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Venezuela, struggle and the left

This article is over 6 years, 9 months old
As right wing opposition to Venezuela’s government grows, Andy Brown spoke to Tomáš Tengely-Evans about the forces on the ground and the potential to change society
Issue 2566

UPDATE: Scroll down to watch a recent talk by Andy

Venezuelas president Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro (Pic: PresidenciaRD / Flickr)

Venezuela’s left wing president Nicolas Maduro faces opposition after elections to the Constituent Assembly last week. Who’s out on the streets? 

There has been virulent opposition from the Venezuelan ruling class since Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998.

It never accepted the legitimacy of Chavez, or working people having a bigger say.

The right who are out against Maduro are diverse and have different tactics. 

Some probably prefer to provoke a military coup, some are looking for power through parliamentary means.

But they have one thing in common—to roll back all the gains of “Chavismo”. 

None of them have any commitment to democracy, the people or constitutionality.

They will do anything to impose authoritarian rule that will roll back the gains of the last 15 years. 

A recent poll showed that 50 percent of people don’t support Maduro or the opposition. Does the left still have popular support? 

Nicolas Maduro’s government has a level of popular support, but it’s less than what Chavez had. 

When Maduro was elected president in 2013, he won by just 1.1 percent against the right wing candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski.

The previous year Chavez had beaten Capriles by over 10 percent. 

What’s more important is to understand the support the left has among the working class, which mobilised to defend Chavez against the right in the 2000s.

Workers appear, at least, to be against the right opposition. 

But this is a very different situation to the 2000s. Most will vote for Chavismo but there is a much higher abstention rate.

Its working class base has been demoralised and demobilised by the degeneration of Maduro’s ruling PSUV socialist party.

An unaccountable bureaucracy has grown around the PSUV and corruption has grown massively.

The Chavistas have got majority support among the working class, but it’s much less likely to actively defend Maduro. 

A mural of the late Hugo Chavez
A mural of the late Hugo Chavez (Pic: AndreasLehner / Flickr)

Why was the working class more likely to defend Chavez and how was it mobilised to do that? 

Chavismo did not come out of nowhere. 

Ever since the Caracazo Uprising in 1989 there has been a big tradition of resistance to neoliberalism, austerity and the right.

This mass revolt in the capital Caracas opposed an International Monetary Fund (IMF) “structural adjustment package”.

This would have brought neoliberal reforms.

One of the better books in English on Venezuela is called We Created Chavez by George Ciccariello-Maher.

It shows how what happened with Chavez was a reflection, not an embodiment, of the popular movement. 

Chavez articulated working class people’s demands.

After he became president, between 2002 and 2005, there was a massive level of active mobilisation. Three key battles showed this. 

The first was a right wing coup attempt against Chavez in 2002. This was stopped in its tracks, not by clever political manoeuvring but by popular mobilisation.

In particular, the slum dwellers of the “barrios” in Caracas came out in their tens if not hundreds of thousands. 

The year after there was a ruthless lockout by the oil bosses. The right wing would have sacrificed the whole Venezuelan economy to regain power.

Again that was defeated by mobilisation of oil workers and their working class allies. 

The following year the right tried to depose Chavez constitutionally and huge mobilisations on the streets saw it off. 

At the time of mass mobilisation, the Chavez government was making reforms around health, education and housing.

Rank and file workers were also taking initiatives.

You had communal commands, which gave people in working class neighbourhoods more control.

There was the formation of independent unions free from bureaucrats in the pocket of the ruling class and discussion of workers’ control of industry. 

There was a massive groundswell of feeling that Chavez’s project really did mean something in terms of changing society for the better. 

What’s happened to those reforms now? 

The reforms have been curtailed to a very large degree, partly by a catastrophic drop in oil prices.

The reforms were predicated on an economic boom in commodity production, particularly oil. That’s now over.

But the lack of reforms is also linked to high levels of corruption. What we’ve really seen is the emergence of a new Chavista ruling class that doesn’t represent and isn’t accountable to the rank and file. 

It’s a new class of corrupt politicians who see having control of the state machine as a way of getting rich. Venezuelans call it the “Bolivarian bourgeoisie”.

There is increasing militarisation of the economy.

More than half of the cabinet and the regional governors are army officers. And the army has been put in charge of key parts of the economy such as gold mining. 

This has moved them away from any form of accountability to the working class.

Is there still rank and file organisation on the ground? 

It’s not case that the Venezuelan working class and poor will roll over and let whatever happens happen.

They are very hostile to the right—the most popular slogan is, “They will not come back”.

There are a large number of popular organisations on a local level in working class areas. Inside the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) there is an identifiable, although very diverse, left that has always been critical of these sorts of trends under Chavismo.

This left still publishes and tries to mobilise, and is still fighting on the ground for the kind of project that Chavez envisaged.

Prominent leader of the right wing opposition Julio Borges

Prominent leader of the right wing opposition Julio Borges (Pic: Wikimedia / Jamez42)

Can this working class movement resist the right now? 

The right are looking for an end game. They want to make the country ungovernable and bring the government down—and they are not too fussed about how they do that.

If there isn’t any strength to resist this from the working class, then it can’t be resisted. 

The only way to stop the right returning is through active mobilisation of working class people in their own defence.

It cannot be done through Maduro’s methods of making clever compromises with right wingers who don’t want to compromise. 

A similar process of compromising on the early promise of insurrectionary movements also took place in Bolivia, Ecuador and other parts of Latin America.

Working class resistance has to be rebuilt.

In Britain the right is calling on Jeremy Corbyn to condemn the Venezuelan government. They say Venezuela shows left policies can’t work. How can socialists respond?

As socialists the first thing we have to do is defend the Venezuelan working class and the “Bolivarian process” because it has brought huge changes. 

It hasn’t changed class relations fundamentally, it hasn’t challenged the state but it did make a difference to working class people.

We know what’s coming if the right returns—it will be a bloody awful authoritarian ruling class. 

We should be completely against the idea that it doesn’t matter what happens between Maduro and the opposition. 

It matters in Venezuela, Latin America and the world because Venezuela was an example for the left. 

But socialists cannot be cheerleaders for a particular reformist project or excuse or deny serious mistakes.

And we can’t rely on left leaders. The point about socialism is that it’s got to be working class people liberating themselves.

We have got to be critical of the bureaucratisation, the corruption and the demobilisation of the working class. 

Venezuela saw the active and critical participation of the working class. That’s what began changing society for the better.



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