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The workers' movement debates the way forward
What's next in Venezuela?

September 1, 2006 | Page 10

SARAH HINES reports on an important development in the struggle in Venezuela.

VENEZUELA'S NEW independent trade union, the National Workers' Union (UNT), split at its second congress in late May, amid crucial debates about the way forward for the Venezuelan workers' movement.

The dispute that led to the split revolved ostensibly around the question of whether to hold internal elections for the UNT leadership this fall, before the presidential elections set for December, or to wait until early next year, after the election is over. When a majority of the convention delegates voted to hold elections this fall, the minority walked out of the congress, effectively splitting the UNT in two.

More than a matter of timing, the debate concerns the relationship between the workers' movement and the government of Venezuela President Hugo Chávez.

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The Bolivarian Revolution

CHÁVEZ WAS elected president in 1998, ending more than 50 years of two-party rule by the two dominant parties of the Venezuelan ruling class. What Chávez calls the "Bolivarian Revolution" has challenged the political and economic power of the Venezuelan oligarchy, as well as the influence of the U.S. in Venezuela and across the region.

The government has distributed land to tens of thousands of Venezuelan families; initiated social missions that provide education, subsidized food, job training and other services to the nation's poor; and provided loans to assist in the creation of cooperatives that now number over 100,000 and involve more than 10 percent of Venezuela's adult population. These projects have been possible largely because of mammoth profits from Venezuela's booming oil industry.

In response to workers' occupations of idle factories and demands for expropriation, the government has nationalized several industries, including the country's valve and paper factories, and introduced co-management in state-owned industries, such as electricity company and aluminum production. Under co-management, known as cogestión, elected worker representatives and government-appointed managers co-administer these state-owned industries.

These reforms have challenged the priorities of neoliberal capitalism that the U.S. is attempting to force down the throats of countries around the world, particularly in its Latin American "backyard."

The Venezuelan ruling class and U.S. government have thus done everything in their power to undermine Chávez and engineer his fall from power.

In April 2002, the oligarchy staged a coup against Chávez with financial and political backing from the U.S. The coup was defeated two days later after mass mobilizations in his defense by poor and working-class supporters.

Venezuelan workers were similarly able to defeat a "general strike"--in reality, a lockout in which Venezuela's bosses tried to sabotage the economy--later that year by keeping industries, particularly the state-owned oil company PDVSA, running.

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THE NATIONAL Workers Union (UNT) was born out of the ashes of the coup attempt and bosses' strike, which the old union federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), shamefully supported.

Labor leaders opposed to the CTV's collaborationism founded the UNT, aiming to build an independent and democratic workers movement in Venezuela.

The UNT has grown rapidly since its founding three years ago. More than 750 unions, with a combined membership of more than 1.2 million, transferred from the CTV to the UNT. The UNT is currently negotiating more than 90 percent of contracts under discussion around the country.

A coordinating committee agreed to by leaders of the founding unions led the UNT until the recent congress, which was meant to resolve this question.

A majority of the congress' delegates were part of the Class Unity Revolutionary and Autonomous Current (C-CURA), led by Orlando Chirino. This group supported holding the UNT's elections in the fall and is favored to win them.

Four other currents--the Bolivarian Workers Force (FBT), the Autonomous Union, the faction of Franklin Rondón, and the collective led by Marcela Máspero--walked out when they lost the vote on when to hold the UNT's elections.

Máspero, initially an ally of Chirino, and her allies argue that the UNT's first priority should be to get out the vote for Chávez, and that holding the UNT's elections before December would distract energy from that effort.

But the underlying issue is not whether or not to support Chávez in the coming elections--all the currents support Chávez's reelection, which is all but certain--nor is it a clash of personalities or an effort to gain personal power. Rather, the fundamental debate is about the meaning of what Chávez has called "socialism in the 21st century" and the role of the UNT within the revolutionary process.

As Chirino argued in a statement issued May 28, "The majority of workers supported the position that there should be elections this year, that a UNT leadership would then be legitimate, it would be strengthened, and in a better position to fight for 10 million votes for President Chavez."

Chirino's C-CURA argues that the labor movement must first and foremost defend the interests of the working class, and must therefore remain independent and free to criticize and pressure the government.

As Chirino emphasized in the wake of the split, "The workers of our country are the makers of a democratic revolution, have gotten rid of the bureaucracy that oppressed us and are not willing to allow 'new' bureaucrats with red berets to impose on their rights from above. This is what all the sectors within the UNT trying to reintroduce the old syndicalism of the Fourth Republic [previous government] do not understand."

The leaders of the other currents have close connections to the Chávez government. Máspero is close to the Ministry of Work; Osvaldo Vera of the FBT is a deputy in the National Assembly for Chávez's party, the MVR (Movement of the Fifth Republic); and the Autonomous Union is linked with Patria Para Todos (PPT), part of the ruling coalition with the MVR.

The underlying question in the debate about union independence is who should drive the revolution--Chávez and his government or the Venezuelan working class--and in what direction?

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Socialism in the 21st Century

CHÁVEZ FIRST called for "socialism in the 21st century" at the World Social Forum in January 2005. What he means by socialism, however, remains vague.

There is no doubt that Chávez has instituted crucial democratic and economic reforms that improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Venezuelans. And at times, he has said that the long-term goal of the revolution should be to expropriate all private property.

In practice, Chávez has developed an economic model of state-driven national development, with a mixed economy in which privately owned companies (including foreign companies) coexist with state-owned industries and small-scale cooperatives.

He has called for establishing a Latin American trade bloc to compete with the U.S. and the European Union. To this end, Venezuela is working closely with Cuba and Bolivia, and recently joined Mercosur (the Common Market of the South), a trade alliance led by Argentina and Brazil. As Chávez put it, "We want to see in our ships, in our pipes, in our medicines and in other goods the words, 'Made in Argentina' or 'Made in Brazil,' instead of 'Made in the U.S.A.'"

While Chávez says he wants to ensure that human need is part of the equation, such an economic model accepts the logic of the international capitalist market, and the competition and exploitation that goes with it.

Chirino and others in C-CURA have a different vision of socialism--a society where workers across the world control production for the benefit of all of humanity. They argue that socialism cannot be decreed and implemented from above, but must be brought about through a revolution from below, led and carried out by the working class.

This is why seemingly specific debates within the UNT take on crucial significance--for what is at stake is the role of the working class in the current revolutionary process and the nature of the revolution itself.

Mápero and her allies support workers' ownership of cooperatives, accept the government's limitation of co-management to "non-strategic" industries and oppose any attempt to organize a political party to the left of the MVR.

By contrast, C-CURA argues that cooperatives attempt to get workers to "buy into" the capitalist system and try to disguise the downsizing and outsourcing of previous years. C-CURA is also critical of the government blocking co-management in "strategic industries" such as the oil industry, and its slow progress in fulfilling its promise to nationalize idle factories.

For Chirino and his allies, co-management is just one step toward full workers' control over production. This is why they are mobilizing on the basis of the UNT making bigger gains, especially in private industry, and they are launching the Party of Revolution and Socialism (PRS), to organize workers and the poor around the vision of a full revolutionary transformation of society.

While the split has unfortunately stalled the UNT's forward progress for the moment, there is no way to avoid these crucial debates.

Over the course of the Venezuelan Revolution thus far, the initiative of Venezuela's workers and poor has propelled social change. Now that the right wing has been effectively sidelined and Chávez's expected victory will gain him six more years in power, the workers' movement has an opportunity to formulate its own demands and organize itself to put them into practice.

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