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Carnival in Caracas

Unfortunately, most scholarly writing on Venezuela has been so uncritical of Betancourt and Acción Democrática7 that little is known abroad about its current problems. No study has yet been made of the deeper reasons why Venezuela has squandered most of its oil revenues over the past two decades, and why democratic politics have failed to diversify the economy so that it would be more independent of oil. In one of the many recent books praising AD, for example, John Duncan Powell claims that the party maintained its power by “an organized program of benefits to rural voters.” But Powell confines his study largely to the apparatchik-functionaries of the AD-controlled Venezuelan Peasant Federation, overlooking the fact that the “benefits to rural voters” were modest indeed. According to one government report, two-fifths of the 162,000 land parcels purportedly given peasant “beneficiaries” in Venezuela’s agrarian reform have been abandoned. On the 95,000 land parcels that are still occupied, 80 percent of the peasants had never received titles or were squatting illegally on lands given other peasants. “This represents a regressive process,” the report continues,

…since in many cases this means that a single person has been able to grab up many parcels previously distributed to peasants, who in turn have moved into the belts of misery that surround the cities, or reverted to their past lives as conuqueros [nomadic practitioners of slash-and-burn agriculture] in the mountains. What is worse, many have remained to work as peons for the private agricultural firms organized on the lands which the peons received under the agrarian reform and still legally own.8

Much of the $2 billion spent on the Venezuelan land reform went for expropriating latifundia at inflated prices to landlords, leading another expert to conclude that “the landowners gained more than the campesinos.”9 In a series last year on “The Harvest of Failure” in the Caracas newspaper El Nacional, Venezuela’s leading investigative reporter, Germán Carías, reported that “$125 million were spent to build a large dam and irrigation canals—government posters called it ‘the largest irrigation system in Latin America….’ Today most of the canals are clogged, the peasants are losing their crops and, paradoxically, cattle are dying in the summer for lack of water. The immense dam is cared for by dozens of government functionaries, yet its only use now is by sportsmen on Sunday outings from Caracas or Valencia who use the dam to practice water-skiing.”10

These sickening stories have created a political vacuum from which two new political movements have arisen. One is the political resurrection of Pérez Jimenez. A second derives from the remains of the failed guerrilla insurrection of the 1960s and the split of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) in December, 1970. The younger PCV leaders who helped to organize the 1958 popular uprising that led to the fall of Pérez Jimenez, and who then started the guerrilla movement, are the closest Latin America has come to producing a coherent group of professional revolutionaries in the classic sense. After the late Sixties, when the guerrilla movement was defeated, this group rebelled against the older communist leadership and, after a bitter intraparty struggle, they formed their own Marxist-Leninist party, the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo). One of the important documents of the intraparty debate on renovation vs. orthodoxy that finally split the PCV was a short book on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia by a former guerrilla leader, Teodoro Petkoff, who was denounced in Pravda just before the PCV split and later by Leonid Brezhnev, in his speech to the Twenty-fourth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, for “nationalist tendencies [with] an anti-soviet character.”

In his ¿Socialismo para Venezuela? (1970), published a few months before he left the PCV to form the MAS, Petkoff broke with the traditional cold war PCV line by arguing that “the anti-imperialist struggle in Venezuela does not consist of a declaration of war against the United States, but a very real confrontation with our own dependent capitalism and its political power.” The launching of the MAS has been a dramatic event, and the new party is expected to make a strong showing in the December elections. When they were most successful in the early Sixties, the Venezuelan guerrillas used sensational stunts such as the brief kidnapping of a Spanish soccer star, the hijacking of the steamer Anzoategui, the stealing and voluntary return of an entire exhibition of French impressionist paintings. The newly formed MAS has recently been using similar tactics to frighten and lampoon the Venezuelan plutocracy.11

The MAS attacks on the rich—orchestrated with splashy posters and the distribution of thousands of counterfeit banknotes bearing portraits of tycoons and the legend: This money is false, he has the real money—are now attracting wider support than anyone would have predicted a few years ago. When García Márquez returned to Caracas last year to receive the Rómulo Gallegos Award for One Hundred Years of Solitude, he donated the $23,000 prize money to the MAS. It is, he said,12

…a young and imaginative party with a great doctrinal clarity, with its own policy based on national reality, with a stupendous spirit of personal sacrifice and a revolutionary determination that cannot fail. At the same time, and this is formidable and new, its activists know that revolutionary seriousness is not incompatible with modern dances, cowboy pictures, and a sense of humor, and they are not ashamed of loving. I am identified with its purposes; I am a personal friend of many of its leaders, and I am convinced that they are going to make the revolution in Venezuela.

Petkoff is an intense, outspoken political organizer and orator who was a leader of the 1958 insurrection against Pérez Jimenez and made two dramatic prison escapes while fighting in the guerrilla movement of the 1960s. In recent years he has spent much of his time traveling from town to town along with other MAS leaders such as Pompeyo Márquez and German Lairet, rallying opposition against both major parties. But he has been equally influential because of his books, Checoeslovaquai: El Socialismo como Problema (1969) and ¿Socialismo para Venezuela?, which not only helped bring about the PCV split but also tried to define the condition of the professional revolutionary in Latin America after the guerrillas failed.

While much of Petkoff’s language is burdened by clichés that reflect the isolation of a man who has spent nearly all his adult life underground or in prison for insurrectional activity, he still has been able to redefine some of the problems of a revolutionary movement in what he calls the “deluxe underdevelopment” of Venezuelan society. He rightly observes that “the violent process of urbanization” is “peculiar to capitalism in general.” All strong one-party socialist states forbid uncontrolled peasant migrations to the cities, thus avoiding the political and economic problems generated by shack settlements like the Venezuelan ranchos.

Indeed, the major theoretical failure in Marxist-Leninist writing on Latin American society is its neglect of the squatters who form one-third of the population of most Latin American cities and whose potential for insurrection was made clear in the 1965 Santo Domingo revolution. Traditional Marxist theory has ignored this phenomenon, for there was no equivalent to Latin American squatter settlements in nineteenth-century Europe; the flow of peasants into the cities occurred at a slower pace and there were more industrial jobs available to absorb new migrants into the working class.

How can the squatters be mobilized? In dealing with this problem, Petkoff and his comrades in the MAS are trying to reconcile the old contradiction between populism and anti-populism that divided Bakunin and Marx. Petkoff bitterly recalls the PCV’s efforts in January, 1958, to organize a popular uprising against the Pérez Jimenez dictatorship,

…when our agitation in some of the most important work centers of the capital…met with an irritating indifference. The general strike of January 21 finally was successful, but many of us feared for the result if the employers had not closed their factories, stores, and banks, contributing thus to the participation of the working class in the strike.

In contrast to the “conservatism and passivity” of the Venezuelan working class, he writes,

…the marginal masses are a powder-keg, a charge of social dynamite that only awaits a detonator, and leadership.

The working class and the marginal subproletariat

…live in the same barrios, come from the same countryside, and share the same consciousness of poverty, of being disinherited…. Leadership, organization, and orientation are urgently needed, since the powder-keg of the marginal masses could explode in a direction completely opposed to the interests of the revolution. The very instability of this mass makes it responsive to the action of any demagogue, or of that very special version of Latin American demagogy: military dictators—and exdictators [i.e., Pérez Jimenez]. If a revolutionary change does not occur, the future contains an economic collapse and a catastrophic deterioration of the living conditions of the popular masses.

There is, unfortunately, a great difference between social explosion and social revolution, and so far the problem of organizing the floating poor has been insoluble. But Petkoff is right in seeing that the population explosion and the rush of peasants into the cities have produced intractable social problems at the same time oil production has begun to decline. The Venezuelan politicians are beginning to worry that there will no longer be enough oil money to purchase political stability. For nearly four decades they have been talking about “sowing the petroleum” to diversify the economy away from heavy dependence on the oil industry. Successive Venezuelan governments over the last twenty years have spent some $20 billion, mainly on such investments as highways, education, hydroelectric dams, steel, petrochemicals, and agricultural development. Yet these investments have been so ineffective that the country has become more rather than less dependent on petroleum.

In his impassioned treatise Petroleo y Dependencia, Dr. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, who was the principal architect of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and twice Venezuela’s Minister of Mines, denounces the squandering of the country’s oil revenues that has continued both under the Pérez Jimenez dictatorship of the 1950s and democratic regimes of the 1960s and 1970s:

The continuing increases in easy income from oil have created a limited society of intense consumption, composed of the privileged who take advantage of this transitory oil wealth, that has been artificially superimposed over the much more marginal masses of the Venezuelan population.

This is essentially the situation in which Venezuela faces the critical elections of December, 1973. The two big parties, AD and COPEI, are trying to arrest a decline in their popularity and are threatened by the resurgence of Pérez Jimenez and by the rise of the MAS. At the same time, with the present concessions to the foreign oil companies scheduled to expire around 1983, the new government to be chosen in December’s elections will be increasingly enmeshed in the geopolitics of oil.

One might think that petroleum policy would be a big issue in the current election campaign. Even though crude oil production will decline, rising world prices might nevertheless keep up the current level of per capita oil revenues for the next decade, even allowing for growing population.13 But Venezuela, one of the organizers of the OPEC cartel which has been raising the price of oil, will face grim choices after the election. Its budget deficits are already large. If the next government, like the last one, goes on spending more and more to stay in power, it will have to increase oil reserves in as yet underdeveloped parts of the country and this will be costly.

The fall of Allende in Chile has had a pronounced impact on Venezuela’s party politicians, who are trying to preserve one of the few constitutional democracies left in Latin America. Recently there have been reports of conspiracies for a take-over by the Venezuelan military. In early October President Caldera issued a pointed warning to “those who try to incite, instigate, or provoke a rejection of the election results.” But the campaign has dragged on for so long—nearly two years—and has ventilated so few serious issues that the politicians are having a hard time keeping up interest in the elections.

Behind the scenes conflicts are taking place among those who want more rapid nationalization of petroleum; those who want to make deals with the oil companies to finance exploration for more reserves; and those who want to ignore the problem of reserves and continue the old policy of limiting production and increasing prices. In view of the disastrous experience of some other Latin American countries, Petkoff and MAS now doubt whether nationalization would be a truly revolutionary measure. They fear that a decline in Venezuelan oil revenues would undermine the strength of any revolutionary regime. But the major parties have agreed not to debate petroleum in this election, a failure that reflects the hollowness of the entire campaign. The survival of this prodigal democracy cannot be taken for granted while the carnival continues and its leaders fail to gain convincing popular support.

  1. 7

    The leading examples of this genre are: Edwin Lieuwen, Petroleum in Venezuela (California, 1954) and Venezuela (Oxford, 1961); Robert J. Alexander, The Venezuelan Democratic Revolution: A Profile of the Regime of Rómulo Betancourt (Rutgers, 1964), and John D. Martz, Acción Democrática: Evolution of a Modern Political Party in Venezuela (Princeton, 1966).

  2. 8

    From Victor M. Gimenez Landinez, Reforma Agraria: Política y Programas 1970 (Caracas, 1971), p. 17. Gimenez is a leading authority on Latin American land reform who was director of Venezuela’s National Agrarian Institute (IAN) at the time he wrote this report.

  3. 9

    From Doreen Warriner, Land Reform in Principle and Practice (Oxford, 1969), p. 357. This is the best available survey of the generic problems of land reform in different parts of the world, giving a detailed explanation in its Venezuelan chapter of the inflated indemnizations to landlords.

  4. 10

    See Carías, “La Cosecha del Fracaso,” El Nacional, March 1-8, 1972. Also see my “Peasant Victimized by Venezuelan Agrarian Reform,” The Washington Post, January 14, 1965.

  5. 11

    The PCV and the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), an offshoot of AD, fought together in the insurrection under the banner of the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional). In some twenty hours of interviews taped in 1972 and 1973, Petkoff relates some key aspects of the inner history of the guerrilla movement and the division of the PCV. For these interviews, see my Teodoro Petkoff: The Crisis of the Professional Revolutionary. Part I: Years of Insurrection, American Universities Field Staff Reports, East Coast South America Series, Volume XVI, Number 1, 1972. Part II: A New Party (1973, forthcoming).

  6. 12

    This statement is contained in an interview with the Colombian journalist Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, published in the Paris magazine Libre, Number 3, shortly before García Márquez received the Gallegos award. It was reprinted in the literary supplement of El Nacional, Caracas, July 30, 1972.

  7. 13

    For a fuller discussion of population pressures and waste, see my Oil and Democracy in Venezuela, Part I: Sowing the Petroleum. Part II: The Marginal Man. American Universities Field Staff Reports, East Coast South America Series, Volume XVII, Numbers 1 and 2, 1973.

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