A Tale of Two Nations

Arindam Sen

In the emergent global people's backlash against neoliberalism, of late three Latin American countries have shot into prominence with three different kinds of experience. These are Brazil , Argentina and Venezuela . The Lula regime resembles West Bengal 's social democratic model replicated on a national plane: trading left rhetoric for backroom deals with neoliberalism. Of course, this government is still in its early years, still to be thoroughly exposed; moreover, the fight against Lula's neo-liberal policies is quite sharp within his party (PT or Workers' Party) and on the part of allies like the MST (Landless Workers' Movement). Differences notwithstanding, as a type Brazil is not unfamiliar to us. So in the limited space available here, it is perhaps better to concentrate on the two other stories. And now that everybody is discussing the victory of the Venezuela resistance, let us start with the Argentine setback. For serious students of applied Marxism, lessons of a setback may well be even more valuable than those emanating from a victorious battle.

The perennial economic problems of Argentina worsened into a deep recession in1998. By 2001, unemployment rose to 25% while GDP growth rate fell to minus 15% and real wages and salaries decreased by up to 65%. Sensing danger, many foreign banks transferred more than $40 billion to their home offices. Bank accounts were frozen and many banks declared themselves bankrupt. Several other stringent measures were taken leading to an ignition of mass anger on 19- 21 December, 2001 .

Coming in the wake of scattered movements big and small, the December uprising had its center in Buenos Aires . “ Que se vayan todos” (out with all politicians), cried the people as they attacked the Congress and several legislative assemblies in the province. Hundreds of picketing and road blockages throughout the country brought the economy and the administration to a standstill. In the capital, more than 30 demonstrators died in clashes with mounted police, and hundreds injured. But there was no let up in the revolt, and President de la Rua had to resign and flee in a helicopter. The Congress selected three presidents in a row in less than a week, for all three had to resign in the face of massive protests. Only the fourth selection, Eduardo Duhalde of the Justice Party, continued in office for a little more than a year.

The working classes, including unemployed workers, played the most vital role in this rebellion. The Movimiento Trobajadores Desocupados (MTD, or unemployed workers' movement), which comprised scattered local units in downtown Buenos Aires and other industrial centers, organised massive pickets demanding jobs and food. Middle class neighborhood assemblies sprang up in the Capital and in other cities. Hundreds, in many cases thousands of citizens would meet in parks, plazas or street corners to freely air their views on problem and solutions, on the next course of the struggle. Representatives from these assemblies would go to the industrial suburbs to participate in the road blockages organised by piqueteros (meaning unemployed picketers) while the latter voiced support for the middle class demands like unfreezing bank accounts. The two streams converged in militant rallies and conventions with campus movements, trade unions, human rights groups and progressive intellectuals.

In this atmosphere of robust radicalism, trade union struggles too expanded beyond conventional limits. In many places, workers took over sick or closed factories and resumed production. Among these, the big and famous Zanon ceramic factory in Nequen province deserves special mention. Since 1998 this factory saw the rise of an alternative trade union from the shop floor, which had to work clandestinely to avoid the wrath of the TU bureaucracy and the management. However, towards the end of 1999 it won the union elections and by the next year expanded to other factories and decisively won the provincial union elections. In October- November 2001, the factory was closed down and the vast majority of workers sacked. The workers' peaceful march was violently repressed. Under the slogan “A worker-managed factory at the service of the community,” the workers then built up a broad alliance with MTDs, TUs or associations of teachers, state employees, students etc. as well as with CSOs (civil society organisations) and church groups. In March 2002, workers and local people staged a militant march and forced the authorities free 19 comrades arrested earlier. An in-factory meeting discussed whether to take over the factory or to remain content with a monthly unemployment allowance of 150 pesos (approx.50 US dollars). The first option was taken. With policies like “buy local” and active solidarity campaigns with indigenous people, unemployed workers etc, the highly organised workers were sustained in their heroic endeavour by the support of all concerned, including a few accountants, officials, local doctors, and so on.

Workers emerged victorious in several other cases too. For instance, the Light and Power company (in Rio Turbio, a mining town), which had passed from public to private sector in 1994, was partially renationalised in early 2002 under movemental pressure from workers and local people.

To return to the overall movement, the offensive was maintained roughly up to mid- 2002. Signs of stagnation and tiredness then began to appear. Meanwhile Duhalde, unable to improve the economy and contain mass anger, arranged for presidential elections in May 2003. Reflecting the sharp divisions within the ruling class, many candidates, including a few from different factions of the Justice Party, jumped into the fray. Santa Cruz governor Nestor Kirchner won and introduced a whole set of populist measures (about this, later). Gradually, the mass movement all but died down. The state regained its legitimacy, the ruling class much of its lost initiative.

Looking for reasons behind the setback, we find the weaknesses that lay hidden within the spectacular strong points of the rebellion, gradually grew in the absence of a capable national political leadership.

Thus the piquetero movement had its main strength in local leaderships emerging in the heat of class struggle, but the loose coordination that developed among the MTDs around the December uprising got weakened later, primarily because there was no well defined and widely accepted programme of action. Organisationally, the MTDs correctly raised the slogan of autonomy, in the sense of independence from the old established parties and the corrupt TU bureaucracy. But some leaders extended the slogan to the rejection of all types of political alliance and stable unity with TUs. Autonomy came to mean sectarianism, so at present there are three horizontal networks of MTDs and the possibility of further division cannot be ruled out.

As for the new stream of workers' struggle, it died out because there was no national center to guide others to emulate the success stories like Zanon. More than 150 factories, taken over by workers during the heydays of movement, had to be returned to corrupt owners in 2003 even as Zanon held its ground.

The middle class citizens' neighborhood assemblies were notable for lively debates in full democratic atmosphere. But the endless theoretical debates among Marxists, anarchists, postmodernists and others alienated general members of the public and when the government unfreezed the bank accounts, the latter found no interest in attending the assemblies. The fine stream of mass activism dried up. The predominantly middle class human rights movement, which had resolutely supported the piqueteros , later shifted allegiance to the Kirchner administration.

All the Left currents, to be sure, tried to arrest the drift and lead the movement forward – each in its own way. Calls for boycotting the elections and seizure of state power were given. But as a coalminer leader told James Petras, “They acted as if they had a bucket over their heads. Hearing their own slogans reverberating, they thought it was the voice of the people.” ( President Chavez and the referendum: myths and realities, Rebelion, 3 September,2004 , available at

The masses rejected the boycott call as 71% of the electorate participated in the May 2003 elections, the highest in recent past, although mass indignation was still running high. A few small Marxist parties which put up candidates together got 1% of valid votes.

The toughest challenge for the small and divided left parties appeared in the shape of the populist policies of Nestor Kirchner. The new president expressed support for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and disobeyed certain of the dictates of IMF. For instance, he made part of the debt repayments conditional on the economic recovery of the country. His cabinet comprised a number of popular figures including a social liberal in the finance ministry. Simultaneously he removed a large number of the top police and military officials with records of savage repression on the people and replaced them mostly with loyal officials from Santa Cruz , his home province. This was largely a safeguard against potential coup attempts by his US-backed opponents, but it won him wide support. He also partially cleansed the corrupt and anti-people judiciary. Kirchner tried to tackle unemployment on a priority basis; expanding the “work plans” (public works) introduced by his immediate predecessor and later raising the wage rate for the scheme. In the course of implementing these plans, he also developed a network of loyalists in the MTDs.

Such rhetoric, gestures and real steps stood in visible contrast to the earlier hated regimes and pushed most of the TU federations and MTDs to a position of negotiation rather than confrontation. Divergent assessments of the regime among the forces of the movement emerged as, and remain, the greatest obstacle to their unification and advance.

However, none of the burning problems of the people have been solved, and strikes and demonstrations have begun to resurface in the face of heightened oil and energy prices (as demanded by MNCs ), nearly frozen wages and chronic unemployment. We cannot say exactly how and when the next high tide of mass movement will arise in this great country, but we certainly can draw some general lessons.

In those hot days of cold December 2001, it appeared as though November 1917 was about to return to our century. Parliament under attack, presidents come and go, the administration is paralysed. Rulers cannot rule in the old way, nor are the people prepared to live in the old way: they hold nightlong street assemblies even as picketing and road blockages exude the ambience of dual power. But the uprising, unlike November or February 1917 in revolutionary Russia , was not backed by a conscious, protracted preparation. There was no revolutionary mass organisation like workers,' soldiers' and peasants' soviets. The working class, including those thrown out of employment, proved itself once again to be the most consistent vanguard, but it did not have a Bolshevik party. A party, which understands that one revolt against the Congress does not make it politically irrelevant, so it remains necessary to challenge the ruling classes also in the parliamentary arena. And that to this end the revolutionary forces need to come up with intermediate slogans and action programmes to unify all fighters and combine street fights with electoral battles until the hour strikes for making the final bid for power. In the absence of such a farsighted leading center, the powerful extra-parliamentary struggle lost its way in the wilderness, while the parliamentary forum, under the exclusive sway of the bourgeoisie, provided the latter with the requisite platform for regaining legitimacy.

Thus it was that the Argentine peoples' tryst with state power ended in failure, just as the momentary successful Ecuadorian insurgency did in January 2000. A few decades back Latin America supplied us with the grim Chilean lesson on the limits of parliamentary path even when pursued with great honesty and dedication. Now the Argentine episode teaches us that radical extra-parliamentary struggle –– even a mass upsurge against the state –– does not by itself complete the political education of the masses, does not allow the latter to overstep the intermediate stages and accomplish the reforms at one stroke. For all this, persistent political work by a communist party remains as decisive as it was a hundred years ago.

Secondly, the experience reconfirms the validity of the ‘old' Marxist-Leninist theses on the different roles of different classes in revolution. And once again it proves that, at least in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, no serious challenge can be thrown up to the old order without militant mobilisation of the toiling peasantry. Those who, like Hardt and Negri of Empire fame, discount or discard the ‘backdated and rigid' framework of classes and class struggle in favour of the modern (if not postmodern) and open-ended concept of “struggle of the multitude”, may find in the world's most volatile continent some fresh materials to rethink their project.

Thirdly, we have seen the impotency of “networking”, claimed to be a democratic alternative to the communist framework of party and mass organisations, in advancing a movement beyond a certain point. Spontaneous mass awakening from the grassroots is precious (and there was no dearth of it in Argentina ) but it cannot be sustained by networking alone. The enemy is very highly organised –– look at the army and other wings of the state–– and to confront and defeat it, the working people have to have a complete network of multiple interlinked organisations functioning democratically and independently according to an integrated plan under a unified national command. It is as simple as that. Without an extensive and consolidated organisation you cannot plan and execute a political offensive, just as you cannot build a powerful organisation without the most advanced ideological-political vision: Argentina suffered on both counts. And is it not the same weakness that assails the so-called global justice movement today? But that is a different topic altogether; we must return to Latin America , to a hot spot that offers an experience very different from the Argentina .

Venezuela shares with her Latin American sisters a long history of exploitation and repression by US imperialism and its local allies –– and of valiant resistance by the working people. The El Caracazo mass uprising of 1989 was violently repressed, but rebellion lingered on in the atmosphere. Three years later Hugo Chavez, a young paratrooper, led an unsuccessful military revolt against the hated ruling clique. He was imprisoned for two years, but won immense popularity. He was already a member of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement – 200 (MVR- 200), an organisation active among junior army officers. After the abortive coup, this organisation held talks with different communities, leading to the formation of the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) in 1997.

Next year, Chavez won the presidential election as an MVR candidate and went ahead with a very elaborate, very democratic process of framing a new constitution. Adopted in 1999, it incorporated Chavez's proposal for the people's right to recall through referendum. It is arguably the best bourgeois democratic constitution in the developing world, if not in the whole world, with effective means of people's direct and active participation in governance and nation building. More important, the government immediately set about implementing it in right earnest. In 2000 he was reelected President for six years under the new constitution.

Washington and its allies took fright and decided to act before it was too late. They organised a military coup in April 2002 that arrested the President and suspended the constitution. They expected a repeat of what had happened in Chile , Haiti and elsewhere, but the apparently unthinkable happened. Thanks to prompt and bold initiatives by the Bolivarian Circles and majority of army officers, Chavez resumed power within two days riding the crest of a great mass upsurge. At the fag end of the same year, reactionaries tried out another way. They organised a conspiratorial strike in the oil sector, bringing work to a standstill. This was a plot to cut off the life-blood of the Chavez administration so as to precipitate a crisis that would eventually lead to the overthrow of the government. This had happened in Chile in the early 1970s, when the Chilean middle class went on strike, and precipitated a chain of events that supplied the army with a pretext to intervene and oust the socialist government of Salvadore Allende. For Chavez too, this was a challenge no less difficult than the April coup. The economy was devastated and the government's welfare programmes suffered badly. But he tackled the strike with an iron hand. As many as 18,000 anti-Chavez employees were sacked during the two-month-long strike with full public support. The hitherto “autonomous” oil company PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela) was brought under full control of the government.

Not reconciled to defeat, the anti-people opposition continued with its “rule or ruin” strategy. It organised a contingent of over 130 Colombian military personnel, assisted by Venezulan officers, to sow violence and terror. Thanks to on ever- alert intelligence, that nasty bid was nipped in the bud. This was not the first or last such attempt, and all along Chavez' response was: ‘look, if you don't like me, we have a mechanism in our constitution, which is recall. So, we have that democratic, constitutional road, take it.'

The opposition took this road with full preparation. The privately owned media mounted a hate campaign against Chavez. In the campaign to secure signatures for the referendum, fraudulent identity cards were massively produced and distributed; tens of thousands of deceased and incapacitated had their signatures forged. Billions of dollars were pumped in to buy votes. But the masses were very alert, very active to foil the conspiracy. The referendum was supervised by, among others, former US President Jimmy Carter, who had certified a stolen election in the Dominican Republic in 1990, played the role of a US agent in Haiti and Nicaragua and has been actively involved in behind-the-scenes manoeuvres in Venezuela for quite some time.

The result was a resounding 59% vote for Chavez and 41% against. The class/race polarisation was very sharp: over 85% of the working poor , mostly Afro-Venezuelans, voted for Chavez while more than 80% of votes in affluent neighbourhoods went against him. As Venezuela exploded in mass jubilation, the peoples of Latin America and of the world were immensely enthused to see the ignominious defeat of US imperialism and its agents.

How did all this come about? What are the principal bulwarks of people's anti – imperialist struggle led and symbolised by Hugo Chavez?

First and foremost, the Bolivarian Circles (CBs). These began to emerge at the turn of the century as community groups studying Venezuelan history and the new constitution and working on local development projects. Some also started as self-defence units. Soon they started debating, and agitating on, broader issues like health and education policies. They also wanted to participate directly in the decision-making process at local levels. Chavez welcomed this trend and called for the creation of CBs as a new institution of participatory democracy. A large number of community groups, hitherto functioning under different names, became CBs.

There are now more than 2 lakh circles, with 7 to 10 members. They repair neighbourhood infrastructure, promote cultural events and engage in sundry other activities including participation in nationwide programmes. Lest the circles should become passive once their narrow local concerns are addressed (as happened with neighbourhood assemblies in Argentina ), they are now organising themselves into Bolvarian Houses(Casas Bolivarianas). This new structure seeks to unify the efforts of the CBs, along with various other CSOs, for intervening in complex issues that are regional, national or international in character, for defending the people's constitution and for developing the new society described therein. A national coordination team guides the circles and Houses in carrying out their work. Dr Rodigo Chaves, until recently head of this team, is now private secretary to the President.

Second, the vigorous land reforms programme. The Venezuelan National Land Institute (INTI in its Spanish initials) is carrying out the land distribution under “Plan Zamora” (named after Ezequiel Zamora, a liberal general who fought against the conservatives during the 1859-1863 Federal War and worked for land reforms). In Venezuela , like in many other countries on this continent, vast amounts of land still remain uncultivated. These are public lands, but often under private control. The government is redistributing such lands, along with title deeds, farm machines and monetary help. This is no easy process, for powerful business and political interests do all they can to stop it, and local authorities and courts often back them. As AC Baspineiro reports, in the last few years, mercenaries have killed 79 people for defending their land. (www.Venezuelanalysis. com) So far, some 5.5 million acres have been distributed to 1,16,000 peasant families who are encouraged to take up cooperative farming. The government is supplying better seeds, easy credit and in some cases even bulls and cows to help the peasants. The programme continues, and the aim in not only to benefit the peasants but to attain “food sovereignty” for a country that currently imports about 70% of its food.

Third, a whole range social welfare programmes. These include subsidized food markets and soup kitchens, health clinics run by Cuban doctors, dentists and ophthalmologists, and an array of education programs, ranging from literacy classes to university scholarships. Mission Robinson, a thorough literacy programme for adults and teenagers successfully concluded last year and made 12, 30,000 people able to read and write. Now under the second phase of the same project some nine lakh adults are getting educated up to the sixth grade. Also underway is Venezuelan Caras , a programme that puts people coming out from Mission Robinson II into projects for endogenous development. Micro credits are being arranged in great numbers for new entrepreneurs and their cooperatives. The government has stopped subsiding the elitist schools and founded a new university, named after Simon Bolivar, which promotes a manifestly pro- poor culture not to be seen in other institutions. Even more ambitious are new health service projects. Mission Barrio Adentro was created to deal with lack of medical facilities in the poor barrios, with extensive distribution of free medicines and treatment. The army is building a small health center in each barrio to service 500 families. The government has plans to build 5000 such centers. Both the education and the health programmes, particularly the latter, are planned with Cuban expertise. At present upward of ten thousand Cuban medicos are serving in Venezuela, and several thousand young women and men are undergoing medical, paramedical, technical and other (e.g., a 45-day social work training programme) courses in Cuba.

Fourth, but most crucial in hours of crisis like the coup and the oil strike, the very exceptional role of the military in defending the new constitution and the presidency. More than 80%of commanding officers and almost the whole rank of soldiers who come from poor families defied the orders of the Army Commander General and the Head of the Armed Forces General Staff to actively participate in, or support, the plan to rescue their beloved president during the coup. Apart from the unbounded love and respect Chavez commands at all levels of the armed forces, there are several unique factors responsible for the pro-people, pro-democracy stance of the Venezuelan armed forces. One is the deep influence of Simon Bolivar, the great leader of Latin America 's struggle for independence from Spain who had, as early as in the second decade of the nineteenth century, warned against US machinations “in the name of freedom”. Another is that Chavez's generation of officers were trained not (as hitherto) in the elitist and anti-people School of the Americas based in the US, but in the Venezuelan Military Academy which had a nationalist democratic curriculum. And there are many others, as readers can learn from Martha Harnecker ( The Venezuelan Military, Monthly Review, September 2003).

But challenges and difficulties also abound. The thrice beaten once-shy US may have to lie low and bide its time for a more favourable turn in the situation, but the threat remains. Then there is the problem of a very narrow majority in the National Assembly, which makes it difficult to pass progressive laws and forces Chavez to get things done through presidential decrees. More important, not all the leaders and activists of the President's party, MVR – 200, are honest and selfless servants of the people. So continuation and development of the democratic project depends too precariously on one individual, raising the question: after Chavez, what? (not simply who?) In the shorter run, what happens to the massive welfare programmes when the oil price boom ends? At a more fundamental theoretical level, to what extent is it at all possible to continue with further empowerment and well being of the people without touching the extant property relations? What are the inherent objective limits?

These questions can be addressed only in a separate article. Here let it be noted that there is nothing socialistic about whatever Chavez has done or promised. There has been no attempt to confiscate private property or create state-owned enterprises. Major US and European oil companies and banks have been engaged in stable, sustained and profitable economic relations with the Chavez government. Foreign creditors have received prompt and punctual payments of their dues. Major US multi-national oil companies are now planning between $5 billion and $20 billion in new investments in exploration and exploitation. Thus there is tremendous pressure on Chavez both from the Right (foreign and domestic big capital, including the media barons) and the Left (an awakened people with growing aspirations) and it will be interesting to watch the post-referendum scene unfold in the coming months.

The country and continent of Simon Bolivar (remember his famous statement: “the name of our country is America ”) are blazing a new trail in the struggle against neoliberalism in economics and ideology, which constitutes a major plank of anti-imperialist movement today. We in India, engaged in the same struggle, draw enormous inspiration from the ongoing battle and extend warm greetings to the great peoples of Latin America and their beloved leaders –– celebrated or unsung.