Venezuela has permanently been on the news during the last few months. The country’s dire economic situation and the violent protests organised by the right-wing opposition to Nicolás Maduro have drawn the attention of Western media, which usually convey a discourse conditioned by the interests of North-American imperialism in the region. But what is really at stake in Venezuela and what is the answer for the country’s problems?
I should clarify from the beginning that I’m not a specialist in Venezuelan affairs, neither do I want to pose as such. Therefore, constructive criticism to this text is welcome. In any case, the global campaign of right-wing propaganda put forth by the mainstream media is of such proportions that any serious reflection by leftist, socialist and communist militants is of importance to counter at least to some degree the hegemonic thought on the issue. The Venezuelan case is of paramount importance for the discussion about this “21st-century socialism” that repeatedly emerges in many speeches and texts, but which no one dares to concretely define. Regardless of all their faults, may these succinct notes be a modest contribution to this debate.
The Road to Revolution
Western media systematically portray the current situation in Venezuela as one more instance of a once thriving economy ruined by a handful of socialist radicals. However, anyone who is even superficially informed on recent Venezuelan history knows that this is manipulation of reality. After the 1970s oil crisis, food and medicine shortages, hoarding of and speculation with consumer goods, inflation of up to 80% and even 100%, massive foreign debt, widespread poverty, illiteracy, violence, criminality, hunger and disease were rampant in Venezuela. Pro-US media constantly overlook this fact. Additionally, in their accustomed exercise of selective memory, Western media also overlook the fact that pre-Chávez Venezuela wasn’t the democratic country that it is nowadays. The Communist Party and many other left-wing organisations were illegalised; poor people were estranged from electoral participation; newspapers critical of the government were routinely seized and removed from circulation; trade-union and working-class activists, as well as students, were regularly arrested and murdered; suspension of constitutional rights was recurrent; torture and murder of political prisoners were common. Neither the US nor any of its Western European allies complained about the democratic deficit in the country at the time. The contradictions in Venezuela led almost thirty years ago to a mass uprising in Caracas known as the Caracazo, the repression of which led to the death of around 3500 people. It’s one of those “historical details” that the Western media again seem to forget, which is fundamental to understand Chávez’s ascension to power in the late-90s and the eruption of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution.
This is not the place to assess Chávez’s political career, but the social progress attained during the 15 years he was at the head of the Bolivarian Revolution are undeniable: access to education was universalised; illiteracy was eradicated; many new universities were founded and access to higher education more than doubled; a public national health system was established, while the ratio of physicians per number of inhabitants rose 400%; infant mortality decreased 49%; average life expectancy increased 2 years; the poverty rate fell from 42,8% to 26,5%, while the extreme poverty rate decreased from 16,6% to 7%; Venezuela joined the group of nations with high Human Development Index and became one of the least unequal Latin American countries; infant malnutrition decreased 40%; social expenditures increased 60,6%; more than 700.000 homes were built for social housing projects; more than a million hectares of land were handed over to indigenous peoples; more than three million hectares were distributed to the peasantry; food consumption as a whole increased 81%, while the consumption of local products rose 20%; the nationalisation of the oil company PDSVA contributed to the energetic sovereignty of the country, while the nationalisation of the electricity and telecommunications industries made access to these services universal; the unemployment rate decreased from 15,2% to 6,4%; the minimum wage rose by 2.000%; in 1999, 65% of the workers earned the minimum wage, contrasting with 21,1% in 2012; enormous advances were given in terms of social security; the workweek was reduced from 44 hours to 40 hours (8 hours/day); the public debt fell from 45% of the GDP in 1998 to 20% in 2012; the GDP per capita grew from $4.100 in 1999 to $10.810 in 2011. All of this, however, depended on revenues from oil exports at times of high oil prices. The fall of global oil prices a few years back brought about a deep crisis for the Venezuelan economy and put all of these achievements in peril.
Shortcomings of the Bolivarian Revolution
Although we cannot speak of a socialist regime in Venezuela, the conquests achieved during Chávez’s governments clearly highlight the progressive character of the Bolivarian process. The progressiveness of the regime is the precise reason why it can’t be tolerated by Washington, as the US cannot allow in its own backyard a nation that openly questions North-American imperialist prerogatives. The Venezuelan oligarchy maintain strong connections with North-American imperialism and thus act as its henchmen in the country. Notwithstanding the political hegemony of the working class – a hegemony that has been weakened since the death of Chávez, a process reflected by PSUV’s massive defeat in the December 2015 parliamentary elections –, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie has retained economic domination and has played a determinant role in deepening the crisis through constant sabotaging and undermining of production. This is one of the causes of the economic crisis currently taking place, which has served as catalyser for anti-government protests, as the oligarchy has used discontentment with the current situation to attract sectors of the middle classes to the opposition bloc.
But the crisis can’t be explained solely by the agency of the bourgeoisie and its middle-class allies. The Chavista governments have some responsibility and the shortcomings of this revolutionary process mustn’t be overlooked.
First of all, Chavismo failed to diversify the productive structure of Venezuela’s economy, which is completely dependent on oil exports. Whenever oil markets cool down or oil prices fall, as it happened in the 1970s and a few years ago, the economy collapses. After 2013, Venezuelan GDP fell 35% (40% in per capita terms); the foreign debt went through the roof, while its payment meant a cut of 75% in imports per capita; devaluation of the currency caused an increase of inflation and decrease of real wages (the minimum wage fell by 75%); agriculture and manufacturing collapsed; income poverty doubled from 48% to 82%; public health suffered greatly from the crisis, with rising levels of in-patient and infant mortality, quantitative and qualitative deterioration of nutrition, and degradation of conditions in health institutions.
Secondly, despite the unquestionably progressive character of the Bolivarian Revolution, it hasn’t been radical enough. As Daniel Finn recently argued, Chavismo went too far for capitalism but not far enough for socialism. The Bolivarian Revolution indeed brought about the political hegemony of the working class, attracting to its orbit important layers of the intermediate classes. Political power, however, wasn’t used to break down the oligarchy’s economic domination, since the means of production mostly remained in private hands, thus allowing the privileged classes to sabotage the country’s economy for political purposes. The oligarchy was also allowed to retain control over most of the media, which were used to influence the middle classes. Hegemony over the intermediate classes is fundamental to determine the course of any revolution. So when the economic collapse caused by the steep fall in oil prices came about, together with the death of Chávez (a heavy blow upon the government’s symbolic power), the oligarchy was successful in eroding the social bloc gathered under the hegemony of the PSUV, thus mobilizing a social force against Maduro. Besides, the Bolivarian Revolution created a new middle class tightly connected with the state apparatus and this social layer is incapable of taking forward the radical transformations that the Venezuelan society needs.
All these factors created the perfect storm which permitted the Venezuelan bourgeoisie to take hold of legislative power and weaken the Chavista regime. Western imperialism, understanding that now was the time to attack, readily seized the opportunity. It now actively aids the Venezuelan oligarchy in sabotaging the economy, attempts to turn worldwide public opinion against the Venezuelan government, and finances Venezuela’s anti-democratic and extremely violent right-wing opposition.
What future for the Bolivarian Revolution?
If a revolution doesn’t advance, it recedes. The only way to consolidate the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution is to advance towards a socialist revolution. State ownership of the main means of production has to be guaranteed; a plan of public productive investment has to be implemented; the productive structure of the country must be diversified; decisive steps have to be taken towards the democratic planning of national production; state monopoly of external trade must be secured.
Radical economic transformation must be articulated with radical transformation of the state apparatus. The current dysfunctional system of a legislative power permanently opposed to the executive power isn’t sustainable. Important developments have taken place in terms of direct democracy, namely with the organs of popular power which already play a significant role in Venezuelan political life. These organs constitute a network of over 40.000 local communal councils, the basic unit of popular power, established for example at neighbourhood level. The communal councils in their turn elect representatives to 778 communes spread all over the country. State power must be progressively handed over to these popular power organs, which, together with the central government, should take the leading role in the planning of national production. These are some of the tasks that must be tackled by the current Constituent Assembly in order to take the revolution forward.
If the counter-revolution succeeds, one thing is certain: it doesn’t mean the failure of socialism, as the bourgeois media claim. It is the failure of a half-hearted view of socialism that brings about popular political power while allowing the oligarchy to keep hold of economic power. Socialism is not at the root of Venezuela’s problems. Socialism is the solution to Venezuela’s problems.