Crisis in Venezuela: the Next “Color Revolution?”

For two months, the right opposition in Venezuela has been mobilising against the Maduro government. It no longer limits itself to peaceful mass demonstrations, but tries to occupy government institutions, or even army bases on the border with Colombia, by force.

At least 54 people were killed in the months of April and May. The opposition leadership, under the MUD Alliance (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática; Table of Democratic Unity) is demanding a “peaceful transition” of the state power, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the situation in Venezuela is heading towards a decisive test of strength between the government and the opposition.

In the event of a victory, the opposition threaten to do more than settle accounts with Maduro and his immediate supporters and followers. In particular, they threaten the destruction of the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution, for example, in the form of social benefits for the poor, as well as breaking up their organisations. Although both sides claim to want a peaceful resolution of the conflict, this is extremely unlikely, if not excluded altogether.

Right wing offensive

The bourgeois media, and Western governments, represent the actions of the opposition as self defence against the establishment of a dictatorship under Maduro. The trigger, and the justification, for this was provided by President Maduro when he planned to decisively curb the powers of Parliament, in which the MUD has a majority. In fact, the decree that enforced the strengthening of presidential power was lifted by the Supreme Court in early April, but this has not stopped the opposition from mobilising against the alleged dictator ever since then.

For them, after several failed coup attempts and attempts at “regime change” under Chávez, the time for talking is long gone. They are encouraged by three interrelated factors: firstly, the policy of the US government; secondly, the economic crisis in Venezuela and, thirdly, the internal contradictions of the Bolivarian Project, which tries to satisfy the interests of both national capital and the masses at the same time.

The Bolivarian Revolution was always a thorn in the side of US imperialism. The effects of the world economic crisis and the conservative regime changes in Latin America have led to a more aggressive and stronger US interventionism. It should not be forgotten that in March 2015, Barack Obama said that Venezuela represented, “an unusual and extraordinarily important threat to the national security of the USA”. (…) This year, the sabre rattling has got even louder. Thus, at the beginning of April, the head of the US Southern Command threatened that, “the sharpening humanitarian crisis in Venezuela” would require a “regional answer”. (…)

These rhetorical threats go alongside active attempts by the organisation of American States, OAS, under the leadership of its General Secretary, Luis Almagro, together with other countries in the region, to introduce a process for the “re-establishment of democracy” in the country. The US foreign minister, Rex Tillerson summed this up, “We are working with the OAS to find a negotiated solution for a transition to democracy in Venezuela”. All this is not only about Venezuela but also geo-strategic goals. Firstly, they want to reduce the influence of China and Russia and, secondly, the downfall of Maduro would strengthen the Right wing opposition throughout Latin America.

The economic crisis

Since 2013, the economic situation has been steadily deteriorating. The decisive trigger was the decline in the crude oil price from around 100 to 35 dollars per barrel. Even before 2013/14, more and more of the oil revenues had to be used to repay debt not only to the US, but also to China. The fall in the price of oil has led to a rise in public debt and a threat of bankruptcy.

Since 2014, the gross domestic product has fallen by around 5 percent annually. At the same time, the rate of inflation has risen massively. In 2016, it was reportedly between 600-700 percent. As a result, the dollar has established itself as a second currency alongside the bolivar.

According to recent figures, government spending in April fell by 40 percent compared to the same period last year. In the first four months of the year, public-sector investment decreased by 28.1 percent.

At the same time, the shortages in the supply of foodstuffs have intensified, especially since 2016. This is undoubtedly partly due to conscious political intervention by private companies in the industry, but also has quite “simple” economic reasons. The capitalists can achieve a much higher price if they do not offer the goods on the regular market, but sell them on the black market at dollar prices. In addition, this raises the rate of inflation.

Government response

Up till now, the Maduro government has responded to the aggravated economic crisis with a mixture of denial of the problems, rhetorical recriminations against the imperialists and ever more concessions to capital.

At the beginning of the crisis, its scale was downplayed. The government then hoped to use trade incentives to get the economy back on an even keel. It tried to reduce the country’s dependence on oil production by making concessions to foreign capital, in particular with the mega project “Arco Minero del Orinoco”.

In an area of 112,000 square kilometres, more than 10 per cent of the country, in the state of Bolivar, gold, coltan, iron, bauxite and diamonds extraction is to be promoted. The development costs, profit and corporate control are to be shared between the Swiss group Glencore, the Canadian Gold Reserve and the state. The consequences for the environment are scarcely foreseeable, and it threatens the destruction of the habitat of the indigenous population. The project is to be secured against any resistance by the army.

Likewise, under Chávez, there was already an expansion of bureaucratism and the emergence of a corrupt layer of capitalists, officials and bureaucrats, sarcastically known as the Boli-bourgeoisie who have looked after their own interests on the back of the revolution. At the same time, the state took measures against left oppositionists in the trade unions and grassroots projects who opposed the concessions to capital.

In recent years, the Bonapartist character of the regime has undoubtedly become clearer as it went against the interests of its own social base, the working class and the urban poor. The opposition takes advantage of these consequences of the crisis and of the policy of the Bolivarian regime. It is mainly based on the middle classes, the petit bourgeoisie and capitalists, but also tries to exploit the alienation of large parts of the masses from the regime.

Internal contradictions of the Bolivarian project

To understand this, one must understand the inner contradictions and the class character of Bolivarianism.

Chávez led the movement as a petty-bourgeois populist leader and won the presidency of Venezuela in 1999 and again in 2002. Even though many improvements in the living conditions of the people of Venezuela were achieved during his time in office, his policy was not socialist. His terms of office were marked by leftward and rightward developments, mainly driven by the pressure of the different classes.

As a leftist Bonaparte who apparently stood above the classes but nonetheless served the bourgeoisie, events in the (international) class struggle drove him on the one hand to improve the livelihoods of his mass base but, on the other, also to collaborate with the capitalists and imperialists at the expense of this basis.

Economically, the socialism of the Bolivarian Revolution never went beyond the redistribution of wealth. Nationalisations were generally limited to economically weak companies and were also carried out in a bureaucratic manner. The self-management projects were either marginalised or closely linked to the distribution network of bureaucracy, that is, they were incorporated. The economic basis of capitalism in Venezuela and, therefore, the material basis of the ruling class, remained intact.

The Venezuelan capitalist state was not smashed under Chávez, nor was any revolutionary break sought. He left it intact and only reformed it by means of a new constitution. The same was true for the army. Even if Chávez made changes in the upper ranks, he maintained the structure of the army and the officer caste. Even less has changed in the police, which is considered to be more conservative and closer to the right. There was no talk of workers’ or soldiers’ councils or of a workers’ militia, even if the “Socialism of the 21st century” was proclaimed and a rhetorical high point was celebrated in 2008.

Because of the mediating role between capital and the working class, no clear industrialisation project in the form of a planned economy could be enforced and neither was there any adequate land reform. That would have needed a full break with the capitalist class and the expropriation of their property, which Chávism could not accomplish.

The Venezuelan state remained a bourgeois state and the regime a bourgeois regime that only pretended to stand above the classes and ultimately undertook the utopian attempt to balance their opposed interests by means of a populist reform strategy.

Until the deep crisis of 2013, this was still possible because the overall social wealth grew, giving a basis for redistribution, which resulted in an improvement in the situation of the masses. For example, the percentage of those in poverty fell from 50 percent in 1998 to 25-30 percent in 2013, and extreme poverty was halved from 20 percent to 10 percent in the same period. The current crisis situation, however, puts even these achievements in question.

After the opposition’s victory in the parliamentary elections in December 2015, it set about getting rid of Maduro. His response to this, as well as to the growing economic crisis, has been very contradictory. On the one hand, he has concentrated more power in the hands of the government and executive; the country has been in a state of emergency since the beginning of 2016. On the other hand, pseudo-democratic initiatives such as the “Constituent Assembly” are constantly being launched, which are somehow supposed to draw in the opposition. Of course, they reject this. Their aim is the overthrow of the government and the whole Bolivarian Project, not to find an “understanding”.

Even more contradictory and devastating, however, is Maduro’s balance sheet in the economic and social field. In order to overcome the crisis in Venezuela, what is needed is not compensation or further concessions to capital, but to intervene against private property in the key economic sectors.

Safeguarding food supplies, overcoming speculation and bringing down inflated prices cannot be achieved simply by granting wage increases. For example, wages increased by 60 percent in May 2017 but hyperinflation has reached 600-700 percent.

Instead, what is necessary is for the state to socialise the whole food industry and the large estates without compensation. Production should be continued under the control of workers or, in many cases, be restarted. In order to combat speculation and the black market, direct exchange between the consumers in the cities and the workers in the agricultural sector would have to be made via trade unions and district committees.

In order to defend the achievements of the last two decades, the masses must go beyond the limits of the Bolivarian Strategy. To defend the revolution and secure the supply of the population, they must go beyond its half-measures and put bourgeois property itself in question.

However, workers, farmers and the urban poor should not rely on the state apparatus or the government. Instead, they must demand the means to secure the revolution from Maduro and his regime. On the one hand, this should revolve around the slogan of expropriation, control of production and distribution and a plan to supply the population.

On the other hand, they also need the means to defend themselves against a possible counter-revolution. A programme of food supply, the distribution of foodstuffs to the needy, decisive action against saboteurs and black marketeers will certainly be met with the violent resistance of the Right, whether in the form of opposition thugs, their paramilitaries, criminals or US-supported armed forces, or the army and the police going over to the side of the Right.

Against this, only the arming of the masses, the formation of militias by workers, peasants and the urban poor would be a reliable defence. The police should be dissolved and replaced by such militias. Those in the security forces who are closest to the masses could provide weapon training. At the same time, the creation of soldiers’ committees in the army would have to be tackled and there would have to be a purge of unreliable and counter-revolutionary elements.

These measures are necessary in order to secure the existing achievements of the revolution, food supplies for the masses and to get the economy going again. At the same time, they would be the combat organs of the masses, which would have to be generalised nationwide and expanded and centralised into councils of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ delegates. As such, they could lay the basis for going beyond Bolivarianism in practice.

It is upon these institutions, not those of the bourgeois-bureaucratic state apparatus, that a workers’ and peasants’ government, which advocates a democratically planned economy, a socialist transformation of the economy and the revolution in the whole of Latin America, has to be based.

The whole history of Bolivarianism shows that the leadership of Maduro is not ready for this, but is sticking to the course of cooperation with the bourgeoisie.

Revolutionaries, therefore, have to combine a policy of joint struggle with the Bolivarian leadership and Maduro against the US-supported counter-revolution with demands on them to provide the masses with the necessary means to act resolutely against the reaction, to expropriate capitalists and to stop the repression against the left.

This is all the more important because a victory of the counter-revolution under the MUD and US imperialism would mean not only unbridled neo-liberalism, but also, in all probability, the establishment of a dictatorship to dismantle the mass movement that Chávism brought forth. If today’s bourgeois press is talking about “the dictator Maduro”, it should not blind us to the fact that a counter-revolution of the old oligarchy and imperialism could hardly “stabilize” Venezuela without extremely dictatorial measures.

It would therefore be politically shortsighted, even criminal, to equate Chávism with the right opposition. The fact that both “ultimately” defend bourgeois property does not mean that the masses should be indifferent to which camp is victorious or how. Rather, the looming counter-revolution of the Right necessitates a united front policy towards the PSUV and Maduro.

Such a policy, however, must not be confused with political support for the regime. Precisely the current situation requires a critical balance of recent years. More, it requires a break with the populist policy of Chávism and its strategy.

Its wavering policy will lead to conflicts with the working class and the rural population. In order to ensure that the resulting splits and movements away from Chávism do not give an advantage to the Right, revolutionaries must promote an action programme and call on the existing organisations of the working class, whether reformist or populist, to form a united front in the fight against the pro-imperialist opposition.

In recent years, groupings have formed to the left of the Bolivarian Party, the PSUV, and there is also growing dissatisfaction within its own base. Revolutionaries must relate to these forces and emphasise the need to build a revolutionary workers’ party as an alternative to Bolivarianism.