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Leftist Union Leaders Assassinated in Venezuela

by League for the Fourth International Sunday, Dec. 07, 2008 at 5:58 AM 212-460-0983 Box 3321, Church Street Station, New York, NY 10008

On November 27, three leftist union leaders in the Venezuelan state of Aragua – Richard Gallardo, Luis Hernández and Carlos Requena – were gunned down by an assassin. The murder came hours after the unionists had led a workers occupation of a Colombian-owned milk plant which had been brutally broken up by state police. All three were leaders of the UNT (National Workers Union) and of the USI (Socialist Left Unity), a party which has opposed attempts by the government of Hugo Chávez to impose state control of labor, and has fought the rightist opposition backed by imperialism. They may have been murdered by assassins hired by the Colombian company, by elements connected to the police of outgoing state governor, a former Chávez ally, or by supporters of a current official of the governing United Socialist Party. In any case, despite Chávez’ socialist rhetoric, the reality of the bourgeois Bolivarian “revolution” in Venezuela today is that leftist unionists are murdered while the forces of capitalist state repression back up the bosses. While many leftists have called on the Chávez government to investigate, Trotskyists call for organizing workers defense guards and imposing workers control of production. Venezuela today is stuck at a crossroads. Building a Bolshevik-type workers party based on Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution is key.

Organize Workers Self-Defense Guards! For Workers Control of Production!Leftist Union Leaders Assassinated in VenezuelaBuild a Leninist-Trotskyist Workers Party!

On the afternoon of November 27, some 400 workers at the Alpina milk plant in the Venezuelan state of Aragua occupied their plant demanding full payment of money owed them by the Colombian-owned company. At first, the bosses tried to get the workers to abandon their leaders in the UNT (National Workers Union). When that failed, state police swarmed onto the grounds, brutally beating the workers and seriously injuring four. But the union alerted workers in the industrial area, and according to a report by UNT state leader Luis Hernández, “within minutes, the plant was surrounded by workers of the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores. Thanks to this act of solidarity, it was possible to retake the plant, and the workers reoccupied it.”

Yet a few hours later, as they were heading home, Hernández and two other UNT leaders who had led the Alpina workers’ struggle that day, Richard Gallardo and Carlos Requena, were gunned down at a shopping center in the nearby town of Cagua by an assassin on a motorbike. The three were also cadres of the Unidad Socialista de Izquierda (USI, Left Socialist Unity), which has opposed the bourgeois populist government of Hugo Chávez and its attempts to impose state domination of labor. Whatever sinister force ordered the assassination, the blow was aimed at one of the most combative sectors of the Venezuelan workers movement. Despite Chávez’ socialist rhetoric, this is the reality of the Bolivarian “revolution” in Venezuela today: leftist unionists are murdered while the forces of bourgeois state repression back up the bosses.

For the last year, Venezuela has been stuck in a stand-off between the leftist nationalist Chávez regime and the right-wing pro-imperialist opposition. In the November 23 regional elections, a pro-government “patriotic coalition” won back about 1.5 million votes Chávez lost in the constitutional referendum last year, while the opposition vote was lower this year. Yet the right elected several key governors and mayors, including the mayor of metropolitan Caracas. Significantly, the PSUV lost Petare, a working-class suburb of the capital which was long a chavista stronghold, as former Chávez supporters stayed home massively. In recent years, the government financed extensive social programs with superprofits from the high price of oil. But as oil prices plummet, Venezuela’s bourgeois “petrosocialism” is running into trouble. Still, Chávez has relaunched a drive for a constitutional amendment to allow him to be reelected.

Internationally, U.S. imperialism has kept the heat on the Venezuelan regime, reviled in Washington because of Chávez’ support for Cuba. This pressure will probably be more intense under Obama than under the widely hated Bush administration, as many in Latin America have illusions in a “kinder, gentler” Yankee imperialism, just as they had in John F. Kennedy. But then came JFK’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba while “Alliance for Progress” counterinsurgency programs killed hundreds of leftist insurgents. Earlier this year, the U.S. announced the revival of the Fourth Fleet (which hasn’t existed since 1950) to patrol the Caribbean. (During the 2002 coup, U.S. Navy ships stood offshore to aid the plotters.) Chávez effectively countered by inviting the Russian Navy to hold joint maneuvers this past week, to Washington’s great consternation. Trotskyists defend nationalist Venezuela and the Cuban deformed workers state against imperialism.

This standoff cannot last indefinitely. Either Chávez will submit to “the empire,” or it will come to a showdown in which the alternative will ultimately be between workers revolution or bloody counterrevolution. Whether the murder of three leftist union leaders is part of a rightist plan for destabilization or another government attack on workers, it indicates that the day of reckoning is approaching sooner rather than later. The key question then will be, as it already is today, that of proletarian revolutionary leadership.

Sharp Class Struggle in Aragua

The three slain socialist leaders had admirable records as fighters for the working class. Richard Gallardo, a textile worker in the city of Maracay, led workers when they rose up against the April 2002 coup that sought to overthrow Chávez, and again seven months later when the bosses decreed a counterrevolutionary lockout masquerading as a “strike.” Gallardo was named national coordinator of the UNT when it was founded in 2003, breaking from the CTV (Confederation of Venezuelan Workers) whose leaders gave a “labor” cover to the 2002 coups. He also joined in forming a series of socialist organizations (PST-La Chispa, Partido Revolución y Socialismo and the USI), the latter two linked to the wing of the UNT led by Orlando Chirino. He was a USI candidate for state assembly deputy in regional elections held three days earlier.

Luis Hernández was a worker at the Pepsi-Cola plant in Aragua, who in 2003 led a week-long occupation of the plant when the company announced a mass layoff. He was president of the state UNT, and was the USI candidate for mayor of the municipality of Zamora in the November 23 elections. Carlos Requena, the youngest of the three (they were all under 40), had been active on a national level fighting for workers health issues. They gave their all to the workers struggle, and their deaths must not be in vain.

The vile assassination of Hernández, Gallardo and Requena led to an explosion of anger throughout the state of Aragua. The next day, November 28, hundreds of workers took to the streets, blocking traffic with burning tires and marching. At the burial of Luis Hernández the following day, the population of his home town, Villa de Cura, spilled into the streets in “scenes of pain, confusion, rage and impotence,” wrote the local paper El Clarín (30 November). Then on December 2, workers from more than 200 unions in Aragua made a dramatic show of strength, occupying the turnpike to the capital, Caracas, and highways throughout the state, shutting down all traffic (except ambulances and a funeral) for ten hours or more, demanding that the killers must pay for their crime.

The question on everyone’s lips was “who did it?” One obvious possibility is professional hit-men (sicarios) contracted by Alpina, the multinational company which has used paramilitary assassins to kill union leaders at its plants in Colombia (where over 2,500 trade unionists have been murdered by the government and paramilitaries since 1986). Pro-Chávez media such as Radio YKVE Mundial suggested that the killer could be linked to the Aragua state police, under the control of the governor, Didalco Bolíver, a former Chávez ally who went over to the right-wing opposition last year in the dispute over the package of constitutional amendments that was narrowly defeated in a referendum last December 2. The League for the Fourth International called for casting a blank ballot in that vote (see “Venezuela: Impose Workers Control on the Road to Socialist Revolution,” The Internationalist supplement December 2007).

But unionists in Aragua pointed their finger at Chávez’ own supporters, who felt threatened by political opposition on the left. The Maracay daily Siglo (29 November) reported, “Union leaders heading up the protests attribute Hernández’ death to followers of newly elected mayor Aldo Lovera, who…recently made death threats against him [Hernández].” Lovera is a member of the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), Chávez’ bourgeois state party. Hernández had challenged Lovera’s election, demanding a recount, and it was this that led to the threats. In the December 2 protests, workers in Villa de Cura declared that they would not lift their blockade until Lovera resigned as mayor of the municipality of Zamora.

Various international appeals were issued by labor, left and human rights groups and protests held at Venezuelan embassies over the murder of the three socialist workers leaders. Calls have been made for “exemplary punishment” of the killers and those behind them. However, these appeals have uniformly called on the Chávez regime to investigate: “We call on the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the regional government of Aragua to immediately open an investigation into the whereabouts of the material and intellectual assassins in this horrendous crime,” states a joint appeal by a number of Argentine leftist groups (IS, PTS, PO, MST, MAS, FOS, IT, CS, UST, OS).

Exposing the failure of the legal authorities do their job is one thing, but to call on the chavista national and state governments to conduct an investigation when the main suspect (the mayor of Zamora) is a member of Chávez’ PSUV is inviting a cover-up! This appeal reflects the political support of most of the left internationally for the Venezuelan bourgeois nationalist leader. The lesson of this crime should instead be the need for working-class independence. What’s clearly posed is the need for union self-defense groups and a workers militia independent of control by Chávez’ bourgeois government or any of its sectors, as outlined in Trotsky’s Transitional Program. Yet to our knowledge none of the international appeals by various ostensible Trotskyist groups raised this elementary call.

The assassination of Richard Gallardo, Luis Hernández and Carlos Requena was no isolated incident. Orlando Chirino, the coordinator of the UNT and leader of the USI, told the press, “In Aragua, seven members of our labor organization have been murdered in the last two years” (La Clase, 28 November). In Valencia, capital of the state of Carabobo next door, workers at the FUNDIMECA plant have been attacked by sicarios, with the complicity of the police and judges. Yet it is the workers who are facing judicial persecution, while the gunmen go free. In Villa de Cura, a Communist Party leader, Luis Delgado Díaz, was killed in his home in September 2007. And the day before Gallardo was killed, he had warned, “compañeros, we must take care, they’re coming for us, we have to organize defense teams” (La Clase, 30 November).

In Venezuela, at least, the need for workers self-defense has become self-evident. Chirino of the UNT, USI and the CCURA (the United Autonomous Revolutionary Class Current) union tendency called vaguely to raise funds for “our own security plans.” The leader of the pro-Chávez wing of the split UNT, Marea Socialista (MS – Socialist Tide), Stalin Pérez, was more explicit, issuing a call to “immediately begin organizing our workers and people’s self-defense” (Aporrea, 28 November). But in both cases this is an isolated demand rather instead of being part of a broader working-class offensive to impose workers control of production and move toward establishing organs of dual power – workers committees in the plants and area-wide workers councils independent of government control.

When Chávez formed his bourgeois state party, the PSUV, last year he tried to strong-arm the left and labor movement into joining it in order to gain control over the working class which has eluded him in a decade in power. The UNT divided, as Pérez and Marea Socialista joined the bureaucratic ruling apparatus while Chirino and CCURA refused. Yet both are reformists whose politics come down to simple trade unionism. While CCURA and USI defend workers against government officials, and although Chávez accuses them of spreading “poison” among the workers for refusing to submit to the discipline of the PSUV, Chirino’s UNT has not led struggles to take over the plants, except during the 2002 emergency.

Today, the response to the assassination of three top UNT leaders should be massive strikes and plant occupations throughout the state and elsewhere in Venezuela. UNT leaders had already drawn up a plan for which factories to take in May 2007. Alpina workers should take over the plant and open the books to find out what management has been up to. Aragua is where the workers of Sanitarios Maracay have waged a tenacious struggle for the last two years, seizing the plant which makes bathroom fixtures when the owner abandoned it, and then seeking to run it under workers management. But the plant has been unable to obtain raw materials while white collar employees sabotaged the struggle, the state police under Didalco Bolívar (then a Chávez ally) savagely repressed them, and the Minister of Labor refused their entreaties.

The Venezuelan Left Between Hammer and Anvil

The fundamental struggle in Venezuela is for revolutionary leadership. An authentically Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party of the working class is urgently needed to lead resistance to attacks by the different factions of the bourgeois nationalist government while mobilizing against the constant threat of Yankee imperialist aggression and internal reaction led by domestic counterrevolutionaries.

However, the several groups in Venezuela who identify with Trotskyism have been all over the map on the key question of the Chávez government. Following the defeat of the constitutional referendum of 2 December 2007, UNT coordinator and USI1 leader Orlando Chirino went from calling for a blank ballot (abstention), a correct policy, to claiming that the victory of the right-wing “no” campaign constituted a “triumph of the workers and the people” (Aporrea, 7 December 2007). Chirino has even appeared on the same platform as CTV leaders and spoken under the auspices of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German social-democratic outfit (named after the chancellor who approved the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919) that channeled CIA money to Portugal.

On the other hand, Chirino’s former comrade Stalin Pérez of the Marea Socialista2 collective joined Chávez’ PSUV in May 2007 and since then has been busily maneuvering among the factions of the “Bolivarian bourgeoisie,” the boliburguesía as it is called in Caracas. To justify joining this capitalist party, MS spokesmen hark back to the early career of Argentine pseudo-Trotskyist Nahuel Moreno in Buenos Aires in the 1950s (“Remembering Nahuel Moreno,” Marea Socialista No. 2, 2007). Both the MS and USI can find supporting material in the career of this political quick change artist. Critiquing Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution, Moreno called for a “democratic revolution,” while showing a strong predilection for nationalist strongmen, from Juan Perón in Argentina to Khomeini in Iran.

Another group, the Corriente Marxista Revolucionaria (CMR – Revolutionary Marxist Tendency), has gained a certain notoriety as the leader of its international grouping, Alan Woods, has sought to act as Chávez’ tutor in Trotskyism. Woods presents a parody of Trotsky’s program as if the Russian Bolshevik leader were an advisor to bourgeois nationalist regimes. The CMR joined Chávez’ PSUV, just as the affiliates of Woods’ International Marxist Tendency3 have long been part of Bhutto’s PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) and López Obrador’s PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) in Mexico. Charlatans who see no contradiction between calling themselves Marxist and joining a bourgeois party will never lead a workers revolution.

A case in point is the CMR’s championing of the workers who seized the factory at Sanitarios Maracay in November 2006. While Woods & Co. were making nice with Chávez in private audiences at Miraflores Palace, the workers in Maracay were facing brutal repression by the chavista police in Aragua. When the UNT broke with Chávez by refusing to join his state party, the Sanitarios Maracay workers sided with Chirinos’ UNT. Richard Gallardo, one of the three murdered union leaders, led a statewide strike in defense of Sanitarios Maracay in May 2007. Showing its colors, the CMR denounced Chirinos and the UNT, to which the Sanitarios union belongs, of “sectarian” errors for opposing “Comandante Chávez.” (“Algunas verdades sobre la heroica lucha de los trabajadores de Sanitarios Maracay,” 22 August 2007).

The CMR has called for nationalizing Sanitarios Maracay under workers control. But where Chávez has been forced to nationalize plants because of the workers struggle, such as the steel factory SIDOR, formerly owned by the Argentine-Italian conglomerate Techint, which the government finally seized last April, it has been precisely in order clamp down on workers’ militancy. Through his twists and turns, Chávez has made it clear that his concept of “21st Century Socialism” does not involve expropriating or even breaking politically with the bourgeoisie. Following his defeat in the December 2007 constitutional referendum, the Venezuelan president reshuffled his cabinet, amnestied many of those who plotted the 2002 coup d’état and condemned left-wing “extremism,” declaring:

“We have to seek alliances with the middle class…even with the bourgeoisie. We can’t propose theses which have failed the world over, such as eliminating private property. That is not our thesis. [We can’t let ourselves be] deceived by the voices of extremism, of theses which have gone out of style, which you won’t find anywhere in the world, like the elimination of private property…. No, no, no! That is not our thesis. We have to look beyond that, to alliances to strengthen the new historical bloc as (Antonio) Gramsci called it.”
Aporrea, 4 January 2008.

Chávez also cited as revolutionary authorities V.I. Lenin, Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega … and Aleksandr Lukachenko, the strongman who presided over the restoration of capitalism in Bielorussia and counseled the Venezuelan president on the need to impart to the bourgeoisie “love for their nation, for their fatherland,” so that they will invest in their country!

The Struggle for Revolutionary Leadership

Those who tell the combative workers of Aragua to go along with Chávez are condemning them to continued capitalist exploitation. The alternative, however, is not social-democratic trade-unionism, limited to defensive struggles over wages and hours, but a revolutionary offensive. Nor is it sufficient to call, as does another self-proclaimed Trotskyist in Venezuela, the Liga de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (LTS – Socialist Workers League4, for a generic “independent” or even “revolutionary workers party.” In a country where every left tendency and even the capitalist state party calls itself “revolutionary” and “socialist,” it is clear that the only party that can lead the way forward to workers revolution is one based on the Bolshevik program of Lenin and Trotsky for international socialist revolution.

If the Venezuelan left continues on its present path, split between those who politically support Chávez and those who don’t go beyond a narrow defense of union gains, they risk ending up in the quandary of the Chilean left at the fall of the Unidad Popular (UP) government of Salvador Allende. At the time, in addition to the Communist and Socialist Parties that were part of Allende’s popular-front coalition with sectors of the bourgeoisie, there was a small left-wing group, the Unión Socialista Popular (USOPO) which split from the SP in opposition to the formation to the formation of the UP. The USOPO had strong positions in two key copper mines (Chuquicamata and El Teniente), much as the UNT is rooted in Venezuelan industries.

While the USOPO did not support Allende’s bourgeois government, again like the UNT it did not seek to organize a workers upsurge against it, even as the movement setting up cordones industriales (embryonic workers councils in the industrial belts around Santiago and Valparaiso) was spreading in 1972. By 1973, as the end was nearing, Allende attacked the copper workers as “privileged” for justifiably defending union gains such as a cost-of-living escalator to protect against the ravages of inflation. Trotskyists supported the El Teniente and Chuquicamata strike at the outset, but as the battle went on Christian Democratic forces seized control of the strike and allied with far-right and openly fascist sectors against the UP. In the end, demoralization of the workers meant that there was no sustained working-class resistance to the 1973 coup.

So long as would-be revolutionaries in Venezuela are either dragged along in Chávez’ wake or limit themselves to reflexive measures of defense, they will be unable to defeat the continuing reactionary drive to tie down and ultimately overthrow the nationalist government and replace it with unconditional puppets of imperialism. The League for the Fourth International seeks to forge the nucleus of a Leninist vanguard party on the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution – in particular, championing the cause of peasants who have been denied land by Chávez’ minimal “agrarian reform,” and fighting for international extension of the revolution throughout the hemisphere and into the heartland of U.S. imperialism. This is key to resolving the fundamental dilemma in Venezuela today, where a militant working class is paralyzed by the lack of a proletarian revolutionary leadership. ■

1 Chirinos’ Unidad de Izquierda Socialista is affiliated with the UIT-CI (International Workers Unity), one of the products of the splintering of the international current led by Nahuel Moreno following the latter’s death in 1987.

2 MS has fraternal ties to the Argentine MST (Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores), another spin-off of the implosion of Argentine Morenoism.

3 The IMT is the current incarnation of the Militant tendency historically led by Ted Grant in Britain, which was characterized by its decades-long “entry” into the social-democratic Labour Party.

4 Part of the Troskyist Faction, the international grouping led by the PTS (Socialist Workers Party) of Argentina, which originally comes out of the Morenoite current as well, although it adopts a more critical attitude toward its progenitor.

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