‘Is Venezuela Burning?’
A letter from Caracas, by Mike Gonzalez
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 one more urban riot, one more youth rebellion like those in Greece and Spain against the impact of the crisis.
The reality is both very different and far more complex. Venezuela, after all, is a society that declared war on neo-liberalism 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, calling for the fall of the government. Youth Day, on Wednesday February 12th, provided an opportunity to call 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. But 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 these ‘metrobuses’ were fired yesterday alone. The Bolivarian University, offering higher education to people excluded from the university system, was besieged yesterday – 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 by the communist architect Fruto Vivas in the city of Barquisimeto, is currently 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 destabilise the situation, including paramilitaries linked to the drug traffic whose presence has grown in this over-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 facade 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.
At the same time there is a battle for power within the right. All of the prominent leaders – 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 destabilisation 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 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 implemeneted 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 April 11th 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. Though 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, 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. In the presidential elections won in April 2013 by his nominated successor, Maduro, however, the right wing candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, came within 250,000 votes (under 1%) of his opponent. It was a clear expression of the growing frustration and anger among Chavez supporters. 2012 had seen inflation rates hovering around 50% (officially) and the level has risen inexorably throughout the last year. The basic basket of goods costs 30% more than the minimum wage today – 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, even petrol.
All of this is an expression of an economic crisis vigorously denied by 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 it has produced 200 vehicles since the beginning of 2014 – what would normally be produced in half a day.
But 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, is the explanation. While there have been very public denunciations in recent weeks 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, all of this has been common knowledge for years.And 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 programmes. Quite rightly his new health and education programmes were a source of great pride and a guarantee of continued support for him among Venezuela’s majority population. Today, those funds are drying up as Venezuela’s oil income is diverted to paying for increasingly expensive imports. Instead 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, the extraordinary wealth accumulated by some leading Chavistas, are the clearest sign that it is their interests that have prevailed, while the institutions of popular power have largely withered on the vine. The promises of community control, of control from below, of a socialism that benefitted 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 their 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 so clearly unmasked by the revolutionary youth of Greece, Spain and the Middle East.
I leave the last word to Roland Denis, a leading grass roots activist over many years. ‘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’.
The author’s book on Hugo Chavez is available to pre-order here. It will be published on the 20th February 2014.