Snapshots of the Bolivarian Revolution

Against the Current, No. 119, November/December 2005

Dan La Botz

This summer I traveled to Venezuela with my family and these are some impressions.  Thanks to my friend Fred Rosen for correcting some errors of fact and offering some useful information.  My colleague Susan Paulson was also kind enough to read and comment, as was Deborah James of Global Exchange.  I alone am responsible for the views presented here.

ON A FRIDAY night in August in the town of Juangriego on Isla Margarita, the northernmost point of Venezuela, an island jutting out into the southern Caribbean not far from Curaçao, tourists are having fish dinners in seaside restaurants.  Suddenly they hear the blast of salsa music and boom of political slogans.

A small parade comes by: several new cars, vans and SUVs followed by some old beaters, and some men and women marching behind, blue flags in hand.  The usual tagalongs: children and dogs.  A small boy keeps time to the salsa with a stick, while little girls shake and shimmy to the music.  The Bolivarian revolution moves ahead, a shimmy at a time.

The man in the SUV speaking into the microphone directs himself to the working people of Juangriego, to the Lebanese compañeros who make up a small part of the local population, to the tourists from Venezuela, other South American countries and Europe.  The Patria Para Todos party, he says, represents the true voice of popular power, the expression of working people and their aspirations.  But before we can hear more of his speech, the parade has reached the beach, turned east and is heading around the corner.

It is three days before nationwide gubernatorial and mayoral elections in Venezuela.  The pelicans sit on the fishing boats, oblivious to politics, but not unaffected by them.

Conservative Venezuelans we’ve met in the United States—neighbors, colleagues, students—mostly hate Chávez.  Likewise those we meet in Venezuela.  They tell us that the Chávez has destroyed the country, that he is another Castro, a Communist.  Mostly these are better-educated people, comfortable if not wealthy.  They lament that we visit Venezuela during such a terrible time.  “The country is falling apart.”

They call Chávez a dictator, describe widespread corruption, and the suppression of democratic rights.  They want him gone.  Some wish out loud that someone would assassinate him. Others would be happy to have the United States help get rid of him. When one talks with these upper and upper middle class Venezuelans, their rage makes it difficult to get much sense of how they understand what went wrong or where they think the country’s future lies.

On a boat to Los Frailes, tiny islands off of Isla Margarita, one well-off Venezuelan man on holiday with his family takes a more philosophical view.  The right, he says, has no program at the moment.  The economy will collapse if things continue as they are. The opposition, he believes, will revive.  He doesn’t know what will come next, but for now he will enjoy his daughters and the fishes of such radiant colors swimming in the coral.

The Clinic

Not everyone is on vacation.  On a corner in a working class neighborhood in the capital city of Caracas, in the bloques, the large high-rise apartment buildings built during the Pérez-Jiménez dictatorship, we come across a group of men and women gathered around a tall ladder on the corner.  Up on the ladder a man is nailing up an election poster: The People’s Electoral Movement: Fighters for Socialism.

The poster in blue and gold bears two photos, one of a heavy-set black man with a balding head and a full-white beard, Pio Juvenal González, and the other of a woman with golden brown skin and red hair, Iraida Didonna, both have their hands raised, their fingers in the V of victory.

The man with the hammer turns around and turns out to be the candidate himself, and the woman handing him the nails is his running mate.  Gonzalez comes down the ladder and he and the woman shake hands all around.  They pose a moment, his arm around her shoulder, just as they are in the post.

Gonzalez leads us into the Sergio Rodriguez Medical Clinic in the 23 de Enero public housing project.  The woman who is his running mate fades into the background.  He is a one-man show.  He makes a sweeping gesture around the room with his hand, as if to say, here it is, and launches into the history of this clinic that serves thousands of people in Municipio Libertador, a Caracas borough of some 300,000 people.  Gonzalez is alternately warm, even jovial, and then serious, stern and strident: “Venezuelan doctors,” says Gonzalez, “are the worst enemies of the public good.  Ninety percent of them are corrupt.”  The fault lies with the universities that ignored the Hippocratic oath and “trained people for the market.”

Doctors in government positions steal equipment and supplies to outfit their own private clinics, says Gonzalez.  That’s the way it used to be here too, he says.  When poor people showed up at government-run clinics they were often told that there were no medicines or bandages, splints or elastic bandages, and were redirected to their doctors’ private clinics.  Doctors were arrogant and rude.  Patients had to wait for hours for attention, only to be given an examination that seemed hasty and superficial.

Poor people perceived the government medical system as top heavy with bureaucrats and lacking in physicians committed to helping the poor.  Eight years ago, he says, the people in this neighborhood seized the medical clinic in the housing project, driving out the government bureaucrats and corrupt doctors.  The activists renamed the clinic for Serio Rodriguez Yance, a university employee, who was fatally shot on September 23, 1993, when police fired on a student protest in Caracas.  Sergio Rodriguez’s face appears both on a poster on the wall and on the t-shirt that Gonzalez wears: it is the face of an earnest young man’s silhouette in black on red.

After seizing the clinic, Gonzalez and other community leaders went to the Central University of Venezuela for volunteers and got 80 dental students to come and do diagnostic evaluations and create a registry of patients.  Four professors of medicine also came and helped, and altogether over several years 600 medical and dental students participated in the voluntary project.  Taken by force out of the hands of the Ministry of Health, the clinic became a joint project of the community and the university.

When Hugo Chavez was elected president a year later, the community activists felt that their once illegal take over of the clinic now enjoyed government sanction.  With the adoption of a new constitution in 1999 sanctioning participatory democracy, the community-run clinic appeared to be a model of the new society.  The clinic became a joint project between Municipio Liberator, the University, and the community.  “We engaged in social supervision of the clinic, fighting the corruption that exists in the Health Ministry.”  Participatory democracy, says Gonzalez, means that citizens have the right to participate in decision making, but also have the responsibility to carry out the decisions they have helped to make.

“Our slogan,” says Gonzalez, “is that health care will be rapid and dignified.  Each physician works between 8:30 and 12:30 and sees 15 patients per shift, or about four per hour.  In the last ten years the clinic has seen about 200 people a day, 200,000 altogether.  Patients come not only from the housing project, but from throughout Municipio Libertador, and even from other parts of Caracas.

The Question of Corruption

A young woman who works in the clinic has taken aside a member of our group.  She takes him down a hall, takes out a key and opens up a storeroom, pointing to some boxes.  Gonzalez, she says, is corrupt.  He sends packages of medical supplies to his family in Trujillo.  Look at this, she says, and points to disintegrating packages of medical supplies.  Look here, she says, beer bottles, open beer bottles in a medical clinic.  If there were an inspection, she says, the authorities would close this place.  I support Chavez, says the woman, but men like Gonzalez harm the movement.  My sons, she says, have studied, but they can’t be hired here, because he runs this place based on favoritism.

Later, when we discuss this incident we wonder, what are we to make of this?  A disgruntled employee?  A resentful woman, angry that her family members weren’t hired?  A whistleblower denouncing an abuse of authority?  A conservative saboteur?  Whatever happened in the clinic—and we were never sure—corruption in Venezuela is widespread.  People in Venezuela of all political stripes talk of a culture of corruption, and while there is no evidence that corruption has reached the highest levels, as in Brazil, by all accounts it plagues the lower and middle levels of government.  Chávez himself has acknowledged that corruption and bureaucracy are the two biggest challenges of his government.

Managing the Class Struggle

The poor people’s class hatred of rich, selfish, and thieving doctors is just one expression of broad class struggles in many areas of Venezuela life.  When the conservative opposition attempted to protest against the Chávez government on the day before we arrived, a radical group called the Tupamaros attacked the conservatives, stoning them, burning their placards and driving them from the streets.

Just a month before we arrived, thousands of peasants marched through Caracas to protest the murder of 130 peasants killed by landowners in the last few years.  The Chavez government’s new Land Law, an agrarian reform program, has resulted in some redistribution of land to peasants and Indians.

Chávez decreed an agrarian reform, but since then the government has attempted to manage the class struggle in the countryside, to make encouraging gestures to the poor landless farmers, while avoiding a head-on confrontation with Venezuelan landlowners.  Only two big estates have been partially expropriated, but the law has encouraged other peasants to move onto unused government land.

About half a million acres have been distributed to 4,500 families.  When peasants have come to claim the land to which they are entitled or to seize land they desire, local landowners have fired on them and the authorities have not been there to protect the peasants.  In some cases conservative governors or mayors have sided with landlords, not peasants.  So the peasants marched in Caracas to demand that the government implement the agrarian reform more rapidly and that the government do more to defend them.

Caracas and Las Casitas

We go to look for a friend.  About 17 years ago a Venezuelan public health worker stayed with us in Cincinnati, and my wife ran into him from time to time after that at professional conferences, so we look him up. He is more than hospitable, taking us out to breakfast in a luxurious neighborhood and then up on the cable car to the top of Mount Ávila, the peak that rises above Caracas.

The wealthy people, our friend points out, live in the east end, the poor in the west.  The wealthy here tend to be lighter skinned, the poor darker.  Wealthy people, he says, many of them look down upon the poor, hold them in contempt, call them los monos, the monkeys.

While we sightsee he brings us up to date.  He used to be involved with Causa R, the Radical Cause, when it was still a revolutionary organization.  When Causa R moved to the right, he abandoned it but not his socialist politics.  He is a supporter of Chávez, if a critical one, a critic from the left who supports Chávez but recognizes that the changes most go deeper.

His 22-year old son, José Luis, has volunteered to take us to some communities in Caracas.  José Luis, taking after his father, is a radical.  He works with groups in poor communities, combining art with health education, and this year he will begin to teach classes as a young professor at the university where his father also teaches.  We’re going to Las Casitas, he tells us, to some little houses on the hill.

The next day we take the metro across the city and catch a cab, a big old American sedan that barely holds our group of seven, eight with the driver, and head up the hill to las casitas.  In five or ten minutes we arrive at García Cabellos, a neighborhood of 900 families, perhaps 4,000 people.  José Luis notices that I’ve seen the Tupamaros flag flying over a house.  “It’s a Tupamaro-controlled neighborhood,” he says.

We notice at a distance a two-story turret-like brick building.  “The consultorio,” said José Luis, “the doctor’s office is on the ground floor and the doctor lives upstairs.”  Venezuela has constructed hundreds of these offices throughout the country, staffed by Cuban physicians or sports trainers.

We walk up some steps to a small, concrete block house and are greeted by a woman named Olga.  Our group of seven quickly filled up the small living room, but that doesn’t keep other people from coming in. The women crowding into the room all have dark complexions.  They wear t-shirts, shorts and sandals; though this is a food preparation center and some of them are public health promoters, all of them smoke.

Olga, in her late forites I would guess, begins to talk to us about the house we’re in. “This is the food center that was established by the government.  They provide the food and we have five volunteer cooks who prepare the food, breakfast and supper, for 150 people.  We make food for the elderly, for pregnant women, for low-weight children, and for low income people,” says Olga, and she adds, “We are here for the revolution.”

Two younger women push back the plastic curtain that divides the living room from the kitchen area to reveal the refrigerators, the stoves, and food preparation areas.  While other nations have followed the IMF and World Bank programs for targeted aid to the very poor, Venezuela has expanded its support for food for all low-income people.  One of the women brings out the bottles, cans and bags of government commodities, oil, rice and beans.  The packages have slogans and admonitions to work to help the poor and improve the nation.

Illiteracy-Free Zones

Jamily heads up La Misión Robinson, the national literacy program named after Samuel Robinson, the pseudonym of Simón Ridríguez, the tutor of Simón Bolívar, the Liberator and founding father of Bolivia.  “We are trying to create illiterate-free zones,” she says.

She and the other women tell us that when they were growing up, and when their children were growing up, they just couldn’t afford to go to school.  There was the registration fee, and one had to pay for the supplies.  But, perhaps also, there was no motivation, no sense that the country was anywhere, no sense of a future.  Now, it seems, there is. I had the feeling that not only were there teachers, and materials, as well as a systematic plan to reach the poor, but a sense of national purpose and among these people a sense of pride.

Chávez is using some of Venezuela’s oil money for adult education on a mass scale.  Coromoto, a woman named after the Virgin of Coromoto, the patron saint of Venezuela, tells us, “I never had the opportunity to study before.”  She is one of the tens of thousands of people with dark skins who lived in poverty and were left behind when Venezuela went through the oil boom back in the 1970s.  Now at 46, Coromoto has just completed her high school education, and she is helping to teach others.  We have 25 students in a class and 75 classrooms in this parish alone, she explains.  She is organizing the program now, and teaching, spreading the wealth around.

The Venezuela literacy project uses pedagogy and practices developed in Cuba after the 1959 Revolution and used by the Sandinistas in the 1980s in Nicaragua to teach people to read and write.  With help from Cuba, the Venezuelan government has created a series of video-courses to provide a basic high school education.  The videos, made in Cuba by Venezuelan and Cuban teachers, cover the basic high school courses: literature, history, social sciences, mathematics, natural sciences and art.

We all go into a classroom, converted from a 12 x 20 foot bedroom in one of the local houses.  The walls are covered with what look like children’s drawings and projects, but these are the projects of the adults who study here.  In one corner is a large television; in the case it sits on are a series of perhaps 20 videos labeled “History” or “Mathematics.

The teacher pops in a video on history, and we see a Venezuelan woman professor sitting in an armchair who begins to talk about the wars of independence from Spain, as images of Bolívar and San Martín flash across the screen.  Then the screen displays series of points about the nature of the period and the issues facing the nation.  Young adults, themselves graduates of this program, and some with more education at a higher level, lead students through the workbooks that have been provided for the classes.  I have the feeling that one could really learn something here, and that some people are.

Chávez, the Parties and the People

When we ask about how Chávez’s government has changed their lives, the women begin in the neighborhood.  “Our community dynamics have changed completely.  We have gotten to know each other.  We have organized our community.  Though this is a small community, and you might not believe it, before we didn’t know anyone.  We all just went about our business.  Now we all know each other and we all help each other.”

“To get the government to put the consultorio here, to get a doctor, we all had to work together,” says one of the women.  “We began to clean, to paint, it was a nice activity, and we got to know each other.”

I ask Olga if the Tupamaros, who are said to run the community, are involved in the Health Committee.  “Oh, no,” she says.  “The Health Committee is for everybody.  The Tupamaros are not involved.”

Jamily says, “We formed these committees to deal with our needs.  Our Constitution says we have una democracia participativa y protagónica,” where people participate and take a leading role.  “We participate though these committees.”

“And if there is any problem,” says another woman, “then: everyone to the streets.  Recently, about two weeks ago, President Chávez disappeared for two weeks.  Nobody had seen him or heard from him. People were afraid he might have been kidnapped or killed.  So we went to the streets.”

I ask them about the role of the political parties.  Everyone shakes her head and makes negative gestures and says, “No.”  The parties are no good, they say. The parties are corrupt.  The parties undermine the president.  “There shouldn’t be political parties,” says one woman.  “All of the people are with Chávez, why do we need political parties?  We are all with Chávez because we are all for national sovereignty and freedom.”

“What about the competition of political parties and their programs as a way to ensure democracy?” I ask. No, they say. Parties are corrupt.  “What we would like,” says one woman, “is the people to be directly supporting the president, without the parties.”

So does this all depend on Chávez?  What if tomorrow there were no Chávez, I ask. Several of the women suggest that while the president is important, that he is not all-important.  Several offer their views, but then José Luis nicely sums up what they have all been expressing: “Chávez has established a moral basis for popular participation.”

The Bolivarian Circles

In central Caracas we meet and eat with some of Chávez’s most loyal supporters.  Before coming to Venezuela I had contacted a woman named Etel who works with the Bolivarian Circles, a national organization named after the nation’s founder Simón Bolívar.  The Bolivarian Circles, called into existence by Chávez, are based on committees in poor neighborhoods and villages throughout the country.  They mobilize people both to support the president’s political program and to carry out various social projects in the communities.

Etel brought along to our hotel six people who she introduces us to as members of the Bolivarian Circles’ National Directorate: José Pereira, Adonay Leon, Soraya Ojeda, and Juan Mena, and another.  They huddle and decide we should all go to a nearby restaurant to talk; we end up in three or four hours over plates of rotisseried chicken discussing Venezuela, Chávez and the Bolivarian Circles.

Most of these Bolivarian Circle leaders are longtime leftist activists, men and women between their late 40s and their early 60s who have spent a lifetime trying to organize workers and the poor.  Juan Mena, the one white-haired man in the group, participated in the second coup of 1992, and was imprisoned for some time.

The Bolivarian Circle leaders insist on beginning with giving us a lecture on the history of Venezuela.  They begin with the Spanish conquest, pass quickly through the colonial period, dwell upon the significance of Bolívar in the struggle for independence, pass over most of the nineteenth century to rush to the dictatorships of Juan Vicente Gómez and Marcos Pérez Jiménez.  History, their history, really starts there.

Juan Vicente Gómez ruled from 1908 to 1935, the period in which U.S. oil companies developed the industry in Venezuela, displacing Mexico as the principal foreign supplier to the United States.  Oil drilling began in 1917 and in the 1920s, with a revolution having taken place in Mexico, U.S. and British oil companies headed for Venezuela.  William F. Buckley, Sr.’s Pantepec Company, for example, made him a multimillionaire.  Gómez became the servant and protector of the U.S. and British oil companies, and amassed an incredible fortune in the process.

Pérez Jiménez came to power in 1948 following a military coup and ruled until 1958.  A dictator intent upon modernizing the country, he used Venezuela’s oil wealth to build highways and bridges, monumental government buildings, and the huge public housing projects, the bloques.  Since he was an anti-Communist and no threat to the U.S. oil companies, the United States gave him its full support, even going so far as to award him the Legion of Merit.  The modern history of Venezuela, explain the Bolivarian Circle leaders, has been shaped by the United States, which supported dictators who protect foreign oil companies.

The overthrow of Pérez Jiménez in 1958 brought to power Rómulo Betancourt, the leader of Democratic Action.  Betancourt was the architect of the political system that lasted 40 years, until Hugo Chávez became president in 1998.  Democratic Action and the other political parties agreed in 1958 on a social pact, fundamentally an agreement on how to distribute the country’s oil wealth.  This agreement was institutionalized in the Constitution of 1961 and in the understanding that Democratic Action (AD) and the Christian Democratic Party (COPEI—pronounced “coh-PAY”) would more or less alternate in political power.

The system worked more or less for 40 years, as long as the oil wealth grew and was not outstripped by population growth or by fundamental changes in the world economy.  The new international neoliberal economic model, the Washington Consensus and the demands of the IMF, led to a crisis, to the Caracazo, and to Chávez.

We call for chicken, more beer and take a break.  Then we turn to a more informal discussion of contemporary politics.  They talk to us about the Bolivarian Circles in the communities helping to organize the Missions, the health and education programs in thousands of communities throughout Venezuela.  The Bolivarian Circles, they say, are mobilizing the people to defend “the process” and to push it forward.

Our question is: what does it all mean?  Their answer is that Venezuela has entered into a new period defined by the new Constitution.  Every one of them, and many other Venezuelans we meet, have come to carry with them the little blue book, a miniature edition of the Constitution adopted in 2000.  The Constitution seems remarkable compared to ours: health care is recognized as a fundamental human right, workers right to labor unions is protected.  But most important, they say, “we have the right to citizen participation.”

We spend a lot of time talking about this.  They tell us, we have the right to town hall meetings.  We tell them such meetings have existed in parts of the United States for hundreds of years.  They say citizens can criticize the government; we say they can in our country too, even if those rights are under attack today.  What’s clear after several chickens and many bottles of beer is that these people are insisting on democracy—parliamentary democracy and participatory democracy.

What about socialism, we ask them.  They sigh.  Socialism, they suggest, will come later down the road, after democracy deepens.

A Scholar’s View

We take the bus to Puerto La Cruz, a port on the northern coast of Venezuela, to meet with Steve Ellner, a leading scholar on Venezuela.  Ellner, drives over from Barcelona where he lives, to join us for breakfast in Puerto La Cruz.  Ellner, who has lived in Venezuela since the 1970s, has produced an impressive pile of articles and widely acclaimed books.

A historian and a political scientist, Ellner reminds us of the background: Democratic Action (AD) party and the Christian democrats of COPEI, the bipartisan political establishment controlled the government, the university, the labor unions and every other source of power and influence.

Despite its wealth Venezuela remained an underdeveloped country, says Ellner, in the sense that it was poor, inefficient and corrupt.  The political system, held together through patronage; the society, however, began to come unglued at the end of the 1980s.  What precipitated the crisis, Ellner suggests, were rising prices.  Inflation began to drive a wedge between the elite, the bureaucracy and the white collar workers on the one hand and the popular classes, workers, peasants, and the poor, on the other.

On February 2, 1989 the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez—elected as a nationalist and populist—opted to toe the neoliberal line and negotiated a paquete of structural adjustments demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a decision which led to a profound sense of betrayal throughout the country.

A little less than a month later, on February 27, his government raised fuel prices by 100%, and bus and cab drivers doubled or tripled their fares.  Gasoline was still the cheapest in the Americas, but workers who had budgeted every penny of their earnings had not a penny to get to work.  Riots broke out throughout the country.  (While known as the Caracazo the riots occurred in virtually all the cities and towns of the country.).  The Venezuelan government put down the mass revolt, killing about 3,000 people.

The Caracazo riots and the repression led Hugo Chávez, leader of a secret cell of left-wing military officers within the Venezuelan Army known as the Bolivarian Movement, to set in motion a coup that they attempted to carry out on February 4, 1992.  The government got word of the rising and foiled the coup, but in the immediate aftermath Chávez was given a minute to speak to the nation, taking responsibility for the coup and asking other rebels to lay down their arms.  He told the television audience that they had not achieved their objectives “for now.”

That phrase made him a hero to the poor people of Venezuela.  When President Rafael Caldera freed Chávez from prison in March of 1994, the rebel leader began to forge a series of alliances with leftist political parties and intellectuals that would eventually lead him to victory in the presidential election of 1998 as the old party system of the country completely collapsed.

To the Bolivarian Revolution

For the last seven years, says Ellner, Chávez had to face one thing after another: a series of elections, his national plebiscite on a new constitution in 2002, a right-wing coup in 2002, a popular uprising that brought him back to power, and then more elections.  Chávez survived it all.

The conservative opposition is in disarray: defeated, disorganized and demoralized.  Opinion polls suggest that 70% of the country support Chávez.  Now for the first time he has an opportunity to put his program into effect.  What is that program?  What is the Bolivarian Revolution?

While Chávez sometimes calls what’s happening in Venezuela a “revolution” there have been no large-scale violent confrontations between social classes, no civil war, no widespread seizures of factories by workers or of land by peasants.  The capitalist state has not been overthrown.  No serious observer finds the Communism in Venezuela that rightwing critics describe.

But if there is no dual power, there is parallel power.  Chávez, Ellner observes, has avoided direct confrontations to the degree possible, preferring to create parallel institutions as alternatives to the old powers.  So where there was once only the Central Venezuelan University dominated by AD and COPEI and serving better off Venezuelans, there is now also the Bolivarian University, filled with professors from the Chávez camp and students from the slums.  Where once there were only private grocery stores, today there is the subsidized government grocery Mercal that provides food for the poor, competing with the private firm.

To compete with the private companies there are now state airlines, state telephone companies, a state cement enterprise and most recently a state television channel to compete throughout Latin America.  The government has also sponsored workers’ cooperatives, some manufacturing clothing, for example.  Chávez’s program seems to be to continue to create state firms that can gradually give him more economic leverage, though the Venezuelan bourgeoisie can clearly see that these subsidized companies over time will drive them to the margins.

Workers or unions in a few cases have demanded that the government nationalize companies that had gone bankrupt.  Ellner points out that the Chávez government has only expropriated two such companies, CNV Valve and the Venepal paper company, creating a system of joint state-worker management.  These experiments in state-owned, jointly managed companies remain too limited and small to say much about the direction of the government’s economic policies.  Certainly they don’t amount to socialism.

A more important experiment has begun at Alcasa, the state-owned aluminum company, where co-management has been instituted.  Chávez has called it the “socialism of the twenty-first century,” but so far it seems more like the co-management (Mitbestimmung) established by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in Germany in the middle of the twentieth century.

The Labor Movement

The labor movement of Venezuela has not played the leading role in national politics in the last decade.  Venezuelan labor for over 50 years was dominated by the Venezuelan Confederation of Labor (CTV), which came to be controlled by Democratic Action.  Over time the CTV bureaucracy grew to be part not only of the party but also of the government and political system, conservative and many argue corrupt.

The economic and social crisis brewing throughout the last 30 years also broke up the established labor bureaucracy of the CTV. A leftist movement based in the unions, Causa R, the Radical Cause, succeeded in building a base in Ciudad Guyana and in winning the leadership of the metalworkers’ union in the late 1980s.  Other independent union leaders succeeded in gaining power in some other unions as well.

When Chávez became president, he found the CTV together with Democratic Action, COPEI, and the business establishment arrayed against him. The political crisis provoked a deep crisis in the union movement and some union leaders, mostly pro-Chávez, broke away to form the National Union of Workers (UNT).  Other independent unionists decided to remain independent, fearing the UNT would become part of a neocorporate system of political control.

The result is that today Venezuela has a more democratic labor union picture than before, in that there are three broad currents: the anti-Chávez CTV, the pro-Chávez UNT, and a few important unions that remain independent.  The neo-corporate system of political control over labor unions has not materialized, but then neither is there a strong united workers movement.

What one finds in Chávez’s Venezuela, in other words, is something that has elements of social democracy of a fairly tepid variety, and of Latin American populism that has existed since the 1930s.  What is so far remarkable and radical about what is happening in Venezuela is not this content, but the government’s audacity in standing against the powerful reactionary currents emanating from Washington.


If the state economic plan seems more or less clear, the political situation seems chaotic.  Chávez created the Movement for a Fifth Republic (MVR) as his political party.  Yet he frequently skirts it, using comandos or money from the state oil company to accomplish his political goals.  Several other parties claim to be the true Bolivarian party representing, perhaps better than Chávez himself they suggest, the real goals of what chavistas usually call “the process.”

Most of the left feels obligated to support Chávez.  I stopped a Communist on the famed “hot corner” of the central plaza of Caracas and asked what differences his party had with the government.  He looked shocked: “Seguimos la linea,” he said, we follow the Chávez line.  Oddly enough, with the right in disarray, the various Chavista parties sometimes become the vehicles of conservative opposition.

There is a left opposition to Chávez made up of former officials like Luis Michelena, small parties like Bandera Roja, and people in Democratic Action (AD) and the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) who consider themselves to the left of Chávez.  In parliament there is a group that calls itself the center-left bloc.  Chávez and his MVR, however, remain the dominant force and the left has no independent power.

While this government has much popular support among the lower classes, and while there is a struggle between social forces in society, it seems to me that parliamentary democracy has gradually eroded.  Today one would be hard pressed to call Venezuela a representative democracy in the strong sense of the word—not because it has become a dictatorship, but because the forceful personality and political power of Chávez find no counterweight in a vigorous parliamentary life and because the dozens of parties devolve into incoherence.

What do we make of it?

Rising above it all, above all the social conflicts and political chaos, is Chávez.  He is charismatic leader, a caudillo if you will, but also a genuine patriotic nationalist and a leftist, whose sense of mission, optimism and faith in poor people has helped to inspire them to fight for a better life.  His government has made democracia participativa y protagónica a guaranteed right of the citizens, and they have taken it seriously, attempting to make themselves the agents of history.

What is taking place it seems to me, no doubt despite the distortions of an underdeveloped country with its inefficiency and corruption (distortions that also exist in my own overdeveloped country) is a profoundly democratic experiment.  What one does not see emerging in Venezuela so far, or at least what I did not see and do not find reported anywhere, is the emergence of a strong, independent workers’ movement that puts the idea of workers’ power and democratic socialism at the center of a revolutionary project.

It is not clear at the moment whether Chávez’s Bolivarian Movement by inspiring the people will encourage such a movement.  It seems altogether equally possible that his powerful personality and the absence of strong political parties, might well lead this important social experiment to failure of one sort or another.  Venezuela’s popular movement has powerful enemies, among its own elite and among American corporations and in the U.S. government.

Whatever the future may hold, our role here in the United States should be to help defend and protect Venezuelans so that they can pursue the future they desire.  While offering that protection, we should offer every assistance to those forces in Venezuela who aim to drive the process toward democracy and socialism.

Dan La Botz is Acting Director of Latin American Studies at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio and editor of Mexican Labor News and Analysis  His book César Chávez and La Causa will be published by Longman in December.

ATC 119, November-December 2005