Kieran Allen comments on the situation in Venezuela and the important lessons for socialists around the world.
Donald Trump is preparing the ground for military intervention in Venezuela. He is working closely with the leader of the far right opposition, Juan Guaido, who has proclaimed himself President.
Trump has recognised Guaido as the legitimate President of the county and has refused to withdraw US diplomats when the country’s current leader, Nicholas Maduro, ordered them to leave. Any attempt to physically remove them will be used by Trump as a pretext for military intervention.
Trump claims to be acting in the name of ‘freedom and the rule of law’. But this is a man who has imprisoned thousands of Central American children in cages. He has currently shut down the US government because he wants to build out a wall – to keep out Venezuelans, Mexicans, Colombians and more, who he implies are rapists or criminals.
The US has a long history of overthrowing regimes in Latin America and backing right wing dictators. It helped overthrow the Allende regime in Chile in 1972 and backed the Pinochet dictatorship which murdered thousands of prisoners. It backed a coup in Argentina which brought General Videla to power and with him the disappearance of 30,000 victims. It supported a military coup in Brazil in 1964 to ‘prevent it becoming another Cuba’. It overthrew the Arbenz government in Guatemala because it dared nationalise plantation runs by the United Fruit Company.
The last thing that Venezuela needs is another US sponsored coup. Trump’s pretexts for intervention are also fabricated.
He says he wants ‘freedom’ for Venezuela but he supports the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia, even after its murder Jamal Khashoggi and its role in Yemen.
He says that Maduro was not elected by the majority of his people – but neither was Trump. He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton – but no other country proclaimed her as the legitimate President.
There have been a series of elections in Venezuela, which have been conducted with at least the same degree of fairness as in the US. The right wing opposition won control of the National Assembly but later boycotted a Presidential election won by Maduro. In regional elections for state governors held in 2017, the right wing opposition predicted they would get 90% of the vote – in fact the governing PSUV took 18 out of the 23 governorships on a 54% poll.
None of this, however, means that the Maduro government commands mass popular support today because the economy is in free fall. Inflation in Venezuela has gone over 700%; there are shortages of medical supplies and many face malnutrition. One dramatic indicator of the crisis is that an estimated 2 million people have fled the country.
The population is caught between an increasingly authoritarian regime and a vicious right wing opposition who have engaged in violent attacks to overthrow it. During the last round of right wing inspired rebellions, 140 people died. The opposition supports the rich and privileged in Venezuela who look on the poor with disdain. They hate the fact that Chavez ran social programmes to distribute oil profits to the poorest districts.
The Venezuelan tragedy is being used by right wing politicians all over the world to claim that it shows that socialism fails. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Venezuelan experiment did not go far enough in establishing popular power and uprooting the controls exercised by the wealthy over the economy. Here is a brief explanation of how this occurred.
Venezuela has always been a deeply divided society but the current period began when Hugo Chavez, a left wing army officer, won an election in 1999. In 2002 the right wing staged a coup against Chavez and briefly put into power a business leader, Carmona. However, the poor rose up against the coup and restored Chavez to officer, the events of which are brilliantly in an Irish documentary The Revolution will not be televised- Chavez: Inside the Coup. This in turn helped to unleash a wider revolutionary dynamic against the Venezuelan elite.
Chavez turned even more dramatically leftwards and began to talk of building ‘21st century socialism’. This, in contrast to the USSR model, was to be democratic and to be based on grassroots participation. He used funds from the public owned oil companies to distribute money to the poor. These was organised through ‘Bolivarian Missions’ (named after the liberator, Simon Bolivar) and these brought extra resources for education, health and cultural activities to the barrios.
However, Chavez himself recognizsed that this was a form of redistribution – rather than socialism. Just before he died, he wrote:
‘We shouldn’t let ourselves be deceived: the social and economic system that still prevails in Venezuela is a capitalist and rentier system.’
‘In order to move towards socialism, we need a people’s power capable of disarticulating the oppression, exploitation and domination plots that still exist in the Venezuelan society. People’s power should be able to shape up new social relations in our everyday life, where fraternity and solidarity go hand in hand with the continued emergence of new forms of planning and production of material wealth for our people. To achieve that, it is necessary to completely pulverize the bourgeois state that we have inherited, which is still being replicated through its old and nefarious practices, and ensure continuity in the process of creation of new forms of policy management.’
Socialism implies more than mere re-distribution – it means the taking of control of factories, offices and the wider economy by working people. It cannot be handed down by military officers or a guerrilla leader , no matter how left wing they sound, but must be built by the mass of people themselves. It is to Chavez’s credit that he partially recognized this.
Even during his time, three problems began to emerge to haunt the process he had begun:
- The country became even more dependent on oil exports. Today 95% of Venezuela’s external income comes from oil, as opposed to 67% twenty years ago. When oil prices collapsed, the economy got into severe difficulties.
- The Bolivarian revolution did not uproot the power of the rich clans – the Capriles, Cohen, Otero Silva, Baute – who dominated its society. In particular, private interests were able to keep control the importation of food. They could get a hold of dollars at very cheap rates – and then make huge profits on the sale of food in the local currency inside Venezuela.
- Within a deeply corrupt state, a Chavista bureaucracy emerged to thwart popular will. This became obvious when the peasants tried to seize land or when workers wanted to take control of their factories. The state bureaucracy, including elements which pretended to support Chavez, stopped them.
On top of these problems the Obama regime in the US began to impose sanctions on Venezuela, which Trump then intensified when he took office. To go forward, Venezuela needed to deepen the revolution – and seek to spread it to the Latin American countries.
The tragedy is that Chavez’s successor is doing the opposite. Faced with a chaotic situation, Maduro has attempted to appease sections of the rich and the military generals, even when they despise him. One example suffices to show the direction:
The Arco Minero region is the equivalent to Venezuela’s Amazon. It makes up 12 percent of the national territory and has a surfeit of minerals, oil and gas. It is also the main source of fresh water. While he was alive, Chavez refused to allow exploration companies to exploit the region for environmental reasons.
Maduro, however, invited in Barrick, a giant Canadian company and even paid them compensation for previous expropriations. He has offered them a ten year tax holiday – all in the hope of bringing in more foreign investment. In reality, these types of moves have only deepened the economic chaos.
The Venezuela experience contains important lessons for socialists all over the world.
First, we can never underestimate the determination, brutality and sabotage that the rich will engage in to stop any attempt – no matter how mild –to tamper with their privileges. When they have no success in their own countries, they will call in their Big Brother in the White House.
Second, defeating them means continuing and deepening a revolutionary process. Rather than halting at expressions of loyalty to a left wing hero, working people must take matters into their own hands to take over the wealth. Never again must banks, food importers or key industries be left in the hands of the rich.
We will always have to take forward the fight until we uproot a brutal system based on exploitation and violence.