Venezuela and Chile
In 1992 Hugo Chavez, a junior parachute officer, tried to seize power in Venezuela in a traditional South American coup. He failed and spent some time in jail. He then tried another way and in 1998 was elected President, with 56 percent of the votes cast; he was re-elected in 2000 with a 60 percent vote. In elections held to a constituent assembly in 1999 his supporters obtained 120 of the 131 seats.
Chavez is a populist nationalist and radical reformist not a socialist, but his programme of radical reforms and moving from private capitalism towards state capitalism threatened the vested interests of powerful private capitalist groups. According to anarchist and anti-parliamentarist theory, which says that even if power can be won via the ballot box for radical change it can’t be retained, what should have happened next was that the powerful groups whose interests were threatened should stage a coup and unleash a bloody repression. As, for instance, in Chile in September 1973:
“Socialism cannot come through the Parliament. If we look at a country like Chile we can see why. In 1973 the people elected a moderate socialist government led by President Allende. This democratically-elected government was toppled by a CIA backed military coup. Repression followed in which the workers movement was smashed and thousands of militants lost their lives” (“What is Anarchism?”, www.struggle.ws/pdfs/whatis.pdf)
(This statement is both factually wrong and logically flawed. Allende became president in 1970 and so was not immediately overthrown as is suggested. And if he was a “moderate socialist”, i.e. a mere reformist like the Labour and Social Democratic parties of Europe and Australasia, there have been plenty of other such governments, which have not been toppled in a coup; in fact, most haven’t. Having said this, socialism cannot come through electing such governments but for quite other reasons than that they come to power through elections.)
On 11 April 2002, true to anarchist theory, a group of top Venezuelan army officers and business leaders did stage a coup. Chavez was arrested and taken to a secret destination where he was put under pressure to resign (he refused). It so happened that an Irish film crew, which had come to make a documentary about Chavez and Venezuela, was actually in the presidential palace at the time. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a fascinating and instructive record of how events unfolded over the next few days (together with material from the originally-planned film and lots of Spanish with sub-titles): the dejected ministers, the installation of the usurper president, the recapture of the palace by the presidential guard, the arrest of some of the plotters, the pro-Chavez street demonstrations and the return of Chavez two days later. He is still there.
So the coup failed. It failed because those who had voted for Chavez were prepared to take to the streets to back up their vote and because the bulk of the armed forces remained loyal to the constitution and the constitutionally-elected president. The anarchist theory that power obtained by the ballot box to effect radical changes can’t be retained was disproved by experience.
What happened confirms rather our view that a socialist majority can both win and retain power via the ballot box if that majority is sufficiently organised and determined and if there is no question as to their democratic legitimacy. If pro-capitalist elements were to stage a coup after a socialist election victory it could prove to be even more short-lived than in Venezuela in April 2002. The slogan that anarchists and other chant on demonstrations that “the people united can never be defeated” is actually true, to back up an electoral victory too.
The film is being shown at the Anarchist Bookfair in London this month. It will be interesting to see how they will explain away the events it records. Perhaps they’ll change the text of their leaflet to:
“Socialism may be able to come through the Parliament. If we look at a country like Venezuela we cannot see why not. In 1998 and 2000 the people elected a radical reformist government led by President Chavez. An attempt was made in 2002 to topple this democratically elected government but it failed because the government enjoyed majority popular support and the loyalty of the armed forces“.