For the last two weeks there has been a violent campaign of rioting on the part of a small number of opposition supporters in Venezuela. They have blockaded streets and avenues (mainly in the middle and upper class areas of urban centres) in an attempt to force the removal of President Maduro. What is the meaning of these actions and how should they be confronted?
The current campaign by sections of the opposition was launched on Jan 23 by Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado under the slogan “La Salida” (the way out) and its main stated aim is to force the removal of democratically elected President Maduro. Leopoldo Lopez is the leader of the small Voluntad Popular party (which only got 3% of the votes in the 2012 presidential election and only has one member of the national assembly) and the former mayor of Chacao who participated in the April 2002 coup. Maria Corina Machado is an independent opposition MP (formerly of the Primero Justicia party) known for her close links to Washington
Both represent the more extreme wing of the opposition which is deeply divided. Lopez and Machado do not recognise the results of the last three elections and advocate street actions to remove the government. The more far-sighted section of the capitalist class in Venezuela, behind Capriles Radonsky, the main leader of the opposition and twice defeated presidential candidate, is not keen on this campaign of street violence. This is not for any moral reasons or because of their attachment to democratic principles (they all participated in the 2002 coup and other conspiracies). Rather, they calculate that the interests of the ruling class are best served by playing it long, allowing the economic situation to become worse and eventually winning an election later on. It is not that they are opposed to the violent overthrow of the government, they just don’t think that the current conditions are right.
In fact, Capriles and the opposition mayors of Chacao and Sucre, in the East of Caracas, have all come out openly to criticise the violence of the opposition rioters in the last days. The right wing mayor of Chacao, Ramon Muchacho, has complained of “anarchy”, “vandalism” and destruction of property.
An opposition commentator in the right wing paper El Universal put it in the following way: Leopoldo’s “project has been hijacked by a brainless mob, which wants to destroy everything in its wake” and referred to “the idiocy of the violence (senseless and at the wrong time) has the effect of uniting the adversary”. Other opposition columnists in El Universal have complained that while sections of the opposition work hard to win over disillusioned chavista supporters in the working class areas, the actions of the rioters destroy their work.
In the last year and a half the opposition has been defeated in three major democratic elections: in October 2012 Chavez defeated Capriles by 54% to 44%; in April 2013 Maduro beat Capriles by a narrow margin of 50% to 49%; in December 2013 the PSUV and its allies defeated opposition candidates in municipal elections by 54% to 42%. If the opposition wants to get rid of Maduro by democratic means they will have to wait until 2016 and collect signatures to trigger a recall referendum. There are also National Assembly elections in 2015.
The current campaign of the most extreme wing of the opposition started with violent student demonstrations in Tachira and Merida involving burning barricades, destruction of property, armed attacks, etc. This included a female journalist from Venezuelanalysis.com held at gunpoint in Merida, and a molotov cocktail attack against the offices of the governor of Tachira while his wife was inside.
On Februrary 12 this section of the opposition called a demonstration in Caracas to march on the Attorney General’s office. The demonstration was allowed to proceed and a petition was handed at the end. After that a small group of organised violent youth with masks, rocks, molotov cocktails, coordinated by walkie talkies, launched an assault against the Attorney General’s building.
In the violence which followed two people were killed. An opposition youth, Bassil Da Costa, as well as a revolutionary leader from the 23 de Enero neighbourhood, Juan Montoya. The media have presented Montoya as a violent man, part of an armed group. This is false, as in fact he had participated in an initiative to disarm revolutionary groups in the 23 de Enero.
A member of the secret police SEBIN has been arrested in connection to these killings. The head of SEBIN has been removed by Maduro as they had been ordered to stay in barracks and instead disobeyed their orders.
As a result of these violent incidents, the Attorney General issued an arrest warrant for Leopoldo Lopez for inciting sedition and association to commit a crime. He was present at the student demo on Feb 12 and encouraged the youth “not to leave the streets until Maduro is kicked out”.
The incidents on February 12 have been followed by days of rioting and barricades (mainly in the middle class and upper class areas of the East of Caracas) in what is known as a guarimba. This included destruction of public and private property, destruction of buses, attacks on Metro workers in Caracas, fire bomb attacks against public institutions, notably the VTV state TV station in Los Ruices which has been besieged for seven nights by burning barricades and attacked with incendiary devices.
We must stress that the whole movement involves only a small number of people. The biggest of the student demonstrations, on February 12, involved a few thousands, perhaps tens of thousands in Caracas. There are now 2.6 million university students in Venezuela, a massive increase from less than 800,000 in 1998, as a direct result of the social programs of the Bolivarian revolution. Only a small minority of students have been involed in protesting, mainly from private and “old” state universities, which tend to be elitist. None of the new Bolivarian universities have been involved in protests and there are a number of student organisations in the traditional institutions which openly reject the opposition campaign.
The number of those involved in the violence and rioting is even smaller. We are talking about small groups of dozens or at most 300 hardened well organised reactionary activists, most of them not students. A number of fascist organisations are very active in this milieu, some of them with direct links to Colombian paramilitaries.
The protests have nothing to do with scarcity and inflation (which are real problems, caused by the economic war waged by the ruling class against the revolution). Most of those involved are middle and upper middle class youth in the urbanizaciones who do not suffer from these in the same way as the poor and working class people in the barrios. In Caracas, the guarimba is concentrated in the rich areas of the East like El Cafetal, El Hatillo, with the centre of the protests being Altamira Sq. This is like if rioting in London took place in Hampstead, Kensington and Chelsea, with the centre of protests in Belgravia. It is also interesting to note that there has been no actual looting, as opposed to what usually happens when people are moved by hunger.
To see the real character of the student protests one has to read the statement they published in El Nacional on February 18. It starts by talking of the “systematic destruction of our country by a Communist regime.” They then explain how their immediate demand is “the resignation of Nicolás Maduro and the whole of his Cabinet.” Even this would not be enough as “our state cannot continue under the domination of Castro-communism: we demand the immediate expulsion of all Cuban agents from our institutions”. They add that “our disobedience is justified because the government is illegitimate. It is absolutely impossible to hold talks with rulers which have usurped functions which are not theirs”. In case the point was not clear, they stress it: “we do not hold talks nor negotiate Freedom with Communists, that would be a betrayal of Venezuela”. However mad this might seem, this statement was published in one of the main capitalist newspapers in Venezuela in the name of the students’ movement.
The opposition and the media allege there is a “media blackout” and “censorship” regarding the current wave of opposition protests. This is false. There are four main daily newspapers in Caracas. El Nacional and El Universal are strongly opposition aligned and have covered all of the opposition protests in detail while ignoring Chavista demonstrations. Ultimas Noticias has given a more or less balanced coverage to both sides. CiudadCCS is the paper of the Chavista municipality of Caracas and has covered mainly Bolivarian demonstrations. The state-owned TV stations have only a small share of the total audience (about 4%), the rest being privately owned, opposition aligned TV channels. The allegation that the government partially blocked Twitter is farcical as opposition supporters have been tweeting non-stop, including posting fake pictures of “repression” which have now been widely exposed as being taken in protests in other countries.
As a matter of fact, the capitalist media worldwide has given ample and biased coverage to these protests, creating the impression of a repressive “regime” brutally attacking peaceful students. Washington, as could be expected, has made a whole series of extremely provocative statements, trying to dictate to the Venezuelan government what it should and should not do - all in the name of “democratic rights”, of course. The government has correctly answered by saying that no foreign power has the right to dictate its policies and by expelling three US diplomats accused of actively promoting and funding the opposition students.
A Bolivarian counter-offensive
On February 18 the opposition called a march and the PDVSA oil workers called their own in defence of the revolution. There were tens of thousands at the PDVSA workers demo, which was barely mentioned by the world’s media. According to Associated Press there were 5,000 at the opposition demo, which was allowed to march, but was not authorised to reach the Ministry of Justice (taking into account what had happened on February 12). At the end of the march Leopoldo Lopez handed himself to the Bolivarian Guard, where he was allowed to address the crowd and say goodbye to his wife, who admitted to CNN that the government was protecting his life (as there had been threats to his life from extreme right wing elements in Miami). Incidentally, the way he was treated was in stark contrast to the violent way in which he arrested the Minister of Justice Chacín during the short lived coup in April 2002.
The events on February 18, with the big oil workers demo, marked the beginning of a Bolivarian counter offensive against the small groups of opposition rioters. On the 19th February, there was a big demonstration of pro-revolution workers from the basic industries in Puerto Ordaz, Bolivar. The workers, which have had to suffer the road blockades by a small number of opposition thugs, quickly cleared their barricades. They were then shot at by fascist elements from one of the neighbouring buildings, resulting in nine workers being wounded.
See more pictures of the protests in this gallery
In other parts of the country there has also been mobilisations in defence of the revolution, in many instances with the workers playing a leading role.
In another incident on February 20, Bolivarian activist Arturo Alexis Martínez was shot dead in Barquisimeto when trying to clear one of the opposition road blocks so that he could go through.
In a televised speech on the night of the 19, president Maduro made an appeal to the working class to be united and mobilised and “to strengthen the workers’ militias”. He also announced the setting up of a National Anti-Coup Committee and said that such committees should be set up everywhere.
This is the correct way to deal with the counter-revolutionary provocations. It has become clear that this extreme fringe of the opposition is not able to gather the necessary support to overthrow the government. However, even a small group of well organised and decided thugs can create a situation of chaos and uncertainty. In some cases they can count on the passive support of opposition mayors and regional governors who would do nothing to stop them or to clear the streets from roadblocks. The aim is to create situation in which the government seems to be losing control and then force the intervention of a section of the armed forces “to restore law and order”.
A week ago it seemed that the main message coming from the Bolivarian leadership was one of countering the opposition violence with appeals to “peace and love”. Of course we all desire peace, but in the current circumstance in Venezuela, in order to get peace one needs to disarm and disband the violent fascist gangs that are threatening it. It is not a question of small groups of armed individuals fighting back. What is needed is the organised and conscious mobilisation of the working class and the revolutionary people, backed by the setting up of armed self-defence organisations.
President Maduro has talked of workers militias before, but it is now time to put words into actions. It must be made clear that anyone has the right to demonstrate, but no one has the right to paralyse the life of the country with blockades against the will of the majority. The organised direct action of workers mobilised in sufficient numbers would be enough to remove most of the barricades. However, as we are dealing with armed thugs, such action must be backed by a workers militia, to act when necessary, under the control of the labour movement organisations, socialist workers’ councils and trade unions.
Dealing with the small fascist gangs in the streets is only one part of the task. What these events show clearly is that any idea of negotiating and conciliating with the ruling class is at best naïve, if not criminal. In the weeks prior to the December 8 municipal elections, the government launched an offensive against speculation, hoarding and profiteering on the part of the capitalists. That immediately brought back many products to the shelves and was met with widespread support, even from amongst rank and file opposition supporters. It played a key role in guaranteeing a Bolivarian majority in the elections.
However, immediately after, the government, once again, made appeals for conciliation with the ruling class, offered concessions regarding access to foreign exchange, etc. Eduardo Samán, the head of INDEPABIS, who was seen by the masses as one of the main motor forces behind the campaign against the economic war, was removed from his position without a clear explanation. This constant wavering has the effect of spreading poisonous disillusionment, scepticism and cynicism amongst the Bolivarian masses. This is the main danger that the revolution is faced with.
To give just one example, the workers at ABC Formas y Sistemas have been occupying the factory for over 12 months now, faced with the illegal lock out by the bosses. They have resorted to all existing legal avenues, which allow for the expropriation of factories abandoned by the capitalists. So far they have had no reply and the Ministry of Labour has not acted.
There are dozens of examples like this throughout the country, in which the state bureaucracy and the reformists elements within the Bolivarian movement are blocking the revolutionary initiative of the masses. Faced with the offensive of the reactionary rioters, the workers of ABC Formas y Sistemas would come out in a more decided fashion if they were defending their own factory under workers’ control. In the current situation they might well conclude that after all the Bolivarian government is siding with their bosses instead of with them, and therefore there is really nothing to defend.
There is widespread discontent amongst the Bolivarian ranks at the way in which the movement is controlled by bureaucrats at the top at all levels. The process of selection of candidates for elections, for instance, has already created serious problems in several places, with alternative revolutionary candidates standing against the official ones. President Maduro has made calls for unity and discipline, but these can only be guaranteed by strict internal democracy and full discussion of ideas. The forthcoming congress of the PSUV has already started on a bad foot, as it has been announced that mayors and governors will make up half of the total number of delegates.
Since the April 2013 presidential election a number of prominent radical or left wing Bolivarian journalists have been removed from the state TV and radio channels without explanation. There is a feeling that these are concessions made to the opposition media so that they also tone down criticism of the government. Whatever the truth might be, the result is clear: critical left wing voices are silenced or denied access to a larger audience. None of these concessions have the effect of moderating the opposition, but on the contrary, can demoralise the most active elements of the revolutionary movement.
The growing inflation (56.3% on an annual rate in January) and scarcity (a record 28% scarcity index in January) are eating up into workers’ wages and wearing down the energy and enthusiasm of the workers and the poor people who suffer it most. The government seems to be shifting from introducing regulations, which inevitably are met with the revolt of the capitalists, or making concessions to the bosses, which inevitably hit the workers. The only way forward is the expropriation of the means of production (the banks, monopolies, multinationals and landed estates) of the capitalists, who still control about two-thirds of the economy. Only in this way can the productive forces of the country be democratically planned, under workers’ control, to satisfy the needs of the majority.
The struggle against the current destabilisation attempts of the opposition must be accompanied by taking bold measures to complete the revolution. A small unrepresentative minority cannot be allowed to hold the country to ransom, be they fascist thugs blocking the streets, or capitalists using their control of the means of production to sabotage the democratic will of the majority.