The fight against capitalism in Venezuela has reached a new phase, with the country’s populist left-wing president Hugo ChÃ¡vez carrying out the first nationalisations of industry since his coming to power in 1998.
In Venezuela, where a mere 1% of the population holds 60% of agricultural land, land reform remains an important part of the struggle against capitalism (as it does throughout most of Latin America). The vast private estates owned by multinational dynasties, known as latifundios, symbolise the wealth and power of the elite and of foreign domination.
So when State-Governor of Cojedes Johnny YÃnez (along with 200 members of the National Guard) seized the 13,600 hectares El Charcote cattle ranch owned by British tycoon Lord Vestey, the majority of ordinary Venezuelans welcomed it with pleasure.
While the new Venezuelan constitution (implemented by Chavez in December 2000, and the most democratic in Latin America) declares that any latifundios of more than 5,000 hectares are “contrary to the social interest”, this was the first time that the land reform programme of Chavez has involved the actual taking over of privately owned property. Prior to the seizure of Vestey’s hacienda, the agricultural reform programme had only involved distributing plots to farmers from land already in state ownership.
Soon after, the Chavez government also announced the nationalisation of Venepal: one of Latin America’s most profitable paper and cardboard manufacturers who, at one stage, commanded 40% of the national market with 1,600 employees. The company went bankrupt in 2003 and the workers and their families have been in limbo ever since. When the employees recently marched to Caracas to air their grievances, ChÃ¡vez finally responded by nationalising the plant.
It appears that Chavez is being driven to adopt more radical measures, in contrast to attempts to appease the ruling classes in Venezuela following his referendum victory in 2004. When nationalising Venepal, Chavez declared that capitalism is based on slavery and “that is why in Washington they are angry, because we want to liberate ourselves from capitalism, in the same way they were angry many years ago with the ideas of Libertador Simon Bolivar”.
At the recent World Social Forum in Brazil, Chavez, for the first time, spoke of the need for socialism. He said that every day he becomes more convinced “That it is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism can’t be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice. But I’m also convinced that it is possible to do it under democracy, but not in the type of democracy being imposed from Washington”.
But merely nationalising a few plants or farms does not equate to a transition to socialism, as some other socialist organisations have been quick to announce. They are not part of a broader plan to break with capitalism and establish a socialist plan of production; one based on the nationalisation of the biggest companies, banks and finance sector through a system of democratic workers’ control and management.
Socialists must support the progressive steps taken by Chavez on behalf of ordinary Venezuelans, but they must also be critical of his mistakes. ChÃ¡vez has still failed to outline a clear transitionary programme to abolish capitalism, and, unfortunately, most Left groups have done little in response but lavish him with wanton praise.
Chavez must learn from the lessons of history. In Chile between 1970-73 the Unidad Popular (UP) government of Salvador Allende supported the idea of socialism, nationalising approximately 40% of the economy (including multi-national companies). But the leaders of the UP argued that the revolution should not go too far too fast because it would provoke reaction. This failure to decisively break with capitalism allowed counter-revolutionary forces to organise the bloody coup of 11 September 1973, killing Allende, and bringing the dictator General Augusto Pinochet to power.
A deadlock between classes is usually decisively resolved in favour of revolution or counter-revolution. Venezuela sits on a knife’s edge, and if Chavez continues to walk it, it could prove disastrous for the Venezuelan masses. The forces of counter-revolution will not stop until they succeed in removing Chavez from power and defeat the mass movement. Unless the working class is able to take the necessary steps to overthrow capitalism and establish a workers’ democracy, they will face a constant battle against the interests of big business and foreign imperialism.
By Greg Bradshaw