How the April Revolution has transformed Venezuela

On April 13, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stood before hundreds of thousands of supporters on Bolivar Avenue in Caracas and declared that this date would be commemorated each year as the “Day of the Bolivarian National Militia, the People in Arms and the April Revolution”. On that day eight years ago, Chavez recalled, hundreds of thousands of workers were joined by tens of thousands of soldiers who “put their rifles at the side of the people” in a revolution that defeated the US-backed coup which had overthrown the elected Chavez government on April 11, kidnapped and held Chavez incommunicado, and installed business federation boss Pedro Carmona — to stop Chavez implementing pro-poor policies.

“The bourgeoisie keeps plotting to kill me”, Chavez pointed out. “If they kill me, listen to me, do not lose your head! We have leaders, the party, my generals, my militias, my people. You know what to do. Just take over power throughout Venezuela, absolutely all, sweep away the bourgeoisie from all political and economic spaces and deepen the revolution!”

The trigger for the US-backed coup was Chavez’s determination to keep the promise he made during the 1998 presidential election campaign to eradicate poverty in Venezuela, which soared above 50%, by using wealth created by the oil industry. Chavez moved in 2001 to take control of the formally state-owned oil company PDVSA to redirect its revenues to meet the needs of poor working people; force foreign oil companies operating in Venezuela to become minor shareholders in joint ventures with the PDVSA and other state-owned enterprises; and increase royalties paid by foreign oil companies from 1% to 30%.

The April 13, 2002 New York Times editorial repeated the lie peddled by the coup leaders that Chavez had resigned, despite Chavez having had no contact with the media. The editorial gleefully declared that Chavez’s “resignation” meant that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator”. According to the editorial, Venezuela’s military high command had replaced Chavez with a “respected business leader”. Pedro Carmona accepted the presidency on April 12 and immediately abolished the constitution which had been approved by 71% of voters in a December 1999 referendum. He also dissolved the National Assembly which had been elected on July 30, 2000, and the Supreme Court. These Carmona decrees were signed by leaders of the opposition parties. Meanwhile, pro-coup police killed protesters in the streets calling for the return of Chavez.

“I am sure”, Chavez said, commenting on these events at the April 13 mass rally, “the oligarchy and imperialism believed that if the people went out to the streets as they did [on April 13, 2002], it would end the same as it did during the Caracazo”, when a 1989 spontaneous rebellion by the poor against steep price rises was drowned in blood by the armed forces. “They were sure”, Chavez continued, “the rifles of our soldiers would stop the people’s rebellion, but they were surprised, because despite more than 100 traitorous generals and admirals subservient to the bourgeoisie; the soldiers not only refused to commit a massacre, but they put their rifles at the side of the people”.

As Chavez explained in an interview with Richard Gott shortly following the April 2002 Revolution, “Hundreds of thousands of people all over the country came out against the coup. And where was it that they went to? They assembled at the army barracks, and they did so because of the existing understanding that had been built up between officers and civilians through the Plan Bolivar. It was because of the contacts that had been made between the military and the poorest sectors of society that the people supported the army.”

On April 16, 2002, three days after a worker-soldier revolution had returned Chavez to power, the New York Times ran another editorial claiming it had “overlooked” the undemocratic character of the coup, but admitted that the coup was still welcomed by the US imperialist rulers: “In his three years in office, Mr Chavez has been such a divisive and demagogic leader that his forced departure last week drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer.” Unless, of course, it succeeds!

In the months which followed the April Revolution, Chavez “retired” over 400 military officers who had supported the coup. Those who had led the revolution within the armed forces were promoted. The military was now loyal to the interests of Venezuela’s working people and their revolutionary government. The April Revolution was a political revolution ­— it completely broke the control the capitalist class in Venezuela had over the two most important institutions of power in society, the government and armed forces, through mass direct action of the working people, in and out of uniform.

The US-backed capitalist opposition regrouped in the months after the April Revolution and used their managerial control of PDVSA to shut it down on December 2, 2002, in an attempt to cut off the main source of revenue for the Chavez government. The shutdown was supported overwhelmingly by the pro-capitalist managers and highly paid technical workers at PDVSA, who numbered around 18,000 in a company workforce of 40,000. Oil production was reduced from 3 million barrels per day to 150,000. Other employers across Venezuela reinforced the bosses’ oil lockout by closing their own businesses. Poor people were so desperate they eventually began chopping up their own furniture, using it as fuel to cook food.

Five days after the bosses’ lockout began, over 2 million workers and small farmers from across the country flooded the streets of Caracas to rally in support of the Chavez government. The bosses’ lockout was broken by a government-directed campaign by oil production workers and soldiers to take control of PDVSA installations, carefully undoing dangerous sabotage, reopening ports and restarting refineries over the course of two months.

In a nationally televised address on January 10, 2003, with control of PDVSA now in the hands of the working people’s government, Chavez stated: “Only now can we say the PDVSA has begun to be the property of Venezuelans, the property of the Venezuelan people.” Chavez ordered the sacking of all 18,000 PDVSA managers and technicians who had participated in the bosses’ lockout.

With control of PDVSA in its hands, the Chavez government had expropriated the largest piece of property previously under the capitalist class’s control. With the revenues of PDVSA and its logistical resources, the Chavez government has been able to side-step much of the civil service of the old capitalist state, which obstructs the radical pro-working people initiatives of the government.

The US imperialist rulers, through both the Bush and Obama administrations, have since escalated their effort to overthrow Chavez, who is described as the “Leading Anti-US Regional Force” in the US government’s Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community 2009 report. The number of US military bases surrounding Venezuela has expanded from 13 to 20 with seven new bases in Colombia, the US Fourth Fleet of warships has been reactivated to patrol the Caribbean and US funding of opposition groups in Venezuela has reached US$15 million a year.

In the face of continued US threats, Chavez commemorated the anniversary of the revolution on April 13 by swearing 34,000 people into the battalions of students, farmers’ and workers’ militia. “I am very proud that there are a lot of women among the ranks, giving more strength, courage and passion to the task of fighting for the country’s independence and sovereignty” said Chavez. The militia took a pledge to defend Venezuela, “until the final consolidation of the socialist revolution”. According to the Minister of People’s Power for Public Works and Housing, Diosdado Cabello, a total of 120,000 people volunteer in the militia.

While only $40 million was invested in social programs in 1998 according to the minister of finance and planning, Jorge Giordani, with control of PDVSA, the Chavez government has invested $330 billion into its socialist-oriented development measures. The government-funded social missions have led to a significant improvement in living standards. Funding of communal councils has led to the development of a new form of participatory socialist democracy that is taking on increasing responsibilities and displacing the alienating institutions of formal representative democracy, such as local mayors and governors.

On April 16, 2003, social mission Barrio Adentro (“Into the Neighbourhood”) was launched to create a free healthcare system. Since then, the mission has established 6711 clinics in the poor barrios, 503 integral diagnosis centres, 545 integral rehabilitation rooms and 21 high technology centres. Critical to the mission has been the help of over 20,000 Cuban health professionals, who have staffed the clinics while Venezuelans travelled to socialist Cuba for medical training. In December 2011, 8581 Venezuelan doctors from a group of 25,000 studying Integral Communitarian Medicine will graduate and replace the Cuban physicians.

In 2004, the Cuban and Venezuelan governments signed an agreement to launch the social mission Milagro (“Miracle”). The mission provides free laser eye surgery to people across Latin America to end curable blindness caused by cataracts. On March 11, Manuel Pacheco, the international coordinator of mission Milagro, reported that it has cured 1,038,683 people with the surgery carried out by both Cuban and Venezuelan specialists. As part of spreading the idea of solidarity and cooperation between Latin American nations, the mission has treated more than 25,000 patients from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Gambia, Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.

To counter the monopoly of corporate supermarket chains and their high prices, 15,000 government-funded mission Mercal shops have been set up, offering a 27-39% discount on food. They have benefited 13 million people. Before the revolution, 70% of all food in Venezuela was imported, despite it being a fertile country, so the Mercal markets have helped to develop the production of food in Venezuela by buying local produce. The Mercal mission now sells nearly 5000 tonnes of food per day.

While one in six people across the world go hungry every day, the Venezuelan socialist revolution has reduced malnutrition by 75%, from 21% in 1998 to 6%. According to Marilyn Di Luca, executive director of the National Institute of Nutrition (INN), the average consumption of kilocalories per day in Venezuela is now 2790, well above the critical daily level needed for a healthy life of 1900 kilocalories set by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Under the School Food Program, 4 million Venezuelan children and adolescents receive free meals on a daily basis.

On April 18, vice president Elias Jaua reported that since the Law of Lands and Agricultural Development was introduced, 40% of large privately owned estates have been expropriated. The 2.5 million hectares of land recovered by the government has been redistributed to agricultural cooperatives together with funding for increasing production. Food production has increased from 14 million tonnes in 1998 to 21 million in 2009.

Only 62% of Venezuelans had access to sewage services in 1998; that had increased to over 82% by 2007. Access to safe drinking water was only available to 80% of people in 1998, but increased to over 92% by 2007.

The previous monopoly held by corporate media is also being broken down in Venezuela. Of 81 TV stations, 79 were privately owned before the revolution. Now more than 30 are run by local communities and six by the Chavez government. While only 13 licensed community radio stations existed at the beginning of 2002, there are now more than 230 grassroots radio stations run by poor communities.

In 2000, only 273,000 people subscribed to the internet, this jumped to 1,585,000 by 2009. The number of internet users in 2000 was 820,000, rising to 7,552,570 in 2009. Internet access has been promoted by the government which has funded 668 information centres that are being transferred to community council control. A further 200 are scheduled to be built in 2010.

On April 5, the Canaima Project was launched by the Chavez government. It is distributing 350,000 child-size laptop computers purchased from Portugal to public schools to improve computer literacy at an early age. The project is equipped with its own network called Salon and all the software programs were created as free software by Venezuelan citizens.

The socialist revolution has significantly improved living standards for poor working people and reduced inequality. On March 9 the president of the National Statistics Institute (INE), Elias Eljuri, reported that Venezuela’s Human Development Index, a measure of each country’s average lifespan, education and income compiled annually by the UN Development Program, had moved from the “medium” to the “high” human development ranking between 2003 and 2007. General poverty was 50.5% in 1998, and had been reduced to 24.2% by 2009. Extreme poverty declined from 17.1% in 1998 to 6% in 2009. Unemployment dropped from 12% in 1998 to 8.6% in February 2010. According to the Gini coefficient, which is used by the UN to measure inequality in countries on a scale (of 0 to 1, where zero equals complete equality), inequality in Venezuela dropped from 0.4865 in 1998 to 0.3928 by the end of 2009.

Venezuela’s minimum wage will be increased 15% in September, maintaining it as the highest minimum wage in Latin America and taking it to the equivalent of US$673 a month, including $208 worth of food tickets. The announced increases in the minimum wage will also benefit 2.6 million people whose government pensions and allowances are set at 60-80% of the minimum wage, such as poor women who receive an allowance via the social mission Mothers of the Neighbourhood in recognition of their unwaged domestic labour contribution to the economy.

Together with Cuba, Vernezuela has initiated a broad program of international solidarity and cooperation through the formation of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). The alliance now includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and the small Caribbean island states of Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. On April 14 and 15, a meeting of ALBA members signed the ALBA Education Grandnational Project-Bicentenary Declaration of Caracas. The countries aim to eradicate illiteracy in all member states and extend primary education to all children.