frontline 11

The dynamics of the Venezuelan revolution

SSP convener Tommy Sheridan recently visited Venezuela, raising questions from some about the nature of the Venezuelan state and the progress of change in that country. In this article Stuart Munckton, member of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party examines these questions and takes issue with some views previously published in Frontline.

"Each day the people of Latin America and the Caribbean will be increasingly convinced that there is no other road but revolution. For us there is no other road but revolution" - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Frontline issue nine contained an article by Virginia de la Seiga entitled 'Venezuela - the revolution that hasn't been'. The problem with approaching the question of the Venezuelan revolution in the way suggested by such a headline is that the revolution is not like a visit from Santa Claus. Workers do not wakeup one morning to find socialist goodies waiting to be unwrapped. A revolution is a long and drawn out battle. There is in Venezuela a real revolutionary process under way, aiming to overturn the existing political and economic order. There is a living struggle to make a social revolution.

The aim of this article is to give an account of how this battle has unfolded, the role of central leadership and the current balance of forces.

From stability to popular revolt

Venezuela's oil wealth paved the way for a long period of the most stable bourgeois democratic rule in the continent. Building mass clientalist bases with the crumbs of the oil profits, Venezuela was ruled from 1958 until 1998 alternatively by the social democratic Accion Democratica (AD) and the conservative Comite de Organizacion Politica Electoral Independiente (COPEI).

This stability crumbled under the weight of the neo-liberal offensive in the 1980s, resulting in the biggest increase in poverty that decade out of the whole of Latin America. The result was 'el Caracazo', a popular uprising in February 1989 against the International Monetary Fund imposed price rises. The poor took control of the capital, Caracas, as well as cities across the country and began organised looting. The AD government of Carlos Andes Perez sent in the Armed Forces to suppress it, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

'El Caracazo' had two important repercussions. The first was that it politically finished the two major bourgeois parties, who have since entered on such a terminal decline that they now struggle to get more than a few per cent in elections. Such a decline helped pave the way for the electoral victory of Hugo Chavez. The second was the impact it had on a section of the Venezuelan Armed Forces (FAN), many of whom grouped around Chavez, then an officer in the paratrooper division. Angered at being sent to violently put down what they considered a just rising, many soldiers and officers, instead of massacring people, joined them. A number of officers helped organise the people.


Inspired by the national democratic revolutionary ideals of liberation hero Simon Bolivar, in 1982 Chavez and three other officers secretly formed the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (MBR-200). They built up an underground network throughout the Army, developing a loyal and relatively disciplined cadre base. Chavez refused promotion to continue at the military academy and best build the group.

Why was it that a progressive base could be built inside the Venezuelan Armed Forces?

One important factor is that Venezuela was the only Latin American nation not to send its officers to the infamous 'School of the Americas'. Under the 1971 Plan Andres Bello, military education was integrated into the general education system. New officers came into contact and were influenced by revolutionary ideas and the activists involved in the student movement.

The effects were compounded by the fact that by the late 1960s the guerrilla movements had been largely defeated, meaning that when they were sent into the countryside, more often than not the military was confronted not with communists to fight, but with the dire poverty that affected the majority of the population. This led Chavez and his comrades to conclude that the main enemy was not communism, but imperialism.

General Ramon Silva, a Chavez ally, said: "those of us from the same graduation started talking during our free time and asking ourselves what it was we were combating. You were supposedly looking for guerrillas, but what you saw was the misery, the extreme poverty of the population. On many opportunities we would swap our food with them for one of their chickens, and sometimes we just gave it to them, because we witnessed so much misery. One day we would be in the countryside with the campesinos, seeing that poverty, then another day we would be in the city, or at a meeting with a governor or even the President of the Republic, and then we would see the opulence, the wastage...the great extravagance. When we would see the contrast we would ask ourselves: 'Well, what is it we are fighting? Can we accept such poverty while this group up here continues taking advantage and doing business?'"(1)

Another aspect of Plan Bello was a certain democratisation that made it easier to be promoted by merit rather than simply class. Both Ramon Silva and Chavez came from poor families.

Failed rebellion

In 1992 the MBR 200 led thousands of soldiers in what was more an attempted popular insurrection than a military coup in the traditional sense.(2) The aim was to begin a popular process to re-order Venezuelan society.

The rebellion had been aimed to coincide with a general strike, but fearing they had been discovered, Chavez moved the date forward. When the planned civilian uprising failed to come off, the rebels surrendered on the condition that Chavez could address the nation. Appearing briefly on TV, Chavez made his famous comment that he accepted defeat 'for now'. Most of the leaders of the rebellion were jailed but Chavez became a hero.

The failure exposed the weakness of a political movement that was disconnected from the growing popular movements. Chavez and the other leaders in jail studied the question of what to do next. They emerged aiming to fuse the new 'street democracy' with the political movement that had originated inside the FAN.

Early Stages of Chavez Presidency

Chavez and other leaders travelled the entire nation talking to the communities. Having originally rejected participation in elections, viewing liberal democracy as fundamentally undemocratic and corrupt, they made a tactical shift and in 1997 established the Movimiento para la Quinto Republica (MVR) as a broad party to challenge the 1998 Presidential elections. Winning Presidency was viewed as a launching pad for a revolutionary struggle and not as an end in itself.

While polls put support for Chavez at 8 per cent, he won 57 per cent of the vote in a massive repudiation of neo-liberalism.

Chavez inherited a nation where over 80 per cent of the population lived in poverty, despite being the fifth largest supplier of oil in the world. Chavez pointed out that Venezuela had earned the equivalent of 15 Marshall Plans since 1958, but only a tiny and corrupt minority benefited. The balance of forces when Chavez was elected was decidedly in favour of the capitalist class. Congress, regional and local governments, as well as the state bureaucracy, were dominated by the elite. Congress produced a neo-liberal budget at the same time as thousands of poor lined up outside the Presidential Palace each day to demand jobs.

Whilst growing at a rapid rate, popular movement structures and leaderships were still weak and the organised left weaker still. In this context, Chavez turned to the only institution in which he had an organised base - the Armed Forces.

Chavez launched 'Plan Bolivar 2000' on the tenth anniversary of 'el Caracazo'. The plan sent the Armed Forces into poor communities throughout the country to build roads, homes, schools and medical centres. In an interview with Marta Harnecker, Chavez said of the Plan: "My order was: 'Go house to house combing the terrain. Who is the enemy? Hunger. Ten years ago we came out to massacre the people, now we are going to fill them with love. Go and comb the terrain, look for misery. The enemy is death. We are going to fill them with bursts of life instead of gun shots of death.'"(3)

More homes were built for the poor in two years than the previous 20 combined. A mass vaccination campaign lowered the infant mortality rate. Soldiers were brought into close contact with the poor communities, establishing solidarity between the two. When the capitalists later launched their coup, people marched to the barracks chanting "Soldier - friend, your President needs you". Instead of shooting the people, as in 1989, the soldiers overwhelmingly sided with them.

The new constitution adopted in a referendum by over 70 per cent of the vote was the most important gain of the early stage of Chavez's Presidency. Controlling almost none of the state, Chavez turned to the people. A Constituent Assembly almost entirely pro-Chavez was elected to draw up the new constitution.

The constitution adopted was the product of wide consultation and discussion. Measures such as the right to recall elected officials and to hold popular assemblies to direct local government, aimed at creating 'participatory democracy'.

The constitution bans privatisation of the oil industry and social services. It guarantees the rights of women and indigenous people, the right to free education and health care and that the resources of the nation should be used for the benefit of all. The 'rights of private property' are protected, but not if that right is used to the detriment of the nation as a whole. This means that according the constitution, almost the entire bourgeoisie could be expropriated tomorrow.

The constitution forms the basic program of the 'Bolivarian revolution'. The poor see it as 'their' constitution. It remains a best seller, is waved at demonstrations and many claim to never leave home without it. The Bolivarian Circles hold meetings to study it. The essence of the struggle in Venezuela is the struggle to make the principles of the constitution - a transitional document whose principles can only be fully realised by socialism - a reality.(4)

The 49 Laws passed by executive decree included land reform and increased government control over the oil industry, representing the first concrete incursion into the property rights of the capitalist class.

The implemented reforms, such as providing two free meals a day in schools or the provision of clean water to two million people for the first time, increased the confidence and hopes of working people. This enabled new institutions of popular power to be built. Every reform came with the creation of new co-operatives and associations to help carry them out, leading to an explosion of popular organising.

Recognising that Plan Bolivar 2000 bred paternalism, Chavez announced the formation of the Bolivarian Circles in May 2001. The Circles were aimed at organising the movement on the street level, developing structures of peoples' power and spreading the ideas of the revolution.

The Circles are groups of between 7 - 14 people who help organise their community to implement reforms as well as to defend the process against the counter-revolution. They are armed and the opposition has made the disarming of the Circles a central demand, one that the government has resisted. There were said to be 8000 at the time of the coup, and today more than 2 million people are organised into them, more than 10 per cent of the adult population.

Popular insurrection

The popular uprising that defeated the military coup in April 2002 was a decisive turning point. After a failed general strike, a mass demonstration of the opposition's middle class foot soldiers marched on the Presidential Palace. The Bolivarian Circles counter-mobilised to defend the Palace. Snipers opened fire on both sides and a group of Generals used this as a pretext for seizing power, lying that Chavez had resigned. They installed the head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce as President.

The grass roots popular organisations began meeting and planning their response, as did the ranks of the army. The people of Maracay, backed by the parachutists brigade headed by a MBR-200 militant, took control of the city and refused to recognise the new regime. Across the country, the poor poured into the streets, with the Bolivarian Circles playing a key role.

The embryonic worker-peasant-soldier counter power showed its strength. The media blackout was broken by the popular re-taking of the government TV channel. Hundreds of thousands surrounded the Palace. The palace regiment, inspired by the show of popular force, took over the palace and forced the coup leaders to flee. Jorge Jorquera writes: "Within 48 hours an impressive web of communication and organisation had developed between the Bolivarian Circles, other mass and neighbourhood organisations and the revolutionary elements in the army."(5)

The popular insurrection gave the government a much greater mandate than any election. The balance of forces shifted dramatically in favour of the working people, greatly increased their confidence and self-organisation. The government used this victory to strengthen its hold over the Armed Forces, purging over 400 right-wing officers.

Both sides prepared for the next confrontation. Bolivarian Circles mushroomed and Chavez used every opportunity to urge the working people to organise themselves.

The show down came in December with the bosses lock-out. In act of desperation, management clique and privileged administrators shut down and sabotaged the oil industry. The government responded by mobilising the workers. A mass demonstration of 2 million people was held on December 7 against the shut down.

The lock-out and sabotage of the oil industry was defeated by the mobilisation of the blue collar temporary workers, who took over the running of the industry themselves and bit by bit got it functioning again. The capitalist clique who had run the nominally nationalised industry was purged, as were thousand of others who had taken part in the shut down.

The oil industry, having been run as a private concern by a corrupt, pro-imperialist clique is now nationalised in practice. It provides the government with 50 per cent of its revenue and accounts for 80 per cent of exports. The government is able to implement its legislation that hands 100 per cent of the oil revenue over to them (by 1998 as little as 20 per cent of oil revenue was ending up in government coffers).

During the lock-out Chavez travelled the country speaking at mass rallies. In his speeches, interrupted by chanting of revolutionary slogans, Chavez urged the working people to organise themselves. He appealed to the crowds to establish popular committees to guard pipelines from sabotage. He urged crowds to defeat the school shut downs by establishing popular assemblies and to occupy the schools and run them under community control.(6)

'Year of the revolutionary offensive'

This was the second major defeat for the capitalist class in less than a year. They had now lost much of their middle class support base, control of the military and the most important means of production. They have grown increasingly desperate. The coup plotting heads of the Chamber of Commerce and the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CVT) fled to Miami to avoid justice. They have been forced to concede to a key government demand - to follow the constitution and attempt to use a recall referendum to get rid of Chavez. Even the opposition's own polls are starting to show that Chavez would win a recall referendum. The only reason no counter-revolutionaries are in jail is that for the time being they still control the courts. The right-wing police force have been disarmed and brought to heel.

The confidence, radicalisation and organisation of the working people has strengthened exponentially. Chavez declared 2003 the 'year of the revolutionary offensive'. Long-term diplomats compared the situation to Cuba in 1959.

Incursions into the rights of the capitalists have deepened with a tight control over access to foreign currency slowing capital flight, strict price restrictions to prevent speculation and a cabinet decree that bans lay-offs. The government has a new agency that seizes goods hoarded or used to speculate and sells them in government run markets 30 per cent cheaper than the private markets.

Land reform has moved beyond paper into reality with hundreds of thousands benefiting from land re-distribution. The aim is to distribute land titles to half a million families by the end of the year. Importantly, the land titles come with cheap credit, meaning that many campesino families not only have land, but new homes, running water and electricity for the first time. The peasants are increasingly organised and arming themselves to deal with the counter-revolutionary violence of the land-owners.(7)

Urban land reform has been under way too, aimed at giving control to those that live in the barrios. Land councils have been elected based on no more than 200 families. These councils of 11 - 15 people met with government legislators to draw up the reform law. The elected councils have been handed the task of 'self government and self transformation' of the barrios.

There is a mass campaign aiming to mobilise 100,000 teachers with the aim of eradicating illiteracy. Cuban doctors have been recruited to work in the poor barrios, most of who have never seen a doctor before.

The government has legislation drawn up to introduce workers control into the economy.

The independent organisation of the working class has grown dramatically. There is now a new, revolutionary and independent trade union federation established, the Union Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT). Already it has more members than the discredited pro-employer CVT. Factory occupations have spread as dozens of enterprises have been seized in response to employer attempts to lay workers off.

Such actions have found government support and Chavez has come out in favour of workers occupying factories closed by the bosses.

There is a dialectical inter-relationship between the masses and the government. The election of the Chavez government and the reforms it was able to implement encouraged the poor and helped facilitate their organisation into institutions of grass roots power. The increasing radicalisation, mobilisation and organisation of the working people has in turn driven the government forward through demands that go further than existing government policy. The increasing strength of the working people not only shifts the balance of forces in favour of the government against the opposition, but also of the revolutionaries against the opportunists within the government.

The situation is one of dual power, with the new institutions of popular power competing for control with the remnants of capitalist power. The battle for working class power operates on different levels. There is the battle for control over the power the capitalist class retains outright - much of the economy, the courts and to an extent the police force. Then there is the battle within the institutions formally under the control of the government against the bureaucrats and opportunists holding back the implementation of reforms and slowing the process down. This battle is either to thoroughly democratise such institutions or else replace them with new ones based directly on the poor themselves.

The key problem of taking the revolutionary movement forward is the absence of an organisation that unites and centralises the new and developing vanguard around a clear-cut program of revolutionary change. No such organisation exists, but there is an ongoing battle to create one. Solving this problem will be critical to moving forward and defeating the counter-revolution, and this is recognised by much of the various forces that have come behind the central figure of Chavez.

To sum up, there is a real revolutionary process unfolding in Venezuela. The role of Hugo Chavez and his comrades has been to consciously attempt to begin and help lead such a process. The end result of the process must either be the dictatorship of the proletariat and the reconstruction of the society along socialist lines, whether this is openly expressed by the leadership at this stage or not, or the re-establishment of capitalist rule by means of an open dictatorship that decisively smashes the counter-power of working people that has developed under Chavez. The masses of Latin America and progressives the world over are watching this battle with anticipation.


1. Militares Junot al Pueblo, interviews with revolutionary military leaders by Marta Harnecker, 2002. Harnecker is a long time left-wing Chilean journalist. An English translation of this book, which goes into the background of the rise of a democratic revolutionary wing of the FAN, can be found at

2. From an article that can be found at Harnecker, through 94 points, explains the revolutionary process unfolding in Venezuela and why the international left needs to view it as such.

3. 'The military and the revolution', Marta Harnecker interviews Hugo Chavez. Altogether, Harnecker spoke to Chavez for 15 hours. The interview, in two parts, can be read at

4. An English translation of the constitution can be viewed at

5. Venezuela: The revolution unfolding in Latin America, by Jorge Jorquera, Resistance books, 2003

6. 'Fascist coup against Venezuela' - speeches of Hugo Chavez Frias December 2002 - January 2003, printed by Alejo Carpentier Press, Havana, 2003

7. For a more detailed look at the effects of land reform, the gains, some of the problems and the violent response of the land owners, check out this article posted at the Vheadline website 'Promise of land - if they take this away from us there will be civil war'