The battle lines harden in Venezuela

The mass of ordinary Venezuelans is caught between a hard right-wing opposition and a corrupted government that doesn't serve their interests, writes Eva María.

Venezuelan President Nicolás MaduroVenezuelan President Nicolás Maduro

FOR THE past few months, the mainstream media in the U.S. have returned to one of their favorite themes: Venezuela is a dictatorship, and it's time to do something about it.

Strongly worded headlines in the New York Times, CNN, The Economist and Forbes claim that last month's cancellation of a recall referendum aimed at removing President Nicolás Maduro from office early exposes the dictatorial nature of Venezuela's government. The call to free so-called political prisoners jailed under the government of Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chávez has also contributed to this authoritarian picture of the state.

Thus, one of Hillary Clinton's last campaign ads made the absurd claim that Donald Trump would make the U.S. to just like Chávez's Venezuela: a dictatorship. But this distorted view is consistent with the policies of the Obama administration, which imposed sanctions on state representatives of Venezuela for being a dangerous threat to U.S. "democracy."

The same mainstream media headlines describe a country that is failing. Official figures estimate inflation will reach 700 percent by the end of this year. Supermarket shelves appear to lack basic foods such as milk, flour or sugar; violent crime is on the rise, according to reports; and illegal smuggling through Colombia and the black market is expanding.

Young students and middle-class families interviewed by the corporate media explain that they are leaving the country to escape Maduro's dictatorship, while the poor are portrayed as desperate to solve a crisis from which they cannot escape.

Meanwhile, Maduro clings to his line that the crisis has nothing to do with the government, instead blaming the local and international ruling classes that hate the Venezuelan revolution for its socialist ideals. The president frequently mocks the opposition and dismisses any criticism of his government as hypocritical.

He identifies himself as the undisputable successor to the Chavista project to move the country toward socialism, which he defines as a highly democratic, popular and participatory-based society. He claims that everything from declining internal food production to the decision to open up part of the Amazonian region to gold exploration are evils over which he has no power. Instead, global capitalism and the Venezuelan elite are responsible.

These pictures presented by both sides of the Venezuelan conflict don't respond to the real needs of the country's population. The right's proposals to recall Maduro and free political prisoners won't contribute to resolving the economic and social crisis, yet the government's claim that the ruling class and U.S. imperialism are to blame for everything won't mobilize the majority of ordinary working people to turn the tide away from the right.

The reality is that Venezuelans are struggling to survive, and they have lost confidence in political representatives of all stripes.

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THIS IS a tumultuous time in Venezuelan politics. In October, the Supreme Court cancelled the process for organizing a recall referendum, which had been the opposition's only consistent campaign over the past year.

According to the Venezuelan constitution drafted and approved by the newly created National Assembly in 1999, with the late President Chávez at its head, if a significant percentage of the population wishes to recall the president before their term is over, they can do so through a democratic referendum.

This tool was used in 2004 against the then-popular Chávez, but he easily defeated the recall. The opposition decided to try again this year, targeting President Maduro at a time when his popularity has plummeted.

Maduro, knowing that polls show discontent with his government, has handled this process very differently than Chávez did in 2004. Then, the government's strategy to defeat the right wing was to mobilize the Chavista base at the polls to defend the continuation of Chávez's term, which was a resounding success. This time around, however, Maduro is resorting to bureaucratic means to stop the vote.

The Supreme Court suspended the referendum based on allegations of fraudulent signatures. In response, the Venezuelan opposition called for a march on the presidential palace on November 3 under the slogan "Take back Venezuela." "In Venezuela, we are battling Satan!" cried conservative opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

The opposition march aimed to remove Maduro right there and then if the numbers mobilized could justify the action. However, the confrontation was called off at the last minute after Maduro and the opposition agreed to hold a peace dialogue mediated by the Vatican.

The section of the opposition that agreed to take part in the talks is hoping to find a different path to power before Maduro's term ends in 2019, or perhaps to initiate discussions for the formation of some sort of national unity government.

Such a government would be put in place to provide a collective solution from above so that both the "Bolivarian bourgeoisie" that has developed under Chávez and Maduro and the right-wing opposition (including the bulk of the Venezuelan ruling class) can benefit at the expense of the of the popular classes.

U.S. politicians, members of UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations), the Vatican and other international players have come out strongly in favor of these talks as the only way forward for both parties. They have even floated trial balloons praising Maduro and have backed down from some of their sharper criticisms after he approached Pope Francis.

Since the talks began, each side has taken steps toward reconciling their differences, with the opposition cancelling the November 3 march and the government freeing five prisoners. More concessions are to be announced as the dialogue continues.

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MEANWHILE, ORDINARY Venezuelans are demoralized and struggling. They lack confidence in their leaders' ability to address the daily difficulties they face. They don't feel represented by either of the contending forces.

Why can't Maduro inspire the millions of people who Chávez mobilized every time he faced an attack from the right? Why is the opposition finding it so difficult to win favor among the 75 percent of the population that have lost faith in Maduro, according to recent polls?

Over the course of Chávez's 15 years in power, he and his allies developed a theoretical framework that inspired millions of people to believe a new road toward socialism was open. But today, in crisis and disarray, little of this dream remains.

Some on the left blame Maduro and his government for betraying the revolution through corruption and mismanagement of funds. These are sound criticisms, yet the root of the problem began with Chávez himself, and his argument that socialism could be a state-led enterprise.

At the 2005 World Social Forum, Chávez called for the left to redefine socialism. Two years later, he initiated the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to unite all the forces committed to advancing the Bolivarian Revolution.

Socialists who supported the president but remained critical of the bureaucracy already forming around him were put in a bind: They could either join a top-down but genuinely popular working-class party, or remain independent and face the likelihood of being relegated to the political margins.

In the end, most socialist formations--including Marea Socialista, which has contributed regularly to SocialistWorker.org over the years--agreed to participate, and in no time, the PSUV's ranks swelled to include millions of members. The party, however, did not rely on its members' active participation, no matter how much Chávez liked to say it did.

Instead, a bureaucratic structure--in which criticism, open debate and rank-and-file power were more often the exception than the rule--took over. The party formalized the bureaucratic layer of supposedly "revolutionary" Chavistas who were put in charge of different state sectors. Much of this new caste used the spoils of office to enrich themselves while continuing to deploy socialist rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Chavez's ideas for funding and supporting popular power didn't work in practice, and corrupt officials were handled undemocratically, with Chavez himself expelling them from government or moving them into other ministries to cover up their wrongdoing.

During Maduro's time in office, this bureaucratic layer seems to have consolidated even more power through clientele relationships involving some of the very social programs that were designed to build power from below. The wealth provided by high oil prices during the golden decade masked this process, but the dramatic drop in oil prices has quickly exposed the problems in Venezuela's project.

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SOCIALISM HAS not caused this crisis, no matter how many times corporate media outlets say that it has. The popular measures enacted during the most prosperous years of the revolution were never socialist, but rather attempts to ameliorate the worst effects of capitalism-- extreme poverty and poor health care, housing and education--while avoiding a full-scale confrontation with the ruling class.

The government's dual fixed exchange rate--meant to subsidize food production and distribution in the country--demonstrates this. To make food accessible to all, the Minister of the Economy drafted a plan to provide preferential dollars to businesses that imported essential goods and sold them at a subsidized rate in the supermarkets.

Right from the start, long-established local capitalists worked with the new bureaucracy to take advantage of the system. Some stole money outright, never even bothering to import the goods they declared they had. Others did import the promised goods, but then smuggled them through Colombia to get a better price there, or sold them directly on the black market, where profits were much higher.

This profit-seeking logic is how every capitalist system operates, but it is especially galling in this case because some of the officials who claimed to be pursuing "the socialism of the 21st century" were the same people actively engaging in price-gouging. This sort of corruption, when combined with the oil price drop and right-wing tactics to sabotage any progressive measures, helps explain the unfolding of a crisis that--as always--has hit the poor hardest.

For the opposition, the solution is simple: return to neoliberal restructuring of the economy, enforce austerity on workers and increase profits for the capitalists--all in the interests of the few. Some of the opposition figures demand foreign intervention from countries like the U.S. and regional allies to accelerate the transition.

For Maduro, the solution is a confusing muddle: If he were to tackle corruption, he would have to confront the national bourgeoisie as well as powerful interests high up in the leadership of his own party who are using the state to accumulate a massive amount of wealth.

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SOCIALISTS MUST remain independent of either of these forces in order to look for a radical alternative.

Some prominent figures in the left internationally, such as renowned Venezuelan-American journalist Eva Golinger and some writers for Venezuelanalysis.org, have had a hard time doing precisely this. They argue that our task as socialists is to highlight the role of U.S. imperialism and the Venezuelan capitalist class. Now is not the time, they say, to criticize a government with roots in a popular and revolutionary process.

But this conception of solidarity with the Venezuelan people is one-sided. Supporting a government that has abandoned the roots of the Bolivarian revolution does little to understand and defend the mass movement that pushed Chávez to the left. It also risks downplaying the desire that most Venezuelans have to find a democratic alternative to move their struggle forward.

It means dismissing revolutionaries who have been censored and removed from positions of power for raising criticisms of the new caste in government. It means approving the government's maneuvers to keep newly formed organizations from running their own socialist candidates independent of the ruling party (as has been the case for Marea Socialista).

It means remaining silent in the face of Maduro's agreement for a new exploration contract for multinational companies to operate in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world for gold extraction. Not surprisingly, this new project also includes flexible labor laws and low taxes for those companies.

It means tolerating the process of dialogue that Maduro is spearheading with an opposition that stands for everything--exploitation, misogyny, racism, imperialism, and so on--the left correctly rejects.

And most importantly, it means complacently conceding to a government that has consistently proven it is no longer on the side of the people and the struggle toward socialism.

To be consistent to socialist principles and our strategic goals, we need to look further than a superficial analysis that defends Maduro as the only option for leftists. The situation in Venezuela is critical, and working people are the ones who are suffering the most. There is no short-term solution to the crisis.

But the revolutionary left must begin to articulate an independent project that rejects the current bureaucratization of the Bolivarian process. This project must fight for regrouping the political and social forces capable of and willing to form new organizations whose aims include democratizing and advancing workers' self-confidence and independence.

These must be the lines upon we judge initiatives, not simply whether they are for or against Nicolás Maduro.