Letter from Venezuela: Revolutionary spirit of the masses – the workers take centre stage

It has now been two weeks since I landed in Caracas, the capital of insurgent Venezuela. The maelstrom of events that I have witnessed, both big and small, typical of a revolutionary process, are really fascinating. It is not something you only see in the streets, read in the newspapers, or see on the walls of the city, but something you feel. The whole atmosphere in the city is impregnated with this spirit. The revolutionary spirit, a spirit that knows all kinds of ups and downs, is still intact but seems to be of a different nature than a few years ago. The revolutionary movement was then in its infancy, and went hand in hand with limitless euphoria. Today this revolutionary fervour has not receded, but has become more sober minded, more reflective, and at times even openly critical of certain aspects of the revolutionary process. This will be the subject of future letter.

In the last five or six months events have progressed rapidly. The rhythm, although not the direction, of these events has gone beyond our own expectations. And this is only the beginning! The debate on the socialist future of the Bolivarian revolution – a position which only the comrades of the young Revolutionary Marxist Current, represented by El Topo Obrero dared to advance – has broken out of the small circles of activists and become a debate in the larger layer of the workers’ and popular movement.

Chavez’s speech at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, where for the first time he appealed for the transcending of capitalism and first made his call for a debate on what he describes as ‘el socialismo del siglo XXI’ (socialism of the 21st Century), is just starting to capture the minds of the masses – the real motor force of the Bolivarian revolution. This speech has also provoked the opposition media, who have made socialism the main theme in their attacks on the Bolivarian government. The revolution’s new direction has not weakened the process. On the contrary, the latest opinion polls revealed by Datanalysis, a polling agency linked to the right-wing opposition, estimates that around 70.5 % of the population support Chavez. This is an extraordinary figure coming from the rabid and uncompromising enemies of the revolution.

Every day there are at least one or two debates on this subject in the city, at a university, in a neighbourhood or on a picket line. And what a subject it is! This is a subject that is really at the heart of the revolutionary process! What socialism really means is a question on the minds of many people here. Is socialism like the social democratic policy of Zapatero in Spain or does it resemble the regime in Cuba, or should it be something else? What really strikes me here is the almost complete lack of prejudice towards Marxist ideas in the movement.

There is a fantastic hunger for ideas and political training that lies deep in the ranks of the Bolivarian masses. One recent example illustrates this. Last Saturday Wiliam Izarra, the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs and one of the main left-wing figures in the Venezuelan government, organised a national workshop on ‘Ideological training’ in the centre of Caracas. Some 900 ordinary activists, community leaders, and trade unionists from all across the country queued up from early in the morning to listen to a 6 hour long explanation by the Vice Minister. The main thrust of the meeting was the need to fill the revolutionary actions of the masses with a revolutionary ideology, which he conceives mainly as being anti-imperialist.

When the comrades from El Topo Obrero arrived to set up a stall with Marxist literature, many Bolivarian activists surrounded the comrades and began picking the books out of their hands while they were taking them out of the bags to put them on the table! In a few hours’ time more than 100 documents, books and papers were sold. Their Introduction to Socialism has become a best seller at such events. A reaction similar to this, although not as ‘wild’, was repeated throughout the whole week when the same stall was placed at meetings celebrating the third anniversary of the revolutionary website Aporrea and during the Latin American gathering of energy workers. At this gathering the leaflet of El Topo Obrero explaining that only a socialist federation of the Latin American continent could guarantee sovereign control of energy resources – the subject of the gathering – was also well received.

The expropriation of the paper mill Venepal at the beginning of the year and its development under the control of the workers has started a chain reaction in the workers’ movement just as the comrades from El Topo Obrero predicted at their congress in December.

The workers of the valve factory, Constructora Nacional de Valvulas, emboldened by the example of the paper mill workers, emulated their struggle by occupying the factory and demanding its expropriation under workers’ control. They won! The important role of the Corriente Marxista Revolutionaria in these emblematic struggles was openly and publicly recognised by the leaders of both factories in a recent public meeting in Caracas. This double victory, together with the experiences of "workers’ co-management" (as opposed to ‘capitalist co-management’), both in the giant aluminium factory Alcasa and in the public electricity production company CADAFE, has set the tone in the workers’ movement. These struggles have also succeeded in capturing the imagination of other segments of the working class. During last week’s ‘mobile’ cabinet meeting of ministers, which was broadcasted live from the city of Cununa in the presence of local political leaders and Bolivarian activists, President Chavez was suddenly interrupted. The mayor of a small village told him how they had recently decided to take over a sugar factory that had been abandoned by its owners. The mayor then demanded that this action be supported by the government!

In other conflicts with the bosses the workers have tended to spontaneously bring forward the idea of cogestion or co-management. This is what happened during the struggles at the Caracas Metro and Italbanco. Although the meaning of cogestion is not necessarily clearly defined, the instinct of the workers tends to fill it with a content similar to effective workers’ control. In one of the main hospitals of the popular neighbourhoods on the hills of Caracas, in Antimano, the revolutionary trade unionists led by comrades of El Topo Obrero are again spearheading a struggle for democratic workers’ control on the hiring of workers. This used to be the monopoly of the corrupt union bureaucracy that only used their positions to enrich themselves. Workers actually had to pay the union bureaucrats to get a job! Now this is changing. This is only the first step towards generalising the control of the workers and the neighbouring community over the running of the El Algonodal hospital. This struggle is being followed, with great hopes and expectations, by other workers in the health sector of the capital. Word of this struggle is spreading rapidly. This week the revolutionary trade unionists at the hospital, organised in the Bolivarian Workers Front, were invited to the state of Vargas by other hospital workers to explain to them how they too can struggle for workers’ control in their hospital.

In this same small coastal state of Vargas, port workers are also considering a struggle for cogestion of the port as a means to struggle against sackings and the blatant corruption of the local business and state mafia.

The depth of the revolutionary process is perhaps best illustrated by the recent formation of a revolutionary union at the Symphonic Orchestra of Venezuela, SUMTRAFOFN. Even amongst musicians, largely drawn from the middle classes of society and normally quite alien, if not hostile, to trade unions, there exists a political ferment. The union of musicians is even discussing the possibility of workers’ control of the orchestra and the election of the conductor! They are even considering playing music without one! This debate is reminiscent of the famous debates in the Orchestra of St Petersburg in 1917!

At the gigantic May Day demonstration, apart from the important wage demands, the other dominant theme was that of co-management. The slogan was, ‘Sin Cogestion no hay revolucion! Construyendo el socialismo bolivariano’ (Without co-management there is no revolution – Building Bolivarian socialism)! The Bolivarian movement has the clear and overwhelming majority amongst the working class: just compare the hundreds of thousands of participants on the demonstration of the National Union of Workers (UNT), which openly sides with the revolutionary process, with the four hundred or so people who partook in the ‘demonstration’ of the bosses’ union, the CTV. The balance of forces is clear and has rarely been so favourable for the revolution as it is today.

The organised workers’ movement, which was largely dormant until now, has started to wake up. The workers, of course, have been part of all the dramatic events of the last few years, starting with the struggle against the bosses’ lock-out in 2002. But it is only now that they have started to show themselves as an organised national force, both capable and willing to put their stamp on the revolution. This will have very important consequences for the future developments of the revolution.

In my next letter I will deal with the new strategy of US imperialism and the Venezuela oligarchy to suffocate the revolution. The sabotage of the production of PDVSA, the state oil company, stands at the centre of this strategy. This Saturday there will be a big national demonstration in the centre of Caracas to oppose these new attempts at destabilisation.