The mountains of Venezuela rise steeply out of the warm Caribbean Sea. We drink in the startling beauty of this South American country as the bus starts its steady climb up to Caracas, the nation’s capital.
“Look at how the people live in such a rich country!” Eddie Brown exclaims. He points to shacks that cover the mountainsides. Brown is the translator for the U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange, the sponsor of our worker-to-worker visit with Venezuela trade unionists. “Venezuela has only 25 million people. It is the third largest supplier of oil to the United States. And they have iron, aluminum and gold.” Then we heard the key to understanding the politics of Venezuela. Of billion in oil revenues in 2001, only billion reached the government to use for the people of Venezuela. The rest was diverted for private gain. Managers of the state-owned oil company ran the company like their personal estates.
The mountainside shantytowns barely cling to the steep slopes. This area had witnessed a terrible disaster a few years earlier. A great storm swelled the mountain streams, triggering mud slides. Thousands of people, still in their homes, were swept out to sea. Still we found the people optimistic. They were rebuilding the flooded areas to create a beautiful new tourist town. Soon we passed what had been the president’s summer palace, and were told that Hugo Chavez had donated it as a school for the town. “The president does not need two palaces,” Chavez said.
The revolution will not be televised
Our first meeting in Caracas was with the subway workers. Their union hall was right on the grounds of the state-owned subway system. On our way we passed the sites made famous in the movie “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” The movie was made by an Irish film crew that witnessed the neo-fascist coup of April 11, 2002. They filmed the kidnapping of President Hugo Chavez by a few army generals. These generals installed a dictatorship that lasted only six hours. That was long enough for the United States to expose its hand and recognize the coup. The coup “president” was Pedro Carmona, head of the Employers’ Association. Their first act was to dissolve the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. It looked like Chile of 1973, all over again.
But the people rose up and reversed history. They came by the hundreds of thousands until over a million people surrounded the presidential palace. That was the cue for the Palace Guard to retake control. They detained the coup leaders and brought back President Chavez in triumph. The third person to return to the palace was Jacobo Torres de Leon. The U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange group was very lucky to have Torres as our guide in Venezuela.
Jacobo Torres de Leon
“Venezuela has a long history of labor struggles,” Torres told us. He gave the example of his own family. His grandmother was a founder of the Venezuelan Communist Party. His father was a commander of guerilla forces under Communist leadership. When his father was killed in an auto accident, Torres was only 5. The family moved to Caracas where Jacobo became a revolutionary at the age of 12. Torres is now the national coordinator of the Bolivarian Force of Venezuelan Workers. They belong to the National Union of Workers (UNT), the new labor federation organized on April 5, 2003.
In between he made a lot of friends, including a young military officer, Hugo Chavez. In 1998, the people elected Chavez to lead them out of misery. In this oil- and mineral-rich country, over 80 percent lived in poverty and the school dropout rate was 60 percent. Torres told us a poor family used to live all day on a loaf of bread and large bottle of Pepsi. “Pepsi?” we asked. “Because it is filling,” he replied.
Hugo Chavez and Simon Bolivar
Chavez’ first act was to hold a constitutional convention to draw up a new, progressive constitution. The new constitution and government are called “Bolivarian” because they were inspired by Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan who led the Wars of Independence against Spain. The new constitution was widely discussed and approved by referendum in 1999. This was the third of eight votes the Chavez government won by wide margins. Land — including oil fields and mines — was declared public property that can never be privatized. Labor’s right to organize and civil liberties were protected.
When the Parliament passed laws protecting social security, the directors of the state oil company began to plan the violent overthrow of the Chavez government. The employers’ organization, Fedecamaras, called a national “strike” on December 10, 2001, to wreck the economy. Workers were sent home by their private employers. In the public sector, oil industry management offices, including the computers, were shut down. Oil production fell drastically. The old-style union in the oil fields had not held elections for 20-30 years. It was headed by management types who fully supported the company in the December 2001 “strike.” However, this union was only one of five oil unions. Labor was divided.
In time, the oil production workers were able to substitute manual controls to replace the computers. Oil production resumed and the employers’ 63-day stoppage was defeated. The lack of fuel had forced some Venezuelans to burn their furniture to cook their meals. Four thousand businesses had gone bankrupt. Still, people’s support for their government remained strong.
To reclaim the oil profits for the people and prevent further chaos, the government replaced the board of directors of the oil company. The ousted managers called another strike but fewer supported them. UNT writes of this strike, “It continued because it was a smokescreen to cover a military coup that was developed a few hours after the strike started.” That coup, as described above, was reversed by an uprising of people who demanded democracy.
The subway workers of Caracas
The subway workers of Caracas are very proud of their beautiful, state-owned subway system, less than 20 years old. Carlos Diaz, a subway worker, told us they are also very proud to be 100 percent union. He belongs to the Association of Professionals and Technicians of the subway system. They have just negotiated a three-year contract that includes medical benefits and holiday incentives for outstanding workers. The minimum wage is 2 a month but subway workers can earn up to 0 a month. Their dues are 5 percent of their wages. We were honored to accept their invitation to join the subway workers in a plain but delicious lunch.
Under the new government, the unions, community and government managers work together. They suggest new projects and ways to improve service. The subways connect to bus routes operated by workers who buy their buses or vans. Most have received government loans to buy their vehicles. They pay back their loans in five years. These worker-owners also belong to a union. Passenger fares are among the items negotiated.
It seemed to this writer that class lines are not always drawn as sharply in Caracas as in Chicago. For example, Venezuela has 3 million people who work in the public sector, 1.5 to 2 million in the private sector and 7 million who are “self-employed.” The self-employed category includes many unemployed who try to survive as street vendors. Less than one-quarter million work the land.
This subway workers union is an affiliate of the UNT federation. A committee of three from another subway workers union joined our discussion. We asked what differences divided the two unions. The answer was vague. “Not much. We work together.” Differences in unions are apt to be political in Venezuela. UNT supports the Bolivarian Revolution led by President Chavez. The old CTV supported the coup and was made up of members of the old capitalist political parties.
UNT is different, Eduardo Renate explained to us the next day. UNT admits all workers, regardless of political affiliation. Its largest affiliate is the new Bolivarian Workers Force, a social and political organization of workers committed to the Bolivarian Revolution.
Many unions have left the old CTV to affiliate to UNT. The new federation has three main tasks. The first is to grow the union by organizing another 60 percent of the labor force in the next 18 months. Only 20 percent are now organized. Second, UNT wants to mobilize the workers to pass new laws, including a new labor code, strengthened social security, and a law to improve working conditions. Their third task is to unify the splintered labor movement.
Renate said they were going beyond the anti-imperialist to the anti-capitalist. “But not yet socialist,” Renate added. The new movement must be led by workers and it must unify. “We need a new political organization,” Renate said. “We are discussing the subject with other forces.”
Health and education
Improvements in the living standards of the Venezuelan people are most evident in terms of health and education. Formerly over 40 percent lacked any access to health care. The Chavez government has built health clinics in the underserved areas. They are operated by 10,000 Cuban doctors. In addition, these doctors are educating hundreds of Venezuelan medical students.
We were able to get an up-close view of the new education programs. Elem-entary and pre-university education are available free of charge to students who want to continue. Two classes we visited were by television, held at night in classrooms used by children in the day. Teachers volunteer their time, after a day’s work, to help students. One mother of five said she worked for a doctor half days and came to class five nights a week. Another mother of six worked full time. A man volunteered that he wanted to become an engineer.
The free education does not stop there. Students can enter the new “Bolivarian University of Venezuela.” The university is a network of people’s universities with at least one in each of the 22 states. They provide student dining halls and child care for students with children. Fittingly, the Caracas campus was housed in the ultra-deluxe offices of the former oil executives. It was more deluxe than any corporate headquarters I ever visited.
The academic dean at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela told us that illiteracy, which until recently afflicted 1.3 million people, was eliminated in a few months, following the Cuban model.
Electric power workers
Our last visit was with the power plant workers union, housed in the state-owned electric company building. The building looked like big business, and that’s what the electric company used to be. Publicly owned, it had been milked by the former directors to the point of near-bankruptcy. For 10 years, nothing was invested, nothing updated. Wages were below average. The workers saved the company from privatization. They have started a “refoundation” process to update the power network and decommercialize electricity.
“Electricity is a human right, not a market commodity!” That is the principle the electrical workers union is fighting for. They are training 5,000 young workers to give service to the people, fight corruption and build full participation. They do not want to shut off electric service to the many thousands who have not paid their bills. They want a state subsidy for the new investment that is needed and to extend service to all.
Finally, they asked us about our experience with “co-management of workers and management.” Time had run out so we searched for a short answer of how “co-management” had worked between big, greedy companies and unions. “It’s like the lion and the lamb,” we replied. They laughed. We thought, “How wonderful to have the key sectors of the economy nationalized! Under a democratic government, too!” All they have to fear is the pressure from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Bush government. With 70 percent of the vote in their recent elections, they are confident that they will win.
Beatrice Lumpkin is a leader of the South Chicago chapter of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees. She can be reached at email@example.com