Imperialist crisis and the advancing Venezuelan revolution

The following is an edited report 22nd DSP Congress presented by Kerryn Williams on behalf of the national executive. The general line of the report and summary was adopted unanimously.

Introduction

Newly elected Bolivian President Evo Morales told reporters in Caracas on Tuesday: ``These are new times. We are in a millennium that will be for the peoples, not for the empire. We join the work of Fidel in Cuba and of Hugo in Venezuela to provide a response to the needs of the majorities.’’

More than a decade-and-a-half after bourgeois commentators declared the permanent global triumph of capitalism, not only are the people of Venezuela countering this myth by announcing that another, better world really is possible, but they are building a unique, living example of a genuine alternative to the horrible reality of imperialist globalisation, and they are beginning to spread that project across the region and the globe.

The development of Latin America as the ``continent of revolutions’’ is just one indication of the failure of neoliberal ideology. Across the world, the brutal inhumanity of neoliberal economic policy stands starkly exposed, and the Emperor is naked for all to see. This disillusionment manifested in the West in the 1999 Seattle protests against the WTO summit, and here in Australia in the S11 protests in 2000. The many thousands who descended on Hong Kong from around the world last month to protest the WTO ministerial meeting, where more than 900 people were arrested and hundreds injured by police, indicates that the emperor hasn’t yet managed to make anyone see his new suit.

Now the propaganda machine has replaced the promises of neoliberal heaven on earth with the politics of fear. The ``war on terror’’ is the ruling class’s current strategy for keeping us in line and keeping its system intact - the promise to protect us from the ``terrorists’’, not only by fighting unjust wars on foreign soils, but also by repressing us and silencing working-class dissent at home.

Neoliberalism and neo-conservatism are in trouble. US imperialism is in crisis in Iraq, and there is overwhelming global opposition to the US’s gross attempts to impose ``democracy’’ on the Middle East. Yet discrediting imperialism’s ideological justification for its neoliberal agenda alone has been insufficient in inspiring a serious fight-back in the last period.

In this report, however, we mark a new hope for the possibility of change inspired by the Venezuelan revolution – a real revolutionary alternative – which provides us with a much higher chance of winning people engaged in struggles against neoliberal attacks here in Australia to revolutionary conclusions.

Imperialist crisis

Today, the occupation of Iraq is the cutting edge of the neoliberal offensive. The US jumped on the opening presented by the 9/11 attacks to advance its strategic goal of securing economic and political dominance over the Middle East and its vast oil reserves, through invading and occupying Afghanistan and then Iraq. But this permanent war tactic is backfiring.

At our last congress two years ago, we predicted that ``Iraq will be the graveyard of the US rulers’ second attempt to create an `American century’ of US imperialist domination and corporate global plunder.’’ The two years since have only reaffirmed this prediction.

On November 30, US President George Bush made the major admission in a speech at the US Naval Academy that the bulk of the Iraqi resistance is made up of ``ordinary Iraqis’’. This is a huge retreat for Bush, who has for two years - since his WMD lies were thoroughly exposed to the world - justified the bloody occupation of Iraq with the claim that it is fighting “foreign terrorists” linked to al Qaeda. Bush has been forced to concede that such elements represent the smallest component of the resistance in Iraq.

However in an extraordinary leap of logic, Bush went on in his speech to declare: ``If we were not fighting and destroying this enemy in Iraq, they would not be idle. They would be plotting and killing Americans across the world and within our own borders. By fighting these terrorists in Iraq, Americans in uniform are defeating a direct threat to the American people.’’

The reality of course is something quite different: 2,178 US troops had been killed by the end of 2005. According to the Pentagon, 15,500 US troops have been wounded in Iraq, half of them so seriously that haven’t been able to return to duty. Resistance fighters are killing Iraqi security forces at a rate of 214 a month, up from 160 per month in the last half of 2004.

The Iraqi resistance has continued to strengthen, and support among ordinary Iraqis is increasing. An August secret survey of Iraqi public opinion conducted for the British Ministry of Defence indicated that up to 65% of Iraqis support attacks by the Iraqi armed resistance on the US-led occupation forces; 82% of Iraqis are ``strongly opposed’’ to the presence of US and other foreign troops in their country; and 72% said US-led occupation forces have made their lives less secure.

Polling prior to Iraq’s December 15 elections found that the withdrawal of foreign troops was the primary concern of voters.

Failure of ``Iraqisation’’

Bush claimed the US military is ``on course to victory’’ in his November 30 speech, outlining its alleged winning strategy of ``Iraqisation’’ – that is, replacing the US military with Iraqi forces controlled by the US. But this is hardly working – on December 4 the Miami Herald reported that ``of the 120 army and police battalions that have undergone training, 40 are good enough to take the lead in joint operations with U.S. troops. One is considered good enough to operate with complete independence.’”

Widespread opposition to the occupation and support for armed attacks on US forces are being fed by the appalling state of Iraqi infrastructure, economy and living standards and the ferocious repression meted out by the occupation regime.

The first Western journalist to return to Fallujah a year after the November 2004 slaughter there, Hala Jaber, reported in the December 18 London Sunday Times of the massive devastation of that city. Up to 6000 people were killed in the brutal offensive, most of them civilians, and tens of thousands of homes, shops, mosques and schools were flattened. Compensation and reconstruction has largely failed to materialise – the city’s mayor claims that just 20% of promised compensation has reached the city.

Not only are those who’ve returned to the city enduring appalling living conditions, they are subject to constant repression and harassment from US soldiers trying to root out insurgents. One resident, Um Ahmad, said ``We are afraid of the National Guards and American soldiers who are supposed to be protecting us. Things are getting worse.’’

According to Jaber, ``The bitter truth is that the actions of US and Iraqi forces have reignited the insurgency. Anger, hate and mistrust of America are deeper than ever.’’

Iraq’s oil production is still lower than pre-war levels, decreasing from 2.5 million barrels per day in September 2004 to less than 2 million barrels a day.

About US$3 billion of the $13.5 billion in foreign pledges to Iraq has been spent. The World Bank estimates that $27 billion is needed for rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure. Unemployment is estimated at up to 60%. Last month the Iraqi government cut fuel subsidies under an agreement with the IMF, massively increasing the cost of petrol, diesel, kerosene and cooking fuel. During Iraq’s summer, petrol cost around 5 cents per gallon, and by the time the price increases are fully implemented will be at $1 a gallon. A quarter of Iraqi families are subsisting on less than $1 per day.

But while the Iraqi people live in increased poverty amidst a violent occupation, corporate plunder by mostly US corporations is continuing apace. As the British Independent pointed out on November 22, ``Iraqis face the dire prospect of losing up to [US]$200bn (£116bn) of the wealth of their country if an American-inspired plan to hand over development of its oil reserves to US and British multinationals comes into force next year. A report produced by American and British pressure groups warns Iraq will be caught in an `old colonial trap’ if it allows foreign companies to take a share of its vast energy reserves … The groups said they had amassed details of high-level pressure from the US and UK governments on Iraq to look to foreign companies to rebuild its oil industry.’’

The report stated that ``Under the likely terms of the contracts, oil company rates of return from investing in Iraq would range from 42% to 162%, far in excess of usual industry minimum target of around 12% return on investment.''

Echoes of Vietnam

In echoes of Vietnam, the US military strategy in Iraq is shifting towards an air war, which, while it may be successful in reducing the number of US troops being killed, will likely increase the civilian casualties. According to official US military figures, the number of air strikes in 2005 averaged 25 per month until August, then surged to 120 in November and were expected to be at 150 in December. After the first week of one offensive featuring air strikes in the Anbar province in far western Iraq that began on November 5, medical workers had recorded 97 civilians killed.

Retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, now outspoken critic of the Bush administration, raises the limitations of a strategic shift to an air war:

``We have a foul-mouthed Texan in the White House, facing a domestically unpopular war that he never expected to have to fight. In order to stop a persistent anti-American insurgency in a faraway country, this president will now escalate the use of air power, striking deep into the heart of insurgency strongholds and destroying the will of those that support the insurgency.

``This sounds like a replay of Rolling Thunder, March 1965. The Pentagon, led by the last remnant of those who were supposed to have directly experienced the danger of politicized wars managed out of the White House and the sheer uselessness of air power to win hearts and minds, must indeed be out of its collective mind to support a strategic shift like this.’’

Iraqi elections and beyond

The final results of Iraq’s December 15 elections have not yet been announced, but there was a large Sunni voter turnout, which was encouraged by all the main resistance groups. An Elections Commission official reported that up to 70% of Iraq's 15 million eligible voters may have cast ballots.

Nearly all of the 21 tickets that contested the election declared their opposition to the occupation, but the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) – the coalition of Shiite religious parties that was the dominant force in the outgoing government, echoed the Washington line with a call for phased rather than immediate withdrawal.

As of December 20, after 89% of ballot boxes had been counted, the UIA was leading in Baghdad province with about 59% of the vote, while the Sunni-Arab alliance, the Iraqi Accordance Front, trailed with 19%, and the Iraqi National List headed by former US puppet prime minister Ayad Allawi (a secular Shiite) who was strongly backed by British PM Tony Blair, on 14%.

At least 1000 complaints of fraud and ``irregularities'' are still being investigated.

The Iraqi Supreme Court decided to disqualify 90 of the deputies elected, most of them Sunni Muslims, because they were former members of the Baath Party – despite Bush’s selection of a Baathist as the first puppet prime minister. This is likely to leave more Sunnis with no option but to join the resistance.

A number of the US’s coalition partners have used the Iraqi elections as the basis for further troop withdrawals, weakening the US-led occupation forces.

South Korea and Poland just announced plans to reduce troop numbers and the Ukraine and Bulgaria have withdrawn the last of their troops. The Italian government, after withdrawing 300 troops in September, has pledged to reduce its 2,900 troops in Iraq by 10% this month and to completely withdraw by the end of the year. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s announcement that he is a supporter of peace may have something to do with Italy’s general election in April! Possible British troop withdrawals are also being flagged in the face of enormous anti-war sentiment among Britons.

As defence analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies pointed out to the January 2 Age, ``Obviously every time you get a weakening of the coalition, it highlights the lack of international support for the US mission. And internally, it again raises the problem that rather than seeing an international force, Iraqis always see US troops. And that raises all kinds of questions about whether the US will leave.’’

The lack of end in sight for the US’s quagmire in Iraq has also stalled plans to further extend US domination of the Middle East. The US had to back down on its frame-up of Iran over its nuclear weapons’ programs and is unable to pursue a military intervention in Iran while its troops are bogged down in Iraq.

Bush’s domestic crisis

Bush’s crisis at home has consistently deepened throughout the past year. In an October 30-November 2 poll, 60% disapproved of how Bush was handling his job and 47% strongly disapproved. 64% disapproved of Bush’s handling of Iraq; 60% felt the war was not worth fighting.

Bush suffered enormously from his administration’s appalling response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which exposed not just the blatant prioritisation of the war budget over social spending and its impact on the US people, particularly the poor, but also drew out the massive class and race divides in the imperialist heartland.

There has also been a steady erosion of the ``war consensus’’ among the US political elite. This is evident in the political wrangling over “Plamegate” (the exposure by Bush administration officials of Valerie Plame’s identity as a covert CIA agent in revenge for criticism of the White House’s WMD claims by her husband) and the consequent renewed attention being paid to Washington’s false claims about Iraqi WMDs. The Bush regime has been riddled all year with scandals, from the various exposes of systematic torture employed by the US military and security agencies, to Bush’s recent admission that he authorised illegal surveillance and torture of US citizens after 9/11.

The call by John Murtha, the Democrat member of Congress and former strong supporter of the war, for the immediate withdrawal of troops has struck another blow to the US war effort. In response to Murtha and other Democrats’ desertion from the war camp, an article in the November 28 neoconservative Weekly Standard argued that the war must also be ``won in Washington’’.

Bush is attempting to appease the anti-war sentiment in the lead-up to the US’s mid-term elections, with promises of troop withdrawals. He has indicated that US troops may soon be reduced from 155,000 to around 138,000 and potentially to 100,000 midway through the year if conditions allow. However he is careful to stress that ``A fixed timetable of withdrawal would embolden the enemy, would confuse the Iraqis and would send the wrong signal to our young men and women in uniform’’.

There was a partial resurgence in the US anti-war movement in 2005, including the 300,000-strong protest in Washington on September 24 (possibly the largest anti-war demonstration ever in the US capital). Tens of thousands also protested in other cities.
The movement was particularly fuelled by the tireless campaigning of Cindy Sheehan (the mother of Casey Sheehan, a young US soldier killed in Iraq).

The movement is facing new challenges now with a split in the movement on a national level. United for Peace and Justice on December 12 voted by a two-thirds majority to cease collaboration with the ANSWER coalition, following an assessment of the jointly coordinated protest on September 24. UFPJ claims that ANSWER failed to abide by the agreements for how the rally would be conducted on the day and that UFPJ’s perspective of achieving maximum breadth in the movement by focusing on the demand for US out of Iraq rather than combining that demand with opposition to US imperialism, the occupation of Palestine and racism in the US, was not shared by ANSWER. Workers World, on the other hand, claim that UFPJ don’t wish to work with the more left-wing ANSWER as they are seeking to orient to the new openings created by the shift among some Democrats members of Congress, and to focus the movement towards winning votes for the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term elections.

For us here in Australia, maintaining the pressure to end the occupation and the Australian government’s involvement in it will remain a crucial task for 2006.

First revolution of the 21st century

The crisis of US imperialism extends far beyond the Middle East and its own borders. The US’s failure to crush the Venezuelan revolution and the increasing infringement by Venezuela on the US’s influence in Latin America is a growing area of concern for US foreign policy.

“We’ve come to bury the FTAA. I even brought a shovel”, were the gleeful words of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez on arrival in Argentina in early November for the Summit of the Americas and counter-protests.

On November 5, Chavez told the 40,000-strong rally in Argentina against the Free Trade Area of the Americas that ALCA (the FTAA’s Spanish acronym) ``has been defeated by the peoples of this continent, and today … it is time to bury ALCA. The next thing we will bury is capitalism.” Chavez had just led the campaign to send US President George Bush home with his tale between his legs, thwarting Washington’s agenda of pushing ALCA at the summit.

Chavez warned that this was one of ``many battles pending’’ and that ``… it is up to us, comrades, to be the initiators of a new time, the initiators of a new history ... the initiators of ALBA ... for the peoples of the Americas, a real liberating integration, for liberty, for equality, for justice and for peace.

“Only ourselves, united, can do it, and as well, bury capitalism in order to give birth to the socialism of the 21st century, a new historic socialist project.”

Venezuela has been leading the charge against US imperialism in Latin America, and has not only succeeded in defeating US attempts to isolate Venezuela on the continent, but has deepened the US’s isolation. The only country willing to parrot US attacks on Chavez’s government has been Mexican President Fox. He whinged and whined about Chavez’s role in defeating ALCA at the summit, and then unsuccessfully demanded an apology from Chavez after he called Fox a ``puppy dog of the empire’’.

The US takes particular offence to Venezuelan’s strengthening alliance with socialist Cuba. Agreements signed at the end of 2004 dramatically increased economic integration between the two countries. Venezuela provides cheap oil to Cuba in exchange for health and literacy assistance. Thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers are working in Venezuela’s previously neglected poor areas.

The collaboration extends beyond the two countries’ borders. For example, Cuba and Venezuela have launched Operation Miracle (providing eye operations to restore sight) across the Americas to allow hundreds of thousands of people, to travel to Cuba completely free of charge. This includes 150,000 places set aside for the poor inside the US.

This relationship has provided a major boost for Cuba, economically and politically, helping to overcome Cuba’s isolation. The US has suffered some further blows to its ongoing campaign against Cuba over the past year, including the August ruling overturning the Miami Court’s decision to jail the Cuban Five for conspiracy to commit espionage, and the rejection of the US economic blockade in the UN for the 14th consecutive year with a vote of 182 to 4.

The Bolivarian alternative

Through ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), Chavez is pushing his vision for increased Latin American integration and collaboration against US interference. ALBA is a counter-project to the FTAA. It is expressed most fully between Cuba and Venezuela as two revolutionary countries - the economic agreements between them that assist the poor of the region and each other, is an impressive example of socialist internationalism in practice.

On the plans underway for Venezuela to become a full member of the South American trading bloc MERCOSUR, Chavez said: ``We need a MERCOSUR that prioritises social concerns. We need a MERCOSUR that every day moves further away from the old elitist corporate models of integration that look for … financial profits but forget about workers, children, life and human dignity.’’

Venezuela is also embarking on a joint gas pipeline project with Argentina and selling cheap fuel to that country. As well as establishing PetroCaribe, providing partially subsidised oil to Caribbean nations, Chavez has plans for PetroAmerica (encompassing all region’s state-run energy companies), PetroSur with Brazil, and other similar projects.

In December, Chavez signed an oil agreement with Paraguay, whereby Paraguay will buy 18,600 barrels of Venezuelan oil per day, in exchange for deferring 25% of its oil bill to Venezuela. Venezuela and Colombia have also agreed to the initial phase of a gas pipeline project eventually aimed to extend across the continent.

Last month the Chavez government agreed to buy $2.4 billion of Argentine debt, to ``help Argentina end its dependence on the IMF’’, according to Chavez. Chavez has also raised the idea of creating an alternative to the IMF called the Bank of the South, so countries can borrow without being beholden to Washington-imposed economic policies.

Telesur, the regional TV station launched on July 24 (the 222nd anniversary of the birth of Simon Bolivar) is breaking the hegemony of US propaganda across the continent. A joint venture between Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay, the station went to 24-hour broadcasting at the end of October.

Telesur’s director of information Jorge Botero, explained: ``The world’s unipolarity, everyone looking to the north in an act of veneration that borders on servitude, has to be broken. To us, there are many horizons other than those viewed from Washington and that is why our channel’s motto is `Our north is the south’.’’

Venezuela's push for regional integration backed by its oil wealth is creating more space across the region to exercise at least some independence from the US, and Chavez's constant challenge to imperialism is putting pressure on leaders of other Latin American nations. Even US ally Colombian President Uribe condemned his own intelligence services for their part in a meeting in Colombia involving exiled leaders of Venezuela’s 2002 coup.

As well as forging collaboration between governments and greater Latin American integration, the Venezuelan revolution has provided a spark for further revolt and rebellion throughout the continent. Progress of Venezuela’s revolution further discredits alternatives in the region that attempt to embrace neoliberalism (such as Lula’s government in Brazil). The next major battleground has opened up with the victory of Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) candidate Evo Morales in Bolivia’s December 18 elections.

Bolivia

Morales was swept to victory with almost 54% of the vote, making him Bolivia’s first ever indigenous president and the first presidential candidate since the 1950s to win an outright majority of the vote.

Morales will take office on January 22. ``We ourselves were surprised by the scale of our victory’’, he said on the evening of the election, thanking ``all the social movements, all those who have fought to recover our natural resources, those who have fought for our rights, those who have fought to change the course of history in Bolivia’’.

The MAS victory comes on the back of years of significant struggles and uprisings: In 2000 the people of Cochabamba took back their water after it had been privatised to the Bechtel Corporation under pressure from the World Bank; following which the battle over Bolivia’s gas resulted in the forced resignations of two presidents – Sanchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa.

Morales has promised to nationalise Bolivia’s oil and gas, and to make void some contracts held by foreign companies who have been plundering Bolivia’s natural resources, smuggling and evading taxes. Not unlike in Venezuela, the MAS government intends to renegotiate contracts in order to make the corporations partners, but not owners, in developing Bolivia’s resources. The main investors in Bolivia’s oil and gas are Brazilian, French, Spanish and British companies.

Bolivia has 48.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the second-largest reserves in South America after Venezuela. Under mass pressure, a new hydrocarbons law was passed in May, raising oil and gas taxes and royalties to 50% and declaring the state as the sole owner of production. Yet the law has not yet been implemented.

Morales was elected on a strongly anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal campaign, where he declared that ``The policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, under the direction of the United States government, which concentrate capital in few hands, is not a solution. Western development is the development of death.’’ Morales’ first international trip after being elected was to Cuba, and he has openly declared his intention to join with the other ``anti-imperialists’’ in the region – Cuba and Venezuela.

The support of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments puts Morales in a strong position to carry out social reforms. Cuba is already organising assistance in the form of doctors, training and literacy campaigns.

During Morales’ visit to Caracas, he and Chavez agreed that Venezuela will supply all Bolivia’s diesel fuel in exchange for agricultural products.

Morales has also stated his rejection of the US’s drug control policies in the region, defending Bolivia’s coca growers against US policies to eradicate the industry.

On December 27, Morales announced that he will immediately halve the president’s wage, using the money to fund social programs. By law, no state employee can receive a salary higher than the president so this will also reduce the wages of MPs and all highly paid state employees!

The Morales government will face many challenges and contradictions. The neoliberal forces have a majority in the national parliament. MAS won only a few of the nine departmental governments in the prefectoral elections that also took place on December 18, which will limit its influence at a regional level.

Morales will also face enormous pressure from his mass base to pursue his promised anti-neoliberal course and deliver on his immediate promises. Some social movement leaders have already given him an ultimatum of three months by which he must move to nationalise oil and gas, and for calling the constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

According to the new vice-president Alvaro Farcia Linera, socialism is not on the agenda in Bolivia. Rather, MAS wants to build ``a kind of Andean capitalism’’, which he describes as creating ``a strong state, which can coordinate in a balanced way the three `economic-productive’ platforms that coexist in Bolivia: the community-based, the family-based and the `modern industrial’. It is a question of transferring a part of the surplus of the nationalised hydrocarbons [oil and gas] in order to encourage the setting up of forms of self-organisation, or self-management and of commercial development that is really Andean and Amazonian.’’ Rather than the ``modern industrial sector’’ cornering the surpluses, Linera argues, these traditional economic sectors should be given economic support and access to raw materials and markets.

Another constituency that has great expectations of Morales is the 60% of Bolivia’s population who identify as indigenous. Some 74% of indigenous people in Bolivia live in poverty and they average 3.7 fewer years of education than non-indigenous people. Child labour is four times higher among the indigenous population.

As indigenous Guatemalan activist and Nobel Peace prize winner Rigoberto Menchu highlighted, Morales faces a ``very complicated and complex task, because he will be leading a country where racism and discrimination are very deep-rooted’’ and where there are ``serious economic problems, poverty and social and political divisions’’.

Morales has repeatedly declared himself to be Washington’s new nightmare, and has described Bush as the world’s biggest terrorist. He said he’s open to ``cordial relations’’ with the US, but not a ``relationship of submission’’. Otto Reich, formerly of the US State Department, said after the election that he hoped Morales wouldn’t follow through on promises and rhetoric, threatening that ``The United States puts conditions on its aid’’. Bolivia depends on foreign aid for a large proportion of its national budget.

It remains to be seen how things will unfold in Bolivia this year, and exactly what path Morales will take, but it is clear that the Morales victory has further shifted the balance of forces in Latin America away from US hegemony and in favour of the Venezuelan and Cuban led anti-capitalist alternative. It is also clear that US imperialism is not keen to tolerate another Venezuela, and we should act in solidarity with Bolivia against any threat.

As Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Richard Alarcon said in a statement of support to Morales, which noted the historic significance of the MAS victory for Bolivia and the continent, ``You and your people have before you new and great challenges. It is necessary that you be accompanied, from right now, by the full solidarity of the entire world.’’

In Chile, left candidate Michelle Bachelet, who has the support of the Communist Party, is likely to win the presidential elections later this month. Latin America has taken fundamental steps forward that have forced US imperialism onto the back foot, increasingly losing economic and political control of Latin America, particularly South America.

Venezuela’s National Assembly elections

Last month in Venezuela the Chavistas won all seats in the National Assembly, opening the way for further legislative change without opposition obstruction, as well as possible constitutional amendments, including potentially establishing the right of Chavez to run for a third term in the presidency.

Last opinion polls before the ballot indicated that the Chavistas would have won about 150 of the 167 National Assembly seats. The opposition would have gone from 76 to 17 seats – so it decided to withdraw to avoid such a wipe-out.

Despite cries from the opposition that the elections were illegitimate, Latin American monitors and observers from the European Union all declared the results democratic and transparent. As Organisation of American States general secretary Jose Miguel Insulza pointed out after the election: ``If the path of abstention is chosen, then one cannot complain that the entire parliament is in the hands of one’s political adversary.’’

There was a 70-75% abstention rate in the elections. Voter turnout in the elite and upper middle class neighbourhoods was less than 10%, with a much higher turnout among the poor. Despite the significant abstention, the Chavistas were elected to the National Assembly with 22-23% of eligible voters, compared to 1998 when the Democratic Action party won control of the then-Congress with 11.24% and the 17% with which Chavez’s MVR won control of the National Assembly in 2000.

A poll by independent polling organisation Latinobarometro found that 74% of Venezuelans are satisfied with their democratic system, compared to 53% across the rest of Latin America.

At a December Green Left fundraiser in Wollongong, Venezuelan charge d’affaires Nelson Davila commented on some of the problems with the elections. He suggested that factors leading to a much lower turnout than they had aimed for included the assumption that the Chavistas would clearly win regardless, the fact that people were tired of elections after so many had been held in the last seven years, and that many more people would have turned out to vote for Chavez, but people are less supportive of many candidates handpicked by the pro-Chavez parties and often disconnected from the masses.

The Venezuelan opposition’s boycott campaign has left it weaker and more divided. It has now ceded any influence in the legislative sphere. Some sections of its middle class support base have been put off by the extreme rhetoric of the opposition parties, and while not supporting the Chavez forces, have benefited from many of the government’s social programs.

The all-Chavista National Assembly means that the divisions within the pro-Chavez forces will now come more to the fore. The focus of struggle within the government will shift to this axis, which will pose new challenges.

Stage of the Venezuelan revolution

Some discussion and debate has arisen in the PCD questioning the general characterisation in the October NC report that the Venezuelan revolution has developed into a conscious battle for socialism.

This report is reaffirming the general analysis in the reports on the Venezuelan revolution adopted by the November 2004 NC meeting and the October 2005 NC meeting.

1. That the Venezuelan government is a workers’ and peasants’ government under revolutionary leadership.

2. That the Venezuelan state is an embryonic workers’ and peasants’ state, where key institutions including the government and armed forces are under revolutionary control, but others including the judiciary, the police force and a large section of the state bureaucracy remain a battle ground with pro-capitalist forces.

Some examples of the continued power struggle within Venezuela’s state from the past couple of months include:

In October, the governor of Barinos issued an expropriation decree declaring a corn-processing plant belonging to Alimentos Polar a ``public utility’’. However, the Supreme Justice Tribunal (Venezuela’s high court) then ruled to halt the expropriation.

In November 2003, the TSJ ordered the army to evict poor farmers occupying the Santa Rita ranch and return the ranch to its owner. However general Luis Enrique Henriquez said complying with the order would mean the cooperative members and poor farmers at the ranch (500 families) would ``suffer harm’’, and that the TSJ ruling was in direct contradiction to the armed forces’ role. He said the army was trained to defend the country, not to evict families.

The announcement by some military dissidents of their involvement in election sabotage plots is in an indication that while the armed forces are under revolutionary control, there are still enemies of the process within it and the battle is not over.

3. That the socialist revolution has opened in Venezuela, not just in Chavez’s declaration of the battle for socialism and resulting discussion and debate among the Venezuelan masses, but also in the practical anti-capitalist measures being implemented, in particular the expropriation of the oil industry and the reorientation of oil profits to funding social programs, and the beginnings of the reorganisation of the economy along popular lines.

4. That as in any revolution, there are many contradictions, limitations, distortions and problems, and any Marxist analysis will be ongoing, not static - we seek to study and understand all these factors. Yet we can still make general, qualified analyses and assessments of the general nature and dynamics of the revolution as it develops, while avoiding the mistake of others on the left of attempting to squeeze the Venezuelan revolution into a schematic box or black and white formula.

We also recognise that there are intense debates and differences within the Venezuelan leadership itself, about what stage the process is at and what they should do next.

5. Through the brigades, our Green Left bureau in Caracas, our solidarity work here and the increasing numbers of comrades who are taking up the task of seriously studying the Venezuelan revolution as it progresses, we are gaining a deeper understanding of this important process and its many advances and contradictions. Furthering this discussion will be essential, and the NE is proposing that the Activist remain open for further contributions on this topic after the Congress.

Deepening of the revolution

Following the resounding victory of the pro-Chavez forces in the August 2004 presidential recall referendum, which decisively defeated the opposition for the third time (the other two key defeats being the 2002 coup and the oil lockout), Chavez announced the deepening of the revolution and a ``revolution within the revolution’’.

As the October NC report outlined, from late 2004 Chavez, having abandoned the futile search for a ``third way’’, began openly declaring the struggle for socialism in Venezuela. On May Day last year, the National Union of Workers (UNT) organised a 1 million-strong rally under the banner ``Workers building Bolivarian socialism’’.

Under Chavez’s leadership, a discussion and debate about exactly what Venezuelan socialism should be - about what ``socialism of the 21st century’’ should look like - and has begun to put socialism back on the global agenda.

As Rivas Silvino, a worker in a nappy factory under workers’ co-management, said: ``I’m not afraid of socialism and never have been. The world is afraid. I say don’t be afraid.’’

Venezuelan economy

The material basis for advancing the battle for socialism in Venezuelan lies with the nation’s booming oil profits. Venezuela has the sixth largest reserves of conventional crude oil in the world, and in 2005 enjoyed the strongest economic growth in Latin America for the second consecutive year.

The oil industry generated some $20 billion in profits, up by almost $8 billion from the previous year, and these profits have been directed towards social need. The state oil company PDVSA spent $4.35 billion in 2004 on social programs, and only $2.99 billion on operating assets.

41% of the 2006 budget is dedicated to social programs, which will mean that social spending will be more than triple what it was in 1998, the year Chavez was elected. At the end of 2005, around 3 million fewer people were living in poverty compared to a year earlier.

Government crackdown on corporate tax evasion has dramatically increased tax income, which means that in 2006 the majority of government income is expected to come from tax, not oil.

Banks and oil companies are making record profits in Venezuela, and most foreign companies have for now chosen to cooperate with the Venezuelan government rather than withdraw.

The Venezuelan government has secured control of private oil fields after 32 foreign oil companies agreed to form joint ventures with PDVSA. This followed the government announcement that any company refusing to switch to the joint ventures by the end of the year faced having their oil fields reclaimed. Exxon Mobil was the only company holding out against the agreement, until Spanish-Argentine firm Repsol YPF bought out Exxon’s stake in the Quiamare-La Ceiba oil field. Exxon was particularly concerned about the international implications if it had agreed to Venezuela’s demands – as it may have set a precedent affecting its extensive operations in other countries.

The agreements ensure that oil production in Venezuela is carried out by companies majority-owned by the state, as the 2001 hydrocarbons Law requires. The private oil corporations’ profits and control over operations will be dramatically reduced and the government will take up to an 80% stake in the new ventures. The foreign companies have also agreed to pay billions of dollars in back taxes.

In December, Venezuela’s largest steel producer, Sidor, agreed to pay higher prices for iron ore and signed an accord committing to meet domestic steel demand before exporting. The Chavez government demanded these conditions be agreed to or the company would be renationalised.

Venezuela’s banking sector is also being reorganised, with tight controls on lending and the creation of state banks. Private banks must devote 31.5% of loans to agricultural projects, housing, tourism and small start-up businesses.

Plans are underway for the creation of a new state airline, a mining company, an iron and steel company, a tractor factory and a state computer company.

Developing a `popular economy’

The Venezuelan revolution has made substantial progress in areas of land reform, expansion of the social missions and in experiments in workers’ co-management and expropriation of enterprises.

According to National Land Institute president Richard Vivas, 3 million hectares and 17,000 land permits were granted to poor farmers in 2005. The National Federation of Cattle Ranchers complains that 97 farms have been affected by land decrees.

Some 2,400 more agricultural permits are expected to be granted in the first quarter of 2006 though the Regional Lands Offices.

The social missions have made rapid gains for Venezuela’s poor and continue to be expanded. On October 28, Venezuela was officially declared illiteracy free after the success of Mission Robinson in teaching more than 1.5 million people to read and write using Cuban teaching methods.

Mission Mercal, the popular supermarkets throughout the country, now account for 40% of food distribution and sell food at prices much cheaper than the private markets. Small farmers are being stimulated to produce for these guaranteed markets, starting to undermine Venezuela’s overwhelming dependence on imported food.

New missions are planned for 2006, including a new national science program, Mission Ciencia, to kick off in February. “The country needs a science which is shared among the people’’, Chavez explained.

On December 28, higher education minister Samuel Moncada announced plans for a massive expansion of university education and a new admissions system to favour the poor and end elitism. One-hundred new universities will be built in 2006, including a Latin American School of Medicine for students across the region. A new free nursing program will train 10,000 students. Extra funding will go towards buses, books and computers and more scholarships will be provided rather than loans.

Co-management

There have also been further experiments with workers’ co-management and the expropriation of idle factories – those the government determines to be strategic to the interests of the economy and society. The government has also offered loans and assistance to small and medium-sized businesses facing financial pressures, in exchange for involving workers in the management.

Michael Lebowitz explained the aim of co-management in Venezuela: ``Co-management implies a particular kind of partnership -- a partnership between the workers of an enterprise and society. Thus, it stresses that enterprises do not belong to the workers alone -- they are meant to be operated in the interest of the whole society. In other words, co-management is not intended only to remove the self-interested capitalist, leaving in place self-interested workers; rather, it is also meant to change the purpose of productive activity. It means the effort to find ways both to allow for the development of the full potential of workers and also for every member of society, all working people, to be the beneficiaries of co-management.”

Debate and discussion about how to achieve these aims continues, and there have been many difficulties and problems in the implementation of co-management, stemming from low levels of workers’ consciousness and the prevalence of individualism in the workplace, lack of skills among workers, and contradictions in the role of the unions. Management in some enterprises have blocked and resisted co-management when it has become apparent that it threatens their power.

The electricity and oil companies are two places where co-management appears to have gone backwards. There are big debates taking place in the government and within the revolution about whether there can be co-management in strategic industries and whether workers’ management means the company is the private property of the workers who work there.

UNT national coordinator Marcela Maspero explained some of the discussion and challenges in an interview with comrade Fred F for GLW: “Our biggest preoccupation with this process of co-management ... is that we make sure not to run the risk of converting our comrades into another neoliberal capitalist and we are able to see beyond that towards the necessity of the community, how we use this to benefit those who have been excluded, who aren’t employed, how we go about creating a whole new socialist culture surrounding property and the generation of benefits.”

The development of co-management is still in its early days and varies in different places, but it has the potential to be a transitional process to draw workers into developing the skills needed to run the economy themselves, laying the basis for greater steps towards a democratically controlled planned economy.

Another aspect of creating a new ``popular economy’’ in Venezuela is the establishment of cooperatives, which have started to relieve Venezuela of its dependence on imports, have provided employment for many among the poorest and which provide practical experience in collective organising to meet peoples’ needs.

The national Superintendence of Cooperatives (SUNACOOP) reported in August that it had registered a total of 83,769 cooperatives. In 1998, when Chavez took power, there were only 762.

Mission Vuelvan Caras was created in March 2004, to provide technical and managerial training, and education on history, cooperative values and citizenship. Students participating received scholarships and health and housing benefits, and were encouraged to form cooperatives upon graduating (which almost 70% did).

In a November 2004 meeting with government officials to discuss the next stage of the Bolivarian revolution, Chavez discussed the strategic objectives as including to ``advance in the conformation of a new social structure’’, to establish a ``new democratic model of popular participation’’ and to ``speed up the construction of a new productive model towards the formation of a new economic system’’.

Part of this is the establishment of Endogenous Development Zones (NUDEs) by the Ministry for Popular Economy. These zones are formed by one or more cooperatives that design a project and secure space, resources and assistance from the ministry.

The ministry for popular economy has also been establishing regional technical committees to decentralise its functions and ensure the transparency, accessibility and local input into the public institutions, in an effort to avoid bureaucracy and corruption.

The cooperatives are also not without problems and corruption. Some businesses have been transformed into cooperatives ``not with the intention of transferring power to their workers, but to evade national taxes from which cooperatives are exempt’’, according to the Minister for Popular Economy Elias Jaua.

He explained that ``There are many cooperatives that are registered as such on paper, but which actually have a boss who is paid more, salaried workers, and unequal distribution of work and income.’’ The government has arranged a program to inspect the cooperatives, to ``make sure they aren’t being used as a smokescreen for some groups to cling to privileges’’.

The deputy minister for popular economy, Juan Carlos Loyo, explained these challenges: ``We know that we are coming from a capitalist lifestyle that is profoundly individualistic and self-centred. Our idea is to lay the foundations for a new socioeconomic model, which our president calls `21st century socialism’. That’s why we’re prioritizing communities that belong together in a shared social fabric and organize themselves for productive activity.’’

Through the Venezuelan people’s experience of working together on common projects to meet their own needs, they can be won to the creation of a new economic model based on cooperation to benefit society as a whole – socialism.

Challenges

Many of the limitations and contradictions persistent in the Bolivarian revolution stem from the political question of the ongoing struggle for power in Venezuela. All attempts to implement the restructuring of society for the benefit of the people rather than for private profit come up against the many internal problems resulting from the entrenched old structures and practices inherited from the former capitalist regime.

A key strategy of the revolution so far has revolved around creating parallel structures. Rather than directly confront existing government institutions, the country’s oil wealth has been used to bypass them and set up new ones completely via social missions, after they found that the old ones were far too hard to reform or use as any kind of effective tool. For example, there were enormous problems with bureaucracy, inefficiency, and corruption, and with the entire structure of the old state health system. Barrio Adentro has enabled them to bypass it. A similar process has evolved in education.

All these old institutions still exist and are still being funded by government. This is obviously unsustainable in the long term, but the space provided by the oil wealth allows the new, popular institutions to be built up first. This is also happening on the economic front, with the establishment of state companies rather than the nationalisation of existing ones.

However, there is also a struggle in the new institutions against the creeping in of the old bad habits, which have strong roots in Venezuela. Corruption remains a big problem - in Mission Mercal for instance, cases of corruption have been recently uncovered. The October NC report also outlined substantial problems in the housing sector.

Similar issues arise in the area of land reform. While the land reform institute, which is considered too inefficient, is a new institution controlled by Chavistas, once peasants get their land they have to deal with unreconstructed government institutions charged with giving them credit and access to equipment, which is extremely difficult. The bank is supposed to give loans to cooperatives over large landowners, but doesn't, for example.

These problems are tied to the struggle for popular power and the revolutionary party. There is a need to unite the best, most conscious, politically aware and self sacrificing of the new vanguard to lead the struggle to deepen popular power and control over institutions to combat problems of bureaucracy, opportunism and corruption. However, existing Chavista parties are in some cases blocking such a development, which in turn contributes to anti-partyism among some layers. There are some positive steps forward, through united fronts among the grassroots that bring the revolutionary sector together, often involving the rank-and-file of parties like the MVR.

As the October NC report highlighted, the leadership is well aware of this problem and there have been calls from numerous quarters for a new mass workers’ party to defend the revolutionary process, however there is not yet any clarity or consensus on how to move such a project forward.

While there has been an extension of the popular base of the revolution, and the Chavez government is pushing to radicalise this base, a problem is the domination of much of the middle by opportunists. The question of popular election of candidates rather than having them hand-picked by party cliques is a key demand that has emerged as part of the struggle for popular power.

One aspect of the leadership’s campaign to further popular power is the establishment of Centres for Ideological Formation (CFIs). William Izarra, who has led this process, told comrade Roberto J in an interview for Green Left how he called for CFIs to each consist of at least 30 revolutionary militants, to hold daily discussions to ``invent the route which the revolution can travel along’’. He explained how ``the inherited reformist culture is present in almost all levels of the state, is still operating to exploit power and inspire corruption”, and that the CFIs were crucial to replacing this with a new revolutionary culture.


Venezuela vs US imperialism

Washington has continued to funnel money to the anti-Chavez opposition in Venezuela. US Congress earmarked some $9 million for National Endowment for Democracy and Agency for International Development operations in Venezuela during 2005, and agreed to allocate a further $9 million for each of 2006 and 2007.

During 2005, the US embarked on several futile exercises attempting to undermine regional support for Chavez. In March, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld toured Latin America soliciting support for its attacks on Venezuela’s alleged interference in Bolivia’s political crisis. Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice followed this up with her trip in April.

Yet Latin American leaders rejected these overtures, along with the US’s initiative at the June Organisation of American States meeting, calling for members to intervene in countries where ``democracy’’ is threatened.

James Petras says the US’s unsubtle attempts to undermine Venezuela, through backing the coup, oil lockout and recall referendum, all of which failed dismally, were motivated by Washington’s desperation to silence foreign governmental opposition to its War on Iraq; the pending international oil crisis resulting from the Iraq occupation; Venezuela’s close alliance with Cuba; and Chavez’s drive to block the FTAA. Certainly the example being set by the Bolivarian revolution of an evolving alternative to capitalism, and the inspiration being derived globally from Venezuela’s advance towards socialism, is another major factor.

Shoring up international oil prices was a key task embarked upon early by Chavez after his 1998 election, and is something that has particularly disturbed the Bush administration. One of the first measures taken by the short-lived regime that took power in the 2002 coup was to withdraw from OPEC.

Chavez has also consolidated a close relationship with Iran, signing 21 documents in early December for cooperation in gas, petrochemicals, aluminum, and other fields.

The US masterminded the recent opposition election boycott and sabotage campaign. As Chavez noted at the time: “Another conspiracy is being acted out against Venezuela, and I am not going to blame the dogs but the masters, the government of the United States”

The US also unsuccessfully attempted to stop a recent arms deal with Spain. Undoubtedly there are a variety of other public and covert tactics being played out by the Bush administration. Telesur recently reported on a secret meeting between a representative of the US Drug Enforcement Agency and former coupists, in Colombia.

The US government’s ability to take action against Venezuela will also be affected by the level of support for the Bolivarian process within the US. Last month, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators issued a resolution calling on US Congress to ``forbid any incursion upon Venezuelan sovereignty’’. And Chavez has certainly increased his popularity among the US people through providing disaster relief including food, water, medical assistance and oil to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and by providing cheap heating oil to the US poor. As Dionne Morales from a Bronx apartment getting cheap heating oil said: "If he can give oil to my country and help the lives of my community, I'm impressed.’’ The Chicago Transit Authority is unlikely to impress the poor neighbourhoods of Chicago with its decision to increase bus fares by 25% rather than accept a Venezuelan offer for cheap fuel.

An article in Counterpunch reporting on a trip by Chavez to the US noted: ``During his time in New York, Chavez toured the largely African American and Latino populated Bronx and was treated like a veritable rock star. Democratic Congress member Jose Serrano, who invited the Venezuelan president to the Bronx, remarked, `Chavez went to the poorest congressional district in the nation's richest city, and people on the street there just went crazy. A lot of people told me they were really mesmerized by him. He made quite an impression’.’’ The article noted that the trip was reminiscent of some of Castro’s trips to the US in the early days of the Cuban Revolution.

The October NC report pointed out that the US military is too bogged down in Iraq to seriously contemplate a military intervention into Venezuela in the next period, but that we would be unwise to unilaterally rule out the possibility.

At the end of this year Chavez is set to win the presidential election with a substantial majority. The US will be determined to prevent this outcome and we must be prepared for solidarity and defence of the Venezuelan revolution against whatever attacks Washington launches.

Openings

While there is no end in sight for the US’s troubles in Iraq and Bush’s troubles at home, the Venezuelan revolution continues to advance, and deal further blows to US imperialist domination. This revolution is proving to be a beacon of inspiration around the globe - a powerful example of the potential for revolution.

While many recent battles in Latin America have failed to present an alternative to neoliberalism, Venezuela has resolved the question by clearly raising the socialist banner. This didn’t start out as socialist revolution, but through their own experience, the Venezuelans discovered that capitalism can't resolve their problems or those of the world. This basic truth is being rediscovered through a process of popular revolution that is being watched intently and enthusiastically by oppressed people of the region and all over the world, and is of immense importance for revolutionary socialists. The reintroduction of socialism to a new generation angered by injustice and seeking change cannot easily be wiped out.

During the 1990s, we faced a very different international environment, with a range of solidarity struggles and smaller uprisings - such as the movement that overthrew the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia – which prepared the receptivity of the working class in imperialist countries to international solidarity. This came to a head at the end of the decade with the new movement against neoliberal globalisation, after we which we faced the challenge of injecting this solidarity consciousness into the anti-war movement.

Now, we have a new opening for a sharper form of solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution, giving us greater opportunities to win people to socialist ideas. Our challenge is to maximise the Venezuelan revolution’s impact on potential revolutionaries here in Australia.

categories [ ] Array