Chavez steps up calls for socialism

by Stuart Munckton

Green Left Weekly (ZNet, March 13, 2005)


Speaking on his television program, Hello President on February 27, Venezuela's popular pro-poor president, Hugo Chavez, explained: "I am convinced, at this stage of my life - I am now 50 years old - after six years as a president, after nearly 30 years of political struggle... after many readings, debates, discussions and many travels around the world, I am convinced, and I think that this conviction will be for the rest of my life, that the path to a new, better and possible world, is not capitalism, the path is socialism." The studio audience cheered.

These comments, like Chavez's comments to tens of thousands of participants in the World Social Forum (WSF) in Brazil in January, are part of increasingly overt agitation for socialism.

In his WSF speech, Chavez insisted that "capitalism could not be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism". This message, delivered by a political leader with enormous respect across the Latin American continent, is among the most radical calls put to a mass WSF audience.

Chavez, whose government has led a process known as the Bolivarian revolution aiming to eradicate poverty, made it clear in the WSF speech that he stood for "democratic socialism", differentiating that from the model existing in the Soviet Union. He stated: "We must reclaim socialism... but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything."

On February 25, addressing the 4th International Conference on Social Debt in Caracas, Chavez re-emphasised the point. He declared "if not capitalism, then what? I have no doubt, it's socialism", according to Pascal Fletcher's account for Reuters, which Fletcher titled: "Defying the US, Chavez embraces socialism".

Then, two days later, came the Hello President program, where Chavez said: "I am convinced that the way to build a new and better world is not capitalism. Capitalism leads us straight to hell".

In a March 1 article or the Hands Off Venezuela website that discussed the television program, Jorge Martin claims that Chavez has urged the start of an ideological discussion about socialism amongst those supporting the Bolivarian revolution, including Chavez's own Movement for a Fifth Republic.

Chavez's presidency is based on popular support and mobilisation. Pro-Chavez forces have won nine national elections in the last six years, including a referendum on whether or not to recall Chavez from the presidency.

A key part of the Bolivarian revolution has been organising the poor majority into institutions of power so they can directly control their lives. Chavez argued that the "tools for building socialism" were these popular organisations already constructed as part of the struggle to create "participatory democracy".

The uprising in Venezuela is part of a continent-wide revolt against harsh neoliberal policies pushed upon Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s by the institutions of imperialism, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in particular. The resulting wealth disparity in Venezuela was staggering. While the country is the fifth largest supplier of oil in the world, 80% of Venezuelans were living in poverty by 1998.

By then, only 20% of the state-run oil company's revenue was getting to the government, the rest remaining in the hands of a wealthy management clique, while foreign companies extracting Venezuelan oil paid extremely low royalties.

In 1989, the Venezuelan government, at the behest of the International Monetary Fund, increased the price of basic goods and services out of the reach of the poor.

This provoked a spontaneous uprising known as the Caracazo, which was brutally put down by the military, with some reports putting the death toll as high as 2000. Inspired by the bravery of the poor and repulsed by the use of the military to repress the people, thousands of young officers and soldiers led a rebellion to overthrow the government in 1992. The rebellion failed, and its leaders were jailed. But as the central leader, Chavez became a popular hero.

Riding a wave of anti-neoliberal fury, Chavez swept the 1998 presidential elections on a platform of redistributing the nation's wealth. While it immediately encouraged self-organisation of the people, Chavez's government didn't break decisively with the capitalist system. It did, however, introduce some good reforms.

In a series of laws passed in 2001, the government significantly increased royalties levied on foreign oil companies, made 100% of oil revenue go to the government and allowed for expropriation of large land-holdings to be redistributed to landless peasants, amongst other measures. Also, the rich were taxed for the first time and a program of building homes and public works for the poor implemented.

These measures provoke bitter opposition from those who had done well under the old Venezuela - the business elite. In April 2002, the business eliteoligarchy organised a US-backed military coup that briefly overthrew Chavez and installed the head of the Chamber of Commerce in power. The coup was overturned by a working-class uprising. In December 2002, the capitalists again tried to overthrow Chavez, this time by means of economic sabotage, with bosses shutting their factory doors and locking out their workers. In the oil industry, which the government depends on for 30% of its income, the pro-capitalist management clique locked-out the oil workers and sabotaged the industry - hoping to bring the country to its knees.

Instead the oil workers mobilised to take the company over and get it up and running under their control. Chavez sacked the entire upper management - bringing the company under true government control.

In the process of defending the government through these fights, Venezuela's people have become more organised and confident to make a better, fairer society themselves. This means that the government is in a much stronger position to introduce measures that directly shift wealth to meet the needs of the majority, and out of the pockets of the wealthy.

Funded by the oil wealth, the government launched a series of "missions" that have: brought free health care to the poor for the first time, eradicated illiteracy, lowered unemployment, created popular markets that sell cheap goods among other gains. The government also introduced a law that banned bosses from sacking workers, and Chavez has encouraged workers to take over factories if the boss tries to lay them off.

According to Martin, Chavez stated on Hello President that when first elected he was hoping to create "a third way, capitalism with a human face, trying to give the monster a mask". But he concluded: "this mask has fallen to the floor shattered by reality".

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