Socialism Today           Socialist Party magazine

Defeat for reaction in Venezuela

"Any premature military intervention", argued the April edition of Socialism Today, "runs the risk of provoking a backlash and could even trigger a civil war". In a follow-up article, TONY SAUNOIS reports on the recent failed coup.

CELEBRATIONS BY THE ruling elite in Venezuela and the White House on Saturday 14 April were premature. Within hours of the removal of president Hugo Chávez Frias by a military coup, the newly-installed president, Pedro Carmona Estanga, was himself arrested. The radical populist Chávez was swept back to power by a mass movement of the poor who marched from the barrios - shantytowns - to the presidential palace. They were joined by key sections of the armed forces rank and file, especially the 42nd Paratroop Brigade - Chávez’s former regiment – and others who remained loyal to him.

This is an important setback for the ruling classes of Venezuela and the US who conspired to overthrow Chávez. Imperialism fears that he represents the beginning of a new radical populist movement in Latin America which, under the pressure of mass movements, will threaten their interests. George W Bush and the White House leaders regard the reformist domestic policy implemented by Chávez and his sympathy for the FARC guerrillas in Colombia and Fidel Castro in Cuba as obstacles to US policy in the region. Moreover, Venezuela, as the fourth-largest international oil producer and supplier to the USA, is crucial given the volatile situation in the Middle East.

The defeat of the attempted coup and the uprising in Argentina in December 2001/January 2002 demonstrate that the awesome power of US imperialism has its limits. The ruling class can be stopped in its tracks by a mass mobilisation.

It is essential, however, that the Venezuelan working class and oppressed peoples seize the initiative and take steps to overthrow capitalism and establish a democratic workers’ government with a revolutionary socialist programme. If this is not achieved the wounded beast of US imperialism and the ruling class of Venezuela will prepare to strike again.

Chávez declared in December 2001 that he "would not be toppled like Chilean president Salvador Allende", whose Socialist Party-led government was overthrown by a bloody CIA-backed coup on 11 September 1973. Chávez does not regard himself as a socialist and, although speaking out for the poor, limits himself to fighting for some vague ‘Bolivarian revolution’. Under Allende’s Popular Unity government the majority of the working class actively supported the idea of socialism as an alternative system. The revolutionary pressure from workers and young people compelled Allende to go much further than Chávez, nationalising up to 40% of the economy including powerful US-owned multinationals.

Because of the changed international situation following the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the former USSR and Eastern Europe and the lack of a powerful and genuine socialist alternative, the mass of Venezuelan workers have not yet embraced the socialist alternative, even though they have been fighting poverty and the horrors of capitalism. Consequently, mass opposition to the neo-liberal policies of the 1990s and the explosion of anger against the corrupt political elite have been expressed in the radical populist movement led by Chávez.

In June 1973, a section of Chile’s military attempted to overthrow Allende. This ‘tancazo’ anticipated the bloodbath to come. The tancazo collapsed because the majority of the conspirators involved in the coup were not yet ready. This gave the workers’ leaders time to crush the counter-revolution. Half-a-million people demonstrated, demanding arms to defend ‘their’ government: "Allende, Allende el pueblo ti defiende" (the people will defend you), was chanted on the streets of Santiago. Factories were occupied. Tragically, the leaders failed to respond to these demands and a bloodbath followed.

Although it may be more difficult for reactionary forces to immediately initiate another coup against Chávez, the now-divided opposition will attempt to regroup, prepare to undermine Chávez and try to strike again at a later stage. There is an important difference between the Chilean tancazo and Venezuela, which will probably force the rightwing to delay another coup attempt. The tancazo was a premature attempt by a small section of the tank regiment. The other conspirators remained in place to prepare their bloody attack three months later. In Venezuela, the whole opposition was involved and has now split. However, this is a difference in timing and does not diminish the warning that the attempted coup represents for the masses.

Venezuela is of strategic importance as Latin America’s fourth-largest economy, a major oil producer sharing a border with Colombia. The US wants a compliant regime in place. Chávez provoked the wrath of the Bush administration following the 11 September attacks on New York. Although condemning the bombing of the World Trade Center, he criticised Bush for using ‘terror against terror’.

Mobilising reaction

AS IN CHILE, a massive campaign to destabilise the government has been orchestrated by the ruling elite, military high command, Catholic church, CIA and US State Department. On 5 February the CIA expressed its "deep concern about the situation developing in Venezuela". US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, expressed doubts that Chávez would last his full term. On 7 February, Colonel Pedro Soto became the first in a series of senior military officers to call on Chávez to resign. There was a flight of capital: $700 million was taken out of the country in three days in mid-February, further destabilising the economy.

A massive and vicious media campaign, spearheaded by the right-wing daily newspaper, La Razon, has demanded that Chávez resign, branding him "insane". This came to a head following attempts to reform the corrupt state oil company, PVDSA, and replace managers with Chávez supporters. The managers declared a ‘strike’. This was similar to the so-called lorry drivers’ ‘strike’ initiated by the rightwing against Allende. Chávez rightly denounced the managers as a ‘state within a state’, living in luxury at the expense of the mass of the population. He increased taxation on oil revenue from 16% to 30%.

The right-wing opposition has strengthened its position and undermined support for Chávez because of the economic dead-end that the government is in. Despite introducing land reform, providing one million additional school student places, tripling the number of people on literacy courses, and increasing the minimum wage by 20%, his policies have remained within the limits of capitalism. The failure to overthrow capitalism leaves the government unable to resolve the horrific social and economic problems: 80% of the population live below the official poverty line. Average living standards remain the same as when Chávez came to power in 1998.

Events culminated in a demonstration and the general strike in mid-April. The leadership of the CTV (the main trade union confederation) backed the strike on the grounds that the economic reforms - including increasing taxes on oil companies profits and more state intervention - damaged business interests and therefore employment.

The CTV leaders are corrupt gangsters linked to capitalist parties, such as the Christian Democrats (Copei). They have a vested interest in opposing Chávez. The new state constitution, adopted in 1999, includes a clause that all trade union officials should be elected on the same salary as union members. These leaders refused to submit recent election returns to the government. They simply declared that they had won.

The original plan was to build opposition to Chávez and force him out by ‘constitutional means’. However, events rapidly developed as the different social forces involved in this conflict clashed, further polarising the situation. Two wings of the ruling class were involved: the ‘hawks’ and the ‘doves’. The hawks included far-rightwing generals and the Catholic Opus Dei grouped around retired General Ruben Rojas, son-in-law of former president Rafael Caldera (founder of Copei). The CIA was in contact with this grouping, which was planning a coup on 27 February.

STRATFOR (a research group with contacts in the US security forces) reported on 14 April that this planned coup was aborted because Bush and the State Department wanted to push Chávez out ‘constitutionally’ – the doves’ position. Representatives of the Bush administration met with the doves.

The armed clashes on the large anti-Chávez demonstration on 11 April, however, were used as a pretext for the military high command to step in and remove Chávez, blaming his supporters for firing on unarmed protesters. Subsequent reports point to this being part of a planned provocation. Rooftop snipers have been identified as members of the far-right Bandera Roja organisation and some of the dead were supporters of Chávez’s Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR). It has all the hallmarks of a set-up to allow General Efrain Velasco to take over. The most right-wing sections of the opposition had gained the upper hand in the anti-Chávez putsch.

A new government was rapidly sworn in headed by Carmona, leader of the employers’ organisation, Fedecamaras. The regime was entirely white, made up of far-right representatives of big business, members of the old corrupt capitalist parties and Opus Dei - who Chávez had previously swept from power. Rear Admiral and long-time protégé of Rojas, Hector Ramirez Perez, was appointed defence minister. The foreign minister, Jose Rodriguez Iturbe, is a member of Opus Dei. However, the CTV leadership, which had slavishly supported the reaction, was excluded.

Sections of the anti-Chávez movement had got more than they bargained for. This also contains an element of Chile 1973. Amongst the conspirators in Santiago were groupings which supported a ‘white coup’ or a ‘black coup’. The white coup was supposed to overthrow Allende and rapidly hand power over to the Christian Democrats. Once the coup was under way, however, the generals tasted power and a bloody dictatorship ensued which lasted for 15 years.

Carmona immediately announced draconian decrees which negated all of the reforms implemented by Chávez. The single chamber Assembly was suspended along with the supreme court. MVR deputies and activists were arrested, including former ministers. Interior minister, Ramon Chacin, was hauled off to jail and, according to the Wall Street Journal, almost lynched by coup supporters (15 April).

Sections of the army began house-to-house searches, rounding up opponents and looking for the arms distributed to some ‘Bolivarian Circles’ – community-based government support groups. Carmona cancelled the oil supplies to Cuba, a step immediately rescinded when Chávez regained power.

US imperialism – despite its apparent preference for ‘constitutional’ change – remained silent and was the only government in the Americas not to oppose the coup. The ruling classes of Brazil, Mexico and other countries condemned the action for fear that it would provoke massive protests in their own countries and give an impetus to the left, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist mood that is developing throughout the continent.

Mass support for Chávez

REVOLUTION SOMETIMES NEEDS the whip of counter-revolution. The leaders of the coup overreached themselves and underestimated the support for the reforms that Chávez had carried through and the determination of the masses to defend democratic conquests from attack by a right-wing military dictatorship. They underestimated the ingrained hatred of the ruling political elite, which had ruled Venezuela for 40 years before Chávez came to power. The repressive measures announced by Carmona provoked a massive social explosion. The most exploited and downtrodden people entered the battle and the state machine – the armed forces and police – split. Even sections of society opposed to Chávez were not prepared to support a return to the old order.

The new administration enraged sections of the army by its arrogance and contempt for the masses. Nicolas Maduro, a leading Chávez legislator, said: "The presidential guard remained loyal to Chávez because they saw Carmona and the oligarchs come in here and begin pouring champagne and whisky. The guards hated that". (Financial Times, 15 April) One 21-year-old private spent the weekend in a secret tunnel with others armed with a bazooka and full combat gear: "We were with Hugo Chávez all along, hiding while the generals took him away. Now he is back where he should be".

The Spanish daily newspaper, El País, reported how the military split when Chávez was arrested and imprisoned in the Turiamo military base. Once the officers had left the room, a National Guard rank-and-file soldier spoke to Chávez: "‘Look, my commandante, clarify one thing for me. Is it true that you have resigned?’ Chávez replied: ‘No, son, I have not resigned and I will not resign’. The soldier placed himself immediately under the command of the chief of the armed forces. The soldier then said that this is what is being said through out the country: ‘They say you resigned and left the country’. The soldier told Chávez that if he wanted to write any message to leave it in the rubbish bin and he would get it later… The soldier took the note and faxed it to Caracas where thousands of copies were distributed amongst the demonstrators". (15 April) Chávez also revealed how a junior officer gave him a mobile phone so he could call his daughter and get her to announce that he had not resigned.

At the same time, thousands of people marched on the presidential Miraflores Palace from the barrios. Their hatred of the ruling elite was shown in their chants: ‘The same old ones are back again. The cream at the top – the thieves of the old regime have returned’. Capitalist commentators tried to portray the anti-Chávez protest as ‘another Argentina’. In fact, it was part of a planned programme to overthrow Chávez by the US and Venezuelan ruling classes. The march from the barrios to support Chávez and oppose the new regime was the real ‘element of Argentina’ in this movement.

General Baduel of the 42nd paratroop regiment, along with 2,000 elite troops under his command, refused to recognise the Carmona regime. Baduel took control of Maracay, Venezuela’s main garrison town. The permanent secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, General Julio Garcia Montoya, made his opposition to the coup known by telephoning Cuban television, which broadcast the interview back to Venezuela.

The intervention of the masses and the revolt in the army ranks were decisive. General Velasco, seeing support evaporate, withdrew his backing for the new government unless it withdrew the decree suspending the congress, which it did – but too late. The regime fragmented and was forced out as support for Chávez hardened.

Reaction routed

DEFEATING THIS COUP attempt gives the working class and all those exploited by capitalism a breathing space. These events have revealed the hypocrisy of US imperialism. It proclaims its defence of ‘democracy’ but is quite willing to dispense with it if a government does not serve its interests. As the Wall Street Journal, the voice of US big business, pronounced: "The thing about a true democracy is that there are basic freedoms that not even overwhelming majorities can overwhelm. Mr Chávez’s wanton expropriation of private property, his creation of Castro-style block committees to spy on and control families and his reshuffle of management at the state oil company PDVSA made him unpopular and demonstrators took to the street to demand his ouster. They were fired on and at least 16 were killed Thursday in a massive anti-Chávez demonstration. It was this butchery that precipitated the coup". (15 April)

In other words, a coup is justified if a radical government touches private property! This is in response to increasing taxes on the major companies, land reform and attempting to change the management at PVDSA. Imagine the reaction of the ‘democratic’ writer of the Wall Street Journal if a government was elected which was committed to overthrowing capitalism.

This illustrates the threat now facing the masses in Venezuela. The crucial questions are how to avoid another right-wing coup attempt and how to take the struggle forward. Massive pressure is being put on Chávez by imperialism to ‘learn from this experience’ and adopt a more ‘moderate and acceptable’ approach. On his return to power, Chávez appealed for national unity and reconciliation, and for people to return home. He has withdrawn his proposals to change the PVDSA management and pledged that there will be no witch-hunt against those involved in the coup.

This may be an attempt to try and placate US imperialism and the ruling class in Venezuela. But that would be a big mistake. Firstly, shifting policy to the right will inevitably provoke increasing conflict with the oppressed and poor. Secondly, it will not placate the capitalist class who do not trust Chávez and want him removed from power.

The Wall Street Journal gave its response: "But many analysts read the olive branch toward PDVSA as being primarily inspired by Mr Chávez’s pragmatic need to get the oil revenue flowing again. And they said that the failed coup was only likely to harden Mr Chávez’s opinions against the groups that the former military paratrooper has made a career out of demonising: business, the traditional Venezuelan political class, and the US. ‘There is the possibility he would be chastened by this and see the possibility to change his style and bring the country together, but I doubt it’, says Michael Shifter of the Inter-America Dialogue, a Washington Think Tank. ‘My fear and concern is that you see a heightened polarisation’." (15 April)

The defeat of the attempted coup will not resolve any of the underlying social contradictions. Chávez will come under increasing pressure from those who rallied to his support to adopt even more radical policies. The Financial Times warned: "In the coming months, he is likely to come under pressure from more radical supporters to press ahead with a more confrontational agenda". (15 April) The hardening positions were reflected in the reaction of CTV leader, Carlos Ortega, to proposals by Chávez for national dialogue between the different forces involved in the recent crisis: "We will participate in nothing". (El País, 16 April)

The conciliatory announcements by Chávez have gone alongside statements pointing in the opposite direction. This indicates the pressure he is under. Although he pledged no witch-hunt, he also spoke of the need for a "clear judgment which accords with the norms of international human rights". (Folha de São Paulo, 15 April) Eighty officers are under arrest and will face military tribunals. The military high command is being restructured with supporters of Chávez in senior positions. General Montoya has been appointed commander in chief. Folha de São Paulo also speculated that the decision to accept the resignation of PVDSA managers appointed by him was so that the "Venezuelan president would be able to begin the process of restructuring the entire management".

Chávez will probably vacillate between conciliatory and more radical positions as he comes under pressure from the different classes. It is possible, however, that following this crisis Chávez will be forced in an even more radical direction and strike important blows against capitalism and imperialism.

Workers’ action needed

AN IMPORTANT LESSON is provided by the Portuguese revolution. An attempted coup by General Antonio de Spinola in March 1975 drove the revolutionary process much further to the left. Bank workers occupied the banks, compelling the government to nationalise them. Up to 70% of the economy was nationalised and the British daily, The Times, carried a headline: "Capitalism is Dead in Portugal". However, the failure to totally eliminate capitalism and establish a democratic socialist plan of production and a workers’ government eventually allowed capitalism to recover its weakened position and regain control of Portuguese society.

Chávez has spoken of the plight of the poor and denounced neo-liberal policies. For this he has won the support of the most downtrodden in Venezuela. Unfortunately, his Bolivarian revolution and its populist programme are not about breaking with capitalism and establishing a workers’ democracy and socialism.

This imposes severe limitations on what reforms his government will be able to introduce to benefit the mass of the population. It will not be possible for Chávez to end the poverty and exploitation which he sincerely opposes. He will be pushed to take back with the right hand what he has given with the left hand. The inability to solve the fundamental economic and social problems will be used by the ruling class to undermine his support.

In order to build socialism it is necessary that the working class democratically controls and plans society. Workers can play this decisive role in the socialist revolution because of the collective consciousness and experience they develop working in the factories and workplaces. Unfortunately, Chávez regards the masses as a lever to pressure for reform and to support his programme, which is then implemented from above. In a sympathetic biography on Chávez – In the Shadow of the Liberator – Richard Gott recounts a meeting to plan the 1992 attempted coup, which Chávez led. The questions of calling a general strike and mass participation were raised. "Civilians get in the way", was Chávez’s blunt response. Such a dismissive attitude cannot take the revolution forward.

It is now more urgent than ever that the mass movement goes onto the offensive. The lessons of this crisis and what now needs to be done will be debated by activists throughout Venezuela and Latin America. The essential lesson is the urgent need for a revolutionary socialist programme and concrete steps to overthrow capitalism and the ruling elite.

The most pressing task is establishing independent committees of the workers, urban poor, peasants, youth and rank-and-file soldiers. They should be elected by assemblies and subject to recall. These committees should link up on a city-wide, regional and national basis, and establish armed defence units to thwart any further coup attempt.

These committees should form the basis of a workers’ and peasants’ government. This government should nationalise the major monopolies, banks and financial companies – national and foreign – and introduce a system of democratic workers’ control and management. All officials should be elected and subject to recall and receive the average wage of a skilled worker.

It is clear that the senior officers cannot be trusted. Rank-and-file soldiers’ committees need to be formed. Officers should be elected by rank-and-file soldiers and subject to immediate recall. A full investigation into the planning and execution of the attempted coup should be organised by popular tribunals and all those implicated brought to trial.

These steps must be linked with an appeal for solidarity from the working class throughout Latin America around a programme to establish a voluntary socialist federation of the continent. The call needs to go out for solidarity from the working class and youth in the USA and against the hypocritical government of Bush. Building an independent mass party of the working class to fight for such a programme is now an urgent necessity in Venezuela. If these steps are not taken, the threat of reaction and another coup will arise again. This opportunity must not be lost.


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