Obituary for Hugo Chavez Frias, 1954-2013
By Michael Pröbsting, Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 7.3.2013, www.thecommunists.net
Millions of workers, peasants and poor in Venezuela and around the world are mourning the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. For them he was a symbol of socialism, a symbol for a world free of imperialism, corporations and poverty.
While we share the masses’ desire to purge the world of exploitation and oppression, we do not believe that Hugo Chavez was an authentic leader for such a struggle.
Surely Chavez came from a rural poor background. Surely he spoke about “Socialism of the 21st century”. Surely for the masses he looked like a saint compared with his opponents such as the corrupt and evil Bush, Blair, Netanyahu, Obama, Uribe, etc. Surely, he was hated by the local oligarchs as well as US and European imperialism.
Why was he despised by the rich and powerful? They hated him because Chavez stood at the top of a regime which had the support of only a minority of the Venezuelan capitalists and which had to rest on the lower grades of the army and the millions of workers and poor. It was a regime similar to those which Trotsky analyzed in Mexico in the late 1930s and which he characterized as “Bonapartist sui generis of a distinctive character”.
Therefore the Chavez regimes was forced – given the massive pressure from the workers and urban poor – to subsidize certain social reforms (“misiones”) which were beneficial for the poorest strata of the population and which have contributed – at least according to official statistics - to a certain reduction of the extreme inequality of income in the country. The regime could do so because Venezuela is the fifth largest oil producer of the OPEC member states and its oil production and trade accounts for roughly 30% of GDP, 94% of export earnings, and more than 50% of the central government’s budget revenues. This gave the regime the material basis to finance certain social reforms.
Given such a left-bonapartist stand which had to take care to keep its support amongst the popular masses, Chavez was also forced to use a socialist rhetoric. This is particularly obvious if one compares his speeches at the beginning of his presidency in 1999 – which were not socialist at all – and those he delivered after the failed coup d’états and attempts to bring down his regime particularly in 2002-2004, in which he increasingly used a socialist and anti-imperialist rhetoric.
But despite all his socialist rhetoric, despite all our sympathy for those millions of workers and poor who admired Chavez, the duty of revolutionaries is to tell the truth. Ferdinand Lassalle, the German workers leader liked to say: “All great political action consists of and begins with, speaking out about that which is. All political petty-mindedness consists of being silent and covering up that which is.”
The truth is that Chavez was no socialist. He was rather a bourgeois-bonapartist politician who used socialist rhetoric but led a capitalist regime for 14 years. Under his government, between 1998 and 2008 the private sector’s share of the economy grew from 64.7% to 70.9% at the expense of the public sector. In particular, the parasitic sector of “finance and insurance”, i.e. money capital, grew rapidly in this period, by 258.4%. As a result the banking sector – including private banks like Banco Bisboa, Liberty Mutual, ABM-AMRO and Citibank – makes huge profits (in 2011: 14.5 billion bolivares which is about 3.4 billion dollars, a growth of 92.3% compared to the previous year.)
At the same time the working class’ wage share in income has not improved in the 14 years of life under Chavez. According to United Nations UNCTAD and other sources, the share of workers’ wages in national income is today below the level when Chavez took power. Wages for workers at state’s oil company PDVSA were frozen by the state appointed executives between 2007 and 2009, despite inflation of about 30% a year. In other words, it meant a massive decrease of the living income for these workers. This has contributed to the situation whereby nearly 70% of public sector workers reportedly earn minimum-wage.
In addition, militant workers who organized strikes or factory occupations faced reprisal, dismissal, jail or even murder. A well known example for this is the union leader Ruben Gonzalez, a member of the Chavez’s party PSUV, who was sentenced to 7 years in prison, which accused him of violence during a strike at the state-owned Ferrominera Orinoco. While he was freed after one year in prison because of mass protests, at least 125 worker militants remain in prison for being involved in various strike actions or occupations and more than 2,500 activists have faced criminalization.
The bourgeois character of the Chavez regime was also demonstrated in its support for the reactionary dictatorships of Gaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria as well as the Stalinist-capitalist dictatorship in China. When the masses rose up in 2011 to bring down these dictators Chavez hailed these butchers as “anti-imperialists” up to his death. In fact Chavez’s lack of anti-imperialism also became visible when he announced before the US presidential elections in November 2012: “If I were American, I'd vote for Obama.”
In fact, if Chavez would have been a socialist, he would have expropriated the capitalist class. He would have taken their wealth and used it for the development of the social development. He would have put the enterprises under the control of the workers. He would not have supported reactionary dictators like Gaddafi or Assad but rather the revolutionary mass uprising against them.
For all these reasons the RCIT does not consider the Chavez regime and his party, the PSUV, as socialist, but rather as bourgeois, left-populist. For these reasons we did not support them at elections. As we wrote in our statement on presidential elections in Venezuela last year:
“[The Chavez regime] made certain concessions to the masses and implemented some nationalization of enterprises. But this was the result of mass pressure and not of a socialist government policy. Of course socialists must defend Venezuela (as well as Cuba, Bolivia etc.) against any attacks by US imperialism or the internal counter-revolution of the old oligarchy. For these reactionary forces even these limited reforms are too much. This is why US imperialism and the majority of the domestic bourgeoisie want to get rid of the Chavez government. Given the history of the past decade in Venezuela, the 2009 coup d'état against Honduras President Manuel Zelaya, the attempted coup d'état against Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa in September 2010 or the recent palace coup against Paraguay President Fernando Lugo, such a possibility is a real danger. In case of a reactionary coup d’état socialists must – following the method of the anti-imperialist united front tactic of the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky – defend the Bolivarian movement including the Chavez government against these attacks.
But such a defense against imperialism and domestic reaction must not lead the working class to renounce its political independence of Bolivarism and Chavez government. Supporting the PSUV and Chavez at the elections is equal to the political subordination of the working class to the Bolivarian bourgeoisie. Unfortunately this is exactly what various international centrists like the IMT, the Australian SA or the CWI are doing. In opposite to them, the RCIT calls workers not to vote for Chavez!”
Bolivarism is no solution. It means the political subordination of the working class to the bourgeoisie. But the working class needs an independent class perspective and an independent proletarian party. The goal must not be to support a bourgeois state apparatus with a caudillo at the top but rather to fight for a workers government, based on workers and popular councils and armed militias and which sets out to expropriate the bourgeoisie, to smash the state and to open the road to socialism.
A more extensive analysis of the Chavez regime, the political situation in Venezuela and the tactics of Bolshevik-Communists can be found on the RCIT’s articles on Venezuela:
RCIT: Presidential elections in Venezuela: There is no alternative for the workers on the ballot paper! Neither Hugo Chavez nor Orlando Chirino should be supported by the workers! For a new workers party on a revolutionary program! Statement of the RCIT, 3.10.2012, in: Revolutionary Communism No. 6, November 2012, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/latin-america/elections-in-venezuela
Michael Pröbsting: On the outcome of the presidential elections in Venezuela, 8.10.2012, in: Revolutionary Communism No. 6, November 2012, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/latin-america/on-electoral-results-in-venezuela