Venezuelan presidential elections: between imperialist aggression and economic crisis

As the Venezuelan presidential election on 20 May draws closer, the campaign of imperialist aggression by the US and its allies intensifies. The aim is clear: to implement regime change. At the same time, the economic crisis gripping the country has reached intolerable levels for the workers and the poor, and the government’s policies are impotent to resolve the situation. A revolutionary alternative is required, one capable of fighting the right wing and showing a real way out of hyperinflation, scarcity and economic depression.

A year ago, we were in the middle of a sustained campaign by the Venezuelan opposition, with the backing of imperialism, to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Maduro. Through violent mass mobilisations in the streets, terrorist attacks and international pressure, they hoped to create a situation of chaos that would push a section of the army to remove the government. They failed. The oligarchic opposition was unable to go beyond its traditional base of support in the middle-and-upper-class areas. The Venezuelan working class showed a very healthy class instinct. Even though many have developed a justified scepticism about the Maduro government, they knew full well that the opposition represents the interests of the ruling class and their arrival to power would spell disaster for workers and peasants. While a few coup conspiracies were uncovered, the bulk of the army remained loyal to the government. The defeat of the opposition’s insurrection led to splits and demoralisation within its ranks.

Watch the author of this article, Jorge Martin, discussing the 20 May Venezuelan presidential elections on IMTV!

Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in July 2017 saw a significant mobilisation of the chavista rank-and-file, which regarded the poll as an opportunity to deliver a blow against the right wing and imperialism. But any hopes that the CA would serve to give back power to the Bolivarian movement, or take decisive measures to deal with the economic crisis, were soon dispelled.

New elections and imperialist aggression

The 20 May presidential elections will take place in the context of increased imperialist aggression and a marked worsening of the economic situation for the workers and poor. The reactionary opposition is divided. One section, led by Henry Falcón, is standing in the election against Maduro, while the bulk of the old MUD (Democratic Roundtable Unity) is calling for a boycott.

The program of Henry Falcón has one main tenet: dollarisation as a way out of the crisis. In practice, removing monetary policy from the hands of the government would mean a brutal fiscal adjustment, which the workers and the poor would have to pay for. He tries to make it more attractive by promising to raise wages to 75 US dollars a month (the minimum wage is now equal to 36 dollars at the official exchange rate). In the context of a severe economic crisis, he hopes to attract a layer of middle-ground voters and even disenchanted, former chavista supporters.

Henri Falcón Image YVKE Radio MundialOpposition candidate, Henry Falcón / Image: YVKE Radio Mundial

From the day the elections were announced, both the US and the EU declared they would not recognise the results. Their decision has nothing to do with concern for ‘democracy’ or ‘fairness’. These are the same imperialist powers that not only turned a blind eye, but organised and backed massive election fraud in Honduras a few months ago, having already played a key role in a 2009 military coup. They are not worried about election fraud, as long as it delivers the government they want.

The presidential elections in Venezuela are taking place using the same methods and the same National Electoral Council that delivered a victory for the MUD opposition at the 2015 National Assembly elections. The MUD also participated in the October 2017 regional elections. The decision by sections of the opposition to participate in elections (or not) and of Washington and Brussels to recognise them (or not), has little to do with the quality of the process, and everything to do with achieving their main aim: the removal of the Maduro government. Thus we have the surreal spectacle of the same forces that spent the whole of 2017 demanding immediate elections (using violent and terrorist means, starting before the elections were called) now demanding that elections be cancelled!

Washington has been working with right-wing governments in the region (Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Colombia) to tighten the economic noose of sanctions around Venezuela’s neck. US Vice-President Mike Pence has described Venezuela as a “failed state” in need of “humanitarian intervention” at a meeting of the Organisation of American States. The “Lima Group” of right-wing, Latin American governments, in a joint statement with Spain and the US, demanded the suspension of the elections. There is no doubt that the Trump administration wants regime change and thinks it can be achieved sooner rather than later.

If they were to achieve their aims, and the reactionary Venezuelan oligarchy returned to power, it would be an unmitigated disaster for the workers and the poor. They would implement a brutal austerity package in order to make the workers pay the full price of dealing with the crisis. That would involve massive cuts in public spending, destroying the gains of the Bolivarian revolution in the fields of education, health care and housing. They would privatise again all of the nationalised companies, open PDVSA to private investment, lift restrictions on mass layoffs, destroy trade union and labour rights, return expropriated land to the latifundistas, and abolish food and other subsidies. This would be accompanied by a general clampdown on democratic rights and attacks on revolutionary organisations and activists.

In these conditions, it is understandable that many will vote for Maduro in order to express their opposition to imperialism and the oligarchy. We can sympathise with their motives, but we must warn that the re-election of Maduro will not solve any of the economic problems facing the masses. In his election rallies, Maduro has asked for 10m votes “to put an end to the economic mafias”. The problem is that this is exactly the same thing he promised a year ago when he called the Constituent Assembly election. Many are now asking themselves, “if he has the ability to deal with the economic mafias, why should he wait until after 20 May?”.

Economic crisis

In the last year, inflation for basic products has reached unprecedented levels. To give an example: a kilo of whole chicken cost 4,500 Bolivars in 2017. It is now over a million: an increase of 22,000 percent. Meanwhile, wages have increased, but to a level well below the increase in prices. The minimum wage a year ago was 148,638.15 Bolivars. It is now 2,555,500: an increase of 1,620 percent, far below inflation. This means that the purchasing power of wages has collapsed by 90 percent in one year.  

In these conditions, working families find it extremely difficult to go about their daily lives. Many rely on the CLAP (subsidised food parcels), but even these are becoming erratic in their delivery. Many can only survive by getting some income in dollars (through teleworking, remittances, migration and bitcoin mining). Basic industries in Guayana are either completely paralyzed or operating at 5-to-15 percent capacity. There are frequent electricity blackouts as well as cuts in the water supply.

Petro ImageThe launch of the Petro is a desperate gambit to circumvent the latest US financial sanctions and the opposition-controlled National Assembly

Of course, the economic crisis is aggravated by economic sanctions that are slowly strangling the Venezuelan government’s ability to raise debt and import products.

The root cause of this frightful crisis is the collapse in the price of oil: the country’s main export. This went from $100 a barrel in 2013, to $85 in 2014, to $41 in 2015 and $35 in 2016. During 2017, there was a slight recovery, but at the same time, production in Venezuela slumped from 2.8 million barrels a day in 2014 to 2.2 million in January 2017, reaching a record low of 1.6 million in December 2017. It has now gone below the 1.5 million barrels a day mark. The reasons for this collapse are the lack of investment and maintenance, corruption and mismanagement. Lower production has prevented Venezuela from benefiting from higher prices.

The fall in oil prices in turn revealed the limitations of so-called ‘oil socialism’: the idea that one can use the oil revenue to implement massive social programs, without dealing with the question of the ownership of the means of production (which have remained largely in private hands). In these conditions, the continued payment of the foreign debt has massively depleted foreign currency reserves, which in turn has led to a brutal shrinking of imports (from $32,500m in 2014 to $9,300m in 2017): a major factor in scarcity of food and medicine.

In the context of an economy in recession, the government’s policy of printing money to finance a yearly fiscal deficit of around 15 percent of GDP has led to a massive devaluation of the currency (a 99 percent fall, according to the official exchange rate), and has resulted in hyperinflation. Government subsidies in the form of bonuses (paid by printing money) do not even cover the loss of purchasing power. The government continues to appeal to businesses to invest and makes ever-more concessions (lifting price controls, creating special economic zones, opening up vast amounts of land for mineral exploitation, offering cheap loans), but to no avail.

The launch of the Petro is a desperate gambit to circumvent the latest US financial sanctions, which prevent Venezuela from negotiating its debt. Petro (which is billed as a cryptocurrency) is a financial instrument based on the sale of oil that is yet to be extracted. The fact that it is based on blockchain technology means that investors can pay Venezuela without being subject to US sanctions and at the same time allows the Venezuelan government to contract new debt, by-passing the opposition-dominated National Assembly. The money raised will be used to pay back debt, which is due in 2018.

Failure of the government’s policies

What has failed in Venezuela is not socialism, but rather the attempt to regulate capitalism (through price and foreign exchange controls), to smooth its rougher edges and somehow make it work in the interests of the majority. The Marxist Tendency pointed out long ago that it is not possible to combine elements of nationalization and state planning with a market economy. That experiment would inevitably end in chaos – which is precisely what we now see. Sooner or later, the Maduro government will be called to order by the capitalist world market. With every day that passes, the threat of a default grows. And Washington does not hide its intentions to turn that threat into a reality.

Chavez repeatedly warned of a counterrevolutionary bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a cancer that gnaws at the entrails of the revolution and destroys it from within. By degrees, the Bolivarian Revolution is being hollowed out from the inside. It is being emptied of all its revolutionary content and reduced to an empty shell, a dry husk that can be blown away by a strong gust of wind. The stranglehold of the bureaucracy has tightened, suffocating the revolutionary initiative of the masses. In the past, the government’s social programs involved an element of self-organisation in the working-class areas. But all that has changed. Government subsidies make recipients more dependent on the state (that is to say, the bureaucracy). These subsidies are used as a powerful lever for political patronage. They are a means to corrupt and intimidate; in effect, to buy votes. This policy has been taken one step further with the creation of the ‘Somos Venezuela’ Party, founded by people who organised registration for the ‘Fatherland Card’, through which subsidies are distributed. The organisation of Somos Venezuela is also part of a struggle at the top between different political ‘families’ for control of the state apparatus and the privileges and perks that come with it. There are tensions between Maduro and Cabello. This tug-of-war was evident in the widespread purge in the PDVSA (the state-owned oil and gas company) and the oil ministry in the second half of 2017, in which dozens of top-ranking PDVSA officers and the oil minister were arrested on corruption charges, with former PDVSA president and UN representative Rafael Ramirez still on the run. There is no doubt that these people were to one degree or another involved in corruption. But the reason they were targeted had little to do with this: it was part of a move to destroy Ramirez’s power base and eliminate him as a possible contender.

Perhaps the most advanced challenge to the power of the bureaucracy comes from the peasant movement. The attempt to present alternative revolutionary candidates against the official PSUV candidates in the municipal elections were most successful in peasant districts. Here communes have been built based on the occupation of landed estates and the production of food. This alleviates the impact of the economic crisis, creating conditions more conducive to revolutionary activity. The El Maizal Commune has become a example of this approach.

Comuna El Maizal Image public domainThe El Maizal Commune / Image: public domain

However, the peasant movement is up against very powerful interests. There is an offensive on the part of the landowners to recover land that was expropriated at the height of the agrarian reforms. They are linked to the state apparatus through officials in the Land Reform Institute (INTI), the judiciary, officials in the police and the National Guard. Peasant activists are being arrested, framed and killed.

20 May election

What attitude should we take to these elections? For the ultra-left sectarians the answer is very simple (one might say childishly simple): this government is the same as the opposition. They have joined the reactionary opposition in calling for a boycott and some have even participated in the launch of the new opposition front, the FAVL.For the workers and peasants of Venezuela, matters are posed very differently. On the one hand, they are bitterly disappointed with the policies of the government, which has betrayed their aspirations and driven the revolution into a ditch. On the other hand they understand that behind the opposition with its smiling, ‘democratic’ mask lies the forces of bourgeois counterrevolution: the bankers, landowners and capitalists and US imperialism.  

The reactionary opposition coming to power, backed by US imperialism, would be an unmitigated disaster for the working class and the poor. Reactionary economic measures would be combined with a brutal assault on democratic rights necessary to implement them. We ask those foolish, ultra-left gentlemen in Buenos Aires who shout at the top of their voices that Maduro and the opposition are all the same to weigh their words very carefully and draw the necessary conclusions. Would the victory of the opposition in Venezuela be a positive development for the left in Latin America? On the contrary, it would have the most negative effects, not only in Venezuela but throughout Latin America and on a world scale. The reactionaries would be celebrating everywhere and the workers and peasants would suffer a blow to their morale.

The first duty of the Venezuelan Marxists is to fight their main enemies: the counterrevolutionary opposition, the landlords, bankers and capitalists and their imperialist backers. We will warn of the danger that a victory of the opposition (be it Falcón or the FAVL) would signify for the working class. But to fight against the opposition does not at all mean that we are under any obligation to support the Maduro government. On the contrary, we will point out that the Maduro government is responsible for creating conditions in which the revolution has been placed in grave danger. The policies of the government cannot solve any of the serious economic problems but might aggravate many of them. They are in fact preparing the ground for a brutal adjustment that will destroy those gains of the revolution that still survive.

Under those conditions, the victory of the counterrevolution would be guaranteed by one means or another. In other words, we will fight against the counterrevolutionary opposition in all its forms, but we have absolutely no confidence in the present government’s ability to lead that fight. In order to defeat the counterrevolution and carry the revolution forward, a change of course and leadership is necessary!

Fabricio Ojeda Commune in Lara Image own workFabricio Ojeda Commune in Lara / Image: own work

 To solve the crisis to the benefit of working people, a bold, revolutionary program is required: the expropriation of bankers, capitalists and land-owners so that the country’s economy can be planned under democratic workers’ control to satisfy the needs of the majority. That program can only be carried out by a new, revolutionary leadership, which must come from within the ranks of the chavista left. This is the only way to prevent the oligarchy and imperialism from taking power.

At the beginning of the year, there was a widespread discussion amongst the revolutionary left-wing of the Chavista movement around the question of the elections. Both the Communist Party (PCV) and the Fatherland For All Party (PPT) held emergency conferences to decide on their support for Maduro. There was clearly a lot of pressure from a layer of advanced worker and peasant activists for these parties to stand their own candidate. In the end, both signed an agreement with the PSUV and are supporting Maduro.

Nicolas Maduro Image fair useMany will vote for Maduro in order to stop the right wing. That is understandable, but a revolutionary alternative is required / Image: fair use

In the absence of any alternative to the left of the PSUV candidate, and faced with increased pressure from imperialism, many will come out to vote for Maduro in order to stop the right wing. That is a healthy instinct and we of course fully support the struggle to prevent the direct agents of imperialism from returning to power. We must point out that imperialism and the right wing can only be defeated by using revolutionary means and above all by expropriating the oligarchy, which uses its economic power to wage an open war against the democratically elected government. Instead, Maduro has promised a new round of negotiations with the opposition after the election.

But we must warn that the re-election of Maduro will not solve any of the political and economic problems facing the Bolivarian government. The main task facing the advanced layers in Venezuela is making a serious balance-sheet of the last four years of economic crisis and the Bolivarian Revolution as a whole. On that basis, a clear, socialist, revolutionary program should be adopted as the only way forward. On the basis of such a program, a new, revolutionary leadership must be built, capable of putting it into practice.