Venezuela: The counterrevolution will be televised

The past two weeks’ right-wing protests across Venezuela – both peaceful and violent – have seen police and government supporters attacked, and government buildings torched. The opposition to the government of President Nicolas Maduro have been passing off photos from Egypt, Bulgaria, Chile and elsewhere as “evidence” of government repression, and opposition leaders are demanding that Maduro resign. In short: another US-backed coup attempt is underway in Venezuela.

Some context: The so-called opposition (a coalition of Venezuelan capitalists and conservatives, with the backing of the US and Colombian governments) have been trying to exploit the absence of Hugo Chavez since his death. To the right, Chavez was a tyrannical populist who bribed the poor into supporting him: They attributed his power to his cult of personality, not to the revolutionary mass movement that saw him as its leader. That movement has, clearly and unsurprisingly, outlived Chavez.

But the Venezuelan elite think they have in Maduro – who beat the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in last year’s federal elections – a leader who can finally be delegitimized.

The current opposition (with the backing of the Bush administration) attempted a military coup before, in 2002, when a mass uprising of Chavez supporters and sections of the army loyal to the constitution returned him to power. This was followed, later that year and into 2003, by an oil strike.

While the strike caused a shock to the economy, it didn’t lead to Chavez’s ouster. In fact, the coup attempts only emboldened his administration to (re-)nationalize the oil industry by stripping multinationals of their assets in Venezuela, using the revenues from oil exports to finance the Bolivarian revolution‘s growing welfare state.

The opposition used media as a weapon of mass deception in 2002 as well: That’s when the Venezuelan corporate media were reporting, without a shred of evidence, that Chavistas (supporters of the Bolivarian government) were shooting live ammunition at anti-government protesters.

Last spring, the right and the US State Department were alone in the Americas in disputing Maduro’s election, which was deemed fair and accurate by international electoral monitors. That election is behind them now – as are the December 2013 municipal elections, in which Maduro’s Socialist Party or PSUV won big.

So now the opposition is trying this strategy of violent destabilization and victim-blaming. The right and their foreign backers in the US and Colombia have been trying, with mixed results, to convince Venezuelans that Venezuela’s very real economic problems would be solved in a meaningful way for the mass of people by a return to neoliberal policies. I’m deeply skeptical of this view, and I seriously doubt the sincerity of far-right politicians and foreign governments in proposing it.

To start with, I haven’t seen any data to support it. The chief economic concerns on the Venezuelan right seem to be high inflation (56% in 2013) and shortages of consumer goods. These are quite serious problems for the Maduro administration, but the situation is a bit more complex.

A couple of things to be said about inflation: One, that Venezuela’s inflation problem is nothing new. According to neoliberal dogma, the Bolivarian government’s policies of price controls and food subsidies are to blame. But Venezuela has historically struggled with high inflation: In the 1990s, when there was far less social spending, inflation averaged 50%. In fact, an achievement of the Chavez administration was to bring it down to 22% on average during its time in office, with the exception of the past year.

To be clear: 56% inflation is a big problem. Inflation can hamper economic growth. But the government has been experimenting with ways of limiting the impact of high inflation on people who work for a living, including through capital controls and pegging wages to inflation. So while inflation went way up in 2013, poverty still went down.

As for the shortages of basic consumer goods: The shortages are, in large part, the result of hoarding on the part of capitalists. Indeed, they began with the spread of the oil executive strike to other sectors of the economy; in response, the Chavez administration introduced both a food subsidy program for the poor and a financial regulation mandating that banks channel 21% of their portfolios towards agricultural development (These programs contributed to the Bolivarian government’s 44% cut to poverty from 1996 to 2010, including a reduction of extreme poverty from 40% to 7.3%).

So while Venezuelans might have difficulty finding a particular food item at a given store on a given day, there’s still plenty of food. Venezuelans today eat much better than they did before Chavez: 96.2% eat 3-4 meals a day, malnutrition has been cut by more than half, and the country is now an above average food consumer among developing economies.

The opposition leaders themselves, as the poster children of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, have everything they need: Capriles and the demagogues of the current protests, Maria Corina Machado and Leopoldo Lopez, just aren’t making as much money as they think they should. Their base of support is the middle class (many of the protesters are students). Since they haven’t seen their living standards increased in the way that working-class Venezuelans have, the middle class is more likely to support the right’s agenda of rolling back the Bolivarian revolution.

But as I’ve outlined here (and elsewhere), the idea that things used to be better for ordinary Venezuelans – or that the welfare state can be rolled back without plunging the poor into a humanitarian crisis – is a conservative fantasy. And even if neoliberal programs were to make certain products more available, the people who’d benefit would be the people who can pay for them (without the Bolivarian welfare state, a far smaller number).

There’s no reason to think the working class will come to see that as an acceptable tradeoff and abandon the project under which they saw their quality of life improved so dramatically – not as long as the alternative is basically a Venezuelan Romney. Venezuela isn’t grappling with inflation and shortages because Chavismo went too far, but rather, because it hasn’t gone far enough. 

We should be the first to criticize the epidemic of corruption and the related failure to build up a new political structure from the grassroots of the community councils. The revolution is stagnating because it’s incomplete: because power still lies with capital, with the financial speculators who hoard food because they profit when prices go up.

It’s unclear how much Venezuela can do at the national level while its economy remains integrated into the system of global capitalism. It must certainly diversify its exports, grow its domestic market, and implement a comprehensive series of financial reforms in the vein of what Rafael Correa has been doing in Ecuador.

There’s a long way to go before that project comes to fruition, and the Maduro administration has struggled to put forth a coherent economic vision. But no matter how sluggish the rate of reform, there’s mass support behind the Bolivarian project of grounding the welfare state in local participatory democracy. Chavismo isn’t going anywhere for the time being: Its radical demand for justice transcends the government it has kept in power.

Right now, Chavistas are trying to stop a coup against a democratically elected government. When this battle is over, they’ll have to return to the work of revolution, of moving Venezuela towards a 21st century socialism, in which abundance doesn’t have to be abundance at the expense of the poor.

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