The Venezuelan elections on 7 October are an important turning point for the Chavista movement in the country and for the international left.
Hugo Chávez faces not only a resurgent right wing candidate Henrique Capriles, but also a socialist challenge in the shape of Orlando Chirino. Chávez, despite being hampered by his treatment for cancer, has over 40% in most reliable polls and is well ahead of Capriles. But it is around Chirino that the genuine working class forces can coalesce.
The traditional forces of the right have united around Henrique Capriles of the centre-right Justice First party, part of the Democratic Unity Coalition (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD). Capriles represents the bourgeois fraction that has been in opposition since Chávez came to power in 1998, having administered the state for forty years before that. These forces sought to overthrow Chávez in a coup in 2002 and by a lock-out in 2002-03. They boycotted the political process for several years as Chávez consolidated his power.
Capriles and the old pro-US Venezuelan bourgeoisie stand on a neo-liberal political programme with an orientation towards the United States.
Capriles supports the privatisation of publicly owned firms and social programmes. He and other right-wing governors of regional states have used repression against workers’ struggles. There is absolutely no reason for Venezuelan workers to support or vote for Capriles.
Hugo Chávez represents the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), part of the Gran Polo Patriótico (GPP) coalition.
Chávez thunders against capitalism and claims to be “building socialism”, but the bulk of the economy remains in private hands, while the state sector engages in joint ventures with multinational capital. After more than a decade of Chávez in power, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie continues with their property, business and profits.
Chávez rants against “US imperialism”, but has made agreements with the multinational oil companies and with dictatorial, imperialist and sub-imperialist regimes. The Venezuelan government has agreements with Chevron, Mitsubishi, Total, Repsol, Petrobras, as well as other Norwegian, Russian and Chinese companies. It has relations with Swiss multinational Glencore and Chinese multinationals in the aluminium and steel business.
The Chávez government proclaims itself to be a leftist government, but refuses to support Arab revolutions against dictatorships. Chávez defended homicidal dictators like Qaddafi in Libya and Bashar Al Assad in Syria, calling them “anti-imperialist governments”. He famously told Iranian car workers that Ahmadinejad was their friend, while at the same time covering for assorted despots across the globe.
Chávez tries to portray himself as a friend of the Venezuelan workers, but the independent trade union movement Union Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT) has stalled because his supporters sought to bind it close to the government.
Chávez introduced a new Labour Law in May, which reduces the working week to 40 hours (from 44), bans outsourcing for ongoing jobs and increases maternity leave. However, the government does not respect the collective agreements of unionised workers and often ignores the right to strike. It does not respect trade union autonomy, criminalises social protest and accuses striking public sector workers of being “counterrevolutionaries”.
Rubén González, general secretary of the Sintraferrominera ironworkers’ union, spent more than a year in jail for leading a strike.
Chávez has threatened to use the National Guard against Mitsubishi workers. He supported the dismissal of nearly all trade unionists in that struggle. He has backed repression of workers in mining and petroleum working for Russian and Chinese joint ventures.
Although Chávez’s government has spent money on social programmes, it has also implemented harsh austerity measures since 2008, including increasing VAT by a third, freezing collective agreements by public sector employees and for steel and aluminium workers.
Orlando Chirino, running as the Partido Socialismo y Libertad (Socialism and Freedom Party, PSL) candidate, has a long track record of support for working class political independence.
He has led the rank and file union grouping CCURA (Corriente Clasista, Unitaria, Revolucionaria, Autónoma) since before the rise of Chávez. During the formation of the UNT, he supported trade union autonomy in the face of Bonapartist attempts to co-opt the unions.
Chirino opposed Chávez’s constitutional changes, including extending his possible terms in office. He was illegally laid off from PDVSA state oil firm as a political reprisal. He has spoken out against the Venezuelan government’s austerity measures, using the slogan: “Let the capitalists pay the crisis, not the workers”.
Chirino has supported the Arab spring and denounced the massacres perpetrated by Assad in Syria.
Voting for Chirino and supporting his campaign will strengthen the building of a politically independent labour movement in Venezuela as well as the revolutionary socialist left.
Chavistas have accused Chirino of being divisive and serving Capriles, warning of the danger of a comeback of the right to power. But it is Chávez’s fault that the old right has come back, after 13 years of making big promises without delivering for Venezuelan workers.
Orlando Chirino is backed by small groups of socialists inside Venezuela, as well as a wide range of trade unions and activists across Latin America. He is a credible and serious candidate for working class political representation and deserves the solidarity and support of Marxists across the globe.
Sadly, much of the international left calls for a vote for Chávez. Predictably, the most high profile apologists have been Green Left Weekly in Australia and the International Marxist Tendency, which includes Socialist Appeal in Britain. The election has not so far been worthy of comment by the British SWP, no doubt dithering between lesser evilism and Chávez’s anti-imperialist credentials.
The Socialist Party’s international, the CWI, and its supporters in Venezuela call for a vote for Chavez, adding that “this is not sufficient”.
Instead they make a long list of demands on Chávez, including the demand that he introduce socialism. Such incoherence gives Marxism a bad name, and provides no guide for workers anywhere.