On Saturday November 4, more than two hundred people turned
up for the second national Hands Off Venezuela conference in Britain. A new
steering committee was elected and resolutions were passed in defence of the
Bolivarian Revolution in the run up to the presidential elections, in
solidarity with the struggle of the people of Oaxaca, on John McDonnell's leadership bid
and on the need for joint work with other Latin American solidarity
Rob Sewell, member of the national Steering Committee, opened the conference saying that this was an historic occasion for the Hands Off Venezuela campaign. One year after the first conference, the campaign has made significant progress in Britain and more support was established amongst the students and the trade unions. This conference was important because it took place one week before another conference, i.e. the first Hands Off Venezuela conference in Caracas, as a way of developing the campaign inside Venezuela itself. The other obvious link with Venezuela that was mentioned several times during the conference was the coming presidential elections, which are very crucial for the development of the Bolivarian Revolution. Rob mentioned Chavez's words that he would make the revolution "irreversible" after the elections, which of course fits in with the debate about socialism that is still going on unabatedly.
The highlight of this year's activities was of course Hugo Chavez's visit to London (apart from the very successful meeting in Vienna), which enabled Hands Off Venezuela to mobilise its forces. Rob recalled how Chavez created a bit of controversy in the meeting with the TUC when he started talking about the development of utopian socialism into the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels.
Rob said that it was clear that the Bolivarian Revolution has great relevance for British workers too as it can serve as a great inspiration and lead to the awareness that changing society is possible. However, the Hands Off Venezuela campaign is not just about "feeling sorry" for the Venezuelan people, who over the last years have seen countless attacks on their president and the revolution as a whole, it is about building concrete solidarity with the revolution since it is "our" revolution too.
Unfortunately, Ruth Winters, General Secretary of the FBU, had to give her apologies because of illness, and Tony Kearns, Deputy General Secretary of the CWU, could not attend at the last minute. The first speaker was another union General Secretary, Jeremy Dear, of the National Union of Journalists. Jeremy mainly spoke about his trip to Venezuela as part of the official TUC delegation. He described his experiences at the UNT congress and then reflected on the parallels between Nicaragua 25 years ago and Venezuela today, with both countries sharing "the threat of a good example".
"Nobody believes that Venezuela has become a paradise. But let's not believe that this is an unpopular regime." Jeremy listed a whole series of achievements of the Bolivarian revolution but added that it is about more than statistics; it is about people. "We are talking about changes that we are able to see in reality", he added, "like the providing of free eye operations and the food programs established under mission Mercal." As other speakers later on, Jeremy Dear finished his contribution with a reference to the upcoming Venezuelan elections and he made it clear that this was a struggle between revolution and counterrevolution.
The next speaker was Diane Raby of the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Liverpool. She described the revolutionary events in Venezuela as being of world importance. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent crisis of the left internationally, she said, the Venezuelan revolution has set a good (or bad, if you're on the other side of the barricades) example. Now it has been demonstrated again that it is possible for the left to come to power. In the past guerrilla movements were crushed, but now Venezuela has proven that it is possible to come to power in a democratic way. This, however, also means the "power of the people" and is not just empty words but a transformation of the traditional institutions. It is not just a matter of achieving change in parliament but only by organising in the streets, the media, the army that a transformation is possible. Diana said the revolution has been peaceful so far, but not completely, referring to the bloody events of the 1989 Caracazo, where reactionary armed forces killed thousands of people. Finally, Diane criticised those on the left who did not understand what was going on and denied that there was a revolution taking place because it did not conform to a fixed model. She gave the example of Fidel Castro, who initially did not want to establish socialism but only moved in that direction after a period of time, being pushed by events.
The last speaker in the morning was Alan Woods, editor of the Marxist.com website and one of the founders of Hands Off Venezuela. Alan recalled Chavez's speech at the United Nations and joked that something very strange happened at the UN. A man actually stood up and told the truth! "This organisation is useless, it is dominated by imperialism and it cannot be reformed". Chavez's radical speech obviously caused much controversy, which can only indicate one thing: the constant hate campaign directed against him is in reality fear about the revolutionary effects this is having in Latin America. Like Diane Raby, Alan went back to 1989 to denounce the hypocrisy of imperialism. When during the Caracazo more than two thousands protesters were killed following the drastic increase in prices, nobody internationally said a word about this. Where at the time were the calls for "regime change"?
Alan, speaking as a Marxist, said that in dealing with the Venezuela revolution, we have to start from the reality and not from a preconceived scheme. However, there is a big but: the revolution has not been completed and the power of the oligarchy has not been broken. Here, Alan said, we differ from the London mayor Ken Livingstone. The Hands Off Venezuela campaign is about more than cheerleading what is happening in Venezuela as that would in fact be a big mistake. The fate of the revolution is in the balance, as indicated by Chavez himself when he spoke on several occasions about the "enemy from within". This led Alan to touch on the question of the transformation of the state. "It is impossible to really effect change while maintaining the old state apparatus. The problem of bureaucracy, the media and the state has to be tackled. The latest Newspeak from the media, who can no longer label him as a dictator, is to describe Chavez as an â€˜elected autocrat'". Finally, in dealing with the upcoming elections, Alan issued a sharp warning. "The Opposition has no democratic credentials and as before it will resort to extra-parliamentary means. We are democrats but we are also realists: the fundamental questions in history have never been resolved in parliament. There is no reason why the Opposition wouldn't play any tricks again." Hence, Alan concluded, the only way to settle this dispute is for the Bolivarian Revolution to become a socialist revolution. And the best way to help in this struggle is to fight for socialism in Britain.
Then it was the turn to the audience to express its views. There were many contributions from the floor dealing with various aspects of the Venezuelan revolution such as the threat of a counterrevolution, the need for solidarity, the permanent revolution, etc. Quite a few speakers made reference to the recent events in Oaxaca, and Andy Higginbottom from the Colombia Solidarity Campaign paid tribute to the heroic struggle of the Coca Cola workers.He stressed that it was British multinationals that form a key part of the plundering of Latin America. This same point was elaborated on by a representative from the Bolivia Solidarity Campaign.
Jeremy Corbyn confirmed that the main task here is indeed to build socialism in Britain but as an MP he added that the hardest place to do that is in the House of Commons. Corbyn mainly focused on the recent events in Mexico, Oaxaca in particular. Even if most of the media have ignored the issue completely, he said the scale of the electoral fraud was clear. The Labour MP said it was very exciting to see the size of the protest demonstrations, in which he also participated. This, he said, indicates that elections were only a part of the story. At the end of his speech he denounced the fact that the US Congress can apparently pass funds to finance opposition parties in Venezuela, with the arguments that "we are a democracy so we can destroy everybody else's democracy"!
After the lunch break, which was prepared by a dedicated HoV catering team, a 10 minute video clip was projected which was created by some equally dedicated HoV members who have professional video editing skills. The result was a very well done video that shows a good overview of HoV activities of the last year. The video, which also features representatives of HoV all over the world, will be available online soon.
The afternoon was mainly dedicated to the moving of several political resolutions. Jorge Martin, international secretary of the campaign, moved the first resolution on the December elections. He characterised Rosales, the candidate around which the Opposition united, as being an expression of the weakness of the Opposition. Jorge dealt with the twists and manoeuvres of an ever more desperate Opposition that cannot find any mass support. As other speakers mentioned several times, the Opposition's plan is probably to withdraw from the elections and to spread all kinds of rumours about "fraud", which they are doing now already. This motion was carried by a big majority and an amendment that was issued at the last moment was defeated. Jorge also moved an emergency motion on Mexico, which was also amended, but this time the amendment was carried and implemented in the resolution.
The second resolution was moved by Charley Allan, a member of the National Steering Committee, and dealt with Latin American solidarity. The idea of this motion is that other countries in the continent need as much solidarity as Venezuela does. In fact, it was Chavez himself who said to Jeremy Dear that Bolivia needs more help than Venezuela does! Hands Off Venezuela over the years has campaigned on many issues so in a way this motion is just a formalisation of what is already a common practice. This motion was carried too and can be read here.
The third motion was moved by Pam Woods, a UNISON member, and was meant to make HoV an official supporter of the John McDonnell campaign and to support the left-wing Labour MP in his Labour leadership challenge. This motion led to a passionate debate between those who did not want to see the campaign rally around such political issues. Iain Bruce of Brighton HoV argued that the campaign should remain as broad as possible and should not exclude any people who don't agree with John's leadership challenge. This view was opposed by several other speakers from the floor who argued that we need to be practical in our support of the Venezuelan revolution. Of course the campaign should be broad but at the same time it is a simple fact that John McDonnell is a leading member of the campaign and has always defended the Venezuelan revolution and has been a great help to the campaign. In the end the motion was carried by a majority vote. A new Steering committee was also elected and all those members who had been nominated were accepted.
After a brief finance report it was Ronny Pante's turn to address the conference. This student leader from Bolivar said this was a special day for him as he could see how people in Britain are willing to defend what is happening in Venezuela. He said that the interventions from the floor reflect faithfully the events in Venezuela. Ronny mainly stressed the need to advance the revolution and to carry the struggle against capitalism to an end. A broad debate about this very question is taking place in his country, which has come about naturally, as a result of the concrete needs of the revolution. He said the role of Chavez in this has been important but above all the idea of socialism should be discussed by all Venezuelan people. "The struggle of the Venezuelan people is the struggle of all people of the world".
The second speaker was another revolutionary from Venezuela, Francisco Rivera, the National Director of Ideology of the Movements for Direct Democracy. He also said he was very moved by the conference and that he was not aware that so many people were so well informed. Francisco joked that he had noted down a list of things he was going to say but that gradually he had to scrap everything because all the points had already been made. That is why he focused his contribution to his direct experience in the revolution, that of workers' control. He has been involved in the setting up of the Revolutionary Front of Occupied Factories (FRETECO) and he described to some extent the advances that have been made in this respect. Interestingly, he referred to the expectations many people in Venezuela had that after the elections, the Venezuelan revolution will enter a new phase, a socialist phase. "If the means of production have not been taken over yet, then that is not because of the objective situation, but because of the lack of a revolutionary leadership." With this he referred to the impotence of the UNT to act on Chavez' slogan to occupy unproductive factories: "factory closed, factory occupied."
The last speaker addressing the conference was John McDonnell, who just got the news that Hands Off Venezuela had voted to officially support his campaign. John apologised for being a bit late because of several meetings for his campaign he had to attend. However, he jokingly added that his delay was also caused by the bad infrastructure of the public transport system, which only illustrated the need for socialism in Britain too. John seemed annoyed about the wall of silence in the media regarding his campaign. He said it was pure arrogance of Saturday's Guardian to condemn John's stand for the Labour leadership, as if he is not to be taken seriously. "We are serious people who are campaigning on serious issues. And one of these issues is Venezuela." He said that finally the gloves had to be taken off and that what was needed was a Labour government that openly supports the Bolivarian Revolution.
John thanked the people who launched Hands Off Venezuela and said they were the first to recognise the issue of Venezuela. He criticised the fact that as usual the right wing sprang up to split the solidarity movement, with rival campaigns set up that refuse to collaborate. He said that Hands Off Venezuela has always had a non-sectarian approach and welcomes everybody willing to actively defend the revolution. "We will not engage in sectarian battles," he said. He explained the kind of threat we are faced with: that of capital. He said that as soon as you raise this you are being accused of being "anti-American" but added that the easiest way to counter this is to quote from American authors like Noam Chomsky.
That is also what John did when he listed the long history of American intervention in Latin America, which has always been the same policy: divide the region into those who consume and supply. Latin America was one of the first areas in the world subjected to intensive exploitation, and every time this was counteracted by progressive governments, the USA always resorted to counterrevolutionary tactics and overthrew these governments with the help of the CIA. John passionately made the case that it was on this basis that all of us united to stand up against this threat. "Venezuela is under threat, and we won't stand aside. If it wasn't under threat it wouldn't be a real revolution". He said that the Venezuelan revolution has all the ingredients for the next step. "Socialism is viable in the 21st century, and I will stand up to advocate this. If you are against war, I will argue for the withdrawal from Iraq and Trident. If you are for better education, I will speak against tuition fees." John pledged himself that if he were to become Prime Minister, in 24 hours he would break all the links with George W. Bush and that Britain would never invade other countries again. Above all, we would stand in solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution. "Venezuela will be at the heart of the campaign."
On this militant note the second national HoV conference ended. Everybody agreed that the conference had been organised in a very democratic way and that it was significant that everybody had had plenty of opportunities to express their point of view. One thing was clear: there is an enormous enthusiasm for the Venezuelan revolution, and it is up to all of us to spread the word and help building the campaign.