In the midst of deep economic and political crisis in Venezuela, generated by the counter- revolutionary actions of the right wing and the erratic policies of the government, combined with the possibility of an increase in violent conflict outside the control of either side, the government initiated a series of "Peace Talks" following the events of ‘12F’ [so-called because opposition student protests coincided with the commemoration of a the Battle of La Victoria on 12 February 1814, during Venezuela’s war of independence].
There is enormous pressure on the Maduro government to act to resolve the crisis. There has barely been a day go by when the government has not begged the right wing to come to the negotiating table. Recently, Lula da Silva, from Brazil, joined the calls for dialogue, even going so far as to call for a coalition government and a ’pact’ for five years, stressing the strategic importance of Venezuela for Brazil.
The peace talks, prior to the incorporation of the MUD (Coalition for Democratic Unity), took place almost exclusively with various private businesses and factory owners such as Lorenzo Mendoza, president of Polar and some ’unaligned’ elected officials such as the Governor of Lara State, Henry Falcon. Various concessions were granted and new commissions, such as the Truth Commission in matters of the Economy, as proposed by Mendoza, were established.
These talks, mediated by Chancellors from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and a representative of the Vatican, have recently reached a turning point with the incorporation of the right wing alliance, MUD. The meetings have been widely hyped by both sides as not being about reaching agreements or pacts, but rather being a discussion and debate between two distinct visions of how to run the country.
Maduro has come out and said he would be a ’traitor’ to negotiate the ’Bolivarian revolution’ and right wing leaders have equally said there can be no negotiation while there is ’repression’ and ’political prisoners’.
The first meeting between both sides took place on April 10 and was broadcast live on national radio and television. However subsequent meetings have taken place privately, which according to both sides, will give the talks the best chance for success.
Following the private meeting on 15 April, both sides held separate press conferences in which they again stressed that the meetings did not represent a new pact. The continual denial of such is a product of the pressure they have from below, particularly from their radical bases, to prove that no agreements, truces or power sharing deals of any kind have been made.
The talks, as much as both sides dispute it, will most likely be a negotiation and reconciliation between the traditional bourgeoisie and the new, which has developed in the shadow of the Bolivarian Revolution, and the now non-existent and unspoken of "21st Century Socialism".
Spiral of violence
It is not in the interest of either side to see a continuation of the violence and prolongation of the crisis, that has killed officially 40 people since 12F, or increased unrest in the key states that make up the so-called ’media luna’ in the west of the country, including Tachira, Merida and Zulia. Maduro has even spoken out against a possible secession of Tachira state.
In these key areas, rich in hydrocarbons and agricultural production, the presence of reactionary pro-Uribe Colombian paramilitaries and their control over economic life is well known. This reality is entrenched in the government’s own erratic policies and bureaucratic controls, implemented without real participation of popular power - that is the participation of the working class and poor communities.
In Tachira, for example, paramilitaries control many municipalities. Food shortages, as a consequence of an absence of distribution compounded by roadblocks, and the closure of many shops due to safety concerns combined with a partial paralysation of basic public services, such as public transport, are creating unbearable conditions for many. The history of the conflict is more complex here, and therefore stronger than in some other areas, owing to enormous levels of corruption in all facets of government/opposition and Chavista alike.
Tachira, which borders Colombia, has long been considered a semi-lawless state where organised crime controls and smuggles contra-band across the border. Historically this contraband has been petrol, which is heavily subsided in the Venezuela and can be sold for a lot more in Colombia. But in more recent years subsided food that can be purchased in the government supermarkets is a favourite for smuggling.
Leaders of the government have declared that the far right who remain in the street arming ’guarimbas’ (roadblocks and the occupation of public spaces) have now moved into ’phase two’ of destabilization. This includes kidnapping, selective assassinations and arson attacks of both public buildings and transport. This has occurred in various states.
Recently two men, known right wing supporters and also friends and/or family of a right wing leader and the Mendoza family, were shot at point blank range while cycling in a national park in Caracas, Waraira Repano, better know as the Avila.
A leading reporter from the now Government friendly Globovision was kidnapped, but recently released, in what can only be described as atypical circumstances. Other high profile kidnappings and murders have occurred. While these crimes are not new in Venezuela, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, the nature of the crimes are likely linked with recent events.
In Caracas, the ’guarimbas’ continue on a daily basis but, aside from very isolated actions in some popular areas of the city. They remain largely restricted to the east in the wealthier suburbs. Violent attacks and clashes have occurred between students of both political sides, generally at the end of large demonstrations.
Actions of the right wing and the government
The demonstrations, that has decreased slightly when compared February and March, but have been and continue to be significant. However, a wearing out of supporters particularly on the government’s side is obvious.
Nevertheless, they have continued to mobilise supporters from different areas; peasants, motorbike riders, youth, environmental groups and others. However, day by day, little is happening at a grassroots level to organise in the barrios in the form of defence committees, around the issues of food shortages and other social problems. While the government has tried to organise through the Community Councils (Consejo Comunales) in the barrios, the initiatives remain under the control of the bureaucracy and have, unfortunately, had little political affect.
The right wing have mobilised around broad demands including freedom of activists in prison and an end to the ’repression’ of students and political leaders alike. The more moderate right-wingers, led by Capriles Radonski, have attempted to link the protests to the same demands of the ’poor’- against inflation, the food scarcities, crime, housing etc. Undoubtedly the right remain on the offensive.
Some right wing supporters distribute leaflets telling ordinary Venezuelans that their problems are the same. This is clearly a strategy to bring the discontent felt generally in society over to the side of the right wing. In his own words Capriles said, “If we can’t win over the poor, we can’t win”.
In spite of the fact that the problems highlighted are real, neither Capriles, nor any other right wing politician offers proposals about how to resolve them. Their demands remain empty and give the impression that if they get into power everything will be fine. Clearly this is not the case.
The economic crisis in the country and internationally will make it difficult for the right wing to resolve the complexity of problems ordinary people are facing on a daily basis. With inflation running at 57%, scarcity at 28% in January, an on-going crisis in housing (there are still people living in refuge centres since the rains and subsequent landslides from 2010 and 2011 in extremely poor and precarious conditions) and high crime, life is more and more becoming a daily battle.
Photos of long queues to find basics such as maize flour, margarine, cooking oil, coffee, sugar and milk and even toilet paper are not exaggerated, although hard-line government supporters state they are. On average, people spend 3-4 hours, if not more, going from shop to shop to try and find foods and goods they need, and can afford. It is well known that the government’s mega-supermarkets often have all the basic items, but that a trip to get them will take you 6-7 hours, in total.
‘Secure Food Provision Card’
The government has tried to implement mechanisms of control to secure food distribution, arguing that part of the scarcity and long queues is a product of nervous buying and the mafias that control smuggling to Colombia, as well as the supply to street sellers. In part, their arguments are correct however it must be said that all of these occur with the complicity of many State functionaries as well as the armed forces.
The most recent mechanism of control has been the Secure Food Provision Card (Tarjeta de Abastamiento) which, in effect, will prevent people from buying more than they should require on a weekly basis from the Government-run supermarket chains or put more simply a rationing of supply. The Government states that in the future those who hold the Provision Card will also have access to specials and offers.
The right-wing has attacked these measures and say it is a concrete example of the ’Cubanisation’ and ’Castro-Communism’ in the country. It is clear that mechanisms are required to secure food supply and provision on an equal basis. However this will not be possible via yet another measure in a long line of ineffective measures instigated by the bureaucratic and counter-revolutionary elements in the government.
There have been increases in subsidised and regulated food prices, some items by over 100%, which combined with much more demand than supply means that many substitute or go without. Adding to this, is enormous speculation in prices by private businesses that continue despite the price controls, past and present, implemented by the government. While scarcity has been a problem, off and on for decades in Venezuela, it has never been so prolonged or intense.
We don’t “all have the same problems”!
Of course those hardest hit are the working class and poor, as well as sectors of the lower middle classes. While upper middle class and the bourgeoisie and the right wing leaders profess to be suffering also, imported goods can still be readily found in the myriad of ’delicatessens’ in wealthy neighbourhoods and it is also this sector that can pay the outrageous prices charged.
It is a luxury for a worker to eat a ’normal diet’. For example, a bottle of basic wine can cost 500% more in Venezuela than in its country of origin. Another example is cheese, which, aside from the basic white cheese that is common in the Venezuelan diet, can cost up to 150 times more than it would outside the country or up to 25% of the monthly minimum wage!
While fresh or powdered milk is hard to find anywhere, almond or soymilk can readily be found in these exclusive shops, again at exorbitant prices. Any rice or flour outside the basics, such as flavoured or speciality varieties, is only found in the exclusive ’delis’ and costs up 4 or 5 times more than its regulated price, and the price it is sold at in many other countries.
The right wing campaign that claims “we are all the same” when it comes to food shortages, inflation and speculation is unlikely to stick and lays bare the enormous class differences that exist. However while the government continues to talk about peace and love, it is the right wing who are actually mentioning the problems. The government’s stance is that it is all part of a grand plan of sabotage to destabilize the government.
While this is, in part true, especially in relation to the scarcity, the roots of the economic crisis also lead back to the government and the capitalist system and the historic error of Chavism to settle for ’reforms’ under capitalism rather than break with it. It would be more than fair to ask how this crisis has come about given that Venezuela has the largest resources of petroleum in the world and in 2013 alone made over US$116 billion from its export.
It is in this current conjuncture that the Maduro government finds itself, trying to balance the books in the midst of an economic crisis resulting from various factors, including a fiscal deficit due to the flight of capital via the sale of dollars to the bourgeois at undervalued rates and corruption. The government itself, through CADIVI (the then institution responsible for currency approval and the Central Venezuelan Bank) has recognised that US$20 billion was approved to non-existent companies in 2012, alone. To date, not one person, company or institution has been named or charged for this theft of gigantic proportions.
The handling of the crisis has shown the true colours of Chavism and its weaknesses. Almost every economic measure taken is comparable with those of other capitalist governments around the world, except for the regular increases in the minimum wage that are of course welcome but which have not been sufficient to meet inflation. The companies nationalised under Chavez have not been privatised. Unfortunately the government have stated they are evaluating the possibility to deepen a ’mixed economy’ model to stimulate private investment and therefore production, as they have done in the petroleum industry. They have also in recent months speculated about the possibility of incorporating private capital in State companies, including those that were nationalised under Chavez.
They have not called for meetings in community councils, workplaces, trade unions or in social movements to put forward demands or discuss the crisis. They have sat numerous times with the representatives of the bourgeoisie, such as the Mendozas, Fedacamaras (the business federation) etc and negotiated with them.
They have increased regulated prices, proposed an increase tariffs on electricity and, among other things, they have created a new flexible system of buying and selling dollars with a variable auction rate based on supply and demand called SICAD II. This leaves Venezuela with three exchange rates, which the government claims will eliminate the illegal parallel market where, on average, people sell and buy dollars at 100 times the price of the official exchange rate, such is the demand.
The government and its institutions currently control the SICAD II auction and therefore reap the benefits of getting more local currency for their petro-dollars than they would if they used one of the other official rates. In the first weeks of SICAD II, the exchange rate hovered between 49-55, while the official rate remains at 6.3. It is clearly not ordinary Venezuelans who are buying these dollars, but the bourgeoisie who either take their dollars and run or import with them and sell them in local currency at the same or higher price that they paid for them. Although the Government insists the SICAD II rate will not change prices, the reality in the street shows this devaluation, called a ’revaluation’ by the Government, for what it really is. For a worker on minimum wage, their total monthly earnings at this exchange rate are equal to around US$50-70!
More recently the government announced a plan of support for brands such as Zara, Nike and Timberland after shopping centres threatened to close their doors one day a week due the absence of stock. This was as a result of a decrease in access to dollars to import. Such a closure, they say, would lead to job losses, which would come at a high political price to the government. While no figures have been released in relation to this ’plan’ helping multi-national companies, whose clothing most Venezuelans could never afford to buy, could hardly be regarded as a revolutionary measure.
As the government continues to bend in the face of pressure from big business and the right wing, workers wait for state support to create or recuperate factories that could stimulate national production and create new jobs. As mentioned, cases exist where workers have been criminalised or repressed when trying to do so. For example, in the case of the agricultural workers in Souto, Bejuma, in Carabobo State, and workers from the automotive factory, Civetchi. The Brahama Beer workers in Lara state wait for the government to listen to their demands and to support them restarting their workplaces which were abandoned by their former owners.
We do not deny that the importation of certain goods is necessary. However the point must be to prioritize under a working class perspective and to deepen the revolutionary process. The concessions given by the government to transnational companies and business, thanks to their negotiations with Fedacamaras, shows where the interests of the government really lies in this case.
The revolutionary Left
It is true to say that aside from some left groups speaking out against these measures, the plans of ’peace’ with the bourgeoisie and the, now more than ever, real threat of a transitional government or coalition with the right wing, there has been little in way of protest about it from the left wing. Of course, the government, and even more so, the right wing, aim to censure whatever part of the revolutionary left that questions policies and which proposes a concrete agenda towards an irreversible socialist revolution.
Trade unions and their federations are coopted and aligned with the bureaucracies on both sides. They have either adopted a stance of not saying anything, not putting forward a class position or criticizing the measures taken by the government without putting forward any other way forward. So-called ’independent’ NGOs have limited themselves to endlessly attack the government for ’repression’.
Sadly, the so-called ’Trotskyists’ from the International Workers’ Unity-Fourth International, headed by Orlando Chrinos, in Venezuela, while correctly speaking out against the economic measures and of the opportunist character of the right, have aligned themselves with the most reactionary of the right wing, including organising forums with trade union leaders who were involved in the 2002 coup against Chavez. They have manipulated the tactic of the ‘united front’ to justify their approach towards the right, in the context of claiming they are acting in “defence” of workers’ rights. A recent protest action organised by them, along with others at the Ministry of Work, ’coincided’ with the attendance of none other than the reactionary right wing leader, Maria Corina Machado!
Political repression and the approach of revolutionaries
The on-going persecution of right wing leaders is having the opposite affect of that intended by the government and giving the right more strength. It is transforming reactionary leaders, such as Leopoldo Lopez, into martyrs. Although the cries of mass repression and dictatorship are far from the realities of what occurred under Perez Jimenez, Pinochet, Hitler or even during the massive protests and massacres that occurred in Venezuela in the 1980s-90s, the right wing are gathering force both nationally and internationally by portraying this situation.
Furthermore the Supreme Court of Justice has condemned the guarimbas and other actions, frequently used by the left wing in other countries as acts of destabilization. This criminalization in a general protest method could easily be used to criminalize the actions of revolutionaries in struggle when they become the left wing in opposition to a government of ‘coalition’ or ‘transition’.
The laws in Venezuela, particularly those that cover ‘Food Sovereignty’, practically prohibit the right to strike by workers in the food production and distribution sector. Other legislation, such as the anti-terrorism laws - particularly the recent reform that can be used to criminalize protests if they involve acts of ’destabilisation’ - should be examined by the revolutionary left and the counter-revolutionary elements of these laws should be opposed.
The revolutionary left should also be concerned about the methods of repression and criminalization of political dissidence, which is used against the right. Above all the revolutionary left should be concerned about repressive measures used against the left and inside the Chavism movement.
Take, for example, the case of the recently freed ex-mayor of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Fidel Palma, in Lara state, who was jailed on presumed corruption charges. Palma was known by the revolutionary left and had wide popular support for his candidacy to re-stand in the December 2013 municipal elections. But he was ’overlooked’ for selection by the bureaucracy after raising many concerns about the anti-democratic methods of the PSUV, which led to protests within the PSUV.
Another case is that of Kerwin Tolosa, a young student member of a left collective in Merida state. Kerwin, detained without a conviction, has been publicly denounced by the government as being responsible for the poisoning of one of the water supply plants in Merida and therefore branded a “terrorist”. Kerwin, an agricultural student, worked with a collective on lands nearby to the plant. The collective had repeatedly raised concerns about the presence, invasion and environmental destruction of lands at the hands of paramilitary forces, the National Guard and the National Institute of Lands, among others.
In both these cases, and more, there has been very little outcry from the left. More worryingly, there has been an uncritical and complicity silent response from those organisations of the left with a certain presence inside the government, such as some of those in the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) - the government’s alliance.
Urgent need for a revolutionary programme
In this critical time, organisation is everything. While the left forces in Venezuela are weakened, new fronts and movements continue to emerge. This reflects a slow but sure reorganization of the left, despite high levels of atomization and many weaknesses. In Caracas, this has taken the form of the Consejo Revolucionario Popular (CPR- Popular Revolutionary Council), which has brought together over 30 organisations and individuals from diverse backgrounds.
The CPR is attempting to respond to the huge vacuum that exists between Chavism and the right wing, with concrete steps and demands. While acting in defence of the gains of the last 15 years of the ‘Bolivarian Process’, many organisations and individuals within the CPR recognise that much more is needed then just defending Chavism, of which its limits are clear.
Nevertheless, the CRP in which the CIT/ CWI in Venezuela is participating, alone will not be enough to fill this vacuum, it is an attempt at united action and articulation within a weakened left that is trying to correct the political errors of the past. There are deep contradictions and political differences between many of the groups involved and the CPR must adopt a more independent class stance, particularly in relation to the politics of the government and perspectives.
Unfortunately, as yet, the CPR has not been had high participation of the most combative and advanced sections of the working class. It must grow and successfully intervene in these areas to become a truly revolutionary and democratic front and an alternative in the face of extreme political polarization.
New formations, such as the CPR, will undoubtedly go through different periods before a new political revolutionary force appears. We believe the formation of an independent and revolutionary force is an urgent task in the current critical situation, including the economic crisis, that is and will have a devastating effect on millions of workers and poor.
Without action, it is only a question of time before a total reconciliation between the government and the right ’democratic’ wing of Capriles and/or an increased spiral of violence.
The demands today of the working class and poor go unanswered by the government and the right wing are totally incapable to resolving them. Such demands, furthermore, can only be addressed and achieved on a permanent basis through revolutionary socialism and the overthrow the capitalist system by an organised revolutionary force. To do so, we demand and fight for the following:
• Nationalisation, under the democratic control of workers, of all importations and exportations of trade nationally and internationally, to end speculation and the flight of capital. This measure has been partially adopted by the government recently with the creation of Cencoex, but this institute continues to be controlled by the bureaucracy without any type of control or participation from below.
• All power to the community council and communes and workers’ councils (organs of popular power) without strings. The only way to deepen the political process, defeat the right wing, as well as the bureaucracy and corruption, is to assume power from the social grassroots organisations of popular power.
• Popular judgement organised by the organs of popular power of those accused of or/and complicity in violent acts.
• The formation of committees of defence in communities, workplaces and trade unions to defend the progressive reforms of the Bolivarian Process and to guarantee and manage the distribution of food, health care and education.
• Nationalisation of the banks, monopolies and oligopolies! Nationalisation of the means of production, under the democratic control and management of workers.
• Popular and revolutionary transformation of the armed forces through committees of soldiers, elected democratically with right of recall, where action is planned within the organs of popular power to combat organised crime and corruption and defend the revolution.
• Defend and extend the social missions relating in education health, work and housing through a national plan of access to services, free and of good quality, under the control of the committees of popular power.
• For a planned economy organised by the committees of popular power where the real needs of society, and not the needs of capitalists, can be addressed. Such a plan must be developed under a perspective of sustainable growth and conservation of the environment.
• An end to racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination that only serve as obstacles to unity of the working class and the poor.
Additional demands, of a transitory character are needed to achieve those above:
• A freezing of prices on all food items.
• An increase of salaries with regular scaled increases superior to that of inflation.
• For full job security and an end of outsourcing and full guarantees of working rights, including the right to strike.
• For a full national census, carried out by the organs of popular power independently from the government bureaucracy, of all unoccupied buildings, houses and apartments to determine there social use and thereby initiated a plan of housing according to the needs each family and individuals.
• An end to concessions to the parasitic capitalist class and big business and for the availability of credit via the nationalised banks to small and medium sized producers nationally.
• For the immediate application of a progressive tax system, where those who earn the most, including business, pay the most.
• For the immediate derogation of IVA (taxes) on all foods and basic articles. That the IVA on other items is determined by the organs of popular power according to social classes’ purchasing power and of the products and their social priority.
• For the democratic control, under the organs of popular power, of the armed people and worker’s militias that today are under the bureaucratic control of the government and the armed forces. That the militias carry out effective operations to neutralize paramilitary forces and organised crime, accountable to the same organs of popular power.
• Expropriation of the wealth, materials and means of production that the traditional and new bourgeoisie have obtained through the brutal exploitation of workers, corruption and through financial speculation of the extraction of petroleum and minerals, as well as the other enormous natural resources of the country.
• An audit, carried out by the organs of popular power, of all state industries and institutions to determine those responsible for corruption, scams and counter-revolutionary actions that continue to damage the working class and the poor.
• That any ’peace’ talks are carried out with programmes and concrete plans, such as those put forward here, and with grassroots social movements and society, in general, and not with the representatives of the capitalist class, national and international, as is currently the case.
These demands can and should be widened, discussed and debated in each region of Venezuela through organs of popular power to determine their programme of struggle, according to their own situation and specific demands. This is currently one of the aims of the CPR, and its success will be necessary to widen the reorganisation of the left in Venezuela, as well as its independence, and to push forward the current demands of the working class and poor.
The only guarantee of achieving these demands will be through a working class revolutionary organisation that assumes direction of this process, independently and armed with a revolutionary programme for change, which will win over sectors of the middle class, farmers, the indigenous etc who are equally exploited.
The revolutionary struggle for peace
We cannot fall into the trap and ultimatum of the threats of a civil war, if the left do not support the pact and therefore the government and therefore “peace”. We cannot make the same historical errors of the past and leave revolutionary struggle for ’another time’. The fight for socialism is the fight for true peace, which will never be obtained under capitalism. It is and has been the ruling class and the bourgeoisie who have generated and been responsible for wars and armed conflicts, as well as the brutal exploitation of workers and the poor, and the conditions that generate poverty and inequality.
In the last 15 years, much has been achieved and advances have been made in Venezuela. The revolutionary left and advanced sections of the working class have demonstrated discipline and patience and tolerated many concessions given to and agreements made with the bourgeoisie, under Maduro, as well as Chavez.
Today the revolutionary struggle in Venezuela is at its most critical conjuncture. It is only united revolutionary action of independent worker’s organisation along with the poor, with the support of international working class solidarity, by which will we be able to fundamentally change the course of events.