Venezuela – part of the Latin American struggle to break the imperialist stranglehold

The defeat on 15 August this year of the referendum vote designed to removed from office Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, was a major tactical victory for the downtrodden and oppressed masses not only of Venezuela, but of the whole of Latin America.

Conditions for ordinary people throughout Latin America have been going steadily from bad to worse as imperialism intensifies its exploitation of the region in a vain attempt to pull itself out of its own economic crisis – an unavoidable but deadly by-product of the capitalist system. As our readers know, capitalism is constantly trying to boost the profitability of its enterprises by reducing the wages bill, as well as the tax bill which raises the money needed by the government to provide for such social needs of the masses as education and healthcare. However, this tactic of capital – essential though it is for the capitalist to remain competitive – does not take long to backfire on a grand scale, as the impoverished masses become unable to afford the products of capitalist enterprise, as a result of which the crisis of the capitalist system intensifies, and the capitalists – both imperialist and non-imperialist – are further prodded to try to maintain profitability by squeezing the downtrodden masses still harder. However, as the efforts of capitalism to push the masses deeper and deeper into starvation and want intensify, so too does the resistance of the victims.

The victims in the imperialist stage of capitalism include not only the working class of the world, but also the would-be emergent bourgeoisie of the oppressed countries who find it virtually impossible to establish successful businesses in the teeth of imperialist competition, as well as the millions of peasants driven from their land by the workings of capitalism, who have even less opportunity to eke out a miserable existence as wage slaves than did their European equivalents when driven off the land some 200-250 years ago.

Imperialism is the real enemy

Until relatively recently, imperialism relied mainly on fascist regimes to maintain its looting of Latin America, but such was the resistance of the Latin American people that US imperialism went over to a policy of supporting ‘democracy’, whereby its henchmen are, with the assistance of imperialist-financed mass media campaigns, elected into positions from which they can ensure continued imperialist looting – with a hefty cut for themselves, of course.

After 10-20 years of this kind of ‘democracy’, however, the Latin American people are for the most part even worse off than before. Their immediate response has been to blame the miserable conditions on the corruption of those who rule them – who are undoubtedly very corrupt, but whose wages of sin nevertheless cost a great deal less than the extraordinary wealth extracted by the imperialist concerns whose interests those rulers chiefly promote. Venezuela is now coming round to recognising the truth of what the Cubans and the FARC in Colombia have long been saying – that it is imperialism that is the real enemy of the Latin American masses, and that any real improvement in the life and conditions of the masses can only be won at the expense of imperialism and in the teeth of its most frantic opposition.

The rise of Chavez

Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, and re-elected in 2000, by the Venezuelan masses demanding an improvement in their standard of living. Their struggle had been intensifying since 1989 when Carlos Andres Perez bowed to an IMF diktat to deprive them of the little they had. With most of the population already living in poverty and 36 percent in extreme poverty, protests and riots ensued. Their poverty was made all the more unacceptable by the fact that “Venezuela has the world’s fifth largest oil reserves and exports more to the US than does Saudi Arabia” (‘Lesson from Venezuela on what to do with oil profits’ by Joan McAlpine, Glasgow Herald, 19 August 2004), and, not unnaturally, the Venezuelan people wondered why more of the oil profits were not coming their way.

In 1992, Chavez led a military coup against those in power who were selling the country to imperialism, but was quickly overthrown and spent the next two years in prison. Meanwhile, with the implementation of the ‘neo-liberal’ killer policies demanded by imperialism, the number of people living in dire poverty doubled – from 36 percent to 66 percent of the population, according to Mike Gonzalez, Head of Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow (writing in People’s Democracy in August 2004). This set the scene for Chavez to be elected President by popular acclaim in 1998. At first, he was supported by all the old guard, for they expected that a military man like himself would follow the traditions of military rulers wherever they are to be found, ie, to settle his fee and then carry on as before.

Chavez, however, broke the mould. He was determined to improve the situation of the poor, offering them land, education, healthcare and hope – and this notwithstanding the fact that he is a nationalist, not a communist. He is motivated by the belief that the wealth of Latin America belongs to the Latin Americans, not to foreign imperialists, and that it is Latin Americans who should profit from the exploitation of Latin Americans, not foreigners. He knows that this policy puts him on a collision course with imperialism and can only succeed to the extent he mobilises the masses against imperialism. Hence it is his priority to provide them with the basics they most need. Thus Joan McAlpine notes that:

“What oil there is still flowing in Iraq has gone to fund reconstruction contracts handed to a small group of US contractors, many with close links to the administration. Venezuela is the mirror opposite. More than $1.7bn (£930m) of its oil revenues a year is devoted to providing extra healthcare, housing and education to those people previously denied those basic rights … For example, 13,000 doctors have arrived from Cuba to man … new clinics.” (Op cit)

And Richard Gott, writing in the Guardian of 7 August, adds that the huge surplus oil revenues of the state-owned oil company were directed under Chavez’s leadership into “imaginative new social programmes. Innumerable projects … were established throughout the country … They combat illiteracy, provide further education for school dropouts, promote employment, supply cheap food, and extend a free medical service in the poor areas of the cities and the countryside, with the help of 10,000 Cuban doctors. Redundant oil company buildings have been commandeered to serve as the headquarters of a new university for the poor, and oil money has been diverted to set up Vive, an innovative cultural television channel that is already breaking the traditional US mould of the Latin American media”.

When it comes to mobilising the electorate, all this more than counteracts the rabidly anti-Chavez propaganda put out by the Venezuelan media, owned as it is by the ancien regime.

As Joan McAlpine points out in the article referred to above, it is oil that is financing this social spending – as indeed it should. Yet imperialist oil companies such as PhillipsConoco, even today, keep 84 percent of the proceeds of sale of Venezuela’s oil, leaving the Venezuelans with a mere 16 percent. Chavez aims to increase the Venezuelan share to 30 percent, and given the immense public backing he has, it is likely he will secure this increase – which is main reason that imperialism has been anxious to be rid of him.

Land reform

One should not underestimate either, however, how much fear the seemingly innocuous expression ‘land reform’ can generate amongst imperialists (just look at Zimbabwe). The situation in Venezuela is that 77 percent of farmland is owned by a mere three percent of the population. Under Chavez’s presidency, a land act has been passed “which prohibits ownership of more than 5,000 hectares and allows the expropriation of unused land, of which there is rather a lot in Venezuela. The vast estates of the old aristocracy are threatened by this legislation … To date … 5.5m acres …[have] been distributed to families who previously depended on allotments to feed their children”. (Joan McAlpine, ibid)

On the face of it, this seems to have little to do with imperialism, but the fact of the matter is that despite the fact that Venezuela “has vast tracts of fertile land”, it “imports 70 percent of its food, much of it from the US. For example, the national beer company … depends on America for its entire supply of hops”. To the extent that unused land is handed over to peasant families, this will create competition for the US agricultural multinationals which currently supply the Venezuelan market, thereby undermining what is for imperialism a nice little earner.

An alliance of reaction against Chavez

Despite the fact that Chavez is pushing forward with policies that benefit most of the Venezuelan population, he has been subjected to a barrage of opposition. It is not, of course, surprising that he is opposed by the big landowners, but they are not so many in number and would hardly be in a position on their own to cause the big problems Chavez has had to face. Imperialism has, of course, tried to undermine mass support for Chavez by trying to cause economic problems that will worsen people’s conditions of life – thus they have tried withholding vital investments (although by so doing imperialism hurts itself more than its victims, for without investment there cannot be exploitation). It has also poured billions into anti-Chavez propaganda campaigns. Nothing has worked.

The enemy sector that has caused most trouble to Chavez was formerly to be found amongst those operating Venezuela’s oil industry. Although the industry was technically nationalised, its management personnel had been appointed by pre-Chavez governments who were tied hand and foot to the interests of US imperialism. These cronies are said to have been siphoning off more than $40bn a year as their reward for delivering to US oil multinationals at the ‘right price’ 13 percent of US oil needs. And it was not just management cronies, but also cronies in the leadership of the oil workers’ trade unions who benefited from this slush fund.

Chavez’s nationalist stand could not but put paid to this lucrative corruption, so in 2002 the oil sector tried to use the weapon of a strike/lockout to bring down Chavez’s government, culminating in a coup in which Chavez was deposed, only to be reinstated within the week because the support for him proved, by the sheer number of people who took to the streets in protest at his deposition, to be so overwhelming that the reactionaries knew there would be a popular uprising if they did not accede to the wishes of the masses.

His enemies’ despair at the failure of all their attempts to overthrow Chavez can be gauged from the fact that they resorted to assassination. In May this year, Chavez was the target of a failed assassination attempt commissioned from Colombian counter-revolutionary mercenaries.

Meanwhile, the imperialists have, strangely enough, for the time being rather lost interest in getting rid of Chavez:

“With world oil prices at record levels, the one thing President George Bush cannot afford before the November US election is another sudden oil price spike. But that is what will happen following a disputed referendum outcome or a defeat [for Chavez].

“For that reason, paradoxically, the White House could be hoping for a victory for the incumbent on Sunday. Learning to live with Hugo Chavez’s peculiarities may turn out to be the political price of plentiful oil.” (Simon Tisdall, Guardian, 13 August 2004)

For the moment, then, because oil supplies have been severely eroded by the successes of the Iraqi resistance in sabotaging oil pipelines in Iraq, as well as by problems in Russia, and because the Venezuelan masses are prepared to sabotage Venezuelan production too if anybody interferes with their government, US imperialism cannot afford – especially with an election looming – to deal with Venezuela in the time honoured manner reserved for the axis of evil – ie, those states that challenge the looting rights of imperialist multinationals.

In the meantime, Chavez is setting an example to other super-exploited countries, especially in Latin America, where the masses are demanding relief from poverty, that it is both possible and necessary to defy imperialism. He is giving us a glimpse of the truth of the saying that imperialism is only a paper tiger – for all its fearsome military might, it is helpless against the masses.