Clown doctors dancing with elderly women for a communal council event, debates about Venezuela’s political culture organised by the PSUV (Socialist Party) youth, the kids reading books at the annual book festival held in the basement of the cultural centre, a week of vaccinations through the Barrio Adentro health centres, a short queue for the free cable car, another communal council meeting with the governor to discuss a tourism socio-productive project, rumours that Maduro will visit Merida, but he doesn’t, a parade of kids in historical costumes to mark 200 years since campana admirable... three months after the heart wrenching collective sadness following Chavez’s death, life seems to be going back to normal here. The happy revolution continues. Yet the fact that things are largely the same as before Chavez died is both a huge achievement and statement about the maturity of this revolution, and also a concern.
The opposition’s war of attrition
We are in a qualitatively different period right now. Chavez has died, Nicolas Maduro is president, and the rightwing is making a real effort to take power. For the first time in 14 years they feel that, without Chavez, they have a chance, and have gone on the offensive. Opposition leaders began their strategy while Chavez was still sick in hospital. It consists of discrediting the government through media conferences and stunts like the national assembly fight, the ‘hunger strikes’ over Chavez being treated in Cuba, going to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Venezuela’s Supreme Court, with full coverage by the national and international corporate media. The opposition leaders have created a cause, a movement of sorts, which opposes the “undemocratic” Venezuelan government, and we can see that opposition supporters are now more willing to mobilise than before. A very large proportion of them participated in the cacerolazos (pot banging) when Capriles refused to recognise Maduro’s win on 14 April. On May Day, though the opposition march was smaller than the Chavista one, it was much bigger than the few hundred people the opposition has mobilised on that day in the past. Previously, opposition supporters were quieter- they’d mutter their criticisms or complaints to friends, but not much more. Now they walk the street in their Capriles caps and t-shirts somewhat proudly, and with confidence.
However, while the opposition has become a little stronger, they expected things to really fall apart without Chavez, and that hasn’t happened either. Their strategy is consistent, persistent, yet somewhat desperate. They are also trying to wear down the Chavista movement morally, through their media war, and economically, by propelling inflation (while the government’s fixed exchange rate doesn’t quite reflect the real value of the Bolivar, neither does the parallel rate which has gone up from 10:1 to 28:1 in just 6 months) and contributing to food hoarding. (I say ‘contributing’ because the food scarcity issue is complex, it has to do with production and distribution issues, the exchange rate, but also the real coincidence that most products became scarce right after Chavez’s death and when elections were called, not after the devaluing of the Bolivar in February).
Though we’re used to shortages now- as they do tend to coincide with the numerous elections held here, it has been just a bit harder this time round, though I’d argue more on a psychological level of not feeling confident of what products will be available, than on an actual, practical food level. Despite what the mainstream media says, that there is a “crisis” in Venezuela, the truth is no one is hungry or anything close to it, we just have to improvise a bit and have pasta for dinner instead of arepas (corn patties) sometimes.
However, this time the opposition’s strategy isn’t a short term, two month type one. It’s a long term, three year long one, which aims to win a recall referendum of President Maduro. It’s a war of attrition that seeks to demoralise, disorientate, plant doubts, divide, and demobilise the Chavista movement gradually.
Capriles the media showman, and the opposition’s terribly fabricated “evidence” of fraud etc (check out their kindergarten project style document made after the election, or perhaps before) – awkward, and unintelligent. Their latest stunt though, the “recording” of Silva, was a bit more craftily done- perhaps because they are learning or received help, or perhaps because it was real- it doesn’t really matter. All Chavistas know already that there is corruption within the government and its institutions, though they might disagree on the extent, or the particular names. Further, the opposition didn’t release the recording because they had some kind of charitable aim of helping us clean out the government, but for their own purposes. Capriles, in his showman style, announced that something “big” would be coming out days before the recording was released, and low and behold the recording fulfilled all the opposition’s wildest dreams; backing up their ridiculous argument that Cuba “controls” Venezuela’s decisions, that there are divisions in the government, that the new national police- a serious government attempt to deal with the crime situation – is controlled by Cabello, all said by a well respected Chavista figure- Mario Silva.
And while the release of the recording probably did its little bit of damage, to add to the accumulated damage done recently and over the next three years, as a strategy it also underestimates most Chavistas. Because we are already regularly, openly, publically, and happily criticising the government when necessary, and self criticising the revolution.
Trapped in a binary
What the opposition offensive means however, is that politics in Venezuela has become even more trapped in an opposition v government binary, with the grassroots sidelined, in some respects, and less time for the more important revolutionary tasks.
With the opposition attacks, the PSUV especially has focused on “loyalty” to the government. Its energy has gone into constant counter-accusations against the opposition, rather than into radicalising and deepening the revolution. It feels like we are still in an election campaign, with the government also focused on getting things done- public works and so on – a good thing of course, but a revolution is about more than that. And with everyone clear that the opposition will seek a recall, Capriles even announcing it earlier this month, it is in fact looking a bit like 3 years of that sort of electoral oriented dynamic.
We should be marching, yet the opposition has managed to move politics more into the media war and further away from the streets. While before, say around 2006, having an active opposition meant that we were kept on our toes – didn’t become complacent, now it means that our energy is often taken away from what we should be doing, and put into arguing with their latest stunt, which the corporate media of course de-contextualises, manipulates, sensationalises, and uses to create fear.
Interestingly though, post 14 April, the government has also shown some real signs that it cares about, and/or is feeling the pressure of the grassroots. I was surprised when a meeting called by the National Anti-drug Organisation (ONA) in Merida with fire-fighters, police, communal council representatives and others (around 150 people attended in total) to apply the “movement for peace” program in Merida, actually broke up into working groups so that we, the spokespeople and workers, could make concrete proposals. It’s quite a change to our usual dealings with the ONA, where typically 80 communal councils will submit full project proposals (months of work) and compete for funding which the ONA will ultimately award to perhaps 5 of them.
Then there’s this new ‘street government’, where Maduro and his ministers spend around 4 days in each state, talking with various communities and productive sectors. When they come to Merida, VA will no doubt write up something specifically on this initiative, but for now, the organised grassroots’ high expectations are notable. Here, people are already putting together proposals, with the aim of getting more financing. One report though from the street government in Guayana indicated that Maduro and the government were badly informed about various facts of the worker situation there, and the government announced funding for public works which had already actually been allocated and provided. The works, while desired by the communities, weren’t actually discussed or approved by them.
Mixed reaction by the grassroots
So with this offensive by the opposition, something more than just ‘business as usual’ is required of the bases. But first, it’s important to stress the big deal it is that the revolution went on after Chavez – a feat utterly ignored by the corporate media.
That we are still organising, debating, painting murals, writing, planting, and working as hard as before shows that a proportion of the population is consciousness enough to fight even without Chavez’s rallying speeches and initiatives. The political stamina- marching and fighting after 16 elections and despite all the problems and attacks, is inspiring. The revolution has developed to a point where politics is a basic part of life – something that is uncommon in other countries, and that explains the deep love and connection people also felt for Chavez. People outside Venezuela, especially the press, naively and condescendingly dismissed that connection as “cultism”, but things have reached a point here where basically everyone is glued to the news more than the strongest sports fanatics are glued to their games. People of both sides debate politics like it has everything to do with them, because of course it does, and that will not change soon.
Even some problems can be positive, if we organise well. The shortages of toothpaste and toilet paper for example, have seen some sectors of Chavismo discussing how dependent capitalism has made us on consuming products we don’t actually need, or are capable of producing ourselves, at home, or collectively in communities. In one of my communities, we’ve held toothpaste and yoghurt making workshops, for example. Food is actually a great organising tool. Unfortunately though, such a response is by a small minority; the government has dealt with the situation by importing tonnes of toilet paper, and many Chavistas would still describe the situation as “serious”, even though they actually have certain products, or are managing fine without them.
And, as we say here, we’ve “fallen into routine”. There are a few initiatives, but they aren’t enough to respond to the new situation, and to the threat to the revolution that is certain in three years, if not before. Here in Merida both the youth of the Communist party and of the PSUV are organising weekly ideology workshops now, and some of the key political groups, such as the PSUV, PCV, Tupamaros, and the Frente Francisco de Miranda, have taken steps towards forming an “anti-imperialist front”, to basically defend the government and the revolution from internal and external attacks (be they economic, media based, etc). People are more polarised, and both sides are less passive and polite when it comes to disagreeing in arguments in the street, the media, and over social media.
However, to deepen and protect the revolution, the activist bases and activist, revolutionary leadership need to be less disarticulated and start taking on more of a proactive role. But the government is seen to be, and is for now, the leadership – logical in a way, and in terms of many individual members of the government, often deserved. However, it is the grassroots organising- as workers, community, students, consumers, in cadre parties etc, that is the antidote to all the bureaucracy, corruption, and inefficiency. And everyone here knows that if those things aren’t truly smashed over the next three years, it will be hard to deepen the revolution, and we will definitely lose the recall.
I also think that some Chavistas are a bit confused, disoriented, and have an idea of what needs to be done, but not how to kick it off (myself included). Others have even changed sides. One friend, who has to be anonymous, was one of the founders of the Tupamaros (a pro-government Marxist organisation), and of a radical student movement. He now supports Capriles; he believes the recording released by the opposition is real, and he doesn’t want to keep supporting Chavismo, arguing that when the grassroots organise, all they are doing is supporting opportunists in government. He saw the cacerolazo in his community and feels it has gone to the opposition, and that things are largely hopeless. Unfortunately, for some Chavistas, it’s conceivable to see Capriles as someone who can fix all the problems, rather than as the super-rich man who participated in a coup against Chavez. Other Chavistas are staying “loyal”, others constructively critical, and others are doubting. Most supporters though are clear that opportunism and corruption are obstacles to fight, rather than representative of what the Bolivarian revolution actually is.
This coyuntara, this situation, is something we had to go through sooner or later, and is part of the long term change process. It is worrying, to be honest, but as a chance to grow- politically and collectively, it’s a welcome challenge.