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Venezuela shakes the Empire

February 28, 2007

There is much to admire about Venezuela today: impressive mass mobilizations, community and labour activism, significant social gains, an inspiring commitment to a socialist future.

But Venezuela’s importance today to the workers’ movement lies above all in the leading role it is playing in a new upsurge of anti-imperialist struggles internationally.

This is not always easy for socialists in advanced capitalist countries to understand. We tend to interpret Venezuela in terms of our own experience of workers’ struggle against exploitative bosses and corrupt, repressive governments. We are often less sensitive to the aspects of Venezuela that are different, particularly its oppression by world imperialism, the impact this has on Venezuelan society, and how Venezuela is fighting back against the Empire.

Consider what Venezuela’s revolutionary government has accomplished in the 12 weeks since the Bolivarian movement led by Hugo Chávez won an overwhelming victory in its presidential election. (See Socialist Voice #108) A brief selection:

•  Venezuela has reached agreements with newly elected anti-imperialist presidents Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) for assistance to these countries. 

•  Nicaragua and three Caribbean nations (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and St. Vincent) have joined the Venezuelan-initiated Bolivarian Agreement for the Americas (ALBA), a framework for resistance to imperialist domination, which also includes Cuba and Bolivia. Ecuador has also signaled its intention to join the alliance. 

•  Significantly, Venezuelan and Cuban aid to Nicaragua includes significant projects in its autonomous Caribbean coast regions, home to most of its indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. Hugo Chávez has stressed that its vision of socialism is “indigenous,” stressing the leading role of indigenous peoples in popular resistance across much of Latin America. 

•  Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strengthened their countries’ alliance against the threatened U.S. attack on Iran during Ahmadinejad’s January 14 visit to Caracas. The two presidents promised to spend billions of dollars to aid peoples “resisting U.S. domination.” 

•  Venezuela utilized a U.S.-sponsored resolution in the United Nations condemning denial of the Holocaust, intended to isolate Iran, to reaffirm its solidarity with the embattled peoples of the Middle East. Venezuelan delegate Marco Palavicini declared that Israel’s excesses have “led to a new holocaust against the Palestinian people,” while “hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis” also “are victims of a holocaust.” (See Socialist Voice #94) 

•  On January 22, at a meeting of Latin American presidents, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales called for transformation of the Brazilian-led MERCOSUR trade bloc. Chávez declared his intent to “decontaminate it of neoliberalism.”

The sustained efforts of Venezuelan and allied popular movements have struck major blows to neoliberalism, the attempt by the U.S. and allied imperialist governments to qualitatively increase their economic domination and exploitation of Latin America.

The U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) has been rebuffed; the grip of the International Monetary Fund on national budgets has been weakened and in some cases broken. The upsurge of mass struggles has strengthened the sovereignty and unity of Latin American peoples.

Bolivarian Goal

The Venezuelans call this vision of Latin America emancipation “Bolivarianism,” after Simon Bolívar (1783-1830), leader of South America’s struggle for independence from Spain. In 1995, long before his election to the Venezuelan presidency, Chávez referred to Bolívar’s “notion of uniting all these balkanized territories of Latin America in order to confront the imperial power to the north.” (Gott, pages 183-84)

Since the days of José Martí (1853-1895), Cuban revolutionaries have been inspired by this Bolivarian ideal. In 1961, Fidel Castro gave it renewed expression in the Second Declaration of Havana:

“Today Latin America lies beneath an imperialism, much more fierce, much more powerful, and more cruel than the Spanish colonial empire,” the declaration stated. “This great humanity has said, ‘Enough!’ and has begun to march. And their giant march will not be halted until they conquer true independence.” (Lyons, pages 108, 130; and

Cuba has never retreated from that stand. Thirty-nine years later, Fidel Castro, warning against the FTAA, said “We must revive Bolívar’s dignity and his dreams.” Rather than being “devoured by the decadent empire,” Latin America and the Caribbean “must integrate and unite in search of a greater and more dignified destiny.” (Castro, page 106)

Oppressed and Oppressor Nations

The same goal of unity against imperialist domination has been central to Marxism for a century. In 1920, the Communist International proclaimed the slogan, “Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!”

Lenin explained the thinking behind that slogan to the International’s second congress that year:

“The characteristic feature of imperialism consists in the whole world, as we now see, being divided into a large number of oppressed nations and an insignificant number of oppressor nations, the latter possessing colossal wealth and powerful armed forces.”
Lenin included among the oppressed nations not only direct colonial dependencies but also “semi-colonies as, for example, Persia, Turkey, and China” and also countries that had become dependent on imperialist powers through conquest. (Riddell, page 212)

Since Lenin’s time, many Latin American countries have undergone considerable industrial development. For example, a Brazilian corporation, Embraer, is now the main aerospace competitor of Canada’s Bombardier. A huge Brazilian mining concern, PVRD — once state-owned but privatized in 1997 — bought Canadian nickel-mining giant Inco in 2006. Mexican telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim is rated the world’s third-richest man.

Brazilian capitalists have regional ambitions, expressed in their hostility to Bolivia’s measures to reclaim its natural resources from foreign control. Brazil is a lead player in the brutal United Nations occupation of Haiti, in which Bolivian and Canadian forces have also participated.

Reactionary forces in Latin America appeal to nationalism — for example, in denouncing Venezuela’s international aid programs as squandering resources that ought to be spent within the country.

For socialists in Canada, this has a familiar ring. Many socialists here, especially in Quebec, view Canadian nationalism with suspicion. As a political force, it has served mainly to build support for Canadian imperialism, its oppression over Quebecois and indigenous peoples at home, and its wars and interventions abroad.

This concern leads many Marxists in this country to view the national and anti-imperialist dimension of the current Latin American upsurge with reserve. Is nationalism in Latin America really any different?

There is a danger here of applying to Latin American and Caribbean societies an analysis appropriate to developed, imperialist countries like Canada. In fact, “development” in Latin American countries has followed a very different course, and the contrast has not diminished in recent decades. This is shown by the very different impact neoliberalism has had in Latin America and in the imperialist heartlands.

Mexican Example

Nowhere has the contrast been so clear as in the course of neoliberalism in Canada and Mexico, both of whose economies have been yoked together with that of the U.S. since 1994 in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In both countries, the neoliberal capitalist offensive has shifted wealth from poor to rich, cut back government social programs, and cost many workers their livelihood. But after two decades of struggle, Canada’s economic and social structure has not changed significantly, while Mexico has been severely damaged.

The advent of neoliberalism in Mexico began with an economic crisis in the early 1980s that led its government to appeal to Washington and the International Monetary Fund for financial aid. The U.S. demanded, and obtained, the gutting of the Mexico’s substantial nationalized sector and government economic controls. Real wages fell 30% in the 1980s.

The advent of NAFTA devastated Mexican peasant agriculture and manufacturing for the local market. The proportion of working people with formal jobs fell. Workers’ living standards declined sharply and have continued to slide. The migration of a desperate population into the U.S. reached massive proportions. And in recent years, the pride of neoliberalism—the “maquiladores” sector producing exclusively for export — is also in trouble.

The deep wounds suffered by Mexico’s working population found expression in massive uprisings in 2006, including demonstrations of millions against electoral fraud organized by the country’s ruling oligarchy. (See Socialist Voice #106)

The Line is Still Drawn

Not even the weakest imperialist countries were crippled by the neoliberal offensive, but economies across Latin America suffered severe damage. This outcome made it clear that the line between oppressed and oppressor nations is still sharply drawn at Mexico’s northern frontier.

Gross Domestic Product per capita in major Latin American countries ranges from only 15% (Venezuela) to 25% (Mexico) of U.S. levels, with the now gravely damaged Argentinian economy showing higher at 35%. Economic inequality is greater than almost anywhere else in the world. Many countries are marked by vast rural poverty. A high proportion of the working class subsists in the “informal economy.” The oppressed and marginalized indigenous population is a majority in several countries and a powerful force in many more.

Even the most “developed” Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, suffer from structural deformations that are a product of imperialist domination of their economies and their particular insertion in the world market. Brazil’s notorious social polarization, dividing the opulent rich from the impoverished masses in rural areas and urban slums, is evidence of this problem.

It’s true that reactionary governments in Latin America, as in Canada, often clothe themselves in nationalist demagogy to justify class rule. But progressive and popular movements in Latin America are also frequently national, in a different sense — in seeking liberation from imperialist domination. It is vital that socialist and working class forces seek to lead such movements and strive to win them to a program in the interests of working people — and that their allies in imperialist countries support them in this challenge.

Resistance to Imperialism

Popular resistance movements in Latin America typically begin as struggles against the local oligarchy and for democracy and the rights of working people, and for access to basic services such as water, schools, and health clinics. But to the degree that these movements have won influence over segments of the government, such as national presidencies, the focus has changed toward using governmental power to win back the ground lost to neoliberalism and toward regional alliances to provide a firmer basis to resist imperialist pressure. A recent increase in the prices of many Latin American exports, particularly oil, has aided this process.

Mass movements marked by a clear class polarization have given rise to governments that preside over a capitalist state and take measures for structural reform within capitalism. Such governments vary enormously in character. Some are prone to cave in to the pressures of imperialism and local pro-imperialist sectors. To some degree, and in some countries, there has been a shift in the locus of action from the streets to government.

But the development as a whole is not a step backward. Rather, the counterattack against neoliberalism is profoundly progressive—a struggle to realize of the goals for which tens of thousands demonstrated in Quebec City in 2001. Above all, Latin American countries are asserting and realizing their sovereignty against foreign domination. The Empire has been forced into retreat. Improved conditions are being won for national economic development. Even if this process does not go beyond capitalism, it creates better conditions of life and struggle for working people and deserves wholehearted support by socialists everywhere.

But the mass upsurge in Latin America has the potential to go beyond the capitalist framework. Tens of millions of working people are gaining in confidence, recapturing hope for a better future, and setting higher goals for social change. And in the process, socialism is being once again discussed not merely by narrow radical circles but by millions of working people.

Latin American working people deserve our support in their efforts to win all the gains possible within capitalism. But history warns against any reliance on capitalism’s ability to provide durable economic development in a manner favorable to working people. Economic dependency plagued the region long before the advent of neoliberalism. Previous attempts to encourage economic development in Latin America of energetic government intervention have collapsed under pressure of world capitalist markets or have been cut short by U.S.-orchestrated military coups.

Capitalism in Latin America cannot escape the trends toward increased exploitation, environmental degradation, and war that characterize this brutal system in every sector of the world. Indeed, the Latin American mass movements are part of the worldwide test of strength with imperialism, whose main focus, at present, is the U.S.-led wars and occupations in the Middle East.

It is thus significant that the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela has gone beyond the vision of Latin American integration and sovereignty to embrace the goal of 21st century socialism. A broad discussion has opened up on the nature of socialism and the road to its realization, which socialists internationally welcome and participate in.
As mass movements strengthen, they pose the possibility of establishing a revolutionary popular government, based on mobilized workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, and other oppressed sectors, and acting in their interests. Such governments can enable the masses to overcome major obstacles in their advance towards overturning capitalist power and establishing socialism.

But while socialism represents the Latin American movement’s future, its present focus remains resistance to imperialism, Latin American and indigenous unity, and associated demands for democratic and grassroots participatory rights and indigenous empowerment.

These struggles deserve the understanding and strong support of progressive activists around the world.
Fidel Castro. War, Racism and Economic Injustice: The Global Ravages of Capitalism. Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2002.
Richard Gott. Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. London: Verso, 2005.
Brian Lyons and Rich Palser. Cuba and Venezuela: Breaking the Chains of Underdevelopment in Latin America. London: North London Cuba Solidarity Campaign, 2005.
John Riddell. Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991. See also

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