An original approach

Observations on Venezuela

The radical government of Hugo Chavez won a notable victory in the referendum held in August, but it continues to baffle many observers in western Europe because it is sustained neither by a significant political party nor by any important trade unions. Indeed, Venezuela's traditional parties and unions have been prominent in their support for the right-wing opposition. Even more baffling is that Chavez likes it that way. So anxious has he been to sweep away the ancien regime that misgoverned the country for so long that he has not wished to re-establish the institutions that sustained it. His aim is to establish a revolutionary government in Latin America that is genuinely "original", the command of one of his 19th-century philosophical gurus, Simon RodrIguez, the enlightened teacher of the Latin American liberator Simon BolIvar.

For anyone on the left, this neglect of a party and a trade union is curious. Even in Latin America, where the organised working class is often in a small minority, leftists have regarded a party and a trade union movement as an essential part of their political project. Castro's Cuba, Allende's Chile and the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas all considered them important.

Chavez is a leftist in the Latin American tradition, with a strong anti-imperialist rhetoric and a genuine desire to secure benefits for the poorest sections of the population, and his ambitions for his country are laid out in the new, progressive constitution drafted in 1999 and ratified in a referendum in 2000. A dozen articles are directly concerned with labour and the rights of workers. Among these are solid confirmation of the right to form unions and the right to strike. Yet Chavez has not put his shoulder behind moves made by others to create a new union movement. When he was first elected president in December 1998, parties and unions had been discredited by the actions of governments over the previous half-century. It is not hard to understand why he would not want to recreate a political structure that had failed so dismally.

The support for Chavez comes from the majority who have hitherto been disorganised and in effect out of reach of politics. He has mobilised people by appealing to them as the poor and disenfranchised, as peasants and shanty-town inhabitants, not in their condition as workers, and still less as the privileged workers who made up the bulk of the formal unions of the previous era.

The main organisation of the country's working class, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), never embraced more than about 12 per cent of the workforce. Organically linked to Democratic Action, the principal party of government for nearly half a century after 1958, the CTV was widely discredited as a bosses' union in the 1990s, when a neoliberal government introduced reforms that adversely affected workers' interests. The confederation's decline was accelerated by the growth of a number of independent unions. These paved the way for the defeat not only of the old unions, but also of the old political parties, creating a new situation that led to Chavez's victory in 1998.

In 2001, the CTV embarked on an internal reform process of its own, funded by its principal external ally, the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity (ACILS), the international arm of the US trade union federation AFL-CIO. Although union organisations favourable to Chavez attempted to secure representation in the CTV at leadership elections, the Democratic Action slate remained firmly in control. Passionately hostile to Chavez, who threatened the powerful position they had built up over decades, the CTV joined with others in attempts to overthrow him. It helped prepare for the military coup in April 2002 and worked with the employers' organisation, Fedecameras, in organising the strike/lockout of December the same year, which closed down the petroleum industry for several weeks.

Chavez's supporters have organised a rival trade union, the National Union of Workers, which held its first congress a year ago. But it is little more than a radical talking shop without strong support from Chavez himself. Instead, the president has so far relied on ad-hoc, semi-military mobilisations - BolIvarian "circles", electoral "patrols", educational "missions" - to organise the hitherto disorganised sector of society. Chavez is the master of "invention", but in the struggle for "originality", the role of labour has still to be mapped out.