A workers’ resistance to the crisis in Venezuela

August 8, 2018

Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro has further descended into crisis and chaos since Maduro was re-elected in May in an election marked by low turnout and lack of options to vote for. Since the election, though, new workers’ struggles have arisen and spread, though the local and international media have ignored them. This resistance poses an alternative to both the corrupt and repressive Maduro government and the right-wing opposition backed by the U.S. which has opposed reforms and popular power since former President Hugo Chavez came to power.

On August 4, after the interview below was completed, Maduro survived an attack during a speech in Caracas. Drone aircraft carrying explosives reportedly flew close to the president and his entourage and detonated. Maduro was unhurt. The government blames the attack on opponents working with the U.S. and Colombia to topple Maduro.

Gonzalo Gómez is a Venezuelan revolutionary, member of the socialist organization Marea Socialista, co-founder of the independent left-wing website aporrea.org, and a veteran of union and popular struggles in Venezuela for over 40 years. In mid-July, he was interviewed by Carlos Carcione about the situation in Venezuela and the next steps for socialists in the country. The interview was translated into English by Eva María.

ACCORDING TO the information we have, struggles by workers have begun in the country over wage demands and working conditions. Other large protests are taking place over the collapse of public services, such as electricity, water and telecommunications, as well as the situation with public transportation and roads, and also the CLAPs [boxes with food essentials distributed by the government to low-income families] that are not arriving. Could you tell us what the situation is like?

AFTER THE May 20 elections [won by Nicolas Maduro], there has been an escalation of conflicts and demands from workers and from many social sectors in the country. This process has not stopped. On the contrary, it is increasing with new sectors joining every day.

Striking nurses in Caracas demand a fair wage and relief from the crisis
Striking nurses in Caracas demand a fair wage and relief from the crisis

Among the most outstanding are the mobilizations that the nurses of public hospitals and maternity hospitals have been leading for more than two weeks. They are demanding a fair salary; some slogans call for salaries to match the level of the Canasta Básica [the basic needs for a household], which is also what the Constitution [of 1999, which Maduro is attempting to re-write] states.

It’s necessary to bear in mind that the salary today is less than what it costs to get to work. And this also leads to the demand for the improvement of health services: there are no medical supplies, no medicines, inadequate medical equipment — and to top it off, doctors are leaving the country.

However, the government reportedly granted increases to the military that are known to be very close to the Canasta Básica or higher for the upper ranks. These motivated nurses to say “We want a salary like the military’s,” and others to say, “We want to make what Tisbay Lucena [the president of the National Electoral Council] makes in two weeks.”

The nurses are taking to the streets and have the support of patients and their families. They are opting for street protests because the government is in a de facto shutdown in the health sector due to a lack of resources and starvation wages.

This situation of crisis and abandonment is suffered by the vast majority of public-sector workers, as well as throughout the country. For example, workers in the university sector are also going out to protest over wages.

Leaders of the official trade unions try to make agreements behind the backs of the workers with increases that are negligible and completely unsatisfactory. The workers remain unaware of these “agreements,” and the struggles continue.

Workers at the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology and many satellite institutions in this ministry have joined protests and struggle. And just as in the health sector, the demand for higher wages is merged with the demand to improve the conditions of the services they provide.

Electricity workers, telephone workers for CANTV in some regions, some postal workers are taking action. And some who have not yet taken to the streets are beginning to issue statements and demands addressed to the government, as well as protests through communiqués about the situation in which they find themselves, mainly in the public sector.

Then there is also a tendency towards workers in related sectors working together, and in some cases, coordinating struggles. This marks the prospect of a general national struggle for wages and also for the improvement of public services.

For workers in other countries to understand the situation, it should be said that Venezuelan workers and their families would be living on these wages with one or two eggs a day or with a can of tuna a day per household.

The government provides care packages with some food products, called CLAP boxes, to a part of the population. These create a clientelist relation with the government, but they are not part of peoples’ salaries. The system is also very insufficient. People can’t freely decide what food or products they buy. Such measures have been typical of neoliberal governments for social control of the poor.

This has to be put in the context of a collapsing situation. You can’t get transportation to work or you don’t have cash to pay for it, and then you go to work in shifts or part-time. The workers are dividing up a few days a week because they can’t even successfully get to work consistently. The economy is collapsing, and so is Venezuelan society and the state.

We at Marea Socialista are going to be involved in these struggles, bringing our solidarity, our support and our proposals, and helping to amplify the demands and experiences.

We believe that each of these struggles must achieve its objectives. We must not allow them to be repressed, and we should push for them to coordinate into a national struggle for higher wages.

The focus is now in the struggle for wages, but the communities and neighborhoods are also coming out to demand the basic functioning of public services that are currently in disarray: lack of water, constant blackouts, interruptions in phone service, inconsistency in garbage pickup, etc.

WHAT DO you think is the current political situation in the country?

THE GOVERNMENT doesn’t guarantee the normal functioning of the country, nor the living conditions of the people, nor does it really manage to govern. It does not stop hyperinflation. It simply contributes to chaos.

It behaves like an authoritarian government toward the people, but it has no authority to bring order to the economy or to put a stop to the corruption of which it is a part.

The situation is so serious that even some sectors of the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the ruling party] are aware of what is happening and criticisms of the government of Nicolás Maduro are beginning to multiply. Because what the government is doing is equivalent to the effects of neoliberal governments. Because of the precariousness of wages, because employment has no meaning or value, and there is an exodus of professionals and workers.

They are reducing the functioning of the state apparatus to a minimum, albeit without abandoning corruption, to the obvious detriment of living conditions, which is clear in the case of the health sector.

The government attributes all this to a supposed “economic war” against it, but we all know that capital has always sought profit at the expense of everyone else, and it is the government that has the power to influence a set of variables. If the government does not give the necessary wage increases, then they must be held responsible. If it does not provide basic services, the same thing applies.

And we are not only talking about the National Executive, because the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) forged by Maduro — though we can consider it to be illegitimate — is supposed to be supra-constitutional and universal, but even it isn’t capable of fixing things.

All they are trying to do is adjust the political regime to the requirements of capitalist accumulation of the ruling bureaucracy into the new global framework, guarantee themselves freedom to engage in embezzlement, contain the people under social and repressive control, and ensure impunity for their power elite.

Another example of the bureaucratic disaster is PDVSA [the state oil company]. Oil production has fallen to an all-time low. The Maduro government is bankrupting the company — if it’s not already bankrupt.

Basic industries, including the steel sector, are going through a historic decline in production, producing what was previously produced in a few days over the course of a year.

The government can only keep itself in power while we are overwhelmed by appalling corruption. It does nothing to recover the country’s embezzled resources, because the government itself is knee-deep in corruption, whose haul is equivalent to almost a decade of imports.

And on the other hand, the government has prioritized the payment of an illegitimate foreign debt and is pledging the country’s little oil production in exchange for Russia’s and China’s financial aid in the future, putting at risk national and state sovereignty over PDVSA.

This shows that the only plan they have is to unload the crisis on the population. They seek to distract us with calls for electoral processes in very dubious conditions. But the government isn’t carrying out its duty to solve national and working people’s problems.

In sum, we have a disastrous combination of factors: authoritarianism and the degradation of democracy; the collapse of the functioning of the state for social and economic affairs; a frightening setback in the standard of living of the people in contrast to what had been achieved during the Bolivarian Revolution; as well as rampant corruption linked to a mafia pattern of accumulation, which cannot be fixed with this government, nor with a government of the old oligarchy.

This is why I sometimes comment that “La V se ha cuarteao.” [The Fifth Republic is going the way of the Fourth.] The people who have begun to rebel in Venezuela are doing so because daily life is already impossible and because they are reacting against the dismantling of everything. The gravity of the current situation leads us to say that the country must go through a refoundation.

WHAT DO you propose as a way out?

WE HAVE to start from these struggles because they mean a shift in the national situation.

The workers and the popular sectors have started to respond. They have gone from a situation in which uncertainty, demoralization, fear and a desire to flee the country prevailed to the terrain of struggle. People are going out to fight in the streets because they are cornered by a government that does not want and cannot offer alternatives.

These struggles must be coordinated and extended nationally. But the solution will not come as long as we keep doing the same things we’ve done up to this point. We need an emergency plan that is really on the side of the workers and the popular sectors, not that of the bureaucracy, the corrupt and those who take advantage of the crisis to do business and become an elite of predatory power.

This emergency plan would have to guarantee a salary at the level of the Canasta Básica of goods and updated periodically to keep up with hyperinflation, so that wages don’t plummet. This would just be putting into effect what is established in Article 91 of our Constitution [established by Chávez in 1999, in contrast to the one Maduro is trying to draft].

Initially, at least, it can start with what the nurses who are fighting are demanding. For example, we want to get paid at the same level as military officers.

Among other things, we need to recover the funds embezzled from the country, which amount to billions of dollars. The assets and accounts of the corrupt must be confiscated. We also insist on the cessation of payments of the foreign debt and the initiation of a public and citizen audit of this debt, as it is illegitimate and the product of corrupt dealings.

As for other ways we can get the needed resources. First, we can get them from the production of the state-owned companies themselves, especially the food industry, which the government has left practically inactive and whose products are diverted to smuggling circuits or to parallel markets.

This recovery isn’t going to be guaranteed by the corrupt bureaucracy, but rather by the effective participation and control of workers, peasants and communities.

For this plan to be carried out, then, another government is needed, one that is willing and able to carry this plan forward. Neither nor the right-wing opposition, which represents big capital and has leached off the corrupt state, want to apply these solutions. We need another political direction.

This is why we are fighting to build Marea Socialista. At the same time, we say that the workers who are fighting and those who are critical of the government must create a new political alternative for the country that embraces one of our most characteristic slogans: Neither bureaucracy nor capital!

In the international and regional context, the people have also come out to fight and are strongly questioning governments. Some of these governments are using left-wing rhetoric, but empty of content, and in the name of that, they are snatching democratic and social conquests from the peoples and even committing real massacres. This is what is happening in the case of Ortega in Nicaragua.

Governments like Ortega’s and Maduro’s end up becoming instruments of counterrevolution against their people, and today, they are actually implementing a counterrevolution in our countries.

We, in the heat of the struggles, find ourselves needing to build the political vehicles to oppose these leaders and their parties at the same time as we continue to fight the old bastions of right-wing power.

That is why we are trying to build alternatives and new political references with a national reach. But we need and seek to develop international connections with those with whom we share strategic outlooks and who want to struggle alongside us.

Hence our relationship with and our effort to build a new international space as Anticapitalistas en Red, which has been bringing together several revolutionary, democratic, anti-capitalist and anti-bureaucratic political organizations in Latin America and other parts of the world.

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