Photos: Taken from footage of a video interview with Orlando Chirino
Interview by David Turpin with national union leader of C-cura, Orlando Chirino, about the current situation of the workers’ movement in Venezuela. David Turpin belongs to the Antiwar Committees, an anti-imperialist leftist organization in the US initially driven by activists who moved away from the pro-Assad positions on the Syrian war raised by most anti-war organizations.
Tell us a little about yourself, your organization, your political orientation, what your struggle is and what you fight for.
I am Orlando Chirino, I am 70 years old, and my political activism started at a very young age. From my beginnings to this day, I was always revolutionary and anti-imperialist. I was a laborer and organizer in a transnational textile chemical company called Celanese for 27 years. Before that I was a student leader, president of the student center in high school. After the events of the coup d’etat of April 2002 and the oil industry strike of December 2002, I started working at the oil state company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), until I was fired by Hugo Chávez’s government as political retaliation caused by our fight for constituting a majority faction within the National Union of Workers (Unete), defending the union’s autonomy and the political independence of the working class, opposing the constitutional reform proposed by Chávez in 2007.
My partisan militancy begins in the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), which emerged after the fall of Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s dictatorship, and a division from Acción Democrática (AD). My parents, peasants, were AD militants. Then in 1976, inside MIR, I began to be active in a Trotskyist current associated with the French leader Pierre Lambert and finally, after the creation of the MIR-Proletarian in the 80s, we integrated with Nahuel Moreno’s Trotskyist sector, currently called the International Workers Unity-Fourth International (UIT-CI). In Venezuela, the UIT-CI section is the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSL), which is part of the leftist opposition to Maduro’s government and where I am leader of the Autonomous, Revolutionary, Unitary Class Tendency (C–cura), which is PSL’s union platform, regardless of the fact that we have comrades who are not members of the party, but they all claim with us the need for union’s autonomy.
We, the PSL, are a revolutionary socialist party that fights to achieve a government of the workers with an internationalist dimension that will lead to overcome capitalism.
Please address specific issues regarding your positions towards Maduro, Guaidó, the economic crisis, which forces are responsible for the crisis, and your position regarding the open threats of intervention of US imperialism.
Bluntly, we claim that that in the midst of the inter-bourgeois dispute between Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó, it is necessary to maintain a position of class independence. In that sense, we are neither with Maduro’s anti-labor and anti-popular government, nor with the imperialist interference of the United States and the coup that Guaidó promotes, as we saw in the events of April 30th. For us it is clear that Maduro and Guaidó represent and have the same agenda: let the economic crisis be paid by the workers, with hunger wages and without access to food and health.
We argue that it is necessary to build a political referent off the working people, and our policy is clear: we agree with the need to remove Maduro from power, but this must happen through a popular and workers’ mobilization of the Venezuelan people, assuming concrete demands of the working people, such as minimum wages equal to the basic food basket, access to food and healthcare, guaranteed basic services, fulfillment of collective contracts, 100% state-owned oil, without mixed or transnational companies, halting payments on the foreign debt. Thus, we believe in the organization of a permanent mobilization process that will lead us to an autonomous call for a general strike.
Regarding the economy, Chávez and Maduro’s policies ended up joining the interests of transnational and local capital. Therefore, we know that Nicolás Maduro’s government is applying a package of economic measures to pay off the foreign debt and benefit transnational and local capital. In this sense, it has imposed impoverished salaries, withdrawn funding for education and health, cut access to food, disregarded collective contracts through memo 2792, promoted forced migration, given up the Orinoco Mining Arc to foreign corporations and, through mixed companies, increased the stock presence of transnational companies in the Venezuelan oil industry, destroying trade union organizations.
In addition, he destroyed the Venezuelan oil industry through corruption and the use of revenues to subsidize imports for various fractions of the local bourgeoisie. The destruction of the oil industry, evidenced in the accelerated decline of extraction and exports, occurred long before Trump’s sanctions in January this year. The unfortunate economic situation of the main economic sector of the country is being paid by us, the workers, with a minimum wage of USD 6 and many workers forced to leave the country, in search of wages that allow them to live.
Maduro’s situation seems precarious, and the current situation is extremely unstable, but Guaidó’s initial efforts to expel Maduro from power seem to have failed due to lack of support, so from afar, it seems that Guaidó is waiting for his moment, allowing the crisis to do the job of bringing Maduro down. How do you see the situation?
The problem is the policy of Yankee imperialism and Juan Guaidó, which is not only present in its Plan País, a capitalist program that preserves the surrendering of state assets to transnational capital and the reduction of salaries for the workforce; moreover is important to analyze the April 30th events. That day, Juan Guaidó attempted a coup that failed openly, strengthening a bit Maduro. In this coup action they belittled popular mobilization and the Venezuelan people was then summoned foolishly, saying he had taken La Carlota Air Base.
Until now, the managerial opposition led by Guaidó, with Trump’s support, has tried to divide the Armed Forces to favor a coup; they never promoted people’s mass mobilization, because they fear independent mobilization. They have not achieved the coup because the higher ranks of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces are convinced chavistas, they feel backed by the military support of Russia and Chin and they have a big business in the management of state companies, in mineral extractive operations and the distribution of food and gasoline.
The economic situation in Venezuela is obviously very bleak for the workers. We see millions fleeing the country, blackouts, and hunger. At the same time, from afar, the political situation seems really difficult for workers’ struggle. You and C-cura oppose Maduro, who leads the state apparatus, and Guaidó, who is backed by US imperialism and its regional allies, as well as rich and politically powerful forces within Venezuela. Please, explain to us your perspective to build an independent opposition to Maduro and Guaidó. How are you and your political faction working to build this independent alternative? What are your priorities and short term organization objectives? Tell us about your work, in your union and in any other place where your political faction is trying to organize. We would like you to comment on the practical problems you encounter in your organizational work, under blackout conditions and terrible shortages, and even facing the threat of US intervention. What are the challenges posed by these conditions to build an independent alternative?
We are indeed fighting in very adverse conditions. As it is well known, Venezuela is going through a brutal crisis, never before experienced by the Venezuelan people. From the PSL and our union faction C-cura, we have been making great efforts to link up with the struggles of workers and popular sectors. Our main objective has been to build a political front or alliance with sectors of the left or dissidents of chavismo, trying to form a political alternative independent of the management parties and clearly confronted with Maduro’s government. This is how we participated with various sectors in the Platform of Critical Chavismo and later on in the Left Opposition in Struggle (OIL). Unfortunately, none of these groups managed to develop. There are still important sectors of the left within chavismo that continue creating expectations for the government and in practice they yield to it, with a so-called leftist discourse. At the heart of the trade union movement, we have tried to form a labor movement with organizational autonomy and political independence from the government, the private managers and their parties, in several sectors such as the oil industry, the university, private companies, healthcare, among others. In this framework, last year, along with left-wing trade union leaders, critical chavistas and others linked to traditional parties, we constituted the Inter-sectorial of Venezuelan Workers (ITV), in order to fight together for wages, against salary scales and in defense of collective agreements. That experience was very progressive but brief, because a significant part of the group decided to accompany Juan Guaidó in his coup and US imperialist meddling, and we withdrew from that union space as it would go against our entire history and policy of autonomy, working class democracy and working class independence, from any bourgeois variant.
In this sense, today we have created a space called “Workers in Struggle” with a group of leftist and democratic union leaders. From this platform we have carried out agitation activities at the headquarters of state institutions, leafleting in workers sectors, such as health, together with the colleagues of Sirtrasalud union and we are going to organize forums to explain the anti-worker and anti-popular attacks of Maduro’s government. This space opposes both Maduro and Guaidó, which is why we vindicate the immediate needs of the people such as a salary equal to the basic basket, as established in article 91 of the Venezuela’s National Constitution, the fulfillment of collective agreements and the repeal of memo 2792, the rejection of dismissals and suspensions, and the release of detained workers and union leaders such as Rubén González and Rodney Álvarez, all within the framework of confrontation with Maduro’s anti-worker adjustment package, with the objective of becoming, through the struggle, a political and union referent for the working class, with a new revolutionary leadership from the popular worker bases.
In the current material conditions, these tasks are very complicated, because both leaders and workers face problems even getting to the places of meeting and protest, given the cost of public transport and its scarcity. Besides, many leaders and militants have migrated to seek employment abroad and send money to their families in Venezuela. It is hard to even print leaflets to spread our political positions in the workplace due to the cost and many workers use their free time for other economic activities that complement their impoverished wages.
We have seen reports of repression against labor union activists, some detained, others disappeared and killed. Who is responsible for these acts of repression? Are these acts isolated? If they’re not, explain us their meaning. How are you and your political faction responding to these attacks? How are other factions and forces within the labor movement responding? Do you anticipate more repression?
Maduro’s government is absolutely undemocratic and repressive, limiting democratic winnings and political rights with its absolute control over the National Electoral Council (CNE), the Attorney General’s Office (FGR), the Supreme Court (TSJ), and over the illegal and authoritarian National Constituent Assembly (ANC).
First, freedom and union autonomy, with the mass lay offs of union leaders and workers who fight for their labor rights in state companies and institutions. Second, with the criminalization and judicial action of labor struggles, with the elimination of the right to strike and the detention of union leaders and workers such as Rodney Álvarez, who has been held in jail for 8 years because of a judicial set up where he has been indicted for a murder that was actually committed by a member of the government-affiliated labor union and in three occasions they have changed the judges when the moment to dictate sentence approaches. Last year, after a march here in Caracas, the union leader Rubén González was detained, and even though he is a civilian, he was judged by a military tribunal and is still detained. Third, there are the occupations and forced displacement of indigenous communities across the Gran Sabana territory, in Bolivar State, where the government has established the Orinoco Mining Arc. Fourth, there is the de facto shut-down of the National Assembly and the detention of several political leaders from the capitalist opposition parties, whose political positions we stand against, but whose rights of due process and judicial defense are being violated. Fifth, there is persecution against any media outlet that criticizes Maduro’s government, blocking their websites, attacking their press equipment making the importation of paper for publication difficult for them. In this context, right now, the website for alternative communication named Aporrea is blocked in the country, by orders of state agencies. We have also suffered similar attacks against our website www.laclase.info.
Additionally, various repressive state agencies carry out constant raids in the homes of opposition leaders, as well as systematic killings of people in poor neighborhoods who protest the bad condition of basic services and the lack of food. In these activities there are officials from the Bolivarian Service of National Intelligence (SEBIN), the General Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence (DGCIM), the Special Action Forces (FAES) and armed paramilitary groups referred to as colectivos.
These repressive activities make up the constant re-edition of the state and para-state violence that has increased since the popular rebellion of 2017, when in June of that year, the leadership of the capitalist opposition parties stopped calling for popular mobilization, ending in negotiations with Maduro’s government in Dominican Republic, after more than 140 young protesters had been killed in the streets of Venezuela.
We, on the other hand, are convinced that winning democratic liberties will only be possible through worker and popular mobilization, and that’s why we create a class-based organization such as “Workers in Struggle,” which can galvanize the movement for the defense of laid off workers. This is the only way to achieve democracy, which we qualify with a last name, because we envision it as the workers’ democracy. Along these lines, we have promoted international campaigns of solidarity with our demand for the immediate release of Rodney Álvarez, with the support of UIT-CI.
Let’s come back to the international situation: How have you and your faction responded to Russia’s military advisors support to Venezuela?
We reject any kind of intervention from foreign powers, whether is the United States, Russia or China, without ignoring the role other countries who are allies of Maduro’s government have, such as Turkey and Cuba. Currently, US imperialism has taken a very aggressive and shamelessly interventionist policy with the support of Guaidó and capitalist opposition parties, promoting a coup and threatening even with military intervention. We categorically reject this policy. A revision of the historical experience should make it clear that wherever the US and Russia have intervened only death and more destruction followed, in order to defend their geopolitical and geo-economic interests. Therefore, we believe that the current political crisis, in which the inter-bourgeois struggle for state control is intensifying, must be solved by the Venezuelan people, with the solidarity of the worl and Latin American working class, through traditional means such as worker and popular mobilization.
Concretely, Russia has held the Venezuelan government in power with their political and military support, but also with funding in exchange for oil and gas deals for the Russian company Rosneft. In the last few months, there has been a very publicly and noticeable increase of the presence and operational activity of Russian military advisors in Venezuela, and from our revolutionary position, we reject this injurious situation for our national sovereignty as well as the offer of our natural resources to Russia, a capitalist power.
Chavez was able to exert a powerful influence over leftist political tendencies throughout the world and, as a result, solidarity with Venezuela from US leftists has so far been led by organizations that defend Maduro. Many people here are willing to talk about Maduro’s “mistakes,” but the general position seems to be that priority should be given to opposing US intervention, without considering the role that Maduro’s government plays in the crisis. How do you think that activists in the US can oppose Trump’s threats and at the same time support an independent alternative to Maduro and to Guaidó?
We must make our starting point from the terrible sense of anguish and desperation among the working people of Venezuela, who consider an urgent matter to put an end to Maduro’s government, as the main culprit for the tragedy we are living beyond the fact that sanctions imposed since January have worsened the situation. That is why the pro-intervention campaign led by the capitalist opposition parties has resonated with some middle and lower-class segments of the population who support a military intervention by the US. We cannot hide that fact. PSL has stood out for its open opposition to military intervention by the US, engaging in a campaign to explain to the Venezuelan working people the true character and consequences of an imperialist action of that kind, without ever ceasing to voice our opposition to Maduro and his adjustment plan against the people.
In that sense, we fight against any hope on US imperialism and its meddling actions, and in that context our fundamental political approach is to expose how Maduro’s alleged anti-imperialism is completely false. For example, there are many transnational corporations involved in the Venezuelan oil industry, with their original capital coming from the US, Russia, China, France, Spain, Belorussia, among other countries. We propose that the oil industry should be owned entirely by the State, managed by its own technicians and workers democratically. Already in the oil strike of December 2002, oil workers managed the company for 45 days without a single incident. In addition, we oppose the presence of mixed companies partnering PDVSA with transnational capital, which was the means employed by Hugo Chávez to give out ownership of the oil wells along the Orinoco Belt.
Another example is the absolute priority given by Maduro’s government to pay Venezuela’s foreign debt, benefitting openly transnational financial capitals, with payments of over $80 billion between 2014 and 2018. In that sense, Maduro and Guaidó are the same. The current leader of the capitalist opposition, with US support, promoted the payment of PDVSA 2020 bonds, while the working people of Venezuela suffers a great misery.
However, they have tried to sell the so-called humanitarian assistance as a solution to the country’s social problems, and we have already seen the corruption displayed by Venezuelan opposition leaders in Colombia. It is obvious that Maduro and Guaidó are the same when it comes to the appropriation of resources that should be directed towards the working people of Venezuela.
In conclusion, we oppose US imperialist intervention, which supported a coup and now is backing negotiations between party elites in Norway and Sweden, all with the goal of blocking the possibility of a popular rebellion that can oust the government of Maduro, creating a new power balance that could favor the working class. We believe that worker and popular mobilization must overthrow Maduro’s government. We are clear that neither Maduro nor Guaidó represent an alternative for the people. This is why is essential to build a political option of the workers and the people, promoting independent mobilization, always keeping in perspective a government led by workers.