Chris Harman

Bush’s friends lick their wounds

Venezuela – a new defeat for the rich

(22 February 2003)

From Socialist Worker, No.1839, 22 February 2003.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

ONE OF Latin America’s richest men, Gustavo Cisnero, was on holiday at his luxury villa in the Dominican Republic just over a week ago. His old friend, former US president George Bush Sr, was with him. But Cisnero could not have been happy.

He, and the rest of Venezuela’s rich, had just seen their most recent attempt to overthrow the elected government of his native Venezuela finally collapse. The Cisnero family’s “Group of Companies” boast that they are “one of the largest privately held media, technology and telecommunications organisations in the world”, operating in 39 different countries.

They have close links with the giant US multinational AOL Time Warner, as well as controlling the largest bottler of Coca-Cola outside the US and Venezuela’s biggest television channel. Cisnero is at the core of the ruling class – known locally as the “oligarchy” – of one of the most unequal societies in Latin America.

In his efforts to overthrow President Hugo Chavez he had the support of the bulk of the media, the banks, the top managers who run the nationalised oil company, and a number of senior generals. He could also rely on most of Venezuela’s traditional political establishment, the entrenched bureaucrats who dominate the country’s main union federation, and the US government adviser for the region, Otto Reich.

So confident were people like Cisnero of success when they launched a first coup attempt last April that they put the head of the employers’ federation in as president – in place of the country’s elected president, Chavez. But the Venezuelan coup makers made one major miscalculation. They forgot about the accumulated bitterness of the country’s poor.

These swarmed into the centre of the capital, Caracas, from the shanty towns that surrounded it to show militant opposition to the coup, causing a split in the armed forces that then restored Chavez to office. In the aftermath of the failed coup Hugo Chavez preached “conciliation” with his opponents.

He even reinstated to their positions those heads of the state oil company who had been keen to get rid of him. Meanwhile judges linked to the oligarchy freed army officers who had tried to overthrow Chavez. A second onslaught by Venezuela’s rich on Chavez began in October. Retired generals opposed to Chavez called for his overthrow. The media organisations broadcast virtually non-stop appeals for people to demonstrate in their support.

The head of the employers’ organisation and the head of the trade union federation issued a joint appeal for a “national civic stoppage”.

This time the poor did not wait for the plotters to overthrow Chavez, but took to the streets immediately. The whole country was split down the middle between demonstrations organised by the rich and the media against Chavez, and demonstrations from poor neighbourhoods in his support. The forces of the state were also split.

A layer of officers close to Chavez ensured that the army continued to back him. The supreme court made repeated anti-Chavez judgements, and the powerful and armed Caracas police openly backed the opposition. The oligarchy launched a “national stoppage” in December to try and topple Chavez. Newspapers across the world talked of “a general strike”.

It was not a strike. Employers closed down workplaces and told workers they would continue to be paid if they went home. Neither was it general. Most groups of workers refused to join it. Those who had come onto the streets to defend the government now mobilised in their workplaces to keep production going.

The only real stoppages were in the oilfields and among seagoing tankers. This was because of action by managers, technicians and ships’ captains. Of 300,000 oil workers, only 30,000 took part in the stoppage. This was enough to cut oil output down to a trickle, but not enough to bring down the government.

Eventually even the US, worried about oil shortages as it prepares for war against Iraq, was keen for the shutdown to end. It demoted the US adviser who had encouraged the coup attempts, Otto Reich. Venezuela’s rich now find that they have gambled heavily – and lost. That is why, as he met with George Bush Sr last week, Cisnero will have been counting his losses and wondering what he should do next.

He and the rest of Venezuela’s rich will, no doubt, hope to bide their time and return to the attack when the US is no longer preoccupied with Iraq. Whether they are able to do so depends on how Venezuela’s workers and poor take advantage of the defeat of the coup attempt.

Chavez’s inclination is to rely on the support he has among army officers for a top-down purge of some of his opponents. But the whole experience of Latin America is that this can only keep the right wing at bay for a period.

During the last two months the workers and poor have played a key role in beating back the right by organising themselves from below and pushing for demands far more radical than those of Chavez himself. They need to continue to do so.

Who is Chavez?

VENEZUELA IS the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter, and supplies about 14 percent of the US’s oil. A tiny layer have fabulous wealth, while some 85 percent of Venezuela’s people live in poverty. Hugo Chavez emerged as an army colonel who in 1992 attempted to lead a coup against the corrupt regime.

After a spell in prison Chavez was elected president in a landslide victory in 1998. His key support was among the poor. But at that time many of the oligarchy also backed him. They hoped he would at least end instability. In 2000 Chavez was re-elected president, and won backing for a new constitution giving him power to push through real reform. Chavez genuinely wants to help Venezuela’s poor, and that has enraged the country’s rich. That, his opposition to neo-liberal policies and his nationalist stance has also horrified the US regime.

Chavez does not believe in ordinary people reshaping society from below. He looks to top-down methods, relying on a layer of radical army officers and supporters in key positions. The Financial Times this week worried that Chavez could be moving to impose Cuban-style top-down state control.

Whether Chavez will embark on such a path remains to be seen. In the past he has also been keen to compromise with his rich opponents too. But the key to the future for Venezuela’s workers and poor lies in their own hands.

Workers hold the key

THE BRITISH media say that in the wake of the collapsed coup attempt Chavez has sacked thousands of oil workers. Those dismissed are managers involved in the attempt to topple him. The media here have not reported that in a few areas Venezuelan workers began to challenge the bosses’ control.

A group of rank and file oil workers write, “Workers’ mobilisations were very important for taking control away from the supporters of a coup. But usually they were restricted to returning control to the government.” There were cases, though, where workers such as those in El Palito and Puerto La Cruz “took control of the oil refineries and ran them themselves”.

Since the collapse of the coup attempt “the government has now started to restructure the petroleum industry”. But the oil workers warn, “There is an absence in this restructuring of democratic participation of the very workers who the president praised for their role in reactivating the industry.”

The oil workers point out that “workers’ control and the restructuring from below of the industry which is responsible for 80 percent of national output would virtually amount to the taking of power by the workers”. Whether moves in that direction happen will be crucial in determining whether the needs of workers and the poor will be met.

Last updated on 13 December 2009