Venezuela is a nuisance to Latin American and Western elites: it dared to propose a different path to neoliberal capitalism right when no other options were thought to exist. Both local and foreign elites have gone to great ends to destroy this initiative.
Most recently, foreign-sponsored political violence added new elements to the country’s democratic life. The greatest hope of the ongoing Mexico negotiations [between the government and US-backed opposition] is that violence as a political tool will be averted and the normality of democratic institutions restored.
Another hope coming from Mexico is that criminal economic sanctions will be lifted; the measures have only served to cause suffering to the people, force the government to circle down in the worst of its cycles, and nourish the discourse about the failure of the socialist path. Unfortunately, the urgency of improving the wages and living conditions of those who live off of their work is not included on the agenda in Mexico.
After the failure of the  Oslo-sponsored negotiations, a new workgroup has been established under the auspices of the governments of Mexico and Norway with accompaniment from Russia. This is not the continuation of previous talks, but rather a new chapter.
In Mexico, the Venezuelan government met with one of the nine fractions of the Venezuelan opposition ̶ the fraction most closely linked to the US government ̶ at the headquarters of the Museum of Anthropology. Any final agreement between the two parties may open the floodgates to allow a return to people-centered politics, leaving behind the political maneuvering which has dominated the daily life of Venezuelans.
Politics, economics and geopolitics
Most analyses of the Mexico negotiations tend to overestimate the national dimension without taking into account the economic and geopolitical dynamics associated with the process. Commentators get stuck in the bipolarity of agreement or disagreement and have a hard time understanding what is happening as a process.
The current Venezuelan tension is the result of not being able to politically resolve the economic crisis that erupted almost forty years ago (1983), the social crisis of the Caracazo (1989) and the geopolitical crisis (globalization and internationalization of capital) of the 1980s. Government-led, splinter, and anti-system movements were all unable to build a path to resolve this situation in the 1990s.
Chávez’s electoral triumph (1998), which resulted from a broad alliance, was built on the basis of resolving the crisis. During the first three years, Chávez emphasized the social aspect of the crisis because he had fewer options at the economic level and serious difficulties at the geopolitical one.
The sector of the importing bourgeoisie that had backed Chávez in 1998 soon felt threatened by news laws on land tenure, control of the oil rent and the redefinition of the role of state institutions. The 2002 coup d’état, the popular insurgency to return Chávez to power, and the break with the bourgeois sector that had backed him created a new situation: the breakdown of the state-bourgeoisie chain so necessary in a country which imports a very large percentage of what is consumed.
Thus, a phenomenon arose that had not been seen since the period of Juan Vicente Gómez (Venezuelan dictator 1908-35), in which the state — threatened by the rupture generated by the 2002 coup d’état — granted import licenses to sectors close to the government bureaucracy to try to solve the supply of products. This process started to generate a new network of profit accumulation and perverse relationships with the state, as well as a new bourgeoisie associated with the process of Bolivarian transformation.
However, some of the long-standing bourgeois groups – such as the Mendoza or Cisneros Groups – continued to receive incentives and support due to the new importing bourgeoisie’s difficulties in producing goods locally or as a result of the exchange of information for access to a portion of the oil rent. Let us add that this development generated a number of contradictions between the declared socialist course and the bourgeois castes (old and new), which for reasons of space we cannot examine here.
These contradictions between the old and new bourgeoisie (2002-2012) — for whom the power dispute is a fundamentally economic one that is publicly expressed with an ideological edge — comes in addition to the crises of the 1980s. Most of the popular sectors, who are committed to a socialist course and for whom Chávez was trying to build an institutional support structure that increasingly threatened the old and new bourgeoisie, tended to not notice these contradictions.
While Chávez promoted policies that reversed the [historical] accumulated social debt, he also promoted the geopolitical insertion of the country [into the international arena] based on not only anti-imperialist (fundamentally anti-US) sentiment, but also renewing a non-aligned logic through alliances with progressive governments and consolidating a strategic relationship with Cuba. This is a factor that breaks with the dependent and privileged relationship that the US had with Venezuela through the twentieth century, and this is an aspect that affects the negotiations in Mexico today and that should not go unnoticed.
Chávez did not arbitrate the results of the crisis which began in the 1980s nor assume a mediating role among bourgeois fractions. Rather, he placed his bets on the radicalization of the process from below, letting a new bourgeoisie emerge as part of an economic sustainability strategy. His illness and subsequent death occurred when the “game” was still on and in full swing: when no bourgeois fraction had imposed itself nor had the social reality allowed for a new intra-class correlation of forces to take hold. Chávez’s final “commune or nothing” call in his “strike at the helm” speech reiterated that his bet was for the popular camp to lead.
Thus, the arrival of Maduro occured in a practically unexpected way, in the midst of a brutal fall in oil prices that put the rent-based model in check, and in the midst of the accumulation and conformation of bourgeoisies from the appropriation of foreign currencies generated by the oil industry. The political sectors associated with the old bourgeoisie understood that this fall in rent income implied the possibility of generating a rupture that may have allowed them to regain control of the government.
Between 2014 and 2017 different insurrectionary activities, agitations and mobilizations failed to oust Maduro from power. The governments of Trump, [Colombian President Iván] Duque and [Chilean President Sebastián] Piñera were the players behind the greatest threats of invasion and the beginning of a civil war; while the 2019 Cúcuta incident was the high point of the escalation of violence.
In the midst of such a spiral of violence and with political polarization on the surface, people-centered politics were impossible. The migration crisis, especially from 2014 to 2021, affected the opposition much more in political terms, losing as it did an important part of its ability to mobilize. However, not all those who left are opposition, most are citizens seeking to survive the economic ravages of the crisis.
Maduro: the strongman of Venezuelan politics
Unlike Chávez, Maduro not only assumed the role of referee and mediator between the bourgeois fractions in order to stabilize the political situation, but also worked on articulation scenarios and models between national capital and the transnational sector. Those who assign Maduro a supporting role in the Venezuelan play are mistaken. Maduro may not be a cultured man, but he is a shrewd politician: he has imposed the logic of trade union bureaucracy on Venezuelan politics.
Since coming to power, he has slowly become the strongman, seeing off any threat. First, he did this by weakening and fragmenting the opposition, by combining carrots (agreements with fractions of the parties, support for dissidents, legalization of politics) and sticks (persecution of organizations, disqualification, imprisonment of rebellious opponents).
Second, by moving the moral reference point of Chavismo away from the structure of the parties and the government — to the point of leading some of them to the terrible mistake of meeting with the opposition figure who was promoting an attempted invasion — thereby emptying the possibility of building a traditional Chavista ethical reference with real political options.
Third, by expelling the financial architect of the Bolivarian bourgeoisie [Rafael Ramírez] from his environment and forcing him into European exile, removing his shadow and consolidating his [Maduro’s] own leadership in this sector.
Fourth, by progressively diminishing other leaders’ power bases in the governing party, many of whom turned from hopeful replacements to wild cards (the recent PSUV internal elections demonstrated this, reducing the power sectors in the government to four leading figures: Maduro, Delcy and Jorge Rodríguez, Diosdado Cabello).
Fifth, by establishing a new model of military control in the Armed Forces, consolidating the leadership of a non-charismatic but skilled fouché military officer class.
Sixth, by becoming “the hand that rocks the cradle” of the oppositions: today all oppositions gravitate around what Maduro says or does, practically without any real capacity for initiative.
Seventh, by developing a model of authoritarianism with almost total impunity against those who protest the terrible effects of the economic crisis, especially on the working class’ leadership and grassroots.
Eighth, by using the criminal US blockade against Venezuela in his favor as justification for the inter-bourgeois arbitration policies he seeks to develop.
Ninth, by building a narrative that is presented as a continuity of Chavismo, but which in reality expresses an attempt to solve the bourgeois crisis generated in the 1980s from the seat of the state.
Tenth, by instrumentalizing hopelessness in the face of the effects of excessive inflation, the astronomical devaluation of the currency and the almost total loss of purchasing power.
Eleventh, by achieving automatic solidarity from the majority of the Latin American left, removing their critical capacity. Certainly, Maduro has lost support on the radical left, but in the orthodox and progressive left the debate about Venezuela’s labor relations [which led many on the “radical international left” to withdraw its support of his administration] is still pending.
Twelfth, by developing a structural adjustment program for the Venezuelan economy with a profound social and wage impact that is justified by sanctions. If the sanctions are lifted, it will be the now weakened guilds and trade unions which will have to fight important battles according to the interests of labor.
Mass migration, which left almost all opposition political parties without a significant part of the protest army (and vote base), has further helped Maduro in this. While it is true that only a small group of those who emigrated can be located on the periphery of the opposition parties, they were their strong base for mobilization.
Maduro is the strongman of Venezuelan politics, and his delegation goes to the negotiations in Mexico with a clear agenda:
a) to dismantle the US sanctions against the Venezuelan economy in order to fulfill its role as a referee between bourgeoisies and as the determining factor in social containment;
b) to generate a cohabitation agreement that distances political and social conflict with the different sectors of the bourgeoisie;
c) having learned during these years that the opposition depends on the economic sector, Maduro will try to reach an agreement on the new rules of the political game in exchange for turning the state into the economic guarantor of their activities;
d) to remove the possibility of an opposition-led effort for a recall referendum (by making the opposition understand that in the upcoming November 21 elections they should concentrate on mayors and councils and not on governorships);
e) to build into the social imagination the idea that there now exist multiple oppositions who are so divided that they are to blame for the fact that there is no political change.
In Mexico, Maduro begins to build another geopolitical approach that is closer to social democracy than to the old non-aligned concept.
Apart from a handful of statements to calm internal sectors, socialism has been reduced to being a conjuring trick for the government. It would not be surprising, in fact, that in a hypothetical process, the [ruling] United Socialist Party changes its name by erasing the word Socialism to liquidate the US establishment’s last resistance to offering sanctions relief, without, of course, causing a rupture with Cuba.
Luis Bonilla-Montilla is a Venezuelan university professor and researcher at CLASCO’s International Research Center-Other Voices in Education (CII-OVE). He recently won the International Social Justice Award (2020) award from the Paulo Freire Democratic Project of Chapman University, USA.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.