The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Venezuela:
A populist president hostile to workers

Jan 22, 2001

In early December, voters in Venezuela approved a referendum which requires the existing union leaderships to be replaced and all labor unions to be consolidated into a state-controlled federation.

The union leaders had called for a boycott of the vote, which had been called by President Hugo Chavez. Many voters seem to have followed this call: while the referendum passed by a two-thirds majority, voter participation was less than 25%.

Since being elected president two years ago, Hugo Chavez has remained popular among Venezuela's poor. That's certainly a big political asset in a country where officially four of every five people live in poverty, while the country itself is one of the leading oil exporters in the world.

Chavez, a former army officer, gained the support of the poor mainly thanks to a failed coup attempt he led in 1992. Three years earlier, in 1989, austerity measures imposed on Venezuela by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had been followed by a massive popular uprising, known as the "caracazo." The government had crushed the uprising brutally, killing 4,000 people. So while Chavez failed to seize the power and was imprisoned, his criticism of the corruption among politicians and government officials fell on receptive ears.

After being pardoned, Chavez used this popularity to come to power through the channels of the existing system. He ran against the political elite of the two mainstream parties that had run the country for four decades. He presented himself as the candidate of the poor against the "corrupt oligarchy" which pocketed the country's wealth. He won by a landslide, receiving 56% of the votes. Last August, he consolidated his position by repeating his success in a "mega-election" which replaced elected officials at practically all levels throughout the country.

Internationally, Chavez adopted a similar posture of defiance against the "rich and powerful." He openly criticized the U.S. for providing a 1.3-billion-dollar military aid package to Venezuela's neighbor, Colombia. Chavez argued, reasonably, that this would cause the war waged by the Colombian government against rebel guerrilla armies to escalate and spread into the whole region. During his tour of fellow oil-exporting countries, Chavez visited Libya's Ghaddafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, two designated "enemies" of the U.S. And, finally, last November he hosted Cuba's president Fidel Castro and signed an agreement to provide oil to Cuba, in defiance of the 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo against that country.

Behind his rhetoric against the rich and powerful, however, Chavez has also made every effort to assure the same rich and powerful that he is ready to work with them. Since becoming president, Chavez has visited the U.S. five times, meeting with corporate executives and trying to encourage them to invest in Venezuela. He has filled government posts with military and business figures –for his vice-president, for example, he recently chose a banker.

Chavez's attitude towards workers, on the other hand, has not been any different than that of his predecessors, whom he harshly criticizes. When oil workers went on strike last October, for example, Chavez swore that he would never give them the wage increase they demanded –even though the country's oil revenues sharply increased last year thanks to high oil prices. The workers did eventually win a wage increase after paralyzing the oil production, which provides about 80% of the country's export income. Unable to stop the mobilization of the working class, Chavez ordered a referendum, accusing union leaders of corruption. Some union leaders may be corrupt, but that's not the issue. The December referendum is obviously part of an effort aimed at bringing the unions under the control of leaders loyal to Chavez.

This contradiction between what Chavez says and what he does is neither accidental nor unusual. In fact, it is a common feature of politicians who use a nationalist and populist rhetoric to gain the support of the workers and poor.

Every move Chavez has made so far in his political career, on the other hand, shows that he is in fact outright hostile to the idea of the self-organization of the workers and poor, whose interests he professes to represent. But it is only through the independent organization and mobilization of the masses of toilers that the working people will defend themselves and their interests, while Chavez defends the interests of the wealthy.