A familiar sea of red shirts, large banners and a revolutionary sing-along soundtrack: at first glance this year’s march for the International Workers Day on May 1 was business-as-usual in the Andean city of Merida.
The celebratory atmosphere was due in part to the announcement by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on April 30 of a 30% rise in the national minimum wage.
A closer look, however, revealed a higher turnout as determined local activists reacted en mass to three months of blockades, violent attacks and assassinations by right-wing anti-government groups, who are seen as representing the interests of the city’s wealthy class.
When the National Guard moved in and removed Merida’s last and deadliest barricades late last month, the expected violent response did not materialise. It seemed even the middle class residents who had supported the groups barricading their communities for the past three months had had enough of life under siege.
But celebrations were short-lived. Rumours spread of a second phase of anti-government violence based on targeted hit-and-run attacks on individuals and institutions.
The murder of former soldier and renowned revolutionary Eliecer Otaiza in Caracas on April 29, and the deaths of two public sector workers in Guairico the next day, were seen by some as confirmation of this new stage of political violence. It meant heightened tension for the thousands of Venezuelans taking to the streets in solidarity with international workers on May 1.
In Merida, I talked to some of those marching about why they were reclaiming the streets for the working classes. The comments reflect what is at stake for Venezuela’s working classes as destabilisation attempts continue. Workers took to the streets on May 1 to protect the achievements of their revolution, despite the ongoing threat of violence.
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Luis Belisario, Vanguard Front of Hugo Chavez:
“We are here in defence of the revolution, in a part of the country most penetrated by North American imperialism.
“Today is a very special day, a day in commemoration of international workers, but particularly here in Venezuela we remember the oil workers who rebelled in the 1930S, the peasant rebellion against the Spanish and the slave rebellions here.
“The famous uprising here, in 1989, known as the Caracazo, was also part of the Venezuelan workers' movement, a movement that led to Commandante Hugo Chavez arriving in power in 1999. And when that happened, the world and Venezuelan oligarchies have tried to destroy this government of the workers.
“This movement of the workers is not just Venezuelan, but Latin American, and when they attack it, they attack the workers' movements of the world. This date is very important for workers all over the world.
“There is a mega-march in Caracas today. Here we are organising against everything that has occurred when Merida was occupied, with the barricades and paramilitary action.
“People are afraid, but the workers of Merida are brave and they will defend their city, for that reason we are here in the street. There is danger, but we have to confront it. The message of the revolution is peace.”
“This is a mobilisation of the workers and trade unions of Venezuela. We are celebrating the fact that we have achieved a new law, given to us by President Maduro, to indicate the minimum dignified conditions of labour for workers and confirming their right to participate in decisions concerning their work.
“We are rewriting all the neoliberal socio-economic concepts that existed before. This means that all of the progress made by workers internationally is enshrined in a law in Venezuela, to protect their salaries from the fluctuations in the price of oil that we have seen over the years.
“The theme of industrial security is also a priority for us in the state of Merida, so we also have a new law safeguarding the physical and psychological well-being of our workers with new institutions. And this will include the participation of all sectors ― the poor, agricultural workers, women, the young and the old.
“The streets belong to the people and we will defend them. Today is an expression of the working people.
“We are teaching ourselves to defend ourselves like this ― peacefully, by mobilising and defending our rights and deciding ourselves how we will engage with national and international economic interests. Education, work, health, security and the economy: these are the priorities of the revolution and of our president, Nicolas Maduro, himself a former trade union leader. We are expanding privileges to the masses that were enjoyed by very few people before.
“This is a revolution for all Venezuelans. We are looking for the maximum possible happiness for everyone.”
Marcelo Lischinsky, community organiser:
“The reason we commemorate and also celebrate May 1 in Venezuela is because the working classes of Venezuela have initiated a historic process of liberation ― liberation from Venezuela’s position as a colony of North America. The Bolivarian revolution has not only given us strategic control of our own resources, such as oil, but has enabled us to recover our own collective memory: our memory of struggle, our memory of battle.
“The Bolivarian revolution has converted the forgotten story of Venezuela into the official story of Venezuela. Where before we had the perspective of the dominant class, now we have the perspective of the dominated class.
“This new official story is not a colonised story, it is a story of liberation, a story of the people, a story of oppression.
“The working class of Venezuela has achieved significant things, even though we are still not in socialism. The Bolivarian revolution is following a historic process, creating the conditions to advance to socialism.
“The mark of this struggle, of this transition towards socialism, is the Organic Law of the Workers, which lays out the rights of Venezuelan workers in the conditions of their work environment, in their social security.
“This extends beyond just their right to fair pay. What has been protected by the Bolivarian revolution includes limiting the working day to seven hours, so that workers have the possibility to share their lives with their families, to study, and to grow spiritually and improve as individuals. That is where we are going.
“We have succeeded in overcoming the barricading of communities, which was a serious strategy aimed at overthrowing the government. The ‘soft coup’, as they say, was intended to destabilise the Maduro government and produce the conditions for an ultra-right-wing coup through a North American military operation.
“This strategy was a challenge for the Venezuelan revolutionaries, for their patience and serenity, but our people did not allow themselves to be provoked.
It was not because our people did not want to confront the barricaders or because they are not brave. The Venezuelan revolutionaries did not confront the barricaders because it was an order from our president. They did not allow themselves to be provoked and supply the conditions for a civil war. We know their strategy, and we remain alert.”
[Abridged from Venezuela Analysis. Harry Greatorex is a postgraduate researcher at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia.]