Feeding off the crisis in Venezuela

March 12, 2014

Since February, Caracas has been rocked by an uprising of the middle classes and rich, led by longtime opponents of the left-wing government of Hugo Chávez until his death last year.

With the government now led by Chávez's deputy Nicolás Maduro, elements of the right, backed by many of the country's oligarchs, plus powerful governments like the U.S., are attempting to destabilize Venezuela and bring down Chavismo--just as they have tried and failed to do in the past through coups, economic sabotage and election challenges. Also like the past, the poor and working class have sided with the government against the right--but with growing cynicism and demoralization about the corruption of Chávez's heirs.

This is the second of two reports from Caracas written by British socialist Mike Gonzalez, who discusses the dynamics of this new stage in the conflict in an article written for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website.

I WRITE on March 5, exactly a year since Hugo Chávez died. The march through the city center and the memorial gathering at his tomb in the Mountain Barracks were impressive and well-run affairs. But the celebrations and daylong television evocations of the man they now call the Supreme Commander did not reflect the atmosphere across Venezuela.

The situation has become more complex in the last couple of weeks--or certainly less easy to interpret. Today, on a bus into town, a man leapt on and delivered a short speech announcing, "This is the end of Castro Communism in Venezuela, no more Cubans"--and he leapt off just as quickly.

In the line at the electricity company, an elderly woman began to shout at the people behind the desk, demanding that they shut the country down. It could be attributed to the two hours she had to wait--for no obvious reason--to pay her bill, but it reflected the rage of the middle classes.

These two fairly trivial incidents reflect what is rapidly developing into visceral class hatred. Up until now, the violence that has been shown so relentlessly on the global media was limited, at least in Caracas (more on the rest of the country later), to middle class areas.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (Prensa Miraflores)

In the area where I live, a middle-class dormitory suburb for the most part, the streets are lined with posters demanding freedom and peace and an end to dictatorship. Small barricades--burning tires and rubbish, dislodged concrete posts, wire fences and most unpleasantly oil spread across the street--appear on most nights. The effect is to make the middle class angrier--even though it is mostly their sons and daughters who are doing it.

The right within Venezuela and outside it has focused its protests around issues of repression. Thirty people have died across the country, some of them at the hands of police or national guard, but the majority have been killed on the street--like the young motorcyclist riding home from work who was decapitated by a wire stretched across the road. Others, like the elderly woman who was prevented from going to a hospital emergency department by a barricade, are victims of the growing confrontations.

Until now, the response of the state has been muted. But President Nicolás Maduro's speech at the Chávez commemoration made clear that the policy is changing, and that the smell of tear gas will become more familiar on the streets.

IT IS outside Caracas where the violence in the streets has escalated most. The young people and students who set the fires in the early phase have now been joined by other, more sinister elements, hiding beneath the familiar black balaclavas.

As the growing complaints from every sector of society about insecurity have made clear, an armed criminal element, associated with drug trafficking, has become increasingly powerful in poor barrios in particular. The levels of "ordinary" violence are pretty startling, and serve as an indication of how many weapons are held across the country.

In some areas, particularly the frontier states like Táchira, the violence is directed by heavily armed and ruthless paramilitary groups who operate across the Colombian border and earn enormous profits from an extensive smuggling operation of everything from drugs to oil. The government has been singularly unsuccessful in dealing with these groups in the past, and they are now the allies of the extreme right within the opposition.

The right's most prominent leader, Leopoldo López, a leader of the People's Vanguard organization, which called the original demonstrations, is in jail, along with a man called Simonovis, a sniper who killed a number of Chavista demonstrators during the failed coup of 2002. He was arrested then and remains in jail, but he has become a cause célèbre for the extreme right, which is calling for his release on humanitarian grounds.

López and María Corina Machado, both members of wealthy oligarchic families, are the leading voices of the increasingly violent street movement. They are happy to encourage it, but there is no real sense that they control it. It is highly significant that Machado (a member of parliament) was not in Caracas for the commemoration, but in the state of Táchira, on the Colombian border. For Táchira is a key element in their strategy of making Venezuela ungovernable.

Many on the left are convinced that the strategy they are pursuing is the Media Luna option. The wealthy eastern states of Eastern Bolivia, the so-called Media Luna or Half Moon, attempted a strategy of secession a few years ago to undermine the government of Evo Morales.

They, too, mobilized around racism and pursued strategies of civil disorder, advised in that case by the U.S. ambassador at the time. The strategy failed, but at a cost. Had it succeeded, Bolivia would have been plunged into a civil war between a largely white Media Luna and an indigenous Highland Bolivia. A similar logic may be at work in Venezuela; all the leaders of the right-wing parties are white.

Venezuela's half moon would be the frontier states Trujillo, Merida and especially Zulia, the wealthiest of them all and heart of Venezuela's oil industry, where there have been major mobilizations and which has a long separatist tradition. It would be a natural ally for Táchira, and its governor, Arias Cárdenas, once a close ally of Chávez, broke with him for several years before returning to the Chavista fold.

The U.S. would not be disappointed if this happened. Colombia, of course, on the other side of the frontier, is the keystone of U.S. policy in the region. Washington's backyard fence has lots of gaps in it now, and the recent ouster of Zelaya in Honduras, while it might seem less important in a small Central American backwater, was a sign that the U.S. was again prepared to back and sustain, politically and economically, an enforced regime change.

China is making massive inroads into Latin America--a $3 billion loan to Ecuador, enormous investment in Venezuela--and the arrival this week in Havana of a Russian intelligence-gathering ship will only serve to deepen Washington's anxiety. Against that background, the Half Moon option does not seem so outlandish.

WHAT SEEMS to be emerging around López and Machado is an attempt to build a mass movement around street violence. Their powerful allies in the international media are at pains to represent the Venezuelan opposition as a civic movement of justified protest against a cruel dictatorship.

Even Hollywood stars at the Oscars have articulated their humanitarian concern for the fate of the protesters, victims of state repression and so on. CNN in Spanish, meanwhile, has mounted a ferocious and sustained campaign against Venezuela and in vocal support of the opposition. Even the Showbiz sections are now devoted to interviewing artists hostile to Chavismo.

The problem, of course, is that Maduro was elected freely and cleanly to the presidency less than a year ago, and his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the third oligarchic leader of the protests, lost by a small margin that no genuine dictatorship could have risked.

All sorts of fraud claims were made then and disproved, and there was street violence and barricades on a small scale. But Capriles now seems to have drawn back slightly, suggesting that there are different camps within the opposition.

He is almost certainly watching the emergence of a different political option expressed at a Peace Conference called by Nicolas Maduro last week. There were some members of the opposition there, plus representatives of private capital and the Catholic Church--though not López or Corina Machado, who are closely linked the powerful group of Venezuelan capitalists currently based in the U.S.; it would clearly be in their interest to return to their domination of the national economy, if Maduro could be removed.

I wrote in my first article that when Nicolas Maduro spoke about peace, it was not clear what he meant by it--an end to violence or a social pact. After all, the right has now adopted the peace slogan. The Peace Conference clarified what the real agenda was.

The invited delegates did not include trade unionists, nor members of the grassroots community organizations, though some of the lower levels of the state bureaucracy were present. But they did include Venezuela's most powerful private capitalist, Lorenzo Mendoza, head of the Polar group which has aspirations to become a regional multinational food distributor.

Some weeks ago, Maduro met privately with Mendoza, ostensibly to discuss how to control speculation--and he would certainly know! Yet Mendoza emerged clearly at the conference as a political leader advocating a different option--a "dialogue" between private capital and government based on a series of "points for consideration" he presented to the conference.

Presumably that was what he and Maduro were discussing all those weeks ago. Capriles and the Catholic Church, among others, enthusiastically back the idea of dialogue. But so, too, do important forces within the Maduro government, many of whom belong to the new state bureaucracy that has concentrated enormous economic as well as political power in its hands.

The Chavista process is run from above by a bureaucracy that is building a state capitalist project in the name of revolution. The anti-imperialist rhetoric is reserved for Washington. The Chinese and the Russians, whose purposes in investing in Venezuela have nothing to do with socialism and a great deal to do with profit, are the new partners in the Venezuelan economy.

Chinese money is funding the house-building program, for example. Quite clearly neither of these allies is acting out of proletarian solidarity, and there is no reason why a private sector sharing government with the bureaucracy should have any difficulties with them. Business, after all, is business.

WHAT THEN can dialogue mean in these circumstances? It is hard to believe it would not involve compromising the objectives of the revolution, many of them already paralyzed by corruption, inefficiency and the total absence of any economic strategy. As has been the case in the past, and even more so now, policy seems time and again to be dictated by immediate pressures and by the endless negotiation between powerful groups and individuals.

There is an overwhelming feeling in Venezuela, shared by many, of aimlessness, of decisions made on the spur of the moment. Thus, for example, the creation of new agencies to deal with the allocation of foreign currency has produced more confusion and a continuing outflow of dollars.

The reason for that becomes clear on a stroll around the city. The Venezuelan production system is at a standstill, and the gap has been filled by a rising tide of imports, paid for in dollars. The exchange rate reflects the fact that the Bolívar has nothing to sustain it--no production and shrinking reserves.

Venezuela is even importing oil in order to fulfill its international obligations. Yet it was oil revenues that were to fund and sustain the often very exciting social programs that did, undoubtedly, transform the lives of Venezuela's poor in the early part of Chávez's government. Those programs are now failing because oil finances are shrinking, or at least being diverted to sustain other areas of the national economy.

The result is the very real day-to-day difficulties. The fact that the opposition complains about shortages and price inflation that affect it less than the majority of the population does not detract from the realities.

Supermarket shelves are empty, building materials almost impossible to come by, auto parts conspicuous by their absence, and there is a critical shortage of drugs and medicine. After every shortage, the price of basic goods rise again, usually with the excuse that imported inputs have to be paid for in dollars.

Yet the importers are charging far more for their dollars than they had to pay, under the government's preferential rate arrangements. The beneficiaries of those arrangements, in the state machine and in the private sector, can easily be seen in the packed restaurants, buying whiskey at prices no Scot would even contemplate, and driving sports vehicles whose prices consist largely of zeroes. Corruption and speculation fund high living.

What is the response of the Maduro government? He is right to denounce the U.S.-backed disinformation campaign--even though he has just appointed an ambassador to Washington after a long time without one. He is probably right to describe the far-right activists as involved in an attempt to build a fascist-type organization of angry and alienated youth.

But the underlying frustrations and discontents that affect every sector of the society, and not just the middle class, are the consequences of shortages, inflation and centrally about corruption. There is a widely accepted figure that $2 billion has "disappeared" over the last year or so. And it is well known that speculation and black marketeering is common within both the private and the public sector.

ONE OUTCOME of the Peace Conference was the creation of an Economic Truth Commission that will address issues of speculation, the collapse of production, shortages and runaway inflation. It will include business representatives, Mendoza himself, and government representatives who may well themselves be involved in circuits of corruption. What is there to be discussed about speculation when the speculators are sitting at the table?

A genuine Truth Commission would mobilize the immediate knowledge of workers, people in the communities, the grassroots organizations that have so loyally supported Maduro in recent weeks on the basis of his promise to continue and deepen the revolution.

That promise seems hollow in face of a strategy of "dialogue" which will give the representatives of private and state capital the central role in determining where the revolution goes. Instead of being expropriated, the speculators will now be allowed to shape the future, with rumors of war and burning barricades at their back.

The mass movements have saved the revolution over and over again--in their mobilizations, in their defense of production, in their massive electoral support and in their solidarity. They are the forces of Chavismo, not a political compromise between hostile classes.

Whatever the immediate future, these are the only forces that will carry the revolution forward. That is what people are proclaiming when they wear the fashionable caps bearing Chávez's eyes, looking out into the future.

The alternative is one they already know, because the people leading the opposition have demonstrated where they want to take Venezuela--back to the poverty, the inequality, the corruption and the violence of the past. This was what they offered when they last attempted to seize power, and that is still the vision that drives them.

The issue is: What are the leaders of the Chavista process offering? There have been campaigns against corruption, speculation and violence in the past, which have produced very few results; the few government members who took their role seriously and took on the speculators were soon removed. It is a moment to address, without rhetoric, the real problems that the majority of Venezuelans are facing, their causes and radical solutions.

Tomorrow, on March 6, the right is mobilizing across the country in protests against scarcity and rising prices. If they become the leaders of a mass movement, in the absence of any real government action beyond deploying the National Guard on the street, the consequences could be very serious. In Venezuela, the word they use to describe the Chávez period is "el proceso"--but processes that do not go forward move inexorably backward.

Last week, I watched a telecommunications workers' demonstration in support of Maduro--the marchers were singing along to a wonderful song by Ali Primera, the voice of "el proceso" (though he died before he could see it). The song was called "Abrebrecha"--loosely translated, "Open Up the Road Ahead."

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