Venezuelan President Maduro Calls for a Constituent Assembly

Jorge Martin discusses the Venezuelan president's recent decision to convene a constituent assembly in Venezuela.

By Jorge Martin – In Defense of Marxism
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Venezuelans celebrate international workers' day 2017, just before Maduro made the surprise announcement. (AVN)
Venezuelans celebrate international workers' day 2017, just before Maduro made the surprise announcement. (AVN)

During his speech at a massive Bolivarian May Day rally, Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro, has announced the convening of a National Constituent Assembly, which he described as a workers’ and communal assembly. The Venezuelan opposition has immediately rejected this as part of the “regime’s coup” and has called for an escalation of protests.

Maduro’s announcement comes after 30 days of almost continuous violent protest by the right-wing opposition in Venezuela (with the backing of Washington) with the aim of overthrowing the government. One of the main leaders of the most radical wing of the opposition, María Corina Machado, openly admitted this in an opinion article in the Ecuadorean paper El Comercio, saying, “there is a growing danger that we miss the essential point. The aim is not to hold elections within the framework of Maduro’s criminal regime. The aim is to put an end to the regime… The first step is to depose the regime”.

The world’s media have, once again, distorted the real situation on the ground in Venezuela. The picture they have painted is one of an authoritarian regime with no support using repression to stay in power against peaceful protesters. The reality is more complicated. First of all, opposition protests have been extremely violent, leading to over 30 people being killed. Just to give two examples: a woman died in Caracas after being hit in the head by a frozen water bottle thrown from a building during a Bolivarian march on April 19th; and two revolutionary worker activists in the regional Bolivarian governorship of Merida were shot on the neck and head a week ago by sharpshooters posted in opposition dominated buildings while they were taking part in a pro-government rally.The Venezuelan section of the IMT marching on May Day

Secondly, after opposition supporters ransacked and attempted to set fire to the Supreme Court of Justice building, the government used the National Guard to prevent opposition supporters from marching to the buildings of the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council. This has led to extremely violent clashes with small groups of young opposition thugs.

Thirdly, while the popularity of the government is at a low ebb, there is still a hard core of working class and poor people which support the Bolivarian revolution and came out en masse on April 19th and May Day. Hundreds of thousands of people marched on both days against the attempt of the opposition to overthrow the government, in addition to tens of thousands who marched in sectoral women’s and youth demonstrations last week. None of this has been reported by the capitalist media.

On May Day, for instance, the opposition leaders had called on their supporters to follow two separate march routes, one to the Supreme Court (TSJ) and the other to the National Electoral Council (CNE). The TSJ is the building they had already assaulted on April 8. The CNE is located next to Bolivar Avenue, where the chavistas had decided to hold their May Day rally. The whole opposition strategy was a clear provocation aimed at creating a scenario of violence, portrayed as police repression, which would put the government under more pressure at home and internationally.

And so it happened. Hundreds of thousands of Bolivarian revolution supporters marched from three different gathering points to Bolivar Avenue. The whole route was teeming with people from early in the morning. Many of the participants had travelled overnight from the four corners of the country to take part in the demonstration. By the time I arrived at Bolivar Avenue at around 2pm, there were already hundreds of thousands there, with many leaving to make room for others arriving, until 4pm, at which time Maduro addressed the rally.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Caracas, opposition protesters clashed violently with the National Guard, even breaching the fence of the La Carlota military airbase, providing plenty of images for the world’s media.

In reality this is a conflict between different state institutions (the opposition dominated National Assembly versus the Bolivarian presidency) which reflect different class interests. The opposition, based mainly in the middle and upper class layers of society wants to remove the current government and take power, encouraged by their December 2015 electoral success in the National Assembly elections. Maduro’s government, whose support comes mainly from the working class and the poor, wants to remain in power.

At the beginning of the current wave of violent opposition protests, the opposition’s aim was to go beyond its traditional base of support in middle and upper class areas in the big cities to the working class and poor neighbourhoods. This they have not achieved. There have been isolated instances of riots in places like El Valle (where rioters attacked the Maternity Hospital), but these have been carried out mainly by criminal elements, not so much by ordinary locals.

What the last month has revealed, in fact, is that chavismo can still count on a core of support which can be mobilised, particularly when faced with the whip of counter-revolution and foreign intervention in the form of the extremely provocative statements and actions of the Organisation of American States general secretary, Almagro.

However, the opposition has been able to rekindle its mass base of support, which had become largely demoralised after the previous opposition offensive against the government in September - October 2016 fizzled out. At that time opposition leaders threw down the gauntlet against Maduro, with mass demonstrations, a threat to march on the Miraflores Palace and the beginning of a “political trial” by the National Assembly, but they were unable to follow up and became entangled in negotiation talks brokered by the Vatican, which led nowhere.

The opposition is able to mobilise large numbers, but they have not really been able to go beyond their traditional areas of support and have failed to break the army, despite repeated attempts to do so and public calls for a military coup. The situation is therefore one of a stalemate.

What is the reason for the fall in support for the Bolivarian government?

Venezuela is mired in a deep economic crisis. The steep fall in oil prices has revealed all the contradictions in the Venezuelan economy. Since the introduction of price controls and foreign exchange controls in 2003 (in order to prevent speculation and capital flight), the private sector has been rebelling against them. The ruling class has embarked on an investment strike and has found numerous ways to circumvent the foreign exchange controls, which have now turned into their opposite. 

While oil prices were high, the government was able to use oil income to pay for massive social programs as well as importing food products from the world market, which then it sold at subsidised prices. This, for a while, created the illusion that it was possible to sustain wide-ranging social policies without dealing with the question of the ownership of the means of production. Now that is no longer possible.

Foreign currency reserves have severely collapsed, reducing the ability of the government to subsidise food imports, leading to scarcity in a context in which the private sector refuses to produce goods to be sold at regulated prices. Meanwhile, the government has prioritised foreign debt payments, which it has fulfilled on time. In order to maintain public spending, the government is running a massive budget deficit amounting to 15% of GDP, which it funds by printing money. The combination of these factors has led to a massive devaluation of the currency in the black market combined with hyperinflation and scarcity of basic products, particularly food and medicines.

For the last three years the Maduro government has followed a policy of defending itself from the opposition on the political front, whilst making all sorts of openings and concessions to the capitalists in the economic front. Just before the current wave of protests, Maduro had presided over the Expo Venezuela 2017, stressing that his government was not communist, that he was in favour of private property and handing out soft loans in Bolivars and dollars to foreign and national companies.

The current attempt of the opposition to overthrow the government was triggered by a decision of the TSJ to bypass the powers of the National Assembly, in order to sign an association agreement with a foreign (Russian) company, for the extraction of oil. The government needs that influx of cash to pay back the latest tranche of foreign debt, amounting to 3 billion dollars. The government has also all but lifted price controls, replacing them with targeted delivery of subsidised food directly to communities, the CLAP.

However, the fall in support for the Bolivarian revolution goes beyond purely economic reasons. In December 2002, during the oil sabotage and national lock out organised by the capitalist class, the revolutionary people went through all sorts of difficulties and suffering and stayed loyal to the revolution. None of the social programs of the government had been started yet.

The masses are of course deeply affected by the rapidly eroding purchasing power of wages, scarcity, etc. Working people struggle to make ends meet and their diet has substantially worsened. But what they really resent is the fact that the government doesn’t seem to have any strategy to solve these problems. While it talks of an economic war waged by the oligarchy against the revolution, at the same time sits down for talks with the same capitalists and makes ever growing concessions to them. While it talks of socialism, the revolutionary initiative of the workers and the revolutionary communities is curtailed, asphyxiated or openly blocked by government bureaucrats in plush air conditioned offices driving around in luxury trucks.

Bureaucracy, corruption, and the blocking of rank and file participation is what has led to disillusionment, scepticism and even cynicism amongst layers which previously were supporters of the revolutionary movement. Though it is difficult to gauge, the Venezuelan population is now probably split three ways: a third which still supports the Bolivarian revolution, a third which supports the right wing opposition and finally, a third which opposes the government but is also deeply wary of the opposition leaders.

It is in this context that Maduro has announced the Constituent Assembly. The proposal is a leap into the unknown. Half the deputies in the assembly (250) will be elected in normal territorial constituencies, and the other half will be elected in sector-based constituencies (workers, women, youth, the disabled, indigenous peoples, etc.). The Constituent Assembly is all powerful, meaning that all the powers of the state are superseded by it and will have to be renewed (through elections in the case of the National Assembly and the President) once the Assembly finishes its work.

Lo que los medios ocultan: el chavismo tiene las calles repletas. Paseo José María Vargas   1:30 pm

Maduro has announced that the Assembly will be called on to enshrine the Bolivarian social programs (misiones), so that they can’t be abolished. We must warn that in reality, it is unlikely that this proposal will really improve the balance of forces for the Bolivarian revolution. Many are deeply sceptical of the ability of the current leadership of the Bolivarian movement to really commit to rank and file participation. The experience of the “Congreso de la Patria” (the Fatherland’s Congress), convened after the 2015 election defeat, which became an empty talking shop, is too recent in their memory.

Also, there is no indication that this announcement signals a shift to the left in the government’s economic policy. In his speech at the May Day rally, Maduro talked of “a change in economic paradigm” and of “moving towards a different, post-oil economic model”, but did not even mention the word socialism. There was no indication of any moves to expropriate the capitalist class.

In these circumstances, Maduro’s announcement will only have the effect of giving more arguments to the opposition (as if they needed any), without addressing any of the real problems (of food and medicine supply, bureaucracy and corruption) which have reduced support for the PSUV.

As was to be predicted, the opposition denounced the move as a coup and called on its supporters to step up protests. Already there has been a banging of pots and pans at 9pm last night. Today they have called on their supporters to block all of the country’s main roads starting at 6 or 7 am for two hours. They are also calling for a national stoppage. Overnight, there have already been burning barricades in several places. Opposition thugs have also laid the deadly guayas, steel cables crossing streets at 1m height with the aim of killing motorbike riders.

Of course, we can expect a hypocritical chorus of countries which will denounce the decision as undemocratic and will express their “grave concern” for human life and the “violation of human rights”. These are countries like Colombia, where the state and paramilitaries regularly kill peasant and trade union leaders; Mexico, where hundreds of thousands have been disappeared and killed by the government and drug gangs which now control large sections of the state apparatus and political parties or even Morocco (!) a reactionary and undemocratic monarchy where human rights are regularly violated.

They are fully aware that with the proposed electoral system they have no guarantee of gaining a majority. Their aim is to overthrow Maduro’s government as soon as possible, by whatever means necessary.

If the opposition were to overthrow the government it would be an absolute disaster for the working class and the poor. In opinion articles in opposition papers they have already explained what their program would be: to privatise state owned companies, to reduce the fiscal deficit by implementing massive cuts in social spending (particularly on education and health), to sack hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, to liberalise prices, to get free access to dollars from oil revenue, to abolish labour and trade union rights (particularly the ban on layoffs), etc. On top of this, they would make the workers and revolutionary masses pay very dearly for having dared to challenge their power for so long.

We fundamentally oppose the current offensive of the capitalist class and imperialism. But we must say openly that we do not support the policies of the current government of Maduro. We do not support them because instead of solving the fundamental problems affecting workers and the poor, they aggravate them and are the surest route towards a defeat of the Bolivarian movement (be it through elections or a violent overthrow).

The conquests of the revolution are still many and wide-ranging, for instance the Mision Vivienda, the government’s housing program, which has just completed the delivery of 1.6 million housing units to families in need. The only way to defend it would be to complete the revolution. That is, to expropriate the capitalist class (which is waging the current attempt to overthrow the government), to dismantle the capitalist state and replace it with a genuine workers’ democracy. Only these kinds of measures would be able to enlarge again the social basis of support for the Bolivarian movement.

The task at hand is to oppose with all forces the onslaught of reaction and imperialism by revolutionary means, while conducting a serious campaign of political clarification amongst the revolutionary vanguard as to what are the causes of the current crisis and the only way forward: socialism!