Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is an advocate for the poor and working people, enjoying the votes of over half of his countrymen and women in every election. This infuriates the wealthy and powerful in Caracas and Washington, D.C., as does his friendship with Cuban President Fidel Castro.
In one of the most remarkable events of the new millennium, Chavez supporters among the poor, the working classes and the military overturned a carefully planned and internationally-supported counterrevolution. Within 48 hours, Chavez was returned to power in April 2002.
But the counterrevolutionaries were not through. The Venezuelan upper classes, along with some corrupt elements of the labor movement, closed businesses in a lockout/strike, including in the decisively important oil industry. They were convinced that the masses, largely darker skinned people of African and Indigenous origin, were incapable of organizing and sustaining economic life. (Chavez himself is dark skinned.)
This lockout/strike, they announced, would force Chavez’s resignation.
While nominally state-owned, PDVSA – the state oil monopoly – was a nest of corruption and privilege. Earnings in 2001 were $52.1 billion, but transfers to the government were only $11 billion. Despite a crippling two-month period of belligerence and sabotage, cheerfully and generously encouraged by the wealthiest capitalist countries, Chavez and the Venezuelan people held firm against this rising.
Today the “Bolivarian Revolution” stands stronger than ever, serving as a beacon to the leftist trends in Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador and as a bulwark against the maneuvers of U.S. imperialism and reaction in Colombia. Still, the full truth and meaning of this victory have not been widely exposed. Most writers accept the dire prediction that the strike has permanently wrecked the Venezuelan economy. The reality is vastly different.
Since the lockout/strike ended, oil production has been restored to the same or nearly-the-same levels as before the work stoppage. In a heroic effort requiring dedication and political understanding, the Venezuelan oil workers, with just over half of the pre-lockout/strike work force, fought to restore full production. By late April, Standard and Poor’s had raised Venezuela’s rating from poor to stable. Other capitalist institutions, Credit Suisse First Boston and Merrill Lynch followed suit, raising Venezuela’s debt status, though you would not know this from hysterical press accounts of economic disaster.
As the economy stabilizes and begins to grow again, the Chavez government has imposed foreign currency controls to impede the withdrawal of dollars from the economy, a tactic widely used to destabilize leftist governments. As a result of this restriction and the reorganization of the state-run oil company, Venezuela has over $15 billion in foreign currency reserves. Based on these impressive results, the UN’s World Economic and Social Report projects a healthy growth in the Venezuelan economy of 8.5 percent in 2004.
Rather than relying upon the business classes, which attempted to strangle the revolution, the Chavistas are using the currency reserves to import goods, like meats from Paraguay, and offer them at subsidized prices to the poor and working class. In March alone, public spending rose 74 percent against the same month in 2002.
Through an exchange program, Cuban professionals are addressing the medical and educational needs of the people. Much land has been redistributed and the government has encouraged cooperatives.
Chavez has masterfully included the military in these revolutionary initiatives. Newspaper accounts have reported officers liberating hoards of goods purposely held back from the market to disrupt the economy.
Early in July, the revolutionary government imposed a mandatory 10 percent wage increase for nearly three million Venezuelan workers. Another 20 percent increase will go into effect in October. This has brought a violent outcry from Venezuela’s elites. In response to employers who have threatened to lay off workers in the face of the wage increases, President Chavez has extended a freeze on layoffs through the end of the year.
While the people of Venezuela are continuing their march towards social justice, the enemies of this revolution will fight desperately and ruthlessly, no doubt welcoming any provocation that will draw the attention of their powerful northern neighbor, the U.S. The opposition is currently seeking a referendum to overturn the electoral process that strengthened Chavez’s mandate. The establishment press professes a fear of economic collapse, but their real fear is the successes of the Bolivarian program. Many correctly see the struggle in Venezuela as a fight for self-determination and democracy. But it is also a victory against counterrevolution and economic blackmail, unleashing a profound social revolution in this impoverished country.
Some will see parallels with the early stages of the Cuban revolution, where upper class intransigence and foreign intervention spurred the strengthening and deepening of people’s power. And like that struggle, the Venezuelan revolution’s success will require the support and solidarity of honest people everywhere.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org