Spartacist Canada No. 188
No to U.S.-Backed Right-Wing Reaction!
Venezuela in Crisis
Break with Bourgeois Populism! For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
The article below is reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1084 (26 February), newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S.
Venezuela is in the throes of a deep economic crisis fueled in large part by the collapse of world oil prices. The economy contracted by 10 percent last year and is projected to shrink another 8 percent this year. More than 95 percent of state revenue comes from oil exports, while the country relies on imports for most food, medical supplies and other necessities.
There are shortages of many basic goods—for example, rice, beans, diapers and toilet paper—which, while subject to price controls, are strictly rationed. Venezuelans are assigned scheduled days to line up outside stores to try to obtain such goods, but it is common to wait for six or seven hours only to get nothing. Many items are siphoned off by speculators who resell them on the black market at much higher prices. Inflation has hit triple digits and could surpass 700 percent by the end of the year. While the official bank exchange rate for the national currency, the bolivar, is ten to the U.S. dollar, on the black market a dollar now costs more than 1,000 bolivars—about three days’ pay for a minimum-wage worker.
The U.S. imperialists are salivating at the prospect of ousting Venezuela’s long-ruling bourgeois-nationalist regime, which was run by Hugo Chávez from 1999 until his death in 2013 and is now led by his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro. Chávez, a military officer turned populist strongman, used some of the country’s oil profits to institute social programs that benefited the poor and consolidated his support by denouncing Washington’s barbaric economic and military policies in Latin America and elsewhere.
The economic crisis that has engulfed the country has now been compounded by a political crisis. A U.S.-backed right-wing opposition coalition won December’s legislative elections and now threatens sweeping attacks on the workers and the poor. The country’s economic collapse and the gains of the reactionaries expose the bankruptcy of the nationalist populism of Chávez and Maduro. During Chávez’s presidency, a host of reformist leftists internationally hailed his policies as a model of supposed resistance to U.S. imperialism and even of “21st century socialism.” Though targeted by the U.S. rulers and hated by the dominant sectors of the local bourgeoisie, which are closely tied to Washington and Wall Street, Chávez, as we emphasized from the beginning, headed a capitalist government, as does Maduro today. Despite cheap “socialist” rhetoric and demagogic claims to be leading a “Bolivarian Revolution,” Chávez himself made clear over ten years ago that his “revolution” was “not in contradiction with private property.”
Chávez’s main concern upon taking office was to shore up the country’s faltering oil profits, long the lifeblood of Venezuelan capitalism. He moved to discipline the oil workers union and to increase the efficiency of the state-owned oil industry, while pressing the OPEC oil cartel to raise prices. Thanks to such efforts, and in the interest of political stability, he was initially supported by much of the Venezuelan ruling class.
As oil prices climbed, Chávez used some of the huge profits to finance his reforms. He tripled the education budget, instituted paid six-month maternity leave for women and set up free health clinics staffed by well-trained Cuban doctors as well as food distribution programs for the poor. But far from representing a social revolution, such measures were aimed at binding the dispossessed masses more firmly to the Venezuelan capitalist state. Chávez’s policies also permitted a section of the local capitalists—the so-called boliburguesía (Bolivarian bourgeoisie)—to line its pockets.
We warned two years ago:
“Chávez was lucky: the price of oil rose from $10.87 per barrel in 1998 to $96.13 in 2013. However, the price of oil is notoriously unstable and the United States, the largest recipient of Venezuela’s oil, has cut its imports. The social welfare programs introduced by Chávez cannot be sustained in the long term under capitalism.”
—“Venezuela: U.S. Imperialism Fuels Right-Wing Protests,” WV No. 1043, 4 April 2014
This projection has now come to pass. As oil prices have plunged to less than $30 a barrel, the plight of Venezuela’s workers and the poor has worsened and social programs are unraveling. Some 26 percent of households were in poverty in 2008, a sharp drop from the early years of that decade. But by the end of 2014 the rate had climbed back to almost 50 percent. With many prices skyrocketing, gas was kept cheap enough to be affordable for the masses, but now the regime has hiked the price by 6,000 percent. On top of all this is the country’s looming debt crisis. Tens of billions of dollars are owed to American and other imperialist bankers, and an installment of $2.3 billion is due by February 26, mainly to hedge funds and other capitalist vultures.
The broad coalition that won the December legislative elections—an unstable alliance dominated by reactionary, pro-U.S. forces—managed to tap into discontent among the masses struggling to survive in the face of scarcity, corruption and crime. It is now seeking to use its control of the legislature to reverse Chávez’s reforms. A recently adopted bill would decrease and privatize the construction of housing for the poor, putting an end to a program that provided apartments for thousands of people formerly living in tin-roofed shacks with no electricity or running water. Vowing to resist such moves, last month Maduro declared a state of economic emergency.
The U.S. rulers have long seen Latin America as their own private backyard and have a bloody record of backing right-wing military dictators, overthrowing governments they don’t like and pillaging the resources of the region. In Venezuela, they have worked relentlessly with their local satraps to oust the regimes of Chávez and his successor. The U.S. imperialists backed an unsuccessful military coup in 2002, which was soon followed by the right-wing opposition organizing a lockout aimed at crippling the oil industry. Two years ago, Washington fueled street protests in affluent neighborhoods of Caracas and other cities demanding the salida (exit) of Maduro. Last year, the Obama administration slapped punitive sanctions on Venezuela and issued an executive order declaring the country an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security. Down with the sanctions! U.S. imperialism: Hands off Venezuela!
and American Imperialism
While the rise of the pro-U.S. right wing is ominous, the nationalist populism associated with Chávez and Maduro is an obstacle to any struggle against imperialist domination and capitalist exploitation. Such a struggle requires the independent class mobilization of the proletariat standing at the head of all the oppressed. There can be no permanent amelioration of the plight of the urban and rural poor without replacing the capitalists’ state and their social order with the rule of the working class. A series of workers revolutions internationally is necessary to open the road to a global classless society in which all forms of exploitation and oppression have been eliminated. Radical-minded youth and workers must draw lessons from the current crisis. What is urgently needed is to break from chavista bourgeois populism and to forge a revolutionary workers party.
The anti-Maduro coalition is far from homogeneous. It includes forces ranging from frothing pro-U.S. reactionaries to disaffected former supporters of the regime. The dominant force in the new legislature, Democratic Action (AD), is one of the traditional Venezuelan bourgeois parties notorious for receiving funding from Washington. The core of the white Venezuelan ruling class has always looked with disdain at the indigenous and black masses who backed Chávez, himself of zambo (mixed black and indigenous) heritage. Expressing this contempt, AD leader Henry Ramos Allup ordered that all pictures of Chávez be removed from the legislature, saying they should be dumped in the slums or given to the building’s janitors. Ramos is pushing for a referendum to oust Maduro, declaring that there is no need to wait until the 2019 elections (Diario ABC, 3 February). It captures something of this individual that even the former U.S. ambassador privately called him repellent, complaining about his constant requests for money and other favors (“Acción Democrática, A Hopeless Case,” wikileaks.org, 17 April 2006).
The growing influence of China in Latin America is also of concern to U.S. imperialism, and various American economists are blaming China for Venezuela’s crisis. Over the last decade, Venezuela has received about $60 billion in loans and investments from China in exchange for often-deferred oil shipments. China is not capitalist but a bureaucratically deformed workers state. Thus, in sharp contrast to the U.S., its foreign investments are not primarily driven by the capitalist profit motive but by a drive to accrue resources for economic development.
Chávez was one in a long line of military officers in Latin America and beyond (e.g., Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1940s) who came to power on the basis of nationalist populism. The history of Venezuela and other Latin American countries has long been marked by two faces of capitalist rule, populist reform and U.S.-dictated austerity enforced by brutal repression of working people. These alternating policy prescriptions available to the national bourgeoisie are sometimes embodied in the same leader embracing one and then the other. An example is former Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez, who in his first term in the 1970s nationalized the oil industry (with compensation). High oil prices provided resources that he partly invested in social programs, education and health care. But in his second term, 1989-93, he did the opposite: faced with a crash in the oil market he implemented sweeping cuts and privatizations at the behest of the IMF.
Marxists support social reforms favorable to the oppressed and defend nationalizations in dependent countries against imperialist encroachment. But these are not socialist measures. In fact, capitalist regimes typically use nationalizations to tie the working masses to their coattails. And, especially in underdeveloped countries like Venezuela, reforms in the interests of workers and the poor are always temporary and subject to reversal.
Tellingly, on February 15, Maduro dismissed his vice president for the economy, Luis Salas, who had blamed the U.S. “strategy of economic destabilization” for Venezuela’s crisis. Maduro replaced him with Miguel Pérez, a former head of the Fedeindustria business association who is widely seen as more “business-friendly.”
Chávez’s rule was part of a wave of left-talking bourgeois regimes in Latin America over the past decade and a half, including Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. To be sure, these regimes were different from those of the neoliberal 1990s, which oversaw a yawning gap between the rich and the poor and a wave of privatizations and “free trade” agreements in the direct interests of U.S. imperialism. But all of the governments remained thoroughly in the framework of the capitalist-imperialist system. More recently, Latin America has experienced another shift to the right. Washington’s toady Mauricio Macri was recently elected president of Argentina, while the Brazilian government, led by the social-democratic Workers Party, has made a sharp turn to austerity and is increasingly unpopular.
Chávez’s “Socialist” Advisers
Among the array of reformist groups that have politically supported the Chávez and Maduro regimes, one of the most shameless is Alan Woods’s International Marxist Tendency (IMT), a self-proclaimed Trotskyist group whose U.S. publication is Socialist Appeal [in Canada, Fightback]. Spitting on the fundamental tenets of Trotskyism, Woods spent a decade advising the bourgeois demagogue Chávez on how to run his government. Today, the IMT continues to provide a left cover for Maduro, while complaining of a “capitalist fifth column within the Bolivarian movement” (marxist.com, 7 December 2015).
In one of his salutes to Chávez, an article titled “The Transition to Socialism in Venezuela,” Woods claimed that the government in Venezuela “has the power to carry through a revolutionary socialist programme,” but “what is lacking is the necessary will” (marxist.com, 9 February 2015). Such prettification of a capitalist government politically disarms the working class and the oppressed masses, leaving them defenseless in the face of resurgent right-wing forces.
For all his populist rhetoric, Chávez was no less the class opponent of the victory of the workers and urban and rural poor than his neoliberal opponents, and the same applies to his successor Maduro. We have fought to break the illusion held by working people and the oppressed—both in Venezuela and internationally—that these bourgeois regimes could implement a fundamental social transformation. In contrast, our reformist political opponents have accommodated and deepened such illusions. As we wrote more than a decade ago: “History will reserve a harsh verdict for those ‘leftists’ who promote one or another left-talking capitalist caudillo” (“Venezuela: Populist Nationalism vs. Permanent Revolution,” WV No. 860, 9 December 2005).
With the Chávez regime aligning itself with Cuba, the IMT and other reformists falsely compared Venezuela to the Cuban Revolution. IMT spokesman Jorge Martin claimed that the “dynamic of action and reaction of the Venezuelan revolution reminds us in a very powerful way of the first five years of the Cuban revolution” (marxist.com, 1 March 2005).
But the class nature of Venezuela was and is completely different from that of Cuba, which is a bureaucratically deformed workers state. When Fidel Castro’s guerrillas marched into Havana in January 1959, the capitalist state apparatus headed by the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista was destroyed. Facing threats from the American imperialists, in 1960-61 the Castro regime carried out a social revolution from above, nationalizing all U.S.-owned and domestic capitalist property and eliminating the Cuban bourgeoisie as a social class on the island. This was in no small part possible due to the existence of the Soviet Union, which acted as a military counterweight to the U.S. and provided Cuba with essential economic support.
Trotskyists stand for the unconditional military defense of Cuba and the other remaining deformed workers states: China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. The Stalinist bureaucrats who rule these countries uphold the nationalist dogma of building “socialism in one country,” in sharp counterposition to the program of international socialist revolution that animated the 1917 Russian October Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky. We fight for workers political revolutions to oust the bureaucratic rulers and establish regimes based on workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism. Our defense of the deformed workers states is part of our fight for new October Revolutions throughout the world.
For Permanent Revolution
The way for Venezuela’s workers and oppressed to free themselves from imperialist domination, poverty and oppression can be found in Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Latin America, a victim of colonial and neocolonial plunder, is a region of uneven and combined development, where the most modern industries coexist alongside the deepest poverty and rural backwardness. The weak national bourgeoisies are tied by a thousand threads to the imperialist economic and political order. They are too dependent on foreign capital and too hostile to and fearful of the proletariat to resolve any of the fundamental social problems.
The vital task is to forge revolutionary internationalist workers parties that break the working class from all variants of bourgeois nationalism and champion the cause of all the oppressed: black and indigenous people, peasants, women, the poor. Latin America has numerous concentrations of workers with potential social power, from the oil workers of Venezuela to auto workers in Mexico and Brazil to the miners of Chile, Peru and elsewhere. Due to its centrality in capitalist production, the working class has the strategic power to overthrow capitalist class rule through socialist revolution.
A social revolution that brings the working class to power in Venezuela with the support of the rural masses would undertake such urgent democratic tasks as giving land to the peasants. It would also repudiate the country’s foreign debt and expropriate the bourgeoisie as a class in order to establish a collectivized, planned economy in which production is based on social need rather than profit. The U.S. and other imperialist powers would certainly move to crush such a revolutionary regime. Key to the survival of a workers revolution in Venezuela would be its international extension to the rest of Latin America and to the U.S. itself.
As part of a socialist federation of Latin America, a Venezuelan workers and peasants government could begin to address the need for massive programs to build infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, highways and public transportation and lift the productive capacities of the society. But the conquest of power by the proletariat does not complete the socialist revolution; it only opens it by changing the direction of social development. Short of the international extension of the revolution to the advanced, industrialized imperialist centers, that social development will be arrested and ultimately reversed.
Proletarian revolutionary internationalism is at the core of Trotsky’s perspective. The struggles of the proletariat in the semicolonial countries are necessarily intertwined with the fight for power by workers in the heartlands of world imperialism—not least in the United States with its millions-strong proletariat, including powerful black and Latino components. The International Communist League fights to build national sections of a reforged Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution, which will organize and educate the working class in the spirit of uncompromising hostility to the depredations of imperialism and to any and all faces of capitalist rule.