The class struggle in Venezuela

FRFI 177 February / March 2004

The failure of both the US-backed military coup against President Chavez’s democratic government in April 2002 and the economic lockout by the employers and oil corporation managers at the turn of 2003 has demoralised the rich and their friends in Venezuela. For the moment they are pressing their third option to shorten President Chavez’s period in office by a referendum made possible by the new democratic constitution that they want to destroy! Legal methods are a secondary resort of a cynical and corrupt Venezuelan business elite in retreat. They hope that the damage they have done to the economy, along with their massive media campaign, will remove President Chavez from office, allowing them to recoup their losses at the expense of the poor. Pressure by the US at all levels to carry through this campaign has been intense. ALVARO MICHAELS reports on the reactionary manoeuvres of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie.

The deadline for the collection of enough signatures for the National Electoral Council to call a referendum passed on 19 January. A battle is now taking place over the validity of many signatures, including those of the middle classes living abroad. On 25 January Jimmy Carter’s ‘peace’ circus arrived to meet the government and opposition groups to discuss an accord to ‘resolve the crisis’. This insolent visit suggested that a democratically elected government should give way to the demands of its defeated opponents, Alianza Civica. If fraudulent signatures are found and removed and the referendum is not implemented, the government’s opponents will undoubtedly return to violence. Already the US government is threatening the Venezuelan government, using website warnings to US citizens of a likely bombing campaign by dissenters in Caracas.

On 9 January frustrated US National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice pressed for a referendum, whilst accusing Chavez of fomenting unrest in neighbouring countries. Certainly the refusal to privatise Venezuela’s oil has been an example to Bolivia, where US attempts to seize natural gas have been thwarted. At the Monterrey Conference of Latin American States on 12/13 January, President Chavez applauded the nationalisation of Mexican oil 66 years ago. He praised the Catholic bishops for their declaration of support for the poor 25 years ago, praised US President Roosevelt’s New Deal and JK Galbraith’s work on the contrast between public poverty and private wealth. He showed how, in the ten years since the Free Trade Area of the Americas was proposed, there has been a 2.6% annual growth rate in the number of Latin Americans living in poverty, from 201 million to 227 million. In short, he stood as a progressive, demanding a new moral architecture in Latin America, where 10-15% of foreign debt should be moved to a ‘human fund’, whilst his domestic opponents and the US demand freedom to plunder Venezuela.

The economy
The economy contracted 9% last year because of the employers’ lock- out, causing some 5,000 companies to fail. An IMF scare story suggests a further 17% fall this year. Presently unemployment is at the same level it was when Chavez was first elected President, 18%. But President Chavez has wasted no time taking the offensive against his opponents. The president has criss-crossed Venezuela urging supporters to organise local referendums to remove opposition legislators. To counter this, Alianza Civica demands simultaneous elections for all posts. Measures to tighten control over the barrage of shameless anti-government slander by the millionaire communications industry are proposed.

With strict controls on foreign exchange to stem capital flight, the opposition bleats that this is intended to punish them for their role in the strike. The government has told the Central Bank to allow the use of all exchange rate adjustment gains to be used for social goals, and further demanded that $1 billion of reserves be used to support agricultural investment on newly allocated lands.

What Chavez has achieved
When President Chavez took office, 45% of households had no daily access to safe water and 27% had no sewage facilities. At least one person in 44% of all households had a chronic illness. There was one hospital bed per 585 residents, mostly accessible only to the wealthy. 13% of the country’s youth, nearly all from the poor sector, were not attending school. The dropout rate was 69%. In 1998, a total of 44% of children were excluded from the education system.

Since Chavez became president, three million people have received drinking water for the first time and one million have received sewage services. 20,000 new homes have been built and another 10,000 rebuilt by the Avispa and Reviba military programmes. Federal spending on education more than doubled in Chávez’s first two years: more than one million children were integrated into the education system; kindergarten enrolment tripled; nearly 700 new schools were built, over 2,000 were reconstructed, and 36,000 new teachers were employed.

The Bolivarian school model was established in 3,000 schools, bringing two meals a day, art, sports and recreation to many children’s daily lives. One million people are being taught to read and write under the Mission Robinson project in which dropouts will get a second chance at finishing high school. Two new Bolivarian public universities will open by this spring and others will follow, offering tens of thousands of scholarships to the underprivileged.

Hundreds of thousands of poor people are being attended to by volunteer Cuban doctors through the Barrio Adentro programme, providing one doctor per 200 families in slums where no medical facilities ever existed before. The number of doctors throughout the nation has increased by 48 per 1,000 residents and life expectancy has risen by nine months. The new Proyecto Simoncito gives support to women and infants from pregnancy to pre-school; infant mortality and undernourishment dropped significantly. Three new metro lines, three freeways, a railway line, a second bridge over the Orinoco river, the Caruachi dam, a giant aqueduct, and a second heavy oil refinery are under construction, creating tens of thousands of jobs. Thirteen cultural centres were built around the nation and the Caracas Theatre was reopened. 243 Infocenters – computer salons with high-speed internet services – were installed in libraries, museums, city halls and NGO offices.

The struggle with the large landowners

With the complicity of previous governments, the big landowners appropriated millions of hectares, with the result that Venezuela now imports 70% of its food. The owners of Polar beer (the largest company after petrol) import all their hops from the US. Tinned sweetcorn is imported. This situation benefits big importers and disadvantages the poorer sections of the economy, especially smallholders.

On 13 November 2001 a Land Law was passed aiming to guarantee food supplies by boosting domestic production. It affects only unused land, which it either taxes or expropriates. It forbids any individual from owning more than 5,000 hectares and plans to repossess many acres of illegally occupied state land, redistributing all of it to landless workers, principally through the formation of co-operatives.

A mere 1.7% of the population owned 74% of arable land. The National Land Institute (INTI) was created on 8 January 2002 to enact the land reforms. Pressure by big landowners meant little progress. On 4 May the Urachiche and Camunare Rojo land committees requested and received 665 hectares of fallow land stolen from the former National Agrarian Institute by the Bolmer and Azleca families (tied to the family of the state’s opposition governor, Eduardo Lapi). The governor ordered the pantaneros, regional police hardmen, to move them. On 12 July 2002, they violently attacked the 850 people who had moved there quite legally, pushing them back to Camunare Rojo with tear gas and gunfire: 20 people were wounded and eight ended up in hospital. ‘People are playing at anarchy in Yaracuy, and I won’t allow it,’ said Lapi.

In September 2002, when Chavez found out that INTI had not even redistributed 1,000 hectares, he demanded 1.5m hectares redistributed by 30 August 2003, or he would sack everyone. By August 2003 1,340,000 hectares had been handed over to 62,800 families. The objective remains 2m hectares per 500,000 campesinos.

On 20 November 2002, the opposition-influenced Supreme Court of Justice annulled articles 89 and 90 of the Land Law. Article 89 permitted INTI to allow pre-emptive occupation of land during the court proceedings aimed at proving the supposed landlords’ illegitimacy. The annulment encourages delays. Article 90 ruled out indemnity payments to landlords who had built facilities, houses or buildings on illegally occupied state land.

So Presidential Decree 2292, 4 February 2003, with INTI resolution 177, created the cartas agrarias or land titles. These allow for the occupation of disputed land and the granting of credits for its exploitation. Now, two and a half million acres of productive land have been distributed along with credits, technical support and equipment, and 30,000 land titles given to urban squatters. All titles contain a no-resale clause. The reforms have begun to return parts of enormous, barely used land-holdings to poor landless peasants, encouraging them to grow their own food and build working communities.

In the Santa Lucía section of the Santa Catalina estate (which belonged to the Central Matilde sugar consortium), 600 people received 540 hectares on 3 May 2003, plus 170m bolivars ($106,300) and a tractor, and sowed 170 hectares. ‘Armed men attacked us on 20 July; they burnt a truck and a car, beat two people up, and poured petrol over them,’ says Zapata, one of the co-operative’s leaders.

INTI handed 31,700 hectares to 500 families in Curito Mapurital (Barinas State). The Táchira State Cattle Raisers Association and Chamber of Commerce reacted furiously: ‘The law... imposes state control and ignores the right to property, which is a fundamental human right’. They claimed taxation of uncultivated lands was unconstitutional and based on Castro’s communist ideas.

Elsewhere there are extermination groups in the landowners’ pay, especially in the states of Zulia, Barinas, Tááchira and Apure. More than 120 campesinos have been murdered since 1999. Twelve people were murdered in Portuguesa State, including local land committee organiser Jacinto Mendoza, in front of the INTI offices. When arrested, the intermediary who recruited the contract killers said he received eight million bolivars ($5,000) from Omar Contreras Barboza, ex-minister of agriculture under exiled ex-president Pérez.

In March, the daily El Universal accused community leader Jorge Nieves of being an Apure region commandante of the supposed Bolivarian Liberation Front (FBL), said to be the armed wing of the Bolivarian Revolution. A month later he was shot down in the centre of Guasdualito.

The 1999 Constitution
The new constitution is the most democratic ever conceived in Venezuela. It was approved by referendum. Parliament now has priority over the executive, accused are now assumed innocent until proven guilty and the armed forces have the vote. The underlying principles are: 1) Nullification of treaties, pacts or concessions that diminish the country’s integrity. 2) Property rights will be respected, but with economic planning to assure balanced development. 3) Dogmatic extremes are rejected, with a balance between the state and market, public and private interest, and national and international factors, but must strengthen the autonomy of the country. 4) A new Supreme Court of Justice is to be created. 5) Ethnic and cultural diversity is recognised. 6) The right to ‘true’ information, the rights of all religions, the possibility of abortion are included.

The bourgeoisie hates this constitution. All elected officials must give an annual account of their work. 5% of citizens can require a referendum on sacking individual officers, or an investigation into complaints. Legislators cannot own or manage any business and no longer have judicial immunity. Far-reaching social security and labour benefits and a 44-hour working week have been included. Many police are violently opposed to restrictions on their abuse of workers.

The Chavez presidency and the movement that supports him are waging class war. Their defiance of imperialism and its Venezuelan allies greatly encourages the Latin American masses. In Venezuela we can see a road to victory being opened up. We must support the achievements of the Chavez government and oppose every effort by the US, British and other imperialist ruling classes to defeat the government, destroy the gains made and turn the people back.


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