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Hugo Chavez: revolutionary socialist or leftwing reformist?

For years, the Left in Britain and elsewhere, have sung the praises of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, ready always to defend the gains of the Cuban revolution as that country withstood everything the US had to throw at it. Now there is a new revolutionary on the block, cast in the Castro mould, flicking the Vs at Western imperialists as he implements social reform after social reform and, like Castro, wining the applause of radicals around the world. His name is Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, and he is the mastermind of the countrys socialist revolution, presenting the threat of the good example that continues to panic the USA.

It is understandable why the left love him when he is regularly heard mouthing slogans and making the kind of demands you normally see in papers like Socialist Worker. Addressing the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, earlier this year Chavez said:

“It is impossible, within the framework of the capitalist system to solve the grave problems of poverty of the majority of the world’s population. We must transcend capitalism. But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything. That’s the debate we must promote around the world, and the WSF is a good place to do it.”

By all accounts, Chavez was not inebriated or stoned when he made this statement. He was sober and deadly serious. He had never talked about much socialism before, only about being a “Bolivarian”, a humanist and a supporter of the Cuban revolution. But now he bandies the word “socialism” around with the glee of a five year old learning a new schoolyard profanity, and regularly mentions Marx, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg.

“Socialism” is the buzzword of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” (so called after Simon Bolivar who led the army that freed Venezuela from Spanish rule). It is a word Chavez is keen to expunge of what he sees as its negative connotations, namely state capitalism – despite the fact that he seems unclear just what is meant by the term. Speaking recently to senior heads of the country’s military, Chavez asked that they carry the question of socialism ”into the barracks”, to initiate debate and to reassess everything they had hitherto been told about socialism and to help strengthen the ideological offensive.

In the TV programme Alo Presidente, broadcast on 1 September, he pleaded for Venezuelans to “leave to one side the ghosts with which the idea of socialism has been associated” and revealed the result of an independent opinion poll carried out in May and June. He informed his country that 47.9 percent said they preferred a ‘socialist government’, that 25.7 percent said they preferred a capitalist government and that some 25 percent were yet to respond.

Since Hugo Chavez declared that the way forward for Venezuela was to steer towards socialism, this has turned into the main debate within the “revolutionary Bolivarian” movement, and society generally

Reforms

Chavez’s heart may be in the right place, even if he is somewhat muddled as to the meaning of the word “socialism,” and he may well have decent intentions. But his “socialist” agenda amounts to little more than one vast reformist programme that is largely being financed by the country’s oil, which is currently selling for five times its 1999 price.

The generous profits from oil price rises have gone into financing programmes to improve health, provide cheap food, extend educational access, and to organise some land reform. Chavez has initiated operations aimed at ending poverty and improving the economic and cultural lives of Venezuelans. He is keen on educating the population via literacy drives. He is re-nationalising universities and building new housing. The state has taken over some sections of industry and a TV station has been set up to transmit the “socialist” ideas of the Bolivarian “revolution”.

While Chavez faces a lot of opposition in urban centres, it is clear why, in the poor working class shanties surrounding the city, support for the government is vocal and widespread.

Cooperatives

Chavez, is also keen on workers’ cooperatives. In his 1 September TV broadcast he pointed out that the kind of cooperative he is proposing is one that “generates collective wealth through joint labour, going beyond the capitalist model which promotes individualism”. If company owners found the going difficult, he said, the state was prepared to come to their aid with low interest credit, though on the understanding that “the employers give workers participation in management, the direction and the profits of the company.” And which capitalist could resist that offer? Chavez observed that 700 closed companies had been identified with a view to expropriation; that many had assets and the machinery ready to start producing.

Expropriation comes at a cost to worker organisation however. The first company to be taken over was the paper mill Venepal, now renamed Invepal. There, union leaders broke up the union – against the better advice of others in the trade union movement – and now look forward to buying out the state’s stake in the company so they will have sole control over company and profits. Overnight, former militant trade unionists have turned into aspiring capitalists.

As far as the US is concerned with Venezuela, the “good example” that the “Bolivarian revolution” poses is the least of their problems at the moment. The real concern stems from the fact that Venezuela has considerable oil wealth. Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world – 13 per cent of the world’s oil comes out of the country – and Chavez controls the largest oil supplies outside of the Middle East.

At a time of rising oil prices, instability in the Middle East, and with China emerging as a major challenge to US economic interests in the near future, Chavez earlier this year signed an agreement with China's vice president Zeng Qinghong, smoothing the way for the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation to invest in the development of Venezuelan oil and gas reserves. Chavez further agreed to sell fuel and crude oil to China at reduced prices to compensate the high shipping costs of oil to East Asia.

Moreover, Caracas recently signed up to a much publicized agreement for a group of sales reps from the Venezuelan state oil company to be trained by Iranian experts on strategies for penetrating the Asian market.

And who else does Chavez cosy up to? None other than arch enemy of US conservatism Fidel Castro. In the past two years, Venezuela has supplied Cuba with vital shipments of subsidized oil to ease the country’s perpetually faltering energy and transport systems, and in return Cuba has sent an army of professionals to Venezuela to help the ongoing social programmes, inclusive of 14,000 doctors, 3,000 dentists, 1,500 eye specialists and 7,000 sports trainers.

And then there are Venezuela’s recent arms purchases – 40 helicopters from Russia, attack light aircraft and 100,000 Kalashnikovs from Brazil – which will no doubt provide the Bush regime with the excuse to channel still more weaponry to neighbouring Colombia, escalating regional tension and the likelihood of future instability.

Little wonder the US is becoming a mite anxious at the ongoing antics of the Latin American upstart Chavez. And just to make matters a little more precarious, Chavez has repeatedly made it plain that if the US starts flexing its muscles at Venezuela then he would not hesitate to cut of all oil exports to the USA.


Pat Robertson, tele-evangelist, entrepreneur, one-time presidential candidate and close friend of the Bush family, undoubtedly expressed the sentiments of many US neo-cons when, speaking on his TV show on 22 August, he referred to Chavez as “a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us badly”.

He went on: “You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he [Chavez] thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop.”

Acknowledging that the US had the ability to bump Chavez off, Robertson continued: “I think that the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don’t need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.”

Robertson’s “un-Christian” outburst quickly brought condemnation from the Republican hierarchy, keen to keep Bush away from further criticism. Whilst Robertson may claim not to know “about this doctrine of assassination”, the simple fact is that consecutive US governments have attempted, arranged or supported the elimination of scores of leaders around the world. That Chavez has lasted so long is undoubtedly due to the international attention he has attracted of late.

Not Socialist

Venezuela is no nearer socialism than Russia was when it claimed to have established it. Not only is it the case that it is impossible to establish socialism in one country, but it could never be established by a leader. If Chavez can take his country into socialism, which is downright absurd, then some other leader could just as easily lead them out of it again. Similarly, the reforms he has implemented could be taken away the moment he is removed from office.

Despite his popularity amongst the poor that could well carry him to another electoral victory next year and assure Venezuela of another six years of Bolivarian reformism, Chavez is compelled by circumstances to govern within the confines of capitalism..

The country still has a monetary system. The banks and big business, particularly oil interests, are still in private hands. There have been no seizures of land. International oil companies have bent over backwards to provide new investment, in spite of Venezuela having increased the royalties that they have to pay. There is still commodity production, still exploitation, still trade on the terms laid down by international capital and still armed forces ready top defend the economic interests of Venezuela’s capitalist class.

JOHN BISSETT