The contempt of Chavez and his followers for the organised working class can be seen clearly in the fate of Ciudad Guyana, Venezuela’s industrial heartland. A hub of giant steel mills, coal and bauxite mines, iron smelters and aluminium plants, this is where the bulk of Venezuela’s heavy industry was built. This city is home to a million people, and was once Venezuela’s best hope of escaping its dependence on oil exports.
Instead, Chavez nationalised factories not already under state control, installing inexperienced political acolytes as managers who were only interested in ideological conformity.
Ideological schools were set up in factories, investment halted, maintenance was forgotten, and markets in the West were abandoned in favour of politically-aligned ones. Corruption became rampant, products were stolen and sold on the black market, and managers would buy trucks from Belarus just in order to take a cut on the contract.
Nearly all the country’s electricity was generated at Ciudad Guyana, but when nationalisation and mismanagement of the electricity industry led to a power shortage in 2009 – the first of many - Chavez shut down heavy industry rather than cut off supply to potential supporters in Caracas. 400 vital electrolytic cells in CVG Venalum and 200 in CVG Alcasa were terminated, never to start again. These cells effectively implode when denied power for more than two hours.
In 2009 workers went on strike to protest the damage being done to their livelihoods. The result? The strike leader, Ruben Gonzalez, was imprisoned for seventeen months for incitement, unlawful assembly and violating a government security zone. He was subsequently sentenced in 2011 to another seven years in prison.
By 2014 Ciudad Guyana’s decline had considerably worsened. Investment was next to non-existent and labour disputes had further spread. In August of that year troops shot at protesting steelworkers, injuring three. The huge steel-making company Sidor, at the heart of the Ciudad Guyana initiative, was shut down as a result of strike action. It produced 4.3 million tonnes of steel a year before it was nationalised by Chavez in 2008. But by 2014 its production was less than 700,000 tonnes per annum. Striking workers complained of poor wages, harmed by increasing inflation. 25-year Sidor veteran Wilmer Salazar said that while he used to be able to buy a new car with 3 months of wages, “now everything I earn goes to buy food for my family, and it’s still not enough.”
In 2019 the nation-wide power cuts dealt a final blow to Ciudad Guyana. At the country’s two remaining aluminium plants, the electrolytic cells went out for the last time – 59 at Venalum and 14 at Alcasa.
Ciudad Guyana, once the great hope for Venezuelan prosperity, is now a ghost town. It is no surprise that of Venezuela’s six unions, five back interim President Juan Guiado against the Maduro regime. But it’s dangerous for workers and the leaders to oppose the regime. Ruben Gonzalez has been arrested yet again for leading another protest, and when workers criticised the regime’s incompetence, corruption and neglect of the national power grid, they were taken away by the secret police and haven’t been seen since.
Once democracy is restored in Venezuela, a major challenge will be to rebuild its industrial base that has been so comprehensively destroyed by Chavez and Maduro. Workers and trade unions should have their rights re-instated and be valued partners in that endeavour.
More information on the Venezuela Campaign can be found on their website.