Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution

• Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez talks to Marta Harnecker, translated by Chesa Boudin, Monthly Review Press 2005, 193pp, £10

• Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Richard Gott, Verso 2005, 291pp, £9.99

‘Chávez may go, but Chávez is not only Chávez...The situation we are in has awakened very radical tendencies, feelings. I’m sure that no matter what happens to me, these radicalised sectors would keep going and new leadership would emerge...I’m certain that the process is irreversible. This...revolution, will not be stopped.’ Hugo Chávez, June 2002
(Harnecker pp102-3)

Since 1994, the revolutionary national movement in Venezuela has successfully developed as a popular movement guided by determined anti-imperialist military officers and civilian leaders. As President Chávez says, the aim was to convert the already existing popular rejection of the oligarchy into ‘a bottom up avalanche’ (Harnecker p153), and to do this peacefully ‘but not disarmed’ (p45).

Richard Gott’s account1 provides an excellent background for those seeking to understand Venezuela today. He writes sympathetically of the progressive forces in Venezuela. The general nature of his book means we must go elsewhere to learn in detail of the recent economic changes, and the results of government and social policy with appropriate statistics. Nor do we learn of the substance of the current political discussions between the left parties in the ruling coalition, although disputes over the economic programme are referred to in chapter 24.2

Gott’s book consists of 37 short and readable chapters plus appendices. He uses the adult life of Chávez, ‘heir to the revolutionary tradition of the Venezuelan left’ (p16), as the vehicle to present the new Bolivarian revolution – the pursuit of Simon Bolivar’s mission to expel imperialism and unify the peoples of Latin America. Gott shows how the younger Chávez and his army colleagues were shocked by the dire conditions of the Venezuelan people as they travelled the country and how the earlier guerrilla campaigns of the 1960s, and the Peruvian (1968) and Panamanian (1968-81) national military conceptions of independence affected him. In 1977, aged 23, he decided to form his own revolutionary group and began to build the contacts and knowledge he would use to such brilliant effect 20 years later. He is clearly a revolutionary intellectual, admitting wide influences: from Mao Zedong to John Kennedy, from Nietzsche to Rousseau and Che. Gott points to important Latin American influences in Chávez’s thinking: Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodríguez and Ezequiel Zamora. Yet Chávez prefers learning from his exchanges with workers and peasants. Harnecker’s interviews show that, as President, Chávez became overwhelmed with direct contact and correspondence with the poor, he was forced to reorganise how his office dealt with this.

In 1982, from the Military Academy, Chávez formed the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement within the army (MBR-200). The February 1989 ‘Caracazo’, a nationwide, popular but leaderless uprising against IMF-imposed cuts in state spending (with thousands killed) pushed opposition further. In 1992 Chávez attempted a coup that was betrayed. He surrendered on TV ‘for now’ – becoming a national figure. Involved from prison in a second failed coup that year, he was released in 1994 but permitted to stay in the army. Between 1994 and 1998 Chávez discussed his civilian-military ‘mega-project’ with the other key left parties. This centred on a debate over MBR-200’s abstention campaign, intended to express its rejection of the existing party system. This was part of a campaign to forge unity around the demand for a Constitutional Assembly, in which ‘our local leaders in almost every state were finding themselves up against not only the Right but also against the Left’. (Harnecker p62). In Harnecker’s book we see his awareness of the dangers of ‘the electoral path’, but he could no longer support ‘a traditional military coup’. His total opposition to ‘populism’ is very clear (p176).

We see how in preparing for the 1998 Congressional elections, which his alliance won, he formed the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) drawing on the MBR-200 and some non-party civilians. Gott refers to Chávez’s battle against left sectarianism, but detail is given by Chávez in Harnecker’s book. This covers LCR’s (Revolutionary Cause) attempted entryism into MBR-200, attempted sabotage of his meetings by the PPT (Fatherland for All), and the shameful counter-revolutionary activities of Red Flag. He finally attracted majority sections of the PPT and MAS (Movement Towards Socialism), themselves the results of earlier splits from the Venezuelan Communist Party. These parties and individuals formed the Patriotic Pole to fight the election. However, throughout his accounts Chávez always defends members of any party who deal honestly and fairly with political questions. He tries to involve the most capable from all areas in the formulation of the Bolivarian project.

The second half of Gott’s book deals with the period from 1998 to the recall referendum in 2004. He deals succinctly with the Constitutional Assembly, the creation of new economic and foreign policies and the obstacles Chávez faces: the establishment, racism, the judiciary and the old trade unions. He then covers the three subsequent counter-revolutionary efforts by the old order: the defeated coup d’état of 2002 – which finally provoked the interest of the European ‘left’; the attempted economic coup of 2002-3; and the recall referendum campaign. It is noticeable that Gott barely refers to ‘imperialism’, preferring the ‘US attempt to rule the world’ (Gott p13) or damaging western policies. Nevertheless the book has many strengths. It stresses the disastrous effect of racism on the poor and recognises Chávez’s determined fight for women’s and indigenous peoples’ rights.

Significantly, Gott starts and ends with Chávez’s relation to Cuba. The visits to Havana in 1994 and 2004, illustrate the unity of vision, the exchange of experience, the advice, the development of close economic ties and the deep friendship between the two countries. This demonstrates true internationalism. The historic tenacity of the Cuban people has made the struggle for true democracy in Venezuela less difficult for the Venezuelan masses.

Marta Harnecker’s interviews with President Chávez, made two months after the unprecedented popular defeat of the pro-imperialist coup d’état in April 2002, show how a living struggle has exposed all the formulae and caricatures of ‘revolution’ trumpeted for years by the opportunist petty bourgeois ‘left’ in the imperialist heartlands. Her interviews force the reader to reflect on what has to be done by socialists living in the imperialist states to support revolutionary nationalism. The very opposite concern worries the SWP’s Chris Harman, inexplicably placed on the same platform as Marta Harnecker in London on 5 November at an ‘Historical Materialism’ (Journal) conference. Harman continuously threw doubt over whether a ‘revolution’ was taking place in Venezuela, thereby saving the listener any concern with supporting it, concluding that we should ‘never ever trust the military’. He meant the constitutionally and popularly elected President Chávez and his government, who have ‘passed the electoral test eight times in six years, a record unparalleled in Latin America’ (Gott p272).

Chávez says that, ‘It is not true that there is no revolution. We have a revolution here. There has been a change in the political legal structure...we must protect it, strengthen it.’(Harnecker p107) The new Constitution is the most democratic ever conceived in Venezuela and is hated by the bourgeoisie (see FRFI 177). Although Gott reprints chapter 8 of the Constitution on the rights of indigenous peoples, and briefly covers some key issues for these peoples in chapter 28, neither book examines it as such, despite its enormous significance. The new Constitution was the basis for the rejection of privatisation of Venezuela’s oil. It is the basis for every progressive step being taken in Venezuela; no wonder the Constitution has been printed by the millions in a pocket-sized booklet for everyone to have.

President Chávez’s interviews are now over three years old, and have already been published in Spanish, and some online in English.3 However, these valuable interviews give a clear impression of how Hugo Chávez views the left parties, his reflections on how he can stimulate the transformation of the country, and how he can develop a new type of interstate relations, especially within Latin America. The story of these exciting changes is very satisfactorily told in these two books, both of which any socialist should read with care. Each complements the other.

We can leave the last word here to Fidel Castro, who has made the key point with respect to the relatively peaceful course of Chávez’s revolution: ‘It was a good lesson for revolutionaries: there are no dogmas nor only one way of doing things.’ (Gott p283).
Alvaro Michaels

1. An update of his book of 2000, In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chávez and the transformation of Venezuela, with an appropriately changed title.
2. For such information see FRFI 177 and 180.
3. Hugo Chávez Frias, Un hombre, un pueblo. Published in Venezuela by Asociacion Civil Universitarios por la Equidad in 2002 and in Spain by Gakoa in 2002. An online translation of some sections was prepared by M Harnecker in 2003, translated by Alejandro Palavecino and Susan Nerberg as The military in the revolution and counter-revolution.

FRFI 188 December 2005 / January 2006


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