Pluto author Mike Gonzalez has written a new piece about the future of Venezuela, almost a year and a half after the death of President Hugo Chavez. We’ve reproduced a section of the article below, and you can read it in full on the International Socialism Journal website, here.
Click on the cover image for more information about Mike’s Revolutionary Lives biography of Chavez.
Hugo Chávez’s final testament, before his death in March 2013, was the Plan de La Patria 2013-19. It opens with a combative reaffirmation of the project for “socialism for the 21st century” that Chávez memorably announced at the Porto Alegre World Social Forum in 2005:
This is a programme for the transition to socialism and the radicalisation of participatory democracy. We should not delude ourselves—the socio-economic form that prevails in Venezuela remains capitalist… This programme is aimed at the “radical suppression of the logic of capital” and a continuing transition to socialism. For new forms of planning and production for the benefit of the people to emerge requires “pulverising” the bourgeois form of the state that is still reproducing itself through its abominable old practices.
Yet it is in many ways a confession of failure, a recognition of the unresolved contradictions of the Chavista period.1 From the perspective of 2014, one year into the government of Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s appointed successor, it seems increasingly like rhetoric, fine words that do not reflect the reality of life in Venezuela.
Las guarimbas: the return of the barricades
In April 2013 Maduro was duly elected, but with a majority of less than 1 percent. There were protests and the street barricades or “guarimbas” made a brief but violent reappearance. The official right wing opposition, which had backed the candidacy of Capriles Radonski, gained confidence from the result and prepared for the next electoral challenge under the banner of the MUD, the United Democratic Forum. The new Voluntad Popular (People’s Will) organisation, however, led by María Corina Machado and Leopoldo López (both members of Venezuela’s richest families), called for continuing direct action. Their rhetoric was inflammatory and their methods confrontational.
On 12 February, the Day of Youth, huge, mainly student demonstrations erupted in all of Venezuela’s major cities, with the largest numbers in the capital, Caracas. Their demands had to do with the situation in higher education; beyond that their slogans were mainly anti-Chavista. But they quickly expanded to embrace economic issues—inflation, scarcity and the relentless rise in prices. The barricades became permanent fixtures and were progressively more violent, as the balaclava-clad protesters burned tyres, engaged in occasional acts of terrorism against government buildings and spread oil across main roads.
López had been arrested early on in the protests (and remains in detention). Machado, however, appeared at every demonstration and travelled to the US to publicise the movement. She was not admitted to the UN but she had powerful friends in the media—CNN ran a non-stop campaign of denunciation of Venezuela, based on interviews with representatives of Voluntad Popular and blurred phone footage of unspecified acts of violence. Clearly the point of the protests was to make the country ungovernable—inhibiting traffic flows, creating artificial shortages and generally intimidating people in the street.
But there was a peculiarity about the demonstrations and the barricades. They were almost entirely restricted to middle class areas. In the past the “guarimba” has always been associated with the protests of the poor and the working class, the action of choice of the marginalised barrios that surround every Latin American city—and Caracas is no exception to that rule. The event that is usually described as the first act of the process that brought Chávez to power—the Caracazo of 27 February 1989—began with burning buses and barricades. On that day the barrios exploded with rage when IMF austerity measures were imposed by the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. Thepiquetero movements of the unemployed in Argentina in the 1990s and the indigenous movements in Bolivia in the early 21st century used the barricade to great effect. And in recent weeks the protests at the misuse of public funds for the World Cup in Brazil have brought balaclavas and burning barricades to the streets of Rio.
In Venezuela weapons have certainly made their appearance on the barricades, possibly in the hands of paramilitaries linked to the drug trade or criminals exploiting the protests’ disruptive potential. By mid-May there were over 40 dead and close to 3,000 arrests, at least half of them students. Responsibility for the deaths was pretty evenly balanced between the police and National Guard and the random violence of the barricades. On 15 May the tent cities set up on a couple of Caracas’s main avenues, obviously inspired by the Occupy movement, were forcibly removed. The government has consistently described the protesters as “fascists”. Although there is little real evidence of any organised ideologically coherent anti working class movement, the hostility of the US government and the powerful Venezuelan financial lobby in the US is palpable.
The protests caused the Maduro government some difficulty. It could not condemn the barricades when many of its members had long histories of bus burnings in the demonstrations against previous regimes. And every interview with a government person reiterated the constitutional right to protest that every Venezuelan enjoyed.
The deeper issue was that the protests continued to be very big, and included massive numbers of students but also significant numbers of the middle and lower middle classes. Their protest was centrally economic. Rampant inflation, already a major problem in previous years, rocketed through 2013 and into 2014. Essential goods disappeared from supermarket shelves for weeks at a time and then reappeared at higher prices. Public services, particularly hospital provision, as well as education, deteriorated rapidly; every bureaucratic procedure was achingly long, unreliable, and usually attended by demands for money, be it getting birth certificates, ordering a car or getting your pension.2 The system of exchange, particularly for acquiring dollars, was corrupt and opaque. The economy seemed to be careering towards collapse, while the government announced all manner of economic measures and reassuring (if often incomprehensible) figures about the provision of housing, the regulation of prices, the penalising of speculators, the upward trend of the economy in general and action against corruption. Once announced, the measures rarely seemed to produce any visible effect.
Finally, the rising levels of violence across society left people living in fear of violent crime, robbery and hijackings. Urban life changed as people stayed home, restaurants and theatres closed early and the levels of private security intensified. And they were right to be concerned. After several years during which no figures were issued, in 2013 it was announced by an independent monitoring agency that 25,000 people had died violent deaths that year,3 making Venezuela one of the most violent countries in the world. The 2014 figure is already moving in the same direction. So the protests reflected very real problems faced by the middle and lower middle classes, as well as their apprehension that Chavismo, as one poster put it, “wants to make paupers of us all”.
While the protests were restricted to middle class areas, the working class were experiencing the same problems, but they were attenuated by the subsidised food programmes (Mercal and PDVAL) and the provision of medical services and educational opportunities in the barrios. It was also true that the barrios and working class areas were the social base of Chavismo. They had exhibited a fierce loyalty to Chávez, and transferred that loyalty to his appointed successor Nicolás Maduro. Furthermore, they had recent experience of what they could expect from the political leaders of the right. The attempted coup against Chávez in April 2002 lasted only 48 hours but it was time enough for its leaders to announce their repressive intentions if they had held on to power. The bosses’ strike later that year, which attempted to destroy the oil industry, confirmed their ruthlessness. The Maduro government constantly evoked Chávez’s authority to legitimate their own actions, as well as transforming him, worryingly, into the “eternal supreme commander”. And the party he created in 2006, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), was an effective mechanism of local political control by the state, ensuring that continuing loyalty. But it was a lapse of political judgement to assume therefore that no explanations for the anti-Chavismo protests were required beyond denunciations of fascism and allegations of foreign plots.
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