For the last four years Venezuela has been the political centre of the radicalisation of Latin America. Now those who started a revolutionary process are debating how to take the process further. Chris Harman reports from Caracas.
Venezuela is a country where people have suffered enormously at the hands of the world system over the last 30 years. But it is also a country where millions now have faith in their ability to change things for the better.
Not that long ago, Venezuela was a richer country than most others in Latin America. The mass of the population had better living standards, and its wealth made it a magnet for south European migrants in the 1950s.
But prosperity came from oil revenues that depended on the ups and downs of an inherently unstable world system. When the price of oil was high, governments had the resources to both buy off discontent among the poor and spend vast sums on prestige projects.
But when the price of oil fell, revenues fell too, and little remained after a large share had been pocketed by the country's capitalists and those in the upper middle class. The self-appointed directors of PDVSA (the state-owned oil company) and the multinationals (including two run by Venezuela's richest families) helped themselves to the lion's share of the loot.
The living standards of the mass of people fell, and fell still further when governments elected on promises to improve things did deals with the International Monetary Fund. Real wages were cut in half, and the unemployed found the only way to make a living was in the informal sector - manning the pavements that span the six-mile width of the city, working without contracts of employment and, in too many desperate cases, hanging around outside hotels hoping to sell their bodies to those who prowl past in expensive cars.
Families who had looked forward to life in modern apartments found themselves forced to build shacks on any spare piece of land. Over the years, many succeeded in turning them into proper brick structures, with every effort made to make them smart and clean inside. Their dwellings were built on land which clings to the side of the steep slopes that go up into the mountains - slopes that risk collapsing when floods hit, just as they did on the eve of the new millennium, when thousands died.
The pavement sellers need protection from thieves - and from each other. They found out quickly that the corrupt police offered no such defence. So they rely on baseball bats, and if that doesn't work they turn to the mafias that provide them with their smuggled goods. In the barrios (semi-permanent shanty towns), desperation has led some to drugs, and enabled the mafias to move in and control their trade. Little wonder, then, that Caracas has gained a reputation for being one of the most violent places in the world.
People never simply put up with these conditions. In 1989 a doubling of bus fares led to the people of the barrios descending on the city centre, and looting the luxury shops and apartment blocks of the rich. The police and army moved in with utter ruthlessness. After two days of fighting thousands were dead, and the poor were driven back into the hills. The upper classes rejoiced, assured that they could continue to live in luxury.
But something did change after the revolt of 1989. Over a period of nine years, the old governments that had presided over the impoverishment and repression lost all credibility. In the elections of 1998 an army colonel called Hugo Chavez, who had led an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992, stood for president. Despite being a rank outsider, he was swept into office. At first the upper classes were not worried. The new president believed he could improve the conditions of the mass of people without confronting the rich or their foreign protector - the US.
But the wealthy soon showed that there were limits to their willingness to collaborate with Chavez. Their opposition intensified after he attempted to reorganise the state oil company so that less of its funds were siphoned off. Their response was a military coup that led to his kidnapping and the head of the employers organisation briefly declaring himself president on 11 April 2002. But they had reckoned without the action of the poor. From the barrios, thousands poured towards the presidential palace. In doing so, they split the army and brought Chavez back.
Eight months later another attempt to overthrow Chavez, this time by a lockout in the oil industry, was defeated by another round of massive mobilisations, with organised workers joining with the poor to keep the oil running. Since then, the Chavez government - whose standing has been further reinforced by the defeat of an attempt to remove him in a referendum 18 months ago, and by his victory in December's parliamentary elections - has been able to use some of the oil wealth it now controls to provide real reforms.
Paradoxically, nearly all the symbols of what was wrong with Venezuela before Chavez remain in place today. The rich still have their luxuries, and unemployment remains high - at around 9 percent. There is no sign of any diminution in the numbers trying to survive by selling goods, or themselves, on the streets.
Nevertheless, over the last four years the battle between the new and the old has begun in earnest. But it still has a long way to go and, as many activists told us, the old carries a danger of contaminating some of the forces that claim to stand for the new.
In the barrios
Barrio 23 January runs down from the hills to the valley that forms the city's central spine. 'We are only three blocks away from the presidential palace,' says Juan Contreras, a leading activist in one of the coordinations (localised campaigning associations).
Activists in the barrio explained how the misiones (the social and welfare programmes the government has set up) provided them with decent primary and secondary education for the first time, with classes for adults who in the past had never had the chance to learn to read, and with health centres which are staffed by Cuban doctors (sent to Venezuela in return for the oil Chavez has provided to overcome the US sanctions against Cuba). 'When we are sick, we can get immediate treatment here - not just basic treatment but things like advanced dentistry,' says Felicita, a women in her seventies who has lived in the barrio for 40 years.
The barrio's history of resistance goes right back to 23 January 1958, when an uprising overthrew the then dictator Jiminez. The revolt started at the site of 97 apartment blocks built by the dictator to house the middle classes. After marching on the presidential palace to take part in storming it, the protesters began taking over the blocks to house themselves. The barrio was named after the date of those events.
Guerrilla groups also found a base in the barrio, as they fought back against the police who tried to control the poor from their heavily armed police station. 'We have a tradition of fighting back which has gone on over four generations,' says Juan. 'There is a tradition of murals of Simon Bolivar [who led a fight to liberate South America from the Spanish in the early 19th century], Che Guevara, Jesus Christ, and symbols of solidarity with peoples across the world.'
So it was natural that Barrio 23 January played a full part in the uprising of 1989, and that it was in the forefront of the protests against the attempt to overthrow Chavez in 2002. 'We tried to march to the presidential palace on 11 April 2002, the day of the coup,' says Gustavo, another activist, 'but the security forces were ready to shoot people down - we returned two days later with the huge protest that succeeded in defending Chavez.'
Since the defeat of the third attempt to overthrow Chavez, there has been one very important symbolic change in the barrio. The old police station, which had been used to house those who shot at and tortured the poor, has been converted into a social centre. Today it is occupied by a community radio station and guarded by an armed soldier - who is regarded as a member of the community.
But outside the barrio, the police are still a problem. 'For years,' says Gustavo, 'all the security forces were repressive against anyone who wanted to take up social issues, and unfortunately it has not fundamentally changed. Now control of the police force is in the hands of municipalities (local government), and many of these are still controlled by the right wing. So although the present mayor is better than the previous one, the Caracas Metropolitan Police has still not changed its attitudes. And you have a similar situation in the media, where control is also with the right wing. How do we address these problems? There is a proposal going through congress at the moment to create a national police force, and we are hoping that this will bring the police under control.'
There are more than 40 different groups operating in Barrio 23 January - each with its own form of loose organisation. The activists we spoke to have an almost religious faith in Hugo Chavez. Felicita, who is proud to call herself a revolutionary, says, 'There has never been anyone who understands us like him.'
Gustavo adds, 'One day I'll be thinking about something which I think is wrong - the next week Chavez will be talking about it on television. Despite the bureaucracy surrounding him, Chavez understands how the population think. Hello President is Chavez's Sunday TV broadcast - it is the main means of communication between Chavez and the people. That is why it goes on for more than seven hours. But we don't have to wait for the president to tell us to do something - we do it for ourselves.'
The most important message we got from these activists was the birth of hope where before there had been despair. Yet they are often quite critical of those at the top of the movement who work in the government and other institutions.
'This is what we call the silent struggle,' says Gustavo. 'It is very important that there is a push from the base, from the rank and file. And there are whole layers, like the mayors, who are very worried about the space which is being given to the masses, and they are at the point of taking it back. They want to reverse what has already been achieved. So we have a struggle which comes from below against bureaucratisation and corruption. We are at the stage now where someone like Juan should be standing for the local council, because this bureaucratic layer is a real problem.'
Juan describes the battle as 'a struggle against individualism and for collectivity'. He explains, 'The government encourages us to struggle against corruption and problems within the institutions. At first, we did not understand how much power we had. But now we have the freedom to organise from below.'
Gustavo describes how people got worried when Chavez did not make any public appearances for a couple of weeks: 'People marched to the palace to demand assurances that Chavez was all right.'
Felicita's daughter says, 'We have been learning things from Chavez. He taught us about Simon Bolivar. But we want things to continue much further. At present there is no one else like Chavez, but in time other leaders can develop. We defend Chavez because he is the future for our children. What the right wing want to do is to destroy all our hopes. They think that if they get rid of Chavez they will kill our hopes.'
The movement that has successfully defended Chavez three times has also given some confidence to groups of workers fighting back against factory closures. They feel that if they fight they will get some support from the government.
We went to the SEIFEX factory in the east of Caracas. Set in a lower middle class neighbourhood in the east of the city, the 240 mainly women workers there used to make expensive clothing for the Lony company. But then on 12 December last year the owners told them the factory was closing. They found out that not only had they lost their jobs, but they would get neither the holiday pay owed to them nor their social security payments.
The workers immediately occupied the factory and have remained in control of it ever since. They organise a rota among the women, so as to guard it though the night as well as through the day.
When we asked Carmen Fuentes who decided on the occupation, a chorus of women standing nearby replied, 'We all did!' Carmen explained, 'It was the women who did it. Ninety percent of the workers here are women. I have been working here as a sewing machinist for 24 years. I started when I was 22 and have four children. When the owners said they were going to close the factory, I discovered they had been lying to us and stealing from us. I no longer trusted them.'
We asked if, before the closure announcement, they had ever thought that they might end up occupying their factory. Again, they replied as a chorus, 'No, no, no!'
'Some of us here have been here 40 or 50 years,' Carmen explained. 'But we never had strikes, or anything like that. We never had disputes with our management - we trusted them. Of course, there were things to complain about, but we did not complain.'
Asked how they felt now, the women said, 'Bad. We have no job, we have no money, and we had to go through Christmas like this - and we have children.'
The workers do not live in the district that the factory is in, and said they got no support from the surrounding areas. People did not even toot their horns in support when they went past. But they did get support from their families back in the barrios. Their families even came in to the factory to join them at Christmas and new year.
The main support for the women has come from the textile union, part of the recently formed UNT union federation. Elidio Rojos, a former textile worker who is now a union organiser, explained the background to that struggle.
The closure, like many others in Venezuela, is a product of the economic crisis of the last decade. The textile union for Caracas and Miranda used to have 11,000 members - now it has only 2,400. Three years ago the membership dropped to 1,400, and its future was in the balance. But after the old union federation supported both the coup against Chavez and the bosses' lockout in 2002, the UNT federation was formed.
Rojos took part in the formation of the UNT: 'First, we began a recruitment campaign. Now we have got another 1,000 members. I think that the UNT is rescuing our movement.' The new union is also changing attitudes to the question of leadership. 'In this union, I feel that I am the tail, not the head,' says Rojos. 'These women are the head, because this union is built from below, not from above.'
Inside the movements
Roland Dennis belongs to a network of rank and file activists called the 13 April Movement (named after the date when the masses brought Chavez back to power in 2002). He explained that the victory of Chavez and the defeats of the right had provided an opportunity for many activists, who had suffered from defeats in the 1980s and 1990s, to rebuild the social movements. But in the process some become drawn into the institutional framework of the government.
In the wake of the coup of 2002 there was a three-year period of fascist conspiracy. The popular groups came together in order to defend the government. But once it was clear that the right had been defeated there was the beginning of a new debate. It centred on differences between those who had been drawn towards the institutions of government and those most implanted in the popular movement. Ideas that put the working class at the centre of a programme for change began to gain strength. However, despite their criticisms, they continue to support Chavez.
'The institutional problem is not only one of bureaucracy. It is also one of corruption. Bureaucracy and corruption are turning into the terrible machine that threatens to destroy the revolutionary process. There is a great deal of money coming in from oil, but very little of it gets down to the masses. Much of its gets lost in those social movements that have a direct connection with the government. Yet the radical reforms have benefited only a quarter of the population so far,' says Roland.
He gave us one horrific example of what the continuity of the bureaucratic institutions of the state means. At the end of last year there was a miners' struggle in the far south of the country. The bosses used hired thugs to kill 11 miners, in an action which was hardly reported in the national media. The miners protested, carrying a big picture of Chavez, and were beaten back by a unit of the armed forces - this despite the fact that Chavista rhetoric is that the armed forces are in the forefront of the popular movement.
Roland says, 'There are attempts to unify the movements from the base up. Not as a party, but as a broad organisation that could give expression to a common revolutionary approach. We have had two national assemblies. It is a difficult process because the culture of organisation is very weak.
'There is no way for the base of the movement to make demands of their own, as the masses do not have an autonomous organisation. Consciousness that does not find material expression in an organisation means nothing.' The urgency of building such an organisation is underlined by the way in which the ruling class has reacted to Chavez and the movement for change.
Roland explains, 'Now the upper classes are both compromising with Chavez and conspiring against him. And Chavez has also changed his tone a bit. He used to speak out against the rich quite often - he does that less often now.
'Now the enemy he talks about is imperialism, and he does not usually attack our own ruling class. He is making alliances with the agricultural and financial bourgeoisie, but as yet he has not made a definitive pact with them. So the bourgeoisie have stopped violent action against Chavez, but they are still conspiring.'
Roland points out that a day earlier the bosses and the right wing had succeeded in organising a very big demonstration demanding Chavez's overthrow: 'Around 100,000 people - that's a third of the size of two years ago, but it is still very big.'
Within the Chavez government the less radical ministers control the ministries responsible for finance, foreign affairs, law and order, and defence.
Stalin Perez, one of the most influential of the leaders of the new union federation, speaks of 'neo-liberal and anti neo-liberal wings of the government'.
'Chavez is like a symbol for us,' says Roland. 'The challenge for us is not to confuse the symbol with politics. Our job at the moment is to construct an autonomous politics independent of the symbol.'
Denis sees two dangerous possibilities if that alternative is not constructed: 'The first would be the right regaining the strength to undertake a policy, whether violent or non-violent, that could defeat the whole movement. The second is of a more profound institutionalisation of the movement.' Either outcome would leave Venezuelan capitalism intact, and with it the gross inequalities that condemn the mass of the population to poverty and endless insecurity. Yet all the activists we talked with, even those who rejected any criticism of the government, are fighting for something far better than that.
Chris Harman and Rory Hearne will be speaking at the Revolution and Reform in Latin America dayschool hosted by International Socialism on Saturday 25 February. For more information about the event phone 020 7819 1177 or email firstname.lastname@example.org