Venezuela: Decisive presidential elections imminent

After demanding early presidential elections for the last two years, the US has announced it will refuse to recognise presidential elections scheduled for 20 May; its Venezuelan mouthpieces in the MUD opposition coalition will boycott the race. The MUD’s hypocrisy continues to cost it any legitimacy. Following its failed attempt to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro and the United Socialist Party (PSUV) through violent street protests that claimed over 100 lives in spring 2017, the MUD suffered a decisive defeat in October’s regional elections, winning only four governorships. Fearing further defeat, it boycotted December’s municipal elections, handing 92% of mayoralties to pro-government forces. Despite this, victory in the presidential elections is by no means guaranteed for current President Maduro, who only narrowly won 2013’s snap presidential elections following the death of Hugo Chavez. Henri Falcon, a dissident from both the PSUV and MUD, has registered his candidacy. Presenting himself as a moderate, he is winning a growing following. Presiding over an internal battle over democracy and facing an acute economic crisis, financial sabotage, currency fraud, rocketing inflation and US sanctions, Maduro has an uphill battle ahead. Sam McGill reports.

The MUD is in disarray. In December and January, key opposition leaders participated in several internationally-mediated talks in the Dominican Republic, drawing up a schedule for presidential elections as well as a commitment to seek the lifting of economic sanctions, resolve the rift between the Supreme Court and the opposition-controlled National Assembly and reject violent protest. At the point of signing, the MUD withdrew amidst reports that the US State Department had pressured MUD leader Julio Borges to back out at the final hour. This conveniently corresponded to the Latin American tour of then US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, whose speeches focused on the isolation of Maduro and the PSUV government.

Despite the MUD boycott, 20 May will see six candidates running. There will also be elections for municipal and regional legislative councils. Despite a widespread media campaign branding Venezuela as a dictatorship, this will be the 25th time Venezuelans have turned out to vote since the Bolivarian social revolution in 1999.

In keeping with points drawn up in the Dominican Republic, candidates agreed on a number of electoral guarantees including media coverage, opening the electoral registry for further voter registration, relocating voting centres moved due to last year’s opposition violence, and the participation in electoral audits of all involved. The Electoral Commission has implored the UN to observe proceedings alongside the usual international representatives. In response the MUD marched on the UN headquarters in Caracas, arguing that a UN presence would give a ‘veneer of legality’. The MUD’s position is completely bankrupt: after demanding early presidential elections and international mediation, when faced with the real possibility of losing it cries fraud before a single vote has been cast.

Falcon – wolf in sheep’s clothing

Meanwhile, Falcon’s candidacy is surrounded by controversy. An early supporter of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution, Falcon was twice elected as governor of Lara state. Then in 2010 he split from the PSUV and joined the Homeland for All (PPT) party. PPT has a chequered history, from supporting Chavez to openly backing the candidacy of MUD politician Henrique Capriles in the 2012 presidential elections. Chavez won by a comfortable 10% margin while the PPT split into three with the ‘original PPT’ re-joining the Great Patriotic Pole alliance with the PSUV. At this point Falcon created his own Progressive Advance party which joined the MUD. Falcon won governorship of Lara again in 2012, this time for the MUD, however he was voted out last year. The MUD has now expelled Falcon for breaking its boycott of the upcoming presidential elections. Amidst allegations of pressure from the US State Department, Falcon will run on the ticket of Progressive Advance, with support from staunch traditionalist Christian party COPEI.

Falcon is a potentially dangerous opponent for Maduro and the PSUV government, promising ‘a route of inclusion, progress and justice’. He presents himself as a moderate ‘centre-left’ candidate, opposing economic sanctions and committing to maintaining state welfare while turning to the international market. He has tipped Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist at New York investment bank Torino Capital and former director at Merrill Lynch, as an ideal leader of his economic team. Rodriguez advocates the dollarisation of the Venezuelan economy and immediate acceptance of financial intervention from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Many will vote for Falcon, believing he represents a third way between the crushing devastation of neo-liberalism and long difficult battle for socialism in an oil-dependent capitalist country. However, the IMF and World Bank are brutal tools of imperialism that entrap under-developed nations in an ever tightening cycle of debt. Indeed, Venezuela has experience of such intervention: in 1989 President Carlos Andres Perez imposed a harsh IMF programme, which privatised state companies, introduced regressive tax changes and reduced customs duties. The elimination of gas subsidies saw petrol prices double, pushing up the cost of food and public transport by 30% overnight. This sparked the ‘Caracazo’, a wave of protests and riots which were brutally repressed by the military, who massacred up to 3,000 people.

Falcon distances himself from the rabid rhetoric of the extreme right who have torched effigies of Cuban doctors, wrecked public housing and transport infrastructure, attacked hospitals and shut down whole neighbourhoods with their burning street barricades. In an interview in the New York Times (6 March) Falcon stated that: ‘in our government there will be no retaliation or persecution or revenge… On the contrary, it will dedicate its efforts to building the future, stabilising the economy, recovering PDVSA [state run oil company], strengthening agricultural production, and to growth, to fighting violence’. Falcon leaves open the option to reject the result if he loses, threatening that ‘if the government decides to steal this election, it can count on finding me in the streets, by the sides of the brave Venezuelan people, fighting for our right to be respected.’ Though the MUD and US State Department are currently refusing to back his candidacy, Falcon represents a respectable safe pair of hands for imperialism, with the potential to appeal to opposition and disaffected Chavista voters alongside the third of Venezuela’s population that swings between the two.

Left unite around Maduro

PSUV president Nicolas Maduro will face the election on a united left platform. This was not inevitable. In the context of an opposition boycott, December’s municipal elections saw independent Chavistas and communal organisations field their own candidates after the PSUV failed to hold grassroots primaries. As reported in FRFI 262, manoeuvres to block communal candidates drew widespread criticism within the Bolivarian movement. Though the debate continues, 29 social organisations, the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV), PPT and all the other parties of the Great Patriotic Pole have reaffirmed their support for Maduro’s presidential bid.

Revolutionaries who are fighting to defend the gains of the Bolivarian revolution are uniting around Maduro, despite the PSUV’s shortcomings, because Venezuela is in the cross hairs in a global battle against imperialism. Maduro and the PSUV represent the continuation of the Bolivarian process which since the 1999 election of Hugo Chavez has channelled oil wealth into social programmes and driven the formation of participatory systems of self-government and community production in working class barrios known as comunas. Massive gains have been won, including free universal health care, the tripling of university enrolment and the construction of nearly two million units of social housing. Regionally, Venezuela has shifted the balance of forces in the US’s backyard, promoting south-south trade, mutual development, setting up the anti-imperialist ALBA bloc and the Petrocaribe subsidised oil programme. Essentially Venezuela threatens the dominance of US imperialism in Latin America, raising the necessity of socialist revolution on the continent.

As Kevin Rangel, part of a radical trend of farmers and communal activists explains, ‘We will join the campaign with the position we have always had, which is a critical position…a position that involves questioning corruption, bureaucratism and reformism… we understand that the current moment demands that we close ranks because there is a greater contradiction to resolve: the confrontation with imperialism… We are not confronting just any enemy, we are confronting a superior enemy, which controls the world’s financial and economic power; we have to be clear on this.’

Imperialist aggression intensifies

The US has tightened the noose with President Trump renewing Obama’s executive order declaring Venezuela as an unusual and extraordinary threat to US national security, opening the door for further sanctions. The financial measures ordered by Trump last August have had a devastating impact: cutting off Venezuela from loans, banning US banks dealing in Venezuelan debt or oil deals and denying the nation revenue from its own CITGO oil company in the US. The result has been a cash shortage to buy essential imports.

Carlos Ron, Venezuelan chargé d’affaires in Washington, estimates that ‘we have about $2.5 billion dollars right now that are stuck in international banks, because those banks will not process our money… if there was really an interest in helping out the Venezuelan people, the first thing they would do is something so that we could actually have access to our funds, and we could purchase the food, the medicine and the things that we need to provide for our people.’

Special UN Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas points to the fact that Colombia refused to sell anti-malarial drugs to Venezuela, forcing the government to buy them from India at a higher price and argues that ‘if you want to help the Venezuelan people then the first thing you have to do is to lift the sanctions and to stop this economic war… sanctions against Venezuela entail a crime against humanity’.

Now the US is considering imposing a full oil embargo. Venezuela exports around one third of its oil to US refineries, specifically built to refine extra-heavy crude. If the US closes its doors to Venezuelan oil, it will not be easy for PDVSA to find another specialist buyer.

It is essential we see the upcoming elections in Venezuela in the context of a concerted effort to overthrow the Bolivarian revolutionary movement for socialism and destroy any potential for opposition to imperialist control of the continent. In the coming weeks there will be all sorts of attempts to paint Venezuela as a failed state requiring intervention, justifying further sanctions. The capitalists within Venezuela will intensify their economic war, sabotaging access to medicine and food alongside industry shut downs and the hoarding of supplies. There will be endless allegations against Venezuelan democracy to delegitimise, derail and block the presidential elections. Anti-imperialists must stand against foreign intervention in Venezuela, whether through sanctions, interference and overt aggression or opening the nation up to the dictates of the IMF and World Bank.    

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 263 April/May 2018

 

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