Walden Bello: Revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Aug 13 13:37:42 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
> worth looking at more closely in view of current developments in the
> national-revolutionary process that has been opening up in Venezuela and
> 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
> charming."
> 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
> inevitable.
> 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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