The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is the focal point of a political shift to the left that has affected most of the Latin American continent for just over a decade. For several years this has been met with denunciations of the nation and its president, Hugo Chavez, from TV personalities like Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson to establishment figures like George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all of whom liken the nation to a military dictatorship.
It's no good pointing out to these types that the US has propped up real military dictators in efforts to stave off leftist movements all across the continent. They are fully aware.
In contrast, on the left, it is often claimed that Chavez himself is forging a "people's revolution”. The science of social transformation is not nearly so precise. There is no such thing as emancipation by decree. Revolution is far more complex and interesting than that.
Never in history did a great leader alter the conditions of society with a wave of a hand. What makes revolution so beautiful and so difficult is that they are festivals of the oppressed. Nothing changes until the masses decide to change things themselves. The "Bolivarian process" in Venezuela is no exception.
I travelled to Venezuela with the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network on its May Day Solidarity Brigade. While we were only there for two weeks — just long enough to scratch at the surface — we had an intense program of constant activity and interaction with many activists in the heart of the struggle. Nothing was hidden from us.
Far from operating in a tourist-friendly bubble from some fancy hotel, the brigade endured the energy crisis and water shortages in the capital along with the citizens; one Brigadista was robbed; and all of us engaged in the deepest political conversations our Spanish skills would allow. The Brigadistas experienced Venezuela with all its contradictions laid bare.
All major social questions have yet to be answered by the Bolivarian process. The significant increases in social spending have not come at the expense of the elite. At every turn, the government, led by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), has attempted to go around, rather than through, the capitalist class.
Where food is too expensive, the state opens subsidised food centres. In response to the energy crisis, government buildings operate with fewer light bulbs, while the shopping malls pump the air conditioning to such a degree that the lobbies could double as refrigerators. When the government raises the minimum wage, retailers raise their prices.
Everywhere, there exists a duality of a movement and government that proclaim the necessity of socialism on one hand, and a powerful capitalist class gripping tightly to most of the economy and the culture of the nation on the other.
In some places, the Bolivarian revolutionary process is yielding positive results. The brigade was treated to a tour of the Fabricio Ojeda Endogenous Development Zone, which is home to several cooperative enterprises, and Barrio Adentro, which serves to provide cradle-to-grave health care for all citizens.
The cooperatives are all run on a similar basis: elected management, equal pay across the board, profit-sharing, and free ongoing education programs to assist all employees to develop management skills. There are 108 endogenous zones across the nation. Fabricio Ojeda provides work for 2000 people.
Government-initiated programs get a lot of attention in the international press, but at the grassroots, there are even more inspiring developments. At the newly christened Socialist Ceramics Cooperative, where the workers recently won control after chasing management away and preventing a closure, brigadistas were told: “The real revolution is about taking control of production.”
At the Reserve of Guayana, where residents from a nearby barrio occupied vacant land and built a community of their own, the elected representatives are now working with the state to obtain durable building materials and access to potable water.
“The old owner showed up and demanded rent, but he was tossed out”, said a beaming woman who sits in the community assembly. Here truly is an example of popular power on display.
Perhaps the most outstanding example of where the process is moving forward is at the gigantic steelworks of Sidor, the site of one of the brigade's most politically valuable experiences.
Sidor was 0started as a public entity in 1953, but was privatised in 1997. The plant has recently been renationalised after an arduous struggle led from inside the plant. The 13,000 workers at Sidor have taken the call for "21st century socialism" seriously, and nationalisation is only the first step on a longer road to self-management.
The workers said: “We are not interested in state-capitalism but in socialism in the way that Karl Marx meant it.”
Since our brigade has been back, the first elected managers of Sidor have been sworn in alongside those of 14 other primary industries in the region as part of the government’s “Plan Socialist Guayana.”
For all the talk from some radicals about the "labor-aristocracy" and its lack of political consciousness, the industrial workers at Sidor are in the lead on the most significant political issue in history: building socialism means building workers' power.
The struggle at the plant is not over. The old bosses sacked 8000 employees, and there is a whole layer of contractors who are not fully employed at the plant. Anyone who wishes to see the direction of the Bolivarian process should watch developments at Sidor.
In glaring contrast to this rather inspiring manifestation of revolutionary spirit is the facility at Puerto De Palau on the Orinoco River. This major facility is in the process of being nationalised, but is not yet even organised by a union.
The managers there see no reason for a union or any reason why someone would want to come and talk to the employees. One can only imagine how they might feel about the spectre of workers’ control.
The existence of a state firm without even the most elementary form of labour organisation in a society that is officially "building socialism" serves as a reminder that the Bolivarian process is uneven and the amount of work for the Venezuelan left is staggering in spite of its achievements.
Venezuela is at the beginning of an era in which massive social transformations are taking place and the prospects for building a truly revolutionary movement are wide open. They will not be open forever.
What is taking place in Venezuela shows that revolutionary ideas are more relevant now than ever. The people demonstrate over and over again that they are willing to mobilise and struggle, but the movement needs results.
As of July 2010 (five years after the first call for "21st century socialism"), the state and its armed forces are still institutions of a capitalist ruling class.
The main obstacles for social change are openly hostile ruling classes and bureaucrats who cloak themselves in progressive disguises to benefit from, and tamp down, the spirit of the social movements. This is widely recognised. Chavez himself regularly speaks about the need to combat the bureaucracy, but does not have a solution to the problem.
Two years after the movement suffered a setback by losing a major constitutional referendum, the challenge for the revolutionary left is still, as Lee Sustar said in the April 11, 2008 Socialist Worker, "to reinvigorate activism and build organisations that can confront both the employers and bureaucratic and corrupt elements in the government that weaken the struggle”.
With the elections to the National Assembly looming in September, the movement will be faced with hard choices about the direction of the process. It can be in the hands of administrators or in the hands of the masses.
The Solidarity Brigade during the September elections will be visiting the country during what may be a turning point. The decisive factor will be an independent working class armed with organisation and political clarity.
Nothing takes places within a vacuum; this is especially true in politics. Developments in the process are being closely monitored by the big imperialist nations and by the manipulators of finance capital around the world. The people of Venezuela have already defeated several destabilisation attempts, including the coup and bosses’ lockout of 2002, but there will be more.
International solidarity is essential for the peaceful development of the movement to set right the many historic injustices dealt out by foreign imperialism and domestic capitalism in Venezuela.
[Jason Netek is a US socialist who visited Venezuela with the 2010 May Day Solidarity Brigade, organised by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network. Reprinted from Socialist Worker.]