Defending Venezuela as Part of World Revolution: A Conversation with Jorge Martin

Criticizing governmental policy is an expression of friendship and solidarity with the revolution, according to this experienced internationalist.

Jorge Martin is the national secretary of Hands Off Venezuela in the UK and part of the editorial board of In Defense of Marxism. In a recent visit to Caracas, we asked Martin about his analysis of the current state of affairs in Venezuela and about how to best combine critique and defense of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Imperialism has cast a shadow over the Bolivarian Process since at least 2002. However, US meddling intensified in early 2019. Why do you think the US is hiking up pressure on Venezuela?

It is obvious that what we have seen this year, in the first part of 2019, is a prolonged coup d’etat attempt choreographed by the United States. The US decided that there had to be “regime change,” as they call it, and they went against Venezuela with all the tools they have at hand.

The coup attempt had four highpoints. First, Juan Guaido’s self-proclamation at the end of January, which was immediately followed by US oil sanctions, which have had a severe impact on the economy. Shortly after, there was the spectacle of sending in “humanitarian aid” – a violation of national sovereignty. Finally, there was the failed coup attempt on April 30.

So why do they do it now? I think they calculated based on several things. First, they considered that the Bolivarian Government had lost a great deal of popular support due to the worsening of the economic crisis – they believed that it was the time to launch the attack, as the government would come toppling down easily.

Second, at a regional level, there was a group of reactionary governments that would support “regime change.” They had Colombia, which has had a reactionary government for a long time, but also Brazil and Argentina. In other words, from a diplomatic standpoint, Venezuela was more isolated and many regional governments were committed to the US’ “regime change” project.

I think those are the reasons why they launched the attack, but they made serious errors in their calculation. It didn’t work out for them.

When confronted with a situation like the one Venezuela faces, what do you think would be the correct response?

We have said from the very beginning that the best way to fight a well-organized imperialist regime change effort is to take revolutionary measures. First of all, the government should be severe and not lenient with the opposition. This is not a case where the opposition is simply exercising its political rights. It’s a situation in which they are assigning themselves powers that they don’t have, while they call for a foreign power to impose sanctions on the country – even sometimes calling on a foreign enemy to invade militarily!

It should not be allowed! When these events happened, we thought that the National Assembly should have been disbanded and Guaido arrested for his violation of basic democratic rights.

Second, since the imperialist forces took additional measures, such as economic sanctions and the seizing of PSVSA assets in the United States, the Venezuelan government should respond in kind. It should expropriate and nationalize imperialist multinational companies operating in the country. It should also expropriate and nationalize the assets of those who are financing the coup, those who are behind Guaido (i.e., the local landowners, bankers and capitalists).

Third, to fight against the imperialist aggression, the government should place its trust in the revolutionary people of Venezuela. In other words, the militia should be expanded, which was done to a certain degree. However, truly strengthening that force in every barrio, in every factory, in the peasant communities would mean arming the militia.

This plan for the defense of Venezuela is part and parcel with driving the revolution forward. To do so, it would be important to expropriate the land and give it to the peasants. In so doing, some of the economic problems would be reverted or, at least, they could start to be addressed. Doing this would strengthen the Venezuelan people’s capacity to resist this imperialist aggression.

The imperialist and capitalist media all around the world say that Venezuela is a dictatorship, that Maduro violates human rights. However, I don’t know of any other country in the world where someone can proclaim himself president – with no legitimacy at all – and call for foreign intervention without anything happening. To date, Juan Guaido is still free to continue agitating and call for a military coup! This is not a dictatorship. Rather it is the opposite: it amounts to acting a bit foolishly in a political sense.

Thousands attend an anti-imperialist march in Caracas. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The relationship between the popular movement and the government is tense now. In the face of imperialist aggression, the people are unified and make themselves heard. However, when confronted with the government’s liberal economic policies, the popular movement hasn’t been able to express itself with a strong voice, making its criticism and proposals clear. What should be done?

The motor of the Bolivarian Revolution has always been the revolutionary people. In the past, there was, a symbiotic relationship between President Chavez and the revolutionary masses. They complemented each other, and together they pushed the movement forward. Now it seems that this link with the leadership has been weakened, or even that some of these links have been broken.

We see a government that claims to be workerist, but at the same time it carries out some policies that do not favor the workers. Additionally, there has been a large campesino movement, protesting about how Chavez’s agrarian reforms gave land to peasant communities, but now these very lands are being taken away from them. Campesinos are being attacked for defending the land. Also, there have been attempts to privatize some nationalized industries, such as Arroces del Alba. Now there are even communards in jail for merely defending the land! The situation of workers is similar: the purchasing power of their salaries has been pulverized and other collective rights have been eliminated.

Many of these policies actually weaken the revolution. A revolution must be based on the enthusiasm and participation of the people, including campesinos, workers, the urban poor, and the organized popular movements. If they feel that the government is not acting on their behalf or in their interest, then the link is broken.

Of course, at a time of heightened imperialist intervention, it is natural and correct to rally behind the government… After all, if this government falls, what comes after will be a complete disaster. However, that doesn’t mean that one should acritically support the government. It is important to raise all these questions about the government’s deficiencies and the shortcomings of its policies.

Finally – and this is the main problem now – the more revolutionary wing of the Chavista movement is not unified. There were important attempts – for example, in the context of the [Admirable] Campesino March – but if the revolutionary left’s atomization continues, then we are in a very weak position to push the revolution forward.

In July 2019, a large meeting organized by the Campesino March brought together many of the most combative Chavista organizations. The resulting debate marked a high point in revolutionary discussion and criticism. (Venezuelanalysis)

One of the Chavista left’s big dilemmas is how to criticize without playing into the hands of the enemy. Chavez insisted on the necessity of self-criticism. Yet, how to do it? Also, as the main spokesperson of the Hands Off Venezuela campaign, how do you propose to exercise international solidarity without simply rubber-stamping the government’s policies?

We have had many long debates about these issues. For Hands Off Venezuela, it is absolutely clear that we must oppose imperialist intervention. We defend this government in the face of imperialism, because it is very clear that if Guaido and the forces that are behind him come to power, it would be a major disaster for the population and for the Bolivarian Revolution.

It would amount to a reversal of all the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution – even though some of those gains have eroded in recent years. So our basic stance is that we must defend Venezuela against imperialist aggression, and that means opposing the overthrow of the government by these reactionary imperialist forces.

However, at the same time, the Hands Off Venezuela campaign has always been independent of the government – we were critical even when Chavez was in power. For instance, years ago a number of activists here in Venezuela toppled down the Columbus statue [2004]. That was a very controversial decision, and they were jailed.

We organized a campaign demanding their release. In so doing, we went against President Chavez’s position at the time. Or again, when Venezuela handed over Rodrigo Granda to Colombia [in 2005], we also criticized that decision.

That does not take anything away from our defense of the Bolivarian Revolution. We think it’s the opposite because it is by being critical that you are a real friend of the revolution. A real friend is not someone who says that everything you are doing is right or who tells you to continue on the same path even though he knows that the path leads to a blind alley!

We might be right or we might be wrong, but I think that criticism must play a role within the solidarity movement. This is the line we have taken. [We maintain] an unconditional defense of the Bolivarian Revolution as a project and an unconditional defense of the government in face of the imperialist aggression. At the same time [we have] a critical attitude toward some of the government’s policies, while building our solidarity around the most revolutionary elements of the revolution.

But, as I mentioned before, this is not new. For instance, we put a lot of emphasis on the question of workers’ control some years ago, and now, for us, the key to defending the revolution is the defense of the land, the struggle of the campesinos.

In our opinion, this should be done in the following way. Before he died, Chavez, in his “Strike at the Helm” speech [2012], was very critical of the Bolivarian Revolution’s shortcomings. He said: “We talk about socialism but we have a capitalist economy. We must move towards a socialist economy!” He added: “We talk about the state, but our state is still a Bourgeois State. It should be pulverized and replaced by a Communal State.”

These two positions of Chavez are very clear, and we support them. We should judge the government today by whether or not it’s advancing along these lines.

How would you characterize the Bolivarian government at the present time?

The Bolivarian government is a strange animal. It’s a contradictory government. The government is in power, because of the legacy of Chavez and the revolution. Maduro is the president mainly because Chavez appointed him as his successor. At the same time, many of the policies that this government is carrying out, in my opinion, are not in line with Chavez’s legacy. Therefore, it is a contested situation.

I can give you a few examples. I already mentioned the question of agrarian reform being rolled back and the attempts to privatize public enterprises. Additionally, the government’s current monetary policy is monetarist, leading to a liquidity squeeze. This hurts working people, while the government is making all sorts of alliances with foreign powers such as China and Russia, and handing over the nation’s assets.

Again, this is a government that we must defend in the face of imperialist aggression. The government has a large base of support, because people associate it with the past, and also because some of the policies of the [earlier phases of] Bolivarian Revolution still remain.

To give you an example, with the Great Housing Mission, millions of homes have been handed over free-of-charge to people who didn’t have access to housing before. This is a major development, and obviously people want to defend those social gains. At the same time, I think that many of the current government’s policies are eroding the legacy of the Bolivarian Revolution and dismantling its gains.

What would be the consequences of a defeat of the Bolivarian Revolution?

I think that a defeat of the Bolivarian Revolution would be a major setback, not only for Venezuela but also across the continent and around the world. That’s why US imperialism is so committed to bringing it down!

Also, they have clearly stated that “regime change” in Venezuela is part of a plan that goes hand in hand with the defeat of the Cuban Revolution. The very existence of the Bolivarian Revolution, even though it’s facing many problems due to the embargo, the blockade, and some government policies, is a lifeline to the Cuban Revolution.

Focusing on Venezuela: the loss of the Bolivarian Revolution would be a massive setback. I’m sure that an openly right-wing government would carry out the privatization of all nationalized companies, and this would mean massive layoffs in the public sector, particularly in companies like CORPOELEC [electrical], CANTV [telephone], PDVSA and so on.

Defeat of the revolution would open up all these companies to foreign investment: they would be privatized for peanuts. There would also be a massive rollback of the agrarian reform. Above all, it would mean a defeat of the idea that workers and campesinos can run their own affairs, that they can organize and take the future into their own hands.

As I said before, the loss of the Bolivarian Revolution would have a big effect internationally. Throughout Latin America, the Bolivarian Revolution is an example – it has been a beacon of hope and has fostered many other revolutionary processes across the continent. A defeat of the Bolivarian Revolution would be used by capitalists around the world to “demonstrate” that there are no other options: we defeated you in Venezuela and we will defeat you anywhere else! A defeat for our class in one country is a defeat for our class everywhere. It would have an important psychological and propaganda effect.

Furthermore, the impact would not only be continental. The Bolivarian Revolution has had an impact in Latin America and around the world. To take the case of Britain: at the time that Chavez began talking about socialism, that had a big impact.

The president of the Hands Off Venezuela campaign at the time was John McDonnell, who is now the number two to Jeremy Corbyn, and he could be the future chancellor of the British government. After the collapse of Stalinism in the East Bloc, the idea [put forward in Venezuela] in 2005 that socialism was still worth fighting for attracted many people’s attention. In the same way, a defeat of the Bolivarian Revolution would be a setback for the revolution worldwide.

Hands Off Venezuela in Canada. (Hands Off Venezuela campaign)