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, fifty 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 organized 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-weaponized 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 mobilization 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 programs 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, twenty-firsty century or otherwise?
The Venezuelan Right is no stranger to violence. On April 11, 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 organization, and the US 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 mobilization 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% 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.
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 mobilize 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 labor 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.”