Latin America

A Visit to Venezuela 14 Years Ago

I made a political visit to Venezuela in 2005 (at the time that Hurricane Katrina was devastating New Orleans). Things were very different then, but even so you could see hints of the future problems. For that reason, I think that the reports I wrote at the time might be relevant. For a picture of the transformation, see this interview.
John Reimann

First Report

Here is the semi-riot at that meeting. I had the impression that it was more a struggle over who would benefit than over political principles.

Nearly Tear Gassed
Well, I’ve been here in Venezuela and already have been tear gassed. (Well, only just a little bit.) This morning I went to a meeting where they were to install the elected representatives of a local sub division of Los Teques, a city next to Caracas. The main conflict was over who was to be the new president of this Council. Apparently officially the president is chosen by through the party.

But it seems that what’s happened is that any politician with any sense at all, at least at the local level, has joined the MVR, Chavez’s party. So, there was a deal that a certain delegate become the president. But others favored another candidate, a woman. (It seems that women have become extremely active in the community groups.) This Woman did not want the position, because she said that every president crashes and burns (se fracasa¨) so it seems that there was another candidate who was her stand’in. The supporters of this candidate were mobilized to demand that the delegates themselves vote in the new president.

The other candidate had mobilized his supporters to demand that he become president of the council.

You could see it coming from the first minute. Outside the meeting hall, the opposition guy had his supporters rallying, chanting, yelling, etc. We went into the meeting hall and there was pandemonium already. THIS guy was trying to speak, but nobody could hear a word he was saying because two thirds of the crowd was yelling, chanting, waving their fists in the air, gesticulating wildly, yelling for a “votacion¨ (that is, for an election of the new president)

Then a delegate opposed to this guy tried to speak. The rest of the crowd started yelling and carrying on with equal enthusiasm¨. This went on for about an hour or more. Delegates trying to make speeches, the crowd yelling and carrying on, etc. It only stopped when there was a call to sing what I think was the national anthem. At that point, everyone stood solemnly, put their hand over their heart, and sang the anthem. Then they sat down and resumed the battle.

At one point a near-fist fight broke out in the midst of the crowd, but it was quickly broken up. BUT it did not take a genius to see what was coming. I forget exactly what started it, but pretty soon all sorts of pandemonium broke out. The people I was with quickly ushered me out of the hall. As I was passing through the door, this one guy, one who I had noticed as being one of the most vociferous, turned around and cocked his fist. He wasn’t sure who it was who’d followed him out and he was ready to let fly.

Chairs and desks destroyed.

Through a crack in the door we could see a general melee. Then the police came in and went into the hall. After awhile, people came rushing out and tear gas could be smelled and felt. One young woman had to be escorted out coughing and in a near faint.

The supporters of this guy who was to become president through a party maneuver then adjourned out in the street. More speeches and gesticulating. You could see that several of the people there had been drinking. I felt that some

of them were starting to look at my comrade and me because we were not known and were not chanting and shouting in unison. We decided to take our leave before we were possibly “escorted” out.

So, that’s my first day here. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?


Comment: It was clear that everybody at the meeting was seeking a leg up, a way to personally benefit. I strongly suspect that those at the meeting were not workers but small shop keepers, street vendors, etc. In other worlds the petit bourgeoisie. This opens up the question of how much the working class was ever really organized and in political control of the movement.

A few days later

It is still not clear to me exactly what Chavez represents nor where he’s headed. I’m not certain it’s clear to anybody else, including himself. I’ve heard all sorts of different views.

An older taxi driver told me that he’s just another politician, that they’re all the same, and that he’s against Chavez because he’s a communist who is trying to import Cuba’s communism. another, younger taxi driver was at first hesitant to express himself. Then he said that there was good an bad, but that access to medical care definitely was better.

Among the activists, it seems that the overwhelming attitude is of supreme confidence in Chavez. Many call him “el comandante.”…   This morning we were at a [socialist] meeting… I did not completely pick it up, but apparently there was a very critical reference to Chavez made.

There is a young guy, a student and total supporter of Chavez (as well as of revolution and socialism) who’s been taking me round. After the meeting, he commented to me, “I’m confused. These people, they say the support Chavez, but then they say that Chavez says one thing but that they are going to do something else.” When I asked him what specifically he was referring to, he explained that they’d said that Chavez is surrounded by corrupt bureaucrats and that he’s not doing anything about it. I suggested that he ask them about this, but he didn’t want to.

We got into a discussion about how everybody, absolutely everybody, is subject to making mistakes. Also, how any political figure, no matter who, is subject to all sorts of different influences, including those of the people around him. He agreed with all this.

My position was that I was like a baby in terms of understanding the situation here and therefore I couldn’t really comment on what they’d said. This was completely acceptable to him.

A union meeting in 2005. If my memory serves me, this was of Coca Cola workers

Later on, we took up the discussion again. I mentioned how in South Africa in the ’80s there was also a mood of supreme confidence. Of course, the movement did succeed in overthrowing apartheid, which was a huge step forward. However, many people were still living in absolute poverty and the government was trying to hold back the movement. My point was that in the 80s, many workers and young people did not reckon with the complexity of the problems and the difficulties that existed. I asked him if this could also be the case here, and he agreed. He also agreed that there would be ups and downs in the movement in the future. We also discussed how we all change, including the leaders. We have the example of Castro, who did not come to power expecting to lead the overthrow of capitalism. This young guy agreed that Chavez did not come to power with the ideas of revolution and socialism – that these ideas grew on him. Maybe some of those round him, however, did not accept these ideas and they were having an affect on him also. You could see that he was very interested in these points. The one thing that he would not accept, though, was any criticism of Chavez on the part of these union people.


Some Snapshots

A typical street scene near Caracas. Everybody was interested in talking about politics.

I was walking down the street in Valencia, a city in the heart of the industrial zone of Venezuela. I came upon a group of young people who were in training to become police and I stopped and talked with them for a minute. On my way back they were still out in the street and one of them stopped me to say hi. We got to talking some more. They were all total CHAVEZ supporters. They said that the present police were corrupt and opposed to Chavez.

Arriving back in Los Teques, at the bus terminal, I stopped for a soda. A cop was sitting there, a guy in his thirties I think. He apparently was doing a side business selling Nikes from a catalogue. We got to talking and he asked me what I thought of what was gong on in Venezuela. I commented on the health clinics and he agreed that they were good. As the discussion developed, it became clear that he was a supporter of Chavez.

I also was talking with a woman who worked as a secretary. I did not have the impression that she was a political activist. SHE WAS asking me about the US and I commented on the alienation and isolation that exists there. “In other words,” she said, “there is not as much love there.”

Everywhere I go, people want to talk about the hurricane. A grandmother near 80 was talking tome about this. She was talking about the little children dying of hunger in New Orleans. She was near tears in talking about it. SHE is also a total Chavez supporter. She’d never been political until the coup. Then, she realized all that had been done in the country, the programs for health care and food for children. Now, she’s quite politicized.


Comment: It’s clear that something was breaking loose in Venezuela. The ruling class was unable to rule in the old way. This opening up of society tremendously politicized people.

The Mood here

It’s slowly starting to dawn on me that there is a mood here such as I’ve never experienced in my life. It is not the livid anger that I sense exists in the US at the moment. But what it is a supreme confidence that “we” can change society. I’m hearing this from all corners – from college students (some of whom are from a more middle class background), from workers, old and young, from everywhere.

And the word “socialism” comes linked with this. When I ask people what they mean by “socialism”, usually what people reply is a “society where everybody has enough to eat, a decent home – where everybody is equal.”

The idea that this is totally possible – no, cancel that – that “we” will bring it about – I have never been in a situation where this is common in society. Even people who have been on the left for a long, long time seem to believe this. (I don´t think that this is the case in the US by any means.)

Today I went to a meeting-social get-together of some workers who are involved in the process of “cogestion” in their textile plant. This means several different things to different groups of workers. For some, it means complete workers control. In this case, it means worker participation in the decision-making along with the boss. I think in some ways it is not far from the “team concept” in the US, or rather it could lead to that. The main thing is that it is coming from a completely different direction.

Meeting of factory workers in rural Venezuela. Combined and uneven development brought to life.

Anyway, you should have seen this meeting. Before coming to Venezuela, I bought a tourist guide book of the country. It mentioned that 80% of the population lives in rural areas. This surprised me a bit — until today, when it was brought home that those who live in rural areas are not necessarily campesinos.

Right now I’m in Valencia, in the state of Carabobo. I was told that Carabobo is like Michigan – the industrial heartland of the country. And so it seems to be, but with one huge difference — the state is still very rural and underdeveloped. I guess you would call it “combined and uneven development.” We went on a trip by bus for a couple of hours and then took a taxi for another half hour or so. However, the taxi ride was only about two miles or so – but along a very rough dirt road, through beautiful green hills. Near the end of this road was “La Fortaleza” the residence of one of the workers in this plant.

When we got out, and walked up the dirt driveway, there were several dozen adults milling around, lying in hammocks, standing round talking, etc. There was a cinder block house, with a corrugated metal roof and open doorways (whose only cover was a sheet hanging in it). Several chickens, and of course no such scene would be complete without a few scrawny dogs hanging round.

When I first sat down and got to talking, I was approached somewhat aggressively by a middle aged man who wanted to know who I was and what was my purpose here. I tried to explain to him, but the more we talked, including the more HE talked, the more aggressive became his tone. He asked if I had any identification, any papers proving who I was. I took out our leaflet and distributed it, but naturally that did not satisfy him. In the course of all this, it became clear that he was pretty drunk, but even a drunk sometimes expresses hidden thoughts and questions that others might have.

Eventually, though, some others intervened and lead him away. Several people came up to me and apologized for his behavior. Anyway, that was just a minor incident.

Then the meeting started. The meeting was held in a tent-like structure – basically a roof held up on its corners by a few poles and completely open. We drew up some chairs in a circle. To one side was a corral with a few cows (the old Brahma breed, with the big hump at the base of the neck – not the clumsy, unnatural black and white Holsteins that are so common in the US). Just as we got to this building, there was a calf tied up to one of the posts. He contented himself by pissing on the ground and sniffing at the butt of someone who had his back turned to him (much to everybody’s amusement). Sad to say, as the meeting got started the calf was lead away and tied up to a nearby tree. He contented himself by alternately standing around bored and bucking and butting in play at the tree. Past the corral there rolled the green hills, with birds flying round around and more cows grazing.

Basically, the meeting was lead by a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party who is one of the leaders in the UNT. What he basically did was ask everybody there how they saw the process in their plant and what they wanted. I videoed much of this. I hope it comes out because, to tell the truth I couldn´t catch a lot of it. (This is partly due to the fact that I’m still getting accustomed to the language and partly because I’ve lost some of my hearing from having worked in construction.) But what did come clear was the fact that everybody felt that they were going to get the life that they and their children deserved.

I asked one woman worker about the situation for women there. She replied with confidence that they were all together and that she didn’t feel any discrimination. Another thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to be more discussion of the different inheritances, the different cultures that have gone to make up Venezuela. I’ve heard this mentioned by several different people – both workers and students. This includes an appreciation of what in Venezuela comes from the indigenous cultures and also what comes from Africa. This is expressed in a way that simply shows the pride and appreciation for the richness of the culture….


A Last Conversation
My last night in Los Teques, I went and had some beers with a couple of the workers in the ¨worker controlled¨ plant here (Inveval). It was an extremely interesting discussion, and fortunately the beer here has a low alcohol content!!

They started out explaining to me the history of their struggle. Then I asked them about what their plans were and how they saw what they were doing as far as the movement in general. The government has given them a five year loan. Once that loan is paid off, then the workers in the plant will be the sole owners ‘ in othe words it will be a worker owned coop. What they envision is a network of similar coops throughout society.

What came out was that they see a general, gradual process of winning reforms and changing society in that way. I once heard this referred to as the ¨salami tactics¨ one slice at a time, in other words. (by the way, this keyboard is kind of weird and, for instance, I can’t find the dash, so what I´m writing might seem oddly punctuated.) I asked them first about worker coops, and whether there was a possibility that they might start to be influenced by this situation and become more concerned with running and making successful their business than with the overall workers struggle. It was clear that they´d never considered this, but they were certain this would not happen. I mentioned my experience with a similar situation of some workers in Mexico and they really didn´t have much of a reply. Their main thing was that they want to eliminate the social division of labor as they called it. In other words, a watchman would be equally valuable as an engineer. but they weren´t so clear as to whether they´d both be paid the same.

As for their general plans, building a network of coops … they asked me what I thought of that. At first I was kind of stuck for an answer becuase I don´´t know enough about the objective situation here. After awhile, I answered by openly explaining this lack of knowledge as making me reluctant to reply. But my overall orientation is that society does not change in a gradual process, but through enormous shocks… wars, revolutions, crises, etc.

My last night in Venezuela. Direct links between the US and Venezuelan working class in action!

I also asked them about the strategy of the oligarchy. We agreed that there had been three main attacks by them, each of which lead the movement to new heights. Was there some way they could calm down the movement a little while at the same time encouraging Chavez´s links with the bourgeois in the rest of LA. They clearly had not thought about what was the strategy of the bourgeois and how to deal with it.

This was a very, very interesting and friendly discussion. However, for my part it kind of left me wondering about the perspectives. Wouold it be possible, considering the oil wealth, for a sector of the working class to be satisfied to some extent. This is what is not clear to me.

On the first weekend in October there will be a UNT conference on cogestion. I am not sure if I´ll be able to attend, but I think it would be very important for some comrades to attend this. I will write more about my visit when I get back home.


The Esqualidos

In Venezuela, they call those who oppose Chavez the “esqualidos”. I think this means something those who are empty inside. I met three people who oppose him. The first was an older guy who was driving a taxi in Valencia. He said that nothing’s changed, that all politicians are the same, and that it is terrible that these communists from Cuba are coming to Venezuela. Overall, he seemed pretty cynical about the world in general. The second guy was the owner of a small internet cafe business. He asked me what I was  doing in Venezuela and we got to talking a little. I forget exactly what I said, but it was pretty clear where I was coming from. A somewhat cynical smile spread across his face and he asked me what I thought about Chavez. I commented on having just gone by one of the low-cost food stores that serve low income people in Venezuela and that I thought that was good.

“Well, that doesn’t help me,” he said. “I don’t use those stores.”

I replied that as a union person, I think about what helps the majority.

“I don’t care about all that,” he said. “Chavez is not helping me. He’s not helping my business. That’s all I care about.”

I’d been reading a book about Chavez. This book delves into the coup attempt. It says that there would have been a general slaughter had it succeeded. I think this is right. Standing on line at the Caracas airport, I looked around me at the Venezuelans there – just about exclusively wealthy. I looked at those smoothe “beautiful” faces. Amongst them was one older woman, well dressed, with one of the most horrible hardened faces I’ve ever seen. I wondered if they’d be willing to happily stand by and watch such a slaughter. I think so.

Then I got on the plane. My seat was next to a delightful little girl of about four or so. On the other side was her mother. The little girl and I got to talking and then I got to talking with the mother. She was a young woman probably in her mid twenties who has family in Caracas. “But they’re keeping a safe house in Miami, just in case things get too bad here,” she told me. I again mentioned the Mercals – the low cost food stores. “Yes, but they’re just for the lower classes,” she said.

I had been planning to pump her for information, but the words just flew out of my mouth: “Well, I’m in the lower class, so I think it’s great.” The conversation dropped off a cliff right there. What a horrible term “the lower classes”.

But I kept playing with and talking to the little girl, partly because I could see her mother now didn’t like it. After a little while, she got up with her daughter and moved to another (and less comfortable) seat.


Some Political Conclusions

The Venezuela that I saw in 2005

After the visit there, I increasingly came to the conclusion that Chavez represented bonapartism. Such a regime comes to power when the capitalist class has no real base in society and the working class cannot take power in its own name, almost always because they are not really organized, which in turn comes from the history of false leadership. In the case of Venezuela, Chavez was elected through a layer of mid level military officers who organized and ran his election campaign. That was his base, not the Venezuelan capitalist class nor the working class. Once in power, he leaned on the working class and the peasantry, making all sorts of reforms. In effect, he was redistributing the oil wealth.

He built the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to organize his support, but I don’t think it was ever a really working class controlled party. In any case, all his reforms were through the capitalist state, and it’s not possible for the working class to control society through that state.

That is the significance of the first article above on that meeting I attended.

Then the price of oil collapsed. Among other things, Chavez tried to control capital outflows through monetary controls. But without workers control, such monetary controls would have to be bureaucratically bungled and in a situation of increased economic plight, corruption would have to take greater hold.

My last night in Venezuela. Direct links between the US and Venezuelan working class in action!

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