What is happening in Venezuela?

Our comrade Simón Rodríguez Porras from the Freedom and Socialism Party from Venezuela (Partido Socialismo y Libertad-PSL) writes about the latest protests facing the country, denounces the repression from both the state and the right and presents a proposal by revolutionary socialists that can lay the groundwork to mobilize workers, students and popular sectors in the face of austerity and working-class attacks implemented by the PSUV government, right wing politicians, multinationals and the bosses.


By Simón Rodríguez Porras

The images of thousands of protesters on the streets of the main cities in Venezuela, the military deployment, the armed actions of civil groups, the government’s denouncements of a coup from one end and the accusations from the patronal opposition leadership of what they consider new evidence of the fact that the political regime is dictatorial on the other have been globally disseminated over the past two weeks. Whoever tries to comprehend the situation we are going through notes that the presentation of the events are so thoroughly intertwined with the propaganda of each disputing faction that it is hard to assume a critical position. It could be said that this same situation itself is not new, 12 years after the coup attempt that inaugurated an acute political polarisation. Nevertheless the distance that separates the current situation from that of 2002 is such that in many aspects it is its antithesis.

The current crisis is preceded by a chavismo electoral victory. Relying on a campaign against the speculation on consumer goods in which several companies took part in, the government won the December mayoral elections with 71,64% of the seats contested, obtaining approximately 49% of the total votes, some nine percentage points above the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), the patronal opposition coalition. The MUD had campaigned under the connotation that the elections were a plebiscite on Maduro’s government, and failed. Nevertheless, it was a chavista victory relativized by the worsening of the economic crisis. The year 2013 closed with the highest index of inflation and shortages since the current government took power in 1999. The government’s false promise that the so-called ‘fair prices’ would be consolidated through the intervention on private commerce quickly clashed with reality. With the policies of the Venezuelan Central Bank (BCV) which had increased the monetary mass by 70% throughout the year 2013, the inflation index reached 56,2%, and only on the months of November and December, in the midst of electoral campaigning, the inflation was of 7%. As for the shortage index, according to the BCV the average for the years 2003-2013 was 13,3%, but by January 2014 shortages were registered at 28% (26,2% of these being food shortages). Between 2012 and 2013, the overcharging on imports exceeded 20 billion dollars, and Maduro was forced to admit publicly that the government had failed to make the necessary checks on the granting of foreign currency to import corporations. International reserves fell by 8.017 million dollars, throughout 2013, with 2014 opening at 21.736 million dollars.

Facing this situation, the government made use of the political capital gained in its victory to start negotiations with the leadership of the MUD, with the objective of obtaining support for the economic adjustment measures the government planned to implement. In a typical instance of chavismo’s zigzagging, ten days after the elections and the government’s victory against ‘fascism’, Maduro cordially met in Miraflores with the majority of the elected mayors and governors from the MUD, and set about discussing the economic measures to take. Among these, there was a call to implement a raise on the highly subsidised fuel prices. Following this, the MUD announces its support for the raise, and states that it ‘puts at the Executive’s disposition its technical and political resources to reach the highest degree of consensus on a matter of crucial importance for the lives of Venezuelans’. (http://www.el-nacional.com/politica/MUD-dispuesta-participar-aumento-gasolina_0_321568006.html). In subsequent meetings with Maduro and the interior ministry in which the main leader of the MUD, Henrique Capriles, takes part the regional and local authorities exchange joint security plans. This closes the impasse opened in the elections of April 2013, the results of which had yet to be recognised by the MUD.

On January 22, the government announced a devaluation of 79% for import goods not considered essential, as well as for the currency made available for travellers and electronic purchases. In this manner, the economic adjustment began. Despite the support received from the MUD for the increase in fuel prices, the government delayed the implementation of this measure in fears of the social reaction it could cause. Before, Chávez’s leadership enabled the government to implement unpopular measures with much less resistance, due to his charisma and personal prestige before large segments of the population. Maduro suffers from great deficiencies in this sense, and the negotiations with the MUD as well as the devaluation received great criticism from leftist activists in the chavista base. In the conflicts between sectors of the PSUV there began to emerge public accusations of a turn towards the right in the government.

As for the MUD, as a result of its election loss the confrontations between factions increased. While the majority wing, headed by Capriles and the traditional parties, entered negotiations with the government, the wing headed by Leopoldo López of the Voluntad Popular (VP) party and the national assembly deputy María Corina Machado began, on February 2, a campaign under the slogan ‘the exit is in the streets’ with a gathering in Caracas’ Plaza Brión. It is interesting to note that the majority of mentions of López in the yankee diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks refer to the conflicts he has with other leaders of the established opposition, known for its links with the US government. Also taking part in the February 2 gathering were the ex-Maoist Bandera Roja, the metropolitan mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma and the president of the Federation of University Centres from the Central University of Venezuela, Juan Requesens. There they announce plans for a march on February 12 in Caracas. Simultaneously, in the Nueva Esparta state, xenophobic protests were carried out against the Cuban baseball team that took part in the Caribbean Series tournament held there. As part of the campaign initiated by VP, starting from February 4, the first student protests began in San Cristóbal and Mérida, cities located in the Venezuelan Andes region. Presenting itself as a more intransigent and radical sector, VP and its allies within the MUD attempted to gain the direction of the coalition, capitalising on the disastrous economic and social situation of the country to gain followers for a right-wing exit to the crisis.

The first protests were carried out by a few dozen activists, and were clearly provocative in actions such as that carried out against the residence of the Táchira state governor or a few armed actions in Mérida. There were also police excesses; for example, in Mérida, the police inflicted serious injuries on a student that was not taking part in the protests. Some of those detained in San Cristóbal were moved to the Coro prison, 500 kilometres away from the state in which they were arrested. The main demands of these protests were against insecurity, but nearing the February 12 some started demanding that Maduro resign. On its end, the governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) begins to make use of armed paramilitary shock groups to dissolve protests, independently of whether these were peaceful or violent, and to attack residential areas. An instance of these were the aggressions against the Monseñor Chacón residencies in Mérida, a site in which a cacerolazo was taking place, in which two persons were wounded. The protests on February 12, carried out in 18 of the country’s cities, changed the content of the original demands. The protests became about the liberation of the detained students and the rejection of the repressive practices of the state and their affiliated armed groups. In the country’s interior, where the shortages and crises in public services are much more severe than in the capital, the protesters made demands relating to these issues.

The two factions of the MUD were clearly surpassed by the size of the mobilisations, to which there was an underlying current of discontent from the majority of the population over the economic crisis and the adjustment measures taken by the government. The PSUV held a few marches and gatherings the same day of lesser magnitude. In Caracas events happened which were conductive towards an important change in the development of the protests. In the surroundings of the Attorney General offices, once the main march that had begun in Plaza Venezuela was dispersed, there remained students and activists who confronted the police with stones and caused damages to the façade of the government building. Through the National Police, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) and the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana (GNB)—with the support of pro-government armed groups—the students were repressed with live ammunition, with a death toll of two: a youth who died from a shot to the back, Bassil Da Costa, and Juan Montoya, a policeman from the Libertador municipality that formed part of one of the pro-government armed groups that intervened in the protests. According to the family and friends of Montoya, a state policeman had shot him. Afterwards, in another area of the city, one of the protesters that had aided Da Costa, Roberto Redman, was murdered. From a motorbike, civilians fired upon a group of people, killing Redman and wounding five others. That same night, the coordinator of PROVEA, an organisation in defence of human rights, was kidnapped by armed men without uniform that had identified themselves as SEBIN agents, who took his mobile phone and after hitting and threatening him with death for several hours, freed him.

The newspaper Últimas Noticias, whose editorial line is favorable to chavismo, published an investigation that documented the acts carried out by the SEBIN in the surroundings of the Attorney General offices, and the use of live ammunition against a group of protesters that were running away from them in the moment that Da Costa was shot. (http://laclase.info/nacionales/tiro-limpio-repelieron-manifestacion-del-12f). Initially, Maduro blamed the protesters for the deaths, and made sure that on the country a ‘script’ was being applied similar to the 2002 coup, but afterwards retracted and asserted that SEBIN had acted on its own and removed the force’s chief. Without a doubt, the actions of the government and the pro-government armed groups on February 12 marked a point of inflection, generating protests on a new scale despite the fact that Maduro, on that same night, announced that the government would no longer allow any marches without its authorisation.

At the moment of writing these lines, in the protests following February 12, six more persons have died, almost 200 are estimated to have been wounded by firearms and lead shots with the majority of these as a result of the actions of pro-government armed groups and the GNB, while a further 40 people remain detained. Multiple cases of torture and humiliating treatment against detainees by the state police and military bodies have been reported. Despite the militarisation of San Cristóbal and Mérida in response to the protests, these continue and many areas of those cities have been blocked off with barricades.

Most of the information regarding the protests is circulated through the internet and social media, while the main television channels—both those of the state and the private media—follow a line in which live reports nor images that the National Commission for Telecommunications (CONATEL) considers to incite violence are broadcast. Due to the difficulties in obtaining paper imports, most independent newspapers have significantly reduced their number of pages, and some regional newspapers have been brought out of circulation. In addition to this, the owners of much of the private media in Venezuela have aligned themselves with the government, which has led to press workers such as those of the Cadena Capriles to organise assemblies to oppose to the editorial line imposed by the newspaper’s owners and restrictions on the right to information. The government has even removed from cable and satellite services international a Colombian channel that informed on the Venezuelan situation.

The government appeals to presenting itself as a victim to an ongoing coup and compares the current situation with that of April 2002. Nevertheless, this comparison cannot be maintained rationally. There are no pronouncements against the government nor desertions in the armed forces, of which its medium and upper command is strongly associated with the government and the bourgeois sector that directs the state, popularly known as the ‘boliburguesia’—the bolivarian bourgeois, a good part of which is composed by military men themselves. The majority of the MUD leadership does not follow ‘the exit’ campaign promoted by Voluntad Popular and has publicly polemicized with López. The Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce (Fedecámaras)—a key organisation in the 2002 coup and representative of capitalist interests—is not calling for a strike, and nor is the union bureaucracy adhered to the MUD. In plain crisis, the country’s major capitalist, Gustavo Cisneros, announced his support for the government while the transnational Repsol signed a financing agreement with the state oil company PDVSA for 1200 million dollars. The leadership of the Catholic Church has not had a belligerent role. Maduro has tried to establish friendlier relations with the U.S. government, and less than a year ago the Minister of Foreign Affairs Elías Jaua met with the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to announce intentions to re-establish diplomatic ties between both countries. Maduro called on Obama last week to appoint a new ambassador in Caracas. The handing over of López to the authorities, who had ordered his capture over his responsibility for the February 12 murders, is difficult to ascribe to a logic in which there is an imminent military assault—led by his party—on the government. Besides the fact that the entire leadership of the MUD, Capriles’ faction as well as López’s, were involved in the 2002 coup and that the opposition bourgeoisie has made use of the coup as part of its past actions, there objectively exist no indications that such process is underway at these moments. Instead, it is verifiable that the government has curtailed the democratic freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, under the alibi of its anti-coup propaganda. From there starts the main task of the left and the social organisations which is of opposing to this attack on our democratic freedoms without ceasing to warn that the MUD does not represent a political alternative that is conductive to overcoming the problems that plague the majority of the population.

The use of armed collectives by the government to dissolve protests is an extremely reactionary resource that must be opposed. The mechanisms of censorship, by the way of deals or co-action imply to an equal extent an attack to the people’s right to information that foregrounds the incompatibility of this right with the private property of the means of communication and with the bureaucratic management of the state media. The SEBIN, a repressive body with a long history of violating human rights since its creation under the initials of DISIP in 1969, must be dissolved and its archives on repression opened to the public. All those detained in protests must be freed, and an investigation must be carried out on the repression and the murders carried out by police, military and paramilitary bodies in reaction to the protests. Beyond the protests, the open trials against over three hundred workers, peasants and indigenous people over protesting must be closed. These are the democratic demands that all those who claim themselves revolutionaries must raise, and place them against the doctrine of national security promoted by Maduro, which puts the interests of the capitalist state above social justice and rights.

As the days pass the expressions of protest spread, through the cacerolazos, to the poorer sectors of Caracas and other cities of the country, in barrios that were for a long time bastions of chavismo. This is evidence of the disapproval that the liberal economic adjustment measures proposed by the government are met with by the impoverished majorities. Once again, these demands overcome the MUD’s leadership, who say nothing on this regard. Evidently, the MUD cannot propose anything in this sense, due to its compromises with the establishment, with the transnational capital and the imperialist governments of Europe and the U.S.

Raising an agenda of social and economic justice, alongside those of democratic freedoms, is a task that can only be fulfilled by leftist organisations not aligned with the government or the MUD. In an article called ‘Venezuela’, the Panamanian songwriter Rubén Blades called for the Venezuelan students to organise ‘beyond the sterile division caused by the government and the opposition’ and to ‘clarify that they won’t accept as the only alternatives those proposed by the two sides in dispute’. Sadly, today the student movement has been co-opted by an opposition that takes part in the government’s same bourgeois political establishment. Despite this, political organisations among them the Partido Socialismo y Libertad (PSL) which attempt to elucidate an autonomous view of the crisis from the perspective of the student movement as well as the popular and worker’s movement, do exist.

The economic and social disaster has dissipated the mirage of the chavista project. Its pretentions of overcoming the structural problems of our country within a capitalist framework, placing its weight on the protagonistic role of the nationalist, military and corporate bourgeoisie has failed and now finds itself in an advance stage of decomposition. The social assistance programs implemented following the defeat of the 2002 coup are past their peak, and since 2007 have entered a recessive dynamic. The corporatization of social organisations continues unabated, strengthening itself with each legal barrier on the right to protest and to strike. We can now see an increased deployment of the repressive and administrative state apparatus to diminish social conflicts, a policy of which the imprisonment of the Yukpa cacique Sabino Romero and the syndicalist Rubén González between 2009 and 2011, alongside the recent detention of ten oil workers who participated in a worker’s assembly at the Puerto La Cruz oil refinery, among them the general secretary of the Unitary Federation of Oil Workers, José Bodas, are clear examples of. In addition to this is the economic debacle, in spite of which the transnational sectors ingrained within the oil industry, the private banks and the import corporations have all come off well. The corollary to all this is that the reactionary utopia of a ‘socialism with capitalists’ has fallen apart. It is now up to the revolutionary left to rescue the banners of socialism that chavismo utilised for its own purposes.

According to official statistics, over nine million people, a third of the population, live under conditions of poverty. Almost three quarters of the public sector workers earn salaries below the cost of the canasta básica—the government’s measure of the minimum required monthly food staples and basic living costs for a household, of which now more than two minimum wages are required to cover. Only in the military sector are there salary increases above the inflation. Undoubtedly, the working class can play a decisive role in facing the government’s political economy, defeat the regression of our democratic rights and raise demands such as a general raise of wages and salaries—a minimum wage equal to the canasta básica, the elimination of the IVA tax, the full nationalisation of the oil industry without joint ventures with transnationals; agrarian reform that guarantees the increase of agricultural production and the access to land for those who labour in it, the rescuing of the basic industries in Guayana and those in poor state and now unproductive that were acquired by the State, support for the territorial demands of the indigenous peoples, the suspension of foreign debt payments and the cancellation of treaties on double taxation signed with the US and other countries, instruments that allow transnationals to evade over 17 billion dollars in taxes annually. The PSL is pushing for an encounter between trade unions and popular organisations to discuss in Caracas, over the first days of March, a unitary agenda of demands as well as a plan of mobilisation. The workers, the students and the popular sectors have a possibility of raising their own voice and resist being cannon fodder to the government or the MUD.