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Venezuela at the crossroads

Article originally written in Spanish for the latest issue of the Chilean anarchist paper Solidaridad- The recent events that have shaken Venezuela reflect not only the level of interference that the USA maintains in the region or the pervasive coup-mongering trend in the Venezuelan elite which knows by heart the manual of the Chilean coup strategy. It primarily reflects the latent tensions in the Venezuelan model which should start to work themselves out from below, through struggle. Today more than ever we need critiques to be the essential tool of revolutionaries, rather than the attitude of passive approval of everything the Bolivarian leadership does.

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Venezuela at the crossroads
3 March, 2014 – by José Antonio Gutiérrez D.

The recent events that have shaken Venezuela reflect not only the level of interference that the USA maintains in the region or the pervasive coup-mongering trend in the Venezuelan elite which knows by heart the manual of the Chilean coup strategy. It primarily reflects the latent tensions in the Venezuelan model which should start to work themselves out from below, through struggle. Today more than ever we need critiques to be the essential tool of revolutionaries, rather than the attitude of passive approval of everything the Bolivarian leadership does.

The genesis of Bolivarianism

An event that marked the recent history of Venezuela was the Caracazo, that gigantic, spontaneous popular mobilization the structural adjustment measures decreed by the Social-Democratic government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1989, which was drowned in the blood of between 500 and 2,000 Venezuelans. It is surprising to note that to date there are no reliable figures on the number of dead, which to some extent reflects their status as “nobodies”, “disposable”, “marginal”. After earning a reputation for his coup attempt in 1992 – in direct response to a government widely seen as illegitimate by the working classes – the retired officer Hugo Chávez Frías stood in the 1999 elections, an outsider in the circles of power which, during the so-called Punto Fijo period, divided up bureaucratic quotas between two parties. His populist, direct speeches, his denunciation of a status quo increasingly tired out by the oil crisis which eroded the corrupt networks of clientelism, immediately captured the fascination of the majority, alienated by the political-economic system.

Although his first redistributive measures were timid, Chávez immediately alienated the elite because for the first time in the history of the republic they were displaced from the circles of power. This abrupt change was ratified in 1999 by the constituent assembly, where the old parties ended up disappearing. The new Constitution, which even the Right led today by Capriles lays claim to, has established certain social guarantees and rights that have benefited sectors previously excluded from access to health or education, counter to the neoliberal trends that dominate throughout the world. Principles of participatory forms of democracy are also experimented with through the institutionalization of Poder Ciudadano (Citizen Power). From the point of view of guarantees, this Constitution is almost unique in recognizing the right of civil disobedience in cases where the government violates the Constitution.

The years that followed the Constitution were turning points in the leftist turn of the Chavista political project; at each attempt to remove him from power, the masses at the grassroots of the Bolivarian project responded with increased demands. Some of these measures included the April 2002 coup and then came the bosses’ lockout from December 2002 to February 2003, both decisively defeated by popular mobilization and support from the Army for the process. The lockout, which was centred on a shutdown of oil production, saw workers self-manage sectors of that industry so as to keep the economy running. In this process, the rentier capitalist class became worn out and important areas of it were ousted from a significant centre of power when Chávez fired 19,000 technicians, directors and middle managers. The Bolivarian project thus took control of oil revenues and set about a series of social programmes called “missions”, through which the newly conquered social rights were extended to the most marginalized areas of the country. But even in this process, the experience of self-management came to an end and albeit with new faces, there was a return to the same labour dynamics as before.

But it was only after the victory in the recall referendum of 2004 and his overwhelming victory in the presidential elections of December 2006, that he dared publicly to describe his project as “Socialism of the 21st Century”.

Socialism of the 21st Century

Chávez now defined the five motors of the construction of socialism: the nationalization of telecommunications and electricity; control of 60% of Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA, state-owned oil and gas company) of the multinational oil operations; constitutional reform to declare Venezuela a Bolivarian, Socialist republic; political education and ideological struggle to overcome capitalist prejudice, a new system of territorial administration of the country in line with the people’s needs; and the development of organisms of community power. It was intended with these measures to move from developmentalism to poder popular (people’s power).

The first measures to promote people’s power, such as urban land committees, invariably came from above, while the main emphasis continued to be redistribution through the missions, which were skillfully created by-passing the structures of the State’s administrative bureaucracy, mixing social mobilization with Army participation. These bodies provided perhaps the most spectacular achievements of the Bolivarian project, such as the virtual elimination of illiteracy.

Other initiatives yielded more mixed results due to distortions caused by the oil-rentier economy and Dutch Disease, together with the persistence of the clientelist, bloated State. Land reform is a good case in point. Venezuela imports 70% of its foodstuffs, 12% of its population is rural and 5% of landowners in 1997 controlled 80% of the land. Since 2005, various farmers have received land and migration from urban areas to rural ones has been stimulated; however, it has not been easy to achieve the goal of food sovereignty because the distortion of the oil economy makes food production more expensive than that of Venezuela’s neighbours. Paradoxically, Mercal, the subsidized stores, sell most of the imported food because its cheaper price. And to the slow expansion of food production (lower than demand), the problem of sabotage and stockpiling must be added.

Workers’ control too is contradictory. The first expropriations by Chávez came about up to 2005, when some companies went under the control of the workers, alone or together with the State. But radicalized workers who were demanding the abandoning of old-style management patterns, consideration of not only profit but the need and sustainability as productive criteria or an end to the division between manual and intellectual workers, found their bitterest enemies in the Labour Ministry itself, while Chávez distanced himself from the “radicals” until in 2009 his interest in them was reborn with the need to fight against the “corrupt”. Many companies were left isolated in the swindle that was “socialism in one factory”, while sectors of the left denounced this adventurism, opting for purely statist schemes. But beyond the existing industries, the dream of economic diversification remained elusive: the economy continued to be dominated by oil revenues and the creation of initiatives such as cooperatives fell into a vicious circle – the exchange rate distorted by the rentier economy did not help competitiveness in the market in accordance with the capitalist laws in force in Venezuela and the region, and the subsidies and support for these diversification initiatives depended on oil revenues, which reinforced the structural weakness of the productive economy. …more

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