Monday, 23 May 2011

From the Caracazo to the Bolivarian Revolution

Maria and Sam McGill, Venezuela correspondent for Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (FRFI), chart the development of Venezuela from the Caracazo in 1989 to the victory of Chavez in the 2003 referendum.

written for RATB, 23 May 2011.

The Caracazo [1]
The Caracazo (Caracas explosion) which occurred 21 years ago was the start of the Bolivarian Revolution. It happened due to the people's dissatisfaction and frustration with the overnight rise in the cost of transportation and in the deterioration of life, especially among the poorer people during the crisis created by the fall in the oil prices in 1989.

The resulting repression cost the lives of thousands of Venezuelans and thousand were injured. The repression was carried out by the governmental forces especially in the poorer parts of the capital. On 27 February there was a popular fight. It was the clamour and desperation of repressed people who displayed slogans like: ‘there are no sold people here’ and ‘street democracy is developed’.

It all started in Guarenas city, a suburb of Caracas, but it spread quickly across the capital, because a package of measures was introduced, that beheld the liberalisation of prices that generated a very abrupt readjustment for people on lower incomes.

This was a popular fight and it changed the way of thinking of people that were extremely fed up with 40 years of Neoliberal governments. Poor people came down from the hills and as a spontaneous response to such grave economic crisis, the suppressed fury exploded. The men and the women that today form the Bolivarian revolution woke up. Blood scattered can not be forgotten and this work up the people’s conscience. February 27th was the day of former President Carlos Andres Perez’s massacre. The biggest genocide in Venezuela in the 20th century. After three days of violence and ransacking, the managerial firms sent the army to the streets to repress the people with the order to shoot to kill.

After the Caracazo
What happened to the dead and the missing during the Caracazo? According to official figures given, there were 276 dead, several injured, a few missing and many material losses. These figures were discredited with the discovery of mass graves. Most of the deaths were due to indiscriminate shooting carried out by Venezuelan state police. There was hiding and destruction of evidence as well as the use of institutional mechanisms to assure immunity for the murderous police.

During the incidents of February and March 1989, the State used High Executive powers to proceed with the burial of unidentified people in mass graves located in the sector called The Pest, in Cementerio General del Sur Caracas (the General Cemetery of South Caracas), an infringement of legal and administrative procedures. Civil servants denied the existence of such graves.

On 23 October 1990, COFAVIC, a human rights group, and other people reported to the Public Ministry about supposed irregular burials of non-identified corpses in the
Cementerio del Sur, between 27 February 1989 and 15 October 1990. This matter was referred to the 10th Penal Court of First Instance [High Court – ed.] under the Law for the Safeguard of Public Patrimony for the judicial circumscription [denominated geographic area] of the metropolitan area of Caracas. An investigation was started on 30 October 1990. On 5 November judicial inspections of the cemetery were carried out to determine if there were any irregularities.

It was claimed that there was no evidence in the record books of people buried in the northern Sector 6 of the
Cementerio del Sur, from the massacres of 27 February 1989. Later on, the same court ordered the exhumation of corpses from the Cementerio del Sur, which started on 30 November 1990 under the direction of a multidisciplinary team of the General Division of Medicine.

On 28 November, news of the disappeared people was released o the general public, based on the exhumation of several corpses. 68 corpses were of people whose deaths occurred between February and March 1989. 64 corpses were identified and returned to their families.

By 1991 the process of corpse exhumation was stopped. In 1997, the same Penal Court of First Instance decided to have the investigation re-opened until all the perpetrators and killers were identified.

Since 1989 there have been several ‘investigations’, from the homicides to the irregular burials of corpses. Investigation involved questioning of various members of the public, army and NGOs and in some cases by investigations carried out by instruction organisms. The penal investigations were kept secret and the victims families were never allowed access to them. Today there are still 437 cases open and these are still at the preliminary phase.

Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution [2]
The Bolivarian Revolution can be defined as a process of transformation characterised by four macro-dynamics: the anti-imperialist revolution, the democratic-bourgeois revolution, the neoliberal counter-revolution and the attempt to become a socialist society of the 21st century.

Each of them is a war-front that may or may not succeed. The anti-imperialist dynamic is antagonistic to the US’s Monroe doctrine and the interests of the European Union. The democratic-bourgeois dynamic is antagonistic to neoliberalism, because as a rule under neoliberalism, the productive forces are underdeveloped. These two are against the ingrained interests of the development of productive forces which affects the interests of both national and foreign monopolies, is the only way for ‘third world’ development.

Why Lenin is so important
Lenin already defined the tasks of building socialism back in 1922. It is necessary to read the classics, as they give us important ideas and thoughts applicable to modern struggles. The six tasks for Venezuela are:

To build an efficient rule of law
The development of productive forces
To build popular power
To advance in the transformation of developmental and socialist theory
To build a regional power block
Development of forefront and middle management

Chávez is not a dictator or the devil. Sadly it is a necessary to state this due to the mistakes many people make in believing the lies and misinformation of the bourgeois media.

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias was born in Sabanetas on 28 July 1954. In a little farmer’s town located in the west of Barinas. Even though both of his parents were teachers, they were very poor. Later on his father went into politics and became Governor of Barinas and a regional Education Director.

He escaped poverty by playing baseball. Due to his sporting abilities, he got a scholarship to the Science Military Academy, where he got a degree in military science and engineering. He ascended quickly and reached the rank of paratrooper commander.

While in the army, he was concerned about corruption and he was convinced that the way forward was socialism. He organised a group of soldiers that believed in his ideas, secretly formed an anti-corruption organisation that was called Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement-200 (MBR-200). Chávez and his comrades, 1200 soldiers, attempted to overthrow former president Perez in a coup that cost hundreds of lives. Although he was gaoled for two years, he was declared a national hero by the people. Every time he spoke in public, he did it with a passion and determination to make the necessary changes.

When he was released from gaol, Venezuela was in chaos. Prices were extremely high as was unemployment. 80% of people lived in poverty, foreign debt was crippling and there was still massive corruption in the army. Chavez decided to aim high and went for the Presidency. He formed the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR), in July 1997. Disappointed with the administration and tired that the power remained with the upper classes, millions of Venezuelans supported Chávez and naming him Comandante.

Whenever he spoke he condemned the ‘mainstream’ ruling class political parties, accusing their leaders of dishonesty, selling themselves and bowing to the Empire and foreign investors. He also accused them of involvement in the corruption of the oil industry. He highlighted that the nation needed a change and that if he became President he would do it. He promised to end corruption and to nationalise the oil company, PDVSA which was responsible for the theft of billions of dollars in oil.

On 6 December 1998 he was elected President with 56% of the vote, becoming the youngest president of Venezuela. The night of his election he said to the people: ‘You are future owners of Venezuela’. In 1999 members of Chávez’s MVR and 14 allied parties with a variety of visions formed the Polo Patriotico (Patriotic Axis) political party to fight for a new constitutional assembly.

Transformations started immediately. The first task was to change the government. He formed the National Constituent Assembly that quickly diminished the power of Congress. The Assembly got rid of corrupted judges. His strongest move was the redrafting of a new Constitution by the Constitutional Assembly, which was approved on 15 December 1999. The name of the country was changed from the Republic of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The Presidency was extended from five to six years. The Congress was changed to a National Constituent Assembly. The power of the political parties was dismantled and new reforms were enacted to provide rights such us free university education.

The new constitution called for elections in 2000. Chávez won the Presidency with 60% of the votes, and his supporters had the majority of seats in the new Assembly. In 2001, the assembly passed 48 laws including a hydrocarbon law in which PDVSA was in control of the energy ministry which was part of Chávez’s cabinet. The most democratic law was the agrarian reform law - whereby land that was not in use was to be redistributed to the farmers. The rich landowners were enraged.

The best programs were Bolivarian Missions directed at groups of citizens that were previously forgotten. A public health mission, Barrio Adentro was created that employed thousands of Cuban doctors, dedicated to serve in the poor and remote areas of Venezuela that doctors had never been to. Chávez keeps in touch with the public through the Alo Presidente, a program where he answers the questions of ordinary people live on TV.

Opposition, coups and sabotage
While Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution clearly have the support of the majority of Venezuelans, there have been sustained and severe attempts to undermine the progress of the Bolivarian Revolution. The first serious attempt came in 2002 with the coup and kidnapping of Chavez.

Backed by National and International private media, opposition groups in Venezuela had organised a large anti-Chavez demonstration of 100,000 to 200,000 people on 11 April 2002 at the same time as a pro Chavez demonstration in a different part of the city. The demonstrations were not scheduled to meet, however at the last minute the organisers of the opposition demonstration changed course and decided to march on Miraflores where the pro-revolution forces were demonstrating. As the two marches met, 19 people were killed on by snipers stationed in the high rise buildings that surround the streets near the presidential palace of Miraflores in the capital of Caracas.

The deaths from the snipers caused protestors on the pro-revolution demonstration to fire shots in the air from the Llaguno Bridge in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from unseen snipers. Footage of this provided the impetus for the Venezuelan private media to incite a rebellion against the democratically elected Chavez administration, they twisted the footage to make it appear that it was these pro-Chavez protestors who were responsible for the 19 deaths, images that were sent worldwide to demonise the Bolivarian Revolution and lend legitimacy to the coup leaders. (for more information and to see this for yourself watch the informative “The Revolution Will not be Televised” a documentary by Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain).

The opposition succeeded in occupying the presidential palace for some 24 hours in which time they had disbanded the democratically elected constitution and national assembly. However, their efforts to mislead the public eventually failed as thousands of working class and revolutionary Venezuelans descended upon Miraflores, demanding Chavez’s return to power. Chavez was returned from exile by loyal sections of the army and the coup was defeated on 14 April.

The 2002 coup
Even though Chávez was in power the economy did not improve drastically, there were still high levels of unemployment, with oil still driving the economy. In mid-2002 groups of demonstrators started to fill the streets of Caracas. In April 2002, the protests became violent and the military police still controlled by the opposition opened fire on unarmed protesters. There were several dead and many injured. Members of Fedecamaras seized Chávez and the same day the President of Fedecamaras Pedro Carmona Stagana made himself President of the country. He dissolved the National Constituent Assembly and proposed new elections.

With Chávez having so much support, thousands of people took to the streets demanding that Chávez be re-instated as President. On 14 April, Carmona resigned. It was the shortest presidency in Venezuelan history. Whilst in exile Chávez did not sign the resignation document the opposition gave him, instead he wrote a letter to the people. This letter was taken to the people by a Cuban sergeant. Chávez was then rescued by faithful soldiers.

The Oil lock out and recall referendum
The coup attempt of 2002 was followed by the oil lock out or “Para” (stoppage) of 2003. This was lead by Fedecámaras, the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, essentially a cartel of managers and investors who have been heavily involved in controlling the Venezuelan economy, in particular oil, banking and the media. Fedecámaras have always been against the politics of the Bolivarian Revolution and were involved in the 2002 coup with the former Fedecámaras President Pedro Carmona being installed as de facto president of Venezuela whilst Chavez was in exile.

In 2003 Fedecámaras organised a management lock out of PDVSA (The Venezuelan Petroleum company) in attempt to bring the economy to a halt, this was supported in other areas of the economy, mainly backed by the private banks and media which attempted to present it as a “General strike” Over the course of 2 months, the lock out was gradually eroded by lower level workers in the oil company receiving promotion and taking control over the oil company from within to ensure production was restarted. Despite the lock out having an intense effect on the economy (GDP fell by 27%) after two months it was defeated with the support of the majority of Venezuelans, and PDVSA came under the control of the Bolivarian Revolution which used revenues from oil exports to fund social missions in the poorest communities focusing on health and education, for more information see Lucinda Broadbent’s documentary “Red Oil”.

The failed “general strike” was followed in 2004 by 15 August recall referendum which the opposition called in order to demand Chavez be recalled from office. Despite securing the initial 2.4 million signatures (20% of the national electorate) needed to instigate the referendum the opposition failed at their attempt with 59% of voters turning out to vote “NO” against the proposed recall of Chavez.

Venezuela still had problems which became worse when the oil managers went on strike in December 2002. Chávez made PDVSA managers and up to 8,000 workers redundant and he substituted them for people faithful to the national cause. Ali Rodriguez was made President of PDVSA. He was a revolutionary in the 60s. He gained the hatred of the counter-revolutionary opposition and of the US. During the Bill Clinton and George Bush administrations he had spoken out in pubic against the US, their economy and their foreign affairs, and reported that the US was an imperialist power that invaded and interfered in countries that never wanted them there and that never asked for their ‘help’.

In 2003, there was a stronger opposition that included Fedecamaras. They tried to get rid of Chávez, this time ‘legally’, by trying to collect three million signatures for the removal of the president. The vote in 2003 saw Chávez confirmed as President again with 59% of the votes. The night of his election he said.” The ‘No’ of this campaign was the No of Christ against imperialism, for not leaving the poor behind, it is an old No and is born again with all these people”

Paradoxically the futile attempts of the opposition to destabilise the Bolivarian Revolution highlight absurdity of portraying Chavez as a dictator in Venezuela. The numerous elections for both Chavez and the PSUV, popular support and resistance to both the coup and oil lock out despite the threat of violence and the transparency and accountability built into the Venezuelan electoral system to allow the right to recall, show the oppositions claims of tyranny to amount to nothing. 2010 saw another victory of PSUV in the National Assembly. Although their majority in the assembly has been reduced, this has mainly been a result of the opposition deciding to participate in last years’ elections whereas they had boycotted the previous electoral period of the assembly.

2012 will see another round of Presidential elections. Undoubtedly there will be more attempts to demonise Chavez and the gains of the Revolution, there will be attempts at economic destabilisation, evidence of sabotage in the oil industry and electricity sector, examples of which come out nearly every month, there will be outcries of indignation from the international press who seek to undermine Venezuela and it’s anti-imperialist role alongside Cuba in Latin America.

Despite all of these battles to come, despite the international financial backing of the opposition and political machinations of the US, Colombia and other opponents, only the mass of Venezuelans will decide the fate and direction of the Bolivarian Revolution. With gains and achievements that to date have included the provision of free healthcare and education up to and including University level across the country, the elimination of illiteracy, subsidised essential food items and socialist food markets, land redistribution, drives to build new safer houses in place of shanty towns, investment in infrastructure, its pretty clear that these are gains to be defended and fought for, both at the ballot box and on the street.

1. The Caracazo was the wave of protests and riots that began on 27th February in Caracas in response to the imposition of a harsh IMF programme on the Venezuelan economy by Accion Democratica’s (social democrat) President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The IMF measures included privatizing state companies, tax reform, reducing customs duties, and diminishing the role of the state in the economy. The most controversial part of this economic package was the elimination of the gas subsidies which saw petrol prices rise by as much 100% having a direct impact on public transport and the cost of food which rose 30% overnight.

2. The rise of President Hugo Chavez Frias and the development of the Bolivarian Revolution is intrinsically linked to the aftermath of the Caracazo and has been born out of the popular resistance to neoliberal policies and US imperialism in Venezuela and Latin America.

In 1992 Chavez lead a coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Although the coup failed and Chavez was jailed, his famous speech to live television in which he reported “unfortunately, for now, the objectives that we set were not achieved” stuck in the minds of the population; “por ahora”…..for now, was to become a rallying cry of the poor and oppressed.

Carlos Andrés Pérez was impeached the following year for misappropriation of funds for illegal activities. Chavez was pardoned 2 years later by President Rafael Caldera and went on to organise in communities across the country building support for the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement 200 (MBR-200 which had organise the 1992 coup). Chavez then founded the political party The Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) and won the 1998 Presidential elections in a landslide victory with 56.2% of the votes.

From this electoral victory the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela was developed. Venezuela’s “Socialism in the 21st Century” brings together elements of the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Catholicism and South American independence heroes, namely Simón Bolívar, a leading figure in Latin America’s successful struggle for independence from Spanish colonialism. In his lifetime, Simón Bolívar led Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela to independence and participated in the foundation of the first union of independent nations in Latin America; “Gran Colombia”. Chavez went on to win another two presidential elections and established the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV- Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela) which currently holds 97 seats out of 165 in the National Assembly.