Crisis in Venezuela

by Sean Gee and John Reimann on August 29, 2017

We have to be clear from the start about the leading rightwing opposition force the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable) – a cabal headed by Venezuela’s old ruling families like the Capriles that are currently lynching Chavistas in the streets and making veiled appeals for a military coup. But it is not enough to oppose these reactionaries; we have to figure out the best way to defeat them. Therefore, this is a preliminary attempt to define what a more successful socialist political movement requires in Latin America.

The immense popularity of Chavez was due to his redistribution of the oil wealth through programs such as this government subsidized food store (photo: 2005). A reported 9 million turned out for Chavez’s funeral.

Elected in 1998, Chavez was a left populist figure. For instance, his first major social program – the Plan Bolivar 2000 – mobilized the military to provide food aid, vaccinations, and basic upgrades in sanitation in many working-class neighborhoods. Chavez’s policies answered some of the material needs of a population that at that time had a poverty rate of over 55%, but he did not directly challenge capitalism as a political economy, nor did he completely cashier them out of government, despite crafting a new Constitution. However, his programs and he, himself, were hugely popular, and for good reason.


Oil Nationalized
In 2001, Chavez began to nationalize the oil industry to fund everything from public housing to adult literacy programs. It was then that a concerted effort began on the part of Venezuela’s oil and mining families, as well as the U.S. state department, to oust him from power. They failed to remove him in a botched coup in 2002, and open economic sabotage. It was these events that pushed Chavez to the left. In 2006 formed a new party, the PSUV to help build what he called “21st century socialism”. By this time, he had already reduced poverty in the country by at least 25%, and increased the number of doctors in Venezuela to 20,000, up from just 1600 in 1999. 

But the PSUV has not overthrown capitalism. While they have nationalized the oil industry, and intermittently supported workers co-ops, they have never moved toward a planned economy and the prerequisite public control of the commanding heights of the economy and public control of investment. In effect, the PSUV has been engaged in an 18-year New Deal. They are the stewards of a messy, ad-hoc subsidization of the Venezuelan working-class rather than a working-class party in-itself running the economy.

The oil dependency could only have been eliminated through a systematic plan for the economy, one that was democratically managed and controlled by the working class itself. But this would have required the complete overthrow of the “free” market, meaning of capitalism itself. Nothing less, no half-measures would do. Failing to do this, the regime’s social measures were dependent on high oil prices.


Oil Dependency
Chavismo has in fact been entirely dependent on oil revenue to provide welfare, and here we come to the crux of the current economic and political crisis. The PSUV is entirely dependent on a healthy global oil market, including American consumption. Thus, while they present themselves as a socialist bulwark against American imperialism, the Chavistas actually pushed Venezuela toward even greater dependence on global capital. Since world oil prices collapsed in 2013 – and have yet to recover – the government has had to slash social spending and layoff thousands of public employees, and reopen the country to greater foreign investment through Special Economic Zones and prioritizing the repayment of foreign debt.

It is a powerful example of the impossibility of socialism in a single country.

There is also the question of whether, because of climate change, workers themselves won’t be paying back what oil revenues gave them.

There is a related failure of Chavista economic policy that proves, to quote a recent article in Jacobin, “the situation that prevails is not the result of too much socialism, but too little.” For years the PSUV has maintained a complex currency exchange system, that in effect allows people to purchase U.S. dollars from the government below market value. The basic hope was that through this exchange rate the government could indirectly control prices. In fact, however, just the opposite has happened: the exchange rate has allowed massive black markets to develop for nearly every conceivable good, including food and medicine. In other words, by simply trying to subsidize workers’ buying power rather than directly overthrow capital, the Chavistas have actually enlarged the scale and depravity of the free market in the country.

Venezuela then and now
Top photos: A government-run subsidized food store for poor Venezuelans. It had fully stocked shelves and was an example of how the oil wealth of those days was used to help the working class.
Below: But when oil prices crashed, the result was economic disaster. From empty store shelves to people forced to pick through garbage dumps for food.

Economic Crisis
Venezuela is now dealing with 700% inflation. 90% of the population is not receiving enough to eat every day.

 

Average wages have declined by 75%. Maduro, Chavez’s successor, now sits at 22% approval. The response of the MUD has been to try to further destabilize the country. After they won the 2015 elections, for example, the MUD’s National Assembly head contacted a series of leading international banks and urged them not to do business with Venezuela. Another story reports“schools have been ransacked, a Supreme Court building has been torched, an air force base attacked, while public transport, health and veterinary facilities have been destroyed. At least 23 people have been left dead, with many more injured. In one of the most shocking cases of right-wing violence, at around 10pm on April 20th, women, children and over 50 newborn babies had to be evacuated by the government from a public maternity hospital which came under attack from opposition gangs.”

The MUD seems bent on a violent overthrow of the PSUV. How else to explain their boycott of the July 30 vote for a Constituent Assembly (to draft a new constitution) called for by Maduro? But what was Maduro’s reason for calling for this election? Bear in mind, it comes after the PSUV lost the last National Assembly elections (in 2015), following which Maduro tried to dissolve that assembly and was then forced to retreat. So it does seem to be a parliamentary maneuver meant to overcome both the minority status of the PSUV in the National Assembly as well as the general unpopularity of Maduro, himself.

Constituent Assembly in Action
One of the first acts of the Constituent Assembly has been to rubber-stamp opening the Arco Minero, a region of the Venezuelan rainforest that is home to both indigenous communities and much of the country’s freshwater supply. (Bear in mind that the supposed purpose of any constituent assembly is to draft a constitution, not to legislate.) The military has been displacing villages there and the ministry of defense has set up its own company that will mine and drill the Arco, called Caminpeg. In addition to the government’s 2016 promise to compensate the Canadian gold-mining company Barrick for Chavez’s expropriation of its local assets, the re-invitation of foreign oil companies likely spells the end of Chavismo, even if the PSUV survives politically. 

And whether the PSUV remains in power is most certainly an open question, and this leads to another issue: It

left: Alvaro Uribe, organizer of the Colombian death squads; right: Henrique Capriles
If he comes to power, will Capriles follow in Uribe’s footsteps?

seems some MUD leaders have been indirectly encouraging a coup. The military remains an independent political force in Venezuela, and the PSUV never solved this problem. Two institutions Chavez never seriously reformed were the police and the armed forces (FANB). Instead, he took an approach of sharing power with them, giving privileges to FANB companies and appointing military officers throughout the bureaucracy. They are, in essence, a big part of what some have termed the “bolibourgeoisie” (bolivarian economic elites). As of right now, 11 of 23 state governors and 11 of 30 ministry heads are current or retired generals. For the moment, the military is with Maduro, but almost more as a political ally rather than government machinery subordinate to the executive. As the crisis deepens, it is quite possibly they shift their weight to the forces of reaction.

Top left: Union workers meeting to discuss their issues. Top right: conference of rural workers. Bottom: MUD in action. The top two photos were taken in 2005, the bottom one from today. Which Venezuela will prevail?

“Democracy”
The US and international corporate media has been raising a hue and cry about democracy in Venezuela. They ignore the violent actions of the MUD opposition, as described above. They ignore that these are the same forces who were behind the 2002 attempted coup “in which Chavista leaders were hunted and beaten, and sixty were killed in less than two days. The fact that several people have been lynched, burned to death, and even killed with homemade mortars in recent months for looking too much like Chavistas (i.e., too dark-skinned and poor) is only a taste of what is to come if the opposition destabilization campaign succeeds,” as one article explains. As that same article puts it, “we know exactly who they are: the opposition leadership is drawn from the most reactionary sectors of the old elites, and the masked youth in the streets… are the fruit of a dangerous alliance with the forces of Latin American fascism under the leadership of Colombian death squad guru Álvaro Uribe.

The reality of who this opposition is, however, should not blind us, should not cause us to ignore the methods of the Maduro government. The United Nations Human Rights Office reported that 5,050 people have been arbitrarily arrested. They wrote of  “credible reports of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by security forces of such detainees, amounting in several cases to torture, including, “electric shocks, beatings, suffocation with gas, and threats of killings, and in some cases threats of sexual violence”. While socialists have no sympathy for the MUD types, such methods of the unpopular Maduro government will inevitably also be used against the wider working class in general.

Continental Significance
In decades past, revolutionary waves swept through Latin America. In more recent years, rebellions against neoliberalism were expressed in the “pink tide”, bringing left wing governments into power from Brazil to Argentina. They differed from the Chavez regime, but were similar in that half measures were taken. The result was that almost all of them were swept away.

Will the government that Chavez initiated, one that went further than the others, fall to the same fate? Or will it turn, as did the old PRI regime initiated by Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico, and become a right wing dictatorship? Or will a new revolutionary wave overcome the present processes? From afar, we cannot even hazard a guess. But the result will affect far more than the people of Venezuela.

(For those interested in reading more on what a full revolution means, we suggest our pamphlet “What is Revolution?” )

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Manuel Barrera, PhD August 29, 2017 at 9:54 pm

“this is a preliminary attempt to define what a more successful socialist political movement requires in Latin America.” It is with this sentiment that Gee and Reinmann begin what amounts to North American’splaining Venezuela. Perhaps it isn’t really the intent of the authors to come off so chauvinistic in seeking to define a “more successful” revolution for Venezuela, but all the mostly correct analysis cannot come back from this fundamental socialist revlolutionary mistake; to attempt to tell a people how they should think about their actions.
I find this article fairly correct in its appraisals of “Chavismo” and of the poltical and economic situation in Venezuela. I should. I live in the U.S., so, much of this analysis, like Gee and Reinmann admit at the end, is really from “afar”, which is to say, wholly determined by what we can discern through the facades of “reporting” by the capitalist media and the often politically-nuanced analyses from other left organizations around the mostly Euro-North American-Australasian world. I say all this because while I would expect this kind of discussion to take place in such venues as the Jacobin or Counterpunch, I believe it disappointing to see the same Euro-leftist “analysis” emanate from the North Star, from whom I expect much more. Our job has been and is to hear the voices of the left from a range of perspectives. Wouldn’t that range include the voices of Venezuelan revolutionaries or Latin American revolutionaries? To be sure, there are many divergent left opinions in Latin America and Venezuela, many of which may be more biased in favor the PSUV or of the “pink tide”. I would say that such biases may have something to do with the lived history of Venezuelans and Latin Americans, both of whom have had far different, “more successful” experiences with growing mass movements. After all, Chavismo is a “thing” precisely because it emanated from the development of Chavez and his positive supports for Venezuela though done so at a time of relative aggrandizement of Venezuelan capitalist wealth. No one would deny those positive supports even if revolutionaries understand their material and political basis not to mention their predictable demise in the wake of economic depression.
I believe the North Star, and the authors, would have done better not to be so bold in their “correctness” and found a way to create a space for revolutionary co-thinkers in Latin America and especially in Venezuela to speak for themselves. I believe doing so might risk having writers advocating for Chavismo or defending Maduro though I believe there are several revolutonary voices in Venezuela who strongly criticize the Maduro government and may have similar appraisals of the Constituent Assembly. For example, the comrades of Left Voice (http://www.leftvoice.org/What-Policy-for-the-Socialist-Left-in-Venezuela) who have ties with Liga de Trabajadores por el Socialismo en Venezuela (LTS,http://www.lts.org.ve/) are people with strong critiques of the Maduro government while at the same time opposing the rightist reaction of Capriles and his thugs. It would have been useful to collaborate with such people, seeking a true Venezuela voice on these matters. Perhaps then the analysis written here may have been more accessible to new Latino readers and our co-thinkers on these issue here and in Latin America and other places.
I believe it would be useful to seek out such opportunities through guest papers from other such groups or individuals. After all, if we are intending to be more inclusive “on the left”, why would we constrain ourselves within our own bourgeois-determined borders?

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