The coronavirus in Venezuela: one more lash on the back of the working class

Venezuela has entered another week under preventive social quarantine, following the government’s announcement on Friday 13 March that the country’s first cases of coronavirus had been detected. A terrible burden is being borne by the working-class and poor, who were already facing a dire economic crisis before the sanction-strangled healthcare system faced the prospect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read the original in Spanish here |

The official announcement explained that those diagnosed were people who had entered the country on Iberian Airlines flights. Those flights arrived from Spain, Italy and the United States on 5 and 8 March.

On 17 March, in response to the possible spread of the virus, President Maduro ordered social distancing in five Venezuelan states, including Miranda and the Capital District, and later throughout the whole country. This is similar to measures taken in other countries to stem the contagion’s spread and avoid as much as possible an exponential increase in the number of cases. As of 17 March, the number of diagnosed cases in Venezuela was 33; by 23 March there were 77 confirmed cases.

The coronavirus pandemic and the contradictions of capitalism today

Throughout the world, the coronavirus pandemic is an accidental element that is accelerating the capitalist crisis foreseen months ago by Marxists, as well as the most farsighted bourgeois economists. At the same time, it is shedding light on the heartbreaking contradictions of this putrid system, which puts a few capitalists’ profits before the lives of millions of men and women the world over.

In Italy, for example, the generalised collapse of the healthcare system is not only a direct consequence of the pandemic but has really been in the making for over a decade. For years, the state has slashed funds for the healthcare system, because the fiscal deficit had to be reduced so that capitalist profits could remain intact. Inevitably, this meant that workers and the poor had to foot the bill.

Since 2009, almost 46,000 public healthcare jobs have been eliminated due to the Italian government’s austerity policies. From 10.6 beds per 1,000 inhabitants in 1975, Italy declined to a mere 2.6 beds per 1,000 today. With cuts to the healthcare budget this severe, how could the system not collapse in the face of this pandemic?

Now, in the face of the inability of the public healthcare system to attend to the enormous number of patients who have been admitted to hospitals in the last few weeks, doctors in Italy increasingly have to give up on the elderly in order to save younger patients and those with “better chances of survival.”

In Iran, working men and women have died as a result of being infected at work. These patients should have stayed in their homes to protect their lives, but, just like many other workers, they were forced to go to work to maintain their source of income.

Many countries have seen significant protests and even strikes by workers, expected to toil in unsafe conditions, demanding adequate security measures. In Spain, for example, this has been the case at Mercedes Vitoria, IVECO Valladolid, Balay, Avernova, and other businesses.

In Venezuela, in spite of government propaganda, the coronavirus phenomenon is not separate from the economic crisis that has devastated the country in the last few years. On the one hand, it is an expression of the world crisis of capitalism, manifested in the fall of raw material prices in the last decade. On the other hand, it is very much a part of the unique historical crisis of backward Venezuelan capitalism and of the reformism that has been incapable of advancing a real and effective policy of anti-capitalism, one that would expropriate the bourgeoisie and introduce democratic economic planning. Instead of such a policy, the government has been attacking the working class and implementing bourgeois austerity policies for the last year and a half. In this way, it hopes to contain the crisis and at the same time keep itself in power.

Our task as Marxists is to analyse the healthcare situation in Italy, Spain and the United States in the context of the current pandemic from the point of view and interest of the workers and oppressed. Such an analysis reveals how the states and the governments in turn, bourgeois or social democrats, have all prioritised the capitalists’ profits and interests over the life of the people. We must cast the same critical eye on the collapse of the Venezuelan healthcare system in recent years. Let us discuss how the spread of the coronavirus in Venezuela would have an effect of unimaginable proportions on what still remains of the public health system.

The extraordinary gains of Chávez in healthcare and the limits of reformism

President Chavez’s government invested heavily in improving the public healthcare system, which was in a truly decrepit state in the 1990s. The policy known as Barrio Adentro (Into the Neighbourhood), which drew on the experience and skilled personnel of the Cuban Revolution, and allowed us to achieve levels of primary and secondary healthcare never before seen in our history. For the first time, workers had free access to quality healthcare in which patients’ lives were truly the priority.

Just to mention a few figures, the Misión Milagro (Miracle Mission) eliminated cataracts throughout the country and helped workers on the continent without seeking recompense. More than three million Venezuelans, along with a million and a half Latin Americans outside Venezuela, had cataracts surgically removed, free of charge.

que comunismo chavez at founding congress of psuvPresident Chavez’s government invested heavily in improving public healthcare, but this wasn't done on a socialist basis / Image: public domain

In addition, by 2012, more than 500 primary healthcare centres and 500 rehabilitation centres had been built throughout the country (CDI). And while scarcely 1,444 dental centres were built during the four decades of the so-called Fourth Republic – which apparently is the era to which the country has returned today – almost 5,000 were built between 1998 and 2011.

Similarly, in 2010 the government provided 9,000 dental crowns and dentures to patients free of charge. By 2011, infant mortality rates had been reduced to about 15 children for every 1,000 born. In general, Venezuela has seen healthcare successes far superior to those in the majority of countries with a colonial past, especially in Latin America.

However, these important social gains were achieved in the context of the limits imposed by capitalist private property and the bourgeois state, and sustained principally by income obtained from the export of oil. Notwithstanding the enormous achievement of Barrio Adentro, it was part of a package of progressive political reforms, not a genuinely socialist policy, because the bourgeois economic framework remained intact.

In fact, private health and insurance companies were never nationalised. From 2004 to 2014, the owners of these companies bagged thousands of millions of dollars from public coffers, with the involvement of national and international financial capital.

The collapse of healthcare in Venezuela: economic war, reformist policies, hyperinflation and austerity

At the beginning of 2013, the capitalists intensified their policy of sabotaging production, generating a chronic shortage of basic goods, pushing the prices of basic goods ever higher. The healthcare system began to suffer the impact.

Later, the fall of income from oil and its progressive recovery, between 2014 and 2017 – reaching its lowest point of 26.5 USD in 2016 – meant a steep reduction in the state budget and consequently that of the healthcare system. The role played by corruption must be mentioned here: the diversion of foreign currency by private enterprises with medical supplies meant for the state and other similar tactics, perfectly legal within the capitalist framework, as well as corruption normalised by the law, caused the drain of a vast amount of the state’s resources. This money is now sorely lacking in the healthcare budget.

In 2018, inflation became hyperinflation, and the government responded in a narrow and chaotic way to the economic sabotage – namely, with an uncontrolled increase in liquidity. This led to the pulverisation of the healthcare system.

Currently, the lack of supplies in operating rooms and ICUs has become a perpetual nightmare, with the shortfall estimated to be hovering around 35 to 50 percent. For obvious reasons, the government does not make official data available.

The infant mortality rate has risen again, and illnesses that in the 20th century were controlled, like dengue fever or malaria, have made a frightening reappearance. There are no reliable official figures in these cases either.

The healthcare system depended on a meagre oil-based income for the acquisition of supplies, surgical materials, salaries, medicines and more. Then, supplies were purchased from capitalist providers at hyperinflationary prices, and doctors, nurses, and other healthcare personnel were paid in devalued bolivars (the Venezuelan currency). The system could only collapse tragically, like a sandcastle hit hard by waves.

Again, these are the consequences of reformism, which has reached its limits: the country’s economic levers were never nationalised, and democratic control of economic planning by the workers never came to pass. The collapse of the healthcare system was not a consequence of socialism, contrary to what is repeated day after day by the imperialists and their right-wing stooges in the country.

Trump’s sanctions, or the final blow to the public healthcare system

The Trump administration’s 2017 sanctions formed the climax of this series of events, nearly destroying our healthcare system and the related achievements of the Chávez period. These sanctions prevented the country from acquiring medicine and medical supplies from abroad, dealing a mortal blow to our already strained hospitals and healthcare centres.

Donald Trump 2019 address Image Flickr White HouseTrump's sanctions savaged the healthcare system / Image: Flickr, White House

For example, in September 2017, the government announced that a shipment of 300,000 doses of insulin destined for the country was being held at an international port. In November 2017, under orders of the Colombian government, international healthcare corporation BSN Medical blocked a Venezuela-bound shipment of the drug Primaquina, which is used to treat malaria and yellow fever.

Likewise, in 2018, international financial institutions took $39,000,000 USD out of the country. Worse still was the case of approximately 1,700,000€ of state money withheld by Portuguese financial entity Novo Banco. All this money could have been used to buy medicine, hospital supplies, and food.

Finally, according to government sources, the consequences of these actions have translated into facts and figures such as: 80,000 people diagnosed with HIV who have been left without antiretroviral treatment in 2017, 1,600 people waiting for dialysis, and 16,000 cancer patients receiving no treatment. This is without counting the people who have already died as a result of these vicious imperialist policies.

We can see that the sanctions have strangled the meagre capacity of the healthcare system to handle daily healthcare concerns and at the same time have accelerated its collapse.

The government’s response

The social distancing measures taken by the government over a week ago are not under discussion here, because they are absolutely necessary to slow down the rate of contagion and halt the spread of the virus in the country. However, given that these measures are being taken in a capitalist context, they will mean even more pain and misery for the working masses of the country, already stricken by five years of crisis.

In fact, Venezuela’s economy has already contracted by 60 percent since 2013. This translates inevitably into unemployment, scarcity, and misery for millions of working men and women throughout the country. Along with this comes an accelerated increase in hunger, poverty, begging, criminal activity, and prostitution, especially child prostitution.

Unless socialist measures such as the nationalisation of healthcare and of multimillion dollar insurance companies, or of foreign trade, are taken, and this government will never do so, social distancing will hit working families much harder. Even before the coronavirus, these families already found themselves in a ferocious daily struggle just to survive, going out onto the streets to collect water for hygiene or cooking, standing in long lines to buy gas or fuel, cooking with wood, going from hospital to hospital to make sure family members were being looked after, dealing with the rationing of electrical power or looking for food to eat on a daily basis.

We are not living in the Venezuela of 2013, in which a minimum salary of more than 300 USD monthly was guaranteed to all workers. This was supplemented by food benefits assigned by the state via the extinct Mercal (a state-run company that provided subsidised food and basic goods through a nationwide chain of stores). In such conditions, when almost 60 percent of jobs were full time, it would have been far easier for a great number of families to weather the economic blow that a quarantine of 15, 21, or up to 30 days would bring. This would have been especially true for the self-employed or those in the informal sector.

Now, we live in a very different country, where the great majority of social gains of the Chávez era have disappeared. This is the result of the attacks carried out by the parasitical national bourgeoisie, as well as the fearful and, in the end, traitorous responses of the reformist government. Today, that government has become reactionary, as evidenced by the recent request for a loan from the IMF. This would have been inconceivable even for this degenerate social democracy until a few weeks ago.

The minimum total wage today has fallen to $4 USD, income that is “complemented” – from time to time and not for all families – with the CLAP (local food distribution committees) fund. Strained by austerity, privation, and poor nutrition, millions of families are already struggling to survive. These are the conditions in which millions of families must now face the quarantine decreed in the country a week ago.

In addition, that benefit – minimum legal income – only applies to workers in “formal” jobs. But, as we have already indicated, because of the progressive destruction of the national productive apparatus in the last five years, more and more workers who have not migrated elsewhere are forced into the informal sector of the economy. These workers depend on the work they can find in the streets on any given day: electricians, bricklayers, plumbers, coffee or cigarette vendors, taxi drivers, sweet vendors in the Caracas metro, or whatever other work they can find. It is these men and women and their families who will be hit hardest by the quarantine. If these workers cannot work every day, they are left without the income they need to survive.

It is true that the government has decreed the payment of monthly bonuses to informal and self-employed workers. But how many workers in this country today are earning a minimum wage that allows them to cover their most basic needs?

We do not mean to imply that the policy of social distancing is wrong. In fact, it is the only measure that at this moment can stop a rapid expansion of the virus and the high mortality rate that comes with it. It was not taken soon enough in countries like Italy, Spain, or now the United States, where the virus is spreading rapidly in cities like New York.

What we do wish to emphasise is how the pandemic, just as is happening in other countries, has ended up hitting workers who are already struggling because of the economic crisis the hardest. The economic effects of the coronavirus will not be paid for by the big bankers, industrialists, bureaucrats, or bourgeois politicians, but by the working people, until the workers rise up against the system of oppression and misery, and turn the tables on it.

The fight to defeat the pandemic is not apolitical. The crisis now developing is inextricably linked with the social crisis our country has already endured for several years. The struggle against the coronavirus, then, must be linked to the struggle for our rights and demands, and to the strategic fight to bring down the whole capitalist order. The coronavirus has only worsened the suffering that the working masses have endured in the last few years. The pandemic is a national emergency, but the real national catastrophes are capitalism and reformism, the latter because it is organically incapable of overcoming the former, a backward, decaying and parasitic system. A truly prosperous future for working people will come only by destroying this rotten system, which enriches a small minority at the cost of the hunger and suffering of millions.

The government’s most recent measures

In the context of social distancing, on 22 March President Maduro reaffirmed his earlier decree of “labour immobility”, prohibiting layoffs until December. He also implemented a special payment plan for the payrolls of small and medium sized businesses, and the suspension of residential and commercial rent payments for six months.

In the first place, labour immobility is an empty phrase in this country. After the monetary reconversion, during the meeting of the last Council of Ministers in 2018, the government decreed labour immobility for two years up to December 2020. Nevertheless, since that time, we have seen a series of layoffs in public and private companies, and in public administration, as part of a policy of attacks against the labour movement.

Maduro 10 Image PoRThe government has moved increasingly rightward / Image: PoR

Many of these dismissals have been arbitrary, violating applicable legal processes, and in some cases the comrades in question have been arrested and imprisoned without due process. There are many examples of this, but we can mention closures of printing presses and mass layoffs in the graphic sector in Caracas, as recently happened with the Fanarte printing press. There is also widespread persecution, dismissal, arrest and prosecution of leading worker-activists such as PDVSA employee Marcos Savariego from El Palito, trade union leaders of the Fogade workers, or more recently the notorious case of comrades Alfredo Chirinos and Aryenis Torrealba.

At this time, when the persecution of workers who fight for their rights has greatly increased and the government has used its most repressive forces such as DISIP (intelligence agency), FAES (special police forces), or DGCIM (military counterintelligence), speaking of labour immobility is the most blatant demagoguery, used to calm down the supporters of Chavismo who still have strong ideological and emotional ties to the government. What is certain is that, in reality, labour immobility has not existed in this country for more than a year.

Marxists and revolutionary socialists demand a labour immobility policy that is more than just lip service and truly respects the rights of the working class to work. All businesses must pay workers’ salaries while the quarantine is in effect and not one worker should be let go. Life is more important than capitalist profits!

Likewise, employers must take all security precautions necessary for workers to be able to carry out their tasks, while reducing the risk of contagion as much as possible. Companies must provide face masks, gloves and all clothing necessary to prevent infection, as well as the materials required for regular cleaning of workspaces, in order to keep work areas sterilised.

The suspension of payment of bank debts, rents, and public services is certainly an important palliative, but will do little to improve the living conditions of Venezuelan workers in the medium to long term, especially in a country where the monthly minimum wage is around $5 USD.

On the other hand, the payment of small business employees’ wages by the state will only deepen the already gigantic fiscal deficit. Once the immediate crisis is weathered, the government will seek to recover this money from the pockets of working people. This will mean more and more austerity measures like the so-called monetary reconversion.

It is true that the petty-bourgeoisie, the owners of small businesses and companies, are also somewhat dominated and oppressed by big capital, and are more susceptible to bankruptcy in the midst of a crisis or a commercial paralysis like the one worsened by the current quarantine. However, we must make big business pay for the support provided to these companies! If the state wants to help small businesses during the quarantine, let them take the capital from the country's big monopolies!

The great monopolies must also be nationalised under workers' control in order to implement a democratic plan of national production, aimed at satisfying the enormous material needs of the working masses today. Furthermore, in order to prevent these small businesses and companies from speculating against and plundering the people, a policy of price controls and controlled access to foreign currency should be re-established under the supervision of workers and popular committees.

The request for an IMF loan

Another measure announced by President Maduro, as we already mentioned in passing, was the request for an IMF loan of five billion USD. This issue merits, and we will publish an entire separate article. Here, we will restrict ourselves to a few remarks.

The government has been showing a marked – albeit gradual – turn to the right since Maduro won the April 2013 elections. It has taken measures increasingly in favour of the bourgeoisie and imperialist capital, and against the interests of the workers, peasants and oppressed masses.This has come about as a result of the pressure exerted by the bourgeoisie through the sabotage of production and distribution of goods, as well as imperialist campaigns to overthrow the government. Another important factor is the increasingly evident bureaucratic degeneration of the Chavist leadership.

The most obvious example of this is the so-called currency reconversion, in which the government applied a brutal austerity policy that in fact prohibited negotiations of collective contracts, eliminated wage increases almost completely, and erased public administration salary tables. All of this was to reduce monetary liquidity in the market while legalising the circulation of the dollar along with the bolivar and eliminating exchange controls. Price controls had already been de facto removed without any decree or legal reform.

The current loan request to the IMF was rejected; it was soon followed by a second request, this time for one billion USD. These requests are nothing more than the logical outcome of the government’s austerity. The leadership of Chavismo has totally degenerated, transforming from a progressive force in the class struggle to a reactionary force, which today is propping up Venezuela’s ruling class.

Everyone on the left, including the least advanced layers of the Bolivarian masses, has a clear understanding of the IMF’s historical role as an instrument of finance capital for the exploitation of the peoples of the so-called third world. Can anyone really believe that the IMF will now play a progressive role in confronting the national emergency of the pandemic?

Remember that, in November of last year, during his closing speech at the Third Anti-Imperialist Congress against neoliberalism, held in Cuba, President Maduro said:

"It was Cuba that called the world to debate, study, and unmask the policies of financial domination of the International Monetary Fund," and then, referring to the movements of popular insurrection in Ecuador and Chile, said: "There is a general insurgency of the people against the model of exclusion, privatisation, impoverishment, and individualism of the savage and neoliberal capitalism of the International Monetary Fund."

Only four months after that speech, they try to distort reality, with the excuse of the national emergency due to the coronavirus. They want us to see the IMF as a possible ally of a semicolonial country like Venezuela, historically oppressed by European and North American imperialism. It is outrageous, and an insult to the legacy of Comrade Chávez. Although it continues to have significant support from sectors of the working masses, the honest revolutionaries within the ranks of the Bolivarian movement must understand clearly the current government’s class nature. What is its policy towards the workers and towards the bourgeoisie? Why is this not a socialist government? From the rank and file of combative and honest Chavismo, and from the workers’ and popular movement, we must fight to rebuild a revolutionary alternative for Venezuela.

We point to the struggle of neighbourhood, community and popular organisations to adequately organise quarantine in communities, maintain the operation of certain social services such as the distribution of food parcels, or the autonomous production of masks to protect us from the virus. We recognise the unions and workers' organisations that today are struggling for adequate working conditions which minimise the risk of contagion. We can never separate ourselves from the class struggle, and, as Marx explained, the class struggle is above all a political fight.

The popular and revolutionary workers' movements, which today are at the forefront of the communities in the fight against the pandemic, face the urgent task of building a revolutionary political organisation based on a socialist programme. This organisation must offer the country a revolutionary alternative to the current leadership of the Bolivarian movement, which has become a reactionary and bourgeois force.

After the quarantine period is over, and the country's social life returns to "normal" (even though it has been a rather harsh and abnormal normality in recent years), we must resume our efforts to build an autonomous revolutionary force rooted in the working masses. We cannot forget, for even a moment, this fundamental objective.

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