Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, February 2003-December 2006

By Katherine Bradstreet

[Part two of an introduction to the Bolivarian Revolution, covering the period February 2003 to December 2006, presented at the DSP Socialist Summer School, Sydney, January 2007. Part one, covering January 1958 to February 2003, was presented by Marcus Pabian.]

Since the end of 2002, there have been huge developments in Venezuela. This next part of the workshop will go through some of the initiatives that have been undertaken, and will try to put together a bit of a picture of the revolution.

As Marcus explained, following the defeat of the oil industry lockout, the Chavez leadership wasted no time in securing PDVSA in the hands of workers and pro-revolutionary forces. The opposition took a quite a desperate gamble C to cripple the Venezuelan economy in the aim of destabilizing the Chavez government C and they lost, decisively. Once they had lost control of the oil industry, the Chavez government was able to channel greater amounts of the oil profits into social spending.

In the report “The Venezuelan Revolution and Our Solidarity Tasks” adopted by the DSP’s National Committee in November 2004, we made the assessment that the bosses lockout “was when it came clear that the balance of forces had shifted enough to make [the Chavez Government] a workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ government”.

The Social Missions

Building on the high levels of organisation amongst the most politically conscious of the Venezuelan masses C seen through the implementation of Plan Bolivar 2000 and the mass participation in the Bolivarian Circles C the government launched a series of programs, Bolivarian Missions, which tackled some of the biggest social problems in Venezuela: illiteracy, lack of adequate, affordable healthcare and a high level of poverty.

Barrio Adentro Mission

The 1999 constitution maintains free and quality healthcare as a human right guaranteed to all Venezuelan citizens, and states that the healthcare be publicly funded, explicitly prohibiting its privatisation.

In early 2003, the government started working towards establishing a national health network, which could provide free health care to Venezuelans, including the large, disadvantaged sector of the population which had not had access to medical attention before. This was why Mision Barrio Adentro was launched in the impoverished Libertador neighborhood of Caracas in March 2003.

The first stage of the mission involved the construction of over 1000 Popular Medical Centres, providing around 18 million people (or 70% of the population) with health and dental care. In addition to Venezuelan medical staff and volunteers, 15,000 Cuban medical staff came to Venezuela to staff the medical centres in exchange for oil at below market prices, signifying a new level of cooperation between the two countries. The Cuban’s medical expertise was essential as the missions organisers found it nearly impossible to find Venezuelan doctors who were willing to work in many of the impoverished rural areas and there simply wasn’t the numbers of medical professionals to meet the needs of the people the mission aimed to help. The existing private hospitals and clinics continued to operate as they had and doctors could earn far more working at these places, than they could working with the mission.

The second stage of the mission was launched on June 12, 2005, and involved the opening of 30 diagnoses centres and 30 rehabilitation centres all around the country. These centres have already preformed 4 million lab tests, half a million emergency surgeries, nearly 800,000 ultrasounds, 300,000 x-rays and many other diagnostic procedures. To date over 500 of these centres have been built since, with more under construction.

Mision Barrio Adentro III is well underway as well, strengthening 42 public hospitals around Venezuela by updating equipment, training more staff and improving facilities to help meet the demand of the second stage of the mission, obviously diagnosing a problem is no help if it can’t be treated. Stage four of the mission was announced by Chavez on November 16, and will involve building 16 new hospitals in poor areas around Venezuela.

Robinson Mission

One of the most talked about and successful of the missions, is the Mision Robinson. This mission took on the mammoth task of teaching basic literacy to the 1.5 million adult Venezuelans who were illiterate. Using soldiers and civilian volunteers, this program extended all across Venezuela, reaching into the impoverished barrios and remote rural centres, establishing regular classes which were available free to anyone who wished to attend.

The mission is carried out in an “Education for All” framework, and rather than just imparting basic reading, writing and numeracy skills, it is set up to encourage students to positively influence the economic, cultural and political development of their country. The program uses a teaching method which encourages the personal development and self-confidence of participants by promoting research, teamwork, organizational and self-management skills.

On October 28, 2004, Venezuela declared itself a “Territory Free of Illiteracy”, having raised the literacy rate to 99%. The general standard (used by UNESCO) for a country to be considered free of illiteracy is 95%.

Mision Robinson II is called “I can continue” and it provides ongoing basic education for any Venezuelan who has not finished their primary school-level education. There are currently over a million people in this mission.

Ribas Mission and Sucre Mission

At the end of 2003, two more education projects were launched; Mision Sucre in September and Mision Ribas in October.

Mision Ribas aims to allow every person that has been unable to complete high school, regardless of age, to complete their secondary education if they want. In Venezuela there was an estimated 5 million people who never finished high school, due to economic constraints.

This mission provides the future graduates with the education needed to address the problems of their communities and to be able to participate more fully in the development of the Bolivarian Revolution. Unlike public schools of the past, Mision Ribas is dependant on community participation and provides a flexible learning environment, which people can fit around their work and family commitments.

Mision Ribas is directly funded by PDVSA and the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum.

Mision Sucre is carried out by the Ministry of Higher Education and it provides access to tertiary education to students from the poor and disadvantaged sectors of society.

Before 1998, participation of students from poorer backgrounds at the traditional autonomous universities had fallen to less than 7% and since the election of Chavez that year, the access that the old elite had to positions in the government bureaucracy and to other privileged positions had narrowed and the universities became a refuge for many of the wealthy opposition who took up academic positions there.

Mision Sucre was established to challenge the exclusionary autonomist universities and so far nearly 500,000 students have benefited from the program and nearly 10,000 full scholarships have been issued to the very poorest Venezuelans. Students of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela study in classrooms that were formerly the opulent offices of the former oil oligarchy.

Some graduates of the other education missions go through Vuelvan Caras Mission, which provides vocational training for work for unemployed people in a range of skills. It also facilitates employment in public sectors and the establishment of cooperatives.

Mercal Mission

Mision Mercal sells food and other essentials like medicines, at prices affordable to the poorest of Venezuelan society. State-owned Mercal grocery stores sell generic brands at an average of 25 to 50% less than the private supermarket chains.

This mission is an important political tool as well, providing a counter to the supermarkets and other food-franchises which took part in the business strike at the same time as the PDVSA bosses shut down the oil industry. After the oil strike the Mercal network evolved quickly with the participation of the army, which used military garrisons as shops and the military barracks as storage centres, until more shops and warehouses could be built.

There are now tens of thousands of Mercals, cooperatives and other entities that work in conjunction with Mercal. Mision Mercal has strong links with Mision Zamora which facilitates the transfer of land titles to farmers, which in turn helps ensure the food supply.

There are also thousands of government funded soup-kitchens, which provides free meals to hundreds of thousands who live in the poorest neighbourhoods.

Importance of the social missions

Other missions include Mision Negra Hipolita, launched only a year ago, which was created to assist those most-excluded in society: those who are homeless, in extreme poverty, addicted to drugs. Mision Guaicaipuro aims to restore rights to numerous indigenous communities, including providing communal land titles, as well as economic development, improving access to services and strengthening their identity and language. Mission Miracle sends people needing eye operations to Cuba for treatment, with Venezuela covering the costs of transport and Cuba providing the medical staff.

One of the newest missions is Mision Smile, a national program to provide further dental care to Venezuelans. There are new missions all the time, more than can be listed here. Mission Science, Mission Culture, Mission Tree, Mission Energy Revolution (which provides energy saving light bulbs and looks towards developing non-oil based energy sources) to name a few.

Something that is essential to note when talking about the missions is that they are not simply an example of the Chavez government spending a lot of oil revenue to fast-track Venezuela to become a welfare state in the model of countries like Australia (like it was in the 70s anyway). The social missions have a fundamentally different nature, as they are dependant on the participation of large numbers of volunteers and could not have been successful without the political will of not only the government but also of the grassroots communities, who not only benefited from them, but were vital to their implementation.

Leading the process of implementing the missions are the most politically conscious of Chavez’s supporters and because of this leadership, the missions play a role of helping to politicise the population and garner support for the revolution.

Role of youth

One organisation which plays an important role in the implementation of the revolutions perspectives is the revolutionary youth organisation, the Frente Francisco de Miranda (FFM), a group which was founded with the intention of uniting young people in participating in the revolution, specifically developing facilitators for Mission Robinson.

There have been other youth organisations, including the Federation of Bolivarian Students which was established in 2002. However, it only represented a tiny minority of youth from the university campuses, which as mentioned before, are now overwhelmingly dominated by the right.

The FFM was founded in 2003, after discussions between Venezuela and Cuba about youth collaboration and developing facilitators for Mission Robinson. A 50-day-long course on social work was established in Cuba, with many social, cultural, political and religious youth groups (predominantly from the universities) given a quota for participation. After the second group came back, the FFM themselves decided who would be next to be sent to Cuba.

To date, some 36,000 Venezuelan youth have participated in 11 courses in Cuba, and the FFM is the largest youth organisation, with an educated and committed cadre which plays a leading role in the revolution.

Recall referendum

During 2003 and 2004, many radical reforms were implemented and the Bolivarian process was strengthened, however the opposition had not given up following the failure of the oil industry lockout.

A referendum to recall Chavez was announced on 8 June 2004 by the National Electoral Council (CNE) after the Venezuelan opposition succeeded in collecting the number of signatures required by the 1999 Constitution to affect a recall.

The process of initiating the recall was dubious to say the least, with the opposition presenting 3.6 million names to the CNE in November 2003. The CNE rejected the petition, saying that only 1.9 million were valid, while 1.1 million were dubious and 460,000 completely invalid, including the signatures of people who had died, infants, and foreigners. Of the signatures categorised as dubious, 876,017 all had the personal details written in the same handwriting except for the signature itself.

After a lengthy court dispute, the CNE set aside five days in May 2004 to allow the owners of disputed signatures to confirm that they did, in fact, back the referendum call: this was known as the reparo process.

At the end of that verification effort, the total number of signatures stood at 2,436,830, according to the CNE. During that time, thousands of forged ID cards and equipment to create forged ID cards were confiscated by the police.

The CNE later admitted that 15,863 signatures of those signatures that were verified in May 2004 belonged to people who had died in 2003.

The recall referendum was held on August 15, with the question:

Do you agree to revoke, for the current term, the popular mandate as President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela conferred on citizen Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías through democratic and legitimate elections? NO or YES?

A record number of voters turned out to defeat the recall attempt with a 59% “no” vote, signifying a third major defeat for the opposition. While elements of the opposition and the U.S. government challenged the validity of the count, the Organisation of American States and the Carter Centre certified the fairness of the vote. (Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, one of hundreds independent foreign election observers, stated that in his opinion the vote in Venezuela was fairer than the voting process in Florida in the 2000 U.S. presidential election.)

Socialism for the 21st Century

In late 2004/early 2005, the process in Venezuela entered a new phase when Chavez publicly abandoned the search for a “third way”, and declared openly the struggle for socialism. In a speech to the World Social Forum in January 2005, Chavez announced his support for the creation of socialism of the 21st century in Venezuela. While this wasn’t a break with the process that had been happening for the last couple of years it was still a significant point in the revolution.

The last two years have seen a great increase in the public debate in Venezuela about what this means, how socialism can be implemented. There has also been made substantial progress in areas of land reform, the expansion of the social missions and developing workers’ co-management and expropriation of enterprises.

Economy

After the economic sabotage of the oil lock out, the Venezuelan economy shrunk and GDP contracted by 29%, however this was able to be quite quickly turned around. Over the last few years stringent collection of tax from multinationals has been enforced, with scores of companies being closed down for 24 to 48 hours, including McDonalds and General Motors. Recently, a closed Heinz processing plant has been expropriated.

Another significant change in the running of the economy is the fact that representatives of large-scale capital are no longer given key positions, such as Treasury Minister, Development Minister and president of the Central Bank. This is something that is in sharp contrast to the way in which capitalist governments usually operate, and it gives the economy independence from the capitalist class.

Venezuela has also invested significant amounts of the states revenue in public works. A series of costly and ambitious projects have been initiated, including overhauling and significant expansion of public transport. Angel Ontiveros, president of the Institute of Railroads has pointed out that “Venezuela is the only country that is investing in railways and renovating existing ones”.

In the 2006 budget, social spending was triple that of the pre-Chavez period. This has led to an average of 12% growth since 2003. The government now expects unemployment to drop to 7% in 2007. By comparison, in 2003 it was around 20%, largely as a result of the bosses lock-out.

Labour

After the traditional labour federation, Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (Venezuelan Confederation of Workers) (CTV) joined forces with Fedecámaras (the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce) to lead the oil industry lockout, pro-Chavez labour leaders founded the National Workers’ Union (UNT) in April of 2003.

With the emergence of the class-conscious UNT, workers were presented with the freedom to organize in a way they never had before, supported by a two-year-old prohibition against laying off low-wage workers.

2005 saw a number of factories brought under some form of Cogestión (co-management/worker’s control). One of the first being a paper factory, Invepal (formerly the privately-owned Venepal), which was expropriated in January 2005, after the company was declared bankrupt and the National Assembly ruled the factory to be of social and public usefulness. The 900 workers at the factory were laid off in September, 2004, but 350 workers remained, threatening to occupy the factory if the government didn’t expropriate it.

So far workers co-management exists in a number of factories, including in the state-owned Alcasa, and a few other smaller factories like Invepal which have been expropriated by the government and put under workers control.

An organisation that has formed out of this process of co-management is the Co-managed and Occupied Factories’ Worker’s Revolutionary Front (Freteco), which was formed in February ’06 by workers from Inveval, a state/worker factory on the edge of Caracas. Freteco members come from factories that have achieved some degree of co-management and others where workers are occupying theirs in the hope of achieving the same.

The introduction of workers co-mangement has been a slow and mixed process. Invepal shows some of the potential hazards that these workplaces face: required by the government to prove himself in running the company, the newly elected president employed contracted management which then proceeded to hire contract workers on worse conditions than “worker-owners”. The massive protests within the factory in reaction to this resulted in equally massive firings: 120 workers were fired in November 2005. According to Freteco they were still manning the barricades 11 months later.

There have also been problems with Invepal’s success being evaluated by it’s market performance B a few opposition websites and western media commentary have used it as an example of the failure in a competitive sense of workers co-management, when rightly it should be judged in terms of it’s social value. One worker illustrated this by using the example of Invepal selling it’s paper to poor students at a low cost, as being of important social gain, as something in the interest of the workers, if not in the individual enterprises economic interest.

The grassroots organising of workers plays an essential role, along with the government, in instigating co-management in expropriated factories and enterprises, but also in defending them against corrupt management and forces within the state who are hostile to this aspect of the revolutionary process.

One enterprise which has been more successful is at the aluminum plant, Alcasa. Carlos Lanz, a former guerrilla leader and president of Alcasa, says that “[d]emocratic planning is such a powerful lever that even with rather outdated technology we have managed to increase production by 11%”.

He makes the important point that this is not the co-management of European social democracy, which is simply giving the workers shares and a seat on the board, but rather it is about workers controlling the factory and breaking down the barrier between those who do the planning and those who carry out the labour B it is a step towards socialism of the twenty-first century.

There is still a very long way to go B although there have been a few more businesses brought under workers co-management, in the state enterprises this process has virtually stalled. For example, co-management has yet to be introduced in PDVSA, despite the high level of organisation and militancy shown by workers there after the lock out.

The revolution also faces a challenge organising the large sector of society not working in the formal sector. In a country like Venezuela, with such high levels of poverty, the informal sector is where many people scrape out their means of existance, and even now there are many people in this situation. Chavez has the strong support of the urban poor, and there are layers from this sector of society who now work in the many cooperatives which are being constantly set-up.

Communal Councils

Another important development is the Communal Councils: bodies established through which people can participate in the revolution, through democratically taking control over their own lives and communities, and collectively expressing their ideas.

Marta Harnecker, a well known Latin American revolutionary who has been involved with the process of establishing the councils, said in an interview in GLW in November, that “They are the community: [they] must reflect all the colours of a rainbow; must cover everyone who wants to work for the community”. She made the point that this makes them a fundamentally different type of organisation to, for example the Bolivarian Circles, as they aim to represent the community in it’s whole rather than a political current.

The formation of these councils is an important step in extending the participation of people in the revolutionary process. The mayor of Libertador in Caracas, Freddy Bernal, has described these councils as the basic cells of the future society.

Recent electoral win

Chavez’s recent electoral win was no surprise, but there are a couple of significant things about it that are worth mentioning.

  1. It provides a mandate to continue and deepen the revolution. Chavez has been upfront about the need to continue down the road towards socialism and the fact that he increased his vote to 63% shows that there is a significant support for this trajectory.
  2. The fact that the opposition could not mobilise people like it had in the past, despite participating in this election united around a single candidate, that they were forced to concede that Chavez had won, (even if they claimed they lost by a smaller margin than the electoral body said), this shows that the opposition is significantly weaker than in the past. Even in Zulia state where Rosales is governor, Chavez won a majority of votes, albeit by a narrow margin.

Criticism of the revolution

Those on the left who are hostile to the Venezuelan Revolution argue that socialists shouldn’t support Venezuela except as they would any oppressed nation, whose sovereignty is under threat; to quote Chris Moore, writing in Socialist Alternative magazine in November this year:

Chávez is committed to a form of “socialism from above” B a program of radical reform rather than socialist revolution. The reforms, often granted in response to pressure from below, are significant, real and worth defending.

The article continues by saying that “The state has not been dismantled and replaced by democratic workers’ organisations that effectively govern the country”. The basic argument is that it is not therefore a socialist revolution.

To quote from the DSP’s January 2006 Congress report, “Imperialist crisis and the advancing Venezuelan revolution”, which Marcus referred to in his section of the workshop:

“[T]he Venezuelan state is an embryonic workers’ and peasants’ state, where key institutions including the government and armed forces are under revolutionary control, but others including the judiciary, the police force and a large section of the state bureaucracy remain a battle ground with pro-capitalist forces.”

In essence the revolution still faces large battles against sections of the bureaucracy throughout all levels of government and other bodies of the state, and in many cases the revolutionaries are having to fight to implement the programs decided on by the Chavez leadership in the face of hostility from local bureaucrats.

In 2003, many of the old structures such as the universities, schools, hospitals, and local governments were still under the control of, or heavily influenced by, opposition forces, so many of the missions were constructed as parallel entities, initially focusing on areas where access to essential services were traditionally unavailable.

Constitution changes

Over the last year or so there have been many reports on proposed changes to be made to the constitution. Predictably, the western media have focused on talk of abolishing limits to the number of terms a president can run for, scaremongering about Chavez and his “dictatorial tendencies”. However, the need to change the constitution will inevitably arise as the revolution continues, because although the 1999 constitution was an amazing example of popular participation, and it guarantees many human rights, it is not a socialist constitution and it also protects property rights.

There are also still rights in the current constitution that are yet only partially (some barely) realised in practice, however this is a contradiction which will have to be played out as the new organisations of popular power continue to confront and supplant the existing capitalist state.

What next?

Another recent and promising development is Chavez’s announcement that a new party is needed. He has said the variety of parties which support his government has become a hindrance in the development of a socialist Venezuela. He said, “[w]e need one party, not an alphabet soup with which we would be falling over each other in lies and cheating people”.

Currently Chavez is supported by his own party, the MVR, which has a large support base, but also a range of other parties including the Communist Party of Venezuela, Fatherland for All, We Can, Popular Venezuelan Unity, Revolutionary Middle Class, TupamarosY

Another point that Chavez has made is that people will join the party as individuals, the party will therefore not be just a formal alliance of the existing parties, but a new united party, which will have the ability to select it’s own membership B an important requirement for a revolutionary party, especially one which is large and influential enough to be attracting opportunists and even counter-revolutionaries, and which has many battles ahead against these layers.

Chavez has said the existing campaign structure, which in the last election, organised supporters of all pro-Chavez parties into 11,000 battalions, 32,000 platoons and 3.8 million squads, should be maintained as the grassroots organising of the new party.

The revolution’s detractors, especially those who hold the social democratic model of the two-party state up as the pinnacle of democracy, are going into a tail-spin over this, however this is a step that has great potential for the revolution.

To bring the diverse layers of individuals and groupings who are leading the revolutionary process across all the missions, the councils, trade unions and other areas into one party will provide a chance to politically consolidate the most advanced layers of Venezuelan society. This is something which can only strengthen the revolution.

[There is a lot that I haven’t even touched on: Venezuela’s role in challenging US imperialism, particularly through ALBA; land reform etc.]