Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Maduro and the market

With the recent plunge in oil prices and radicalised opposition forces, can President Maduro keep the Bolivarian revolution on track? Steve Ellner writes

June 8, 2015
8 min read

ven

It’s a point of honour for the Venezuelan government that despite the sharp plunge in oil prices and acute shortages of goods, president Nicolás Maduro has ruled out austerity measures. In a recent TV interview conducted by former vice president José Vicente Rangel, central bank president Nelson Merentes explained why, when he asked: ‘Do you remember what happened on 27 February 1989?’ On that date massive nationwide disturbances broke out after the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez announced sharp price hikes and negotiations with the IMF, setting the stage for the 1992 military uprising led by Hugo Chávez. The memory of 27 February and the decision of the formerly left-leaning Pérez to come to terms with powerful economic groups as a way out of pressing economic difficulties undoubtedly weigh on Maduro’s response to the current situation.

Since assuming the presidency after Hugo Chávez’s death in March 2013, Maduro has faced intense economic and political problems. In the first place, he inherited a greatly depreciated bolívar, the local currency, which began to lose value in late 2012, when Chávez was undoubtedly suffering immensely from the cancer that killed him but immediate action was required. Any attempt by Maduro to devalue the official exchange rate later, once he assumed the presidency, would have run the risk of setting off an inflationary spiral.

Additionally, throughout Maduro’s two years as president, opposition forces have engaged in numerous disruptive and sometimes violent protests with dozens of fatalities, including ten security force officers. They have been abetted by an international media that minimises the gravity of their actions, and the US government, which has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan officials for alleged violation of human rights.

Taking the middle ground

In the government’s latest economic policy announcement on 10 February, Maduro took a middle ground between regulated prices that are completely out of sync with the market, or even production costs, and prices pegged to market conditions. On the one hand, in recognition of economic reality, the government legalised and regulated the open market for foreign currency, transactions that had previously constituted a black market. On the other hand, in a deviation from market economics, Maduro retained the exchange rate at 6.3 bolivars to the dollar for the import of basic commodities – 27 times that of the open market.

The ever-widening disparity between official and unofficial exchange rates has generated acute problems of contraband, hoarding, price speculation and money laundering. The government sets artificially low prices not only on foreign currencies, but also basic commodities, a practice that contributes to the problem of a black market for scarce goods. The most blatant example of artificial prices is petrol, which is the cheapest in the world. The policy of subsidised prices undermines the viability of state companies that are forced to sell below cost.

The recent legalisation of the foreign currency open market is designed to check speculation. The main service that quoted the price of the dollar on the black market was the vocally anti-Chavista online ‘Dollar Today’ operating out of Miami, thus indicating that the bolívar’s rapid depreciation may have been at least partly politically motivated. A second motive behind the new measure is the promotion of exports by allowing enterprises to repatriate profits legally at the open market rate.

Contraband and hoarding

The government has also sought to avoid extremes in its enforcement of legislation prohibiting hoarding, contraband and price speculation. On the one hand, through the Just Price Superintendence (SUNDDE), it has imposed fines, confiscated merchandise and occupied hundreds of commercial establishments, including large ones. In recent months it took over eight warehouses of Herrera C A, exclusive distributors of the products of Kellogg’s, Nestle, General Mills, Procter and Gamble and Pfizer, and detained leading executives of the oligopolistic pharmacy Farmatodo.

Large companies such as Herrera C A that engage in hoarding have more to lose than smaller ones, and thus political motives most likely enter into play. Their hoarding practices and probable complicity in the black market and contraband lend credibility to the claim that powerful groups are engaged in an ‘economic war’ against the government.

On the other hand, the government has accepted the insistence of the nation’s chamber of commerce, Fedecamaras, that it should proceed according to established legal channels. It has ruled out a fast-track procedure and refrained from publicising judicial proceedings against accused businesspeople.

Maduro has insisted that the political conditions are not suitable for the implementation of drastic economic measures, which an intransigent and aggressive opposition could exploit. In addition, he told José Vicente Rangel that the issue of petrol prices ‘is always a delicate one with regard to the sensibilities of Venezuelans’. He added that given the existence of ‘mafia speculators in Venezuela a decision like this may exacerbate the problem’ and thus the government needs to wait for the right moment to act.

Leftist hardliners ignore the importance of the market and thus write off the black market as the creation of speculators that could be eliminated by efficient government policing. At the opposite extreme, some pro-Chavista economists call for pegging the official exchange rate close to the market rate. The plan, while logical in abstract, ignores the detrimental social effects. The elimination of artificially low prices (which are made possible by an overvalued currency for the import of basic products) would disproportionately hit the poorest sectors of the population.

Political imperative

Getting the problem of scarcities under control is an urgent political imperative. According to the respected polling firm Hinterlaces, the nation’s pressing economic problems and specifically shortages are now the principal source of concern for eight out of ten Venezuelans. The pro-opposition pollsters Datanálisis report that 51 per cent of government supporters consider the situation in the country ‘negative.’ Hinterlaces president Oscar Schemel maintains that the main challenge to the Chavistas does not come from the opposition, which lacks a viable programme for the nation, but rather undecided voters and the likelihood of a ‘punishment vote’ in future elections.

Elections for the national assembly are slated for the end of the year. Just as opposition standard-bearer Henrique Capriles called the previous 2013 municipal elections a ‘plebiscite,’ opposition leaders now announce that a triumph in the upcoming elections will pave the way for regime change and that the appalling scarcity of goods will guarantee such an outcome. This strategy is ironic: political scientists who questioned Chávez’s democratic credentials accused him of establishing what they pejoratively call a ‘plebiscitary democracy’, in which all attention is focused on the nation’s head of state, rather than those running for office.

The government has denounced the radical opposition’s plans to parlay agitation on the long and slow-moving lines outside stores into violent disruptions leading to regime change. Early this year, federal district head Ernesto Villegas warned Chavistas of provocations, saying: ‘When you are in a line and see an infiltrator calling on people to loot, respond with the symbol of peace.’ The danger of disruptions of this type comes from an opposition that for more than a decade has kept open the possibility of the non-democratic road to power. In February Maduro presented alleged evidence of a coup plot for which the mayor of the greater Caracas area, Antonio Ledezma, is currently in jail awaiting trial. The case has further polarised the nation, with the opposition vowing to include Ledezma and other jailed leaders in the list of candidates for the national assembly.

Uncharted waters

Venezuela finds itself in uncharted political waters after 16 years of Chavista government. The challenges generated by shortages, and the knotty issue of the role of the market, hold implications for all governments committed to socialism. Cuba is currently grappling with similar problems to do with the black market and corruption.

Maduro’s recent measures were a step in the right direction in that he recognised that market conditions must enter into the equation, even while the government cannot renounce its strong interventionist role, which includes the regulation of exchange rates and prices of basic commodities. At the same time he announced social initiatives and made clear that the decline in oil prices cannot be a prelude for austerity measures that affect the least privileged most.

Nevertheless, until the government reduces the colossal disparity between official prices for goods and foreign currency and their value on the open market, contraband and corruption will be virtually inevitable, a problem exacerbated by unscrupulous and politically motivated powerful members of the private sector. Subsidised prices for both currency and merchandise may be perfectly legitimate correctives to neoliberalism, but the Chavista government needs to avoid extremes by staking out a middle ground between production costs and market prices.

Maduro’s strategy is to gain breathing space in the context of extensive discontent and well-organised insurgent tactics. He has thus pushed for a ‘peace dialogue’ to achieve stability, which the opposition has rejected. He also prioritises political objectives out of fear of further destabilisation if the opposition wins the national assembly elections. In light of these political and social considerations a middle ground between radical devaluation, on the one hand, and highly subsidised prices for basic commodities and currency, on the other, represents the most viable formula at this critical time.

Steve Ellner has taught at Venezuela’s Universidad de Oriente since 1977. This article is published in association with Alborada

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced


8