The reformist government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez continues to sustain vigorous resistance from that nation?s embittered upper and middle classes. Violent confrontations between Chavez? opponents and working class supporters are a daily occurrence; and a month long general strike has caused severe shortages of basic necessities and a tenfold increase in the price of fuel.     Chavez, is an army colonel whose previous political activities included a 1992 failed coup attempt against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) "austerity measures" imposed by then president Carlos Andres Perez, was elected to the Venezuelan presidency on a reform platform in 1998. The new president?s foreign policy soon showed his pro-national bourgeois stripes, as Chavez publicly announced his support and admiration for the government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro; and categorized Washington?s post-9/11 policies as "fighting terror with terror". Washington's anxiety was even further raised when Chavez became the first head of state to visit Iraq since the Gulf War. However, it was Chavez' domestic program, of significant land and oil industry reforms, which precipitated the crisis. The proposed reforms, which called for the state expropriation of large landed estates and unproductive agricultural lands, directly targeted the Venezuelan landed oligarchy. No sooner was the reform package proclaimed in December of 2001, than the present round of strikes, coups, counter-coups, and street violence began. Unsurprisingly, Chavez proclaims himself and his party - the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), the descendants of Simon Bolivar. State Beginnings:     Formerly a colony of Spain, Venezuela was ruled by the slave-owning landowners-latifundia [criolla] on behalf of Spanish imperialism. A slave economy based on cacao and indigo, and then from 1873, in coffee, made fortunes for the landowners. Simon Bolivar led the war for a republican constitution in a historic military campaign between 1810-19. Although his campaign removed Spanish rule, the proclaimed republican constitution was a veneer for landed rule, which despite the laws perpetuated a slave economy.

    But as Spanish power waned, the Venezuelan nation became increasingly subject to British, German and Italian imperialism. In desperation the Venezuela leaders turned to the USA for helping 1895, when the British were expansion of its colony British Guiana, into Venezuelan territory. The USA involved the Monroe Doctrine and began its long history of manipulation of Venezuela, beginning its era of neo-colonialism to the USA, ruled by a comprador bourgeoisie in alliance with the latifundia-landed oligarchs. In these conditions, a 'caudillo' [dictator] came to power Juan Vicente Gomez in 1908, supported by the landowners.

Transformation From Latifundia to Industrial Country     The roots of the current crisis extend to the closing years of the 19th century when a succession of Venezuelan governments attempted to draw foreign investments into the country with the aim of modernizing its industry and developing its resources. Consequently, an on again-off again conflict between the nation's conservative landed oligarchy, siding with the foreign imperialists (first British, then American) together with those native strata dependent on imperialism; versus the modernizing national bourgeoisie, became the established pattern of Venezuelan political life.

    When oil was found in Venezuela in abundance, in 1911, Gomez sold this to the comprador class, linked to foreign oil companies, especially USA. The oil boom of the 1920's largely completed the transformation of the landlord class into a comprador bourgeoisie; and turned the peasants and residual slaves into a proletariat. That proletariat announced itself with the first major strike in Venezuelan history in 1925. At the same time, as agriculture rapidly declined, a self-sufficiency for foodstuffs was turned into an import dependency.

    Honouring the pay-master, the Petroleum Law of 1920-22 had been largely drawn up by three US firms. However, a small but determined national bourgeoisie has for decades been trying to struggle against the hegemony of the USA. By the first quarter of the twentieth century, Venezuela had become the world's largest oil-exporting nation and industrialization and modernization continued apace. This same process led to an increasing economic pauperization and political marginalization of the country's working class. Thus, while Venezuela's national bourgeoisie, comprador-landed oligarchy, and foreign imperialism fought for control over the economy and the division of petro-profits, the working poor descended further and further into poverty, misery, and squalor. This trend has continued to the present day.

Oil, and the War between the National and the Comprador wings     The immediate post-World War Two period saw the ascension of Venezuela's first democratically elected president, the liberal Romulo Gallegos in alliance with Romulo Betancourt. By this time, 65% of the state revenue was derived from oil. They led the Accion Democratica, (Democratic Action B AD) a social-democratic party in a reform movement, which alienated the comprador interests around oil and the foreign owners. Gallegos' administration would last only between October 1945-November 1948, before being overthrown in a coup d?etat by General Marcos Perez-Jimenez. It was in this administration that the tactic of setting up an oil producers cartel, OPEC - to fight the power of the imperialist oil companies - was thought of by the Minister of Development, and later Minister of Oil - Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso. The key event was the Petroleum Act of 12 November 1948 that imposed a 50-50 split of oil profits on the companies. Within 12 days a military coup was arranged. This installed General Perez-Jimenz.

    Perez-Jimenez, a contemporary of Cuba's Batista, Nicaragua's Somoza, and the Dominican Republic's Trujillo, ruled as the military dictator representative of the comprador oligarchy and the United States, from 1948 to 1958. It was in this era that foreign ownership of the economy was firmly rooted. US investors accounted for 65% of foreign investment in Venezuela, and owned more than three-fifths of the petroleum industry, all of the iron-mining industry, and leading sections of local manufacture, commerce, banking, utilities and insurance.

    But the small but determined national bourgeoisie continued to develop. The overthrow of Perez-Jimenez, at the hands of a rival military cabal, inaugurated a period of over two decades of relative political stability and economic prosperity presided over by the re-elected Accion Democratica, (Democratic Action B AD) under President Romulo Betancourt (1959-1964). This time, Betancourt did not support the Minister of Oil - Perez Alfonso, who therefore resigned. In fact Betancourt steadily moved to become a comprador representative for the USA. In doing so, he made the third and final of his own transitions: From a 'marxist' student, to a national bourgeois president, to a comprador president of Venezuela. By 1976, his successors had left the Venezuelan oil industry in complete ownership of the USA companies.

    In this time the revenues of the state from oil increased, even though the revenues were a pittance compared to the profits of the imperialist companies. Meanwhile, the economic boom benefited only the privileged as over 85% of Venezuela's population sank below the poverty level. Gigantic slums and shanty-towns enveloped the capital city, Caracas, in a mantle of appalling poverty and degradation. Whatever social services existed collapsed amid widespread political corruption and cronyism. A remarkably long-lived, guerrilla movement erupted in the western province of Falcon, but ultimately failed in its attempt to mirror the Cuban Revolution.

    The crisis of expectations led to further reformist leaderships. Under the pledge to 'nationalize' the oil industry therefore, AD's Carlos Andres Perez was elected in 1973. Although the oil industry was nationalised in 1976, given the generous compensations, with all marketing left in the hands of the foreign companies this was no solution. Moreover, Perez tried to 'induce' foreign capital to invest in 'downstream' sectors of the economy.

    As the oil boom ended in the early 1980s, with world oil prices plummeting, Venezuela faced a decline of real wages of 40%, and a huge foreign interest on debts load of 25 billion in 1984-1988 (i.e. 80% of the total foreign debt of 30-32 billion). Social-democratic (AD) President Jaime Lusinchi responded by severely cutting back already meager social services. Urban unrest and a rise in labor militancy result. In 1989, the IMF stepped in and forced an austerity program to guarantee the repayment of Venezuela's national debt. Newly elected AD President Carlos Andres Perez embraced the IMF program. Massive street demonstrations broke out, and martial law was imposed, and 2,000 protestors and dissidents are killed in the ensuing repression. In 1992 Hugo Chavez, a graduate of the national military academy and Colonel in the paratroop corps, twice attempted to overthrow the corrupt Perez regime. Both attempts were quashed and Chavez served with two years of jail sentence for subversion.

    The following year a split appeared in Venezuelan ruling circles as Perez was forced out of office on corruption charges. Three years later Perez was convicted and jailed for fraud, graft, and influence peddling. In 1995, interim president Ramon Jose Velazquez handed over power to elected president Rafael Caldera. Caldera pardoned Chavez, who, in 1998 announced his candidacy for president.

The Chavez Era     Naming his campaign the 'Movement for the Fifth Republic,' Chavez promised sweeping reforms, an end to administrative corruption, and directly accused the nation's comprador bourgeoisie of squandering Venezuela's oil wealth in the service of foreign imperialism. Chavez' reform agenda attracted the support of sectors of the working class, the urban poor, organized labor, and other national-democratic elements. His formula combining a populist appeal with nationalist and democratic demand proveed successful. Chavez won the election by a huge margin.

    Opposition to the newly-elected Chavez was immediate, as members of the military, the oligarchy, and comprador bourgeoisie accused Chavez of leading Venezuela down a "Cuban-style" path. However, the reactionary backlash became earnest when President Chavez announced his land reform plan in November 2001. The following month, large street protests demanding the resignation of Chavez appeared in Caracas. The crowd was mainly middle-class in composition, and, in a move eerily reminiscent of the months preceding the 1973 military coup that overthrew Chilean social-democratic President Allende and installed the savage Pinochet dictatorship, middle-class housewives took to the streets banging together pots and pans and denouncing Chavez.

    In February, Chavez tried to reorganize the nation's oil industry by appointing a new board of directors to the state-run enterprise. Oil executives balked, and called for a 'strike' of oil industry managers. In reality this is of course a lock-out, and not a strike. The managers and ruling classes were going to force an enforced loss of wages on the working-class to push them into revolt. This specific controversy, more than any other, has brought the attention of the world to events in Venezuela. Producing some three million barrels a day of crude, oil constitutes 50% of all Venezuelan state revenues. Of the total amount of oil produced, Venezuela exports 75%. The primary beneficiary of Venezuelan oil is the United States. 13% of the US oil supply stems from Venezuela. Control of the Venezuelan oil supply is thus crucial to US imperialist interests in South America. This takes on special significance in case of a war with Iraq.

    Although the Venezuelan state oil company, Petroleros de Venezuela (PDV) is publically owned, the computer system that runs and maintains the automated industry is not. The computer system is in the hands of a mixed public/private firm named Intesa, whose main branch is a multi-national computing consortium named the Science Application International Corporation (SAIC). In other words, SAIC is the organizational 'brain' behind PDV. SAIC controls PDV. The board of directors of SAIC includes former CIA Directors John Deutsch and Robert Gates, former US Secretaries of Defense William Perry and Melvin Laird, ex- US National Security Council members Jasper Welch, Admiral Robert Ray Inman, and General Wayne Downing. The true nature of the opposition to Chavez, the organization, motivation, and funding of the 'strikes' and 'protests' now becomes clear.

    From the Spring of 2002 onwards, violent street clashes between Chavez supporters and opponents have become a daily event. Several military plots ? with the direct support of the USA - to overthrow Chavez were uncovered and foiled. But the bourgeois opposition remains firm in its demand that the Venezuelan president resign. Chavez, for his part remains equally firm that he will not surrender his mandate until, as per the nation?s constitution, a referendum on his rule can be held in August of 2003.

    A crescendo was reached on April 12, 2002 when a military coup appeared to have unseated Chavez. The military appointed a 'Transitional Government' under one Pedro Carmona. However, a mass upsurge of grass-roots popular support turned out to battle the attempted putsch. After a tense two day, on April 14, Chavez was returned to power and the conspiracy quashed.

    In the succeeding months, attempts at some kind of a so-called 'negotiated solution' B including one effort spearheaded by the ubiquitous Jimmy Carter B have failed. The opposition's latest strategy is a nation-wide call to boycott income taxes. Meanwhile, the street confrontations continue: Venezuela's working class and poor adamant in their support of Chavez, the bourgeoisie and oligarchy equally insistent on his ouster.

    The crisis continues. Without a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, the working class will not be able to obtain its security. However, there is little doubt that the Hugo Chavez government is a progressive one that demands the support of all militants.