Venezuela and Chile: A contrast in strategies

By Jorge Jorquera

[The following article is based upon a Direct Action forum held in Melbourne on September 26.]

There is one song in my life that invariably draws tears: Inti Illimani’s “Cancion del Poder Popular”. This song was one of the hymns of the 1970-73 Popular Unity (UP) government of “Marxist” President Salvador Allende. More than any other song, it symbolised the hopes of the Chilean workers and the political illusions their leadership had sown. The tragedy these illusions led to brings back much anger and the hope that such a path will not be walked again.

We will take the reins
of all our business
and once and for all they understand
men and women all together.

Because this time it’s not just
a change of president
it will be the people who build
a very different Chile.

A few years ago some friends replaced “Chile” with “Venezuela”. Again the song brought tears, but this time accompanied by hope rather than anger.

Like thousands of Chilean workers, my father did not return home on the afternoon of September 11, 1973. In his factory, as in hundreds of workplaces, the workers debated what to do. The factory had ample supplies of petrol, and some workers argued for using this to engage in armed battle with the tanks and soldiers invading the streets of the capital, Santiago.

Hundreds of thousands of class-conscious workers heeded Allende’s call that morning: “I call on all workers to occupy their workplaces ... the people must be alert and vigilant. You should not allow yourselves to be provoked nor to be massacred, but you must also defend your gains.”

Allende’s words encapsulated the impotence of the UP leadership in the face of the generals’ coup. In his first announcement at 7.55am, Allende still assured the workers that “loyal [armed] forces respecting their pledges to the [government] authority, together with the organised workers, will squash this fascist coup that threatens the nation”. By the time of his final radio announcement at 9.10am, Allende had resigned himself to the tragedy now awaiting the Chilean workers.

In their factories, the workers hung on every word from Allende. He told them he would not resign and would pay with his life defending the “Chilean revolution”. The workers waited for direction: how were they to resist? Allende sent a message through his daughter, Tati, to Miguel Enriquez, general secretary of the Chilean Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). “It’s the hour of Miguel”, Allende said. But it was too late. The MIR, the only consistently revolutionary organisation of the Chilean working class, was not strong enough on its own. Its members tried desperately to activate their networks to provide the leadership the Chilean workers so desperately required.

Enriquez had met early that morning with leaders of the Chilean Socialist Party (PS) and Communist Party (PC), the two largest organisations in the UP. The PS leadership and its ranks had increasingly radicalised throughout the period of the UP government. They were inclined to struggle, but they lacked the organisation to effect this in such a crisis. The far better organised PC told the MIR that it would wait to see if the leaders of the military coup closed parliament before deciding on a course of action. Workers were left without recourse. Many fought valiantly for the socialism they believed they had begun to construct. Thousands died in hand-to-hand combat defending their factories. Most went into hiding to fight another day, only to be arrested, tortured and jailed.

On September 17, General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship criminalised the national trade union federation. On September 24, it dissolved parliament. On October 1, it replaced all university rectors with military personnel, and on October 8 it criminalised all left parties. The PC and sectors of the PS and of other components of the UP, such as the Radical Party and parts of the Movement of Popular Unitary Action (MAPU), maintained that the left’s strategy should centre on winning the “democratic bourgeois” away from supporting Pinochet and that any form of armed resistance should be avoided so as not to scare such layers. The reformist leaders who had dominated the UP government continued with the same strategic perspective that had led to this historic defeat.

A mistaken strategy

The Popular Unity represented (in part) a movement, much like the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela, whose trajectory was anti-capitalist. However, unlike the Bolivarian movement, the leadership of the UP had a reformist strategy. Dominated by the “Popular Frontist” traditions and perspectives of the Chilean Communist Party, the UP government had a non-revolutionary, gradualist perspective of how socialism might be created. The UP’s 1969-70 election platform proposed “gradual transfer of power from the ruling groups to the workers, peasants and progressive middle sectors through the creation of a people’s assembly, and a greater participation of workers and peasants, through unions and community organisations, in national and local policy decisions, as well as direct representation of workers and white-collar employees on the board of directors of public enterprises”.

Allende, who himself symbolised the tragedy of socialist aspirations wedded to reformist perspectives, never tired of arguing for this gradualist strategy, regardless of the forum. His 1972 speech to the UN is an example of this: “In a programmed and coherent manner, the old structure, based on the exploitation of the workers and the domination of the main means of production by a minority, is being overcome. It is being replaced by a new structure — led by the workers and placed at the service of the interests of the majority ... The workers are driving the privileged sectors from political and economic power, both in the centres of labour as well as in the communes and in the state. This is the revolutionary content of the process my country is going through for overcoming the capitalist system and opening the way for a socialist one.”

The gradualist, social-democratic perspective, as developed from the late 1890s in the writings of Eduard Bernstein of the German Social Democratic Party, is premised on legislated measures that aim to bring the economy into state ownership while preserving the constitutional order of liberal parliamentary “democracy” — leaving intact its bureaucratic military machine, its civil bureaucracy, judiciary and its institutional exclusion of the working masses from political decision-making. Significant economic reforms were at the heart of the UP’s platform. The UP government, though hampered by its parliamentary weakness (the UP remained a minority in the Chilean Congress), moved to nationalise all agricultural estates of more than 80 hectares of irrigated land, to nationalise the copper mining industry, banks and insurance companies, and to carry out other significant economic measures aimed at improving workers’ living standards. These included increasing the wages of lower-paid workers by 66%, providing a free litre of milk a day for 4 million children and financial measures that halved unemployment and increased consumer purchasing power.

The UP’s program recognised the general importance of achieving a new “popular state” and that “the revolutionary changes required by Chile can only be carried out if the people of Chile take power into their own hands and exercise it in a true and effective manner”. The working people of Chile were supposed to “take power into their own hands” while respecting the existing constitutional order. The UP’s program reflected the increasingly sharp struggle between the reformism of the CP and sections of the Socialist Party led by Allende, the MAPU and the Radical Party, and the revolutionary outlook beginning to develop among the vanguard workers, inside and outside the UP. Furthermore, in almost every major political confrontation with its opponents on the right, the Allende government preferred to make political concessions to the Christian Democrats (who retained control of the Congress) and the capitalists.

In the April 1971 municipal elections, the UP obtained 50.86% of the vote, an increase of 13%, strengthening its ability to counter right-wing opposition to its reforms. However, it failed to do so. Instead, the Chilean capitalist class grasped the initiative and in March 1972 the leaders of the opposition parties and the employers’ associations met to plot a vast plan of civil disturbance and economic sabotage. In April 1972, a small section of the UP, previously part of the Radical Party, broke with the government, and the opposition organised its first “march of democracy”.

Chavez takes another road

In April 2002, the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also faced a right-wing military coup which, like that launched against Allende 30 years earlier, was strongly supported by the country’s business elite. However, thanks to the radically different strategy pursued by Chavez and his close associates, the Venezuelan Pinochets and their backers in Washington were dealt a stunning counterblow.

After winning his first election in December 1998 with 56% of the vote, Chavez moved immediately to the election of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. This was approved in a referendum by 70% of the voters. After the new constitution was adopted, the old congress was disbanded and new elections held. In July 2000, the Chavez forces won a majority in congress, and Chavez was re-elected president. In November 2000, the government enacted 49 new laws, including a land reform law and a law aimed at reorganising the national oil company, PDVSA.

Unlike the UP, the Chavez government deliberately set out to strengthen the independent organisation and mobilising power of the working class, regardless of “provoking” Venezuelan capitalists and US imperialism. In early 2001, the government began to organise working people into Bolivarian Circles, neighbourhood-based action committees that provide the embryonic organs of working people’s power.

In Chile in October 1972, the National Confederation of Road Haulers declared an indefinite national strike. Shopkeepers also declared a national strike. In the face of the “bourgeois strike”, supported by all the right-wing parties, the working class mobilised and began to take over production in the factories and distribution of consumer goods in their neighbourhoods. This working-class response forced the Christian Democrats — the main right-wing party — to withdraw support for the bosses’ strike. The UP leaders interpreted this as a new opportunity to win the Christian Democrats’ support. In November the UP announced the entry into the cabinet of three generals. According to the PC, this was going to be a “cabinet against subversion”. Rather than strengthen workers’ organisations and move to the much promised referendum and dismantling of the old parliament, the government retreated and sought to avoid the inescapable political confrontations with the capitalist class.

Instead of strengthening the hand of the constitutionalist generals and officers in the armed forces (of whom there were significant numbers), by encouraging united action by rank-and-file soldiers and junior officers with the workers’ movement, the UP government refused to go “behind the backs” of the military high command. In a meeting with UP MP Laura Allende, also attended by MIR leader Andres Pascal Allende, Colonel Ominami, who was in charge of the El Bosque airforce base, pleaded that President Allende should meet with pro-democracy officers. Allende never did.

By contrast, Chavez has consistently organised the democratic forces within the armed forces. In 1982, he was one of the four founders of the clandestine Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement (MBR-200), an underground organisation of radical-minded officers within the Venezuelan military which, in 1992, organised some 2000 officers and soldiers in a revolt against the right-wing government of President Carlos Andres. In an address given at Havana University in 1994, Chavez said: “We had the audacity to found a movement within the ranks of the army of Venezuela. We were tired of the corruption, and we swore to dedicate our lives to the creation of a revolutionary movement and to the revolutionary struggle in Venezuela, straight away, within Latin America.” Following his election as Venezuela’s president at the end of 1998, Chavez launched Plan Bolivar 2000, drawing the soldiers and junior officers into civilian-oriented public works programs and encouraging direct contact and collaboration with the workers and the poor.

US-backed coups

By the end of 1972, Washington and the Chilean capitalist class had begun making serious coup plans. By May 1973, they had decided on a June coup date. Still the army’s III Division, responsible for Santiago, was unreliable, with too many democratic-minded officers and soldiers, and the coup plan was uncovered. Allende called on workers to mobilise and threatened to arm the people. Hundreds of factories, offices, schools and population centres were occupied. Democratic-minded officers in the armed forces demanded the government pass over to an offensive against the coup plotters. However, the government, imprisoned by its strategy of building an alliance with the “democratic sectors” of the capitalist class, decided against an offensive. Demoralised, the constitutionalist head of the armed forces, General Carlos Prats, resigned himself to the looming defeat, as did hundreds of democratic-minded officers and thousands of soldiers.

The April 2002 coup in Venezuela put the Chavez leadership to the same test as the June 1973 coup attempt in Chile. The popular response in Venezuela revealed the beginning of a worker-peasant-soldier counter-power to that of the capitalist class and its generals. Within hours of Chavez’s kidnapping by right-wing officers on April 11, a popular uprising had begun. The people in Caracas’ poor hillside suburbs started to come out onto the streets. At the same time, protests began throughout the country’s interior.

General Raul Baduel, in charge of the Maracay-based parachute brigade and a founding member of the MBR-200, refused to recognise the coup regime headed by employers’ federation leader Pedro Carmona. Together with the people of Maracay, the parachute brigade set up barricades in preparation for battle. Word of Baduel’s stand soon reached leaders of the popular movement and soldiers throughout the country. The order went out through the Bolivarian Circles and other mass organisations for people to march to the army barracks. They did so in their thousands, calling on soldiers to support the movement and to demand the return of Chavez.

This strengthened the resolve of the pro-Chavez officers and soldiers. On April 12, a group of young officers with contacts in the military academy, where a number of the coup conspirators had set up their base, met to organise themselves. They had two key goals — to find a general at the army headquarters who would side with the people, and to break the media blackout on developments. Two lieutenant-colonels garnered the support of generals Martinez Mendoza and Garcia Carneiro, and they organised the retaking of the government TV channel.

At 10am on April 13, the presidential palace regiment took over the palace and forced coup leaders to flee. By then, hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets of Caracas, sweeping down to the city centre from the hillside suburbs. The atmosphere was defiant, with repeated chants of “Pueblo, escucha, unete a la lucha” (People, listen, unite in the struggle) and “Chavez, amigo, el pueblo esta contigo” (Chavez, friend, the people are with you).


Having crushed the coup, the Chavista forces moved against the plotters, sacking more than 400 leading officers. As a result, the split in the military and the civil-military alliance forged in the insurrection against the US-backed coup was consolidated. Chavez returned to office but this time he governed with the capitalists’ control over the military having been smashed, opening the way to the construction of a revolutionary workers and peasants’ state. By the time of the second capitalist conspiracy to oust Chavez — the December 2002 oil industry lockout — the working people’s government was able to mobilise an increasingly class-conscious and combative working class to break the bosses’ strike and bring the giant PDVSA oil company under the government’s control, giving it an initial base from which to start reorganising the economy and society along socialist lines.

Through the April confrontation, Chavez and the working people of Venezuela learnt in practice the lesson of the Chilean tragedy of 1973 — summarised by MIR leader Miguel Enriquez at an underground press conference held one month after Pinochet’s coup: “The crisis of the system of [capitalist] domination ... [was] crystallised in the rise of the UP government. This generated conditions that would have permitted, if the government had been utilised as an instrument of the working-class struggle, the conquering of power by the workers and a proletarian revolution.

“But the reformist project assumed by the UP imprisoned itself in the bourgeois order ... With the hope of achieving an alliance with a section of the bourgeoisie, it didn’t base itself on the revolutionary organisation of the workers, in their own organs of power. It refused an alliance with the soldiers and junior officers; it preferred trying to fortify itself within the capitalist state apparatus and the officer corps of the armed forces.

“The reformist illusion allowed the dominant classes to fortify themselves in the superstructure of the state and from there initiate its reactionary counter-offensive. The reformist illusion was paid and is being paid for cruelly by the workers, their leaders and parties ... dramatically confirming the words of the French revolutionary of the 18th century, Saint Just: ‘Those who make revolutions in halves only dig their own graves’.”