Chris Harman


The battle over Venezuela’s union

(Summer 2006)

From International Socialism (2nd series), No. 111, Summer 2006.
Copyright © 2006 International Socialism.
Downloaded with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The arguments in Bolivia between Morales and his left critics are part of a much wider discussion across much of Latin America. The shift to the left is spreading – most notably with a massive student struggle in Chile at the end of May.

But there are two different components to this swing to the left.

One is constituted by popular insurgency against the effect of neoliberal policies on the workers, the urban poor, the peasantry and the indigenous peoples. The other, however, is centred on certain intellectual and middle class layers (including some army officers) who identify with populist programmes of national capitalist or state capitalist development as the way to improve both their own position and that of the mass of people. This leads them to challenge certain imperialist interests and to move towards confrontation with the US. But it also leads them to look upon the popular movement as something to be dominated by themselves.

The two components influence each other. The challenge made to imperialism by middle class politicians or army officers finds an enthusiastic audience and encourages elements of popular resistance – as has been seen clearly by the massive popular mobilisation in the defence of Chavez against the attempts to overthrow him. At the same time, some of the middle class activists and army officers are enthused by the popular movement and adopt some of its demands.

Nevertheless, the logic of events eventually pushes the two components in different directions. Those looking to national economic development see any break with imperialism or the local bourgeoisie as a prelude to making terms with them on better conditions. And for most of them, enthusiasm for the demands of the mass of the population is soon tempered once these clash with the preconditions for accumulating a surplus for development. The ‘economism’ of the masses becomes as big an obstacle for them as the pressures of imperialism. Of course, individuals from the middle class or the officer corps may identify more closely with the masses. But they can only maintain their positions by compromises with those around them in the structures of the state.

Decades of experience of radical nationalist regimes in the Third World show how this logic works itself out. There is a phase of radical reforms and of clashes with imperialism – and it’s worth remembering, for instance, how much more radical the reforms pushed through in Egypt or Algeria three or four decades ago were than those in Venezuela or Bolivia today. But then there follows talk of the need ‘to take account of international realities’. The more radical nationalists then either hold back despite their personal inclinations (as with Nasser’s failure to help the Palestinians as they were massacred in Jordan during Black September 1970), or are removed by their more moderate collaborators (as with the overthrow of Ben Bella by Boumediene in Algeria in 1965). The end result is that regimes that resisted imperialism up to a certain point now become its most faithful allies. This is not a lesson to be lost in Latin America. The genuine left has to relate to the anti-imperialist mood but also take every opportunity to develop popular organisations that are not merely fan clubs for nationalist leaders but have their own democratic structures.

Every assertion of independence is, however, going to be met with accusations of ‘dividing and weakening the national struggle’ or even of ‘working objectively for imperialism’.

An important example of precisely this argument occurred in Venezuela at the end of May. The new union federation, formed by the workers’ organisations that resisted the bosses’ lockout of 2002–2003 (breaking with the scab CTV federation) met to hold its second congress in Caracas. Until now the UNT had been run by various ‘national coordinators’ who hold their positions on the basis of agreement between the various currents which coalesced to form the union three years ago. The aim of the congress was to establish the union on a more fully democratic basis with structures based upon active control from below.

But in the course of the congress it became clear that a section of the leadership identified with one of the national coordinators, Marcela Maspero, opposed to this course. She argued very strongly that it would be wrong to hold union elections this year because the priority had to be getting 10 million votes for Chavez in the presidential election in December. When it became clear that the majority of the delegates were strongly in favour of elections, her tendency walked out with three others, taking about a third of the 3,000 delegates.

The majority position was that put by the ‘classist’ C-CURA current, led by revolutionary socialists like Orlando Chirino and Stalin Perez. They insisted that the campaign to get 10 million votes for Chavez was very important in isolating the pro-imperialist opposition and the big capitalist interests that back it, but that should not prevent the establishment of the UNT as an authentic, democratically controlled expression of the feelings and interests of Venezuela’s millions of private and public sector workers. After all, Venezuela remains a capitalist country, where the same capitalists who tried to overthrow Chavez continue to control major means of production, and multinationals continue to work with the state to exploit its oil and mineral reserves.

There have been attempts in Venezuela to depict the dispute as merely a fight for position between Orlando Chirino on the one hand and Marcela Maspero on the other. Something more fundamental is at stake. So far the relation between Chavez and the mass of people is very much a ‘plebiscitary’ one – he speaks and decides and they support him. Structures by which the mass of people can express their own views democratically hardly exist and few people, for instance, have faith in the parliament to fulfil that role – large numbers of Chavez supporters did not bother to vote in last year’s parliamentary elections, seeing no point in doing so once the opposition announced it had given up any hope of victory and was withdrawing its candidates. Only the creation of genuine democratic organisations of the workers, peasants, the urban poor and the indigenous peoples can then ensure the revolution continues to go forward. And this applies especially to the UNT as the largest mass organisation in the country.

Open Letter to UNT Delegates

Last updated on 26.11.2011