Venezuela’s growing social polarisation and slide towards civil war has intensified in recent weeks, the combined result of right-wing destabilisation and the actions of the Maduro government.
The current political impasse arises from the unravelling of the “Bolivarian” project of Hugo Chávez. His successor Nicolás Maduro narrowly won the presidential election in 2013, but failed to retain the regime’s popularity with the majority of Venezuelan people.
Maduro’s ruling PSUV party lost the National Assembly elections to the right wing opposition in 2015. Last year, the president suspended the recall referendum demanded by the right-wing opposition under the constitution and then the regional elections. The current crisis was triggered in March this year, when the pro-Maduro judiciary effectively undermined the National Assembly’s legislative powers. The right-wing began weeks of daily demonstrations in Caracas in response.
On 1 May, Maduro announced elections for a Constituent Assembly, formally intended to redraft Chávez’s 1999 constitution but in reality to circumvent the existing parliament. These elections took place on 30 July and were boycotted by the opposition, resulted in a heavily pro-Chavista body.
One of the first acts of the Constituent Assembly was to remove former Chavista attorney general Luisa Ortega from office. Diosdado Cabello, deputy leader of the PSUV has already proposed that the Constituent Assembly should meet for two years. It is clear that Maduro hopes to use the new legislature to stabilise Chavista rule and ride out crisis. However there appears little in these moves to widen democracy or make more space for the working class to organise itself independently.
The context for this crisis is an economic collapse of enormous proportions. Whereas Chávez benefited from rising oil prices, swelling government coffers and funding welfare programmes, Maduro’s regime has suffered as oil revenues collapsed. According to the IMF, Venezuela’s GDP is currently 35% below 2013 levels – a crash on a par with the Great Depression and the collapse of Stalinism. Runaway inflation has decimated living standards and doubled levels of poverty. An academic study found that three-quarters of Venezuelans have lost 9 kilos (over a stone) in weight over the last two years.
Maduro’s response to the economic crisis has been to draw up plans to exploit Arco Minero, Venezuela’s Amazon region. Previously ruled out by Chávez on environmental grounds, Maduro has offered multinational corporations concessions to mine the region. The government also formed Camimpeg, an autonomous company run by the ministry of defence to administer the zone. If these plans succeed, they may salvage the regime, but only at the expense of ecological catastrophe.
The right wing opposition
The political context for the current crisis is also the deliberate strategy of the right-wing opposition around the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) to destabilise the Maduro government. The traditional Venezuelan bourgeoisie, which enjoyed higher living standards off the back of oil rents for decades, never accepted the legitimacy of the Chávez government. It sought by attempted coups and lock outs to overthrow the regime in 2002-03. With the death of Chávez and the incompetence of Maduro, it believes its time has come again. Yet it remains deeply divided, with no authoritative leader and shallow social roots.
The right wing opposition has been strongly backed throughout by successive US administrations, from Bush to Obama. Trump has imposed sanctions on individual Chavista leaders and threatened Venezuela’s oil exports. Mercosur has suspended Venezuela, while the Organisation of American States has condemned the Maduro regime. The ambassadors of Britain, France, Spain and Mexico have backed the old National Assembly against the new Constituent Assembly.
There are ominous signs of armed unrest. On 28 June, a helicopter attacked government buildings. On 6 August, paramilitaries attacked Fort Paramacay army base in Valencia, Carabobo state. Over 120 people have been killed since the right-wing destabilisation strategy escalated this year. One thing is crystal clear. The right-wing opposition are not democrats. They do not respect the rule of law nor do they offer more freedom for Venezuelan workers. If they succeed they will impose an authoritarian neoliberal government, hell-bent on privatisation, deregulation and austerity that would throw back workers’ living standards.
The Chavista regime
The first principle of Marxism is to tell the truth to the working class, to state what is. From the beginning Workers' Liberty has criticised the Chavista regime from the perspective of working class self-emancipation. We never accepted its rhetoric about “Bolivarian revolution” or “21st century socialism”. Venezuela under Chávez promoted only social welfare capitalism. There has been no revolution, in the sense of the working class overthrowing bourgeois state power and establishing its own rule. We have never accepted the fantasy of Chavista nationalisations constituting “workers’ control”, particularly when most of the economy remained in private hands.
We have defined the Chávez government as a bourgeois Bonapartist formation, what Marx called “the rule of the praetorians”. We pointed to the essential role of the civic-military alliance in Chávez’s project, whereby the army is central to the Chavista form of rule. Today the Venezuelan armed forces control a huge variety of companies in banking, agriculture, transport, communications, technology, construction, mining and other sectors. The military runs many social welfare programmes. It has special shops on military bases, other privileges and access to foreign currency. This is military state capitalism – venal, corrupt and ultimately reactionary.
The current crisis underlines that Chavismo was never part of the socialist project. What Chávez did was to incorporate wide sections of the Venezuelan left behind his project and to cauterise the militant labour movement that developed in the early years of his rule. Out of struggles to advance working-class living standards and defeat the right wing opposition, the UNT trade union confederation was formed. However today the largest union centre is the Bolivarian Socialist Central of Workers (CSBT), close to the regime.
On the Venezuelan socialist left, many took the disastrous decision to join the ruling PSUV. Some tendencies such as the United League of Chavista Socialists (LUCHAS) remain within, while previous supporters such as Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide) have now left it. Chavismo disorientated the majority of socialist militants. That is the real tragedy in the current crisis: the absence of an authentic working class socialist pole of attraction to organise the millions disillusioned by Chavismo but who also understand the need to defeat the right wing opposition.
Responsibility for this debacle lies heavily with the international left. The worst offenders have been the International Marxist Tendency (Socialist Appeal in Britain) and Green Left Weekly in Australia, who peddled illusions that Chavismo was somehow socialist or could lead a socialist revolution, lamenting that Chávez had stopped “half-way”, ignoring that the regime was never about socialist goals nor socialist methods. Hands Off Venezuela, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and similar initiatives have operated as external propagandists for Chavismo and apologists for the Venezuelan government, not with making solidarity with workers and their own organisations.
International socialists must help the Venezuelan workers to defeat the right-wing coup plotters, so that they can then settle their accounts with the Chavista regime. Real working-class solidarity means telling the truth about the neoliberal opposition as well as the current government, while advocating independent working-class politics as the way through this crisis.