Challenging United States hegemony is never an easy course. A county need not be socialist — it is enough to either voice aspirations toward socialism, or merely demonstrate a pattern of not doing as Washington dictates.
So here we go again, this time with Venezuela. Ironically for a country that the corporate media insistently claims has been ruled by two “dictators” (remember that Hugo Chávez was routinely denounced in the same ways that Nicolás Maduro is today) it would be difficult to find a country with more opportunities for grassroots democracy and for everyday people to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and neighborhoods. There has been backtracking on some of this, and there are legitimate complaints about the top-down manner in which the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is run. The U.S. government is in no position to point fingers, however, given its history in Latin America and the widespread voter suppression that is a regular feature of U.S. elections.
It is also preposterous to assert that “socialism has failed” in Venezuela, when 70 percent of the country’s economy is in private hands, the country is completely integrated into the world capitalist system and it is (overly) dependent on a commodity with a price that wildly fluctuates on capitalist markets. Venezuela is a capitalist country that does far more than most to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism and in which socialism remains an aspiration. If something has “failed,” it is capitalism. Leaving much of the economy in the hands of capitalists leaves them with the ability to sabotage an economy, a lesson learned in painful fashion during the 1980s in Sandinista Nicaragua.
Before delving into the significant problems of Venezuela, largely due to the economic war being waged against it by the U.S. government and the economic sabotage within by Venezuela’s industrialists and other business interests, it is worthwhile to briefly examine some of the democratic institutions that have been created since the Bolivarian Revolution took root in 1998.
Communal councils organize at neighborhood level
The base of the Venezuelan political system are the communal councils. Various political structures designed to organize people at the grassroots level have evolved into a system of communal councils, organized on a neighborhood level, which in turn build up to communes and communal cities. These are direct-democracy bodies that identify and solve the problems and deficiencies of their local areas with the direct support and funding of the national government. After decades of neglect by previous governments, there were no shortage of problems to tackle.
Like many institutions of the Bolivarian Revolution, these have roots in grassroots organizing that pre-date Hugo Chávez’s first election.
The Barrio Assembly of Caracas emerged in 1991 as something of a general assembly representing local groups, coming into being after demonstrations marking the first and second anniversaries of the “Caracazo” uprising were dispersed by soldiers firing on them from rooftops. (The “Caracazo” uprising was a massive revolt sparked by popular resistance to an austerity package dictated by the International Monetary Fund.) Later versions of these assemblies organized on the eve of the 2002 coup attempting to overthrow President Chávez; among these assemblies’ accomplishments were distributing 100,000 fliers calling for a march on the presidential palace to defend the government.
The communal councils are the base of an alternative government structure, one intended to bypass municipal and other local governments and to eventually replace them. This was an attempt to provide a concrete form to the concept of “constituent power,” the idea that people should be direct participants in the decisions to affect their lives and communities. Legislation passed in 2006 formally recognized the communal councils and the form quickly gained popularity — there were an estimated 30,000 in existence by 2009. These councils are formed in compact urban areas containing 200 to 400 households in cities and 20 or so in rural areas. All residents of the territory are eligible to participate. In turn, communal councils organize into larger communes, and communes into communal cities, to coordinate projects too large for a neighborhood or to organize projects necessarily on a larger scale, such as improving municipal services.
Communal councils are required to propose three projects that will contribute to development in the community; funding for approved projects will usually come from national-government bodies. An interesting development is that many (in the case of councils studied by researchers, a majority) who have taken active roles in the communal councils were not politically active before the 2002 failed coup. Generally, women outnumber men among the active participants, and it is often older women taking the lead. The culture of participation that the councils encourage and that the Bolivarian government is paying vastly more attention to solving social problems and the needs of the poor than prior governments has facilitated the organizing of women, and the new activity of women in turn is breaking down traditional macho attitudes. That pensions are now much stronger, proving material security, also enables participation. Health committees tackling problems of illness, access to contraception and motherhood are often where participation begins. Once involved, women sign up for training programs, with more women then men taking advantage of these.
Communes often organize enterprises to provide employment for local residents and to help supply needed basic goods. One example is the El Panal 2012 Commune in Caracas. El Panal operates several enterprises and a communal bank. One of the enterprises is a sugar-packaging plant, and there are also bakeries. El Panal activists are also creating links with neighboring communes in Caracas and in other parts of the country. Links are also being created with the countryside — a “Pueblo a Pueblo” initiative brings together urban communities and farmers to distribute food directly, eliminating intermediaries and speculators. El Panal also regularly organizes food fairs at which meats, vegetables and other basic foods can be bought at discounts, well below market prices.
Tackling social problems through missions
There are also the social programs known as “missions” that are based on the direct participation of the beneficiaries. Begun in 2003, there are more than two dozen missions that seek to solve a wide array of social problems. Given the corruption and inertia of the state bureaucracy, and the unwillingness of many professionals to provide services to poor neighborhoods, the missions were established to provide services directly while enabling participants to shape the programs. Much government money was poured into these programs, thanks to the then high price of oil, which in turn enabled the Chávez government to fund them.
Among the approximately two dozen missions are Alimentación, which incorporates the Mercal network that provides food at subsidized prices and a distribution system; Cultura, which seeks the decentralization and democratization of culture to ensure that all have access to it and stimulate community participation; Guaicaipuro, intended to guarantee the rights of Indigenous peoples as specified in the constitution; Madres del Barrio, designed to provide support to housewives in dire poverty and help their families overcome their poverty; Negra Hipólita, which assists children, adolescents and adults who are homeless; Piar, which seeks to help mining communities through dignifying living conditions and establishing environmental practices; and Zamora, intended to reorganize land, especially idle land that could be used for agriculture, in accordance with the constitution.
Venezuelan political scientist and historian Margarita López Maya summarized the breadth of the missions in a Socialist Register article:
“Missions (programs bypassing uncooperative or ineffective state agencies), such as Barrio Adentro (free 24 hours a day primary health care and disease prevention for low income groups), Mercal (state distribution of food at subsidized prices), Robinson 1 and 2 (literacy and primary education for adults), Ribas and Sucre (secondary and university education for those who had missed or not finished these), Vuelvan Caras (training for employment), and the Bolivarian schools, where a full day schedule has been restored, with two free meals and two snacks a day, plus free uniforms and textbooks: all these undoubtedly had a positive political impact. The government has also invested in the social economy, as in the “ruedas de negocios,” in which the creation of cooperatives is encouraged in order to supply goods and services to the state sector. The government has also created a system of micro-financing with the Women’s Bank, the Sovereign People’s Bank, and so on, which make small loans to lower income borrowers.”
Struggles for economic democracy
In the workplaces, there are experiments with co-management, cooperatives, socialist production units and workers’ councils. These forms have been contested — an ongoing multiple-sided struggle over what constitutes “workers’ control” of industry and what forms such control should take continues. Cooperative enterprises are enshrined in the constitution, and a 2001 law mandates that all members be included in decision-making and that an assembly of all members has final decision-making power over all topics. Temporary workers can be hired for a maximum of six months, after which they must be accepted as members. A state ministry was created to provide assistance to cooperatives and small businesses, including the facilitation of securing contracts from state companies.
There are difficulties here. One significant problem were instances of cooperatives being formed only in order to acquire the start-up capital provided by the government, or were small companies that converted to being cooperatives only on paper to take advantage of preferential priority for state contracts or to obtain subsidies. In response to these irregularities, the government began to require coops obtain a “certificate of fulfillment of responsibilities,” which includes financial audits and demonstration of work within their local community. Nonetheless, there are many examples of successful cooperative enterprises.
There are also socialist production units. These are nonprofit, state-owned enterprises that are managed democratically by a combination of their workers, local communal councils and the national government. These enterprises are intended to provide local services, such as transportation and distribution of cooking gas, and the creation of production. Although workers are directly involved in decision-making at these enterprises, the state also has a role, which can sometimes lead to tensions. The goods produced are most often distributed through the Mercal state-owned chain of supermarkets that provides food at subsidized prices, and PDVAL, a state-run food-distribution network. These are often operated at a loss, as they are intended to provide needed goods and services to communities at steep discounts.
A continuing area of contestation are state-owned enterprises. Some argue for state ownership with employee participation, others argue for full autonomy of enterprises and the workers in them, and there are gradations in between. There are managements that don’t wish to cede decision-making authority to their workforce, and there are government officials, despite being part of the Bolivarian movement, who oppose workers’ control, sometimes because they believe in top-down control by the state. There are examples of state-owned companies in which management structures have changed multiple times as different factions temporarily gain control.
The push and pull of competing interests and tendencies is exemplified in the case of the state-owned aluminum smelter Alcasa, which had a well-functioning system of workers’ control under co-management that reversed its debt problems; then had a new director appointed who ignored the co-management structure, with an accompanying fall in productivity and return of corruption; and then a return to co-management when President Chávez named a new company president selected by the workers. Workers’ control was reinstated with new structures, and because of the precarious financial situation caused by the corruption of the middle period, workers began designing parts to be produced internally instead of buying them from suppliers as previously done. More difficulties arose when a dissident union aligned with the local state governor attempted to stop production, and although unsuccessful, caused a significant disruption. Yet another change in management by Chávez led to a renewed deterioration in co-management, and struggles at Alcasa continued.
Economic warfare at home and abroad
Shifting from a traditional capitalist economy toward a participatory economic democracy can’t be expected to be smooth sailing, especially when this attempt is being done in a country with subaltern status in the world capitalist system. President Chávez had to withstand three successive attempts to remove him — the 2002 coup, 2002-03 bosses’ lockout and the 2004 recall referendum. Five times he was elected president, never with less than 55 percent of the vote, and overall he won 16 of 17 elections and referendums in which his movement participated. The election system put in place by the Chávez government was declared by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center to be “the best in the world.” None of this prevented the late president from being furiously denounced as a “dictator.”
Once he died, however, the attacks were stepped up by the revolution’s opponents, apparently believing that the loss of the leader would make the revolution vulnerable. In reality, the Bolivarian Revolution has always been a movement propelled by millions who will not readily give up the many gains they have achieved and which pushed the late president to go further. Venezuela has a long tradition of strong, organized movements, which predate the Bolivarian Revolution. Despite the difficulties of recent years and increasing popular disapproval of President Maduro, those movements do not want their gains to be reversed. During the Chávez years, unemployment and poverty were drastically reduced and people were able to participate in the political process for the first time.
So how much of Venezuela’s serious economic problems are the fault of the current president? Some of the blame can be laid at his doorstep, but mostly for his inability to act in timely fashion and allowing problems caused by outside forces to deepen. A serious mistake that has ran through the past 20 years is that no progress was made on reducing Venezuela’s heavy reliance on oil exports. When oil prices were high, the government was content to let the money flow and use it to fund social programs and finance a wide variety of projects. But the later crash in oil prices left the government vulnerable. By not diversifying the economy, much less is earned when the inevitable falls in price arrive and it becomes difficult to maintain consumption because so many consumer products must be imported.
The over-reliance on a single export commodity would be difficult to overcome by itself. But greatly compounding Venezuela’s problems are U.S. sanctions, a currency that became drastically overvalued, and an inflationary spiral resulting from that overvaluation that incentivized black markets and smuggling. Poor management on the part of the government of President Maduro has intensified the damage done by those factors. Although the Venezuelan government set an official exchange rate for its currency, the bolívar, the effective exchange rate was determined by international currency speculators and thus the value of the bolívar is not in the control of Caracas.
Speculators caused the value of the bolívar to be reduced by 97 percent in 2017, and further drastic reductions in the currency’s value continued well into 2018. The value or output of the Venezuelan economy hardly declined by anything remotely comparable, so there are other factors at work for such a drastic reduction in exchange value. But because the Maduro government did not adjust the official exchange rate when the bolívar came under attack, the spread between the official rate and the de facto rate widened to the point that vast opportunities for smuggling and black-market operations were created. That in turn caused shortages and hyperinflation.
These developments were a consequence of Venezuela’s integration into the world capitalist system and the country’s heavy reliance on imports. Food and consumer goods intended to be sold at discounts in state stores were diverted to the black market, where profiteers sold them at prices several times higher or smuggled them into Colombia for huge profits. Government officials have repeatedly discovered vast quantities of consumer goods hidden in warehouses by local capitalists who are artificially causing shortages.
Hardening financial sanctions
United States government sanctions on Venezuela prohibit any U.S. persons or banks from providing financing or purchasing any debt issued by the Venezuelan government or the state oil company PDVSA, the purpose of which is to make it more difficult for the government to raise funds internationally or to restructure debt.
These sanctions are effectively extra-territorial. A non-U.S. bank that seeks to handle a transaction in U.S. dollars (the currency most often used in international transactions) has to do so by clearing the transaction through a U.S. bank; a U.S. bank that cleared such a transaction would be in violation of the sanctions. The Obama administration intensified the U.S. financial war on Venezuela by absurdly declaring the latter a “national security threat” and the Trump administration has issued a succession of decrees tightening the screws.
The latest, issued on January 28, freezes all property and interests of PDVSA subject to U.S. jurisdiction — in other words, blocking Venezuela from any access to the profits generated by PDVSA’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, or any PDVSA activities in the United States. The Trump administration expects Venezuela to lose US$11 billion this year, The New York Times reports. That move is in addition to repeated calls by the Trump administration for an overthrow of the Venezuelan government, threats by President Trump to invade, and the Trump administration “recognizing” the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president although Guaidó has never run for the position and is largely unknown to the Venezuelan public. An added insult is the appointment of death-squad cheerleader Elliot Abrams to “oversee” a “return to democracy,” an idea that would draw laughs if Abrams’ history in Latin America during the Reagan administration weren’t so deadly.
Successive U.S. administrations have subsidized opposition groups — an estimated US$100 million has been poured into Venezuela in an effort to subvert the elected government.
Alan MacLeod, a specialist in media studies, summarized the extra-territorial effect of U.S. sanctions:
“[T]he sanctions strongly discourage other countries from lending money to the country for fear of reprisal and also discourage any businesses from doing business there too. A study from the 2018 opposition Presidential candidate’s economics czar suggested the sanctions were responsible for a 50% drop in oil production. Furthermore, Trump’s sanctions prevent profits from Venezuela-owned CITGO from being sent back to Venezuela. Trump has also threatened banks with 30 years in jail if they co-operate with Caracas and has intimidated others into going along with them.”
President Maduro is repeatedly called a “dictator,” an epithet endless repeated across the corporate media. But when a portion of the opposition boycotts, can it be a surprise that the incumbent wins? The opposition actually asked the United Nations to not send observers, a sure sign that they expected to lose a fair election despite their claims that the election would be rigged. Nonetheless, a coalition of Canadian unions, church leaders and other officials declared the election to be “a transparent, secure, democratic and orderly electoral and voting process.”
Unfortunately, there is every reason to be concerned, given the hostility of U.S. governments and capitalists to any intent to become independent of the U.S. or to direct economic activity to benefit local people rather than maximizing the profits of U.S. multinational corporations. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Guatemala was attempting nothing more “radical” than a land reform that would have forced United Fruit to sell idle land at United Fruit’s own under-valuation of the land (a self-assessment made by United Fruit to avoid paying a fair share of taxes). The U.S. overthrew the government and instituted what would become a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder that ultimately cost 200,000 lives. The Chilean effort to build a humane economy was ended with the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the installation of Augusto Pinochet and his murderous regime that immiserated Chileans.
Dissimilar results can hardly be expected if the U.S. were to succeed in overthrowing the Venezuelan government and installing a right-wing government that would reverse the many gains of the past 20 years. Hands off Venezuela!