A few years ago it might have appeared that the process of radical social change underway in Venezuela had little in common with the socialist revolutions of the 20th century, including that paradigm of Latin American people’s power revolutions, the Cuban Revolution. Today, it’s clear that the Venezuelan revolution led by President Hugo Chavez is following closely in the footsteps of the Cuban Revolution. As Chavez himself said last year during a visit to Havana, Venezuela and Cuba are undergoing “one and the same revolution”.
Not only is Venezuela’s revolutionary path converging with that of the Cuban Revolution, but the deepening political, economic and military ties between the two countries mean that the fate of each revolution is now bound up with the other. To US imperialism and Venezuela’s pro-US corporate elite, this revolutionary convergence is horrifying. Just as in Cuba in 1960, Venezuela’s privately-owned factories, banks and media empires are being nationalised by a revolutionary working people’s government. Under the spell of “that monkey” Chavez, Venezuela – formerly adored by the rich for its tacky shopping malls, beauty queens and soap operas – is drifting inexorably towards “Castro communism”, and it seems there’s not a damn thing they can do about it. Some have already left for Miami where they smoke Cuban cigars and play dominoes with the former owners of Cuba’s farms and factories.
The view from Venezuela’s urban poor neighbourhoods or barrios is very different. Several generations of Venezuelans were indoctrinated in the US and Venezuelan corporate elite’s view of the world, at the core of which is fear and hatred of Cuba’s socialist revolution. This began to change in 2003. In April 2002, the elected Chavez government was briefly overthrown in a military coup backed by the US, but in less than two days the coup regime was overthrown in an insurrection by soldiers and the poor, who streamed down from the barrios and surrounded the presidential palace.
Having purged the military of the coup leaders, the revolutionary government that emerged from this uprising ordered the armed forces to help oil workers smash a bosses’ lock-out of the oil industry that began in December 2002. The lockout was defeated early the following year. With the state oil company PDVSA in the hands of a working people’s government, the oil wealth it generated could be used to empower the 80% of Venezuelans living in poverty to improve their lives and begin to build a new society.
Venezuela’s middle-class doctors had been educated in elite schools and attracted to the medical profession by the promise of high salaries and social status. Most refused to even enter the barrios. So Chavez accepted then Cuban president Fidel Castro’s offer to send thousands of Cuban doctors to staff neighborhood health clinics.
Predictably, Venezuela’s corporate media went berserk, accusing the Cubans of malpractice, preaching communism and “stealing” Venezuelan doctors’ jobs. In reality the Cuban doctors, all volunteers, were among the best trained in the world, and their code of ethics forbade them from getting involved in Venezuelan politics. Venezuelans living in squalor were astonished and deeply moved, that these foreign doctors actually cared for them as human beings, lived among them in their humble homes and shared some of the hardships of life in the barrios. The Cubans had been educated in a spirit of internationalist solidarity.
With up to 30,000 Cuban doctors serving the poor in Venezuela, from urban slums to remote indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest, it was the power of example that changed Venezuelan attitudes to Cubans and the Cuban Revolution on a mass scale. Without massive Cuban support, the Venezuelan government’s ambitious social programs would not have been realised. These social “missions” in health care, education and sports have boosted support for the revolutionary government among Venezuela’s poor, countering the capitalist opposition’s increasingly desperate anti-Cuba campaign. Cuban doctors in Venezuela have been joined by thousands of Cuban teachers, sports trainers and technicians. Cuba is now helping Venezuela train its own skilled personnel, educated in the humane values of socialism rather than the selfish values of capitalism. To this end, Cuba has opened its medical schools to thousands of Venezuelan youth.
As the Cubans won the battle for hearts and minds, the Chavez government began to reciprocate Cuba’s generosity by sending shipments of oil. Later, dozens of economic agreements were signed between the two countries. These are not commercial transactions. No attempt was made, for example, to put a monetary value on the services of the Cuban doctors working in Venezuela. How can you put a monetary value on the life of a child? On the dignity of a grandmother who has just learned to write her own name? On the survival of the Cuban Revolution? The socialist economic cooperation between Cuba and Venezuela is trade as it should be – “if you need something, here, let’s share it”. Capitalism, by contrast, says: “I’ll sell it to you, but only if I can make a profit”, and the capitalist market is blind to those who can’t afford to pay.
Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has sent more doctors to serve in other Third World countries than the UN World Health Organization, and Cuba’s international solidarity is contagious. When hurricanes hit Cuba last year, Venezuelan volunteer brigades left for Cuba to repair homes and schools. Together, Venezuela and Cuba have launched “Operation Miracle” to wipe out curable blindness throughout the Americas. 267,000 eye operations have been performed free of charge in Cuban facilities for people unable to afford such treatment in their own country. Venezuela covers the cost of flying the patient and a relative to Cuba for the operation. This program has since been extended to other Latin American and African countries. Since its inception in 2004, Operation Miracle has restored sight to 1.6 million people from 35 countries. Cuban eye surgeons have even restored the sight of the Bolivian army officer who murdered Argentinian-born Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1967.
As more and more of the Venezuelan economy is taken out of the hands of the capitalists, there is growing integration between Cuba’s socialist state enterprises and their counterparts in revolutionary Venezuela. This cooperation is vital for Cuba. With Venezuela’s help, Cuba is better able to cope with losses from three devastating hurricanes in 2008 and the global recession. As a result, Cuba is gradually emerging from the deep economic crisis caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, at the beginning of the 1990s.
One example of this cooperation is Venezuela’s PDVSA teaming up with Cuba’s state oil company CUPET to drill for oil in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Work is also underway on the construction of a vast petrochemical complex in central Cuba. The hope is that Cuba could become an energy-independent, oil-exporting country in as little as five years, making the US economic blockade of Cuba increasingly ineffective.
No less important for Cuba is the morale boost that comes with the opening of Venezuela’s socialist revolution. Cuba has been battered by US trade sanctions, in force since 1962, and the post-Soviet economic crisis, from which it is yet to fully recover. Cuba’s youth, who have grown up in the shadows of this crisis period, are more prone to disillusionment than either their parents or their grandparents, who began the revolution. The youth have no memory of what life was like under capitalist rule, and they tend to take for granted the enduring achievements of the socialist revolution.
But by participating in the Venezuelan social missions, young Cubans can see for themselves what capitalism has done to the Third World. They can absorb the invigorating spirit of this new revolution in all its freshness and vitality, and bring some of this spirit back home. In Venezuela, Che’s image is everywhere, but Che is not just revered as an icon. His writings are studied seriously.
With their vast experience, Cuba’s revolutionary leaders can offer guidance to the relatively inexperienced Venezuelan leadership. Venezuela is not striking out in complete darkness; Cuba, through half a century of revolution, has illuminated the path ahead. But the Cubans don’t try to run the Venezuelan revolution from Havana. The relationship between Chavez and Fidel is especially close, and Chavez travels to Cuba frequently to confer with Fidel and the Cuban government led by President Raul Castro. Together, Cuba and Venezuela lead the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, known by its Spanish acronym, ALBA. This regional alliance of revolutionary and leftist governments is aimed at strengthening the radical pole within the Latin American left, which today is experiencing a historic resurgence.
It’s not surprising that Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, for all its originality, finds itself “marching down the Cuban road”. Unlike Fidel, Raul and Che, who came to power with a scientific socialist (i.e., Marxist) outlook, Chavez was not a revolutionary socialist when he was elected Venezuela’s president at the end of 1998. But through the course of the struggle he has become one. From the experience of the April 2002 coup, Chavez concluded that the idea of a “third way” between neoliberal capitalism and socialism was utopian, and that the only real choice was between capitalism and socialism. Judging by his actions, Chavez seems to have come to understand that to remain true to itself, Venezuela’s socialist revolution must take the Cuban road.
This doesn’t mean attempting to copy everything the Cuban revolutionaries have done. Just as no two people are exactly alike, no two revolutions are identical. There is no blueprint for building socialism. Genuine socialist revolutions require both clear-sighted revolutionary leadership and the mobilisation of the creativity of millions of working people. Yet there are certain social laws, definite patterns, that must be obeyed in carrying out even the most radical social transformations.
The evolution of society, like the rest of nature, is a law-governed process, that often leads to “convergence” of forms. Wings have evolved independently at least six times in insects, bats and reptiles; the octopus eye is uncannily similar to ours; both sharks and dolphins have fins or flippers, but while sharks are a species of fish, dolphins are mammals that returned to the sea millions of years ago. Convergence happens because, of all the conceivable solutions to life’s survival challenges, only a few actually work, and even fewer work well. This is why animals have evolved legs, wings and flippers for getting around, but never wheels.
Since human society is part of nature and since societies also evolve, human history is also strikingly convergent, at least in its broad sweep. Until about 12,000 years ago all human societies were small bands of wandering hunter-gatherers with an egalitarian social structure. As Jared Diamond points out in his best-selling book Germs, Guns and Steel (and as Karl Marx explained more than 150 years ago), agricultural societies with pottery, metallurgy, writing, social classes and religion arose independently in the present-day Middle East, China, Central America and Peru. This is not some wacky coincidence, but the logical outcome of the historical process. Even ideologies are convergent. In ancient Egypt, China and Peru, separated by thousands of years and thousands of kilometres, the ruling despots – the pharaoh, the “Son of Heaven” and the Sapa Inca respectively – were regarded as living gods.
The fact that Venezuela’s anti-capitalist people’s power revolution confronts similar challenges to the Cuban Revolution – from the building up of a socially owned, centrally planned economy to the creation of a mass party of the revolution – explains why there are many similarities between these two “sister” revolutions, and why their paths are converging. As Chavez has said, Cuba and Venezuela are undergoing one and the same revolution: the socialist revolution.
[Marce Cameron is president of the Sydney University Cuba-Venezuela Solidarity Club and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]