Venezuela currently has two presidents. Or, more precisely, it currently has two men claiming to be President. The South American nation has been gripped by a constitutional crisis, a crisis which is but the most recent manifestation of a decades-long political struggle. With accusations of corruption being hurled at the government of Nicolas Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and with the United States, Canada and other imperialist powers sharpening their daggers, it is more important than ever to understand the situation in Venezuela.
When it comes to the most recent explosion, the facts are as follows:
Opposition leader and the president of the opposition-controlled Congress, Juan Guaido, has declared himself to be the legitimate president of Venezuela.
He cites the claim that the most recent presidential election was illegitimate and as such the leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, has no mandate to govern as president.
While there is no real evidence that the election was rigged, the opposition is arguing that it is not legitimate due to a mass boycott by opposition activists and parties.
Maduro has rejected this claim and has refused to resign, as both pro and anti-government demonstrations have marched in Caracas. The military has backed Maduro, after a small group of national guard soldiers were recently implicated in a coup plot.
The United States and Canada have recognised the self-proclaimed President Guaido, and in response Maduro has demanded that the US Embassy be evacuated. They were followed by several right-wing Latin American states (including the fascist government in Brazil), as well as Britain, France, Spain and Australia.
The United States has threatened economic and military intervention to defend the “government” of Juan Guaido, including John Bolton appearing holding a piece of paper promising the deployment of 5000 soldiers to Colombia.
However, in order to understand the current moment, it is vital to understand Venezuela’s history. Many bizarre and shortsighted takes on the situation in the Bolivarian Republic rely on a lack of understanding of the country’s history and its journey from a petrol-producing client state to a thorn in the Empire’s side.
The Long Struggle
In 1989, Venezuelan politics exploded. After austerity measures pushed by the government in Caracas drove up the price of bus tickets in the barrios (slums) the poorest and most marginalised people in Venezuela came down from their homes in the hills above the city centre and demonstrated for their humanity by descending into the city. This event, which became known as the Caracazo, was the latest in a long line of popular uprisings, guerrilla wars and riots against the Venezuelan ruling class.
Venezuela had become a democracy in the 1950s, and ever since, the nation had maintained a relatively static social formation. The wealth of the nation was derived from the oil industry, which enriched international capitalists from the United States, as well as the local bourgeoisie. The local capitalists had constructed around them a complex system of graft and patronage, and in the cities, they extracted the vast bulk of the wealth for themselves. In the countryside, a class of absentee landlords ruled over a declining agricultural system. Below this ruling bourgeois class and their hangers-on sat the working people of Caracas, who made their living in oil and other primary industries. Below them sat the great mass of Venezuelans - the rural peasants, both small-holders and landless, and the urban slum dwellers, who eked out an existence on the edge of the great cities.
When the people of the barrios came down into Caracas in 1989, they were met by the might of the Venezuelan state. The police crushed the uprising, shooting people in the streets and torturing and killing known dissidents, organisers and leftists. In all, it is estimated that 3000 people were killed by the police and the national guard during the suppression of the uprising. The figures who presided over such bloody reprisals did so on behalf of the power of their class and in the service of the American Empire. For Venezuela was just another loyal client state, presiding over a widening gyre of poverty, repression and violence.
That is, until the rise of Hugo Chavez.
The Bolivarian Republic
If the Caracazo exploded Venezuelan politics, then the election of Hugo Chavez scattered the remains. The idealistic and charismatic army officer had attempted a coup against a right-wing government in 1994, and after being released from prison proceeded to storm to power with the support of the same proletarian masses that had risen up during the Caracazo.
Hugo Chavez was no socialist at this point. In fact, his aims were relatively minor, including gaining control of the nation’s oil wealth, the creation of social programs and the assertion of an independent foreign policy. However, in the years that followed, Chavez and the movement around him radicalised. They soon found that no progress would be made in Venezuela without confronting the established elites.
At no time was this clearer than in 2002. A section of the military, supported by conservative forces in the congress and backed by the CIA and the Bush administration, moved to overthrow Chavez. After seizing control, members of this “democratic opposition” suspended the constitution, smashed the rule of law and elevated members of the business community to high positions within the state. A reactionary fascist regime took shape around the generals and the businessmen. However it was not to be. The radicalised masses came down from the slums once again rallying in their thousands, and alongside loyalist military units they returned Chavez to power. The revolution had won a great victory - and in turn, the people were putting themselves in the driver's seat.
What followed was an incredible display of socialist potential. Oil wealth was used to fund medicine, welfare and social programs to lift people out of poverty. Literacy levels went up as more and more people had access to school and even university. The government massively expanded the stock of social housing and instituted reforms to provide services to poor neighbourhoods for the first time. Factories closed down by wary investors were taken over by the workers, and soon a co-operative and communal sector began to grow. In the countryside, unused land was expropriated by the peasants, and brought into useful cultivation by agricultural communes.
Alongside all of this, a massive project in participatory democracy was born. In neighbourhoods and workplaces, the people began to form community councils and communes, taking important decisions into their own hands. In these laboratories of democracy, the idea grew that the entire edifice of the old state - with its reactionary militaries and police, bureaucrats and ministers - could be replaced by the Communal State, a new form of revolutionary democracy. What is more, the vanguard of this revolution were the poor, the black and indigenous people, and many women - who took on vital roles in building popular power.
In real terms, the height of Bolivarian Revolution saw a real decrease in absolute poverty in Venezuela - and a real growth in people’s hopes for the future. But such a project was not without its enemies.
The Revolution and Its Discontents
Every revolution is inevitably confronted by its reverse - counterrevolution. In Venezuela, the counterrevolutionary nexus lies in the structures of the old state, in the comprador bourgeoisie and their middle class hangers-on, and in the influence of the imperialists from the United States and elsewhere.
Despite there being over 16 elections since the election of Chavez in 1998, many of which have been declared free and fair by members of international community, the right-wing opposition have long decried Venezuelan elections to be fraudulent and illegitimate. They have responded with violent demonstrations, often organised by students from the private, elite universities and middle class youth. In these marches, schools and medical clinics were often targeted as symbols of the revolution. The opposition used racialised attacks against Chavez (who was of African and indigenous descent), as well as spreading merciless calls for violence against the lower orders (some of which took the form of actual lynchings of black youth who looked “Chavista”).
All the while, these reactionaries begged their masters in Washington for aid, calling for sanctions and military intervention against the socialist government. The US responded by placing sanctions on Venezuela as well as pouring money into the right-wing through the National Endowment for Democracy and other institutions. Many of the figures who have been implicated in subsequent attempts at military coups and as being paid agents of the American Empire were the same reactionary leaders who massacred students and slum dwellers during the Caracazo. Now, with the support of an uncritical international press and phoney non-government organisations, they pass themselves off as brave defenders of democracy.
Despite the harrowing waves of reactionary violence and political sabotage by the opposition, the Bolivarian governments and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela were able to consistently win elections and gain the support of the active majority. However, with the death of Chavez in 2013, the situation in Venezuela entered a different phase.
Oil Shocks and the Revolution in Crisis
The global drop in the price of oil shattered the Venezuelan economy. Despite the many gains of the revolution, Venezuela is still an oil-dependent state, a legacy of the deep colonial and imperial roots in the Venezuelan social formation. With a major decrease in national income, and with an ever-tightening blockade being enforced by the United States, Venezuela entered a period of profound economic crisis. General shortages of goods were made worse by systematic economic sabotage by the capitalist class who hoarded goods in order to inflate prices and destablise the economy.
In the face of this profound crisis, both the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary camps were divided as to the road forward. For the opposition, there was a split emerging between those who wished to continue to take the electoral road - despite the fact that no candidate had so far been able to topple the PSUV from the presidency, and those who wished to engage in direct action, destabilising the government enough to instigate an American military intervention or a successful coup.
It is in this split that the current crisis has its roots. The abstention from the presidential elections was the last in a long line of tactics by the opposition to discredit Venezuelan democracy. By abstaining from the vote and then claiming that such abstention renders the vote void, the opposition is hoping to goad Maduro into arresting Juan Guaido. Even worse, with the United States refusing to pull their embassy staff out of the country - and denying the sovereignty of the Venezuelan president - there is a fear that the justification for a full military intervention could come any day now.
But the government camp has a divide of its own. There are many in the radical movements, in the grassroots and in the barrios who do not believe that the revolution has advanced far enough - that in order to defeat the current crisis a radical break with capitalism as a whole is necessary. Others are more apprehensive, wanting to stave off the current crisis by negotiating with moderate elements of the opposition and stabilizing the economy. Between these factions sits Maduro, the inheritor of the legacy of Chavez.
The future of the revolution is uncertain. But one thing is for sure. The right-wing opposition, the craven supporters of the ruling class and their backers in Washington cannot be allowed to carry the day. The lesson of Chile in 1973, the lesson of Brazil over the last 5 years, stands as a clear message. The machinations of the American Empire and its local allies stand in opposition to human rights, social justice and democracy across Latin American and beyond. With what little power we have, we can, must and should raise our solidarity with the people of Venezuela and with the people of Latin America and the working people of the world, to say that we will not accept another coup, we will not accept imperialist manipulation and we will not accept a war with Venezuela.
References and Reading
Anni McAllen is a latter-day Bolshevik, communist organiser, trans woman and mediocre blogger. She writes about political economy, revolution and queer, working class lives. You can read her work at Subterranean Fire and follow her on twitter @communa161.