- Created: Thursday, 17 December 2015 12:41
- Written by Sam Mcgill
'Self-criticism is to correct, to rectify, not to continue doing everything in a vacuum ... either independence or nothing, either the commune or nothing!'
Hugo Chavez – 'Golpe de timon' (Strike at the Helm) speech, 20 October 2012
Venezuela's 6 December National Assembly elections represent the biggest electoral loss for the Bolivarian Revolution in its 17-year history. The Venezuelan right-wing have secured a two thirds 'super majority' with the Round-table of Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition winning 109 seats, alongside the election of three opposition aligned indigenous national assembly legislators. This gives the Venezuelan opposition a massive majority over the coalition aligned with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) which only won 55 seats. The death of Hugo Chavez in 2013, the prolonged economic war and the international campaign against Venezuela, coupled with the PSUV government’s reluctance to confront head on the private sector’s strangulation of the economy, pushed many to switch sides and vote for the MUD's undefined promise of 'change'.
This represents a major blow to the revolutionary forces in Venezuela, which since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 have counted on parliamentary electoral power to promote working class interests. The two-thirds majority gives the right-wing significant powers to block the government spending necessary for the continuation of Venezuela's extensive social missions, impose or remove government ministers, dismiss vice president Jorge Arreaza, call for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution and seek to remove President Nicolas Maduro, either through initiating a recall referendum, or appointing Supreme Court judges to vote for his impeachment. From the moment the new assembly assumes power on 5 January 2016, the Bolivarian Chavista movement will cease to have legislative control over the country and the MUD will have the means to derail every attempt to pass new laws advancing the interests of the working class and poor.
The MUD have already published a list of measures they will seek to introduce when they come into office. This includes; a general amnesty for Leopoldo Lopez and 'political prisoners' many of whom have been convicted for their part in violent protests which resulted in deaths and destruction of public property, revoking the law of fair prices which seeks to provide food and basic necessities at subsidised prices, privatising state enterprises and services including water, electricity, telecommunications, ports and airports, while giving foreign companies concessions and reversing expropriations. They seek to reform labour conditions, undermining the organic labour law (LOTTT) which protects workers against sub-contracting, outsourcing and arbitrary dismissals. By planning to strengthen local police forces, the MUD seeks to undermine the National Bolivarian Police as a nationally accountable force, promoting corrupt state and municipal police forces that have so often been used to bolster the interests of local mayors and governors, acting with impunity. MUD wants to grant legal ownership of the housing units provided by the Housing Mission to tenants, allowing homes to be let out or sold on, opening the door for the near one million collectively-owned homes to become commodities for private landlords. This is just the beginning, if the MUD is successful with these measures: the social missions, communal councils and communes, and laws favouring landless peasants will be next.
However, right-wing legislative power does not mean the end of the Bolivarian revolution. Full implementation of even the initial programme outlined for the incoming assembly will provoke popular resistance and the right-wing is divided with no ideological clarity beyond the destruction of the Chavista movement. The MUD coalition is a loose grouping of 22 political parties and individual celebrities. Over the last two years a split within Venezuela's opposition has widened. The extreme right-wing favours violent action to destabilise and topple the PSUV government. Its main representatives, Leopoldo Lopez, Maria Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma, led last year's 'La Salida' (exit) campaign which saw 43 dead after months of violent street barricades. They propose a neo-liberal agenda of privatisation and the 'free' market, with close collaboration with the US and spending cuts to housing, health care, education, and subsidised food missions which have lifted the majority of the population out of poverty.
Opposed to this strategy, the more moderate wing of the opposition favours an electoral strategy, led by twice presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and leader of the traditional Accion Democractica party, Henry Ramos Allup, who is widely tipped to become president of the incoming national assembly. This moderate opposition has thrived by assimilating some of the characteristics of the Bolivarian Movement, championing nationalism and national symbols, declaring support for the continuation of the social missions and suppressing an underlying neo-liberal discourse to keep the masses on board whilst they dismantle the structures of the Bolivarian revolution. Already there have been public arguments and splits in the coalition, with Capriles failing to turn up for the MUD's initial press conference, then holding his own press conference at the same time as an official MUD broadcast. The two-thirds super-majority can only function if there is perfect unity between this fractious coalition.
The MUD's electoral campaign was devoid of concrete proposals, relying on vague slogans of 'change' and economic improvement to win support from the mass of people, demoralised and discontented through the prolonged inflation and scarcity of goods. Addressing the parallel economy and run-away inflation will not be straightforward. The private sector can no longer use hoarding and speculation as a political tool and blame all of Venezuela's economic woes on Maduro and steps towards socialism. Many have begun to denounce the reappearance of previously scarce goods on supermarket shelves as suspicious, posting photographs on social media of goods now on shelves with expiry dates that ran out five months ago, evidence that the goods were hoarded in the country in the run up to the elections, with private interests playing politics with hunger.
The extreme right-wing is pushing for loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in return for the removal of price and currency controls, privatisation of key assets and austerity measures. If the MUD removes price controls this could push the prices of basic items even higher. Meanwhile there are whole sections of society, from small-scale street vendors and middle-class holiday makers to domestic private importers and multinational monopolies who have profited from access to preferential dollars through fraud, speculation and currency scams. They will not look favourably on the dismantling of their money-spinning schemes. In the context of the global economic crisis, the removal of currency controls will allow unlimited capital flight from the country, with vulture funds seeking to buy up and profit from Venezuela's debt, following the Argentinian example.
Similar neo-liberal reforms have had catastrophic results within living memory. Following economic crisis and the collapse of oil prices, in 1989 Accion Democratica’s President Carlos Andres Perez imposed a harsh neo-liberal IMF programme, which included privatising state companies, regressive tax changes, reducing customs duties, and diminishing the role of the state in the economy. The elimination of gas subsidies saw petrol prices rise by as much as 100%, with a direct impact on public transport and the cost of food which rose 30% overnight. This immediately sparked the ‘Caracazo’, a wave of protests and riots in February 1989 which were brutally repressed by the military and police, massacring up to 3000 people. Austerity, corruption, rising poverty and crime led to continued political instability and inflation. The memory of neo-liberalism and the Caracazo is entrenched in popular consciousness, with revolutionary forces marking its anniversary each February. The right-wing will not have an easy ride implementing it's agenda.
The future of the Bolivarian revolution will now depend on its base: the communes and the communal councils, the social movements and workers organisations. The extent to which the PSUV leadership recognises this and gives space and expression to the grassroots will be decisive. Whilst the electoral results represent a parliamentary loss of power, the Bolivarian movement has always run much deeper than official elections and government posts.
17 years of electoral power was preceded by protracted decades of class struggle in Venezuela. From a civilian-military movement that overthrew the military junta of Perez Jiminez in 1958, to communist guerillas fighting in the mountains in the 1960s, to the Caracazo and other urban uprisings in the 1980s, this history of class struggle was the backdrop to the military rebellion led by Hugo Chavez in 1992. The uprising failed and Chavez was imprisoned, however he was able to state on live television that 'for now' the objectives of overthrowing the neo-liberal state had not been met. The slogan 'for now' spawned a protest movement which led to his pardon four years later. From that point the Bolivarian movement changed tack, setting its sights on presidential elections which Chavez won in 1998. The experience of electoral power within the framework of a capitalist state dependent on exporting oil, resulted in many battles with the entrenched elite and oligarchy, backed by US imperialism. The Chavistas faced down a coup, an oil lock-out, media battles and violent street protests, learning important lessons at each turn. The limitations of negotiating with private business, reliance on oil exports, and a 'third way' between socialism and capitalism became clear; the struggle for dignity and sovereignty, against poverty and austerity, became a struggle for socialism.
The movement used its legislative power to foster a parallel form of democracy and production, focused on empowering communities to organise and meet their own needs. Oil revenues were channelled into social missions producing new layers of popular educators, people learned to read using their new constitution as a text book, networks of communal councils and communes were set up to experiment in participatory democracy and communal economic production. Waves of nationalisations and expropriations gave impetus for workers’ committees to take control over factories and industries, political space was given to build strong social movements fighting for women’s rights, indigenous rights and land rights. Whole communities were engaged in directing the construction of new houses, establishing stable dignified communities out of the desperate poverty of the tin box slums.
This process of course, was accompanied by mistakes and challenges. Some projects were abandoned, falling apart due to lack of direction or support, some expropriated factories were marred by waste and inefficiency. Some of the missions were tainted by corruption, dogged by the clientalism and cronyism that accompanies oil production, but it is impossible to imagine any real societal change without elements of trial and error. Despite this, the forces engaged in the process have gained years of crucial political training, experience in participatory democracy, communal production, organisation and agitation. The political and social gains of the last 17 years will not be destroyed without a fight.
The Bolivarian Revolution may have reached the limits of progress within bourgeois democracy 'for now', but just as the Caracazo and failed 1992 uprising gave birth to a new political era of Chavista electoral power, the coming right-wing offensive could propel the revolutionary movement into the next stage of class struggle, the seizure of state and economic power. This will require new revolutionary leadership to be forged from the cross-class parliamentary alliance of the PSUV and Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) of political parties and social movements, a process that can only be determined through the battles to come.
Since the election, President Maduro, has called for debate, investigation and action, and has convened a special meeting of the GPP, special meetings of the 'presidential councils of popular power', who were elected from the grassroots in 2013, and an extraordinary congress of the PSUV. Across the country the streets have been alive with grassroots assemblies; 'hot corners' of discussions, communal council meetings and debates, as revolutionaries aim to hold 1,000 communal parliaments nationwide.
This has been accompanied by plans drawn up by Maduro and the PSUV government to facilitate the coming resistance in January and beyond. The immediate focus is to prioritise ten basic food products including rice, meat and maize flour, centralising the importation, distribution and sale of goods within existing state networks, and supplying the communes with the inputs they need for production of key items. The outgoing national assembly hopes to introduce new property laws for water distribution, public transport and popular education, giving communities more power to block the privatisation of this infrastructure. An initial battle is developing over public and community media. In response to Henry Ramos Allup's threat of the closure or take over of ANTV – the television station of the national assembly, the outgoing legislators handed over ownership and control of the station to its workers. Journalists and community radio, print and television communication workers then held a special street assembly in Caracas to discuss and organise resistance to right-wing plans of dismantling state media, preparing to defend the continued democratisation of media.
Now more than ever do Chavez's parting demands in his 'Golpe de timon' speech ring true. To survive the Bolivarian movement must engage in real self-criticism and listen to the demands of the poorest, challenge the private means of production and structures of representative democracy, make a strike at the helm and change direction. The communes or nothing!
How the economic war was won – a view from Venezuela
'The situation of the last two years in our country, since the death of Commander Chavez, has been very difficult. Since that time, the right realised that they could begin to penetrate Chavismo; the whole of the bourgeois forces of production came under the control of the empire and gradually they began to decrease production. Empresas Polar, which is the company that controls 75% of the food production market, lowered its production, alleging that the government did not provide the dollars to maintain the company at its full capacity. There began the so-called economic war.
Our government decided to fight it through the importation of food using preferential dollars (of 6.3 bolivars to the dollar). This strategy began well, but corrupters in key positions in government saw an opportunity to profit, and then this strategy began to fail. Also other public officials who have access to food products (for sale) set up parallel distribution chains, charging extremely high prices that allowed the bourgeoisie access to food without queuing.
Private banks also began their own scheme to destroy the stability of Bolivar. Banks began to collect 100bs and 50bs notes (the highest denomination at this time) sending large quantities to the border with Colombia, so that so-called Colombian money-changers could diminish the value of the Bolivar in their exchange booths, forcing the Central Bank to print more banknotes. When the Central Bank did this, the private banks began to offer loans and increased credit card limits, all with the firm intention of generating excess liquidity.
Of course, since everything was scarce, prices began to rise rapidly, and the President enacted the law of fair prices, looking for a way to control this onslaught. But this was not enough. The bourgeoisie, when under pressure from the law, responded by ceasing production or minimising it. The salaries of our people were increased by the President (four increases of the minimum wage this year), but not at the same pace as this overwhelming inflation. For example, I started on a monthly wage of 28,000bs in January, this was raised to 40,000bs a month, but the basic food basket is 75,000bs a month for us waged workers. Our only recourse was to queue up in government supermarkets where we could acquire the same basic food basket food for about 15,000bs, but sadly we could not get everything in the same place, and proteins were the most difficult to find in these shops. This situation began to generate discontent in our population, the queues were infiltrated by people paid by the right-wing parties who criticised the government, throwing all the blame for the economic situation on the socialist model of the Bolivarian revolution.
The government has made great efforts to explain to the people all the reasons for this situation, but this was not enough. Most of our candidates ran popular campaigns delivering food bags or appliances, but of course, these actions also generate corruption and cronyism. Some candidates managed to connect with the people and discuss with them, join forces and call for solidarity in communities to fight hunger. Several trueke (non monetary exchange) systems for basic items were created, and these candidates achieved a positive outcome, but of course they were a minority.
I want you to know that we have very high morale and despite the difficult situation, we are directing our strength. All is not lost, we are meeting, reorganising and making proposals that will be taken to the president.
Homeland, Socialism or Death! We will overcome!'
Jesus, grassroots activist in Caracas