Walden Bello: Revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Aug 13 13:32:18 MDT 2002

Subject: [CubaNews] Revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela

I vaguely recall that this article may have appeared a while ago on the
list,  but maybe I have it mixed up with something else.  In any case, it is
worth looking at more closely in view of current developments in the
national-revolutionary process that has been opening up in Venezuela and the
international debate that this process is inevitably beginning to inspire
The introductory remarks in parentheses are by Walter Lippmann.
Fred Feldman.

(This is a few weeks old but a very good account of the situation in
Venezuela by Walden Bello, respected anti-globalisation
opponent/writer/activist. It is good to see an authoritive voice in
the movement against globalisation take up the cause of the
Bolivarian revolution. Particularly important is the points about the
Bolivarian circles which Bello says are being seen as 'institutions
of self governemnt'- he backs this up with a quote from Freddy Bernal
who is  a key leader of the MVR (chavez's party) and reportedly the
key leader of the uprising that defeated the coup.

It seems to me that the conscious and deliberate establishment of and
attempts to strengthen the Bolivarian circles contradict the picture
some on the Left are developing about the Chavez phenomena - a
picture of a vacillating mild reformer moving to the right attempting
to hold back increasingly radicalised masses and balance their
revolutionary pressure with major concessions to the Right. If this
was the case then it would seem obvious that Chavez would do what
Allende did in Chile - that is make serious moves to attempt to
control and stop self organisation of the masses. Instead Chavez is
doing the opposite.

Also, such a picture denies the role Chavez has played in driving
forward the radicalisation of the masses, not just as a by-product of
progressive reforms but as part of a conscious effort. Chavez's
failed military rebellion, the mass campaign for Presidency, the
democratic constitution endorsed by popular vote - these have all
been events which, rather than simply being responses to pressure
from radicalising masses, have actually helped create and take
forward - by giving hope and helping to organise - the radicalisation
of Venezuela's poor masses.)

Revolution and Counterrevolution in Venezuela

by Walden Bello*
July 22, 2002


The political reality of Venezuela hits me as soon as I arrive, like
a blast of Caribbean air at midday. A friendly question triggers a
torrent of anti-Chavez denunciations from the young professional
serving as my driver from the airport that only ends when he deposits
me at the Hilton. "We used to be a tolerant country," he claims. "Now
Chavez has set the lower class against the middle class, the black
people against the whites. Sure, there are a few abusive rich people,
but it's not just them he's targeted. It's people like me. You know,
middle class people, with an apartment, two cars, maybe a vacation
outside the country once a year." "But beware," he cautions me as he
drives off. "You'll meet him tomorrow night, and he can really be

A Second Bolivar?

Indeed he is. At a banquet for participants at an international
conference the next evening, Hugo Chavez, president of the Bolivarian
Republic of Venezuela, is at his social, disarming best. Upon being
introduced to me, he takes me by the hand, , pretending to lead me in
the Filipino bamboo dance "tinikling," which he says he learned
during a state visit to the Philippines during the Estrada
presidency. And far into the evening, he talks expansively on a wide
range of topics, from his being saved and reinstalled by the poor in
Miraflores, the presidential palace, during the failed coup of April
11-13, to his dream of integrating the petroleum industries of
Venezuela, Brazil, and other oil producers in Latin America. Chavez'
effusiveness is remarkable given the fact that Venezuela is on the
brink of civil war. In this, he resembles his hero, Simon Bolivar,
the larger-than-life Venezuelan who led the liberation of Spanish
America in the early 19th century, who is said to have maintained an
enthusiastic disposition even in the midst of the most trying
political and personal crisis. A second coup attempt is said to be
brewing among the "anti-Chavistas," which include the elite and
middle class, the media, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and
parts of the army. Caracas is filled with rumors--with two dates
frequently cited as D-Day, July 5 and July 11. Gilberto Jimenez, a
young Chavez partisan, discounts the rumors as the product of the
middle class' "scaring itself." "It's like the talk about
the "Bolivarian circles" arming themselves," he remarks, referring to
the grasssroots institutions that Chavez' people have set up in the
barrios or popular districts. "There's no truth to it. But they email
this to one another, and pretty soon, they [the middle class] are
talking about arming themselves."

Failed Coup

The class divisions in this country showed itself to the world as an
ugly wound during the events of April 11-13. During a confrontation
between opposition and government demonstrators on April 11, still
unidentified gunmen fired into the crowd, killing 18, mostly pro-
Chavez people. A few hours later, after army chief Gen. Efrain
Vasquez demands Chavez' resignation, rebel officers and soldiers
seize him at Miraflores and bring him, first to the Venezuelan army
headquarters at Fort Tiuna, then to an island off the Venezuelan
coast. A junta headed by Pedro Carmona Estanga, head of the
Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce and backed by key generals and
admirals, installs itself in power and unilaterally dissolves the
National Assembly, Supreme Court, National Electoral Council, and all
state and municipal governments. It also nullifies a package of 48
laws approved by the National Assembly that the right regards as a
threat to the existing property system. It is a classic case of
overreach. Angered by the brazen moves and refusing to believe that
Chavez has "resigned," many military units declare for Chavez even as
hundreds of thousands of poor people descend on central Caracas from
the ranchos, or slums, surrounding the city, creating a critical mass
that scatters the pro-coup forces. Recalling the events, Chavez tells
us over dinner, "The government was weak, we were weak, but in our
moment of need, the people came out to the streets and saved us." The
event, says Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano, has significance
beyond Venezuela, being "the first victory of the masses in the
Americas and the world in a long, long time." In 48 hours, Chavez is
back in power. Meanwhile, not a few institutions have egg on their
face. The New York Times, for instance, editorializes in favor of the
coup on Saturday, April 13, then retracts on Tuesday, April 16. Like
the Times, the Bush administration blames Chavez for bringing the
coup on himself, then begins to fudge as soon as he is back in power.
But the damage is done. Many European and Latin American governments
criticize the US for tolerating the overthrow of a democratically
elected government. Indeed, many people, in Venezuela and outside,
suspect the US had a hand in the coup, claiming that two US Navy
officers were seen with coup leaders at Fort Tiuna on the night of
April 11 and 12. The question is critical, but whether or not the US
had a hand in developments, some sort of social confrontation was

Two Nations, One Country

Venezuela is one of Latin America's most class-divided countries. It
is estimated that 80 per cent of the people live in poverty, with the
World Bank estimating that the share of the national income going to
the lowest 20 per cent of the population is only 3.7 per cent, while
that of the highest 10 per cent is 37 per cent. The vast wealth
differentials were to some extent mitigated during the halcyon days
of OPEC in the early 1980's, when some of the oil money did trickle
down in a country that was then known as "Latin America's Saudi
Arabia." But with the collapse of oil prices and the initiation of a
wrenching structural adjustment program, Venezuela entered into
permanent constant economic crisis since the mid-eighties. "It was
spectacular," says Neils Liberani, a small businessman. "Per capita
fell from nearly $2000 in the eighties to $110 today." The "Caricazo"
of 1989, when people from the barrios descended on and rioted in the
center and rich districts of Caracas in protest against fuel price
increases demanded by the International Monetary Fund, is said to
have been a determining event in Chavez' political evolution. Three
years later, in February 1992, the young idealistic colonel led a
failed coup in the name of the poor masses which was styled as
a "Bolivarian military uprising." The coup failed, but it catapulted
Chavez into the center of Venezuelan politics, and when he ran for
president in 1998 on a platform of ending corruption and
subordination to foreign powers and beginning a social revolution, he
won handily, with some 56 per cent of the vote, drawing support even
from sectors of the middle class that now oppose him bitterly. The
last three years have indeed been revolutionary. Chavez pushed
through a new constitution that was approved in a popular referendum.
He formed a political coalition that won control of the National
Assembly. The Assembly passed the famous package of 49 laws that
included an agrarian reform law, a law to protect small fishermen,
and a law limiting the role of the private sector in exploiting
Venezuela's vast oil reserves. "Many people in the media at first
criticized him for being merely rhetorical in his promises. But when
he moved to create and implement revolutionary measures, these same
people started to oppose him," says Jimenez. In foreign policy,
Chavez' moves were equally bold. He was effusive in his admiration
for Fidel Castro. He broke the embargo against state visits to Saddam
Hussein. And he played a key role in uniting OPEC to manage oil
production in order to stabilize the price of oil. These moves did
not endear him to the United States. Indeed, Chavez' foreign policy
is breathtakingly Bolivarian. Not only does he dream of a regionally
integrated oil industry. He also speaks about a South Atlantic Treaty
Organization that would have only Latin American and African members
and would be geared to preserve the common security of the Southern
countries. He has not hidden his skepticism about the Bush
administration's Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal, and his
aides say that it will not win approval in a referendum in Venezuela.
Yet Chavez has his critics on the left was well. Some say he is too
aggressive in personal style and too quick to brand those with
legitimate criticism as "enemies of the people." Others say that he
is too dependent on support on loyalist groups within the military,
and this will be difficult to maintain given the middle-class origins
of most officers. "These people have to live day to day in the midst
of middle class people who hate Chavez," says a Chavez supporter who
requested anonymity. Still others say that that he has not gone
beyond charismatic populism to have a well-articulated program of
change. As Anibal Quijano puts it, "'Chavismo' needs to be converted
quickly into a genuine democratic process liberated from the mystical
relationship of the dispersed and disorganized masses with a caudillo
with the peculiar style of Chavez." Some say that while Chavez and
his allies have begun to depersonalize and institutionalize the
revolution via the formation of the Bolivarian circles, this comes
comes rather late in the game.

Revolution and Counterrevolution

Whether late or not, the government is moving to organize popular
power. The Bolivarian circles are seen as institutions of self-
government, which are given exceptional latitude in determining
projects and priorities. "People have to stop waiting for government
to do things for them. They have to start doing things for
themselves, with local government in a support role," says Freddie
Bernal, the mayor of large low-income district Libertador and one of
Chavez' most trusted aides. The revolution is real, but so is the
counterrevolution. The atmosphere of high tension in Caracas reminds
one of Santiago in 1973, when the elite and the middle class were
massing in the streets demanding the ouster of the "dictatorial"
government of Salvador Allende which had allegedly introduced "the
politics of hate" in a once pacific country. The democratic rhetoric
is the same, but then as now, in 1973 Chile and in 2002 Venezuela,
the problem the right faces is that the revolutionary leader has been
popularly elected. Moreover, the revolutionary constitution has been
democratically approved. And the laws addressing the social
inequalities have been passed by a democratic parliament. Then as now
as well, the right is on strike economically, withholding hundreds of
millions of dollars worth of investment or moving it offshore, thus
worsening the economic crisis that Chavez inherited from previous
administrations. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," says one pro-
Chavez partisan who requested anonymity. "They refuse to to invest,
and when the crisis worsens, they blame it on Chavez. This is not to
say that Chavez has not made mistakes. Some of his measures come
across as being thought up by the IMF." Will there be another coup
attempt? Martin Lopez, an anti-Chavez small businessman, says that
the dominant tendency on both sides is to turn away from violence and
towards negotiation. He is cautiously hopeful that a coming mission
to promote dialogue headed by former US President Jimmy Carter will
succeed. Many are less optimistic, noting that the opposition's main
condition for starting dialogue--Chavez' stepping down--is a non-
starter. What if there is another attempt by the opposition to
violently seize power, I ask some people in the lower-class community
of Nazareno, high up on one of the mountain slopes towering over
downtown Caracas. Rosa Quintero, a woman of around 40 years of age,
answers: "Look, we went down on April 12, not because we were looking
for food or money," referring to the lower class mobilizations that
reinstalled Chavez. "We went because we were fighting for our future.
And we are prepared to do it again." The right's dilemma is that to
reimpose control over Venezuela, it will have to do it over the dead
bodies of thousands of poor people, including possibly that of
Quintero. And that of Chavez, who, like his role model, is playing
not only for the present but for history. "The mistake they made on
April 11," he is reported to have remarked, "is that they did not
kill me. They won't make it again. And I am prepared to die rather
than betray our Bolivarian principles." And the US? The dilemma of
Washington's ruling unilateralists is that while there is no
easy, "non-messy" way of getting rid of a democratically elected
president, they cannot afford to have another Fidel Castro in the
region, especially a Fidel that reigns in a country that is the US's
second biggest foreign oil supplier.

*Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, a program of the
Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute in Bangkok,
Thailand; professor of sociology and public administration at the
University of the Philippines.

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