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Is Venezuela burning? A debate

As anti-government protests continue in Venezuela, Mike Gonzalez argues that only a deepening of the Bolivarian revolution can save it. Below, Federico Fuentes responds

February 27, 2014
16 min read

ven-burning

For over a week now, the world’s press and media have carried images of a Venezuela in flames. Burning buses, angry demonstrations, public buildings under siege. But the pictures are rarely explained or placed in any kind of context, and people are left to assume that this is just one more urban riot, one more youth rebellion against the crisis, like those in Greece and Spain.

The reality is both very different and far more complex. Venezuela, after all, is a society that declared war on neoliberalism fifteen years ago.

Caracas, where this series of events began, is a divided city. Its eastern part is middle class and prosperous; to the west, the population is poorer. The political divide reflects exactly the social division. Leopoldo Lopez, who has been a leader of this new phase of violent opposition to the government of Nicolas Maduro, was mayor of one of the eastern districts. Together with another prominent right wing anti-Chavista, Maria Corina Machado, he had issued a call for an open public meeting the previous Sunday to demand the fall of the government. Youth Day, on February 12, provided an opportunity to bring out students to march, demonstrate, and occupy the streets.

The majority of the burning barricades, however, were built in middle class areas. And the students building them came from either the private universities or the state university which had largely excluded poorer students in recent times. There was almost nothing happening in the poorer areas to the west.

In more recent days, the class character of the demonstrations has become clearer. The government’s new bus system, offering clean and safe travel at low prices, has been attacked, 50 of them on Friday alone. The Bolivarian University, offering higher education to people excluded from the university system, was besieged Friday — though the demonstrators failed to get in to wreck it. And in several places Cuban medical personnel, who run the Barrio Adentro health system, have been viciously attacked. In one very curious development, a wonderful sculpture in the city of Barquisimeto by the communist architect Fruto Vivas is now being defended by Chavistas after an attempt to destroy it.

Maduro and his cabinet have responded by denouncing the increasingly violent confrontations as organised by fascists and financed and supported by the United States. And there are certainly extreme elements involved, actively engaged in trying to destabilize the situation. They include paramilitaries linked to the drug trade, whose presence has grown in this overly-weaponised country.

But why has the right chosen this particular moment to take to the streets? In part, it is a response to what is seen as the weakness of the Maduro government, and specifically of Maduro himself. It is no secret that behind the façade of unity, there is a struggle for power between extremely wealthy and influential groups within government — a struggle that began to intensify in the months before Chavez’s death. The military presence in government has grown dramatically, and they are largely controlled by the group around Diosdado Cabello. The head of the oil corporation and vice president for the economy, Rafael Rodriguez, has enormous economic power in his hands.

At the same time, there is a battle for power within the right. All of the prominent leaders, including Leopoldo Lopez, Cristina Machado, and Capriles, come from the wealthiest sections of the bourgeoisie. But they are competing. Lopez and Machado are pursuing what some call (referring to Chile 1972-3) ‘a soft coup’: economic destabilization plus a continuous mobilisation on the streets to deepen the government’s weakness.

Capriles, however, has been hesitant to support the demonstrations and instead argues for a ‘government of national unity,’ which Maduro seems increasingly wedded to. Just a few weeks ago, Maduro had talks with one of Venezuela’s wealthiest capitalists, Mendoza, and other sections of the bourgeoisie have expressed support for him. And that strategy has the backing of important figures in and around government.

Against this background, the position of the Chavista government has been to call for ‘peace’ – a slogan echoed by the huge numbers of ordinary Venezuelans who have rallied behind Maduro. Their chant ‘they will never come back’ is very significant. They recognise in the leaders of the current unrest the same people who implemented the devastating economic programmes of the 1990s, before Chavez, and who attempted to destroy his government twice before. At the same time, that ‘peace’ has yet to be defined. Does it mean addressing the real problems that people face, and driving a wedge between an anxious lower middle class and its self-proclaimed bourgeois leaders? Or will it be achieved by consensus with other sections of that same class, perhaps represented by Capriles, who have no commitment at all to socialism, 21st century or otherwise?

The Venezuelan right is no stranger to violence. On 11 April 2002, it launched a coup against Chavez and assumed power. Calls in the media for leading Chavistas to be killed gave the measure of what they were prepared to do. The coup had the support of sections of the army, the Church, the employers federation, the corrupt national trade union organisation, and the U.S. Embassy. But it failed because the mass of Venezuela’s poor and working class took to the streets and brought Chavez back.

Nine months later, the attempt to destroy the oil industry, and with it the economy as a whole, was foiled again by the mass mobilisation of the majority of Venezuelans – the very people whose votes had carried Chavez to power.

Is the present situation a repeat of April? Between 2002 and 2014, the right failed to dislodge Chavez; on the contrary, Chavez’s electoral support rose consistently until his death early last year. After that, his nominated successor, Maduro, won the presidential elections in April 2013. But this time the right-wing candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, came within 250,000 votes (under one percent) of winning.

It was a clear expression of the growing frustration and anger among Chavez supporters. 2012 had seen inflation rates hovering around fifty percent (officially) and the level has risen inexorably throughout the last year. Today the basic basket of goods costs 30 per cent more than the minimum wage – and that is if the goods are to be found on the increasingly empty shelves of shops and supermarkets. The shortages are explained partly by speculation on the part of capitalists – just as happened in Chile in 1972 – and partly by the rising cost of imports, which make up a growing proportion of what is consumed in Venezuela. And that means not luxuries, but food, basic technology, and even gasoline.

All of this is an expression of an economic crisis vigorously denied by the Maduro government but obvious to everyone else. Inflation is caused by the declining value of the bolivar, Venezuela’s currency, itself the result of economic paralysis. The truth is that production of anything other than oil has ground to a virtual halt. The car industry employs 80,000 workers, yet since the beginning of 2014 it has produced 200 vehicles – what would normally be produced in half a day.

A question of corruption

How is it possible that a country with the world’s largest proven reserves of oil (and possibly of gas, too) should now be deeply in debt to China and unable to finance the industrial development that Chavez promised in his first economic plan?

The answer is political rather than economic: corruption on an almost unimaginable scale, combined with inefficiency and a total absence of any kind of economic strategy. In recent weeks, there have been very public denunciations of speculators, hoarders, and the smugglers taking oil and almost everything else across the Colombian border. And there have been horrified reports of the ‘discovery’ of thousands of containers of rotting food. But all of this has been common knowledge for years. Equally well known is the involvement of sectors of the state and government in all these activities.

Chavez promised popular power and the investment of the country’s oil wealth in new social programs. Quite rightly, his new health and education programs were a source of great pride and a guarantee of continued support for him among the majority of Venezuelans. Today, those funds are drying up as Venezuela’s oil income is diverted to paying for increasingly expensive imports.

What has emerged in Venezuela is a new bureaucratic class who are themselves the speculators and owners of this new and failing economy. Today, as the violence increases, they are to be seen delivering fierce speeches against corruption and wearing the obligatory red shirt and cap of Chavismo.

But the literally billions of dollars that have ‘disappeared’ in recent years, and the extraordinary wealth accumulated by leading Chavistas, are the clearest signs that their interests have prevailed. At the same time, the institutions of popular power have largely withered on the vine. The promises of community control, of control from below, of a socialism that benefited the whole population, have proved to be hollow.

The right has hoped to trade on that disillusionment. That it has not yet managed to mobilise significant numbers of working class people is testimony to their intense loyalty to the Chavista project, if not to his self-appointed successors – though they are unimpressed by those successors’ overnight conversion to transparency and honesty in government.

The solution is not in unprincipled alliances with the opponents of Chavismo, nor in inviting in multinationals like Samsung to enjoy cheap Venezuelan labour in assembling their equipment. What can save the Bolivarian project, and the hope it inspired in so many, 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 – participatory, democratic, and exemplary in refusing to reproduce the values and methods of a capitalism which has been unmasked by the revolutionary youth of Greece, Spain and the Middle East.

Roland Denis, a leading grassroots Venezuelan activist over many years, summed it up this way: ‘Either we turn this moment into a creative opportunity to reactivate our collective revolutionary will, or we can begin to say our farewells to the beautiful, traumatic history we have lived out over the last twenty-five years.’

Mike Gonzalez is a former Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow. This article also appeared in Jacobin magazine.


Three key errors: Federico Fuentes responds

I have had a few people ask me what I think of the above article by Mike Gonzalez. Putting aside the fact he can’t even get the name right of the oil minster (Rafael Ramirez, not Rodriguez), here are three things that are wrong with the article.

1) Gonzalez writes: ‘It is no secret that behind the façade of unity, there is a struggle for power between extremely wealthy and influential groups within government — a struggle that began to intensify in the months before Chavez’s death.’

If this was no secret, then surely there would be a mountain of evidence to prove this. But Mike Gonzalez offers none. A more serious analysis would indicate the opposite: that despite the narrow election victory by Nicolás Maduro in April 2013, the immediately wave of opposition violence and campaign around ‘fraud’, the ongoing economic war against the government, the municipal elections and the most recent events, there has been no visible signs of fractures in the government.

Even serious right-wing analysts can see this: ‘What makes Venezuela’s government so different is its absolute dominance of all the main levers of political power. President Nicolas Maduro’s administration wields unquestionable control over the Supreme Court, the Congress, the military and the oil industry – the very institutions that could threaten his regime.’

Add to that the solid support the government still maintains among working-class and poor Venezuelans and you start to see a very different picture to the one Gonzalez paints of a government on the brink of cracking up.

In fact, the only people who continually speculate about such internal struggles (apart from Gonzalez and a few other leftists) are the gossip columnists in the right-wing media.

None of this is to deny that there are political differences within the government and Chavismo more generally, which brings me to…

2) ‘All of this is an expression of an economic crisis vigorously denied by the Maduro government but obvious to everyone else.’

Again, it is just plain silliness to claim that the Maduro government is denying economic problems. In fact one of the key triggers of the recent protests (ignored by Gonzalez) was that the government had precisely begun to take measures to address the economic problems, starting with the imposition of set profit margins and accompanying regulations to open company account books.

But Gonzalez’s article goes further and also invents a crisis that does not exist. Let’s just look at what he says and some of the actual figures:

‘2012 had seen inflation rates hovering around fifty percent (officially) and the level has risen inexorably throughout the last year.’

Inflation in 2012: 20.1 per cent (source).

Inflation in 2013: 56.2 per cent (source).

That is, it was not around 50 per cent in 2012 and it did not rise inexorably from that imaginary figure (even if it clearly did rise substantially in 2013).

‘The shortages are explained partly by speculation on the part of capitalists — just as happened in Chile in 1972 — and partly by the rising cost of imports, which make up a growing proportion of what is consumed in Venezuela.’

Value of imports in 2012: US$47.310 billion.

Value of imports in 2013: US$37.802 (source).

That is, the value of imports went down. In fact the value of imports in 2013 was higher in 2007, 2008 and 2009 than it was last year.

‘Today, those funds [oil wealth] are drying up as Venezuela’s oil income is diverted to paying for increasingly expensive imports.’

As I showed above, imports are not more expensive. But its also not true that funds are drying up:

Value of exports 2012: US$97.340 billion (source).

I couldn’t find the figure for 2013, but I doubt exports fell by two thirds, which would indicate Venezuela continues have a nice trade surplus.

I could continue to do the same for almost every other assertion Gonzalez makes. Or point to figures that show despite the ‘crisis’, poverty rates and unemployment continue to fall, unheard of in any other economic crisis. But the main point is not so much the gross errors Gonzalez makes, but why he does so.

Blame

The reason is because what he wants to demonstrate is that the Venezuelan government is just as responsible for the ‘economic crisis’ as the right-wing opposition. To do so he has to make up stuff like the government is going bankrupt, oil money is drying up, imports are skyrocketing while production at home has all but disappeared… all the same stuff that the right-wing media says.

This matters because, as the old saying goes: ‘If you make the wrong diagnosis, you will never apply the right remedy.’

The right wing says all this to prove that the Chavista economic model of state control and redistribution of oil wealth to meet people’s needs will inevitable destroy the economy. They are not the only ones saying this. There are some in the government who disagree with key economic policies, hence the political struggles I referred to above.

This is also true more broadly with the Bolivarian Revolution. For example, Roland Denis, who Gonzalez is so fond of, is part of a group within Chavismo that argues much the same line as Gonzalez when it comes to the government’s economic problems. Unlike Gonzalez, they have put forward their alternative economic policies in the Que Hacer? document. I’ll let you decide just how ‘left-wing’ their economic policies are.

Again, none of this is to say there are not economic problems, but behind this debate filled with dubious statistics and assertions is a more important political debate of what should happen to Venezuela’s oil wealth.

3) ‘What can save the Bolivarian project, and the hope it inspired in so many, 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 — participatory, democratic, and exemplary in refusing to reproduce the values and methods of a capitalism which has been unmasked by the revolutionary youth of Greece, Spain and the Middle East.’

This is all well and good, but ultimately a motherhood statement devoid of any content. I wonder if Gonzalez agrees with the alternative policies proposed in the Que Hacer? document as a way to refuse to reproduce the values and methods of capitalism? Who knows? All Gonzalez has to say can be summed up in a slogan, ‘One solution: revolution!’

But this is not the only problem with such statements. Pretty much since 2002, leftists like Mike Gonzalez have been saying the same thing: ‘Venezuela is at a crossroads, only two options, restore old order or deepen the revolution towards socialism.’

But after 12 years should we ask ourselves some questions, such as: isn’t it perhaps possible that out of every crisis, the government has taken measures to deepened the revolution, hence why the Bolivarian Revolution is still going and the old elites are not back in power? Isn’t perhaps true that implementing some kind of war communism in Venezuela (which tends to be what calls to deepen the revolution amount to) would not be the best course of action? Isn’t it the case that given the current international balance of forces it is possible for the revolution to continue advancing but that conditions do not exist for Venezuela to implement socialism in one country?

These are serious questions that some of the left continue to paper over, preferring slogans to real action.

Federico Fuentes is an activist with the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network and a co-author of Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism. This response also appeared at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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