The battle for Venezuela

National Assembly speaker Juan Guaidó swore himself in as Venezuela’s interim president on 23 January and was duly recognised by all and sundry right wing governments in South America. Jair Bolsonaro and Iván Duque, who head two of the most reactionary governments, in Brazil and Colombia, have joined the Trump administration in the US and Venezuela’s right wing, to bring down the government of Nicolás Maduro.

Democratic and left forces worldwide must lend every effort to oppose the imperialist intervention and help give Venezuelan workers every chance to bring their might to bear on the government and crush the opposition’s coup attempt.

What began to unfold as a revolutionary process in Venezuela more than two decades ago, and which reawakened the dignity and consciousness of Venezuelan workers, is now threatened with a reactionary conclusion.

The clamouring of the opposition and inflammatory speeches by foreign diplomats are nothing new, surprising or especially worrisome. Venezuelans have seen it all before. The right wing opposition has had imperialist support since at least the beginning of the new millennium. In fact, imperialism has waged a low intensity conflict in Venezuela since 2002. Trump has been no more bullish to date than the previous US president, Barack Obama.

There is now, however, a significant difference.

In 2002, coup plotters confronted a working class uniquely unshackled by reformist politics and growing in consciousness and combativeness. The April coup against popular president Hugo Chávez was defeated by a radicalised mass movement; the government turned left and a period of revolutionary gains was inaugurated.

Today, after several years of retreat, defeat, political compromise and ideological mystification, Venezuela’s working class is disarmed, demoralised and saddled with a political leadership that has not untangled itself from the insidious capitalist bureaucracy of which the Maduro government is a puppet.

The links between the vanguard elements among the class struggle unions and organisations and the mass of the Venezuelan working class have been massively strained by years of economic hardship and a government that, while claiming the mantle of Chavismo, has dismantled much of Chavez’s extra-governmental political infrastructure and increasingly leans on a policy of concessions to capitalist interests and patronage of the military’s high ranks.

Events over the last year are reminiscent of Salvador Allende’s final months as president of Chile in 1973. His government, instead of mobilising and organising the working class, sought increased compromise with Chile’s capitalist forces and the military high command. Only days before the 11 September coup, general Augusto Pinochet was declaring his loyalty to Allende’s government.

Following what was a likely assassination attempt on Maduro in August, and with rumours of new destabilisation plans by the right wing opposition and the US, Maduro tried to combat the economic and political crisis by further conceding to capitalist interests and trying to win favour with potential foreign investors. 

In October, the government announced its “Guidelines for Implementation of Labour Agreements Within the Framework of the Program for Recovery, Growth and Economic Prosperity”. Faced with continued hyperinflation, major shortages fabricated by capitalist hoarding and growing impoverishment, the government’s plan amounted to a set of measures and recommendations to restrict wage growth and water down existing labour agreements. 

The Guidelines emerged from government consultation, which, according to most – including sections of the left that have given conditional support to Maduro, such as the Venezuelan Communist Party – involved no one outside the inner government circles and presumably various capitalists. The government justified its new labour policies with the familiar language of “redistribution” and talk of groups of “privileged workers”.

These policies come on the back of Maduro’s dismantling of the public distribution network for foodstuffs, created by Chavez following the 2002-03 capitalist oil lockout. Rather than democratise the control and administration of these services, which like all government operations have been plagued by corruption and inefficiency, Maduro has handed many of their functions to private operators.

Attempts to restructure the administration of the 700 state enterprises have done nothing to undermine the proto-capitalist state bureaucracy, the so-called boliburguesía. Maduro’s continued attempts to use the state to lever the workings of the market have proved even more disastrous than they were for Allende: being ineffectual in curbing capitalist hoarding, capital flight and generalised economic subversion, while bloating a bureaucracy already engorged on petrol dollars and hostile to democracy and working class power.

Just as Allende refused to enlist the power of the Cordones Industriales – the industrial belts controlled by workers – and tried instead to appease capitalist firms with various guarantees, Maduro has been nurturing the re-privatisation of political spaces brought into the public sphere. This includes new agreements regarding the all-important state oil company PDVSA. Both PDVSA and the conglomerate of companies controlling important mineral and hydroelectric production in the state of Guayana – the Empresas Básicas de Guayana – are administered by a nepotistic bureaucracy and directed by government and reformist union officials whose responsibilities often overlap with management.

Much like Allende and more recently Lula da Silva in Brazil, the Maduro government has retained a set of social policies to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable sections of the population. However, the impact of such policies is greatly limited by the crisis of the economy, including growing shortages of skilled labour and collapsing social services. In the current context, such policies prove especially moribund, substituting for a political strategy based on working class mobilisation, and leaving the strategic initiative in the hands of the political forces that represent not just big capital but also the middle classes. 

The latter, increasingly desperate to cling to their privileges, are driven into the hands of the most reactionary political forces. The Venezuelan opposition, like the forces that rallied around Bolsonaro against Lula, reflect this far right. The likely vicious campaign of victimisation that a Guaidó government would carry out is a significant factor that may yet mobilise enough forces to defeat the coup leaders and their imperialist backers. 

Already the opposition has been unleashing its brown shirts and creating violence in the poor and working class neighbourhoods to spread fear.

Maduro is pinning his hopes on the backing of the military high command, which for now remains loyal. However, unlike Chavez, Maduro has not prioritised the politicisation of the army’s ranks, instead offering financial and political privileges, leaving the middle ranking officers especially vulnerable to imperialist bribes and threats. If they sow such doubts and fear, this may well spill over to the generals.

As the general secretary of the Chilean Movement of the Revolutionary Left, Miguel Enriquez, observed of the downfall of the Allende government, it “imprisoned itself in the bourgeois order … with the hope of achieving an alliance with a section of the bourgeoisie, it didn’t base itself on the revolutionary organisation of the workers, on their own organs of power. It refused an alliance with the soldiers and junior officers; it preferred trying to fortify itself within the capitalist state apparatus and the officer corps of the armed forces”.

Few expected the combativeness of Venezuelan workers that defeated the reactionaries in 2002. If they can rise again, it may give the Venezuelan left the chance to reorient and rebuild the organisations and movements that can challenge the corrupt and reformist forces that control the Maduro government.