Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, January 1958-February 2003

By Marcus Pabian

[Part one of an introduction to the Bolivarian Revolution, covering the period January 1958 to February 2003, presented at the DSP Socialist Summer School, Sydney January 2007, in the series on Latin America. Part two, covering February 2003 to December 2006, was presented by Katherine Bradstreet]

The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has established a socialist revolution in the 21st century that is winning the support of millions of people.

Chavez’s victory speech in the evening of the December 3 elections repeated their line of march:

“The new epoch that begins today will have as its central, fundamental idea, as its fundamental strategic line, the deepening, the widening and the expansion of the Bolivarian revolution, in the revolutionary democracy in Venezuelan life moving towards socialism.”

“That new era is the new socialist democracy. Y the new socialist society. Y the new socialist economy.”(1)

Many of Chavez’s supporters and current leaders of the socialist revolution in Venezuela were forged through political events from the late 1950s to the attempted military coup by Hugo Chavez on February 4, 1992, finally coming together in the lead-up to the 1998 presidential election.

The election of Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela on December 6, 1998, with 56% of the vote was a break with the two party system in Venezuela. It brought to an abrupt end a period of power sharing between the two bourgeois democratic parties of Accion Democratica and COPEI (the Christian Democrat party) B a power sharing arrangement which was formalised in the Pact of Punto Fijo, signed in 1958.

The Pact of Punto Fijo was signed as the two bourgeois democratic parties of Venezuela sort to consolidate their political hegemony following an anti-dictatorship struggle at the end of the 1950s.(2)

A characteristic of the leadership of the Bolivarian Revolution is the coming together of the civilian left, revolutionary soldiers and former left-wing guerrillas. For example: Chavez from the armed forces, Ali Rodriguez Araque, Venezuela’s foreign minister in 2006, was once a guerrilla fighter, and Jose Vicente Rangel, Vice-President in 2006, was a veteran civilian political activist and three times presidential candidate for the left.

Regular contact between the civilian left, former guerrillas and the military developed because of Plan Andres Bello, introduced in 1971, which integrated officer training with general university education for the armed forces, which already drew heavily from the poor working class and peasants.

Left weakened by guerrilla warfare

The guerrilla war that emerged in the 1960’s following the defeat of the dictatorship of General Marcos Perez Jimenez was a massive set back for the left.

The dictatorship of General Marcos Perez Jimenez was brought down by an organised military-civilian uprising in 1958 supported by the left, known as the January 23 rebellion.

The founder of the bourgeois party Accion Democratica, Romulo Betancourt took power with the enthusiastic and active support of Washington which then, following the Cuban revolution on January 1, 1959, sort to portray Venezuela as the alternative to Cuba for the rest of Latin America.

Some left-wing forces who had participated in the overthrow of General Marcos Perez Jimenez and felt betrayed by the government of Romulo Betancourt, took inspiration from the Cuban Revolution and launched a guerrilla war against the government.

The guerrilla war was launched following the formation of the Movimento Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR) in April 1960. MIR was dominated by youth, the radicalised student base of the Accion Democratica, and was joined in struggle by the Partido Comunista de Venezuela (PCV), and youth from the student base of the Union Republicana Democratica (URD). Two military revolts took place in 1962 against the Accion Democratica government. Both revolts were supported by communist party members and others on the left. However, by 1965 the Partido Comunista de Venezuela pulled back from the failing guerrilla war.

The guerrilla war resulted in the isolation of the left and the further political domination of the two bourgeois democratic parties, who used the occasion to further banish their left-wing.

As Chavez later commented: “One of the unfortunate effects of the guerrilla war in Venezuela was the isolation of political leaders who might otherwise have contributed to the development of a different mentality and outlook in the country Y this isolated and cut off an entire generation that might have created new political currents.”(3)

The guerrilla war had largely subsided when Chavez joined the military academy in 1971 and the government of Rafael Caldera (the founder of the Christian Democrat party, COPEI) was pacifying former guerrillas with a type of amnesty.

During the 1970s Venezuelan oil, which had been pumped since the 1920s, had a dramatic impact upon the expectations of the people as the post-1973 oil boom brought enormous revenues and the hope that the country was on the road to riches, possibly a Western lifestyle. Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon and Mobil had their oil operations nationalised and on January 1, 1976, the state oil company PDVSA was formed and took control of 11,000 oil wells, 11 oil refineries, and 14 oil tankers, plus pipelines, port terminals, and office buildings. The enormous oil revenue was used for a large-scale industrialisation effort that put massive public investments into iron, steel, aluminium and coal industries.

But by the 1980s those hopes were lost with the devaluation of the currency, a huge national debt, and growing poverty.

While Chavez’s underground revolutionary cadre organization, the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (MBR-200), formed on December 17 1982, grew inside the military in the 80s, another current leader of the socialist revolution was organising another revolutionary cell in the Venezuelan air force, Lieutenant William Izzara, who was attracted to Trotskyist ideas and had studied at Harvard University in the US, formed the Revolutionary Alliance of Active Service Officers.

Rebellion against neo-liberalism

While discontent reached a peak in the late 1980s along came the elections and Carlos Andres Perez was voted in, the same ruling class politician who, as president, had negotiated the nationalisation of the oil industry in 1976, and now people expected he might be able to pull them out of their descent into poverty.

Taking office at the beginning of February 1989, President Carlos Andres Perez had quite a different sort of pudding for the Venezuelan people than what they had hoped for.

In the place of state funded development a battery of neo-liberal policies was unleashed on Venezuela. The announcement came on February 16, 1989 barely two weeks after his inauguration, Implementation began 10 days later.

In a classic neo-liberal recipe the removal of state subsidies began in order to seize more money from the poor for international debt repayments to largely US banks and to prepare for the privatisation of state owned enterprises. One of the first targets on February 26, 1989, were the subsidies on petrol prices. From this day onward a 100% increase in price took place.

The following day Monday, February 27, as people began the week heading to work and students to university, private bus drivers dismissed the order of the government to stagger the increase in bus fares by 30% successively over several months. Instead they sought to recover the cost of petrol immediately and increased fares by 100%.

Masses of workers, the poor and students (who also simultaneously lost their half-price concessions), all heavily reliant on buses, reacted to the neo-liberal shock therapy with a fierce spontaneous rebellion and protest that rapidly took hold across the country. Before 6am that Monday morning protests had already begun at transport terminals. By mid-morning five major cities around the country had joined in.

However, unlike the military-civilian uprising that deposed General Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958, this rebellion against neo-liberal austerity was largely spontaneous, disorganised and lacked a national political leadership. Also the preparations for a revolutionary insurrection being made by Chavez and the MBR-200, who had hoped for a crisis such as this to coordinate themselves with, were simply not ready.

President Carlos Andres Perez declared a state of emergency on February 28 and by March 4 at least 400 people had been killed and thousands wounded by the military crackdown.

This working class rebellion against neo-liberal austerity, which has been dubbed the “El Caracazo”, was a major turning point in Venezuelan politics as the political authority of the bourgeois democratic parties was terminally damaged by their use of heavy military repression against Venezuela’s poor majority; their adoption of neo-liberal economic programs were rejected with the blood of Venezuela’s poor; many soldiers were repulsed by the repression they were ordered to carry out; and, the MBR-200 decided to accelerate its plans for a revolutionary insurrection.

A failed military-civilian uprising

In 1990 and 1991 leaders of the MBR-200 ascended through the ranks of the Venezuelan military to the level of being put in charge of troop regiments, with Chavez taking charge of the parachute regiment in Maracay in August 1991.

Chavez led the MBR-200 in a military coup against the neo-liberal government of Carlos Andres Perez on February 4, 1992, estimating that 10% of the military were loyal to the MBR-200. Originally planned to be coordinated with a general strike in May, the coup was brought forward to February. By 9am in the morning of February 4 Chavez decided to surrender, and was given one minute live on national television to call on his supporters to also surrender. It was this coup and his speech that turned Chavez into a national political figure and hero of the poor, as he accepted responsibility for his actions and urged that while, “for the moment, the objectives Y have not been achieved Y now is the time for a rethink; new possibilities will arise again and the country will be able to move definitively towards a better future.”(4)

The failure of the coup revealed the weak links between the revolutionaries in the military, the civilian leaderships and the mass discontent amongst the poor.

Following the coup over 1000 soldiers were imprisoned, including Chavez who continued his political role from within his cell in Yare prison, calling for a boycott of the December 1993 elections (which were called after a palace coup organised by his own party had removed Perez). While 25% of the electorate had abstained in the 1988 election, that rose to 40% in December 1993.

Chavez was regularly interviewed on national radio and television from his cell and following the release by the new Rafael Caldera government of all those involved in the coup, Chavez hit the streets on March 27, 1994, and in December travelled to Havana and established a strong connection with Fidel Castro.

From elections to a worker-soldier insurrection

The tactics of the MBR-200 then shifted to develop the political movement outside the army seizing on the growing political weakness of the bourgeoisie B the stark decline in the political authority of the two major bourgeois political parties. In 1995 Chavez published the Bolivarian Alternative Agenda, which outlined a national development plan. In early 1997 a perspective to challenge the 1998 elections took hold.

The Movimiento para la Quinta Republica (MVR) B Movement for a Fifth Republic B was formed to contest the elections and was launched in July 1997, after members of the MBR-200 travelled the country speaking directly with communities, establishing support from community leaders.

The MVR then organised an electoral alliance called the Patriotic Pole which brought together the MVR, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), Patria Para Todos (PPT) B Fatherland For Everyone B the Partido Comunista de Venezuela (PCV) and five smaller groups.

Chavez campaigned for a complete break with the economics and politics of the fourth republic, “our process”, said Chavez, “is a transition from a neo-liberal model to a humanist self-government B a more democratic model that would resolve the basic needs of the people”.(5)

Following his victory in the December 1998 elections, and his inauguration on February 2, 1999, Chavez announced a significant plan, which dramatically increased the fraternisation, and solidarity between the Venezuelan armed forces and poor workers and peasants.

Civilian-military alliance and a new constitution

On February 27, exactly 10 years to the day after the Caracazo uprising, Chavez outlined Plan Bolivar 2000, which sort to unite 100,000 military personnel with the poor in the service of the economic and social needs of the poor. Even the military barracks’, sports grounds’ and canteens’ would be made available to local communities.

Plan Bolivar 2000 had three phases. Stage one, called Pro-Pais, united 40,000 soldiers, workers and peasants to construct and reconstruct roads, health centres and schools. Stage two, called Pro-Patria, had the armed forces jointly working out solutions with the local community to their problems. Stage three, called Pro-Nacion, focused on national economic development and sustainability, to turn around problems such as the reliance on food imports which had reached 64% by 1998.

A second critical initiative launched on February 27, 1999, was the organization and election of 131 members to a constituent assembly in July, 1999, to draft a new constitution, which was supported by 71% of voters in a referendum on December 15, 1999. It largely set the constitutional framework for the development of popular power. Amongst its 396 articles it created a unicameral assembly and demanded the necessity of the, “participation of the people in the development, execution and control of the public power Y”(6) The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela became a source of mass and collective political education among workers and peasants. Elections in July 2000 under the new constitution, to the new unicameral National Assembly, returned Chavez with an increased majority of 59%.

The battle to expropriate PDVSA

In November 2000 the newly elected National Assembly enacted an old law called Ley Habilitante (the Enabling Law), which authorised Chavez to decree laws directly for a period of one year. One year later, in November 2001, Chavez enacted 49 new laws. These laws together represented the first incursion into the “property rights” of the Venezuelan capitalist class and gave an impetus to the self-organisation of the mass movement through the formation of popular committees to implement the laws.(7)

Two features of the set particularly infuriated the “property rights” of the capitalist class; the land reform law, prohibiting individual land holdings over 5,000 hectares and allowing peasants to take over privately owned idle land; the second shock for the capitalists in Venezuela and abroad was the Hydrocarbons law which decisively reversed the privatisation plan for the oil industry. Furthermore, it insisted on the state oil company PDVSA having a 51% controlling stake in all joint ventures with foreign capital, and payment of a 30% rate of royalties from private oil companies to the government, a generous leap from the paltry 1% previously demanded. And it was envisaged that the increased revenues would go to funding social programs for the poor and national economic development.

Thus, the first major showdown between the Bolivarian Revolution and the Venezuelan capitalist elite had begun and the US government was not slow to act.

The intention of the Chavez government to expropriate PDVSA (the largest company in Latin America) produced a political struggle (a bourgeois coup and insurrectionary worker-soldier counter-mobilisation in April) that changed the class character of the government and the armed forces, two essential institutions of the state, to create a workers and peasants state.

Opposition spokespeople declared the 49 laws as a threat to private property, and a campaign of mass protests was launched. The first senior person in the opposition to publicly attack the Chavez government over the Hydrocarbons law was the turncoat General Guaicaipuro Lameda, the boss of PDVSA appointed by Chavez, who jumped on the privatisation bandwagon of the capitalist management in PDVSA. Chavez sacked him immediately and appointed university radical Gaston Parra.

According to Conn Hallinan, writing in the San Francisco Examiner on December 29, 2001, between November 5 and 7, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon and the US State Department held a two-day-long meeting on US policy towards Venezuela, ie., “the problem of Venezuela”.

In December 2001 the US government of George W. Bush appointed Charles S. Shapiro as their ambassador to Caracas, a former US ambassador to El Salvador between 1985-88 and director of the US State Department’s Bureau of Cuban Affairs since 1999.

On December 10, following the defection of some of Chavez’s long term supporters such as Luis Miquilena, appointed Venezuelan Minister of the Interior earlier in 2001, the first general business strike was called by the Venezuelan chamber of commerce (Federcameras) and supported by the class collaborationist trade union federation CTV.

The revolutionary leadership countered with their own mass demonstrations in December and further stimulated mass organization with Chavez launching 8,000 Bolivarian Circles each organising around a dozen people, at one of the mass mobilisations.

Early 2002 was coloured with more demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, and in February Chavez installed five loyal directors out of seven at PDVSA with Gaston Parra as president of the company. By March several leading military officers had publicly joined the capitalist opposition campaign, calling for Chavez’s resignation.

Creation of a workers and peasants state

By the end of March and early April the capitalist opposition joined by the class collaborationist trade union federation CTV felt confident to take the final step. On April 5 the managers of PDVSA’s El Palito refinery shut it down. The next day, April 6, CTV head Carlos Ortega said it would organise a 24-hour general strike on April 9 in solidarity with the shutdown by the capitalist managers and middle class technicians of PDVSA. The following day, April 7, Chavez sacked 13 top managers of PDVSA. On April 8, Pedro Carmona, head of Fedecameras announced their support for the looming CTV general strike.

At the end of the day on April 9 they extended it for 24-hours, and then after that, declared it “indefinite”, unless Chavez resigned, and then called for another mobilisation of opposition forces on April 11 to march on the administrative offices of PDVSA in the opulent Caracas suburb of Chuao to support the sacked capitalist managers and protest the transformation of PDVSA.

This opposition demonstration on April 11 became the pretext for the pro-capitalist military coup when, on national television, it was claimed by naval officer Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez Perez, a principal coup leader, that Chavez “is massacring innocent people with snipers”(8) firing into the opposition protest, the claim was conveniently video-recorded earlier in the morning in front of journalists, before the confrontation even began.

This particular twist was spelt out six days beforehand in an April 6 CIA briefing with the unambiguous title of “Conditions Ripening for Coup Attempt”, which states: “Chavez and 10 other senior officers [are targeted] for arrestY To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month [April]”.

The following day, April 12, Pedro Carmona was sworn in as president of Venezuela by the bourgeois civilian-military junta, claiming that Chavez had resigned; the Bolivarian constitution was abolished; General Guicaipuro Lameda was put back in charge of PDVSA.

While Chavez was shuttled off to the small island of La Orchila on Saturday April 13, it was becoming clearer that he had not resigned. A mass mobilisation of the working class and a section of the Venezuelan armed forces then combined in an insurrection across the country that toppled the reactionary capitalist coup that day.

By midday on April 13 the coup leaders at the Miraflores palace was surrounded by a massive crowd, clamouring for Chavez’s return, which was so large it flooded into the city. Out at the Caracas military base of Fuerta Tiuna, another base of the coup leaders, thousands had also mobilised. Dictator-for-two-days Pedro Carmona was arrested at around 7pm at Fuerta Tiuna. “What crime have I committed?” he asked. You have “violated the Constitution of the Republic”, they replied.(9)

Chavez returned to Miraflores at 3:45am on Sunday April 14. Sixty admirals and generals who supported the coup were retired from the military. Adding administrative personnel and other officers a total of 400 people were forced out.

In an interview with Richard Gott shortly following the April coup Chavez pointed to the strength of the civilian-military alliance: “There was a rapid response to the coup, from both the military and the civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the country came out against the coup. And where was it that they went to? They assembled at the army barracks, and they did so because of the existing understanding that had been built up between officers and civilians through the Plan Bolivar. It was because of the contacts that had been made between the military and the poorest sectors of society that the people supported the army.”(10)

In overcoming the full coordinated resistance of the Venezuelan capitalist class with the backing of US imperialism, to the expropriation of PDVSA, the class nature of the state of Venezuela changed B a workers and peasants armed forces was created as the armed forces split in the face of the reactionary bourgeois coup in April and as a worker-soldier insurrectionary mass mobilisation brought Chavez and a workers and peasants government to power, against the interests of the capitalist class. This new workers and peasants state was then strengthened as it defeated the oil coup launched by the opposition in December that year.

The beginning of the socialist revolution

A temporary retreat from the transformation of PDVSA, and a call for national dialogue on Monday April 15, was made by the Chavez government, as they opted to consolidate the armed forces, build on the mass organisation, mobilisation and politicisation of workers and peasants in April, consolidate their majority in the National Assembly and prepare for a second attempt by the opposition to overthrow the government. The opposition however interpreted this as a sign of weakness.

That second attempt came in the form of a bosses lockout on December 2, 2002, called by the business council Fedecameras. It sought to inflict a campaign of sabotage that would paralyse PDVSA, bankrupt the government, blockade the ports with oil tankers, and cause food, power and fuel shortages thus provoking a national crisis to open the way to the overthrow of the Chavez government.

On December 7, five days after the beginning of the lockout, two million workers and peasants from across the country rallied in Caracas against the shutdown of PDVSA.

The sabotage of PDVSA was extensive as almost the entire technocratic managerial elite had used every trick in the book to dismantle the functioning of the company B this provided a huge obstacle for the revolutionary forces. Within days oil production dropped from around 3 million barrels a day to barely 150,000.(11)

A massive alliance of people’s brigades, the workers and peasants armed forces, PDVSA workers and the workers and peasants government mobilised to directly and decisively confront and defeat the interests of the capitalist class by clawing back the industry B undoing the sabotage, opening ports, restarting refineries.(12)

The opposition officially called off the lockout on February 2, 2003.(13)

In a nationally televised address from San Carlos in the state of Cojedes on January 10, 2003, with the control of PDVSA now in the hands of the workers and peasants government, and the pro-capitalist management purged from their positions, Chavez stated, “only now can we say the PDVSA has begun to be the property of Venezuelans, the property of the Venezuelan people.”(14)

With control of PDVSA now in the hands of a workers and peasants government that sought to use it to fund and organise production for social need, backed by a workers and peasants state, armed force, the socialist revolution in Venezuela had begun.

As we noted at the DSP’s 22nd Congress in January 2006, in a report on “Imperialist crisis and the advancing Venezuelan revolution”: “the socialist stage of the Venezuelan revolution has opened, not just in Chavez’s declaration of the battle for socialism and resulting discussion and debate among the Venezuelan masses, but also in the practical anti-capitalist measures being implemented, in particular the expropriation of the oil industry and the reorientation of oil profits to funding social programs, and the beginnings of the reorganisation of the economy along popular lines.”(15)

  1. Hugo Chavez Frias. Translation of victory speech by Hugo Chavez on December 3, 2006 at < a href="http://au.360.yahoo.com/revolucionbolivarianablogger"> http://au.360.yahoo.com/revolucionbolivarianablogger
  2. > Jorge Jorquera, Venezuela: The Unfolding Revolution in Latin America, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2004, p.7
  3. Richard Gott, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Verso, London, 2005, p.62
  4. Richard Gott, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Verso, London, 2005, p.67
  5. Jorge Jorquera, Venezuela: The Unfolding Revolution in Latin America, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2004, p.15
  6. Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela B Communication and Information ministry, Venezuela, 2005
  7. Jorge Jorquera, Venezuela: The Unfolding Revolution in Latin America, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2004, p.17
  8. Richard Gott, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Verso, London, 2005, p.226
  9. Richard Gott, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Verso, London, 2005, p.236
  10. Richard Gott, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Verso, London, 2005, p.240
  11. Hugo Chavez Frias, The Fascist Coup Against Venezuela B Speeches and Addresses December 2002 to January 2003, Ediciones Plaza, Havana, 2003, p.88
  12. Hugo Chavez Frias, The Fascist Coup Against Venezuela B Speeches and Addresses December 2002 to January 2003, Ediciones Plaza, Havana, 2003, p.23, 28, 33, 36, 39, 41, 42
  13. Jorge Jorquera, Venezuela: The Unfolding Revolution in Latin America, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2004, p.20
  14. Hugo Chavez Frias, The Fascist Coup Against Venezuela B Speeches and Addresses December 2002 to January 2003, Ediciones Plaza, Havana, 2003, p.88
  15. Kerryn Williams, Imperialist Crisis and the advancing Venezuelan revolution, The Activist, Vol. #16, No. #1, p.7.