Massive protests against the government, brutal police repression against demonstrators, the withdrawal from the Organization of American States (OAS), and President Maduro’s announcement of the convocation of a Constituent Assembly – not a day goes by without news from the South American nation. At least 66 people have died in protests in the last two months, not to mention many more dead from malnutrition and lack of medical care. Venezuela is experiencing an unparalleled political, economic, and social crisis.
Since April 1, there have been continuous demonstrations in favor of the right-wing opposition, assembled in the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). They are organizing protests against the government of Nicolás Maduro, accusing him of setting up a dictatorship. On Monday, the Supreme Court rejected a motion to stop the election of a Constituent Assembly. Voting is expected to begin in July – and the crisis will continue.
Chavism and its reforms
The political disputes between the government and the opposition have a long history. Since the beginning of the presidency of Hugo Chávez in 1999, the reactionary opposition organized a dogged struggle against him. Chávez was the first of what became known as the “Pink Tide” presidents in Latin America – including Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula in Brazil, and Nestor and Christina Kirchner in Argentina – who to a certain degree pushed back against the long-standing tradition of submission to US interests.
In 2002, the Venezuelan right, supported by the Bush administration, sought to oust Chávez in a coup. The opposition won the military to their side, and Chávez was forced out of the Presidential Palace for two days. But a mass movement in support of the charismatic president was able to defeat the coup, and Chávez returned to Caracas.
After the attempted coup, Chávez tried to secure the support of the working population with social reforms aimed at achieving a measure of independence from imperialism. He combined plebiscitary methods, such as referenda, with the establishment of so-called organs of “poder popular” (people’s power). But these bodies were under the tight control of the state and Chávez’ party, the PSUV, and effectively strengthened the government’s control over social movements.
We Marxists describe this kind of regime as Bonapartism sui generis, in which a left Bonaparte vacillates between the classes while also making concessions to the masses. Due to the weakness of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and the ruthless pressure of imperialism, the Chávez government had to keep its base mobilized – but always under firm bureaucratic control.
Trotsky described this kind of regime such: “In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character [sui generis]. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by maneuvering with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it, thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom from the foreign capitalists.”
Chávez introduced social reforms to improve the material conditions of the workers and poor in Venezuela. Wages increased, prices stabilized, and social projects were introduced which gave large sections of the population greater access to education, health, housing, and land. These social measures were financed with the billions that flowed into the state’s coffers from the oil industry. The oil industry had been nationalized in the 1970s, but Chávez reversed partial privatizations in the state-owned PDVSA and nationalized other sectors of the economy like the steel industry.
However, these nationalizations were nothing more than purchases at market prices. The Chávez government paid billions of dollars to imperialist corporations like Exxon Mobile and Repsol to manage their oil fields. Under Chávez, the foreign debt increased exponentially, and today Venezuela uses a large part of its foreign reserves to pay back this debt, rather than spend the reserves to import vital goods for the population.
Between 2013 and 2016, Venezuela paid more than 60 billion dollars towards the foreign debt. Imperialist pressure forced the Maduro government to promise to make a new payment of 17 billion dollars this year. The multinational hedge funds are getting their millions wired on time while the Venezuelan population is experiencing shortages of medicines and basic goods. The foreign debt has left the country in ruin.
Limits of Chavism
The basic problem of Chavism was (and is) that the nationalizations and social programs remained within the framework of the capitalist market. The property relations were left untouched – Venezuela’s capitalists continue to make huge profits. Thus, Venezuelan capitalism was able to decorate itself with a progressive veneer and protect itself against the danger of a social revolution.
In particular, the authority of the (undemocratic) position of the president and the role of the army were increased under Chávez. Both had lost their prestige due to the brutal repression of the 1990s. The revenues from the oil boom were not used to reduce the country’s reliance on raw materials. There was no industrialization or diversification of the economy. On the contrary, Venezuela is still extremely dependent on oil exports (96% of all export revenues), which has led to the devastating economic crisis after oil prices began to fall in 2014.
The change in the economic situation made a change in the political superstructure necessary. From the very beginning, Chavism was a Bonapartist regime. Plebiscitary methods and charismatic leadership were accompanied by the construction of an enormous state bureaucracy that enriched itself. The army was given a place of honor as it was politicized by Chávez and used for his aims.
Chávez’ death in 2013 brought this system to a standstill, and the situation worsened with the ongoing economic crisis. Chávez’ successor Maduro did not have the same standing among the population and lacked an organic link to the military. To shore up his power, he made even larger concessions to the army. Generals now hold high positions in the government and the economy. This is why the armed forces are of such importance in the current crisis, as they are the government’s central – in fact only – real base of support.
Cynicism of the right-wing opposition and imperialism
The opposition has repeatedly called on the army to break with the government – following their tradition of military coups. They criticize the brutal police repression against their demonstrations; they do not, however, speak out against the right-wing gangs who murder Chavistas. The opposition’s calls for “democracy” are pure demagoguery. They want to defeat Chavism in order to carry out a more clearly neoliberal program, and they are willing to use any means available to them.
The opposition is callings for new elections, but at the same time they want the US and the “international community” to engage in a military intervention. The very same forces who criticize the undemocratic methods of the Venezuelan government and call it a dictatorship supported the institutional putsch of Michel Temer in Brazil. Temer is attempting to cut pensions, liberalize the labor market, and increase the retirement age to 65. For this, he gets the support of Venezuelan “democrats” like Henry Ramon Allup of the Acción Democrática party, Leopoldo López from Voluntad Popular, and Julio Borges from Primero Justicia. They all have good relations with the right-wing governments of the region, such as Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru, who struck a deal with the World Bank, or the businessmen Mauricio Macri in Argentina, who is currently attacking the living standards of Argentinean workers.
The bourgeois press of the imperialist countries displays a similar cynicism. They support the opposition because they want it to “implement bitterly necessary reforms” and “transform the country”. However, every observer knows that the “necessary reforms” are the enforcement of the austerity programs demanded by the IMF, the OAS, and the USA. The effect of such a “transformation of the country” under the direction of imperialism can be seen in Greece, where the German bourgeoisie has implemented a brutal plan of cuts and privatizations.
This same press has called for the tightening of sanctions and more pressure from neighboring countries in order to bring about regime change in Venezuela. They want to accelerate the country’s bleeding in order to throw Maduro out of the Presidential Palace. In fact, the US and the EU have already placed numerous sanctions on Venezuela, contributing in major ways to the empty supermarket shelves across the country.
US President Donald Trump has called Venezuela a “disaster”. Pope Francis, too, has sided with the opposition with his rhetoric about the need for “peace, reconciliation and democracy.” This is important in light of the fact that in deeply Catholic Venezuela the Vatican has gained an ever greater influence over the situation.
The bearers of “democratic change” in Venezuela appear to be the right-wing opposition with its putsch tradition, the neo-liberal right in Latin America with more recent coup experience, US President Donald Trump, and Pope Francis – in other words, an illustrious association of international reaction.
The crisis of Chavism cannot be solved by the bourgeois right in cooperation with the imperialist powers. They want to initiate a new cycle of neo-colonial subjugation which the workers and the masses in Venezuela will pay for in the form of unemployment and misery. Such a program would be even more brutal than the Maduro government’s current economic policy, which is to abolish old regulations and create new freedoms for national and international capital – capital which has sucked billions of US dollars out of the country in recent years.
Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that this government could be overthrown peacefully, since the army is involved and the level of confrontation is already so high. A violent coup with the support of US imperialism would be a catastrophe for workers throughout Latin America. This is why, in the imperialist countries, especially in the USA and in the Spanish State, a campaign must be launched for the cancellation and the non-payment of the foreign debt, for an end to the sanctions, and against a possible military intervention.
Such an anti-imperialist program, however, must remain completely independent of Chavism, which offers no real protection against the plundering of the country. On the contrary, with the erosion of democratic rights, which is directed not only at right-wing demonstrations but also at strikes, labor struggles, and social protests, and with an economic policy that has forced the working class and the poor to pay for the crisis, the Maduro government is clearing the way for the right.
Anti-capitalist organizations in Venezuela such as the League of Socialist Workers (LTS) are calling for the mobilization of the workers and youth independently of the government and the opposition. Such a mobilization requires a program that takes a stand against all undemocratic measures such as the state of emergency, as well as against the restriction of the freedom of assembly and the militarization of the poor neighborhoods, and calls for a free and sovereign Constituent Assembly to solve the structural problems of the country.
The National Constituent Assembly (ACN) announced by Maduro on May 1 and tasked with writing a new constitution is anything but free and sovereign. Rather, it is a maneuver with multiple objectives. On the one hand, Maduro wants to counter the “democratic” demagoguery of the opposition and to represent himself as the real democrat. On the other hand, Maduro also wants to postpone the next elections until the end of the constitutional process and take away all of what’s left of the parliament’s power. Maduro’s announcement that organizations of “people’s power” will have a special position in such an assembly shows that the government’s objective is to secure a majority in this institution.
That Maduro does not have any real interest in free discussion and decision-making by the masses is demonstrated by the fact that he is postponing elections not only at the local and national levels but also in numerous trade unions where Chavism could lose its majority. There can be no free process of discussion by workers in a state of emergency, defined by repression against all social and political protests against the government.
A truly free and sovereign Constituent Assembly can only be organized by the mobilization of the exploited and oppressed against the Bonapartist government and the pro-imperialist opposition. The workers and the urban and rural poor need to organize independently for a program that rips the nationalized companies out of the hands of the bureaucracy and the army and nationalizes all other key industries under workers’ control. What is needed is a program of non-payment of the foreign debt, democratic freedoms such as the freedom to demonstrate, trade union elections, and an end to low wages and layoffs. Moreover, as the threat by imperialism grows, solidarity from workers in the imperialist countries, especially the USA, against the threat of intervention in Venezuela is critically important.
*Translated and updated from German by Tatiana Cozzarelli and Wladek Flakin