book reviews

Book Review: “Why did chavismo fail?”

What in the world is happening in Venezuela? Is it exhibit #1 of the failure of socialism, as Trump would have people believe? Is it a case of a proud people standing up behind a bold leader and being attacked by US imperialism, as others claim? Or is it something else entirely, as the left critics (both inside and outside the country) claim? A new book (in Spanish), “Why did Chavismo fail? – a balance from the left opposition” by Simón Rodríguez Porras and Miguel Sorans*, seeks to answer that question.

What follows is a summary of some of the main points the book makes and some comments and questions of my own.

Before Chávez
The 1980s and ‘90s was a period of intensified struggle in Venezuela, including the mass uprising against then-President Perez’s imposing of austerity measures demanded by the IMF in 1989. That uprising in Caracas was known as the “Caracazo”. The collapse in support for Perez and the ruling party led to the attempted coup by Chávez in February of 1992. This failed coup was highly popular and actually increased the support for Chávez.1

A huge political vacuum developed, partly due to the role of the conservative leadership of the Venezuelan union federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, or CTV. Also part of the reason for this vacuum was the role of the Communist Party of Venezuela, which joined a front with a reformist wing of the Venezuelan capitalist class. So it was that Chávez “started to fill the political vacuum that the Caracazo had left.” He was elected in December of 1998.

Chávez and Castro.

Chávez and Fidel Castro
Even before his election, Chávez had started to make contact with Castro in Cuba, and shortly after Chávez took office, Castro visited Venezuela. There, he advised the Venezuelans, “don’t do what we did (in Cuba). You will have to have much more patience than we had.” He advocated remaining under a “market economy”, meaning capitalism.

The following year, Chávez organized a constitutional assembly, which produced a constitution that was far more democratic than anything that Venezuela had had up until that time. However, what he did not do was seek to mobilize the working class to fight on its own behalf.

Thousands of Venezuelans mass at Miraflores Palace, win over the rank and file of the military, and coup collapses.

Venezuelan bourgeoisie fights back; defeated by working class
This contradiction led to the coup attempt in April of 2002. In the previous year, Chávez had called the Venezuelan military a “revolutionary institution”, and just as the coup was starting, he underestimated the threat, saying that this “minority… did not represent a real threat to us.” In a subsequent interview, Fidel Castro claimed that he’d discussed the alternatives with Chávez. They were: Stay in the palace until death (as did Salvador Allende in 1973 in Chile); go into the streets and arouse the working class; or accept exile for himself and his family in Cuba. According to Castro, Chávez chose the third alternative. It was the working class on their own who put a stop to this, mobilizing by the tens of thousands, surrounding Miraflores Palace (the government seat), bringing the rank and file soldiers over to their side, and causing the coup to collapse like a deflated balloon. Over a period of several years, Chávez pardoned the coup plotters or, in one case, actually formed an alliance with one of them.

Venezuela’s union federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers or CTV, supported the coup attempt.

Having failed in the coup, but emboldened by the fact that their defeat was not followed up, there followed a shutdown and attempted sabotage of the main oil refineries later that same year. The CTV again supported this attempt. In response, the oil workers organized and took control over the refineries to keep them running. Chávez, however, tried to negotiate with the “sobateurs” as the authors call the bosses.

In other words, it was the independent activity of the workers that defeated these two attempts at overthrowing Chávez, not the role he, himself, played.

One of the low cost food stores that Chavez instituted. Reforms like this were very popular.

Workers advance
These twin victories created an upswing in working class activity. Chávez moved to increase his popularity by making large concessions to the workers. He established eight different “misiones”, which were programs to combat poverty. These included programs to eradicate illiteracy, special low cost food stores for the poor, and programs for free higher education. He also embarked on a house building program. These programs enormously increased his support. In 2004, the opposition organized a recall referendum. Despite the fact that the capitalist media attacked Chávez day and night, this referendum was soundly defeated.

Struggle inside new union federation
Also, due to the betrayals of the CTV, workers organized a new labor federation – the National Workers Union of Venezuela – UNT. A struggle immediately broke out between those who wanted to subordinate the UNT to the state and those who wanted it to be politically independent. Those who fought for the latter banded together in a group called C-Cura (Corriente Clasista, Unitaria, Revolucionaria y Autónoma – the Independent, United, Revolutionary and Autonomous Current). That current exists to this day. Initially, the former, led by Marcela Máspero, gained the majority. However, by the second congress of the UNT in 2006, when it became apparent that this wing was in the minority, Máspero led a physical attack on the congress.

In December of that same year, Chávez was reelected. In 2007, he established his electoral machine – the “Fifth Republic Movement” (MVR) – as a new political party called the United Socialist Party of Venezuela or PSUV. This party basically replaced several others, including the Communist Party of Venezuela, which had swung over to Chávez. Part of the reason for establishing this party was to further his goal of subordinating the UNT to him and his regime. Many but not all on the left inside the UNT opposed joining the PSUV.

Attacks on workers
At that same time, Chávez’s labor minister, José Ramón Rivero, sought to undermine the independent unions by granting recognition to minority unions in some cases. On at least two separate occasions, Rivero was responsible (according to the authors) for physical assaults on independent workers, such as the attacks of September 27 and November 11 on workers at a wastewater treatment plant in Merida. The leader of the militant workers in the oil industry, Orlando Chirino, was fired from PDVSA, as was another such leader, Armando Guerra. (The labor department ordered Chirino rehired, but PDVSA refused and Rivero did not enforce that order.)

Left to right: Carlos Requena, Richard Gallardo, Luis Hernández.
They gave their lives for the working class.

In the steel industry, worker militancy (including the near unanimous rejection of a government proposed contract) forced Chávez to nationalize some companies in that industry. However, the militancy continued in the following years. On several occasions, plant occupations were attacked by the National Guard and/or thugs of the employer. One such attack, in November of 2008, led to the shooting death of three workers leaders, Richard Gallardo, Luis Hernández and Carlos Requena. Other worker leaders were also killed.

In addition to the physical assaults, Chávez’s minister of labor tried to undermine the steelworkers union by forming a government controlled union led by a leader of the Venezuelan Communist Party. That attempt died stillborn.

In sum, the upsurge of worker activity was in part co-opted by the concessions and in part repressed.

Chávez’s links with Venezuelan capitalists
Chávez also made his peace with some of the top Venezuelan capitalists, including Gustavo Cisneros. Cisneros’ companies operate in 50 different countries, including in the United States, where it employes 30,000 workers. His TV

Hugo Chavez with Jimmy Carter.
This “kindly capitalist” ex-US president helped link Chavez up with former coup plotter Gustavo Cisneros.

station supported the 2002 attempted coup. Former US president Jimmy Carter, that man with the kindly image, traveling the world with toolbox in hand, building homes for the homeless and safeguarding democracy, played a key role by organizing a meeting between the two of them and himself on June 18, 2004. Whereas in 2002, Chávez was calling Cisneros a “coup plotter” and a “fascist”, now he “welcomed” him as a sincere “Venezuelan”. Coincidentally, Cisneros’ TV broadcasting company, Venevision, had its license renewed (and it also dropped its criticism of Chávez). A rival station, RCTV, was not so favored.

Chávez also strengthened his base in the Venezuelan military. By 2013, there were 1,614 military officers in high government positions. Similar to other governments based on the military, the officers merged with the newly developing “bolibourgeoisie” and by 2017 there were 14 companies run by military chiefs. Distribution of eighteen different commodities is controlled by various generals. This includes cooking oil (Brigadier General Jorge Perez), beef (General Luis Jimenez), and corn meal (Vice Admiral Freddy Lozada). Distribution of these commodities is a source of tremendous corruption, particularly in the dollar exchange market.

Oil Industry
Despite the decline in oil production (from 3 million barrels per day in 1998 down to 1.6 million in 2017), and despite the sharp decline in oil prices in recent years, oil has become the absolute center of the Venezuelan economy. In 1999, oil exports composed 76% of Venezuela’s total exports. By 2012 it was 96%.

Although the US sanctions have played a role, another aspect of the decline in oil production has been the failure to reinvest in the industry.

Parallel with the crisis in the oil industry have been developments in the oil workers unions, which joined together in October of 2009 to form a single federation. At that time, the Chavista leadership won 54% of the vote for the leadership and their candidate, Wills Rangel, was elected president. Their slate – “List 7” – was financially supported by the transnationals and saw direct intervention by Chávez. List 7 tended to win in the smaller and less organized plants and refineries and among workers who were more recently hired. Placing second and winning the position of secretary general as well as 4 out of the 15 executive board seats was the C-cura opposition, which gained 27% of the votes. They tended to win in the larger and better organized plants.

Repression against C-cura continues to this day, with several instances of their leadership being arrested and/or fired. Presently, Venezuela’s oil workers are the lowest paid in the entire world.

Chávez’s international links
The links between Chávez and Fidel Castro continued to broaden and deepen on both sides. Castro sent thousands of doctors and others to Venezuela in exchange for cheap oil. These links also gave Chávez a revolutionary veneer. However, the links were not all one way. The Industrial Bank of Venezuela set up branches in Cuba through which it is financing private investment from Venezuela into Cuba. In other words, it is playing a role in helping the return of capitalism in Cuba.

Chávez also established ties with other Latin American countries through a trade treaty called ALBA, which is mainly based on trade by different national companies (vs. the multi nationals) and ignores the issue of foreign debt.

Venezuela is also becoming more integrated into the economies of China and Russia, both of which are increasing their investments into Venezuela, as well as loans to the country. By 2017, Venezuela was indebted to China to the tune of $16.7 billion.

In relation to these issues, the authors call for a united front of debtor countries to cancel their foreign debt, expel the multi-nationals and the IMF and take control over their own natural resources.

Venezuelan economic refugees entering Colombia
According to the UN, some 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country due to the economic collapse.

Economic collapse
Well before Chávez died (in 2013) the economy was collapsing. In 2010, for example, the GDP contracted by 5.8% and industrial production was at 50% of capacity. (Some claim that the US sanctions plus the collapse in oil prices are the entire cause of this economic crisis. The years these took effect show that this is not true, as oaklandsocialist has shown here.) The response to this crisis was just the same as has been the case in any other capitalist government: Billions of dollars to bail out banks and other private companies (including General Motors) and wage cuts for the working class. In addition, the corrupt military also has been responsible for massive waste: Thousands of tons of rotting food in warehouses controlled by them.

The combination of this economic collapse plus the anti-worker policies of the government led to an electoral defeat for Chávez’s PSUV in the September, 2010 elections. In those elections, the opposition won 5.6 million votes while the PSUV won 5.4 million. However, due to the Chavista electoral system, the PSUV won the majority of seats… for the last time. The opposition was split between the right wing MUD and a left chavista party called the PPT. This party at that time had refused to dissolve into the PSUV. Orlando Chirino, the socialist union leader and comrade of the authors, ran on a program of working class independence on the PPT slate.

As the economic crisis mounted, so did the protests, with 5,338 in 2011, a 70% increase over the previous year. These included, for example, thousands of cement workers who were working without a contract.

After Chávez
On March 5, 2013, Chávez died and slightly over a month later his personally appointed replacement, Nicolás Maduro, was elected to replace him… barely. Maduro won 50.6% of the vote vs. 49% for the right wing MUD candidate. Lacking the personal history as well as the charisma of Chávez, and with the worsening economic crisis, Maduro has become increasingly isolated and repressive. It has responded to the ever worse economic crisis with layoffs, wage cuts and increased prices for government services like public transport. In other words, the typical austerity methods of any capitalist government.

The increased isolation resulted in its electoral loss of 2015 when, for the first time, it lost its majority in the congress by a landslide. MUD won 112 seats vs. 55 for the PSUV. Maduro responded by taking control over the judiciary in order to hold congress in check. He also imposed new austerity measures.

This situation led to an outbreak of riots and looting of stores by a desperate population. In 2016 there were over 700 such riots, which then led to further repressive measures by Maduro. The attitude of the protesters was seen in one such protest by youth in Maracay, who took up the slogan “Neither MUD nor PSUV. We are those at the bottom who are coming for those at the top.”

Meanwhile, the MUD did its best to actually demobilize the protests. They were joined in this by the Pope as well as by US imperialism.

National Constituent Assembly”
There was a massive outburst of anger in 2016 and 2017. Maduro dealt with the 2015 electoral loss and these protests by calling a fraudulent election for a new National Constitutional Assembly (ANC). Since it was writing a “new constitution”, it took power over the national assembly, but why was a new constitution even necessary in the first place? The answer lies in the fraudulent way in which the representatives were assigned, with the various different cities vastly under-represented. Other means of misrepresenting the actual population were also used. It has been estimated that there was an abstention rate of 75% (vs. the government claim that 41% voted – a paltry figure itself). As the authors write, “Such was the (electoral) fraud that the company that has been in charge of automatic voting for over a decade, Smartmatic, said that as a minimum some one million votes were manipulated.”

Juan Guaido with US Vice President Michael Pence.

By the end of 2017 and into early 2018 there was a recovery of the working class with increased protests and strikes. In February of 2018, for example, workers at 50 companies in the state of Valencia marched in protests. Predictably, this led to hundreds of arrests. In all of this, Guaidó and the MUD have been absent, or, better put they have actually discouraged such protests. Instead, along with US imperialism, they choose to negotiate with Maduro and seek to win over the generals.

The authors sum up Chavismo as follows: “The debacle of nearly 20 years of the chavista project has led the Venezuelan people to an unprecedented social and humanitarian crisis. It was not socialism of the 21st century nor of any other century. Nobody who claims to be on the left can defend this corrupt and repressive spawn of capitalism.”

Some comments and questions
Overall, the statistics and events in this book are well documented and credible. This review only mentions a very, very few of the struggles of and attacks on the Venezuelan workers that are recounted in the book. The authors say that the regime is a Bonapartist one, similar to Perón of Argentina or the old Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico. I agree. In fact, I tentatively came to that that same conclusion after visiting there in 2005. This makes Maduro fundamentally different from Salvador Allende of Chile. For all his mistakes and weaknesses, Allende was, in fact, a workers leader who came to power through a mass, working class political party. It’s no accident that he didn’t attempt to flee when Pinochet organized the coup. Instead, he stayed and met his fate.

The book also is a devastating critique of the MUD. It makes clear that they support the same austerity measures as Maduro. Not only that, but they are very open to making a deal with Maduro. That being the case, if it were to come to power, it would have to be just as repressive as is the Maduro regime.

The popularity of Chavez was due to his redistribution of the oil wealth through programs such as this government subsidized food store (photo: 2005). A reported 9 million turned out for Chavez’s funeral. While some, such as government workers, may have been pressured to go, it seems unlikely that all of them went reluctantly.

One question I do have is on the overall balance of the mood it presents. (I emphasize that this is a question, not a disagreement.) When I visited Venezuela, I encountered a sense of optimism for the future, plus an enthusiastic support for Chávez, such as I had never seen anywhere else in my life. That impression was from a very brief one-time only visit, but it was very strong at the time. While the book does comment on the support for Chávez in those days, it does not give a clear view of how strong and enthusiastic that support was, assuming that my impression was accurate. Further, if my impression was correct, that support would not just collapse overnight. In fact, there might still be remnants to this very day. That would help to explain, for example, the 2010 parliamentary election results. Yes, a credible case is made that the PSUV retained a majority of seats because of the way the seats were misapportioned, but still millions of Venezuelans voted for Maduro. And while Maduro lacks the magnetism and the history of Chávez, some of that support would tend to flow over to him, even though at this time the evidence is that the majority do not support Maduro and the PSUV. (Given the disastrous state of affairs in Venezuela, how can anybody expect anything different?)

In general, to what extent did Chavez succeed in coopting the labor movement and, in relation to this, to what extent did he succeed in dividing the working class, keeping the support of a layer of workers (possibly the less organized) and other, including the unemployed, those in the underground economy, etc.?

Overall, the book is a valuable contribution towards understanding what is happening in Venezuela. It also left me with some further question:

  1. The authors place a lot of emphasis on the issue of the foreign debt. They call for refusal to pay it. While this makes a lot of sense, clearly the lenders – both imperialist powers like the United States and such institutions as the IMF – will not stand still for this. There will be sanctions as well as seizure of accounts held overseas and of exports, especially oil. How do the comrades propose to deal with these counter attacks?In connection with this, they call for a united front of the different debtor nations in Latin America – for them to refuse to repay the debt together. This call is in light of the comments of the founder of their tendency, Nahuel Moreno, regarding a tendency towards unity of Latin American nations. Nasser’s attempt to unite the Arab nations into one single nation in the 1950s is an example of a similar tendency. What it turned out to be was an attempt of Egyptian capitalism to dominate the rest of the Arab capitalist world. Wouldn’t something similar happen under capitalism in Latin America? While the authors do call for a socialist federation of Latin America, it would have been helpful for them to have developed these perspectives a little more. The role of the working class in the imperialist countries – be they the US, China or Russia in the case of Venezuela – is also vital in order to fight imperialist attacks. Direct links between the workers in these countries and Latin America are necessary. It would have been useful to see this explained and for some proposals for how this could be accomplished.
  2. Regarding the question of the Chávez/Maduro regime being Bonapartist: Especially given the long experience with Bonapartism that Latin American workers have, it would have been useful to give a short explanation of what Bonapartism is, how it arises as a result of a crisis of capitalism and a stalemate between the classes and how a figure can arise that is partly above the classes, that balances between the classes.
  3. Venezuela is a living example of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Oaklandsocialist has explained this here. It would have been useful, especially considering that the main readership is in Latin America, hopefully including Venezuela at some point, for the authors to have included a short summary of this theory and how it applies to Venezuela.

    Also, with that in mind, the issue of state power arises. At one point, the authors cite the view of C-cura that the problem is “the structures of the bourgeois state.” Exactly. How, then, can alternative structures arise? Are there or were there during the recent struggles, any embryonic formations that could provide an alternative to these capitalist structures? And if so, how could they have been nurtured?
  4. Finally, there is the issue of the oil industry and the environment. First of all, the existence of vast oil wealth has contributed to the distortion and corruption of countries like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. To what extent is this also true in Venezuela? Also, as this is being written, fires are raging out of control in both Siberia and Brazil’s Amazon. It is clear that the continued reliance on oil threatens the future existence of human society. It is impossible to call for the shut down of the oil industry in Venezuela. But it would be interesting to know how the comrades deal with this issue inside Venezuela.

The future
What lies in the future for Venezuela? The account the authors provide helps in considering this. The Maduro regime is based on the military tops, which Guaidó and US imperialism have tried to win away. Because of the wealth the generals have amassed through the control of various industries, US imperialism has failed in this for the moment. But that is the purpose of the sanctions – to so cripple the industries that the generals figure they can make more money by switching sides. Will that happen? Also, is it possible that Russian and Chinese imperialism will step further into the breach? If so, that might give the regime a further lease on life. As for the masses of Venezuelan people – their suffering doesn’t matter in the calculations of any of these forces. The Venezuelan working class, linked with the working class of Latin America and, in fact, of the US and around the world, provide the only answer.

Overall, the book is well worth reading and makes an important contribution to understanding the class struggle in Venezuela and in Latin America as a whole. Those in the United States who are interested in getting a copy should contact Oaklandsocialist.

Additional note: Those who are interested in additional reading on the history of capitalism in Venezuela might find this article useful: “Venezuela, the theory of permanent revolution and the role of the working class“.

1Unless otherwise specified, the history recounted here is simply a summary of what the authors write. It’s written this way to avoid having to constantly write, “according to the authors”. In general, though, I have found what they write to be entirely credible.

*The two authors are members of the Party for Socialism and Freedom in Venezuela. This is a Trotskyist party associated with an international group called “Unidad Internacional de Trabajadores” (UIT), and they write from that point of view. Their Spanish-language website can be found here. Individual articles are presented with an automatic English language translation app available.

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