Anyone who has read anything on the government of Venezuela in the last seventeen years in the corporate media will have noticed that it is characterised as a repressive dictatorship. However supporters of its Bolivarian Revolution will tell a different story, claiming it has passed through an extended period of radical democratic change, achieving significant reductions in poverty. The advances of the revolution and the social progress it has engendered for the working class are very real, however the radical democratic reforms of the Bolivarian revolution are now under threat. Its attempts at measures of workers control, cooperatives and communes remain an important cornerstone of the revolution, but the radicalisation that occurred throughout the 2000s has faced significant setbacks.
The Bolivarian revolution may have fractured the capitalist state, but the movement to establish socialist modes of production has stalled with the country facing a severe economic and political crisis. The future of the Bolivarian revolution remains in the balance, with the rise of a powerful and wealthy right wing opposition, known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD) and the US issuing threats against Venezuela. The aims of the MUD are clear. They wish to destroy the gains of the Bolivarian revolution and install a government that is compliant with interests of the US.
The government has sought to address the crisis by broadening the base of the revolution. On 30 July, a new Constituent Assembly (ANC) was elected in Venezuela. The election was marred by violence, with the right-wing pro-capitalist opposition attacking 200 polling stations, leaving more than ten people dead. The right wing media abroad, particularly in the US and Spain, condemned the Maduro government for being undemocratic and repressive blaming the violence on the government.
The bourgeois press in Venezuela provoked a general climate of fear and hysteria, claiming the new assembly would give President Nicholas Maduro dictatorial powers and it questioned the validity of the election. So has a section of the Left, including revolutionary socialist organisations such as the US ISO and Marxists such as Mike Gonzalez, a historian, professor and literary critic, based in the University of Glasgow. (For the sake of simplicity they’ll be referred to herein as Gonzalez and Co). In the context of uncertainty and US intervention, instead of promoting solidarity, they have condemned the government using all the same accusations that the right-wing use – of authoritarianism and repression.
They have uncritically supported Socialist Tide Marea Socialista (MS) when it left the mass party of the revolution, United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). This is notable, because the MS openly joined the right wing opposition, calling for the “widest unity in action” in a statement issued on 27 March. They defended the actions of right-wing protesters: “without any doubt we defend the right of self-defence exercised by the demonstrators when the state violates the exercise of citizens’ rights”i.
They lied about the nature of the protests, claiming most deaths were at the hand of the National Guard, when the opposition has been carrying out terrorist attacks and lynchings of supporters of the revolution. It claims that the protests are the voice of the people. When opposition forces fired on government employees who were attending a Bolivarian rally, MS claimed they were killed “by chance”ii. It is these counter-revolutionaries that Gonzalez and Co. draw their analysis from.
Although they have no consistent, coherent or united revolutionary line on Venezuela, they systematically condemn its government and the Bolivarian revolution. In effect, they state Maduro is the problem, repeating the claims of the right wing opposition, that the government is undemocratic, “top down” and repressive. They either insinuate or state explicitly that the government needs to be overthrown by the working class.
The view I’m outlining here is that socialists have a responsibility to critically analyse and assess the claims made by the corporate media, that the government of Venezuela is undemocratic and repressive. To repeat the claims of the opposition or corporate media at a time when the country is in crisis is an abdication of the principles of international solidarity and only provides further cover for US imperialist intervention. Further, the main enemies of socialism in Venezuela are not the government, but Venezuela’s bourgeoisie, who are backed by the U.S. It is they who are the main obstacle to the eradication of poverty and the liberation of the working class.
Gonzalez’ Cataclysmic Visions
The international corporate media, liberal and conservative, treat the claims of the right-wing opposition as gospel truth. There are four major private news firms in Venezuela, which Chavista’s refer to as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Each news item from the entire global corporate media network, stems from these media outlets and effectively reads as an opposition press release. Gonzalez repeats many of the claims of the right-wing media in an article Being Honest About Venezuela which appeared on the Jacobin website which we are, as the title suggests, expected to evaluate as the unadulterated truth iii. Gonzalez always writes as if he has the inside gossip on the reality of Venezuela; pre-determining the future as grim and as sure of certain ruin as the four horsemen of the apocalypse; that Venezuelans can only expect famine, pestilence, death and war.
It is hard to get to the facts of Venezuela when it is arrayed against a barrage of lies. Gonzalez presumptions are based on falsities, which is why he is led to making gross caricatures of the Bolivarian revolution. Gonzalez news sources are pro-imperialist outlets such as the Miami Herald, the Economist, The Washington Post, CNN, CNBC and the New York Times. Somehow Gonzalez is not deterred by their obvious agenda of regime change. They are simply not reliable enough sources to substantiate any of his arguments, but he treats all their claims as good coin.
No wonder he presents such a warped picture. He does not use one single left wing news source. The onus probandi lies completely on Venezuelan revolutionaries. This is not the Marxist method of analysis and should be rejected. It is impossible to make logical deductions based on lies.
Gonzalez opens his article Being Honest About Venezuelawith an ominous portrayal: “Venezuela descends deeper into a political and economic crisis every day. The death toll rises relentlessly, and the vicious street battles show no signs of abating”. This is an exaggerated picture of Venezuela. The opposition protests have abated and the opposition has no strategy to find a way forward, except by calling for sanctions and US intervention. The election results for the ANC show that the government has the upper hand.
Gonzalez claims that the government is divided, fracturing and any day now will fall apart. He uses the example of a helicopter attack by Oscar Perez, “a retired state security officer”. He claims Perez leads “one of the Chavista factions angling for power, ”that there is a “facade of governmental unity”, and that the “government is split into rival factions”. But Perez is no Chavista.
Perez, described in The Australian as Venezuela’s James Bond, is in his thirties, (well before the age of retirement) and is a part-time supporting actor in B-grade action movies, produced by Venzuela’s film industry. Being an actor he understood very well the sense of the dramatic. Perez’ helicopter attack involved dropping explosives on the supreme court of Venezuela on 27 June. In video messages prior to the attack Perez proclaimed: “We are a coalition between military, police and civilian officials in search of balance and against this transitory and criminal government.”
The right-wing Venezuelan media claim he was a highly trained agent, part of the Special Actions Brigade (BAE) where he is chief of operations of the Air Force division. Perhaps this is why Gonzalez claims he was a Chavista. However Perez’s actual position was in the police force. Perez has been a member of Venezuela’s Penal, Criminal and Scientific Investigation Police Agency, (CICPC) for 15 years. The police force at a national and municipal level is the most hostile section of the state towards the Maduro government.
Regardless of the position he holds, Perez video messages reveal who he is. The media focussed on his statements about “restoring constitutional order”, but a full transcript of his statements reveals a fascistic and crazed man who is part of the old guard; someone who is not in anyway shape or form a Chavista. Pointing to a blue cloth tied to his left arm, he says “we are using this distinction, which is the colour of truth and Jesus Christ, who is with us” (Who knew Jesus loved the colour blue?!). He explicitly identified himself and his fellow masked thugs as “nationalists, patriots, and institutionalists.” His absolutist intentions are made clearer near the end: “we are warriors of God, and our mission is to live at the service of the people. Long live Venezuela! These are similar sentiments to Franco’s rebels or Golden Dawn iv. A banner hung from the helicopter reading “Liberty. Article 350”. This is at least ironic. The constitution drafted by the Chavez government gives the right of citizens to rebel against a tyrannical regime. Even if they had violent intent, Perez actions amount to a theatrical stunt. The damage was only to the building of the Supreme Court, not leading to any deaths or injury, but it is dramatic enough to capture the imagination of the backward, lumpen and disaffected middle class elements of Venezuela; drawing them in for greater acts of violence on a broader scale. It was an act of theatre designed to give a taste of blood and glorify the violence of the opposition. The opposition use these tactics because they have no clear way forward and lack an opposition leader that can capture people’s imagination or appeal to them in any genuine and meaningful way.
What is certainly disturbing, is that Perez’ attack gives encouragement to long dormant and incipient fascist movements in Venezuela such as ORDEN: Moviemento Nacionalista (ORDER: Nationalist Movement). These movements, may not be able to topple the government, but they can still unleash acts of terror that threaten its economic and political security. In June this year in the state of Anzoategui, opposition forces burnt over 40 tonnes of food that were to be distributed to the governments Mercal food outlets v.
The opposition have succeeded in their attempts to project Venezuela as a violent country on the verge of ruin. The street violence of the opposition has de-stabilised the country with over 100 deaths of protesters and the National Guard. However I reject Gonzalez’s claim that it has split the government and that President Maduro is somehow only holding on through a façade of unity. Calling Perez’ terrorist attack a split in the Chavista’s ranks is nothing but a brazen lie and discredits Gonzalez’s analysis.
“Food Shortages” – Gonzalez and Co’s Black Horse of Famine!
With the scales of bourgeois reaction in hand, Gonzalez and Co. claim that there are food shortages in Venezuela. Gonzalez in his many lists of untruths claims: “Almost 90 percent of the population cannot buy enough food, which explains the average weight loss of eight kilos”…and that “agricultural production has collapsed in many sectors” – (his source is from the right-wing corporate media network CNBC vi). In evidence of this they point to food queues.
We are given a picture of a country on the brink of starvation, with people eating stray animals or their neighbours’ pets. One news source even reported people hunting pigeons vii. It needs to be stressed that there is not an overall shortage of food in Venezuela. Venezuelans continue to face an extremely stressful situation, but it is not a humanitarian disaster. As recently as 2015, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation declared that it had nearly eradicated hunger. For years, Venezuela has been the focus of international attention from delegations and alternative media for its “food sovereignty” experiment, which has had some positive success, despite the lack of industrialisation of agriculture.
Hunger has been an historic problem for Venezuela, as it is for much of Latin America and the Global South. Attempts to diversify Venezuela’s economy have gone backwards, with 95% of foreign earnings coming from the sale of oil. Venezuela’s shift to an oil oriented economy meant its agrarian sector collapsed during the 1930s and again in the 1960s with campesinos forming a mass semi-proletariat urban poor concentrated in the cities. With the austerity of the 1990s, Venezuelans did face hunger. When Chavez was elected in 1999, over half the population faced hunger according to UN standards. Food imports were long out of reach for the poor majority. The country has struggled to turn this around. Venezuela is now self-sufficient in root crops, fruit and vegetables, but its food and medicine supply are controlled by twenty private corporations.
Christina Schiavoni, a PhD researcher on Venezuela’s food security and William Camacara, a political activist with the New York Bolivarian Circle observed:
The two most common arguments of the distribution companies are that a) the regulated prices set by the government to ensure accessibility are too low, providing a disincentive to distributors and b) with the plummeting of oil prices, insufficient dollars are available for import of necessary primary materials.
When Venezuelan economist and Universidad Simón Bolívar professor Pasqualina Curcio put these claims to the test in her extensive investigation of the country’s current economic situation, she had some interesting findings. First, several of the missing products have not been regulated since 2010, and among those that are regulated, the government has raised prices in an effort to incentivize distributors several times recently, but this has not resulted in increased availability.
Second, the shortages began to intensify in 2013, before oil prices plummeted and while dollars were still readily available. Even once oil prices dropped and dollars became less available, the government continued to prioritize dollars for food import, and by their own accounting, the production levels of Venezuela’s major food companies have been stable or have even increased in that time. Curcio also found a correlation between intensity of food shortages and politically important moments, such as the lead-up to elections. Could it be that the shortages are manufactured? Many food sovereignty activists see it as no coincidence that Polar, the country’s largest food company, responsible for many of the items missing from shelves, is owned by a well-known member of the political opposition to the government.viii
The government has not abandoned the working class. The first thing to note is that the food queues are at food distribution networks initiated by the government, not private supermarkets. The government has initiated a partnership between the communes and cooperatives in the form of local Provisioning and Production Committees (CLAPs), driven by volunteer labour. They have been effective at overcoming some of these problems and have kept the government’s Mercados stocked, but there have been bottlenecks in the distribution of goods. While there are shortages of specific items such as toilet paper and soap, there is not a shortage of food – and no one is eating their pets.
As the depiction of a widely hated government is completely distorted, so are the reports of food shortages. Abby Martin, correspondent for Telesur, visited both middle class areas and the barrios of Caracas in July this year. As she reported, there is an abundance of all sorts of food. The corporations responsible for shortages halt production in order to extort the government for subsidies. Of course if the government nationalised them – wouldn’t that be “socialism from above”?ix
Apart from claiming the government is repressive, undemocratic, divided and on the verge of collapse, Gonzalez in order to further discredit it, and points to the dealings its had with big business. Most Venezuelans know the major players on the Right: they belong to the wealthiest and most powerful families, who controlled the economy until Chávez arrived. Since the first street barricades went up, Maduro has tried to work with representatives of these right-wing sectors. In 2014, for example, he called in Lorenzo Mendoza, head of the Polar multinational and one of the richest Venezuelans.
Called in for what? Gonzalez doesn’t elaborate, but the insinuation is clear enough; the Maduro government is the government of the bourgeoisie and has duped the working class, calling in its big business mates only to secure their own position. Lorenzo Mendoza is one of the most powerful men in Venezuela, a billionaire – one of the richest men in the world who owns Empresas Polar which has $7 billion in annual sales. It is the biggest company in Venezuela, employing over 90 000 people. The company which Mendoza inherited produces beer, wine and processed food, including flour, condiments and tuna. He is treated like a star by the opposition x. Rather than “calling in” Mendoza, the government has condemned him. Mendoza is not independent from the political processes of Venezuela. He is in fact a key figure of the opposition. He is most responsible for the food shortages in Venezuela. Tellingly, he has a close relationship with ministers of the disgraced neo-liberal government of Carlos Andres Perez. He is no ally of the government and never has been.
In 2015, a telephone conversation was leaked between Ricardo Hausman, the former Planning Minister of the Perez government and Mendoza. In the telephone conversation, in which they refer to each other as “mate”, Hausman indicates he is a friend of the IMF’s Vice President for the Western Hemishpere and that the IMF plan to intervene in Venezuela:
“The condition is that we have a small committee meeting to speak, gloves off, about what the hell we can do to see… Or, if you were to receive a call from Obama or Holland, or whoever and they say… Hell, mate, for us it’s really important that they get involved in Venezuela,” says Hausman.
The economist also assures Mendoza that he is committed to the “war in Venezuela” despite his absence, stating that “there is no exit for Venezuela without substantial international help,” appearing to reference the opposition’s violent street campaign to unseat the government last year, entitled La Salida (the exit). Hausman also explains he has structural adjustment plans for the rest of Latin America that the IMF were keen to implement.xi
The Maduro government called on the courts to prosecute Mendoza, but they failed to act. So when has Maduro called Mendoza in? This claim seems completely implausible. Gonzalez also failed to mention that the government has appropriated Polar’s grain silos. Mendoza and Maduro don’t appear to be great friends.xii
That is not to say that the government has not made concessions to the bourgeoisie that have stymied the forward march of the Bolivarian revolution – which has many contradictions. But it is a mistake as Gonzalez and Co. imply that the government is dominated by a “Boli-bourgeoisie”. The government has been instrumental in a whole series of nationalisations and has made inroads into the banking sector.
According to the international think-tank, the Bisignis Institute, the government has used “its power to interrupt, disrupt and take over private equities” xiii. In 2010 it seized Banco Federal citing “liquidity problems and suspected fraud”. Banco Federal was closely aligned with the TV network Globovision which supported the 2002 coup and 2003 lockout.
Another example is that of Banco Occidental de Descuento (BOD), which was owned by the Spanish bank Banco Santando. When Venezuelan banker (and polo player), Victor Vargus moved to purchase the bank in 2008, the government intervened. After Vargus had made a $150 million down payment, Chavez halted the sale and the government purchased the bank. It then closed down ten other banks xiv.
The oil sector is another example. In 2007, the Chavez government claimed a majority stake in four oil projects worth an estimated $30 billion in total. As a direct consequence of that move, Exxon Mobil Corp and ConocoPhillips quit working in Venezuela. Following that, in 2010, Chavez’s government seized eleven oil rigs from the U.S. company Helmerich & Payne Inc. xv.
Nevertheless, the current crisis indicates the government did not go far enough to expropriate the banking sector and distribution networks which the bourgeoisie are still able to manipulate.
It remains to be seen if Maduro will continue making inroads into the rights of private property – but it is not a foregone conclusion that he won’t.
Extracting Oil – “The Paradox of Venezuelan politics”
Oil is instrumental to the success or failure of Venezuela’s economy. Venezuela exports 720 000 barrels a day accounting for 10% of US imports. It is the third biggest supplier of oil to the US. Who controls the oil is a central question of political power in Venezuela. xvi
On the website SeekingAlpha, Brazilian stock-market commentator, Albert Goldson, in May this year, remarked that: “Despite a regime change big oil will remain on the sidelines until a government with pro-Western and pro-business policies is established.” Goldson presumed that a regime change was imminent.
He added: “What has not been mentioned in the media is that the protests are so creative and well-organised, utilising military-like tactics one may strongly suspect that they are orchestrated by high-level anti-Maduro, ex-military types. Sophisticated protests at this level by civilians are unheard of unless they have high-level professional assistance.” xvii
Goldson articulates the interests of the oil giants very well and he’s most likely right about the protesters receiving “professional assistance”. The key to extracting more oil is regime change, which is why he viewed the protests enthusiastically, but they still want to make profits before the government is said to fall. The economic aim of the government is to promote domestic production and to overhaul their floating exchange rate in order to overcome the two main weaknesses of the economy, its lack of diversification and its currency speculation.
The government is promoting mixed public-private investment in mining and agricultural production and seeks to extract diamonds, copper, and silver and gold. This includes the issuing of a permit to the mixed firm Mining Harvest, jointly owned by the Venezuelan state and Canadian transnational Gold Reserve Inc., to extract the copper reserves in the Sinfontes municipality of Bolivar state.
The initiative forms part of the government’s Orinoco Mining Arc, under which Maduro has authorized open pit mining in 112,000 square kilometres of the mineral-rich south-eastern Amazonian state of Bolivar. These are environmentally destructive projects; all mining and oil extraction projects are and there is no exception to this anywhere in the world. Gonzalez suggests, they “demonstrate the paradox of Venezuelan politics.” What they represent is the paradox of trying to build socialism in an undeveloped country with zero technical aid from other revolutionary processes in advanced capitalist countries.
These projects are undoubtedly an injustice, but they are also the products of global inequality. The oil-lockout of 2003 caused significant economic and material damage with much of Venezuela’s oil infrastructure sabotaged. Even after ten years, the damage of many of Venezuela’s oil wells has still not been repaired with 50 million barrels of oil inaccessible due to this sabotage xviii. The professional layers who may have had the technical expertise to remedy these problems were no longer in the employ of PDVSA, forcing the government to make concessions to big oil. The alternative, given the balance of class forces, would’ve been a total privatisation of the oil network and to implement a Greek style solution of World Bank and IMF economic reforms – which would lead to the collapse of the government.
Oil production is faltering in Venezuela and its economic bargaining power is severely weakened. According to PDVSA’s own reports, oil production has declined by 17.5% from 2008 to 2015. This compares to a 54% increase in Iraq, which is now a primary source of oil to the US. Extracting oil in Venezuela is no easy task. It is not simply a matter of pumping it out of the ground. Extraction relies on technologically advanced techniques, as Venezuela’s oil contains more asphaltenes than most heavy crude oils and requires the mixing of lighter crude or injections of water and gas. In many cases nationalisation is simply not possible as the government has no access to the technologies required to extract this oil xix.
Where they did nationalise oil fields, they immediately ran into all sorts of technical troubles. In El Furriel, the country’s biggest oil field, production slumped by over 50% in seven years. On top of that its oil reserves have dropped by over 58% in fifteen years. In other words, they no longer possess the technological capacity to extract oil from these vast reserves. Venezuela does not have the capital to compete with the oil giants. Its foreign reserves are down to $10 billion xx. From 2013 to 2015, PDVSA invested $388 million in R&D. This compares poorly to the oil giants. In comparison, Halliburton invested $1.67 billion and Petrobras $2.8 billion in R&D in the same period.xxi
Is it any surprise then that Venezuela is forced to rely on the big oil giants to extract its oil? They have budgets that dwarf the GDP of most developing countries. As many of the transnational companies such as Schlumberger (which has been in Venezuela since 1929) involved in this extraction are owed vast sums of money, the government continues to make concessions to them in order to retain their expertise – it is indeed a contradiction, but not the grand betrayal that Gonzalez and Co. would portray it as. The government still has some bargaining power. There are not endless new markets for oil. The oil companies can’t completely abandon Venezuela and are unlikely to do so after so many decades of pouring in millions of dollars into research and development, but due to a lack of its own technical capabilities, the government will be forced into maintaining joint ventures.
A Pro-imperialist Opposition
Gonzalez poses the opposition and the government as “two groups” involved in “struggles for power”, that is, that they are two wings of the bourgeoisie and that their conflict is a falling out amongst thieves. This amounts to a position of neutrality, without a recognition of the balance of class forces. This reductionist view downplays the role of US imperialism and the fascist character of the opposition.
Rather than engage in electoral processes with an alternative program or clear demands, the opposition has raised the stakes by declaring the government to be illegitimate, escalating calls for regime change at every moment of crisis. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been funnelling several million dollars per year to opposition groups. This continued through the Obama administration.
Socialists, especially those in imperialist countries, should recognise the danger the opposition poses to the working class in Venezuela. A victory of the opposition in Venezuela would be a setback globally for the working class. It would particularly be a blow to the working class of all Latin America, who solidarise with the Bolivarian Revolution and are in more advanced stages of struggle than in imperialist countries. Another 1973 Chile would be a devastating blow against the movement for socialism.
The opposition would eradicate all forms of working class democracy and liquidate the left. Their claims that Chavez and Maduro are undemocratic are the height of absurdity, when the role they’ve played in destabilising the country through the use of fear and terror is considered. The assassinations, lynchings, street violence, attacks on hospitals and childcare centres, social missions, the attempted coup of April 2002 and the bosses lockout of December 2002 – January 2003, give an indication, if there’s any doubt, of what they would do if they were to assume power. They would unleash the most vicious forms of violence and repression imaginable. The opposition has generated a lynch mob mentality against supporters of the government: the case of Orlando Figuera, beaten, stabbed and burnt to death by opposition thugs in Altamira, Caracas, is just one such example. Opposition spokespeople have attempted to justify Figuera’s lynching with the accusation that he was a “Chavista infiltrator” and “a thief”. In the minds of the enraged middle class, the mass base of the opposition, Chavistas are poor, dark skinned and therefore criminals. This mood also led to the killing of a retired National Guard in Cabudare, Lara and several cases of assault and attempted lynchings (including a retired businessman in a shopping centre and an opposition journalist wearing a red shirt).
But all the activities they’ve engaged in, from the mundane boycotts of regional elections to the racist lynchings and street attacks by the Guarimbas would pale in comparison to what they would do if they took power. The base of the revolution is creole and Afro-Venezuelan. Class has clear racial lines in Venezuela and for the urban poor who for many years were dispossessed, discrimination would be violently reinforced by the opposition coming to power. They would once again have the social status of a subjugated people. It would embolden the forces of reaction globally and intensify the imperialist plunder of the country.
All the social gains of the revolution would be smashed and those who constructed the Bolivarian Revolution would be subject to brutal reprisals, torture, internment, execution and years of persecution. The working class would be completely subdued in conditions that would be far worse than before the Caracazo uprising of 1989. If the ruling class have learnt anything from Chile 1973; it is to be more brutal, more repressive; to scorch the earth until there is not even a seedling of resistance.
Their fascistic intentions should be obvious by now. History has made this clear. A position of neutrality is a position of intellectual cowardice. Carlos Ortega, President of the CTV and one of the main opposition leaders against the government during the 2002 coup and oil lockout was recorded on tape stating exactly what the intentions of the opposition were during Venezuela’s oil lockout: “We are going to need about 10, 12 or 15 years of dictatorship to rescue the country. I have no problem with that”, said Ortega xxii. Has the opposition changed since then?
Regime Change is More Effective with a Liberal Cover – Accusing the Government of Repression
In Venezuela, there were missing persons, even before South American dictatorships made them popular – Orlando Chirono. xxiii
It is true the Maduro has faced difficult challenges, mobilising the National Guard against right-wing protests, but it is a mistake to label his government a repressive dictatorship. The words “a repressive dictatorship” are repeated ad nauseum throughout the corporate media, that anyone with even just a cursory and ambivalent understanding of Venezuela will be familiar with them. If not, just look up Venezuela in the New York Times or Washington Post. These words mean one thing – regime change. Every day of the week the government is condemned with so much ferocity it sounds like the bells of war are ringing loudly.
Donald J. Trump has not missed his moment to prove his imperialist credentials, calling for sanctions on individual ministers of the Venezuelan government, including president Maduro. This was largely a symbolic measure as Maduro has no assets in the US, but it prepared the way for harsher measures. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has openly indicated that US intervention is an option in Venezuela: “Our approach to Venezuela has been to try to work through coalition partners, through the OAS as well as others who share our view of Venezuela’s future … Clearly what we want to see is for Venezuela to return to its constitution, return to its scheduled elections, and allow the people of Venezuela to have the voice in their government they deserve,” he said in a press conference. He added: “We are evaluating all of our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future and wants to leave of his own accord or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.”xxiv
Another minister to receive sanctions was Vladimir Padrino, who Trump has called to be tried for human rights abuses. Padrino is the Minister of Defence and Head of the National Guard. Speaking to Abby Martin from Telesur, a government sponsored news agency, Padrino refuted the claims of the US, but he was unapologetic. He did not discount that Venezuela is a country under arms; declaring that it has a right to defend its national sovereignty.
Venezuela is well prepared for US intervention and civil war. In military exercises in August this year, the government responded to Trumps threats by mobilising over 900 000 civilians and military officers in two days of manoeuvres which included weapons training, mobilisation and combat readiness in coordination with thousands of local committees that support the government xxv. For that, Venezuela may be accused of being repressive, but without an armed national guard and masses of reserves that can be called into action, the political crisis in Venezuela would’ve already deteriorated into civil war.
Padrino stressed the importance of the social missions and the imperatives of the National Guard to defend them. From their outset, the execution of their functions has been with the close cooperation of the military, an institution that is in full support of the government and that has declared itself on the side of the working class. It is the military that provided a base for the social missions providing resources and housing until they were firmly established.
Padrino stated: “Freedom of expression – all constitutional freedoms are guaranteed”, but that it is also important to defend them. Despite calls for the opposition to overthrow the government and their pleas for US military intervention, their protests have not been crushed, even when they’ve used extreme violence. If Venezuela really was a repressive dictatorship, they would’ve used tanks and live ammunition and any other means available to the government. In Australia, if anyone engaged in the activities that the opposition leaders did, they would receive decades long sentences in a maximum security prison on terror related charges.
It’s important to note that the National Guard have been brought to account for their excesses. They have not operated with impunity. In the same interview with Telesur, Padrino stated: “There is no automatic solidarity with the National Guard, simply because they are employed by the government. Where they have committed abuses, we have acted” xxvi. No other government in the world would be so restrained towards an opposition that sets people on fire, is armed and uses improvised explosive devices and firearms.
The government is not sparing the National Guard from justice for the abuses it has committed. The first act of the new ANC was to create a commission of Truth, Justice and Peace. Maduro noted on national television that victims of the violence of the National Guard would be the first to get a hearing at the newly established commission. Armed protesters who had attacked the National Guard with explosives, will at Maduros request be tried in civilian courts.xxvii
There are many political forces globally, waiting with expectation for the fall of the government. Hedge funds are betting on regime change. The abuses of the opposition, while they haven’t received international condemnation, have failed to bring them to power. In Venezuela a large section of the opposition oppose the protests of the Guarimbas. The call to overthrow Maduro may have inflamed the aspirations for power of the far-right, but it hasn’t unified them in a coherent manner.
Thes racial character and concentrations in more affluent areas, indicate that this is an orchestrated movement, backed by powerful interests, that is not supported by the working class. The opposition raise no demands that relate to the working class; only the ouster of Maduro. This violence is very reminiscent of the US sponsored gang warfare that ousted Bertrand’s Aristide’s government through a Coup d’etat in 2004.
Gonzalez and Co. claim that supporters of Venezuela use the threats of US intervention as cover for the ineptness of the government. What do they think the CIA is used for? The threats are very real and it is an egregious error to downplay them. If not by direct intervention, the US could stage a proxy war with plausible deniability of their involvement.
The US has seven military bases in Colombia and has given Colombia more than $10 billion in aid since the year 2000 – almost as much aid as Israel. Colombian troops receive more training than any other troops in the world through the School of the Americas and Colombian paramilitaries have already carried out attacks on campesinos in Venezuela. In turn Colombia trains troops from other regions, such as Honduras xxviii. Such a war would be politically costly in the US and South America, where most presidents have less than a 20% approval rating, but US imperialism is a desperate beast and given Trump has followed through on some of his bellicose threats, it is a distinct possibility.
The Roots of the Crisis
Gonzalez lays the roots of the current economic crisis at the hands of the current government and even the measures of the Chavez government. Although he uses dubious sources for his economic figures, he is not wrong to point to its seriousness, citing severe inflation and shortages of medicine. However he declares with finality that: “This project has failed”.
This fatalistic view completely overlooks the tumultuous history of Venezuela, the battles that the working class have weathered and their capacity to learn from and strengthen their organisations. The outcome is not pre-determined; there are still many battles ahead. Gonzalez claims of currency speculation on the black market and embezzlement have some validity; (although there is no way to quantify the extent of them). But Gonzalez fails to acknowledge the attempts of the government to remedy these problems and prosecute breaches. The source of black-market profiteering are the extensive government subsidies to the communes and to the working poor. There are unscrupulous petty criminals exploiting the cheap credit made available by the government who buy and resell imported goods. This has pushed up inflation into the triple figures. (Gonzalez claims 700%).
The government is struggling to combat this. In 2014, it launched a National Anti-Corruption Body. In 2016 it made its biggest arrests. Three top officials in Venezuelan state food corporations were arrested for embezzling millions of Bolivars. They had been selling subsidised items to private sector bakeries, restaurants and supermarkets. Two former presidents and the administrative director of CVAL, the state institution that provides subsidised food to the government food outlets Mercal stood trial for their involvement in the scam. Fifty public servants were also under investigation and subject to arrest xxix. In conditions where there is a lack of material abundance and development, its not surprising this corruption occurs; every single revolution throughout history has been subject to these sort of pressures.
These problems point to the fact that the commanding heights of the economy have not been brought under workers control. The roots of the crisis lie at the heart of capitalism itself. To apportion all the blame onto the government is simply to side with reaction. The challenge now will be for the new ANC to deepen the radicalisation of the Bolivarian revolution and strengthen the structures of the communes and measures of workers control.
The Constituent Assembly
This was a critical test for the Maduro government. Maduro first called for a new ANC at May Day this year in Caracas. The newly elected ANC has broad powers to change the constitution via referendum. It proposed to meet with the AN to discuss joint work which the AN refused to do. In response the ANC has issued a decree to “assume the powers to legislate on matters directly aimed at ensuring the preservation of peace, security, sovereignty, the socio-economic and financial system, the means of the state and the rights of the Venezuelans” xxx. It is hoped this removes a deadlock of legislative power. Venezuela’s supreme court has ruled that several edicts issued by the opposition controlled AN were in violation of the 1999 constitution.
One of the first things the AN did when it was elected in 2015, was to question the citizenship of Maduro, claiming he was Colombian, which even the Columbian government refuted. The AN has issued threats to privatise 1.3 million houses that are publicly owned, privatise the oil industry, healthcare and remove the 13,000 doctors that are currently in Venezuela.xxxi
The AN declared the supreme court in contempt, after it invalidated the election results in the state of Amazonas. The AN had sworn in three opposition candidates without any constitutional validity. The Supreme Court in turn annulled decisions made by the AN, sparking renewed opposition protests calling for the impeachment of Maduro. They launched a recall referendum, but many of the signatures had been obtained fraudulently.
The oppositions own “consultative referendum” on the ANC was an undemocratic fiasco. They burnt the ballot papers after the vote was conducted, meaning there was no way for anyone to verify the results. There were many other irregularities. Even though only 100,000 Venezuelans are registered abroad by the electoral council, 700,000 voted in the referendum. The government claims there was multiple voting at different polling stations.
The vote for the new ANC was a success for Maduro. He couldn’t have in the circumstances, hoped for better. The new ANC received 8,089,230 votes with a 41.53% turnout xxxii, which is a more than those who voted for the constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1999 and a similar number to votes for Chavez in 2012 and Maduro in 2013. Despite accusations of fraud, the results of the election were ratified by 170 international monitors, so it would be foolish to pass off this development as a rigging of the election.
The ANC’s aim is to extend democracy to poor urban and rural sectors with the election of 545 delegates. Workers and students and have the biggest say in the assembly, which is divided into eight sectors. The government seeks to redefine the judicial structure of the state through the assembly and increase the level of involvement of the working masses.
The ANC has been criticised as a defensive and legalistic measure, but its general aim is to rally against the forces of counter-revolution and unify the ranks of revolutionaries. That there is a public discussion among the ranks of Bolivarian Revolutionaries about the way forward, should be seen positively. In contrast, the response of the opposition was to burn people alive and assassinate candidates of the assembly.
In percentage terms it may appear the government has lost support in previous elections and for the ANC. However, in numerical terms, the vote Maduro received for the new ANC was one of the largest in the history of the Bolivarian revolution; indicating that it is not yet dead or “failed”. The largest vote achieved by the Bolivarian government was the election of Hugo Chavez in 2012 in which he received over 8 190 000 votes.xxxiii
In contrast, Chavez received less than four million votes in his first election. The government struggled to get the poorest most disenfranchised sections to vote. By 2006 at the peak of the revolution, Chavez received over 7,309,080 votes in the December presidential elections, with 63% of all votes cast, over a million more than what he received in the recall referendum in 2004 and the most support any leader has received in history in Venezuela. The rallies in support of Chavez were the biggest ever too, with 2.5 million people mobilising in Caracas. In 2013 Maduro received over 7,587,000 votes, maintaining support for the government – but it has to be said, he inherited a lot of problems.xxxiv
In the context of a deepening political crisis, the claims of eight million votes for the ANC would appear to be credible and a huge step forward for the government. To put this into perspective, the 4 December 2005 parliamentary election in which the MVR received 60% of the vote is often credited as a high point of the revolution – and that following this supposedly overwhelming vote of confidence, the government progressively lost support, but this doesn’t take into account the numbers mobilising for the elections.xxxv
The MVR in that election, only received 2,041,293 votes. With only a 25% voter turnout this amounts to only one quarter of the votes for the recent ANC. What is clear, is that the government through all the twists and turns of struggle, has maintained a solid base of 40% of the population in a deeply polarised country.
In 2004, even just before the revolution peaked, the opposition was able to retain two out of 23 states, including the oil rich state of Zulia that neighbours Colombia. By 2015, in the context of falling oil prices, the opposition were able to out-mobilise the government, capturing the National Assembly (AN). Voter turnout was 74%, almost a direct inverse to 10 years earlier – the opposition had finally mobilised a large base. The government received 41% of the vote with the MUD receiving 56%. However, in numerical terms the vote for the government was more than when it had a majority in 2010.xxxvi
The economic hardships had their effect and the government was unable to effectively meet these challenges. But, its important to point out, it never abandoned the working class. The government distributed food and basic household items to over six million people. This helped stem some of the loss in support. At the depths of the economic crisis (which it is emerging from), support for Maduro in January this year was at 27% and his government looked all but finished. However support for Maduro rose to 35% by April as economic conditions improved.xxxvii
If we look back at the history of the Bolivarian revolution we see peaks and troughs of support. In 2004, the recall referendum launched by the opposition led to greater mobilisations of Chavez supporters leading to a broader radicalisation. The recall referendum gave Chavez 4,991,483 votes (58.25%) xxxviii. This was a vote at one of the peaks of the revolution and indicates that even despite the troubles Maduro faces, the Bolivarian revolution has increased its mobilisation. The Chavez leadership almost came to an end in 2007, as limited tenure was part of the statutes of the constitution. The Bolivarian revolution was able to overcome this hurdle through a referendum, which was victorious drawing in widespread support with 4,521,494 votes, representing over 50% of the vote and a 56% voter turnout.xxxix
The death of Chavez in 2013 was a blow to the Bolivarian revolution, but not its end. That seven million people voted for Maduro following Chavez death shows a willingness of the masses to rally at critical junctures. The whip of counter-revolution has driven the process on. At each crisis point, both the left and the right have increased their level of mobilisations. But the right may have already reached a crescendo in their power.
The opposition are divided over the results of the ANC. It is obvious the government still carries significant support amongst the working class. As distasteful as Bolivarian socialism is to them, the balance of class forces has not tipped as far as Gonzalez and others on the left think. The government is a long way from being overthrown by either the working class or the right-wing opposition.
The historical ruling party of the bourgeoisie Accion Democratica has announced they’ll participate in regional elections, splitting the opposition forces. The far-right party Vente Venezuela, led by María Corina Machado, reacted by breaking from the MUD, boycotting the elections and calling for direct action to overthrow President Maduro. She condemned other opposition figures like Ramos Allup and parties Cuentas Claras and Progreso for agreeing to run gubernatorial candidates xl. Of course, even with a divided opposition, there’s no easy road ahead for the government. There is still a hard-line opposition that will continue to support violent protests or even as they’ve indicated, try and establish an alternative government which would predicate a civil war.
The next two years will be spent drafting a new constitution. A challenge for the ANC will be to consolidate organisations of workers power and address key economic problems relating to currency fluctuations and inflation. It must strengthen links between the communes, cooperatives and worker-controlled enterprises in order to control the distribution of goods. It must also displace the AN. There are calls now from socialist organisations in Venezuela to establish a state monopoly on foreign trade, to restrict the flow of currency out of the country. This is an immense and complex task and it remains to be seen if the government is capable of doing this. For this to be realisable, the ANC will have to assume greater legislative powers and prepare the country for economic blockade.xli
To accept anything on trust, to preclude critical application and development, is a grievous sin; and in order to apply and develop, “simple interpretation” is obviously not enough. – Lenin, 1900, Uncritical Criticism.
The position of Gonzalez is to put forward a perspective of “a pox on both your houses”; but this approach completely ignores the allegiances of the working class to their government. Effectively all it does is undermine international solidarity for the workers of Venezuela, eroding any actions that might be considered in their defence. It also minimises the terror that would be unleashed if the opposition were to win – a terror that would have world historic consequences at a time when globally, the working class is in retreat.
Gonzalez claimed there will be no debate, no transparency in the ANC even before it was elected and that it is simply a commandist measure of the government. This deterministic approach can only disillusion socialists and completely overlooks the struggles of the working class to assert themself in the affairs their country. Gonzalez views correspond exactly with that of the ruling class in terms of the prospects of the working class – the future can only be terrible under a Maduro government.
Within Socialist Alternative four characterisations are made of the government (consistently) that simply defy reality: 1) that it fits within the framework of capitalism and 2) that it is right wing and not even a social-democratic or left-reformist government 3) that it is anti-democratic and 4) that it is repressive. For Gonzalez and co, the Bolivarian government represents one section of the bourgeoisie. These claims barely deserve refuting and show a departure from Marxist analysis.
It is completely understandable then, with this set of ideas, that the majority in the organisation see the situation in Venezuela as dismal and desperate and that Maduro has no legitimacy. It is understandable too, that they may even believe the opposition claims that people are going hungry and there is no food on the supermarket shelves- Venezuela is simply an economic disaster- everything has failed. Without an understanding of Venezuela’s historical development and the specific set of obstacles the working class face in their quest for liberation, it is easy to accept the conclusion “Maduro is the problem”- precisely the same claim as the right-wing opposition.
Events in Venezuela may not have a direct impact on the class struggle in Australia, so perhaps are not considered in earnest or with seriousness, but they still impact on our understanding of revolutions. It is far easier to denounce Venezuela, than defend it in such circumstances; to say we stand for something else- a different sort of socialism, one that is “from the bottom up”. With that perspective it is easier to fall in line with those who are seeking to discredit Maduro’s government.
Rather than consider the balance of class forces as an impediment to the forward march of the revolution, they lay the blame of counter-revolutionary pressure at the feet of the government. For an undeveloped country such as Venezuela to develop a fully functioning socialist economy, it would require an immense amount of solidarity and material aid from more technologically advanced countries. Any steps forward in Venezuela will require international advances of revolutionary processes.
The Bolivarian revolution is besieged by global capitalism. Its project does not “fit within the structure of capitalism”. Its aim was to begin a new process of emancipation that differs from the mistakes of the eastern soviet-bloc countries. It is largely cloaked in radical-democratic rhetoric drawing on the rich history of anti-colonial struggles. It is not an attempt at building “state-capitalism” “from above”. Such reductionist views bely the history of working class struggle in Venezuela. It is a society in transition, that has fractured the state, but has been unable to overthrow capitalist rule or its modes of production – the achievement of which is completely dependent on the balance of class forces.
To characterise the Venezuelan government as right-wing is off the Richter scale of madness. This is simply affixing a label to something Gonzalez and Co. are uncomfortable with. Every step of the way, the government has sought to minimise its oversight and eliminate hierarchical structures within the Bolivarian revolution. It has encouraged the self-organisation of workers and campesinos, which is exactly why, despite the reaction against Venezuela it still has their support. It has not embarked on wholesale privatisations and austerity.
Its social advances have sought to overturn the traditions and conservative impulses entrenched by a rentier form of capitalism with the oligarchic rule of Big Oil and the Latifundias. It has done so with a minimum of suppression. I do not know of a single right-wing government – anywhere – that has prioritised healthcare, education, mass infrastructure works, a movement of communes, cooperatives and workers-controlled enterprises. Its constitution and social charters preserve the rights of the working class and are aimed at promoting their liberty and this has been put in practice through struggles of mass mobilisation.
The government’s theoretical foundations are not 100% Marxist-Leninist, but that does not mean it is right wing. The Bolivarian revolution draws from Simón Bolívar’s writings on constitutionality and popular sovereignty, Cuban revolutionary José Martí, the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, and the Soviet legal scholar and Bolshevik, Evgeny Pashukanis. These are not names familiar to most revolutionaries outside of Latin America, but these ideologies are not antithetical to socialist revolution.
Human rights have been central to the Bolivarian revolution. The right to a decent existence that is inalienable, is enshrined in the constitution and is the first and foremost aim of the revolution. As part of this right, healthcare – meaning comprehensive medical attention is guaranteed by the government. Article 83 of the constitution states:
Health is a fundamental social right and the responsibility of the State, which shall guarantee it as part of the right to life. The State shall promote and develop policies oriented toward improving the quality of life, common welfare and access to services. All persons have the right to protection of health, as well as the duty to participate actively in the furtherance and protection of the same, and to comply with such health and hygiene measures as may be established by law, and in accordance with international conventions and treaties signed and ratified by the Republic.
Education is also considered a fundamental social and human right. The right to work, without discrimination and be protected against unforeseen circumstances has meant a fight against informal employment which the government is 100% dedicated to eliminating. The government has established extensive social welfare-reforms in order to care for the elderly, people with disabilities, chronically ill persons, the unemployed, orphans and children, pregnant women and young mothers, and victims of domestic violence.
It has struggled through the establishment of communes and cooperatives to eradicate hunger, despite the hardships facing the country. Housing is also recognised as a basic human right. What right-wing government in the world would build 1.5 million homes for the poor? The government has also ensured that people have the right to enter whatever relationships they choose, combating attitudes of machismo. Perhaps the biggest indicator of Venezuela’s progressiveness is the number of opportunities for people to engage in and influence public affairs. Community involvement is a historical hallmark of the Venezuelan revolution allowing organisations, communities and individuals to present bills and proposals to be legislated on. A central aim of the government has been to reduce poverty and maintain sustainable standards of living, with a view to ensuring that human development is integral in the development of goods and services. The government has given technical assistance to the poorest communities in order to do this. Gonzalez and co. may accuse it of being top-down, but should people be left to their own devices? Shouldn’t the government be providing the means and forms of organisation to help people realise their own agency?
The government also ensures cultural diversity. It is deeply hostile to the racism of the opposition and the US wars of conquest and supremacy. It firmly stands with the heritage of its own country. It has sought to strengthen its own cultural identity and that of the Americas – expressed in languages, customs, ideologies, indigenous symbols, values, creativity and sense of belonging – as well as its history of anti-colonial struggle.
The government has not been oppressive- it has guaranteed freedom of expression and the right of protest. It has not censored any publications or points of view. It has not invaded the privacy or intimacy of its citizens. It has promoted the arts and the development of intellectual thought through its development of culture – which holds deeply ethical values.
The government has allowed for freedom of research and promotes scientific development in order to preserve its resources. In doing so it has done everything it can to preserve the public nature and collective ownership of natural resources; renewable and non–renewable. In this area the government is at a distinct disadvantage compared to advanced capitalist countries and it has limited abilities to further this research, but it has been a national strategic aim to preserve Venezuela’s natural heritage.
The right to leisure and recreation, to practice sport and take advantage of free time is hugely celebrated in Venezuela and it is considered a social or even a sacred right to do so. It is not a repressive country – the well being of people is actively promoted in every sphere of life. It has always sought to put human development first.
What right-wing government in this day-and-age does all this – especially in an undeveloped country? What yardstick are comrades using to measure the Venezuelan government’s place on the political spectrum? In no way, shape or form, is the Venezuelan government trying to build a free-market economy with conservative values. How many electoral processes must occur in Venezuela before it’s accepted that democracy is flourishing in Venezuela, despite its hardships? How much terror has to be unleashed by the opposition, before it’s accepted that a certain level of repression must be carried out, if the social gains of the revolution are to be defended?
What Way Forward?
Five months before his death, Chavez put forward his vision of socialism in the political platform he took to the October 2012 presidential election:
We shouldn’t let ourselves be deceived: the social and economic system that still prevails in Venezuela is a capitalist and rentier system… In order to move towards socialism, we need a people’s power capable of disarticulating the oppression, exploitation and domination that still exist in Venezuelan society. People’s power should be able to shape up new social relations in our everyday life, where fraternity and solidarity go hand in hand with the continued emergence of new forms of planning and production of material wealth for our people. To achieve that, it is necessary to completely pulverize the bourgeois State that we have inherited, which is still being replicated through its old and nefarious practices, and ensure continuity in the process of creation of new forms of policy management.
Many thought that if Chavez were to die, the whole Bolivarian revolution would collapse as it hinged on his charismatic appeal. Even some of its sympathisers repeated this claim. Gregory Wilpert, in a paper that was presented at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Havens Centre 11 April 2006 stated: “If Chavez was to disappear from one day to the next, the entire movement would fall into a thousand pieces because it would have lost its unifying glue”xlii. Well Chavez is dead and despite all the dire predictions, the working class of Venezuela struggle on.
Given the attacks that are levelled against the Bolivarian revolution, the duty of socialists should be to defend it. Its advances need to be evaluated in the light of history and the struggles of the working class who carry with them the inertias of defeat as well as the inspirations of victory. As Doug Lorimer, the leading theoretician of the DSP noted in 2005 during a debate on Venezuela within the now defunct organisation:
“The socialist revolution is a turbulent process (chaotic, disorganised, with thousands of blunders being committed by the workers), just as was the socialist revolution in Soviet Russia. But how else should we expect it to be when it is a question of millions of ordinary working people embarking upon tasks they have never before even had to think about?”xliii
The electoral processes and constitutional reforms have absorbed the focus of its revolutionaries – however measures of democracy have extended far beyond formal processes. There has been the establishment of Bolivarian Circles, the UBE’s, the Communal Councils, the Missions, Urban Land Committees and the measures of workers power that have stemmed from factory occupations – some more successful than others. All of these institutions in conjunction with the social missions are counter-posed to the structures of the Fourth Republic – and capitalism. It has endeavoured to form a socialist consciousness to equip the working class for its battles against the bourgeoisie and an ever greater confrontation with US imperialism.
The revolution has gone through a protracted period of radicalisation and that includes leading figures of the government. They did not start out as Marxist-Leninists, but that does not mean they deserve our condemnation. Chavez, in 2005 repeatedly denounced any idea of a third way. Even though it has made concessions, the governments central aim has been to empower the working class. It has been conciliatory towards its enemies. In two years it has paid back $65 billion worth of debt xliv. One of the weaknesses of the government is its lack of suppression of the violent opposition, which frankly makes the accusations by Gonzalez and Co. of it being repressive, absurd.
It has a conciliatory-Christian character that weakens its forward march. Following the 2002 coup, the government made very few arrests. The only civilian to be arrested was Pedro Carmona, the head of FEDECAMERAS. There were no persecutions or vengeance. The government called for a national dialogue (which the opposition saw as a sign of weakness). A few days after being put under house arrest (a very soft response), Carmona escaped and sought refuge in the Colombian embassy, going into exile. Carlos Ortega, his fellow conspirator and head of the CTV also went into hiding. The 2003 lockout was resolved by the efforts of oil workers to regain control of the oil industry, but also because the government agreed to a recall referendum of Chavez’s presidency. There were no firing squads, no hangings, no mass repression.
Socialists should view the characterisations of the government as repressive and undemocratic with the highest level of scepticism. Its supposed human rights violations are the equivalent of Iraq’s WMD’s. There is always the threat of a liberating invasion to free Venezuela from this repression.
Trump has already issued these threats. After threatening North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” he made further threats to Venezuela:
We have many options for Venezuela. And by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option. We have many options for Venezuela. This is our neighbor. You know, we are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.
After Trumps bellicose threats of war and sanctions, six republican congressmen wrote to him saying any sanctions would imperil 525,000 jobs along the Gulf coast, highlighting the central role oil plays in the US economy and the economic destabilisation that would be caused by any conflict with Venezuela. CITGO, a subsidiary of PDVSA owns three refineries and fifty fuel terminals in the US. It owns 6,000 petrol stations employing 47,000 people.xlv
The prospect of a ban on oil imports has angered big oil. As Time noted on its website:
Nine companies, including Chevron, Valero, Citgo and Phillips 66, currently process Venezuelan crude in more than 20 U.S. refineries, most of them located along the Gulf Coast, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Many of these refineries are designed for the type of heavy crude that Venezuela exports and replacing those supplies would be disruptive and costly.
An influential industry group whose members include the nine companies has written two letters to Trump warning there is no guarantee that other key sources of U.S. heavy crude imports — Canada, Mexico and Colombia — could provide enough additional supply to replace the Venezuelan oil. Many refineries would likely turn to Saudi Arabia but the higher costs associated with such a shift “could significantly impact fuel costs for U.S. consumers,” according to the letter by the American Fuel & Petrochemicals Manufacturers.
“We want to make sure that we don’t have the unintended consequence of doing more harm to U.S. refineries than the Maduro regime,” said Chet Thompson, the CEO of the group, which represents 95 percent of the U.S. refining sector.xlvi
In that sense, Venezuela has the tiger by the tail. It is the third largest supplier of oil to US, giving it considerable economic leverage. That is not to say we can afford to be complacent about the threat of a US invasion or the staging of a proxy war. The logic of imperialism, goes beyond the electoral fortunes of Trump and the threat of a civil war with US backing is not beyond the realms of possibility. Imperialism can in desperate circumstances destroy sections of capital and whole industries in order to acquire more markets and resources.
Indeed Trump has pushed ahead with sanctions against Venezuela, prohibiting US citizens and corporations buying bonds and securities in Venezuela in an attempt to strangle the Venezuelan economy. The US State Department declared:
“These measures are carefully calibrated to deny the Maduro dictatorship a critical source of financing to maintain its illegitimate rule, protect the United States financial system from complicity in Venezuela’s corruption and in the impoverishment of the Venezuelan people, and allow for humanitarian assistance.” xlvii
Sixty-two percent of Venezuelan government bonds are held by US investors. The sanctions are severe, because they ban the trading of Venezuelan debt and halt trade of existing bonds xlviii. The MUD have backed Trump’s sanctions. In a communique issued on twitter, they stated: “Sanctions against those who are vagrants, human rights violators, and looters of public resources will always have our support, in the absence of impartial justice in Venezuela”.
They also called for the sanctions to be applied internationally.
“We request all of the international community to warn their respective citizens and companies that they must abstain from carrying out financial operations or contracts of national interest with the Venezuelan government that violate the national constitution for not being approved by…the National Assembly.” xlix
In view of this threat, we should not be surprised at the willingness of workers to mobilise in defence of their government. Let’s consider what they’ve been through. The masses, unarmed, defeated a coup through mass mobilisation, roadblocks and strikes. Only the lower military officers who broke ranks with the top brass were armed. The challenge now for the Bolivarian revolution will be to conduct mass military training of its civilian population.
Many hundreds of thousands of workers have put their lives on the line to defend the revolution. They have formed councils, tens of thousands of communes, seized land and occupied factories – all of this is a testament to the combativeness of the working class who have refused to be defeated; even despite the lack of international support. It is conceivable then, that in the face of reaction, they will continue to fight and defend their revolution with the hope that another world is possible.
It’s imperative for socialists to know who their enemy is. It is a matter of principle to condemn the US government for funding political support for the opposition in Venezuela and for its role in both the 2002 coup and oil lockout. To blame the extended political crisis that the government is faced with as simply a product of its own failings completely disregards the role the US has played in destabilising the country.
It fails to take into account, the long-lasting economic sabotage of the bourgeoisie and pre-supposes that the working class are somehow repressed by the government, rather than what may be an unfavourable balance of forces arrayed against them. Perhaps worst of all, it overlooks the level of support that the working class, campesinos and urban poor have for their government and their ability to participate in mass organisations that can determine the direction of struggle, even if it hasn’t proceeded in a linear direction.
The real crime for Gonzalez and co is that the Bolivarian government has dared to call itself socialist. For years he has been lecturing us: “What can save the Bolivarian project … is for the speculators and bureaucrats to be removed, and for popular power to be built, from the ground up, on the basis of a genuine socialism”l. What a magic formula! Should the Venezuelan people thank him for his sanctimonious preachings?
As Sam King noted in Red Flag in an article critical of Gonzalez: “It is, in essence, yet another call by a foreign leftist for Venezuela to ‘go forward and create socialism now’, ‘hurry and expropriate all capitalists…’etc”.li
In 1918, Lenin wrote in Pravda an article entitled “Left-wing” Childishness:
One may or may not be determined on the question of nationalisation or confiscation, but the whole point is that even the greatest possible “determination” in the world is not enough to pass from nationalisation and confiscation to socialisation. The misfortune of our “Lefts” is that by their naïve, childish combination of the words “most determined policy of socialisation” they reveal their utter failure to understand the crux of the question, the crux of the “present” situation. The misfortune of our “Lefts” is that they have missed the very essence of the “present situation”, the transition from confiscation (the carrying out of which requires above all determination in a politician) to socialisation (the carrying out of which requires a different quality in the revolutionary).
Yesterday, the main task of the moment was, as determinedly as possible, to nationalise, confiscate, beat down and crush the bourgeoisie, and put down sabotage. Today, only a blind man could fail to see that we have nationalised, confiscated, beaten down and put down more than we have had time to count. The difference between socialisation and simple confiscation is that confiscation can be carried out by “determination” alone, without the ability to calculate and distribute properly, whereas socialisation cannot be brought about without this ability.lii
Lenin’s point is obvious and correlates to the challenges facing the Bolivarian revolution today. It is completely hypocritical to denounce the government for its failure to bring about socialism through “determination” i.e remove the “speculators and bureaucrats” and seize power through wholesale appropriation – and yet at the same time issue pronouncements about the need for “revolution for below”. Which is it to be? Effectively Gonzalez calls for a devolution of power, but every effort of the government at increasing the democracy of the working class is condemned as “top down”. The success of a revolution is entirely dependent on the balance of class forces, the preparedness of the working class to struggle – domestically and internationally and requires the creation of revolutionary consciousness.
As the Trotskyist organisation, the CMR in Venezuela noted:
The sectarians and formalists tend to narrowly analyse each process, each leader, and each organisation in previously defined categories which are valid at all times and for all circumstances. These groups also feel the impatience of the activists but instead of offering them a program to be able to win support of the grassroots in the Bolivarian movement, they call upon them to break with Chavez, and call upon them to “unmask him before the masses because he deceives them”. They characterise Chavez as “bourgeois”, call for a break with “Chavismo”, denounce him as the leader of a “bourgeois movement” and call for the construction of a mass socialist movement in opposition to him.
We have to be clear. Not only are all these characterisations from a Marxist point of view absolutely incorrect, they are abstractions that do not help people to understand the dialectical nature of these phenonema. These ideas can only lead to isolation and marginalisation of those who advocate them from the decisive sections of the working class, the popular movement and the youth. Whoever tries to apply these ideas will become a spectator to the events. Beyond Chavismo, beyond the Bolivarian movement, there exists no possibility of developing a revolutionary mass movement. Any attempt to do so will bring a separation of the main revolutionary layer from the majority of the masses.” liii
Theorists like Gonzalez, the US ISO and Co. who oppose defending the Venezuelan government do so, because they do not see the government as having yet achieved socialism. As Eva Maria from the US ISO in Socialist Worker notes:
The U.S. media portray Venezuela as an oil-rich country that fell into the hands of a communist-style dictatorship allied with the Castro regime in Cuba. They link the horrible and indefensible conditions that Venezuelans are enduring today with the imposition of a socialist system by a dictatorship.
By contrast, revolutionary socialists view what’s happening in Venezuela not as a result of socialism failing, but as a consequence of the fact that it was never implemented. What we see in Venezuela is not the crisis of a socialist society, but rather an acute crisis of capitalism that is crystallizing across the region, whether in countries with a more free market-oriented system, or those like Venezuela with a more state-directed economy.
Thus, the answer to the question “Did socialism fail in Venezuela?” depends on what we mean by socialism and how we see it being achieved.liv
The absurdity of this proposition is that no one in Venezuela is claiming that socialism has been established. What Eva Maria and Co. put forward is a a very blinkered and false dichotomy. They measure the revolution with the instruments of bourgeois reaction, relying on the corporate media for their empirical analysis.
In turn they intend to force an insoluble dilemma onto socialists who wish to act in solidarity with the working class of Venezuela. Essentially what they demand is a quantifiable start point for the struggle for socialism and anything less than the wholesale expropriation of capitalist industry (“from below”) is not deserving of solidarity. They deepen sectarian divides that have their roots in the Cold War.
The real crime for Gonzalez and Co. does not fit into their schemas of how a socialist revolution should unfold. Gonzalez and Co. need a lesson in solidarity 101. Whether the Bolivarian revolution has achieved socialism or not, should not be a pre-condition to defend it against internal reaction and against US imperialist intervention. Just as the government of Allende in 1973, should’ve been defended when it was facing overthrow, so should the government of Maduro, regardless of the mistakes its made.
Gonzalez and Co. fail to take into account the objective conditions facing Venezuelans which are forced onto them by a lack of international solidarity and aid from revolutions in more industrialised and technologically advanced countries. A very real dichotomy is to defend the Venezuelan government from US intervention. There is no either/ or for the working class in Venezuela at this present stage. To call for the overthrow of the government at a point when the US is seeking to intervene and fascists are mobilising their forces, is to side with reaction. The Bolivarian revolution certainly has its weaknesses- no one, not a single soul, denies that. This is in large part due to the deformations resulting from being carried out in a resource rich, undeveloped country that has been plundered by US imperialism. A key weakness is that it lacks a revolutionary trade union movement cohered around a program aimed at the overthrow of capitalist power.
This is due to the historical weakness of the working class in Venezuela, which has lacked an advanced vanguard that is politically organised in a mass workers party, steeped in Marxist Leninist traditions. The historical development of poorer nations does not always make this possible. It means the main socialist party, the PSUV is inclusive of a multitude of social forces which are in antagonism with each other. The practice of reformism remains ingrained in the traditions and habits of organisation. This means other social forces, such as the revolutionary movements of campesinos and cooperatives (formed from the rural and urban poor) are often in advance of the industrial working class. But is that cause to write the whole project off?
It is true that the Bolivarian Revolution is not explicitly Marxist-Leninist, but it is a struggle that has raised the banner of socialism, extended democratic forms of government to a majority of the population, brought into being organs of workers power and empowered millions of the poor through its social advances. It has posed a direct challenge to US imperialism and hegemony within Latin America. For those reasons, for the efforts of the working class in Venezuela, who are in advance of our own struggles, the Bolivarian revolution should be defended. We should stand with the people of Venezuela when they say that they have a right to determine their own fate.
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