The choice in Venezuela is stark; social progress versus extreme reaction and US intervention. We should be clear which side we are on argues Matt Willgress
In December last year, I had two articles about Venezuela, around regional and mayoral elections. The first – written the week before the election – was entitled Dark Arts at Work in Venezuela and warned of “fears that sections of the US-backed opposition are already planning to use these elections as a focal point for further destabilisation.”
The other – written after– was entitled A Vote of Confidence in the Revolution, which argued that, “municipal elections this month expressed the people's confidence in the Bolivarian project - but the right won't give up.”
The results are worth recapping, considering the relentless media war against Venezuela. The PSUV - the United Socialist Party led by President Nicolas Maduro - won 210 municipalities, the right-wing opposition MUD 53 and other parties eight. Once the sums were done, with small and other parties allocated in terms of "what side they are on," 54 per cent of voters were pro the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ to 45 per cent against.
To put this in a broader context, the right-wing opposition had therefore lost 18 out of 19 elections in the last 14 years and lost four elections in 14 months, including two after the death of Hugo Chavez, which the opposition and much of their international support in right-wing politics and the corporate media had thought would be their golden opportunity.
After the results, President Maduro said that "without a doubt we've obtained a great victory today, the people of Venezuela have said to the world that the Bolivarian revolution continues with more strength than ever." The results were widely seen as a vindication of the measures taken by the government against over-pricing and other elements of what Venezuela’s revolutionary movement terms the ‘economic war’ of elements of the old ruling elite who still have some economic power, but have lost so much political control, power and privilege in the last 15 years.
The article also struck a note of caution, quoting Venezuelan-based writer Tamara Pearson arguing that the result ” leaves us wondering what the opposition will do now,” in that they tried a coup in 2002 and since around 2005 they have tried a more indirect, psychological war approach ... and lost again and again, with the exception of the 2007 constitutional referendum. I concluded that, “Whatever tactics the right-wing opposition chooses next, the history of Venezuela in the last 15 years teaches us that the opposition is very unlikely to step back from its anti-democratic and unconstitutional attempts to destabilise, and ultimately unseat, the country's progressive elected government, “ and therefore that “while we celebrate this result we should keep in mind the need to be vigilant and extend our solidarity even further in the period ahead.”
What happened next?
Perhaps due to the extent of their defeat at the December polls, or perhaps due to a conscious decision to wait for a better moment on this occasion the Right-wing did not immediately copy their violent explosion that had followed their defeat in the Presidential election in April 2014.
Indeed, my next piece – entitled President Maduro’s vision for the future – looked at Venezuela's policy priorities for the year ahead, focussing on how Maduro’s New Year address announced a number of initiatives aimed at tackling the aforemtnioned "economic war" being conducted by elements of the right-wing opposition against the country's elected government. He then went into a detailed explanation of how the revolution planned tougher penalties for "sabotage and speculation."
Arguing that "with the economic war the bourgeoisie have shown a cruelty that is comparable only to the acts of [the coup against Chavez in] 2002," a defiant Maduro illustrated the inhumanity of his opponents in the capitalist class, arguing, "How can you describe someone who hides formula milk for babies [from supermarket shelves]? We cannot create a new euphemism for that ... That person must be described as a criminal” adding that, “there won't be any forgiveness for those who keep robbing the people.”
He also explained the government's new investment plan, with 25.5 billion Venezuelan bolivars to be invested in public works nationwide in the coming years, providing a further illustration of how progressive governments in Latin America have been developing programmes to put people first in recent years, in stark contrast to ruinous austerity elsewhere in the world.
Politically at the same time, the Government – whilst not in any way signalling a slowing down of the process of social change and deepening of inclusion and equality in the country – signalled a willingness to deal with opposition Mayors on practical issues such as tackling crime and infrastructure difficulties to the benefit of the population, exacerbating divisions in the Right wing.
Concluding his annual address, Nicolas Maduro (who it should be noted has a clear historical background in Venezuela’s revolutionary Left and Labour movement said: "For those that underestimate me from the left and the extreme right, I say that I'm a socialist and I know what I'm doing."
It was a good job he, the revolutionary movement and its leadership in Venezuela - and their allies in Latin America - did have such resolve.
‘La Salida’ – a violent, anti-democratic and counter-revolutionary street campaign
Weeks after this – and perhaps in order to torpedo both the idea of dialogue and derail the government’s economic offensive - the extreme right-wing political campaign called La Salida (The Ousting), was launched at the end of January, leading to a wave of violence that had claimed the lives of 40 people up to April 5 (source Venezuelanalysis.com.)
Contrary to a Western dominant media narrative that portrayed ‘peaceful student protests,’ its explicit aim was unconstitutional regime change, making it the latest in a long line of such attempts including the 2002 coup.
The violence included attacks on ministry buildings, health clinics, public transport, buildings associated with government social programmes, offices of left-wing parties and parts of universities.
Violent protesters attacked electricity stations in Tachira, Aragua, Merida, Zulia, Bolivar, Anzoategui, Lara, Barinas and Caracas. There was also a violent siege of the state TV station VTV.
To give some specific examples, in Merida state, someone was arrested for putting diesel in the water supply. And in the same state, according to the Venezuelan site Aporrea, "The governor of Merida, Alexis Ramirez, reported that [a] murder occurred on Avenida Cardenal Quintero of Merida. It culminated after [a] 'peaceful' protest by the opposition in the morning" with Jesus Orlando Labrador, an employee of the state-owned telecommunications company CANTV, being "the victim of snipers on the roofs of nearby buildings, who were caught on camera." It goes on to say that the "governor reported that snipers are part of violent extremist opposition groups... [who] also vandalised public and private property, including the burning of a shuttle bus."
In addition to these attacks, this year’s prominent form of violent protest, which the opposition has also resorted to in the past, was the ‘guarimba.’ These are road barricades aimed at causing maximum disruption, blocking traffic and preventing Venezuelans from going about their business.
Numerous eyewitness accounts said they were often staffed by masked men, some of whom are reported to have been charging tolls to cross them, and created an atmosphere of fear and threat.
Latin American expert Dr. Francisco Dominguez says that these are "well-planned, well-funded, well-organised, well-synchronised and intensely media-supported," adding that "though the guarimbas and the violent protests have been dying down, their lethality seems to have increased."
In contrast to reports in Western media that implicate government supporters and police in the protest-related deaths, research from the Council for Economic Policy Research in the US and Ewan Robertson of Venezuelanalysis clearly showed that opponents of the government were behind most of the fatalities. Violence at the barricades led to 20 deaths, according to Robertson's analysis, while the clear majority of deaths can be said to be due to opposition violence, directly or indirectly.
An important further point to note about this unrest is that at no point was it a mass movement, rather a campaign led by politicians who represent a tiny minority of even the right-wing opposition. Indeed, the call for "La Salida" was led by extreme right-wing politicians Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Cochina Machado. Leopoldo Lopez's party got 6 per cent in the December 2013 municipal elections, while Machado obtained only 3.6 per cent of opposition voters' preferences in the 2012 opposition primaries to select a presidential candidate. Polls indicate that over 80 per cent see this wing of the opposition as violent.
Furthermore, even at its peak, this focused in a small number of areas (18 out of 335 municipalities) rather than being nationwide – almost exclusively in relatively better off areas - and fewer than 2,000 people were involved in the violence.
Whilst it led to damage to Venezuela’s economy that is still being counted, and a tragic loss of life, this campaign did not lead to its stated aim, namely the overthrow of Venezuela’s elected Government.
In this sense the defeat of ‘La Salida’ represented a great victory for progressive and anti-imperialist forces not only in Venezuela, but in Latin America as a whole. Furthermore, the dwindling down of the ‘La Salida’ movement and its inability to achieve its stated aim, led to further splits in Venezuela’s Right-wing which has become more fragmented than ever, with extreme elements also coming to prominence, including those who are seemingly allied to Colombian paramilitaries.
The assassination of Roberto Serra
Relating to this context, in a further recent Morning Star piece, I recently looked in detail at an event which sent shockwaves through Venezuela.
Robert Serra was at 27 the National Assembly’s youngest parliamentarian representing the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela. He was found dead in his home in October.
In response to opposition claims that Serra’s death was a result of an isolated or common crime, Justice Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres stated that “according to the evidence obtained, everything points to a planned, organised and detailed (assassination) technique.”
Ernesto Samper, the former Colombian president and now secretary-general of the Union of South American Nations, said: “The assassination of the young legislator Robert Serra is a worrying sign of the infiltration by Colombian paramilitarism.”
In Britain, an open letter signed by dozens of MPs, trade union leaders, figures from the peace movement and others expressed “condolences and solidarity to Venezuela following the murder of Robert Serra” and condemned “this murder and other examples of extreme, anti-democratic violence aimed at destabilising Venezuela’s elected government.”
Serra’s murder should not be seen in isolation, but rather as an escalation of destabilisation from extreme anti-democratic sectors from both Venezuela and Colombia. His death also joins the list of assassinations of government figures as in April, local councillor and former intelligence chief Eliecer Otaiza was murdered. Serra’s bodyguard, detective Alexis Barreto, was assassinated two years ago.
Among these cases is also the car bomb assassination of state lawyer Danilo Anderson in 2004, who at the time was responsible for prosecuting several anti-government figures suspected of participating in the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez.
You can read the latest about the investigation into the Serra murder on the Venezuela Solidarity site, but In terms of its consequences now in Venezuela, as the Venezuelan Communist Party (part of the alliance that backed Nicolas Maduro’s election) there is now more than ever need for “all those of the popular revolutionary militancy to maintain themselves alert and willing to mobilize if necessary to respond to any provocation by the paramilitary and fascist sectors”.
US intervention and the ghost of chile
Worryingly, for many this situation resembles the prelude to the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, when sections of the opposition did not distance themselves from violent actions including the assassination of a general.
Certainly, the history of the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet that followed is a stark warning of what could happen in Venezuela if the left was ousted.
Something else that resembles the Chilean situation of the 1970s are the dirty tricks of US intervention in the ongoing attempts to destabilise and ultimately overthrow the government.
Over a 10-year period, from 2000-2010, US agencies including the US Agency for International Development (USAid) and its Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI), set up in Caracas in 2002, channelled more than $100 million dollars to opposition groups in Venezuela.
Scaled up to the population and economic size of Britain, this would be the equivalent of Britain’s opposition groups receiving $800m from the US embassy to influence British politics.
Additionally, and increasingly worryingly with the recent Republican success in US Senate elections the threat of US sanctions has been put on the table, further enabling those from the former ruling elite who would like to turn the clock back in Venezuela to days of subordination to the US and rampant neoliberalism.
As Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world this may not be surprising but it doesn’t make it acceptable.
Nonetheless, there are also important differences with Chile, of which the lessons are of course a keenly studied and hotly debated issue in Venezuela’s progressive movements.
The most obvious – and often pointed to – of these include the regional context, where far from being isolated Venezuela is one of many governments in the region that rejects US domination, and the increasingly multi-polar nature of the world as the US Empire weakens, which has seen Venezuela able to make deals with a range of economic powers that may not have been possible historically.
But other factors that are perhaps less discussed – some of which there is not time to discuss in-depth in this piece - such as the differences in the nature of Venezuela’s current military (post the changes following the defeat by protesting masses and revolution-aligned elements of the armed forces of the 2002 coup) compared to that of Chile – are also important.
One of these is the political perspective of Venezuela’s leadership, including their understanding of the nature of the question of state and revolution, and also how this is reflected in deep levels of revolutionary and progressive organisation throughout society.
Perspectives and understanding
Asked about what he learnt from Hugo Chavez and his own perspectives in the aforementioned interview, Nicolas Maduro responsed to a question regarding the “Difficult years [of] putting up with the hostility of the empire,”Maduro argued that Venezuela had faced “complicated years, because Venezuela is in the epicentre of a battle for a new world, a battle against imperialism for Latin America and the world. “
Analysing the leadership of Chavez, Maduro argued that he “managed to convoke the vast majority of the people to politics,” in that “he called on them for big tasks. For a new independence. And left behind a formed [politically educated] people, a people with grand values.”
Maduro went on to explain that, whilst “We can’t say that the revolution is totally consolidated,” it is also true that it “has advanced along an important stretch… a long stretch in terms of ideology… we have a revolutionary, Bolivarian, socialist ideology.. [and] have a national project … articulated with a vision of the world. “
Noting that “It’s impossible to have a revolution, trying to transcend capitalism and build a socialist society, thinking of just one country,” and adding that, “If one doesn’t think of humanity, socialism is impossible [and] it’s necessary to have a vision that encompasses the world, all of humanity. And in the region that you relate to, in this case Latin America and the Caribbean,” he explained his view “that in this sense Trotsky was right, even though Lenin was too, because if Lenin hadn’t consolidated the Bolshevik revolution, nothing would have been able to advance. “
Looking at its relevance to Venezuela today he argued that, “In this debate that there was 100 years ago, bringing it into the present, Hugo Chavez chose the idea of permanent revolution in practical terms. Revolution in all the different areas, every day, revolution in different dimensions, the Venezuelan dimension, the Latin American revolution, Latin American independence, alliances with anti-imperialist forces of the world” and so on, reflecting that, “In those years I managed to understand a lot with him, from the human and political points of views, and to get to know, deeply, the ideas that made up Hugo Chavez’s project. Now I’m doing a lot of tasks, and it’s as if he had been preparing me for this battle; but I think he also prepared the people, he prepared us all. No one can feel themselves individually prepared for this battle that we are waging, but he prepared all of us for it.”
Solidarity – not simplistic analysis - needed
Far Left analyses that see Venezuela’s revolution as just some new form of social democracy – doomed to fail – look increasingly simplistic and unrealistic in light of such a viewpoint from the centre of the country’s social change, or as Australian revolutionary socialist Federico Fuentes has put it, various leftists in the West “have been saying the same thing [since 2002]: “Venezuela is at a crossroads, only two options, restore old order or deepen the revolution towards socialism”.
But after 12 years should we ask ourselves some questions like: isn’t it perhaps possible that out of every crisis, the government has taken measures to deepened the revolution, hence why the Bolivarian Revolution is still going and the old elites are not back in power? Isn't perhaps true that implementing some kind of war communism in Venezuela (which tends to be what calls to deepen the revolution amount to) would not be the best course of action? Isn’t it the case that given the current international balance of forces it is possible for the revolution to continue advancing but that conditions do not exist for Venezuela to implement socialism in one country?”
I would agree with Fuentes that “these are serious questions that some of the left continue to paper over, preferring slogans to real action.”
Furthermore, in terms of looking at the prospects for the next period in Venezuela, it’s also important to note that the Government continues to make progress in a number of areas, and important revolutionary forces (for example in the trade union and labour movement) are consolidating important advances.
It is therefore not surprising that the Government’s agenda also remains popular in many areas. For example, a recent poll shows that 76 percent of all Venezuelans surveyed agree with setting a maximum price on sales items, a key measure heavily identified with the aforementioned efforts to tackle the ‘economic war.’
In a law which many could learn from internationally, the maximum profit margin in Venezuela was set at 30 percent when the Law of Fair Prices went into effect in January, and businesses are required to provide proof of cost and on this basis, determine reasonable profit margins that allow them to set fair prices, especially in the case of imported products.
To conclude, the choice in Venezuela – which is both reflected in, and of great importance to, other progressive struggles across Latin America – is therefore stark; social progress versus extreme reaction and US intervention. We should be 100% clear which side we are on.
- Matt Willgress writes here for Counterfire in a personal capacity.
- For more information and to get involved in solidarity with Venezuela see the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign website.
- 3 sessions organised by the VSC will be amongst highlights of the 2014 Latin America Conference on November 29, when keynote speakers will include Tariq Ali, Ellie May O’Hagan, Richard Gott, Aleida Guevara (Che Guevara’s daughter,) Owen Jones and Seumas Milne. You can buy tickets and view the Conference timetable online.