Counter-revolutionary offensive in Latin America

This article by Phil Hearse will appear in the Summer 2008 edition of Socialist Resistance which is out soon.

A counter-revolutionary offensive in Latin America is gathering pace as the left-wing tide of the early and middle parts of the decade falters. In 2002-5, diverted by the war in Iraq, US imperialism took its eye off the ball and was outflanked by the leftward development of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and by the election of the Evo Morales’ MAS (Movement towards Socialism) government in Bolivia. However since 2006, the revanchist right, backed up by huge amounts of US money and political support, has been fighting hard for the overthrow of Evo Morales and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. In both countries crucial questions of left-wing strategy are posed by these developments.

Bolivian referendum

On 8 May Evo Morales declared a referendum on the future of the government for August 10. The prefects of the country’s regional departments will also have to submit themselves to a popular vote on that day. This is a make-or-break strategy in which Morales is hoping to reinforce his position as well as deal the right-wing opposition – who hold several regional prefectures – a major blow.

But taking the struggle onto the terrain of a referendum or bourgeois democracy in general is an extremely dangerous tactic for it is normally the strongest terrain of the right and the ruling class. It is also the one most open to manipulation by right-wing forces who control most of the means of mass communication. This was a major mistake of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua that led to their overthrow in 1992. That the referendum gambit is an uncertain one is shown by the defeat of Hugo Chávez’s referendum on constitutional reform on 5 December last year.

Morales and the MAS-led government have adopted the referendum tactic because of the pressure imposed by the pro-autonomy vote in Santa Cruz, a virtual declaration of unilateral independence by this gas-rich and white-dominated province. The rightist leaders of Santa Cruz organised this illegal referendum on the back of a racist campaign against Morales and the indigenous population. Claiming ‘they want to dominate us’ the campaigners demanded the right to dispose of the Santa Cruz gas profits for their own exclusive use.

Santa Cruz is one of several ‘Media Luna’ (half moon) states that surround the centre of the country in a semi-circle. In all of them the rightist leaders advance the demand for autonomy. If their campaign succeeds it is easy to foresee a similar demand being raised in the oil-rich Venezuelan province of Zulia as a means to attack the Bolivarian revolution.

The political space for the right-wing offensive has been created by the stalled transition in Bolivia. This centres on two major questions. First, the Morales government has ruled out any move towards socialist transition in favour of the creation of ‘Andean capitalism’. This means that the 2006 ‘nationalisation’ of the country’s hydrocarbon resources amounted only to a renegotiation of the tax revenues of the transnational corporations that retain effective control of those resources.

Second, the attempt by Morales and the MAS government to effect progressive constitutional change through the constituent assembly came to nothing. The government buckled to right-wing opposition and conceded a veto on major changes to the right-led regional departments.

What is being tested in Bolivia is an attempt to carry out major reforms in the interests of the poor and indigenous majority within the framework of capitalism, in the epoch of neoliberalism. The danger is that the MAS has aroused the monster of counter-revolution while lacking the means to kill it.

Bolivian vice-president Álvaro Garcia Linares has accused the US government of funding the secessionist movement and there is little doubt that organisations like the National Endowment for Democracy and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) are deeply involved in the promotion of the Latin American right – spending for example, $26 million on the 2006 presidential election in Venezuela.

Bolivarian revolution under attack

On May 23 the likely next president of the United States, Barack Obama, accused Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez of ‘degrading’ Venezuela’s democratic institutions and said he would ‘fully support’ the counter-revolutionary war being waged by the Colombian government against the left-wing FARC guerrilla movement. Thus, once again, Obama signalled to the US ruling class his loyalty to their interests and his intention to stay within the political mainstream.

His statement comes at a time when the Bolivarian revolution is going through a very difficult period. This difficulty was most dramatically signalled by the defeat of the December 2007 referendum on constitutional reform. Most analyses of this defeat point to the ‘stay-at-home’ factor – the refusal of hundreds of thousands of previously pro-Chávez voters in the poor areas to come out and vote. An analysis of that problem is crucial to understanding the weaknesses of the Bolivarian process (see below).

The contradictory pressures facing the revolution can be summed up in three key areas: a) the self-organisation and political confidence of the workers movement and the poor b) the class struggle and the reactionary offensive of the right c) the strategy, or rather lack of it, in the government and workers movement for a transition to socialism.

In an important recent article Kiraz Janicke and Frederico Fuentes (1) point out that the movement for workers control or co-management has been rolled back and the union movement is significantly weaker than three years ago, with the very promising UNT (National Union of Workers) weakened by internal conflicts. At the root of these were debates over the attitude towards the Chávez government and class independence. These debates go through the Bolivarian movement as a whole.

Against these negative signs, popular participation in the PSUV (Venezuelan United Socialist Party) continues at a high level. Some 80,000 participated in the elections for the party’s new leadership, elections which saw the defeat of some important rightist or ‘moderate’ figures. Moreover Hugo Chávez has recently taken some important steps. On March 15 he announced the nationalisation of a dairy processing plant and a large chain of slaughterhouses, actions that gave the state sector control of 40% of milk processing and 70% of meat processing. In addition the whole of the cement industry has been nationalised.

On April 3 Chávez announced the nationalisation of the SIDOR steel plant, the scene of a 15-month struggle between the workers and the plant owners Tachint, a joint Italian-Argentinian transnational. In this struggle the workers were brutally attacked by the national guard, and the bosses were supported by the minister of labour and the local ‘ Chávista’ state governor Francisco Rangel Gomez. The former accused the workers of being ‘counter-revolutionary’. Only with the intervention of Chávez and vice-president Ramon Carrizalez did the government clearly take the side of the workers.

This is symbolic of the strategic problems of the Venezuelan revolution as a whole. The Bolivarian movement is not united; it has a reformist and bureaucratic wing, deeply entrenched in the national and state governments, that does not want to go beyond reforms within capitalism. At the same time neither within the unions nor the PUSV is there a clearly elaborated strategy for socialist transition, a plan to deepen workers control or a plan for anti-capitalist structural reforms within the economy that would radically change the position of the poor.

According to Fuentes and Janicke, “…another feature of the union movement, particularly striking in the context of the radical social changes in Venezuela, is the lack of a strategy aimed at deepening the Bolivarian process towards the construction of socialism and genuine workers control.

“This is reflected by the overwhelmingly economist nature of their demands. As Canadian Marxist academic Michael Lebowitz puts it, ‘their whole orientation towards higher wages and a tendency to act like a labour aristocracy in a society where so many people are poor.’

“The UNT, like the CTV before it, has largely avoided any attempt to organise workers in the informal sector, focusing overwhelmingly on the demands of the most privileged layer of Venezuelan workers. This has led to a disjuncture between the organised trade union movement and the masses of poor Venezuelans who form the backbone of the Bolivarian revolution.”

The heart of the matter

The position of the poor is the heart of the matter for the Bolivarian process. One recent estimate put the number of workers in the informal sector at 47% of the total. That is symptomatic of a country riven with poverty and class divisions. The most optimistic projections say that something like 27% of the people in the country still live in poverty, despite important gains in health and literacy and the effects of poverty-reduction programmes. It is the poor in the informal sector who are the main victims of the sabotage of the oligarchy and the right, for example the food shortages engineered by hoarding, unmasked by the government early this year.

The government’s poverty-reduction programmes have been undertaken with oil revenues at a time of very high oil prices. Revolutionising the position of the poor would mean breaking the power and wealth of the oligarchic elite, whose position is based on revenues from the oil industry and on services industries that ultimately depend on the oil sector.

No successful strategy can be worked out without answering fundamental questions. For example, which class is in power and what is the nature of the government? These are questions that many sectors of the international left struggle with. Socially the dominant class is the capitalist class and, paradoxically, under Chávez they have been enjoying boom conditions as the oil price rockets.

Poverty reduction and health care as well as literacy campaigns are important but they do not address the heart of the matter and they cannot radically change the situation of the poor. The Chávez government is a radical reforming government that fights under the banner of socialism but lacks a strategy to conquer power. It is not what Marxists have referred to historically as a ‘workers government’ – it could only become such a government by mobilising the workers, the poor and the peasants for the conquest of power.

But that means a level of mobilisation and self-organisation that has not been achieved today, despite the hundreds of thousands of Bolivarian faithful who turned out in Caracas on May day. It could only be turned around by dynamising the Bolivarian process with a direct appeal to break the power of the oligarchic bourgeoisie, economically and socially.

The present situation of a stalled transition is very dangerous. A failure to transform the situation of the poor leads to resignation and demoralisation – and it was this factor that ensured Chávez’s defeat in last year’s referendum. The reactionary mobilisation of the right aided by imperialism feeds off this demoralisation and apathy and can even create cynicism and make direct political gains in popular sectors.

The defeat of the Bolivarian process would be a traumatic and probably very bloody affair, with terrible consequences for the left, the working class and the poor – and demoralising consequences for the left internationally. Only by a radical change in direction can this danger be overcome.

Regional dynamic

The harbinger of the regional counter-revolutionary offensive was the US-aided electoral fraud in Mexico in July 2006, which kept out the ‘centre-left’ presidential candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador. This was rapidly followed by the brutal military suppression of the protest movement in the state of Oaxaca, which had occupied the state capital in protest at the corruption of the state’s right-wing governor. The fraudulent election of the right-wing Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) was important for the US, as it stemmed the tide of left and leftish governments rising in Latin America.

Venezuela and Bolivia have broken the regional isolation of Cuba and created a new dynamic in Latin America and internationally. Whichever candidate becomes the next US president, the reactionary offensive will continue. A key part of that offensive will be aid to military operation in Colombia against the FARC, especially along the border with Venezuela.

As in much of Latin America the oligarchic bourgeoisie and important sections of the middle class in both Bolivia and Venezuela are driven by reactionary hatred of the poor, the workers, the indigenous and the peasants. In the next period they will pose the question of government, probably violently. The poor and the oppressed need to return the compliment by posing the question of power.

(1) Kiraz Janicke and Federico Fuentes, Venezuela’s labour movement at the crossroads,

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