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Venezuela - A comment on the current situation

The following contribution has been received from Michael M., an independent socialist living in Belfast.  We welcome readers to contribute their own letters, questions or contributions.

Venezuela has been noted in Latin America, as one of the oldest Liberal Democracies on the continent, unlike most of the Americas over the one and a half centuries.  However, this does not mean that the society has been that different from the rest of Latin America.  It has had its share of coups.  Indeed, the current situation has highlighted the seething class and race contradictions at the heart of this ' democracy '.  The latest period of social unrest and paralysis in the country's history, is due to the attempt by President Hugo Chavez to break with the past policies of Liberal Democratic rule, which only benefited an elite, and the neo-liberal economics being followed by his predecessors.  In addition to this, there has been the reaction both at home and abroad, to these efforts to make Venezuela, a more equitable society.

President Hugo Chavez himself, came to power via the electoral route, but initially, headed a coup attempt in 1992 against the then elected president Perez.  Although this failed, the resulting speech to the Nation after the coup attempt helped to win popular support for Chavez, which he used, to effect to win elections in 1998 and 2000.  His vision for the country can be described as Social Democratic, or at least a popularist Liberalism harking back to the Nationalism and ideas of Simon Bolivar. His overriding theme is that Venezuela's elites have squandered the country's independence and wealth, leaving it more dependent, vulnerable and unequal than ever.  That Venezuela needs to reassert its national pride by returning to the ideals of the anti-colonialist and 19th century Liberal Simon Bolivar.

In order to initiate these changes, Chavez has tried to break from the economic stranglehold of the neo-liberal policies welcomed by much of the middle classes, reinforced by the IMF and other international bodies and strongly supported by the United Stated, the hegemonic power.  To do this, Chavez's governments of '99 and '00 have gone against the dominant socio-economic trend by re-nationalising the oil industry, Venezuela's main resource and means of income; starting a programme of land reform, now virtually unheard of in Latin America; a major redistribution of wealth towards welfarest programmes targeting the poorest sections of society; and shortening the working week along with increasing the minimum wage.  Generally, a regulated capitalism in an age of deregulation.

These measures, while popular with the mass of poor people - a massive section of the population - and with some of the middle class, have earned the indignation of the elite and many of the upper middle classes, along with the big business sections of the economy.  These elements are the ones benefiting from the sale of state assets under privatisation and have always been ideologically very compatible with US interests.  The Church has also been giving support to the conservative forces opposing this ' state socialism ' as they see it.

Apart from these class factors of the resistance of sections of the bourgeoisie, there is a race factor too.  Chavez has openly expressed his contempt for the domination of Venezuela by European descendants, at the expense of those of mixed race, Indians and Blacks.  He is himself of mixed origin, and is seen as vulgar for high office by many of the more conservative forces.  Most of the beneficiaries of his reforms, are those of non-European origin.  It is in many ways, a case of ' our taxes going to those people '; that this is going to be ' another Cuba'.

Hugo Chavez has reoriented Venezuela's foreign policy from a pro- American stance.  He has revitalised Venezuela's relationship with Cuba, and has a warm personal relationship with Fidel Castro, selling Castro's government oil at consessionary prices and ending military exercises with the US Southern Command.  In addition, Chavez has openly criticised the US for its Cuba embargo, and policy towards the region and the Third World in general.  He has made a point of meeting Saddam Hussein, Gadaffy, and is trying to rally OPEC to be a bastion for Third World justice and not serving First World needs exclusively.  One of the original reasons for OPEC in the first place.  Chavez has openly advocated a united Latin American policy for the region and away from US interests and dependency.

As is obvious by now, none of these has endeared Chavez to Venezuela's traditional power structures and the US, which is also the country's biggest trading partner.  The April 2001 failed coup and ongoing subsequent unrest, has the imprint of US influence in patterns reminiscent of subversion in other parts of Latin America in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

To date, Chevez's support has come openly from the poor, who are challenging the opponent's, daily on the streets.  Both sides are able to have hundreds of thousands of their respective supporters out protesting vis-à-vis each other; there is a national strike mainly by the middle bourgeoisie, big business and professionals in the oil industry.  There are attempts by workers in some cases, to take over plants and institute their own control.  How will Chavez succeed out of this is still an open question.  He still has massive support, but the actions by the IMF and the US may yet, at the least, compromise his programme and bring it into line with the requirements with local and foreign capital.  The future of Latin American progressives depends on the outcome of this struggle.  Watch this space!


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