For the last seven weeks Venezuela has experienced violent opposition protests intent on toppling the elected Maduro government. Since the beginning of April, over 50 people have been killed during demonstrations orchestrated by the right-wing Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD – Democratic Unity Table).
In the worst case, these events may precipitate the overthrow of the government by rightist neoliberal forces or pave the way for a military coup. Even if they fail, the events are a further stage in the demise of so-called Bolivarian 21st century “socialism” launched by Hugo Chávez and much heralded by much of the left in recent years. Nicolás Maduro became president of Venezuela in 2013 after Hugo Chávez’s death.
The Bolivarian regime was already on crisis during Chávez’s last years, but the situation has worsened markedly. In December 2015, the right wing opposition won the National Assembly elections and used this as a base to ratchet up attempts to overthrow Maduro.
In October 2016, the National Assembly escalated their assault by voting to initiate a trial of Maduro on the spurious grounds that he had “abandoned” his office. The immediate trigger for the current round of right-wing mobilisations was a Supreme Court ruling on 29 March this year that found the National Assembly in contempt of court. The pro-Maduro judiciary said it would take over the National Assembly’s legislative powers or would hand them over to another power.
The right-wing declared this as a “coup d’etat” and mobilised its forces against the Maduro government. The economic circumstances behind the current clashes are dire. In recent years the vast majority of Venezuelan people have suffered a catastrophic deterioration in their material living conditions. While Chávez was able to utilise rising oil prices to fund social programmes, once the oil revenue diminished so too did these welfare provisions. Triple-digit inflation has eroded the currency and stripped the shops of basic necessities. In a society where half of the workforce is already employed in the informal economy, living standards have plummeted and with it a significant degree of support the Bolivarian regime used to command.
The international context is important too. Both the Bush and Obama administrations were openly hostile to the Chávez government and backed the right-wing opposition’s attempts to undermine and remove it. However the advent of Trump’s administration, with its promise to “do anything we can to help Venezuela” represents a further level of pressure on the beleaguered Maduro regime.
Venezuela under Chávez and Maduro put itself firmly in the camp of reactionary “allies” Russia, China and Iran as an apparent geopolitical counter to US pressure. Although Russia has announced more wheat exports to Venezuela in light of the economic situation, it is not at all clear that it will be able to prop up the Venezuelan regime against the US and its internal right-wing backers Therefore it appears the Maduro regime is at a dead end.
The AWL was critical of the Chavista movement from the beginning, pointing to its Bonapartist authoritarian populism, notably the role of the military to stabilise the state and administer the economy, which remained firmly capitalist in its internal and external relations. At the same time Chávez incorporated sections of the labour movement and the left into his ruling PSUV party, while systematically undermining efforts to build an independent working class movement, such as the UNT union federation.
Chávez’s state capitalist model was never a socialist alternative and the unravelling of its modest reforms has punctured its radical and “anti-imperialist” pretensions. In Venezuela today 90% of all companies are in private hands and state-owned industry is run on a capitalist basis. The Maduro government includes business and military representatives who administer a bourgeois state in support of Venezuelan capital. The government clings to the fantasy that an oil price rise will revive its fortunes and renew the social programmes.
The Bolivarian regime is riddled with corruption and has become increasingly anti-democratic, postponing the regional elections in December 2016. The slogan “Que se vayan todos” (throw them all out) is indicative of the disgust many Venezuelan workers share for the Maduro government and its right-wing opponents. However it would hopelessly abstract for Venezuelan workers and international socialists to take a “plague on both your houses” approach. Working class independence and consistent democracy would be damaged not advanced if the rightist opposition succeeds with US government support in bringing down the current regime, just as it would have been in the coup attempt against Chávez in 2002.
The only progressive force that could replace the Maduro government is a militant, independent socialist labour movement – and sadly such a force does not exist at present in Venezuela. The interests of Venezuelan workers are not served by prettifying the Maduro government or pretending it is some sort of socialist project. Workers should defend the light and air of bourgeois democracy without illusions in the Chavistas and without losing sight of the opposition as the greater current enemy.
The working class movement exists and fights in Venezuela, as shown by the size of the May Day demonstrations and other mobilisations in recent weeks. Unfortunately the bulk of those out campaigning do so under the banner of Chavismo. The revolutionary left remains weak, with some Marxists such as Lucha de Clases still mired inside the ruling PSUV party. The Marea Socialista current, which left the ruling party in 2015, was raided by the police last year. The Liga de Trabajadores por el Socialismo takes a more critical stance, albeit based on a rigid “orthodox” Trotskyism.
Venezuela cries out for independent working class politics in the current crisis. International socialists should do everything possible to help the forces trying to insert this perspective into the situation.