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Issue 41, September 1999

Venezuela: Neo-liberalism defied

HUGO CHÁVEZ, a former paratrooper who led a failed military coup in 1992 against a corrupt pro-market government, was swept to power in presidential elections in December 1998. His victory, on a radical populist and nationalist programme, signified a major swing to the left by workers and peasants in Venezuela and mass opposition to the continuation of neo-liberal policies of privatisation.

Chávez claimed that he had, 'won a revolution without a shot being fired'. Referring to the effects of the neo-liberal policies which have left 80% of Venezuelans living in poverty, he declared, 'Venezuela is wounded at its heart. It is as if I inherited a time bomb ticking away'.

Following his election he promised that, 'instead of a military parade with tanks there will be a parade of soldiers carrying agricultural instruments heading for the fields'. Fifty thousand soldiers have been put onto the streets to direct road building, house and school construction programmes. A special brigade of soldiers and professionals has also been established to help develop the health service and improve agricultural production. New taxes on the rich have been announced along with a drive to imprison all tax evaders - a measure mainly aimed at tax avoidance by the rich elite. In a challenge to the corrupt legal system Chávez is also proposing the election of all judges by popular vote.

As a reaction to the heightened exploitation of Latin America by the major imperialist powers which has taken place during the 1990s, Chávez has begun to look for a 'Latin American alternative' and has posed the question of developing a Latin American market and economy. Venezuela, he has suggested, would supply the oil needs of countries such as Brazil and Argentina. Chávez is donning the mantle of the 19th century liberator of Latin America, Simon Bolívar, who struggled for Latin American unification against the imperialist conquistadores.

These radical populist measures have received massive support from the population. In polls, Chávez receives 75% approval. Even more significant was the stunning victory of his party, Patriotic Pole (PP), in July's elections to the newly-convened Constituent Assembly. PP took 91% of the seats. Neither of the traditional parties which have ruled Venezuela for the last 40 years won a single seat.

  This victory and the enthusiasm it has generated seems to be pushing the government in an even more radical direction. In his first speech to the Assembly, Chávez lambasted neo-liberalism as a 'dogma of individualism that has led the world to fight like savages against each other'. As a rallying call he promised, 'Venezuela is rising out of its ashes'. This was followed by the removal of Bolívar's sword from the national vault, to be paraded through the streets of the capital, Caracas. The sword was taken from its scabbard and brandished in front of thousands of cheering people.

The radical measures proposed do not constitute a programme to overthrow capitalism. But they do represent a significant radicalisation of Venezuelan society that has even affected sections of the radical petty bourgeoisie who are sickened by the poverty and corruption of capitalism and who are looking for something different. Reflecting this mood Chávez has called for a 'new economic model' that will end 'inequality and social injustice'.

Oil generates 70% of Venezuela's export revenue. It is the world's third biggest oil exporter and now the largest supplier to the USA. Chávez has announced plans to revive Cuban oil refineries to process the petroleum as part of a scheme to set aside 25% of the country's bank loans to pay for agricultural projects.

These steps are beginning to worry US imperialism and the elite who rule Venezuela. The radical populist measures that Chávez has begun to adopt reflect a new wave of radicalism towards the left that is beginning to take place in Latin America. It is possible that Chávez will go even further and may even nationalise sectors of the economy. These developments are a precursor of the upheavals that will develop in the rest of the continent in the next few years.

Under pressure from imperialism, Chávez may retreat to more acceptable policies for capitalism, although this is not certain given the depth of the crisis that is gripping Venezuela and spreading throughout Latin America. The pressure from the workers and peasants may drive such populist regimes as Chávez to strike more blows against capitalism than they intended. However, it will need the establishment of a workers' and peasants' government, along with a democratic socialist plan of production that breaks with capitalism, to end the poverty and misery of the Venezuelan masses. That could lead to a voluntary socialist federation of Latin America. Only then will the threat of retaliation from capitalism and imperialism be removed.

Tony Saunois

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