipient of the hopes of the workers and poor of Venezuela for social change. The magnificent mobilisation of the workers which put an end to the coup of 11 April was a sharp reverse for the oligarchy and imperialism.

If at that moment the leadership of the revolutionary movement had made a call for the formation of revolutionary committees in defence of the revolution, expropriating big business, the means of communication, the banks and the landed estates under the control of the workers, with the formation of committees of soldiers to depose officers sympathetic to the coup, coordinating their actions with the workers, the Venezuelan working class would have finished with reaction in a single stroke. Unfortunately, after his reinstatement, Chavez believed it was possible to reconcile the irreconcilable. His first objective was to found ‘round tables for dialogue’ with constant calls for ‘understanding’.

He accepted the resignation of [his appointees] Gaston Parra and his managerial team from the head of the state oil monopoly PDVSA. He accepted the opening of negotiations over modification of his reforms. He accepted economic plans which raised indirect taxes and devalued the currency, provoking an inflationary explosion and dramatically reducing the purchasing power of the workers and poor. These measures were accompanied by the floating of short term public debt, which allowed the bankers and speculators to make thousands of millions at the cost of public funds.

Chavez believed that such measures would lead businessmen and US imperialism to end their actions against his government, since he had made clear his intention not to go beyond the limits of capitalism. However, the effect was exactly the opposite – they emboldened reaction.

The conspirators found that, despite their failure, they still held the positions, resources and means to continue preparing for a new coup. From the government there came repeated calls for calm. It considered that many of the officers who participated in the coup had been ‘deceived’ and left them in their posts. Chavez himself made repeated calls for the disarmament of the workers.

The mass media continued organising an international press campaign against Chavez. Businessmen intensified the economic boycott through a flight of capital and a fall in investment. Reaction strengthened its positions in the state apparatus and the military conspirators kept their positions.

Bourgeois justice intensified its actions against the revolutionary movement. Bolivarian activists have been imprisoned; houses and offices were raided by the police; big landowners responsible for murders of peasant leaders in different parts of the country were left at liberty; alternative media have been shut down; leaders of the Bolivarian Circle [of supporters of the government] have been put on trial. Yet the Supreme Court declared that 11 April was not a coup d’etat and absolved its leaders.

The attitude of the government was criticised among activists. A document by the Popular Bolivarian Alliance criticised ‘the conciliatory position assumed by the government, that at moments becomes a clear surrender of the process of change’ and emphasised the necessity of establishing ‘structures of coordination of the popular organisation of the base’. In reality the contradictions that have led many revolutionary processes to failure still exist. The revolutionary movement itself feels strong and alive, despite its lack of confidence in the vacillating attitude of its leadership, which continues to let the development of the process escape from its hands. On the other hand, the most advanced and conscious sectors are coming to the conclusion that the real obstacle they face is the continuation of capitalism.

The bourgeoisie are agreed that the only solution is a dictatorship that crushes and breaks the workers’ movement. One sector of the ruling class has placed its hopes in wearing down Chavez – combining an internal and external campaign of harassment – knowing that the workers, hit by the economic situation, will sooner or later abandon the front line of battle if they do not see an alternative. But another sector is impatient to crush the mass movement. The leaders put an ultimatum to Chavez to resign, and called for the stoppage on 21 October. The reaction of the popular masses to this attack was unexpected. With only two days preparation, hundreds of thousands of workers filled the Avenue Bolivar in support of the government and the revolutionary process.

Stoppage of the rich

The strength of the movement divided reaction even more. A promised lockout of 21 October, which was meant to be indefinite, became one of only two hours. Workers in Valencia and other cities forced employers to open the factories, establishing cordons and demonstrations in front of their gates. The slogan ‘If the bosses shut the factories, the workers will expropriate them under our control’ was taken up by wide sections of the movement and frightened many employers who preferred opening the enterprises to facing occupations. Transport workers guaranteed its functioning – they organised committees which patrolled the streets in different zones of the cities and thousands of workers gathered in various cities to celebrate the failure of the ‘stoppage of the rich’.

A serious attempt to stage a coup d’etat would unleash a civil war, with an uncertain outcome for the bourgeoisie. The correlation of forces is clearly favourable to the working class. The problem is that the revolutionary movement lacks a significant leadership prepared to carry the process through to the end. That leads to an impasse between the classes which, sooner or later, will shift in the favour of one or the other. Chavez has the support of the majority of the working class and the most oppressed sectors. However, reaction maintains intact its positions and poverty continues to grow.

It’s possible that Chavez wants to evade a direct clash between the classes. He has still not understood that the bourgeoisie will never permit a situation like that at present which puts their class interests in danger and that, sooner or later, they will again try to bring the process to an end in a violent and brutal way.

The December stoppage

The December national lockout is described by SPB, a leader of the Valencia textile union (12 December 2002):

The stoppage began on Monday 2 December. On the first day businesses and shops were shut by the bosses against the wishes of the majority of the workforce. The stoppage was much weaker than previous ones, because there were many more shops open and businesses remained open where the unions were able to impose their will. At the end of the day the CTV federation announced the stoppage was continuing – shamelessly claiming that support had been at 85 percent, and that it had been a complete success. The government, basing itself on the continued functioning of transport, the basic industries, electricity, 80 percent of education and health, a large section of commerce, communications, banking and other sectors, began a campaign claiming that the stoppage had been a failure.

On the second day there were more shops open and more people in the streets. This led the organisers of the stoppage to convince the PDVSA to join the stoppage, hoping to create a petrol shortage. On the third day the executive and administrative personnel of the PDVSA stopped, despite the majority of production workers not supporting the stoppage. The executive and the conspirators undertook sabotage to try to stop the refining and distribution, but failed. In recent days gatherings of people at the refining plant of El Palito in Carabobo have grown, with one lot trying to enforce the stoppage and the other trying to prevent it. The comrades succeeded in preventing them from stopping refining and distribution, with many workers volunteering to stay to double the guard over the refinery for four or five days. Workers in the industrial zone of Valencia decided to take over the petrol filling station, and workers began to guarantee petrol distribution. On the fifth day of the stoppage the Chavists organised a very big national demonstration. By the next day the opponents of the stoppage retook control of the depots. Those supporting the stoppage were increasingly isolated, and fuel distribution resumed.

On the Monday the mass gatherings in the cities encouraged people to protest at the private television channels. From this day onwards there was clear evidence of US involvement in the stoppage.

On the Tuesday demonstrations continued at the TV centres across the country. The government organised a giant ‘megamarket’ in Caracas for the sale of essential supplies at half the normal price, together with musical events, meetings and propaganda distribution, which drew thousands of people all day.

The media images create the impression that the government has no base of support. It’s quite otherwise. If the government did not have support, how is it that after ten days of a general stoppage in the key petroleum sector of the economy backed by an international boycott and the commercial banks, the economy and the distribution of key goods continues?

Some of us don’t have any illusions in Chavez, still less in the leaderships of the parties that support him. They are capable of any barbarity. The most popular chant on 2 December was to demand the end of immunity for the conspirators. But the leaders will not expropriate anyone or close any of the mass media. However, the heroism, the mobilisations and the class hatred among the masses is very great. I can put it this way. We are in Rome, but we are not going to see the Pope. We are in a revolutionary process but may not see the revolution. We are in February or 1905 and do not know if we will arrive at October or 1917.

Last updated on 27 December 2009