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Venezuela – The right goes for regime change

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With the Bolivarian movement at a crossroads, the right wing has mobilised to violently roll back the gains made under Chávez, writes Rico Rodriguez.

A year after the death of President Hugo Chávez Frías, leader of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, the country faced a wave of protests against Chávez’s successor Nicolas Maduro. More than 40 people have died in two months of violent protests.

Despite the fact that Hugo Chávez personally designated Maduro as his heir, he only narrowly defeated the united opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, in the subsequent presidential elections. Capriles immediately refused to accept the result, demanding a re-run and launching street protests. However, these proved unsuccessful in reversing the result and Maduro took office.
The right-wing coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Spanish acronym: MUD) was heavily supported throughout by the US, which has been behind every attempt, whether constitutional or by coups, to reverse the Bolivarian revolution.

By December, MUD was trying to turn the municipal elections into another referendum on Maduro’s presidency. Again their tactics failed. Although they took some middle class areas in Caracas and Maracaibo, the Chavista coalition (Polo Patriótico) won over 70 per cent of the country's municipalities. This demonstrated the continued strength of Chavismo amongst the popular majority of Venezuelans, despite the death of its charismatic leader and despite the economic problems facing ordinary people – rampant inflation and shortages of basic goods.

After their December failure the MUD coalition faced a problem. The next elections in Venezuela – for the National Assembly – are not scheduled until December 2015, and a presidential recall referendum (which requires 4 million signatures to initiate) cannot be used before 2016.

Under these circumstances, the radical right wing of MUD, led by Leopoldo López, refused to patiently await their next constitutional opportunity. López was heavily involved in the reactionary mass mobilisations of 2002, which led to the failed military coup against Chávez. They launched a street campaign openly aimed at bringing down Maduro by far-from-peaceful means.

They focused on exploiting the severe economic problems of the country and the rising crime rate. In this disruptive and destructive campaign they received generous moral and material aid – from the US Embassy and the Obama regime, which, like that of his predecessor George W Bush, is hawkishly bent on regime change – just as it is in Ukraine.

Violent protests

The protests started on 2 February, when a group of the opposition, led by Leopoldo López from the party Voluntad Popular (VP) and a member of parliament Maria Corina Machado, called a rally in Caracas to inaugurate a movement whose conscious goal was the downfall of the government.

From 4 February onwards, student protests exploded in San Cristóbal and Mérida in the Andean west of the country, including a violent attack on the residency of the governor of the state of Táchira in San Cristóbal. On 12 February, protests spread to 18 cities. In Caracas, the situation escalated after clashes that left three dead. Two of these killings were reported to have been at the hands of the intelligence service, SEBIN.

The government responded to the provocation with heavy police repression and the arrest of the “ringleaders”. López himself was arrested on 18 February on charges of arson, terrorism, and homicide. He is still in jail. After this, the movement increased in size and became further radicalised, with protestors throwing up barricades, donning gas masks and hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police.

But, in contrast to the carefully constructed image the western media tries to present, the situation is far from a popular nationwide upheaval. The protests are restricted to a few cities and, even there, to mostly middle class and upper class districts. The vast majority of the population, and the Chavista strongholds, have not been drawn into the protests.

The opposition remains divided about the objectives of the movement. The jeunesse dorée, egged on by the radical leaders López and Machado, has resorted to increasingly violent methods – erecting barricades, blocking highways and generally disrupting the economic activity of the major towns.

The more moderate currents, represented by the former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, were hesitant to do this. Capriles has negotiated with Maduro on several occasions in recent months, including over an increase in gas prices, which led to strong criticism from López. During the protests, Capriles has oscillated between supporting the protests and condemning the violence and the barricades.

Maduro has recently initiated televised talks with the opposition at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas for the first time since the outbreak of protests. Once again the opposition has split over whether to accept the invitation; three of its of nine component parties have refused to participate until the government frees all of what they call political prisoners, including Leopoldo López. The MUD’s Ramón Guillermo Aveledo on the other hand said that the remaining six parties would participate in order to achieve the disarmament of “pro-government paramilitary groups” and the release of political prisoners and detained student protesters.
The foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador joined the talks with Ramón Aveledo and Henrique Capriles. A Vatican representative read a letter from Pope Francis urging national reconciliation.

The violence and the media

So far 41 people have been killed in the protests and about 650 people have been injured, according to official figures. Around 1,600 people have been arrested but most were released immediately, with 92 still under arrest.

The international media, liberal and conservative, are unanimous that responsibility for the deaths lies with the Maduro government. An article in The Guardian on 10 March stated:

“The protests spread to Caracas and other cities, prompting a violent response from the government. At least 21 people have died and hundreds have been injured in the nationwide clashes.”1
In a column in El País on 17 March, the author speaks of the “Venezuelan dictatorship”.2 This characterisation has been an ongoing feature of US and European propaganda ever since Chávez came to power. In reality, there have been a total of 19 elections in Venezuela since 1998, including four presidential elections, two referendums on a new constitution and one referendum to recall the president. The Chavistas won 18 of them.
The article extended its attack to another Latin American government:

“One expected of the Brazilian government a clearer condemnation of the repression of the Maduro administration against the opposition protestors, murdered by his militias.”3

There are indeed some reports of repression by the police force and also of attacks by government supporters. Nevertheless, there is at least as much violence from the opposition forces.

The international media repeatedly suggest that all the dead were killed by the police. The internet portal “Venezuelanalysis” carried out an investigation into the causes of deaths so far in Venezuela and came to the result that out of 30 deaths:

“Seventeen people died in barricade-related deaths, which includes people shot while trying to clear a barricade, “accidents” caused by barricades and street traps, and patients dying after being prevented from reaching hospital by a barricade. This number also includes a pro-opposition student who was run over while trying to block a road. Five of the deaths appear to be due to the actions of state security forces. All these cases are under investigation, and arrests have already been made in several. The other eight cases are deaths in which there exist contradictory accounts [...]”4

Reports about government violence include use of tear gas and rubber bullets from the police, but also attacks from pro-government militias, often on motorbikes. Maduro has rejected and condemned the development of armed groups in favour of his government and has denied that any of them had received arms. The reports about the violence from the opposition are mostly around the barricades or attacks on offices or authorities.

People, often from poorer districts, claimed that they were prevented from going to work or even leaving their homes by these barricades, and often they were charged a levy to pass through them. Several conflicts were reported around the attempts of local people to dismantle barricades when they seemed to be unattended, where at least one student and pro-government activist, Gisela Rubilar Figueroa, was shot.

In the city of Mérida the opposition tried to enforce a strike of the public buses. According to ‘Venezuelanalysis’, they kidnapped two buses, in one case including the driver Robin Flores.

“Flores told state media he was beaten until he fell unconscious, and his bus was damaged by his assailants. The opposition group demanded cash, and threatened to torch the bus.”5

The retired army general and government opponent Angel Vivas advised his followers on Twitter to place barbed wire across the street, to “neutralise” motorbike drivers. This tactic led to the decapitation of one person and many injuries. The government ordered the arrest of the general afterwards.

Other actions which show the reactionary nature of the movement include arson attacks on a university in San Cristobal del Táchira, on health clinics and the Ministry of Housing where the Missione responsible for a mass building programme to re-house shanty town dwellers and victims of the 2010 flooding is organised from.

It is plain that, whatever excesses sections of the security forces might have committed, the principle responsibility for the violence rests with an opposition that is trying to unseat a democratically elected president only one year into his term of office.

The grassroots mass organisations, including the trade unions, need to make sure that Maduro does not accede to opposition requests to disarm the popular militias but, on the contrary, that he arms them more effectively. As left forces used to chant in the Chilean revolution, as a corrective to the famous slogan, “an armed people will never be defeated.”

The economic situation

Although the current protests and their leadership are clearly right wing, they base their criticisms on real and severe problems in the country today. It is becoming clear that, after 15 years in power, the Bolivarian movement has arrived at a crossroads in its development.

The main problems faced by the masses are the massive inflation, which reached 50 per cent last year, growing problems of supply of essential goods plus insecurity and crime. While under Chavez Venezuela achieved clear advances in combating poverty and providing education and healthcare for the poor. Nevertheless the economy is obviously now in a severe crisis.

The roots of this crisis lie in the ongoing dependence of the country on revenue supplied by the state owned oil sector, something that actually increased during the Chávez years. While oil remains a secure source of income for the country, making the possibility of an economic collapse predicted by right-wing analysts unlikely, the dependence on imports for nearly all basic goods, above all food, makes the country vulnerable to inflation, speculation and sabotage by international capital.

The Chavista economic policy, despite all its rhetoric, is clearly not a socialist one. In fact, it is based on a traditional Keynesian model of capitalist state regulation rather than any serious and progressive takeover of the private sector or development of productive industries.

The three principal causes of high inflation are the heavy dependence on imports, the state regulation of the prices of basic goods still produced and sold by the private sector, and the black market in US dollars, which itself results from the regulation of the currency rate.

In addition to this, there is the burden of an inefficient state bureaucracy and high levels of corruption, black marketeering and smuggling. It is estimated that upwards of 30 per cent of some Venezuelan basic food products exits the country as contraband, seeking higher prices in neighbouring countries, such as Colombia.
What the international press does not draw attention to is that in fact President Maduro is making more and more concessions to the capitalists. Already last year, the prices of some regulated food products were raised by 20 per cent, as demanded by the private companies, which certainly did not have a positive effect on inflation. He also engaged in negotiations about raising gas prices, traditionally heavily subsidised in Venezuela.

In this situation, there have also been critics amongst the Chavista rank and file, who are accusing Maduro of making a turn to the right. There have also been demonstrations of workers against the economic policy of the government. On 3 March, 10 oil workers and trade union leaders of the oil workers' union, FUTPV, were arrested for protesting against the oil company’s non-compliance with a collective agreement, and not for the first time, either.

Where is Venezuela going?

Hugo Chávez’s “Socialism of the 21st Century” always exhibited a huge gap between rhetoric and reality. While it is clear enough that his social policy helped to raise millions of historically excluded people out of severe poverty and drew millions into political and social life, it is also true that his project never went beyond the framework of capitalism itself. The ruling party, the PSUV, is a popular front, as is the whole Chávez project, leaning on an alliance between the urban poor, the working class and the “progressive” parts of the bourgeoisie.

Revolutionary Marxists predicted from the beginning that this “socialism” would inevitably experience ever-deeper contradictions, as the limits of a redistribution of the country’s oil revenues to the benefit of the poor were reached. At the same time, the attempt to conciliate opposed class interests would begin to fail the moment the pressure of mass mobilisations for deeper and more decisive change was relaxed.

The bourgeoisie, its lower middle class supporters and its North American masters will only grudgingly concede reforms as long as they fear the knife of revolution at their throats. Chávez in his later years, and Maduro today fear to mobilise the masses for anticapitalist measures which are decisive in terms of breaking the bosses’ economic and political power (control over the state repressive forces).

They knew that the capitalists would not concede such measures without a life and death struggle. They hoped that their reformist measures would be sufficient to meet the needs of the masses. The economic problems the country faces are making it impossible to accommodate the needs of both classes. That is why the Chavista project has reached an impasse.

Of course, the current protests represent a reactionary response to these problems, even if they are able to gain some support amongst the more plebeian strata of the society. Their programme would re-liberalise the capitalist market, leading to even higher inflation for the working class and the return of millions into poverty.

They want to reassert the domination of US imperialism over Venezuela and completely reopen the oil sector for privatisation. These are the real reasons why they are backed by the US and flattered by the international capitalist press.

If these forces were to overthrow the government, this would mean a terrible defeat of all progressive and left forces, especially in Latin America, despite all the justified criticisms of Chavismo from the left. It would also mean a shift in power in South America away from the more leftwing popular front governments, the demolition of the reforms they carried out and a return to openly neoliberal projects.

Revolutionaries should thus strongly oppose the reactionary protests and, if they turn into an attempt to overthrow the government of Maduro on the Ukrainian model, should mobilise with the masses and the government forces to stop any counterrevolutionary coup, with as much force as is necessary.
Indeed, revolutionaries should agitate for mass mobilisations like those that frustrated the April 2002 coup and enormously radicalised the situation by allowing the purge of the armed forces and the partial arming of the masses. A failed advance by the right must be met by a revolutionary counterattack that breaks the power of Venezuelan ruling class and foreign capital once and for all.

The road to revolution

Revolutionaries should form a united front for action with the Chavista mass organisations, the trade unions and all popular organisations but without ceasing their criticism of Chavismo’s reformist programme. We must clearly say that it does not represent a sustainable solution to the problems of the masses and must inevitably lead to ever-deeper contradictions, resulting in the erosion of its mass base.

After 15 years, there has developed a new Chavista bureaucracy, based in the state apparatus and the oil sector, which carries on a profitable business for itself but is a bastion of inefficiency and corruption. Many left Venezuelan groups, and even members of the PSUV itself have repeatedly denounced this. Moreover, the repression aimed at government opponents has not only hit the right but also the left. Under these circumstances, the promises of “community control from below”, of a “socialism” that would benefit the entire population have proven to be empty ones.

The “Bolivarian Revolution” has arrived at a critical point. Either the forces that believe in a social revolution that meets the basic needs of the masses will continue and intensify their actions, destroying the capitalist state and its repressive apparatus and getting rid of all corrupt figures and bureaucrats in their own ranks, or it will be smashed by reactionary forces from inside or outside the regime.

The working class, together with the urban poor and the peasants, must go beyond Chavismo and set their own political agenda, including important demands such as the raising of wages to match inflation, an agrarian reform to give land to the peasants and rural workers and heavily increase food production, and the complete nationalisation under workers' control of the banks and the oil industry, to put an end to speculation and corruption. This is the only way to really use, for the first time in history, the oil riches of the country to the benefit of the exploited, the rural and urban workers and the poor and build an economy entirely in the interests of the people.

To do all this, Venezuelan workers need to build a revolutionary socialist party to overthrow capitalism and socialise the economy. And such a party cannot limit itself to Venezuela. It must link up with other revolutionary forces in Latin America and worldwide.

REFERENCES

1 Brodzinsky, S., ‘Venezuela’s anti-government protesters settle in for the long haul’, The Guardian, 10 March 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/10/venezuelan-protesters-san-c...
2 Arias, J., ‘Por que Brasil nunca será la Venezuela chavista’, El País, 17 March 2014, http://internacional.elpais.com/
internacional/2014/03/17/actualidad/1395057847_404081.
html
3 Ibid
4 Robertson, E., ‘Understanding the Facts on Violence and Human Rights in Venezuela’s Unrest’, Venezuelanalysis, 13 March 2014, http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/10474
5 Ibid