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(en) Venezuela, Socialism to the Highest Bidder - Prepared by Nachie, for the Red & Anarchist Action Network (RAAN) I. (1/9)

Date Sun, 02 Jul 2006 08:54:01 +0300


Over a period of two months spanning January to March in 2006, I
backpacked through Venezuela in a reckless manner on behalf of the
Red & Anarchist Action Network (RAAN), in search of first-hand
information regarding the country's current political and social
situation and in particular the "Bolivarian Revolution" proclaimed by
incumbent president Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías. My goal was to
use the VI World Social Forum, held in the capital city of Caracas
during the last week in January, as a launchpad to make the kinds of
contacts necessary for this study to be a success. As an autonomous
communist and affiliate of RAAN, my ultimate aim was to
specifically seek out the contradictions that lay within the
institutionalized Bolivarian movement and, therefore, to hopefully
discover the sectors of Venezuelan society that were developing
anti-capitalist critiques of Chávez's state-driven process.

1. BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION

For RAAN, this whole affair began exactly a year ago when I
distributed a text entitled Bolivanarchism: The Venezuela Question
in Our Movement to comrades in the network and the North
American "anti-authoritarian" tendency in general. Written whilst I
was on a short trip to Brazil over the point of which I had become
particularly fascinated by the process in neighboring Venezuela, this
exploratory essay laid the groundwork for everything that was to
follow in terms of our tendency's discussions on the issue. At the
time I was criticized for showering attention on a situation seemingly
directed exclusively by the Venezuelan State; and it was suggested
that the network's time and energy would be much better spent
elsewhere. I am now certain that this - at least for me personally - is
not the case, and that this focus on Venezuela will prove to have
been useful to both our network and the wider movement.

A few things must be made absolutely clear: firstly, that without this
follow-up, the original Bolivanarchism essay would be considered,
under RAAN's "No-Bullshit Policy", to be more or less an exercise
in useless ideological masturbation. Only this on-the-ground
investigation and practical follow-through on the tasks set out in that
text could possibly justify it within our network's action-oriented
culture. Furthermore, I must clearly state that my time in the
country has led me to seriously reconsider many of the positions I
had toyed with in that essay - as will be shown below. And finally,
one of the essay's main points has in particular shown itself to be
quite outdated: that being my concern over the lack of attention and
information on the situation. When Common Ground Relief goes
down to ask Chávez for cheap heating oil to New Orleans and the
mainstream Left starts riding Trotskyist coattails in an effort to
associate itself with the Bolivarian Revolution, I don't think we have
to worry too much about any such neglect; Chávez is in the
limelight and poised to become the most important political figure in
the world. Now all we need to focus on is the quality of that
information concerning Venezuela.

As with all documents produced under the banner of RAAN, this
essay strives to be not merely an exercise in theoretical development
or information sharing, but a full report concerning the interventions
our network has made in the Venezuelan process and what we might
further propose as points to act upon in the future. That said, this
study exists simply to fulfill the goals set forth last June and I,
personally, have no intention of returning to Venezuela in the near
future, or organizing around the issue past the objectives lined out
over the course of this text. Nevertheless my work has set the
material foundation through which other RAAN affiliates may
become involved in this process, in accordance with their personal
desires.

Before beginning I would like to take the time to thank all those who
let me interview them, gave me food, shelter, or in any way assisted
in the creation of this report. In particular I would like to thank Alix
Santana and the artisans of Valencia, all the anarchists in Caracas
but especially Nelson Méndez, Humberto Decarli, and the CA3
Collective, Oswaldo Kanica of the Tupamaros, Red & Anarchist
Skin Heads of Venezuela and last, but by no means least, Christian
Guerrero of Earth First!

I'd like to also give a shout out to everybody who helped out with this
project and the collective editing process and the RAAN crews who
have been organizing stateside around this issue.

Giuliano Roma of the Argentine "La Anarquía" periodical deserves
mention as well for being among the first to engage in a serious
debate with us on this issue. Anne Carlson & Michael Staudenmaier
both deserve props, as their 2004 piece "Of Chavistas and
Anarquistas" provided a great deal of inspiration for the spirit, if not
content, of my own travels.

It is crucial to state that, except where explicitly outlined in the text,
no alliance is implied between RAAN and any of the groups that are
mentioned over the course of this report. I was often given
contradictory information and views on the same situation by
different people and have done my best to reconcile these within the
overall text. By far the most difficult part of this process was deciding
how to represent all these viewpoints simultaneously while giving
enough space for the speakers' backgrounds to be explained; I hope
I have succeeded in this task. And lastly, any factual errors or
mistranslations are entirely my own fault.

2. A (VERY) BRIEF HISTORY OF VENEZUELA

To a certain extent I will be assuming that the readers of this essay
are already familiar with the broad framework and implications of the
current regime in Venezuela, and in particular its recent spats with
the US government. Nevertheless I have found that one cannot
possibly hope to appreciate the complexity of the situation without at
least some knowledge of the nation's political history and that of its
"liberation heroes". Those looking for a more comprehensive
analysis can probably find it in Michael McCaughan's The Battle of
Venezuela, (7 Stories Press, 2005) where I have pulled the majority
of these dates from. Anyway:

Venezuela's independence movement truly began in 1806 when
"Generalissimo" Francisco De Miranda begins plotting against
Spanish rule, but only six years into this he is betrayed by fellow
conspirators while trying to set up an independent administration in
Caracas. He was then shipped off to Spain to die in jail, in the
process becoming the nation's first Independence Hero.

Miranda was a military man, fighting all over Europe and Florida
before turning his attentions to the South, and seeking support from
the new United States government in the process. There is little
reason to believe that he was to be anything but a tyrant, though
government-funded murals and banners across Caracas now display
the old bastard as a hunky, square-chinned sexpot who stares
squint-eyed into the future as his long platinum hair flows in the
wind - something which is really hilarious once you get to see an
actual portrait of what he really looked like. The Frente Francisco De
Miranda, an apparently mass-non-electoral organization driven by
"ultra-left" Chavistas, unites a more modest caricature alongside that
of Ché and Bolívar as their symbol, and aside from a scattered
statue or street name, provide the most widespread reminder of who
this guy was.

So in 1812 we see Miranda leave the stage and his project is picked
up by a young prospect known as Simón Bolívar. Now Bolívar,
who is known officially as either "The Liberator" or "America's
Genius", is really quite well known in history, and the
crypto-nationalist cult of his image predates Chávez entirely; to
compare him to George Washington in terms of his stature as a
popular icon would be to gravely understate the situation. Just to
give an idea of how deep feelings can run in regards to the man, a
poor woman named Victoria once answered me, after I had asked if
she thought Chávez was a sincere revolutionary, "After God,
Bolívar. After Bolívar, Chávez. And after Chávez, us. The
people". It was one of the most terrifying things I'd ever heard, and
serves as a decent example of how profound the adoration and trust
of Hugo Chávez really is amongst the people. But I'm getting
ahead of myself...

Bolívar was a rich kid. Like most nationalist heroes of the time,
brilliance was more or less an effect of his being exposed to the ideas
of the Enlightenment. Though born in Caracas he was schooled in
France, where in particular his tutor Simón Rodríguez (alias
Ribas, now also considered a national hero) helped to expose him to
Voltaire, Rousseau, and all that stuff. Add to his experiences a trip to
the freshly-independent United States, and you'll find that he had all
the fuel he needed to embark on his revolutionary plans for an
independent South America.

Bolívar turns out to be a more than competent leader, as he and
his lieutenant Antonio José de Sucre (you guessed it, also a
national hero) use his inheritance to romp across the Northwestern
continent, secure Colombia in 1819, and rock the Spanish armies in
35 battles including that of Carabobo on June 24, 1821 - gaining
independence for all of modern Venezuela. Ever an ambitious fellow,
Bolívar declares "Gran Colombia" to exist on the territories of
modern-day Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela before the last two
were even won from the Spanish Empire. This shining idyll of a
South American superpower is more or less the historical and
ideological basis for what the Chávez government refers to as its
projects of "integración", and Bolívar's empire provides a handy
reference as to what that might look like (plus Cuba, of course). I
was surprised at how openly these ideas were paraded in the country;
for example when I read in the December, 2005 issue of El Camino
(a publication of the Ministry of Culture) that Evo Morales' election
had "reopened Bolívar's dream in the territories of Venezuela and
the nation that is today Bolivia".

Anyway, Bolívar gets along fine until about the late 1820's when,
after "liberating" all of Gran Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, his territory
begins to fall apart while he is away fighting in the latter. Despite
having continually rejected offers of an emperor's crown, Simón
finds that his massive conquests cannot hold under a central
government and in 1828 becomes a dictator in an attempt to save it
all. In 1830 he miraculously escapes an assassination attempt in
Bogotá, after which he says, "Fuck it" and resigns from politics.
Sickly, impoverished and without any friends, he dies later that year
after declaring, "There have been three great fools in history: Jesus,
Don Quixote, and I."

So there you have El Libertador, who more or less embodies the
imagery that Chávez has rode to power. Now some anarchists, at
least in light of the Bolivarian Revolution, have since sought to put a
"libertarian" spin on Bolívar, giving him the José Martí
treatment as someone who was potentially a revolutionary, but either
before his time or prevented by history from seeing his dream
succeed. They can pull out a number of arguments to back this up;
for instance his support for "indigenous rights" or the fact that the
patriotic Venezuelan government of Miranda had abolished the slave
trade early on - though not slavery itself, which would only disappear
in name by 1854 (it continued in practice for quite some time after).
Personally, as a North American resident I see little use in
opportunistically "recuperating" such a historical figure. After all, it's
just another white guy espousing bourgeois nationalism, and we got
enough of those.

Bolívar's empire soon crumbled to pieces as it was divided
between feuding caudillos ("little generals") who would define
Venezuelan and regional politics for at least the rest of the 19th
century. There is, of course, as much history of genuine class
struggle in Venezuela as there is anywhere else in the world -
notably Eziquiel Zamora's "sovereign army of the people" that in the
1840's terrorized the landowning classes (Chávez' great great
grandfather was among their ranks) - but for our purposes it is
sufficient to say that the nation remained more or less unchanged
from this ragged state of affairs, without a truly effective central
government or military, until 1908 when the corrupt dictatorship of
Cipriano Castro Ruiz (who has been praised by Chávez as a
nationalist figure at recent OPEC meetings) was overthrown by his
more ruthless lieutenant, Juan Vincente Gómez.

General Gómez was the most successful of Venezuelan dictators,
holding onto power until his death in 1935 partly through luck, and
partly through skillful planning.

The luck was that Venezuelan oil production truly began in 1914,
and during the discovery of massive reserves throughout the early
20's Gómez was able to capitalize - literally - by making himself
sole shareholder in the national oil industry and then selling
everything he could to the foreign energy companies: by the 1930's
Shell and Standard Oil owned 85% of the nation's oil reserves.

The "skillful planning" was in finally being able to unite the
country's armed forces under a centralized command - partly with oil
bribes and partly with the help of a Chilean officer enlisted to
restructure the military in line with the Prussian model. This is a
particularly interesting fact given that Chavistas make such a point
about the FAN (National Armed Forces) being "fundamentally"
different from the quasi-fascist militaries in such countries as
Argentina and... Chile.

After Gómez died, mobs in Caracas set fire to the houses of his
relatives and supporters, and even threatened the oil installations in
the West of the country with outright destruction - a clear indicator
of his legacy. The Venezuelan "Communist" Party (PCV, obviously
Leninist) gets founded in 1931, and eventually adopts the rooster as
it symbol in reference to a popular novella, El Gallo Canta Claro.
Decades later, it's most important contribution would be to produce
the daring guerrilla leader Douglas Bravo, who originally comes up
with the idea of organizing an insurrection from within the officer
class of the FAN.

As Gómez' successors struggled to maintain the same level of tight
control, a new wave of nationalism in the country led to a movement
proclaiming that Bolívar's dream was an unfinished project,
particularly so long as oil revenues did not directly benefit the people.
From 1936 to 37 we see a massive strike in the oil industry against
"imperialism", probably the single most important event in the last
century of Venezuela's labor history.

In 1941 the "leftist" Acción Democrática (Democratic Action,
AD) party is founded on a platform of European-style Social
Democracy, and in 1945 it seizes power with the military via the
Unión Patriótico Militar (UPM). The Christian Democratic
COPEI party is founded in 1947 to "counterbalance" the AD - both
parties embrace and directly copy the Leninist model of efficient
centralized organization in order to quickly counter the growing PCV
at a national level. Pushing through a number of social reforms that
would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier, by 1948 they
are removed from power in a military coup by General Marcos
Pérez Jiménez - the same who had lead the UPM in the first
place.

Pérez Jiménez' rule was relatively short - only a decade - but
became known as one of the most brutal dictatorships in the region.
Torture, disappearances... if you can name it, it probably happened.
During this period we see Venezuela's first real experiences with
modern political diversion and proto-populism as Jiménez seeks
to draw attention away from the fact that he is a shitty ruler by
constructing a lot of big impressive buildings in Caracas. It doesn't
work.

On New Year's Day 1958, the airforce begins a bombardment of the
Miraflores presidential palace and soon the navy joins the mutiny. By
January 21 a general strike is called, but only two days later with the
cooperation of the military does Jiménez fall. This drawn out
process is nowadays condensed into "El 23 de Enero", a popular
myth that one massive uprising toppled the dictator on the 23rd.

The magic of 23 Enero is compounded by the fact that during the
uprising, poor Venezuelans seized several modern apartment blocks
surrounding Miraflores, which had been built to house Jiménez'
technocrats, and to this day they remain in the hands of the working
class in the heart of the barrios that soon sprang up around them -
the most famous of which is itself known as El 23 de Enero.

Nevertheless, the events of early '58 were the birth of Venezuela's
4th Republic. The "Junta Patriotica" - another, more stable
civic-military alliance - took power under the auspices of the
infamous Punto Fijo pact, a "perfect alliance" between the military,
clergy, business, (FEDECAMARAS union) labor, (CTV
bureaucracy) and the AD and COPEI, to alternate power indefinitely
through a two-party electoral system. The PCV, as usual, did all it
could to put a break on the revolutionary process in order to weasel
its way into power somehow, but ended up being kicked out of the
government it had helped to create in order to appease Washington
after visiting President Richard Nixon was nearly lynched in the
streets of Caracas by an anti-US mob (awesome!).

New president Romulo Betancourt presides over this process and
succeeds in uniting the ultra-right FAN behind electoral democracy
by buying officers with oil money and stroking fears of the
communist menace. His other great achievements include a literal
"shoot first, then ask questions" policy and a comprehensive
exchange program with the School of the Americas - another thing
to remember the next time a Chavista tells you that the FAN are
unlike any other military on the continent. Business as usual is back
in place as early as 1959, when a march of 50,000 unemployed
workers is fired upon, killing three.

Around this time, the Cuban Revolution had the same affect on
Venezuela as it had everywhere else on the continent: it inspired
armed struggle. In 1962 the FALN (Armed Forces of National
Liberation) was created from various smaller preexisting rebel
groups, and began a comprehensive campaign of violence against
the state that lasted well into the '70s and included a botched
assassination attempt against Betancourt himself in 1963.

All in all, Venezuela's armed struggle didn't get too far, but its
history is filled with dramatic attacks, escapes, and even mutinies. In
1965 guerrilla leader Douglas Bravo is expelled from the PCV after
criticizing it for turning away from the armed struggle to focus on
prisoner support and civic organization. This break would clear the
way for him to start looking for other possibilities, and in 1980 he
succeeded in recruiting a young officer named Hugo Chávez to his
plan of insurrection from within the FAN.

The 1970s are a period of ultra-populism for Venezuela. In '73
instability in the Middle East shoots the price of oil from $2 to $12 a
barrel and in '75 President Carlos Andrés Pérez nationalizes oil
and iron ore, and then immediately goes on a spending spree.
Venezuelans suddenly become used to a high standard of living and
everything the country needs (and plenty of stuff it doesn't) is
imported for consumption by the ruling classes.
Terribly-implemented social programs nevertheless deliver free
childcare and food to thousands, successfully neutralizing the social
struggle with paternalism. As we shall see, Chávez' plans bear
more than a passing resemblance to this model. At the same time,
the "Andrés Bello Plan" cleverly lets the government save money
by allowing certain military officers to leave barracks and attend
college to gain professional skills. Supposedly this put them in
contact with "leftist professors", a key argument of those who insist
on the "revolutionary" nature of the FAN.

In the earlier part of this decade two groups would split off from the
PCV to become Venezuela's institutional leftist parties. The first,
Movement Towards Socialism (MAS - no relation to the ruling party
in Bolivia) was more interested in the "Euro-Communism" line and
really didn't do anything exciting aside from disappoint people
whenever it actually managed to get into office. The second was
known as Venezuela 83 (even though it began in '71) for 8 years
before becoming La Causa Radical (Radical Cause, Causa R). Causa
R has had a much more interesting history than MAS, as it rose
directly out of the steelworker's struggles against the union
bureaucracy in Bolívar State before becoming a political party. In
1989 it won the governorship of that state and became the only party
in congress to oppose IMF policies.

Another oil price spike caused by the Iran/Iraq war in 1979 keeps
Pérez riding high, and the government is even able to maintain a
policy of "buying" its neighbors through random gifts (again, a
similarity to the present government). In 1983 Hugo Chávez, who
had been looking for revolutionary alternatives throughout the late
'70s, founds the MBR200 (Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement 200,
for the bicentenary of Bolívar's birth) as a clandestine group within
the FAN.

Things didn't get really interesting again until 1983, when world oil
prices dropped and Venezuela got hit with inflation for the first time
that almost anybody could remember. The only possible solution to
the failure of paternalism? Neoliberal policies, of course! In 1989
Pérez runs on an anti-IMF ticket but immediately turns around
once he is reelected. On February 25th gas prices are raised,
wounding the national pride. Two days later, public transit prices go
up and spark what would become the biggest explosion of class war
in Venezuela's recent history.

In response to the higher fares, organized students occupy a bus
terminal and in the process manage to get mass support. This is
particularly important to remember since many Chavistas insist that
the traditional student population (those not enrolled in the new
"Bolivarian" University) are exclusively middle-class and incapable
of playing an active role in the struggle. But during the events of
February 1989, the students were the only organized social
movement to be involved from the very beginning.

From the bus terminal, street barricades and marches spread until
Caracas itself becomes a riot zone. Pérez was out of the city at the
time, and ignored the protests until they had gotten completely out
of hand. In Venezuela I had the chance to see some footage from
those days, and I can tell you that for sheer comprehensiveness, the
looting made anything from Argentina in 2002 look like a walk in the
park. The government responded the only way a government could,
which was to shoot as many people as possible.

It all depends on whom you ask, but anywhere between 300 and
1,000 people were killed in Caracas by the military. Of course, the
"300" figure was suggested by the state itself. If you include Valencia
and Maracay, to where the rebellion also spread, the count is
probably something like 3,000 dead over 5 days of unrest; mass
graves have been found from this period. In Caracas, where soldiers
faced working-class snipers defending their neighborhoods, whole
apartment buildings were repeatedly strafed with automatic machine
gun fire. Many of the young officers directly responsible for this
atrocity now hold posts in the Chavez government.

For Pérez' part, he put on the brave face and made plenty of
televised speeches about "restoring order", "citizen's duty", and
"getting through this hard period... together."

If Venezuela is going through a revolutionary process, this is where
it all began. Ten years before Seattle, in the first major rebellion
against IMF policies.

Of course the Chavista line is a little different. The "Caracazo", as
the riots came to be known, were a tragedy of course, but the
"revolution" didn't begin until February 4th 1992, when Hugo
Chávez and his MBR200 burst onto the scene and tried for a coup.
Tripping all over themselves with tactical incompetence and
abandoned last minute by the Causa R which had promised to
support the action (but then decided to hold out for the upcoming
elections), Chávez's followers were quickly mopped up without any
particular trouble after attacking Miraflores - though they did see
some military success in oil-rich state of Zulia. Before being taken
prisoner, Chávez negotiates one minute of TV airtime so as to ask
his troops to surrender. What happened next was the genesis of
mass Chavismo, as in the process of this appeal he tells the
Venezuelan people that he is only laying down his weapons "for
now". Lookin' all cute in his uniform and paratrooper's beret, a
national icon was born.

Another coup attempt, primarily driven by the airforce, fails with no
popular support on the 27th of November, but at this point populism,
the Punto Fijo pact, and for all intents and purposes the two main
political parties, were already dead. Pérez would be impeached
just one year later as it surfaced that he illegally sent $17 million to
support the anti-Sandinista candidate in Nicaragua's 1990 elections.

This whole chain of events (but particularly the Caracazo) created a
political vacuum, which then allowed the Venezuelan social
movements to come into their own for the first time. Without a
dictatorship or populist handouts to suppress them (or the stifling
control of an AD/COPEI leadership), the indigenous, environmental,
women's, student, and other movements found themselves in a
period of widespread disillusion with the electoral process, and began
to press for a sweeping change in the country's politics. In particular
the student movement was able to finally assert its independence
from the traditional political parties, peaking as an autonomous force
between 1994-96.

After Pérez' impeachment, Rafael Caldera took office as a
"reformist" with the support of MAS. It is now - and even then -
widely known that the military burned ballots during his election so
as to prevent the victory La Causa R, but the left-wing party accepted
the fraudulent results in order to enter the government. Caldera's
only claim to fame is that he made good on a campaign pledge to
free Hugo Chávez and his co-conspirators; the rest of his term is a
continuation of IMF policies and the "Washington Consensus". For
their part, Chávez and the MBR200 had urged Venezuelans to
abstain from the '93 elections, confident that the political system was
on the verge of collapse.

In 1995 we see the first of the major non-PCV Chavista parties
emerge as Patria Para Todos (PPT) splits from Causa R in response
to the former's allying itself with MAS and COPEI. Causa R is
rewarded with government posts for supporting the 1998 presidential
campaign of Irene Sáez, former Miss Universe and district mayor
of Chacao (a small but wealthy sector of Caracas).

By 1996 the MBR200 had grown tired of waiting, abandoned armed
struggle, and held a national conference to reformulate itself as a
political party known as the Movement for the Fifth Republic
(MVR). Nowadays the MVR is more or less known as "Chávez's
party" but some people are still running under the name of MBR200,
as it is a certain stamp of credibility to have been with him from the
beginning. This overall change in strategy did not materialize out of
nothing - various members of the political and business class had
been working to groom Chávez as an "alternative" candidate for
years. His campaign was directly funded by private business and the
eventual victory speech was broadcast from the offices of a securities
multinational in Caracas.

The MVR as a political party came out of practically nothing, united
a number of too-small-to-be-important socialist groups, did not have
the organization necessary for electoral success, and has been
described by ZNet as an "ideological monoculture" (a description
that could also be much more widely applied). In practical terms, the
MVR only got along by relying on the established PPT, PCV, and
PODEMOS (which split from MAS) parties, which did have the
internal structure to put up candidates and run national political
campaigns. Thus Chavismo, far from being a neutral revolutionary
phenomenon, is the force by which the traditional statist and social
democratic Left has finally found a way to get itself into power; and
its continued participation in the Chávez administration, is the only
way that the MVR government can exist.

Hugo Chávez mounted his presidential campaign by leaning on the
"Polo Patriotico" (an alliance of left groups), promises to rewrite the
constitution, and the flowery imagery of Bolívar's dream, which
hadn't been successfully harnessed since the height of populism in
the 70's. Irene Sáez' campaign began strong, but she soon suffered
from a few faux pas and withdrew before the election. As oil prices
tumbled yet again, Hugo rocketed to victory.

On his first day in office, Chávez fulfilled his promises by signing a
decree to create a constitutional assembly. And whilst the traditional
oligarchy began courting the new government to see where the
opportunities lay, he went ahead and implemented things such as
Plan Bolívar 2000, which saw over 40,000 FAN troops leave the
barracks to fix roads, schools, and distribute food throughout the
country. On the one hand it was the only option for a president
looking to bypass the state bureaucracy. On the other hand, it was
the first indication of Chávez' methods for integrating his armed
forces with the civilian population.

Simón Bolívar was known as a "caudillo with a human face", and
Chávez latched onto this ideal with a great degree of success. It
soon became clear how things were going to go as he stacked the
MVR with fellow coup plotters and members of his immediate
family (including his brother and longtime Leninist organizer,
Adán). Up until this day, Chávez has continued in the democratic
tradition by giving out all kinds of posts as rewards for loyalty.

The elections to the constitutional assembly in 1999 attracted a more
diverse grouping than any previous process, and resulted in a 90%
Chavista victory - with over half of the electorate abstaining. The
assembly soon came to see itself as the de facto government, setting
up 21 commissions for the debate of different issues and taking in
article submissions from hundreds of citizens. Chávez' own
contributions would come to form the outline of the final text.

The majority of Venezuelans who I spoke to expressed a positive
view of the constitutional assembly and believed that, on the whole,
it was an immensely democratic process - particularly given the
alternatives. To be sure, the resulting Bolivarian Constitution has
several interesting articles. For one, housewives were for the first
time recognized as workers who create value, and thus should have
access to welfare and social security. Paragraph 2 of Article 21
declares that the government should "adopt positive measures for
groups which could be discriminated, marginalized, or vulnerable",
which is vague, but has since been enthusiastically seized upon by
the Gay Revolutionary Movement (an actual tendency). Prior to the
new constitution, homosexuality was considered "gross indecency"
and punishable by anywhere from 5-12 years in prison. Javier
Granadillo, a queer media activist who I met during the World Social
Forum, told me with tears in his eyes, "I LOVE my president
because he has included gays for the first time".

This kind of heartfelt loyalty to the Bolivarian process is widespread
and must be taken into account by anyone seeking to understand
what Venezuela is going through. The new constitution went on to
fix the workweek at a maximum of 44 hours, gave the military the
right to vote, and reserved the rights of officer promotion for the
president and top brass (it had previously been held by the National
Assembly). All elected posts in the country were now subject to a
recall referendum halfway through the term if 20% of the electorate
desired it. 5% could petition for a referendum to reverse presidential
decrees, .1% (10,000 people) can send a bill to congress, and 15%
can force a referendum on constitutional reform.

Terrified at these implications and the possibility that abortion could
be legalized (it was not, and continues to be illegal to this day, with
no mass pressure on the issue that I could discern), the media and
church began their attack on the constitution - and Chávez -
around this time. The key to understanding the extreme-right spin of
Venezuela's 9 private television channels and daily newspapers is
knowing that Caracas has the highest percentage of Cuban exiles
outside of Miami, and these people have taken their time getting
well-entrenched in the news industry. At this point It was useful to
think of Chávez as a Venezuelan FDR, the modern bourgeois going
up against the established bourgeois. The constitution also did not
provide for any libel laws until the 2005 law of "Social
Responsibility" (which was decried as censorship) and so for the first
several years of Chávez' government the private media had a field
day, attacking the president in any way possible and even declaring
him to be developmentally challenged.

But not everything in the Bolivarian Constitution can be looked at as
positive. Presidential terms were extended, foreign relations power
was centralized in the executive, and business lawyer Allan
Brewer-Carías was personally able to insert several articles
guaranteeing a protection of private business and property. The
constitution supposedly creates a citizen's branch of government,
"republican power", but in practice Chávez has really done
whatever he wants. Federalism is proclaimed while power is
centralized, and page after page is loaded with repetitive
announcements of human rights that mean nothing when grafted
onto the pre-existing police state (which has undergone no reforms).
Most worryingly, the constitution makes it completely unnecessary
for the government to consult anyone before signing international
energy or infrastructure contracts.

In December of 1999 the people voted for the new constitution
largely on class lines, which - in a country where anywhere between
55-80% of the population is impoverished - means that it was
approved. While Chávez promised, "I will turn Venezuela into a
first world nation in 10 years" tens of thousands of the old
bourgeoisie fled to countries that already were - notably Spain and
the USA (Miami).

In order to cement this new constitutional order, new and massive
elections for all governorships, state and national assemblies,
president, and local mayors were held in July of 2000. It is at this
point that we first begin to see the emergence of Chavismo as an
electoral farce - in other words, various politicians of all stripes
began to put on the signature red beret or t-shirt in order to get
elected. Because Chávez lacked any mass political organization, he
found himself needing to get support from wherever he could find it,
and could afford to be ideologically promiscuous in the process.

As a result of everything Chávez has done, Venezuela became the
first - and possibly, only - country in South America to have saved
popular faith in political institutions and electoral participation. The
biggest consequence of Chavismo is that it has relegitimized the
state and its political class, at the total cost of all gains made in
extra-parliamentary struggle over the course of the 90s. Venezuela
has been on the verge of popular revolution (even if only a "national
democratic" one) for at least half a century, and the crisis of the last
decade created a situation where only a non-traditional politician
using leftist rhetoric could possibly have salvaged the crumbling
state.

In late 2001, Chávez approved the famous "41 Laws" he deems
necessary to put the constitution into practice. This proves to be the
final straw for the media, church, and national business class, who
from this point forward begin to seriously plot against the
government. Ironically, it is in these 41 laws that we really begin to
see openings for new types of foreign investment in the energy
sector and other neo-liberal strategies.

What happened in Venezuela over the next few years is almost
common knowledge, and I won't touch on it too much except to hit
the main points:

In April of 2002 the heads of the military ally themselves with the
business class and stage a massacre against peaceful Chavista
crowds and opposition protestors outside of Miraflores palace. In the
confusion caused by a concerted misinformation campaign by the
mass media, Chávez is kidnapped from office and a new
transitional regime immediately begins dismantling his government.
Pro-Chávez crowds surround Miraflores screaming for his return
and the loyal Palace Guards retake control of the complex. Through
a single-minded concentration on these events, the international Left
has built up for itself a myth that the April coup was miraculously
reversed by a mass popular uprising with the sympathy of the rank
and file in the FAN. This version of events is best represented in the
officialist documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, by far
the single most accessible source of information on Venezuela for
English-speaking North Americans and Europeans. The truth
however, is that Chávez' return had more to do with internal
negotiations within the higher levels of the FAN than anything else.
As the new regime was put into place via a coup, the Organization of
American States would not have recognized it and as a result
Chávez remained the only option for the bourgeoisie.

The following year, the business class struck again by calling for a
national "strike" in all strategic industries, most notably the state oil
company PDVSA (this is commonly known as the "paro petrolero").
Venezuela's economy dived for months before the bourgeoisie itself
called off the lockout in order to save their own livelihoods. The
United States in particular had an interest in seeing oil production
get back up to speed. Here again the Left has decided to paint the
events with a red brush, hailing the heroism of PDVSA workers who
defied the lockout to get the pumps working again. The most
important effect of the lockout was that it allowed Chávez to fire
18,000 PDVSA employees for walking off the job, including most of
its technical staff of geologists, geophysicists and reservoir
engineers, and then refill those posts with political supporters (this is
the point at which the "new" PDVSA became "the people's"). In this
process all forms of budding worker's self-management were quickly
rolled back under the assurance that PDVSA now "belonged to the
people". Workers also managed to reoccupy a handful of other small
factories, which are now being absorbed by the state and tokenized
as symbols of "co-management" and glorious revolution.

The oil boom in 2002 saw Chávez rolling in cash, which through
the "new" PDVSA, he proceeded to spend on a series of Misiones,
or social programs intended to make the decrees of the constitution
factual. In 2003 thousands of Cuban doctors and literacy workers
entered Venezuela to help in building these programs, the most
famous of which are Barrio Adentro (free health care) Robinson
(literacy) Ribas (higher education) and Mercal (subsidized food). The
real benefits of these programs cannot be denied, but neither can the
fact that their implementation is designed to integrate civic society
with the state oil industry and make the former even more dependent
on the latter than it already was. There is indeed a case to be made
that the current implementation of the Misiones is primarily an
exercise in building infrastructure for the future, but the material fact
is that social spending per capita has not increased past the levels
seen during the 1970's oil bonanza.

The last and most recent concerted attempt to remove Chávez from
power came in 2004 with a recall referendum - obviously ironic since
such a move would have been impossible under anything other than
the Bolivarian Constitution. The "No" (pro-Chávez) vote won this
incredibly important election in a landslide that guaranteed the
president's democratic credentials. And yet even the referendum
itself is a bit tricky to decode, as of just under 15 million voters, only
about 70% participated in the recall; some 5,600,000 for Chávez
and 3,800,000 against, shattering the illusion of an undisputable
Chavista majority, and exposing the continuing existence of voter
apathy. It is also worth noting that the political forces behind the
"Yes" vote had and continue to have absolutely no political platform
or project other than a rabid anti-Chávez stance. It's also interesting
to point out that after the victory, multinational stocks such as
Chevron-Texaco and Crystallex (Canadian gold mining) shot up.
Chávez provides a very stable and welcoming environment for
foreign investment.
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