Venezuela: The battle for the socialist heart of the Bolivarian Revolution /FRFI! 239 Jun/Jul 2014

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014

Venezuela has faced down the most serious challenge to its Bolivarian Revolution since the 2002 attempted coup. Despite a wave of street violence orchestrated by the opposition, with the specific aim of creating a pretext for imperialist intervention (see FRFI 238), the government of President Maduro has managed to restore near-stability. Sam Mcgill & Cat Allison report.

After nearly two months of protests in which 42 people died, hundreds of public buildings were torched and life for many was disrupted on a daily basis, support has dwindled for those demanding ‘la Salida’ – the forced exit of the elected PSUV government. For all the international media’s attempts to portray the so-called ‘student opposition’ as a mass movement, in reality they controlled only a handful of key, wealthy cities and regions, predominantly in the northwest and in the middle-class areas of the capital Caracas. They were not, ultimately, a match for the hundreds of thousands of working class Venezuelans who have consistently turned out to show their support for President Maduro, for the Venezuelan armed forces and for the Bolivarian Revolution. The barricades that had dominated international media coverage since February have now largely been abandoned or dismantled by Venezuelan security forces and community organisations. In the face of attempts by the United States, along with its lackeys in Colombia and Panama, to use the unrest to isolate Venezuela, regional support for the Bolivarian government in the form of the Organisation of American States and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has also been crucial. The opposition found itself temporarily outmanoeuvred when President Maduro offered peace talks, to be mediated by UNASUR.

Peace talks – a necessary risk

Such talks were strategically necessary to maintain regional backing for the Bolivarian Revolution and isolate the most extreme sections of the opposition, while winning at least the temporary support of the sizeable and traditionally fickle petit bourgeoisie. Initial peace conferences convened in February and March by the PSUV were largely boycotted by an opposition buoyed by international imperialist support for its destabilisation campaign. However on 11 April, following a UNASUR delegation to Venezuela, the leader of the opposition coalition MUD, Henrique Capriles, and other MUD representatives sat down for internationally mediated talks in the presence of the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador and a representative from the Vatican. This initial meeting was broadcast live from Miraflores presidential palace; some subsequent talks have taken place in private.

But recent moves by the United States, where the ‘Venezuelan Human Rights and Democracy Protection Act’ is about to be voted on by Senate, threatening sanctions against targeted individuals in the Venezuelan government and promising $15 million in new funding to the opposition, has reinvigorated the counter-revolutionary forces. MUD has begun disrupting the talks, threatening to withdraw and demanding private sessions with the mediators. Its demands focus on the release of all opposition protesters charged with violent crimes. Whilst Maduro has rejected a general amnesty, a National Human Rights Council has been set up to review specific cases and investigate all allegations of violence and human rights violations in the recent protests.

The talks continue to be boycotted by key leaders of ‘la Salida’ strategy, Antonio Ledezma, mayor of Caracas, and Maria Corina Machado, who are still fomenting violence in the form of hit-and-run attacks on buses or universities, and the political assassinations of prominent revolutionaries, including Rafael Arteaga from the Bolivarian Intelligence Service and Eliecer Otaiza, ex-Intelligence Agency chief. On 14 April, Ultimas Noticias reported the arrest of 30 Venezuelan military officers, including several generals, for an alleged coup plot against Maduro. April also saw the arrests of Hugo Nunciro Soto, a former member of a right-wing Colombian paramilitary force and the Akl brothers, owners of the Venezuelan branch of private military contractor Risk Inc. On 13 May, opposition gangs attacked the Ministry of Tourism with explosives, home-made grenades and rocks.

Fighting the economic battle

The Bolivarian Revolution remains under serious economic as well as political pressure from counter-revolutionary forces.

The Venezuelan government has continued to focus on enforcing fair prices, eradicating scarcity and increasing domestic production. Inspections and crackdowns have continued with 18 people arrested for price speculation and fraud, and the seizure of 161 tonnes of food due to be smuggled to Colombia. This year’s May Day announcements included the extension of social projects for workers, bringing free health clinics and subsidised food stores into workplaces in an attempt to reduce the amount of goods re-sold as contraband for private profit. A presidential commission has been set up with the aim of ending sub-contracted labour and winning collective contracts for workers in both the public and private sector. The national minimum wage has been increased by 30%, which despite being below inflation for the first time in 15 years, is complemented by a food bonus of over 1,000 Bolivars. In relation to proposals set out in Chavez’s six-year plan, Programa Patria, three ‘special economic zones’ are being created based around the Orinoco oil belt, the industrial zone of Carabobo and fishing, tourism and petro-chemical activities in Anzoategui.

However, as part of the opposition offensive against the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela’s capitalist class has ensured that it has its feet under the table at the peace talks and is keen to force concessions. Jorge Roig, president of Venezuela’s notorious chamber of commerce Fedecamaras, and Lorenzo Mendoza, president of the vast privately-owned Polar food distribution network, are attempting to shape the agenda of the ‘discussions for economic peace.’ Mendoza has presented a 12-point economic agenda, demanding further relaxation of currency controls and price controls on essential goods. The Polar monopoly has of course been profoundly implicated in the hoarding of food and other basic necessities, creating national shortages. Roig is demanding cuts in social spending, the lifting of price and profit controls implemented in January’s law of fair prices, the guarantee of property rights against further expropriation or nationalisation and the liberalisation of foreign currency exchange. In effect, as Venezuelan professor Luis Pino put it: ‘Fedecamaras seeks the nullification of our labour law; it wants to declare the law of fair prices invalid... Meanwhile, they attack the people, with their scheduled shortages , slowdown and sabotage of all kinds, extending the wick of the social explosion they want to ignite.’

The government has been forced to concede ground in some areas:

  • Restrictions on private companies importing essential goods have been eased, although only until the end of the year when the government expects to have a more efficient national import system in place.
  • The paying out of 30% of disputed debt owed in foreign currency to private companies. This has been agreed before the promised publication of a list of 1,245 companies accused last October of appropriating $22 billion through fraud.
  • Offering the private sector more access to the Venezuelan-Chinese investment fund and National Development Fund (FONDEN) and the ALBA-Mercosur fund – access will be strictly geared towards ‘reactivating all the sectors who participate in production’.

There is no doubt that the Bolivarian Revolution needs to vastly increase domestic production and seek an alliance with the private sector to achieve this. Inevitably, such an alliance is fraught with dangers. Not only is the opposition determined to use every means at its disposal to destroy the socialist nature of the Bolivarian Revolution and roll back its achievements so far, but the PSUV itself contains many different trends. Amongst them are the opportunists and reformists who would favour a more accommodating relationship with Venezuela’s capitalist class.

One of the biggest challenges for President Maduro and revolutionaries within the PSUV is to hold it all together, making as few concessions as possible to the private sector while preventing a slide back into violence, instability and threat of imperialist intervention. In this, as ever, the active mobilisation of the Venezuelan working class will be key.

‘What are peace talks without workers?’

Since February, the working class has been steadfast in its defence of the Bolivarian Revolution. Oil workers, women’s organisations, revolutionary youth, grassroots activists – all have taken to the streets in huge, defiant demonstrations against ‘la Salida’. They have respected President Maduro’s call to refrain from physically confronting the protesters, to avoid provoking an escalation of the violence. Many have put their lives on the line removing abandoned barricades blocking key roads. They have endured the inflation and scarcity resulting from the economic war. They will not be passive observers of the peace talks nor accept any dilution of the social and economic gains they have won through nearly 15 years of Bolivarian revolution. On aporrea.org, the country’s most popular grassroots political forum, revolutionaries have been demanding the inclusion of working class organisations in any decisions about the political and economic future of Venezuela. On 17 May, President Maduro held a meeting with representatives of the communal economy, where thousands of activists participated in a debate on improving domestic production and tackling speculation. Also in May, students, comuna activists and PSUV members met in Caracas to debate the framework for the construction of socialism in Venezuela, ahead of the PSUV national Congress in July.

In defending Venezuela’s streets from violent opposition thugs the working class won one crucial battle. And it is that same working class, conscious and mobilised not only on the streets, but also in their communities, collectives, universities and work places, who remain the vanguard of the war to defend the socialist heart of the Bolivarian Revolution. As one activist from Venezuela’s huge social movement, Arlenys Espinal, put it, ‘What are peace talks without workers? If the revolution does not deepen, if revolutionary tasks are not accomplished, if transformations are not complete, fascism will see fit to restore the old order. But let there be no doubt, we have to be capable of doing what must be done, because we, the people, cannot be defeated.’