If Wednesday, November 21st belonged to the students and the teaching unions, Thursday, 22nd belonged to the workers from the factories and the government departments.

From 9 in the morning they had begun to gather outside the Teatro Teresa Carreno, numbering about 1500. These were representatives from workplaces who had come to plan their actions to ensure a “Yes” vote in the referendum on December 2nd.

Unfortunately, like many things here in Venezuela, the theatre wasn’t open, so workers stood in small groups discussing while we wandered amongst them joining in the discussions and selling the paper El Militante. Workers were interested in discussing and we sold quite a few.

Many of these workers were already committed to one trade union organization or another – UBT (Union Bolivariana de Trabajadores – mainly in the building industry), FBT (Fuerza Bolivariana de Trabajadores – mainly in government ministries), Fuerza Socialista (concentrated in health and electricity) and others. The atmosphere was friendly however and when the price of the paper was asked many turned it down.

What I had not realized was the sacrifice that many workers make to buy a paper when many papers are distributed free by the government. Take the workers at LaFarge, a pre-mix cement company owned and controlled by a French multinational. A week ago 34 of them had been sacked and the workers were angry. We went with them over 2 days to the Ministry of Labour and to Miraflores. They earn 26,000 Bolivars per day, 4,000 above the minimum wage. The paper El Militante costs 1,500 or 2,000 as a solidarity price. If we take the average daily wage in the UK to be about 100 pounds, the equivalent cost of a socialist paper would be between 5 and 8 pounds! So workers buy a paper between them and share it.

The morning outside the Theatre dragged on in the heat. Groups of workers drifted off for coffee and food. Then the rumour began to circulate that Chavez himself would arrive at some time in the afternoon. The rumour took on substance when workers arrived with steel fencing to control entrances and exits, followed by detachments of the palace guard and military police.

By about 3pm groups of workers had begun to drift back to the Theatre. From just after 5pm they were allowed in. Remember that many of these workers had been up since 6am or before to get to the Theatre by 9am and only now were things beginning to happen. It was going to be a long day.

The place began to fill up until there were about 1,500 inside. Each trade union grouping began to shout slogans to challenge other groupings. The atmosphere was getting heated as each group tried to out-shout the other. Then came the slogan from someone in the audience “El Socialismo para acabar con el imperialismo.” (Socialism to put an end to imperialism). All the groups stopped shouting their own individual slogans to take up the common one. This reflected the desire for unity amongst trade unionists to ensure a massive “Yes” vote for Chavez in the referendum and reveals the potential for unity amongst organized workers. In this context it is unfortunate that one or two of the leaders of the UNT have called for a “No” vote in the referendum, going against the feelings of unity and the wishes of large sections of the working class.

After the common chant, the different groups resorted once again to trying to out-shout the others and the atmosphere was becoming antagonistic and aggressive. The organisers realized this and put on music and songs to try and calm things down.

Just before 6pm the place was full. At about 6.30pm Chavez entered to cries of exhaltation – Chavez! Chavez! Chavez! Amongst the trade unionists there was a very large group of taxi drivers who would benefit directly from the proposed changes to the constitution. Under Article 87 they would receive pensions through the establishment of a social fund.

Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias
 Photo: Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias

Each section was greeted in turn by Chavez. Each section responded in turn with cheers. He recounted how he liked to be with workers as when he was younger he too had been a worker before entering the military. Wolf whistles and “knowing” chants also erupted when he revealed that he had received a present from the model Naomi Campbell. Only after much provoking did he reply that it was a watch!

Then the serious message began. He had returned from France the day before to a mass rally of real students. They support the “Yes” vote. The universities will be changed to serve the majority, not the minority. The esqualidos (reactionaries) have stated that they will march on Miraflores, the Presidential palace, but they will not be allowed to.

Chavez was responding to threats by John Goicochea, the chief student voice of all the reactionary groups, who studies at the Catholic University, the most expensive university, where fees alone are 5 million Bs a month! Lafarge cement workers earn 26,000 Bs per day or about 0.75 million a month. Goicochea has been threatening a march of “No Return” for November 26th, tomorrow.

Chavez proclaimed that such a threatening march will be dissolved. The workers responded with cries of “Asi, Asi, Asi se gobierna” (That’s the way to govern). The workers want firm action to be taken against the reactionaries and their paymasters.

Chavez then made a historical comparison between 1979 and 1999. In 1979 the Shah was overthrown in Iran and the Mullahs took over. The USA supported Saddam Hussein against Iran. In 1999 the Venezuelan Revolution began and there is no chance of a US invasion. “We have a million people in arms and if necessary we will arm the whole people.”

The history lesson went further. In Russia the revolution was attacked and isolated. The best workers went to the front to fight off the invading imperialist armies. The revolution was isolated and the bureaucracy took power. “In Venezuela the working class has to be the vanguard of the revolutionary process for socialist power.”

He continued. The Cuban revolution has lasted a long time due to a deep relationship with the masses. In Nicaragua the road of reformism led to tragic results. You cannot adapt to capitalism. It doesn’t work. No to reformism, No to Bureaucracy!

He emphasized again and again that the working class is the vanguard but he also castigated many trade unions for not being able to rise above the arena of purely trade union demands. If this does not happen then the political level of the working class won’t rise to the level needed to carry out the task of being the motor force of the revolution. This process will determine the timing and direction of the revolution. We should pass onto the offensive as under capitalism we use defensive actions to protect conditions. The only way to guarantee Popular Power is if the working class plays the leading role.

Under the constitutional changes, he continues, the workers councils in the factories will establish relations with peasant, student and community councils [in effect setting up embryonic soviets – DC]. If this happens then what happened in the Soviet Union and Nicaragua won’t happen. The aim of all of this is to establish Socialism in the country of Bolivar and – in response to a cry from the audience – in all of the Americas.

These consejos (councils) will receive money from the state to carry out specific projects, such as distributing gas bottles for cooking from the state oil company PdVSA. The budget for next year had been set and 46% will be devoted to social projects and infrastructure. “What other country does this?” he cries.

Yet the devil is in the detail. On the one hand Chavez sees the councils in different areas as alternative organs of power more closely related to the people and therefore theoretically more responsive. This is also a way to bypass the cumbersome and obstructive State bureaucracy. As he stated, “…workers councils will come into being in the factories, in the workplaces, but they should reach out to the communities and be fused into other councils of popular power: community councils, students councils, etc… What for? To shout slogans? To go around shouting long live Chavez? No!… To change the relationships in the workplace, to plan production, to take over piece by piece the functions of the government and to finish up by destroying the bourgeois state.” So the aim is clear and Chavez is quite aware of this. To begin with, 5% of the budget will be passed to the councils. This should only be the beginning, as alternative centres of power cannot function unless they have sufficient funds to do so.

It is obvious that the newly formed councils that are emerging and will emerge after the success of the referendum will decide themselves to a large extent what their remit will be. For example under Art.70 workers councils will enable workers to democratically manage any enterprise that is direct or indirect social property, yet Art.184 talks about the participation of workers in the running of public enterprises.

Marxists realize that constitutions or agreements are pieces of paper that reflect the balance of forces between two or more parties at any given moment in time. The reality of the power of the councils will be fought out in the workplaces, the universities and the neighbourhoods, the communities.

The bosses will fiercely resist any attempt to take away their right to manage. Workers councils will not be set up to decide what colour paint should be on the walls! The workers, the state bureaucracy and the bosses will all have different conceptions of the role of workers councils. For workers it will be to defend and enhance conditions and to assume an ever-increasing role in the management of the company – a step towards workers’ control and management.

Chavez is now beginning to come to his conclusions and as he does a new vocabulary now emerges. “We are going to destroy the bourgeoisie”. Up to now he has always referred to the oligarchy. His final words are that we need to learn from the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky on how people can run society as well as from Gramsci on the role of workers’ councils. As workers leave, they feel certain of their role in history and in the unfolding revolutionary process.

Chavez’s words demonstrate that in the run up to the referendum political positions are hardening on both sides of the class divide. Subsequent to the meeting Chavez has even said that if he does not win the referendum, he will be off looking for a substitute to take over. Such words reflect the anxiety in the Chavez camp.

The likelihood is that Chavez will win the “Yes” vote. There is tremendous loyalty towards him from all those who had previously been excluded from wealth and power. The reforms of the past nine years have lifted people out of misery and degradation and given them real hope for the future. Disposable incomes have risen by 50% but there is inflation and shortages of essentials like milk. There is obviously sabotage by the bosses from stockpiling or cutting production in an attempt to discredit Chavez. The bosses have stopped investing and many factories are running at only 50% of capacity, so the bosses can sell all that they produce in this expanding market, they don’t invest and therefore make super profits.

So a majority for Chavez is likely but the fear is abstention with only a 50% turnout. In the presidential elections of December 2006 the turnout was 75% and Chavez took 63% of the vote, a real mandate in bourgeois terms. The bureaucrats in charge of the “Yes” campaign have plenty of colour (red), plenty of music and songs, but very little explanation of what the reforms actually mean. The opposition has been producing full-page adverts in the press with a detailed analysis from their perspective. There have been outright lies such as each newborn child will belong not to the family but to the state, and freedom of religion will not be allowed. They seek to frighten people into voting “No”.

From a Marxist perspective the best result on December 2nd will be a resounding “Yes”. This will embolden people even further and take the revolution forward. Whatever the result however there will be a period of sharpening class struggle as workers, students and people in the barrios pursue their demands for better living standards and far more control over their lives, places of work and study. In the Bolivarian revolution people have awoken to political life and won’t be easily put back into the cupboard. As Engels said, “The appetite increases with the eating.”

The same process will also spew out those in the movement who have been consciously or unconsciously holding it back, who have no stomach for the fight to end capitalism and establish socialism in Venezuela.

November 25 2007

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