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World View

Putin raises nuclear stakes

In December's Socialist Standard, we commented on the decision by the US Senate not to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the promise by the more hawkish Republicans to scupper the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which outlawed "Star Wars" defence programmes, and suggested that such steps, at the dawn of a new millennium dampened any hopes the more optimistic workers held for the 21st century.

We did not have to wait long for further confirmation of the troubled century that awaits us. Two weeks into the new millennium, the Guardian reported on Moscow's newly published security strategy doctrine which aims to raise the nuclear stakes by lowering the threshold at which Russia can resort to the use of nuclear weapons:

"Mr Yeltsin's strategy, decreed in December 1997, declared that nuclear weapons could only be used 'in the case of a threat to the very existence of the Russian Federation as a sovereign state'. The new document states that the use of nuclear weapons is necessary 'to repel armed aggression if all other means of resolving a crisis situation have been exhausted or turn out to be ineffective' "(14 January).

At the peak of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union had a force of 5 million under arms and was an acknowledged superpower. Since 1989, it has seen its armed forces shrink to almost a fifth of that number and has suffered humiliation after humiliation—the withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989 and the first botched war in Chechnya, for instance. As well as morale in the armed forces being low, their combat readiness, according to Putin himself, is in a critical condition, with training and maintenance reported as being grossly inadequate. While a contingent of 300 Russian soldiers serving in Kosovo as part of the peace keeping force have been returned home because of alleged drunkenness, drug-taking and a general inadequateness, the higher ranks are becoming notorious for their infighting, with the defence minister constantly arguing with his generals.

With the above in mind, one can well see the method in Putin's madness. He has after all the job of protecting the interests of Russia's capitalist elite with faulty tools. Moreover, he is faced with the stark realisation that he exists in a unipolar world increasingly dominated by the US. Putin's attempt to make the world once again bipolar can also be seen a response to NATO's New Strategic Concept which, like Putin's proposals in his 21 page document, suggests the early recourse to the use of nuclear weapons.

That the world's leaders are still prepared to carry their nuclear logic into another century, that they are continually prepared to wipe out millions of their fellow humans to further the interests of a minority at the end of a century that witnessed the deaths of 220 million in conflict, should shatter any illusions we have that this century will proceed on a different course to the one we have stepped out of. While we contemplate the wars, the conflicts and the horrors our masters have in store for us this coming century, it is also important to remember that we as a class hold the power to prevent the same from coming about.

We are not ruled by force or coercion, but by consent. The Putins and Clintons of this world can only do the things they do because we vote them in, thus legitimising their actions, however detrimental they may be to our interests. War and conflict and all the terrors we dare to imagine only come to pass because we refuse to join together as a class to express our class interests. Once we recognise that as a class we have shared basic needs and desires, suffering the same privations because of our less privileged position in the relations of production, and unite in defiance of that minority intent on maintaining the status quo and its nuclear insanity, we need never fear the horror of war again.

While you muse on the aforementioned, remember the argument is not that complicated. This is your world as much as anybody's and requires your active involvement to protect it. Are you for socialism or against it? Don't take too long to make up your mind—we may not have that much time.
John Bissett

 

A disaster waiting to happen

When the global economic crisis hit, first, the Pacific Rim countries and, later, Latin America and elsewhere, just over a couple of years ago, Venezuela was, as we noted (Socialist Standard, October 1998), particularly vulnerable. It had been economically and politically unstable for at least two decades, and corruption was rife (see Socialist Standard, September 1999).

In February last year, Hugo Chavez, the former paratrooper who had led a failed military coup d'état seven years previously, was elected president; and in August, he and his left-wing coalition won an overwhelming victory (but on a 53 percent turnout) in the elections to the National Assembly. He had proposed a complete rewriting of the constitution, the draft of which went before the new assembly, and was passed on 16 December.

According to his mainly right-wing critics, President Chavez has become a virtual dictator. He has increased, against the general trend worldwide, state intervention and control of the economy, reduced civilian control of the armed forces, and has probably secured the presidency for himself until 2012. He says that he needs such powers in order to "root out corruption" which, of course, he blames on previous governments. And, said Chavez, he would solve Venezuela's economic ills. Nevertheless, between February last year, when he became president, and the beginning of December, unemployment had increased by a massive 700,000.

On polling day, last August, there was heavy rainfall throughout much of Venezuela, causing a number of landslides, 37 deaths, and the destruction of up to 2,000 homes. But worse was to come.

Beginning around 10 December, almost a year's average rain fell, outside the usual rainy season, in five days. Torrential rain continued for another five days. The worse affected area was the tiny Vargas state bordering the Caribbean Sea in the north-west of Venezuela. Much of the country is flat; but there are hills and mountains, such as Mount Avila, inland and parallel to the coast, from Guacara in the west to the east of Caracas, the capital.

By 15 December, huge amounts of mud as well as large rocks and boulders began to slide down towards the coast. The soils, have, moreover, suffered constant erosion over the years; and when the natural dykes broke rivers formed, sending floods of muddy water onto the low-lying areas. Large swathes of the northern coast were swept into the sea. One of the towns to be worse hit was Carmen de Uria. It only had dirt roads; and it straddled what had been a small river, which had no proper embankment. After 10 days of rain, the river overflowed, cascading through many homes. Shortly after, Carmen de Uria was entirely buried under mud.


Floods like these claimed 100,000 lives in Venezuela

"It was," said Piero Feliziani, an Italian geologists, "a holocaust waiting to happen." But it need not have caused so much death, destruction and misery, even if it was a "natural" disaster. (The Archbishop of Caracas said that the rains "were divine retribution" for President Chavez's radical policies!)

The basic cause, however, was the rapid development of a commodity-producing, capitalist, market economy from the early 1950s. According to Michael McCaughan in the Observer:

"Venezuela, like neighbouring Colombia and Peru, was a largely rural society with strong family community ties until the fifties, when civil unrest and depressed crop prices forced millions into misery belts around the cities, where they piled high in precarious dwellings" (26 December).

For decades, there has been rapid, uncontrolled, unregulated immigration from the rural areas of extreme poverty to, and around, Caracas and other cities seeking employment, first, in the expanding oil industry and, then, in tourism. Indeed Venezuela's weak economy depends almost entirely on oil and tourism for its foreign revenue. Vargas state has 500,000 workers who service the tourist industry, or commute each day to Caracas from the shanty towns and ranchos in the hills surrounding the capital. "Corrupt politicians and planners" turned a blind eye to such developments, where up to 350,000 workers existed, often without electricity, running water or main drainage.

This urban overpopulation is, according to Luisa Romero, an investment broker based in New York, "one more effect of the globalised economy". It has also resulted in the death, disappearance and loss of habitation of hundreds of thousands of workers. Indeed, at the time of writing these lines, the numbers are not known, and may never be known, but have been estimated at more than 450,000, then times the number killed in Venezuela's previous catastrophe, the earthquake of 1812.

Surely, if nothing else, the events and disaster in Venezuela at the end of 1999 demonstrate the need to replace capitalism by a new, democratic society of production, not of profit, but of use and the satisfaction of people's needs; a socialist society of common ownership of natural resources (including Venezuela's oil reserves if still required) and the means of production.

PETER E. NEWELL