When capital takes on a progressive state – lessons from Venezuela

If you read of a massive ‘general strike’ by Venezuelan workers over December 2002 and January 2003, then you too were a victim of Venezuelan capital’s propaganda machine. Fiona Dove* tells us what really happened and gives us the background.

The so-called “general strike” was, in fact, a general lockout and the intention was to force Venezuelan President Chavez, the people’s choice, to resign and/or provide a cover for a coup d’etat.

Where does national trade union federation, CTV stand?

For 40 years from 1958, CTV lent its support to AD. The other trade union federation, CGT lent its support to Copei. This arrangement led to a very corrupt system of patronage, between the trade unions and their respective political parties.

The leadership of CTV was elected in October 2001 amidst widespread allegations of fraud. The electoral council of Venezuela , which oversees all elections and investigates cases of electoral fraud, was instructed to investigate.

For a number of reasons, the case has still not been heard.

Since Chavéz was elected in 1998, the CTV leadership has played a leading role in the opposition. Ortega has been one of the main spokespersons for the official opposition coalition “Democratic Co-ordination”.

Carlos Ortega and the rest of the executive have claimed to be the rightful leadership of CTV and continued to speak in the name of their members – 12% of the 9.9 million workers in Venezuela , mainly public sector workers.

At the base, however, there has been tremendous unhappiness over the electoral fraud, over the political position that CTV has been taking as regards the opposition alliance, and the lockouts.

Many workers eventually resorted to taking witnesses to work with them to show that they did not support the so-called general strike, had gone to work, but were locked out.

In April 2002, there had been a similar effort, which did indeed result in a coup. The head of the Business Federation then, Pedro Carmona, was briefly installed as the new President.

But when the poor people living in the informal housing settlements on the hills surrounding the capital city, Caracas , heard what was happening, they flooded down the hills to rescue the kidnapped Chavéz. He was reinstated as President within 48 hours.

Six months later, in late November, the opposition forces tried again to unseat Chavéz. This time, the lockout went on for more than eight weeks, wreaking havoc on the economy.

To most people’s surprise, the Chavéz government withstood the assault. Workers mobilised to keep the economy running, especially the all-important oil sector.

The lockout eventually fizzled out, and the opposition has lost a lot of the support it had from the small business sector, much of which has been bankrupted as a result.

According to a union leader of the Venalum aluminium company in Venezuela , Jose Ramon Rivero, the opposition has also lost support from organised workers, as 84% of the 3000 trade unions affiliated to the national trade union federation, CTV are disaffiliating. They will join a new independent trade union confederation being set up in April this year.

Government acts

After the attempted coup in April last year, the government took no action against those plotting against it. Instead it tried to conciliate and negotiate with the different parties.

But in February 2003, after the lockout had failed, it charged opposition leaders including head of the Business Federation (Federcameras), Carlos Fernandez, as well as Carlos Ortega, the president of CTV, with treason and economic sabotage.

12,000 employees of the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), have been fired for their role in the sabotage – these are mainly executives, managers or high-level technicians.

Why did the opposition want to get Chavez out?

Chavez was the first president to be elected who was of African/indigenous descent and who was from the poor classes.

Since his election, the new government has made huge efforts to address the needs of the poor. Some important achievements include:

* giving land titles to thousands of slum dwellers;

* passing a law distributing unused land to rural people

* awarding subsidies of R10,000 – R20,000 to small farmers (a lot for people earning R150 a month);

* setting up a Women’s Bank for small entrepreneurs;

* boosting school enrolment by nearly a million children;

* legislating a minimum wage and 8 hour day;

* recognising and protecting indigenous communities’ ways of life and making provision for the collective ownership of ancestral land and knowledge, and allowing bilingual education in Indigenous areas;

How has PDVSA worked?

* owns a number of refineries outside Venezuela . A recent study found that five of these simply did not appear in the accounts.

* owns the biggest chain of petrol stations in the USA, Citgo, yet as with most of the other internationalised sections of Pdvsa, no profits come back to Venezuela and no taxes are paid to Venezuela.

* is a very high tech company and much of its operations are controlled through computers. Until recently, the contract for maintaining PDVSA’s computer systems was held by a US-based information technology company, SAIC, which has on its board of directors, former CIA directors and US military men.

(The government cancelled the contract soon after the last lockout, which was focused largely on sabotaging PDVSA. Pipelines and refineries were, and continue to be, systematically sabotaged.)

* outlawing the patenting of genes, technologies and inventions arising from ancestral knowledge or resources

* introducing taxes for rich businessmen for the first time and

* saying no to the privatisation of water and the state oil company.

The corrupt elite and their clients in the opposition, have been particularly incensed by the reversal of their plan to privatise PDVSA, the source of their ill-gotten riches. PDVSA has operated as a state within a state, or perhaps more accurately in recent times, as a state against a state.

Opposition fights back

Since Chavez came to power, the opposition has relentlessly opposed his government. They have 40 years of experience in politics, unlike many of those in the present government and certainly among its grassroots supporters.

They have more or less controlled the key economic institutions of Venezuela , like PDVSA, as well as the private sector.

The opposition has good international networks which they have mobilised for their political ends: the AD is a member of the Socialist International, to which the ANC also belongs; Copei has its Christian Democratic networks across the world; Primero Justicia, an opposition party related to the ultra-right wing Catholic lay order, Opus Dei, is well connected with the Vatican; and the CTV is the ICFTU affiliate for Venezuela.

A key instrument of the opposition is the media, which is entirely in private hands except for one rather bad government TV channel.

The media has conducted a relentless and shameless propaganda campaign against the government, in ways that fly in the face of even liberal standards of ethical journalism. Much of the outright lies and manipulations these media put out to the public are picked up uncritically by the international media and reproduced on your television, for example.

Who’s who in Venezuelan politics?

Chavez – President of Venezuela who received 56%, of the vote, largely from the poor, in democratic elections in 1998.

CTV – Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela – the biggest trade union federation headed by Carlos Ortega

Democratic Co-ordination – opposition grouping comprising CTV, Business Federation and a range of opposition parties including the corrupt parties that robbed Venezuela blind over the past 40 years.

AD and Copei – two ruling parties that ruled alternatively between 1958 and 1998. CTV supported AD and CGT (the other trade union federation) supported Copei.

Effects of opposition efforts

The good news is that the opposition’s efforts have had the unintended consequence of galvanising people to organise in defence of their President, their constitution and their hopes for an end to corruption and poverty in Venezuela .

Community organisations, known as Bolivarian Circles, have sprung up in all the poor areas, taking the new law on participatory democracy seriously. New independent trade unions are being formed. The experience of the last lockout has given workers a new confidence in their ability to run companies in the absence of bosses. People have learned to be critical of the establishment media and are getting involved in alternative communications. New links are being made with unionists and activists in neighbouring countries and, in the process, a greater two-way solidarity is being built across the region.

What faced President Chavez when he came to power:

Venezuela is:

the world’s fifth biggest oil producer, with oil accounting for 80% of exports and 50% of the country’s income. The oil company is state owned.
has the world’s sixth biggest gold mine – also state owned,
is a major producer of aluminium, and
has rich iron ore deposits.

But despite these riches in oil and mineral wealth, when Chavez came to power,

more than 75% of Venezuela ‘s 23.5 million people still lived below the poverty line.
51% of the people survived through the informal economy.

The ruling elite, supported by their corrupt clients, had literally robbed Venezuelans of the wealth generated by their economy.

They had also logged up a foreign debt of R220 billion, which ate up 40% of the government’s budget just in interest payments.

(Fiona was an organiser with Saccawu from 1985 – 1992, after which she served as the first editor of Cosatu’s The Shopsteward magazine until 1994. She left to take up a scholarship in Holland to study alternative development, and in 1996 took up the offer of a job with the international activist research network, the Transnational Institute, co-ordinated from Amsterdam , where she still works. She spent three months in Venezuela in the last half of 2002.)