Samuel Farber: The Alternative in Cuba

December 28, 2014 at 6:47 pm (democracy, Latin America, posted by JD, socialism, stalinism, United States)

Greta Gabaglio / Shutterstock

By Samuel Farber at the excellent US Jacobin magazine and website.

(Farber was born and raised in Cuba. He is the author of Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment).


The Alternative in Cuba

The resumption of US – Cuban relations is a real victory. But Cuban workers face renewed economic liberalization with little political opening.

On December 17, 2014, Washington and Havana agreed to a pathbreaking change in a relationship that, for more than fifty years, was characterized by the United States’ efforts to overthrow the Cuban government, including the sponsorship of invasions, naval blockades, economic sabotage, assassination attempts, and terrorist attacks.

The new accord set free the remaining three members of the “Cuban Five” group held in US prisons since 1998 and, in exchange, Cuba freed the American Alan Gross and Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, a previously unknown US intelligence agent imprisoned on the island for almost twenty years, in addition to over fifty Cuban political prisoners. Far more consequential are the resumption of official diplomatic relations and the significant relaxation of travel restrictions and remittances to Cuba.

The agreement covers the political normalization but not the full economic normalization of relations: that would require Congress repealing the Helms-Burton Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996.

Past failures

There were previous efforts to resume political and economic relations between the two countries since the United States broke ties in early 1961. The most important was undertaken by the Carter administration, which in pursuing an initiative originally undertaken by Nixon, renewed secret negotiations with the Cuban government in 1977, when the Cuban exile right-wing in South Florida was still a negligible political force.

The two countries made mutual concessions that included the establishment of diplomatic “interest sections” in Washington and Havana and the lifting of the ban on tourist travel to the island, a restriction later reinstated by Reagan in 1982. In the wake of the Carter-Castro negotiations, the Cuban leader released most political prisoners, of which about 1,000 left for the United States, and in 1979, Cuban-Americans were, for the first time, allowed to visit their relatives on the island.

Yet the reconciliation process came to a halt. While the presence of US troops throughout the world was taken for granted by Washington as an imperial entitlement, the deployment of Cuban forces in Africa became an obstacle to the normalization of relations. Many in the US blamed Castro’s foreign involvement as the decisive reason for the collapse of the talks both under Nixon and Carter. But there were other more important factors at work.

For one thing, the Carter administration was itself divided on the question. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance supported the resumption of normal relations with Cuba, while Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s powerful national security adviser, opposed the move. But it was domestic political developments in the US unrelated to Cuba, that ultimately stopped the process.

The American right was becoming agitated over the negotiations concerning the transfer of the Panama Canal back to the Panamanians. In September 1977, Carter suspended negotiations with Cuba until after the Canal treaties were ratified by the Senate.

The suspension turned out to be indefinite. Faced with attack over Panama, the Carter administration decided to shore up its right flank by adopting a tougher posture on Cuba, a stance that was shortly after reinforced by the victory of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and by the political weakening of the Carter administration as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

American capitalists approve                      

Why did Obama succeed where previous US administrations failed? More than anything else, the end of the Cold War, the departure of Cuban troops from Africa, and the less militant stance of Cuba in Latin America have, through the years, qualitatively downgraded the importance of Cuba in American foreign policy, as witnessed by the fact that practically all US government strategic studies in the last two decades don’t even mention the island. Read the rest of this entry »

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Chile: how the army killed reform

September 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm (AWL, democracy, history, Latin America, posted by JD, reformism, socialism, thuggery, tragedy, United States)

Soldiers carry the body of President Salvador Allende, wrapped in a poncho. (AP Photo/El Mercurio, File)

Above: soldiers carry the body of Allende, wrapped in a poncho

By Cathy Nugent (from the Workers Liberty website)

On 11 September 1973, a bloody military coup in Chile ousted the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende. Allende was killed defending the Presidential Palace during the coup.

Workers in the factories attempted to defend themselves against the military attacks — but they were not sufficiently organised or sufficiently armed, to stop the onslaught.

The military regime of General Pinochet which followed tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of working-class militants and political activists.

Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) coalition government was elected in 1970. The two main parties were the pro-Moscow Communist Party and Allende’s Socialist Party. Allende considered himself a Marxist.

The Chilean Communist Party had a stagist strategy for achieving socialism in Latin American countries. The first stage was for the workers to defeat the “reactionary feudal sector”, forming an alliance with the “progressive” national bourgeoisie. Then the workers’ movement would proceed to a struggle for socialism.

Yet by 1970 Chile was a fully bourgeois society. Even if there had been an important economic distinction between landlords and capitalists, politically the ruling class as a whole was united against working class or struggle.

The Socialist Party was nominally Marxist. In 1973 the overthrow of the capitalist state was still party policy, but not a policy that the party adhered to in practice.

The Popular Unity government came to power on a wave of radicalisation in 1970, boosted by dissatisfaction with a mild reform programme of a Christian Democrat government. Allende promised more.

The Popular Unity government believed Chilean economic development should take place without reliance on aid, loans or investment from abroad, particularly the United States. It stood in the tradition of the 1938 -1946 Chilean “Popular Front” government of the Radical Party, supported by the Communist Party and the Socialist Party.

Popular Unity’s reforms were far-reaching. By 1973 about 40% of land had been expropriated and turned into smaller plots and co-operatives. Copper and nitrate mines were nationalised, as were the banks and many smaller industries. The government intended to compensate the capitalists but could not afford it! Many nationalisations were on the initiative of the workers.

From day one the US State Department, headed by Henry Kissinger, funded the military and right-wing opposition to Popular Unity. The 1973 coup was actively backed by the CIA.

By 1972 Popular Unity began to be destabilised: the US withdrew credit; financial speculation was rife; agricultural productivity was low; wage strikes continued right through to 1973.

This led to economic crisis and crippling inflation which by 1972 had generated a middle-class and bourgeois reaction threatening the existence of the government.

Instead of building on the mass working-class support for its policies, the government grew less inclined to make concessions to the workers.

In May 1972 a demonstration in Concepcion in support of further nationalisation, was fired upon by cabineros acting on the orders of the Communist Party mayor.

Instead of acting against the Chilean financiers, the government encouraged wage “restraint” in order to “conquer” inflation.

Allende believed a loyal “constitutional” majority among the officers would not allow a military coup.

In August 1972 the government sent in the police against a shopkeepers’ strike in Santiago to try to get them to open up (many of them had been hoarding and conducting black market trading). This prompted violence from the fascist opposition.

In October 1972 the truck owners went on strike against a proposed state-controlled truck company. The strike spread to many other small businesses. In Parliament the opposition tried to impeach four government ministers.

During the middle-class strikes the Chilean workers tried to keep the factories operating, to defend the government and to try to stop the worsening of shortages. But Allende did not build on this support.

Workers’ councils known as cordones were formed in several areas of the country. They saw their goal as keeping production going during the crisis, and defending the gains the workers had won under Allende.

Armed detachments were organised to meet the right-wing threat but were nowhere near widespread enough to save the Chilean workers from the savagery of the army.

Large sections of the Socialist Party supported the cordones, but the Communist Party was very hostile to them, seeing them as a challenge to their hegemony in the trade unions.

In the March 1973 legislative elections, Popular Unity increased its share of the vote to 45% (from 36% in 1970). By May the right was out in force on the streets

Now the miners struck against the withdrawal of the sliding scale of wages. Under this system — won in the first months of the government — wages were pegged to inflation and would rise automatically with the cost of living.

An attempted coup led by a rebel section of the military took place in June 1973. It was not supported by the whole of the military, only because they had not yet fully formulated their policy.

The government still enjoyed massive support amongst the working class. Only five days before the final coup a million people demonstrated in Santiago to celebrate the third anniversary of Allende’s election.

In the event, apart from small armed detachments of workers, the Chilean proletariat was defeated with minimal fighting and then subjected to a terrible butchering.

There followed 16 years — until 1989, when the junta was forced into an election — of the viciously anti-working class Pinochet government.

Marxist socialists have had many debates about the lessons of the coup. They have pointed out that Allende’s refusal to arm the workers was decisive in the defeat of the working class. This is true. But it was only the last act in a tragedy at the core of which was the Popular Unity government’s decision to try to conciliate the capitalists, trying to convince them to go along with its reforms.

As the elected government, the UP thought they had the power — the armed forces. That is why they did not arm the workers. They learned that when it came to it, the capitalists, not parliamentary democracy, had the ultimate loyalty of the armed forces.

The working class of Chile paid for Allende’s weakness, confusion and vacillation with many tens of thousands of proletarian lives.

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Snowden’s flight undermines his cause

June 24, 2013 at 7:18 pm (asylum, China, Civil liberties, Cuba, democracy, Jim D, Latin America, Russia, snooping)

Edward Snowden

Snowden: no Daniel Ellsberg

Opinion differs, even on the left (and I use the term in its broadest sense), as to the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations. Francis Sedgemore reckons it’s a pretty big deal whereas Workers Liberty seems somewhat more sanguine.

But what most of us could agree on, at least until now, was that Snowden seemed to be a well-intentioned and quite brave individual, entirely worthy of our support.

But his decision to flee rather than face the consequences of his actions, has inevitably diminished his credibility. And worse, his apparent willingness to seek refuge in some of the most repressive states in the world, can only make things worse. The hand of the tyrant-lover and arch-hypocrite Assange  is obviously behind this, manipulating a second vulnerable, idealistic young man (poor Bradley Manning being the first).

Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon papers, has been unstinting in his support for Snowden, but the truth is that there’s a fundamental difference between the two: Ellsberg faced up to the consequences of his actions and stood before his accusers. Come to that, so has Bradley Manning. Snowden has slunk away (and yes, I know it’s easy for me to sound off from the safety of my comfy little home, but the point stands nonetheless).

James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward and Tim Stanley at the Telegraph both make much the same point, Stanley concluding:

“It’s a tragedy that Snowden’s made this mistake because what he had to reveal about the US security state was very troubling. But while the message remains important, the messenger has been exposed as unworthy of it. Snowden’s totalitarian tour is an embarrassment to his cause.” 

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Behind the Brazilian protests

June 21, 2013 at 6:36 am (Civil liberties, corruption, democracy, drugs, Human rights, Jim D, Latin America, protest, sport)

An articulate young woman called Carla Dauden explains what it’s all about:

Amazingly, Carla recorded this before the protests broke out.

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Huey Long: a study in populism…and racism

March 27, 2013 at 7:26 pm (Andrew C, Cross-post, Democratic Party, fascism, history, Jim D, Latin America, populism, Racism, United States)

With populism  in the air at home and abroad, our old friend Coatsey draws our attention to this exposé of the horrible (but still supposedly “left”) CounterPunch magazine’s attempt to paint the racist Huey Long as some sort of progressive in the Hugo Chavez mould. Regular readers will know that here at Shiraz we don’t share the prevailing liberal-leftist adulation of el Comandante, but to compare him to the racist Long is simply an insult to Chavez (and a particularly ironic one: see below). It’s time that some leftist idiots realised that anti-capitalist rhetoric does not a socialist make.

Mike Whitney has posted an article on CounterPunch titled Our Chavez: Huey Long. There seems to be an effort in recent years on the part of some people to try to portray the sometime governor of Louisiana and U.S.Senator as a great champion of the people, no doubt because of his anti-capitalist rhetoric. Yet when one takes a closer look at his life, it becomes clear that things were not that simple.

During Long’s lifetime, most of the Left regarded him with deep wariness, if not outright hostility. There were good reasons for that. First of all, he governed Louisiana as a virtual dictator. He even organized a secret police force to keep watch on his opponents as well as on his followers.

Long was also a white supremacist. He maintained Louisisana’s Jim Crow laws. (Long would sometimes smear his opponents by spreading rumors that they had “coffee blood”. This gives a bitter irony to calling him “our Chavez”.) Long’s apologists point out that he didn’t talk about white supremacy in his speeches. This was perhaps because he didn’t need to. In 1935, Roy Wilkins interviewed Long for The Criis. They discussed an anti-lynching bill that Long opposed in the Senate…

Read the full article here

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The Falklanders and self determination

March 12, 2013 at 6:39 pm (Civil liberties, democracy, elections, Human rights, imperialism, Jim D, Latin America, stalinism)

I sent this letter to the Morning Star back in January. They published it, albeit in a slightly edited form. It produced some truly Jesuitical responses, attempting to explain why the Falklanders do not have the right to self-detemination. Extraordinary, isn’t it, how sections of the “left” are so ready to tie themselves up in knots in order to justify the denial of basic democracy to ordinary people..?

< > A man wearing a Union flag suit dances as he casts his vote in a referendum to decide if the Falkland Islands should remain as a British territory

Above: he has the right to be a prat.

Dear Comrades,

 Neither John Wight in his article on the Falklands (M Star January 7) nor Mike Starke in his letter (M Star January 9) address the central issue for socialists and consistent democrats: the right of the Islanders to self-determination.
The Islanders are a distinct historical, ethnic, linguistic economic and geographic community 400 miles from Argentina. They exploit no other community, threaten no other community, have not dispossessed any other community and are not being used, and are not likely to be used, as a base for imperialist control of any other community.
The Falkanders’ right to self-determination cannot be invalidated by their desire to adhere to Britain: that desire would only be of significance if it resulted in direct imperialist / colonial consequences for the people of Argentina – and no-one, including President Kirchner, has been able demononstrate any practical (as opposed to demagogic) way in which that is the case.
Mike Starke at least acknowledges that Argentina’s claim to be an “anti colonial” force in this situation is somewhat incredible, given the fact that it only exists as a result of European settlers, mainly Spanish and Italian, having vitually wiped out the native population. Argentina’s “claim” to the Falklands rests on a few years of formal possession in the 1830’s by a garrison sent to establish a penal settlement! There never was an indigenous population there.
Galtieri’s 1982 invasion did not liberate anyone from colonialism or imperialism.  It did not lessen the burden of imperialist exploitation, or improve the conditions  for the fight against it, for a single Argentine worker. Kirchner’s government may be somewhat less reactionary than the fascistic Galtieri regime, but her posturing over the Fallkands is  just as contrived – a cynical ploy to divert the Argentine masses at a time of economic crisis at home.
Argentina is a developed bourgeois state and possesses political independence. It also occupies a subordinate rank within the imperialist world economy. That subordination, however, in no way gives any progressive  character to the Argentine ruling class and their mini-imperialist designs on the Falklands and its harmless population.
John Wight, like too many British leftists, is engaging in a fantasy “let’s pretend” “anti imperialism” that in fact makes him an apologist for the regime and a vicarius Argentine chauvinist.
In solidarity
Jim Denham

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Chavez and ‘post-mortem leftism’

March 9, 2013 at 8:21 am (democracy, Latin America, liberation, Marxism, populism, Roger M, socialism, stalinism)

Roger McCarthy writes:

This 2010 piece from M.A. Torres in Platypus Review #25 on Chavez is excellent, and concludes thus:

The question stands: If authentic internationalist Marxism is dead,  from what standpoint does one launch a critique of Chavez and his  followers without joining the Venezuelan opposition nostalgic for  neoliberalism? The only answer is history: The consciousness that the  present has fallen short of what once seemed politically possible, and  that this possibility could once again become available. The knowledge  that there was once such a thing as an international Left that was able  to intervene, transform, and lead social movements around the world in  the direction of the overcoming of capitalism. The awareness that the  mass politicization of the Bolivarian Revolution, which has put the word “socialism” on the lips of hundreds of thousands of working people,  will end up as yet another wasted opportunity if such a Left is not  reconstituted.

Admittedly, this standpoint is not much to start with. It is clearly  not as immediately gratifying as the self-deceiving “optimism” of  supposedly Marxist publications such as the International Socialist Review and the Monthly Review. But the game they are playing is no more than a spectator sport.  Cheering for team Chavez is a way for such post-mortem leftists to hold  on to dear life. It is how they justify their existence and convince  themselves that they are still serving a purpose: The good fight is  still being fought; even if they are helpless, they can be complacent in this helplessness, since they can always look at the next populist  strongman or, even better, wait for the next American invasion of a  Third World country to give them a new lease on life. But if we are to  reconstitute an international revolutionary Left, the first step will be to stop kidding ourselves. People continue to struggle, but the  struggle to overcome capitalism has not really been sustained.  Revolutions with a hope of actually overcoming capitalism around the  world are now a distant memory, at best. The current changes in  Venezuela cannot contribute to any real revolution until a genuine Left  challenges the regime that has instituted them. But such a feat will be  impossible if we do not finally get it into our heads that the  fatalistic slogan, “¡Patria, socialismo o muerte!” means the exact  opposite of the visionary words, “¡Proletarios de todos los países,  uníos!”

‘Post-mortem left’ is an extraordinarily useful term…..

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The politics of Hugo Chavez – in his own words

March 8, 2013 at 12:02 am (celebrity, Guardian, Jim D, Latin America, politics, populism, Socialist Party, truth)

Chavez ali

Who’s that, talking to Tariq Ali?
That preening narcissist and ex-revolutionary Tariq Ali writes about his friend, ‘the Commandante’ in the Graun G2. Predictably, the piece is as much about Mr Ali as it is about its supposed subject. However, the article does contain a genuinely revealing statement from Chavez, about himself and his politics, which Ali quotes with obvious approval:
 ”I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don’t think so. But if I’m told that because of that reality you can’t do anything to help the poor, the people who have made this country rich through their labour – and never forget that some of it was slave labour – then I say: ‘We part company.’ I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don’t even like paying taxes. That’s one reason they hate me. We said: ‘You must pay your taxes.’ I believe it’s better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing … That position often strikes me as very convenient, a good excuse … Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it’s only a millimetre, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias.”
Now, that seems to me remarkably like a classic reformist “the inch we live in” /”dented shield”-type statement. A much more realistic and honest (self-) assessment that all the guff about a supposed Venezuelan “revolution” trumpeted by Chavez’s more deluded “Marxist” cheer-leaders.

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Chávez: death of a charismatic Bonaparte

March 6, 2013 at 12:00 am (celebrity, Jim D, Latin America, Marxism, populism, RIP, trotskyism)

Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, dies in Caracas

Death comes 21 months after it was revealed he had a tumour: he will be given a state funeral in the capital of Venezuela.

Guardian obit here.

“By Bonapartism we mean a regime in which the economically dominant class, having the qualities necessary for democratic methods of government, finds itself compelled to tolerate – in order to preserve its possessions – the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it, of a crowned ‘saviour’. This kind of situation is created in periods when the class contradictions have become particularly acute; the aim of Bonapartism is to prevent explosions” – Leon Trotsky, Again on the question of Bonapartism, March 1935, in Writings 1934-35

“I said this before becoming president… Venezuela is a kind of a bomb. We are going to begin to deactivate the mechanism of that bomb. And today, it’s not that it is totally deactivated, but I am sure that it is much less likely that this bomb explode today” Hugo Chávez to Venezuelan and US business representatives, 6 July 2005

Bonapartism in Venezuela

Adapted by Jim Denham from a 2005 article by Paul Hampton

How do Marxists analyse a regime like the one established by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, where capitalism is still the dominant mode of production but the old bourgeois parties no longer control the state?

Marxists believe that the essence of capitalist society is the extraction of surplus labour from the waged working class. The working class produces the wealth and the capitalists expropriate profit from workers, because these bosses own and control the means of production (the businesses, the factories and mines — the basic industry).

But this is not sufficient to explain the role of the state or the character of politics. At a fundamental level, the state is the executive committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto.

But they also understood that under capitalism, politics and economics were not fused in the same way as in many pre-capitalist societies — such as feudalism. On the contrary, they argued that the state had a “semblance of independence” in relation to the contending classes it stood over. They came to the conclusion that it was not necessary for the bourgeoisie to govern politically in order to rule socially.

They also understood that in periods of crisis, where the class struggle had reached a stalemate — it was possible for a military regime — “the rule of the praetorians” — often led by a strongman, to rule in the long term interests of the capitalist system while remaining above some sections of capital and the labour movement.

The classic form of this kind of regime analysed by Marx and Engels was the rule of Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in France (1852-70). In February 1848 king Louis Philippe was disposed. In June 1848 the working class movement was viciously put down. But the bourgeois parties were unable to consolidate their rule. Louis Napoléon was elected president of the new republic in December 1848, but the constitution allowed the president only one term. After unsuccessfully attempting to change the law, Bonaparte staged a coup in December 1852.

He established a military regime that concentrated power in its own hands at the expense of parliament and intervened in finance and industry to hothouse capitalist development while repressing the workers’ movement. Bonaparte organised his own forces, “the Society of the 10 December”, and appealed directly to peasants and workers. In the Eighteenth Brumaire Louis Bonaparte (1852) Marx brilliantly outlined this form of rule.

For Marx and Engels Bonapartism was not simply a term of abuse or derision. It characterised the tendencies and direction of a peculiar regime and armed the working class with a clear, critical attitude towards it. Many radicals and socialists at the time, such as Proudhon wrote admiringly about Louis Napoléon, while the regime cultivated workers through construction projects and an imperial foreign policy. Marx and Engels remained unremittingly critical.

They also extended their analysis of Bonapartism to other societies – for example to Bismarck in Germany and to Simon Bolívar (see Solidarity 3/54, 24 June 2004: ).

During the 1930s the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky further developed this conception of Bonapartism, applying it to China, Germany and France. But Trotsky’s most significant extension of Bonapartism was to Mexico. His analysis is particularly pertinent to our understanding of Venezuela today.


Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 as the old mode of rule was in an advanced state of decomposition. After 1958 Venezuela had a stable, formally democratic state that was in fact a polyarchy of two parties, AD and COPEI. This regime — known as puntofijismo — was maintained by the huge rents derived from the country’s oil industry.

This system broke down after 1983 and the country went through two decades of economic contraction. The response of the two ruling parties was neoliberalism, which only made the situation worse. It also undermined the legitimacy of their mode of rule.

Chávez was elected because he pledged to end the old political system — through holding a constituent assembly and recasting the state. He summed up his role soon after coming to power: “Venezuela is a ticking time bomb and I’m here to defuse it.”

Chávez replaced the old regime with his own distinctive form of Bonapartist rule.

Essential to any Bonapartist regime is the role of the army. Chávez was a career soldier and this conditions his outlook and politics. This is not simply because he tried to seize power in 1992 through a military coup. It is widely recognised that Chávez militarised politics in Venezuela.

Chávezs made it clear in interviews with sympathetic journalists such as Marta Harnecker and the hero-worshipping Richard Gott  that a reconstructed “civilian-military alliance” was the key to his politics. His organisation, the MBR-200, formed in the early 1980s, was made up largely of middle level officers, with others in a secondary role.

The armed forces have been central from the beginning of Chávez’s rule. In the Constituent Assembly in 1999, 26 out of 131 delegates were military officers, all from Chávez’s “Patriotic Pole” slate. There are a large number of military personnel in civilian positions. One estimate has 800 senior government jobs and nine state governors (out of 23) held by officers.

The new constitution substantially increased the role of the army in politics and society. It gives the army an increased role in maintaining “internal order” and demands it be “an active participant in national development”.

What this meant in practice was demonstrated by the various “Plans”. Plan Pais, inaugurated in February 1999, involved tens of thousands of military personnel from all four forces in tackling problems in education, health and infrastructure.

Similarly Plan Bolívar, a scheme launched in 2000, involved massive funds for public works channelled through the army to repair schools and hospitals, set up medical clinics, clean up projects and even low cost food distribution.

The National Plan for Citizen Security, instituted in May 1999, gave the National Guard — part of the armed forces — responsibility for crime — and effective control of the police.

Giving the military a public role did not end corruption. Millions of dollars were paid to non-existent companies and allegations of human rights abuses by the DISIP security service followed the floods in 1999. And although the army has not yet been used to suppress genuine workers’ struggles, it has played a repressive role against indigenous people and environmentalists fighting plans to construct power lines into Brazil.

The relationship between Chávez and the armed forces was also demonstrated by the coup in April 2002. Only two senior officers, and only 200 other officers out of 8,000 (plus some retired personnel) joined the attempt to overthrow him. And after the coup, Chávez was able to purge those elements hostile to his rule, by retiring generals and admirals.

Hypertrophic executive 

The inflated status of the executive is also a sign of Chávez’s Bonapartism. As Venezuelan-based academic Steve Ellner put it, the new Constitution created a “powerful executive whose authority is unchecked by other state institutions”.

For example the Constitution extends the presidential term from five to six years and allows for immediate re-election, which was previously barred. The president appoints his own vice-president and has no prime minister. He has sole power over military promotions and a significant say in the appointment of judges. For example earlier this year Chávez appointed 12 extra Supreme Court judges, giving him a majority in the court.

Gregory Wilpert, editor of the Venezuelanalysis website and generally sympathetic to Chávez, acknowledges this facet of his regime. He wrote: “Another area of criticism of the 1999 constitution is that it has centralized presidential power even more than the already somewhat presidentialist constitution of 1961. The increased presidential powers include the ability to dissolve the National Assembly, following three votes of non-confidence by two thirds of the National Assembly, declare a state of emergency, freely name ministers and their area of responsibility, the extension of the president’s term from five to six years, and allowing for an immediate consecutive re-election.” (Venezuela’s New Constitution 2003)

After coming to power, Chavez pursued generally conservative economic policies, while increasing the role of the state in the economy.

The key to his rule was the re-establishment of control over the state-owned oil company PDVSA after the defeat of the December 2002-January 2003 lockout. PDVSA says it will make $70 billion this year [2005], providing $10 billion to the treasury – or over one-third (35%) of the federal budget. The role of the state in economic life has increased dramatically since Chávez came to power. Government spending has grown from 19% of GDP to 31% last year.

Chávez continued to honour contracts with US and other international oil companies. Venezuela is the United States’ leading foreign supplier of crude oil. According to Fortune magazine, in the first half of 2005, it supplied one-seventh of the US’s imported oil.

And Chávez continued to encourage foreign investment. He told Fortune that; “foreign corporations should rest assured and have faith in our laws and in our government. We’re doing very good business with them. Almost all the oil companies in the world are in Venezuela — Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Conoco-Phillips, Petrobras, Statoil, Shell.” (3 October 2005)

The windfall from higher oil prices gave Chávez the funds to spend the oil money on social programmes. These reforms have benefited some of the poorest sections of Venezuelan society – but also helped cement his rule in the manner of US Tammany Hall-style politics.

Relations with civil society

Chávez talked about the “sovereignty” of the people as the “protagonists” in his regime and about “participatory democracy”. His attack on the old system went as far as repudiating the old parties and other social organisations such as the CTV trade union federation that were integrated into the old regime.

The Chavistas claim a special relationship with social movements, and the constitution opens some opportunities for these movements and ad hoc organisations to participate in state structures.

Yet his own party, the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) is hardly a model of democracy. Even MVR members have complained that sections of the old elite that have been elected on the MVR slate, and that the party has little internal democracy or internal life.

In 2001, Chávez proposed re-establishing the MBR-200 and revived the idea of Bolivarian circles, local cells first organised by the MBR-200 in 1994. These groups, with government backing and pledged to the constitution, grew rapidly at the time of the coups. They have become the backbone of his social welfare programmes, rather independent organisations with much distance from his regime.

Chávez supporters in the unions also pushed for a new union federation to replace the CTV. The formation of the UNT in 2003, after the CTV was discredited by its involvement in the coup attempts was certainly welcomed by the government. However the UNT is not simply an instrument of the regime — though it faces real pressures of co-option (see article in the next Solidarity).

In classic Bonapartist fashion, Chávez appealed over the heads of organisations, directly to the masses of people — using for example his weekly TV show, Alo Presidente. However he did not managed to fully institutionalise his relationship to civil society or to the mass of ordinary Venezuelans.

There are real dangers for the UNT and other social movements faced with the Bonapartist regime. The first danger is the readiness to resort to repression in the face of a progressive struggle. The other danger is co-option — incorporation into the structures of the regime, providing it with a radical veneer — but at the cost of destroying the potential of an independent movement.

For all the rhetoric against neoliberalism and about “twenty first century socialism”, Chávez established a Bonapartist form of rule and set about sinking roots in Venezuelan society. This process is unfinished — unlike similar Latin American populists Chávez did not have fully institutionalised party or structures such as dependent trade unions to prop up his role.

But he continued to rule in favour of capital — mainly Venezuelan national capital without being completely hostile to multinational capital. This must be the starting point for developing a working class assessment of this charismatic populist and the regime he established.

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