Venezuela at a Tipping Point

No matter how you cut it, Nicolás Maduro’s first year in office was no walk in the park. Even before the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died after a long bout with cancer last March, opponents of the Bolivarian government—in Caracas as in Washington—were circling like the sharks they are at a hint of blood in the water.

No matter how you cut it, Nicolás Maduro’s first year in office was no walk in the park. Even before the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died after a long bout with cancer last March, opponents of the Bolivarian government—in Caracas as in Washington—were circling like the sharks they are at a hint of blood in the water. The true nature of Chávez’s illness, the constitutionality of Maduro’s brief interim leadership, and above all the incredibly narrow result of the April 2013 election provided abundant fodder for an opposition that has seen little but defeat for 15 years straight. Not an auspicious way to begin a presidency.

Of course, the criticisms emerging from the left as from the right would find little echo without a concrete economic situation that some characterize as bordering on crisis. For the middle-class student movement that made international headlines in February of this year, the stated concerns were both insecurity and economic scarcity. Less emphasized were class-specific concerns like the reduced supply of subsidized dollars for travel abroad. Regardless, once the political opposition threw its weight behind the protests with its hashtag of #LaSalida—the exit—the movement coalesced as a firmly insurrectional one aimed at toppling a legitimately elected government.

The opposition divided

Behind the scenes, the protests grew out of deep fissures within the opposition, which had crafted a tense unity behind the candidacy of Henrique Capriles but began to break down after a strong showing for Chavistas in the December 2013 municipal elections. When Capriles began to voice reasonable concerns about opposition strategy—insisting that building a political majority would entail serious work and above all a sustained effort to win over the poor— his longtime competitors like Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado broke to the right and took to the streets, proving that their dedication to the intoxicating lure of unreason knows no bounds.

In the end, Capriles was right: by calling for the ousting of an elected leader, the protest movement imprisoned itself in an increasingly radical but ever-shrinking minority, especially in light of the increasingly violent nature of the guarimbas, or street barricades. Consistent efforts to frame the protesters as spontaneous, peaceful, and idealistic students confronting an authoritarian state eventually gave way to a reality in which the hand of the opposition was evident and far-right youth groups did not hesi- tate to turn their violence on the national Guard, Chavistas clearing barricades, or even innocent bystanders.

But behind this ego-driven tension between Venezuela’s soft and hard right wings, some are right to discern something more sinister: while the radical right pillories the more moderate Democratic unity Roundtable (MuD) for engaging in dialogue with the government, this is merely the good cop to their bad. From the perspective of Washington, it just might be the case that the increasingly unpopular street pro- tests nevertheless played an essential role, discrediting the Maduro government as a precursor to future electoral campaigns targeting those moderates known as ni-ni (neither-nor).

For the moment, however, the story is a far different one. As López languishes in prison awaiting trial for inciting violence, emails have emerged confirm- ing what we already knew: namely, that the Venezuelan opposition continues its efforts to destabilize the Venezuelan government, and that it enjoys the backing of the united States. in these emails, Machado speaks of the need to “take out the trash” and “annihilate Maduro,” continuing to support street protests and taking advantage of the “global situation with Ukraine and Thailand” in order to do so. She and others confirm the support of Kevin Whitaker, US Ambassador to Colombia, for such a plot.

Chavismo divided

Alongside this opposition from without, the death of Chávez and the uncertainty of the future has also loosed tongues within Chavismo, prompting a sharp debate on the role of the Chavista “ultra-left.” While the opposition laments self-censorship in the private media, far more worrying is the hushing of some radical voices under the imperative to unity: Alberto Nolia, who was sharply critical of the government’s proposed disarmament law, lost his program on state television, Vladimir Acosta lost his radio program, not to mention the self-exile of several writers who resigned from the radical website Aporrea.org in recent weeks.

To be clear: there is no lack of critical voices within the ranks of the revolution. To confirm this one need only consult Roland Denis’s hotly debated Aporrea article—which has now been read more than 11,000 times—in which he wonders “who is ready to tell Maduro to go to hell?” While Denis and others lament government half-stepping and concessions to the right, other hardline revolutionaries who share the same long-term objectives have nevertheless mocked those perceived “ultra-leftists” for whom revolution is a pure and immediate transition. Such clashes are nothing new, however, and Chávez himself often upbraided the “anarchistic” ultra-left for taking provocative action that he would later tacitly support.

Corruption, theft and shortages

On the left, the economic question revolves around what measures the Maduro government will take to resolve the crisis. Since Venezuela imports the vast majority of its food, the tangle of a massively corrupt import sector rife with outright theft and rampant currency speculation serves as both a strategic choke-point and a political Gordian Knot. According to one estimate, 2013 alone saw some $20 billion (with a “b”) simply disappear into a black hole of fake import companies. Faced with shelves that are empty of some key items, the Maduro government has been tempted to throw even more oil money at private importers and to lift price controls, but from the perspective of radical sectors, such short-term measures will do little to resolve the underlying contradictions.

The causes of economic shortages range from overt and politically motivated sabotage to the structural disfigurations of the oil economy—inhibiting production and encouraging importation—with crass self-interest in between. While producers and retailers are regularly discovered to be hoarding goods, there is a fine line between destabilizing the government and simply trying to make a buck, and sabotage often takes a much more banal form: price controls provide incentives for the massive smuggling of cheap gasoline and consumer products into Colombia, and with the black-market exchange rate resting at around eight times the official rate, the temptation of currency speculation created a dangerous upward spiral that only recently appears to have slowed.

Building a different economy and a different state

How best to escape the pincers of legitimate critiques from the revolutionary left and destabilization attempts from the right? For many grassroots revolutionaries, the answer lay in the same strategy they have been pursuing for 15 years now: to walk that fine line between constituent power from below and the constituted power of state institutions, between militant critique and fidelity to a revolutionary process that remains the only path open por ahora, for now.

This means continuing to press for the expansion of popular power in the form of the local, directly democratic communal councils of which there are more than 40,000 at present. It means the consolidation of these councils into broader structures known as communes—now numbering in the hundreds— which incorporate not only participatory political institutions like councils but also economic ones like cooperatives, socialist enterprises, and worker-managed factories. It means attempting to resolve the economic challenges of the import sector not by throwing more money at it, but instead by building the Bolivarian dream of a very different kind of economy, one that is decentralized and oriented toward use-values rather than exchange-values. Imagine what the communes could do with $20 billion!

To build a different economy would be to build a different state, one already looming as an object of fear for some and inspiration for others: a radically decentralized and socialist “communal state” that would be, in reality, no state at all. But intensifying participation and expanding its scope and ambitions to such a degree threatens to create powerful enemies among Chavistas and opposition alike, and so above all it means being willing to make the necessary and perennial wager, one made and repeated often by Chávez, and which is best expressed by the late Venezuelan writer Aquiles Nazoa: “I believe in the creative powers of the people.”