“I want to express thanks to my president Chávez and to Fidel Castro, because he sent us these missions of health, education and sports, which are so great for our country.
“What we want is for no other president to be intervening here, like the one from the United States. That president has been wanting to stick his nose in our country, but our problems are for the Venezuelans to solve.”
Marleni Guerrero, a working-class woman in the humble Caracas neighborhood of Carapita, spoke as she and a group of women gave us a tour of the new social projects, part of the “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the ANSWER Coalition’s Peta Lindsay, Caracas. Dec. 4, 2004.
Photo: Gloria La Riva
Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general, was one of three keynote speakers at the plenary session with President Hugo Chávez.
Sponsored by the Venezuelan Ministry of Culture, the delegates met for three days to debate important issues facing the people of the world and to organize an international strategy of resistance to imperialism.
The most outstanding resolution of the conference was the commitment to build a hemisphere-wide television network based in Caracas. Its mission will be to counter the imperialist world’s media conglomerates. The network will give the area’s popular struggles a communications alternative.
Venezuela was a fitting site for the event because of a growing mass movement of the poor, its exemplary resistance to U.S. imperialism, and its growing rejection of capitalism.
Meeting amid revolutionary changes
Since Hugo Chávez’s presidential election in 1998, several popular referendums have affirmed his government’s revolutionary policies and the masses’ desire for real economic and social change.
The most recent were the regional elections on Oct. 31, 2004, with 20 of 22 governorships now in the hands of the pro-Chávez forces. This is a gain of five states since 2000. Chávez himself was overwhelmingly approved in a U.S.-backed referendum that reactionaries had organized in order to recall him. The Aug. 15, 2004, referendum was a big blow to the Venezuelan oligarchy and to Washington.
Since 1999, U.S. attempts at overthrowing the country’s revolution—by financing a coup organized by the oligarchy in April 2002, and backing a December 2002 oil industry sabotage by the oil bourgeoisie—have been met with a great mobilization of the working class and poorest sectors.
The Chávez government has responded by promoting the empowerment of the masses through the introduction of radical economic, social and political mechanisms.
In the tour of Venezuelan neighborhoods, we could see that large sectors of the formerly excluded population are gaining political experience by organizing themselves to provide services like the education campaigns and food programs. It is no small accomplishment, to build from the ground up a whole social and economic structure to rival and challenge the country’s capitalist superstructure.
Venezuela’s oil is key
Chávez’s ability to address the needs of the country’s poor has been largely fueled by redirecting the wealth of the state oil industry into the social “missions.”
Through the leadership of Chávez and his allies, the Venezuelan people are now laying claim to the oil that enriched the Venezuelan and U.S. ruling classes for too long.
Venezuela is the fifth-ranking producer of oil in the world. It has the largest reserves in the Western Hemisphere, an estimated 78 billion barrels of oil.
Venezuela has the second largest known natural gas reserves in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States, with 148 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
But for all of the country’s immense energy wealth, more than 80 percent of Venezuela’s 26 million people suffered from high unemployment and poverty for decades. That suffering exploded in a mass spontaneous rebellion, called the “Caracazo,” in 1989, which Chávez described in the Conference as “the beginning of our Bolivarian revolution.”
It is a story repeated in one country after another in the capitalist world: privately owned wealth under capitalism—no matter how great that wealth—spells exploitation and poverty for the masses and super riches for a handful of owners.
Although Venezuela’s oil and natural gas were nationalized with the passage of a 1975 Hydrocarbons Law, the royalty terms for private companies to operate Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA) were overly favorable to the corporations. Added to that was the graft and siphoning of oil profits by the managerial class.
The only thing the working class inherited was the country’s debt from loans to develop the oil industry.
With Chávez’s election in 1998, sweeping economic and political measures were undertaken, including the adoption of a new constitution in 1999. Before the constitution, PdVSA was undergoing privatization. Article 303 of the constitution specifically prohibits privatization of PdVSA.
In 2001, a new Hydrocarbons Law was passed. It raised the royalties that are required to be paid to the government by the private companies, from a previous rate of 1 to 16.6 percent to a rate of 20 to 30 percent.
After the December 2002 oil sabotage by the Venezuelan rich was defeated, Chávez took further measures to loosen their stranglehold on the oil industry.
In the 2004 budget, a greater portion of oil revenues was designated for social development—about $3.7 billion of the industry’s $15 billion budget. This provides the financing for the new education, health care, food, housing, agricultural and cultural missions.
And on January 6, 2005, Déstor Rodríguez, PdVSA’s director of development, announced the doubling of financing for social development from oil revenues for 2005.
The government is also announcing intentions to diversify its export market to be less dependent on the United States. Chávez just concluded a four-day visit with top leaders in China. There the two countries agreed to increased trade, including making more Venezuelan energy resources available to China.
Day by day, the Chávez government is moving more decisively to create a new economic and political order that benefits the workers and poor.
For seven hours one evening during the Defense of Humanity conference, in the Teresa Carreño Theater, President Chávez engaged in a dialogue with the 350 delegates about his country’s historic path.
“The most serious problem for the world is poverty, because all other problems arise from poverty and misery. … And to combat poverty, we need education and culture, which are political acts to liberate the oppressed.
“This is where we are heading. That is where the people are at this moment, moving, moving, and making more demands, as they should. The greatest effort that we can undertake is to give power to the poor with the abundance we have, so they can break their own chains. They are their own liberators,” said Chávez.
One fundamental area of the economy in which the people are demanding more radical action is implementation of the Land Law of 2001. It allows idle lands to be expropriated for poor farmers.
Poor farmers and their families are taking direct action to occupy large estates across the country. One example was the takeover by dozens of families of the 32,000-acre farm, Agropecuaria Flora, a subsidiary of British Vestey Group Ltd.
To advance the land reform process, Chávez signed a presidential decree on Jan. 10 and announced the formation of a National Agricultural Commission to implement new measures.
A national survey of all agricultural lands will be undertaken to expropriate idle lands and break up large land holdings, known as “latifundia.” The rural workers are mobilizing with the assistance of the government to form “Lands Committees.” In the state of Lara alone, 1,968 committees have been created.
Chávez said, “Less than 5 percent of Venezuelan owners have more than 75 percent of the country’s best lands. This goes against democracy and the nation’s peace. We ask for the collaboration of everybody so we can carry out this struggle in peace to redistribute the land and to achieve economic democracy, rural development, and a better standard of living for the campesinos, in addition to agricultural sovereignty and security.” (Venpres, Jan. 9)
In more than one forum during the conference, including our evening with Chávez, he spoke emphatically of the need to study the ideas of socialism.
Thousands of Cuban volunteers have deepened the revolutionary process.
Photo: Peta Lindsay
Cuba’s role continues to be critical in this struggle. By providing the tremendous expertise of Cuba’s own revolution, many thousands of Cuban volunteers, doctors, teachers, technicians, scientists and political leaders, are engaged in all vital sectors of Venezuelan society. They are helping the Bolivarian masses make a considerable leap in social development.
Cuba and Venezuela further cemented their ties on Dec. 14, 2004, with the signing of the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA) economic accords, fashioned as an alternative to U.S. imperialism’s FTAA—Free Trade Area of the Americas, or ALCA in Spanish. Under the agreement, they will integrate key components of both economies, including energy, trade, and training thousands of Venezuelan youth to become doctors.
The class struggle is intensifying, with the working class and oppressed gaining ground. This presents great opportunities for the advancement of the revolutionary process. At the same time the government and people are fully aware of the dangers that lie ahead. Property relations remain capitalist.
The bourgeoisie, both Venezuelan and American, will not give up its power and wealth easily. Pro-Chávez forces are fully aware of the arduous road ahead. The Venezuelan ruling class, known now as “the opposition,” and U.S. imperialism are preparing more attacks on the revolutionary process.
But millions of Venezuelans have passed through historic experiences in defense of their “Bolivarian Revolution,” like the enormous mobilization that reversed the fascist coup and brought Chávez back to office in 48 hours. That political experience and combative spirit will be critical in the months to come.
As Nuria Rollero, one of the women activists in the Carapita neighborhood said, “The opposition will never be able to scare us. They may threaten to kill us, but we won’t go away.”