“They [the Colombian and Venezuelan oligarchies and North American imperialism] know very well what they want to bring about, a chaos of blood and death. For what? It is very simple. Through the chaos of blood and death, they want to welcome the old imperialism here, according to their plans, to dominate Venezuela, to pacify Venezuela, and what is most important for imperialism, to secure one of the largest oil reserves on the planet that is here, as we know, on our territory.”
--Hugo Chavez, 16 May, 2004.i
Over the past six weeks the so called salida ya [exit now] strategy launched by the Venezuelan opposition has developed, in part, into a low intensity war against the democratically elected government of President Nicolas Maduro. This essay will examine two strategic objectives of the Bolivarian revolution that serve as pillars of resistance to the anti-democratic elements of the counter revolution: the struggle to preserve national independence and the campaign to develop and expand the communal structures that are the organized expressions of popular power.
NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE AS AN EXPRESSION OF POPULAR POWER
In a May 2004 speech, Chavez analyzed the continuity between the Bolivarian independence struggle of the nineteenth century and resistence to empire in the current epoch. Chavez argued that since the conquest, imperialism has been essentially the same in terms of its will to dominate the labor and resources of Latin America, but its methods of domination have evolved concurrently with the evolution of the capital system. Whereas the royal forces of Spain fought directly against Bolivarian patriots on Latin American soil, today empire seeks to impose or re-impose unforgiving neoliberal policies through an alliance with local elites, preferring the use of soft over hard power. Chavez was not revising history. In this speech he was not depicting Simon Bolivar as a socialist. Rather, he was arguing that the anti-imperialist struggle has evolvedbecause the methods of imperialism have evolved, so Bolivarians must be aware of these developments and combat the mediated forms of foreign economic domination.ii
The coalition of Venezuelan opposition parties, the Democratic Unified Roundtable (MUD) offers a radically different notion of national independence. The fraternal relationship between Cuba and Venezuela is seen as one of shameful political subordination of the fatherland to Cuba, a relationship that some opposition figures argue threatens the political pluralism that is guaranteed by the Venezuelan constitution. Has this principle been discarded? In a series of nineteen elections, parties of the left and right have been free to compete vigorously at the ballot box. Next year, the opposition has the option, within the parameters of the Venezuelan Constitution, to wage a recall referendum as a legal and democratic means of removing the president from office. Instead, while attacking the Cuban presence in Venezuela, some opposition leaders have had no qualms about openly calling on the Organization of American States (OAS) and the U.S. to intervene in the internal affairs of Venezuela.iii
The resort to counter revolutionary violence by the most extreme elements of the opposition and their international backers follows the failure of the MUD to restore the command structure of capital in Venezuela through the procedures of liberal democratic institutions.iv First, the MUD refused to recognizes Maduro’s win in the April 2013 presidential elections. Eight months later, MUD leader at the time, perennial presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, insisted that the municipal elections should be viewed as a plebiscite on the Maduro administration. After Chavistas won 75% of the municipalities and the majority of the total vote, the opposition dropped what had become an inconvenient narrative and promptly labeled the government a dictatorship. In the face of Capriles’s lost wager, the ultra right quickly took the initiative inside the MUD.
Having survived a coup attempt in April 2002, Chavez was well aware of the contingency of the opposition’s recognition of constitutional rule. For this reason, Chavez repeatedly emphasized the need to preserve national independence and to accelerate the formation of the organs of participatory democracy, the communes.v These two goals mutually re-enforce and advance the conditions without which the Bolivarian cause would probably succumb to its adversaries. Since 1999 the Bolivarian revolution has had to contend with a coup attempt (April 2002), an oil strike (2002-2003) and other challenges by the opposition, but it has nevertheless enabled the popular sectors to expand their role in the democratic governance of their communities. In a reciprocal fashion, communal councils, unions, peasant associations, and other types of grassroots organizations have often partnered with the state against threats to national independence because it has been their own independence, their own process of liberation at stake. In a clear merging of the concept of popular power and national sovereignty, the preamble to the law of the Country Plan 2013 – 2019, refers to popular power as “the organized expression of the non-transferable exercise of the sovereignty of the Venezuelan people.” vi
From a Bolivarian perspective, the concept of sovereignty pertains to all of Latin America, the nation state, and the organized expressions of popular power. In none of these cases is sovereignty transferable to a foreign power. Chavez sought to address all three of these features of sovereignty simultaneously. He led the way in the formation of independent Latin American associations such as The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). To alleviate the long term dependence of Venezuela on food imports and big agribusiness, Chavez declared his commitment to eco-socialism, backed an ongoing campaign to achieve food security and food sovereignty by banning transgenic seeds and launching ambitious programs in support of small and medium sized cooperative farming operations.vii To promote the integral defense of the nation, Chavez patiently built a civic-military alliance to cement the security relationship between the popular sectors and the national armed forces (FANB). Finally, in recognition of independence as an expression of organized popular power, Chavez urged that the state facilitate the formation of communal structures. These communal structures are charged by law with co-responsibility for planning and implementing government programs in tandem with the public sector (federal, state, and local officials). Bolivarian revolutionaries in the state and in the barrios have generally viewed these efforts from below as the motor of the revolution, so much so that Chavez made “the commune or nothing” campaign a cornerstone of one of his last major speeches to his cabinet, the “Golpe de Timon (October 20, 2012).”viii All of these efforts together converge on the endeavor to consolidate independence from empire and for the advancement of the experiment in 21st century socialism.
NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE AND THE PETRO-STATE
In the Country Plan and Constitution of Venezuela, national independence is also intimately linked to Venezuela’s oil industry. Venezuela is still very much a petro-state operating in a global economy.ix Venezuelan political analyst William Camacaro observes “Venezuelan oil can be expected to rise in value, and take on a special importance for the US and Europe as they face off with Russia over Crimea. A compliant, neoliberal Venezuela could patch up any shortfalls in energy supplies before winter in Europe.”x This keen observation suggests that there are powerful geopolitical interests at work in the current low intensity war. In any case, for the last decade, Bolivarian control of petrodollars has enabled the PDVSA to directly fund social missions that have helped to make Venezuela one of the least unequal nations of Latin America (measured by the Gini index of .41 for Venezuela in 2012), dramatically reducing poverty and increasing access to health care, housing and education.xi Venezuela’s trade policies with regard to PDVSA have also benefited members of ALBA, Petro Caribe, and other countries. The CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program has provided subsidized heating oil to more than 100,000 low income households in the United States. For the champions of a return to neo-liberalism, though, Venezuela’s oil wealth is being mismanaged and squandered at home and abroad. So regime change would most likely bring with it a significant change in the management and direction of the PDSVA.
BALANCE OF FORCES
Over the past six weeks, the violent opposition protesters have increasingly overshadowed those engaging in and advocating peaceful protest. Behind the masks of those setting the fires lurk an apocalyptic nihilism bereft of manifestos or any coherent political program. They are based in the middle and upper class neighborhoods, where they are wearing out their welcome, and though there have been some exceptions, they appear to be avoiding direct confrontations with the popular sectors in whose neighborhoods they are not welcome. What distinguishes the shock troops of the counter revolution from democratic opposition is the former’s complete disrespect for the rule of law, its assault on the natural environment, and the anti-social tactics used to support regime change. These anti-social tactics include the destruction of government buildings and public property, vandalism against the infrastructure of social investment, cutting down of thousands of trees for use in blocking roads, and the assassination of government agents and citizens in the vicinity of the barricades. What makes this a low intensity war is the persistent use of lethal weapons by small groups against targets associated with the government to bring about property damage, injuries, and death.
Some local government officials have been charged with failing to appropriately address the violence in their cities; most notably, Mayor Daniel Ceballos (San Cristóbal in the state of Táchira) and Mayor Enzo Scarano (San Diego in the state of Carabobo) have been sentenced to prison terms in connection with these and other charges. The opposition argues that these mayors are the victims of a government crackdown on dissent, including peaceful protest, and that the mayors and all other detained opponents of the government should be freed.xii
The violent protests, despite their prevalence in the news cycle, are not gaining a significant following inside Venezuela. A Hinterlaces poll last week indicates that 86% of Venezuelans believe that “any decision [about the Maduro administration] should be electoral” and only 11% support the “salida ya” [exit now] strategy of the opposition.xiii This poll and an earlier poll by International Consulting Services (ICS), are not definitive indicators, but they do suggest, when compared to the results of the municipal elections, that it is probable that a majority of Venezuelan’s say no to the tactics of the ultra right and yes to respect for the constitutional order.
With regard to regional bodies, the attempt to bring about extra-constitutional regime change through foreign intervention in Venezuela was firmly rejected by the majority of the OAS member states which, on March 7, 2014 declared “Solidarity and Support for Democratic Institutions, Dialogue, and Peace in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” The US, Canada and Panama dissented.xiv MUD leaders and opposition sympathizers are not happy with the OAS position and view it more as a caving in to a Cuban—Chavista axis of evil then a genuine interest in democracy and freedom. CELAC, which recently met in Cuba (January 29, 2014), has declared Latin America a zone of peace. The UNASUR delegation to Venezuela, which met with a variety of constituencies in late March, including representatives of the MUD, has condemned “any attempt to disrupt the democratic order” and plans to return to Venezuela to resume efforts at mediation on April 7.xv In addition, the Vatican has offered to mediate between the opposition and government. Any such mediation will no doubt include an examination of the measures the government has taken in holding those members of the security forces accountable who have been charged with committing crimes, as well as the adjudication of opponents of the government who have been charged with committing crimes.
It appears that an extra-constitutional regime change strategy cannot live with the violent protests and cannot live without them. But one has to choose. It is either dialogue or war, and the majority of Venezuelans, the majority of Latin Americans, the majority of progressive forces worldwide, do not want war. This explains why no Venezuelan politician of any stature openly backs, or publically claims responsibility for the violent protest actions but readily identifies with the democratic opposition that utilizes peaceful protest. Although a number of MUD leaders, including Governor of Miranda Henrique Capriles and Metropolitan Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, have made statements to distance themselves from violent protest and endorse peaceful dissent, they have not yet opted to join the government sponsored national peace conference. According to journalist Ryan Mallett-Outtrim, the MUD pre-conditions for talks include: “reductions in crime and scarcity, an international arbiter to oversee negotiations, access to a presidential national broadcast and the release of all opposition supporters, including jailed far right leader Leopoldo Lopez.”xvi Maduro has agreed to the condition of mediation by a third party trusted by all interlocutors and so far both UNASUR and the Vatican have offered to mediate.
A CALL FOR PEACE
The opposition is fracturing over tactical differences in seeking regime change and the Chavista base is becoming more unified. Some news reports suggest that a second more violent phase of the counter revolution is in the works that could include the entry of paramilitary forces from Colombia to assist in a coup attempt.xvii While it is difficult to verify the details of these reports, there are precedents for the entry of paramilitaries from Colombia into Venezuela even as late as April 3, 2014.xviii The participation of forces connected to Colombian paramilitary groups or any other mercenaries in the counter revolution would no doubt provoke a direct confrontation with the Venezuelan civic-military alliance. The consequences of such a conflagration would have serious regional security implications. From the Bolivarian point of view, surrender to empire is not an option. Meanwhile the Maduro administration is extending an olive branch to Washington. In a New York Times Op Ed (April 1, 2014) by Nicolas Maduro, “Venezuela: A Call For Peace,” Maduro urges that “now is the time for dialogue and diplomacy” and states “My government has also reached out to President Obama, expressing our desire to again exchange ambassadors. We hope his administration will respond in kind.” Washington can make a difference between war and peace in Venezuela by directly condemning the violent anti-government protests and supporting dialogue rather than threatening to impose sanctions on the government, an action that would probably, in practice, only embolden the perpetrators of low intensity warfare. Venezuela is at a crossroads. At stake is the independence of the nation, the organized expressions of popular power, and whether deep ideological differences will be settled at the ballot box or on the battlefield.
Frederick B. Mills is a Professor of Philosophy at Bowie State University.
i See H. Chavez, La Unidad Latino Americana, New York: Ocean Sur, 2006, especially “Marcha Por La Paz Y Contra El Paramilitarismo En Venezuela,” a speech broadcast by Cadena Nacional, Caracas, Venezuela, 16 May 2004, after a group of more than 100 paramilitaries from Colombia were arrested in Caracas. Author’s unofficial translation.
ii See note one.
iii See, for example, “María Corina Machado Attempts to Bring the Venezuelan Opposition’s Case Before the OAS,” Brookings, 24 March, 2014.
iv This term “command structure” is from I. Mezaros (1995), Beyond Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press. Any shortcoming in the use of this term here are mine alone.
v These objectives are stated in the Plan de La Patria: Programa de Gobierno Bolivariano 2013 -2019.
vi The idea of sovereignty being non-transferable is also expressed in Title One, Article Five of the Venezuelan Constitution. This is the author’s unofficial translation.
vii See F. Mills and W. Camacaro, “Venezuela and the Battle Against Transgenic Seeds, 6 Dec. 2013, Council on Hemispheric Affairs. http://www.coha.org/venezuela-and-the-battle-against-transgenic-seeds/
viii On the campaign to form communes, see F. Mills, “The Commune or Nothing: Popular Power and the State in Venezuela,” 26 Sep. 2013. http://www.coha.org/the-commune-or-nothing-popular-power-and-the-state-i...
ix The Country Plan states that it is a national objective to “preserve and consolidate the sovereignty over petroleum resources and other strategic natural resources” (I.1.1).This is also consistent with the Venezuelan Constitution (T.1Art.12).
x Phone communication with William Camacaro on March 31, 2014.
xi See K. Bhatt, “What US Voters can Learn from Venezuela’s Election,” 5 Nov. 20-2012. https://nacla.org/blog/2012/11/5/what-us-voters-can-learn-venezuelas-election; see also Estado de las Ciudades de America Latina y el Caribe 2012, Programs de las Naciones Unidas para los Asentamiento Humanos, ONU-Habitat, Agosto de 2012, p. 45.
xii J. Francisco Alonso, 26 March 2014. http://www.eluniversal.com/nacional-y-politica/140326/venezuelan-high-court-dismisses-mayor-sends-him-to-prison.
xiii See Estado de la Opinion Publica y Analysis Situacional, Informe no. 6, 11 March 2014. Hinterlaces. http://www.hinterlaces.com/s2-noticias/c8-politica/monitor-pais-86-opina-que-la-salida-debe-ser-electoral. The analysis following the report states, “Este fortalecimiento del chavismo, en medio de la incertidumbre y el descontento, tiene que ver con el rechazo a la violencia, el temor al caos y la ausencia de alternativas, así como con la iniciativa presidencial de convocar a Conferencias por la Paz, en particular los diálogos con el sector privado.” The same poll shows a 57% approval rating for President Maduro, a figure consistent with the outcome of the municipal elections in December.
xiv See F. Mills, L. Birns, and R. Pineo, “The Council on Hemipheric Affairs Applauds OAS Solidarity with Venezuela,” 8 March 2014. Council on Hemispheric Affairs. http://www.coha.org/the-council-on-hemispheric-affairs-applauds-oas-solidarity-with-venezuela/VENEZUELA
xviiiColombian Paramilitaries Arrested in Venezuela, Latin American Herald Tribune, 3 April 2014. On the arrest of more than 100 paramilitaries in 2004, see note 1.
1. See H. Chavez, La Unidad Latino Americana, New York: Ocean Sur, 2006, especially “Marcha Por La Paz Y Contra El Paramilitarismo En Venezuela,” a speech broadcast by Cadena Nacional, Caracas, Venezuela, 16 May 2004, after a group of more than 100 paramilitaries from Colombia were arrested in Caracas. Author’s unofficial translation.
2. See note one.
3. See, for example, “María Corina Machado Attempts to Bring the Venezuelan Opposition’s Case Before the OAS,” Brookings, 24 March, 2014.
4. This term “command structure” is from I. Mezaros (1995), Beyond Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press. Any shortcoming in the use of this term here are mine alone.
5. These objectives are stated in the Plan de La Patria: Programa de Gobierno Bolivariano 2013 -2019.
6. The idea of sovereignty being non-transferable is also expressed in Title One, Article Five of the Venezuelan Constitution. This is the author’s unofficial translation.
7. See F. Mills and W. Camacaro, “Venezuela and the Battle Against Transgenic Seeds, 6 Dec. 2013, Council on Hemispheric Affairs. http://www.coha.org/venezuela-and-the-battle-against-transgenic-seeds/
8. On the campaign to form communes, see F. Mills, “The Commune or Nothing: Popular Power and the State in Venezuela,” 26 Sep. 2013. http://www.coha.org/the-commune-or-nothing-popular-power-and-the-state-i...
9. The Country Plan states that it is a national objective to “preserve and consolidate the sovereignty over petroleum resources and other strategic natural resources” (I.1.1).This is also consistent with the Venezuelan Constitution (T.1Art.12).
10. Phone communication with William Camacaro on March 31, 2014.
11. See K. Bhatt, “What US Voters can Learn from Venezuela’s Election,” 5 Nov. 20-2012. https://nacla.org/blog/2012/11/5/what-us-voters-can-learn-venezuelas-election; see also Estado de las Ciudades de America Latina y el Caribe 2012, Programs de las Naciones Unidas para los Asentamiento Humanos, ONU-Habitat, Agosto de 2012, p. 45.
12. J. Francisco Alonso, 26 March 2014. http://www.eluniversal.com/nacional-y-politica/140326/venezuelan-high-court-dismisses-mayor-sends-him-to-prison.
13. See Estado de la Opinion Publica y Analysis Situacional, Informe no. 6, 11 March 2014. Hinterlaces. http://www.hinterlaces.com/s2-noticias/c8-politica/monitor-pais-86-opina-que-la-salida-debe-ser-electoral. The analysis following the report states, “Este fortalecimiento del chavismo, en medio de la incertidumbre y el descontento, tiene que ver con el rechazo a la violencia, el temor al caos y la ausencia de alternativas, así como con la iniciativa presidencial de convocar a Conferencias por la Paz, en particular los diálogos con el sector privado.” The same poll shows a 57% approval rating for President Maduro, a figure consistent with the outcome of the municipal elections in December.
14. See F. Mills, L. Birns, and R. Pineo, “The Council on Hemipheric Affairs Applauds OAS Solidarity with Venezuela,” 8 March 2014. Council on Hemispheric Affairs. http://www.coha.org/the-council-on-hemispheric-affairs-applauds-oas-solidarity-with-venezuela/VENEZUELA
15. For the full UNASUR Communique, see http://www.unasursg.org/inicio/centro-de-noticias/archivo-de-noticias/comunicado-de-la-i-reuni%C3%B3n-de-la-comisi%C3%B3n-de-cancilleres-de-unasur2
16. R. Mallett-Outtrim, “Venezuela Slams US for Threatening Sanctions,” 28 March 2014, Venezuela Analysis. http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/10552
18. Colombian Paramilitaries Arrested in Venezuela, Latin American Herald Tribune, 3 April 2014. On the arrest of more than 100 paramilitaries in 2004, see note 1.