The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is facing its most challenging times. The right-wing opposition, backed by the United States, is engaged in a full-blown “regime change” campaign, with violent protests occurring daily for over 2 months and resulting in over 50 casualties. The chavista supporters of the government have also taken to the streets in defence of the Bolivarian Revolution, and President Maduro surprised everyone by calling for a Constituent Assembly. To better understand the situation and where it might lead to, Investig’Action have interviewed Jorge Martín, the secretary of the “Hands Off Venezuela” solidarity campaign.
You were in Venezuela in recent weeks. How does the reality that you witnessed contrast with one being presented by the western media?
There are a number of different points. The first one is that is that the media is presenting this idea that in Venezuela we have groups of peaceful opposition demonstrators fighting for democracy, and government repression that has killed over 50 people. This is all wrong. There are big opposition demonstrations, they have been going on now for nearly two months and have attracted quite a lot of people. But in most cases they have also degenerated into violent clashes in which the opposition demonstrators, or groups in the vanguard of the opposition demonstrations, have used firearms, home-made explosives/weapons/rocket launchers and all sorts of stuff against the police, but also against educational institutions, state buildings, housing projects of the Misión Vivienda, public transportation, they have even set up burning barricades outside maternity hospitals. On top of this there has been gunfire coming from opposition rioters also against civilians and against chavistas in general.
So it is hardly a picture of peaceful pro-democracy protesters…
Yes, it is not correct to say that these are peaceful opposition demonstrators, it is not correct to say that what they want is democracy or that what they want is elections. In fact, their own leaders have admitted that what they want is “regime change”. For example, Maria Corina Machado wrote an article in El Comercio, in Peru, where she said “the first step is the overthrow of the government. Then we can talk about having elections in a different institutional context”, something along these lines.
Another thing I will say is that these protests are not taking place across the whole of the territory, not even the whole of the capital city. They are very concentrated in a number of states and municipalities, most of them ruled by opposition governors or mayors, particularly in Táchira, Mérida, Barinas, Carabobo, Lara, and also in eastern Caracas. So if you are in Caracas, you can go about your daily life without ever encountering an opposition demonstration, or violence, which is concentrated in Altamira, in Chacao, to the east of the city, where the middle and upper class areas are.
This means the protests have not spread beyond the opposition’s bastions of influence?
This is something very telling you see in Caracas, namely that the opposition has not achieved one of its main aims, which was to bring the people from the barrios, the working class and poor areas in the hills around Caracas, into the protests. And this undercuts the idea that these protests are motivated by hunger and scarcity. There are problems of scarcity of basic products, people’s diets have suffered in recent years, but the people that are most affected by this are the ones that remain firmly on the side of the Bolivarian Revolution. The people in the middle and upper middle class areas, that are not so affected by these economic hardships, are the main subjects of these anti-government demonstrations.
And the last thing that contrasts with the picture that the media is giving is that there have been large pro-Bolivarian, chavista demonstrations. On the 19th of April there was a very big one, on May Day there was a huge one that I was able to attend. This was a demonstration that started in four meeting points in different parts of the capital, and people marched to Bolívar Avenue. Bolívar Avenue is quite long, and it was full of people for 4 or 5 hours, with waves of people coming in and out, so there must have been hundreds of thousands of people there. They were not all from Caracas, there were groups of workers coming from other parts of the country to participate in the May Day demonstration. But this was certainly a very big show of support for the Bolivarian Revolution. These major demonstrations have been supplemented by almost daily, smaller demonstrations. Demonstrations of women, peasants, youth, etc, in defence of the Bolivarian Revolution and against this right-wing attempt to overthrow it. And this is never shown by the mass media, not even referred to. So they are giving, as usual, an extremely one-sided picture of what is happening in Venezuela.
Given this one-sidedness of the media and the whitewashing of the actions of the opposition, what is the role of international solidarity and in particular what is “Hands Off Venezuela” trying to do?
“Hands Off Venezuela”, from the very beginning, one of its aims was to break through the fog of media lies, distortions, half-truths and manipulations in relation to Venezuela. Just to give you an example, the other day there was an article headline 1 on the BBC World News website that said
“Two more protesters killed in Venezuela. The deaths bring the number of anti-government protesters killed in the last seven weeks to 42.”
And this is obviously not true. There have been people killed by government repression, but amongst these 42, over 50 now, these are not the majority. The majority of people have been killed as a direct result of political violence by the opposition, for example by gunfire coming from opposition lines, or as an indirect result of that 2. So our task is to try to spread truthful information to labour movement activists, left-wing activists, student activists and so on, in order to counter the lies of the media. We should also try to hold the media accountable as much as we can. But the spreading of truthful information and a counter point of view is very important so that people can then make up their minds as to what is really going on in Venezuela. And this is one of the key tasks of the solidarity movement right now.
Going back to one of your points, you have mentioned that the opposition protests have not managed to spread to the barrios and in two months they have hardly made any progress. What do you think their strategy is at this point?
It is a bit difficult to say, because there are many different factors involved. But I would say that we have reached a point already where the opposition supporters are getting tired and frustrated by the lack of progress. As you say, they have been demonstrating for nearly 60 days and they have not achieved any of their aims. Above all, they have not achieved any substantial support for their protests in the working class and poor areas, but so far they have also not managed to break the state. There has been no movement inside the army, even though the opposition leaders constantly appeal to the the army to come out and overthrow the government. Other than some statements by the State Prosecutor, that the opposition are trying to claim is on their side, there have not been any major breaches in terms of the state institutions. They have not pushed the government out, or into making substantial concessions that they could present as a victory.
So they are basically trapped, they are in a cul-de-sac, and what I see now is a section of the opposition demonstrators, and some of the leaders, going for a radicalisation of the protests, in terms of becoming more violent, using terrorist methods. In the last few days for instance, they attacked a National Guard barracks in Táchira and set it on fire. There was also a very high level of insurrectionary right-wing violence in San Antonio de los Altos in recent days, with basically everyone locked in their homes, and protesters taking control over the city for a number of days, with the support of the local opposition mayor. And similar situations have happened at points in Táchira, in parts of Mérida, in Barinas, in Barquisimeto. That is the kind of strategy that they are following.
But I also think that if they do not manage to step up the mobilisation or achieve any of their aims, this will also push a section of them towards the negotiating table with the government. And this will create a big split within the opposition. You have to remember that the leaders of the opposition are already very discredited among their own ranks because of their actions in October/November last year, when they basically called for big demonstrations, promising that the government was going to be overthrown, and then immediately switched towards the negotiating table, at which they did not achieve anything.
The polls, for instance from Hinterlaces, constantly show that the people do not trust the opposition leadership…
Yes. And also the opposition protests are becoming more and more unpopular, because of the level of violence they use, because of incidents like the one a few days ago when protesters identified someone as an “infiltrator” and set him on fire. The protests become inconvenient to people’s daily lives, going to work, going to study and so on, and therefore there is now a strong current of people who do not necessarily support the government but who nevertheless reject the violence of the opposition demonstrators. So this is also working against them.
This is also playing, in a certain sense, in favour of the emergence of a third camp figure, and in the last few months now there has been a lot of talk about Lorenzo Mendoza becoming such a figure. He is the owner of Grupo Polar.3, and although he participated in some of the opposition demonstrations in October, he has been mostly silent recently. There was an Hinterlaces poll that said that he would be the preferred candidate in an opposition primary election, above any of the current political leaders. There are people playing with this idea, that the government is an economic disaster, so putting a businessman in charge might be the solution. And some people might fall for that. There are another two unknown factors. One of them is Henry Falcón, governor of Lara state, a former chavista who moved to the opposition, and Manuel Rosales, who was the opposition presidential candidate in 2006. A few years ago he fled the country due to an arrest warrant for corruption charges. He later returned, was detained briefly and has now been released, and I think there is a possibility that some of these people might try to reach a compromise of some sort with the government.
Lorenzo Mendoza, owner of food/drink conglomerate Polar and possible opposition candidate (photo from Wikicommons)
On the other hand, the situation could also descend into a civil war. If the violent opposition elements radicalise their terrorist activities there can be also a violent response from the chavista side. In some areas of the country it has already happened that, even if only for a few days, there was a complete breakdown of law and order.
So what do you think is motivating the opposition leaders to go all-in with their violent plans?
What is clear is that the opposition leaders want the overthrow of this government and they think they have a chance now. They also have international support, with Trump coming out clearly on their side, and Colombian president Santos is now playing a key role. While in the past he pretended to be friendly towards the Venezuelan government, particularly during the peace negotiations with the FARC, he has now broken ranks and come out publicly against Venezuela, even conducting a series of provocative moves, like sending armoured cars to the border. One of the ideas of the opposition is precisely the opening of a “humanitarian corridor” in the border with Colombia, that could also come into play. So the opposition leaders think that they have a chance of coming to power and they do not want elections, it is not correct to say that, they want to overthrow the government and then create new framework in which there might be elections or not.
Let us rewind a little bit. This renewed attempt of overthrowing the government started with the Supreme Court decision of stepping in for the National Assembly, or at least that was the official pretext, and that even led some people who in the past had defended the Bolivarian Revolution to now launch accusations of authoritarianism. What is your analysis on this?
I will stress two different points in relation to this. One is that, in deciding one’s position in relation to Venezuela, one cannot focus on the details of the constitution or who broke this or that rule, but on fundamental class issues. What class interests are represented by this opposition? And is the victory of this opposition a step towards democracy, an advance of the interests of the working class and the poor or not? It is clear that it is not, it will be a massive setback, and this is the starting point for any analysis.
Then you can look also at the details of the constitution and all these things. If you look at the details, though, you will have to come out in defence of the Bolivarian government and its actions in most cases, even from a purely legal/institutional point of view. With perhaps only the exception that elections for regional governors were cancelled last year. The reasons for cancelling them were the economic crisis in the country, which is a fair enough reason, and also the fact there was this process towards a recall referendum. So one thing kind of contradicted the other, plus this is something that had been done before. But I would say, from a purely bourgeois democratic point of view, the only important break of constitutional legality that has taken place in Venezuela has been this postponement of regional elections. 4
In relation to the Supreme Court, its decision was completely justified by the fact that the National Assembly is in contempt of court. The National Assembly had been warned over a one year period and has twice rejected the decision of the court to declare null and void election of three MPs from Amazonas state for electoral fraud. If the opposition wanted to, they could just accept that and trigger new elections in the Amazonian state. They would be favoured to win those elections and then have a legal National Assembly that would not be in contempt of court.
On the other hand, there have also been articles, for example in Lucha de Clases or in Venezuelanalysis, which also argue that liberal/bourgeois democracy is not a sacred system to be preserved at all costs. It will become incompatible with the construction of socialism.
From a Marxist perspective, it is clear that you cannot take over the ready-made machinery of the state and use it to have an institutional framework that is at the service of the working people. But during the 15 or so years that Chávez was in power there were many opportunities for doing that, i.e. for moving towards the abolition of the bourgeois state from a democratic perspective.
For instance, there were many occasions in which chavistas had a big majority in the National Assembly. There was even a time when the opposition boycotted the National Assembly elections (in 2005) and were not even present. Chávez could have passed an enabling law at that time, as he did on a number of occasions, saying that all the means of production were nationalised in a democratic plan and use that as a spur for the formation of workers committees, communal councils, and then convene a National Assembly of representatives from the communal councils and workers committees which would then take power. There could have been a more or less peaceful transfer of power from the old state to the new one.
Chávez, before he died, in his last speech, said that there were two tasks left undone in the Bolivarian Revolution. The first one was moving towards a socialist economy, because Venezuela still had a capitalist economy, he was very clear about this. The other one was the replacement of the old bourgeois state apparatus of the 4th Republic, which was still in place, by a communal state, a state based on the communes. If you want, that is one way of putting it, that you need a revolutionary state based on revolutionary councils of people in the neighbourhoods and workers in the factories. And this is something that was not done, and now it is a big problem. In many respects the hallmarks of a capitalist state are still being reproduced, even in institutions and ministries created under the Bolivarian Revolution and fully staffed by people who consider themselves chavistas. The fact that this has not been solved in all these years when circumstances were much more favourable is now a weight over the shoulders of the Revolution.
So you are saying that there are contradictions inside chavismo. Because there is a push towards the communes and more organising in that direction, but these communes will often clash the state or local bodies, which are in many cases chavista themselves…
That is true. There is a struggle, you could say, between the revolutionary rank and file, and the bureaucracy and the reformists within the Bolivarian movement. The bureaucracy and the reformists try to prevent and block the revolutionary initiative of the masses while the revolutionary initiative of the masses is the one and only factor that has saved the Revolution at every single turn. But the more this situation goes, the more difficult it is for people to continue mobilising at the rank and file level, particularly in the situation of severe economic crisis.
I will give you one example. A few years there was a very strong and vibrant workers’ control movement, particularly in the basic industries in Guayana. Chávez had a weekend meeting with worker representatives from all these huge steel and aluminium factories like SIDOR, ALCASA, VENALUM, and the workers’ demand was for workers’ control. And Chávez agreed, he said “I stake my future with the working class”, (“me resteo con la clase obrera”), and he appointed as directors of all these companies workers that had been chosen by the workforce. This was not a perfect example of workers’ control, there were many problems, but there was an attempt to move in that direction. But now none of these workers’ directors are in place. They have all been replaced, in general by military officers. In many cases they are extremely corrupt and they have suppressed the revolutionary initiative of the workers in these factories. This creates demoralisation, scepticism, the withdrawal of people from the movement, and it weakens the Revolution itself.
Do you feel this is a generalised issue?
This is happening at all levels. For instance after the December 2015 opposition electoral victory there was a big movement from the rank and file and left-wing chavismo, people were very critical, they wanted more participation, they were were blaming the leadership for the defeat. Amongst other things, the candidates had not been chosen from below but appointed from above. Maduro reacted by talking with these people that were demonstrating outside Miraflores palace, and he convened the Communal Parliament and later the Congreso de la Patria (“Fatherland Congress”).
But these initiatives have ended up being empty talk-shops in which people go to the meetings, they are lectured by different government or PSUV officials, they are never allowed to have a say, and above all they are not allowed to make any decisions. So people have become very demoralised and sceptical about these bodies. This is one factor that is now bearing down on Maduro’s call for a Constituent Assembly, with people wondering whether they will see a repeat of these scenarios or have a real chance to elect their own representatives.
Let me put a question about the Constituent Assembly in a different way. Could it be that the chavista leadership realises that their backs are against the wall and that the only way forward is to radicalise? Even indirectly, if there is no possibility of dialogue with the opposition, could radicalisation be the only way forward?
I cannot tell you what the Bolivarian leadership is thinking. What Maduro said, when he announced this at May Day demonstration, was that after they had tried to enter into dialogue with the opposition, there had been no response, and therefore the government was taking this step in the sense of entering into a dialogue with the people in general, that this was the only way of getting everyone together in an elected body which could bring the conditions for peace. So there is an element of that, of appealing to popular mobilisation, in the spirit of the original Constituent Assembly of 1999 which was very widespread and generated a lot of debate.
But at the same time, when you look at some of the issues that have been put on the list for discussion for the Constituent Assembly, there is no indication that the idea is to go for a radicalisation of the Revolution. For example, there is one point which is about the economy, which basically says that Venezuela needs to build a “post-oil” economy that works for all and with all the different property forms that exist today. That means the maintenance of a capitalist economy. The government has made an appeal to business owners to participate in the Constituent Assembly, they will have their own representatives elected to this Assembly.
Yes, there have been plenty of appeals to the “patriotic businessmen”, which is almost a contradiction in itself…
Precisely. So on this regard I think it is a continuation, rather than a change from the previous policy of making appeals to the capitalist class to invest, to be reasonable, to cease in their attempts to overthrow the government. And these appeals come with concessions, which may involve lifting price controls, handing over hard currency reserves to private capitalists for imports at preferential rates, subsidies for production and investment, etc. This is a policy that has failed consistently for 17 years.
On the other hand, it has to be said that amongst a section of the rank and file of the chavista organisations, the Constituent Assembly has been seen in the way that you suggest, as an opportunity for participating and radicalising the Revolution. All the reports that I have seen say that the meetings that have been organised in workplaces and neighbourhoods to discuss the Constituent Assembly have been well attended, that the people are interested, they want to participate, although there is also a certain scepticism on whether the bureaucracy will allow the people to elect directly their own representatives and have a real voice in this assembly.
Wrapping up, how do you see the situation developing in the coming months?
It is difficult to say. I would say the main problem in Venezuela, which is at the root of everything, is the fact the Bolivarian Revolution has lost a lot of support, and this we need to identify why this has happened. This was revealed in the National Assembly elections in December 2015. This was the first time, other than the constitutional referendum of 2007, that the Bolivarian Revolution lost an election contest. The reason for this is not so much a shift of people from supporting chavismo to supporting the opposition, but a lot of people abstaining. The Bolivarians lost about a million votes between the presidential and the National Assembly elections, while the opposition’s increase was much smaller.
On the one hand this is explained by the economic crisis. But not just the economic crisis in itself, also the government’s handling of the economic crisis. Many people cannot see whether the government has got a strategy or not. One day they are railing against the economic war carried out by private businesses, the next day they are calling on private businesses to collaborate, giving them money, making concessions, subsidies and so on. There is also the impact of corruption, bureaucracy and reformism within the apparatus at the top of the Bolivarian Revolution which has created, as I said before, scepticism, pessimism and even cynicism among layers of people who previously supported the Revolution wholeheartedly. And this is the main problem. Most people know that they are going through a difficult situation, and they are quite prepared to accept that, so long as they do not see chavista leaders and officials living in luxury. This goes against the grain of the Bolivarian Revolution.
The situation can only be turned around by measures that really with deal with the economic problems of the country. And this means a radical shift in the government’s policies on this question, as well as a change in the way that politics is conducted. Right now there is a very bureaucratic, top-down way of doing everything. Even though there are big mobilisations, the people are not participating directly in their organisation, or in discussing the strategy of the movement. They are just allowed to respond, or not, to calls made from the top. So I think that, unless and until these fundamental questions are solved, the perspective is one where this government will fall. Either overthrown by direct force by the opposition, or defeated in the elections. Maduro has said that, rain or shine, presidential elections will take place next year. But they will take place in very bad conditions and it is very likely, all things standing as they are now, that chavismo will be defeated.
What would be the consequences of the opposition taking power?
That is something that really worries me, because the ascension of the opposition to power would be an unmitigated disaster. They would solve the economic crisis, but they would make the workers pay for it. They would massively cut public spending, destroy all the social missions, privatise social housing, apply the IMF recipes, etc. They would bring products back to the shelves, but at prices that no one would be able to afford. It would bring a massive backlash similar to what we have already seen to take place in Argentina and Brazil. But on a higher scale, because the depth and reach of the Bolivarian Revolution is nothing comparable to what happened in the past in Argentina or Brazil with the previous governments. Moreover, this will be accompanied with a lynch-mob against anyone who looks like or is suspected of being chavista, a massive purge of the state apparatus and institutions, persecution and suppression of democratic rights of the chavista working class and poor majority. This is quite clear. And it is from this point of view that I am making the criticism of the government policies, because I think the policies of the government are not conducive to defending the Bolivarian Revolution but leading directly to disaster.
2. [Venezuelanalysis has been producing a detailed account of all the casualties. They compare the different origins of the many deaths, and also contrast the initial blame assigned by the opposition and the media to what is later found out after further investigation.]↩
3. [Polar is Venezuela’s biggest food and beverage corporation. It sells a wide range of products and holds a monopoly in staples like cornflour.]↩
4. [Shortly after this interview was conducted the Venezuelan Electoral Council scheduled these regional elections for December 2017]↩