Venezuela ‘the commune or nothing'

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Nicolas maduro 2018

2018 will be a crucial year for Venezuela. Amid crippling economic sanctions, inconclusive peace talks, ever-pressing debt repayment deadlines and sky-high inflation, the nation will go to the polls in presidential elections, probably before the end of April. Sam Mcgill reports.

The opposition MUD coalition is deeply divided. Extremists in the MUD led four months of violent street protests in 2017, leaving over 100 dead. Following the election of a constituent assembly, tasked with addressing the acute political and economic crisis, the violent protests fizzled out, failing to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro and the United Socialist Party (PSUV) government. October’s regional elections dealt the MUD a further blow, leaving the opposition with only four out of 23 state governorships.

Beaten at the ballot box and defeated on the streets, the three main opposition parties boycotted December’s municipal elections, handing a massive majority to the PSUV and its allies in the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP): they won 308 of 335 mayoral seats across the nation, securing 21 of 23 state capitals including the important Caracas district. Whether the MUD can unite around a single presidential candidate remains to be seen.

The PSUV have nominated Nicolas Maduro to stand for a second presidential term. However, December’s municipal election has brought the contradictions between reform and revolution to the fore of the Bolivarian movement. The PSUV was lambasted for failing to hold primary elections which would have enabled local activists to put forward their candidacies; instead the PSUV leadership handpicked the mayoral slate without consultation with the local branches and GPP bases.

With the opposition boycott eliminating the threat of a split vote handing power to the MUD, the municipal elections were seen by many as a chance to promote debate within the Chavista camp. In this context, several communes and revolutionary currents within the Bolivarian revolution defied the handpicked PSUV candidates and fielded their own representatives.

PSUV contradictions sharpen

From 2006, the PSUV, led by late socialist president Hugo Chavez, backed a drive to build popular participatory democracy, promoting the construction of communal councils and communes as a method of self-government in working class and rural communities. Chavez saw the communes as the key building blocks for transforming Venezuela from ‘oil-rentier’ capitalism to a sovereign socialist state. In the final speech he made before his death in March 2013, Chavez famously declared: ‘The commune or nothing!’

Although the initiative has produced mixed results, some communities have harnessed the creative and productive power of their members, developing successful communal enterprises, boosting local production, finding collective solutions to economic hardship and raising political consciousness to become the backbone of the Chavista movement. Often in conflict with the personal fiefdoms of mayors and governors, these communes have presented a collective alternative to bourgeois democracy. This has alarmed reformist trends in the PSUV, which is a cross-class electoral alliance containing revolutionary socialists alongside conservative business leaders who have secured juicy state contracts they are keen to keep within the framework of Venezuelan capitalism. Reining in the communes is crucial to the latter’s strategy of blocking the path to socialist revolution in Venezuela, preventing collective control of the economy and undermining their decision-making power. This contradiction has sharpened in the wake of the municipal elections.

There were some notable victories with ‘Chema’ Romero from the Bolivar and Zamora revolutionary current winning the Paez council in Apure, while communal activist Augusto Espinoza won Cajigal in Sucre province. However, obstacles faced by several candidates have raised doubts about the continuing support of Maduro and the PSUV leadership for the communes and project of participatory democracy.

A case in point is that of Angel Prado, a high-profile commune activist of the El Maizal commune. He secured the backing of 10 local communes and four parties from the GPP, including the ‘Homeland for all’ (PPT) party which agreed to run him on their ticket in substitution for their original candidate, the PSUV’s Jean Ortiz.

El Maizal is one of the most productive and politically conscious communes in the country. Built on land expropriated from absentee landlords, they have developed communal enterprises producing more than 4,000 metric tonnes of corn a year alongside vegetables, cattle, milk and cheese. This has generated finances to build 300 units of social housing and a school, expand electrification, pave roads, and expand dairy production; all overseen and administrated by 22 communal councils that form the commune.

Prado was blocked from appearing on the ballot paper by the electoral council, which stated that as a delegate of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) elected in July, he needed NCA permission to run for mayor. The NCA leadership then refused to grant Prado permission. Controversially, other assembly delegates have stood in regional elections as PSUV candidates without issue. In response, thousands of commune activists mobilised to demand Prado be allowed to stand, travelling nearly 300 miles to Caracas, taking to the streets on consecutive days outside the Constituent Assembly. Despite this there has been no official statement or explanation from the Constituent Assembly or President Maduro.

On election day the commune mobilised for the PPT which received 57% of the local vote. Refusing to acknowledge Prado’s widespread support, the electoral council awarded these votes to Ortiz and the PSUV, prompting fresh protests. The commune has now filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.

Similar frustrations have developed in Monagas. The Communist Party candidate, Regulo Reyna, won 62% of the vote, only to be stripped of his victory after the election by the electoral council who argued that the Constituent Assembly, to which Reyna is also an elected delegate, did not give him permission to stand. Prior to the vote, Reyna’s candidacy had been accepted and his name was on the ballot papers. The Communist Party stood firm, refused to substitute an unelected delegate for Reyna, so the electoral council then appointed a provisional mayor instead.

Concerns have been raised by many including education minister and former vice-president Elias Jaua who demanded ‘differences in Chavismo be resolved politically’. Former Communes Minister Reinaldo Iturriza argued that: ‘Behind [these candidates] there are thousands of people who continue to see the Bolivarian Revolution as the possibility of putting into practice another form of politics, one that we learned with Chavez… It is normal that leaders with these characteristics are rejected by those who have turned the PSUV into a synonym of sectarianism and bureaucratism, imposing “leaders” severely questioned by the people. This should not intimidate us: we do not have any other alternative than to continue fighting to put things in their place.’

US sanctions bite

Transforming the political and economic landscape in Venezuela is an urgent task. 70% of the economy remains in private hands. Banking, food distribution and private media are controlled by oligarchs aligned to the MUD. As detailed in FRFI 260 these powerful networks are engaged in a vicious economic war, sabotaging production, boycotting supply, working hand in glove with imperialist sanctions to strangle the Venezuelan economy. Despite this the PSUV government continues to hand billions of dollars to private companies who deposit their wealth abroad and engage in speculation and hoarding, rather than distribute food and essential goods at regulated prices. Undermining currency controls imposed since 2003, the unofficial exchange rate, which drives up inflation and propels speculation, is manipulated by influential foreign websites like dolartoday. Food at regulated prices is often unavailable, forcing people to survive on monthly bags of basic items provided by committees of local supply and production while their salaries cover less and less of the products available in private supermarkets.

Oil has risen to $70 a barrel for the first time in nearly four years, and export revenues have risen to $32bn. Yet due to brutal economic sanctions imposed by the US, access to international credit is restricted, forcing Venezuela to spend more on debt servicing to avoid default. By October 2017, two months after Trump imposed the latest round of sanctions, imports had dropped 24%.

Problems accessing food and currency prompted unrest in January, with Guyana City experiencing three consecutive days looting of food, cleaning products and debit card readers. January is often a difficult month with bonuses depleted after Christmas and a lag in imports following the holiday shut down. A Caracas bakery was looted after customers complained the owners were refusing to sell bread at regulated prices whilst Guarico state saw a spate of private and state-run food warehouses and banks targeted. While these are currently isolated incidents born out of frustration, they correspond to a real need for the PSUV government to enforce price regulations and take control of import and production distribution. The Constituent Assembly now demands that producers print prices on the packaging of regulated items, though how this will be enforced will be crucial. The opposition forces behind the violent street protests in 2017 will be waiting in the wings to stir up any unrest in the barrios.

The situation is compounded by soaring inflation and bachaquerismo, where regulated items are bought in bulk by people paid to stand in queues, only to be resold for exorbitant prices on unofficial street stalls. Though the central bank has not released any statistics on inflation, the unofficial exchange rate surpassed 200,000 bolivars to the dollar in January while the preferential fixed rate remains at 10 bolivars to the dollar. The Petro, a new cryptocurrency backed by oil reserves, has yet to gain traction and the US Treasury is already threatening potential users with fines for breaking sanctions. Meanwhile, tightening the imperialist noose, the European Union issued sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials in January, marking the first time the EU has taken such direct measures against the Bolivarian government.

Workers at the ‘PetroCedeno’ state oil plant in Anzoategui state have begun protesting about their conditions, deploring a lack of food in the canteen, no soap to wash their hands, no protective clothing and their salaries outstripped by inflation. Determined to be serious critical voices within the Bolivarian revolution, they have so far refused to strike and are working hard to keep the plant producing oil, the life blood of the Venezuelan economy.

Workers’ representative Carlos Okoye stated: ‘There are no guarimberos [violent opposition protesters] here, just flesh and blood workers who are making their best efforts daily to maintain the plant’s production…No one can tell us that we are not revolutionaries. Here there is a workers’ council, the Che Guevara council, that has been at the forefront of political battles, but we can no longer remain silent in the face of injustice’.

Venezuela’s state oil enterprise has been dogged by corruption, evidenced in over 50 arrests of PDVSA officials in recent months. Opportunists in the state oil network have grown fat by creaming off the oil wealth through elaborate smuggling rings, overpricing scams and outright embezzlement. Pressure and oversight from workers’ collectives like the Che Guevara council will be crucial in pushing back, democratising the production of oil.

Despite all barriers, the PSUV government remain committed to preserving social investment. A programme of social welfare payments was announced at the turn of the new year, focusing on pregnant women and pensioners. 72% of 2018’s budget is set to be invested in social policies and the housing mission continues apace with a further 8,781 new homes handed over to families in December, bringing the total to over 1.9 million units of social housing built since 2011.

With presidential elections due this year it is crucial that progress is made to improve economic security. If the MUD field a candidate, Maduro will need to win around nine million votes to secure a victory. Popular assemblies to discuss the political programme of Maduro’s candidacy have begun in earnest. The extent to which the experience of the communes is given political space will be decisive. Democracy within the Bolivarian movement is key.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 262 February/March 2018

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