”We will not permit Chávez to be removed from power!”

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez with supporters at a rally in downtown Caracas.

On August 15, Venezuelans will go to the polls in a referendum on President Hugo Chávez’s government. Far from an exercise in abstract democracy, this referendum is one of a series of class battles pitting Venezuela’s poor and working masses against the U.S. government and the Venezuelan elite.

The outcome of the referendum will not be decisive. Polarization of the social classes—primarily due to the intransigence of Venezuela’s rich and propertied classes—is pushing Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution to a final showdown, ending in a decisive victory for one class or the other.

Supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution in the United States and around the world should be vigilant as the August 15 referendum approaches, prepared to defend the revolution regardless of the outcome.

Chávez was elected in 1998, and reelected in 2000. Basing his government on the aspirations of the 80 percent of Venezuelans who live in poverty, Chávez led the effort to rewrite the country’s constitution and reshape the political structure in a more democratic way. For the first time, ordinary Venezuelans had access to the political system under which they lived.

Invoking the legacy of the 19th Century Latin American liberation leader Simón Bolivar, Chávez also reoriented the country’s foreign policy. He was the only head of state to challenge the U.S. embargo of Iraq after the first Gulf War, meeting with President Saddam Hussein in 2000. And he directed a portion of Venezuela’s oil riches to socialist Cuba on preferential terms.

In 2001, Chávez declared that the Bolivarian Revolution had entered its social phase—meaning his government was turning to the pressing economic needs of the millions of Venezuelans who lived in squalor amid the country’s oil riches. He began a program of land reform, a national literacy campaign and a program called “Into the Neighborhood,” aimed at providing medicine and basic needs to poor communities.

Key to this phase of the process were the Bolivarian Circles: neighborhood groups organized to provide for people’s social needs and to defend the revolution. The Circles soon encompassed millions.

But as Venezuela’s revolutionary process progressed, opposition from the ruling elite went from grumbling to open opposition. Based in the headquarters of FEDECAMARAS, Venezuela’s bosses’ federation, the so-called “democratic opposition” embarked on a program to destabilize and oust Chávez’s government. A bosses’ lockout in the oil industry in 2001, aided by right-wing elements of the corrupt Venezuelan Workers Federation (CTV) bureaucracy, set the stage for a coup attempt in April 2002. The U.S. government publicly welcomed the coup.

The coup was defeated by the intervention of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who poured into the streets from the slums and countryside. Mass pressure, combined with the intervention of pro-Chávez elements in the military, freed Chávez from captivity. The coup plotters were sent scrambling.

The opposition regroups

June 2003, massive show of support for Bolivarian Revolution moves through the streets of Caracas.

Chávez’s government never prosecuted the coup plotters. So while the counterrevolution was dealt a blow, it gradually began to regroup around an option within the new constitution: a referendum to recall the president.

Chávez himself had insisted on the recall provision in the constitution. It states that the president’s term can be nullified if more people vote for the nullification in a referendum than the number who voted for Chavez in the 2000 election. Chávez received 3.8 million votes in 2000.

The opposition claimed that it had collected 3.4 million signatures for a referendum, but hundreds of thousands were declared forged. Nevertheless, the National Electoral Council ruled in May that the referendum could proceed on August 15.

Chávez himself has welcomed the referendum as a chance to prove his popularity. “These are times of great battles, and we are waiting for another great victory,” he told Xinhua News on June 11.

Despite the fact that Chávez supporters dominate the government, counterrevolutionary forces still hold power disproportionate to their size. Wealthy oligarchs like Univision owner Gustavo Cisneros control virtually all the major media in Venezuela, openly broadcasting calls for counterrevolution. Factory owners routinely threaten their workers in an attempt to force them to support the opposition.

Mobilizing the masses

Chávez’s supporters are not sitting idle while the U.S.-backed opposition organizes. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets for the June 6 launch of the “Battle of Santa Inés,” as the campaign against the recall is called. The title of the campaign is a reference to an 1859 bloody battle during a period of civil war when an outnumbered popular general demolished a conservative force.

As an element of the campaign, Chávez supporters are organizing “patriotic squads” of five to ten people in every neighborhood. These squads are working hand in hand with the Bolivarian Circles, which played a key role in defeating the 2002 coup. Daily mass rallies are also taking place across the country in support of the Bolivarian Revolution.

The source of Chávez’s legitimacy

Chávez has pledged to step down if the referendum results go against him. This is consistent with Chávez’s insistence in following a democratic process—unlike the opposition, which deals in coups and assassination attempts.

But it would be a bourgeois illusion to think a referendum result that opposed Chávez would have any legitimacy. Since the April 2002 coup attempt, Chávez’s government no longer derives its legitimacy from the 2000 elections, democratic as they were. The legitimacy of the Chávez government stems directly from the masses of poor and working people who rescued his government from the flames of counterrevolution.

The Bolivarian Revolution belongs only to the workers. Its legitimacy can only be challenged by the working class.

For Marxists, the chief task leading up to the referendum is to make the class character of the struggle behind the referendum clear to all supporters of the Venezuelan revolution. The referendum itself is a field of battle that will not resolve the class antagonisms driving the current confrontation.

The reactionary opposition has never pledged to abide by the election results if it does not favor them. On the contrary, they have all but stated that they will continue to organize against the Chávez government.

No one would fault Venezuela’s workers for being any less resolute, although they have treated the opponents of their revolution with the greatest leniency up to now.

Looming battles

In the poorest neighborhoods, there is already growing frustration against Chávez’s leniency toward the ruling class. The Financial Times picked up one hint of it during a June 8 interview. “This is all a fraud,” said Alfredo Palacios, a street vendor from a poor neighborhood in eastern Caracas. He was referring to the certification of the referendum.

“And anyway, revolutionaries aren’t meant to go to elections,” he continued. “But it doesn’t matter. Chávez is invincible. Chávez is the people.”

While the quote might be taken as the lone voice of one worker, it is actually a reflection of a wide and growing sector of Chávez’s movement. Lina Ron is one of the most militant supporters of Chávez, heading up Venezuela’s largest Bolivarian Circle organization in Caracas. In February, before the results of the anti-Chávez petition drive were known, Ron spoke clearly about her group’s attitude toward the opposition: “We will not permit Chávez to be removed from power.” She described herself and her supporters as “the radicals, the hardliners, the violent ones and the fighters.”

The Miami Herald interviewed Ron on May 3. “I am working for the poor,” she told the reporter. “People say we are the ugly face of the revolution. But in fact we are the beautiful part, the honest part, the part that won’t sell out.”

And she warned: “Are we armed? Up to our cheeks. Any time the fascists lift a finger against the poor, they will be punished by our popular militias.”

Another sign of the growing militancy within the Chávez movement is the 2003 formation of the National Workers Union (UNT), a new union federation that opposes the old, corrupt CTV. The UNT now includes over 2 million members.

A July 4 statement signed by UNT leader Orlando Chirino and other unionists characterized the Battle of Santa Inés as “anti-imperialist, internationalist and anti-capitalist.” They called for international unionists—“class-conscious, revolutionary groups and democratic figures”—to come to Caracas on July 31 and observe the referendum.

A victory in the referendum, the statement notes, will offer the chance to “deepen the revolutionary process.” That would be a welcome development, not just for Venezuelan workers, but for workers across Latin America and in the United States.


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