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THE ELECTION of Hugo Chávez marks a new stage in the struggle of the working masses in Venezuela and reflects a new phase of upheaval throughout the continent. TONY SAUNOIS reviews Richard Gott's book, 'In the shadow of the Liberator' which gives readers the opportunity to gain a greater insight into the forces involved in the stormy events rocking Venezuela.
Venezuela: Revolution and counter-revolution
SINCE THE book's publication, at the beginning of this year, Hugo Chávez has been re-elected President by a large majority, securing 59% of the vote.
Richard Gott understands the significance of Chávez's election victory which he argues "..foreshadowed a new era in the history of Latin America" and correctly mentions the impact of events in Venezuela on countries such as Ecuador.
Gott explains Chávez has also invoked the tradition of Bolivar and the struggle to unify Latin America. This will only be possible through the struggle for socialism, an idea not mentioned by either Gott or Chávez. His book is overwhelmingly sympathetic to Chávez who he regards as "a serious revolutionary trying to carve out a new programme for Latin America.". He clearly has illusions in Chávez and high expectations of what the regime will achieve.
The weakness of the book is the absence of a rounded-out explanation of the class character of Chávez or his regime. The failure of Chávez to put forward a socialist programme to break with capitalism as the only means to win his stated objectives of ending poverty, corruption and exploitation of Venezuela and the continent is not dealt with.
However, the reader will find a mass of information about Chávez, his Fifth Republican Movement and other important background information. Moreover the author correctly puts this in its historical context and demonstrates an insight and sensitivity about Latin America.
He sketches out very well the radicalising effects on the army of the struggles against the guerrilla organisations in the 1960's, the economic and social crisis that led to the Caracazo uprising in Caracas in 1989, its effects on Chávez and sections of the army, the attempted coup in 1992 leading to Chávez's election victory.
Gott identifies Chávez as forming a part of an important tradition in Latin America of radical populist movements that have emerged from the military. These have won massive support from the poor and struck important blows against the interests of capitalism and imperialism but without breaking from the capitalist system. Gott briefly mentions the populist regimes like Torrijos in Panama and Velasco Peru in the 1970's and 1960's respectively, to illustrate this point. The latter directly touched Chávez during a visit he made there in 1960's.
To these are added specific Venezuelan factors identified by Gott including the contempt of the ruling elite of Venezuela towards the armed forces.
Gott traces Chávez's history from entering the military academy to joining his first "revolutionary organisation" at the age of 23, the Ejercito de Liberacion del Pueplo de Venezuela. Gott gives illuminating information of clandestine groups of radical army officers who organised in the military in which Chávez participated.
Gott correctly lays great stress on the effect of the uprising in Caracas in 1989, the Caracazo. This explosion of anger at the effects of neo-liberal policies was brutally repressed with thousands killed. However, it had a decisive effect on section of the army, including Chávez. He recounts one episode that reflected what happened, leading Chávez and a section of the armed forces to revolt and attempt a radical coup in 1992.
In 1989 the police and then the National Guard refused to intervene to crush the uprising. The army was then deployed. The effect is described by a military collaborator of Chávez, Arias Cardenas, who was sent to crush the movement. He describes his intense feelings of rage at being order to crush a movement that the army wanted to support.
This officer called a meeting of his troops and asked them twice, ".. 'who is a member of the Country Club !' I looked at their expressions of surprise and saw they all remained motionless and silent......Nobody moved. Then I said, 'well that means we all come from the shanty towns and the poor parishes like this one. The people who live here are like us, they are the people, our brothers: that means no one must fire without authorisation: no one must shoot unless we are attacked.'"
However, Gott uses accounts of former guerilla leaders and army officers that illustrate some of the political weakness of Chávez. The possible good intentions of some of junior army officers often mirror the guerrilla organisations and supporters of individual terrorism who have an underlying contempt for the masses. They see themselves as a substitute for a conscious movement for socialism by the workers and poor peasants which is the crucial missing ingredient in Venezuela at the moment.
In one account Gott quotes a former guerrilla leader, Douglas Bravo, who had been meeting with Chávez and other clandestine groups in the military since the early 1980's. Bravo recounts meetings in 1992, when planning the attempted coup, which point the Chávez's attitude on the question of the masses leading the movement.
Bravo recounts that in one meeting the question of calling a general strike and popular uprising arose. Bravo's recounts, "This was so that civil society should have an active participation in the revolutionary movement. But that was exactly what Chávez did not want. Absolutely not! ...He wanted civil society to applaud but not to participate, which is something quite different.." Later in the same meeting, as Chávez unveiled his plans for the coup in 1992, those present asked what the plan was for civilian participation. Chávez replied firmly "civilians get in the way. We shall summon them when we get into power."
A weakness of this book is that it too fails to deal with what is taking place amongst the mass of the population, especially the working class, the urban poor, peasantry and indigenous people. As such it is a book about 'the top' and one leading figure in it - Hugo Chávez. The pressure of the masses that has driven him to adopt his chosen course is implied but not explained.
Gott indicates some of Chávez's other political weaknesses referring to sources who point out that although very radical on all other questions, "he is very conservative in the economic sphere." As Chávez himself says, "Our project is neither statist nor neo-liberal: we are exploring the middle ground, where the invisible hand of the market joins up with the visible hand of the state: as much state as necessary, and as much market as possible."
Chávez's regime can move in very contradictory directions. It can strike blows against capitalist interests and at the same time come into collision with the interests of the working class, urban poor and the peasantry. At one point in his book Gott refers to the unpredictability of Chávez.
Gott correctly hints that the election of Chávez is not the end of the process and raises the prospect of opposition emerging.
He points out that this may not emerge from Chavez's right but from the left, within the movement around him by those who think the "revolutionary process" is not going far or fast enough. Gott quotes an airforce colonel and a member of the government, Farinas, to justify this point. Farinas illustrates the confusion in ideas that exists and refers to heroes like Bolivar, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Archangel Michael and Che Guevara. Farinas comments, "The revolutionary spirit that animates the military and other citizens taking part in this process has been nourished on the thoughts of Che, and of what once were the events of May in France..."
The material contained in Richard Gott's book will the give the reader a deeper insight and information about what is happening in Venezuela and the forces involved. It vindicates the analysis made by the CWI and is certainly worth reading as a source of back ground information to these stormy events.
"In the Shadow of the Liberator, Hugo Chávez and the transformation of Venezuela" by Richard Gott. Verso Ł18. Available from Socialist Books.
SEQUENCE OF EVENTS IN VENEZUELA.
December 1988 - Carlos Pérez elected President.
January 1989 - The 'Caracazo' uprising in Caracas against the IMF imposed austerity package which was brutally repressed leaving thousands dead.
February 1992 - first attempted military coup led by Chávez. This was defeated resulting in Chávez being imprisoned until 1994.
November 1992 - second attempted military coup led by Admiral Hernan Gruber.
June 1993 - Pérez removed from power by the Congress.
December 1993 - Rafael Caldera elected President.
December 1998 - Hugo Chávez elected President.
April 1999 - Referendum to establish a new Constituent Assembly
December 1999 - referendum to approve a new constitution.
December 99/January 2000 - Mass flooding devastates the country.
July 2000 - Hugo Chávez re-elected President with 59% of the vote.
In The Socialist 1 September 2000: