In recent years there has been a rejection by the Venezuela bureaucracy against any form of genuine grassroots organisation. Thus democratising policies under Chavez have been rolled back. Mohamed Elmaazi details the steps that have led to ordinary Venezuelans being caught between a rock and a hard place.


On 28 January US president Donald Trump announced further sanctions targeting the Venezuelan state-owned energy company, PDVSA.  Oil represents the main source of external revenue for the country and at least 30 per cent of its GDP. Five days previously, opposition leader Juan Guaidó appointed himself “interim president”. The AP revealed that this was pre-arranged following secret talks with Trump officials. Journalists from Consortium News, an independent investigative and political review journal have also revealed that DC elites have been grooming the “far-right” figure, who has repeatedly called on the military to overthrow Nicolás Maduro’s democratically elected government.

Sanction them

Trump’s executive order adds to the already crippling US sanctions targeting the country, whose economy has been increasingly under pressure since the collapse in oil prices in 2012. Hundreds of thousands of people have emigrated. Canada, the UK and right-wing allied governments have all come out in support of US regime change efforts in Venezuela. The UK government is refusing to return 14 tonnes of Venezuelan gold.

Russia blasted the[0:16] move as ‘cynical’ and ‘unlawful’. China said it opposes “unilateral sanctions”. Solidarity protests, demos and actions against the unfolding coup-attempt are occurring on a daily basis in countries around the world. Major trade unions in the UK and worldwide have denounced these policies.

Ignore their elections

Many governments in the West are demanding that President Maduro immediately triggers a new presidential election. This is patently absurd given that he was only sworn in on 10 January following early elections. The reason for them being called early was due to pressure from the US controlled Organization of American States and the right-wing opposition. The same opposition that ended up boycotting them. Former US president Jimmy Carter referred to Venezuela’s electoral system as the “best in the world” and Forbes called them a “model for the world”. Hardly left-wing renegades.

Destroy them

The point of these sanctions is to prevent Venezuela from recovering and to “destroy what’s left of its economy” according to Michel Weisbrot, economist at the Centre for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR).

This following graph shows the clear impact previous US sanctions have had on Venezuela’s oil production since August 2017:

Picture1.png

Weisbrot says the sanctions “do actually kill people”. Loss of oil revenue, “means a loss of dollar revenue which means less… live saving medicines available.”  This point was echoed by a former UN expert.

Oil!

Venezuela is reported to have the world’s largest proven oil reserves.

Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, told the press[2:28] on 28 January that:

“We expect…that today’s measure totals $7 billion in assets blocked today, plus over $11 billion in lost export proceeds over the next year”.

Bolton, a fierce advocate of the 2003 invasion and destruction of Iraq (another oil rich state), called on[2:44] the military to accept the “peaceful, democratic,  and constitutional transfer of power”.

Juan Guaidó, has already started drafting plans to privatise the oil industry and open it up to multinational exploitation. No wonder he was immediately anointed by the US. An AP report revealed that this event was arranged last year following secret talks with Trump officials.

The early years

Jorge Martin, secretary of Hands Off Venezuela, has visited Venezuela every year “for nearly 20 years”, since the US backed military coup in 2002 which temporarily removed then President Hugo Chavez from power. In 2002, Chavez’ opponents initiated a “devastating oil strike” as part of a plan to destabilise and overthrow the government.

According to Martin, the “the whole of the economy” was in private hands when Chavez was first elected in 1998. He nationalised many industries, including “steel, cement, telecoms, electricity, oil, and auxiliary companies” and expropriated “landed estates”.

Half-truths, exaggerations and outright lies

Martin told me that in his experience, “everything you hear are mostly half-truths, exaggerations and outright lies”. Though there is “a very serious economic recession in Venezuela which has destroyed over 50% of GDP in the last four or five years”.

This has seen a “massive collapse in living standards,” including “a catastrophic drop in the purchasing power of wages”.

This has also resulted in mass migration of hundreds of thousands,

“First it was mainly from the middle and upper class layers, more recently also from the working class, the former emigrating to the US and Europe, the latter to other Latin American countries overland.”

That the situation has been exaggerated and distorted for many years appears to be confirmed by the UN and other independent analysts. A 2017 UN report on nutrition and food insecurity in Latin American countries highlighted “a regional increase in food insecurity”. It recognised that Venezuela added 1.3million “newly food insecure people to the total” but the percentage of the population experiencing undernourishment was still lower than other countries including Bolivia, Guatemala, Haiti Honduras, and Brazil. Though the press curiously don’t seem as interested in those countries. Perhaps because they all have regimes more compliant or controlled by western capital?

The press have also been widely reporting that 93% of the population lack enough money for food, 73% of the population averaging a loss of 19 pounds in weight. Those statistics have been repeated ad nasuem for a number of years now. Despite originating from a report labelled as “incomplete” and “contradictory” by the CEPR. Indeed, according to the CEPR, the very same report later says that 67.5 percent of the population eats three meals a day and only 25% feel deficient in their nutrition.

Meanwhile the UN FAO report has essentially been ignored for years.

Race and Class

Most of the opposition to Maduro is “right wing” and “based on the middle class and upper class layers”, Martin explained and they “tend to be more white and of European [colonial] descent”. Guaidó is no exception. Meanwhile “those who support the revolution come from working class and poor and tend to be more mixed race, black and of [Indigenous] descent”.

The ‘Bolivarian revolution’

High oil prices were used to fund social programmes. Free healthcare was established, and “2.5 million houses have been built for people in need in just four years”. Labour laws were strengthened including “rules to prevent mass lay-offs”. Poverty and extreme poverty were cut by half. Local direct-democracy was promoted and encouraged.

But the economic situation is undermining many of these gains, Martin told me. Before his death Chavez talked about “a socialist economy and a communal state”, Martin told me.

Revolution interrupted

But it wasn’t to be.

“In more recent years there has been a push back by the bureaucracy in the state against any form of genuine grassroots organisation”.

For example, “in the field of agrarian reform there is a clear concerted effort on the part of former and new landowners, in an alliance with sections of the state apparatus and the judiciary to return the land to the landowners and evict the peasant communities from it, many of which had had land titles granted under Chavez”.

Social Democracy and its discontents

The slowdown or even reversal of revolutionary policies under Maduro are not responsible for the economic crisis. “No one could have avoided that”, Martin told me.

The collapse of oil prices “triggered the crisis”, he said. And the international sanctions and isolation, and hoarding of food and goods (by both capitalists and state linked entities) perpetuate it. “But certainly a democratically planned state owned economy would have been in a much better situation to withstand the blow”.

Stop calling this socialism

A big part of calling Venezuela ‘socialist’ by the ‘mainstream’ press is designed to delegitimise the word and concept. Especially at a time of increased appeal. But it is crucial to distinguish ‘Keynesianism’, or ‘social democracy’ from “socialism”.

Michael Roberts (pseudonym), a Marxist financial analyst who has worked for 30 years in the City of London, told me: “It’s not ‘socialist’ by a Marxist definition. ‘Socialism’ in the proper sense of a super-abundant society with no classes and free time for all is only possible on a world scale and only after decades of ‘transition’ “.

Roberts also explained that: “What has failed in Venezuela is not socialism (common ownership of the means of production and a democratic plan) but rather the attempt to regulate and control capitalism (a form of Keynesianism if you want)”.

This point was also made by Martin in a prescient 2016 article, in which he warned of the very real threat of a foreign backed coup d’etatand emphasised that attempts to “regulate capitalism” were failing. His prescription was to move forward with the “Bolivarian revolution” and further ‘democratise’ the economy.

Imperialism must be opposed!

Regardless of Martin’s criticisms, he says, “the overthrow of this government at the hands of imperialism would be an unmitigated disaster for the workers and the poor”. There would be, “wholesale privatisation of state property, return of the land to the former owners, mass layoffs in the public sector, the abolition of all social programmes of the revolution”.

This aggression, “must be opposed staunchly, not only by socialists, but by any consistent anti-imperialists and democrats”.


Mohamed Elmaazi obtained his LLB from SOAS and Masters in International and Comparative law from the American University in Cairo. He worked in human rights law for a number of years before shifting to journalism. He occasionally reports for The Real News Network and currently writes for Open Democracy, The Canary and The Grayzone Project. 

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