'Ten days that shook our world'

By Nick Everett
Photo by Mark Collard

“Nine decades ago a revolutionary journalist from New York, John Reed, published a book of his findings of a great revolutionary upheaval, the Russian revolution, titled Ten Days That Shook the World”, Ian Jamieson, a Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) delegate who participated in the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network (AVSN) May Day brigade to Venezuela, told a May 28 public meeting at the Maritime Union Hall in North Fremantle.

“Our brigade”, he added, “also spent only 10 days interviewing working people, their families, the poor, unionists and their officials, government representatives and those involved in the direct implementation of the Chavez government’s social programs. What we witnessed was a social transformation that is just as deep and profound as John Reed revealed in his book. It truly was 10 days that shook our world.”

Jamieson told the meeting that the brigade’s visit, held between April 28 and May 7, occurred during a period of renewed hostility from the US government towards the peoples of Latin America. “In Bolivia, there was an unofficial referendum for secession by the rich, white population of Bolivia’s eastern departments to split the integrity of Bolivia’s sovereignty, against the progressive leadership of the elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales”, he said. “The Venezuelan opposition is considering a similar secessionist move in the western Venezuelan state of Zulia. More ominously, the Bush administration is now resurrecting the Fourth Fleet, a 65,000- strong Caribbean naval fleet abandoned in the 1950s.”

Jamieson described how Washington had meddled in Venezuela to try to overthrow its popularly elected president, Hugo Chavez, on numerous occasions. In April 2002, an attempt by the country’s big business elite to oust Chavez in a US-backed generals’ coup failed when a “military-civilian” uprising brought down the short-lived dictatorship of business council chief Pedro Carmona. Then, between December 2002 and February 2003, a bosses’ lockout of the oil industry was fought and defeated by the Chavez government when oil production workers, supported by the army, took over control of PDVSA, Venezuela’s nominal state oil company.

Jamieson described how the resolve of the Venezuelan workers and peasants to chart a course independent of the US political and economic domination, and the interests of Venezuela’s capitalist oligarchy, is clearly demonstrated by popular mobilisation and organisation. “On May Day 2008, between half-a-million and 1 million people demonstrated in Caracas in support of the revolution”, he said.

An important factor in the strengthening of workers’ rights in Venezuela was the adoption, through a popular plebiscite, of a new constitution in 2001. According to the constitution, “If five people in a workplace want a union, they can form one”, explained Jamieson. “As a result, hundreds of new unions were established.” He told the meeting that the Venezuelan union movement was still trying to overcome significant challenges. Of the 11-million strong work force, 3 million are now union members. Over the last few years, 2 million workers had joined the pro-Chavez National Union of Workers (UNT).

“Within the UNT there are divisions”, explained Jamieson. “The Socialist Bolivarian Workers Front (FSBT), with the backing of the now sacked labour minister, Jose Ramon Ramerez, has attempted to set up a new union federation. It was looking as though there might not be a May Day rally this year. The rally came about because of the efforts of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. There are now 900,000 members of this party.” This new party was initiated by Chavez and was formally launched earlier this year.

The AVSN brigade met with workers at a steel plant, in Puerto Ordaz, which was recently nationalised by the Chavez government. Jamieson explained that the expropriation of the plant followed a 10-year battle by workers against the management of Argentine-owned SIDOR, Venezuela’s and Latin America’s biggest steel mill. During the course of the battle, the workers had been betrayed many times by their leaders and had established their own union, SITUSS. The battle came to a head when the governor of Bolivar state, Jose Rangel, reportedly ordered the national guard to attack striking workers.

On April 9, Chavez intervened to support the SIDOR workers’ demands, resulting in pay rise of up to 150 percent pay and health benefits being won. But the workforce also sought gains for the community as a whole through their struggle, according to Jamieson. “We are going to increase production because our community needs steel for houses”, one of the workers told the brigade.

Jamieson explained that the achievements of the Venezuelan revolution had come about because the country’s abundant oil resources had now been placed under the control of a working people’s government. “Imagine what we could achieve here in Western Australia, if the profits from the resources boom were put back into our community”, he said. “In a country as rich as ours we don’t have access to free education and free healthcare. Yet Venezuela is achieving these things ... Everywhere we went in Venezuela there was discussion about how to advance the country towards socialism in the 21st century. It was truly inspiring.”