Hands Off Venezuela sent an international delegation to Caracas in December to witness the presidential elections. They were present at Venezuela's biggest ever demonstration. They visited missions, community radio stations, co-ops and factories occupied under workers' control, and were there with thousands of others to hear Chavez's victory speech from the presidential palace.
Over 120 people gathered at the Bolivar Hall in the Venezuelan Embassy in Grafton Street, London, last Tuesday to hear the delegation's report. As well as the delegation, speakers included left-wing contender for Labour Party leadership John McDonnell MP, Diane Raby, author of Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today and Alan Woods, author of The Venezuelan Revolution – A Marxist Perspective.
John McDonnell kicked off proceedings by publicly congratulating the Hands Off Venezuela Campaign and Alan Woods, its founder, for all the excellent work they have done in focusing attention on the events in Venezuela at a time when it has been so difficult to get information from the mainstream media. He also talked about the need for a society run along socialist principles and the need to bring the revolution to the UK. Interestingly, he made a public offer to Hands Off Venezuela to organise a one day gathering inside the Parliament, which was gladly accepted of course.
Alfredo Toro Hardy, the Venezuelan Ambassador in London, then addressed the meeting and thanked Hands Off Venezuela for being the first solidarity campaign to understand the events in Venezuela and to have been the first to initiate solidarity work. He stressed the need to step up the campaign to counter the media lies, referring to the international media depicting Venezuela as heading towards a dictatorship, which has no basis whatsoever in truth.
Diane Raby visited Venezuela at the same time as the delegation as an international observer. Referring to the elections she spoke of "the impressive rigour with which the process was conducted" citing the Identity Mission set up by the government to ensure ordinary people's official recognition and inclusion on the electoral register.
Next Espe Espigares, who chaired the meeting, introduced the report of the delegation of which she was also a part. She described the revolutionary process as "something really, really contagious and one that penetrates all aspects of Venezuelan society". Talking about the mood on the streets of Caracas she added "when we asked what people wanted from Hands Off Venezuela they would speak to us for hours. Such was the enthusiasm for the revolution!"
Matt Stevenson, one of the HoV delegates who went to Venezuela during the elections, next presented a slide-show of photos taken during the visit. They captured the colour and contrasts of a Venezuelan society brought to life through the enthusiasm for revolution. Matt went on to comment about the visit, recalling political discussion spontaneously sparking up on the Caracas metro between pro and anti-Chavistas which he said in contrast showed up the "marked difference to the level of consciousness we have in this country. You could really feel the process was alive".
The developing consciousness was further highlighted by a phenomenon Matt mentioned, which is known in Venezuela as Rojo Rojito, that is ‘really red'. This was in regard to the debate going on within the left wing in Venezuela between those who think the revolution has gone far enough, the bureaucracy, and those who want to push the revolution forward, those who are labelled ‘really red'.
Afterwards the first of a short series of films was shown covering the delegation's visit, followed by Mel MacDonald describing the terrible poverty that characterises cities like Caracas. She explained that 85% of the Caracas population live in the notorious Barrios, the city being in a valley where the higher you go up, the poorer it gets.
"Having seen the poverty it's impossible not to support the revolutionary process that is beginning to change these people's lives" she said, after describing the squalor in the Barrios that the delegation witnessed. These are the first supporters of that revolutionary process she added, "these people will come out at a moment's notice to defend their revolution".
Then Will Roche, another delegate, talked about the examples of workers' control the delegation witnessed, the fact that 30,000 workers were in co-ops in Venezuela and that 1,200 businesses were run under some form of workers' control. Today twenty of those businesses had been nationalised under workers' control.
When the delegation visited Sanitarios Maracay it had been occupied for just one month. The workers had seen the need to occupy the factory after it had been abandoned by the owner, who fled after a campaign by the workers for better conditions. This left 800 families without wages. The rising level of consciousness among the workers and throughout the local community was evident, Will said, by the widespread recognition that this was not only about jobs for the here and now, but for future jobs in the community.
It was also evident that the Sanitarios Maracay workers had learnt something from past examples, such as the 50-50 division of Invepal between co-operative administration and workers' control. Will explained that where the co-op was involved the company still based itself on the need for profit, leading to the peculiar situation of the workers exploiting themselves, or hiring other workers at a lower wage.
What was truly amazing, however, was the international awareness of the workers, which Sean Mackenzie also referred to, describing the Venezuelans' instant identification with his ‘Make War Not Tea' banner with a picture mocking Tony Blair. Will talked of what seemed to him a touching example of class solidarity, of the workers' understanding of the world-wide interconnection of capital. "They recognised the need to spread the revolution beyond Venezuela, through Latin America and throughout the world", he said.
Sean continued the point by linking the international and home situation in Britain when he talked of the PCS strike last week and the upcoming RMT and tube cleaners' strikes. "These are the struggles going on here, under our noses", he said.
Alan Woods, who concluded the speakers, opened by saying, "The most astonishing thing about all this is that none of this was meant to happen!". His remark was in reference to the ideological offensive against socialism that has been mounted by the bourgeoisie and their lackeys over the past 20 years.
Alan went on to criticise the conspiracy of silence that was prevalent in the Western media when such horrors as the Caracazo massacre of 1989 occurred in Venezuela. He emphasised how thousands were killed on that fateful day, when the "democratic" government of the day ordered its troops to fire on ordinary working people, men, women and children. There was not a whisper from the mainstream media. The same happened with the right-wing coup of 2002, when they presented it in a positive light. Further to that he pointed to the hypocrisy of the big-business media who now have no choice but to comment on the developments taking place in Venezuela. They cannot ignore it but what they do is to blatantly misrepresent the entire process. "When the people speak out in such unambiguous terms nobody has the right to question the democratic credentials of Hugo Chavez", he said.
"It is the duty of every socialist, student, trade unionist, even democrat (whether or not you are a socialist) to defend the democratic process taking place", Alan said, who posed the question as to whether we in Britain could do with the kind of renationalisation raised by Chavez in January. This was met with an enthusiastic round of applause.
Alan concluded by addressing the complaint often levelled at young people in Britain, that they are apathetic when it comes to politics, and contrasted this with the obvious youthful character of the meeting. Offer the people a real alternative, like that in Venezuela, and people will respond was his answer. "The revolution will not be finished until the oligarchy is defeated…fight for Hands Off Venezuela and above all fight for socialism on a world scale".
After this the floor was opened to questions and contributions. Many questions and points were raised from the floor. One person asked why Chavez needed an Enabling Act to give him powers to rule by decree if he had such popular support? Another question stemmed from a point Will Roche had made earlier, that "if workers can run factories, they can run society." The question was asked as to how this might happen. Someone else asked whether the ALBA could be viewed potentially as the first socialist economic bloc in the post-soviet era? And again, someone else asked whether the rule of decree was a sign of strength or weakness?
Some of the questions were answered by others intervening in the debate. One comrade, speaking from the audience, pointed out that we must not view the question of the Enabling Act from the comfort of a London flat. The people of Venezuela have waited long enough. They can wait no longer. They are in a hurry and no more time must be wasted. The longer the revolution is delayed the greater the risks of a right-wing backlash. Rather than complaining about Chavez being in a hurry, we should understand that it is the working class, the poor, who are in a hurry.
One or two individuals complained that there had not been no "talk of the class struggle". This was an amazing statement when we consider that one of the videos shown was of the Sanitarios Maracay workers who had occupied their factory. We could hear workers talking about socialism, revolution, nationalisation under workers' control and so on. It was a living example of the class struggle. Presumably some people can only recognise a revolution if the barricades are up at 9am on Monday morning, with Soviets and so on.
The meeting ran late and not all the questions could be answered, although the points did stimulate debate that ran over into the local pub after the meeting. Alan Woods in essence answered many of the points put forward by quoting from Lenin:
"Whoever expects to see a pure revolution will never live to see it…such a person pays lip service to revolution and does not know what a revolution is."
He explained that what we have in Venezuela is a revolution that is unfolding before our very eyes. He rounded up the meeting by restating: "It is necessary for us to defend the Bolivarian revolution, for if that revolution is defeated – just imagine the effects. How long will Cuba last? This is the fundamental question that affects socialists everywhere. The importance of Venezuela is beyond solidarity, we must begin a discussion on Venezuela and socialism internationally".