For several months now, the right-wing opposition in Venezuela have been taking to the streets with violent riots in an attempt to destabilise and overthrow the democratically elected Maduro government. Jorge Martin examines the turbulent political situation in Venezuela and discusses the future of the Bolivarian Revolution.
It has been several months now since the beginning of the current right-wing offensive, backed by imperialism, against the Venezuelan government of President Maduro, which has left 85 people dead. So far the reactionary opposition has not achieved any of its aims. As its ability to gather large numbers of people in the streets has diminished, rioting has become increasingly more violent and deadly. The government has called Constituent Assembly elections on July 30, which will be a major test of its level of popular support. The opposition has declared it is in “disobedience” and has vowed to prevent the election from taking place. What comes next?
The current assault of the Venezuelan opposition (representing the interests of the oligarchy and backed by imperialism) had one clear aim: the overthrow of the democratically elected government of president Maduro, by any means necessary. They used a combination of mass demonstrations in the streets with small “vanguard” groups of well equipped very violent rioters. International imperialist pressure, particularly through the agency of OAS general secretary, Almagro, was to be part of this strategy. In order to achieve their aims, they hoped to provoke two things: 1) a popular uprising in the working class and poor areas, the traditional Chavista strongholds; 2) a rupture in the state institutions and particularly within the Armed Forces leading to a military coup which would remove Maduro.
Despite all their attempts they have had very limited success. Mass street demonstrations have tended to dwindle, as their supporters became tired and demoralised by their lack of progress. In the international arena all their attempts to get resolutions passed against Venezuela (at the OAS and the United Nations) have been thwarted. With very few exceptions there has been no significant rioting or protests in any working class or poor barrios (neighbourhoods), and anyone who says the opposite is lying. There is a deep mistrust and a healthy class hatred in the barrios towards the opposition and its leaders, who the workers and poor correctly regard as representing the capitalists, landlords and bankers and as agents of imperialism. Finally, they have not provoked any public fissure within the Armed Forces, though they have managed to pull the State Prosecutor into publicly criticising the government and taking some legal initiatives to block its actions.
The level of violence the opposition has deployed in this guarimba (rioting) is higher than anything we have seen before. To the tactics used in 2014 (barricades, steel wire across streets to decapitate motorbike riders, arson attacks against public transport units and official buildings, etc.) we have to add the use of homemade explosive devices and rocket launchers, the use of sniper fire from residential buildings against civilians and police forces, attacks on military installations, etc. In certain parts of the country (San Antonio de los Altos, Miranda; Socopó, Barinas amongst others), well organised violent rioters, in connivance with the police forces of right-wing municipalities and state governorships, managed to get control of whole areas of urban centres for a period of time, where they destroyed all public buildings, imposed a shutdown of all commercial establishments and basically replaced the authority of the state. In some instances it is clear that paramilitary and criminal elements have been involved. Out of the 85 people killed, only a small proportion have been killed by the security forces, while a much larger number have been killed as a direct or indirect result of the opposition's violence (see a detailed analysis here)
In these 85 days they have also generated a lynch mob mentality against Chavistas. The case of Orlando Figuera, beaten, stabbed and then torched by thuggish opposition protesters in Altamira, Caracas, is the most well known example. Figuera died in hospital from the wounds inflicted by this reactionary lynch mob. His “crime”? Some say he was identified as a “Chavista infiltrator”. Others have tried to justify his killing by saying “he was a thief”. In the minds of the enraged middle class which is the mass basis of the opposition, these two things are the same: Chavistas are poor, dark skinned and therefore, in their minds, criminals. This mood also led to the killing of a retired National Guard in Cabudare, Lara and several cases of assault and attempted lynchings (a businessman who was mistaken for a Chavista official in a shopping centre in the east of Caracas, an opposition journalist “who was wearing a red shirt”!).
Clearly, the opposition wanted to provoke a “Ukrainian Maidan scenario”, something they openly admitted: violent insurrectionary protests in the streets leading to the overthrow of the “regime”. So far they have failed.
Oppose the counter-revolutionary offensive
We must state this clearly: all revolutionary Marxists, all democrats for that matter, must oppose this reactionary onslaught. If the opposition were to come to power, they would pursue a vicious policy of making the workers and poor pay for the economic crisis. They would do that by massively cutting public spending in order to eliminate the budget deficit (running at something like 15% of GDP), they would implement mass layoffs of public sector workers, destroy the social programs of the Bolivarian revolution (health care, education, pensions, benefits, etc.), they would privatise wholly or partially the state owned oil company PDVSA, they would destroy labour rights currently enshrined in law, they would privatise social housing (the 1.6 million homes built and delivered by Mision Vivienda), they would privatise state-owned companies and return expropriated factories and landed estates to their former owners, etc. As for democracy, they would carry out a political purge of all state institutions and an assault on the workers, peasants and the poor and their organisations (trade unions, communal councils, revolutionary collectives, etc.). There is not a gram of progressive content in the Venezuelan opposition, which is led by the same people who carried out the coup in 2002.
We cannot take a neutral position in this conflict. A handful of former Chavista officials have positioned themselves as “outside of the polarisation”, attempting to create a “third pole”. And “Marea Socialista” (Socialist Tide) has given them a political cover. These “de-polarised” people, as they call themselves, represent the impotent cry of the liberals who pretend to stand for the sacred principles of democracy, when what we are witnessing is an open struggle between the classes. By formally refusing to take sides, they in fact are pulled into the camp of the opposition, serving as a trampoline for people moving from Chavismo to open reaction. Their impotence is shown by their own actions: press conferences and statements, with the participation of these so-called “Chavista critics” side by side with businessmen and elected officials of parties which belong to the opposition MUD. They claim to represent a majority of the Venezuelan population which rejects both the government and the opposition, but all they can muster in their public rallies is less than a dozen people.
Our position is clear: we are implacably opposed to the reactionary offensive of the opposition as it represents a mortal threat to the Venezuelan workers and poor as well as to the gains of the Bolivarian revolution.
The crucial question is, how can this insurrectionary assault be defeated? So far the government’s tactics have been three pronged: use of the national guard to contain and disband opposition rioters, call mass demonstrations as a show of popular support for the government and skillful countering of imperialist trickery at the OAS and UN. These have been combined with appeals for dialogue and negotiation to the opposition and the capitalists, including in relation to the convening of the constituent assembly.
This is clearly insufficient on two accounts. One, it does not involve the population directly in the defence of the revolution by revolutionary means, but relies solely on the state apparatus. Two, it does nothing to address the fundamental problem of the collapse in support for the government, which flows from the economic crisis and the subsequent crisis of supply of basic products, aggravated by the economic sabotage of the capitalist class.
Revolutionary rank and file initiative
At the same time there have been initiatives taken by the Chavista left to organise self-defence and revolutionary actions to counter the reactionary campaign. In Guasdalito, Apure, a stronghold of the Bolivar Zamora Revolutionary Current (CRBZ), they have set up the Hugo Chavez Popular Defence Brigades (BPD-HC). These Brigades are based in the Communes and involve the Bolivarian Militias. Their task is the defence of public transportation and everything related to the distribution of food. Similarly, in Socopó, Barinas, revolutionary organisations have set up the Hugo Chavez Integral Defence Front (FDI-HC) with the aim of defending local revolutionary leaders and public buildings and to prevent the insurrectionary activity of the reactionary forces which in Socopó reached its highest degree of intensity in April and May. The protection of local revolutionary activists has become a necessity, as reactionary elements during the two right-wing insurrections locally had lists of known local leaders to be eliminated.
Socopó, in Barinas, has been one of the centres of the low intensity civil war which has been going on in the Venezuelan countryside. The two reactionary uprisings on April 19-20 and May 22-24 were led, organised and financed by local landowners and capitalists. For instance, a well known local latifundista provided the rioters with a JCB machine they used to launch an assault on the local police station and other official buildings. The local peasant organisations have now decided to occupy a landed estate belonging to this latifundista.
This story sums up in a nutshell what the current struggle is about, but also the limitations and counterproductive character of the government and the state bureaucracy in combatting it. The local landowner had been given a “productive land” qualification by the National Land Institute in charge of agrarian reform (INTI) to allow him to stave off peasant attempts to occupy it. This reveals the corruption of the state apparatus and the connivance of the bureaucracy at all levels with capitalist businesses and latifundistas. At the same time, the first response to this land occupation has been to send the army to the estate.
In many other rural areas similar defence organisations have emerged. On June 19, a local peasant revolutionary leader, Francisco Aguirre, was killed in Tinaco, Cojedes, while he was on guard duty at a local landed estate which was expropriated by Chavez in 2010 and handed over to peasant communes.
This is the only way to fight counter-revolution: with revolutionary measures, expropriation of the properties of the coup plotters and by giving power to the workers and peasants. It is precisely the policy of half-measures, concessions and conciliation, together with bureaucracy and corruption, which have led to the current situation. The problem is that, so far, these expressions of revolutionary struggle remain largely isolated and have taken place mainly in rural areas amongst peasants and not in the factories and amongst the working class.
The Constituent Assembly
The decision of President Maduro to convene a Constituent Assembly was immediately rejected by the opposition leaders, but was initially met with enthusiasm amongst the Chavista left and the revolutionary rank and file. It was seen as an opportunity to get the voice of the revolutionary rank and file workers and peasants heard. The announcement that Constituent elections would not take place on the basis of party lists was met with relief due to the hated practice of the PSUV bureaucracy at all levels of appointing candidates without any reference to the rank and file members. In a short space of time a number of Chavista left lists and coalitions were set up, which expressed this desire to push the revolution forward in the struggle against reaction.
One of these is the People's Constituent Platform, composed of neighbourhood organisations, revolutionary media outlets, tenants’ councils, etc., mainly from Caracas, which claims to represent “rank and file Chavismo, those who have to queue up and use public transport”. It also argues for a “people’s revolutionary point of reference to overcome the scourges of a bourgeois government system such as: corruption, adaptation, reformism and bureaucracy”.
The Fuerza Patriotica Alexis Vive has also launched its own candidates to the Constituent Assembly in a broad alliance with other revolutionary organisations. Alexis Vive has a presence in Caracas in the 23 de Enero neighbourhood, but has also been expanding nationally, building a strong presence in places like Tocuyo, Lara. They want to “give a voice in the National Assembly to those from below, critical minded Chavistas, the left wing, those who struggle” in order to build a “new revolutionary leadership” and to “cleanse our own movement if need be”.
Also in Merida, a series of revolutionary organisations have put together a “manifesto of those from below” which recognises “the failure of capitalism” and “the need to smash the bourgeois state”.
The programs advanced by these different currents all reflect a deep seated hatred of the bureaucracy and reformism and a desire to move forward, to take power. They all also share a common weakness in their economic program. Although they contain general anti-capitalist phrases, there isn’t a clear understanding of the need to expropriate the means of production under workers’ control and therefore a lack of clarity about the leading role which the working class has to play.
These different initiatives were accompanied by large meetings in neighbourhoods and workplaces right at the beginning of the campaign. However, slowly but surely, the bureaucratic machinery of the PSUV has started to impose itself. Local mayors, regional governors, etc., have used their control of the apparatus to impose their candidates. The short period of time allowed to collect the signatures required to stand has made it very difficult for anyone outside the apparatus to actually become a candidate. The mood has started to turn, and many now fear that the Constituent Assembly (CA) will be completely dominated by the bureaucracy.
This is a very serious situation, as the only way to get a significant turn out for the election is if the revolutionary masses feel that they have a voice of their own, that the Assembly can be used to impose their will. If the bureaucracy and the reformists have the upper hand, that will be a recipe for disaster. A low turnout in the elections would deal a serious blow to the legitimacy of the government and might even prepare a defeat in the referendum which will have to ratify any decisions of the CA, if the opposition were to decide to participate in it.
This is the crucial issue. The PSUV was defeated in the December 2015 National Assembly elections, when it lost nearly 2 million votes. That was already a protest vote against bureaucracy, corruption, reformism and the impact of the economic crisis. Most of those votes did not go to the opposition which barely increased its vote, but to abstention. The Bolivarian revolution cannot recover its support unless it addresses head on the twin problems of the economy and bureaucracy (in the state and in its own organisations).
Hugo Chavez in his last speeches made two key points: 1) we still have a capitalist economy and we need to move towards socialism, 2) we need to destroy the old bourgeois state and replace it with a communal state. For all his shortcomings, Chavez was responding to the pressure of the revolutionary people and the assault of reaction and in a more or less clear way groping in the right direction.
No one denies there is a very serious economic crisis in Venezuela and that this has played a very important role in the fall of support for the Bolivarian movement. What are its causes and how can it be solved?
What triggered the crisis was clearly the collapse in the price of oil, which provides most of the government’s hard currency income. This in turn reduced the ability of the government to fund social programs and to subsidise the import of food and other basic products. The reduced availability of basic products led to an explosion of the black market, corruption, hoarding, speculation and smuggling. The government was forced to abandon the policy of general food subsidies and adopt one of targeted supply through the CLAPs. At the same time, the capitalists redoubled their sabotage of the regulated prices system, despite the government making significant concessions. The policy of a subsidised exchange rate for the importation of basic products has become, through corruption and fraud, a channel for the transfer of oil revenue dollars into the pockets of the capitalist class, thieves and speculators, fuelling at the same time the black market exchange rate (which in the last two months has shot up from 5000 BsF to the US$ to 8000). The attempt of the government to fund social spending and finance the budget deficit through printing money has fuelled a huge inflationary spiral. M2 money supply has gone up by 80% since the beginning of the year and a whopping 377% since January 2016. The government has regularly granted significant increases in the minimum wage, but these are just eaten up by inflation.
Meanwhile, the government has continued paying the foreign debt on time, massively depleting foreign currency reserves, from US$16bn in January 2016 down to just above US$10bn now. Of the remaining reserves, a large percentage is held in gold rather than actual cash, limiting the government’s room for manoeuvre. This has led to desperate moves like the recent sale of US$2.8bn of PDVSA bonds held by the Central Bank to Goldman Sachs at a 70% discount. Another operation of the same kind is being mulled, while the government has had to reschedule some of its debts to Rusia, and PDVSA has used some of its most valued assets as collateral for cash loans. The situation is desperate.
This crisis reveals the limitations of a revolution carrying out a policy of social spending within the limits of capitalism. The capitalists throughout this time embarked on an investment strike as they feared the revolution would take away their assets (and in some cases it did). The government controls prevented the capitalist economy from functioning normally, but did not go as far as allowing for a system of democratic planning of the economy to replace it. Once oil prices collapsed it became apparent that the Emperor (“oil socialism”) was wearing no clothes.
Which way forward
There are two ways out of this deep hole the Venezuelan economy is in. One is what the capitalists want: a massive adjustment which makes the workers and the poor pay the price. This would involve freeing exchange rates, reducing the budget deficit through cuts and lifting any regulations and protections (workers’ rights, environmental rights, etc.) from the “normal” functioning of capitalism.
The other is to move forward and abolish the capitalist system by bringing banks, industries and the land into public ownership and democratic control, that is, to make the oligarchy pay. That would not bring the price of oil back up, of course, but at least it would put the country’s resources in the hands of working people so they can plan them democratically for the benefit of the majority.
Maduro’s government has chosen a policy which does not advance towards socialism but also does not fully allow the functioning of the capitalist market. It makes all sorts of concessions to the capitalists, but these are not enough for them. It promises it won’t touch private property and swears it is a friend of business, but it doesn’t convince them fully. It gives capitalists preferential dollars and other subsidies, but they just take the money and stash it abroad or sell it on the black market.
At the same time, rather than relying on the revolutionary initiative of the masses, the state and party bureaucracy act as a constant brake on it. The economic crisis, combined with the corruption of high officials, the bureaucratic way in which officials clamp down on the aspirations of the rank and file, the constant appeals to the capitalists who are sabotaging the economy, etc., are all factors that act as a cancer at the heart of the Bolivarian revolution, fomenting scepticism, apathy, demoralisation and cynicism. Even now, people in the traditional Chavista strongholds cannot see that the Constituent Assembly will serve to address the fundamental issue of food supplies and the economy. Maduro talks of a “post-oil economic model”, but no one knows what this is supposed to mean, other than any reference to socialism has been replaced by reassurances to the capitalists.
This road leads to disaster. We have said this before and we repeat it again. The ground is being paved for the right wing to come to power, sooner or later. This could be now or it could be delayed a few months. It could take place through a reactionary insurrection, a military coup, an election defeat or any combination of these. A defeat will be paid dearly by the revolutionary activists and the workers, the peasants and the poor in general.
The revolutionary gains which still remain can only be defended by completing the revolution and that means the smashing of the bourgeois state and its replacement by a revolutionary state based on workers and peasant councils, as well as the expropriation of the oligarchy (banks, capitalists and latifundistas) and imperialism.
It is crucial that the revolutionary Chavista rank and file is armed with such a program and sets itself the task of building a new revolutionary leadership on that basis (as the comrades from Alexis Vive have correctly pointed out) . This is the only way forward, for this battle now, to prevent the overthrow of the Maduro government on the part of the counter-revolution, and for the battles which will come later.